Friday, February 25, 2011

Love my What?!

Sam Harris has a PhD in neuroscience but he is best known as a member of they would probably proudly call the Unholy Trinity of "New Atheists" that include Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. This week I watched a Youtube video of Harris. And again it became apparent that Harris, as with his fellow anti-theists, really doesn't know his facts when it comes to theology, the history of religion or, apparently, the history of science. I mean, he actually said that if the Bible was a divine book, why didn't it say something about electricity? Really? And exactly how would one communicate that to a culture that didn't have the language, the foundation or the ability to utilize such advanced scientific knowledge? The ancient Egyptians knew about electric eels. The Greeks knew of static electricity. It was just a curiosity. It wasn't until the 18th century that research made progress. It took Ben Franklin to show that lightning was electricity and longer before people could use electricity for anything other than parlor tricks.

Part of Harris' problem is that, as he says in another video, he feels that religion is a failed science. He thinks that religion's basic function is to explain how the natural world works. He sees religion as in the same category as Rudyard Kipling's "Just So" stories, where we learn in charming bedtime story-fashion how the camel got his hump and the elephant his long trunk.

In fact, philosophy was mankind's attempt to explain the way the world worked. What was known as natural philosophy eventually evolved into science. Harris, like a lot of these so-called scientific critics, mistakenly thinks the whole Bible is like the first few chapters of Genesis, which is rather like thinking all Superman stories are about his origin. What Harris doesn't seem to notice is that, aside from saying that God created the world, the Bible really doesn't talk of the details of how. What religion is more interested in is the why, the purpose and meaning of creation and our proper relationship with it and its creator. If Harris had studied this subject more, he might know that.

And he'd know that the conflict between the religion and science is really quite recent. Throughout most of history they worked well together. Religion was the reason why people built cathedrals but engineering science is how they built them. Nobody saw that as a contradiction. The universe was created by the mind of God, we are created in his image so we should be able to understand and work out the principles behind creation. Many of the pioneers of science were clergy and religious lay people. It's still true. The United States is both one of the most religious and one of the most scientifically advanced countries on the earth. How does Harris account for that?

Sam Harris, raised in a secular Jewish home, said his criticism of religion arises out of the events of 9/11 and its aftermath. He sees religion as the cause of a lot of the grief in the world. Oddly enough, he has studied eastern religious practices and meditates. He says he shares the moral concerns of many religious people, he praises the Golden Rule, and says that he would be interested in learning how better to love one's neighbor. But he has also said that torturing a terrorism suspect should be viewed as collateral damage in fighting terrorists. More disturbing is his assertion that "some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them." Madeleine Bunting, columnist for the Guardian newspaper, wrote that this "sounds like exactly the kind of argument put forward by those who ran the Inquisition." And yet if he saw the contradiction in suggesting that rationalists were justified in using tactics that he condemned religious fanatics for employing, he didn't back down. In reply to the controversy, Harris wrote "the fact that belief determines behavior is what makes certain beliefs so dangerous."

You know, I really wish that belief did determine behavior. Because if it did, Muslims who claim to believe the Quran would only fight wars in self defense. They wouldn't kill non-combatants. Mohammed specifically told his soldiers not to kill women, children and the aged. And as for Christians, we would obey Jesus' command to love our enemies.

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says, "you have heard that it was said, 'you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." Despite popular belief, nowhere in the Bible does it say "and hate your enemy." Jesus is adding popular sentiment to the command from Deuteronomy. Remember that he lived in an occupied country, under the none-too-gentle boot of the Roman Empire. One of his own disciples was a former Zealot, a group who dreamed of violently driving the Romans out of Judea. Like all who want justification of their own desire to take vengeance on others, they cherry-picked the Bible for verses that seemed to back them up, like Psalm 139 where the writer acknowledges feeling that God's enemies are his. And they ignored passages such as Exodus 23:4-5 and Proverbs 25:21-22, where we are told to return an enemy's escaped animals and to give food and drink to an enemy who is hungry or thirsty. They didn't think about the moral of the Book of Jonah: that God cares even for those who are enemies of him and his people. They turned a blind eye to the fact that Isaiah foresaw a time when all peoples will come together and live in peace on God's holy mountain. Still, no Old Testament passage concerning benevolence towards one's enemies goes as far as this one command from Jesus.

But can he mean it? Is this hyperbole, like his saying one should cut off one's hand if it causes one to sin? The problem with that interpretation is, as we've seen, Jesus never uses rhetoric or metaphor to water down ethical imperatives. So Jesus doesn't mean merely to treat your enemies nicely or civilly or fairly. He means "love your enemy."

To clarify, the Greek word used here is not the one for family affection or the one for friendship or the one for romantic love. It is agape, the same unconditional love that God has for us. We are not told to feel warm and fuzzy about our enemies. We're not told to moon over them or adore them. We aren't told to write our initials together and draw hearts around them. Those things are not the essence of love. They are the icing on the cake. They come when love is easy. But sometimes love is seen most clearly when we act on it while not really feeling like it. Ask any parent who has to say "no" to a teenager while she screams that she hates you. Ask anyone taking a family member to rehab after a yet another nasty relapse. Ask anyone caring for a spouse with Alzheimer's long after she's forgotten who he is. That's love.

Jesus is not asking us to feel a certain way about our enemies. Nor is he asking us to look away or do nothing when they do evil. That's enabling. What we are supposed to do is pray and work for their highest good.

It's tough but it's really the only way to bring real peace and reconciliation. We've tried everything else. Hating enemies doesn't bring peace, either to society or personally. Treating them badly just brings retaliation. Fighting them rarely brings real or lasting peace. And killing? Unless you kill all of them, and all their friends and relatives, you just make more enemies and deepen the hate. But we never seem to learn that. And we can't figure out why people hate and fight so much.

One reason is that we hate even more the idea of not hating and fighting. We hate giving up our right to hold a grudge or to get some of our own back. Anger, hating, self-pity can all feel paradoxically rather good. When you don't get justice, they're all you have. Even if they will end up poisoning you.

But Jesus says we have to rise above all that. If we are to be children of God, we must do as he does. He gives us this world, the sun and the rain, our lives, our gifts and the opportunity to use them to make this world a better place. And he does this despite the way we have repaid him, the awful things we've done to this world and the terrible ways we've used those gifts to scare and to scar each other.

Nor was this abstract to Jesus. He not only told us to love our enemies, he showed us. When he was arrested, Peter cut off the ear of one of his captors and Jesus healed the man. He asked God to forgive those who had just nailed him to the cross. He assured a criminal dying beside him that he would accept him into paradise. When he arose, he forgave those disciples who denied him, who ran away and who doubted his resurrection.

What Jesus did for us was an extraordinary act of love. And if we are truly followers of his, we should be willing to do the same. It is the spiritually mature thing to do. That's one way to translate the word rendered "perfect" in the Matthew 5:48. Another is "complete": "you will be complete, therefore, as your heavenly father is complete." The tense of the Greek is not so much a command as a promise. Put your trust in the God of love revealed in Jesus, follow him faithfully and you will become the kind of person who can love your enemy.

That's the kind of behavior that should follow from belief. And if it did, if Christians took this command as seriously as the ones we focus on more often and more publicly, think of the change it would make in the world. There are 2 billion people in this world who call themselves Christian. Imagine if we all, a third of the earth's population, made a real effort to love and forgive our enemies. Imagine the feuds and bad blood that could be put to rest. Imagine the energy and ingenuity freed up to concentrate on helping and healing people and communities. Imagine the atheists having to stick to the intellectual points of their arguments, rather than scoring cheap shots by bringing up all the times some Christian's behavior contradicted his professed beliefs. You don't hear many atheists go after the Amish or the Mennonites. It's not that they are perfect but they do go to extraordinary lengths to live according to their beliefs.

Christians are known these days for their positions on abortion and stem cells and gays, none of which Jesus mentioned. He did say that his disciples would be known for their love. It's easy to love those who love you, who agree with you, who treat you well. But we are commanded to love those who hate us, who disagree with us, who treat us badly. We are commanded to do as Jesus has done. That's an awfully high standard to be held to. But we live in a world where people do incredibly bad and hateful things, so much so that yesterday's horrible outrage is pushed out of the mind by today's. The only way to get the world's attention and make a point is to do incredibly good and loving things, especially to those who hate us. If we don't obey God in this, if we don't manifest the holy, forgiving, unconditionally loving Spirit of God in Christ, we are no better than those who deny his existence.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011


Don Martin was billed as Mad Magazine's maddest artist. His characters usually had long, roughly rectangular faces, spindly limbs, delicately crooked fingers with upturned pinkies and flappy feet that folded over as they walked. His drawing style was unique. And so was his sense of humor. Ordinary things took bizarre turns. When a woman clipping her nails has one toenail land in the beer can her husband is holding, he upbraids her--for only getting one out of five in there. As she turns in shame, we see from the back of her embroidered shirt that she is on the international nail-clipping team. One of my favorite strips showed this large dumb goon in a restroom. He washes his hands and then goes to the paper towel dispenser. The sign on it says, "pull down, tear up." In the next panel, we see him leaving the restroom, the towel dispenser lying on the floor in pieces.

Interpreting things literally can cause problems. Especially when the thing you're interpreting is the Bible. Oddly enough, the Jews have always been quite open to the idea that certain passages were to be interpreted metaphorically. In fact, even fundamentalists don't treat the entire Bible literally. I've never heard one advocate cutting off one's hand or plucking out one's eye if either is the occasion of sinning, nor seen one propose that, based on the Book of Revelation, the Antichrist is literally a 7-headed, 10-horned beast that would rise from the sea. I think part of the problem is that people confuse the word "literal" with "true" and the word "metaphor" with "false." It's gotten so bad that people now insert the word "literally" where it has no business being. "If I come home late again, my mom will literally bite my head off." That's one mean mother! But I sincerely doubt she will devour her son's head however angry she gets at his tardiness. On the other hand, if I say that someone's heart is broken, the fact that it's not literally in pieces doesn't mean it is not true. And most people know that when we say "the sun sank into the sea", the sun did no such thing. But saying "our part of the earth rotated away from the sun" is wordy and lacks poetry. In addition, metaphors can state things in a way that is more psychologically true that a flat recitation of mere facts. When one says that something was "mind blowing" or "gut wrenching" or "breathtaking" or "hair raising" it is both more relatable and memorable.

Parts of the Bible are meant to be literally true, others are metaphorically true. Jesus literally told people to repent and prepare for the kingdom of God but he didn't mean we should lop off body parts that make us sin. (For one thing, he said sin comes from the heart but we don't think he was suggesting doing cardiac surgery on oneself). He was saying that we should be ruthless in ridding ourselves of temptations, even if they are so close to us that they feel like they are a part of us. Jesus said it more memorably and perhaps more graphically than was absolutely necessary but that doesn't make it less true.

For the most part, it is easy to discern what is meant to be taken literally and what is meant to be metaphorical. When it says that it is easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven, do not expect to see this as a bizarre contest on judgment day. In fact, the obvious conclusion was easily grasped by the disciples, who had been taught that riches were rewards from God. "Who then can be saved?" they ask. The true meaning is underlined by Jesus himself when he says, "What is impossible for mortals is possible for God." In other words, just like Paul, Jesus is saying we are saved by God's grace, not good works, despite the fact that a rich person can do more of them and affect more lives with them than a poor person can. But in the afterlife, the rich do not have the advantages they have in this life. We are all sinners dependent on God's loving and forgiving nature.

Similarly, when Jesus says that following him means hating your family, he is using hyperbole, just as he was with his talk about amputating bad body bits. A good rule of thumb is that if something in the Bible sounds outrageous on a literal level, especially if it seems to contradict other Bible passages, see if it makes more sense as a metaphor. For instance, in Genesis, God tells the first man not to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, because on the day he does he will die. But the man and the woman don't die immediately. One has to conclude that either the writer of Genesis is a terrible storyteller or that God means something deeper than mere physical death. Separation from God is spiritual death and that begins the day we disobey him. There are countless examples of difficult Bible passages that can be resolved by taking into account context, cultural conventions, idiomatic expressions, rhetorical language, or metaphorical interpretations.

That doesn't mean one should take such passages less seriously that literal ones. In fact, in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus is going beyond the literal meaning of several Bible passages but not in a way that waters them down. If anything, he makes them more formidable.

He first looks at the commandment not to murder. Jesus says it is just as bad to be angry with or insult another person. Citing the commandment against adultery, Jesus says it is just as bad to regard someone you're not married to with lust. But how can words or thoughts be regarded by Jesus as being as bad as actions?

Actions are born as thoughts and fed by words. Adultery and other unhealthy sexual actions are usually incubated in the mind over time. Violence comes from emotional wounds brooded over, even if the eventual target of the lashing out is not the author of the perceived injuries. And the combination of sex and violence is often the product of carefully cultivated fantasies nursed over months and years. Jesus sees an action as a symptom of the disease working within the person, the way a high fever signals a serious infection. Treating the symptom alone but not the disease leads to the destruction of the lives of everyone affected.

Jesus was opposed to the legalism practiced by the Pharisees, not because he was unconcerned about sin but because he took it more seriously. Today we focus on how legalism punishes people for minor and technical infractions of God's law. But Jesus points out how it also offers limits on what is considered sin. Kids are experts at exploiting the limits of language when it comes to prohibitions. Tell your daughter she can't call her boyfriend till her homework is done and she will text him, IM him, email him, or chat with him on Facebook and feel she has observed the letter of the law you laid down. Jesus was more concerned about the spirit of the law. The sabbath prohibition was all about taking time off from your work to do God's work, so it meant you could eat when hungry or heal those who needed it. The prohibition on murder meant you couldn't think murderous thoughts or use fighting words. The prohibition against adultery meant no dancing up to the line by flirting with the person or with the thought of being unfaithful. Speaking to those who game the system, Jesus is saying, God knows what you're doing and he isn't going to let you off on technicalities.

When it comes to divorce, Jesus is opposing the fact that it had become so easy for a man to divorce a woman that it was being done for almost any reason, from disobeying her husband to burning the bread. Men had all the power. Only they could initiate divorce and all a man had to do was give his wife a certificate. A divorced woman was stigmatized and in the Roman world, might lose her children to her husband.

Again, Jesus goes to the heart of the matter. Two people are supposed to become one organism, so to speak, when they marry. Unless one person breaks the very nature of marriage by committing adultery, the marriage should be preserved. In this, Jesus represented a minority position among rabbis. In addition, even conservative rabbis recognized divorces that were granted on grounds with which they disagreed. Jesus didn't and said subsequent remarriages amounted to adultery.

Finally, Jesus takes on the practice of making oaths. To the Jews, any oath taken in the name of God was absolutely binding. Swearing by heaven or Jerusalem or by your head or any other thing was not considered binding. Jesus says this is nonsense. Whatever you say should be truthful, even without an oath. And it is this part of the passage that really draws this whole discussion together. Jesus is indicating that the type of person you are matters more than some external form of words. Let your "yes" be "yes" and your "no" be "no." Be the kind of person who doesn't need to reassure people by taking an oath.

God is not looking for people who are just good at following rules; he wants people who are good without having to consult the rules. Of course, no one is that good all the time. But neither are people static. Moses killed a man. David divorced his disagreeable first wife, committed adultery and got rid the man he cuckolded, Bathsheba's husband. Paul was an accomplice to the murder of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. They violated both the letter and the spirit of the law. But then they changed, which is the first step of repentance. They turned to God and he forgave them, despite their past sins. And just as a plant turns towards the sun, they changed the direction of their lives and began to grow into the people God intended them to be.

Christianity is not about simply moving from God's naughty list to his nice one. It is about becoming, day by day, more loving, more just, more forgiving, more selfless, more Christ-like. The Christian life, C. S. Lewis said, is less like following rules and more like painting a portrait. We were, after all, made in his image and that is what he is working in us and with us to restore. Which is why most language about God is metaphorical. God is truly, though not literally, our Father, our Shepherd, our fortress. Jesus is truly, though not literally, our Divine Physician, our food and drink, our King. The Holy Spirit is truly, though not literally, our Advocate, our Comforter, the life-giving breath of God. Our God is so far beyond our ordinary experience that we need these picture words, these everyday comparisons to give us helpful insights into how to see him and respond to him. They are true, though by no means exhaustive, illustrations of who he is and how he works. Contemplating these vivid glimpses of God's unfathomable grace demand that we truly, but not literally, give him our hearts, truly, but not literally, be Christ's body on earth, truly, but not literally, pick up our crosses and follow Jesus, knowing that what he has in store for us is far beyond what we can express or imagine.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Water, Wine and Wafer

My mother-in-law's first husband was one of those men who went out to get a pack of cigarettes and never returned. She finally had to divorce him in absentia. Luckily that did not bother a young soldier who met her on a double date. They got along quite well and corresponded when he went to Alaska to monitor radar during the Second World War. He missed actually talking to her, though, and so wrote that when he was back in St. Louis, he would give her a ring. Unintentionally misinterpreting his promise--or not--she sent him her ring size. He got the hint and they were married.

But while he, a devout Roman Catholic, had no trouble with his wife's previous marriage, his church did. They would baptize their children and let them go to the parish school but having married a divorced woman, my father-in-law could not take Communion, even though he went to Mass regularly. In fact, until he took the wafer from me at my ordination, he had not had Communion for more than 50 years.

In the Episcopal Church, we have what's called "open communion." Our only requirement for partaking of the Eucharist is that one be a baptized Christian. Still some feel that is one requirement too many. Our sermon suggestion for this month asks, "what does being baptized have to do with coming to the communion table? Certainly, Christ wouldn't have had restrictions like that ritual?"

Baptism and the Lord's Supper are the earliest rituals of the church. They're called sacraments, outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace. Churches may recognize other channels of God's grace but these 2 were actually practiced by Jesus and commended to his disciples. That makes these two special. Is that simply because they both came from the same man? Queen Victoria told Lewis Carroll she loved "Alice in Wonderland." She asked him to send her a copy of his next book. It is said, she received a copy of "An Elementary Treatise on Determinants, with their Application to Simultaneous Linear Equations and Algebraic Equations" by Charles Dodgson, the author-mathematician's real name. Despite the fact they came from the same man, I bet Her Majesty was not amused.

To discover if the two sacraments are connected in any vital way, let's look at how they originated and what they mean.

Baptism goes way back before the New Testament. Ritual baths were prescribed for those who were considered unclean. It offered a way that such a person could rejoin the community. Also, Aaron and his sons were ceremonially washed by Moses prior to their ordination. On the Day of Atonement, the high priest was to wash himself both before entering the Holy of Holies and after leaving. The physical cleansing was symbolic of spiritual cleansing.

Eventually, Gentile converts to Judaism were baptized as well as being circumcised and asked to make a sacrifice. At Qumran, the community of separatist Jews responsible for the Dead Sea Scrolls, they maintained ritual purity through daily baths accompanied by repentance. Against this backdrop, John the Baptist emerges offering baptism as a one-time sign of repentance and the cleansing of sin for all people, not just converts or the unclean.

Jesus comes to John to be baptized. John protests because his baptism is about repentance. But Jesus is adamant that he identify with the people he will be ministering to. So John baptizes Jesus, just as Jesus' first disciples were baptized by John. Later Jesus and his disciples baptize people. After his resurrection, when Jesus commissions his apostles to take his message to the world, he tells them to make disciples and baptize them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Baptism becomes the rite of entrance into the church, the community of those who are saved by Christ. To illustrate baptism, Peter uses the image of the great flood and how God saved Noah and his family through the ark. Paul compares it to the Red Sea, through which God led the Israelites, liberating them from slavery. He also compares it to circumcision, the rite of entrance into Israel, the people of God.

The most intriguing theological idea is that just as Jesus identified with sinful humanity by submitting to baptism, so by being baptized in his name we identify with Christ. Bearing in mind that in the first century baptism generally meant total immersion, it is easy to see how Paul makes draws the parallel between baptism and Jesus' burial and resurrection. In baptism we are buried with Christ and rise with him to new life.

Whether or not Jesus' last supper was held on the first day of Passover, it is obvious that he modeled it on that feast. The centerpiece of this celebration of Israel's liberation was the paschal lamb. At the original meal, the lamb's body was eaten and its blood was smeared on the door frame of each Israelite's home so that the Angel of Death would pass over them. Also featured in the meal was bread made without leaven because the children of Israel would be leaving Egypt so fast there was no time to let it rise. Finally there were 4 cups of wine drunk at the Passover feast, the third of which was called the cup of blessing. The father or head of the family explained the significance of the elements of the meal. Jesus takes the bread and identifies it with his body, folding in together the idea of the lamb of God with the unleavened bread. The wine is combined with the shed blood of the lamb that saved those celebrating the meal. The covenant with Israel is superseded by a new covenant with the community of the Messiah.

But not only are those who eat the bread nourishing themselves on the Body of Christ, they are nourishing themselves as the Body of Christ. We are to embody the Spirit of Christ on this earth. So we are not just receiving his body; we are becoming it. And in doing so we are focusing on the most characteristic thing about our Incarnate God--his loving, self-sacrificial death for us. As Paul says in 1st Corinthians 11, the earliest written account of the meal, "for every time you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes."

The first Lord's Supper took place among Jesus' closest followers and friends. They were all baptized and the supper was meant to be a distinctive ritual binding his disciples to him and to each other. As in baptism, it was meant to identify the disciples with Jesus. It was a community-building activity.

When I was in the Society of Creative Anachronism, the medieval reenactment group, my persona was Brother Gillecriosd, a Cluniac monk at the time of William the Conqueror. No one else represented the religious side of the Middle Ages, which is rather like doing the American Revolution and neglecting to mention the role of democracy. I must have been convincing because one of the members of the group asked me if I would baptize her niece. I told her I just couldn't. Not only was I not clergy, baptism is not play-acting.

Nor is a rite of magical protection. It is the real incorporation of a person into the Body of Christ. If the person is old enough to understand, they are instructed so they can give assent to the questions asked of them. If the person is an infant, the parents and godparents vow to raise the child in the faith. Baptism is a sign of commitment to follow Jesus in the company of other faithful people.

And since Communion or the Eucharist is a rite of binding us to Christ and to each other as members of his body, baptism is a necessary prerequisite. To put it differently, you can't participate in a nation's civic life without becoming a citizen first. Baptism is a necessary part of becoming a citizen of the Kingdom of God. Communion, like voting, is reserved for citizens.

There are those who feel that this is being unnecessarily exclusive. In this time of declining church membership and attendance, there are parishes experimenting with giving baptism and communion to anyone who asks, without restriction. The problem with this is that, taken out of the context of a person being baptized into Christ or bound into the Body of Christ, the 2 rites lose a great deal of meaning. If I'm not particularly religious but want my child or myself baptized to cover all bases, that reduces the sacrament to a superstition. If I am doing it to please others, like parents or grandparents, but not acting out of faith, then I am engaging in hypocrisy. The same can be said of taking communion without faith or a basic understanding of why one does so.

And it's not going to mean much to those who respond to this "no-strings-attached" form of Christianity. I once had a card saying I was a member of the Pepsi Generation. It was a promotional giveaway handed out at some event. It didn't make me a Pepsi drinker and I never used it to get Pepsi merchandise. Because it cost me nothing, to me it meant nothing.

If there's one thing Jesus challenged people to do, it was to commit themselves to him. He wasn't interested in getting people's approval but their allegiance. He wanted people who would drop their nets, and anything else that would hinder them, deny themselves, take up their crosses and follow him. And if they couldn't be bothered to get their feet wet first…well, casual inquirers need not apply. Because he didn't want people to make the world nicer; he wanted them to make it new. And that takes commitment.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Don't Be-Attitudes

Jesus is underappreciated as a social satirist. We've heard what he said so many times and in the reverent context of the church that his sayings don't strike us as humorous. But Jesus talked about the Pharisees being so focused on unimportant details that they strained gnats out of their drinks and then swallowed camels. He talked about hypocrites trying to take a splinter out of someone else's eye while walking around with logs in their eyes. He compared a rich man trying to get into heaven to a camel trying to squeeze through the eye of a sewing needle. (I guess camels were the biggest animals you'd see around first century Judea.) If you think about it, the things he said must have provoked smiles the first time people heard them--a widow who gets justice from a corrupt judge by simply nagging him long enough, a guest who sits in the seat of honor only to get taken down a peg in public, a woman frantically turning her house upside down to find a lost coin. And what he said in the first part of Matthew 5 might have struck people as a joke. Or at least odd. I'm talking about the Beatitudes.

In the Beatitudes, Jesus is praising qualities that run counter to the values of human society--meekness, sadness, suffering persecution. The Beatitudes are so much a part of the church, it's difficult to view them as subversive. But they were. And they still are. We may learn about them way back in Sunday School but we really don't live by them. Is there any way to show how this part of our culture is actually counter-cultural? Can we somehow reverse the reverence?

I have a modest propose. Since Jesus was glorifying qualities that society doesn't really value, let's turn things inside out. Let's see what Jesus was saying humanity really treasures. We can call them the "Don't Be-Attitudes."

Jesus says, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs in the Kingdom of Heaven." The world says: "Blessed are those who feel they have it all, for they make the kingdoms of the earth run."

You might have expected the mirror version of the first beatitude to be "the rich in spirit." But in Greek, the word translated "poor" really means "destitute," so bankrupt as to have no illusions. It could be translated "Blessed are those who are aware of their spiritual poverty."

Worldly people don't like being told that they are lacking in some vital aspect of life or missing out on what's important. That's why the most popular forms of spirituality are those that tell their adherents that they are perfect just the way they are. It would be nice to hear every Sunday that there's nothing wrong with you--except perhaps that you don't believe in yourself enough! It might make you happier; it might make you bolder. And that's great--provided there really is nothing wrong with you. Everyone wants a clean bill of health from the doctor--if it's true. You don't want your doctor saying you're fine when you've got an aneurysm about to blow, or when your heart's clogged with fatty deposits, or the mole on your back is cancerous. What you don't know can definitely hurt you! And others! We all know people who can't see their own flaws and we have observed how much damage they can do because of that ignorance. Jesus says it's far better to know precisely where you stand with God, that is, totally dependent upon the richness of his grace. Only when you realize that will you be at the point where you can enter and be a part of God's kingdom.

Jesus says, "Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted." The world says: "Blessed are those who have no cares or regrets, for they need no comforting."

Bible scholar William Barclay, on whom I'm dependent for much of this, points out that the word translated "mourn" here is that of the bitterest sort of grief. The question is grief for what?

Jesus could have meant those who literally lost someone they love. They will be comforted when they are reunited with their loved one in heaven. But I agree with Barclay that Jesus is again talking about the listener's spiritual condition. He was probably referring to the person who is grieved by his own sins. We don't see a lot of that. Having some grievous sin today ensures you a big fat book deal, all the news coverage you could want, and a profitable career collecting speaking fees in return for telling every sordid detail. Sometimes a person's life turns around and they sincerely want to share their tale to inspire and warn others. But it's hard to gauge sincerity when it's so profitable to sin and tell.

Another possibility, that goes hand in hand with the last, is that Jesus is talking about those who grieve for the sins of the world. We're not talking about going "tsk, tsk" and shaking our head at the most outrageous news story of the day. We're talking about being so upset that you must do something. It's interesting that many of the world's reformers come from the upper classes. They are rarely people who have suffered injustice, oppression or discrimination themselves. But unlike others in their socio-economic class, they can't ignore it. Gandhi, St. Francis, Florence Nightingale, even Dr. Martin Luther King could have lived with much less grief if they had not felt called to do something about the evil in the world.

The world loves those with unclouded consciences, who follow their dreams and become successful. It's OK if they give to charity as long as they still enjoy the lifestyles of the rich and famous. That's why we hear so much about Donald Trump, a flashy dealmaker with a string of beautiful wives, and so little about Tom White, a devout Roman Catholic builder who, during his lifetime, has given away the bulk of his fortune to fund a clinic for the poor in Haiti, long before the earthquake. The only place I heard about White was on "Religion and Ethics Newsweekly," a TV program that is shown on our local PBS station in the wee hours of most but not all Saturday mornings. The world would rather cover self-indulgent people. Jesus says true comfort only comes to those who are deeply disturbed by the evil in us and around us.

Jesus says, "Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth." The world says: "Blessed are the arrogant for they will seize the earth as their own."

Again Jesus is talking of people with good self-knowledge. By 'meek," he doesn't mean the spineless but those who know both their strengths and their weaknesses. Humility doesn't mean denigrating yourself but rather knowing that you are neither worthless nor the center of the universe.

The world has no patience for those who know their limitations. It glorifies those who are masters of self-promotion. What is the story arc of the typical American success story? A man has a dream. He follows it obsessively despite everyone telling him that he'll never achieve it. He does succeed at last and we fade out on our hero at the peak of his triumph. What we don't see are the family he loses while working day and night, the children alternately indulged and neglected, the colleagues whose contributions he claims as his own, the sharp business practices he uses to beat his rivals. And we rarely see what happens after his triumph: the divorces, the lawsuits, the decline of creativity. Henry Ford refused to let his company retire the Model T until his competitors had cornered the market on automotive innovation. Nobody is great at everything or all their life. Sure, arrogant people make a big impact on the world, but the effect can be as negative as it is positive. Jesus says that those who know what they are and are not good at are what keeps the world running and ultimately God will entrust the earth to their care.

Jesus says, "Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled." The world says: "Blessed are those who don't get carried away trying to obey God, for they will be reasonably satisfied."

Again the words Jesus uses for "hunger and thirst" are more intense than the traditional translation. He's saying, "Blessed are they who are starving and parched for righteousness." In other words, he's talking about those for whom being right with God is not optional.

The world feels a little bit of righteousness goes a long way. Some bosses want you to be scrupulously honest in dealing with them, less so when dealing with clients or regulators. Society likes to appear to be just but appreciates those who can tolerate a certain amount of injustice so that the status quo is maintained. Government demands from others things it doesn't demand from itself: lower tariffs from other countries, fiscal responsibility from businesses, fair treatment for its captive soldiers from its enemies. A recent study of whistleblowers reveals them to be people of high integrity who cannot stand aside while unethical behavior is going on. But they learn that if you push for justice too hard or too fast, you will find yourself the victim of injustice. As far as the world is concerned justice delayed isn't so much justice denied as business as usual. Jesus says that only those who really desire righteousness will find their satisfaction in God.

Jesus says, "Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy." The world says: "Blessed are those who don't fall for a sob story for they won't get suckered."

In one sense, the world is right. If you say "No" to all appeals for mercy, you will probably never get taken advantage of. The problem is if you never cut people any slack, you can't expect it from them. And there will be times when you need it. None of us is good all of the time. We all fail. Should we shut people out whenever they fall short morally? Such a world would be merciless indeed. And if we don't give people more than one chance, we will find ourselves dealing with fewer and fewer people. Nobody is saying we must be a patsy. But being unforgiving is not healthy. Physically, forgiveness reduces stress, lowers blood pressure and heart rate, and reduces pain. Socially, it increases empathy and strengthens relationships. Psychologically, it increases happiness. And spiritually, it is a condition for God forgiving us. Jesus says if you want to know mercy, show it to others.

Jesus says, "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God." The world says: "Blessed are those who can figure out a way of benefiting personally from anything they do, for they see the world clearly."

In the news a while back, a man who organized a number of star-studded charity fundraisers was investigated. It turned out that after the celebrities were paid for their appearances and all of the expenses were taken care of, virtually none of the monies raised went to the causes themselves. I don't know who is more reprehensible: a person who would conceive of such a scam or the multi-millionaire personalities who would consider getting paid to help out a charity. It is a matter of purity of motive.

You don't hear much about purity these days. Everybody considers it passe, even naive. None of us is ever pure in our motives, so why bother trying? As long as the greater good is served, who cares if we make a little on the side? So let's pad the rolls of the local Boy Scouts and get more money from the United Way. Let's have people from unscathed parts of the state get hurricane disaster funds from FEMA. Let's allow a business to advertise some event as a benefit, even though the charity will only receive a tiny percentage of the proceeds. It's better than nothing, right?

At the end of the movie "Schindler's List," the title character experiences an epiphany on the subject. The war is over and the Jews Schindler has saved by bribing and tricking the Nazis give him a gold ring they have made in his factory. Schindler knows how much went into this gift and then realizes that it could have been used instead to save more lives. Though his efforts boiled down to purchasing lives, for the first time he realizes that his jewelry, his clothes, his fancy car could have been turned into cash and used to free more Jews from the death camps. He thought he had come up with a novel way to do good: save people and live well in the process. Now he realizes that had he purer motives, more people could have been spared. It devastates him.

Jesus says that only those who strip their actions of all ulterior motives will be able to see God as he is.

Jesus says, "Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called the children of God." The world says: "Blessed are the war makers for they will be able to play God."

In the Wild West, the Colt .45 got an interesting nickname. It was called the Peacemaker. And while it was meant ironically, it points out a revealing distinction in the way we use the word "peace." It can mean the absence of conflict. Shoot a man dead or just intimidate him with a show of arms and outward conflict will apparently end. By that definition the Cold War was a time of peace. But living under a nuclear sword of Damocles hardly made for peace of mind. Yet the world still feels that peace can only be achieved by beating people into submission. By that definition, Saddam Hussein was a great peacemaker because he kept a nation of fractious sects and ethnic divisions relatively quiet by being ruthless. But lasting peace will never come until people are motivated by things other than fear, anger and the desire to dominate.

By contrast, the Biblical meaning of peace is "total well-being." That kind of peace can only come about when the parties concerned act towards one another with fairness and good faith. We can have peace with God because he is just and trustworthy. Jesus says if we emulate God's true concern for the total well-being of others, we will be his children.

Finally, Jesus says, "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven." The world says: "It is more blessed to victimize than to be a victim."

Actually, there are people who proudly proclaim their victimhood: the people who claimed McDonald's made them fat; the people who claim that letting school choirs sing Christmas carols is a form of government endorsement of religion; the Christian groups who claim that teaching evolution in biology classes is a form of religious persecution. This is not what Jesus is talking about. Going through a drive-thru lane and paying people to give you a meal with enough calories to feed an entire third world family is not persecution. Listening to beautiful centuries-old music is not torture. Listening to another point of view is not mistreatment. Go watch "Hotel Rwanda" or "Schindler's List" or "The Killing Fields" or "The Passion of the Christ" and then we'll talk about the meaning of persecution.

The world doesn't endorse martyrs--while they're alive. Although he probably diffused an all-out race war, nobody proposed a Martin Luther King Day while he was still around. Only after they're safely dead and can make no more trouble, does the world honor those who pour their lives into exposing the standard operating B.S. and changing the status quo.

The world likes winners and it defines winners as survivors. Thus a while back, on the 50th anniversary of "Playboy" magazine, Hugh Hefner was hailed as a man who changed society. Few dared to say he changed it for the better. We tend to celebrate conquerors, entrepreneurs and alpha males who put their stamp on the world regardless of how many lives they destroyed. That's irrelevant. Coming out on top personally makes you a winner to the world.

Jesus says putting your life on the line to make the world a better place for others makes you a winner in the eyes of eternity and God's kingdom is made up of such as these.

So, you see, what Jesus said in these 8 simple pronouncements was really quite radical. Many in his original audience must have thought he was joking. Others must have thought him crazy. But still others saw the world in a new and unflattering light. They saw that, as topsy turvy as it seemed, what Jesus said was actually made sense. They saw that it was what the world said that was out of whack. And they realized that it was the world that had to be changed. As Paul said, "God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise."

It didn't take a whole lot of people subscribing to this point of view to get things started. Just 12, really, and one was a scoundrel. But that is enough to make things happen if you're as crazy as our God is--crazy like a fox!