Thursday, January 18, 2018

Psalm 133

How good and pleasant it is to live together as brothers in unity!
It is like fragrant oil poured on the head
and falling over the beard,
Aaron's beard, when the oil runs down
over the collar of his vestments.
It is as if the dew of Hermon were falling
on the mountains of Zion.
There the LORD bestows his blessing,
life for evermore.

I'm going to start by quoting myself; something I would do more extensively if I could find the post where I think I discussed this story (and the sermon I used it in) before; but I can't.  Instead, I found this:

Jesus never discussed doctrine, ideas, arcana, abstractions.  Jesus told stories.  Most Biblical scholars think the ideas, the doctrines, the explanations, came later.  They vary so much from gospel to gospel; there is so little in Mark (the oldest gospel), so much in John (the newest gospel), that the long discussions and discussions and declamations are generally taken as added material, not very original to Jesus of Nazareth at all.

He told stories.  He presented object lessons.
There are two stories here, actually, both from television.  The first is from the re-boot of "The Twilight Zone," a story titled (IIRC) "To See The Invisible Man."  The premise was fairly simple:  to punish crimes against society, in this case simply the crime of being irascible and somewhat misanthropic (a condition my wife often accuses me of, with good reason), the protagonist is branded on the forehead with a mark that designates him "invisible."  No one can speak to him, trade with him, allow him any human contact whatsoever.  In this society there are cameras floating about, enforcing society's rules, able to call police to punish any infraction:  and flouting the law against "invisibility" is punishable by invisibility itself.  The man is sentenced to one year, and while he starts off defiant, he ends crushed.

At one point he tries to befriend a blind man in a cafe, until someone else whispers to the man "Invisible!", and the blind man curses the convict and rushes away.  At another, he confronts a woman and begs her to recognize him; she is, of course, too afraid and runs away.  The year ends, his brand is removed, and he returns to society a changed man.

Only to run into the woman who was afraid of him, and now she is branded "invisible."  His heart overflows (a Biblical metaphor), and he hugs her and tells her he can see her, even as the cameras swirl around barking out warnings and signaling for the police to come.

It's a powerful metaphor about community, especially now, while we're all reading about the family of fifteen (?) people, 13 of whom were kept locked in the house, some so emaciated and malnourished they don't resemble the adults they actually are.  How could such a thing happen, we ask?  How could so many people remain so invisible?  Not for the same reasons as the story, obviously; but still they were.  And they were in large part because we let them be so.  California reportedly allows parents to establish a "private school" with no more than a signed form, and no one ever investigates the welfare, which would include the education, of the children.  That's how we did it.  We put privacy and individual authority above the concerns of the community for each member of the community.  Until they are adults, we don't protect children unless they are known to be abused, and if we don't know, and don't ask, and literally don't care; well, what do we expect?

The other story is the "White Christmas" story from "Black Mirror."  One premise of the story is that everyone has artificial eyes which can be controlled from a central source, or by the individual; controlled to "block" individuals you don't want to see or hear.  The block replaces the person with a blurred outline, and white noise where there should be a voice.  Jon Hamm's character is punished, at the end of the story, by being put on "the register."  He can see no one, and no one can see him.  As he leaves the police station under this sentence at the end of the story, he enters a busy square at Christmas, bustling with people.  But he can see none of them, can only hear the music being played; can't even see the young vendor who notices Hamm's red outline (the others are silver; his marks his status) and weighs two objects in his hands, as if thinking he could throw them and who would care?  Hamm can't see him, and the others can't see Hamm.

Jon Hamm, like the "invisible" man, is outlaw.

There is a reason I'm not keen on the desire to punish, especially to inflict social punishment.  More and more people of my daughter's generation have decided Woody Allen should be the next target of their righteous wrath, as they learn for the first time (the first story was 25 years ago; you do the math) of the accusations of Rowan Farrow.  The accuser, when she is a woman, must be believed, so Mr. Allen must be punished, or at least branded at last with ignominy.  Why?  So we can have our pound of flesh, of course.  So we can right a wrong that occurred 25 years ago (if it did) which now this "new generation" will set straight.  Not exactly opposing an unjust war or marching for civil rights, but much easier to write about on the internet.

In essence, they wish to make Mr. Allen invisible.  To do that, they must first make him outlaw:  literally, in the original sense, place him beyond the law.  Easy enough:  simply declare the law flawed and incapable of dealing in justice.  Granted, none of this will hurt Mr. Allen.  If he can't make another film in his life, I suppose it will be a personal loss to him, but he won't be tarred and feathered and driven out of New York City on a rail.  Still, there is a desire to create a community, and then to use that community to punish another.  It's a curious drive, but also a disturbing one.  It falls along generational lines (young actors are regretting their work with Mr. Allen, donating their salaries from being in his films to charity; older actors are defending him.  Mr. Allen himself is silent, apparently) in part because all the perpetrators of sexual assault and harassment who have hit the headlines are guilty of offending much younger women.  The young, mickle in their wroth and righteous in their indignation, are determined to cleanse the Augean stables, horses and all.  Or so they seem to see it.

There is wrong, and it should be punished:  but what community are we setting up in order to do it?  How badly to we want someone to be "outlaw," so we can make them a scapegoat?  How badly do we want to label the outlaw, so we can say someone was punished?  And having punished them, will we be able so see they are human again?  Walter Brueggeman point out (apologies in advance for the long quote):

The Bible has notions of life and death which are very different from those we have today.  Whereas we think of life as the continuing functioning of the individual organisms and death as the cessation of such functioning, the Bible understands life and death in covenantal categories  Life means to be significantly involved in a community of caring, meaning, and action  Death means to be excluded from such a community or denied access to its caring, meaning, or actions.   Life means a capacity to enter into covenants and the ability to make covenants which are also community-creating possibilities for others.  Life and death do not have to do, in biblical perspective, simply with the state of the individual person but with the relation between the person  and the community which identifies that person and which gives personhood.   A German scholar,  Jungel, has recently shown that life in the Bible means relatedness. Conversely death is to be unrelated.  Thus the Bible calls into question two of our dominant presuppositions:  (a) that life is concerned primarily with biological functioning and (b) that life concerns a personal unit in and of itself.

The central life-death moment in the biblical perspective is entry into and participation in a community of identity and mission.  Birth is embrace of covenant community, whether we speak of birth or rebirth.  And death is departure from the community, either by force or by choice.  Thus to “choose life or death” (Deuteronomy 30:19) means to decide upon relationship for or against the life-giving community.

In the Old Testament, such an embrace of life means incorporation into the covenant community whereby people are invited in and take vows of allegiance and oaths of fidelity (Exodus 24:1-8, Joshua 24:1-38).  In the New Testament, such a dramatic, intentional act is likely to be identified with baptism which means “putting off an old nature”  and coming into life in “ a new nature” (Ephesians 4:1-24).  The community of meaning and destiny thus has it within its power to give life and consign to death.  In the earliest community this had to do with the pronouncement of blessings and the declaration of curses (especially Leviticus 26,  Deuteronomy 28).  While this may strike us as primitive, it is psychologically and sociologically correct, given a biblical understanding of personhood, that life is the experience of being identified with community and that death means exclusion, banishment, excommunication.  The key issue is relationship, and the primal events are dramatic (liturgic) acts of inclusion and exclusion.  While this sounds alien to us, the same dynamic is clearly operative for a teenage who does not get included in a peer group, a young boy not chosen for a team, a small child rejected by a parent.  The breaking of a significant relationship is an experience of death.
When Jesus says "Do you see this woman?," he's already started inviting her, a prostitute, an outcast, back into the community.  He has already declared he sees the one society would declare invisible.  When the wonderful father throws his arms around the prodigal son, he declares his son has returned to life, has come back from death, even though we know the son has merely been, well....prodigal.  Life is "the experience of being identified with community and...death means exclusion, banishment, excommunication."  I heard an interview on Fresh Air this morning with a former Neo-Nazi skinhead, who attributed the attraction of the group to his feelings of exile from his family, from parents who had to work 14 hours a day, 7 days a week (his description) just to pay the bills.  The group he found gave him identity; one might as accurately say it gave him life.

We have to think about the communities we are so anxious to create, especially so we can exclude people from them.  It is true we should not countenance the actions of Harvey Weinstein or Matt Lauer or Charlie Rose, not even those of Donald Trump, for whom fresh examples seem to come every day.  But if our community is built simply on who we are not, on who we exclude, then what community is that?  Consider the parable of the prodigal:  he tells his father to drop dead because being alive puts him in the way of the son's inheritance.  The father divides his estate and the son cashes in his half and walks away, only to be broke in a short time.  He returns home where the father welcomes him to the elder son's estate, and obliges the older brother to either accept his sibling, or stand outside the party he is paying for, churlishly refusing to accept the glorious news.  The wonderful father has brought his son back to life rather than punish him.  Who among us wouldn't wish that to be done for us?  Who among doesn't think, in this light, that the father's actions are indefensible?  No one is punished, and yet a lesson is learned.

But what lesson?  And can we learn it again?

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