Faith Thinking Aloud

What Part of Illegal?

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Regularly these days I read the words on social media: “What part of illegal do you not understand?” Sometimes the words come in all capital letters, the online equivalent of shouting; always they refer to undocumented immigration.

So, today I try to answer, to say what are the parts of illegal I do not understand. There are several.

I do not understand the word illegal when applied to a person, a human being. In the English language, there is no such word as “illegals.” My word processor just flagged it correctly as misspelled. A person cannot be illegal because that word applies to actions that violate a law. Driving more than five miles per hour above the posted speed limit is illegal (I suppose driving above it at all is technically so). Deliberately failing to report income on Form 1040 is illegal. Cutting through our backyard uninvited is illegal. So are grand larceny, murder, and human trafficking illegal. Clearly there are degrees of illegality, which is the reason we have the distinction between misdemeanors and felonies as well as grades of violation (involuntary manslaughter, capital murder, etc.). BUT (pardon my shout), a person cannot be illegal. Use of the term “illegals” is designed to dehumanize human beings, to label people as not-us, not our kind, not our equals, not in the same category of creature as we are. It is bigotry. That part of illegal I suppose I comprehend but do not understand.

How does commission of a misdemeanor offense render a person unworthy of protections under our law, unworthy of humane treatment, unfit for even normal human consideration as a person? First-time illegal entry into the United States is a misdemeanor. How is it that people so desperate to flee violence that they will risk the suffering which may be inflicted upon them here, when they cross our border illegally in hope of safety, come to be regarded as animals (by our president), as subhuman scum, as invading enemies? Do we think that way of people who cheat on their income taxes? Who litter our roadways? Who fish without a license or commit any other misdemeanor? One person breaks a law casually, for his or her own convenience or just through disregard for public safety or public goods. Another breaks a law fearfully but does so out of desperation. Why do we so furiously despise the desperate one? That part of illegal I do not understand.

The next part is harder: unjust laws. The reality of unjust laws is nothing new. From the prophet Isaiah come these words:

Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees, who write oppressive statutes, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that widows may be your spoil, and that you may make the orphans your prey! What will you do on the day of punishment, in the calamity that will come from far away? To whom will you flee for help, and where will you leave your wealth, so as not to crouch among the prisoners or fall among the slain?
(Isaiah 10:1-4 NRSV)

Laws get written for various purposes. Some protect the public, others insulate the privileged, while still others enable the greedy and even the ruthless. The rich and influential can get laws passed that benefit them unfairly. People who differ in unpopular ways from the society’s current norms are oppressed by cruel laws designed to hurt and exclude them. It has, in its time, been illegal to free a slave, to marry a person of another race, or to vote without being male. It has also been quite legal to beat a wife or to sucker students, poor people, or the elderly into hugely oppressive borrowing of money. It was legal to redline cities and towns, preventing non-white buyers from purchasing homes in “white” areas. Also there have been offenses that were illegal but winked at by the public and by law enforcement, perhaps depending upon the perceived identity of the person breaking such a law. A back-alley crap game might lead to arrests but not a 50-50 at the local swim club, even when both violated the same gambling statute. Loitering has long been selective, as Starbucks has learned recently.

Police officers, prosecutors, and judges must use their heads, and they do. The basketball situational rule of, “No harm, no foul,” must sometimes prevail if an injustice is to be avoided. The police can’t pull over every driver who cuts a corner a little or strays slightly over the center line; neither can the IRS try to go after every taxpayer who fails to report a $10 tip. BUT the true problem comes from the iniquitous decrees and oppressive statutes of the kind against which Isaiah cries foul. Laws passed to protect the supposedly right people from the presence of the supposedly wrong people they despise just for being who they are, those are iniquitous laws. Statutes written and imposed to enable the greed of the already rich by exploiting the vulnerable are oppressive. Laws can be evil. They can be written to support and safeguard injustices. Many Americans have paid to see productions of Les Miserables, the story of a poor man imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread. What part of hunger and wretchedness do we not understand? What part of desperation eludes us and blocks our empathy? What part of “yearning to breathe free” do we not get?

Plundering America

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The privatization of public goods seems to me a system for plundering our nation under the ruse of improving services and lowering costs. What are public goods? They are institutions and systems we develop to benefit the whole body of the people of the state or nation, rather than certain people but not others. They are the goods and benefits we maintain together, as a people, for the welfare of all, not merely as a collections of individuals and families, but as a whole. The premier example is public education for all, which was designed to benefit the society as a whole, advancing shared knowledge and undergirding our democracy. Public education is not established to benefit only its current students and their families but to strengthen the democracy of the United States and in so strengthening us as a whole, to make our nation an increasingly better citizen of the world.

What we see these days is plundering on such a large scale that it seems the powerful in our land envision no future for our nation and could not care less. What is being plundered? The answer includes public education, our correctional (!) system by which I mean the penal system (prisons), public lands, our entire infrastructure, and our public insurance programs (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, unemployment insurance, and welfare). Systems already private, including the whole complex of food industries and businesses are being deregulated so constraints imposed to keep our eating safe as well as to see that animals and humans are treated humanely can be removed so they too can be plundered. It seems our supposed leaders and their financial masters do not think America has a future, nor earth either.

From my shared faith perspective, we are created and charged to be stewards (care-takers) of the earth and for each other. “Me and mine” (and to hell with everybody else) is the essence of sin. Human life is relational, which keeps it personal so the individual matters, but utterly individualized life is dehumanized existence no matter how wealthy.

For years, the pirates have been taking over. Now we have reached the point where the piracy is out in the open and lauded. People are appointed to run agencies by deliberately running them into the ground. Public goods are pillaged, then judged insufficient and ineffective, so they can be destroyed, but the pubic money will not be saved. Rather it will go into private coffers.

It was William Henry Vanderbilt who uttered the famous response, “The public be damned!” Apparently he was annoyed because he was forced by competition to run express lines that didn’t turn a profit or, at least, not a profit sufficient to satisfy him. Today, we have a “public be damned” system of government in place. Wherever there is money for some public good, that public good must be raided and plundered, and the plundering goes more smoothly if the public can first be turned against that public good. Hence the denigration of public schools and teachers (and, of course, the cutting of funds to ensure ineffectiveness and failure).

How long will we allow our nation to be plundered? I think we will allow it as long as we are divided angrily against each other and fooled into thinking government causes our problems. The plunderers can laugh, as we say, “all the way to the bank.”

Were We There? Was I?

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It is the day, the Saturday, between Good Friday and Easter Sunday.  Dead Saturday.  No, the church does not call it by that name.  It is part of Triduum, the three days of Jesus’ passion.  For him, it would have been Shabbat, but he was not there to observe it. He was dead.  In our society, it is mostly just a Saturday, notable perhaps because the kids are home from college and the supermarkets more jammed than usual because of Easter’s festivities.  There may be dyed eggs to hide and baskets to fill with candy.  For some it is another holiday emptied of inspiration but filled again with the duty of gathering with the family to endure the smiling criticisms and stinging comparisons with more successful offspring of the clan. For others, it is another weekend day alone because others are busy with family things.

This morning with coffee I went back to Maundy Thursday 2009 to read what follows, what I had written and preached for that evening.  Sometimes it helps me to look back and listen.

Were We There?  Was I?

Was I there when Jesus was crucified? The most obvious, unreflective answer is, of course, “No.” Jesus of Nazareth was crucified almost two thousand years ago. But the literal is not always the truest.

Sacramentally, I have been there many times and will be there again with you this evening. In my hands I will hold the symbolic elements of his humiliation, suffering, and death, and by taking those symbols of his broken body into my own living body, I will confess both that Jesus did it for me and, also, that he “had to” do it because of me. He did not “have to” do it, of course, except that he was compelled by his faithfulness to the unyielding love of God for this world and its people. By eating the bread and drinking from the cup, I will admit that I am the reason for his crucifixion in both senses: he did it for me, because God loves me, and he did it because of me, because of my alienation from God and from other people. I am both the beneficiary and the cause of his pain.

This evening, I am there, there in the flesh, as one loved by God and, at the same time, one alienated from God, still divided from other people, and still a long way from being the person God created me to become. So, here I am again, hoping and trusting that this simple ritual somehow brings me into closer contact with Jesus in his passion, somehow takes hold of me and brings home to me that terrible event on which my life, my hope, and my salvation depend.

But the sacramental is not enough. To be there with him, I need to find him crucified in my real world and not just in the peace and calm of the sanctuary, in the familiar words and actions of the sacrament. A crucifixion was very much an event of the flesh. It was torture and humiliation, very bodily. If God’s love and presence were incarnated (made flesh) for us in the birth of the baby Jesus, how much more so in the breaking of the man’s body? His crucifixion is the supreme incarnation of God’s love and presence. Humanity did not just get to see, hear, and touch him; we got to mock, torture, and kill him. We made the incarnation of God’s love suffer and die.

How can we go beyond the sacramental in being there when and where Jesus is crucified? I think we can start by realizing that Jesus suffered not only for this world but also with it. On the cross he represented God fully to us, in is own dying human body, and he also represented us to God, as the human put to shame and suffering in an unjust, often seemingly Godless world. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus of Nazareth dies with – in unity with – all the countless God-forsaken people in our world.

The sacramental is good, helpful, and sustaining, but it is not enough. We need to find him crucified in the real, everyday world around us. Once we understand, once our eyes have been opened and our ears unplugged, he is not hard to find. He’s there, every day, all around us in what theologians call the cruciform. What is the cruciform? Literally, it is anything in the shape or form of a cross, but in theology it refers to the many experiences of life people find themselves forced to share with the crucified Jesus, whether or not they realize they are sharing in his experience and he in theirs. Life is harsh and often most unfair by any reasonable standard of judgment, and people can be cruel. Sometimes people are quite actively and brutally cruel; at other times, they are more casual, even offhand, about their cruelties – dismissive of those made to suffer, of those cheated, of those left out.

The cruelties, brutal or polite, have this in common: they proceed by dehumanizing their victims. Did you notice as I read from the Gospel of Mark how much emphasis the passion narrative puts on the shaming of Jesus? Despite Mel Gibson’s bloody depiction, the gospels have far more to say about Jesus’ humiliation than about his physical pain. Crucifixion was designed as public shaming, to make an example of the rebel and so attach shame to anyone who would consider rebellion against the empire that people would turn away from following him. The would-be leader of the rebellion was to die screaming, cursing, and begging while being mocked and taunted the whole while, sometimes for hours, sometimes for days. Notice that Pilate is surprised Jesus has died so soon. For the person crucified, death is the savior that never comes soon enough.

“Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” That song comes from a human experience that is, indeed, cruciform because it was so dehumanizing and humiliating. To be a slave is to be, twenty-four hours every day, less than a person. We even debated the fraction of a person by which a slave should be counted so the slave states could get more voting power without having to admit the unthinkable, that slaves were people.

We are people and for the most part acknowledged as such, though not always. Go and stand with the unpopular, and you may find your status suddenly reduced to the level of theirs. There it is, the link that takes us beyond the sacramental. Empathy that comes from standing with and among as one of them the people regarded as shameful, as less than valid human beings, unites us with Jesus crucified. Empathy speaks of suffering shared not just pitied. We can indulge in pity from a safe distance, but true empathy requires interaction, dialogue, and identification. Jesus branded himself a sinner by hanging around with sinners, treating them with respect, and sharing the scorn they received from the commendable people.

At the Lord’s Table, I know anew that I am not one of the commendable people, those who live exemplary lives. Jesus made a practice of pointing out to the virtuous that they were not so commendable as they pretended to be. They were playing the role of exemplary people, and so they were actors, role-players, for which the gospels’ term is hypocrite. Here in the sacrament, I know again as I receive the symbols of his humiliation, that Jesus endured it willingly both for me and because of me. There is nothing commendable in my receiving the bread and wine, but there is grace, and there is hope. I believe there is also a challenge and a calling. As the followers of Jesus who put our trust in him, we need to be there, where he is being crucified. We can be there with him when we stop playing the role of exemplary and commendable persons and, instead, enter into the shame and grief of people whose experience of life is cruciform. For where they are, there he is also. Amen.

Appealing to What in Us?

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Yesterday, for reasons of my own, I reread several of my own Palm Sunday sermons. In the course of remembering what I had written and said years ago and where I was in life back then in hope for better understanding of where I am in life now, I came upon the following two paragraphs that opened my Palm Sunday sermon in 2010.

We are living in a season of anger that is already exceeding danger levels. Decades ago, we spoke of anger as though it were a liquid that could be “bottled up” inside us. We thought we needed to express our anger to “get it out” of our systems so it would not blow up, boil over inside us, or poison our temperaments. Since those days, we have learned that the more people practice anger, the angrier they become. We can actually train ourselves to become easily enraged, which, of course, can have quite detrimental effects upon our blood pressure, our work, our sleep, and our personal relationships as well.

Angry people do not think straight, as one man recently confessed to, he says, his shame and fear. He is the younger man in the now infamous video of two men in Columbus, Ohio bullying an older man with Parkinson’s disease, and he now admits he was completely out of control and says he will never go to a political rally again. For him, that decision might be wise, but neither politics nor religion necessarily fuels rage. Playing to anger, stirring it up in crowds, is a choice by politicians or religious leaders that deliberately targets enemies and keeps demonizing them so that the enraged followers no longer feel the need to treat those others so demonized as fellow human beings.

What I saw and heard in our national life back in 2010 has intensified into the out-of-control rage of Americans in 2016. Fear and anger feed each other, and together they are consuming us.

A little further into my old sermon, the observation continued:

Yes, we are living in a time of anger when the method of operation is to distort the opponent and then attack the distortion with as much fury as possible. Our air waves are polluted with hyped up rage, with racism and other forms of bigotry, and with contagious fear of “them” — the demonized groups who supposedly threaten our way of life. In such a climate, neighbors, friends, and family members can become enemies, and some people become angry in general because anger has become their dominant emotion and most ready response to life’s situations. And it starts young. Our schools are explosive with it. So, if we find ourselves always or very often angry, that condition may be our point of greatest need for spiritual healing.

In this post, I am describing, not prescribing. We have become angry people, and I say “we” because I feel the anger in myself and experience its effects upon my mood and demeanor. So I raise two questions:

What do we practice in our daily living (on Facebook and elsewhere) and feed in ourselves?

And, to what feelings do our chosen political and religious leaders (meaning the ones we listen to) appeal in us?

For anyone wondering how I included our chosen religious leaders and groups as well as our chosen political leaders, I’ll include this from the sermon:

Whenever the churches wish to demonize their enemies, drive out those who differ, or demand power and privilege in the society, they must hide the real Jesus from sight, because he will not serve such purposes. They must fabricate a different Christ, then call him Jesus.

The Servant of the LORD is able to be a teacher because he is “one who is taught” by God. As Christ’s church together, we are called to be people taught by God. Are we afraid in these times? Certainly, there are substantial reasons for fear these days, but in the way of Jesus, we learn to meet our own fears with trust in God and concern for each other, and we do not exploit the fears of others to turn them into an angry mob. Let us remember, that God loves also the people we fear, which does not mean God is necessarily pleased with their behavior (or ours, for that matter), but it does mean we have no authorization from Jesus Christ to dehumanize them so we can attack them or hate them with a self-satisfied conscience.

Are we feeding our own fears and anger? Facebook and other so-called social media provide ready feeding troughs for just such unhealthful food, and both television and radio provide plenty of takeout junk food for the soul. What feelings do we practice? And how do we practice looking upon other people, what names do we call them, what generalizations do we make about them?  Do we speak of them as though they were less than we ourselves are or even less than human?

Anything I Want to Be?

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You Can Be Anything You Want to Be
The Help and Harm in this Common Saying

The Nonsensical

Taken literally, this popular word of encouragement would be ridiculous. If I had wanted to become an opera singer, could I have done so through persistence? I can’t carry a tune, and worse, I don’t usually even hear myself singing off key. I wonder whether I even hear all the music other people hear. Could there be a musical equivalent of partial color blindness? To believe I could have become an opera singer or any kind of singer would have required severe delusion. Maybe I should have wanted to play football in the NFL or basketball in the NBA. Why should I let factors such as size and insufficient athleticism stop me, if after all, I could be anything I wanted to be?

The Helpful

In reasonable usage, the saying is meant to lift imposed restrictions and break through unnecessary barriers. “A girl can’t be an engineer.” “A woman can’t become president of the United States.” “A black girl can’t become a ballet dancer (this bias featured in one episode of the television series, “Fame”). Many barriers have been breached already, but a breached wall does not let through everyone who wishes to pass and could pass through it but for artificially imposed restrictions. Because some have pioneered does not guarantee that many others are not impeded still. The true import of the saying is to tell the person she or he has the right to pursue any (legal) goal she or he is able to pursue when freed from the unreasonable restrictions of societal prejudice, parental authoritarianism, religious regulation, or unjust laws.

Girls don’t climb trees (even though many do). Men don’t wash dishes (even though many do). I recall reading somewhere that during the apartheid years in South Africa, white students had a difficult time earning money to help pay for a university education because the jobs available to students in other countries were closed to them because they were white and those jobs were considered beneath their status. For them, prejudice backfired, but the real issue was the limiting of non-white South Africans to those menial, poorly paid jobs. If a white student couldn’t clean floors or tables, neither could a black or “colored” person qualify for jobs restricted to white South Africans.

So, the helpful word in the saying, “You can be anything you want to be,” is its call to freedom and dignity. You are not born to be a slave to repressive forces; neither are you restricted to whatever other people decide you must be. With commitment and diligence, you may become who and what you can be, according to your capabilities and your own preferences, or at least you have the right to try.

The Blaming

If it is taken to be true that I can be anything I want to be if only I apply myself thoroughly and persistently, am I not thereby condemned for my failures, no matter their causes? More broadly, if groups of people within a prosperous society fail to prosper, are they not thereby proved to be lazy, shiftless, and of no account? More broadly still, can we not suppose that all earth’s poor are self-made failures? If it is true that anyone can be anything she or he wants to be, then nothing external can stop us – no oppression, discrimination, cruelty, deprivation, or violence – but only our own lack of ambition.

Here the saying that can be inspirational becomes, instead, a judgment of the successful upon the unsuccessful, the rich upon the poor, the happy upon the miserable. It says to them, “Don’t complain! Whatever is holding you back from success is your own fault! No one can keep you down but you yourself. You are a loser of your own making.”

Like other maxims of the rich and powerful, this one is a convenient lie designed to make privilege appear to be self-propelled attainment and greed appear to be virtue. Many of the accepted beliefs in prosperous societies, including their religious beliefs, have been developed to favor those enjoying privilege, prestige, and power and to maintain the status quo by keeping the repressed in their assigned places.

For Me

Because of the faith commitment that has claimed me from childhood and been renewed repeatedly throughout my life, my question about my future could never be simply, “Who do I want to be, and what do I want to do with the life given to me?” but rather, “Who am I called to be and become, and what am I called to seek and to do?” It would be pretentious and self-deceiving to say my own desires have had nothing to with my life-answers to those questions, as it would be silly to suggest my capabilities and limitations played no part. There has been no blueprint for my personhood or road map for my seeking, learning, failing, succeeding, floundering, and advancing along the winding path.

Because biblically and for me truly, life is relational, the questions of who to be and what to do have never been allowed an isolated, individualized answer. I am or have been many people to various others: son, brother, classmate, husband, father, friend, pastor, student, stranger, opponent, colleague, neighbor, fellow, and so on. All by myself without even memory of relatedness to other people, I would no one and nothing I wanted to be, but that truth applies to all of us whether we know it or not. Biblical understanding of faith promotes relational concerns to the forefront of aspirations for self and life.

Have I always wanted to be who I was and what I am? No, and neither have I always held unqualified gratitude for what I have believed myself called to do. I wonder if anyone of us truly and without reservation likes himself or herself. I cannot even imagine being thoroughly satisfied with who I have become so far and what I have done with the time, life, friendship, abilities, experiences, and love I have been given. The notion of having no regrets is lost on me.

Vocation

In Christian church history, vocation came to mean a special religious calling away from the world, apart from the people (the laity). Biblically, however, to be chosen means to be called out by God from the people, the many, for the purpose of service to the people. Even a king is a shepherd, called to take care of the people and see to justice and compassion that faithfully represent God’s own justice and compassion. Being a prophet came to mean, for the great prophets, being called to live in sympathetic vibration of the soul with God’s pathos – God’s intense and vital love for the people and the creation – while, at the same time empathizing with the people and standing with them and for them before God.

Martin Luther protested the division between the vocations (priests and nuns) and the laity. He insisted that all Christians are called so that all can and should see and live their lives as vocations. Here the word vocation is not limited to a trade, art, or profession – to a job – but defines a whole life lived as a person called by Christ to follow him for the sake of the world and its people whatever the job, marital status, ability, disability, or path. Here life is a gift given with each breath but also a calling renewed each new day.

In practice, however, the idea of a calling or vacation can be degraded right back to prescribed duty, place, and station. The whole idea of the saying, “You can be anything you want to be,” is to break the restrictions imposed upon a person by society, parents, custom, or religion. So, for the one who believes herself (or himself) called to follow and to serve, becoming who I am to be is not just a struggle between ego and calling but a three-way struggle among ego, suppression of the self, and calling.

Because life is relational, maturing happens in continuous tension between the need for personal freedom and the need for acceptance by others and belonging with them. Vocation or calling adds a vertical dimension to this tension, but I think it is a serious mistake to imagine that the vertical (between God and the self) eliminates the tension between freedom and belonging, as though God dictated my choices and told me which way to go at every turn. I hear people declare, “God told me to do such and such,” and I fear that such passing upward of all human responsibility provides a dangerous opening for magical thinking and self-deception. The so-called prosperity gospel plays upon just such thinking and self-deception, does it not?

Conclusion

The saying, “You can be anything you want to be,” clearly should not be taken literally and simplistically. I could not have become an opera singer or a pro athlete. Plus, there are always trade-offs. Could I become a good, published writer? Maybe, but only with a lot of work in isolation from other people. Am I willing to give up much of life’s interaction to strive to show something of life with words (not just tell about it)? In the tensions and choices of living, almost every gain has a corresponding loss.

To me, the saying functions best as a hammer to break chains or a pry bar to open boxes of confinement into which people have been placed. It protests confinement and restriction, opening new possibilities. As such, it can do good.

Danger comes from self-delusion or just selfishness. Life is not given to me so I can be all about what I want. Having it all, as people say of supposed success, is a trap in which the self is snared by taking all to itself. The greater harm is done by blaming the repressed for their own repression. We’ve heard more lately of this vicious nonsense: only weak women get abused. Once again, insult is added to injury as the powerful dismiss the protests of the victimized.

For the Christian I must add that following Jesus Christ does not excuse me from making choices, struggling with responsibilities, and thinking for myself. There is a big difference between thinking for myself and thinking only of myself. Unthinking faith is a contradiction in terms. As Augustine declared and the Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall insists, belief seeks understanding. I must put my trust in Christ, but I may not pass off to him my responsibility for myself, my life, and my service.

The helpful force of the saying seems to me now especially important for girls who much too long and far too imperiously have been told what they must (and must not) do and who they may be. Not only girls but especially girls. Not only the young but especially the young. Not only people in minorities but they especially.

[References available for Heschel, Hall, and the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (biblical Hebrew word for “chosen”).  The footnotes didn’t move well from WordPerfect to WordPress.]

Circumstances Don’t Matter?

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It’s Not Your Circumstances that Matter
But What You Do with Them
The Help and Harm in this Common Saying

The Potentially Helpful

In my ragged copy of a 1969 book, Journey to Freedom, I find a quote from Tennessee Williams’s, Camino Real, in which one character (Quixote) tells another (Kilroy), “Don’t! Pity! Your! Self! The wounds . . . the many offenses our egos have to endure being housed in bodies that age and hearts that grow tired, are better accepted with a tolerant smile . . . Otherwise what you become is a bag full of curdled cream – leche male, we call it – attractive to nobody, least of all to yourself! Have you any plans?” Kilroy answers, “Well I was thinking of going on from here.” Quixote responds, “Good! Come with me!” (Dowdey, 25,26)

The idea is at least as old as Stoicism: don’t let anything that happens outside you touch and hurt your soul. The common versions might be expressed as, “Don’t let life get you down,” and, “Your life is what you make of it.”

Surely self-pity is a trap – in John Bunyon’s allegorical terms (The Pilgrim’s Progress), a “slough of despond” that, as we say, bogs us down. As long as we remain stuck in this bog of self-pity, we go nowhere. So, very often in life, what we do with our present circumstances determines whether we go on from there.

Bravado’s overblown version of the indomitable human spirit finds voice in William Ernest Henley’s poem, “Invictus.”

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.

The call to rise above our circumstances and live again with courage can, indeed, be inspirational and may even be just what we need to hear from ourselves at certain dark times in our lives. Self-pity is a bog, and it will in time repulse other people, even friends, pushing them away from the one wallowing in that bog. We do need to go on from here, wherever here may be when we get stuck, but I do not believe we need to go on unmoved, untouched, unhurt. Self-protection, self-insulation, can become as dangerous as self-pity.

The Personal Danger: Hardening

Part of Paul Simon’s lyrics for the song, “I Am a Rock”:

I’ve built walls
A fortress, steep and mighty
That none may penetrate
I have no need of friendship
Friendship causes pain.
It’s laughter and it’s loving I disdain.
I am a rock
I am an island

Don’t talk of love
Well, I’ve heard the words before
It’s sleeping in my memory
And I won’t disturb the slumber
Of feelings that have died
If I never loved, I never would have cried
I am a rock
I am an island

. . .
And a rock feel no pain
And an island never cries.

If I won’t let myself feel my own feelings, how will I empathize with anyone else? If I try to make myself emotionally invulnerable, how can I allow myself to be loved? If I won’t acknowledge my own pain, how will I not become hardhearted and perhaps even cruel?

As we mature, we undergo of necessity a certain degree of hardening. We dare not allow every little slight, injury, or unfairness to get us down. It is neither wise nor safe to go out into the world looking wounded, both because the jackals will move in upon us and because friends will move away from us.

Compassion (suffering with another person enough to be moved to care about that person’s plight) requires vulnerability and the strength to allow myself to be so moved, but how much vulnerability is enough and how much would be too much? In the Gospel of John, Jesus uses a Semitic expression that translates literally as something like, “What to you and to me?” (John 2). The idea is that for another individual’s problem to become mine, there must be some relational context that draws us together in the matter. Otherwise, the problem as presented may be none of my business, which is not the same as saying, “I don’t care,” but does recognize that I am not responsible for solving that problem. I find this expression helpful for guarding against being drawn into others’ relational conflicts in which I have no rightful part. Of course, there may also be good reasons for me to accept that I really do have a responsibility within the matter, but the question, “What to you and to me?” asks what those reasons are. For example, a man demands that Jesus tell his (the man’s) brother to share with him properly the inheritance from their father. Jesus asks the man who made him an arbiter between the two brothers, then tells him he would do well to make his priority reconciling with his bother. The relationship has greater value than the money or property, and Jesus will not insert himself into their family dispute.

If, however, I decide that outward circumstances really do not matter to human happiness and should not affect the soul, then I make myself as nearly as possible invulnerable to other people’s sufferings as well as to my own. In so doing, I am making myself less and less human. I develop a “get over it” attitude toward grief. I dismiss concern about injustices. If necessary for self-protection, I blame people for their sufferings: “No one else does anything to you, except as you do it to yourself by allowing them to trouble you.” So the abused and exploited, the many victims of human cruelty or random misfortune have our self-righteous condemnation of their unhappiness added to their pain.

Social Consequences

If everyone is responsible for his/her own life and happiness, then what place remains for concern about social injustices? Are human systems exempt from the demands of justice? If circumstances don’t matter, what need is there to improve them? Let everyone take care of himself (traditionally women have been expected and forced to accept their circumstances as dictated to them, even as divinely ordained).

Two great lies buttress this hands-off attitude. The first is the lie that we are individuals with no crucial relatedness to each other, that relationships are optional, that one’s life and self are completely one’s own. The second is that prevailing social structures and hierarchies are somehow natural and proper. The truth is that the poverty of many greatly benefits the relatively few who prosper from it, and social hierarchies are enforced to maintain and increase that benefit for the relatively few. Most of us who call ourselves middle class can maintain that status only because poorer people suffer to provide us with goods we otherwise could not afford. Until we recognize our interrelatedness and interdependence, we will continue to live in a world of so-called winners and losers, and the losers will continue to suffer for the benefit of the winners while being blamed for their own misery and the futility of their efforts. For this reason, charitable giving (while better than not giving) serves to blind us to inequities and shield the conscience from the unfairness of “the way things are” while stroking the egos of those with money to spare.

For this reason, also, we love the exceptional, the one who makes it up out of poverty, despite discrimination and the systemic heel on his or her neck. “See!” we tell ourselves, “that one did it, and so what excuse have the rest?” From the back of my mind echoes Buffy Sainte-Marie’s question, “Can’t you see that their poverty’s profiting you?” (“My Country ‘Tis of Thy People You’re Dying”).

Conclusion

Is there a conclusion? I suspect that in one way or another we must, each and all, transcend our circumstances. Can the well-off rise above their prosperity to recognize their privilege and so arrive at the possibility of redemption? Can the crushed rise up with hope above their pain and bitterness? Can the grief-stricken go forward in hope without denying their love and the pain it will suffer as long as they live? Can I tell myself not to get bogged down in self-pity without turning and oppressing others with my platitudes about their happiness being their own responsibility and no one else’s?

Abraham Heschel told us the world does not need more people who love justice – the great and wonderful ideal of justice – but more who cannot abide the injustices done to others. Circumstances do indeed matter, and I really don’t believe we should make peace with evil, personal or social. It should matter that a child has cancer. It should disrupt our happiness that a girl is told she cannot become what she could be, all because she is not a boy. It should grieve us that so many women find expression of a truth of their lives in the “Me too” movement. It should trouble us that people have to insist, against the prevailing attitudes, that “black lives matter.” Circumstances do indeed matter!

We do not need to shield ourselves from grief by denying love. We do not need to minimize our love of life when faced with our own mortality more immanently than we expected. We do not need to put on a happy face. I have known couples who desperately needed to talk with other about their griefs, fears, and losses but, instead, protected each other by keeping silence about impending death until one was gone.

Self-pity is a bog we must escape and keep escaping. And denial of our feelings, needs, and disappointments is a fortress-prison we must escape also. Either trap keeps us from each other, from life, and from honesty with ourselves.

 

Everything Happens for a Reason?

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Everything Happens for a Reason
The Help and Harm in this Common Saying

Cry from Distress

“I know everything happens for a reason, but why . . . ?” Anguish is speaking. Life has betrayed a person’s trust in goodness – life’s goodness or perhaps God’s. Fear has displaced confidence. Chaos threatens to take over, and this affirmation of some hidden reason rejects chaos as the person’s conclusion. She or he is badly shaken and deeply distressed but refuses to abandon completely the trust that life makes sense and that God cares. I would consider it wrong to dismiss this cry from distress as merely an empty platitude – indeed, worse than wrong. It would be cold and cruel but also arrogant. The person crying from distress is saying, “I matter, and my life matters. I am not just a passing shadow. All that has been good, all that I have been thankful for in my life, was not a deception or a sand castle built in childish delusion that it meant something.”

“Life has turned against me.” “This hurts.” “I am shattered, but I will not yield myself to despair. I will not give up on life (or on God), and I will not give up on myself. I will stand and affirm, however unsteadily, that life makes sense even though I cannot see right now what that sense could be. I will not give up my faith or my hope, either.”

Such fortitude is to be respected. As an affirmation of life, the cry from anguish, “Everything happens for a reason!” speaks a truth deeper than anything reason or science has to offer. It is an assertion of human strength from within the context of human weakness. It keeps faith without explanation to justify that faith. Defiantly, it says, “No!” to the void and, “Yes,” to the future.

Attempted Assurance

Here we listen to a different speaker: not the person in distress but another seeking to comfort the one expressing anguish. I must speak here with care because the line between compassion and self-protection blurs, and people trying to help and support the anguished find themselves in very uncertain territory where good intentions may be misunderstood and words meant to console misinterpreted.

Psychologists speak of something they call “the empathic wall.” At issue is how much we can afford to let other people’s feelings get to us versus how well we must protect ourselves so we are not too easily drawn into another’s fear, rage, or grief. Witness a room full of infants playing contentedly and watch what happens when one starts to cry. The crying builds steadily to a full-throated wail of distress, but see (and hear) what happens to the other infants. They too start crying in what is the empathic form of music’s sympathetic vibration where one struck tuning fork placed close to another of the same pitch will start the second vibrating. For infants, such empathy is natural and fine; for an adult, it would not be healthy. The philosopher Martha Nussbaum writes of an incident in the experience of the Stoic, Seneca. A Roman aristocrat lamented tearfully to Seneca that the shipment of peacock tongues from Africa he had wanted for his dinner party had been interrupted. Seneca laughed. (Upheavals of Thought, 309). Why did Seneca not feel empathy with the man in distress?  He considered the problem trivial and, therefore, the anguish laughable. It would not require a particularly high empathic wall to protect someone from sharing anguish over the loss of a delicacy for an aristocrat’s dinner party. After laughing, Seneca could have offered the ambiguous comfort of, “Everything happens for a reason.”

From the standpoint of the person responding to another’s anguish, saying that everything happens for a reason may come from sympathy’s attempt to comfort or from self-protection’s desire to block empathy. The effect is another matter.

As a Platitude

Minus empathy with the anguished, the saying become a mere platitude, a bromide for the suffering that puts forward false comfort with no heart in it. As a platitude, the saying that “everything happens for a reason” falls far short of the gospel, and the hope it offers is meager by comparison. Worse, it can be cruel. Do we tell parents whose child has been raped and murdered that such a grievous outrage fits somehow nicely into the will and purpose of God? Really? God wanted their child raped and murdered? What monstrous God is that? Women who have conceived by rape have been told the conception was God’s will. Is God in cahoots with rapists? Does God give children cancer or cause dementia in even the most brilliant or most loved of people? If so (and I contend it is not so), what justification can there be for grief or even for compassion? If declaring as a truism that everything happens for a reason meant everything, however horrible, happened in accordance with “God’s good pleasure,” then faith could not mean anything better than surrender to unfathomable power, certainly not trust in God’s compassionate love.

Biblically, God is faithful and just, filled with compassion for even the undeserving, and grieved by human misery. In the hands of the powerful, theology and religion became justifications for the status quo and all the systems of power and authority in place for their benefit. In contrast, the God of Israel enters the stage of human history as the lover of slaves and destroyer of systems of oppression which benefit the rich and powerful at the expense of everyone else. God intervenes in misery, changes so-called destiny, lifts up the downtrodden, casts down tyrants, and transforms the ways of life on earth. Israel’s God is the breaker of chains and destroyer of convenient platitudes that burden people without power in the world. The book of Job protests innocent suffering, human suffering that makes no sense, and rejects all rationalizations of it. Jacob (Israel himself!) wrestles with God and prevails. Abraham and Moses stand up to God’s righteous judgment upon the wicked, and God is pleased with their impudence and so relents, withdrawing punishment. The Bible, even before we get to Jesus, is a book of protest, not an accommodation to the way things are. God does not send Moses back down into Egypt to tell the Hebrew slaves to resign themselves to their subjugation because “everything happens for a reason” that will be made clear someday. Moses must tell them to get up and get ready to move out.

Jesus of Nazareth and the Kingdom of God

Jesus’ beatitudes have been neutralized too often into platitudes. They are not inspirational nuggets of Christian virtue but promises of radical change in this world. Jesus declares the poor blessed, not because he sees some virtue in poverty, but because God is coming to lift up the poor and cast down the rich. The kingdom of God belongs to the poor, the humbled, the grieved, the merciful, and all who look to God with hope for the promise of a world in which love and human dignity at last triumph over power and oppression.

“Thy kingdom come!” is not a plea for heaven someday but the expression of longing for the transformation of earth into a realm of compassion and justice. It prays for the passing away of the status quo of earth’s domination by wealth and power. It expresses the longing of the faithful, especially the powerless, for a world in which nothing is allowed to hurt or destroy life. It longs for the very opposite of what those in charge presently maintain for their own benefit.

“Thy will be done on earth . . . !” voices Jesus’ opposition to everything that happens contrary to God’s will. For him, sickness is not God’s will. Suffering is to be overcome, not rationalized. God’s people are to meet life with hope and courage, not resignation to the way things are and to whatever happens. Death makes no sense to him because it is not what God wants for us, even though we and everything else born into this world live currently under the dominion of death. Look at the evils in life and throughout this world, and believe that God’s will is otherwise! Then act accordingly.

A leper, an outcast regarded as sinful and not merely sick, challenges Jesus’ representation of God’s will: “If you will, you can heal me.” Like Abraham, Moses, and the great prophets, this leper challenges Jesus and calls God out on God’s commitment to compassion. And the impudent leper is vindicated. Jesus answers, “I do so will; be healed.”

People use Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane as the model for resignation to the hurtful and destructive. That’s wrong. There was something Jesus had to do, and he knew it would be terribly painful and humiliating, but he had to do it for the sake of God’s love for this world and its people. He did not give us the right to say of every horrible thing that happens in this world, “It’s God’s will.” No, it is not! As Christians, we believe that Jesus represents God’s will and purpose truly and embodies God’s empathy with us and compassion for us. As the theologian Jürgen Moltmann boldly proclaimed (The Crucified God), Jesus’ suffering on the cross reveals and represents God the Father’s suffering all along since committing to this created world, to Israel, and to the people of all nations and ethnic groups. If God would not simply destroy evil and all who belong to it, then what was left was for God to do but suffer it with us? The Bible presents a God who refuses to go on being God without us, and the crucified Christ represents in his own body what refusing to give up on us means for God.

All Things Work Together for Good? How?

The eighth chapter of Paul’s Letter to the Romans plunges the apostle, the Roman Christians, and us into the conflict between what happens in life on one hand and what God wants for us on the other. Romans 8 presents, not a study in resignation to evil in blind trust that it somehow makes sense to God, but a resolution to live with hope and expectation in a world groaning under its bondage to decay and death. Paul sees the world as given over to its present systems, however futile they may be on their own, in hope for liberation when the children of God are liberated from their own bondage to death. So, yes, bad things happen and will continue to happen until God’s work is consummated and all creation is made new, made as it should be in accordance with God’s will.

What does Romans 8 mean,“We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (NRSV)? Does that knowledge not amount to resignation to whatever happens in trust that it will all work out? No, Paul is no champion of determinism but, rather, a proponent of hope. He is not calling evil somehow secretly good, but calling people to faith that God will transform the harm done by life’s chances and cruelties into something better than ever. I call this process “redemption,” not just in the ultimate sense, but in the present sense of taking up our griefs and putting them into the service of something good.

The past is past, and the events of the past are done and gone. Paul is not talking about some divine version of time travel to go back and undo the past but about transforming the effects of the past. Redemption of the hurtful in our past does not make that evil into good but redeems it by turning the effects of the bad toward the creation of something good. It’s not, “Oh, thank goodness the child died because it made her parents much more compassionate people.” No! I refuse to buy into that kind of pious and pitiless sleight of hand. What is grievous is grievous. What is unjust is unjust. What hurts and destroys is evil. We may thank God for the newly compassionate lives of the dead child’s parents but not for that child’s death. The grief remains within the compassion.

I have made mistakes, and I have done wrong I regret. I cannot go back and undo what I have done, nor can I go back to do what I regret not having done. Neither can I “just turn it all over to God” and no longer regret it. How convenient for me it would be if I could, but then how would I change, learn, and grow?  My regret would be wasted. God’s Spirit is not brain wash like the mythical waters of forgetfulness. I can, however, work toward trusting God to bring good out of evil, service out of regret, understanding and empathy out of pain, and compassion out of shame. Please note that I tend to see the good God brings out of harm as turned outward for the sake of other people and not merely for my personal improvement. Is that noble? No, it’s realistic. As Jesus was sent to represent God to us, so he sends us to represent him to others in the world.

Conclusion

While I will never like the saying, “Everything happens for a reason,” nor agree with it in principle, I do understand how it helps people who find in it an anchor for hope when life no longer makes sense but just hurts. I will not accept the notion that evil in and of itself happens for some good reason or higher purpose, certainly not for “God’s good purpose.” I do believe in God’s will and power to redeem the hurtful and senseless, in both the immediate (here and now) and the ultimate (when all tears are wiped away and all hurts healed). I believe that God’s will for us is for good and not harm, for hope and not despair, for courage and not fearfulness, and for life not death. I base this belief upon the primary belief that in Jesus of Nazareth we see the will of God as it truly is, for us and for all creation, and that will is for life and wholeness.

 

Questioning Popular Truisms

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When I began this project, I called it, “Inspirational Falsehoods,” but soon changed my mind. In my next three posts, I’ll consider three popular inspirational sayings that may be helpful at some times to some people but can also be misleading and oppressive. What I realized quickly was that dismissing these sayings as utter falsehoods was itself false to people’s experiences of them as well as presumptuous. Because these sayings have helped people through difficulties, I’ll take care to recognize what strengthens, encourages, and uplifts but also examine what stifles, misleads, discourages, and may even crush people under the weight of a presumed truth that is not true for them at all.

Pointing out falsehood from a faith perpective requires care because the theologically false often holds a grain of truth and may, with that grain, genuinely have sustained some people’s faith, hope, and life through periods of pain and grief. Historically, the church would have done better to listen to its heretics (teachers of falsehood) than sweepingly condemn their teachings as though the errors arising from human need and experience had no truth in them. Especially where objection to current orthodoxy arises out of the unanswered cries of suffering, exclusion, or resentment, that objection needs to be heard and understood. If the disagreements were purely academic, they could be worked out academically, but the existentially painful needs to be heard even if its theology strays from accepted norms.

The popular inspirational truisms I’ll question in the next three days are:

1. Everything happens for a reason.
2. It’s not your circumstances that matter but what you do with them.
3. You can be anything you want to be.

This blog is called, “Faith Thinking Aloud,” and so I’ll look at each saying in terms of its reasoning and our life experiences but also in light of the gospel of Jesus Christ. I’m concerned with the saying’s effect upon people. What do people hear, and how are they helped or afflicted by what they are being told? In each case, I wish to oppose fatalism, resignation, escapism, discouragement, indifference, cruelty, and the suppression of the human spirit while supporting hope, courage, justice, compassion, trust, healing, and a sense of human community.

For What Purpose?

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After the slaughter in the Baptist church in Texas, I heard it again: the appeal to illogical comparisons, to parallels that are not parallel. On television, a politician defending “Second Amendment rights” asked his interviewer if he would ban trucks because a truck was used in the recent New York terrorist attack or ban airplanes because they were used as weapons of terrorism on September 11, 2001. To his credit, the interviewer tried to interject the idea of design by pointing out that AR-15s are designed to kill people, many people in rapid succession, but the politician talked over him, repeating his false comparisons.

In this post, I hope to discredit the illogic of these false comparisons between a semi-automatic weapon and vehicles or other implements that can be misused as means for killing people deliberately. Instead of using the concept of design, I choose the somewhat broader, I think, question of purpose because it raises two concerns: the purpose for which the gun is designed and manufactured and what purpose I might have in mind if I chose to buy one.

Transportation is the purpose of cars, trucks, and planes. Can they be misused to commit murder? Yes, indeed they can, as we have seen. So can a pencil, and decades ago I was told by a witness to the results of a boy who was held down by other boys while one shoved a pencil through his eardrum and into his brain. He died. So, the illogic goes, since many ordinary objects can be used to kill, no type of gun should be restricted or banned because the person is the one who commits the murder, as though the choice of weapon were merely incidental. The argument, however, does not stand up to the question of purpose.

The purpose of an AR-15 is to kill people. Can it be used for other purposes? Yes, I suppose it can, but it’s a large, expensive, and unwieldy paperweight. Target practice? Sure, but there are better choices for that purpose, and anything that propels a projectile or becomes a projectile when thrown can be used for target practice. The AR-15 is designed and made to kill people.

Illogic does not give up easily. “I have one for home defense.” Okay, and how would it function at need for home defense? Would you offer it to the home invader if he promised to leave? No, it’s purpose is to shoot the invader if necessary. It’s made to kill people. By the way, I’ve read more than once or twice from people purporting to know about such matters that a shotgun would be a much better choice for home defense.

What’s special about the AR-15 is that it kills people in rapid succession. In contrast with a shotgun or a hunting rifle, it’s made to kill many people quickly. That’s the weapon’s purpose: to kill many people in very short time. So, the purpose for buying and owning one is to possess the ability to kill many people in a short time or to outgun someone in a gunfight. Why? Why does a person want that ability?

It’s not about hunting. I have been assured by a staunch defender of “Second Amendment rights” that it’s not about hunting and, further, that the Supreme Court has confirmed that it’s not about hunting. What, then, is it about? For what purpose does a person want such a weapon? I suggest further conversation about these weapons needs to begin with that question.

Please, no more nonsense about cars, trucks, and commercial or private airplanes which are not made or sold for the purpose of killing people. Or pencils, either. Then, too, swords are sometimes mentioned. While knives have various designs and purposes, many of which lead to the kitchen and food preparation, swords came into human history for the purpose of killing people, but how would a person wielding a sword kill more than fifty people in a crowd and injure some 500 more without being stopped? Besides, there are restrictions on swords, and open carry is not a thing with them, at least not in places I’ve lived.

The purpose of the AR-15 and anything similar remains: to kill many people in rapid succession. Again, why would a person buy one?

Insurrection?
Intimidation of groups not liked?
Guerilla warfare?
Fire power for illegal activities (to outgun police)?
Fear of a race war (“when they come”)?
A sense of empowerment (with, maybe, no intent ever to use the thing)?
Fantasies?
Something else I haven’t even thought of?

We need to talk, and we need to listen as respectfully as we can. In doing both, it would be helpful to stay logical and honest. We need to stop deflecting. We need to stop labeling and then dismissing whoever offers something more than a deflection. People are being slaughtered with terrible efficiency, in large numbers, and I see no signs that the carnage will stop if all we do is keep repeating our slogans and deflections.

The Current Rise of Sin and Evil

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At its most basic, evil is harm. To do evil to someone is to hurt, damage, or destroy the person. I find it helpful to keep in mind this basic meaning of evil, first because it clarifies some statements in the Bible, but also because it helps prevent us from understanding evil only at its extreme levels of intensity or even as a supernatural power of which we are the victims. Nice, respectable people hurt each other with words or sometimes with silence. A look of disgust can do lasting damage. Nations inflict great harm upon other, often weaker nations as we did to Iraq after our nation was attacked on September 11, 2001 but not by Iraq. The terrorist attacks on us did great harm, great evil, and so did our “shock and awe” of supposed retaliation upon Iraq.

The doing of harm can deepen into willful hurting, which may deepen further into the desire to hurt people and even delight in their pain. Then evil becomes malice and practiced cruelty. At such levels, the doing of evil ties into the desire for dominance accompanied by contempt for those who can be dominated and toyed with. Here doing harm, hurting and humiliating, becomes a habit, a commitment, and finally a need. So it is that evil swallows up the people who have thought dominance made them strong and cruelty was their right as the strong. Malice corrupts and destroys the one who surrenders to it even as that person inflicts harm upon others. This observation leads to the realization that evil is bigger and more powerful than we are. It grips, not only individuals, but nations and peoples. It dehumanizes those it empowers, driving them to appalling acts and frenzies of rage and hatred. Witness the men we see on videos screaming into the faces of women they perceive as unwanted outsiders to their “real America”; they seem insane with fury, out of control and out of their minds. They think they are confronting an evil when, in reality, evil is consuming them.

Sin may be the most misunderstood term in our moral and religious vocabulary. It is not the opposite of virtue; indeed, virtue and sin work together very well and fit nicely into the same person. Neither is sin disobedience, however much the Genesis story of humanity’s temptation and fall may seem upon superficial reading to support that definition. Sin is not merely the violation of a law, a rule, a commandment, or a vow, although such violations may result from and manifest sin. Consider the biblical commandment not to commit adultery. What does adultery violate – a rule, a marriage vow, the virtue of sexual or marital purity? No, it violates a relationship and so violates the person with whom that relationship was formed. That is what sin is in its deepest and most basic biblical meaning: the denial of relationship.

Now we may see the two concepts coming together. The doing of deliberate harm to other people requires the denial or corruption of our relationship with them. They are not “us.” They are inferior. They hate us. They are inhuman or even subhuman. They are disgusting. They belong to us as property and must be kept down, or they are outsiders who must be driven out or destroyed.

For many Americans, Donald Trump has legitimized their denial of relationship with people they see as not us, not real Americans, but outsiders who don’t belong here among us. He has made sin appear and feel patriotic, empowering, and right. So he has unleashed the resentments of people who hate being told they should welcome immigrants and understand border crossers, sympathize with refugees, seek to understand Muslims, respect women as equals, recognize skin color as irrelevant to respect and neighborliness, and be untroubled by different languages. By denying relationship, sin rejects empathy and compassion, replacing them with suspicion, disgust, and fear. What begins in Genesis as, in effect, “We will be as gods to ourselves and do not need you, God, as our God,” expands into, “You are not my brother, my sister, my neighbor, my equal, my companion in life.” From this spirit of evil flows every contemptuous name we put on groups of people we reject as having any rightful association with us, unless it be as our servants, slaves, or under-paid workers. From this spirit of evil springs every war waged in presumed righteousness, every delight in killing the despised enemy, every refusal to recognize our shared humanity.

So it happens that Jesus of Nazareth sums up all that God wants from us and for us in two inseparable commands found in the Hebrew scriptures: to love our God wholeheartedly with all we are and everything we have, and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves, and he expands the definition of neighbor to include, not only the stranger, but even the enemy. He sets the affirmation of relationship against the denial of relationship which is sin.

Affirming relationships that have been denied and sometimes corrupted into antagonisms with long and bitter histories is no simple matter, no quick turnaround, no sweet coming together in sentimental love. Loving our enemies requires reconciliation which is very hard work requiring strenuous emotional effort from both sides and tough dedication to getting it done, despite setbacks and likely treachery from people with vested interests in keeping reconciliation from happening. One to one personal estrangements are hard to turn around because resentments have been accumulated. Hostilities between peoples, where neither side has clean hands and taking revenge has been glorified as honorable, are excruciatingly difficult to overcome. Fears and resentments run deep, and selfishness is ever at work. Treachery is always possible, and a single act of belligerence can undo years of work at building trust. Loving our enemies has nothing to do with warm, fuzzy feelings toward people who would love to hurt us. The work of reconciliation begins with recognizing their humanity as akin to our own, desiring healing rather than revenge, and trying to understand their hurts as well as ours.

Donald Trump did not create the currently rising evil. He unleashed it. Neither has he merely exposed the evil to public view; he has emboldened and empowered it so his campaign could feed it and feed upon it. If we would resist the evil and protect its intended victims, we must oppose it actively but take care not to adopt its methods and try to fight fire with fire. We must not dehumanize the Trump supporters, denying relationship with them. As in our Civil War, they are our neighbors, friends, and family members. Understanding people’s actions is not synonymous with excusing them. The history of prejudice in our nation reveals that many people have built their sense of identity and self-worth upon their presumed superiority by virtue of their whiteness, and some of their resentments are tied to perceived violations of that presumed superiority and their right to preference because of it. They see black people, Latinos, and women as cutting ahead of them in line for the American dream. Such prejudices complicate sympathy for them and stifle understanding of their pain but do not excuse us from the efforts, not only because we all have prejudices of our own, but also because we do indeed, like it or not, belong together to the God who created us to live in mutual respect, with commitment to justice and kindness.

The Talmud includes a story in which the angels of heaven ask God if they may join the Israelites in the Song of the Sea celebrating their deliverance from the Egyptian army that sought to destroy them. The children of Israel have crossed the sea on dry ground, but the waters have returned to drown the pursuing Egyptians. Cause for celebration? No, for God replies, How can you sing when my children are drowning, when the work of my hands lies dead upon the shores?

Denial of relationship with other people amounts to denial of God. Rejection of empathy and refusal of compassion open the door wide for terrible evils (great harm and rampant cruelty) without interference from conscience. Jesus launched a counter movement by insisting we do belong together, we are all related within God’s commitment to relationship with us. He gave himself to reconcile us. This is what we believe and proclaim as Christians. That so many American Christians have given their support to the current rising of sin and evil shows how deeply the rejection of relationship has corrupted the body politic of our land and the faith of American Christianity.

In long-standing hostilities, the standard defense against any suggestion of reconciling with the enemies is a litany of, “But what about . . . ?” answered with a recital of grievances and wrongs done by those enemies. Such litanies re-ignite anger even as they deflect any suggestion of self-examination. Such deflection is the use to which the abortion issue is currently put, not to reduce the number of abortions, but to claim high moral ground for supporting the rise of belligerent nationalism and racism with insistence that unqualified opposition to abortion excuses all other wrongs. As long as opposing sides continue to deflect self-examination with, “But what about (wrongs believed to be done or supported by the other side)?” reconciliation is stifled and self-righteousness prevails. Therein lies the power of sin and the grief of God.