Reckoning

Christ before Pilate, 1910 - Jacek Malczewski - WikiArt.org
Christ Before Pilate, Jacek Malczewski, 1910

Christ the King Sunday (Twenty-sixth Sunday after Pentecost)

Daniel 7:9-14

Psalm 93

Revelation 1:4-8

John 18:33-37

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more… 

When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.

Wendell Berry, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front”

It’s easy, given the chaos of the past few years, to wonder from time to time just who the hell is in charge around here. In a world where “truth” about everything from pandemics to politics is cobbled together like a mobile meth lab and sold cheap to the bored, angry, and gullible, it’s no longer a surprise when suburban parents scream threats of violence at school board members over whether their kids should have to wear a mask or be vaccinated, or when a white male member of Congress posts a cartoon image of himself killing one of his colleagues from across the aisle – a woman of color, no less – and then tells us we just need to relax. We live at the unlikely convergence of ostensibly opposite extremes, where those who aspire to amoral autocracy meet – and embrace – an increasingly gullible throng of ersatz would-be anarchists who reject all authority except the authority that makes possible their rejection of all other authority. 

We should be thankful, then, that on the last Sunday of the liturgical year, when we celebrate the now-and-coming reign of Christ the King, we’ve been given a collection of readings that help us separate the wheat of God’s peaceable reign from the chaff of every pretender to the throne. Each reading gives an account of the reign of God standing in judgment and demanding a reckoning of those kingdoms, powers, rulers, and authorities who would attempt to usurp or oppose God’s reign of shalōm.

Although the first reading, from Daniel, offers the most vivid account of this reckoning, it and the other texts are animated by the gospel text, from John 18. The Temple authorities have arrested Jesus and brought him to the father-in law of the high priest, Annas, and then to the high priest Caiaphas, both of whom have interrogated him before handing him over to the Roman governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate. The conversation begins with Pilate’s question, which sums up the Temple authorities’ charges: “Are you the King of the Jews?” To which Jesus eventually responds that his kingdom “is not from this world” (ouk estin ek tou kosmou). 

The word translated “world” here (kosmou/kosmos) refers not to this world in the geospatial sense – the earth – but to an organized way of thinking, speaking, and acting – a “system” characterized by self-interestedness and coercive violence (e.g., see Matthew 20:25-28). Jesus’s claim that his kingdom “is not from this world” says not so much that he reigns over another, transcendent dimension, but over this one, according to a logic born of God, one so different from the kingdoms of this world that those accustomed to those kingdoms don’t understand or even recognize Jesus’s reign as a kingdom. And yet Jesus insists that despite its strangeness to this world, his reign bears and declares the truth about creation and its Creator’s intentions for it. This, he is saying, is how things really are; we are made for love, generosity, forgiveness, and reconciliation, and not for the selfishness, suspicion, exploitation, and violence that characterize the kingdoms of this world.

That God demands a reckoning of the powers and authorities does not necessarily mean that we are called to be the agents of that reckoning, especially not by way of violence. The readings from Daniel and (less explicitly) Revelation remind us that this is God’s work, not ours. The Daniel text (7:9-14) concerns Daniel’s vision, which is described in the previous paragraph (vv. 1-8), where Daniel dreams of “four beasts… different from each other” emerging from the sea, which in Jewish apocalypticism represents the element of Creation that most stubbornly resists God’s reign. If we read further along in the chapter, we learn that the beasts represent four kingdoms which have risen and fallen in succession, each ruling, more or less oppressively, over the Jewish people.

Scholars of the text tell us that although the book of Daniel is set during the Babylonian exile, it was most likely written more than 300 years later, during the Maccabean rebellion against the reign of the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes. By these scholars’ logic, the four kingdoms represented by the beats are the Babylonian, Median, Persian, and Greek empires, respectively. The focus of Daniel’s vision is the fourth beast, which is terrifying and destructive and “different from all the rest.” Daniel attends particularly to this beast’s ten horns, which probably represent the Seleucid kings who serially succeeded Alexander the Great, and then to another, smaller horn, one with “human eyes and a mouth speaking arrogantly.” This horn likely represents Antiochus IV, the megalomaniacal Seleucid ruler whose aggressive application of the doctrine of Hellenization and repeated blasphemous attacks on Judaism and its Temple sparked the Maccabean revolt. 

What happens next, in the verses designated for lectionary reading (vv. 9-14), is for our purposes especially noteworthy.  As Daniel watches, he sees the thrones of the heavenly court being set in place, with a vividly described “Ancient One” taking his throne. Then he sees the assembled court sitting in judgment, its books opened. The continued arrogant yammering of the small horn evidently draws the attention of the court, which executes its judgment; the fourth beast is put to death, and its reign quickly replaced by a new presence in the court room, one Daniel describes as “like a human being” (often translated as “son of man”). The Ancient One gives him “dominion and glory and kingship/that all peoples, nations, and languages/ should serve him/His dominion is an everlasting dominion/that shall not pass away/and his kingship is one/that shall never be destroyed.” Our Jewish brothers and sisters have historically read this “one like a human being” as representing the Jewish community, while Christians identified him from the beginning as Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah.

I’ve left one interesting detail unattended. The great temptation facing Christians, who are members of God’s reign in a world ruled by violent domination, is (and always has been) to seek to secure the peaceable reign of God by means that have no place in that reign. We have often succumbed to that temptation, and just as often been transformed by our capitulation, such that the kingdom we imagine we are defending bears little resemblance to the one proclaimed and embodied by Jesus. One reason for this is that we have harnessed ourselves to this or that worldly kingdom, sometimes even confusing those kingdoms with the reign of God. In doing so we overlook something important that our reading from Daniel gestures toward. 

In the same part of the passage that describes the destruction of the fourth beast, Daniel also mentions the other three beasts. He says that “their dominion was taken away, but their lives were prolonged for a season and a time” (v. 12). Those beasts have continued to rule on earth in various guises as the several iterations of the kingdoms of this world. Some have been horrific, others less so. Still others have been comically inept. A very few have been relatively just, and even, in a limited way, forces for good. It is these that Christians should regard most warily, even or perhaps especially when they adopt our most officious language and pieties. For when they do this, we are most apt to forget that they are still beasts, destined to rule “for a season and a time” and then to pass away. They may offer their friendship, but always for a price, usually one that requires us to look away from or even to take up their manners and methods. When we do this, whatever “victories” come our way will be Pyrrhic, and the God and kingdom to whom we bear witness will be pale simulacra of the reign of the Ancient One of whom Daniel speaks. 

We must remain patient, then, loving our neighbors, living peaceably with one another, and speaking truth to power, knowing that the vision of John the Revelator from the week’s third reading is, when all is said and done, true:

Look! He is coming with the clouds;
    every eye will see him,
even those who pierced him;
    and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail.

When this reckoning takes place is none of our business. Our business is to embody, however partially and imperfectly, God’s reign of shalōm.  How we do this is something we have to figure out on the fly. Perhaps we might find inspiration from these words, from Wendell Berry poem excerpted as the epigraph above:

So, friends, every day do something that won’t compute. Love the Lord. Love the world. Work for nothing. Take all that you have and be poor. Love someone who does not deserve it… Expect the end of the world. Laugh. Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful though you have considered all the facts… As soon as the generals and the politicos can predict the motions of your mind, lose it. Leave it as a sign to mark the false trail, the way you didn’t go. Be like the fox who makes more tracks than necessary, some in the wrong direction. Practice resurrection.

Pissed Off and Lonesome

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9

Psalm 15

James 1:17-27

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

On this lonely road, trying to make it home
Doing it by my lonesome, pissed off, who wants some
I’m fighting for my soul, God, get at your boy
You try to bogart, fall back, I go hard
On this lonely road, trying to make it home
Doing it by my lonesome, pissed off, who wants some
I see them long hard times to come…

–Gangstagrass, “Long Hard Times to Come”

If another sins, what is that to you?

When the sinful suffer publicly, do you

find secret comfort in their grief, or will

you also weep? They are surely grieving;

are you weeping now? Assuming sin is sin,

whose do you condemn? Who is judge? Who

will feed the lambs? The sheep? Who, the goats?

Who will sell and give? Who will be denied?

Whose image haunts the mirror? And why

are you still here? What exactly do you hope

to become? When will you begin?

Scott Cairns, from “Bad Theology: A Quiz”

I’ve been thinking a lot about anger lately, if for no other reason than it’s become all but ubiquitous. Anger and reports of anger pervade news cycles, as alienated souls fortified by the railing of television and internet pundits launch verbal and sometimes physical assaults on those they’ve been told are their enemies. So angry have we become that it’s worth asking whether we’re any longer capable of anything other than spleen venting. I use the word “we” deliberately here because I am far from immune to outrage. Truth be told, my own struggle with anger is the likely source of my noticing – and (ironically) becoming angry toward – the anger of others. I realized this was a problem one morning last fall, when I was reading an article about the horrors to which detained immigrants at our southern border were being subjected, including accusations that American physicians had performed involuntary sterilizations on some of the women who had been detained. Quite spontaneously I found myself yelling at my computer screen, “What the hell is wrong with these people? God damn them!” Later that day I sheepishly confessed my violation of the third commandment to a friend, who advised me, “Maybe you should pray for them.” Maybe, indeed.

To be sure, there is plenty to be angry about. The recently released report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change presented us with what looks to be a choice between things becoming incrementally worse before they stabilize somewhere between really bad and imminently cataclysmic, depending on whether we finally find the courage to pull our heads out of our rears, reduce consumption, and start paying the debt we’ve been accruing to Creation for the past 150 or so odd years. The exuberance attending our fleeting and ultimately illusory control over Covid-19 in June and July gave way by the beginning of August to overfilled intensive care units and escalated squabbles over local mask ordinances–reminders of how deep the opportunism, gullibility, and suspiciousness that have given us the mask wars and anti-vaccine conspiracy theories run. And this is to say nothing of myriad, less-reported tragedies, from the continued reign of an exploitative economy to the innumerable divisions wrought by racial and ethnic bigotry. How could any caring, right-thinking person not be angry about all this?

But there’s a line separating righteous anger from sanctimonious outrage. The latter is a form of self-deception, and its consequences are invariably unhappy. This week’s gospel text, from Mark, nicely illustrates the difference. In the story, a group of Pharisees, likely the leaders of surrounding Galilean synagogues, and some scribes from Jerusalem, ostensibly in the region to confirm (or challenge) what they’d heard about the new Galilean prophet, gather around Jesus and begin asking questions. These experts in the Law of Moses observe that Jesus’s disciples, who were eating, hadn’t first washed their hands, which they found at least offensive and perhaps an indication that Jesus was no prophet at all. 

Ritual washing of various types was a significant practice in first century Judaism, thanks primarily to the “tradition of the elders,” a collection of orally transmitted glosses on the Law, of which the Pharisees and scribes regarded themselves the custodians. In this passage, it becomes yet another point of contention in the ongoing argument between Jesus and his interlocutors about how best to understand and embody the Law, including its very point – what it is for. From the perspective of the scribes and Pharisees, ritual washing was necessary, either as an acknowledgment of one’s ritual or moral uncleanness or as a safeguard based on the presumed danger of becoming polluted by daily interaction with a world full of unclean things and people. Just so, they simply assumed that Jesus’s disciples were defiled by their failure to wash before eating, which they found outrageous, especially among the followers of a supposed prophet. 

Jesus’s response was not to attack the Law of Moses, nor even the tradition of the elders as such, but stridently to call out the hypocrisy of those experts who used the tradition of the elders to supersede the Law, often as a means of exercising self-interested social power (e.g., Matthew 23:1-26). His argument is predicated on an example having nothing to do with hand washing, which serves both to make his broader point about his opponents’ intentions and to divert attention from their undue concern with clean hands. The Decalogue, he notes, clearly tells the faithful to honor their parents (Exodus 20:12), an instruction that includes the obligation to support those parents financially when they become unable to provide for themselves. Yet the tradition of the elders frees those who follow it from this obligation by instead making a voluntary sacrificial offering – a “Corban” – to God. The point Jesus makes here is not that sacrificial offerings are wrong, but that using them to override the tenets necessary to maintain the integrity of the community and the health of its members is a giant case of missing the point of the Law, which Herbert McCabe describes as “an outline of friendship,” which “draws a boundary around friendship to show where it stops.” This is important, he says, insofar as “the Decalogue is part of God’s summons to be his people,” the first step of which “is to be human people, and that means living in friendship.”

The supposition that living in friendship is requisite to living as God’s people is entirely consistent with what Jesus says when he turns his attention from his interlocutors to the crowds gathered around them. “Listen to me,” he says, “all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” Later, explaining his assertion to his disciples, Jesus names some of the defiling things that “come out,” offering a list that seems more exemplary than conclusive. Either way, though, the point he argues with his interlocutors and the list he shares with his disciples suggest that those attitudes, words, and actions that divide us, those that alienate us from each other and harm the most vulnerable among us, are those with which we ought to be most concerned.

Which brings us back to anger, which comes from within us and which the epistolary, from the book of James, addresses by making a point not unlike the one Jesus makes in the gospel lesson. In James, as in Mark, the author is concerned to show a distinction between religiosity and faithfulness, between godliness and the mere appearance thereof. James also works with a contrast, not between defilement from without and within, but the goodness of that which comes from above and the potential wickedness of that which comes from within. Those things we receive as gifts – good things – James says, come from God, who is not simply the author of goodness, but goodness itself. Such gifts are to be used, he suggests, not simply for our own benefit, but for the benefit of our fellow members of Creation, of which the people of God are to be “first fruits.” 

The author of James is calling on his readers, then, to cultivate a disposition of gratitude and generosity, which he contrasts in what follows with anger born of certitude, resentment, and envy: “let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.” What matters most, he concludes, is performing, rather than merely hearing, the word. While the latter yields a religiosity that is not, one might imagine, unlike that of the scribes and Pharisees, the former produces a “pure and undefiled” religion, which consists in caring “for orphans and widows in their distress” and keeping “oneself unstained by the world.”  

What both of these passages suggest is that faithfulness consists in being a faithful member of a people, one constituted by the call to love: one another, our neighbors, and even our enemies. The name for that love, at least according to McCabe, is friendship, which is made impossible by the sanctimonious outrage that today passes as anger. For what I take to be the most significant consequences of anger, one often overlooked, is alienation, or, if you prefer, loneliness. Anger makes enemies, spawning and perpetuating alienation, which in turn fuels further anger, for there is no one quite so angry as the one who is isolated and cut off from the fellowship that makes us human. 

So perhaps a way forward in a world so divided as ours is to seek ways to hear, understand, discover commonalities, and perhaps even welcome those angry others whose outrage tempts us to anger – especially those who call themselves Christians, with whom we share a baptism. Nothing concrete may come of our efforts, but that is not really the point; or so says our friend and former EP board member Brian Volck, who asks

What would happen if I acquired the habit of listening to the other—even the ranter, the bigot, and the prig— with the necessary compassion to acknowledge that person’s adversities and brokenness, unique to them yet so similar to mine? What would it take to tell someone not only where I think they’re wrong but also what part of their truth I need to hear? What would I have to change in me in order to love my enemies? What, in short, must I do to follow the Christ I say I believe in? 

What, indeed. We’ll only know as we try. Let us begin.    

Image Credit: Christ Among the Pharisees by Jacob Jordaens

The Ecology of God’s Reign

Third Sunday of Lent

 

 

 

Exodus 20:1-17

Psalm 19

1 Corinthians 1:18-25

John 2:13-22

God thought that we might, after some thought, come to the conclusion 

that friends would not kill each other or seduce each other’s husbands 

or wives or get them falsely convicted of crimes or kidnap or enslave 

them or seek to defraud them of their possessions; yes, we might come 

to work all that out, but all the same it would be a good idea to get all 

this down in black and white… the Decalogue is part of God’s summons 

to Israel to be his people… God is telling them that the first step to being 

God’s people is to be human people, and that means living in friendship.

Herbert McCabe

 

You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd.

Flannery O’Connor (attributed)

 

The American writer Flannery O’Connor was a devout Catholic whose convictions tended toward the theologically conservative. Yet O’Connor’s theology was far from fundamentalist. She was whip-smart and well-read, and her orthodox beliefs were thoroughly tested and hard-won. In a 1955 letter to her skeptic friend, “A,” she defended her faith by saying, “For you it might be a matter of not being able to accept what you call a suspension of the laws of the flesh and the physical, but for my part I think that when I know what the laws of the flesh and the physical really are, then I will know what God is. For me it is the virgin birth, the Incarnation, the resurrection which are the true laws of the flesh and the physical. Death, decay, destruction are the suspension of these laws.”  Read more

Christmas Praise in a Mutilated World

First Sunday after Christmas

 

Isaiah 61:10-62:3

Psalm 148

Galatians 4:4-7

Luke 2:22-40

You’ve seen the refugees going nowhere,

You’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.

You should praise the mutilated world.

                             –Adam Zagajewski, “Try to Praise the Mutilated World”

Be joyful, though you have considered all the facts.

                             –Wendell Berry, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front”

The appointed texts for this week are filled with such unqualified praise as befits Christmastide. Isaiah, whose language has been oft borrowed by the Church, rejoices at the prospect of Jerusalem’s restoration as a light to the nations; he eagerly anticipates the time when “her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch,” when God’s people “shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.” Read more

Mercy Shortage

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

 

 

Genesis 50:15-21

Psalm 103:1-13

Romans 14:1-12

Matthew 18:21-35

 

My church and my country could use a little mercy now
As they sink into a poisoned pit it’s going to take forever to climb out
They carry the weight of the faithful who follow them down
I love my church and country, they could use some mercy now.

                                                                        –Mary Gauthier,  “Mercy Now”

 

I really only love God as much as the person I love the least.

                                                                        —Dorothy Day

 

As reprehensible as it was, Republican congressional candidate Marjorie Taylor Greene’s recently posted image of herself holding an AR-15 next to pictures of the group of progressive Democratic Congresswomen known popularly as “The Squad” wasn’t especially shocking, and not only because it was but one instance in an extensive and expanding catalogue of her outrageous behavior. Such belligerent, threatening actions, facilitated by the anonymity of the internet and enabled by so-called leaders who thrive on divisive rhetoric that often crosses the line into bigotry and hate speech, is no longer exceptional. Political differences have morphed into battle lines, and violence, directed disproportionately toward the powerless at the margins, is not uncommon. While the political roots of this crisis run deep and are many and complex, they are easy enough to sum up theologically: we collectively suffer a critical shortage of mercy. “Every single one of us,” as Mary Gauthier sings, “could use some mercy now.” Read more