“Our God Wins”

perennialRecently, a politician was giving a speech at a kind of Christian revival rally, an evangelical religious gathering that was ostensibly called together to pray for our country.  Most participants in that gathering seemed to hail from a theological perspective that sees the challenges that our country faces, and some of the social changes that have happened or our currently under way, as signs that somehow we Americans have offended God, and are being punished.  It is not a theological perspective I endorse in any way, but it is rather prevalent among certain types of Christians.

The politician in question, addressing this particular assembly, seemed to share their theological perspective, and apparently sought to give them hope amidst their angst about developments they dislike.   Part of attempting to give that hope was, reportedly, an assurance that “our God wins.”

It’s an interesting turn of phrase.  In the first place, it seeks to define an “in” group who has some special relationship with God that other people lack.  The God this politician and others in this gathering believe has been offended is “our” God.  That is, their God, who is known only to them, and from their point of view, given the state of the country, not known to those outside the group.  It is an odd notion to me to think of God as “ours” or “mine”, given that the whole of the universe — everything that exists — is dependent upon this God.  God is only “our God” in the sense that God is the God of everyone and everything that is.  While some traditions experience God as having initiated a particular sort of relationship with the group that originated that tradition, the idea of that group having some particular ownership of God is not a theology that is easily sustained.  Indeed, as the Jewish people experienced themselves as “chosen”, in the sense of being on the receiving end of a particularly shaped divine initiative, the Jewish community could ultimately not support the notion that this God was theirs, but rather was the God of all — as the Hebrew Bible makes abundantly clear.

The other interesting aspect of this phrase is the notion of winning.  To say that “our God wins” implies that there is a loser.  It implies that God is fighting against something — presumably those who don’t belong to the in group, those who are not included in this politician’s use of the term, “our God.”   It is a typically dualistic way of thinking, that imagines a world in which their are always winners and losers, and is rooted in an ego that needs to be on the winning side.  Such thinking ignores the upside down dynamic revealed in the mystery of Christ, who precisely “wins” by “losing”.  When the New Testament speaks of the “victory” of Christ, it is quite consciously speaking of a victory that looks to the world like a defeat.  And by turning defeat into victory and victory into defeat, Jesus acts out in his own life, death, and resurrection the truth that his teaching and parables point to:  that in the kingdom of God, winning and losing are no longer categories of being.  They become irrelevant in “the last shall be first, and the first, last” logic of the gospels — logic that is exemplified in the parable of the laborers, among others, in which everyone receives the same no matter how long they have worked.  The outrageous generosity of God gives everyone the same gift, and in that way, eliminates the win/loss dynamic.

This coming week celebrates World Interfaith Harmony Week.  It is a week that invites us to consider the value of each of the world’s religious traditions, and asks us to look not for the ways in which those traditions are different, but for the ways in which they are pointing to the same truth.  One of those truths, to be sure, is the idea, variously expressed, that we are all children of the same God, all equally human, all outpourings of the same universe.  There is no my God and your God, there is no group that is loved more than another.  There is just humanity in its abundant variety, seeking to know ourselves as loved, that we might be enabled to love in a way that overcomes division and allows all of us to live in peace.

Not All Things Build Up

slide-52‘All things are lawful’, but not all things are beneficial. ‘All things are lawful’, but not all things build up.

~ 1 Corinthians 10:23

I’m not much for proof-texting, but this verse from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians has been on my mind lately.  It is part of a larger argument that Paul is making about law versus grace (made most clearly, actually, in his Letter to the Romans).  While Paul considered law (that is, clear rules about right and wrong) to be a necessary part of human development, he also recognized rather profoundly that externally imposed rules don’t have the power to change the human heart.  Only grace — found in relationship with God — could do that.  For Paul, new life in Christ meant moving out of the domain of law and into the domain of grace.

But Paul also recognized the extremes to which some people might want to take his argument:  namely, that if life in Christ means moving out of the domain of law, then we can do anything we want, as long as we are able to claim a relationship with God while we do it.  And so Paul sought to short-circuit this extreme interpretation, which he does in this verse from First Corinthians:  All things are lawful (for those who no longer live under the law) but not everything is beneficial.   All things are lawful, but not all things build up.

I have been thinking about this in the aftermath of the violence in France aimed at the Charlie Hebdo magazine, and demonstrations all over the world both in support of Charlie Hebdo and in opposition to the cartoons that some consider offensive.  All of this has raised questions and brought commentary about whether there are any limits to free speech.

It’s difficult to talk about in light of what happened in France because, of course, we must insist that the kind of violence perpetrated there is never, ever justified, under any circumstances.  The cartoonists and writers of that magazine — and any publication — should be free to do their work without any fear of violent retaliation.   Violence is simply not the answer.  Ever.

But, the larger question about free speech remains, and we need to give it some thought.

When Paul was warning his readers that not all things are beneficial, that not everything builds up, those words proceeded from an understanding of the importance of community, and of the need to hold that community together.    Later in First Corinthians, Paul cautions people that if, in their state of inner freedom, they do something that is perfectly acceptable and yet scandalizes “weaker” members of the community, then they should refrain from doing it, lest those “weaker” members be so scandalized that they are lost from the community.  Taken together, these arguments ask us to question ourselves before we act:  How will what I am about to do impact the larger community?  Am I contributing something beneficial?  Am I building up the community?

If Paul’s counsel made sense in his world of relatively small communities that had limited connections to each other, how much more does it make sense in our own time, when the decision of an obscure “Christian” pastor of a tiny church in Florida to burn a Koran can reach the ears of people living on the other side of the world, inspiring an outburst of violence.  Words or images created in one place can, within minutes, reach people all around the world.  These days, when we put something out there, we put it all the way out there, in a way that Paul could not even have dreamt about.  If anything, living in a truly global community places greater responsibility on us to think before we act.

I am not suggesting that we should never do anything controversial, that we should never call out the extremists in our midst, that we should never push back against those who have difficulty making room for other people and other points of view.  Sometimes, we must.  What I am suggesting is that we be sure to examine our motives before we do so, and take into account the impact our actions are likely to make.   Everything that we do — even the controversial, calling out, and pushing back — should be aimed at building up the human community.

There’s no easy formula for this, no quick set of guidelines that we can consult, no ready-made set of rules.  As Paul so clearly pointed out, law doesn’t hold all the answers.   This is not a legislative matter.   It is, rather, a matter of the heart and soul, and one we must sit with carefully.  All we can do is meditate on this verse, and think about what it is asking of us in our particular time and place, what it is asking of us in the context of our particular vocation:

‘All things are lawful’, but not all things are beneficial. ‘All things are lawful’, but not all things build up.

The Song of the True Self

from Richard Rohr:

17944-bright-red-heart-shaped-diamondWithin us there is an inner, natural dignity.

An inherent worthiness that already knows and enjoys.

It is an immortal diamond waiting to be mined and is never discovered undesired.

It is a reverence humming within you that must be honored.

Call it the soul, the unconscious, deep consciousness, or the indwelling Holy Spirit.

Call it nothing.

It does not need the right name or right religion to show itself.

It does not even need to be understood.  It is usually wordless.

It just is, and shows itself best when we are silent, or in love, or both.

I will call it the True Self here.

It is God-in-All-Things yet not circumscribed by any one thing.

It is enjoyed only when each part is in union with all other parts, because only then does it stand in the full truth.

Once in a while, this True Self becomes radiant and highly visible in one lovely place or person.

Superbly so, and for all to see, in the body of the Risen Christ.

And note that I did say ‘body’.  It begins here and now in our embodied state in this world.  Thus, the Christ Mystery travels the roads of time.

Once you have encountered this True Self — and once is more than enough — the False Self will begin to fall away on its own.

This will take most of your life, however, just as it did in Jesus.

from Immortal Diamond, pp. 56-67

The Religious Violence Narrative

6a00d834515f9b69e201901b690ad3970b-320wiFor a number of years now, there has been a building narrative about so-called “religious violence”. Numbers of commentators have been almost enthusiastic in their assertion that there is a connection between violence and religious commitment.  Islam is probably used more than other traditions at the moment to build this narrative, given that a number of the world’s most notorious purveyors of violence claim to justify their actions in the name of Islam.   This week’s horrible attack in Paris upon a newspaper office, which resulted in the death of 11 people, is the most recent example of this, as the perpetrator of this crime claims an Islamic connection.  But building the narrative that connects religion with violence in the world does not seek to lay this connection at the feet of Muslims alone — it seeks to portray religion itself, regardless of tradition, as a force that, by its very nature, promotes violence.

Karen Armstrong, in her recent book, Fields of Blood, takes on this narrative directly in her typically thorough way.

As she describes, each [religious tradition] arose in an agrarian society with plenty of powerful landowners brutalizing peasants while also warring among themselves over land, then the only real source of wealth. In this world, religion was not the discrete and personal matter it would become for us but rather something that permeated all aspects of society. And so it was that agrarian aggression, and the warrior ethos it begot, became bound up with observances of the sacred.

In each tradition, however, a counterbalance to the warrior code also developed. Around sages, prophets, and mystics there grew up communities protesting the injustice and bloodshed endemic to agrarian society, the violence to which religion had become heir. And so by the time the great confessional faiths came of age, all understood themselves as ultimately devoted to peace, equality, and reconciliation, whatever the acts of violence perpetrated in their name.

Industrialization and modernity have ushered in an epoch of spectacular and unexampled violence, although, as Armstrong explains, relatively little of it can be ascribed directly to religion. Nevertheless, she shows us how and in what measure religions, in their relative maturity, came to absorb modern belligerence—and what hope there might be for peace among believers of different creeds in our time.

As Armstrong’s analysis makes clear, religion has, indeed, at various times, absorbed some of the violence of the societies in which they found a home.  And there is no question that violent people have used religion to try to justify and promote their violent agendas.  However, it is also clear that the violence which some seek to place at the feet of religion is, in reality, not to be found in religion but, rather, in human beings.

In other words, the problem of violence is a human problem, and as Armstrong points out, all the great religious traditions have quite specifically seen themselves as seeking to overcome the problem of human violence, not to enable that violence.  Sadly, there are a number of religious people — including religious leaders — who seem immune to the teachings of their own traditions and twist those traditions in ways that justify or excuse their own violent words and deeds.  Such people force a connection between religion and violence that is improper, and certainly not inherent to religion itself.  But when witnessed by people who are not well-versed in religious traditions, these caricatures of religion seem like all that religion is or can be.  The religiously unsophisticated thus reach the conclusion that if only we removed religion from the world, much of the world’s violence would disappear.

This, however, is a delusion.  If religion were somehow removed from the world, it would no longer be available to be used as a tool by human beings committed to a violent path.   Those people would simply find other tools to use — and violence would continue.  We have seen this, in fact, in places like Soviet Russia, where religion was severely oppressed and virtually eliminated as a force in society, and yet violence and oppression continued.  It underscores the fact that violence is a human problem, not a problem with religion.

When we insist on going down blind alleys in our response to violence — like the blind alley that religion is somehow the reason for that violence, and if only it went away, all would be well — we permit ourselves to ignore the real causes of that violence.  Modern terrorists who use Islam to justify their violence are not, ultimately, motivated by religion.  They are motivated by a deep rage that is related to a sense of powerlessness and economic disadvantage, a violent anger over corrupt Middle Eastern regimes and Western economic and political dominance.   Even this is too simplistic an explanation, but it does point us toward the real seeds of violence.  Religion, far from being the cause, is used as a catalyzing agent to focus this rage into violent acts that they mistakenly believe will somehow alleviate that rage and correct what they see as the injustices of the world.  Until we are willing to acknowledge and address the real causes of this violence, it will continue — no matter what happens in the world of religion.

Over and over again, humanity fails to learn the lessons of its own religious traditions, of its own wisdom traditions:  that violence does not solve problems, but only leads to more problems and perpetuates human suffering.