Monday, July 21, 2014

Weeds Among the Wheat

If this font size causes you problems, please write to Google. I sized it as Normal, the same as I've done since I began this blog in 2010. But ever so often Google forgets what normal means. The scripture referred to is Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43.

I'm a big fan of Joss Whedon, the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dollhouse and Firefly, and one of the writers behind the original Toy Story film. I was really happy when I found out he was going to write and direct the first Avengers films. And it was everything a Joss Whedon film should be: smart, witty, emotional and with clever plot twists. Unfortunately it was a summer blockbuster, which meant it ultimately boiled down to a fight between good guys and bad guys and it ended neatly with every single bad guy dead or defeated. In a way it wasn't much different from the recent Superman film which ended with the Man of Steel stopping the bad guy by snapping his neck. Kill the main bad guy or blow up the mothership and all the fight goes out of the other bad guys. Just like in real life. After Saddam Hussein died, all strife was gone from Iraq. Right? Or when Khadafi was killed, Libya became a peaceable kingdom. Or when Bin Ladin was taken out, Al Qaeda faded away like snow on the first hot day of Spring. No? Maybe that's why we like comic book films: because if you get rid of the bad guys, you get rid of all evil. In real life, it isn't that easy.

I noticed a long time ago that as more and more movies racked up higher and higher body counts an interesting thing happened. The bad guys ceased to be human or even look human. They were all aliens. Or robots. Or zombies. So the heroes could kill hundreds or thousands of them without the words “genocide” or “war crimes” popping up. At least in Doctor Who the titular character, who is himself an alien, wrestles with all the deaths he's caused. He even gives his enemies a chance to repent or at least stop and walk away rather than go up against him. And we see that often in his fight against evil there is collateral damage. Innocents die. As in real life. But then I see this theme in a lot of British TV shows and movies and fiction. I think it has to do with the fact that 2 World Wars were fought right on their doorstep so to speak and not across the ocean or on the other side of the globe. The Nazis bombed their cities. They lost so many people that that the lessons of what war costs was burned into their national psyche. We tend to think all wars are fought “over there.”

Yet the worst war we ever fought, the one with the most casualties, was our own Civil War. No one went untouched. As the cliché says, it was often brother against brother. States, like my native Missouri, were split by the conflict. Churches were split. That's why so many churches have southern and northern branches. Even the Episcopal church was split, if only for the duration of the war. And yet we don't absorb the lesson of that war the way the British did the lessons of the world wars. And the lesson for us should be this: the enemy is not always over there, nor are they always the absolute other. The enemy could be a fellow citizen or even a member of our family. Which means the enemy is not always that easy to recognize or root out. Nor is he irredeemable.

That brings us to Jesus' parable of the wheat and the weeds. Jesus was keenly aware of the presence of evil in the world. He was also aware that it was not an abstraction nor something totally alien to humanity. God created a good world. People have used his good gifts for evil purposes. And not always unintentionally. We have used our big brains to come up with lots of ways to harm one another. Every time we come up with a new technology, we weaponize it. First came fireworks, and then explosives and munitions. We invented cars and trucks and then tanks. The first plane flew in 1903. Less than 10 years later, they were used for battle in World War 1. Einstein comes up with a formula that equates matter and energy and other scientists see the possibility of the atomic bomb.

Microbiological research leads to both vaccines and biological warfare. Psychology leads to information about how people's brains go wrong and treatments for that as well as how to brainwash and psychologically torture others. Religion offers spiritual insights and moral codes as well as pretexts for the unscrupulous to manipulate the faithful. And often the people behind these things are otherwise productive, law-abiding citizens, not monsters. Sometimes they are just following orders. What's disturbing is that experiments show that compliant, so-called “nice” people are the ones most likely to follow orders from authorities, even though they include harming others. It's what Hannah Arendt called the banality of evil, the fact that that some ethically abhorrent behavior is not motivated by malice so much as an uncritical acceptance of what officials say and do and what they demand others do.

There are those people who unhesitantly pursue their agendas, even if it is necessary to harm people and destroy things that are good. They will do whatever they need to achieve their goal, not caring who gets hurt. These people are sociopaths, lacking empathy for others and totally dedicated to fulfilling their own desires. They make up about 4% of the population, so if you know 100 people odds are as many as 4 of them are sociopaths. Most of them are not criminals or serial killers but as skillful manipulators, they can do quite well in this cutthroat world. Experts say a number of CEOs fulfill the diagnostic criteria. Because it is important to their success, they are generally good at appearing to be normal.

So the bad guys in real life aren't as obvious as they are in movies or as they seem to be to certain politicians and preachers. Which means rooting them out of society isn't as easy as most people seem to think. That's one of the main problems Jesus was pointing out in today's parable.

Before we get into the parable, let us remember that it is a metaphor, meant to provide a limited number of insights. If we try to encompass all aspects of the situation with this one metaphor, it will break down. For instance, Jesus frequently reuses elements in his parables while assigning them different roles. Just last week Jesus used seeds sown to represent the gospel. Here the seeds are good and bad people. Jesus elsewhere compares the kingdom of God to a mustard seed to illustrate the difference between its original size and its mature growth. Each is highlighting a different truth or aspect of the truth.

So neither does Jesus intend this to be a master parable for the condition of the world. What this parable is, though, is an allegory in which everything stands for something else. Jesus tells us so. In fact, his explanation is so explicit that I will not go over all of it. Instead I want to focus on what the parable does and does not say.

The part that intrigues me the most is the reason given for not uprooting the weeds from among the wheat. The landowner, that is, Jesus, is concerned that in pulling out the weeds some wheat will be lost. Jesus is acknowledging that sometimes evil is so interwoven with good that eliminating one means destroying the other. Look at what we've seen in the Middle East. A lot of undeniably evil dictators have fallen. And yet in the power vacuum we have seen a chaos that has led to more death, more fear and more oppression. It turns out that the one good thing the dictators provided was stability. No one thinks that the reigns of Saddam Hussein or Khadafi or Mubarek were wonderful times. But removing them has shown that sometimes this is not always the best course to choose. As Jesus points out, pulling out evil people can uproot associated goodness. How is that possible?

Unlike in movies evil is not a thing unto itself. It has no existence apart from good. Evil is abusing, misusing or neglecting the good gifts God has given us to create a parody of goodness, an inferior knockoff. It is taking things that are good and perverting or distorting them or using them for purposes for which they were never intended. Like using a baseball bat, which was made so people would have fun playing a game, and turning it into a weapon. Or take that stability that makes civilization possible. It is built on predictability and relationships. In a good civilization what is predictable is justice and the fact that those who govern have the common good foremost in their policies. In a bad civilization what is predictable is retribution for opposing the government and the fact that those who govern have their own benefit foremost in their policies. It's better than anarchy and chaos but only because of the basic building blocks of good ideas carried over from the ideal.

Because evil's relationship to good is parasitic, there isn't a purge of evil people in history that didn't destroy innocent people as well. And I'm not just talking about the Inquisition and the witch trials. What about the more recent “witch hunt?” We now know that Senator Joe McCarthy was right: there were communists spies in the US government in the 1940s and 50s. But a lot of people who weren't communists lost their livelihoods and even their lives due to the ham-fisted and self-serving way this commie hunter sought to root out traitors. Likewise, today's historians know that Julius Rosenberg was a spy who gave military and nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union. And authorities at the time knew his wife Ethel probably wasn't a spy. Convicting her of a capital crime was part of their strategy to make Julius confess. But Julius never did and so Ethel went to the electric chair as well.

So what Jesus is saying here is “The way to fix the problem of evil is not to try to root out all the bad guys. You are going to destroy a lot of good guys and children of the kingdom of God that way.” Jesus is saying that the collateral damage is unacceptable to God.

A lot of commentators feel that Jesus may have been thinking of darnels, a type of weed that really does resemble wheat so that distinguishing the two is difficult. Just so, mankind has an abysmal track record when it comes to discerning who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. The Athenians thought Socrates was corrupting their youth and made him drink hemlock. They almost immediately regretted it. But that didn't help Socrates. Reformers frequently stir things up and people see them as working against society rather than for its improvement. Critics say things that people may find offensive or even traitorous. Visionaries are often attacked because saying there is a better way implies that that there is something wrong with the way we are currently doing things. I remember people reacting to the news of Martin Luther King's assassination with approval! I doubt many of them would acknowledge that today. Which is an additional reason not to simply eliminate every person who troubles society, even in the name of keeping order and maintaining the peace. After all, that was the official motivation of those who crucified Christ!

So if we don't eliminate the bad guys does that mean that they will simply get away with it? Not at all. Jesus says that at the end of the age, all causes of evil and all evildoers will be separated out of the kingdom. But the selection will not be done by human beings. The Son of Man will send his angels. Nowhere in the Bible's few apocalyptic books and passages does God use humans as the agents of his judgment. Any who think they have been chosen for that are in fact self-appointed. Jesus explicitly tells us not to judge lest we wish to be judged. Only God is just and merciful enough to judge human beings. He has given that task to his son, Jesus, who knows firsthand what is is to be human and what it is to suffer at the hands of humans. For those who put their trust in Jesus, disowning themselves, taking up their crosses and following him, that is our great assurance. But for those who violated the great commands to love, who dreamt up, carried out and abetted the Holocaust, apartheid, the Spanish Inquisition, the gulags, the witch hunts, the pogroms, the slave trade, the Crusades, caste systems, ethnic cleansing, pedophilia, violent Jihad, drug pushing, usury, the global sex trade, murder, theft, vicious lies--for all those who harm, pervert, or diminish the things of God, his gifts, or the people made in his image--that is their great fear. If they did it to the least of Jesus' brothers or sisters, they did it to him. If they neglected to do it for them, they neglected to do it for him. If they never changed their minds, never changed direction, if they violated the Spirit of Christ while acting in the name of Christ, if they acted without remorse or mercy, they have no right to expect mercy from the one whom they pierced.

We don't have time to go into the fiery furnace imagery in the parable except to say that it is a metaphor. People are not plants, nor is the fire literal. On the other hand, while metaphors are not literally the truth, they are chosen because they capture something essential about the truth. If the fire is not literal, if it is only a partial picture, a shadow of the reality, then how terrible must be the reality it points to.

So does that mean there is no hope for the weeds of the world? And does this parable mean we must simply put up with evil people until Judgment Day? No. And this is where the metaphor reaches its limits and we must look to Jesus' other teachings. Unlike weeds, people can change. They can make choices. If they repent, change their thinking and the direction of their lives, God will forgive and restore them. Those of the main points of the parable of the prodigal son.

And we need not merely tolerate those who do evil. As Jesus did in his parables, we confront them with the truth. As he did by the seaside, we call for them to abandon their ways and follow Jesus. As he said in the Sermon on the Mount, we love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. As he did everywhere and in everything, we model the royal reign of God that is within us.

The fantasy that we can rid the world of evil by killing all the bad guys persists. It is the plot of most of our action films. It's emotionally appealing. But to paraphrase H.L. Mencken, for every complex problem there is a simple solution...and it's wrong! It's also not as easy to carry out as it appears. If killing your enemies solved your problems, the Middle East would be rapidly approaching becoming the most problem-free place on earth. Violence begets retaliatory violence. Oppression breeds revolution which leads to the new leaders oppressing the old oppressors. Meanwhile, good people get caught in the middle and get hurt. 4000 years of recorded history tells us that. Obviously we must look for another way.

Jesus offers that other way—the way of reconciliation, of transformation, of love. It's really the only viable option left. Yet still we balk. Because Jesus' way requires us to repent, to forgive, to practice self-sacrifice. And because we are too proud, too angry, too self-righteous to turn the other cheek, to make an overture, to consider that we too may have committed some of the wrongs, we continue to fight one another, hoping we will achieve a final and utter victory over our enemies which will never happen. Jesus was right. It's his way or the highway to hell. But we needn't look to the end times for that fiery furnace. We are stoking it right now. We needn't speculate on what hell will be like: we are presiding over hell on earth now. We are fighting everywhere—Crimea, the Middle East, Africa, Asia, South America, Central America, the city streets and schools of North America. We are destroying good will and our planet. We know we must change; will we? We say we are all for for love, that we work for peace and that we follow Jesus; do we? Because Jesus is calling us. Let he who has ears, hear!      

No comments:

Post a Comment