Tuesday, August 07, 2007

"...for of such is the kingdom of heaven..."

Judaism and Christianity and Islam all deal with the idea of nations and communities. I think that's where the 3 great Abrahamic faiths go off the rails - there is such an emphasis on nations, and nationalism instead of dealing with good and compassion at the only level they can be dealt with if one wishes to deal in reality - and that's at the personal level. That's the only control we have at all in this universe - our own minds and our own intentions and our own actions and inactions.

The Abrahamic faiths have built-in political content. Have had from the very start - it's all about Abraham finding the One True Nation God has given His People. Morality becomes wrapped up in nationalism. If you follow Abrahamic thought all the way to Islam you see it become more and more political and social rather than personal and I fail to understand how religion can be authentically political or social.

But then I guess I am still fundamentally a Buddhist. And I guess some of what I tried to say is why I am.
The great themes of the Hebrew Scriptures, they taught us in seminary, are: covenant; land; children; and the promise. The Abrahamic covenant granted access to the land ("Go forth from the land of your kinsfolk and from your father's house to a land that I will show you."); land, of course, is necessary to life (unless you can build that castle in the air), and children secure the land for your posterity (especially when the average life span was much shorter than it is today). The great theme of the Gospels is the Kingdom of God, the basileia tou theou (sometimes, in Matthew, the Kingdom of Heaven). This is set up in stark contrast to all human communities, because all human communities eventually mean someone must be excluded. Some of the history of the Hebrew Scriptures is about excluding people from land. Although the Mosaic law set up procedures to limit that exclusion as much as possible (care for the alien, the widow, the orphan; and the Jubilee year) some of those laws were more honored in the breach than in the keeping. Human communities eventually mean someone must be excluded.

I was thinking about that this morning when NPR reported on two "detainees" at Gitmo who don't want to leave. Because they find the accomodations so comfortable? Hardly. It is because they have nowhere else to go. Victims of political persecution, or afraid of political persecution, they don't want to return to their homelands; no other country, however, will take them. One is still in Gitmo; the other has been released, and now lives in a refugee camp.

It struck me that "refugee camps" were a recent phenomenon, and another example of the "Omelas factor," of how our system of nationalism and governments and international agreements functions by excluding and, at least in America, ignoring, the least and the lowest. Refugee camps are certainly a new creation in human history, but hardly a new concept. Before them, we had the "Gypsies," people romanticized in James Bond movies and literature, but people largely without a country. Before the creation of Israel, you might almost have considered them on par with Jews. Jews also never had a homeland, after the fall of Jerusalem under Roman rule. When Shakespeare created his comic character of Shylock, it was not from knowledge of experience of British Jews; there had been virtually none in England for almost 200 years before he wrote his play. Some 400 years before "nationalism" became an English word or a European concept, and still people found ways to exclude certain groups of other people from their political boundaries. "The Wanderer" and "The Wife's Lament" relate exile from what were little more than tribes. We have always created communities, and then found ways and excuses for excluding individuals from them.

This exclusion is still seen, and commonly described by adherents as well as critics, as fundamental to the Abrahamic faiths. The irony is, it wasn't meant to be. When God called Abram in Genesis 12, God included a promise:

"I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you. All the communities of the earth shall find blessing in you."
That is not, as commonly understood in post 19th century "Enlightenment" terms, a promise to create a New Jerusalem ("And did those feet in ancient times...?") or a power center among the nations; it is a promise to bless all the "nations" (read "people," or "ethnicities," if you prefer) of the earth through the children of Abraham. This understanding of the blessing is repeated over and over again across time and people in the Hebrew Scriptures: not that Israel will dominate the earth and rule like a super-empire, but that through the blessing of Israel, all the people of the world will be blessed. This is the reason Matthew includes the Magi in his nativity story; it is the reason John on the island of Patmo saw a "New Jerusalem" coming down from heaven, fulfilling the promise of blessing echoed in the Psalms, in the prophets, in the story of Abram.

While it is often read as exclusionary (right down to the exact number of 144,000 "elect" deduced from John's vision on Patmos), it is not meant to be. Nor is it meant to be a call to conversion, to all the world conforming to the laws of Moses and submitting to the covenant of Abraham before that vision can be fulfilled. The God of Abraham is never so constrained. As John the Baptist says in Luke: "Let me tell you, God can raise up children for Abraham right out of these rocks!" He is, of course, speaking to those who say "We have Abraham for our father," and who think because of that alone, they are righteous. While righteousness is often abused as: "Stand away from me, for I am holier than thou," the very concept of holiness is not meant to induce hubris, but humility. Isaiah's statement was not a brag, but a rebuke. Such, as Lewis Carroll observed, is human perversity, however.

Abraham, in fact, was never about being righteous, except as he was righteous before God, and that righteousness was only shown in obedience to God. The obedience of Abraham, however, was never simplistic. The iconic story is Abraham and Isaac on Moriah; but before that, Abram travelled through several lands after leaving Ur of the Chaldees, and in each one he feared the king he visited more than he trusted God, and each time he presented Sarai, his wife, as his sister, the better to be sure he would not be executed and his wife taken from him. Each time the king took Sarai as a wife, each time God told the king Sarai was Abram's wife, and each time the king let them go free, ashamed for his mistake and perplexed by Abram's lie. And then Abraham had to wait through three promises before he was given one son, and even Abraham betrays some impatience with God's timetable.

But it's never been about Abraham finding the One True Nation given to him by God. It has always been about obedience to God. "And what does the Lord require of you," asks Micah of Israel," but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God." That is the eternal golden braid what binds all the stories of the Hebrew scriptures, and all the gospels and letters and visions of the New Testament, together. It is not about truth, it is about justice; it is not about power, it is about mercy; it is not about holiness, it is about humility. Have people abused that, refused that, misused that? Certainly. It is the way people are. But the basiliea tou theou is not about entrance requirements or admissions exams or even proper I.D. The kingdom of heaven is that place where no one is excluded, where no one is kept out, except that they keep themselves out. It is the place without any need for a refugee camp, because while we make widows and orphans and determine a person's value, God makes people, and accepts every one of them.

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