Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Relaxing In God's Image

Curtil-sous-Burnand, France

Today is Trinity Sunday according to the Christian calendar.  It is a day to reflect on what God is like.  How do we imagine God?  The Trinitarian dogma – that God is a unity of persons in communion, a dynamic exchange of love that is creative, generative, and joyful – was the definitive statement of the early Church in its effort to describe God in the least inadequate way.  It is a valiant attempt to communicate the incommunicable, to seek truth in the only way possible with respect to language about God:  by refusing to resolve the paradoxes.  

That is all I’m going to say today about the Trinitarian dogma.  The less said, the better.  In the face of the Mystery of God, the most appropriate response is silence.  If we are going to talk about God, a more biblical approach is to tell stories.  And one of the best stories in the Bible about what God is like is the first reading we heard today from Genesis.

Usually, this story in the Book of Genesis is taken to be about the origin of the universe.  It is treated as a cosmological myth.  Well, it does contain elements of such creation accounts, but the story is more about God than about the world.  Like most stories about what God is like, it is implicitly a story about how we should live in the world given our understanding of what God is like.   And the message of this story is really good news, because its central proclamation is:  RELAX.  Chill out. Take it easy.  Rest.

Jewish commentators have been much better at picking up on this than have Christians.  We tend to focus on the “work” part of the story rather than the “rest” part.  We don’t pay much attention to the climax of the story:

And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done.  So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.[1]

God does not bless the other six days in which he worked.  God blesses the creatures – as intrinsically valuable quite apart from their use by humans – and the adam, the human beings, male and female.  But it is only the day of rest that is declared “holy.”  To be blessed is to be infused with the life-force, to be made fully alive.  Holiness describes being completely set-apart for or consecrated to God; reserved to be used by God, so to speak.   The seventh day is set apart so that creation can rest and so become fully alive in God.  

What does this story reveal about what God is like?  Creation is very hard work.  It requires a great deal of energy and imagination.  It also requires a certain capacity to go with the flow.  Creativity requires letting be, permitting things to develop, to emerge, to disclose what they are becoming.  This is not creation on demand.  It is creation by invitation.  God invites and trusts that the response will turn out to God’s liking: “Let there be . . .”  And, indeed, it turns out to be very good. 

God delights in creating and in creation, but God is not a workaholic, anxious about getting it right, worried that everything will collapse if God isn’t directly controlling things 24/7.  God is “necessary” in that God donates being to everything in existence, but there is secondary, contingent causality – real creaturely freedom – within the created order.  And God is OK with that.  You may believe it is difficult to trust God.  The real challenge is believing that God trusts us! God trusts us enough to take a break on the 7th day.  God trusts the ever-renewing cycles of nature, the rhythms and harmonies inherent in God’s work and the participation of the creatures in that pattern of work and rest. 

It is not our work that defines us, but rather our capacity to trust, to let go and let be, to relax into the loving intention of creation so that we can really live.  God created us because he thought we might enjoy it.   Israel’s faith, and ours, is inextricably bound up with this sense that we receive our identity, not from what we produce or acquire, but from our willingness to rest in God’s love, to trust that there is a benevolent intention beating at the heart of reality.

This Genesis story dates from the period of Israel’s exile in Babylon.  It is a story about preserving one’s identity, one’s humanity, in a hostile culture that undermines one’s capacity to trust and refuses the dignity of rest.  Keeping Sabbath is a way of resisting imperial claims to impose an identity that denies God’s image in us.  Keeping Sabbath is a proclamation of faith that there is a loving God who graciously donates being to creation, infusing it with life-force, so that we may share in the eternal play of self-giving love that is God’s own life.  This God stands over and against all imperial claims to power that would define us solely by our work and deny us rest.

Israel’s experience generated a sophisticated critique of ideologies that seek to define human beings by their work; which is, by definition, slavery in the broadest sense.  The Torah defines Sabbath observance more precisely as work stoppage – for adults, children, slaves, resident aliens, and even livestock.[2]   Cessation from all work is the means whereby the Sabbath is kept holy.  If we really trust that our identity is God-given and not a function of our own efforts, we can relax long enough to discover and enjoy the intrinsic dignity and worth of creation.

The sages of Israel appended a second “creation” story – the one about the Garden of Eden – to the first “creation” story in Genesis, that goes so far as to define work as a curse.  It results from seeking to make God into a rival, against whom we set our own efforts to know, produce, and acquire.  Rather than gratefully sharing and enjoying the fruits of an abundant creation, we experience the fear of scarcity and the burden of toiling in rivalry with others to secure our lives.  This is the consequence of refusing to rest in God’s love, instead defining ourselves by our achievements or our failures.[3]

What Israel struggled to resist was the reduction of all of life to the economic.  Politics, community, the family, and even the self becomes subservient to economics when production and consumption is the touchstone of identity and value.  It is a struggle we know well.  We’ve internalized the belief that we are what we own.  We are anxious to provide our children with “opportunities” for “success” – by which we mean economic success – keeping them even busier and over-scheduled than many adults.  What they really want is not more opportunities, but more time for relationships – with their parents, families and friends.  We trust in wealth to provide us with a security that can only be provided by community.  It is the breadth and depth of our relationships, not the size of our investment portfolio, that sees us through the tough times – including tough economic times.  And look at how wealth determines our politics, rather than the common wealth being subservient to the common good.  People exhausted by the rat race have precious little time or energy to act as citizens, and are far easier to manipulate.

Sabbath rest was thought to be so essential to human identity and sanity, that the Torah stipulates death as the punishment for profaning the Sabbath; whoever does any work on that day is to be cut off from the people.[4]  This sounds like a text of terror.  But, to my knowledge, this was never literally enforced. It was taken to contain a deeper truth:  If you don’t observe the life-giving pattern of work and rest intrinsic to creation, you will die.  If you don’t keep the Sabbath you will be “cut off from the people” – you will lose your identity and, for all intents, cease to be fully human.

Earlier this week, I had dinner with my family and a dear friend of our son, whom we’ve known since he was two years-old. We were talking about their freshman college experience and what life is like for their peers.  The scope of depression, eating disorders, self-harming behavior, and suicidality among their peers was shocking to hear.  These are complex phenomena, and individual cases are unique, but one factor they both felt was relevant was the sense that their generation lives with enormous pressure to achieve, a lurking fear of scarcity, and an insidious sense of inadequacy.  According to The New York Times, drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death among Americans under the age of 50.[5]  This is the consequence of a culture where identity is defined by achievement, productivity, and consumption.  If we can’t compete, if we aren’t good enough, we numb out until we die.    

Observing the Sabbath is critical to our resistance to this Culture of Death.  It is in our resting, not our working or achieving, that we realize God’s image within us.  It is how we become fully alive and truly free.  In the Torah, we are told that “on the seventh day, God rested, and was refreshed.”[6]  Walter Brueggemann observes that the word translated as “refreshed” is the Hebrew word for “self” turned into a verb:  literally, God was “re-selfed” or got Godself back. 

When we are defined by achievement or failure, we lose our self.  We become so fearful, anxious, and driven that we are literally beside our selves.  Resting in God’s love, in the beauty, joy and wonder sustained by God’s creative self-giving, we are restored in the image of God, renewed in our sense of identity, power, and freedom.  Sabbath keeping is essential to the politics of resistance to a Culture of Death that seeks to reduce everything to economic winners and losers.

Refusing to be defined by work is a subversive act.  It asserts an intrinsic dignity and worth that cannot be quantified or managed.  It expresses a profound trust in the benevolent, abundant, and sustainable nature of reality, and a willingness to surrender ourselves to the care of God and others.  It recognizes that we do not need to “add value” to the world, as if the world and our existence in it were somehow insufficiently valuable; as if we could improve on God’s handiwork.  We don’t need to make the world great again.  It already is.  We are just too busy to notice.  If even God took time out to rest, why can’t we?  Maybe, just maybe, we are most like God when we relax and do . . . nothing.  

[1] Genesis 2:2-3.
[2] Exodus 20:8-11.
[3] The first eleven chapters of Genesis describe the unfolding of the consequences resulting from the refusal of Sabbath rest.
[4] Exodus 31:14-15.
[5] Josh Katz, “Drug Deaths In America Are Rising Faster Than Ever,” The New York Times (June 5, 2017).
[6] Exodus 31:17.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Interpreting (Unequal) Scripture: Listening for the Shepherd's Voice

What are the scriptures for?  How do we relate to these texts in such a way so to receive the abundant life that Jesus offers us?   That is why Jesus came isn’t it?  “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.  I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”[1] 

Sometimes, reading the scriptures, it is easy to forget this.  Today’s lesson from I Peter is a good example.  It gets a bit right and a whole lot wrong.  It provides a meditation on the imitation of Christ’s suffering.  Just as Jesus suffered and died unjustly, without engaging in retaliatory violence, so too should we be willing to suffer, entrusting ourselves to God’s judgment.  However, the audience addressed by the text is not, in fact, “we” but rather slaves.  “Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh.”[2]  The lectionary reading conveniently leaves out this verse, which immediately precedes the passage we heard.

The text goes on in a similar vein to encourage married women to similar feats of patient suffering.  “Wives, in the same way, accept the authority of your husbands, so that, even if some of them do not obey the word, they may be won over without a word by their wives conduct.”[3]  Not only should wives submit to spouse abuse, but they should feel responsible for their husband’s behavior in the process.  “He’d change if only you were good enough.”  What a load of crap. 

In fairness, the letter goes on to address a larger “we”: “Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind.”[4]  Hard to argue with that, except it seems a bit too little, and much too late.  I Peter draws on the image of the suffering servant in Isaiah and the example of Christ’s Passion to reify being a victim – “better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil.”[5]  Hmmmn.  Maybe.  This seems to miss the whole point of Jesus’ passion and resurrection, which was not an exercise in celebrating victimization, but in revealing the mendacity and godlessness of the ways in which we make victims of one another quiet contrary to God’s will, so that we can instead enjoy abundant life together. 

Now, I don’t wish to scapegoat the author of I Peter.  He struggles with the question of Christians suffering persecution in a violent culture, trying to make meaning out of a difficult situation; situations where we often feel powerless and wonder if God is punishing us.  No, he assures us, sometimes good people suffer unjustly, just like Jesus did.  It isn’t your fault.  Just as God raised up Jesus, our suffering will become a means of righteousness in ways we can’t yet see.  The writer promises that “after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you.  To God be the power forever and ever.”[6]

Even so, I Peter falls short in its understanding of Jesus’ suffering and our own.  Reading it encourages us to explore afresh Jesus’ example and the suffering servant poems in Isaiah.  Is that what they really meant?  Not all scripture is equal, and scripture can only be interpreted in conversation with other scripture and in relationship to the community of interpreters.   We misunderstand scripture if we read it as a unitary text or even as a text that was meant primarily to be read.  As James Alison reminds us,

They have always been a series of texts which rub against each other in a constant process of mutual elucidation.  Thus was it before the time of Jesus, at the time of Jesus, and so it is now. Furthermore, the Scriptures were never designed to be a Final Version for a reading public. They were designed as a base text for public proclamation and commentary. That is: from the beginning, the liturgical function of explaining and narrating the “wherefore” of things, of events, of stories and of festivals preceded the production of texts. The texts are, as it were, manuals for preaching or exposition, helped along by their divergences, their internal references, their allusions, repetitions and contradictions. These allow the person doing the teaching to take advantage of the hooks, the hints and the bifurcations so as to get more juice from their possibilities, from the various “How would it be if...?” and so on. Which is to say that it is the performance which is important, because it is the performance which makes the story come alive and allows it to be applied to the “today” which is always the moment of challenge in any good Liturgy . . .[7]

The performance being spoken of here is not simply that of the preacher or teacher, but the performance of those of us who find ourselves on the inside of the story of God-with-us, our willingness to make that story our story and bring it to life. 

It is not so much what the text says that is important, but rather the interpretative lens of the people bringing the text to life, bringing it into conversation with the larger biblical, Christian, and human witness.   For example, reading this passage from I Peter in relationship to today’s Gospel reading, when I’m told to obey the voice of my master or my husband who is abusing me, I have to say that I Peter sounds a lot like the voice of the thief in Jesus’ parable, who comes only to steal, and kill, and destroy.  It doesn’t sound like the voice of the Shepherd, who comes to bring abundant life.  I don’t recognize this voice.  I’m not going to follow it.[8]

Notice, too, that the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep undergoes suffering voluntarily, as an act of freedom, in solidarity with those who suffer so that they will not have to suffer anymore!   He opens the gate so that the sheep have freedom to come in and out, to find good pasture, to be nourished and to enjoy life.  He releases the sheep so that they will no longer be sacrificial victims.  In John chapter 10, Jesus is using an image of the sheep brought through the Sheep Gate of the Jerusalem Temple complex, where you can check-in any time you like but you can never leave; until, that is, you are slaughtered as a sacrificial offering.

Who is doing the interpreting makes a difference doesn’t it?  If I’m a slave reading these texts, I must ask, “Where is the freedom and abundant life that Jesus was willing to die for?”  Or, as so many African slaves did in these United States, I might read I Peter in light of the Exodus narrative and ask, “If God freed the Hebrew slaves, why should I be treated any different?”  As a slave master, should not my conscience be seared by the realization that if I own slaves, much less mistreat them, I am complicit in the suffering of Christ?  

Even on the terms of the argument of I Peter, if slaves and wives are suffering unjustly in imitation of Christ, then those who cause their suffering are doing so in imitation of those who persecuted Christ.  This is simply a way of saying that there is no true reading of scripture that is not self-implicating, that doesn’t allow me to find myself on the inside of the story.  But where we find ourselves in the story can be quite different for different people:  it all hangs on our relationship to the victims of suffering.  Jesus enters into solidarity with our suffering in order to resist it, to judge it, and finally, to overcome it.  He does so nonviolently, but not passively.  He invites us to imitate him in his resistance, not in the making of victims, much less in some masochistic embrace of suffering for its own sake.

Not all scripture is equal, and scripture can only be interpreted in conversation with other scripture and in relationship to the community of interpreters.   Be careful what scripture you read.  You may not like where you find yourself in the story, because the community of interpreters includes slaves as well as masters, women as well as men, immigrants as well as citizens, people with pre-existing medical conditions as well as health insurance company executives, lay people as well as clergy.   As a cleric, I have not invariably found myself to be comfortable with where I find myself in the story.  Most of the oxen that Jesus gored belonged to religious leaders!  We cannot interpret these stories together without being variously liberated, convicted, admonished and encouraged by where we find ourselves on the inside of the story. 

It is, of course, Jesus, who is the interpretive key, but not just the Jesus back then and there; rather, the living Jesus present in the gathered worshiping community.  It is here that we read the words of scripture and wrestle with them together, confident that Jesus is present with us, and that this Presence is made known in the scripture and the breaking of bread.  We know that our interpretation of scripture is not completely off the mark, so long as it is productive of the kind of community that is able to share abundant life from its communal reading and enactment of the story of God-with-us.  

If our reading of scripture can’t help our world to be more like a green pasture, and less like a slaughterhouse, what good is it?  The truth of scripture is found, not simply in our interpretation of the story, but in how we live it together.   How we live it is, in fact, our interpretation of it. 

[1] John 10:10.
[2] I Peter 2:18.
[3] I Peter 3:1.
[4] I Peter 3:8.
[5] I Peter 3:17.
[6] I Peter 5:10-11.
[7] James Alison, He opened up to them everything in the Scriptures concerning himself (Luke 24,27b): How can we recover Christological and Ecclesial habits of Catholic Bible reading?”  Lecture for the “Voices of Renewal” Lecture Series at Corpus Christi University Parish, Toledo, Ohio, 9 October 2001.
[8] John 10:4-5.