Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Acid Test Of Christianity

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Matthew 5:38-48

The first principle of nonviolent action is that of noncooperation with everything humiliating.
Gandhi

Regardless of nationality, all men are brothers. God is "our Father who art in heaven." The commandment "Thou shalt not kill" is unconditional and inexorable...The lowly Nazarene taught us the doctrine of non-resistance, and so convinced was he of the soundness of that doctrine that he sealed his belief with death on the cross. When human law conflicts with Divine law, my duty is clear. Conscience, my infallible guide, impels me to tell you that prison, death, or both, are infinitely preferable to joining any branch of the Army.
Ben Salmon (1889-1932)
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ac-id test (n): a decisive test that establishes the worth or credibility of something

The world-famous Gandhi, the Indian Hindu nonviolent revolutionary, read this Script every morning of his adult life. The lesser-known Ben Salmon, the only American Catholic conscientious objector imprisoned during WWI, leaned heavily on this teaching of Jesus in his 200-page manifesto written right after 135 days of force-feeding during his self-imposed hunger strike. Walter Wink, the late Union Theological Seminary professor who devoted two decades of his life to scholarship on the "principalities and powers" language of the New Testament, called Jesus' scandalous teaching on nonviolence & enemy love "the acid test of Christianity": the legitimacy of any follower of Jesus should be judged entirely on how well they obey this command.

Jesus' Sermon on the Mount was taught to marginalized masses searching for a compelling way to fight for dignity, humanity & opportunity. These folks were overtaxed, scapegoated & demonized by the Roman Empire and the "client kings" of Jerusalem whose policies were justified by the whole Temple apparatus (obediently go to church, pay your taxes & God will reward you and the Nation). They had very little hope in a dynamic & liberating future because their national history was precisely the opposite of white America's: they had been repeatedly conquered by neighboring empires from Assyria to Persia to Babylonia to Rome.

In this particular portion of the Sermon, Jesus articulated three scenarios quite familiar to the original hearers of the Gospel of Matthew sometime around 75CE. First, in a right-handed culture (one would only use the left hand for "unclean" activities like wiping one's ass), to be struck "on the right cheek" would only be possible with a back-handed slap, a painfully common practice of abuse used to show who's charge. Men would back-hand women (not the other way around). Bosses would back-hand workers (not the other way around).

The second example comes from a court scene where wealthy lenders would sue poor peasants who could not pay back their mortgage debts (loss of land ownership was mostly due to overtaxation). Only the poorest of the poor would have only their cloaks to give up as collateral. And this practice was strictly limited to the daylight hours, as the Law required that they be returned to the indebted laborers for warmth at night (Exodus 22; Deuteronomy 24).

The last example mirrors the military-industrial-complex of 1st century Palestine. Roman soldiers would lug 80 pound packs long distances and would consistently & forcibly enlist common folk to carry them. The Law required that soldiers limit each commoner to one mile of heavy labor.

In this undignified & dehumanized atmosphere, Jesus offers would-be disciples "a third way" that would transcend the dualistic & painful cycles of fight-or-flight & blame-or-shame copings. Like a mix between Nelson Mandela & Stephen Colbert, Jesus creatively relied upon courage & laughter to demand dignity for the afflicted. Only these imaginatively transformative practices can break the cycle of violence and usher disciples into subversive & salvific peace cycles. But we must know the real context of the biblical witness in order to get the joke and break the cycle.

In the first scenario, Jesus exhorts his followers to "turn the other cheek" (the left), making it so that the oppressor could only use his fist to punch (instead of slap with the back of the hand), thus turning both the abuser & abused into equals (this symbolism was vital in an honor-shame culture). This is not a command to "just lay down" and let your abuser have his way. It is an in-your-face recovery of humanity.

Then, Jesus urges his followers not only to give up their cloaks to their sue-happy lenders, but to give them their underwear too! This would leave them butt naked in a court of law, a scandalous thought in an honor-shame culture where the disrobing would bring shame upon the ones who looked at the naked debtor! And, indeed, what is more shameful: full-frontal nudity in a public place or the rich getting richer off the backs of homeless, poor peasants who need their cloaks to stay warm at night in the open air? This was precisely the symbolic message of the Prophet Isaiah when he traveled around Israel naked & barefoot for more than 3 years (Isaiah 20), "exposing" the injustice and cruelty of the socio-economic system that worked for elites…but no one else.

Lastly, Jesus calls upon his followers to carry the heavy packs one more mile, creating a comical and confusing situation for Roman soldiers. They would be forced to ask repeatedly to get their own possessions back from lowly peasants who demanded to break the law and keep walking, thus seizing the initiative and taking back the power of choice.

In short, at the core of Jesus' program for life is NOT an apolitical, passive acceptance of power relations, but a crafty pacifism that seeks transformation. Even better, the Gandhian (& US Civil Rights Movement) concept of nonviolent direct action, addressing the oppression of our unique contexts with creative confrontation, most clearly fleshes out what Jesus was getting at with his own campaign. As Martin Luther King wrote from jail in 1963:
We who in engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive.

However, the only motivation that Jesus gives for these audacious practices of love & forgiveness is that we ought to strive to mirror the Maker. In the end, it's not about "what works," but about our pledge of allegiance to be like God, providing heat, light, water & food for both the oppressed & the oppressors in our world. Everyone deserves dignity, no matter what. This is what it means to be teleos (unfortunately translated as "perfect" in our English Bibles), a "whole", "complete" force of Love, just like the Heavenly Father.

The real biblical challenge is translating Jesus' teaching on the Mount for 1st World Christians (mostly white, upper-middle-class Americans) who enjoy the privileges of oppressive systems (think about the Chinese slave labor that produces our mobile phones or the massive American economic growth created by the production of weapons, war & the drive for more fossil fuels). The Gospel of Matthew was written to communities of Jesus followers with far less power, privilege and possessions than North American suburban dwellers.

As always, Jesus' teachings call us to both personal inventory & prophetic imagination. Where might we be implicated in policies & practices that "bitch slap" the "least of these" (Mt 25:16-31), that overwhelm them with debt and that burden them with the task lugging heavy loads? And do we have the courage & creativity to pledge solidarity--in word & deed, with our time, energy & resources--with all those who are shut in, locked down and cast out?
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Epilogue: Meditate on Wink's concise description of Jesus' 3rd Way:

-Seize the moral initiative
-Find a creative alternative to violence
-Assert your own humanity and dignity as a person
-Meet force with ridicule or humor
-Break the cycle of humiliation
-Refuse to submit to or to accept the inferior position
-Expose the injustice of the system
-Take control of the power dynamic
-Shame the oppressor into repentance
-Stand your ground
-Make the Powers make decisions for which they are not prepared
-Recognize your own power
-Be willing to suffer rather than retaliate
-Force the oppressor to see you in a new light
-Deprive the oppressor of a situation where a show of force is effective
-Be willing to undergo the penalty of breaking unjust laws
-Die to fear of the old order and its rules
-Seek the oppressor's transformation

8 comments:

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  5. -Seize the moral initiative
    Seize the moral initiative, seems alright enough. But, why seize and why not create? Be positive and proactive, not reactive.

    -Assert your own humanity and dignity as a person
    I like this, I think it is a bit “chop.” But it will do. What do I mean by “chop?” I would much rather be humanitarian or a sentient beingist at all times, but be able to assert myself when there was something or someone that is out of control, where I feel that I could better the situation for all involved (so long as the end result is positive). Moreover, and more poignantly, I think former president Ronny Reagan actually believed this saying, “assert your own humanity and dignity as a person.” But, using my way, I would not have had the gall to call missiles, “Peace Keepers.” (Disgusting pig president)

    -Find a creative alternative to violence
    I appreciate this, but there are times where a line must be drawn, and it being that I am a pacifist, I believe that line is drawn by others. So, once again, I try to be proactive, and not reactive, because you are usually already a step behind when you are reacting to, as opposed to getting a jump on something when you are proactive.

    -Meet force with ridicule or humor
    I would answer this statement with the same answer above with finding a creative alt. to violence. But, I find that most people do this, and it’s completely obvious, and I find it very negative and sad. It’s sad and small minded, because if you ridicule or try to use ridiculing humor when you meet force, then you are perpetuating the same hostility in a negative way, although it is masked in humor. It may be in a weak way, a way that is not macho, so it might not be taken as gruff and as an antagonist way – but it is a rebuttal, meeting with like or equal force. Equal action will cancel each other out, meaning that the solution will not be fruitful, it may keep each other at bay, but that does not solve the problem. The greater force will always win, whether it is by pen or sword. So, not only has/have “they” crossed the line, but you have too, but not in a positive way. I would much rather be positive and proactive.

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  6. -Break the cycle of humiliation
    Break the cycle of humiliation with ridicule? No, don’t, as I mentioned in the answer directly above; be positive and proactive. Taking these statements in all at the same time, I don’t like it, but this statement as a stand-a-lone, I like it.

    -Refuse to submit to or to accept the inferior position
    A refusal means that you are reacting to something or someone, so, other than putting yourself in a poor/bad situation/place (etc.). Well then, I actually agree with this, but once again; you should be positive and proactive, not reactive. Just like I have learned a great many things in my life, which is why I refuse to obey a great many thing, law, code, book or the likes, I have learned from those things that I live my life to be positive and I have choose to and will continue to do so by being positive and proactive.

    -Expose the injustice of the system
    Yes and no. Yes, I think it is important, but we can only do so much, fore even Gandhi, who started a movement needed others to accomplish all that “he” did. No because everything is just as it should be. So, if your life’s ambition is to spread the word, then I guess you feel as though you must spread the word, whether it is about how great the DMV is or the Bible – even if it is not to all. That is why I cover the entire playing field by being positive and not categorically defined where a negative attribute can be attached to me. (Side not: I fail, and I am sure that I fail often, but I will keep trying to be positive.)
    -Take control of the power dynamic
    I do believe that 99.99% of life is what you make happen or what you make of it. There really are very few things that you are not in control of in your life. I find it interesting that I know this and yet, I do not try to control everything that I could possibly control in my life-time. “Let it be.” J Lennon. I try to walk down the middle road (sorry Mr. Miyagi – but, I No squish like grape,) I take the extremes and come to the middle and I almost always go to the positive because of living the middle path existence.

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  7. -Shame the oppressor into repentance
    Does this only sound atrocious to me? It deserves the same answer as I gave for “ridicule.” Ridiculing, whether on the rebound or not, it is negative, just as shaming is negative. But, if you take the time to understand your oppressor, then you will have a better perspective on the situation and on your oppressor. Then, there, I am sure you can come up with a better solution than through shaming.

    -Stand your ground
    Yes, as long as you are being positive.

    -Make the Powers make decisions for which they are not prepared
    Does not compute. As I have mentioned much here, being positive and proactive, sets you up so that you are prepared, so that you do not have to take the rest of that statement into account. Plus, making people do things is not usually a good thing. Also, when you make/force people into uncomfortable situations/places, that usually gets, at best, an adverse reaction as well. Moreover, why force others to make uninformed decisions? That, by itself sounds like something that a very intelligent person would do. And when you get dumb in, then dumb takes it in – well, then what? I don’t know, and that is part of the problem, you are almost certainly courting an unbalanced forced reaction/answer, and that does not sound like a winning formula. Come on Wink, you’re leading people down the wrong path – you have got to be better than that.

    -Recognize your own power
    Please do, and know that you probably do not recognize anything close to what you are actually capable of. Be positive and do good.

    -Be willing to suffer rather than retaliate
    But so much of what has been said by Wink is retaliation in these statements. So why suffer? That is STUPID. Please try to STOP ALL SUFFERING IN THE WORLD. I would concede to this statement if it were for a small infraction of my own self, but I would like to interject that I would not want to retaliate, especially while suffering. I would like to put “it” on the back-burner so that I can let it simmer, then think it over and come out the better, that is to say, that I can change for the better so that all benefit.
    I do not understand this statement, because ALMOST EVERYTHING THAT WINK HAS WRITTEN in this description of “Jesus’ 3rd Way” IS RETALIATION.
    So, not only does Wink want you to be negative and retaliatory, but he ALSO WANTS YOU TO SUFFER??? I mean, come on!?! This makes no sense, not only does it not make sense, but THIS STATEMENT WINK MADE IS MORE DAMAGING THAN ANYTHING ELSE he has written here. It is negative on-top of negative. He is setting you up for a life of pain, agony and suffering – perpetual suffering, and THAT is a life wasted, that is a life as a slave. Unless he really means, that you should ONLY be willing, but don’t actually suffer or be responsible for your words/actions. Although intent is of the utmost importance.

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  8. -Force the oppressor to see you in a new light
    Force? I would rather just be in a new light. Once again, “be positive and proactive, not reactive.” You would not have to force, if you either did not put yourself in that situation or if you chose to not force, but to help your oppressor see you in a new light.
    There is no such thing as two people—whether baby and mother, two lovers, or teacher and student—being perfectly in sync with each other’s needs and wishes. Real intimacy arises from an ongoing process of connection that at some point is disrupted and then, ideally, repaired.
    —Pilar Jennings, “Looking into the Eyes of a Master”

    Tibetan Buddhist commonly use mother as a point of focus. Since they believe in reincarnation, then they believe that anybody who is in front of you (oppressor or other-wise) could have been your mother in a former life. So the question then comes? How could you harm or make your mother suffer? And if you understand that, then you no longer need to make anyone suffer.

    -Deprive the oppressor of a situation where a show of force is effective
    Finally, finally it seems as though Wink has caught a glimpse of what it is to be a real person, a positive sentient being. I don’t really like the word deprive, it is negative. But if you realize that, in life, you may be put to a test, then if you practice being a positive person, they you should be at all times, NOT HAVING TO deprive others of a positive existence. Rather, if you did not deprive the oppressor of a situation where a show of force is effective or necessary, but you are a positive person, and IF you were able to reach this oppressor in such a personal way that they would see that a show of force would not be the best answer, well then, YOU ARE BEING PROACTIVE, because you have taken care of the situation before it ever had a chance to start (by being nice and positive).

    -Be willing to undergo the penalty of breaking unjust laws
    Yes. No scapegoating here. You must be responsible for your words/actions. Do not allow others to take them on for you, they are yours; good, bad or other-wise.

    -Die to fear of the old order and its rules
    Huh!?! Is this saying run from tradition? I like that more often than not. Or is it saying cower from new rules or reason? I choose freedom and the truth, not old (stupid) traditions.

    -Seek the oppressor's transformation
    Make the oppressors transformation. And, while I don’t really believe that, what I have been made to say the entirety of this commentary, is that if you are positive and proactive, then you can make the world a better place. Where it could be argued that you made, the situation/oppressor a better.

    (I’m paraphrasing here)
    Jesus’, sermon on the mount - Be not anxious for the morrow, the uncalculated life.
    “If God so clothed the grass of the field, will he not much more clothe you faithless ones?”
    I feel as though not many would take that up. I am sorry, but I do feel that it is a bit foolish, short sighted (especially if you want children). I believe we need to live for the morrow, to take responsibility for our words and actions, and to take care of ourselves first, if only so that we can take care of others. But then you need to really be proactive and positive, so that you can do the best that is possible. And if you choose not to have children then not living for the morrow, may make sense, it does not seem to make sense, but your life is YOUR OWN. But I don’t think that this is a viable option if you want to have children. Children and family need the best health-care/medical-care possible.

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