* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Dismantling Fear of Same-Sex Marriage

Today and tomorrow, the Supreme Court is hearing testimony on a couple of cases which will influence the rights of homosexual couples, and thus some conservative Christian alarmists are casting aside the example set by the biblical character of Jesus to voice their profoundly irrational fears on the subject. If these individuals are to be believed, the fate of the country hangs in the balance between the issues of marriage for homosexual couples and reproductive rights for women. Among other tactics, some of these representatives of Christianity are publicly praying for God's will to be done, sowing the seeds of fear through absurd slippery slope arguments, encouraging civil disobedience, and appealing to an antiquated perspective of sinfulness as a basis for modern-day legal decisions. Since I began this writing experiment a year and a half ago after an essay on marriage rights for same-sex couples, it seems appropriate to revisit it during a significant time in the life of our country.

I must confess that I am puzzled when a person prays for God's will to be done and then asserts what God's will must be in a given situation. If God is believed to be omnipotent, or at least exerting some amount of control over reality, what does one hope to accomplish by encouraging God to do what he will presumably do anyway? If God is in control, isn't everything that happens his will? Yet, if the Supreme Court decides in favor of same-sex marriage in a few months, there will no doubt be some Christians who will claim that God's will was not done. The people I admire are those who recognize the need to occasionally reorder their impression of God's love for humanity. People who claim to have a corner on the market of understanding God's will are revealing a profound egotism and immaturity, demanding that reality should shift to fit their perspective rather than the other way around.

Hoping to gain collusion for their prejudice and spread panic and self-righteous indignation, some of these individuals have equated homosexual people with child molesters and animal abusers, claiming that it will only be a short step from legalizing marriage for homosexual couples to legalizing bestiality, child abuse, incest, and polygamy. Obviously, condoning a relationship between two consenting adults has nothing to do with putting children or animals at risk. On the one hand, the fear-mongering tactics are blatant, but on the other hand, the envisioned dangers of this slippery slope attack the very foundation of the argument. Some famous biblical heroes committed incest and polygamy, and God didn't seem to mind at all. If the Bible is to be used as a credible source for condemning homosexuality, why is it not a credible source to approve marrying one's half-sister or taking multiple wives?

The whole slippery slope concern is fallacious from the start, however. As things currently stand, relationships between homosexual couples exist. Although the GLBT community is still in the process of obtaining equal treatment in our society, they are able to openly present themselves to society as homosexuals with ever-increasing acceptance. Homosexual couples can adopt children, and potentially raise them in a more loving environment than some heterosexual couples manage to create. The propriety of homosexuality is not the issue in question. The question is whether married adult homosexual couples will be granted the same benefits as married adult heterosexual couples. Even if the Supreme Court decides in favor of restrictive and intolerant laws, there will still be people in homosexual relationships in America.

Presumably, the concern is that such "sinful" acts should be condemned by the law, even if people choose to engage in them. This, too, seems like an indefensible position. Homosexuality is not even significant enough to be addressed in the Ten Commandments, and in the United States, national laws permit the breaking of several of the Big Ten. Not only are people allowed to work on the sabbath, our culture and economy have come to expect it to a large extent. There are no national laws against idolatry. There are no longer any national laws against blasphemy. Although we expect people to give honest testimony before judges, there are entire career fields based on deception. And although adultery is illegal on the books in some states, there is no national law prohibiting it. In fact, according to a recent study, 23% of Christian pastors in America admitted to committing adultery. Apparently it is easier to condemn other people than it is to live blamelessly in one's own life. The Bible claims that Jesus even said something about this.

Even though homosexuality isn't mentioned in the Ten Commandments, it is clearly included in a larger set of "sinful" behaviors articulated in the Bible. While the laws of the United States may not outright condone many "sinful" behaviors, there doesn't seem to be a community of people who are being persecuted for wearing mixed fabrics, gossiping, or eating the wrong foods (all of which are sinful according to the Bible). This has become a legal issue specifically because an intolerant segment of the Christian subculture has claimed unjustified and imbalanced influence on the American legal system. For whatever reason, some Christians believe that they must impose their worldview on other people, and they are willing to use an array of intimidation tactics to get their way, even though this represents a very different way of treating people than what was taught by their namesake.

While it seems logical to suggest that no one is going to be forced into a homosexual relationship, some people insist that their religious rights are being trampled if anyone is allowed to engage in a homosexual relationship with the blessing of the national government. This reflects a grievous misunderstanding of how religious freedom works. Religious freedom means that I have the right to believe what I want to believe and engage in whatever religious activities seem appropriate to me, provided I do not bring harm to any person or animal or break any other laws. Religious freedom does not mean that I can dictate what other people do. If someone decides to be Christian, and I am offended by that, I cannot call foul and demand that the government do something about it. Likewise, if my religious beliefs do not allow for the use of an automobile, I cannot demand that everyone else stop driving around. If a person's religion prohibits consuming alcohol, that person should refrain from consuming alcohol; if a person's religion prohibits homosexual behavior, then that person should refrain from homosexual behavior. That is the extent of religious freedom. Somehow, when money is perceived as being in the mix, however, people start getting twisted.

Since the whole reproductive rights issue has been in the public eye because of its inclusion in the national health care plan, some Christian organizations have been threatening civil disobedience. The rhetoric goes something like, "We will not be forced to pay for abortions," followed by whatever absurd and idle threats seem to pack the most punch at the time. As they see the issue, if any money a Christian organization pays into a health care system is used to pay for abortion, then the organization is essentially supporting abortion, even if no one in the actual organization ever has an abortion. It makes sense on the surface. Now, the battle cry is easily converted to, "We will not be forced to support marriage rights for homosexuals." While I'm not sure what that means, exactly, since I cannot imagine that any members of the clergy will suddenly be forced to perform marriages, the assumption seems to be that an organization should be able to decide to be a conscientious objector to a national policy. This reflects either a stunning naïveté or a very ballsy bluff.

Here's a secret that these folks may actually not realize: We are already paying for things we don't want to pay for. Imagine that I disagree with cigarette smoking and I decide that I don't want to pay for a smoker's cancer treatment. If their behavior brought about the disease, then they should bear the brunt of paying for treatment. Harsh perhaps, but reasonable. If I have health insurance, however, the cost of my insurance is not just based on my personal medical expenses. An insurance company spreads its expenditures out across all its policy holders. So, if I look at things the right way, I am paying for a small piece of a lot of other people's medical procedures, whether I want to or not. I appreciate the benefits of having health insurance, though, so I have to come to terms with the fact that some little portion of my premiums payments will pay some miniscule portion of many smokers' cancer treatments.

Similarly, let us consider taxes for a moment. As American citizens, we have a great amount of freedom, but as individuals we do not get to determine how our country spends the taxes we pay. Some of us may disagree with wars because of the innocent lives that are inevitably lost. We do not get to allocate our tax dollars toward education instead. I can issue statements of protest and disapproval. I can contribute personal money toward organizations that seek to broker peace. I can volunteer my time and energy toward anti-war efforts. But my tax dollars will, in some small way, support the decisions of elected officials, whether I agree with them or not. That is how our democracy works.

As for how Christianity works, there are now many differing views. Some would say that Jesus proclaimed a new way of living in harmony with one another, through a profound love that surpassed our tendency to compete and condemn. Some would say that there is no fear in such a love as Jesus taught, that such a love dismantles fear. Others apparently believe that they must fight with every breath to force others to behave a certain way. This winds up looking a lot more like fear than it does love. I would suggest that Christians are capable of reading their scriptures with more open eyes and hearts. Even as Paul condemns sexual immorality in the letter to the Galatians, for instance, he reminds Christians that they are not slaves to a set of behavioral rules. He asserts that the Christian community is free from such concerns, so that it might love more fully.

I am grateful to be in a country where there can be a national debate about loving, honoring, and respecting all people equally. I envision a time when there might be no reason to debate policies of equity and justice. For now, I stand on the side of love. And if an atheist humanist can do that, surely believers in a God of love can find a way to put aside fear and see people more fully, if they choose.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Philosophy of Spirituality and Personal Rule of Life

As an assignment for a seminary course, I was to create a succinct philosophy of spirituality and a personal Rule of Life. Most participants in the course are coming from a Christian perspective. Rather than redefining any specifically Christian concepts, however, I looked back to pre-Christian shamanism for an organizing principle around which to express my post-Christian, atheist, humanist beliefs.

For those who are unfamiliar with the term "Rule of Life," this is a purposeful structure of disciplines that serve to direct spiritual identity and growth. Members of a monastic community hold in common a particular Rule of Life, based upon a specific spiritual philosophy. An individual can also create a Rule of Life as a baseline of personal accountability. Some aspects of my personal Rule are specific, while others are more general. Should you be inspired to throw down your own Rule of Life, keep in mind that it only really needs to make sense to you, and it should include those things about which you realistically can hold yourself accountable.

So why share a personal Rule of Life publicly? First, I have encountered several misconceptions about atheism recently, and I think sharing this sort of information serves as a plank in the bridge of understanding. Second, I am comfortable with stating publicly those things for which I want to hold myself accountable. I do not think I will perfectly uphold the standard I have set here, but I believe it is a realistic standard to journey toward. Third, perhaps a couple of people in reading this will consider deepening their own personal philosophies of spirituality and Rules of Life, which I believe will only contribute toward a more spiritually mature world.
Philosophy of Spirituality and Personal Rule of Life

Spirituality is a journey along a four-fold path as a mystic, warrior, healer, and sage, continually moving toward personal responsibility; embracing confidence in the inherent worth and dignity of all people; exchanging irrational fears, beliefs, and vows for bold honesty; and recognizing those truths that must be taken on faith and those that may be evaluated through empirical verification.

A mystic recognizes deep truths and acts out of faith in human value and the interconnectedness of all things.
A warrior stands calm in the face of challenges, confronting irrational fear and injustice in self and in the world.
A healer demonstrates compassion, acts as peace-maker, creates beauty, and speaks difficult truths gently.
A sage constantly learns with an open mind and continually refines beliefs in the face of additional knowledge.

Personal Rule of Life

Recognizing that I can choose in every moment to be intentional in my thoughts and actions—that each moment has the potential to be sacred if I make it so—I journey toward fully inhabiting my capability, creativity, and compassion, inspiring others around me to do the same. Through embracing a four-fold path as mystic, warrior, healer, and sage, I sharpen myself and those around me, and I create a better reality in partnership with the world.

  • I see the inherent worth and dignity of all people, including myself, engaging in times of introspection to remain connected to my deepest, most noble self.
  • I bear witness to the interconnectedness of all things, trusting that my bold and authentic actions will have a meaningful impact beyond what I can see.
  • I bring forward my natural impishness and humor as a vessel for truth and enlightenment.
  • I dismantle irrational fears and supernaturalism in myself, and I confront irrational fears and supernaturalism as hear-ably as possible when they are expressed by others.
  • I stand for justice and equality for all people in my words and actions, including contributing my time and energy to (a) support the efforts of others who are working to better themselves and break systemic cycles of poverty, and (b) create a more accepting and equitable environment for those of minority sexual orientations.
  • I am a calm, deeply grounded presence, secure in my own sense of self and comfortable with my vulnerability.
  • I am available to others, to listen and validate primarily, and to advise when requested.
  • I create beauty through music to contribute to a more harmonious world.
  • I allow people to fully express their beliefs and feelings without making them wrong, separating dangerous and irrational fears from the beautiful and worthy person who holds them.
  • I allow myself to be challenged by other perspectives, without assuming that only one must be right and all others wrong, thus allowing for a multiplicity of paths toward peace and equity.
  • I read credible authors and researchers to continually deepen and broaden my understanding of people and the world.
  • I proclaim without attachment what is so for me and what is true by virtue of empirical evidence.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Mark 3:13-35: True Family and Recognizing Fearful Fruits

The remainder of Mark 3 has three distinct pieces: a list of The Twelve (the group of men who were supposedly authorized to run the sect in Jesus' absence), a discourse about sources of power, and a teaching about true family. The list of The Twelve is most likely an important credentialing of early church leaders, even though the authors of Matthew and Luke do not agree with the author of Mark or with one another as to who should be included in this list. We discussed discipleship a few weeks back, and while some may find spiritual lessons in these lists of names, there is much more attractive meat on the table in the verses that follow the list.

In the midst of his exorcisms and healing miracles, Jesus is accused of being in league with the prince of demons. In some circles, this is still an effective way to attack a person who challenges religious power structures. The response of Jesus as recorded in Mark (and copied by the authors of Matthew and Luke) is that a kingdom divided against itself cannot stand. In other words, if a person is doing good work in the world, how can he do this through an evil source? (Although Hollywood directors have been able to conceive of situations in which it would be advantageous for a powerful demon to drive off a less powerful demon, there was apparently no argument to the gospel writer's logic.) This leads into an illustration about robbing a strong man in all three synoptic gospels, and in the gospels of Matthew and Mark there is a warning about blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, essentially saying that it is unforgivable to assert that work done by God is actually empowered by Satan. Mark moves on from there, but the authors of Matthew and Luke tacks on a little something extra. In Luke, this amounts to Jesus stating, "You're either for me or against me." In Matthew, however, there is a striking lesson about good and evil, in which the author scripts the famous line, "Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks."

This chapter of the gospel of Mark ends with Jesus' family coming to see him, either because they were concerned that he was a few cards short of a full deck or just to pay him a visit, depending on which version of the story you read. In all three synoptic gospels, however, the authors agree on one thing: Jesus' true family are those people who behave the way God wants them to behave. This stretch of the gospel of Mark, taken in its full context as it occurs in other gospels, allows for some striking extrapolations about people and behavior.

For one thing, people may not be who they think they are or who they claim to be, but an observant person can know the truth about an individual based on the visible fruit born out of action. For example, there are lots of people who claim to be Christian yet consistently behave contrary to the teachings of Jesus. The gospel writers suggest in this passage that we don't actually need people to tell us what they believe, because we'll know what kind of people they are by their words and actions. If a person is constantly speaking hatefully about certain groups of people, this passage suggests that we can tell something about the mind of the speaker. Put more bluntly, when people speak hatefully about the GLBT community, or illegal immigrants, or any sort of religious group, it says more about the people speaking than it says about the objects of their derision. According to this passage, people cannot hide what is in their hearts.

Honestly, more than using this passage as a means of judging people as good or evil, keen observation can suggest to us when people are allowing their fears to run rampant and when they are tapping into a deeper sense of beauty, truth, and inspiration. People who say hateful things are really just communicating that they are afraid of something, maybe not even what they're being hateful about. Fear is incredibly powerful, and we are not trained to keep our irrational fears in check. Thus, when fear is prominent in our hearts, our actions will reflect it.

Another extrapolation, then, is that we need different sorts of people to sharpen our perspectives. When we are willing to engage openly and honestly with people who disagree with our beliefs, we stand a chance to learn something about ourselves and other people. Articulating what we want our lives to be about is one way that we can measure whether our own actions are lining up with what we want to create in the world, or whether we have allowed some measure of fear to take root in our own minds. Our vision of what we want in our lives does not have to match what other people envision. We do not need for anyone to agree with our beliefs or approve of our decisions for our own lives. When we recognize that clearly, we can engage more openly with people who disagree with us without either side needing to convince the other of anything. Our interaction can become a dialogue of learning, clarifying, and understanding.

We also benefit from the comfort of people who are like-minded. People who understand us also sharpen us, provided they are not the only people with whom we interact. Of course, it's easier to spend time around people who bolster our own points of view than it is to spend time with people who challenge us. Most people don't have trouble connecting with others who think like they do, but the sharpening happens when we have a clear sense of what we want to create in the world -- what kind of people we want to be. People with similar perspectives can also cultivate similar fears, and it can seem that our irrational fears are validated by outside confirmation. On the other hand, recognizing fear for what it is and dismantling it in cooperation with other people can be powerfully effective.

So, actions reflect beliefs. We can know whether fear is at work in our lives or in the lives of the people around us by observable words and actions. When we see that fear is at work in other people, we can avoid judging people as evil, and we can acknowledge that they are human beings of worth who happen to be experiencing fear. When we see fear at work in our own lives, we can more easily keep from judging ourselves, and we can seek ways to dismantle our irrational fears and get closer to living like the people we most want to be. This is easier when we have a group of people we can trust, around whom we can be vulnerable. The gospel writers had Jesus call these people his family. We can call it whatever we want, but the sentiment is that we can seek out people who are "true" brothers and sisters, working toward the same things, confronting the same challenges, holding the same ideals. We can seek out "true" mothers and fathers, mentors who have had a little more practice and who understand the irrational fears we want to dismantle in our lives. Some of us have actual blood-relative families that can be included in the category of "true family," but the hope expressed in the story of Jesus is that even when those human individuals disappoint, there are others in the world seeking the same things we are seeking.

This is actually true whether one wants to do harm or good in the world. We can find people who agree with our values, no matter what our values are. As one version of our passage reads, a person can use wealth to bring about good, and a fearful person can use wealth to bring about harm. I would like to suggest that any amount of harm we may want to inflict -- any hatred on which we may want to act -- is irrational fear wanting to be expressed. Honestly, we can do better than manifest more fear in the world. There is something deeper about us than the fears and beliefs we have taken on, and that something deeper is creative and hopeful and honest. We can tell the truth about how much we have in common with the people around us, even when it challenges some familiar and comfortable fears. We can create rather than destroy, even though creation often seems like much harder work. We can do these things because within each of us, despite all of our fears and beliefs about ourselves, we are capable, worthy, beautiful human beings. If we set aside our irrational fears and embrace our capability, how can we not create something incredible in our lives and the lives of people around us?

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

2 Kings 1-4: Being Vessels of Judgment or Vessels of Grace

The stories of Elijah and Elisha are delightful bits of folklore. These two characters have much in common with magicians or sorcerers from the legends of other cultures. Even though Israelite religion forbade witchcraft and the like, simple recontextualization places the actual power in the hands of Yahweh while the men themselves are mere subservient vessels. In 2 Kings 1-4, Elijah predicts the death of an Israelite king, kills 102 soldiers, and passes on his mantle of authentic power to Elisha before catching a ride up to Heaven in a flaming chariot. Elisha sets to work purifying water, summoning bears to eat unruly children, and performing miracles large and small. He increases apparent amounts of olive oil and bread, makes stew safe to eat, and brings a boy back from the dead -- a fairly impressive resume. One significant event is the battle between the king of Moab and the united forces of Israel, Judah, and Edom, in which Elisha proclaims that Yahweh will fill in the gaps in the planning of these three kings in order to give them victory over Moab.

These stories fall into two larger categories: stories of judgment and stories of grace. The judgment stories are obvious, but the origin of the judgment isn't always clear. Ahaziah is obviously being punished by Yahweh, but in the folktale, he doesn't die until Elijah is standing there in front of him. In the meantime, Elijah is justified in calling down fire to consume dozens of soldiers, presumably because they were in the service of a wicked king. Elisha's judgment of the jeering boys is even more clearly the prophet's own decision. The boys say something he doesn't like, so the prophet curses them (in the name of Yahweh), and bears come out of the woods and eat the boys!

Life does not work like this. Even though there are people who commit what we might consider wicked acts, we cannot expect that they will be judged and removed from the world as a result. People die. Sometimes death is a result of personal decisions, but sometimes people die for reasons completely unrelated to how they lived their lives. No matter what a person does in life, death is an eventuality, not divine punishment. Even when we choose to kill someone as a society through capital punishment or military action, these are human decisions carried out by people. While we might like to curse certain people from time to time, our curses do not actually have any power over reality, even if we curse people in the name of our favorite deity.

And let's consider that for just a moment. Elisha curses these boys in the name of his god, and as a result, bears come out of the woods and eat the boys. This is slightly different from the folktale about Elijah taming the wolf, but it still suggests that these folk heroes had influence over nature. More accurately, it suggests that the prophets had influence over Yahweh, who had power over nature. What kind of deity is this, though? When I say, "Those boys are making fun of me, God! Send some bears to eat them!" I would not expect a wise and loving deity to respond, "You got it. Two hungry bears, coming up." I would expect a wise and loving deity to respond with something more like, "They're kids. It's what they do. They'll grow into responsible members of society if you teach them to be wise instead of enforcing a brutal 'one-strike' policy. And you are getting a bit thin on top, baldy."

Obviously the ancient Israelites thought about things differently, but just because they wrote their beliefs down over two millenia ago doesn't mean that their version of divinity was in any way accurate or useful. God does not punish the wicked. The wicked punish themselves. God does not respond to curses, even if the curses are pronounced "in his name," as ridiculous as that seems. This is once again witchcraft by a different name. Even if you believe in a supreme being who watches over human beings and actively responds to prayers, there has to be some limit to your god's willingness to harm people in order for you to have meaningful participation in the world. If there existed a god who was responsive and willing to go along with our momentary emotional reactivity, humanity would no longer exist; we would have cursed one another into early graves a long time ago.

No, even if there is an external divine being trying to guide human activity, the message of our reality is that we must learn the hard lesson of seeing one another more clearly as human beings worthy of respect. Our acts of greed, violence, and oppression (and fear in all its forms) only lead to more problems. We enact our own curses on one another and ourselves by failing to manage our own fearfulness and irrational beliefs. We can lift those curses, too. It just takes commitment to doing things better. Calling down a curse is a quick solution that doesn't require any real investment of our own time and energy. Dismantling our false beliefs about ourselves and other people takes a bit more work, but the end result could be far more impressive than getting a couple of hungry bears to show up and eat our problems.

Every story in these chapters wasn't about divine retribution, though. Some of them were about divine grace. A town has bad water, and the prophet makes it potable (through magic). A widow is in danger of losing her home, and the prophet works a bit of magic and makes her olive oil jar incredibly prodigious for a short time. The prophet makes a woman conceive (we won't ask how), and when the boy dies prematurely, the prophet brings him back to life. The prophet makes poisoned food safe to eat and feeds a hundred people with a little bit of bread. He also brings prediction of God's impressive provenance for a trio of armies that rode out to battle so ill prepared that they ran out of water on the way. This was a little more tricky, and it was obviously done on God's initiative in the story, even though most of the predictions were carried out by people.

We like the idea of grace. If one cannot pay one's bills, unexpected money seems like a miracle from on high. When we think we have a scarcity and reality shows us our abundance, grace makes a lot of sense. In fact, whenever we are expecting bad things to happen and our expectations are shown to be overly pessimistic, it can seem that something outside of ourselves has intervened on our behalf. Grace is the opposite of a curse. But things we don't like still happen. Tragic and devastating things even. We are sometimes woefully unprepared for the challenges we face. Sometimes it's our own irresponsibility that does us it, and sometimes events are so unexpected that we are simply caught off guard. Children (and other people we love) die, often before we are really ready to let them go. This is sad, and it is reality. Medical professionals can sometimes pull off what seems like a miracle (although it's actually human skill), but sooner or later we have to face the death of  someone we care about. It's comforting perhaps to think that there is a god who has the power to intervene and restore a dead person to life, like the Shunammite woman's son or Lazarus coming out of the grave. Yet, can we accept those stories without wondering why no one in our lives has ever been the recipient of such grace?

Despite the rabbit trails of "miraculous" stories that people may tell, the facts are clear on the matter, and my purpose here is not to refute miracles. In fact, judgment and grace are very real. They just aren't in the hands of a supreme being outside of ourselves. Judgment and grace are human endeavors, and we carry them out every day. We know how to punish people, sometimes subtly and sometimes very directly. It may not be fire from the sky or hungry bears, but we all have our ways of letting people know that they've done something wrong and we aren't going to let them get away with it. Curses. Divine retribution. Our international conflicts are no different; they are just symptoms of the same kind of thinking on a larger scale. We can be vessels for our own violent gods of vengeance, and we often are.

We also know about grace. We know how to forgive. We know the benefits of letting go of grudges. We know how to forget about a debt owed to us. We know how to show empathy and compassion, even when we aren't getting what we want from somebody. We know how to show grace. The question is: Do we? We cannot bring back anyone from the dead, but we can have compassion for people who grieve. We cannot stop conflict in the world or decide who will "win" any given battle, but we can put a stop to conflict in our own lives. Grace. Divine blessing. We can do these things just as easily as we curse. Spewing curses just may be more our habit. We can be vessels for our own gods of peace and compassion.

The thing is, whatever you happen to believe, our true beliefs show up in our actions. Whatever we may claim to think about the real nature of humanity and divinity, our behavior tells the truth about our beliefs -- especially when we aren't being particularly intentional. If one were to suggest that every moment is an act of worship, then one would have to admit that people are often idolatrous. We want to claim belief in one thing, but our lives reflect a completely different view of reality. Whether we assert the existence of any sort of god, life makes more sense when our actions line up with what we believe about ourselves, other people, and the world we share. We choose whether we want to be vessels of retribution and punishment or vessels of peace and compassion. I would like to suggest that grace is the preferable option.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Shepherd-like Responsibility and Child-like Idealism in Matthew 18:12–13

Albeit wildly out of sequence with the New Testament passages considered thus far, the following thoughts are the result of an academic study of two verses in the Gospel of Matthew. I offer them here for whatever value you may find in them. 

A few textual critical concerns in Mt 18 require some attention before turning to the short parable in verses 12–13. The first of these occurs with verse 11, in that the earliest extant versions of the text do not contain this phrase, “For the Son of Man came (to seek and) to save the lost.” This seems to have been added as connective and clarifying material, but as such it potentially changes the original scope of the passage. In omitting this verse, a more specific reading is preserved. Although for some this may reduce the usefulness of the passage, imaginative interpreters are seldom daunted by such limitations. Thus, verse 11 has been omitted.

The next challenge appears in Mt 18:14, in which the pronoun preceding “father in heaven” is in question. No matter what pronoun one chooses here, however, it is clear that the author of Matthew is having the character of Jesus refer to God. It is best not to make too much of the pronoun discrepancy when the intent of the phrase is so blatantly clear. Similarly, whether one follows a longer or shorter text by one word (“truly”) in Mt 18:19 is inconsequential. One must assume that a devotee of the Jesus ideal would portray the words of Jesus as true, thus an additional “truly” inserted into the text cannot make the words that follow more true. Inclusion of the word is probably not reflective of a desire for clarity, but rather a preference for a particular stylistic affectation.

In Mt 18:15, however, the phrase “against you” was possibly added by a scribe for clarification, or was perhaps omitted from the original text to make the passage more universal. In this instance, personal relationships are better served by letting the phrase stand as a more specific qualifier as to when one should confront a fellow human being. The human propensity to count as wrong or sinful any behavior with which one disagrees opens this passage up to abuse. Thus, a reader’s voracious appetite for correcting any perceived misdeeds by others may be tempered by a more limiting reading. Thus, since the longer reading is plausibly authentic, this discussion assumes the verse to read, “If a fellow disciple sins against you.”

In the passage leading up to Mt 18:12, the disciples have approached Jesus to inquire about status in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus responds by referring to a child, stating that the disciples would never enter the kingdom of heaven unless they change and become as children. Those who assume the societal status of a child will be greatest in the kingdom, and those who are welcoming to children are, in effect, welcoming Jesus. Then, the character of Jesus proclaims that, although the world is full of temptations, a person who causes temptation—particularly toward children—would be better off dead. In essence, the author suggests that suicide is preferable to the “eternal fire” that awaits an individual who leads a child astray.

This passage qualifies “little ones” as “those who believe in [Jesus]” (Mt 18:6), and this opens up room for interpretation. One might conclude that the little ones to which the character of Jesus refers are actual children who also happen to believe in him. One might justifiably conclude, however, that the little ones in this passage are now the followers of Jesus who have become like little children, suggesting that Jesus is here proclaiming woe upon any person who tempts one of his faithful followers away from faith. It is impossible to tell with certainty whether the child imagery is at this point a metaphor for the attitude of those who understand Jesus’ message or whether a child is just a child. From Mt 18:10, which immediately precedes the parable under scrutiny, one might extrapolate that the author is referring to those who are new to the Jesus cult. “Do not despise those who have less experience than you at this disciple business.” If an earlier version of a text were to be discovered which left out the qualifying “those who believe in me” in Mt 18:6, these questions would be moot, as the more specific reading of children as actual children would be much more clear. While the interpretation of “little ones” is subject to debate, the flow of discussion within the context of the passage as a whole leads from this idea of children (and those who are like children) being greatest in the kingdom to the idea of conflict resolution and agreement among members of the faith community. The child imagery disappears following Mt 18:14, and the passage heads in a new direction about how to address conflict between believers healthily, followed by a dubious promise about wish fulfillment in harmonious pairings of people.

Since verse 14 concludes the two-verse “lost sheep” parable with the explanation that God is unwilling for any children (or however one wishes to interpret “little ones”) to be spiritually lost, it seems clear that the passage which follows builds on that with a contrast to how one might deal with a more mature believer who has gone astray. Essentially, one should speak with the person directly, then take another person along to speak with the person, and finally bring the matter publicly before the collective. At any point along this trajectory, responsible adult believers can recognize how their actions have been out of alignment with their beliefs, and they can then make a course correction and remain within the community. Once the matter has been publicly addressed, however, if the adult believer is unwilling to acknowledge wrongdoing, it is perfectly acceptable to cast them out of the faith community. This is in contrast to how one should treat the “little ones” of the passage prior to this instruction, toward whom the community of believers should be protective.

Thus, the larger passage flows as follows: The disciples ask about status in the kingdom. Jesus uses a child to point out that their priorities are skewed, indicating that only people who are child-like in status will even be admitted into the kingdom. From this statement, Jesus pronounces judgment on any person who would teach a child to behave wrongfully and asserts that children deserve special attention from the community of faith, presumably so that they will grow into adults who can be meaningful, responsible participants in the faith community. Adults, by contrast, are capable of handling things differently. Adult members of the faith community should be more able to recognize and address their wrongdoing, and it is detrimental to the community to be overindulgent toward misbehavior of adult participants. Conflict among the adults in the faith community should be resolved directly and methodically, with real consequences for those who would assert their own selfish behavior over the good of the community. With this context in mind, it is therefore quite likely that the “little ones” and the “lost sheep” of Mt 18:6–14 refer specifically to children.

Although it is beyond the scope of the lost sheep parable in Mt 18:12–13, much has been considered in the larger Christian community about what it may mean to “become like little children” (Mt 18:3). Certainly, there are those who would assert the value of a certain ignorance of the way the world works, claiming that mature scientific knowledge of reality is a hindrance to faith. Some might suggest that children have an innocence that jaded adults lack, although this opens up the larger controversial subject of original sin. Perhaps the author of Matthew is simply referring to the status of children in society, suggesting a connection only to the status of disciples in the larger context of the kingdom of heaven. While it would be futile to attempt to resolve the larger debate on the subject, it is worth considering that the author of Matthew is suggesting that children are less concerned about status and more adept at living in the moment without regard to future consequences. As will become apparent, the parable in Mt 18:12–13 suggests that children require adults to keep them from going too far afield with this freedom, but if adults were somehow able to pair mature personal responsibility with carefree idealism, what an incredible force to behold that would be! Truly, if one lacks the ability to live by what some may consider to be an unrealistic set of ideals, one cannot hope to follow the teachings of Jesus as they are presented in the gospels.

With regard to the intended audience for Mt 18:12–13, the parable falls within a passage in which the author of Matthew portrays Jesus addressing his disciples. It is probable that the author of Matthew is actually addressing the participants of the early church, recommending how the early church should address various issues through the presumed words of Jesus. There is wisdom in what is expressed for any community, and as every person is a member of some community, the passage has the potential to speak to how any human being might relate to children and manage conflict, whether one is a disciple of Jesus or not.

The actual parable is in Mt 18:12–13. In this short passage, the character of Jesus suggests that the owner of a flock of sheep would leave 99% of his flock in order to look for one sheep that wandered away. Recovering that one sheep will be a source of joy surpassing that of retaining the majority of the sheep, which stayed in a place of safety and were not the cause of any undue stress. There is truth here regarding sheep and human behavior. Sheep are often oblivious to their surroundings, and it is within the nature of a sheep to wander away, not out of any willful disobedience, but out of sheer ignorance. Likewise, when a person recovers a possession once imagined to be lost, that possession becomes more prized than other possessions that were safely kept out of harm’s way, regardless of the actual value of the possessions in question.

As previously stated, the parable equates children with sheep, prone to be oblivious to much of the world around them and ignorant of the consequences of their actions. While the conclusion of the parable mentions God, the thrust of the story is not that God will take care of children. Rather, the parable serves as a motivation for the disciples to pay attention to the children in their midst, to guide them—and rescue them if necessary—rather than despise them or look upon them with disinterest. In fact, the author of Matthew asserts that when the angels look at children, they see the face of God. Thus, the disciples would do well to look for the face of God when they look upon the children in their midst.

Even for twenty-first century adults, this admonition has profound ramifications. Children are children; children are not adults. One should not expect of children what one expects of adults. Children understand things differently than adults, they respond to the world differently from adults, and they are not aware of the ramifications of their actions to the same extent that one might expect adults to be. Thus, adults should allow children to be children, understanding that they warrant a bit more guidance and patience than adults do. If adults desire for children to grow up to be responsible members of a greater collective, it is the duty of adults to teach children how to do that. This happens through direct (patient, age-appropriate) teaching, but children also learn through modeling. If a child sees adults living responsibly, then the child learns to mimic that example. Sometimes healthy models are not evident in a child’s nuclear family. Thus, the potentially overused and trite African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child,” is an appropriate message to take away from this parable.

Human beings are in a very real way connected to one another. What happens to the children in a community affects everyone in the community—regardless of actual familiar relationships. It is therefore imperative to the health of a society that the adults of a community notice, respect, spend time with, care for, and instruct the children in their midst. To neglect the well-being of children is to treat them as non-persons. Put another way, extrapolated from Mt 18:10, to fail to see children as important is to fail to see God as important. Asserting the inherent worth and dignity of all human beings is impossible if one does not assert the inherent worth and dignity of children. Ignoring the development of meaningful relationships with and responsible behavior toward children is shortsighted and ultimately self-destructive. The children of today are, after all, the foundation of tomorrow’s society.

If one considers these conclusions credible, then one might take action in several ways. First, one might develop more responsible, mature, self-differentiated adult relationships, so that children who bear witness to these relationships have a healthy model from which to learn. Second, one might adopt a discipline of acknowledging children with respect rather than ignoring them, inviting meaningful interaction that validates a child’s own personality, opinions, and interests while still allowing for instruction and encouraging growth. Third, one might take more seriously the injustices toward children evident in one’s neighborhood, city, nation, and world. One person cannot overcome all of the challenges that children face, and yet one person can take a stand that children matter.

While many individuals become intensely engaged in the issue of reproductive rights, there are actual children living out of the womb and in the twenty-first century world who experience all manner of suffering, some of which is inflicted upon them by the adults in their midst. To be blunt, children are largely helpless against poverty, disease, lack of food or potable water, educational inequities, and humanity’s seemingly insatiable lust for violence, not to mention the greed that drives some predatory adults to force children into serving as laborers, soldiers, drug mules, or sex workers. One person cannot solve all of the world’s problems; the shepherd in Mt 18:12–13 does not go on a crusade to recover every lost sheep, after all. Yet every small action and every statement of conviction against the mistreatment and devaluation of children can contribute to a greater shift of cultural awareness and response. Transformative action can be as simple as being more responsive to the children in one’s own immediate sphere of contact. The divine may even be visible in youthful faces, if one can abandon concerns of status and lifestyle and blend the responsibility of an adult participant in the world with the bold idealism of a child.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Rules by Which We Live, and What Matters More

Wending our way through the Gospel of Mark, the next several passages are short accounts of healing and conflict with the Jewish religious authorities of the day. (These accounts also appear in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, arranged to suit those authors' purposes.) Jesus heals a paralyzed man and forgives his sins, and the scribes call him a blasphemer. Jesus heals a man's hand on the Sabbath (a day set apart for rest in honor of Yahweh), and the leaders of a Jewish sect start plotting to kill him. In between these healing stories, Jesus is questioned about why he and his companions refuse to follow Jewish customs of avoiding contact with unclean people, honoring days of fasting, and respecting the Sabbath. The author of Mark has Jesus respond with some typical rabbinic sayings: "It isn't the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick." "No one pours new wine into old wineskins." "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath." These responses -- which were handed down through oral tradition among the Jewish teachers (rabbis) -- reflect something about what the author of Mark was trying to communicate in his portrayal of Jesus.

Pharisees were members of a Jewish sect who devoted their time to nuanced interpretations of Jewish law. Some of the situations in Mark are obviously contrived just so the author can make a point. It was not forbidden for beggars to pick grain and eat it on the Sabbath, for instance, but it provides an opportunity to have Jesus say something the author of Mark deemed important. There were Jewish thinkers who disagreed with Pharisaic interpretations, and there were other sects of Judaism in the first century with their own distinct views. By the time the author of Mark was writing, however, the temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed by Roman military response to a Jewish uprising, and the Pharisees had become a dominant voice among Jews that had been "dispersed" from Jerusalem. Their way of thinking offered the most robust way of living out the Jewish faith in the absence of a temple where legitimate sacrifices could be offered. Thus, when the author of Mark writes of conflict between Jesus and Jewish leaders, he is in effect portraying conflict between the Christian and Pharisaic sects of Judaism in the aftermath of the temple's destruction.

The Christian perspective portrayed in the gospel stories had their roots in rabbinic commentary -- interpretations of the Jewish scriptures by rabbis. There was a distinct spin put on these teachings to be sure, but the words attributed to Jesus by the author of Mark often were not novel. When one looks at the thrust of this collection of stories, the conflict between the Pharisees and Jesus is clearly about where one's focus should be in life. The Pharisees had an idea of how one should live -- a set of complex rules that defined as clearly as possible every nuance of righteous living. The Jesus of Mark was interested in something else -- a different, simpler rule of life that focused on other people rather than individual righteousness.

People like rules for more than one reason. Some people like to have a concrete measure of how wonderful they are, and a checklist of rules works well for this. Most people, however, use their own rules as a means of assessing other people. If I make it a rule that I will always obey the speed limit, I not only get to feel great about myself when I follow that rule, I also get to judge all the people around me who do not obey the speed limit. They are wicked, evil, miscreants because they are doing something of which I do not approve. Speed limits are actual laws, but we create our own rules about lots of things: how people should dress, how people should speak, how people should raise their children, what people should do with their money. We have an idea about the right way to handle every aspect of life, even when we don't live up to our own standards. The Pharisees ought to make perfect sense to us, when we think about it. We are constantly judging other people's behavior against our own standards.

The Jesus of the gospels throws a monkey wrench into this habit. Why would we let people wallow in unnecessary shame, when we have the power to forgive them and lift them up? Why would we only spend time with people who agree with us, when we have the opportunity to teach and learn so much more by spending time with people who are different? Why would we only spend time with people who have it all together in their own minds, when we can make the most difference in the lives of people who are desperately searching for their own sense of worth and hope? Why should we adhere to old ways of doing things at the expense of our own well-being and the well-being of other people around us? Of what value are all of our rules if we only use them as weapons?

In these stories, the author of Mark was saying something profound about what he thought Judaism -- and the Christian sect -- should stand for. People matter more than our rules. We rarely see this truth being lived out by churches of any faith in the twenty-first century, and we are most likely personally challenged by the statement. People matter more than our rules. Connecting with other people is more important than judging them and setting ourselves apart. Honoring other people as they are is more valuable than finding reasons not to care about them. Our lives are enriched when we let go of our own contrived mandates about how life ought to be lived and accept ourselves and other people as worthy, capable human beings. People matter more than our rules.

Consider your own rules. How do you judge yourself and other people? What would it be like to set those rules aside and see people as human beings with innate value? What artificial rule could you let go of right now and never miss? For me, rules about how people should drive would be high on the list, and rules about how aware people should be in crowded stores would rank up there, too. The importance we ascribe to insignificant things is just silly. Of course people matter more than our contrived rules. People matter. What an incredibly simple and challenging truth.