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“You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself…” -Leviticus 19:18a
“You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist and evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.” -Matthew 5: 38-41
Recently, my local clergy bible study looked at an article about the struggles of liberal theology. That mainline Protestant churches are often in decline is, by now, an old idea – old enough to have become embedded in our day to day life, a latent anxiety that informs our worship, our mission, our pastoring. The causes will be debated for at least the rest of my life; the responses (in the form of new worship styles, liturgies, and ways of being church) will continue to grow and develop. But the point that the author of this article made is one that will haunt both traditional and emergent churches that espouse a liberal, non-static theology:
It is, as we have many times noted, far easier to see the world in black and white. Theologically conservative churches, as a rule, tend to see the world and the bible in those terms: saved or not, worthy or not, us or them. They hand their members a set of very clear guidelines, a certainty about life’s meaning and God’s will in the world that is very compelling. Human beings like rules. We like certainty. We like things to be neat, and orderly, and fit into easily-classified categories.
Liberal theology gives us none of that. Rather, it requires a constant process of thinking, and evaluating. It requires us to engage with the text, to be self-critical, to be open to growth and change and uncertainty. And that is hard. It really is no wonder that churches that embrace such theology don’t see the membership numbers that conservative congregations do – who wants to work that hard on a Sunday morning?
The thing is, I’m not sure that there’s another valid option.
Jesus, throughout his ministry, was constantly urging the people around him to think. The disciples, the Pharisees, the crowds that turned out to hear his preaching: he implored them all not to follow blindly. In many ways, he was engaged in the same conversation that we are, between those who say, “Well, Scripture says…” Jesus, like many liberal Christians of today, asked in return, “But what is God saying?” (“God is still speaking” is far older than the United Church of Christ, it seems.) In asking this question, Jesus is not changing the scriptures, or picking selectively at them – nor, indeed, are the theologically liberal of the 21st century.
God, knowing us intimately and understanding our love of certainty, gave us rules to live by, early on in our history. The books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, notably, are chock full of “you shall” and “you shall not”. These were rules to bind a community into relationship with one another, and thereby into relationship with God. Leave some of your harvest for the poor and immigrant. Be honest in all your dealings. Love your neighbor as yourself. Yet I have a distinct feeling that Moses hadn’t even had time to draw breath after saying any of this before someone in the crowd muttered, “but what do you really mean by that?”
We love rules, but we love loopholes just as much. We love the security of boundaries almost as much as we love pushing back against that very security. We follow the letter of the law, most of the time, but often we do it begrudgingly. We leave the gleanings of our harvest because we’re supposed to – it’s the rule! – rather than out of concern for those for whom that might be the only source of food. We treat rules (and scripture) as an onerous burden, rather than as a conversation with God, and a chance to be in relationship.
To be in conversation with God – to be in relationship with God – requires something of us. It requires us to engage, to be self-critical, to be open to growth and change and uncertainty… it requires that we leave behind old understandings, that we be willing to disagree with friends and family, perhaps even with our churches. It requires us, sometimes, to be unpopular. Above all, it requires us to think, as Jesus continually pushed us to do. “You have heard it said…” but that is not enough. What are you hearing now? What stirs in your heart and your mind? Think! Think, and love. Love your neighbor as yourself; recognize your shared humanity in every interaction, in every circumstance, wherever rain falls upon us.
Love your neighbor as you love yourself. A scripture from both the Hebrew Bible and the Gospel, a good place to start our thinking. For this is a text that we, in the Western church, often read from a position of great privilege. We who have, for the most part, not lived under wartime occupation. We, who have not been entirely dependent upon the kindness of others, but have lived in societies with social safety nets. We have not been indentured into servitude, or been in danger of it. We have never been entirely without legal recourse, or status. And so the natural way for us to read the injunction to love our neighbors as ourselves is to see it as a reminder of how to treat others.
But there are two sides to every coin, and many of Jesus’ listeners were not on our side. These were not the privileged, but the abused, the occupied, the ones familiar with violence, servitude. These were the people who had been consistently dehumanized; the ones for whom love of self – let alone love of neighbor! – was nearly impossible. Certainly, there were privileged people listening as well – there were always Pharisees about when Jesus spoke – but these verses from the Sermon on the Mount are quite clearly destined for one particular audience.
“You have heard it said, ‘an eye for and eye and a tooth for a tooth’, but I say to you…” turn the other cheek. Give your cloak as well. Go the extra mile.
It sounds like doormat theology. It doesn’t sound loving at all, but masochistic, or possibly passive-aggressive. But that is our 21st Century cultural perspective talking. Jesus’ words urged his hearers – the despised and unworthy of 1st Century Palestine – to assert their own humanity, their right to be loved.
“If someone strikes you on the right cheek…” consider that for a moment. The easiest way to strike someone’s right cheek is with the left hand. But that was taboo in Jesus’ culture – as, indeed, it still is in parts of the Middle East, where the left hand is considered unclean. To use it to strike anyone – no matter their social status! – was entirely unthinkable. And impractical: in a culture that forbids the use of the left hand, it’s bound to be the weaker hand. If you’re going to bother hitting someone, wouldn’t you use your stronger hand?
But it is very hard to land a punch from the right hand onto someone else’s right cheek. To strike another’s right cheek with your right hand requires you to backhand them across the face – a blow that, in 1st Century Palestine, signified lesser status. To backhand someone showed that they were not worthy of your touch. It was a blow reserved for the despised, the less-than. So for that person, having just been told clearly that they are inferior, to turn the other cheek is defiant. It is to challenge the one who claims superiority to strike again, but to strike a blow – right hand to left cheek – that would mark the opponent as an equal. It is to turn social conventions against the one using them, and to demand recognition of one’s own humanity.
All of these instructions, which without context would seem to counsel us to allow cruelty free reign, were equally subversive. One’s coat was the last thing that could be given a creditor in debtor’s court; to give the cloak as well was to strip oneself bare – and bring more shame on the person who caused the nakedness, than upon the one who was naked. Not to mention the chance to draw a curious crowd, who would then all know the infamy of the creditor who had reduced a person to the utter vulnerability of nakedness!
Likewise, although it was legal for occupying Roman soldiers to press anyone into service to carry their pack for a mile, any further distance was not permitted by Roman law. For a Jew to insist upon going further than that mile was to put the soldier into a quandary: do you risk breaking your own laws, or do you humble yourself enough to ask (!) this Jew to give back your belongings, and risk that he’ll say no? Do you risk the wrath of your commander, or do you risk giving power to the occupied?
I imagine that many of those listening to Jesus, in that moment, were whistling and cheering the subversive tactics of resistance that he was teaching. But more than simple resistance to practical problems facing many of his audience, Jesus was encouraging thought, and creativity, and love. He was laying out the possibility of a situation in which no one needed to be put down or dehumanized, but in which common humanity could be both demanded and granted, and equality – even momentary equality – achieved.
You have heard it said, repay violence with violence. But Jesus said, Assert your humanity: do not let others choose whether you are loveable, or equal, or worthy. Assert your humanity without lowering yourself to the level of those who would dehumanize you; without stooping to violence, either physical or emotional. Do not actively resist and evildoer: do not cause them the pain or injury that they are seeking to cause you, do not return violence for violence or cruelty for cruelty, but stand up for your humanity, your capacity for love, your capacity for creativity.
And that is hard. It requires us to think – to use our faculties of reason and judgment and all of those parts of our brain that usually shut down when we are upset. Jesus is pushing us to go beyond our instincts, the ones that are most active when we are afraid, or hurt, or angry, or have just been backhanded. And Jesus is pushing us to assert this thinking, loving, fully-human part of ourselves on our own behalf before all else: to stand up and assert that we are better than the lowest-common-denominator responses of fear or vengeance.
Because, as the old saying goes, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth only puts us in an eyeless, toothless world… in which we cower from each other, scared, blind, and defenseless, having lost all that makes us human; having lost the image of God that is present in each and every one of us on whom the rain may fall: sisters and brothers, resident and immigrant, rich and poor, us and them.
So no, I don’t think it’s hard to be a liberal Christian. I think it’s hard to be a Christian. Period.
It is hard to be thinking creatures in moments of stress, to use the thoughtfulness and love with which we were created. It is hard to follow Christ beyond the actual words, into the living work of discipleship. It is hard to give up even our illusions of control and let the Spirit guide us beyond ourselves. It is hard to seek God, never knowing what we might find, or where we might find it, or what it might demand of us.
It is hard, but it is our call: to be creative in the face of violence and anger, to be loving in the midst of fear and despair, to be powerful in the midst of weakness, to be disciples and followers of the servant Christ. We are called to be subversives in a dominant culture: within the walls of our churches, within our communities, and throughout the world, wherever the rain might fall.