On Being wearied of an Excess of Misery

Reading a post-apocalyptic sci-fi novel, Eternity, by Greg Bear. It’s a bit tiresome, and at this point even the protagonists are getting tired. One character “had finally wearied of Earth, with its quagmire of needs and excess of misery.”

I am reminded of Paul’s words in Gal. 6. “So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.”

Just as their is only one sacrament (the sacrament of incarnated love) of which the other sacraments and sacramentals are expressions (at least according to Hopko), so there is only one virtue (out-reaching love), of which compassion is one of the most challenging expressions.

Compassion, as with all the virtues, is a pass-through energy. I can only be authentically compassionate when it is Christ’s compassion passing through me. I am not the source of compassion, only the conduit. When I weary “of earth, with its quagmire of needs and excess misery,” it is a sure sign that I’m trying to generate compassion from my own inner self, which being finite, quickly runs dry.

Weariness is a warning sign that I’ve disconnected from divine love. It is an indication that I think I can do this on my own. It is warning that I’m dangerously close to idolatry, replacing God’s love with my own self in its supposed sufficiency.

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Secondary Education

Jer. 15:15-21 (Ex. 3:1-15), Rom. 12:9-21, Mt. 16:21-28 (for Sep 3, 2017)

We have come to the great turning point in Matthew in the Revised Common Lectionary. We might think of it as the end of primary school and the matriculation to secondary school. So far the message has been the Kingdom of God but now we move to the Cross of Christ. We might summarize Jesus’ message as follows:

  1. Virtue will ultimately win (the message of the Kingdom of God)
  2. Virtue can only win by losing (the Cross of Christ)
  3. Virtue is not incremental (the process of getting better and better) but emergent.

The hard part of this lesson (the thing that makes this secondary education rather than primary education) lies in the question, “But why does evil have to win?” The answer is that it’s not precisely accurate to say that evil has to win, rather it has to reveal itself for what it is. This goes back to the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares. One dare not remove the tares from the wheat until they are both mature or the harvester will inevitably confuse the two. There is a catch: a tare, being a tare, will grow more aggressively and it will appear that the tare will squeeze out the wheat. In other words, it will appear that evil is winning.

With this in mind, let’s return to the third point above. Not only is virtue emergent, evil is also emergent. Prior to the most recent election cycle there was a predominant (barely predominant, but predominant nonetheless) consensus that liberalism was virtuous and conservatism was not. The conservative tendency to hold on to “outdated” ideas (and for this consensus to hold, the questionable assumptions must be made 1. that it is outdated and 2. that which is outdated is less virtuous) made it “obvious” that conservativism is mean (which literally means “small minded”). When Donald Trump won the Republican nomination, there was a great deal of fear (driven by the predominant consensus) that a great deal of meanness and evil would result when (not if, but when) Hillary Clinton won the election.

We will never know whether the Republicans would have lost graciously, but what was revealed was a shocking level of malevolence and evil on behalf of supposedly virtuous liberal culture toward conservative culture. “Sore loser” doesn’t even come close to describing it. The media, rather than just analyzing the loss, began to systematically dehumanize Donald Trump and his supporters. (This is, by the way, when I canceled my subscription to the Washington Post. They had by far the best post-election coverage, but mixed in with that outstanding coverage was a malevolence and dehumanization of the perceived enemy that sunk to such depths I couldn’t read the paper without being dragged down into the muck.

This is not to say the conservatives were virtuous. Tit for tat, they were busy dehumanizing the liberals and also participating in the same evil the liberals were enslaved by and American society sunk to a new low of dehumanization and evil that has led many intellectuals to seriously wonder whether this is the beginning of the end of democratic experiment of America that was begun some 250 years ago.

And this brings me back to the Gospel lesson. In the midst of this emergent evil I try valiantly to not become a Peter. In Matthew Jesus said that he must be crucified at the hands of the religious leaders. Peter said it absolutely would not happen, and Jesus immediately and with no equivocation said to Peter, “Get behind me Satan.” To use a football metaphor, it’s the third quarter and virtue is losing badly in this quarter. (The leader of the apostles just got called satan!) To return to the parable, this is the quarter where the tares grow madly like weeds (which they are) while the wheat continues its steady pace. But it’s only the third quarter and the victory of losing (the victory of the cross) will only be revealed at the resurrection. The end game is not yet afoot.

But Jesus has now turned to our secondary education. We must learn that what we thought was virtue must die so that a new and even more glorious virtue can emerge. Virtue is not the good stuff we used to do made even better; virtue is a divine gift that can only be received when we recognize that the stuff we were holding on to is rubbish. The Kingdom of God is the first half of the game. The Cross is the third quarter (where we are now), but victory only comes in the fourth quarter.

This doesn’t mean that I believe the United States will come out of this stronger and better. (This isn’t about the U.S., it’s about the Kingdom of God and we ought not confuse the two!) The United States as a leader in democracy, human rights, and what we thought to be virtuous, might be in its final death throes (although I actually doubt that is the case). What we do know is that we need to let our old virtue die. We need to recognize that the whole myth of a Christian nation was not wheat but tares. We need to recognize the tares, the evil, for what it is. Only when we let go all those values we held so dearly … only when we die, will it be revealed what actual victory looks like. “Get behind me Satan!”

Commenting on God’s promise to Abraham that his offspring would be slaves for 400 years before they became a great nation (in Lecture X of his “Bible Series” on YouTube), Jordan B. Peterson observed that tyranny precedes freedom. “All people are subject to the tyranny before freedom.” The only way to throw off the shackles tyranny is to die, and so the path through is the path of the Cross. To deny this is satanic and to that Jesus says, “Get behind me Satan!” As Peterson would probably say to this, “Yeah, that’s one hell of a deal, man.” But that’s the way it is. Welcome to your secondary education.

The Tricky Problem of “Rights Language” continued

In the previous essay I argued that opposing abortion using arguments based on “personal responsibility” rather than “personal rights” will not win the debate because the argument still functions within the very unchristian framework of personal autonomy. Ultimately we can never win the abortion argument by asserting the priority of responsibilities of the mother’s rights because it’s simply the wrong framework.

When I was attending Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, KS, an Orthodox Jewish rabbi and scholar gave a lecture on the abortion debate. In Jewish tradition (according to this rabbi) life is in the ruach (which can be variously translated as wind, air, breath, spirit). It’s not until the baby takes in ruach – that is, breathes its first breath – that it is truly alive. Prior to that its life is simply (and note, I say “simply,” not “merely”) an extension of its mother’s life: the fetus and mother are one.

Assuming the world-view of personal autonomy, one could easily argue that abortion, and even late stage abortion is perfectly okay within the Orthodox Jewish context. But the Rabbi went on to say that the rightness or wrongness of abortion is not a scientific question because the scientific question doesn’t address the false world view of personal autonomy vs the true world view of community in God. In fact, when viewed from a biblical perspective, no matter when the fetus is considered as an entity separate from its mother … at conception (the Christian Evangelicals) or at birth (the Orthodox Jews) … abortion remains a great evil that will bring about great evil on any nation or tribe that practices it.

The heart of the issue is not some arcane and arbitrary decision as to precisely when the mother and the fertilized egg or blastocyst or embryo, etc. are distinct. The real issue is whether the “stranger” or “new one” or “least among you” is welcomed into the community. Old Testament rules for welcoming the stranger are extensive, detailed, and strict. Whenever Israel became xenophobic, God ultimately acted against Israel. (This, by the way, is not a simple or obvious assertion. There is a difference between rejecting and displacing deeply corrupt and evil nations and turning out other nationals simply because of their race. But this exegetical question goes way beyond this little essay.)

According to the Jewish Rabbi, aborting the fetus is an ultimate (ultimate in the sense that involves not just turning away but ending a life or potential life, however the scientists choose to phrase it this week) rejection of the hospitality and welcoming rules and will lead to certain judgment from God.

But the very nature of the hospitality or welcoming argument is that it only makes sense from within the covenant community. So the Rabbi, using a decidedly Christian metaphor (he was at an Evangelical seminary, after all), went on to say that trying to win the abortion debate by direct argument from scripture or even from science understood from within the Covenant Community, will always be a losing proposition because it involves throwing pearls before swine. The arguments require a mindset foreign to the world apart from God’s illumination, and thus the arguments will be trampled beneath their feet.

Does this mean we are to do nothing? By no means! The greatest weapon we have in the abortion debate is not our brilliant intellectual defenders of the faith or political strategists … both are a fool’s game. The greatest weapon we have is our welcoming communities: “See how they love each other” (Tertullian). We can never win the abortion debate intellectually because in America the intellectual framework is stacked against the Christians (as explained in the previous essay). What we can do is change hearts first and in that way, change minds.

Over the years I have frequently heard that such quietist approaches are totally unrealistic. And that is true. But in the New Testament we discover that force doesn’t win the day. Losing is winning. Death is life. Trying to win the abortion debate with our intellectual prowess has all the Christian grace of inviting the Valkyries to slay our enemies. In contrast, welcoming our enemies, our babies, and other strangers, is the strange way of Christianity.

This is not to say that we should not enter into the public debate; this framework rather maps our strategy in the public debate. The Christian’s strength will never be (at least it should never be) in the public debate. The gospel is a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Greeks, as the Apostle said. Our strength is in our community, our relationships and the way we live our life. Our true weakness is in the intellectual and political prowess of those who defend Christian truth in the public square.

This doesn’t mean we should keep silent, but as we speak, we need to be aware that because we are starting from a radically different starting point, our logical arguments and political agendas will seem foolish. Thus, when we lose the debate (and we will lose the debate), we should never rail against our opponents and mock them because they are dense and stubborn. We enter the debate knowing we will lose the intellectual battle. At the same time we live faithful and authentic Christian lives loving our neighbors and welcoming the strangers among us (let’s see, that would include abortion doctors, pro-choice strategists, confused young women wondering what to do, and lost young men who are fathers but have been excluded from any rights of fatherhood because our culture has so marginalized them) and doing the right thing no matter the consequences.

In this way, over time, even though we can’t win the intellectual debate, given the presuppositions of our society, we can win the hearts of the weak, the questioning, the hurting, the downtrodden, the distressed … that is, all the people who are ripe for God’s message of self-sacrificing love in the first place.

I wasn’t there, so this is only a guess, but my guess is those “intellectuals” who we now consider the great defenders and shapers of the faith (Justin Martyr, the Cappadocian fathers, etc.) didn’t necessarily seem so logical and bright while they were making their arguments. Justin is a perfect example. He wanted to be known as a great orator and intellectual, and in fact he was a great orator and intellectual, but we remember him not for that, but for his martyrdom; his ideas were so dumb, so out of the mainstream, they got him killed. (Martyr wasn’t Justin’s last name, it is an appellation for his greatest gift to the Christ and his Church.) It’s only in retrospect, after the love of the Christian community had finally won the day across the Roman Empire, that the intellectual prowess of these theologians became apparent.

It’s no different today. So, when we lose the next debate over abortion rights, we should not get angry, but only bemused, knowing the inevitability of that result, and continue to cultivate the true Christian virtues of love, welcome, and humility rather than the false “virtues” of intellectual prowess and political expertise.