Monday, April 13, 2015

Taking the Long View

This was an historic year, religiously speaking. We had a blood moon and then Passover began on Good Friday evening just as it did the year Jesus was crucified. On Palm Sunday my wife, some parishioners and I went to the Passover Seder at St. Columba's church up in Marathon. So I felt very rooted in the faith traditions out of which the Eucharist and Christianity itself grew.

My interest in Judaism goes way back. My mother read books by Chaim Potok and Harry Kemelman and passed them on to me. Potok's books usually deal with tensions between Orthodox and Hasidic Jews and within Orthodoxy. Kemelmen's lighter mystery series that started with Friday the Rabbi Slept Late paint a picture of Conservative Judaism as it was in the latter half of the 20th century. One thing that I noticed is that it's common for Jews tend to think of their faith as down to earth and practical whereas they view Christianity as mystical and not as grounded in reality. And so I was interested when I heard this assessment of Christianity voiced in the recent TV movie Killing Jesus, although the person expressing such sentiments was Pilate! Which gives him credit for being a much more astute politician and more knowledgeable about Jesus than most historians think he was.

Still is it fair to say that Jesus was idealistic to an unrealistic degree? He did after all preach radical forgiveness of those who persecute us, loving even one's enemies, turning the other cheek in the face of violence, giving to all who ask, and being ready to die as a vital component of following him. What happens in our passage from Acts (4:32-35) is merely following that logic.

Pragmatists might have trouble with those key Christian ethical principles. Shouldn't we refuse to forgive people until they change their ways? Otherwise we are not stopping their behavior. The same objection can be made for loving one's enemies and not resisting violence. Giving to all who ask encourages the poor to be beggars rather than workers. And what if the work you are doing for Christ is so important that dying for your faith will also kill off a critical ministry?

Let's look at each of these objections. 

Should we only forgive those who ask? Generally that's what's done in the Bible. In Luke 17:3 Jesus says, “Watch yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him. If he repents, forgive him. Even if he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times returns to you saying, 'I repent,' you must forgive him.” So repentance should precede forgiveness, right? The major exception to this rule is committed by, of all people, Jesus. When he is crucified he prays for his executioners: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” This is extraordinarily gracious of Jesus and is no doubt due to the fact that the soldiers have no clue as to the enormity of what they are doing. But we also see Jesus at times forgiving those brought to him for healing without them first asking for pardon. He intuited that their guilt or behavior was at least partly responsible for the damage to their body and spirit and that they needed God's forgiveness as part of the healing process.

We are not Jesus. But offering forgiveness to someone who hasn't asked for it is powerful. It is a recognition that we all screw up and do what we later regret. Unbidden forgiveness can startle someone and cause them to see you not as an opponent but as someone who cares for them. It can lead to a belated apology. Or it could offend the person who thinks that you are acting superior to them. If forgiveness produces this effect, it may mean that the person is not ready to admit their fault. They may never be. Which will give you some insight into how God feels when faced with those of us who reject his grace and mercy.

Jesus raises the bar on the behavior that he expects from us, especially when it comes to loving others. When people say that religions are all alike, what they really mean is that here is an ethical similarity. They almost all have some version of the Golden Rule, though often it is stated negatively: don't do to others what you wouldn't want done to yourself. But as far as I can tell the commandment to love your enemies is unique to Jesus. Because it makes no sense from an earthly standpoint. Let's assume that you did not initiate the aggression that caused someone to oppose you, so that the reason that they are your enemy lies with them. It is what they thought, said or did that caused the enmity between you. And that makes it extremely hard to be the one who initiates acting in love towards them. But, let's face it, rarely is the conflict entirely the other person's fault. Even if you didn't start it, it would be highly unusual if you did not then retaliate or do something that exacerbated the problem. Your actions may have been preceded by the thought, “Well, if you're going to act that way...” Usually in a conflict both sides think themselves to be the reasonable one and the other party to be the irrational one. And if that's how each person feels then it is hard to see how to compromise or resolve things.

Love, Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 13:5, “is not self-seeking, is not easily angered; it keeps no record of wrongs.” Right there he points out 3 factors in a conflict. When people seek what benefits themselves, when they are touchy and easily provoked, when they keep a running tally of others' flaws and failings, disputes are inevitable. Sometimes I think that what could best help solve the problems of the Middle East (or anywhere, really) would be global amnesia. If everybody could just forget past wrongs maybe they could make progress resolving the problems of the present. But if people keep brooding over a list of old offenses, they will never be able to get past them and objectively focus on what needs to be done now. Similarly, if people only see things in relation to themselves, they won't be able to seriously consider the concerns of other parties. And if a person takes umbrage, the discussion will never get to what's vital.

When Jesus tells us to love our enemy, I don't think he means “have warm and fuzzy feelings about him.” That may not be emotionally possible, at least not at first. In the Bible, love is not merely a feeling; it is a commitment to someone's well-being. You can do that even if you are not particularly enamored of the person. What you cannot do is try to harm that person.

Now what if your enemy is not just your opponent but is objectively doing evil, that is, intentionally trying to harm you and/or others? What did Jesus do? When Peter cut off the ear of one of those who came to arrest his Lord, Jesus healed the man's ear. He asked for God to forgive his executioners. He told the man being crucified next to him, who had hurling abuse at Jesus before, that he was going to join Christ in paradise. Jesus' love is not theoretical but actual. Again Jesus raises the standard of how we are to live.

Not that Jesus was shy about telling his opponents about their errors. But he did not kill them or call for his followers to kill them. He called for love. And he called out the Pharisees and scribes when their actions did not show love for God or for those created in his image. In his scathing denunciation in Matthew 23, he accused the Pharisees of barring the gates of God's kingdom to others. He says that any converts they make are twice as fit for hell as they are. About their devotion to God's law, he says, “ have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness.” Jesus spoke the blunt truth to those in power. As Paul says, love “rejoices with the truth.”

The exposure of the truth is a real deterrent to those who prefer to operate in the dark. There's a reason why controlling the press and censoring free expression are top priorities for dictatorships. There is a reason why countries like North Korea try to ban the Internet or, in the case of China, create their own tightly monitored alternative. The truth is no friend to those who do wrong, no matter how hard they try to portray themselves as doing right. And they know that the truth can bring down regimes.

But surely violence in the name of what's right also brings down regimes. Yes, and often with no guarantee that the new regime will be any better, as we've seen many times over in the Middle East. In contrast, the transitions of Poland and Czechoslovakia from Soviet satellites to free countries were accomplished relatively peacefully and using video and broadcast technology of the time to expose the truth.

But what about in personal conflicts? Isn't turning the other cheek just an invitation to get beaten up? At times. But if one shows courage by refusing to fight, it can impress and even turn away aggressors. Dr. Stephen Foster is a medical missionary in Angola. According to Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times, “Armed soldiers once tried to kidnap 25 of his male nurses, and when Foster ordered the gunmen off the property, he said, they fired AK-47 rounds near his feet. He held firm, and they eventually retreated without the nurses.” Had he tried to shoot it out with them, it would have ended badly.

Violence begets retaliatory violence. Someone has to be the first to break the cycle and try something different. We keep trying things the old way and we see what that gets. Is it really that Jesus' way doesn't work or that we don't trust God enough to try it?

Giving to all who ask will get you taken advantage of—by the less than 5% in any social strata who try to con people. People seeking a free ride are not confined to the poor. But the vast majority of those who ask for help sincerely need it and find it hard to humble themselves to the point of asking. And after the Great Recession, when whole companies were destroyed, charities collapsed, pensions plummeted, homes were repossessed, and people nearing retirement age found themselves forced to find minimum wage jobs to replace their well-paying jobs which disappeared, we have found that the bad choices of the rich can also make people poor, even more so than the bad choices of the poor. Unless you have a copy of someone's tax return, you really don't know enough to judge if they are the deserving poor or not. At Christmas Lord of the Seas helped out a family that maintained a small but clean and neat apartment. It was so nice that despite the fact that they lived in subsidized housing, I wondered if they were that bad off. The family was so grateful that they all came out to the living room greet me. Except the teenager who would not leave his room and was so mentally ill that he was not allowed in school. As a former psych nurse, I would bet that caring for him 24/7, his frequent hospitalizations and his psych medications were a large part of the reason that the family had financial problems. And remember in this country medical bills are the number one reason for personal bankruptcy. Often the reason why a person or a family is not making it is not easily seen.

Finally, Jesus said if anyone wanted to follow him, they should disown themselves and take up their cross. In Jesus' day, being openly Christian could get you killed. In many countries today, that's still true. But surely this does not apply to us in the first world.

Why not? Though dying for Christ was the fate of many of the first Christians, they did a lot before that death. They fed the hungry, took care of the sick and dying, freed their slaves, rescued abandoned infants, and proclaimed the gospel. They considered their life to be a living sacrifice to God. They did not live for themselves but for Jesus and for others. And we should be doing the same. Instead by most measures self-professed Christians in this country live no differently than non-Christians. And the world rightly calls such Christians hypocrites. They realize that Jesus' ethics were more challenging than just observing etiquette. And the world's problems require more than mere politeness.

Make no mistake. Following Jesus will cost you. If it doesn't lead to your death it will hijack your life and transform it into something that will not necessarily resemble the life you imagined. It will rarely lead to fame and great fortune. It will almost certainly lead you into the messy, complicated lives of others. You will face the evil in them and in yourself. You will come up against the limits of your ability to love others and your desire to obey God. You will be tested. And you may not see the seeds you've planted blossom. So why do it? Why follow such a demanding, difficult way of life?

It makes no sense. Where is the logic in constantly forgiving any and all wrongs done to us? How is it reasonable to love those who hate us? Why in the world should we not strike back at those who strike at us? What is the point of giving what is ours to others? Who in their right mind would live a life according to someone else's dictates and not by one's own whims and desires? It makes no earthly sense.

It only makes sense in the light of the resurrection. Only if Jesus rose from the dead and promises us the same does it make sense to forgive anyone anything, to love all others including those who are our enemies, to not fight back, to give to all who ask and to give up the rights to this life to the one who died for it. If you want advice about maximizing life on earth alone, go pick up any one of the hundreds of self-help books out there. If you want a life that's relatively safe, reasonably comfortable, or centered around personal pleasure, I don't recommend following Jesus.

But if you take the long view, if you look beyond the brief years we have on this globe--far longer than the mayfly but centuries shorter than the tortoise or the trees, billions of years less than the earth and stars--if you believe that we will outlive all those and what we see about us, then Jesus' ethics make sense. If you believe that we live beyond death, then logic dictates that we take loving care of our relationships with others, with ourselves and with God. How we act towards God and towards others shapes who we are and what we will become over eternity. So it makes sense not to be someone who holds grudges forever, who lets hate inhabit us forever, who is forever ready to fight, whose grip on things never loosens, who saves his life at the price of his soul, who he or she is. Jesus' resurrection turns all the temporary values of this world on their heads. What we do here can make us devils or children of God in the long run. We can bend the shoot so that it will be crooked no matter how long it grows or we can keep it straight so that it ever seeks and soars to the sky.

What Jesus commands us to do makes no earthly sense. It is resurrection logic. It is the deep wisdom of the God of love and the fundamental law of his kingdom. If that is where we are heading, then we must do as he says. After all, he's been there. And there he waits for us to follow, saving us places at the wedding supper of the Lamb, the great and glorious celebration of God's eternal love for us. 

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