February 09, 2010

Unrealistic Stories and Beginning…Again

by Brian Volck
Transfiguration Sunday (Revised Common Lectionary): Luke 9:28-36, (37-43); Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Catholic Lectionary): Luke 6:17, 20-26

On this Sunday before Lent, when Christian traditions have every reason to be on the same page (the Orthodox, too, begin the Great Lent this coming week) it seems the lectionaries are going in different directions. The Revised Common Lectionary reads Luke’s account of the Transfiguration, while Catholics read Luke’s rendering of the Beatitudes.

Yet these two very different stories – one strangely apocalyptic, the other a pastoral exhortation – both speak to a reality of lived Christianity: the tension between a Kingdom already here and (for all appearances) not yet, between promise and pleroma.

In the Transfiguration, Peter, James and John discover that the body of a Jewish peasant rabbi heading toward a humiliating execution is also the radiant fullness of God’s chosen Son, taking place of honor between the embodied Law and Prophets. Peter, that slow-witted and impulsive “Rock,” doesn’t get it, proposing a practical – if stupid – solution to insoluble mystery. (I love Peter for making painfully clear that even blockheads like me aren’t beyond hope.)  And then, the momentary vision is over and the very real body of a first century Jew is what the disciples see and touch and follow. 

But note the coda (vv. 37-43): the disciples, who should have been embodying the Kingdom, have once again made fools of themselves, earning Jesus’ rebuke (“You faithless and perverse generation”).  Anyone who imagines the New Testament is written to make the Church feel really good about its behavior is a very inattentive reader.  

Compare this to Luke’s “Sermon on the Plain,” where Jesus addresses the poor, hungry and weeping directly, calling them “happy.” (“Markarioi oi ptochoi” (6:20b) translates most directly as “Happy are you destitute;” Luke’s Jesus is not gesturing toward Quaker simplicity or “spiritual poverty.”) I have to admit, I don’t get it.  If you understand how the destitute, the hungry and the weeping are happy, please explain it to me. Sure, they’re promised the Kingdom, along with satisfaction and laughter, but what’s that to them now?  

Yet there it is, in Jesus’ words.  And to drive the paradox home, Luke’s Jesus then addresses the rest of us – the rich, the satisfied, the laughing – and he’s not giving a pep talk.  Not that we deserve one. We, who sometimes call ourselves the Church and far more rarely live what we say, usually agree with Mordred’s observation in the musical, Camelot: “It's not the earth the meek inherit, it's the dirt.”   As the disciples (that’s us again) mutter in another context (Jesus’ conversation with the rich young man), “Who then can be saved?” Who, indeed?

Neither of these passages seems, to us at least, terribly realistic or applicable to everyday life, so it’s no surprise Christians spend so much time and effort explaining them away. The Transfiguration dissolves into a spiritual looking-glass, is rendered otherworldly, or tossed aside with a twist of the historical-critical knife. The Beatitudes become an impossible demand, a roundabout way of stating the social gospel or a mistake in eschatological timing. The result is a double voice: one a Church Lady cooing, “Ah, isn’t that Jesus special,” and the other, a gruff traffic cop waving his nightstick at us and growling, “Keep on moving; there’s nothing to see here.”   

Which brings us, oddly enough, to Barack Obama’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech. That the US President’s message surprised anyone is a mystery to me.  Candidate Obama told David Brooks in 2007 that Reinhold Niebuhr was “one of my favorite philosophers.” (At least Mr. Obama, unlike his immediate predecessor, offers some lived evidence of actually having read his “favorite philosopher.”)  Brooks' April 26 op-ed that year went on to note:

On the one hand, Obama hates, as Niebuhr certainly would have, the grand Bushian rhetoric about ridding the world of evil and tyranny and transforming the Middle East. But he also dislikes liberal muddle-headedness on power politics. In The Audacity of Hope, he says liberal objectives like withdrawing from Iraq, stopping AIDS and working more closely with our allies may be laudable, ‘but they hardly constitute a coherent national security policy.’
Perhaps a Niebuhrian, rather than a pacifist or a disciplined adherent of Just War theory (see Dan Bell’s “Just War as Christian Discipleship”), is the only sort of thoughtful Christian (as Mr. Obama claims to be) who can be elected President.  Mr. Obama, by virtue of his office, must ensure the continued existence of the United States (or, at minimum, its government), whatever the cost.  Accordingly, he claims the right to wage and escalate war , significantly expand nuclear weapons research, and target US citizens for assassination

As a Niebuhrian, Mr. Obama brings a complex, tragic vision to bear on world events while draping a cloak of political necessity about the shoulders of lethal violence, claiming that the US “has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms…not because we seek to impose our will…(but rather)…out of enlightened self-interest.” (See here and here for what evidence he presumably has in mind, the first source mostly laudatory, the second somewhat more nuanced.)

While honoring the witness of peaceable religious leaders like the Hindu Gandhi or the Christian Martin Luther King, Jr., Mr. Obama is aware, as President of the United States, that nonviolence isn’t up to the task of running a world power.  Indeed, Mr. Obama explicitly contrasts his secular obligation to selectively employ lethal mass violence with religious justifications for war, which he absolutely condemns.

Christians, at least the magisterial sort, don’t have a great track record here.  We’ve blown our credibility countless times, leaving us the twin tasks of repentance and fidelity.  There remains a vast legacy of blood for which Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox must repent and make restitution, and equivocating about “two swords,” “dispensations,” or “impossible ideals” will never negate the magnitude of our collective sin.

Beyond that remains the much more daunting task of beginning – again or for the first time – to live peaceably, no longer in control of our destiny or the world’s. Christians inherit from our Jewish elders a faith in the God of new beginnings.  No matter how often we visit evil for evil or begrudgingly spend our mercy as if we were over our heads in debt, God always offers his wayward people the completely undeserved opportunity to begin…again.        

Yet note Mr. Obama’s classic Niebuhrian distinction: people of faith ought never kill, while defenders of democracy and “enlightened self interest” perpetually must.  Mr. Obama goes on to draw a theological point which discreetly pushes the burden of living peaceably away from the secular state: “the one rule that lies at the heart of every major religion is that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us.”

It’s a rather bland way for Mr. Obama conclude his obligatory lecture on why killing for peace is justified and killing for God isn’t.  Bland and, for a professed Christian like Mr. Obama, dubious. 

Not that I favor of religious violence, mind you. My point, rather, is that Mr. Obama is an inattentive reader of scripture.   Jesus is recorded as saying this “one rule” (cf. Luke 6:31), but I recall other “rules” Jesus placed much closer to the heart of those who would follow him, such as:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’  The second is this: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no commandment greater than these."  (Mark 12:30-31),
or the “rules” with which Luke’s Jesus prefaces the so-called “golden rule”:

But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.  If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.  (Luke 6:27-30)
Sure, Jesus “rules” are no way to run a country (or and empire), but they’re what Christians are commanded to do.  Not that Christians do it well or often try.  Generations have proposed practical solutions to bridge the chasm between Jesus’ mysterious words and the way we assume we must live. Niebuhr’s “Christian Realism” does better than many, maintaining agape as an ideal toward which individuals must and societies and states can strive, while accepting that justice is an elastic goal that secular societies and states sometimes approximate through lethal mass violence.

It’s perfectly reasonable, eminently practical, refreshingly realistic.  It lessens the tension we (may) feel when comparing gospel demands to the way we live now, closing the distance between present reality and promised fullness. And for those less willing than Niebuhr to see the infinite tragedy in his own solution, it makes it possible to confine Jesus, Moses and Elijah in tents of our own making, to have our wealth and laugh at the same time.

It even works pretty well, even if it’s not what Jesus says, urges, commands.

Ay, there’s the rub. 

Living the way Jesus says is likely to get us killed, perhaps horribly so, just as he was.  It’s certainly no way to secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity. I know I’m not ready to live Jesus’ way and you don’t look so eager yourself. 

Yet you and I and the rest of the Church stand here, on the cusp of Lent, the season where we follow the one who commanded us to love our enemies to a brutal death and – so we are told – unimaginable triumph. This is the story into which we are baptized. This is the story we are called together to tell and live. This is the story we understand to be true, even if it appears utterly “unrealistic.”  This is our story, the one we’ve gotten wrong and betrayed countless times before.  This is where we begin…again.


Michael Bowling said...

Brian, this was incredibly well-written! The story of the transfiguration is an opportunity to catch a quick look behind the veil of this world's reality to see God's reality both present and coming in fullness.I think the President wants to believe in God's kingdom, but in the end he is a "practical" guy like most national, state and local politicians. Enter...the Church.

Michael Bowling said...

The Church in all of her expressions gets to live out the wisdom of the Cross (the transforming power of love, grace and peace)as a contrast-society in particular places. Only then will all our neighbors have both the imagination and will to live together as God intended.

Brent Laytham said...

Protestant and Catholics alike sneak up on this Sunday by way of last week's reading of Isaiah 6, which means that we already have a pattern for confronting the radiance of Jesus Christ--whether we see that radiance on the mount of transfiguration or in the words of a sermon on the plain. The pattern is to first acknowledge our own failure and sin, a moment of truth-telling, reality acknowledging that opens the space for the communal transformation that Christ intends to work in his church. I found these words from Frederica Mathewes-Green in my morning prayer particularly fitting, both for last week's Isaiah reading and for this focus on the Radiant Christ: "The starting point for the early church was this awareness of the abyss of sin inside each person. God, who is all charity and light, wants to make us perfect as he is perfect, shot through with his radiance. The first step in our healing, then, is not being comforted. It is taking a hard look at the cleansing that needs to be done."

John (Juancito) Donaghy said...

Happy are the poor - Here in Honduras I know people here who are poor (not necessarily living in "misery") who have a deep joy - partly because of their faith, partly because of what they've learned about sharing, partly with their resilience in the face of the evils of impoverishment. They have a deep sense of the meaning of their life - in Christ - and not only realize the solidarity of Jesus with them in their suffering, but also find hope in the resurrection.
This is not justifying physical impoverishment - but finding Christ in poverty (as many who have embraced voluntary poverty have also found joy and hope).