Tuesday, September 19, 2017

To Mercy Bound

After a week punctuated by fires, floods, and an earthquake, someone posted a simple, two panel comic strip on Facebook.  In the first panel, a pious looking preacher, prays to God, “Lord, why do you pile all these troubles upon us?  It’s because of the gays, isn’t it?”  To which the voice of God replies, “Yes, it is.”

Second panel: “I knew it,” says the preacher.  “You’re punishing us for their abominations!”  “Oh, no, no, no, not at all,” responds God.  “I’m punishing you for the shitty way you treat them.” 

Now, there was a part of me that enjoyed the smug smirk that crossed my face when I read this.  It felt satisfying to see the tables turned for a change.  Most of us, no matter how we distinguish between the good guys and the bad guys, have internalized the cultural meme that good guys should be rewarded and bad guys should be punished.  It is a familiar plot device in literature and film, the foundation of our legal system, and a deeply cathartic experience; even more satisfying, when we believe God is on our side.

But my smirk quickly turned to a frown.  This comic may work as satire, but it is poor theology.  Aside from the indiscriminate and disproportionate nature of the punishment it describes, its basic commitment to the reward/punishment scheme doesn’t square with the arc of the biblical story and the image of God it portrays. 

When Joseph’s brothers, who, out of jealousy, sold him into slavery, come seeking forgiveness, he assures them, “Do not be afraid!  Am I in the place of God?”[1]  With tears in his eyes, Joseph forgives them, trusting that God was at work to preserve life even though his brothers intended harm.  Having experienced God’s mercy, Joseph shares that mercy with his brothers and provides for them in their need.

St. Paul knew that there is no fight like a church fight.  He urges the churches in Rome to welcome those who disagree with them, because God has welcomed them.  “Why do you pass judgment on servants of another,” he asks them.  It is before the Lord that they stand or fall, and, Paul says confidently, “the Lord is able to make them stand.”[2]  Who are we to take the place of God?

And when St. Peter asks Jesus, “how often should I forgive?”  Jesus’ response implicitly means there is no limit to forgiveness.[3]  Forgiveness, as an expression of love, is a renewable resource.  It is inexhaustible. God’s mercy is boundless, and to mercy we are bound. 

So, let’s talk about forgiveness and mercy, beginning with forgiveness.  I’d like to suggest that forgiveness is a response to people and situations in which we’ve suffered or caused harm.  It is a way of healing and reclaiming our freedom.

There are still consequences for the harmful behavior.  Forgiveness doesn’t mean everything is now OK.  It simply means that the past no longer has the power to define my present reality, and that the possibility of reconciliation exists, so long as all the parties involved are willing to take responsibility for their part.  Forgiveness prizes relationship over reward or punishment, without sacrificing human dignity or physical or emotional safety. 

Forgiveness is a process, not an event.  Some harms are so profoundly wounding, and the guilt we carry for having committed them is so debilitating, that forgiveness can take a lifetime.  It cannot be forced.  It begins by simply acknowledging the harm that has been done.  The second step is the recovery of our capacity to acknowledge the humanity of the victim or the perpetrator, perhaps by becoming willing to hold them in prayer.  It may proceed to the offer and acceptance of forgiveness.  In some cases, as with Joseph and his brothers, it can even lead to the restoration of relationship. 

Note that forgiveness does not depend on the action of another.  If harmed, I do not need wait upon the repentance of the perpetrator to forgive.  If I have harmed another, I do not need wait upon the forgiveness of my victim to repent and amend my life.  In either case, I simply must become willing to take responsibility for my part in the process of healing and restoration of freedom.   

We always begin with forgiveness, for it is freedom from the past that makes the healing of wounds and the amendment of life possible.  When we are no longer defined by the harms we’ve suffered or caused, we can begin to live again.  Reward and punishment become quite secondary to the primacy of being alive.

Forgiveness is not simple or easy, but without it, spiritual growth is stifled and viable community becomes impossible.  It is the key that unlocks the vicious cycles of despair, resentment, remorse, and vengeance that make our world a living hell.  Forgiveness is hard work.  It is utterly dependent upon the inexhaustible mercy of God.

Mercy is deeper and broader than forgiveness.  I think of it as the background atmosphere of forgiveness, the oxygen that we need to engage particular acts of forgiveness.  Mercy is the “existential forgiveness” that comes with simply being alive, recognizing the enormous debts we owe to our ancestors, to society, to the Earth community, and ultimately to God; debts that we can never possibly repay. Mercy is the powerful experience that this “debt” is forgiven; that there is nothing we need or can do to repay it, no way we can be worthy of it.  It is pure gift, quite apart from questions of punishment and reward.    

In one of her essays, Margaret Atwood relates the true story of the nature writer, Ernest Thompson Seton.   On his 21st birthday, Ernest had an unusual bill presented to him by his father.  It was a record of all the expenses accrued while raising him, beginning with the fee charged by the doctor who delivered him.  The bill was now due.  Ernest’s father was implicitly saying, “I’ve met my obligation.  Now pay up, and we are even.”  It assumes moral relationships are like business transactions, in which payment of the debt ends the relationship.  Ernest paid the bill, we are told, and never spoke to his father again.[4]

Giving and receiving what is due, is not the only way to imagine a moral relationship.  A parent imagined in this way, much less acting in this way, is rightly considered a monster.  There is also the giving and receiving of gifts, not out of obligation, but as an act of love.  Yet, isn’t this the way we too often think about God?  As One to whom we owe a considerable debt, beyond our capacity to pay, yet who still presents us with a bill?  Which brings me to today’s parable of the unforgiving servant.[5] 

Jesus tells this parable, precisely to subvert our usual understanding of God as a divine creditor.  Remember that parables are metaphorical in character, not allegorical.  The kingdom of heaven is like what is described in the parable, but also unlike what is described, and there is no strict correspondence between say, God and the king in the parable.  They are alike and unlike. 

In its immediate context, the parable is told in response to Peter’s question about forgiveness.  Does forgiveness have a limit? Jesus affirms unlimited forgiveness.  Peter assumed the cultural norm that good guys should be rewarded and bad guys should be punished.  And, he assumed that he was one of the good guys. 

Peter was in danger of being like the unjust slave in the parable.  If we owe debts to our ancestors, to society, and to the Earth community, how much more do we “owe” to God?  More than we could ever pay.  But God doesn’t hold us accountable.  All is gift, not debt.  We need to reimagine what all our relationships look like considering God’s mercy, and imitate God in this way of being. 

The unforgiving slave feels entitled to demand everything owed him, no matter how little it may be.  He wants his due, no matter how badly his demands, however formally just, hurt others.  Note that the other slaves, when they see what he is doing, are greatly distressed.  They are distressed because their fellow slave is bound to the logic of reward and punishment, rather than to mercy, the very mercy he has received so unconditionally. 

When his lord discovers what this wicked slave has done, he hands him over to be tortured until his entire debt is repaid.  The same language of “handing over” is used when Jesus is “handed over” to the authorities.  This correspondence between the unforgiving slave and Jesus subverts our notions of justice – the slave getting what he deserves, while Jesus did not.  It isn’t about getting what you deserve.  We all owe more than we can ever pay.  The question is: will we allow God’s mercy to transform our imagination so that we can share that mercy with others, or will we refuse this mercy and double down on the hell of demanding our due, fueling the cycle of vengeance, rivalry, and violence?

In the ancient world, if you were unable to pay your debt, your creditor could have you imprisoned and even tortured to coerce your family, friends, or benefactors to pay the debt for you.  If your creditor was unforgiving, you became dependent on the mercy of others.  I wonder if there isn’t a certain irony in this parable, a subtle message that there is no way around mercy.  We can realize this the easy way, by accepting God’s mercy and allow it to change us so that we, too, can forgive from the heart, out of love.  Or, we will realize it the hard way, coming to see our need for mercy only through our own experience of suffering.  Either way, in the end, we all depend upon the mercy of God and each other.

We can forgive from the heart, really forgive as an expression of the mercy we have received from God, or we can remain locked in the torture of strict accounting of reward and punishment.  God comes to us in Jesus, not to pay our debt, but to share the gift of mercy; to reveal the bonds of mutual love, not strict reciprocity, that bind us together.  We are all to mercy bound. 

[1] Genesis 50:19.

[2] Romans 14:1-4.

[3] Matthew 18:21-22.

[4] Recounted by David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (Brooklyn, NY:  Melville Publishing House, 2012), p. 92.  Graeber provides a fascinating anthropology of moral discourse and the metaphor of debt.

[5] Matthew 18:23-35.

More Saints

The Dalai Lama & Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Today we are marking the beginning of the secular school year and the Church school year, but the two don’t always mix very well.
A little girl named Martha was talking to her teacher about whales.
The teacher said it was physically impossible for a whale to swallow a human because even though it was a very large mammal its throat was very small.
Martha insisted that Jonah was swallowed by a whale.
Irritated, the teacher reiterated that a whale could not swallow a human; it was physically impossible.
The little girl said, 'Well, I’ll ask Jonah when I get to heaven.'
The teacher asked, 'What if Jonah went to hell?'
Martha replied, 'Then you ask him'.
This is a funny little story, but it has a bit of an edge to it when you think about it. We all start out, like Martha, taking the Bible – and everything else – literally.  The capacity for more sophisticated ways of interpreting our experience of reality is a much later cognitive development.  It is a real leap from “Dick and Jane” to Macbeth, from simple addition to advanced calculus, a distance that takes many years of patient learning to traverse.   We invest a lot in our children’s education to ensure that they make that leap successfully.  Our culture values and rewards intellectual development, and we willingly make sacrifices for it, especially for the sake of economic security.

It seems to me that we don’t invest nearly as much in spiritual and moral development.  Some people never move beyond a grade school familiarity with the Bible and theological traditions, what James Fowler calls the mythic-literal stage of faith development.   Children receive our faith tradition readily.  Faith traditions provide a foundation for spiritual and moral development: stories, rituals, and symbols, a language that allows children to express and reflect on their spiritual and moral life.  Christianity is one such religious language, providing the basic building blocks upon which later spiritual growth is built.  

The problem with remaining at the mythic-literal level of faith development is that we confuse our religious language’s mapping of reality with reality itself.   Like little Martha, we don’t even realize we are using a map.  For us, the map is the territory.  We see life in very black and white terms.  Those who do not accept our map are ignorant, obtuse, or positively evil.  They can go to hell for all we care. 

Most of us come to realize that our religious language isn’t the only one; there are other ways to map reality.  Once we wake up to the reality that ours is not the only religious language, this can lead to a kind of crisis of faith.   We may become disillusioned with our faith tradition, or double-down on its truth claims.  Some learn a second language, converting to another faith tradition, or decide that all religious languages are equally valid or pretty much equally garbage. 

Many who reach the point of critically evaluating their native religious language become skeptical and feel they we must make up their own language.  They become “spiritual” rather than “religious.”  Faith is what I make of it; a little bit of this and a little bit of that or nothing at all.

I’ve noticed that by midlife, however, people tend to become open to re-embracing their native religious language.  They recognize the limits of logic and instrumental reasoning, and acknowledge the paradoxes of life, the Mystery that can only be intuitively known.  Life experience has humbled them. They realize the Mystery isn’t something they can comprehend.  At this point, they have a renewed appreciation for the sacred stories, rituals, and symbols of their native faith.  They want to go deeper in their connection to the Mystery, and engage with the practices and community their tradition makes available to foster this connection, preferring to master their native tongue rather than dabbling in a surface level pastiche of various religious patois.

We obtain to a truly universal faith as we engage particular religious languages in depth, persevering in the work of spiritual growth. Such people are recognizable by the way they selflessly serve others with awareness and compassion, without the usual doubts and anxieties plaguing the rest of us. They are secure in their identity, no longer needing to define themselves over and against anyone or anything else.  They have nothing to lose, nothing to protect, no need to compete or compare.  They are free.  In the language of Christianity, we call them saints. 

Perhaps in our day, a picture of Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama laughing together illustrates what I am talking about far better than my words.  Here we have an icon of sainthood:  compassionate, joyous, free human beings in service to the world.  What if we equipped our children to become saints, much as we equip them to become doctors or lawyers or scientists or venture capitalists?  Given the violence of our world in its current clash of cultures, driven by religious and secular fundamentalists stuck at a mythic-literal level of spiritual development, can we hope for anything less?

While I was not surprised to see white supremacists marching in Charlottesville, I was taken aback by how many of them are young, white, middle class college students.  How could they be so privileged with regard to their economic and educational status, and so very poor with regard to their spiritual and moral development?  Did they have just enough religion to ruin them, and not enough to move beyond such ignorance and evil?  

The hope for our children’s future is not to be found in technological innovation, or unlimited economic growth, or the false myth of inevitable progress.   It is to be found in the lives of what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called transformed non-conformists:  people capable of transcending the limitations of their cultural conditioning.  Such people persevere in the work of spiritual growth such that they realize reality exceeds their map of it, and that the Mystery in which we move and live and have our being is ultimately experienced as a unity of wisdom, love, and bliss.   This experience transforms our consciousness and our ethics.

This is what St. Paul refers to when he writes, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God-- what is good and acceptable and perfect.”[1] He goes on to say that this transformation of consciousness is evidenced by both genuine humility, in which we no longer think ourselves better than anyone else, and authentic community, in which we share our gifts and abilities for the sake of the common good.  Collectively, we become the body of Christ, transparent to the presence and power of the Mystery we call God.  And we offer ourselves, in sacrificial love, as an offering to God for the healing of the world.  We are all called to be saints; not because we are perfect, but because we are loved and have been fitted to mirror that love.

Commenting on this passage from Romans in one of his most famous sermons, Dr. King said, 

I’m sure that many of you have had the experience of dealing with thermometers and thermostats.  The thermometer merely records the temperature.  If it is seventy or eighty degrees it registers that and that is all.  On the other hand the thermostat changes the temperature.  If it is too cool in the house you simply push the thermostat up a little and it makes it warmer.  And so the Christian is called upon not to be like a thermometer conforming to the temperature of his society, but he must be like a thermostat serving to transform the temperature of his society.[2] 

Are you a thermometer or a thermostat?  Are you ready to turn up the heat?  Transformed nonconformists make us uncomfortable.  They challenge us to see truths that we’d rather ignore, like the pernicious persistence of institutional racism and the calamity of global climate change.  Saints are not nice people.  They are people who tell us the truth because they actually love us.   

Archbishop Tutu once said, “Children are a wonderful gift. They have an extraordinary capacity to see into the heart of things and to expose sham and humbug for what they are.”[3]  Maybe that is why Jesus said we must become like children to enter the kingdom of heaven:  we must see through our conditioning, like children do, before they have been forced to internalize it.  In a way, the end of the spiritual journey is to find ourselves where we began, embracing a second naïveté. 

Equipping our children to become saints is difficult.  It takes an entire faith community, not just parents.  It challenges us to be role models of moral and spiritual maturity who are fluent in speaking Christian; not because it is the only religious language worth speaking, but because it can be the means whereby we transcend the limitations of our cultural conditioning and conformity to its violence, greed, and exploitation of people and planet.  The way of Jesus is a path to real freedom. Are you a thermometer or a thermostat? 

What the world needs now, what it needs most, is more saints. 

[1] Romans 12:2.

[2] Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Transformed Nonconformist,” sermon delivered November 1954, Montgomery, Alabama, accessed at http://okra.stanford.edu/transcription/document_images/Vol06Scans/Nov1954TransformedNonconformist.pdf

[3] Quoted in The Words of Desmond Tutu (1984).