Sunday, April 21, 2013

Help or Harm?

In the Batman movie The Dark Knight, Alfred tells Bruce Wayne, “Some men just want to watch the world burn.” That came back to me this week after the Boston bombing. But I’ve also been thinking a lot about a quote from the Rev. Fred Rogers, better known as TV’s Mr. Rogers. He said that when he was a boy and scary things were in the news, his mother told him, “Look for the helpers. There is always someone who is trying to help.” And he said, “I did, and I came to see that the world is full of doctors and nurses, police and firemen, volunteers, neighbors and friends who are ready to jump in to help when things go wrong.” This quote has gone viral on the Internet. I’ve seen it on Facebook, Twitter, You Tube, Tumblr and other websites.
One of Jesus’ best known parables is that of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37. The crux of the story is that when confronted with a man beaten and left for dead, only a depised Samaritan was willing to help him. A priest and a Levite cross to the other side of the road to avoid possible ritual contamination. The Samaritan not only renders first aid but takes the victim to an inn and pays for his care.  Jesus concludes his story with the command, “Go and do likewise.”
 Another widely known parable is that of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25:31-46. He tells of the final judgment and the criteria is whether one has helped those one encounters who are hungry, thirsty, foreign, naked, sick or in prison. A third parable, found in Luke 16:19-31, is that of the rich man and Lazarus, where the rich man goes to hell for not doing anything for poor, sick Lazarus.
In all of these parables, what Jesus condemns is neglect, or what we might call sins of omission, not doing what we ought to have done to help others. Nor does Jesus say you must help everyone everywhere. Just your neighbor, although for Jesus that means whoever you actually lay eyes on. The Samaritan hadn’t met the robbery victim before. In the parable of the sheep and goats, Jesus says, over and over, “you saw me…” hungry, naked, etc. The sore-covered Lazarus was at the rich man’s gate, so he could hardly miss him. Your neighbor is anyone you meet or see, especially if they are in need.
Jesus practiced what he preached. He helped anyone he encountered, anyone who asked, anyone who had an obvious need, whether it was blindness, or leprosy, or a crowd who was hungry. Another thing Jesus did was help them when he first encountered them, even if it was inconvenient, such as he was tired or hungry himself. He helped even if it was the Sabbath.
Today we think Jesus’ opponents were petty, but to be fair, observing the Sabbath is one of the Ten Commandments. A good deal of the Old Testament emphasizes how the Jews did not obey God’s commands and brought a great deal of grief onto themselves. During their exile, lacking the ability to make sacrifices in the temple, Jewish scholars reorganized their religion around scrupulous observance of the 613 commands found in the Torah. This lead to the rise of the Pharisees. Zealous Pharisees, such as the apostle Paul was, thought that if they could get all Jews to observe all the Torah for just one day, the Messiah would come. Thus they could not take seriously any candidate for Messiah who would violate such a basic commandment. Why couldn’t he wait until sunset to heal people?
Jesus gives several reasons. He points out that no one would hesitate to pull a farm animal out of a well on the Sabbath. Should we not treat a suffering human being as well as we do a donkey? He points out that God still is active on the Sabbath. He excludes doing good from the category of forbidden work. It wasn’t like Jesus was taking orders or doing carpentry on the Sabbath. He was healing and helping, activities totally appropriate for a day set aside for God.
By doing so, Jesus introduces a method for determining what to do when 2 ethical principles clash: when in doubt, do the thing that concretely helps a person in need. And indeed, modern Judaism recognizes preserving life as a valid reason to supersede any other religious law, except those against idolatry and murder. A person who is ill is exempt from rules that would compromise their health. During the Holocaust, Jews who were being hidden from the Nazis by Gentile neighbors did not have to keep kosher.
The reason this has been on my mind lately is that people no longer look at Christians as helpers. We are seen largely as people who, at best, obstruct helpful things being done for others and, at worst, do harm or allow harm to be done to people. We are seen as people who stand in the way of scientific advances and certain medical techniques. We are seen as people who substitute proof-texting for common sense. We are seen as people who are not only judgmental but hypocritical to boot. When did this happen? When did we switch from those who help to those who harm?
I think it began when we started to put other things before people. We created a framework of religious rules and rituals and traditions that we began to revere above the wellbeing of humans. It’s not that these things are necessarily bad in themselves. But when one discriminates against other Christians because of the manner in which they are baptized, or the way they make the sign of the cross, or the date on which they celebrate Easter, one is elevating secondary issues over primary ones, specifically the commandment to love one another as Christ loves us. And there is no warrant to not help or indeed to harm those who are not Christians. Jesus healed Gentiles. Even if we consider them enemies, Jesus commands us to love them. Since we must love our neighbors and our enemies, we have no one left to hate.
In fact, one of the things that made the ancient Romans reconsider Christianity was the fact that Christians stayed in the city when plague struck and took care of the sick and dying even at the risk of their own lives. They looked at the helpers and thought maybe there was some worth in the beliefs that motivated them.
In my 30 years as a nurse, I can report that the majority of my colleagues are religious people, most of them Christians. And I have been surprised at how many of the officers and members of the staff at the jail are religious. Several of those in positions of authority are quite active in their churches. I know of several officers who read their Bibles during quiet times on their shifts. A number have asked me to pray for them as well. And they appreciate my ministry among the inmates, especially in listening to those who are distraught.
And of course religious people are over-represented in charitable and non-profit organizations, even secular ones. All major denominations have ministries that not only help in times of disaster but which help in everyday problems like hunger, poverty, justice, literacy, immigration, the environment, people with disabilities, the elderly, those in prison, etc. Many hospitals got their start as church ministries.
So we do help. But you wouldn’t know it by looking at the media, even in Christian media. Church scandals and harsh words by preachers aimed at other people are easy to find. Reports on the average Christian or a local church helping people week to week are rare. I think we need to do something about that. I think we need to think of outreach not only as our duty to our fellow human beings but also as a form of evangelism. We need to let people know that God is not just interested their souls but their whole lives. We need to let people know that Christian theology is not just nice thoughts about the afterlife but an outline of how to live a more Christlike life now, the necessary precursor to eternal life with God.
Now is the time when we build the relationships, develop the moral muscles, master the spiritual gifts that will enable us to live in the fully realized kingdom. Astronauts train rigorously before going into space. Divers do the same before engaging in deep sea exploration. We must do the same if we are going to live in the rarified atmosphere of God’s paradise.
 And because it is a kingdom built on love, we must practice that by doing loving things for those we encounter in this life. A good deal of love is doing helpful things for others, filling needs, compensating for their weaknesses, supporting, listening, bandaging wounds, offering a shoulder, clearing away obstacles, consoling and encouraging. Those are all ways we can help each other.          
If there’s one thing this week has shown us is that there are those here to harm and those here to help. And because the men behind the bombing were religious, this justifies those who say religion is bad for society. We need to counter that perception. We need to highlight the good we do, not to earn pats on the back but to display the fruit of the Spirit. Jesus said we will know people’s character by the fruit they produce. Paul contrasts the fruit of the spirit with the what the flesh or unredeemed human produces, things like enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissension, factions and more. When people see us exhibit such behavior, they figure they don’t want any part of the tree that produces those things. Conversely, if they see Christians exhibiting love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control, they may think, “I want those things” and become interested in following Jesus.
To follow Jesus is to be on the side of those who help. It is to be on the side of those who feed the hungry, who give water to the thirsty,  who give clothes to the naked, who welcome the stranger, who visit the sick and imprisoned, who rescue those in danger, who teach those who do not know better, who guide those who are lost, who support those who cannot walk, who protect those who are weak, who alert those who are sleeping, who encourage those who are despairing, who comfort those who are mourning, who speak for those who are voiceless, who stand with those who are alone.
People flocked to Jesus because he healed and helped; they stayed to follow him because of his words. We seem to have gotten that backward. We try to draw people primarily with words. But do we back them with our actions? Do we give freely because God has given to us freely? Do we give to all who ask? Do we repay evil with good? Friday night I reposted a lot of things on Facebook thanking the first responders for all they did in Boston. They all got “Likes.” I also reposted the following, “Jesus said to pray for your enemies: There is a 19 y/o man just taken into custody who has injuries. You know what to do.” I have 260 “friends” on Facebook, a good number of them clergy and devout Christians. Not a single “Like.”
When Charles Roberts, before committing suicide, shot 10 Amish girls and killed 5 of them in a one room school house in 2006, the Amish community reached out to Roberts’ family. They visited and comforted his widow, her parents and her parents-in-law. 30 of the Amish attended Roberts' funeral and they set up a charitable fund for his family. Some actually criticized the Amish for offering forgiveness when no repentance on Roberts’ part was shown, but they cited Jesus’ example of forgiving those who crucified him from the cross. While it did not undo the tragedy, they saw it as a first step towards a better future.
The desire for revenge does not lead to helpful action. Forgiveness and reconciliation do. How much better would this world be if those enmeshed in long-standing conflicts could let go of the past and forego vengeance, and start anew? If no peace can be contemplated until all wrongs are avenged, then we will never see peace in places like the Middle East, or parts of Africa, or India, or some of our inner cities. Violence begets more violence. The first step is to break the cycle of tit for tat violence. Only then can helpful dialogue and action begin.
Everyone realizes that there is something, or several things, wrong with the world. We may disagree on some of those things but I think we all agree that disease and disasters and death are all bad things. We think that people should not starve and that children should not be abused or killed. We believe that poverty and illiteracy and addiction are things which devastate lives. We may disagree on the causes but there is a great deal of agreement on what can be done to help those who are suffering from or in danger of these things. We need to concentrate on doing those things. We need to stop trying to fix blame on people and instead fix the problems. And to do that we need to be willing to work with anyone who is focused on the common good, even if we don’t agree on every particular. Remember, Jesus said whoever is not against us is for us.
Remember, too, that we are called by the Son of Man who came not to be served but to serve and to give his life for many. He said that if we want to come after him we must disown ourselves, take up our crosses and follow him. He said what we do to others, we do to him.
So again I say, there are those in this world who seek to harm and those who seek to help. Which side do you think we are on? Why don’t more people know this? What are we going to do about that?  

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