Sunday, June 24, 2012

God is an Infracaninophile

Bullying is in the news a lot these days. And it hit me the other day that I was bullied, though it was not something I've thought about much over the years. I was called "four eyes" and "Poindexter" and ridiculed for always having a pencil and carrying my books in a book bag rather than in my arms and throwing off the grading curve. I was chased around the schoolyard, pushed into a bush, given a black eye. Once I was bullied by mistake. Some kids who were mad at my brother mistook me for him and put snow down my collar. But I never felt like a victim. The kid who chased me around the schoolyard regretted it. Boxed in at the corner of the school fence, I raised my foot to crotch-height just as he ran at me, causing him to, as we said at the time, "rupture" himself. Being pushed into the bush was a lot less worse than I expected and probably had something to do with my pointing out that this particular bully would prove nothing by beating me up since he was obviously much bigger than me. Who would this impress? Having taken away any glory he could possibly garner by pulverizing me, I was shoved into the bushes and he walked away grumbling in dissatisfaction. Again simply accepting the challenge to meet the 3rd bully in the schoolyard after classes, though I was obviously outmatched, may have cost me a black eye and a wicked headache, but the next day it made me the hero of 7th grade. All in all, the lesson I learned in these incidents was that standing up to a bigger and stronger foe, while not guaranteeing you a victory, could spoil your opponent's triumph.

And, yes, I was called "queer" back then, though neither I nor, I suspect, my accusers had any real understanding of what that word meant. Today it has a well-known meaning, though why it gives anyone a reason to inflict either physical or emotional pain on anyone else is beyond me. I agree we need to stop bullies but we also need to teach our kids what my Mom taught me: that words cannot hurt me unless I let them. And in a war of words, even the powerful are vulnerable. Still the magnifying effect of being attacked and slandered and mocked in the cyberworld as well as the schoolyard leaves children with no respite from the cruelty of other kids and, if they seek their validation from others, it can be overwhelming. Name-calling, slander and gossip need to considered bad behaviors again. And if the bullying is physical, it should be taken seriously and not tolerated. The Bible condemns both sins of the tongue and interpersonal violence.

There are a lot of titles and descriptors given to God: God Almighty, God Most High, the Lord of hosts, Creator, Redeemer, Comforter, Advocate. But you've probably never heard God called an infracaninophile. And that's because though Christopher Morley coined the word in the 1930s, it's rarely used. It means "lover of the underdog" and it certainly fits our God.

If you read the narrative parts of the Bible, you notice something. Though the society of the Ancient Near East favored firstborns and societies everywhere favor the powerful, God doesn't. The first firstborn, Cain, murders his younger brother Abel and God exiles him for it. Many of the heroes of the Bible are not firstborns: Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and David, just to mention a few. God makes a race of slaves, Israel, into his people. And when he sends his son, Jesus is not born to a wealthy or powerful family but to a poor village craftsman and his wife. Jesus confounds his more powerful enemies through vigorous thoughts and strong words honed and wielded skillfully.

The classic underdog is David in his conflict with Goliath. Though some have cast doubt on the idea of a 9 foot 9 inch warrior, we have an ancient Egyptian letter that describes fierce 7 to 9 foot warriors in Canaan and we have found the skeletons of two 7 foot women in the area. Goliath was of that race and with his scaled armor, plumed helmet, enormous spear and full-body shield, he was a formidable foe. Who better to put forth in a contest of champions, through whom the gods will decide the conflict? Though King Saul was taller than his fellow Israelites, he didn't want to face this Philistine behemoth. And so it falls to David, who was dropping off provisions for his brothers in Saul's army. He overheard Goliath's insults to God's people and volunteered to face the giant.

David had never worn armor and so he rejected Saul's after trying it on. Instead he used his weapon of choice: the sling. As a shepherd, he had plenty of solitary time to practice his marksmanship. And it has paid off on the occasion when a lion or bear snatched a lamb from his flock and he had to retrieve it. Nor was David packing a peashooter. Slings were used in battle and typically they hurled rocks the size of your fist or a baseball. The weapon's range was up to 100 yards and a skilled shot could fling a rock at speeds from 80 to 100 miles per hour. Goliath probably didn't know what hit him.

But David was not trusting in his efforts alone. He knew that once that projectile leaves your hand, the wind, the angle of approach, a movement by your opponent, any one of a number of factors can deflect or lessen the impact of it. A sniper fired a head shot at my dad in World War 2 and it was stopped by his helmet. I understand helmets are not really designed to be bulletproof. The Mythbusters showed that depending on caliber of bullet, gun, distance, etc. it is possible for a Bible to stop a bullet. Even if the projectile hits the person, death is not a sure thing. I have personally taken care of 2 patients who were shot in the head and survived with minimal brain damage. So if that rock hadn't hit its target and with sufficient force, Goliath would have made shepherd's pie out of David.

Because we live in a universe with consistent physical rules, bigger and stronger usually rules the day. And the sheep-like behavior of people helps. People like to back a winner and so bullies are usually bolstered by hangers-on and sycophants. But just as it says in Ecclesiastes 9:11, battles do not always go to the strong. And as the game "King of the Hill" teaches us, those who make it to the top can still be toppled. Several tyrants in the Middle East have learned that recently. They trusted in their own strength to keep power.

The Lord is a God of justice and so he doesn't give special consideration to those who already have power. People who have earthly power are more likely to rely on and put their trust in that than in God. In David's case, his roving eye and royal power later on will lead him to commit adultery with Bathsheba and have her husband killed at the battle front. Through the prophet Nathan, God calls David on that and punishes him.

In fact, the prophets frequently speak God's unpalatable truths to those in power, even if they are Israelite or Judean kings. In a world in which religion's chief function is to bless the power structure and the status quo, the inclusion of the prophets in the Hebrew Holy Book is remarkable. Those in power don't like critics. In the 36th chapter of Jeremiah we are told that as the king's secretary read the prophet's scroll, King Jehoiakim would cut off what was just read and throw it in the fire. Neither he nor his attendants worried about destroying God's words because they really did not want to hear themselves or their ways condemned.

And what did Jeremiah and the other prophets condemn in their society? Two things primarily: people's messed up relationship with God and their messed up relationships with each other. In other words, violating the 2 Great Commandments. Either the Israelites and Judeans were worshipping other gods beside Yahweh or their worship of the Lord was empty and insincere. And that bled over into the way they treated the least fortunate in the land. As God reminded them in Isaiah 58, "Is this not the fast that I choose, to loosen the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, to bring the homeless into your house; if you see someone naked, to clothe him and not hide yourself from your own people?"  

The powerful used their wealth or connections to deny the poor their rights. To King Shallum, the disappointing son of the righteous King Josiah, Jeremiah says, "Woe to him who builds his house without righteousness and his upper rooms without justice, who makes his neighbor work for nothing and doesn't give him his wages….Do you rule because you lust to excel in cedar? Didn't your father manage to eat and drink and still do what is just and upright? Then it was well for him. He pled the cause of the poor and the needy and then all went well. Isn't that what it means to know me, says the Lord?" (Jer 22:13, 15-16) In Proverbs 31, kings are commanded to "speak out for those who cannot speak, for the cause of all the destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously and defend the cause of the poor and needy."

The reason misdirected worship and mistreatment of the vulnerable go together is because of God's nature. He is a father. He won't let the stronger pick on the weak. In Psalm 10, the psalmist says to God, "You do see it. You take note of trouble and grief to repay it by your hand. The poor commits himself to you. You are the helper of the orphan….You have heard the desire of the humble. You will strengthen their hearts. Your ear will hear them."  People come to resemble what they worship. People who worship God in the right spirit share his values. As Proverbs 29:7 says, "The righteous knows the rights of the poor; the wicked do not understand such concern." And in chapter 19 it says, "Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord and he will repay him for his good deed." If you helped out my daughter or son, I would consider it a good deed done to me and repay you for your kindness. That's how God views the poor. And in chapter 14 we read, "Those who oppress the poor insult their Maker but those who are kind to the needy honor him." 

Nor is this just an Old Testament thing. Mary, filled with the Holy Spirit, praises the God who scatters the arrogant in mind and heart, pulls down the powerful from their thrones and exalts the humble, feeds the hungry with good things and sends away the wealthy with empty hands. John the Baptist said, "Let the man with two tunics share with him who has none, and let him who has food do likewise." Jesus said, "Sell your possessions and give to charity; make yourselves purses which do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys." Jesus also said, "Give to him who asks of you and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you." In 1st John we are asked, "If someone has worldly means and sees a brother in need, but closes his heart to him, in what way does the love of God continue to live in him?" Paul reminds us that Jesus said it is more blessed to give than to receive and that the Lord loves a cheerful giver.

This has nothing to do with politics. This has to do with justice. As it says in Leviticus 19, "You shall do no injustice in judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor nor defer to the great, but you are to judge your neighbor fairly." And in an ideal world, justice would be blind. What you did would determine how you are treated.  Your race, religion, economic class, country of origin, anything you are would be irrelevant. But we live in a society in which, if you kill someone, statistically you're much less likely to be executed or draw a life sentence if you are rich and/or white than if you're poor and/or non-white; where you will go to jail if you rob a bank but not if you financially destroy one; where the quality of your legal representation is directly tied to your ability to pay for a lawyer. We live in a world where a country that just overthrew a dictator and held a democratic election is being denied that by that country's military, where in another country the dictator is killing his people with impunity, where children are abducted from African villages and forced to kill their families and turned into child soldiers, where the trafficking of women sex slaves has become more profitable than drugs. We live in a world where people who should be role models, coaches and priests and teachers and bishops, use the power of their positions to sexually exploit children. And why? Because they can. Because from the earliest time in history, people with power have used that power for themselves. Big guys bully little guys. Rich guys take advantage of poor guys. Big corporations give millions to politicians because, according to a recent study, they get an average return rate of 22,000% in terms of tax breaks. The way of the world is: if you have power, you use it for yourself.

God's way is: if your have power, you use it for those who need it. As it says in Philippians, "Have the same attitude among you that was in Christ Jesus who, although he existed in the form of God, did not regard his equality with God as something to cling to but emptied himself, taking on the form of a slave, becoming the likeness of a human being, and being found in human form, humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name." That is our God. That is why we worship him and that is how we should emulate him in regards to others. He had absolute power and gave it up, limiting himself, to live and die as one of us to save us, to do for us what we could not do for ourselves. That is what power is for. That is how it's to be used in the Kingdom of God.

We are citizens of that Kingdom. We are to work for justice and fairness, helping those who cannot help themselves as Jesus does for us. But the Lord is also a God of mercy. If not, we would never survive his justice. And he is a God of grace. The best explanation of the differences that I have heard is this: Justice is getting what you deserve. Mercy is not getting everything you deserve to get. And grace is getting what you could never deserve. God not only saves us from the spiritual consequences of our sins but gives us grace to be his children and heirs. We do not deserve his grace but being recipients of it we pass it on to others. We take our role as Christ's body on earth and work for justice, offer mercy and dispense grace.

The world may owe us nothing but we owe God everything. For that reason we cannot let ourselves be counted with the bullies and the oppressors and the thieves and the exploiters and the self-indulgent and all the folks who make this a terrible place for the poor and the sick and the damaged and the neglected and the despised and the vulnerable. We cannot be a part of those people who look at the unfortunate and say "Tough luck" and move on. We don't believe in luck, tough or otherwise. We believe in a gracious God and so we stop and help. We believe in a merciful God and so we offer forgiveness. We believe in a just God and so we work to rectify injustice.

We are called to be the anti-bullies of this world. Bullies pick on people and knock them down. We reach out and pick up fallen humanity. Bullies instill fear. We instill faith. Bullies use their power to intimidate weaker people into doing their will. We imitate Christ using his power to help the weak find God's gracious will for them. And we know that even in this dog eat dog world, we needn't worry. Because God loves the underdog.

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