Monday, October 6, 2014

The Spirit of the Law

Grammar on the internet is terrible. And punctuation is apparently an exotic concept to many. There are a few memes that have fun with that fact. One has a sentence written 2 ways to illustrate the real problem of not punctuating properly. The first sentence says, “Time to eat Grandma.” And the second goes, “Time to eat, Grandma.” Leaving out that comma makes a big difference in what you are saying.

Of course, most human beings will be able to quickly figure out what you really meant. Machines might not. If I tell our secretary to make a 250 copies of the bulletin, she would say, “Really? Don't you mean 25?” But if I accidentally type that into my computer or a copy machine, they will never question it for a minute. That's what bothers me about artificial intelligence. If you goof up an instruction it has no common sense to make it say, “Wait a minute! Do you really mean that?” It might just prepare Grandma as the main course because you forgot to add the comma.

That idea bugged legendary science fiction writer Isaac Asimov. He hated Frankenstein stories where the creation of scientists would turn on them. He reasoned that ethics would be programmed into any artificial intelligence. With his editor John Campbell, he hammered out what are now known as Asimov's 3 Laws of Robotics. The first is that a robot cannot harm or by inaction allow harm to come to a human being. The second is that a robot must obey all instructions given to it by a human being, unless it contradicted the first law. So no robot could be commanded to kill a human. The third law is that a robot must try to protect itself (it is after all an expensive piece of technology) unless that conflicted with laws 1 and 2. All in all, it is a simple and elegant ethical system.

But Asimov was too smart to think that moral conflicts would not arise for intelligent robots and most of his stories examined the gray areas and contradictory situations that they and the humans who controlled them might find themselves in. What if one human was trying to kill others? Can the robot stop a human from taking the lives of the victims without killing the murderer? The fact is that there is no ethical system that offers an obvious solution to every possible situation.

During a worship service in the women's unit at the jail, I was preaching about Jesus' famous command to respond to someone hitting you by turning the other cheek. And one inmate asked if she had to do that when being beaten by an abusive husband. It stopped me cold. I had never thought about it in that context. I don't think Jesus meant it applied in that context either. Jesus is speaking of someone who means it as an insult and who would be shamed by his victim's calm and controlled offer of the right cheek. It doesn't work if your assailant is in a fit of rage and could very well kill you but would not be likely to observe or care that your action was a moral response. Nor does it take into account that if you have children, protecting yourself is protecting them. 

In the case of the Nazis, they counted on the Jews docilely going to their deaths. Had they all resisted as they did in the Warsaw ghetto, I doubt the Third Reich would have managed to kill 6 million Jews. On the other hand nonviolent resistance did work for Gandhi and for Martin Luther King Jr. precisely because their opponents saw themselves as good Christians and were eventually shamed before the world for their immoral and violent responses to people who weren't fighting back. Turning the other cheek is a kind of spiritual judo using the opponents' morality against them. If they have no sense of morality or a very warped one or are acting in a fit of pure rage, it may not work.

This is why Jesus did not simply give us a set of rules and leave it at that. He gives to those who open their hearts to him his Spirit as well. In 2 Corinthians 3:6, Paul tells us that we do not serve the letter of the law but the Spirit. And that is a vital difference. We all know of people clever enough to not cross the line of the letter of the law but whose actions definitely violate the spirit of the law. Like a certain president who declared that he did not have sexual intercourse with a certain aide. Technically, he was right; it was oral sex. Morally, it was adultery however you slice it. Courts, cops and elected officials have been known to use the letter of the law to harass people. And large companies have lots of lawyers to help them exploit the omissions and ambiguities of the law. They really don't care about the intent of the law; just the actual wording and how they can creatively reinterpret it.

And some Christians do that, too. (And I'm not just talking about the Inquisition or the Crusades, where people did things in Jesus' name that not only went against the Spirit of Christ but against his explicit words.) What we have today are people who can quote scripture and then go and do something that goes against the intent of that scripture. For instance, in my marriage classes I like to take a close look at Ephesians 5. A lot of people zero in on verse 22, where Paul writes, “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord.” Except it doesn't. Actually, the verb “submit” isn't in verse 22 but in verse 21. The whole thing is one of Paul's massive run-on sentences. The relevant phrase in Verse 21 concerns all Christians “submitting to one another.” Verse 22 literally reads, “...wives, to your husbands...” In other words, what the wives do is just an example of what all Christians should do for each other. It is not a unique command targeting only them. But then I point out that Paul goes on to say, “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her...” In other words, if you are going to focus on wives submitting to their husbands, you shouldn't ignore the fact that men are supposed to love their wives to the point of self-sacrifice. So there is no pretext here for husbands to treat their wives as slaves or to abuse them. In fact, the husband has a tougher command to follow. To emphasize one command and not the other violates the spirit of the overarching command to love one another as Christ loved us.

I once saw a poster that said, “When in doubt, do the friendliest thing.” It's a good rule of the thumb. For Christians it could be restated thus: “When in doubt, do the most Christ-like thing.” Or in other words: “What would Jesus do?” There's a reason why that question is so popular whereas I've never seen the phrase, “What would the Bible say to do?” But a lot of people act like the second question is a valid alternative to the first.

The problem is that the Bible is not just a straightforward book of rules. It has history, poetry, parables, proverbs, satire and even sarcasm. Because of this and because it gives a "warts and all" portrayal of the people in it, not everything in Scripture is prescriptive; some is merely descriptive. David may have been a man after God's heart but he was a man. When he slept with Uriah's wife and then had Uriah killed in battle to cover it up, God calls David on that. Obviously we are not supposed to imitate that. Just as there are examples in the Bible of virtuous actions we should emulate, there are also examples of sinful actions we should avoid. Because God works with sinful people (are there any other kind?) sometimes the people God chooses do things he abhors.

In addition, some of the commands are clearly not valid today. We live under the new covenant instituted by Jesus, not the old covenant put in place by Moses. Nor do we live in Iron Age theocratic Israel. So we do not stone adulterers or gays or disobedient children or people who work on the Sabbath; we do not keep slaves or own women; we do not exclude the handicapped or deformed from worship. In Christ we are not under the law; we are free from it and live in the Spirit.

Like the husbands addressed in Ephesians 5, we actually live under a stricter standard: that of the Spirit of the love of God in Christ. That means we cannot neglect the needs of whomever we encounter. If we see someone hungry, we must see to it that she gets something to eat. If we see someone threadbare, we must see to it he gets some clothes. If we see someone sick we must see to it that she gets medical care. If we see someone who is a stranger in a strange land, we must see to it that he is made welcome. We must act as Jesus would and treat other people as if they were Jesus.

And sometimes we must improvise. Today we must confront problems that simply didn't exist in Jesus' day but do so while staying in character, so to speak, as members of the Body of Christ. Jesus never had to deal with the internet. But we can still figure out how he would want us to act based on the principles he espoused. Theft is still theft whether you are breaking into a person's home or hacking into their bank account. Adultery is still lust in the heart, whether you are getting suggestive in a chatroom or watching through a webcam. Jesus says calling someone a name puts you at grave spiritual risk and thus so would cyberbullying and emailing or posting death threats to an atheist or a Muslim or anyone else. Whenever you are harming or degrading a person created in the image of God (are there any other kind?), you are not living in the Spirit.

Nor can we get away with merely being polite; we must be proactive. It's great to feed the hungry or help the homeless or visit the sick when the occasion arises. But we know these things exist and we should do what we can to eliminate them or reduce the problem as much as possible. But we can't do this alone. Nor did Jesus intend us to. Jesus didn't need the help of the Twelve; they needed him. And they needed each other, so when he sent them out to preach the Good News and heal the sick, he sent them out two by two. Jesus is not a fan of Lone Ranger Christians. Possibly because without another perspective we tend to forget that we are called to think like God and start believing that God thinks just like we do. Jesus said that wherever 2 or 3 are gathered together in his name, he is in the midst of them. Maybe he based that on the Jewish legal principle of requiring 2 witnesses to an event. If two or three people are each trying to be in tune with the Spirit, each acting as a confirmation and possible corrective for each other, they are more likely to be get it right.

Thus you have churches running homeless shelters or offering soup kitchens. You have denominations sending out disaster teams and staffing clinics. And you have denominations working together on big problems. Jesus didn't explicitly tell us to set up such things but they are obviously products of the Spirit. And as long as they stay strongly connected to the guidance of the Spirit, they will continue to reflect Christ. The principal danger is not staying focused on their original mission. Too often the primary purpose of a group shifts to ensuring the continued existence of the group. And when you're focused on mere survival, you will do anything. We've seen this in secular organizations, in political parties and sadly in some churches. Sometimes they will change disastrously simply to survive in some form.

This is not to say all change is bad. Some change is necessary. When the tire is flat, you need to change the tire. But you don't get rid of the hub. You don't change the essentials. And the way to know which is which is to focus on Jesus—who he is, what he has done for us, and what our response should be—and to stay in deep contact with his Spirit. After all, Jesus changed things that were part of the old covenant—the dietary restrictions, what you could do on the Sabbath, the definition of what was unclean and who was an outcast. He drew up a new covenant where the 613 commandments in the Torah were summarized in 2. He drew up a new covenant where the badges of faith weren't special rituals so much as serving God through serving those created in his image. He drew up a covenant you entered not by cutting the flesh but through cleansing the soul and which was sustained not by eating a lamb but by feeding inwardly on the Lord.

We live in a world obsessed with externals. We need to correct that by being in touch with the one whom the world cannot see. We need to stay in communication with him by staying in contact with the Spirit of God in Christ. We need to become reflections of his love and conduits of his grace. We need to realize that people won't really get the gospel if we recite it mechanically but only if we back it up with actions done in the right Spirit.    

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