Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Paul's Open Letter to the Empire


Arguably there are strong and disturbing similarities between what is happening in the United States today and the gradual transition of Rome from a republic in the sixth century BCE to an imperial order governed by an emperor in the first century BCE. During this long and turbulent history, strongmen rulers inspired personality cults; senatorial ineptness and personal avarice compromised democratic institutions; and, the demands of an expanding empire taxed both the resources and the will of the republic. It is not a foregone conclusion that our republic will suffer the same fate. Our democratic institutions and traditions may yet prevail over personality cults, the influence of dark money, the global reach of US militarism, and the threats posed by global warming. But the parallels are worrisome. I argue below that the resemblances between then and now make Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome especially timely.
Paul’s letter to the Romans, most likely written sometime between the year 54 and 58 CE, is often interpreted as a letter of self-introduction in which he set forth his theological positions. It is also read as a defense of Gentile Christianity against Judaizing influences. Yet another theory finds Paul offering a Christian theology of the state, sometimes referred to as the “two kingdoms” theory.
What all the above named schools of interpretation have in common is that they make Paul into a social conservative. They dull whatever political edge his counsel carries. As a result, the revolutionary Paul who endured numerous arrests, beatings, and imprisonments, and who was eventually executed by the state, is buried under a mound of theological tomes. Fortunately, today postcolonial biblical scholars are bringing us a more radical understanding of Paul’s letter to the Romans as a message of glad tidings of good news to people who are oppressed. I am indebted to these scholars for today we need this radical Paul, who counsels resistance to the empire.
While the Romans generally tolerated religious diversity, the aristocracy long regarded Jews with suspicion and contempt. The lower classes resented the parasitic Roman tax policies that privileged Jews, and they blamed Jews for the high taxes they had to pay. Anti-Jewish propaganda circulated throughout the empire from the time of Augustus onward. Sometime between 41 and 53 CE, the emperor Claudius banished Jews from Rome, in part because they rebelled against a tax he levied on them. Nero rescinded this policy when he became emperor in 54 CE. The Jews and Jewish Christians who returned to the city were very likely a wretched lot with great needs and meager resources. It may well be, as postcolonial scholars suggest, that this is the situation that necessitated Paul’s letter to the Romans. So understood, Paul was not writing to defend Gentiles against Judaizing influences, but just the opposite. He was encouraging a congregation that was threatened by external pressure and internal division to stay together. I argue below that an ethic of mutual obligation, literally an ethic of “one-anothering,” is one of the central themes of this letter and a core strategy of resistance to the empire.
Paul begins this letter by identifying himself as “a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God . . .” (Rom. 1: 1, RSV throughout). The translation “servant” is a bit misleading. A more accurate translation is “slave.” Paul calls himself a “slave of Jesus Christ,” thus defining not only his relationship with Jesus, but also his solidarity with the lowest class of people in Roman society. Noteworthy, too, is the word “gospel,” meaning “glad tidings.” “Gospel” is a term the Roman military used when sending the emperor glad tidings of victory from the front lines of battle. Paul’s use of the word “gospel” is, thus, a direct challenge to the militaristic “glad tidings” of the empire. Paul’s first sentence puts the Christian community on the front lines of struggle against the empire.
The contrast between the Way of Jesus and the way of the empire is sharpened by the claim that Jesus was “designated the Son of God . . . by his resurrection from the dead” (Rom. 1: 4). Since Octavian, Rome’s first emperor, had been given the title “Augustus,” (Reverend/Highly Honored), the Roman imperium claimed that it had established a new world order, with itself as the only superpower. Octavian and those who followed were acclaimed “Saviors” of the world. Spires and temples honoring the emperor were erected in prominent places throughout the empire. But Paul charged that the empire was a culture of death, responsible for killing Jesus, who was raised from the dead by God. Those who “belong to Jesus Christ” (Rom. 1: 6), belong to a culture of life. The difference between the Way of Jesus and the way of the empire is clear and unequivocal.
        Later, in Rom. 1: 18 - 32, Paul vividly describes the Roman culture of death as a culture that is ruled by “dishonorable passions” (Rom. 1: 26). Contrary to what is commonly alleged, in these verses Paul is neither launching into a diatribe disparaging human nature in general, nor condemning homosexuality as a sin. Rather he is denouncing the practice of turning human beings into sex slaves, and even more broadly he is condemning the practice of human trafficking sanctioned by imperial power and the aristocracy. He alleges that people who claim to be “wise,” are, in truth, “futile in the thinking,” because “they have exchanged to glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles” (Rom. 1:23). Simply put, the sin of idolatry manifests itself in the disparagement of human dignity. Positively stated, the measure of a good society is not the wealth of the few, but the well-being of the many, especially slaves and the marginalized. A good society honors the image of God by protecting human dignity and nurturing healthy communities. A moral society promotes a culture of life for all people.
       Paul not only exposes the callous cruelty of the empire, he builds up communities of resistance by giving them encouragement and practical advice. We have to read passages like the following in this context: “In all things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers . . . will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8: 37 - 39). Here, Paul is not denying the reality and power of the empire, but he is saying that a community rooted in the power of God’s love will find the strength to resist the pressures the empire brings to bear upon it.
Paul forthrightly addresses the theme of imperial power in Chapter 13, which I suggest it is best understood as a treatise in political realism. Christians in Rome would have remembered that Nero became the emperor after his mother fatally poisoned the emperor Claudius, and that Nero himself killed his own mother four years after he became emperor. They would also have remembered that Claudius had expelled Jews and Jewish Christians from Rome in the year 49. Therefore, the admonition to “pay taxes” (Rom. 13: 7) was more than a summons to good citizenship. Additionally, Paul may have anticipated future persecutions, which began in the year 68 with the Great Fire in Rome. At the very least, his message served to remind the congregation of the recent past and the power of the empire.
We might also surmise that Nero rescinded Claudius’s ban of Jews because it was politically expedient for him to have them in Rome. The presence of an unpopular religious minority provided a convenient “target” when Nero felt it was necessary to “fire up his base,” to use a contemporary phrase. Additionally, he may have anticipated that the return of the exiles would give him added leverage over both Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians.
Paul’s response to this situation was to encourage a spirit and an ethic of “deep solidarity,” to use a phrase coined by Joerg Rieger, a postcolonial theologian. The following verse is one of many in which we find this ethic: “Owe no one anything except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law” (Rom. 13: 8). I believe that the ethic of mutual obligation, the ethic of “one-anothering,” was then and is now a core element of the good news that kept and keeps the community together. The concluding chapters, in which we find an appeal for funds for “the poor among the saints in Jerusalem” (Rom. 15: 26), and recognition of fellow workers and prisoners in Chapter 16, is further evidence of the importance of the ethic of deep solidarity.
Before concluding this brief study of the letter to the Romans, I want to call attention to two additional passages. Paul boldly declares: “I am not ashamed of the gospel: it is the power of God for salvation for everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Rom. 1: 16). Roman society functioned on a system of honor and shame. Honor is a statement of worth and an affirmation of a person’s value to others. The dynamic of honor and shame structures social relationships and institutions. Thus, Paul’s statement, “I am not ashamed of the gospel,” is a declaration of freedom from the Roman shaming culture of death. He is not ashamed to be a slave, because he is the slave of Jesus Christ, who has been raised from the dead by God.
         Lastly, I want to offer a reflection on the passage that is often called the centerpiece of the Protestant Reformation. We are “justified by . . . [God’s] grace as a gift . . . [through] faith in Jesus” (3: 23 - 26). There is a strong tendency in contemporary theology to reduce these words to a narrow framework of atomistic individualism and a personal belief in Jesus. But in the letter to the Romans faith in Jesus is evidenced by loyalty to and trust in members of the community of liberation who are opposed to the prevailing culture of death, and who are witnessing to a culture of life, a cultural of mutual obligation, a culture of “one-anothering.” Faith is made real through the practice of deep solidarity with members of the body of Christ.
Against all common sense, Paul had the temerity to tell Christians living in Rome in the first century that Pax Romana (the peace of Rome), was a culture of death to be resisted at all costs. The basis of resistance, he counseled, was the love of God revealed in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, which made possible the creation of a new order based on an ethic of mutual obligation.
      In these worrisome times, it is not a foregone conclusion that the republic of the United States will go the way of the Roman republic. Our democratic institutions and traditions may yet prevail. Likewise, it is not a certainty that Christian communities in the United States will have the wisdom and courage needed if we are to follow Paul’s wise counsel. But we know this simple truth. Creation is groaning in travail and standing on tiptoes of expectation (Rom. 8: 22), eager to see how followers of the Way of Jesus will answer the call.
Rev. David P. Hansen  

Friday, March 8, 2019

"How A Christian Overcomes Evil"


Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote a short essay that is not well known but profound in it's simplicity. It's titled, "How a Christian Overcomes Evil." Perhaps the essay is not well known because it starts with introspection, a recognition that evil is not just "out there" but "in me" as well. We are usually quite competent in recognizing the evil in others, seldom in ourselves. So the first step in overcoming evil for King is identifying that evil in me that is most in need of change. What is my greatest temptation; envy, pride, lust, greed? You can go through the seven cardinal sins and a dozen more to find your change challenge. After all, if we can't change ourselves, what makes us think we can change anything external to us? 

Of course one can't overcome a personal evil until it is recognized and admitted, brought into the light of day. Sometimes it takes a shock to the system for us to recognize the evil. 
           Apparently Michael Cohen didn't admit the water he was carrying for President Trump, "fixing" things, over ten years of their relationship, was all that terrible, until it was exposed to the light of a criminal investigation. Now, he says he wants to be truthful, especially as he sees the impact the evil in his life is having on his family. How many of us do things in the dark, that if exposed to the light, would hurt those we love?

Evil in us has to be recognized and faced before it can be changed. To start the change process, King would have us first trust in the grace of God. We probably can't do it alone. 

Then we might add an inventory to our evening routine. How did I do today? How often was the temptation to do my evil apparent and what was my response? Instead of counting sheep, we count successes and failures and will to do better. We work to turn "the predominant fault into it's opposite virtue." It's not a passive project to change but an active one.

        Then comes the heart of the matter. "Concentrate not on the eradication of evil, but on the cultivation of virtue." Again, "Evil is never to be attacked directly, but indirectly. Evil is not driven out, but crowded out."     When our children were young and tempted to do things they shouldn't, my response was usually to force them to do something different. I would attack the situation directly with the intention of driving the misbehavior out of them. That's what I learned from my father and I expect from his father before him. On the other hand, my wife was a master of distraction. She could identify something the children would rather do than what they were doing and draw their attention to it. She was able to replace the misbehavior with something better. She crowded out the evil with a seeming treat.

                It's simple, really, if often hard to implement. Our reliance on the power of force, coercion, intimidation, violence and war is so inbred, it's often difficult to see the alternative. We forget the ends don't justify the means; that the means often determine the ends. Hate doesn't get rid of hate, only love can do that. War doesn't make an end to war, only peace can do that.

One of the examples King uses in his essay comes out of Greek mythology. He describes the different responses of Ulysses and Orpheus to the temptations of the song of the Sirens, luring sailors to their deaths. Ulysses puts wax in the ears of his sailors and ties himself to the mast of the ship. Orpheus, the divine musician, instead of using wax and rope plays such beautiful music, the song of the Sirens falls flat. The temptation is replaced by something better. The evil is crowded out.  

King's essay has application in so many circumstances, from child rearing to international relations. How can a superpower with thousands of nuclear weapons, convince another country without them they are sinful? What moral authority does the U.S. have unless we get rid of our own? I read just this morning a request that the UK dispose of their nuclear weapons, a small number that do them little good, and become a broker with countries like North Korea and Iran to stay out of the nuclear club. We need to ask ourselves, how is it that one country with a nuclear sin has managed to create a whole club, that continues to grow and welcome new members? 

        There is, in King's words, an "expulsive power for good." In the days of the Cold War, everyday citizens were going to Russia to meet their complements in that country, person to person, farmer to farmer, teacher to teacher. Women in South Korea have been walking across the DMZ to North Korea, seeking to reunite families. Different NGO's bring young Israeli's and Palestinians together to help them recognize their commonalities and crowd out their differences. Muslims, Christians and Jews come together in dialogue around common concerns. Once we confess our fears of the other and replace them with human relationship, the picture of our world begins to shift. We can't leave it up to Presidents or Parliaments. We all need to do our own inventory and take the first step to replace the evils of our time with the joys that can drive them out, the joys of music, beauty and caring relationships. With God's help and the wisdom of folks like M.L. King, we can do it.  

Carl Kline 

Friday, March 1, 2019

Recognizing the Possibility of Common Ground



I cringed as I read the first letter in an online exchange, sharp in its tone and hurtful in its misunderstanding and characterization. Unexpectedly, differently, but equally pained, I cringed as I read the second letter, a response to the first. It too was sharp in its tone. I imagined how it would be hurtful to the writer of the first letter in its own perceived misunderstanding. I had expected to be soothed by the second letter, knowing that in principle I shared the views of its writer, knowing that we shared similar pain in response to the first letter. I hold the awareness, as well, that I too may be unfair in my critique and judgment.

Such a swirl of feelings in regard to conflict is good, helping us to take stock and consider the ways of our response in the face of difference and its expression. So we pause, even if after the fact, and ideally in the future before pressing send, to reflect on the dynamics within ourselves and in relation to the other. In that place of pause, the first challenge is to clarify the goal of our engaging with the other. That will determine the nature of our response.  Is the goal and reason for our response to vent and rage, to express our own hurt at another’s insensitivity? At times such response may seem needed for the sake of moving others. And yet, it will rarely move anyone who is not already of similar mind. That leads directly to the other possibility. Or, is our response meant to change the other, to move them from what seems to be an entrenched position by moral suasion and the power of sharing lived experience?

If the goal is to change others in order to create a more just and caring society, to bring the other along with us, then the first step is to find common ground wherein we might meet and seek a way forward together. It is the way of nonviolence expressed in the ordinary unfolding of our lives in relation to others. The goal, therefore, is not to demean and diminish the other, but to raise them up so that we might look directly into each other’s eyes. There are times, such as in the face of entrenched evil, or of explosive hate waiting to erupt, when the focus needs to be on those not yet involved in the struggle, whether for fear or apathy.             Our task then is to create allies with whom to counter evil, rather than to focus on the evildoers themselves. This was hardly the case in regard to the writer of the first letter. There was clearly common ground between the two writers, shared experience and shared language in regard to a common endeavor requiring great commitment by each. The common ground begged to be trod, a place where a meeting might have happened in which change might have been gently nurtured. For all of the nastiness in the exchange, there were surprisingly fine lines of difference between the letters, and ironies of similarity to be brought out, to be given shape and offered as loving challenge.

It is just such a fine line in the weekly Torah portion called Miketz (Gen. 41:1-44:17), that lies between Yosef and his brothers and speaks to the grammar of engagement. Yosef has risen to be viceroy of Egypt, second in power only to Pharaoh. Following seven years of plenty, in which, according to Yosef’s plan, the granaries of Egypt have been filled with grain, famine has now gripped the land and the entire region. Yosef’s brothers, sent by their father, have now come down into Egypt among the hungry masses seeking to buy food. In a dramatic moment when dreams from the past flood the screen as flashbacks, the brothers now in reality bow down to the viceroy, unbeknownst to them as the brother they had long ago thrown into a pit and given up for dead.

The Torah captures the tension of the moment and makes it our own, bringing us to ask what we would do. Is this to be a moment of revenge, of attacking the other in kind? Or is it to be a moment in which to pause and consider the way ahead, to reflect on what will allow for transformation and repair? We are told simply, when Yosef saw his brothers, he recognized them. But he made himself a stranger to them (Gen. 42:7). The tension between recognizing and making himself unrecognized is held between two words that appear in the Hebrew in quick succession as one phrase, va’ya’kirem va’yit’na’ker/he recognized them, but he made himself unrecognizable to them.

In Hebrew, the words to recognize and not to recognize are formed of the same root, NaCHaR. That is how fine the line is between knowing and not knowing someone, between recognizing and not recognizing the other for who they are. Yosef puts forth a plan by which to test his brothers, by which to determine if indeed they have changed from who they were when they threw him into the pit. It is not for the sake of revenge, but for the sake of change, seeking to reweave the family bond with honesty and hope, allowing long estranged brothers to embrace once again.

Standing in the narrowly demarcated space, it is the fineness of the line between recognizing and not recognizing the other with which we are given to wrestle. It is the fineness of a line that we are given as a thread to weave into the fabric of our own lives and struggles with people. Speaking to fine lines of difference so easily magnified, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch looks at the grammar of engagement as it plays out between Yosef and his brothers. Of this phrase whose tension we inherit, va’ya’kirem va’yit’na’ker/he recognized them, but he made himself unrecognizable to them, Rabbi Hirsch writes, “Apparently two contradictory meanings of the one and the same root, NaCHaR: to recognize and to be strange to. But only apparently…. We only recognize an object by making it singular, separating it out from everything else. The more signs of difference we see in an object, the more specially do we recognize it….” Our differences can become, in effect, ways of singular connection, a bridge to common ground.

In the way that differences jump from a letter, from hurtful words both written and spoken, and in all the ways of our interactions with others, may we become attuned to reading between the lines and recognizing the possibility of common ground. In the very differences that so upset us in relation to another, may we see the possibility of recognition and reunion.

Rabbi Victor Reinstein

Friday, February 22, 2019

Community

In 1919, New Jersey Municipalities initiated the Community Chest. This was an attempt to combine the funding needs for all the charities in a New Jersey community into one funding effort. I'm old enough to remember that's what it was still called when I was growing up. Now, of course, we have United Way. The name has changed but the purpose has stayed the same.

The idea of the Community Chest has lasted a hundred years, one assumes, because it makes sense and has proven worthy of support. Wouldn't it be nice if instead of two or three  appeals coming to our mailbox daily, from all manner of non profits, we could support them all from one credible and well managed funding source. Since that's unlikely on a federal level, thank goodness we can do it in our local community. We should recognize and appreciate all those volunteers who make it possible. 

       On the other hand, that's socialistic isn't it? Wouldn't it be better to have all those community organizations competing with each other? And what about all those other instances in our community where we have decided to own and support things in common; like Brookings Utilities, the fire and police departments, the public schools and parks, the library, the hospital, the streets and highways and public transportation? Wouldn't it be better to privatize them all and let the most competitive and efficient rise to the top?

The President raised the specter of socialism in his State of the Union speech. "We are alarmed by new calls to adopt socialism in our country," he said. It appeared he was looking in the direction of Alexandra Ocasio Cortez when he said it. Then he said "America will never be a socialist country." He was probably looking at Bernie Sanders when he said that.

Using the example of Venezuela as the socialist government gone bad and starving their own people, the President will travel to Miami next week to decry this economic plague he believes some are intent on foisting on us. One recent opinion column in the New York Times, suggested the President could be the best spokesperson for socialism one could find, since the more he denigrates something the more Americans seem to support it.

We might also recognize Venezuela's problems for what they really are. They have a corrupt and authoritarian government. But perhaps even more telling, the country relies economically on one natural resource, oil, that generates 40-70% of it's revenue. Complicating the situation is pressure from OPEC to keep production down and economic sanctions from the U.S. 

It should come as no surprise this administration is interested in what is happening there. The cynic in me says it's not the thousands of hungry Venezuelan refugees fleeing the country (not given the way we treat refugees on our own southern border). Rather, Venezuela has the largest known oil reserves on the planet. 

Let's be honest Mr. President. Let's be realistic. No one is talking about socialism as state ownership of the means of production. No one is talking about a Venezuela in North America. Democratic socialism has worked and is working well in Northern European countries where the health care and happiness index is high. What we're talking about is a degree of sharing for the good of all. Sometimes the sharing is done through mutual effort, sometimes through taxes. Isn't that what makes a community, some kind of mutual investment?

There are some who would like to privatize everything, and others who seem determined to move in that direction. When one examines the history of private toll roads, the evidence is they don't work very well. Poor quality and bankruptcy seem common wherever they have been tried. Private charter schools, run for profit, are getting a second more critical look. Many of these schools reject the neediest as others fare worse than public schools.

Or take the police department! There is a movement in this country to put, not a chicken in every pot, but a gun in every pocket. What happened to the idea of calling the police? 

In South Dakota, do we really think that encouraging college students to carry guns on campus will make everyone safer, including the students? Do the advocates realize how common suicide can be in that age group, the second leading cause of death after accidents (often the result of self destructive behavior)? And what happens when uncontrolled anger with the teacher, girl or boy friend, boils over? I understand the gun makers are happy and competing aggressively with each other for business. But is that best for our college communities?

The word community derives from old French and means "a number of people associated together by the fact of residence in the same locality." An additional derivation is "the common people (not the rulers or clergy)." 

              In a time when society is not just frayed at the edges but torn down the middle, we would be wise to focus on building community. How can we work together for the common good? What organizations and institutions should we support to increase the welfare of all? How should we structure our life together so all are included? Those are the questions for building community. Let's not be frightened by the specter of "isms".
Carl Kline

Friday, February 15, 2019

Listening: A Meditation on Acts16:9-10


     I was recently invited to be the visiting preacher in a congregation in my community. The text  for the day was Acts 16: 9 - 10, which reads: “A vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man from Macedonia was standing beseeching him and saying: ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’ And when he had seen this vision, sought to go into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.” The text goes on to say that “Immediately we sought to go into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.”
I do not know why this particular passage was selected, or why the theme “Listening,” was given, but I told the congregation that I thought they had picked one of the most important, timely and controversial passages possible. I commended them for their boldness.
     When I was a child in Sunday school and later in seminary, I learned that the Christian movement began as a Jewish sect centered in Jerusalem. At the Council of Jerusalem, the Apostle Paul, the champion of the liberals, successfully argued against Jewish Christians that Gentiles could become Christians without converting at Judaism first. From that moment on the Christian movement spread throughout the Mediterranean and far beyond. There was no central plan. Followers of the Way of Jesus went to Africa, India, Asia, but in the New Testament account we have the impression that Paul was a central figure in spreading the message of the gospel. According to our tradition, Paul, more than anyone else, was responsible for spreading the message of the gospel beyond the enclave of Jerusalem.
     In these verses from the Book of Acts, Paul is in modern day Turkey when he receives a vision of a man, an angel some would say, standing on the shores of Macedonia calling to him and saying: “Come over and help us.” Paul and his colleagues immediately pack their bags and go to Macedonia. According to the tradition, this visit is the first time the Christian message is brought to Europe. Rome eventually replaces Jerusalem as the center of the Christian movement, and Europe becomes the center of the Christian faith.
     Fast forward to 1492 when Columbus sailed the oceans blue. Christian kings and popes believed that they heard the Angel of Macedonia calling again. This time they wedded Paul’s vision and the summons to “come over and help us” with the Great Commission found at the end of the gospel according to Matthew, where the resurrected Jesus tells his disciples: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit . . . Lo, I am with you always to the close of the age” (Mt. 28: 19 -20). In other words, the church claims for itself the mission of spreading Christianity around the world to the end of time.
     Fortified with these texts from Matthew and Acts, for the last 400 or 500 years Euro-American Christians have claimed that the mission of the church is follow the example of Paul, heed the call of the Angel of Macedonia and the words of Jesus, and go forth to civilize and Christianize primitive people, pagans and heathens, who are locked in darkness. When Christian missionaries went to the Hawaiian Islands and when they went to India they went to civilize and Christianize people whom they decided needed their help. When missionaries came to North America they said that the indigenous people were “wild animals” and “beasts.”
     For all these long centuries the mission focus of the Christian movement has been to civilize and Christianize non-Christians. It has been a history of conquest justified in large measure by these two texts: the Great Commission to go into all the world and baptize everyone until the end of the ages, and by the vision of the angel of Macedonia standing on the shores of the New World calling to Christians to “come over and help us.”
      It is important for us to know this history. Even as it makes us uncomfortable, we need to know it. When we see white politicians wearing black face and Ku Klux Klan hoods, when we witness white supremacy, we need to know that there is a religious subtext to all of this.
A significant number of people, learning of this history, have said: “If this is what Christianity is, and if this is what the church is about, count me out. I’m done with it.” They are leaving the church because of its hypocrisy. But it isn’t that simple. We cannot just close the book, blow out the candle, ring the bell and walk away. Missionaries who came to civilize and Christianize non-Christians were acting in good faith. They believed that they were doing the right thing. There are Christians today who still believe that this is the right thing to do.
     Those of us who want to change the story have to come to terms with this history--which is our history. Scott Momaday, a Native American author and scholar, says in one of his essays that “white Americans are willing to take on the burdens of oppressed people everywhere, but we are decidedly unwilling to divest ourselves of the false assumptions that impede our good intentions.” We need to divest ourselves of these false assumptions. In order to do this, we need to go back to texts like this passage in the Book of Acts and reinterpret it and give it fresh meaning. Let me share with you what I mean.
     The Christian movement in Paul’s time was not Rome’s favorite religion. In the first and second centuries there were serious religious persecutions of Christians, so much so that a second century church leader named Tertullian was able to say that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Paul himself was in and out of jail many times. When he writes in Second Corinthians: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed” (4: 8-9), it’s not hyperbole. Christians in Corinth and Christians in Macedonia knew first-hand what Paul was saying.  
      The Macedonians were not asking Paul to help them become more like the Romans. They were part of a resistance movement and they wanted Paul to help to organize a resistance movement to the Roman Empire. The early church was a genuinely counter-cultural movement. That’s why it was persecuted.
The Book of Acts tells the story of Pentecost--people heard the gospel in their own languages. No one was forced to learn Hebrew, or Latin, or Greek. No one was forced to attend a Christian boarding school or abandon their native language and learn English as the language of the civilized. They spoke in their native languages. They kept their own names. Their cultures were honored.
In Acts, Chapter 4, verse 32, we read: “The company of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said any of the things he possessed were his own, but they had everything in common.” The measure of the economy was the elimination of poverty and want. That’s what this text means. The early church did not want any of their members to be homeless or to go hungry. They wanted to create an economy as if people mattered. And they organized themselves and their communities accordingly.
In the letter to Galatians, Paul writes: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free; neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (3:28). The classic strategy of divide and conquer  does not work if people refuse to recognize the divisions. Over and over again in his letters Paul reminds us, “In Christ you are a new creation.” The mission of the church, the reason Paul went to Macedonia, was not to civilize and Christianize heathens and wild beasts. He went there to organize a resistance movement, to show the world that there is a better way to live.
     In the complexity of our times, I submit, that the angel of Macedonia is calling us to be part of such a movement. Politicians may wear black face or revert to racist language and images, but the reality is that interracial families and communities are here to stay. Anti-immigrant rhetoric is hot, and some of our leaders seem intent on stoking fires of fear of Muslims, or Jews, or Gays, or whomever is the next target, but the reality is that people are coming together in communities all across the land to meet each other and talk with each other so that we can find ways to work together to make our communities better places for everyone to live.
     This past week I’ve met with union organizers who are working in our largest grocery chain to expand union membership and combat wage theft, job mis-classification, and other forms of unfair labor practices.  Only a few years ago we hardly heard any public discussion about poverty, or debt, or health care. Today these topics are being talked about at kitchen tables in lunch counters everywhere.
      So today I am asking you to think of the text in a new way. The angel of Macedonia is calling you.          
Find your passion. Get engaged in the struggle for justice and equality. Find out what you can do to make this community a better place for everyone. This is the word of our tradition for today.

Rev. David Hansen, contributor
Biblical references are from the RSV.
     
 

Friday, February 8, 2019

Continuing Saga


The second cataract has been attended to.  The month long discipline of eye drops morning and evening has ended.  My  vision has been pronounced 20/20 and except for some magnification for reading and working on the computer I am free of wearing glasses for the first time in 35 years. 

   The clarity of vision, the depth and brightness of color and the amount of light I enjoy has not come without a period of adjustment.  Even though pronounced “healed” by the eye doctor, my eyes have been “aching”. I  feel as though they are working over-time.  I need to rest my eyes periodically.  It occurs to me that all the miniscule muscles and nerves that work to allow and control the  light that enters my eyes have to adjust to their new work load.  (I am not at all sure that this is scientifically so, however, but it seems reasonable.)

So, of course I am set to wondering how it is for people who have seriously impaired vision or who have not had vision at all and then are able to have their vision restored or given to them through medical and surgical miracles.   The miracle of clear vision is not without its downsides.  Clear seeing can be challenging and sometimes painful.

The Gospel of John (9:1-41) tells a story of Jesus healing a man who was blind from birth - - using the technology of the age - a bit of spit and a bit of dust from the earth mixed to form a salve for the man’s eyes.  The man’s sight is given to him.  He only gets to celebrate for a very short time before he becomes the center of heavy theological discourse about the nature of his healing and, of course, the nature of the one who healed him.  He doesn’t get to enjoy unmitigated pleasure with his new found sight for long.

As the story comes to its conclusion, Jesus utters some challenging words to his listeners: “If you were blind, you would not have sin.  But now that you say, ‘We see,’  your sin remains.”

More and more, I am understanding this story as telling me something about the responsibility that comes with increasing consciousness of life around me.  As I become more and more aware of the state of the world, I also become more accountable for my role in it.

    So I am again in a state of pondering the meaning of the latest revelations of racism and sexual misconduct coming out of the state of Virginia - and the “zero tolerance” response coming from the Democratic Party. As Jesus demonstrated elsewhere in the sacred texts at the near stoning of a woman caught in adultery,  it is all too easy and reasonable to point the finger at the “other” until we find the same behaviors in ourselves.

As a people, we are at a different level of  awareness than we were a few of years ago.  In some sense, the spit and dust have been applied to our eyes - - a terribly messy business at best.  We can’t go back to turning a “blind eye” toward behavior that was once easily hidden or tolerated or denied. 

The line from the Ray Stevens song “Everything is Beautiful” keeps slipping into consciousness: There is none so blind as he who will not see.  It harks back to a quote from John Heywood, 16th century philosopher: The most deluded people are those who choose to ignore what they already know.  Heywood’s articulation has even deeper roots in the prophet Jeremiah’s warnings to Judah: Hear this, O foolish and senseless people , who have eyes, but do not see, who have ears but do not hear. (Jeremiah 5:21)

        There is a story in the sacred texts of Christianity of a fellow named Saul whose job it was to search out new Christians and persecute them.  As the story goes, he was on his way to the city of Damascus to carry out his mission when he had an encounter with the Risen Jesus that literally knocked him off his horse.  He came out of the encounter blinded and needed to be led from place to place by someone else.  As a result of prayer by Ananias, a member of the Christian community, Saul was flooded by what the early Christians referred to as The Holy Spirit, and “something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored.” (Acts 9:18).  The "sight" he had post encounter was not the same as he had prior to falling off his horse.  It resulted in a change of direction and a new identity.

I wonder if that is the grand and overarching process that we are in - a process of being knocked off our horses - - of having the scales removed from our eyes -- of having our eyes opened, our cataracts removed.  The question that remains is “How will we be responsible with our growing clarity of vision?  Could we handle a new direction? A new identity?"
It all remains to be seen.    

Vicky Hanjian

Friday, February 1, 2019

The Healing Imperative of Moral Anxiety


I was taken aback by the framing of the question, puzzled at its puzzlement to the point of being incredulous. The answer seemed obvious, held in the very web of factors presented to us. It was at a recent gathering of rabbis, whose programmatic title was: “The Age of Anxiety: What Rabbis Need to Know.” Clearly, anxiety is a serious mental health challenge, one that will always need caring and skilled intervention toward addressing the internal and personal dynamics of one’s own experience and chemistry. While this was part of the program’s focus, there was another dimension, and it was in the approach to that other dimension that I felt so troubled.

       Referring first to the high incidence of anxiety among Americans today, the introductory material we received then went on to say: “Yet, ironically, we have fewer reasons to be anxious today than ever: Advances in technology, economics, medicine, and other fields make us more productive, connected, affluent, and privileged than any period in history. Why is the modern world such a ripe context for the development of emotional disorders, and more importantly what can we do about it?

      I sat at the edge of my seat for much of the talk, feeling distress, and, indeed, anxiety, as the presenter offered the same framing as I had read in the written materials. In the positing of a question that utterly ignored what is right in front of us, I nearly screamed, “the world is falling apart, how shall we not be anxious?!” It seemed so clear, that for so many people there is a painful awareness of the jagged edges of external reality as felt within themselves, that cuts to the quick of every tender, caring heart, of every heart that holds the world’s pain as its own. How not to feel anxious, for people and for the world, and for the fate of future generations that hangs in the balance?

The presenter asked, “how many of you know someone who lives without plumbing, or who has never been on an airplane?” Struggling to contain my feelings, I wondered, does it really matter if I don’t know anyone personally without plumbing or without the worldly experience that was somehow assumed to mitigate anxiety? I thought about all of those who live in wretched poverty in this country and in so many places in the world, all part of the human family. I thought of all the migrants suffering at our southern border, their pain inflicted in my name. I thought about the intrinsic lines of connection that join us to each other, of the teaching that emerges from the very beginning of Torah, that all people are created in the image of God. How can I not feel anxiety in knowing how many in my extended human family live lives that are so filled with pain and struggle?

When the time for questions finally came, I couldn’t believe that what seemed so obvious was not addressed. As time went by and my hand seemed unnoticed, I felt like I would burst. Near to the end, as someone else pointed to my raised hand, I finally shared my distress, telling of the anxiety, as it were, that I felt in the disconnection between inner and outer worlds. I challenged the speaker’s suggestion of privilege as a bulwark against anxiety, pointing to it, rather, as the very cause for such collective anxiety. With privilege in regard to wealth and justice, to health and opportunity, to happiness and fulfillment, we come to be divided from each other as human beings. 
Privilege separates, even from those who are near and dear to us, each one caught up in their own pursuits. In the grand scheme, the environmental disasters that threaten the earth’s future are a consequence of privilege, of living without constraints, of living as though we can do whatever we want and take from the earth and others whatever will satisfy our own presumed needs. I thought of all those who feel so deeply the pain of the world, who struggle with such anxiety of conscience to respond with awareness of our own privilege to the profound disparities in relation to others. It is privilege itself that becomes the source of our existential anxiety.

Feeling the pain of others as a source of anxiety runs deep in Jewish tradition. In a very different context, not as a matter of privilege, but in regard to an intrinsic human bond that is frayed by privilege, we are challenged in at least two settings in the Torah portion read during the week of the gathering, the portion called B’shallach (Ex. 13:17-17:16), in regard to how we respond to the suffering of others. When the Israelites have crossed the sea and are standing on the far shore watching the Egyptian soldiers drowning in the returning waters, they couldn’t sing at first, the verses suggesting that they stood in dumbfound silence. A powerful Musar teaching notes the silence before song could arise:

          ‘And God saved Israel on that day from the hand of Egypt, and Israel saw Egypt dead upon the seashore.’ They had not yet uttered song, they had not sung their redemption song nor sung concerning the downfall of the Egyptians, for they were greatly distressed; for all this, how is it possible to sing and to rejoice with complete joy when seeing a great camp of human beings strewn upon the seashore, writhing in terrible agonies, the dead and the dying?

From much longer ago than nineteenth century ethical teaching, in the Haftorah of that week from the Book of Judges (4:4-5:31), the Philisitine general Sisera is killed, one who plundered, raped, and destroyed. Near the end of the Haftorah his mother waits for her son’s return, looking through the window, coming to realize that he will not return. The rabbis likened the sound of her weeping to the weeping sound of the shofar’s broken notes. From the weeping of Sisera’s mother, vat’yabev em sis’ra/and the mother of Sisera wept (Judges 5:28), Rosh Hashannah came to be called by its least familiar name, Yom Yabavah/Day of Weeping, honoring the universal cry of one mother whose son will not return.

Each of these cases offers an extreme instance of identification with the pain of others, even of those who would harm us. So sensitized to the breadth of human life, we are meant to feel anxiety at all harm done to others. In doing all that we can to repair the world in which we live is a path to our own wholeness. Activism is therapeutic, not only in its successes on behalf of others, but for ourselves. We are strengthened and given meaning in the empowering realization that we can do something about all that weighs upon our hearts. Holding in our hearts those without plumbing and benefits of privilege, remembering those who are knocking at America’s doors, those who suffer war and famine, holding with love the earth herself, so may our own souls and psyches be made whole, as we learn to breath through and act upon the healing imperative of moral anxiety.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein