Monday, March 30, 2015

Schizophrenic Sunday

The scriptures referred to are Mark 11:1-11 and 14:32-15:39.

C.S. Lewis wrote, “Actually, it seems to me that one can hardly say anything either bad enough or good enough about life.” And one only has to look at the news to see that he nailed that on the head. Just this week in fact, a top weedkiller has been named as a carcinogen; but on the other hand, a woman who dropped out of college at age 19 to start a medical research company now can perform hundreds of diagnostic tests on just a few drops of blood. On the one hand a lawyer in California has started a petition to have all gays and lesbians in the state shot in the head; on the other hand the Presbyterian Church (USA) now does same-sex marriages. On the one hand ISIS is beheading people in Iraq; on the other hand I have a neurosurgeon friend who is a medical missionary and is saving lives and teaching doctors his techniques in Ethiopia. It is a very schizophrenic world we live in. (And, yes, I am using that term in the popular and not the clinical sense.)

So perhaps it is appropriate that since the 1960s Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday have been combined in a mashup that commemorates both the height of Jesus' popularity with the people and the depths of his rejection by the authorities. And so we start by processing with palms and singing, remembering his royal entrance into Jerusalem, and later we stand in silence remembering his agony on the cross. 

Even though he was the Son of God, Jesus was a small town lad from rural Galilee. So he had to be struck by the reception he got when he entered Jerusalem on a colt. It was the biggest, grandest city Jesus ever visited, dominated by the gleaming white and gold temple. People started throwing their outer garments on his path and cutting down branches and laying them on the road. They were cheering him and yelling, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” It had to be a heady experience.

A week later, Jesus is humiliated and abused at a rigged trial by the leaders of his people, flogged and beaten by the occupying forces, marched out of town with a wooden beam across his shoulders and tied to his arms, stripped naked and skewered by nails and hung from a cross to die, surrounded by his jeering enemies and curious passersby. It was the worst death the Romans offered.

The fact that both happened to the same man in the same week shows that there is nothing bad enough or good enough that one can say about humankind.

So perhaps it is proper that on the same Sunday we should go from feeling exalted to feeling appalled. And that we go from identifying with those who cheered his entrance to standing in for those who shouted for his death. Because those two polls of human behavior still exist. It mirrors the ways people treat Jesus today.

We see them to a lesser extent in the way we first elevate celebrities and then just as eagerly tear them down. But usually we reserve our best behavior for one type of people and our worst for other people. Specifically people we look down on. We tend to attribute bad attitudes and behavior towards those who are different. For instance, in 1979 white men between the ages of 30 and 34 had a 1% risk of being imprisoned. Black men in that same age range had a 9% risk then. Today those same men in their early 30s have a 3% risk of going to prison if they are white and a 21% risk if they are black. And it's worse for high school dropouts. For white men 30 to 34 who didn't finish high school the risk of imprisonment is 15% today while the risk for black men without a high school diploma is 69%. And this at a time when the crime rate is half of what it was in the early 1990s. Did the 12% of the population that is black not get the memo that crime is down? Or are they being treated differently? And why is the black unemployment rate not only higher than the overall unemployment rate but more than twice the rate for whites?

Racial stereotypes die hard. Last September Kam Brock, a 32 year old black woman, was driving her BMW through Harlem when she was pulled over and accused of being high on pot. No weed was found in her car but it was impounded nevertheless. When she went to get it the next day she was understandably upset. The NYPD's response was to handcuff her and take her to a hospital psych ward where she was sedated and held for 8 days because she was considered delusional. The delusions? That she was a former Citicorp banker and that President Obama followed her Twitter feed. Which they would have found were true, had anybody bothered to go online. But the idea that a young black woman had achieved that high a social status was considered crazy talk. (BTW the hospital sent her a bill for $13,000. As one does when trying to cure someone of reality.)

To change categories to geographic differences, it's been shown that the thicker a person's Southern accent, the less intelligent other people tend to think they are. Wasn't that the whole premise of Matlock--that folks tended to underestimate the brains of the drawling old Southern guy? He was Columbo in a white suit.

People also look down on poor people, blaming them entirely for their predicament. That's why states keep instituting drug tests for people on welfare. Yet in the 7 states where this has been done, after spending a total of million dollars combined it turns out that only between .002% to 8.3% of those tested were positive for drugs. That's lower than the national drug use rate of 9.4%. It turns out drug addiction comes way down the list of major reasons for poverty, after things like lack of education, unemployment, low wages, disease and violence.

Dr. Paul Farmer said, “The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that is wrong with the world.” At the very least, that pernicious idea contradicts the second great commandment, to love one's neighbor as oneself. When you love someone they matter more to you. That's why Christ says that when we refuse to feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, clothe the naked, welcome the immigrant, visit the sick and those in prison, we are refusing to help Jesus. He wants us to value them more than we naturally do because we love him. The reason that Jesus didn't say something similar about the well-fed, the hydrated, the well-clothed, our fellow countrymen, the physically well and the free is because we already think those people matter more. We give more to those whom we value more and oddly enough, we don't give more to those who have less. In fact, we tend to take from those who have less. 

I mentioned a few weeks ago that I was reading The Locust Effect by Gary Haugen and Victor Boutros. They give statistics and examples of how the poor are taken advantage of by rich landowners, by neighbors, by employers, by their own families, and even by corrupt cops. They tell the story of 2 men in Kenya, Caleb and Bruno, who were abducted by cops on their respective ways to work and to take their children to school. They were thrown in a van, driven around with other men who were let out if they could raise the money the cops demanded. The cops went to the homes of the 2 men who were too poor to pay the bribe, ransacked them and took any money they found and anything of value. The men were taken to the woods, beaten and told to confess to stealing a TV from a local hotel. They refused but were taken to court, put in pre-trial detention because they couldn't afford lawyers and because the judge accepted what the cops said without any supporting evidence. As the men languish in jail, in many cases for years, they lose their jobs, their children can't afford to continue their schooling, and their families struggle to survive without their incomes and without the savings the cops took.

I will spare you the stories of families trapped in debt slavery and the women tricked into going for jobs in other countries but then trafficked for sex. We in the affluent West have little or no experience of such things and so think such happenings are rare. But in the third world they are common. And as we are seeing, they are not unknown in this country. They are everyday dangers and the reason why people often find it impossible to climb out of poverty. They illustrate why justice and peace must go hand in hand.

Why do humans have this split nature? Why are we capable of both great good and great evil? Philosophers, psychologists, sociologists and religious leaders all explore and debate this. To me the Christian explanation of the problem best accounts for this paradox. We were created in the image of God, the source of all goodness. God, as 1st John 4 tells us, is love. The image of God is therefore most fully seen in human beings in loving relationship—the couple, the family, the community. Love is putting the well-being of others before oneself. When everyone does that, human groups work as they should. But when, as Dr. Farmer points out, we think that some lives matter less than our own or those of our family, our community, our party, our denomination, our nation, our race, or our class, then it all falls apart. That's evil.

Evil can be approached in a variety of ways. It can be seen as a narrow definition of good, confined to what is good for me and mine, accompanied by a lack of caring about what the consequences are for others.

Evil can be seen as a parody of good, exaggerating certain features and minimizing others. Recklessness can be seen as a parody of courage, overemphasizing the overcoming of fear but while minimizing the fact that it is only courage if done in service of a nobler cause, not if it is done for thrills or self-aggrandizement.

Evil can be seen as the 2 opposite errors that skew to either side of a virtue, the way foolishness and cynicism can be equally wrong in a situation requiring wisdom.

Evil can be a falling short of God's standards or a rejection of what he has told us to do.

Evil can be viewed as the abuse, misuse or neglect of all the good gifts God has given us. Active forms of evil require the use of otherwise good things. High intelligence is required to create some truly twisted forms of evil, like fraud and con artistry. A good understanding of emotions can be used to craft particularly awful forms of psychological torture.

Evil can be defined as choosing to harm rather than to help. One's gifts and strengths can be used for either purpose. Whichever we do is a choice.

But in all cases evil is derivative of goodness; it is a parasite that cannot exist and cannot be defined except in relation to goodness. When we hear of a action that we label as clearly wrong, we can easily think of a good alternative to the action, if it's only refraining from doing evil. When faced with bad options, we usually try to find a good alternative. When faced with good options, we don't usually try to come up with a bad one.

Some people do though. The people who came up with crucifixion were looking for a particularly nasty way to kill someone. They came up with a way that was slow, painful, and humiliating. They wanted it to be graphic and shocking so as to warn other people about going up against the empire. Jesus knew what it was like. He had no doubt seen crucified men in his occupied homeland. He had to have heard about what the Romans did when the city near Nazareth, Sepphoris, rebelled when he was a infant. They crucified every man in town and lined the roads with them. Small wonder that on the night before he died, he prayed that God would let that particular cup pass him by. But he also prayed that the Father's will, not his, be done. Why?

Turning good into evil is relatively easy. Just don't do what you should, or only do the parts that benefit you and no one else, or do a imperfect version of what's good. But what if you tried to reverse the process? What if you tried to turn evil into good?

Remember when the Green family was vacationing in Italy and their car was fired upon by thieves, resulting in the death of 7 year old Nicholas by a gunshot wound to the head. His parents chose to donate his organs. Five people received his major organs and two people received cornea transplants. Little Nicholas' horrific death meant life and sight for 7 people. And the rate of organ donation in Italy rocketed.

That's what God is doing in the passion of Christ. He is turning a great evil of ours into a great boon from him. He is transforming the worst thing we could do to his son into the best thing that could happen to us. The death of God Incarnate means eternal life for all who ask and sight for the spiritually blind. And he is inviting us to do the same with a world that is looking less and less like the paradise he created it to be.

When Jesus saw a man born blind, he didn't try to work out whose sin caused his malady, as his disciples did. Jesus saw it as an opportunity to set things right and glorify God in the process. And that should be our response to evil. Reverse it. Redeem it. Reconcile the warring parties. Resurrect the good that was left to die. It may be hard but Jesus told us that following him meant picking up our cross. He carried that cross for us and so we will have to shoulder ours for others as well.

The cross reminds us that there are terrible things in this world and there are wonderful things as well. God wants us to diminish the number of things in the former category and increase the number of things in the latter. The methods he wants us to use are creation and transformation. It will not be easy. It may be excruciatingly painful. But Jesus did it. And with his help, we can too. 

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