Thursday, July 20, 2006

Thursday Evening Document Dump

Well, I'm just going to dump this because, like a failed batch of bread dough, it simply isn't rising any more, and I have neither the time, energy, nor interest to pour into it as it deserves. But neither does it deserve to be thrown out altogether. So maybe it's a batch of dough that rose too long, and became to delicate, and so has fallen in the oven. Failed bread souffle, as it were.

While the bagels are in the oven [when I started this; bagels came out fine, by the way. Delicious toasted with homemade yogurt cheese] I'm going to try to reconstruct a theological thought I had in the shower this morning.

Was listening to a local radio show hosted by the Southwestern Regional Minister for the Nation of Islam (Lewis Farrakhan's group, if that helps you), Minister Robert Muhammed. A very good man, I listen to him almost every week. He was talking about the situation in the Middle East, but he wasn't taking sides or trying to do a geo-political analysis or even, I quickly realized, cast curses on all concerned. What he said, basically, was that the problem was the people of Islam (all Muslims, that is) were at fault for their problems not because they backed the wrong political leaders, had the wrong geo-politics, chose terrorism over diplomacy, did or did not support the nation of Israel, but simply because they did not follow the teachings of Islam.

Which sounds simplistic enough, but bear with me. He went on to clarify. It wasn't the Devil that they were fighting, he said. In fact, there would be no fight at all, if the people of Islam would simply follow the teachings of the Prophet. Because then, he asserted, they would be a force for good which no countervailing force could prevail against.

Now consider that very carefully, because religious language in a public or political context is often heard as a call to access to divine power. He was making no such call at all. He was quite explicit about that. He decried nationalism and nation-states and "democratism" and every other "-ism," as he put it. This wasn't about backing the right political horse, in other words; it wasn't about collective will guided by divine revelation leading to a political solution. It was about humility; responsibility; and being in control of what you do.

Politics is about controlling what other people do.

"Religion is responsibility, or it is nothing at all." Religion is about personal responsibility, about accepting the principles and standards of a given community, and conforming yourself to those standards. When religion reaches beyond its community to influence or exert the will of the community over others outside the community, it is exerting power. Religion properly exercised is not about power. Religion properly understood arises from the consent of the governed. It is a matter for those who accept the standards of that community, those who want to be members. It is not about power, about what others should do, about control, except is that control applies to you. Religion, or at least Christianity, and to the extent I understand them, Islam and Judaism, are about what I should do. They are not, and should not be, about what you should do; at least no from my perspective. If I am a pastor, a priest, an imam, a rabbi, then I am responsible for what you should do, if you are a member of my community. Otherwise, what you should do is up to you. It is what I should do, alone, that matters to me.

To insist on this, and to proclaim it as a force that cannot be opposed, a good that cannot be undermined by outside "powers," is to sound like a Hebrew prophet. That is one of the consistent messages of the Prophets before, during, and just after the Exile: that so long as the faithful community is faithful, it will last. When it turns from faithfulness, it falls. It is not a matter of God's vengeance, anger, cruelty, or hatred: it is a matter of faithfulness. These are the conditions that prevail.

There is a consistent line here. When Israel was ruled by judges, it decided it would be better off if, like the other nations around, it was ruled by a king. A king, of course, rules by projecting his will upon his people, for their good. A king only rules by consent of the governed, but a king represents a concentration of will, an abdication to a central power. Governments have always sought this. The Roman Empire created the official office of diktator to lead the Republic in times of crisis. The diktator had absolute power over the government and the military until the crisis had passed. It was this absolute power which Julius wanted to retain, and which is described in Shakespeare's play. God warned Israel against demanding a king, but the consent of the governed prevailed, and they got Saul; and all the kings after him. And eventually the kings failed, and Israel went into Exile.

That's an overly simplistic history, of course; but it's a summary of the history told in the Scriptures about the Exile, and the governments of Israel. Judges were certainly good for tribes, but Israel stopped being a group of tribes at some point. Still, one lesson from the history the Hebrews told of themselves is the danger of exerting will in the world, the risk of seeking power rather than humility, authority rather than justice. Justice is doing to others what you want done to you. Power is exerting your will in the world, seeking to control someone else. We like to think it is used in the pursuit of justice. But it never turns out that way.

So what's the theological point? That it's true; faith and faithfulness is about you, not about anybody else. Power seeks its own end, and while we wield it, we imagine that end is ours; it never is. Israel today is trying to protect itself; or so it claims. Bush clearly thinks Israel is doing the US a service; and so he works to give them as much room to maneuver as possible. Israel claims they will disarm Hezbollah. This is as chimerical a goal as destroying terrorism. Hezbollah was created because Israel invaded Lebanon 20 years ago, determined to establish Israel's security. The new violence is just the fruit of that old violence, which was itself the fruit of an even older violence. The cycle of violence is the clearest symptom of the disease of power; and yet we keep perpetuating it, keep insisting it must be perpetuated, for one reason or another. We always have good reasons for imposing our will on others.

And they always have good reasons for resisting.

The story of St. Patrick's Breastplate is a perfect example of what Minister Robert was getting at. That famous prayer is also called the "Lorica," which simply means the armor we call a "breastplate." But it's also called "The Deer's Cry." The legend is that Patrick and his disciples were walking through Ireland, reciting this prayer as they went. Druid priests lay in wait for them, intending to kill them. What the priests saw, however, was a doe and her fawns. They didn't see a snarling pack of wolves. They didn't see the meanest SOB in the valley of the shadow of death. They saw the most defenseless animal in Ireland. And they let it pass. Patrick's prayer didn't impose God's will on the assassins; but it protected Patrick, because Patrick was doing good, was doing God's will. How did Patrick evangelize Ireland? With fiery speeches about the wages of sin and the threat of hell? No. By living among the people, helping them, caring for them, seeing Christ in them. When they wondered why a stranger would be so kind, so concerned for them, he explained the Gospel to them. And so the Gospel spread: not by acts of power and domination, but by acts of Christian love.

The story of Patrick, in other words, is about acess to divine authority; but the divine power is expressed as vulnerability, and provides the protection of good, not of force and superior strength. It is a paradoxical display of power, but one repeated time and time again, as an example of the power of powerlessness.

Of course, power is looking for a pay-off; and the pay-off in this case is in legend, and in faithfulness. When Paul says God counted Abraham's faith to him as righteousness, Paul is not adding anything to the story of Abraham. The promises God made to Abraham, were all promises Abraham could not possibly live to see fulfilled: descendants, a mighty nation controlling huge tracts of land (no one holds land without lots of people around to defend the claim to it); a blessing on all nations through Abraham's name. Nothing God ever promised Abraham, except children, could come true in Abraham's lifetime, or be of any possible material benefit to Abraham. And even Isaac came late in the day, and was all but taken back.

The promise is not of a reward. The promise is that the universe is good, and living faithfully in the expectation of that good, will be life lived into the ages, life lived into the goodness that is here; and against that faithfulness in the goodness of God, nothing can prevail.

It is a matter of faithfulness. These are the conditions that prevail.

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