The Problem of Science

There’s something about this piece from The American Interest that bothers me:

The scientists who banded together to draft the letter are concerned that policymakers are indulging the temptation to score political points and ignoring the science that undergirds the debate over genetically modified organisms—because, let’s face it, the science is firmly in the corner of those in the pro-GMO camp.

I’m not here to get into a discussion of genetically modified crops or not — I covered the matter for BridgeNews for a couple of years, got fairly deep into the policy (and even the science) part of it the matter. I’m not convinced by the panic of the Frankenfood folks, but I’m not entirely convinced by the pro-GMO camp either. (Though having covered enough protests, Frankenfood is a brilliant meme.)

No, what bothers me about this is the way science is used here. If science, all by itself, can dictate both the terms of political engagement and the end results, what is the point even of having a political process to begin with? Why make choices, or even consider the possibility of choice at all, if science and scientists (and very enlightened policy makers) have already determined what course of action, and what outcome, is best? (I found this discussion at Democracy Now from Wednesday, November 29, about Ebola quarantines similarly frustrating.)

Politics is about choices, and many things inform — and even sometimes dictate — our choices. Science is, or can be, one. During my graduate program at Georgetown, I took a class on the economics of energy. It was a course dominated by the economic language of minimizing costs and maximizing both efficiency and profits. I wrote a fairly lengthy paper on nuclear power in Europe, noting that while all of the numbers may point to nuclear power being both cheaper and more efficient (though that frequently depended on how you counted subsidies and waste disposal, which was usually done by governments), peoples and governments could make whatever valid choices they wanted to, knowing that all choices have costs and benefits. At the time, Sweden was in the midst of abandoning nuclear power following the Chernobyl disaster — a choice I defended in my paper even though most of the literature I consulted on the matter (written by neoliberal economists) was highly critical.

But science should hardly be the only thing informing political choices. Science may be “in the corner of those in the pro-GMO camp.” European governments can, for legitimate or even illegitimate reasons, ignore some or all of that science and craft policies that are responsive to popular will, rather than scientific consensus. Of course there will be consequences to any choice a government or a polity makes.

In this instance, and in many others, science plays a deeply pernicious role. It is undemocratic, in that those promoting a particular understanding of science are trying to use the power of science — and the story science tells in Modernity is a very powerful story, claiming, as it does, to be The Truth that trumps all other truths, the story that tells all other stories — to force or impose a particular arrangement of the world on a people who may not want or choose that arrangement if they were truly free to do so. (Economics frequently does the same thing.) Those supporting genetically modified agriculture or agitating for action against global climate change should consider false science like Social Darwinism and eugenics — things hailed as scientific truth in their day when they became the basis for concerted state action — and reflect with a little humility. Or better, consider the horrific swath the social sciences have cut across the world as they have been used to corral, control, and dominate people.

Science, here, is used to shut down any sort of public debate or even considerations about policy. It alienates people from political processes and erodes notions of state and governmental accountability. After all, who can argue with science? “We have science, you have superstition.” (In the 19th and early 20th centuries, “We have science, you have sentimentality.”) And in a scientific age, science is supposed to win. Always.

* * *

For the record: I am not a denier of global climate change. In the early 1990s, I spent several afternoons doing a photo essay an The Ohio State University’s Byrd Polar Research Center and got some fairly in-depth tutoring on what was then the cutting edge of climate change science — examining the makeup of air samples taken from bubbles in ice cores as old as 400,000 years. The researchers were convinced they were seeing an unprecedented build-up of CO2 in the atmosphere in the last two centuries, and I trust their work. But I simply do not believe human beings are capable of addressing the problem in any meaningful way. We aren’t good enough, or wise enough, or capable of sustained, directed, purposeful organization in a way that would preserve our humanity. We’re not a hive mind or a hive soul.

The Lectionary This Week — The Humbling of the Exalted

Where I contemplate on the Sunday scripture readings according to the Revised Common Lectionary.

All Saints Sunday / Lectionary 31, 02 November 2014 (Year A)

While this Sunday is All Saints Sunday in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, I will be going with the Lectionary 31 readings, as they continue a theme of judgment in both the Old and New Testament readings that has fascinated me for the last few weeks.

  • Micah 3:5-12
  • Psalm 43
  • 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13
  • Matthew 23:1-12

There are some tremendous parallels between the Old Testament reading, from the third chapter of Micah, and the Gospel reading for this Sunday. I’ll start by putting the entire third chapter of Micah here, because even though the reading begins with the fifth verse, the whole thing is worth contemplating:

1 And I said:
Hear, you heads of Jacob
and rulers of the house of Israel!
Is it not for you to know justice? —
2 you who hate the good and love the evil,
who tear the skin from off my people
and their flesh from off their bones,
3 who eat the flesh of my people,
and flay their skin from off them,
and break their bones in pieces
and chop them up like meat in a pot,
like flesh in a cauldron.
4 Then they will cry to the Lord,
but he will not answer them;
he will hide his face from them at that time,
because they have made their deeds evil.
5 Thus says the Lord concerning the prophets
who lead my people astray,
who cry “Peace”
when they have something to eat,
but declare war against him
who puts nothing into their mouths.
6 Therefore it shall be night to you, without vision,
and darkness to you, without divination.
The sun shall go down on the prophets,
and the day shall be black over them;
7 the seers shall be disgraced,
and the diviners put to shame;
they shall all cover their lips,
for there is no answer from God.
8 But as for me, I am filled with power,
with the Spirit of the Lord,
and with justice and might,
to declare to Jacob his transgression
and to Israel his sin.
9 Hear this, you heads of the house of Jacob
and rulers of the house of Israel,
who detest justice
and make crooked all that is straight,
10 who build Zion with blood
and Jerusalem with iniquity.
11 Its heads give judgment for a bribe;
its priests teach for a price;
its prophets practice divination for money;
yet they lean on the Lord and say,
“Is not the Lord in the midst of us?
No disaster shall come upon us.”
12 Therefore because of you
Zion shall be plowed as a field;
Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins,
and the mountain of the house a wooded height
(Micah 3:1-12 ESV)

This is a condemnation, of both rulers — the “heads of Jacob” (רָאשֵׁ֣י יַעֲקֹ֔ב) — and of prophets (נְּבִיאִ֖ים, a word which has its root in נבא نبأ نبو exalting, elevating, informing, but can also have implications of remoteness, distance, overcoming or even something that sickens). The lectionary reading focuses solely on the prophets, but Micah here bundles God’s condemnation of those prophets with God’s condemnation of Israel’s rulers.

The rulers devour the people, and the language here is both graphic and brutal. Those rulers hate what is good, and love what is evil. They butcher and devour the people of God, “my people” in the ESV, “from them” מֵֽעֲלֵיהֶ֔ם (likely referring to Israel) in the Hebrew. These awful rulers are cannibals, slowly skinning, cooking and devouring the people they are responsible for, down to the marrow. Their fate is clear — there will be no help for them when the judgment comes. God will abandon them.

The prophets are not accused of devouring the people. They merely lead the people astray by proclaiming not God’s truth but by speaking solely on behalf of those who pay them. (Verse five confused me for a bit, but realizing the “they” in “when they have something to eat” and “who puts nothing into their mouths” refers not to “my people” but to “the prophets” earlier in the verse.) These are people paid to speak good words on behalf of the rulers, to justify their rule, their power, their acts and deeds. They believe they act in the way of God, with the favor of God. “Is not the Lord in the midst of us? No disaster shall come upon us!” All their pretense will come to nothing when the day comes. They shall be in darkness, and see nothing, they will be able to say nothing, and God will abandon them as utterly as God has abandoned the “heads of Jacob.”

In the end, the rulers and the prophets, though their misrule and their lies, will lead the people to destruction. The coming judgment on Jerusalem is all their doing: “Therefore because of you [plural], Zion shall be plowed as a field; Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins, and the mountain of the house a wooded height.”

It’s a fairly straightforward prophetic warning. Except that Micah refuses to claim the mantle of prophethood for himself. It’s as if he’s saying, “I am not a prophet. I am not paid to do this. I have the Spirit and Power of the Lord prompting me to do this.” Here, it’s not a good thing to be a prophet, and Micah’s calling is clearly NOT as a prophet. His calling is something bigger. We might call it prophetic, his condemnation of Israel’s leaders — rulers and spokesmen — but Micah wouldn’t.

Which brings us to Jesus, pronouncing woe upon the scribes and the Pharisees in Matthew 23:

1 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2 “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses ‘seat, 3 so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. 4 They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. 5 They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, 6 and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues 7 and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others. 8 But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. 9 And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. 10 Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. 11 The greatest among you shall be your servant. 12 Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted. (Matthew 23:1-12 ESV)

“Do as they say, and not as they as do,” Jesus tells those assembled of the Pharisees and the scribes. They teach correctly, they just don’t live what they teach. (Oh, that so sounds like the church in just about any age I can think of…) This is the beginning of all the woes pronounced to the scribes and the pharisees, woes that they live in ways which impose “heavy burdens” on those they teach, burdens they themselves are unwilling to take up and carry. This pronouncement of woes takes up nearly all of chapter 23, including what is probably the “nut graf” for this entire section, verse 23:

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness [τὴν κρίσιν καὶ ⸂τὸ ἔλεος⸃ καὶ τὴν πίστιν]. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. (Matthew 23:23 ESV)

It’s not one or the other, not mercy or the teaching. It’s both. And here, a teaching without mercy, without justice, without faithfulness, is empty righteousness.

But it’s actually worse than that. Because these woes are the beginning of a long discourse on the coming judgment against Jerusalem. The woes are God’s indictment against the “rulers and prophets” of Israel. Micah’s pronouncement, which saw the coming of God’s judgment with the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem, is being repeated here.

Even when Jesus repeats the claim from the scribes and Pharisees that “If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets,” that is part of his indictment of the people ruling Israel. Such an admission is, he says in verse 31, “witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets.” (This has some interesting implications for those who apologize for the sins of ancestors…)

Jesus ends this with another pronouncement of the coming judgment:

32 Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers. 33 You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell? 34 Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, 35 so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. 36 Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation. (Matthew 23:32-36 ESV)

It’s just as well, I think, that this coming Sunday is All Saints Sunday. No one has to struggle with the few measly words of grace from the 1 Thessalonians reading.

Because there’s a huge question in all this: Where is the good news?

Were I to preach this, I might focus on the last three verses of the assigned lectionary reading, when Jesus tells all those assembled, “The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” And then to talk about how Christ does that, and makes it possible.

But I’m still fascinated here with Jesus’ prophetic — or not, if we take Micah’s cue — pronouncement of the coming judgment. It seems to be central to Matthew’s gospel, and so it needs to be dealt with.

So, a word on what judgement isn’t. Because these are easily misused words. What Jesus (and Micah) aren’t doing, and what those who truly speak prophetically don’t do as well, is blame someone, or some (typically marginalized and powerless) group, outside the community of God’s people, for calamity or disaster. This isn’t about blaming homosexuals, or abortionists, or liberals, or illegal migrants, or atheists, or the president of the wrong political party, or whatever, for earthquakes, hurricanes, plagues, or a bad economy, or whatever. This isn’t about some them who is not us being responsible for whatever is wrong, and it is not about dealing with that them properly in order to get right with God.

The judgment is upon us — and only upon us — the people of God. And this judgment is coming because those with the responsibility to rule and guide us, to teach and lead us, have done that selfishly and cruelly, for their own benefit rather than for the benefit of those they rule. Because our elites are venal, incompetent, self-centered, greedy, and evil.

Yes, evil.

Now, the terrible thing of this is that while the judgment may be upon us all because our leaders are incompetent, stupid, and cruel, the entire people of God will suffer. When the Babylonians arrive to lay siege to Jerusalem, they won’t just kill those in charge and then go home. The guilty and the innocent alike shall suffer from war, starvation, and disease. And if that wasn’t unfair enough, all this is happening not because of what we did, not really, but what was done ages before us. We are bearing the burdens, and paying for the sins and faithlessness, of our ancestors.

This may be why Jeremiah, and Jesus in chapter 24, counsel flight. I remember staring up at the burning World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, and thinking: “All smart little animals will run fast and hard right now, because when those buildings come down, they will respect neither person nor position.” If this judgement is solely a temporal one, then flight from the disaster is possible. And absolutely necessary if a faithful remnant is to survive.

Which leads me to one more point. A lot of the covenantal language of Deuteronomy and Leviticus — the covenant in which God promises to bless Israel if it keeps its end of the bargain with God, and expel it from the land if is does not — has an “if-then” construction, and is phrased in terms of real human choice. And perhaps Israel could have kept its end of the deal. Who knows.

But Israel did not keep its end of the bargain, and the prophets are not warning Israel to improve its behavior. They aren’t telling Israel to care for the poor and do justice in order to keep the Babylonians at bay. It’s too late for that. The consequences outlined in the Wilderness are coming true. (Though Jonah suggests change is possible.) The disaster is upon Israel, either right there at the walls or looming on the eastern horizon. It is too late to make the kinds of changes that will save the people and the leaders who have brought this mess upon us all. At this point, the only redemption coming is for a faithful remnant who flee the disaster. Who keep the faith, who gather and worship, who take risks by living out the generous faithfulness of our crucified and risen Lord in the same world that put him to death.

Now, whether this judgment is immediate and temporal — the Jewish War in which Jerusalem was besieged and the Temple destroyed — or eternal, or both, I don’t know. I’m not sure it matters. I have been considering the fate of the Church in the West in terms of God’s judgment, with Modernity and Enlightenment as metaphorical Assyrians and Babylonians, and am considering what a book along those lines would look like.

But as followers of the crucified and risen one, we must never forget that judgement is never God’s final word. Redemption is. And that’s always good news.

A Meaningless Faith

I was listening late last night to an episode of Have Gun, Will Travel (one of the rare radio shows based on a television series) from December, 1958, when I came across this CBS Radio public service announcement early in the recording of the original broadcast, an earnest little message from the high water mark of American Christendom:

Crime, delinquency, threats of war. These are the subjects that dominate our news headlines these days. Not very pleasant subjects, are they? You may say that somebody ought to do something about cutting down on crime and delinquency, and in promoting peace among nations, but that there’s nothing you personally can do about it. That’s where you’re wrong. You can wage your own fight against crime and delinquency in your own family by taking your family to the church or synagogue of your faith this week.

The inspiration and guidance you and they will receive from spiritual contact will strengthen moral background and faith. Regular attendance at religious services will help your family to work out its own problems, and give them comfort in facing the tensions of our present day life. Worshiping together brings your family closer together too. And supporting your own religious institution provides funds to help those individuals and families who, unlike you, are unable to help themselves. Find the strength for your life. Worship together this week.

Where to start with this? Well, where’s God? Where’s the story of God’s people? Where is the struggle with God, and God’s struggle with us? This is a message tailored to be anodyne in its ecumenism (“church or synagogue of your faith”), deeply utilitarian and unparticular in its approach. It’s an appeal to faith composed by Don Draper. In this “faith” and “worship” is comfort, order, answers. Perhaps that is useful, and even important, but the you here is clearly singular and very likely to married family men (it would be interesting to see what CBS and its affiliates knew — or thought they knew — about listeners to this radio show). It is church as social agent, an adjunct to the greater society, in which the purpose of worship and faith is to help equip individuals and families for the “fight” against those sources of the “tensions of our daily life.”

It’s also clear, I think, that in this, there is no shared faith story except the role of the church in that greater social fight. This is not about God calling Abraham, or Moses leading the people out of Egypt, or the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and how those stories form us as the people of God. The civic story — the fight against crime, delinquency, despair in the face of the H-Bomb, dealing with daily tensions — is the only shared story here, and it is central. But that civic faith is not biblical, and in this telling, it is clearly not God shaped nor God centered.

There’s also the little matter of the “unlike you.” That may be the ad man’s appeal, during a radio show in which the primary character is a hired gunman who is constantly giving away his fairly substantial fees (in the episode in question, written by Gene Roddenberry, Paladin gives away his $1,000 to the chief of an Indian tribe; how Paladin manages to live as well as he does, in San Francisco’s swanky Carlton Hotel, with at least one Chinese servant, is anyone’s guess), to those who see themselves as self-sufficient. It may be a good thing to encourage. But that alleged self-sufficiency is not biblical story either.

This is not religion as deep and lasting encounter with the divine, but as socially useful service, religion as a public utility. And THAT was the essence of American Christendom. I can understand why many want a return to that society — you could assume most, if not all, of your neighbors shared the basic contours of this understanding. It didn’t ask anything of anyone except that they be good, patriotic American citizens. But it created a public faith, a confessed faith, a practiced faith, that was almost entirely devoid of any real attempt to meet, or be met by, God. And to be formed, to be changed, by that encounter. It was a faith that didn’t know what to do with those encounters. It was a faith that substituted the only shared story it had — the American story of progress, freedom and social respectability and responsibility — for the burning bush and the cross.

It was a meaningless faith.

Most Interesting Reads for the Week

Some of the more interesting things I’ve read over the course of the last week:

  • Some ad hoc theorizing on collaboration.By collaborator, I simply mean those men and women who work with elites and who occupy the lower tiers of power and make political fear a genuinely civic enterprise.
  • On freedom and order, Good Hegels and Bad.…Hegel thus starts to look a lot less like a liberal aiming for a political order that can be made ‘justifiable to each person’ and more like Plato: idealistic philosophy for a highly educated elite, and for the rest . . . what?
  • Caught between ISIS and the regime in Syria.People in the city refuse to see and hear the violence in their suburbs, much as Beverly Hills ignored riots in Watts in 1965 and 1992. It becomes easy to pretend there is no war, unless a bomb falls too close or kills someone you know. One morning as I was driving through the upscale Abu Rummaneh quarter, a rebel mortar shell whistled overhead, hit a fuel storage tank, and sent black smoke soaring into the sky. Yet the shoppers around the corner went on as if nothing happened.
  • Western leaders are unable anymore to think coherently about evil as part of the human condition, and leaves them thinking we can solve problems we cannot.Here [Tony] Blair is at one with most western leaders. It’s not that they are obsessed with evil. Rather, they don’t really believe in evil as an enduring reality in human life. If their feverish rhetoric means anything, it is that evil can be vanquished. In believing this, those who govern us at the present time reject a central insight of western religion, which is found also in Greek tragic drama and the work of the Roman historians: destructive human conflict is rooted in flaws within human beings themselves.
  • Why medieval Islam was actually a really good thing. “It was Islam that brought Greco-Muslim scientific culture to Western Europe, giving rise to centuries of material and intellectual progress. The tireless translations of Gerard of Cremona, Plato of Tivoli, and others should not be taken for granted, nor should the transmission and assimilation of the ‘new’ learning—algebra and trigonometry, engineering and agriculture, astronomy and chemistry, and perhaps above all philosophy—much of which was met with hostility in Latin Christendom.
  • The western converts to Islam who embrace the ideology of jihad.What I saw were, and I hate to say it – vulnerable young men – with massive great chips on their shoulders. With their radical new status they felt empowered, superior and perhaps most annoyingly for me, righteous. … In a former life, the world they had been brought up in had wronged them. Perhaps they had family troubles, or maybe society shunned them, whatever it was, they resented it – they were lost, empty and had no stake in the western world. Becoming a radical Muslim reversed the polarity.
  • On failing spectacularly in Afghanistan.Gopal’s book, however, should at least make us question this fashion of state-building under fire. What has actually been the result of Afghanistan’s $1 trillion attempt to create ‘security,’ ‘economic development,’ and ‘governance’?
  • Serpico talks about cops these days.Today the combination of an excess of deadly force and near-total lack of accountability is more dangerous than ever: Most cops today can pull out their weapons and fire without fear that anything will happen to them, even if they shoot someone wrongfully. All a police officer has to say is that he believes his life was in danger, and he’s typically absolved.

Sinning In Thought And Deed

As Jennifer and I were getting ready to go to our favorite Bridgeport cafe, I was mulling over a conversation I had earlier in the morning with my “daughter,” Michaela. (I put daughter in quotation marks because, well, she’s my daughter by proclamation. There’s nothing formal or legal or biological about it. Like most good things in my life, she just walked up to me one day a couple of years ago and simply claimed me. “You shall be my daddy, and I will be your daughter,” she said. And that was that.) I won’t say what that conversation was about, but as I was mulling it over in my mind, and something Jennifer noted afterwards, I began to think a bit about some things Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew.

There’s a long passage, after Jesus tells those gathered (disciples and others) who is truly blessed in this world, that they are the salt and light of the world, and that Jesus himself came to fulfill the “law” or “teaching” (νομος nomos in Greek, תּוֹרָה torah in Hebrew) that God gave to Israel in the Wilderness. He then tells everyone listening something that sounds both stunning and harsh:

19 Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:19-20 ESV)

It’s a rigorous teaching that Jesus gives here. None of it can be dropped, none of it can be relaxed. Even as he fulfills God’s teaching, all the word’s spoken by God to Moses (and through Moses, to Israel) in the Wilderness remain true. All of it.

What does Jesus preach in Matthew 5:17-32? That even thinking of killing, even being angry, even insulting one’s neighbor and brother, puts one at risk for judgement (a very earthly and temporal judgement, the council and the fire of Gahenna). That even thinking lustful thoughts makes one guilty of adultery, and that it is better to “lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.” (Again with Gahenna.) In fact, Jesus tells those assembled to hear him that anyone who divorces, or married someone who is divorced, “commits adultery.”

He then follows with a teaching on oaths, an admonition against retaliation (“But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil”), and the command to love enemies, followed by one final command that seems utterly unreachable to all but perhaps the most dour Calvinist or most committed Catholic traditionalist:

48 You therefore must be perfect [τέλειος, with an implication of completeness], as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:48 ESV)

While the teaching here is rigorous, and can be read literally (and may even be meant literally), I think there’s also another reading here, one that fits in well with the way many Torah teachings sit in tension with the actual lives of many of the characters in scripture.

One example. (There are many others…) Leviticus 18:9 states, “You shall not uncover the nakedness of your sister, your father’s daughter or your mother’s daughter, whether brought up in the family or in another home.” And yet, Genesis 20:12 reports during the second time Abraham pawns off his wife Sarah as his sister to avert a potential violent death, “Besides, she is indeed my sister, the daughter of my father though not the daughter of my mother, and she became my wife.” [Emphasis mine.] Granted, Abraham does this long before the teaching in Leviticus is given to Israel, but the editors of scripture left this intact purposefully, I believe, to note that the lives of even the best of God’s people — and this whole story really begins with Abraham and Sarah — are messy and frequently out of sync with God’s teaching.

And that we would not exist as a people — the people of God — had these people not lived messy lives. We are the product of their messy, disordered, sinful, and law-breaking lives.

With that in mind, I look at what Jesus says in Matthew 5:17-32 and think that perhaps this is a reminder to those who have not murdered, or committed adultery, or divorced (or married someone who was divorced), or sworn an oath, or even sought vengeance and hated an enemy, that there isn’t that much difference between thought and deed. If we take what Jesus says here seriously, we are all sinners. (I know this is what Lutherans teach and generally believe, even if it isn’t what they practice. Because it isn’t what they practice.)

The point of the teaching here, then, is to provoke both conscience and humility. “At least I’ve never killed anyone,” I can say. And it’s true. I’ve never killed anyone. But I have been angry, so angry I have wanted to. And so, rather than allow me to sit in smug self-righteous, this teaching reminds me that I too am a sinner, little different, and little better. (Think of what you can truly, honestly, and self-righteously claim to never have done.) To use an example from my upcoming book (and the reason I am no longer being considered for ordained ministry in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America), the one who has never actually committed adultery should look upon someone who has with a little humility. Who has not contemplated someone else lustfully? Because not all that much separates the thinking from the doing.

Certainly not in the eyes of God.

And note, Jesus speaks in this passage not of eternal consequences for sin in one’s heart and one’s soul, but of temporal consequences. This is part of the coming judgment that will overtake Israel. I’m not entirely sure what that means. On the face of it, there is a incredible harshness, a brutal mercilessness to this. Just as there is to all of the judgment talk in Matthew. (And Matthew is very focused on the coming judgment.) “Don’t think those of you who haven’t actually done anything will be safe, or safer than the rest of you, when the hour comes,” Jesus might be saying here. (This is why we need to take judgment seriously in Matthew.) And yet, the point may also be that when we argue among ourselves over who is more sinful, or more righteous, we are no longer paying attention to what’s going on around us, and the judgment to come will overtake us — all of us, even the supposed righteous who have sinned in thought but not in deed — when we least expect it. “Watch therefore,” Jesus tells his disciples later in Matthew, “for you know neither the day nor the hour.”

In fact, it may be that in the judgment to come, those have actually sinned, in thought and deed, and who have acknowledged that sin, will have an advantage over those righteous who have lived far more exemplary and respectable lives. Because perhaps they are paying attention, and know to flee when the time comes. While the righteous will stay. And fight. And die. (Evoking Jeremiah 21, as so much of Matthew’s judgment talk does for me.)

I don’t like to mix my gospels when I do this kind of thing (contemplate and teach), but this understanding brings to mind a passage from the Gospel of Luke:

9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus:‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get. ’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner! ’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted. (Luke 18:9-14 ESV)

The Lectionary This Week — How to Love God and Love Your Neighbor

Where I contemplate on the Sunday scripture readings according to the Revised Common Lectionary.

Reformation Sunday, 26 October 2014 (Year A)

  • Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18
  • Psalm 1
  • 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
  • Matthew 22:34-46

After several weeks of difficult and even unpleasant readings from Matthew, this Sunday’s readings — and it’s Reformation Sunday for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America — give us something that, at first blush, seems a lot less problematic. Something we can find some grace in. Something that doesn’t involve kings and masters burning villages and consigning the improperly dressed to outer darkness.

The gospel reading is from Matthew 22, verses 34-46:

34 But when the Pharisees heard that [Jesus] had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. 35 And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37 And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

41 Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them a question, 42 saying, “What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” 43 He said to them, “How is it then that David, in the Spirit, calls him Lord, saying,

44 “‘The Lord said to my Lord,
“Sit at my right hand,
until I put your enemies under your feet”’?

45 If then David calls him Lord, how is he his son?” 46 And no one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions. (Matthew 22:34-46 ESV)

“On these two commandments depend all of the Law [νόμος] and the Prophets.” Loving God with heart, soul, mind, and body, and loving your neighbor as yourself. These are the whole of not just the Law, the Torah, the teaching that God gives to Israel as it wanders in exile, but also of the prophetic critique God makes of Israel as the divided kingdoms are sliding toward conquest, exile, and oblivion. Israel is called to love God, and to practice love toward others, as its part in the call by God to follow. And the failure to love God, and love neighbor, will be the cause of the disaster looming over the divided kingdoms as Assyrians and Babylonians bear down upon them.

Love is that important.

We’re lucky, this Sunday, for having some real guide to what that love looks like. Too often, we’re deprived of concrete examples of what “love of neighbor” look like in daily living. But the first reading from this coming Sunday, from Leviticus 19, does a very good job of laying out in black and white what that love is supposed to look like as God’s people strive to live with each other (the lectionary reading excludes verses 3-8, but I have included them here):

1 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 2 “Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them, You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy. 3 Every one of you shall revere his mother and his father, and you shall keep my Sabbaths: I am the Lord your God. 4 Do not turn to idols or make for yourselves any gods of cast metal: I am the Lord your God.

5 “When you offer a sacrifice of peace offerings to the Lord, you shall offer it so that you may be accepted. 6 It shall be eaten the same day you offer it or on the day after, and anything left over until the third day shall be burned up with fire. 7 If it is eaten at all on the third day, it is tainted; it will not be accepted, 8 and everyone who eats it shall bear his iniquity, because he has profaned what is holy to the Lord, and that person shall be cut off from his people.

9 “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. 10 And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God.

11 “You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; you shall not lie to one another. 12 You shall not swear by my name falsely, and so profane the name of your God:I am the Lord.

13 “You shall not oppress your neighbor or rob him. The wages of a hired worker shall not remain with you all night until the morning. 14 You shall not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind, but you shall fear your God:I am the Lord.

15 “You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor. 16 You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not stand up against the life of your neighbor: I am the Lord.

17 “You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him. 18 You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord. (Leviticus 19:1-18 ESV)

“You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” This is about being holy — קָד֔וֹשׁ — and so it would be fair that in these commands God gives to Israel, God is describing what holiness looks like.

And it looks like generosity. It looks like grace.

All of these acts are relational. The you here in the commands is singular, and all this is spoken to the individual Israelite. The commands and prohibitions are about life together as the people of God. How I treat you, and how you treat me, matters. These commands speak to what it means to live with each, and how each us should live with each other. Especially with the most vulnerable — we aren’t to strip our fields bare, whether to maximize our own gain or to keep all of the produce for ourselves. There are people who rely on gleanings, on the grapes dropped in the vineyard, on the fat of the land, for their sustenance. Just as Israel relied on manna gathered daily — and only daily — for food in the wilderness.

Down the list, the prohibitions against stealing, lying, profaning the name of God, depriving laborers or servants — who would be neighbors — of their earnings, cursing the blind and deaf and making life unduly difficult for them, showing partiality in court, slandering neighbors, hating and taking vengeance upon neighbors — all of these things destroy trust, allow the strong to behave callously and cruelly toward the weak.

It isn’t how God treats God’s people.

Note, with the exception of not hating “your brother in your heart,” this love of neighbor isn’t about feeling good about your neighbor. It isn’t in what you think or believe about your neighbor. It’s almost entirely about how you act toward your neighbor.

Even when it seems they are solely about personal piety in which no one else is affected. How can keeping leftover meat for three days even approach sinfulness, much less the kind of sin that would merit someone being “cut off from his people”? (And that consequence for keeping leftovers is probably the reason these verses were not included in this week’s readings.) Possibly because it shows a lack of generosity, and unwillingness to share, or a belief that something must be hoarded, either because it’s scarce or simply because it’s delicious. No reason is stated here, but given what else this prohibition is bundled with, it would make sense that this is about an unwillingness to be generous. To share without fear.

While Leviticus will go on to describe holiness as being separate:

23 And you shall not walk in the customs of the nation that I am driving out before you, for they did all these things, and therefore I detested them. … 25 You shall therefore separate the clean beast from the unclean, and the unclean bird from the clean. You shall not make yourselves detestable by beast or by bird or by anything with which the ground crawls, which I have set apart for you to hold unclean. 26 You shall be holy to me, for I the Lord am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine (Leviticus 20:23, 25-26 ESV)

in our reading for this Sunday, holiness is described as generosity, honesty, kindness, truthfulness. We are not Canaanites, and we do not live like Canaanites. Not just in what we don’t do (this section of Leviticus is full of things Israel is forbidden from doing), but also in the things we do for each other. In the ways we live together. We care for one another. We create a community where the poor, the blind, the deaf (and others) don’t just eke out a living in some neglected corner, but live with some dignity in the midst of everyone.

This is what it means to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind … [and] … love your neighbor as yourself.”

If there is a weakness in this Leviticus passage, it is the sense that neighbors are largely restricted to “your own people” (בְּנֵ֣י עַמֶּ֔ךָ). This is a legitimate concern, especially since Israel has been commanded to separate itself from the Canaanites, the people whose land they have been given, who they are conquering, the people God is driving out from the land. Is nothing owed the stranger, the foreigner, even the one set aside for destruction?

Well, I cannot speak to the Canaanites — who aren’t exterminated, by the way — but God does instruct Israel quite explicitly later in Leviticus 19:

33 “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. 34 You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19:33-34 ESV)

The stranger, the sojourner, is to be treated the same as the kinsman. The stranger, the sojourner, is also a neighbor, entitled to the gleanings from the field, to the kindness and respect due every fellow Israelite.

(Don’t forget, however, that this talk of loving God and loving neighbor in Matthew comes as something of a break in a long series of deeds, parables, and discussions about the coming judgement of God upon God’s people Israel. And after this, Jesus gets serious — down and dirty — in describing the hows and whys of that coming judgement.)

* * *

And then after this, Jesus asks the Pharisees an interesting question: “What do you think of the Christ [the anointed one]? Whose son is he?”

It’s a fascinating question, since Jesus goes on to quote Psalm 110 to suggest that the Christ — the anointed one — cannot possibly be the Son of David, since David calls him “Lord.” At least I find it fascinating, since Matthew so clearly puts Jesus in line with both David and Abraham at the very beginning of his gospel:

1 The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. (Matthew 1:1 ESV)

So, Matthew puts him in this lineage, while he also quotes Jesus seeming to deny it. It’s a stunning juxtaposition. I’m not entirely sure how to make sense of it.

I think I know why Matthew roots Jesus so solidly in that lineage of Abraham and David — Jesus inherits the promises given to Abraham, bears those promises, witnesses those promises, and finally fulfills this promises. The same is true of the promises made to David. To Abraham, God promises many descendants, a land of his own, and that he will be a blessing to the world. To David, God promises to establish his kingdom forever.

Jesus is given all of these promises, and in him, they are all fulfilled. (I have come to believe that for Matthew, Jesus is Israel.) And yet, he is bigger than Abraham and Moses and David and even all Israel gathered from exile. I cannot quite put my finger on this right now. Mostly this is just churning around in my mind. But Jesus’ story, from the beginning of his ministry to his passion and eventually his resurrection, is the story of Israel, it parallels the judgement that is about to descend upon Israel in the coming war, and the coming destruction of Jerusalem.

Sermon – The Vengeance of God

This was a sermon I gave at Immanuel Lutheran Church in Dixon, Illinois, a few weeks ago. It didn’t really work as a sermon, at least not for that congregation in that place at that time. But I’ve wanted to post it for a while because this is an example of where my thinking theologically is moving.

* * *

Sermon for the Weekend of August 30-31

  • Jeremiah 15:15-21
  • Psalm 26:1-8
  • Romans 12:9-21
  • Matthew 16:21-28

“Lord, you know. Remember me and visit me, and take vengeance for me on my persecutors.”

These are the words of Jeremiah, his lament, in the first reading today. A reading which comes in the midst of God’s angry and unyielding judgment upon God’s people, a judgment they have earned because of their faithlessness and their idolatry. In the previous chapter, God has commanded Jeremiah, “Do not pray for the welfare of this people,” for God “will not hear their cry” and “will consume them by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence.”

God is speaking this. About God’s people.

It’s a harsh message, this message of earned judgment, of coming defeat and destruction. It’s a message no one wants to hear, especially in the midst of war — because for much of Jeremiah’s prophetic career, the Kingdom of Judah is at war with Babylon, a war of defense and survival, and Judah is losing. Jeremiah pays quite a price for the things he says. Imagine, for a moment, how someone counseling defeat and surrender would have fared in the weeks and months after 9/11.

God says a lot to Jeremiah, and sometimes it’s not entirely clear whether God is speaking to Jeremiah, or through him to Israel, or both. Right before today’s passage, God tells Jeremiah, “Your wealth and your treasures I will give as spoil, without price, for all your sins, throughout all your territory. I will make you serve your enemies in a land that you do not know, for in my anger a fire is kindled that shall burn forever.” That’s Israel’s fate. But is it Jeremiah’s, too?

So when Jeremiah asks for vengeance against his persecutors, is he asking for himself, thinking of the priests, court officials, and army officers who have — and will continue — to try and kill him as he counsels defeat and surrender? Or is asking as besieged Judah, as the people of God, who will lose this war to Babylon, whose leaders will be dragged into exile far away?

Vengeance. It’s a tough subject. A tough subject for us to even consider. We are, after all, the people of a kind and loving God, a God of grace. We are the people who are told to turn the other cheek when assaulted or offended, or walk a second mile when compelled to go one, or give up our cloaks to whoever wants to take our tunics. That’s the virtuous people we are — in theory. That’s what Jesus tell us to do. That’s who Jesus tells us we are.

I get the feeling sometimes we think we’re not even supposed to want vengeance. To even feel anger and resentment, or the desire to get even. But Jeremiah wants vengeance, for himself or for his people. Or both. And he prays for it. Scripture does not shy away from that very human desire. The psalmist in our reading today seeks vindication, for he has done everything right — avoided sin and sinners, he’s worshiped properly and faithfully proclaimed. Vindicate isn’t quite vengeance — there’s no implication of violence and destruction, just a very public demonstration to everyone that the psalmist is correct. It’s kind of the same thing, though. Revenge is a theme in a few psalms.

None is more graphic, and more troubling to us, I think, than Psalm 137, which was composed in exile, after Judah had lost that war Jeremiah preached against.

1 By the waters of Babylon,
there we sat down and wept,
when we remembered Zion.
2 On the willows there
we hung up our lyres.
3 For there our captors
required of us songs,
and our tormentors, mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
4 How shall we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand forget its skill!
6 Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy!
7 Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
the day of Jerusalem,
how they said, “Lay it bare, lay it bare,
down to its foundations!”
8 O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed,
blessed shall he be who repays you
with what you have done to us!
9 Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones
and dashes them against the rock!

There is probably no greater desire for vengeance in scripture than that last verse. It’s a human desire, a deep lamentation of despair and anger, given up to God in the midst of exile. We should not be ashamed of this. Each one of us has had that desire. Perhaps even today.

The whole thing is even more troubling if we consider that Martin Luther saw the psalms as a prayer book, the very very best words, spoken by the saints of God themselves, in deepest earnestness, directly to God. Not just words of happiness, joy, and praise, but words of sorrow, anger, despair, words that help us peer into the deep darkness of the human heart.

Our hearts.

Before I go any farther, I want to make it clear what is being prayed for in Psalm 137. “Blessed shall he be…” This is not a rallying cry for action, not “Blessings to us as we…” It is merely an acknowledgment of the anger, a very real and legitimate anger. As God’s people, we can be angry. We can want vengeance. We just aren’t empowered to do anything about it.

Because Babylon is doomed. It will fall. And it does fall, many years later, to the Persians, who will then allow the exiles to return to Jerusalem and rebuild it.

This is where Paul comes in. Never avenge yourselves, he tells the faithful at the church in Rome, but leave it to the wrath of God. Trust God to do that work, and go about the business of loving neighbors and enemies. He then gives’ Jesus’ command to love enemies some flesh — feed your hungry enemy, give them something to drink if they are thirsty. If nothing else, it will shame them.

“Vengeance is mine,” Paul writes. “I will repay, says the Lord.”

Heard that before? It’s from Deuteronomy, chapter 32, and it comes from a long song Moses sings — yes, sings — to the people of Israel as they are preparing to enter the promised land. In that song, Moses lays out the history of Israel that has passed and that will come, and the vengeance he speaks of — the vengeance Paul quotes — is God’s promised vengeance upon God’s faithless and idolatrous people if, or when, they fail to keep their end of the covenant.

God’s vengeance upon us.

There’s another reason we need to let God have vengeance. Because maybe we don’t know what God’s vengeance, what God’s wrath, really looks like. Yes, we envision the destruction of the wicked, the suffering of those who have done us wrong, and maybe even fire and brimstone raining down from the heavens, but consider Paul, who I suspect knew a thing or two about the wrath of God. In the Bible, we meet him as Saul, when Stephen is stoned to death, and he is ravaging the early church, banging down doors and taking the followers of Jesus to prison. He is on his way to Damascus, breathing threats and murder against the church, when he is struck down blind by Jesus. “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”

And Saul becomes Paul, preaching Jesus as the crucified and risen Lord to gentiles, kings, and the people of Israel.

Couldn’t we call that striking down, that grasping of Saul and not letting him go, the vengeance of God? No doubt many cursed Saul, and some very likely wanted him dead, but what better vengeance can God possibly have but to take someone so vigorously and murderously opposed and make him God’s own? You and I think we know what vengeance is, but we are called to trust God. And maybe God knows better what vengeance really is. The exiles who sang their lament along the Euphrates River and said “Blessed shall he be…” most likely never lived to see Babylon defeated. They would never see home again. They lived as a defeated and conquered people, and had to trust that God would deliver, not them, but their children and grandchildren.

That’s a hard trust. Especially when we hold in our hands the power of death and destruction, the ability to exact vengeance and the willingness to call it justice. To do it right now! It’s satisfying, that power. Why trust in God when we can do something ourselves?

But that’s the power Moses sang against, and he told Israel where trust in that power would lead. Jeremiah preached against that power as it pointlessly tried to save itself. And Jesus faced that power, that desire, in the crowds, the high priests, the soldiers, the Roman governor, and the executioner.

And we face that power, too. United in death and life to the risen Christ who overcame death and sin for the glory of God.

And that’s how are we not overcome by evil. And how we overcome evil with good. By remembering that we are baptized. By remembering whose life, death, and resurrection we are joined to in that baptism. By remembering the promise of eternal life that comes with the water and saving word. By remembering that Jesus went to the cross, knowing he would be tortured, that he would die, and that he would rise again three days later, Lord of all. By remembering that the world is saved by an act of power and might that emerges out of suffering and death. Jesus rose, showing us — showing the whole world — that death and sin are powerless and defeated.

By remembering that, in words Paul himself writes in Romans, we too, all of us, were once enemies of God, reconciled to God by Jesus’ death *and* his risen life.

*That*, sisters and brothers, is the vengeance of God. And it is a marvelous thing to be a part of.