Lent, Day 29 — The Golden Rule

Jesus’s Manifesto: The Sermon on the Mount
The Golden Rule

In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets. (Matthew 7:12 NRSV)

  1. Immanuel Kant called this the categorical imperative: Act in such a way that you would want your action to be a universal rule. It’s an ethical principle that many of us figure should be self-evident. But if it truly were self-evident, we wouldn’t have to keep teaching it!
  2. The Common English Bible (CEB) adds a “therefore” to this sentence. You won’t find it in the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) or the New International Version (NIV). The translators add this therefore to tie this sentence to the paragraphs before. I like this addition, even though the therefore isn’t in the Greek, because I think Jesus is still following the thought with which he began this chapter: “Do not judge others, for with the judgement you make, you will be judged.” And, in my reading, he’s telling us to trust that other people are doing their best: asking, seeking, and knocking. So it makes sense to wrap up this section by saying, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
  3. But I’ve chosen to share the NRSV version above because of one word: Panta, “In everything.” I think it calls back to Pas, “Everyone who asks, receives.” Again, I think Jesus is asking us to remember that we are all on a journey, but that those journeys may look different. It isn’t up to me to critique others’ seeking, asking, or knocking, no matter how helpful I think I’m being.
  4. I find it helpful to read this chapter beside Matthew 18, which talks not only about correcting a straying member of the community, but forgiving “seventy seven times.”
  5. “The law and the prophets” also calls back to chapter 5: “Do not think I’ve come to abolish the law and the prophets,” which was his opening argument. Jesus has come full circle. Although he has a few more instructions for his prophetic community, he’s beginning to wrap up.
  6. Rabbi Hillel summarized the Torah (Law) this way: “What it hateful to you, do not do to another.” Hillel also operated in Galilee, and I’d wager Jesus heard him as a child.

Lent, Day 27 — Of Pearls and Swine

Jesus’s Manifesto: The Sermon on the Mount
Of Pearls and Swine

You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye. Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you. (Matthew 7:5-6, NRSV)

  1. It’s important to connect this famous phrase “pearls before swine,” to what comes immediately before: a command not to judge.
  2. This is the second of two analogies. The first was about taking a speck out of someone else’s eye, and the second is about giving away something valuable. Both are ways we try to help! It’s like Jesus anticipates our objection: “I’m not judging! I’m just trying to help!”
  3. Trying to correct a neighbor may be like taking a splinter out of their eye: You may have good intentions, but your own issues make you unsuitable as a surgeon. On the other hand, your neighbor might not be a willing patient! Maybe you do have something good to offer, but they won’t be able to appreciate it. You may think you’re offering something holy and good, but it’s not likely to be received well, and you’ll only bring pain on yourself.
  4. So even if you don’t see yourself as judging, even if you see yourself as helping, there are two problems: you aren’t qualified, and people don’t want your help.
  5. Jesus has said not to judge, and not to call people fools. But he calls people dogs and swine, both of which were fightin’ words in the ancient world. Is this another case of “Do as I say, not as I do?” Or is it okay for him because he’s Jesus? Neither: he’s getting into our heads.
  6. I’ve seen a quote floating around the internet: “Jesus never gave up on anybody.” Whoever said this has never read the Bible, especially Matthew 10:13, or all of chapter 23. In the first case, Jesus tells his disciples not to waste their time on people who will not welcome their message, and to “shake off the dust” from their feet when they leave town. In Matthew 23, he tells religious leaders that they are worthless, “Tying up heavy burdens for others and not lifting a finger to move them.”
  7. While theologically, I do not believe that God gives up on people, I am not God. And while everyone is worthy of God’s infinite love, not everyone is worthy of my finite time, energy, or attention. Jesus knows this, and tells us to behave accordingly.
  8. Since I am called to work with people who feel alienated from church, these verses mean a lot to me, because I face criticism and obstacles both from church folks and from non-church folks. Sometimes I need to leave people alone. And sometimes I wish religious people would consider me swine and leave me alone!
  9. The Bhagavad Gita says, “It is better to strive in one’s own dharma [duty, truth, or path] than to succeed in the dharma of another. Nothing is ever lost in following one’s own dharma, but competition in another’s dharma breeds fear and insecurity” (3:35)

Lent, Day 22 — Treasure

Jesus’s Manifesto: The Sermon on the Mount
Treasure

Stop collecting treasures for your own benefit on earth, where moth and rust eat them and where thieves break in and steal them. Instead, collect treasures for yourselves in [the heavens], where moth and rust don’t eat them and where thieves don’t break in and steal them. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6:19-21 CEB)

  1. Before we talk about these verses, let’s summarize: Jesus is still talking about how his followers need to be different from the rest of the world: More invested in changing their hearts than their religious leaders are (“y’all’s righteousness must exceed the scribes and Pharisees”), but not for the purposes of showing off (“as the hypocrites do”). I believe that one reason people claim to be “spiritual but not religious” is actually because we’ve done a good job teaching the previous part of the Sermon on the Mount! They look at the institutional forms of religion around them, the fundamentalism and hypocrisy, and say, “That ain’t Jesus.”
  2. Here he pivots to talk about money, and spends the next half-chapter telling us how to relate to it. While I think many people hear and understand Jesus’ critique of institutional people-pleasing religion in the previous sections, we are all challenged by this next section.
  3. Stop collecting treasures, or “You can’t take it with you.” These verses are not just an abstract theological statement. The ancient Egyptians and Chinese, for example, believed that you certainly can take it with you. Their tombs were filled with treasures that the dead would need to conduct business in the afterlife. Emperor Qin Shi Huang was buried with eight thousand terra cotta soldiers to protect him. King Tut was buried with a golden chariot.
  4. Moth, rust, and thieves. Three kinds of destroyers for three kinds of ancient wealth. Back in the day, all clothes were handmade and expensive. Jesus’s tunic was valuable enough to be gambled over. But moths chew through clothes, rust ruins weapons and tools, and thieves take money, jewels, and gold. That pretty much describes anything in the ancient world worth hoarding. Today Jesus’s destroyers might include hackers and financial bubbles. Much of our society’s wealth is virtual and conceptual—it doesn’t even really exist!
  5. Hear this phrase: “Collect treasures for yourselves in the skies.” Say it with me: “Heaven” is not a place you go when you die. Jesus is inviting us to remember that we are citizens of the universe. We don’t need to invest ourselves in things we put in a closet or vault, but in the expansive skies.
  6. Some religious people hear this literally. Every good deed is a star in your crown, an extra room in your mansion, another number in God’s ledger. But we don’t need a transactional God.
  7. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Wow. What a sentence. Every time I read it I wonder what it would mean to meditate on this line every day. How would my life change?
  8. This is a core principle of the spiritual life. It doesn’t tell you what do, like “Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and body,” or “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Instead, it describes a spiritual law, like gravity. What you pay attention to grows in importance. Who you are becoming depends on where you are investing yourself.

End-of-Civilization Stories

I’ve always enjoyed end-of-civilization stories* whether they involve zombies, asteroids, aliens, nuclear war, or ecocide. There’s something primal about these stories, and we’ve been telling them since before Hebrews and Babylonians told of a Great Flood.

But too often, in modern times, the cliché moral of the story is, “Human beings are worse than the zombies.” In the dystopian aftermath, roving gangs become violent and (almost always) super-patriarchal. Any institutions that do survive are authoritarian and dehumanizing.

Cory Doctorow made a point several years ago, after seeing the Snowpocalypse in Birmingham: what if, in a disaster, your neighbors are more likely to show up at your door with a casserole rather than a shotgun?

I think the steady drip-drip-drip of these end-of-civilzation movies trains us to see the world in a particular way. That’s why some people, in the midst of this crisis, feel it necessary to go stock up on guns and ammo. They believe our natural state is nasty, brutish, and short. They believe in the old-fashioned understanding of evolution or Social Darwinism, “survival of the fittest” (where “fit” simply means “strong” instead of “appropriate”). They believe that, if left to our own devices and without government oversight, our society will become the worst aspects of ourselves, and they will either have to kill and take, or be victims.

(It’s odd that these are often the same folks who pontificate on how we should shrink government to the size we can drown it in a bathtub. But maybe not so odd when you consider how they fetishize and look forward to the collapse.)

But we know better, now. Evolution isn’t just about “survival of the fittest.” It’s also about who can cooperate with others and create the greatest flourishing. We know that altruism, even between and among different species, can be adaptive. “Survival of the fittest” applies to “fitted-ness” of systems, whole forests and biomes—not just to individuals. Organizations, not just organisms.

We certainly do face many existential crises in our future. This pandemic is only the first ripple of many to come, thanks to climate change and growing economic inequality. But I think we, as a species, have some choices on how we prepare for them. We can rehearse hatred and fear toward the rest of humanity, preparing ourselves for hell and the hell we will need to unleash on others; Or we can rehearse an alternative future.

Don’t get me wrong — I think there’s always a need to defend our communities; especially against people who express the hell in themselves by inflicting it upon others. But survival isn’t going to be about who has the biggest guns or the most homogenous tribe. Guns can get you meat and protect you against people, but you can’t eat them and they can’t make you well. And homogeneity isn’t safe, because you’ll be missing the critical strategy or perspective that allows you to survive in a rapidly-changing world.

Just for the record, my interest in this is more practical than spiritual: I think civilizations that rehearse cooperation and altruism will survive better than those civilizations that rehearse violence, xenophobia, and social Darwinism. We’ve been trying the hateful one for awhile, and it just ain’t working.

I guess we’ll find out!

—————–

*”End-of-civilization” is better than “post-apocalyptic,” because “apocalypse” just means “revelation.” And I think if we the true nature of reality was revealed, we’d find it more funny than terrifying.

Lent, Day 21 — Fasting

Jesus’s Manifesto: The Sermon on the Mount
Fasting

And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:16-18)

 

  1. Traditionally, Lent is a season of fasting and repentance. But fasting as a spiritual practice is not as widespread as it once was. People in our religious context do not generally go out of their way to demonstrate that they are fasting.
  2. Perhaps this is partially due to our relationship with food. Ironically, as our society has become less dependent on agriculture and food production and less prone to famine, we no longer see hunger as something to be conquered or endured. The Great Depression, our last period of widespread hunger, was nearly a century ago.
  3. It may also have something to do with the way we think of hunger as a poverty issue. It is unimaginable to many of us that the wealthy, too, could starve. But that is exactly what happens in famine. Class doesn’t protect you. You can’t eat money. There’s a story about Joseph in Genesis (click the link to read it), when the famine got so bad that even the wealthy nobility became Pharaoh’s slaves because of hunger.
  4. Fasting is a way of reminding oneself of one’s radical dependence on rain, on insects, on fertility, on God. Hunger is not a poverty issue, but a human issue. It is a way to focus on God and remind us of our solidarity with each other, including those who are chronically hungry. You are not convincing God of your dedication, but transforming yourself and changing your perspective. You are enhancing your gratitude.
  5. Fasting, like sabbath rest, puts us at odds with capitalism.
  6. Some pundits, eager to judge, say that the whole season of Lent is problematic. They say people should not talk about what they are giving up for Lent, or wear ashes on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday, because of these verses right here. I receive that critique, but need to point out how different our context is. Most Americans today don’t even know what fasting is.
  7. In South Korea, it is a different matter. Because of the Korean War, the memory of famine is more recent there. Today, entire retreat centers are devoted to fasting prayer. The cafeterias even have special meals for those ending a week-long fast to gently wake up their digestive system.
  8. To place these verses in context, look at the word “whenever.” Like whenever you pray, and whenever you give to the poor. These are regular acts of devotion that people did all the time, not just during a season when it was expected. This is why I believe criticism of Lenten practices is overblown. (In fact, some criticism is just another way of performing one’s religiosity, of being a hypocrite).
  9. A few chapters after this, students of John the Baptist approach Jesus and ask, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?” (9:14). They are making a comparison: “Jesus, your disciples don’t seem as religious as we are.” Jesus replies that the wedding guests shouldn’t fast while the bridegroom is with them. But who knows? Maybe Jesus’s disciples were fasting, but simply were not “disfiguring their faces?”

A Prayer on Ezekiel 34 in a Time of Pandemic

To the One in Whom we live and move and have our being:

Though I long for normalcy
May we never return to normal.
May we cling to the embrace of the world
With the tenacity of a lover
Or a child to its mother.
May we hold tenderly
the knowledge that we are one human body
And that what affects one affects all.

May we never again return to normal,
Looking at the world as if we were hoarders,
Viewing the world through the lens of scarcity.
Let us see your abundance:
That there is more than enough for everyone,
More than enough food
More than enough housing
More than enough health care.
Let us all see clearly that the ideology imposed on us
Is arbitrary
Cruel
Mendacious.
Let us expose the lie
That in order to have food
We must be employed by the rich
That in order to have housing
We must be employed by the rich
That in order to have health care
We must be employed by the rich
That in order to deserve time off
We must be rich.

May we never again return to normal.
May we see with clarity
Who are the real “makers and takers.”
May we value garbage collectors and grocers and farmers
The way we value our own digestive systems.
May we value teachers and professors and counselors
The way we value our own brains.
May we value orderlies and nurses and doctors and researchers
The way we value our own health.
And may we value the proper role of government
Instead of trying to drown it in a bathtub
So that we are left without competent leaders
In the midst of a crisis.

May we never return to normal.
May we restore to their proper role
The shepherds we have appointed
Who should be judged on their ability
Not to make money for investors,
But to take care of the flock
To bind up the injured,
Who take seriously the notion
That they will have to give an account to you
For every one lost, exploited, or shoved aside.
Hold them accountable, God,
For they have fattened themselves off of the flock
And allowed the fat sheep to foul the water with their feet
And trample the pasture with their feet.

God, let us not waste this opportunity for peaceful social change,
Because as surely as predators hunt the weak among us,
There are those already working
To seize property
To enslave us even more
To impose burdens on us just because they can,
Who claim, like Pharaoh,
That those who work for liberation, for sabbath rest,
For reparations, and for justice
Are simply “Lazy, lazy.”

May we never return to normal
Forgetting how intimately and physically we are connected:
That what was in one body
So easily takes up residence in another.
We have lived so long under the lies
That we do not need each other,
That we do not belong to the Earth,
That we are not part of the same web,
That some of us are more important and more worthy than others.
Too many eyes are shut tightly against the light of your revelation, Lord.
Open them. Help them bear the truth which hurts
And sets free.

God, though I long for normalcy,
May we never, never return to normal.
Amen.

Nothing is Wasted

The_Delivery_of_the_Bhagavad_Gita

In the Bhagavad Gita, just before a great battle with his own family, Arjuna has a conversation with Lord Krishna. Arjuna is lamenting that he is at war with his cousins, that he faces a battle with people he has loved, and feels like giving up. Krishna tells him that as long as he is following the right principles, “No effort is wasted, and there is no failure” (2:49).

I’ve been thinking a lot about this as I hear many of my friends who are seeking peace and justice lament that the world seems to be falling apart. They talk about being at war with their own families. They see how our politics have moved closer to fascism. Our economy more closely resembles the Gilded Age. They see that our civic religion simply justifies the state’s most awful abuses of power. It is hard to believe that “no effort is wasted, and there is no failure.” Many of us feel defeated already.

Part of this is because we believe the lie that the healing of the planet and our species depends upon us, and that we are not up to the task, or that we have already failed. I believe all of our great spiritual traditions teach us otherwise.

In the book of Exodus, God has a plan for what the Hebrews need to do to escape slavery. God does not tell them to take up arms—if they do, they will lose. God does not tell them to stage a teach in. God does not tell them to win the hearts of minds of their oppressors by building relationships and making persuasive arguments.

God tells them to throw a party.

Have a feast, God says. Only keep your shoes on and keep your walking stick in your hand.

What if the greatest acts of resistance to tyranny were about coming together and celebrating life? What if it was about feeding each other and telling our stories around a table?

Then, after God springs them from captivity, they find themselves trapped between a sea and an advancing army. God says, “This is actually why I brought you out here. Y’all are my bait, and also my witnesses. You don’t even need to fight. Just watch.”

God then proceeds to demonstrate the useless power of armored chariots against the sea.

Freeing them from Pharaoh’s oppressive clutches involves teaching them with a demonstration. God turns the power of nature against the machinery of the state. “The domination of the oppressors is unsustainable,” God seems to say. “Their wealth and war machines will not save them, nor will you be under their power. Do not put your faith in such things.”

I do not always feel hopeful about the future, and am grateful when someone shares an encouraging word. These typically say to keep your eyes elsewhere. Don’t look at power or victory the way the world does. Two examples I’ve read recently speak hope to people who are tired, traumatized, and fearful. The first is titled Do not lose heart. We were made for these times. The other, written over a year ago, is an op-ed by Michelle Alexander in the New York Times titled We Are Not the Resistance. Whether you are a religious reader or not, I think these articles speak to a spirituality of grassroots activism.

“By practicing [these principles] you can break through the bonds of karma. On this path, no effort goes to waste, and there is no failure” (BG 2:49).

“The Lord will fight for you today; you have only to keep still” (Exodus 14:14).

No, it does not mean sit back and take it easy. It is not a promise that the work will not be hard, scary, painful, or sad. It does not mean give it all up to “thoughts and prayers.” No Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Jew, or Christian who knows the mystics of their traditions will tell you that.

What they will tell you, Arjuna, is that divine revelation comes to you in the chariot before a great battle—when you realize both how pointless and how necessary the fight is. These mystics will tell you that sometimes God brings you out of slavery and places you between a sea and a hard place, or helps you leap from the pan into the fire—just so you can see more clearly that this isn’t just about you. It is about all of us.

Most of us in the west misunderstand the concept of karma. Karma is not about getting what you deserve. It’s about letting go of the concept of deserving. None of us deserves either the good or the bad, so we should act without attachment, plant seeds without the assurance that we will see the trees grow, “cast our bread upon the waters” and trust that even if we do not see the good in this life, that there will be good that manifests itself.

I find it fascinating that our religious traditions tell us that what is working among us does want witnesses. The Great Mystery knows that we are forgetful, fearful, and frail. She knows that the act of throwing a party, of setting a table in the presence of our enemies, of celebrating our liberation before it ever happens, of acting without knowing the future is both an act of defiance and of faith. It reminds us that we are not alone, that no effort is wasted, and when we learn to be truly still and at peace in the face of the advancing enemy, we will know the power of God. That is victory.

Don’t Waste Your Breath

 

 

Lung cancer does not know if you are conservative or liberal, atheist or believer. Cancer does not care about your race, gender, sexual orientation, or if you are a good person. Heart attacks, Alzheimer’s, strokes, car and air crashes don’t care how wealthy or famous you are. And when we die, (because we all do), our fleshless skulls all smile the same smile—which makes justice and kindness all the more urgent.

Urgent even if you believe that there is a symphony on the other side of death, that a choir spot is reserved for you, the sheet music opened to the right spot, marked with a pencil where you are supposed to join in. Imagine showing up and standing mute, unable to sing, because your voice never learned to speak up for what is just and good, because it was never able to rise above a whisper for anything but yourself. In the chorus of those who are blessed because they are poor, because they mourn, because they hunger for righteousness, because they are persecuted, imagine losing your voice because it only ever spoke for the rich, the comfortable, and those who have never known hunger.

Regardless of what you believe about life after death, over your lifetime on this planet, in this life, you are allocated a certain number of breaths. What words will you choose to say with your own limited supply of air?

If you are a preacher, a pundit, a talk show host, a teacher, a leader—

If you are one of the lucky ones with a platform, whose voice is magnified, whose privilege makes your voice louder than others—

What message will you leave to the rest of us with your dying breath? Will you laugh with it? Sob with it? Sing it? Scream it? If it were set to music, would it make you proud?

Say it early. Say it often.

The rest is just noisy gongs and clanging cymbals.

On School Prayer

1640-50

Christians, do not ask for prayer in schools.
Make sure that students do not learn
about the God of the Bible.

This is the God who said “Don’t take my name in vain.”*
So unless you want your children to rebuke you
for slapping “In God we trust”
on your currency, your police cruisers, your weapons of war, and your campaign posters,
do not teach them to pray;
Because they will see that you actually worship
Money, Violence, Power;
Pluto, Mars, and Jupiter.
And they will reject your heathen religion.

Do not teach your children to pray
to the God who said “I desire mercy, not sacrifice;”*
whose Chosen One said, “You tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others, but do not lift a finger to move them;”*
and “You lock people out of the kingdom of God,
you yourselves do not go in, and when others try, you stop them;”*
whose wise man said, “A poor person’s land might produce much food, but it is unjustly swept away”*
whose prophet said, “Is not this the fast that I choose:
to undo the thong of oppression and break every yoke?”*

So unless you want your children to reject debtor’s prisons,*
mass incarceration,*
capital punishment,*
and the use of cash bail to force guilty pleas from the poor,*
do not teach them to pray in school.

Do not teach your children to pray
to the God whose writers said it is a sin
to use religion to justify bloodshed,*
to wage war on the trees,*
who condemned rich people and fat sheep for shoving the poor out of the way with flank and shoulder
and polluting the water with their waste and trampling the good pasture,*
for adding house to house and field to field, gentrifying the land
until there is room for no one but them.*

Do not teach your children to pray
to the God who promised to destroy those who destroy the earth,*
or you will see your children and grandchildren
whispering about you
whenever they try to remember what it was like
to hear the sound of buzzing bees by day
and chirping of frogs by night.*

This is the God who says
I AM the one who brings down the mighty from their thrones.
I AM the one who fills the hungry with good things, and sends the rich away empty.
I AM the one who opens prison doors and sets the captives free.
I AM, and no other.

This is the God whose Chosen One says
that religious people can become dull
and like salt without flavor,
that they can become worse than useless,
fit neither for soil nor the shit pile,*
who fertilize nothing, preserve nothing, flavor nothing.
These religious people are like desiccants, Jesus implies,
like the little packets found in plastic-wrapped containers,
marked “DO NOT EAT,”
leeching life out of whatever they touch.

No, you should not ask for prayer in school,
for it will be as if you had lit an oil lamp,
and then hidden it under your mattress,*
because those who actually come to know the God you claim to worship
will become a flame,
and then
you will burn while you sleep.