The Spirituality of War

KnockoutAs the United States begins engaging with ISIS forces in Syria by means of air strikes, marking the beginning of another American “involvement” with conflicts in the Middle East, many commentators observed that the political world seems largely untroubled.  Few critics of this new action are to be found in the halls of power in Washington, where people all along the political spectrum seem supportive of the President’s decision to move in this direction.

On the one hand, this is not surprising.  Americans have seen images and heard stories about horrific atrocities committed by this extremist group, and there is no question that the massive numbers of people dying and suffering dislocation and deprivation deserve justice.  The real question is, what kind of justice do they deserve?

Americans have proven themselves time and again to be highly susceptible to a narrative that makes justice look a lot like vengeance.   We have accepted a conceptual framework in which the proper response to violence is more violence.   The level of violence within our own society makes this abundantly clear — as do the calls, in the face of that violence, for more violence:  are there school shootings?  Arm the teachers.  Are there dangerous people lurking on the streets?  Adopt open carry laws and arm the citizenry.  This same dynamic has created the highest rate of incarceration in the developed world, since Americans think it is best to imprison people for a whole range of offenses that are handled differently in other countries:  it is just meeting violence with violence in another form.  And, of course, the ultimate expression of this dynamic in our justice system is the continuation in most US jurisdictions of capital punishment — something that almost every other developed country has abandoned.   We are a people who are swift to judge, swift to pick up the nearest weapon to deal with whatever we deem threatening.   The name of this way of thinking and acting is retributive justice, a view that defines justice as a proportionate, punishing response to injustice.   It is a view of justice that is enshrined in large portions of the Hebrew Bible, where a kind of tribal understanding of justice from the early Hebrew period often surfaces.  It is exemplified by this verse from the Hebrew Scriptures:  “And a man who inflicts an injury upon his fellow man just as he did, so shall be done to him [namely,] fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. Just as he inflicted an injury upon a person, so shall it be inflicted upon him.” (Lev. 24:19–21)

It must be said that rabbinical commentaries on passages like this often soften and nuance the meaning that is most apparent, with various scholars suggesting that monetary compensation (as we are familiar with through our own judicial system) can satisfy the demand for reciprocal injury in verses like these.

The rabbi Jesus went much further than softening and nuancing:

‘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.  (Matthew 5:38-42)

In the face of the seeming divine sanction that Jesus’ own tradition seemed to give to retributive justice, he prescribed a much different course:  one of non-resistance.  It is, perhaps especially for us, a radical teaching.  And most people, confronted with it, find a multitude of practical objections to it.   The teaching is linked with another teaching that immediately follows:

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 5:44-48)

The relationship between these two passages suggests that Jesus roots his non-resistance teaching — his overthrowing of the legitimacy of retributive justice — in the spiritual practice of developing love toward our fellow human beings, a love that allows us to see humanity in even the most unrighteous of people.  This, Jesus tells us, is the perfection of God:  to see the world as a whole, and not to break into the dualism that the identification of others as our enemies necessarily entails.

Jesus, I think, recognizes the difficulty of this teaching.  His phrases about tax-collectors and Gentiles limiting their compassion to those whom are easy to love suggests that recognition.  But clearly he is calling those who would be his followers to a different way of living, calling us to embrace an understanding of justice that does not include retaliation.

Our willingness as Americans to resort to violence in the face of violence — despite the numerous examples in our history of how badly such a response can ultimately turn out — serves as a sign of our spiritually underdeveloped culture.  We have, consciously or unconsciously, adopted a religious perspective in which God is interested in punishment, and is not afraid to mete it out.   Scores of conservative Christian communities, pastors, and people have so pushed this image of God that it has become the default mode for many.   This image of God, and the bible passages that have been used to support it, do not correspond to the image of God that is supported by the teaching of Jesus.   Those of us who seek to follow Jesus have an obligation to deal honestly with his teaching of non-resistance and his vision of the oneness of humanity under God, and to understand its implications for our lives both individually and as citizens.

I will not claim to have the definitive answers when it comes to the latest crisis unfolding in the Middle East.  But I am fairly sure about a couple of things:  that our history makes clear that most of the time, when we employ our military power to correct what we deem to be an evil situation, more harm than good generally has been the result, and the problem we thought we could so easily fix turns out to be complicated beyond all expectation.  And, whenever a country chooses to engage in military action, the citizenry of that country should be disturbed.  We should be bothered.  And so should those who lead us.

Hearing the Music

670px-Live-Like-a-Ballet-Dancer-Step-1Recently, I was reminded of a quote by Nietzsche:

Those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.

On this recent encounter, the quote settled in me as saying something important about how I, at least, experience spirituality or faith.  And I suspect it landed this way because of a deep theological conversation I had this afternoon — with an 8 year old.

Her mother had spoken to me a couple Sundays ago about her third grade daughter who had a lot of questions about God.  Her parents were feeling a bit out of their depth, and asked her if she would like to talk to me.  Thus, our appointment today.  For 45 minutes, I was asked question after question about who God was, where God was, what God was.  I was asked about Jesus, Mary, other religions.  I don’t think I have ever been as thoroughly theologically quizzed by someone so young.  I think my favorite part of our conversation was when she asked where God was located.   I answered that God was everywhere and no where.  Then I asked her if that made any sense to her, acknowledging that it was a somewhat difficult situation to imagine.  She agreed that it was hard to think about, but then said, “But I think it kind of makes sense.”

This little girl is, I think, a child who has been dancing all her life to the mystical rhythms and music of divine grace to which her parents and her church have helped her become attuned.   As she is getting little older, however, she is becoming aware that other children have other thoughts about God.  Some of them practice other religions.  And (this being California) it is likely that a number of them — perhaps most of them — practice no religion at all.  And I wonder if perhaps it is beginning to dawn on her that some of her friends find her dancing a bit insane (or, perhaps, a little odd).   I think that behind her questions to me lies a desire to continue dancing to the mystery of the divine — and maybe a little fear that the music might go away, that she might lose her connection and the dancing that goes with it unless she is able to move from the simple divine melodies of childhood into something a bit more sophisticated — more of a symphony than a lullaby.  And, as she gets older, that will inevitably involve  dancing more and more in the presence of people who do not hear the music, and think those of us who do to be just a bit insane.

I am reminded of another quote, a lyric, actually, from a song in which someone once imagined Jesus saying,

Dance, dance, wherever you may be
I am the lord of the dance, said he
And I lead you all, wherever you may be
And I lead you all in the dance, said he

May we keep hearing the music, and dance on.


Misunderstanding God

beingSo much of our understanding of God within the Christian tradition seems to be focused on Someone “out there” to whom we need to appeal for help and salvation, or to whom we should direct gratitude, or whom we need to appease in order to avoid being zapped in some way.   We tend to think of God as some kind of Super Being who is a bit moody and temperamental — you know, the One who needed Jesus to die in order to forgive us.

The problem with this understanding — or, I should say, misunderstanding of God — is that it leads us into all kinds of sticky situations.  If God is a Super Being Out There who can be all powerful when he wants to be, then we run into problems when God seems to not want to do so.  For example, when a child is dying, and multitudes of people pray fervently for the child’s recovery, and it doesn’t happen, we are left wondering why it is that God chose not to act.  Often, we assign it to some mysterious Larger Purpose that we can’t understand.  Some people will conclude that God is somehow nasty or uncaring.  And still others will take it as a proof that there is no God at all.

It’s understandable that we would have this idea of God as a Super All Powerful Being Who Mysteriously Sometimes Decides to Act and At Other Times Decides Not To and We Don’t Know Why, because the Bible frequently can leave us with that impression.  We see all kinds of stories in which God seems to act on behalf of people, intervening in spectacular ways into human history.  But there are also many biblical stories that wonder why God is not acting, that wonder why God allows nasty people to get away with nasty stuff.   We must remember that these stories were written by people like us, who also wondered about how God was related to us, who wondered who, exactly, God was.

In the Bible, we can also detect a different theme, one which is focused less on the inscrutable ways of God and which is focused more on the inscrutable ways of humans.  Over and over again, we read stories and teachings in which human beings are called upon to change, to become enlarged and transformed in the direction of compassion and generosity.   While there are stories that lament God’s seeming lack of action or concern, there are also stories of God lamenting the human inability to get with the spiritual program.

Outside the Bible, in the larger Judeo-Christian tradition, there is certainly a lot of theological musing about the ways of God.  But there is also a great deal of spiritual musing about the way in which human beings are called to engage in spiritual practices that open us up to change, that make us available to God, who is depicted in various ways as the One who invites us but never forces us into relationship.

All of this is to say that I think religion is more about us than it is about God.  I have long since given up seeing God as a Super Being Out There who needs to be cajoled, convinced, and appeased.   For me, God is far more profound than that.  God is the very foundation of being, the One who makes all things possible, the One moves in the subtle spaces.   I don’t express it well, because how can one really express one’s self clearly about God, whom theologians of many traditions have repeatedly pointed out is not a being among other beings, but rather the very Possibility of Being, Being Itself.  It is why we describe and relate to God through story and metaphor.  And under such an understudying, the spiritual journey is not about getting that God to do things for us.  Rather, it is about allowing ourselves to be changed, about growing into a more authentic humanity that is at once a more sacred humanity.   The world’s problems are not the result of God’s action or inaction, but the result of our inability to live into our divine calling as human beings.   The spiritual practices that have been developed within the Christian and other traditions are all meant to nurture exactly this:  an encounter between ourselves and God that moves us to be changed, and that makes that journey safe because God’s love accompanies us always.