Monthly Archives: August 2017

Ruthless People

 

Pastor Bill Roen

August 25, 2017

 

What has made Americans so cruel?  There is no point in denying that something has. The torch-wielding white nationalists and neo-Nazis of Charlottesville are only the deckle edge of American ruthlessness. Their cruelty is made glaringly public on the news. But behind them is a third of the nation—I’ll leave it up to you to decide which third–who whose ruthlessness is more discreet. This is the third who would like to take food stamps away from hungry families, dismantle unemployment insurance programs, ax benefits for the disabled, and take coverage away from tens of millions, visiting countless households with the nightmare of losing their health insurance.

Now we have to ask ourselves—in a country that once prided itself on its compassion what justifies such cruelty?  Harshness toward the poor has always liked to dress up in Biblical costume. In his Second Letter to the Thessalonians  St. Paul writes—

“Even when we were with you, we gave you a command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living” (3:10).

Passages like this are often used to justify  hostility toward the poor and to add credibility to the widely-held myth that safety net programs reward lazy people who don’t want to work. According to this way of thinking, of those who want to do away with these programs, persons who accept the government help are blood-sucking parasites, unworthy to be thought of as human, let alone as fellow citizens or fellow children of a fatherly God.

Of course St. Paul is right—in a limited sense. There is no excuse for laziness. Those who can work should. Work is—or should be, at least—a blessing, not a curse. It is God’s way of giving meaning and order to our otherwise random existence. It is the way he continues his work of creation through us. But what about those who cannot work–children, the disabled, the mentally challenged? What about the unemployed—not from sloth but from inability to find work? What about the underemployed, those working two jobs who still linger below the poverty line?

Why punish them? The opinion of the “ruthless third” is that the government should be out of the rescue business altogether. People should be left on their own, to sink or swim.  To soften the harshness of such sentiments, those who feel this way often justify themselves by saying that care of the poor and disabled should be left to individual charity. Not necessarily their own individual charity but somebody’s. This point of view could hardly be less realistic. What I know about individual charity—and it is quite a lot—I would be very loath to depend upon it for my daily bread.

In America a handful of people are far richer than they have ever been, but it is a mistake to think that if the government got out of the welfare business they would step up to the plate. Mostly the very rich are consumed with the enduring problem of how to get richer. In our society they are well-rewarded with tax-credits for whatever charity they offer, but their random giving is driven more my fashion and display than by compassion. At a Rotary meeting I once heard a man remark, “I don’t know how the people who work for me live on what I pay them.” That sums up things pretty well. With notable exceptions, the rich are not so much hostile to the poor as indifferent.

Some of the ruthless third would argue that churches and charitable non-profits should take up the task of caring for the poor. Christians often point to the example of the early church, which provided care for its needy members. This too could not be more unrealistic. The churches and similar non-profits do what they can, and what they do is admirable, but they are consumed with the problem of their own financial existence, and they could never begin to the shoulder the staggeringly complex problem of caring for the needy in our society. Try going around seeking help with your rent or your electric bill and see how far you get. Churches and agencies would be tapped out before they even began to feed to hungry multitude.

The truth is that the “ruthless third” are not looking for ways to help struggling Americans. They are seeking ways to avoid doing so. Their motto is–Not with my dollar you don’t.

So we return to our original question—What has made Americans so cruel? The simple answer is fear. Those who have a deepest hostility toward the poor are not the rich, but those who themselves are not far from being poor—the white lower middle class. For those who consider themselves “the real Americans” this is a time of great anxiety. Their standard of living has for a long time been eroding. The old certainties are melting away. The structures that ensured that the white middle class could define what it means to be an American are crumbling, and the new definitions of American seem strange and threatening.

And fear is what motivates anger, the anger of the elder son in the prodigal son story. And anger generates cruelty. The ruthless third fear that next step downward on the economic ladder. They don’t hate poor people individually,  they just want them to stay poor. There is a security in being able to look down and see someone below you. And there is a cruel logic at work—if someone else suffers, my family and I won’t. Or if we suffer, someone else should suffer more.  It has to do with punishing the poor for being that way, punishing minorities for being different, punishing immigrants for working hard to succeed in a new land, punishing the helpless for being helpless.

And there is no reason under this administration and this climate of anxiety and uncertainty, that the ruthlessness toward the poor should not get worse. So it is necessary for those of us who are trying to be disciples of the risen Lord to decide what should we do?  Well, first of all we should not give way to our own cynicism. There are many problems with any structure that tries to deliver help to the poor. There will always be those who try to exploit the system. There will always be duplication and waste and intrusiveness.

But in this time and place you and I must make up our minds what the government is, or should be. We have to decide kind of America we want.

It is central to the Judeo-Christian tradition in which we live that the government is a representative of a fatherly God, and that under God the citizens of the state are responsible for each other.  Our welfare system has its foundation in the idea that government should act as a surrogate father offering security, discipline and order to all, citizen and alien alike.

Opposed to the fatherly idea of government is the pagan conception of a state which has no responsibility except to itself. It exists to secure the welfare of one particular group of citizens and to its chief beneficiaries, the powerful and the wealthy. Under the varnish of pious banalities of the God helps those who help themselves variety, the ruthless third are the strongest advocates of the pagan state in America today. They worship its symbols—the flag, the anthem, the military–but mostly they are united by a deep-seated hatred of its opposite–government that taxes them to give fatherly protection not just to one class, one ethnicity, one color, or one language but to all its citizens.

We need to recognize that if government is not the representative of a merciful God, who cares for his people materially and spiritually, it will be a cruel despot, buyable by the wealthy and biddable by the powerful. And this pagan understanding of the state is what dominates the thinking of the ruthless third, an attitude that is immoral and profoundly Anti-Christ.

And as followers of the Crucified we should not be dismayed the self-righteous, flag-waving and tiki torch brandishing advocates of an essentially pagan government. Nor should we be seduced by a godless worship of the state parading under the guise of patriotism. Because ruthlessness is not patriotic, and it is certainly not Christian. The only true patriotism is allegiance to a government that is merciful and nurturing.

No government is perfect, just as no act of kindness is perfect. Every system is flawed by selfishness and greed. But recognizing that, we still need to call cruelty by its right name. And in every way to we need to reward with our votes, our voices, and our prayers government that gives fatherly care to the righteous and the unrighteous alike, recognizing that each of us is some of both. That is the state worthy of our loyalty, and no other.

And we should keep in mind those words St. Paul writes to the Galatians in a more gracious mood: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things” (5:22-23).

Nor should there be.

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Bad Attitudes

She was a patient, kindly woman with a cold, critical mother-in-law. Their relationship was a bit of a cliché, actually. Every year she shopped carefully for her mother-in-law’s Christmas present, and every year her mother-in-law gave it back, saying she hoped she had saved the receipt. But she was a patient, kindly woman, as I said, and she borne up fairly well under a lifetime of little slights and snubs.

No, it wasn’t easy.  But more than anything she wanted to be a good Christian. And for her to be a Christian was to have the right attitude. And she felt this was her Christian duty, because she loved her husband to love his mother. So when her mother-in-law became ill, she quit her job at the bank to stay home to take care of the old woman, who died without once expressing her thanks. And now this patient, kindly woman feels guilty because she sometimes had a bad attitude.

There is something haywire with that story, and I’m sure you can spot it. This woman had a choice. It wasn’t a perfect choice, but it was hers to make. She didn’t have to care for her mother-in-law, but she did, and she did it kindly and patiently. I don’t think people ever do all that they can do, but she got as close as ordinary people can to doing it all. And now she feels bad because in her heart she was sometimes angry, sometimes resentful, because sometimes in the middle of night she bitterly longed to have her life back, and finally because when the old lady finally died she was not that broken up.

But that doesn’t change the fact that she did a good thing. Her husband told her time and again how much he appreciated all she had done for his mother. People called her a saint. But their words sounded hollow because she knows better. She suffers from that particular kind of messed up scrupulosity peculiar to those who want more than anything to be a good Christians, and if you are also that kind of person, you already know it.

My mother used to say—it is a sad thing when you cannot see the good in the good. But it isn’t just sad, it’s tragic and unnecessary. People who are trying to follow Jesus suffer much more for their attitudes than for their actions. And we all need to be reminded that no one ever does anything difficult with a perfect attitude, unmixed with selfishness or impatience or resentment.

We have some freedom when it comes to what we do. We are are free to make the better choice and free to stick with it. Our attitudes, however, are something else altogether. Over those we have no control. Attitudes are like birds that fly over our heads; we can’t stop them. If they make a nest in our hair, then we have a different problem. But for most of us attitudes are birds of passage.  They come and they go.

Some are good; others are bad. If we were to wait for them to align themselves with our actions, a perfect attitude with a good decision, we might well wait forever to do anything. But to do the right thing right now is what is crucial, beloved. And if you can do it with a relatively positive, loving attitude, well that’s gravy. That’s the work of the Holy Spirit. But attitudes alone mean nothing—they change with the weather. Tomorrow they will be different, better perhaps, perhaps worse. But the act is the thing that matters.

The life of discipleship in Christ is a series of tasks we are called upon to perform. When the Lord gives us something to do, we need to do it.  If we waited until we had a better attitude we might well never get around to the job at hand. And when we do the thing we are called to do, our attitude toward it will sometimes improve—and sometimes not. As far as that woman with the cantankerous mother-in-law is concerned, she did what she could. Caring for someone else whom we don’t always feel much inclined to care for is a high achievement. It takes grace to do it. But grace does not always take the form of a loving attitude. Just as often it takes the form of detachment and a sense duty.

Of course when the Kingdom of God finally comes, things will be different. Then every good action will be accompanied by a righteous, loving attitude, but not in this world. In this world we are always victims of our moods, which change constantly like shadows on the moon.

But the action and the feeling we have when we do it are not the same thing, and it is important to keep them separate. In the first place, we need to do the thing you know to be right. Give generously of ourselves. Show compassion for other people even when they don’t particularly merit it. And then have compassion upon ourselves for Jesus’ sake and not expect perfection. When we do that we put ourselves in the place of God, who made us what we are—dependent upon his grace.

 

 

 

 

 

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Steadying the Ark (2 Samuel, Matt. 8:24-27)

There is a brutal little story tucked away in the book of 2 Samuel. I encountered it for the first time as a child, when my grandmother was reading the Bible aloud to me, as she often did. I stopped her when I heard it and wanted to know “why?” It seemed to me so ruthless and unjust. It still does rather.

King David was bringing the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. The progress was surrounded with great joy, with the king and all the house of Israel dancing and singing before the oxcart that carried the sacred ark, accompanied by diverse instruments. And then in the midst of the fun disaster struck:

“When they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah reached out his hand to the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen shook it. The anger of the LORD was kindled against Uzzah; and God struck him there because he reached out his hand to the ark; and he died there beside the ark of God” (2 Samuel 6:6-8).

It says that David was “angry because the LORD had burst forth with an outburst upon Uzzah,” and we too are bound to find the story disturbing, to say the least.  And it doesn’t help a great deal for us to be reminded that for ancient Israel the ark was the preeminently sacred object, the seat upon which God was thought to sit, the symbol of his presence with his people. It was surrounded by the strongest taboos. When it had to be carried, it was lifted with long poles, and under no circumstances was it to be touched.

But the oxen stumbled. The ark swayed. What if it had fallen? Uzzah thought he was responsible for it, and he reached out to steady the ark to save God from indignity of seeing his throne crash to the ground in a pile of rubble. If you have been around churches as long as I have, beloved, you can imagine what sort of person Uzzah must have been—in charge of the property, a bit possessive and officious, kind of a fuss budget, actually.

In any case he reached out and touched the ark and the fury of the LORD burst out upon him. A moment later he lay dead. As a child, his story both fascinated and appalled me. I asked my grandmother if he had been electrocuted. She said “sort of.” I wanted to know “why?” It all seemed to me so grossly unfair of God. That someone could be struck dead for trying to be helpful. This is certainly not a story for children to whom you’re trying to teach responsible behavior. Nor is it likely to show up in any Sunday school curriculum with an accompanying picture to color.

But it is an adult story and speaks to an adult problem. Those of us who love the church are often feel dismayed and helpless by the disarray into which it has fallen. It is a mess; who can deny it. Looking at it, we feel humiliated for God, and we would like to save him the embarrassment of the Church as it is. Not that we ever could—in our hearts we know that–but we try anyway, criticizing, worrying and fretting, getting fussy over small things, treating the church itself as an idol. That’s what Uzzah in the story did—he treated the ark as an idol, not a seat for the invisible omnipotent God, but a thing made with human hands to be worshipped in itself, and he reached out his hand to steady his god.

But the living God does not want or need to the saved by us.  He can take care of himself. Uzzah didn’t need to steady the ark. God was always in charge; there never was any real danger of its falling. In this regard you will recall another story, this one about a storm that came up suddenly on the Sea of Galilee (Matthew 8:24-27). The disciples were terrified by the wind and the waves, but we are told that Jesus was fast asleep. So they woke him to say, “Lord, save us!  We are perishing!” But they really didn’t need saving. They were safe—as long as they were in the boat with the Lord. And he said to them, “Why are you afraid, you little faith people.” Then he rebuked the winds and the sea, and we are told that there was a dead calm.

These days Church is being tossed about in rough seas—I’m sure you’ve noticed that. The ark is shaken by controversy and scandal. There is a fussy part of us that feels that we should be doing something about it. But we are at a loss as to exactly what. We lament that things are no being done as they used to be. We lament the indifference of the young and the shortcomings of the clergy. We think that if we were in charge things would be better. We feel as if we should steady the ark or wake the sleeping God to keep the boat from sinking.

But what we need to remember that at the threshing floor of Nacon the oxen stumbled, but the cart didn’t overturn nor did the ark fall. And on the Sea of Galilee the boat was tossed by the storm but it did not capsize. “We have this hope,” as the writer of Hebrews says, “a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul. . .” (6:19).  And reliant on that hope we need to calm ourselves to let God take care of himself and his coming Kingdom in his own way. He is our Savior—not the other way around. He gives each of us something to do, and we should by all means do it, but with the recognition that we can’t do everything or even what is most necessary. Only what we can as well as we can.

In 1906 Winchester cathedral was in danger of collapsing. The south and east walls of the great building were sinking slowly into the ground beneath, which consisted principally of peat. Great cracks had appeared in the fabric of the building. But there was a dilemma. In order for bricklayers reinforce the foundation, the groundwater first had to be lowered. And without support, the removal of the groundwater would cause the complete collapse of the building.

The problem was solved with the help of a quiet bravery of professional driver by the name of William Walker. 235 pits each about twenty feet deep were dug around the walls of the cathedral, and they immediately filled with turgid water. Walker descended into each one of those holes and using 25,000 bags of concrete, 115,000 concrete blocks, and 900,000 bricks he shored up the walls of the church so that the water could be pumped out and the job completed by masons. He worked in complete darkness owing to the sediment suspended in the water. The job took years.

But before he died of Spanish flu in 1918, Walker was credited with having laid the foundation of the whole cathedral, which stands today as a monument to his courage and determination. I have a photograph of William Walker in his diving helmet, rubber suit, and weighted boots hanging over my desk. It reminds me that the Church has to be shored up from below by men and women who do what they can do, diligently and in obscurity. But they don’t delude themselves into thinking that it depends upon them. They don’t fuss. They do what they can. They feed the hungry and care for the down and out, and preach the good news, generally keep the world from ending, which it would if it were not for them.

But it is the Lord the Spirit that gives permanence to the Church, not human beings. As St. Paul writes: “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; and that foundation is Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 3:11).  And we need to pray that the Spirit will save us from our all too human tendency toward fussiness, that presumption that makes us want to steady the ark when we see it shaken. It will not fall, and we couldn’t stop it if it did. In that regard we are as helpless as we feel. The Kingdom does not rest upon us. What does depend upon us are the things, great or small, that we called to do in the Kingdom—that’s all and that’s enough.

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What Became of Shame?

 

“Then the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked, and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons” (Genesis 3:7).

Whatever else may be true, beloved, it is obvious that we are not sewing fig leaves together anymore. It’s all out there, on the record, in language you never heard in the Bible. The barriers of what is acceptable in public speech and personal conduct have been eroding for some time now, but under this administration they have all but collapsed. There is no point in arguing that this is so. The question is—How did we as a nation lose our sense of shame?

The answer is not as complicated as we might think. In fact most of us can recall the decline and fall of shame because we played a part in it—not a starring role, perhaps, but we were part of the mob scenes. I know I was there to swell the crowd when shame died. And because I am partly to blame for it, it is incumbent upon me to do some small thing to rebuild the fallen barriers.

Shame is a very basic, and one might say, a primitive emotion. The scriptures trace it all the way back to the Garden, where Adam and Even ate the forbidden fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Immediately their eyes were opened, the Bible tells us, and they were confronted with the awful consequences of their disobedience. They felt shame, which is, simply put, the humiliating awareness that we have committed some terrible transgression of the rules.

Guilt is a different thing all together. Guilt is self-condemnation, a profound unease because of what we are, independent of any particular action. It is the deep-seated suspicion that we are by nature bad in ourselves. Shame on the other hand is the consciousness that we appear bad to others. It is a state of moral undress, the awareness we have been caught, judged and condemned for what we have done by another person, by the community, or by God.

Shame is measured by the transgression and the transgressor. Where the transgression is small the shame is—or should be—proportionate.  Where the transgression if terrible, shame can be overwhelming—except when the transgressor feels no shame. Then he or she will not scruple to disguise the shameful act with a lie. So in the story of the children of Adam and Eve, when Cain killed his brother Abel, at first he trusted that no one had seen him. So when the LORD asks him, “Where is Abel your brother?” he replies, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” But the LORD says, “What have you done?” (Genesis 4:9).

What have you done? Honestly admitting shame is the only remedy for it, honestly confessing the transgression, accepting forgiveness and resolving to do better. Shame can become twisted, cruel, and destructive, but it is not a bad thing in itself. It is in fact the foundation of conscience, which is simply the internalization of honest shame.

The other day, while the United States Senate narrowly voted—50 to 51–to begin debate on a repeal of major parts of the Affordable Care Act, protesters in the gallery chanted “Kill the bill, don’t kill us!” and “Shame, shame, shame!” At least they had the right idea, but one cannot help but wonder what if anything the word “shame” means anymore in the public realm, things having been brought so low by brazen shamelessness of this administration and the paucity of honor among those who are supposed to serve us.

Because the opposite of shame is the pagan virtue of honor and its Judeo-Christian equivalent, righteousness. Righteousness and honor go hand in hand with modesty–not thinking too highly of yourself–and restraint–the inherent dignity of the person in victory and defeat. But in the Age of Trump does honor or righteousness, let alone modesty and restraint, retain any real value in the public realm when compared with money and power?

Oh, yes there are still examples of honor out there. John McCain comes to mind. But in his integrity, independence, and willingness to compromise he appears like a dinosaur on the floor of the Senate. And Jimmy Carter goes on modestly building Habitat for Humanity houses and teaching his Sunday school class. But the consensus of the Principalities and Powers seems to be the honor does not matter anymore than its opposite, shame.

So how did this come about? What became of shame?  The responsibility for its decline must be shaded as widely as possible.

On the one side liberal politicians and intellectuals and ordinary folks—like myself–with progressive ideas have for many years now made the proverb—“To understand all is to forgive all”—our motto. It was a big mistake and I confess it.  But for most of my lifetime the liberal establishment has excused violence and sexually irresponsibility as justified by circumstances or explicable because of economic influences. It isn’t. But when you cut people the slack they do not deserve, when you excuse the inexcusable, when you lower the barriers of what is acceptable to the place where everything is acceptable, you make yourself an enabler in a society where nothing is shameful.

Teaching shame—that wrong is wrong in the eyes of God and the community–is part of a moral upbringing. What we say and do have consequences in the real world. But when we give a pass to bad behavior as a result of a bad environment, when we justify what we should condemn and approve what we should disapprove the consequences will crowd in upon us.

We are not taking about forgiveness now. Forgiveness is another thing altogether. Divine grace does not make excuses for sin; it demands righteousness, or at least its pursuit and it presupposes shame and repentance.

Conservatives have until very lately been the bemoaners of moral laxness and the self-appointed champions of responsible behavior. Not anymore. The self-styled defenders of traditional values went for Trump in a big way, knowing full well that a vote for Donald Trump was a vote for shameless coarseness and leprous morality. Everyone knew that from the get-go. And we got exactly what they wanted. And why? Partly because he wasn’t Hilary Clinton. Defeating her justified any means.

But it was more than that. Trump speaks to and for a deep, latent violence in America and out of a shadowy background of racism. His Fundamentalism of Money and Power speaks to other forms of Fundamentalism, evangelical and materialistic. And he is a bully, and bullying is the new correctness. Shame may be dead—or at least dying, but the same cannot be said for bullying. Tweet-shaming is being practiced everywhere—from high school to the Oval Office—and with the same aim in mind—destruction of the enemy. And the enemy is us, beloved.

So liberals and conservatives—both the “talking heads” and the “hoi polloi”—in their own ways share the responsibility for the new shamelessness and its nasty results. So is this the way it is going to be from now on? Or will it get worse in ways that we cannot even anticipate now? Well, beloved, that is in a small but real way up to you and me. We have to decide whether or not to call scurrilous language and antisocial behavior what it is. It is easy to condemn those in high places for their brazen shamelessness, but it is more difficult to acknowledge how we enable their bad behavior by excusing the inexcusable. It is easy to censure Donald Trump for his vulgarity, coarseness, and laziness, but it is harder for us to condemn the culture of excess, which he represents and in which each play our part.

The righteous life must be lived in the world among other people, which is what makes it so difficult. Some of them think as we do, others do not. In the end integrity is a lonely business. It takes courage and a degree of recklessness to pursue it because whatever you say and do in its pursuit will never please other people. But its reward is an awareness of having lived honorably, which in the end is the only thing worth having. So, beloved, we need to take those words from the hymn seriously:

Save us from weak resignation to the evils we deplore.

Let the search for our salvation be our glory evermore.

And may the Holy Spirit answer that prayer.

 

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