We have heard with our ears, O God,
our fathers have told us,
what deeds you did perform in their days,
in the days of old:
You with your own hand drove out the nations,
but them you planted;
you afflicted the peoples,
but them you set free;
For not by their own sword did they win the land,
nor did their own arm give them victory;
but by your right hand, and your arm,
and the light of your countenance...
Heather wrote a reading for the Easter service, called "Life Again." Here's an excerpt:
You know, I am sure, what happened in Jerusalem that year. Maybe you have heard that a great prophet came to Jerusalem, and was acclaimed with hosannas and palm branches, and that the Sanhedrin and the Romans conspired against him and killed him. Maybe you have heard that a rabble-rouser came, and all the poor and landless flocked to him and hailed him as king, and something had to be done. Though maybe it should have been done more quietly. I have heard heard that some of them thought that, afterwards.
We had followed him there, from Galilee. We were the poor and landless. I had farmed another man's land ever since I was old enough to put my hand to my plow; it was my father who got into debt and had to sell our farm. No fault of his. Three bad harvests, in a row. Three years just like this one was promising to be: thirsty, dusty, empty of the new life we were hoping for so hard.
And so we lost our land, although we lived on it and farmed it still. I married; my father died; I farmed. Every year struggling hard to meet the rent; every year hoping, trying, working from dawn to sundown with hardly a pause, hoping to keep enough back so that in three years, five years, ten years we could buy it back. Every year the hopes withering a little more, even as our hopes for a child withered also. After the last harvest was all gathered in and the storms began, I would calculate how much we could keep back. And then I would calculate whether we could make the rent at all. And then I would walk out into the field, in the rain, so that my wife would not have to see me crying. I didn't go there to cry; I went to pray; but I couldn't. I could only hear in my mind a line from the prophet Jeremiah, over and over again till I wept: “The harvest is over, the summer is gone, and we are not saved.”
So when I heard of this man Jesus, I had very little to lose. Very little. That year my wife fell ill, terribly ill, till it seemed certain she would die. When Jesus came to our town I came out to him and pushed through the crowds that were around him, the people begging him to heal their sick, and when I finally reached him I begged too. He came into my house. I couldn't carry her―she was hot with fever and gasping for breath―and so he walked with me and actually came into my little house, and he put his hand on her head, and for a moment he closed his eyes, and in his face I saw such weariness. It was as if all our hopeless, grinding struggle, all the years we had worked and worked and not been saved, were on his shoulders and in his face, and I felt a stab of fear, and thought: he cannot save her...
The whole reading appears here: "Life Again"
Wishing you a healthy (and funny) year—Happy birthday Emily!
(if the video player doesn't work, try here.)
That action is good
which we are able to accomplish while keeping our attention and intention
totally directed towards pure and impossible goodness,
without veiling from ourselves by any falsehood
either the attraction or the impossibility of pure goodness.
That's by Simone Weil. A bit grand sounding. But I like the insistence on reaching out for the truly good thing, even if it appears (or actually is) impossible. Never settling for the lesser evil, and calling that "the best we can do."
I've tried to get into the habit of always looking for a really good solution when a problem arises, even when it seems like there are no good options. The more difficult the circumstances, the greater the challenge to see what possible good God could have in this situation, what unexpected better result could be found if we wait and reach for it, in faith. And that's really the key, I think. Not settling for the reasonable compromise that we can hammer out, but looking in faith for the good that is impossible for us, that has to be given to us by God. So far I haven't been disappointed in my waiting.
But there often is waiting; the unforeseen good usually does not appear immediately. For example, over the past year I've gotten into a difficult situation with the church here. Not wanting to be continually (and disruptively) challenging and yet also feeling strongly that God was trying to lead in a direction that the church was resisting, I decided to go elsewhere for a while. And I've felt pretty good about the new relationships with people in other churches near here. So much so, that I think I'll keep attending other churches, even when I eventually join the worship here again. That's part of the good, I think. But I've also been less than satisfied by the worship and expression of church in these other congregations, which has left me waiting still. Wondering for months if there isn't some better answer that I'm missing.
Then recently a new friend mentioned a simple idea, his desire for church. It comes from Paul's first letter to the Corinthians: "When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation." Everyone bringing something to worship, and everyone having the chance to share what they bring. In a small house gathering, like they had in the early church, that's possible. So with some friends we're going to try this. In the evening, not as an alternative to other churches, but as an addition. I still believe things will get better in the church here, but it will take time, and in the meantime it's important that people have a good experience of worshiping God together. We need that. And maybe some of our experiences will also help inspire good things in what the church is becoming.
This unexpected answer to a prayer I didn't quite know how to pray is making this a joyful Easter for me. Truly a gift. And perhaps, like with the answer to the disciples' terrible circumstances after Jesus' death, a revelation of a good much better than they could have hoped for.
A conversation with some new friends about the real nature of the church (the kingdom of God) reminded me of this journal entry from years ago. I still think it's pretty accurate.
What does this community look like?
I think it looks like Jesus and his disciples. They do not have a place that is “theirs,” controlled by them, but rather live and move among the places owned and controlled by those more powerful in society. (How could they have their own property if they will not fight to possess and defend it but instead give freely?) And they are mixed in with the rest of society, allowing any who wish to be among them, so the only way you can tell who is really a part of the community is to identify who really lives like Jesus. There are not clear boundaries of the community, neither property or membership boundaries. They are a scattered few, mingled with many unlike them. But isn’t that how Jesus described his community? He said that his people, his kingdom, would not be easily identified:
“The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, “Lo, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is among you.” (Lk 17.20-21)Those who followed him could surely be recognized by their likeness to him, in their faith and in their active love. But they would not be recognized as a kingdom, with no clearly defined borders and no identifiable king. Because God would be their king. God would unify them and protect them and direct them through his Spirit. And so they would appear to be leaderless, landless, undefended and unconnected (at least lacking the kind of things that connected other people), yet with a common way of living and a common allegiance different from the kingdoms in which they mingled. “In the world but not of it.” As Jesus prayed:
“I am not praying for the world but for those whom you hast given me, for they are thine… The world has hated them because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. I do not pray that you should take them out of the world, but that you should keep them from the evil one.” (Jn 17. 9, 14-15)They are hated because they do not identify themselves with the groups in which they mingle, so they are seen as outsiders, “not one of us.” They do not fight to defend their own borders or attack the trouble-makers among them, and neither will they do so for the cities and nations of “the world.” They do not need legal or authoritarian structures to unite or preserve their (God’s) community and so will not support or enforce those structures around them. So they are seen as subversive and hated. And excluded and attacked. And they do not resist this. If they suffer pain or loss they rejoice, and if they are driven away they wipe the dust from their feet and move on.
The reason for Jesus’ community being like this is that it is the perfect way to express faith, experiencing God’s care and encouraging others to look to God with faith as well. Their willingness to embrace weakness voluntarily and joyfully stands out, because no other human group acts in this way. Jesus’ community can be weak because of their faith in God who is strong. Who does (and will continue to) unite and guide and preserve them, just as he promised.
...They are God’s pilgrim people on earth.
One of the first signs that spring has arrived around here is the Dutchman's Breeches blooming in patches in the woods. They always appear first on the hillsides that face south. There's also daffodils and spring beauties and a blossoming cherry tree, but for some reason I always like to see those little upside down pants.
The good, in-depth discussion at Jesus Radicals about the article "Nonviolently Resisting God" has been going for two weeks now. Here's my latest comment:
This has been a very long internet discussion, and isn't there some kind of "law" that says the longer the internet discussion, the more inevitable it becomes that someone will bring up Hitler? So maybe there's no way around it. In any case, I think a Hitler analogy won't be taken amiss, since in that scenario I stand on the same side as pretty much everyone here, I think.
Okay, take the case of the daughter of a Christian allied soldier who died fighting against the Nazis. Without knowing her background, we happen to say to her that we think violence is not the way of Jesus, even violence in a good cause. She becomes upset and says she firmly believes God worked through her father and his fellow soldiers, who fought bravely and died to save many Jewish people and others who would have suffered terribly under the oppressive Nazi regime taking over Europe. God spared much suffering through the sacrifice of those soldiers, and her father believed he was serving God. How, in God's name, could we criticize what those soldiers did?
I'm not saying this example is completely analogous, but what do you think? Did God work through the allied soldiers to stop Hitler and reduce the suffering, maybe even to bring some justice?
I believe God did work through them. Even though many of them were not followers of Jesus and many of them probably had selfish or vengeful intentions in their fighting, I believe God used their actions to limit the evil and respond to the cries of his people (Jews and non-Jews). But I think we can still challenge their violent response, can't we, on the basis of what Jesus taught and showed us?
We might even recognize that for a number of those soldiers, their actions in that war were a spiritual step forward, God working in them, maybe overcoming fear or selfishness or apathy to stand up against injustice. But we can still say, can't we, that Jesus calls us to a much better response to evil? One that doesn't cause such violent destruction? One that doesn't rely on the power of money and weapons, that doesn't glorify those powers (which are also the powers of governments and rulers)?
And can't we accept that God brought an end to some evil and some suffering through the actions of those soldiers, and still think we (and them) would do better to not take up the power of the sword but to respond to evil (even as terrible as Hitler's) with the power of God that Jesus demonstrated? Even if our actions weren't as immediately effective in stopping the evil?
Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think most people here would agree with me up to this point. And I should say I think nonviolent resistance methods, even the ones I've challenged, are much better than the methods of the soldiers, much closer to Jesus' way. There is often much truly Christlike witness involved, too, which I simply praise.
But perhaps you can see by analogy how I can accept and thank God for how God worked through some nonviolent resistance methods and, looking at Jesus in comparison, still believe that Jesus calls us to a better response to injustice. One that doesn't rely on and glorify the powers of money and politics (which are also the powers of governments and corporations) but more perfectly relies on the power of God? That more clearly emphasizes and encourages faith in God's power? Because isn't it God who we should be looking to for justice and deliverance, not armies of soldiers or armies of protesters?
When I talk about "resisting God," I just mean resisting how God is calling us further. I'm saying don't stop with the principles of nonviolent resistance (and don't deny a powerful God) but continue to move closer to Jesus' way which is far more radical. Better for us and a better witness for the world.
La paciencia todo lo alcanza
Quien a Dios tiene nada le falta
Patience attains everything
Whoever has God lacks nothing
In the discussion this past week someone mentioned Teresa of Avila, which reminded me of that first line, a favorite quote by her. I think it applies to the discussion of political activism. But it's probably not very helpful with someone who is upset at the passivity of most people in the face of injustice. Teresa certainly wasn't passive, though. And I think that first line is true only when the patience is in obedience to God, waiting with God, and not fear or mere passivity. To be obedient to God may require waiting for God's timing or God's response to some particular difficulty, but it also means obedience in acting in other areas, serving and helping where God has given us opportunities and the compassion to respond. Then we can trust God to eventually act in the areas where we have been called to be patient and wait.
I've been struggling with that a bit. It's hard when it takes so long. So long that we begin to wonder if the response of God will ever come. I guess that's part of the temptation of activism, the idea that if we do not make the change happen it will never happen, if we do not end the suffering it will never end. The temptation to work as if everything depended on you.
But to cling to the promises of God is to cling to God. And whoever has God lacks nothing. What we wait for from God is already assured, already a reality. What we wait for eagerly is merely the revealing.
One more comment from the discussion about "Nonviolently Resisting God":
It's not just an "absence" of the use of human power that I see in Jesus, but an avoidance. He avoided the attempts to make him king. He avoided wealth. And it seems he could have led a (violent or nonviolent) political uprising, since he had enough popularity at some points (though it seems most of those crowds did not understand Jesus' true purpose and would later abandon him). The Jewish leaders feared this, I believe. But Jesus did not do this, he squandered that opportunity, he taught hard things and lost followers (see Jn 6), and instead of using the crowds to achieve a political victory he let himself be arrested without resisting or threatening (like "if you kill me, my followers will rise up and..."). The fact that people in every society use these various forms of human power, and though Jesus could have used them he chose not to, stands out to me. I ask why avoid these? And I see that they offered nothing for his purposes and they also lead to the temptations of pride, the corruption of power, always and everywhere. Instead, Jesus stays poor and weak, avoiding those temptations of human power and relying only on God's power, which builds our faith and points others to God and lets God's power work most perfectly. As Jesus revealed to Paul, "My power is made perfect in weakness."
And we should be the same way as his followers. I'm always leery of the "Jesus had a very specific mission" argument. Which sets Jesus apart from us as unique and not necessarily to be imitated. Jesus told us to follow his example, even the cross part: "take up your cross and follow me." So I think we should avoid putting him in some isolated category. Jesus' mission now, in us, is the same as when he walked the earth. And our methods should be the same as well.
I have a feeling we might have a slightly different opinion about how much things have actually changed in the political realm since Jesus' time. Noam Chomsky's Manufacturing Consent was enlightening to me in its description of how those in power can control the public in modern democratic societies. It seems to me that new "rights" have been allowed in about the same measure that new, more sophisticated forms of political control have been developed. Take the example of public protests. In American society, most all political leaders say they approve of the right to protest, but then they also have well-developed ways of controlling those protests, specific areas designated for them, and ways of "spinning" them to minimize their impact. Rulers in the middle east have not developed these political methods of handling mass protests, so they fear them more and handle them badly. In modern democratic states, violent repression is usually not needed for political control (so the negative political impact of the violence is avoided) since there are other nonviolent ways of controlling the populace. Even allowing a democratic vote is beneficial for those in power if they have ways to make sure they can win and stay in power (and look who does always win, those with the money and political party backing to work the system). Then when they win they can say to the people, "You chose me. Even if you didn't vote for me, you approved and supported the system that handed me this power." (For more thoughts related to this, go here: "modern forms of persecution")
I think the basics of economic and political power are the same throughout history, though the specific forms of that power vary. But it's always recognizable. Economic and political power in every age is the power of Babel, the power of people working together (or uniting their resources), the power that is rallied with the cry "Unite! Together we are strong!" And from the time of Babel, this has always been in opposition to God. It glorifies humanity, not God. It encourages trust in the power of united human beings, not God. And thus it is in opposition to Jesus' purposes, which was to encourage obedience to God, love of God, faith in God. This is also why I see Jesus avoiding human power and relying on the power of God, the power that works in miraculous ways through people who are themselves poor, weak, often uneducated and unorganized (except perhaps by God's one Spirit). Paul points to this when he writes things like "we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us." And:
The foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. For consider your call, brethren; not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth; but God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.
The message of Jesus' words and actions was not "together we are strong" but "God is strong. You can trust God completely. You can be like a child, free and fearless under the care of your loving Parent." Just like Jesus was.
There's been a pretty good discussion going on this past week on the Jesus Radicals site, inspired (or provoked?) by the essay I submitted. Here are a few pieces of my replies that I think are worth saving:
Not all err in these ways, I agree. I'm only challenging a couple things here, not "nonviolent resistance" in general (which is understood and practiced by different people in many different ways). It's just that I'm seeing a lot of promoting of nonviolent force tactics and a lot of resistance to the biblical images and promises of God's powerful (and sometimes violent) actions to bring justice. And these seem to be coming out of the growing popularity of nonviolent resistance principles. That's what I'm responding to.
You're right that there are some similarities with the historical teaching of nonresistance in peace churches. I think there was a lot of truth in those traditions that is being pushed aside now. But much of the responsibility for that lies with the peace churches that lost touch with the true meaning and power of the teachings in their traditions. They had become empty religious practices, or excuses for staying clear of the political struggles, while the churches had found comfortable ways to co-exist with the violent powers in society. That is not what Jesus showed us to do. But there are truths (and inspiring examples) in those traditions that we shouldn't ignore.
The "popularity" I refer to is not just among pacifist Christians but also in the wider society. We don't have to search far in the news to see the influence of nonviolent resistance principles in our world. As an alternative to violent resistance, that's a good thing. But the popularity in society also influences our Christian enthusiasm for nonviolent resistance. It has been promoted among Christians as a much more relevant form of pacifism in our world today, and its political effectiveness has been trumpeted as proof of the truth of its principles. These are not the kind of things Jesus appealed to. The "proof" Jesus offered was the cross, not a falling dictator.
Your question about my response to the civil rights movement is a good one. The short answer is that I think you can distinguish between the Christlike witness seen there and the methods that got it seen on TV. I'm quite sure that many Blacks suffered fearlessly and demonstrated a powerful Christlike witness long before the civil rights movement (and still do). Those actions were not televised but they were just as powerful and just as important in God's work of changing hearts. The fact that nonviolent resistance methods got media attention for the witness of certain suffering Blacks does not make their witness any better or any more powerful. The power of the witness is not the power of the TV camera, but the power of Christ in it. That's what changes hearts.
So I can praise the witness seen in the civil right movement (or certain other nonviolent resistance actions) as Christlike and still challenge the use of the media and the use of political and economic power as un-Christlike, because it seeks to achieve its effects by the power of money and the power of the crowd.
This is getting too long, but I wanted just to say a word about your kids comment. You're right, I think some physical coercion is needed in parenting. I don't have kids yet, but that seems obvious. And appropriate, I think for the parent-child relationship, at least when the kids are young. From my experience growing up, though, and from what I've seen and heard from parents, it's important to gradually let go of the use of coercion with kids, as they are able to make their own voluntary choices. If we don't, they get bitter and rebellious. Because we were not meant to be subservient to the power of other human beings. "Call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven."