Sunday, February 19, 2017

Resisting Evil

How do we resist evil and not lose our souls in the process?  What sustains movements for social justice and peace over the long haul?  What particular resources can we offer to this work as people of faith?

These questions are not far removed from Jesus’ life and ministry.  Jesus was engaged in building a reform movement to renew the Jewish Covenant.  It was a movement rooted in the Torah as mediated through the prophetic tradition of Israel.  Concern for social justice is central to this tradition, which included the principle of the Jubilee Year that called for periodic debt relief, manumission of slaves, and redistribution of ancestral land to the poor.[1]  God’s righteousness and justice is to be the foundation of the social order. 

One of the unique contributions of the Covenant, which the prophets emphasize, is the way in which the perspective of victims informs the Torah.  The Jewish people had themselves been slaves.  They knew what it is like to be outsiders, a persecuted minority forcibly impressed into hard labor, treated as a unit of production rather than as a human being.  Hence the Torah’s remarkable emphasis on Sabbath rest as work stoppage that extends not only to citizens, but also to slaves and immigrants, and even to domestic animals and the land itself.

This concern for those on the margins goes far beyond loving the neighbor as oneself: “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien.  The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself; for you were aliens in the land of Egypt:  I am the Lord your God.”[2]  Remember what God is like.  Remember your own history of oppression and suffering.  Imitate God; not Pharaoh.

Imitating God’s justice and mercy in our social relations is at the heart of Jesus’ own teaching and practice.  This isn’t always easy to do.  We will encounter opposition.  Recall that Jesus’ description of the attributes of those who live in the kingdom of heaven culminates in blessings upon those who persevere in working for justice even in the face of persecution.[3]   How do we respond to the resistance we experience, both in our own hearts and in the world?

Jesus addresses this question directly.  He begins by affirming the Torah: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’”[4]  This refers to the lex talionis or law of retaliation.  It served to bring vicious cycles of vengeance under the rule of law.  By the time of Jesus, it was not taken literally, but rather expressed the principle of proportionality in determining appropriate reparation for harms, applied equally to aliens as well as citizens.

It is worth noting that Jesus begins by affirming the rule of law and seeking justice by means of legal redress.  Institutions such as courts are a significant advance over vigilante “justice” and endless cycles of violence.   This is not an anachronistic interpretation of Jesus as being a “law and order” guy in the polemical sense in which this is used in current political rhetoric.  It simply affirms that civic institutions such as an independent judiciary, the rule of law, and, in our day, a free press, are the first line of defense in resisting evil. 

But there is a caveat here, which Jesus notes.  Sometimes, the judges are corrupt and our institutions are broken.  Sometimes, the law itself is unjust, an instrument of evil rather than a resource against injustice.  Thus, Jesus says, “Do not resist by evil means.”[5]  This is a notoriously difficult verse to translate and interpret, but the usual “Do not resist an evildoer” is inadequate and misleading. “Do not resist by evil means” is echoed in St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans, when he writes, no doubt recalling Jesus’ teaching, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil . . . Beloved, never avenge yourselves . . . Do not overcome evil by evil, but overcome evil with good.”[6]  Jesus clearly resisted evil.  This is not a call to passivity.  It is a cautionary note to make sure that our resistance to evil does not itself take the form of evil.

That Jesus has something like this in mind is evident from the examples of creative forms of resistance that he offers.   The first deals with the insulting slap of a master against his slave, the second with greedy creditors, the third with forced labor, and the last with the structural violence of endemic poverty.  In the first three examples, victims take the initiative to assert their dignity in such a way as to turn the tables on those who have caused them harm; in the last example, we are encouraged to offer solidarity with such victims.[7] 

Understand that slapping your slave, confiscating land and putting people into debt slavery, as well as impressing civilians into forced labor were all perfectly legal, even as they were instruments of oppression.  Yet, in none of these examples does Jesus counsel passivity, or the renunciation of claims to justice.  They are attempts to question the normalcy of injustice, disrupt the system, and create spaces for resistance.  Sometimes, resisting evil requires us to make what is invisible, visible, and raise the consciousness of our fellows, opening up new paths to the possibility of justice and reconciliation when our institutions fail us.

The difficulty is in not becoming the evil we claim to oppose.  “Do not resist by evil means.”  Do not dehumanize your enemy in the way he dehumanizes you.  Do not escalate the cycle of retaliatory violence. Imitate God; not Pharaoh.  Here we must attend to the enemy within as well as the external enemy, purifying our motives and intentions.  Evil is not just out there; it is in us as well.
Jesus teaches that our relationships with our friends and with our enemies, with everybody, should be animated by the energy of love.[8]  He urges us to imitate God, noting that God makes the sun to rise and the rain to fall on both the evil and the good, the unjust and the just, without discrimination.[9]  God is love, the creative energy that creates and sustains all things.  St. Julian of Norwich wrote that “The love wherein He made us was in Him from without beginning: in which love we have our beginning.  And all this we shall see in God, without end.”[10] 
Love just is.  It is the root-energy of the universe, so to speak, and it suffuses all things.  The question is how we humans respond to and work with this energy, how we metabolize it and give it expression in our lives.  Unfortunately, our experience of this root energy is not always informed by God’s loving intention.  It is, in fact, shaped to a large extent by our coming to internalize and imitate the response and desires of others – our parents, caregivers, families, and the larger culture.  We learn how to work with this energy – expressing or repressing it, turning it to creative or destructive ends – from the social other.  

As we come to mimic their responses, this inevitably leads to conflict and rivalry to secure the objects of shared desire, rupturing the fabric of our relationships with even neighbors, much less enemies.  This rupture is sin, and it is expressed in the manifold consequences of distorted energy shaped by desires that are contrary to God’s loving intention.  

Jesus understood the challenge of working with this root-energy in such a way as to give it creative expression as love; compassionate, forgiving, and life-giving.  This is why he urges us to cultivate love for our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.  It isn’t so that they will change, but so that we will be changed:  so that we will become willing and able to transmit the energy of love rather than imitating the vicious cycle of vengeance we internalize from the dominant culture. 

The imperative to “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect”[11] is not an impossible ideal of moralistic rigor, but rather an invitation to be wholly inclusive in our love toward others, just as God’s love is inclusive.  Imitate God, not your enemies.  Creative strategies for resisting evil are the fruit of cultivating a capacity to work with the energy of love in imitation of God.   Our hope for genuine peace, a just wholeness that is more than simply the absence of conflict, depends on our willingness to persevere in resisting evil with open hearts. 

But it is contemplative practice that supports our capacity to resist evil in this way.  We have to do our own inner work as well.  We can learn to become transparent to the energy of love.  This is what it means to become children of our Father in heaven.  It is not just about acting in a loving way, much less being “nice.”  It is about exercising love as a powerful force for healing, reconciliation, and justice.  Divine love in its pure, undifferentiated form, can come directly from the Source through us – individually and collectively as the Body of Christ.[12] 

St. Teresa of Avila described this process of becoming transparent to love through contemplative practice using the beautiful analogy of watering a garden.  She described four ways in which this watering take place.  First one pulls the water from a well with a bucket.  Second, the water comes more easily from a waterwheel.  Third, one brings it still more easily from a nearby spring or stream.  And finally it comes without our effort at all, through the rain.  She spoke of the decreasing amount of human labor necessary for the first three ways and of the great wonder of the fourth, in which the Lord “waters it Himself.”  In wondering how the soul was occupied during the watering-by-rain, Teresa felt God say to her, “It dissolves utterly, my daughter, to rest more and more in Me.  It is no longer itself that lives; it is I.”[13] 

The secret to sustainable action for justice is letting God do the work, channeling this inexhaustible energy source. Contemplative practice is not only about personal union with the divine.  It is also and, more importantly, a way of discovering how to become transparent to love for the sake of others, exercising its power for the sake of justice.[14]  When we do so, we begin to realize the meaning of Jesus’ prayer, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”   

Let us pray.

O Lord, you have taught us that without love whatever we do is worth nothing: Send your Holy Spirit and pour into our hearts your greatest gift, which is love, the true bond of peace and of all virtue, without which whoever lives is accounted dead before you. Grant this for the sake of your only Son Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.[15]

[1] Leviticus 25.
[2] Leviticus 19:33-34.
[3] Matthew 5:10-12.
[4] Leviticus 24:17-22.
[5] Matthew 5:39a.  For a discussion of the translation, see Glen H. Stassen, “The Fourteen Triads Of The Sermon On The Mount,” Journal of Biblical Literature 12/2 (2003), pp. 279-282.
[6] Romans 12:17, 19, 21.
[7] Stassen, op cit.  Walter Wink brilliantly interprets these creative initiatives in his Engaging the Powers. 
[8] Matthew 5:43-44.
[9] Matthew 5:45.
[10] Quoted in Gerald May, Will and Spirit (New York:  HarperCollins, 1982), p. 202.
[11] Matthew 5:48.
[12] See May, pp. 202-209.
[13] Quoted in May, p. 202.
[14] See May, p. 208.
[15] Collect for the Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany, The Book of Common Prayer, p. 216.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

What Is Religion For?

What is religion for?  What difference does it or can it make in our lives?  That seems to me to be the question at the heart of the texts from Isaiah and Matthew that we heard this morning.  They are about our relationship to the Law – narrowly speaking, the Torah or teaching of the Pentateuch, the five books attributed to Moses – more broadly, the whole constellation of religious observance in text and ritual.  Why bother with any of it?

It is a good question, which our texts themselves take seriously.  Both the prophet in Isaiah and Jesus in Matthew are critical of religious observance emptied of meaning, severed from its real purpose.  They invite us to consider our own religious practice and its relationship to our common life.

Let’s begin with our text from Isaiah.  A little history is required to understand its context.  In 598 BC, the Babylonian Empire conquered the Kingdom of Judah, laying siege to Jerusalem and destroying the temple.   As a matter of policy to undermine the possibility of future resistance, the Babylonians forcibly exiled the leadership class of Jerusalem:  the aristocracy, priests, and lawyers.  In an attempt to divide and conquer, the Babylonians also forced migration of other peoples to Judah to mix the population.  Some sixty years later, Cyrus of Persia conquered Babylon, and in 538 BC issued an edict allowing the exiled Jews to return to their homeland. 

The passage we heard today dates from the period after the exile.  The exiled elites have returned to Israel and have begun the process of rebuilding.  The second temple was dedicated in 515 BC, but the restoration work was neither easy, nor cheap.  The experience of those who went into exile and the experience of those who remained in the land were very different.  The leadership class in exile was exposed to a foreign, cosmopolitan culture, from which they both drew new insights and also sought to differentiate themselves to maintain their identity.  Those who remained in the land did their best to retain the old ways in the midst of devastation, while also struggling to accommodate a new immigrant population.  Now, they had to find a way to forge a common life together.  But, according to the prophet, it isn’t going well. 

Conflicts arose about economic and immigration policy.  The returning elites set about restoring their social and economic privilege at the expense of the workers rebuilding the Jerusalem.  There were also debates about now to treat mixed marriages and the influx of foreigners in the land.  Many hearkened back to the “good old days” before the exile and wanted to expel the foreigners so that “Israel could be Israel again,” although not everyone agreed with this perspective.[1]

An important part of reweaving a common life had to do with shared religious observance, including the reinstitution of the temple cult.  Fasting was practiced as part of the ritual of mourning, and on the Day of Atonement.  Some folks are griping that their ritual fasting isn’t getting the results they want.[2]  Times are still hard, and the return from exile hasn’t fulfilled expectations.  God’s promised salvation still seems far away.

The prophet reminds the people that observance of the Law is moral as well as cultic.  He caricatures their ritual observance as hypocrisy, fasting even as they argue and fight and oppress their workers.[3]  The self-sacrifice of ritual fasting is a preparation for, and sign of, a deeper self-sacrifice for the sake of the poor and the oppressed.  Religious observance not only requires the restoration of walls and streets, but also the restoration of justice and mercy.

If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom like the noonday.[4]

Cultic observance does not earn God’s salvation, but rather prepares us to become the kind of people willing to practice the justice that is the foundation of life with God and one another.  Cultic observance provides a set of practices that open our hearts to the righteousness of God manifest in a common life of justice and mercy.  Religious practices without justice for the poor and oppressed are empty and meaningless.  Justice without religious practices is superficial and unsustainable because it is severed from its rootedness in the wisdom and power of God.[5]

Part of what makes Isaiah and the prophetic tradition so important is that it provides a self-critical moment in the life of the religion of Israel, reminding those of us who are its heirs of the danger of forgetting what religion is for in the first place.  The greatest single resource against religious hypocrisy is the Bible itself.

Jesus is among the greatest defenders of the religion of Israel against the temptation of hypocrisy.  In his teaching on the Sermon on the Mount, he is emphatic that he has not come to abolish the Torah, the Law, but rather to clarify its true meaning.  Notice that he considers all of it – the cultic and the moral observance – as valid.  Jesus is an observant Jew.[6]  The issue is how to observe the Law, and why we bother in the first place.

Recall that Jesus began his teaching with the Beatitudes, defining the attitudes and attributes of those who belong to the kingdom of heaven.  “Heaven” is a typically Jewish synonym for “God,” a circumlocution to avoid pronouncing the sacred Name.  It does not refer to a place, but rather to a relationship.  Those who are “with God” are like this and do these things. 

The Beatitudes culminate in the willingness to sacrifice one’s self for the sake of justice, to endure persecution for the sake of righteousness.[7]  This echoes the prophet’s teaching in Isaiah, where God proclaims:

Is not this the fast that I choose:  to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from our own kin?[8]

There is nothing strikingly new in Jesus’ teaching.  He is firmly in the prophetic tradition of Israel, which is itself a recapitulation of the covenant tradition spelled out in the Torah, but in a new key for a new situation.  Religious observance is for the sake of justice, the foundation of community life with God.

Just as the prophet declares that when you do justice, “then your light will break forth like the dawn,” so Jesus will say to those who embrace the beatitudes, “You are the light of the world.  A city built on a hill cannot be hid.”[9]   Religious observance is in the service of the creation of a city, a community, a people with God that is illuminated by the righteousness of God manifest in a polity founded on justice and mercy.  It is all about righteousness.  The key line is this:

For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.[10] 

Jesus, it appears, is engaged in a controversy with the scribes and the Pharisees
about righteousness, or justice.  The controversy is not about whether or not to observe the Torah, but how and why we do so.  In a provocative argument, the Jewish scholar, Daniel Boyarin, describes it this way:

The Pharisees were a kind of reform movement within the Jewish people that was centered on Jerusalem and Judea.  The Pharisees sought to convert other Jews to their way of thinking about God and the Torah, a way of thinking that incorporated seeming changes in the written Torah’s practices that were mandated by what the Pharisees called “the tradition of the Elders.”  The justification of these reforms in the name of an oral Torah, a tradition passed down by the Elders from Sinai on, would have been experienced by many traditional Jews as a radical change, especially when it involved change the traditional ways that they and their ancestors had kept the Torah for generations immemorial.  At least some of these pharisaic innovations may very well have represented changes in religious practice that took place during the Babylonian Exile, while the Jews who remained “in the land” continued their ancient practices.  It is quite plausible, therefore, that other Jews, such as the Galilean Jesus, would reject angrily such ideas as an affront to the Torah and as sacrilege.[11]

Therefore, according to Boyarin,

Jesus’ Judaism was a conservative reaction against some radical innovations in the Law stemming from the Pharisees and Scribes of

What this suggests is a continuing tension, alluded to already in Isaiah, between those Jews who went into exile and those who remained in the land, and their different ways of conceiving the relationship between cultic and moral observance of the Torah.  Jesus emerges as a defender of the earlier, pre-exilic tradition.  He seeks to preserve the social justice core of the tradition against innovators whose teachings threaten to obscure that core. 
This is a tantalizing suggestion, but, whatever its merits, it underscores that what we have in Matthew’s Gospel is a thoroughly intra-Jewish debate about the purpose of religion.   Religious observances make us vulnerable to God so that we can be infused with God’s righteousness, creating a community founded on justice and mercy.  That is what the kingdom of heaven, life with God, is all about. 

Religious practices without justice for the poor and oppressed are empty and meaningless.  Justice without religious practices is superficial and unsustainable because it is severed from its rootedness in the wisdom and power of God.  Or, as one of my favorite bumper stickers puts it, “If you love Jesus, then work for justice.”  Let the people of God say, “Amen.”

[1] Foreigners were “separated from Israel” – though we are not told precisely how this ethnic cleansing was implemented (Nehemiah 13:3).  Mixed marriages were condemned and foreign wives and children were “sent away,” with cursing, beatings, and the pulling of hair, though we are not told where they were sent (Nehemiah 13:23-31).  This was a problem, apparently, among both returning exiles and those who had remained in the land, including the priestly families (Ezra 9:1-4; 10:6-44).
[2] Isaiah 58:3.
[3] Isaiah 58:3-4.
[4] Isaiah 58:9b-10.
[5] This is a wisdom and power very different from that of the “rulers of this age,” according to St. Paul (I Corinthians 2:1-8).
[6] Matthew 5:17-18.
[7] Matthew 5:10-11.
[8] Isaiah 58:6-7.
[9] Matthew 5:14.
[10] Matthew 5:20.
[11] Daniel Boyarin, The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ (New York:  The New Press, 2012), pp. 103-104.
[12] Boyarin, p. 104.