Monday, July 28, 2014

Making It Right

Why is Lady Justice always blindfolded? I understand the scale; justice promises to restore balance. The sword makes sense; it signifies the hard decision that is justice. It also implies a punishment or a wounding. No justice without some sort of pain. Tradition teaches that the blindfold shows how justice is administered fairly, without regard to visuals like race, color, social status. I can hear you laughing.

It is the ideal, of course, that justice is fair, but we know that isn't always true. 

A recent article in The New York Times Magazine showcased a reconciliation effort in Rwanda that brings victims and perpetrators of the genocide from twenty years ago together for forgiveness. The perpetrators have served time in jail. The victims have lived on after having their relatives murdered and their property destroyed. You can access the article here.

This is hard stuff, no question about it. Coming face to face with the person who killed your loved ones and ruined your life? Looking into the eyes that had looked on you with hatred? Someone who was perhaps a neighbor, certainly a countryman?

Or, on the other side, facing the victim of your murderous hatred? Seeing the destruction you wrought in front of you and daring to ask that person to forgive you? This was a war of deepest hatred. It lived in the blood. It built up over many years.  

Our little spats with Russia and Iran look like playground squabbles in comparison.

And yet.... there is forgiveness. There is reconciliation.

As Christians, forgiveness is part of the bargain we enter into at Baptism. We are forgiven. Period.  Being forgiven, we are now able to forgive others. Being forgiven, we are now able to live holy lives which, without God's mercy we could not do. Forgiveness bestows on us a measure of godliness. We can live into this or we can decline it.

Is this blanket forgiveness that we get without even asking justice? Where is the sword? Where is the scale? What about the blindfold?

Justice promises to make things right. That is the principle behind "an eye for an eye etc." in Exodus. It's meant to be fair. It's supposed to give satisfaction, peace, and our favorite buzzword "closure." When a murderer is convicted in a court of law, the victim's family speak about finally getting justice for their loved one. Then they often add that this conviction isn't enough, though, that a prison term, or the death penalty, won't bring their loved one back. And they're right; it won't.

Have you ever been wronged? Or have you ever wronged someone? Have you found something to make it right afterwards? I believe that our attempts at justice are simple hubris. We can't do it. We can repair damage done to property but we can't erase the feeling of fear and vulnerability the owner felt.  We can go to jail and pay a debt to society for any sort of crime, but we can't put safety back in the hearts of our victims or restore an injured person or bring back a murdered loved one. 

Justice is an illusion. Pay back is a fantasy.  It always has been and it always will be. It is a function of our pride. In pride we demand recompense. In pride we convince ourselves we have made it right. We might think we're satisfied or avenged or cleared of wrong, but we're not. That is the meaning of the blindfold. Justice knows it's working in the dark. It works outside truth.

We live by a rule of law and that is a good thing. We need to have an orderly society. There has to be a means of enforcing civil laws. I am not advocating anarchy, but I am asking that we understand what our system can do and what it cannot. It cannot bring about the kingdom of God. It cannot change people's hearts or grow love.

The reconciliation efforts in Rwanda are the exact opposite of justice. There is no pretense of balancing the scale. The sword has done its job. The blindfold is off. These people aren't kidding themselves. Wrong was done and there is no way to make it right. They can either hold onto their pain and anger and suffering or, somehow, find another way. There is only one path forward and that is forgiveness.

This is what God offers. And it is what we, as image bearers of God, can offer and receive. I look at the pictures from Rwanda, of both those forgiving and those forgiven and all I see is God.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Excuses! Excuses!

Dear readers,

Normally I do a real post each Monday. This week, however, I am unable to do so. I am writing something that is extremely important to me and is taking all my time and thoughts. It seems I can only write one thing at a time. 

If everything works out, I will be able to share some news in the weeks or months ahead, but, meanwhile, I have to concentrate on this ONE THING until it's finished. 

For today, please enjoy this poem by Robert Pinsky. It's been a favorite of mine for many years. 

Samurai Song

Robert Pinsky1940
When I had no roof I made
Audacity my roof. When I had
No supper my eyes dined.

When I had no eyes I listened.
When I had no ears I thought.
When I had no thought I waited.

When I had no father I made
Care my father. When I had
No mother I embraced order.

When I had no friend I made
Quiet my friend. When I had no
Enemy I opposed my body.

When I had no temple I made
My voice my temple. I have
No priest, my tongue is my choir.

When I have no means fortune
Is my means. When I have
Nothing, death will be my fortune.

Need is my tactic, detachment
Is my strategy. When I had
No lover I courted my sleep.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Taking Monotheism Seriously

We believe in one God.

Do we take these powerful words that begin the Nicene Creed for granted? Do we see a belief in many gods as the error of our ancient ancestors or, perhaps, of an unsophisticated primitive people who hadn't yet been touched by modern wisdom? As we progressed to belief in one God, we assume our monotheism is natural and logical.

Belief in many gods, in my opinion, would make perfect sense. There is sky; there are storms issuing from it. There is growth, food, war, sickness, death. There are tribes, mine and others. Intuitively, walking on this earth, I would assume there is some sort of controlling force for each of these categories. Why wouldn't I worship the sun? It provides me with everything I need. Or the earth? Or the sea? If I am at war with my neighbors, I would rely on my tribal god to give me protection and victory.

My old philosophy professor liked to refer to the “genius” the Jewish people had for religion. Their ability to discern a single God among all these “forces” was nothing short of miraculous. They had, however, a tough time holding to their beliefs when confronted by stronger, richer, more beautiful neighbors who believed otherwise. These struggles are what make the Old Testament such engrossing reading. What new failing will the people of God succumb to? How many more times will the one God forgive and renew them?

With only one God in their lives, they had no other to turn to. They were stuck with YHWH. The psalms are full of  the frustration people felt when God seemed to fail them as well as with their praises when they saw God’s greatness. But the story of this one God took a very odd turn. God began to urge his people to offer salvation to all the peoples.

In Isaiah 49:6, God tells the Israel, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved Israel. I will make you a light for the nations that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”   
Monotheism has a catch, you see. If the one God created the whole world, then that God belongs to the whole world. And the whole world belongs to God. No exceptions. If the one God made all creation, that has to include even the people I despise, the storms that destroy my crops and the cancer cells that take my friend's life. If God is taking care of my wealthy, lucky neighbor, that care must somehow also extend to my other credit-poor, alcoholic neighbor.

But there’s more. If those genius Jews of thousands of years ago found the one God through grace, prayer, struggle, then other groups likely found God through the same means. The Jewish God might not look very much like the Hindu pantheon, for example, but can we seriously believe that God abandoned any people who earnestly sought God’s truth? Whose side is God on? The (un)comfortable answer is: everyone's.

To believe in one God forces us to respect all faiths. Did God create some people to be blessed with wisdom and salvation and others to be cursed with ignorance and damnation? Was God laughing at Socrates for owing a “cock to Asclepius?” Does God smile proudly at my church and roll his eyes at a mosque? At a synagogue?

If there were any question that the one God, creator of the universe, loved and cared for all creation, the Incarnation of Jesus Christ must end all doubts.

Christianity is a universal religion. This means that it is intended for everyone. We pray daily that Christ’s gospel be proclaimed worldwide, that those who do not know him may be brought to “the knowledge and love” of him. This is the purpose of the church. But we are imperfect creatures. At times we succeed; at times we fail.

Spreading the Good News is important work. It is an act of love, just as Christ’s life was an act of love. As was his death. To be in Christ is to share in that love and to work to share it with others. But Christ’s redemption of creation happens with or without our efforts.

The one God became incarnate to share in our humanity, not in our tribal identity, not in our nationality or in our race, not even in our refined liturgies. If you are human, you share in this Incarnation. Period. In Romans 9, Paul quotes Hosea, “Those who were not ‘my people’ I will call ‘my people’ and her who was not ‘my beloved’ I will call ‘my beloved’”. This could not be any plainer.

We don our monotheism as casually as we pocket our mobile phones and head off to our air conditioned offices, but monotheism has implications.

1     1. There are no false Gods. A person (like me, for example) might have an imperfect understanding of God. A person might be un-lettered or naive, but a worshipper is a worshipper. A seeker of God will find God.

     2. If there is one God; that one God created the Universe.
     3. The one God loves all of us. Equally.

     4.  If the one God has a purpose and a plan for creation, we are all part of it.
    5. The stories we tell and have told about God are stories that have come from God, yes, but they have also from us. All our stories are just a bit flawed and just a bit perfect.

Monday, July 7, 2014

The Thing about N.T. Wright

A few weeks ago, theologian and former Bishop of Durham, England, N.T. Wright was asked in an interview what he thought about same-sex marriage. Unless you've been blissfully asleep for many months, you will know that marriage equality is a very big issue in both church and state contexts.  

In the United States, many states are now accepting marriage equality, whereas many others are rigidly opposed. Some religious denominations here have welcomed the concept whereas others are, you guessed it, rigidly opposed.

After much wrangling, it has become legal in England, Wright’s homeland, but not in the Church of England, also Wright’s homeland. I doubt, however, that this delicate predicament had any influence on Wright’s response to the question. He is, if nothing else, confident.

And rightly so. N.T. Wright is just about the foremost Christian theologian writing and teaching today. He has published more than 130 books and is quite beloved by many “progressive” Christians, and there is the rub. We progressive Christians want to embrace marriage equality; we also want to embrace Wright, and now it seems we can’t do both.

You can read Wright’s remarks about marriage here. As you can see, he has rejected the notion of same-sex marriage on two bases. First, he dislikes it when words are redefined. Making a few references to past repressive regimes, he sees this phenomenon (which is a constant of every language on earth) as somehow dystopian. Of course it can be dystopian. Who can forget the chilling pronouncements from 1984: war is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength? Is Wright telling us that marriage equality is basically Orwellian? That would be a facepalm moment if ever there was one.

The argument that he makes against marriage equality that is getting the most publicity (and scorn) is his reference to and reliance on Genesis I. Wright sees the created binaries of earth and sky, water and land, sun and moon, male and female as fundamental and overriding. He even uses the word “complementary” which has really got some folks’ danders up.

I've read quite a bit of N.T. Wright and one thing that pervades his writing and thinking is the idea that everything fits together. For Wright, there are no loose ends, no coincidences, no accidents. There is one God who is now and has always been faithful to his purposes and promises. No taking anything back. No changing his mind.

Quite frankly, I am with Wright on this. Maybe I’m too greatly influenced by him, but I see the universe in much that way. I don’t see time evolving and causing God to have to regroup. For me, all time is eternally present and who has it all in his hands? God. Obviously.

I do, however, think that Wright has it a bit wrong on this application of Genesis I, and I say that with all the humility I can muster, because he is a lot smarter, better read and even older than I am. So… all due respect.

What I read in Genesis I, is a recipe for creation and increase, not a model for social or political organization. It's biology, not anthropology. Yes, God separated the waters from the land. Why? So that there would be growth. Yes, God made the sun the rule the day and the moon to rule the night. Why? So there would be increase. God created plants that would give seeds and trees that would give fruit with the seed in them. For increase. So, as I see it, creating male and female was done for the same purpose, for increase.

Increase was the main agenda for our early ancestors. At the time when the Genesis story was first told, as well as when it was first written, increase was our job. Is it any wonder that the story we told ourselves about the creation of the universe would also stress this mandate?

And that has not changed. Of course same-sex couples can rear children, but male and female elements are still required to produce a child, or an apple tree. Even with seven billion people on the planet, we are still consumed with increase. Maybe having a lot of children isn't the imperative that it was a few thousand years ago, but we still want to go on. We still need to sustain life and our environment. That continuance and sustenance depend on those binaries that God put in place at the beginning.

What does marriage equality give us then? It gives us another way for the Holy Spirit to indwell in our pairings. It gives us more people who can be loud in their love. Marriage equality gives us a bigger version of family and there is nothing about God that doesn't like bigger.

So should finding myself, ourselves, on opposite sides of this issue require us to burn our N.T. Wright books? Protest his next appearance? Do a glitter bombing on him? Should we dismiss the former bishop as hideously behind the times or hopelessly complementarian? As Paul would say, by no means. 

Until polarization becomes a Christian tenet, until partisanship rises to the godly, we just have to live with each other. We aren't Roman emperors giving the thumbs up or thumbs down on gladiators. We are just human beings, staggering through life, seeking God. And that God, remember, has a place for all of us.