Sunday, November 13, 2011

Diversions and Essentials

Ya gotta hand it to the Roman Emperors. When the masses got upset at the injustices and inequalities of society, the emperors knew what to do: provide bread and circuses. The bread filled a real need for the multitudinous poor, of course. The circuses, which included chariot races, athletic games, staged exotic animal hunts and later the execution of Christians, were technically sacred and state affairs but functioned as diversions from the problems of the Empire. And even today local governments with other pressing financial problems are so eager to keep professional sports teams that they will enter into ruinous contracts to build stadiums with more luxury boxes where the lion's share of profits go to millionaire team owners and the lion's share of the costs go to taxpayers. Entertainment would not seem to be essential to human life, yet we pay athletes, movie and TV actors a lot more than we pay teachers, nurses, and police officers. If money is value quantified, what does it say that we value those who amuse us more than those who educate us, who protect us and who take care of us when we are most vulnerable?

One sign of how much we value entertainers and sports figures is what we do when one of them does something bad. When O.J. Simpson's ex-wife was brutally stabbed and slashed to death, the police did what they do in any similar homicide: they looked at the ex-spouse. And despite the fact that the DNA of a dead waiter, who just happened to be dropping off Mrs. Simpson's sunglasses at the time of the attack, was found in O.J.'s car, the jury somehow thought that this was not sufficient evidence of the Hall of Famer's guilt. And an incredible number of people were happy to see him acquitted. Because despite ample evidence that he was a controlling and abusive spouse, despite his bizarre slow motion car chase complete with lots of cash and a disguise, despite the fact that Ron Goldman's parents were able to win a wrongful death civil suit against him, he was a great sports figure. One who now resides in jail on a 33 year sentence for trying to resolve another situation with violence.

Roman Polanski was not only a great director but his actress wife and their unborn child were victims of Charles Manson's cult of murderers. But when he was arrested by the Swiss in 2009 for fleeing the US in 1977 after pleading guilty to having sex with a 13 year old, many people went on the record saying he should not be extradited to our country to be sentenced. Being a great director apparently excuses him for committing statutory rape.

And recently Penn State students rioted when college football legend Joe Paterno was fired for not doing enough after getting an eyewitness report of the rape of a 10 year boy by one of his assistant coaches. He did pass the report on to his Athletic Director but did not follow up, though the retired assistant coach ran sleepover camps on the Penn State property for years afterward. But people are more upset over the loss of the most winning college football coach. I wonder if their reaction to his perfunctory response would change had the boy been murdered rather than merely raped.

There is nothing wrong with a harmless diversion now and then. It's one way of getting some relief from the stresses of life. It can literally help with pain. When I was young our pediatrician told me to count backwards as he threw out random numbers. While I was concentrating on the countdown, he would give me my shots and I barely felt them. One intriguing study shows that counting money has a similar pain-fighting effect, probably because we are focusing on something of value. I've found I can stop my patient from crying by offering him something with a lid. He is instantly engaged in putting it on and taking it off.

The problem comes when what we are diverted from are things that we ought to be attending to. You would not want a police officer playing Angry Birds on his phone when he ought to be stopping or solving crimes. Or the tech support person watching an episode of Real Housewives while he's helping you figure out why your laptop has frozen up. Or a health care worker posting You Tube videos on her Facebook page when she is supposed to be getting your loved one up to use the toilet. The nursing home I last worked for forbade staff from bringing in cell phones and personal electronics. And I've caught enough staff members hiding in empty rooms making calls to understand why.

We have gotten so addicted to being constantly diverted that it is one of the leading causes of traffic accidents in this country, responsible for anywhere from 25 to 50% of all crashes according to AAA. More than 85% of the 100 million cell phone users in this country use them in their cars. If there's anything you should be concentrating on, it's navigating a 2000 pound car going 35 to 55 miles per hour through streets being used by other vehicles piloted by distractible human beings.

But diversions needn't be trivial to keep us from focusing on what is essential. In our country, poverty has risen to its highest level in 27 years. More than 46 million Americans, or 1 in 6, makes less than $12,000. 22% of our children live in poverty. Only during the Great Depression has this country's unemployment rate been higher. Just under 50 million Americans have no health insurance. Medical bills are the number 1 reason for bankruptcy. Yet our elected officials are more focused on winning elections or stopping the other party from winning elections that are a year away. Matters which may seem important to them are diverting our leaders from matters that are essential to the people they supposedly represent.

Even church politics can distract people from things that are essential. At our Diocesan Convention, the matters that generated the most debate, money and rights, may have been important issues. But as we watched a video of what our church is doing in the Dominican Republic, where malnutrition, contaminated water, malaria, rabies and diseases that can be prevented by vaccinations are still major health problems, I thought "Thank God we have all of these missions and ministries attacking these issues. Why don't we talk about these things more? Why do we devote so much time and energy to issues which are not matters of life and death?"

How we spend our time, talents and treasure is a vital issue to Jesus as his parable in Matthew 25 reveals. The talent mentioned in the Bible is a unit of weight equal to 30 kilograms, so if it was in gold or silver, even the slave given 1 talent had considerable capital to work with. The fault of that slave is obviously not the amount he was given but what he did with it, which was nothing. His master would have been pleased if the man had taken the most conservative course he could with what he was given. He is punished for not even trying. The gifts we receive from God are to be used, not hoarded or hidden. We are not to be distracted from putting them to their proper use or diverted by considerations like fear of failure. He wants us to be bold.

Everybody has talents. And I'm not just talking of the artistic kinds. Some people have a talent for detail. Some have a talent for seeing the big picture. Some have a talent for making friends. Others have a talent for making things. Some have a talent for connecting ideas that at first appear to have nothing to do with each other. There are people with a talent for numbers and others who have a talent for words. Some folks have a talent for making money and others have a talent for coming up with off-the-wall solutions. Everyone has a talent or 2 or 3. Some can do big things and some can do small but crucial things. And wonderful things happen when people bring their talents together for a common cause.

And what would such a common cause be for the body of Christ? Exactly what Christ did. When people were hungry, he fed them. When they were sick, he made them better. When they were repentant, he forgave them. When their faith was faltering, he encouraged them. When they lacked wisdom, he taught them. When they were hypocritical, he called them on it. When they showed extraordinary faith in him, or were unusually perceptive about God or ethics, or were particularly generous, he praised them. And he told his disciples that ministering to the needs of anyone lacking food, water, clothing, health, freedom or acceptance in a strange culture was the same as ministering to him.

The church first got noticed positively for doing such things--taking care of plague victims when others fled, for instance. As the faith spread, the church was known for setting up hospitals and schools, for feeding and clothing the poor, for freeing their slaves and working to abolish the slave trade entirely, and in the modern era for fighting prejudice. We still do these; why aren't they the first things that come to mind when Christians come up in popular discourse?

Because we have let ourselves get diverted onto other issues. We have made priorities of being theologically pure, or politically consistent, or culturally in-step, or structurally intact, or just plain popular. These may be important issues but they are, in the final analysis, not absolutely essential.

And what did Jesus consider essential? A lot less than we do. He said that if something was coming between you and God, you should ruthlessly remove it from your life, even if it were a hand or an eye. And he's right. Today, if having an eye or a limb surgically removed meant it would save you from a deadly form of cancer, most of us would, after hard consideration, agree. I don't, however, think Jesus wanted us to literally lop off our hands or tear out our eyes. But he must have meant something just as important if less physical, something we might consider to be a big part of us and who we are, something which would definitely be seen as a big sacrifice on our part, though we could live without it.

The most difficult part is deciding what is essential and what is merely important. Often we think that what makes us different is what is essential but that's not true. Practically every branch of Christianity has distinctive doctrines, or structures, or practices that they consider essential, but regarding which other branches of Christianity think or act differently. Is the Papacy or the number of sacraments or the age of baptismal candidates or the way a church is organized or the structure of the worship service or the language used essential to Christianity? If so, then we must reject either Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy or Evangelicalism, or Pentecostalism, or the Amish as Christian. But that would mean what is essential to Christianity is what divides us rather than what unites us. It would be like saying only a poodle is a true dog and all other breeds are entirely different species.

As I read it, the essentials consist of who Jesus Christ is, what he has done for us, and how we respond morally to that. The details must be fleshed out, certain decisions of which way to go on controversial issues must be arrived at, but they are not essential to what Christianity is. They are merely ways it was expressed at certain times, in certain cultures, in response to certain challenges. It is in what these various expressions share that we find the essence of belief.

There is one distinctive that is essential: Jesus' commands to love--God, our neighbors as ourselves, each other as Jesus loves us, our enemies. Anything that claims to be Christianity but does not recognize that at the center is love is not true Christianity. To paraphrase the documentary on the Dominican Republic, Christianity requires both faith and practice, both proclamation of the Gospel and loving service, the way a dove needs 2 wings in order to fly.

Whenever you see a grotesquely deformed version of Christianity, the defect is found in either how it sees Jesus or how it sees love. Most often it cannot resist collapsing and simplifying the central paradoxes of the faith--Jesus Christ as fully human and fully divine, both victim and victor, both servant and Lord, the earth as both fallen and redeemed, believers as both sinners and saints, the imperatives to pursue both justice and peace, love and righteousness, to take up one's cross and live an abundant life. It is usually in trying to resolve these tensions by tossing out or diminishing or ignoring one side, or overemphasizing the other, that things go off the rails. And often to deal with the stress of maintaining these paradoxes, we get diverted by other, more easily comprehended issues, matters that we would much rather contemplate or handle. It is much easier to focus almost entirely on a pet cause, or to nitpick another's theological fine points or to only see one side of a problem than to grapple with the complexity of reality. Just as it's much easier to get lost in a video game or a cozy sitcom or a contest between two teams, where there are clear winners and losers, unclouded loyalties and an unvarying format.

One of the problems of diversions is they take our attention off of vital matters. Another, however, is that we try to impose their simplified schemata on messy reality. It would be lovely if good and evil were as easy to spot and to deal with as they are in Star Wars or a first person shooter game. They aren't. To paraphrase H. L. Mencken, for every complex problem there is a simple solution…and it's wrong. Jesus told us to give Caesar what is his and God what is his but didn't provide us with a checklist to tick off which duties were which. Jesus told us to turn the other cheek but not what to do if that doesn't stop our attacker. Paul told us not to respond to evil with evil but with good but didn't go into the specifics. God gave us both brains and hearts and lets us find the balance between the two we must strike in every circumstance.

Life is not a no-brainer and neither is the Christian life. Rather it is a full brainer. We need both hemispheres and every specialized lobe and section to handle it. Sometimes we need a diversion, comfort food for our brains, like a nice murder mystery where all the loose ends are tied up and neither hero nor victims carry the trauma over into the next adventure. But we mustn't set up housekeeping in these castles in the air. We live on earth and if we are going to bring about God's Kingdom, we need to see and think clearly to discern what is essential, what is important and what is trivial.

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