Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Hero We Need

Geeks will argue about anything. For instance when it comes to Batman, they will argue about what religion Bruce Wayne was raised in. The consensus is that he is either a lapsed Catholic or a lapsed Episcopalian. Personally I would have pegged him as coming from a branch of Christianity that emphasizes Old Testament judgment more than New Testament grace. But what I am interested in is what his friend Jim Gordon says at the end of The Dark Knight. Harvey Dent, the crusading DA whom the city put its hope in to clean up Gotham, has gone mad with grief and pain and killed 5 people, including corrupt cops, who were implicated in the death of his fiancé. When Batman tries to stop him, Harvey falls to his death. Gordon fears that the city will despair. So Batman takes the blame and leads authorities to chase him. Gordon says that Batman is not the hero the city needs but the one it deserves, a warrior to take on the corruption and seemingly endless parade of deranged and destructive villains. Harvey, now recast as a symbol of hope, is the hero the city needs. But I would add, so is Batman, who takes on the sins of a fallen man for the good of others.

Two weeks ago we talked about the big problem the world has: that people often do what’s obviously wrong, even when they both know better and have a good alternative. Last week we talked about why God doesn’t just wipe out all people who do wrong (but then who would be left?) or make it so people can’t do what’s wrong; in other words, make a world of robots. But God is love and love has to be voluntary. So God gave us free will. That means we are free to choose to love him and other people but we are also free not to. So God must woo us. He must show us the extent of his love for us. As so, as John 3:16 says, God sent his son. Jesus Christ is God’s Love Incarnate.

The people of Christ’s day were expecting a Messiah but they weren’t expecting someone like Jesus. They were expecting a warrior-king, who would take care of things in the usual way: by getting rid of “those people!” They meant, of course, the Gentiles. But whatever the era, whoever we are looking at, the problem is always “those people!”

To the Greek city-states it was the other Greek city-states…until it was the Persians. For the Romans it was the barbarians, and sometimes the Jews or Christians. When the Empire became officially Christian, it was the pagans. When the church split into Eastern and Western branches, as the Empire had, it was Christians who worshipped, spoke, thought and acted differently. To the Muslims, it was the Europeans. And so on. Even today politicians, parties, religious people and even countries agree that the problem is always “those people!” We just don’t agree who “those people!” are.

In 1813 at the Battle of Lake Erie Oliver Hazard Perry said, “We have met the enemy and he is ours!” Later the comic strip Pogo deliberately mangled that quote to say, “We have met the enemy and he is us!” And Jesus would have agreed with that. We are our own worst enemies. It is from the human heart and mind that evil comes. What we need is a change of heart, which is basically what the Greek word for repentance means. When Jesus talked of repentance, he meant people must change how they think and act.

How did Jesus accomplish this? By speaking the truth. He used the truth to diagnose the problem. He did this in his teachings. In the Sermon on the Mount, he starts out by listing 8 characteristics of what our baseline behavior should look like. The Beatitudes says that the spiritually healthy know they are totally dependent on God, acknowledge their regrets (only sociopaths have no regrets), are humble, live to do what’s right, are merciful, are totally committed to God, make peace with others, and do all of this despite being treated badly by others. A spiritually health person should help preserve the world and be a beacon for others. 

Then Jesus looks at symptoms of our disorder, our inability to live spiritually healthy lives. Thoughts precede actions, so murder is rooted in anger and adultery in a lustful and wandering eye. Elaborate assurances of truth often signal deceit. We should rise above the desire for revenge and seek to be generous instead. And inability to love even our enemies is a sign we are not acting like God. Helping people out, fasting and giving lose their value if done simply to show off your piety. Worrying shows a lack of trust in God. When we judge others we reveal our own flaws.

The treatment of our condition is to repent, as we said. And when we are talking about repentance, I can’t help but think of the 12 Step programs. The founders of A.A. basically used ideas from the Oxford Group, a Christian movement, and so the 12 Steps are pretty much the process of repentance.

Step 1 is admitting that one is powerless over whatever the problem is—alcohol, drugs, gambling, overeating, promiscuous sex, etc. In the case of Christians, it is whatever sins we keep falling into: arrogance, laziness, lust, greed, rage, envy, overindulgence, you name it. In Step 1, you acknowledge that the problem has made your life ungovernable. In fact the best definition of addiction that I have heard is a good definition of sin—any behavior that one persists in doing despite mounting negative consequences. Which reminds me of that popular definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results.

Step 2 is believing that a higher power exists that can restore one to sanity. The founders of A.A. replaced the word “God” with “higher power” or “God as we understand him” so that anyone could use the 12 steps. For Christians it is the God of love revealed in the teachings, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Step 3 is deciding to turn one’s life and will over to God. That certainly sounds like what Christianity teaches. As does this summary of the first 3 steps, as told to me by an A.A. member: I can’t; God can; I’ll let him. So this isn’t really “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” self-help; this is seeking God’s help to do for us what we find impossible to do, that is, change the way we think, speak and act.

Of course this is easy to say. It is all very well to speak of these concepts but for God to truly win us over, they must be made concrete. Jesus didn’t just speak the truth about letting God take over; he lived the truth of that too. His life showed God’s love in action. He healed the sick, fed the hungry, comforted those who mourned, served even those outside his faith, taught women at a time when that was simply not done and stood up for the poor.

Besides showing God’s love with his words and works, with his lips and with his life, Jesus also demonstrated God’s love with his death. He died for us. Scripture never gives us a detailed description of just how this worked but it uses words like “sacrifice,” “ransom,” “propitiation,” “expiation,” and “redemption.” Basically, Jesus takes upon himself the consequences of our bad choices, of the evil we have done and the evil we have permitted to be done, in order to spare us from suffering what we have incurred.

The consequences of choices usually affect more than the person making the choice. The consequences of a good choice typically benefits others and the consequences of bad choices frequently fall upon the innocent. When you drink and drive, the consequences can affect not only the passengers in your car but also people in any other car you crash into or even pedestrians on the street. But in some cases another person can voluntarily take upon themselves the consequences of another person’s bad choices.

Let’s say you have a drinking problem. Even if you eventually go into recovery, the damage done to your liver can be so severe that it will fail and you will die. Unless, say, a loved one can give you a lobe of their liver. (The liver is unique in its ability to regenerate so that a part of it can grow back to its original size.) To the donor, that’s going to mean pain and inconvenience and a possibility of infection and other complications, up to and including death, all to, in this case, correct the consequences of another’s bad choices.

In the event that one must replace a failing heart, the donor must die, of course. Remember what God said in Ezekiel 36:26? “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” Think of Jesus as our heart donor, whose death bring us life. Just as the physical donor must be free of major disease, so Jesus was free of the spiritual disease that causes us to act so heartlessly.

Jesus died that we might live. That is not what we deserve; it is what we need. It is grace.

And when we are united to Christ, it is his life we have within us and it is his life we live. Just as the transplant recipient must change his lifestyle if he wants to become and stay healthy, so we must live a life that nourishes the spiritual life Jesus died to give us. We are to behave in such a way that people see him in us, in what we think, say and do. We are also to work to see and serve him in others, reaching out to the image of God, the divine love, in all whom he created and all for whom he died.

Nor are we to neglect the physical in service of the Spirit. God created us as unions of body and spirit, as a marriage of the material and the spiritual, so that we might operate in both realms. We are now the ongoing embodiment of his Spirit, continuing his work in the world. When Jesus finished his work on the cross and in the grave, God gave him back his body. And that is what God will do not only with us when our work in this life is done but what he will do with the whole creation which he initially pronounced good. As he resurrected the broken body of Jesus and made it better than before, he intends to resurrect the lives and the world which we have likewise broken. God is a God of life. Giving life is what he does.

And he has given us our roles to do in this great work of redemption. By his Spirit, we are given different gifts to plant the seeds of his kingdom on earth. We are to invite others to join in his circle of love. We are to proclaim the good news of Jesus—who he is, what he has done for us and what our response should be—so that others may have the opportunity to be part of the solution to the problem of evil and no longer part of the problem itself. If we act as Jesus would and they see the reflection of that divine love made concrete, they will have their chance to make a choice: to return God’s love and to be restored to what he intended them to be, beloved children, doing right by each other, not because they have to, but because they want to.

No comments:

Post a Comment