Faith Thinking Aloud

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.

Confederate Monuments, a Counterpoint to My Previous Post

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See the picture. One of the ways I walk in my neighborhood goes by a fenced property, and on the fence is a sign, “Beware of Dog.”

That sign provides information, useful information I think as the dog looks to me sturdier than the fence, but also warns and intimidates. The sign not only reminds me that the property is not mine to enter but also serves to threaten me with harm if I foolishly choose to enter anyway. When I have walked by on the sidewalk, the rottweiler to which the sign refers has jumped against the fence and barked at me until I have passed. Neither my walking in the street nor speaking softly to the dog made any difference. Since I could not sooth the dog, I took its picture, and now I walk on the other side of the street or go a different way. Would the rottweiler really bite me? I don’t know, but neither do I intend to find out, which is the whole idea of the sign.

While I am not retracting my previous post about the Confederate monuments that have become focal points for controversy throughout our nation and do continue regard them as more about intimidation than history, I am taking a step to one side so I can look from a slightly different perspective. Maybe, with the help of a friend from our days as classmates in seminary, I am attempting a half-step away from my whiteness. Or maybe it’s just a reality check. Or both.

I said and say again that the monuments represent white dominion. What I need to remind myself, however, is that they are not the reality of white dominion but merely its representations. Without societal forces behind them, the statues would be just statues. Removing them is, I contend, the right thing to do, but doing so will not remove the realities they represent to living people, white and black. Neither is the needed change only about individual minds and hearts, important as such inner change is. Behind the statues are many layers of real systemic injustice that continue in our society.

My friend and former classmate Jon is black, and I am white. Jon’s skin, of course, is not truly black and mine, though pale, not truly white, but so we are labeled in society. One day as we were talking about race-related events of that time (around 1970), Jon told me something so obvious as to not need saying, except that it did need saying. I am paraphrasing as I don’t recall his actual words. He said something like, “Dick, you don’t have to think about race or skin color very often. You can go days or even weeks without paying any attention to your race or even having it come to mind. But whenever I have forgotten about race even briefly in public, out there with white folk, I have paid for it.”

I suspect most black people on most days walk by those Confederate monuments without really noticing them, until maybe they experience some sharp reminder of the white dominion those monuments represent and suddenly see them again. Certainly, just removing the monuments won’t improve their lives much, any more than removing the “Beware” sign would remove the dog.

I am not suggesting those intimidating monuments to the continuing force of the Confederacy don’t matter. I am saying the monuments themselves don’t matter enough for their removal to be enough of a change. Do hearts and minds need to be changed? Yes, which is why countering hatred and violence with opposing hatred and violence will not help. But the devils of racism and injustice are not only in the minds and hearts of individuals but also in the very structures and systems of society – of economics, business, real estate, finance, religion, and education. Racism is systemic, built into our systems, and so it continues to work its evil even without anyone’s deliberate thought or intention.

We must oppose the rampant hatred and destructive false pride of white supremacy. We must rescue black, Jewish, and immigrant children from its violence, and we must save white children from its seductive power to destroy them by playing upon their own fear, pride, and need to belong. We must also preserve our history, but the real history which includes the many ways in which slavery was indeed replaced with systemic racism. Otherwise, I can easily imagine that a black person might just caution us, “Leave the monuments alone. Unless you’re ready to make real changes in the way life works for people, in the way things are arranged to work for some people and against others, don’t just take down monuments and walk away patting yourselves on the backs as though you had just done something great for which I should thank you. I won’t thank you because, unless you do more to tame the dog of racism in our systems, I’m the one that dog you’ve angered is going to bite.”

That previous post: here

Images of the Confederacy in Public Squares

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In his commentary on Genesis, the renowned biblical scholar Gerhard von Rad writes in partial explanation of the declaration that humanity is created in the “image and likeness of God”:

Just as powerful earthly kings, to indicate their claim to dominion, erect an image of themselves in the provinces of their empire where they do not personally appear, so man is placed upon earth in God’s image as God’s sovereign emblem. He is really only God’s representative, summoned to maintain and enforce God’s claim to dominion over the earth. (58)

The statue of the king is erected to remind friend and foe alike who rules the land and under whose dominion its people live. The image is placed to bestow pride upon those who believe they share in the king’s greatness and thrive under his authority. The image is placed also to instill fear in any who rebel against the king’s system or challenge his rule.

Such is the function of the statues placed throughout the American South in the 1920’s or during the “civil rights era” as images of such champions of the Confederacy as Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Jefferson Davis. They proclaim to white people and black people alike who it is that continues to hold ideological and practical dominion over the city or state and its peoples, under whose sway they live and work. Robert E. Lee was a complex man, but it is not his complexity or his place in history that is proclaimed by the statue; it is, rather, the dominion of the Confederacy’s insistence upon the superiority of so-called white people and the inferiority of so-called black people. The statues declare whose land the South is presumed to be – not Lee’s or Davis’s, but the Old South’s. To the white they say, “You are more, no matter your station in life, your place in society, your education, or your successes and failures.” To the black they say, “You are less, no matter your station in life, your place in society, your education, or your successes and failures.”

If Robert E. Lee was indeed as great a man as some claim, then is such use of his image not an abuse of his likeness and his name? I have no desire to debate Lee’s character because it is irrelevant to the function of the statues which represent, not his greatness, but white dominion’s persistence and the expansion of it white supremacists desire.

Should the Confederacy be forgotten or hidden from people? No, like other realities of history, it should be remembered, studied, and questioned. Neither South nor North should be idealized or utterly demonized. We need to learn from what we have done and what has been done to us, from the good (and good for whom) and the bad (and bad for whom), and from the complexities of people and choices. I contend, however, that such was neither the motivation for the statues nor their effect, and I notice that those marching with guns and shields to protest their removal were not history scholars. The issue is dominion not knowledge or wisdom.

Note: I argue as do some modern biblical scholars, theologians, and other ministers that humanity serves as God’s image in creation, not by exploiting the earth’s resources and slaughtering its creatures, but by caring for them and representing for the whole human race God’s compassion and redemptive justice. The biblical metaphor of image and likeness is one of responsibility and stewardship not of privilege and sanction for greed or cruelty.

From Cigarettes and Grammar to Refugees and Veterans

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“Winston tastes good like a cigarette should,” the ad sang out from our televisions. When people started correcting the faulty grammar of using “like” instead of “as” (“tastes good AS a cigarette should”) the company struck back with a new ad asking us which we wanted, “good grammar or good taste.” Huh? How is such a choice to be made when the two options are not alternatives?

There we have the false dilemma fallacy which I’m calling the phony choice method for misleading people by presenting them with an either/or decision that is contrived and fake. How would correcting the grammar of the cigarette slogan have worsened the taste of the cigarette? Is poor grammar a flavor booster? As correctness of grammar goes up, does cigarette flavor go down? Of course not. So how could the phony “which do you want?” question have succeeded in helping promote the product?

I have chosen a trivial example just because the phoniness of the choice is obvious, which is not always the case, but let’s stay with the trivial example a little longer. I suspect that by criticizing the advertisement’s English, the proponents of correct speech hooked into the resentments of many who have had their English grammar and usage corrected. In American society, there is a bias against people who speak too properly, but there is also a corresponding resentment within people who have been shamed by having attention called to their grammatical flaws.

Would you like it if someone corrected your English in public? Imagine the situation, and put yourself into it. You are telling a story your listeners appear to be enjoying with increasing interest in the outcome. You have them. Suddenly, someone interrupts you to point out that you have wrongly used the word “lay” where “lie” was correct. The group’s interest in your story is broken. Attention has shifted to your faulty English, but something deeper has happened inside you, something of which you may not even be aware. You wanted and expected to finish your story, enjoy the group’s reactions, and maybe share a good laugh. Instead you’ve been blind-sided by criticism, triggering your shame affect. How big a deal is that? The answer depends upon your self-confidence and your personal history with shaming. You may brush off the person’s rudeness as you would flick away a fly and go right on with your story. If, however, your personal history makes you sensitive to such corrections or to public shaming itself, then the feeling may be worse than mere annoyance and your response more intense. If you are deeply susceptible to such shaming, you may even erupt into anger, complete with the name calling and profanity which saturate Facebook comments.

Let’s consider a more serious and less obvious example of the phony choice method for fooling people. This one sets its hooks into something more dangerous.

Should we care for Syrian refugees or our own homeless veterans? Phony choice. We could care for both, and there is no opposition between the two, nothing that makes one cancel out the other, but the deception of this phony choice works its malice upon a significant number of Americans. How? Are they stupid? Incapable of logical thought? Or just so uninformed about federal spending that they really believe we can do only one or the other, that caring for refugees takes care aware from veterans? No, I don’t think stupidity or ignorance is the answer, and I’m quite sure calling people stupid or ignorant will worsen the problem, further dividing our nation and stiffening opposition to receiving refugees. Dismissing people as stupid in the name of respect and compassion for all is also blatantly hypocritical. We are in deep trouble as a nation in significant measure because we keep treating each other as disgusting or laughable enemies.

The phony choice between refugees and veterans works because it hooks into fears and prejudices while offering a way to make those fears and prejudices look and feel like patriotism and benevolence. It makes something shameful feel commendable. The phony choice sounds good to people who resent being told that if they were good people or, perhaps, good Christians, they would feel sympathy for the refugees. So the phony choice empowers them to say something like this:

No, we’re not the bad people, and you bleeding hearts that want to bring in those refugees are not the good people! We are the good people because we want to protect our country from terrorists and help our own veterans!

There is no legitimate reason to choose between refugees and veterans. Not only are the two concerns unconnected, but the goal of employing the phony choice method of deception is not to help either the refugees or the veterans. The goal is to inflame fears and resentments or (when the other side derides the fallacy) snobbery and contempt so that divided we can be conquered by those seeking power.

My purpose in writing this piece in not merely to promote awareness of a logical fallacy, but rather to remind us all of how easy it is for people seeking to manipulate public opinion to hook into our fears and resentments or into our pride and snobbery. How easy it is to polarize us, turning neighbors and even family members against each other. The phony choice method is only one tool in the manipulators’ kit.

Normal Contradictions in Grief

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During my forty years of pastoral ministry, I led many funeral services and so met with many grieving individuals and families before and after the services and on through the so-called time of grief. Certainly grief varies in nature and intensity according to circumstances and relationships, but where there is deep grief there is not likely to be an end point while life lasts. The pain may dull with time, and hopefully appreciation of good times shared is able to emerge and take over most of the remembering so that smiles supersede tears, but grief does not just disappear.

I believe it important for all who love to realize that we human beings are quite capable of holding contradictory thoughts and feelings as a person we love is dying and on after that person has died. That’s okay, and we do not need to resolve those contradictions. In truth, we probably should not resolve them because love is complex and so, therefore, is grief.

When someone I love is going through the process of dying, I do not want that person to die, but neither do I want him or her to continue on and on in the process of declining and suffering. I want it over but do not want life to end. What I really want, of course, is for the person to recover and be restored to health and vitality. When such recovery is no longer possible, I am thrown into contradiction. Do I want the person I love to die? No! Do I want that person to endure increasing pain and distress with no relief in life? No! Do I want to lose him or her to death? I do not. Do I want to lose him or her to the living death of being present before my eyes in body but gone from me in mind, without memory or awareness in the fog of dementia? No, I do not. I can still love someone who no longer recognizes me, but would I myself want to linger in that state? For the sake of those who love me, I would want to die if I could understand and want anything.

But let’s go further into the contradictions. We can get angry at people we love. We know that commonplace truth. Our anger does not mean we have lost love or given up on it, and we may well be angry because of the love. Well, we can also get angry at people we love who are dying or have died. Children may get angry at the parent who died and left them. Even older adults may still get angry sometimes at their parents who died years or even decades earlier. Painfully, parents may get angry at the child who died in a car crash or from an overdose or suicide. The anger may seem to contradict love, but it does not.

Caring for a very sick and dying loved one is draining, and the care giver will probably have times, perhaps never admitted even to self, of wondering how long he or she will have to carry on. Compounding the problem is the possible stress upon finances and family relationships. A man once told me sadly and bitterly that he had lost his son by taking care for decades of his father with Alzheimer’s disease. It is not unloving to dread the loved one’s death but also feel the increasing need for life to return to normal and so to feel relief when death does come. Hospice can be a great help in this contradiction, but the tension remains between wanting life to go on but the process of dying to be over.

I find it very important to recognize the distinction between extending life and merely prolonging the process of dying. Before the Hospice movement and living wills, many in medical professions and many others in the general population did not seem to have understood that distinction, and so the clinical definition of death was allowed to supplant a realistic and compassionate understanding of the process of dying. Biblically, death is not seen as just the moment after the final moment of life but as something dynamically destructive that invades life. Sickness is seen as a working of death from which a person can recover life. Death is at work in all that hurts and destroys the living. Thankfully, the medical professions and much of the public have accepted that dying is a process (long or short) that all who live must undergo, and so those who love them must also undergo. Grief does not begin when the loved person dies unless the death is sudden and unexpected. Grief begins for us as we realize someone we love is being taken from us. It is grievous to watch the strong grow weak, the intelligent go blank, the vital subside before our eyes. It is grievous to lose relationship to dementia or narcotic pain relief.

We can be thankful because the struggle has ended and, at the same time and with the same love, be grief-stricken because the person has died. To love, that contradiction makes sense beyond the reach of mere logic.

I object strongly to the religious notion that faith can or should cancel out grief. No! As a Christian, I am grateful that in the Gospel of John Jesus weeps and shudders before raising his friend Lazarus. If he didn’t feel grief, how could he be one of us? But I had a friend and colleague who tried to explain away those tears by saying Jesus was crying, not because of his friend’s death and the grief of Lazarus’s sisters, but because of the people’s unbelief. Nonsense. If that were true, he would have been crying all the time. Besides, John gives us no such way out of our human contradiction. Love subjects us to grief, and even Paul of Tarsus, the great champion of faith, insists that love is greater than anything, even faith and hope.

Please, let us stop trying to resolve grief’s contradictions, especially in other people who are hurting. “She’s in a better place.” “(unspoken) Damn it, I don’t want her in a better place but here with me – alive and whole and loving me as she did!” “God needed her as an angel.” Nowhere in the Bible or in the church’s faith will we find even the suggestion that God takes people to turn them into angels, but more importantly, as Christians we believe that God’s true will is revealed in Jesus, who came to give life not death.

But I hope we can, at least somewhat as we are able, also be patient, forgiving, and understanding with ourselves when we experience the contradictions of grief. You can be angry with someone you love. You can feel relief that the suffering is over and still hate that he or she had to die. You can be free to feel what grief makes you feel without judging yourself to be a bad, shameful, or unloving person. You can laugh, and I hope you will, at recalling your loved one’s foibles, old jokes, mishaps, or capers. You can also cry at odd times, need to be with friends and then suddenly need to go off alone. You can forget a special day without beating yourself up for it as though it meant you had forgotten the person. And you don’t have to “get over it” as though grief had an expiration date. In short, you can be human, and if you’re Christian, you can be human and know you’re in good company.

Not Racist?

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It was back in 2012, earlier than the election, that I read on Facebook what I considered an extremely racist comment made by a man I did not know. In reply to him, someone had called his comment racist, to which he objected strongly and then reversed the charge by saying the person who had raised the issue of racism was the true racist. That illogic led me to check the man’s homepage to see how he presented himself to the world on Facebook. There it was. His profile picture was a red circle with the familiar red slash of negation through it. Within the circle was a picture of President Barack Obama, and beneath it the admonition, “Don’t re-nig in 2012.” But that man, according to his own assessment, was not a racist.

Recently I finished reading Arlie Russell Hochschild’s book, Strangers in Their Own Land, subtitled, “Anger and Mourning on the American Right, a Journey to the Heart of Our Political Divide.” Hochschild is a sociologist at Berkley. Her book is complex (though not hard to read), and so are my thoughts and feelings in reaction to it.

At the heart of what she learned from her new friends in rural Louisiana is what she calls their “deep story” or “the feels-as-if story” of their being caught in a cultural squeeze. Racism is by no means the whole story, but Hochschild discovered, “Race is an essential part of this story.”

But the people, all white, she came to know, respect, like, and in some ways admire rejected the label of racist imposed upon them by people they believed were misjudging them and trying to shame them. She writes:

When the topic of blacks did arise, many explained that they felt accused by “the North” of being racist – which, by their own definition, they clearly were not. They defined as racist a person who used the “N” word or who “hates” blacks. (146)

Even by that definition, the Facebook man with the “don’t re-nig” slogan seems to fit the charge he denied, but the definition itself is interestingly self-protective because it leaves out so much. Hochschild offers a definition she and others in her field use.

As I and others use the term, however, racism refers to the belief in a natural hierarchy that places blacks at the bottom, and the tendency of whites to judge their own worth by distance from that bottom. By that definition, many Americans, north and south, are racist. And racism appears not simply in personal attitudes but in structural arrangements – as when polluting industries move closer to black neighborhoods than to white. (147)

I might add to Hochschild’s definition the tendency to assign certain negative attributes to another race as though characteristic of that race and the tendency to generalize negative perceptions from one person of that race to the whole of the race. The former is, “They’re like that” (by racial definition). The latter is, “That’s what they do” (because one person was perceived as having done it). But the contrast remains. People who refuse to admit to their own racism excuse themselves by severely limiting the definition, which seems to work for them, convincing them they indeed are not racist and so are wrongly accused by people prejudiced against them (in their eyes, the true bigots).

This bogus defense makes helpful, healing conversation about race and racism (personal and structural) nearly impossible. My own contention is that it is impossible or nearly so to grow up in America without at least some tinge of racism and some feelings that accompany it, and the feelings may be stronger and harder to shake off than the beliefs themselves. But how can we manage such feelings and come together in mutual respect if we defend ourselves by denying the reality of the problem and our roles, active or passive, in it? On the other hand, how can we come together in mutual respect if we merely point out each other’s faults but remain conveniently blind to our own?  My questions, of course, assume a desire to come together in mutual respect.

Dawning Justice

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Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh. (Luke 6:20b,21 NRSV)

So, it’s a blessing to be poor, hungry, or grief-stricken? No, that absurdity misses the message completely because it ignores context, and in biblical theology (and all theology) context always matters. Jesus has announced the coming of the kingdom or reign of God, and these blessings upon the presently downtrodden belong to his announcement. The way of the world will be reversed. Here are the corresponding woes:

Woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep. (Luke 6:24,25 NRSV)

What, it’s a sin to be rich, well nourished, or happy? No, the question is the system or order of life to which we are attached. Do we favor and defend the status quo in which relatively few prosper and even fewer prosper exorbitantly, or will we welcome a change that brings about a new set of conditions in which abundance is shared, in which cooperation replaces competition for life’s benefits and from which privilege and dominion are gone?

All Jesus’ teachings come attached to and dependent upon his announcement of the in-breaking of the reign of God, and the promise of that coming reign continues to guide his followers as the vanishing point that gives perspective to all of life, the “north” pole which draws all individual and social compass needles toward itself. Blessed are those whose hopes and values align with that promise, who want for this world and its people what Jesus declares God wants for them. Blessed are those who welcome the kingdom wherever and whenever it pushes its way into life and disrupts the status quo of injustices and gross inequities.

Here’s a flaw in our understanding of Christianity’s newer Testament. In two of the synoptic gospels, Mark and Luke, this in-breaking reign of justice and compassion is called the kingdom of God, but Matthew follows Jewish piety by not naming God directly. When in my former pastorate we prepared the bulletin for the interfaith Thanksgiving service, the rabbi would put in the Jewish parts of the service the word God as G-d to avoid even that much of a graven image and show special reverence for the name. So, in the Gospel of Matthew, the kingdom of God is rendered in Jesus’ teachings as the “kingdom of heaven,” but the teachings are still for this world and not some other. The word heaven simply stands in for the word God; it does not direct our attention away from this world’s people or its systems and structures, either.

Much of Christianity has made the goal of faith to be getting us into heaven when we die, but the goal of the gospel, the good news, is to get heaven (God) into our lives and our world. The transformation is to occur here and now. Justice must come upon us on the ground these days, not up in the clouds some day. I am not denying our resurrection hope, but that’s another matter. Justice postponed is justice denied here and now. If our lives are oriented in faith, hope, and love toward God’s reign on earth, our beyond-death hopes will be taken care of, but the time for change toward justice is now.

It is an enormous perversion of the Bible and the gospel to tell the poor to be content with their lot in life, the cheated to “count it all joy,” the shamed and outcast to humble themselves, and the enslaved to obey their masters – all as we enjoy the benefits of the present systemic injustices they suffer. We tell hungry school children they need more rigor. We tell children in pain from lack of dental care they have no excuses for doing poorly on standardized tests that confront them with questions drawn from contexts they have never experienced. We produce metrics to drive workers harder and harder until we have broken and then replaced them, casting them aside like junk. We tell woman in various ways that they are bodies that exist for the pleasure of men. We tell the cheated to “get over it.” We tell people who are seeing their hopes stolen from them, “Suck it up, snowflake.” We divide people who are supposed to be our sisters and brothers in life into “winners” and “losers.”

Jesus declares of the in-breaking reign of God, “Many who are now first will be last, and the last first.” In other words:

Blessed are you who are losers in this world’s systems,
for you will be given victory.

Woe to you proud winners,
for you are losing and don’t know it.

Or as in the Magnificat attributed to Mary, Jesus’ mother, and drawn from Hannah of long ago:

My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
. . .
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and set the rich away empty. (from Luke 1:46 ff NRSV)

The kingdom of God comes to heal and restore but also to bring forth justice on earth. To it belong both restorative justice and distributive justice.

Disruptive Justice

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Retributive justice seeks for each what each deserves, reward or punishment, according to a system of judgment by some set of standards. In practice, it seeks in human courts to convict and punish the guilty. A great strength of our justice system in the United States is that it is based upon evidence rather than presumption. Our criminal justice system is not entirely retributive; it has additional motives of protecting the public and, perhaps, rehabilitating offenders where possible.

So, it is not my purpose in this series of blog posts to attack our criminal justice system. Neither is it my purpose to suggest we suspend all sense of guilt or innocence, fairness or unfairness, right or wrong. It is my purpose to elevate people above standards, not by eliminating all standards but by supporting restorative justice which strives, not to excuse wrongdoing, but to recognize and heal the harm done.

There is yet another form of justice which Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann insists is biblical also: distributive justice. The Bible does not offer a model of distributive justice that could be implemented in a modern society. It does provide insight into God’s passionate concern for justice on earth and, more particularly, God’s hatred of the injustices inflicted upon people who cry out in their suffering. And their cries need not be prayers. To Cain, the archetypal murderer, God does not say, “I see that you have committed a serious crime,” but rather, “Listen! Your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!” (Genesis 4:10b NRSV).

Ask responsible, loving parents which of their several children they love most. The theoretical answer is, “We love them all the same,” but in practice, love reaches out most strongly to the one presently in distress. Here we have the human parallel to God’s declaration to Moses:

I have observed [seen, not just observed] the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their suffering, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey . . . . (Exodus3:7,8 NRSV).

I objected to the translation “observed” because to us observation is neutral, whereas the Hebrew word ties perception to caring and caring to active response. In this Hebraic way of thinking, if I observe but fail to respond, I have not seen. If someone’s distress reaches my ears, but I do not respond, I have not heard. So, Exodus is telling us something much more than merely that God has good ears. Along the same lines, “I know their suffering,” does not mean that God is aware of the suffering but that God feels it and shares it. It is a declaration of empathy and compassion, not mere omniscience. This way of speaking is relational rather than detached and indifferent. The God by whom we are encountered in the various witnesses of the Bible is never indifferent to us.

Distributive justice deals with a problem much broader than an individual’s criminal or otherwise harmful behavior. It challenges injustices within our systems upheld by law and order and so disrupts the hierarchies and workings of our social, economic, and political systems considered right and proper by those positioned to benefit from them.

Biblical justice can clash with “law and order.” That clash begins in the biblical story when Moses and Aaron go to the king of Egypt (the pharaoh) with God’s demand, “Let my people go!” But to comprehend what is happening in the making of that demand, we must use this God’s name: YHWH, reconstructed by scholars as Yahweh. Why the name, as though there were more than one God? In ancient Egypt, there was more than one god, and distinguishing this one is imperative because Yahweh is so different and so disruptive.

In what Brueggemann labels “the Mosaic revolution,” Yahweh enters the stage of human history as the self-designated God of slaves. Because gods shared the glory of their worshipers, Yahweh appears ingloriously as a slave god, and the pharaoh (a son of the high gods) is unimpressed. Predictably, the pharaoh responds by telling Moses and Aaron, “Who is Yahweh, that I should heed him and let Israel go? I do not know Yahweh, and I will not let Israel go.” (Exodus 5:2 NRSV amended by replacing the conventional substitute for YHWH, “the LORD,” with the name Yahweh so this particular God is identified. Pharaoh would not call YHWH “the Lord”).

The Mosaic revolution disrupted the system of law and order, certainly not by overthrowing the pharaoh or the system itself, but by challenging it and, in a movement from slavery to freedom, delivering Israel into a new way of social, political, and economic life. To be sure, the progress of this new way was neither steady nor consistent, but it was carried forward in Israel with continual struggles, championed by the great prophets, and revitalized in the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth. Further, for Christianity this disruptive justice is epitomized in the crucifixion of Jesus by the imperial forces of law and order (with encouragement from the religious champions of reward and punishment) and, for believers, vindicated by his resurrection. Brueggemann writes:

It is fair to say that given its subsequent exposition through time, the Exodus event and the Sinai structure do indeed witness to Yahweh’s preferential option for the poor, weak, and marginated. Or said another way, Yahweh is here known to be a resilient and relentless advocate of and agent for justice, which entails the complete reordering of power arrangements in the earth. (Theology of the Old Testament, p. 736)

The intention of Mosaic justice is to redistribute social goods and social powers; thus it is distributive justice. This justice recognizes that social goods and social power are unequally and destructively distributed in Israel’s world (and derivatively in any social context), and that the well-being of the community requires that social goods and power to some extent be given up by those who have too much, for the sake of those who do not have enough. (736, 737)

Next: The newer Testament’s call for distributive justice.

Restorative Justice

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From the Web site of the Community Conferencing Center in Baltimore, these statements about its restorative justice conferencing process:

Justice. Faster.

Transforming conflict into cooperation

Responding to destructive behavior in constructive ways

Positive relationships build safer schools

Using conflict to build community

After my earlier post about retributive justice, a friend suggested the desire for punishment is fed not only by having been wronged oneself but also by sympathy with the victim. She acknowledged also the common desire to see and feel that wrongs get repaid, that offenses fall back hard upon the offender. We chafe at the thought that offenders may get away with their crimes and so be able to laugh at their victims and take pride in remaining untouched by the harm they have done. Quite naturally, we want them touched and touched hard. We long for them to rue the day they hurt their victims. Crime is not supposed to pay.

The modern movement of restorative justice seeks to heal and restore, as much as possible, all affected by the offense: victim and offender both but also the others hurt including family and friends of both victim and offender. Whole neighborhoods and communities are harmed by, say, a rash of home invasions. People’s sense of security is shattered because their personal space has been violated or threatened. They no longer feel safe in their own homes or, for victims of rape or other abuse, in their own bodies. Their homes may feel dangerous to them or their bodies stolen. They have been robbed of control over what is supposed to be their own. They may even come to despise what they should be able to cherish – their homes or their bodies.

What could be worse than having your child hurt (or killed) criminally? There may be something worse: having your child be the one who did the harm. Crime brings grief upon both those who care for the victim and those who care for the offender. Restorative justice begins with the acknowledgment that crime breaks far more than the law.

The restorative justice movement is not a single entity but many. Howard Zehr likens it to the many streams that flow together to form a river (The Little Book of Restorative Justice, p. 61f). While cautious about either/or contrasts between the restorative and the retributive as practiced under the rule of law, Zehr says restorative justice asks questions that differ from those of retributive justice, and I find that the questions we ask about any important matter affect greatly the lenses we choose to examine that matter, the needs we recognize, the resolutions we seek, and the outcomes we will celebrate or lament. Zehr identifies the guiding questions of any restorative justice process as these (38):

1. Who has been hurt?
2. What are their needs?
3. Whose obligations are these?
4. Who has a stake in this situation?
5. What is the appropriate process to involve stakeholders in an effort to put things right?

Retributive justice under the rule of law (rather than blood revenge or vigilantism) focuses upon crimes and other offenses as rule breaking. The offending behavior has violated some code, standard, or rule. Zehr’s very first guiding question leads the quest for justice in another, more personal direction: not, “What rule has been broken?” but, “Who has been hurt?” We need not follow that question very far before realizing that while the immediate and obvious victim is a person not a rule, the list of people hurt may include the perpetrator as well as the victim plus friends and family of each plus a community.

Consider a case of bullying in school. Who has been hurt? Obviously, the bullied child has. What about the victim’s family members? Friends and classmates of the victim? Perhaps a teacher whose teaching has been disrupted and class made fearful or (worse) gleeful over the bullying? The bully? The bully’s family and friends? Does the bully realize the harm the bullying has done to him or her? Does the behavior arise from harm previously done to the bully?

I view school “zero tolerance” policies as cop-outs, abdications of adult responsibility, and violations of the trust students and their families should be able to have in the adults responsible for fairness and safety. In a school system with which I was familiar for years, students who gained street cred from being suspended would taunt “good kids” into fights because the district had a policy that whenever there was a fight, both fighters would be suspended, even if the victim did not actually fight back. Did anyone really think justice was being done? In some cases, the policy produced real-life, painful versions of the old joke, “Mom, I didn’t start it; Billy hit me on the knuckles with his chin.” Who sees justice when the victim of taunting, spitting, and punching or hair pulling is suspended and kicked out of the honor society while the bully gets desired time off from school, enhanced street cred, and laughs shared with friends over the success of getting the “good kid” punished?

From a YouTube video presentation (“Better Justice”) offered by Lauren Abramson, executive director of the Community Conferencing Center in Baltimore, I took the following notes on the center’s conferencing process and its order of events:

1. The offender goes first to tell what happened, as he or she recalls it.
2. All share how they have been affected by what happened. This process can and does become very emotional.
3. All involved work out together what they think needs to be done (a) to make this situation better and (b) to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

From whatever desire for payback is within us, skepticism almost surely arises. The more we see people as resistant to change (or even as types of greater or lesser value), standards as of primary importance, leniency as moral failure, and punishment as the right response to offenses, the stronger that skepticism is likely to be. But – the Community Conferencing Center reports that 98% of their conferences result in written agreements to which all involved in the conferencing have signed on, and there has been greater than 95% compliance with those agreements. Interestingly, conferencing also costs far less than court trials.

Can the process be played? In his short book cited above, Zehr suggests potential for misuse of restorative justice procedures, but what human system need not be vigilant about preventing abuse? I think that the more we believe or at least hope people can change, see healing as preferable to punishment and as the right goal for punishment, recognize that rules and laws exist for people and communities and not the other way around (Jesus, “the Sabbath was made for humanity, not humanity for the Sabbath”), and value reconciliation over payback, the more we become open to restorative justice.

A few resources on restorative justice:

The Community Conferencing Center Web site

Centre for Justice and Reconciliation

Howard Zehr, The Little Book of Restorative Justice

Ted Wachtel, Real Justice

Lauren Abramson’s YouTube videos

There are many more.

Next: Restorative justice is one higher form of justice biblically. There is, however, another high form not so often recognized as biblical: distributive justice. If the thought of restorative justice can offend the virtuous who “want to see some punishment” and maybe even eternal punishment, the very idea of distributive justice challenges the orders of power and privilege in human societies and so can infuriate the “haves” in society. For next time: “the Mosaic revolution” (as Walter Brueggemann calls it) known as distributive justice.

Healing Justice (Revised)

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Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, says the Lord GOD, and not rather that they should turn from their ways and live? (Ezekiel 18:23 NRSV)

The Bible enables us to sketch a progress of justice, starting in the fourth chapter of Genesis with the legendary figures of Cain and his brutal descendent Lamech. Having murdered his brother and been found out, Cain wails to God:

“My punishment is greater than I can bear! Today you have driven me away from the soil, and I shall be hidden from your face; I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and anyone who meets me may kill me.”

Then the LORD said to him, “Not so! Whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance.” (Genesis 4:13-15 NRSV)

As numbers are used in the Bible, sevenfold is not a literal six plus one but an indication of complete retaliation – a sort of, “You start it, and Cain’s people will finish it!” Most recently I have heard this kind of declaration of a personal revenge principle from president-elect Donald Trump who, like Lamech from whom we’ll hear next, prides himself in hitting back harder.

If Cain stands as the archetypal figure of retributive justice by blood vengeance, Lamech proudly pushes retaliation beyond all self-restraint. To his wives, Lamech boasts:

“Adah and Zillah, hear my voice;
you wives of Lamech, listen to what I say:
I have killed a man for wounding me,
a young man for striking me.
If Cain is avenged sevenfold,
truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.” (Genesis 4:23,24 NRSV)

Here again, the number is not literal but represents, no longer merely complete revenge, but wholesale, unlimited brutality. People familiar with the Bible’s newer Testament will make the connection to Jesus’ counter command to his disciples, that they forgive the one who has offended them, not merely seven times (fully persistent forgiveness) but seventy-seven times (or seventy times seven), representing an unfettered desire for healing and reconciliation. This relentless spirit of restoration is the opposite of Lamech’s.

One early meaning of a Hebrew word for “redeemer” refers to the avenger of blood, the kinsman who takes up the responsibility to kill the killer even if the slaying was accidental. To provide for accidental killers, the Israelites established six cities of refuge in which the avenger of blood could not kill them.

Speak to the Israelites, and say to them: When you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan, then you shall select cities to be cities of refuge for you, so that a slayer who kills a person without intent may flee there. The cities shall be for you a refuge from the avenger, so that the slayer may not die until there is a trial before the congregation. The cities that you designate shall be six cities of refuge for you . . . . (Numbers 35:10-13 NRSV)

The idea of a trial before the congregation represents the emergence of law and order. Another step against unrestrained vengeance with its perpetuation in cycles of revenge came with the lex talionis or “law of retribution” – the famous “eye for an eye.”

If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life,
eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,
burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.
(Exodus 21:23-25 NRSV)

I believe there is general agreement among scholars that the law of retribution began as a legal restriction of revenge: only an eye for an eye, rather than the overkill of Lamech and his kind. By the time of Deuteronomy, however, the restriction had turned into a mandate, and so we find added a command against leniency, “Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.” (Deuteronomy 19:21 NRSV) For his followers, Jesus overrides even regulated vengeance (see Matthew 5:38-41, the well-known “turn the other cheek” teaching).

I have sketched this progress of justice to bring us to the primary biblical concern for justice which is the healing of persons, relationships, and community. What is violated by crimes? Perhaps in our efforts to depersonalize and regulate retribution, we lost sight of the relational nature of human life and the harm crimes do to real, live people; perhaps we did the best we could to establish the rule of law as the alternative to chaos and barbarism. In biblical thought, all of life is relational. Even truth itself is a relational concept rather than a merely factual or philosophical one. The biblical concept of sin is not the violation of law but the denial and violation of relationship, first of all with God and then with other people and the human community. Sin is even extended further to include the denial and violation of our rightful relationship with the earth and our non-human fellow creatures. The goal, therefore, of God’s justice is not rewarding or punishing but healing. Even punishment has the goal of healing and restoring. Our thirst for retribution has miscast truth as the verdict of judgment so that justice seems to us fulfilled by the expiration of leniency and the distribution of rewards and punishments according to a standardized determination of what each person deserves. According to the great prophets and Jesus, God sees truth and justice differently – as healing and restoration rather than evaluation and punishment.

So it is that Jesus summarizes all God wants from us and for us in two relational commands: to love our God completely and to love our neighbor as (we love) ourselves. Justice is done, not by evaluating and then rewarding or punishing, but by healing and restoring those who have been harmed individually and collectively. Who are those harmed by crimes or other offenses? That question leads us to the modern restorative justice movements I’ll look at in my next post. How does restorative justice work and for whose healing? What does it seek to restore?

Next:  a look at modern restorative justice movements