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Divine Violence, Part 3

 His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind? Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the words of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. John 9:2-4

As a way to illustrate the shared responsibility for the violence manifesting in our world as mass shootings, human slavery, and various forms of oppression and abuse, consider a sometimes-violent, homeless, and mentally ill man living on the streets of our town. Whose fault is it that he is homeless? We are quick to blame local governments for their inadequate funding for affordable housing. Whose fault is it that he has untreated mental illness? We are quick to blame the government’s inadequate funding for mental health services. Whose fault is it that he is sometimes violent? We are quick to blame the local justice system. Now, follow this chain: Who controls governmental purse strings and priorities? (Our elected officials) Who elects these officials? (We do) Most elected officials are inundated with complaints about high government spending. Others complain that taxes need to increase to take care of people like this man, but they believe someone else’s taxes should increase. We recognize the need, but not our own responsibility to participate in the solution.

So, who is to blame for this homeless, mentally ill man on our streets? Is it the government, local service providers, elected officials, or the voters? The responsibility for the problem and the solution, of course, rests on us. I do not point this out to infuse guilt. This is shared guilt and shared responsibility. It starts, however, with recognizing and taking responsibility for our individual part. Pope Francis, in his message for the 2017 World Day of Peace said, “Jesus taught that the true battlefield, where violence and peace meet, is the human heart: for “it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come” (Mark 7:21). [1] The change we seek begins within. As I noted last week, the external violence in our world mirrors the internal violence within each of us. Our desire to shift the responsibility for society’s ills onto others is a manifestation of that violence. It reveals the split between our true self, which suffers with the suffering, and our ego-self, which focuses narrowly on its own self-promotion.

How do we identify and heal the violence within so we can begin healing the violence we witness in our world? Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Identify the areas of internal resistance, the motives and beliefs, inhibiting your ability to recognize society’s problems as your problems. For example, “My taxes are already too high” or “That is not my responsibility.”
  2. Once exposed, work to transform those motives and beliefs from something individually focused to something more socially focused. For example, transform the belief that “my taxes are too high” to “we are all going to have to sacrifice to resolve this issue.”
  3. Form or join like-minded people to influence positive change in your community as a whole. For example, form a group to pressure local officials and voters to adequately and sustainably fund local services for the marginalized.

The essential nature of sin is the sense of separation from others. Many perpetrators of human atrocities are isolated beings trapped in their isolated ego-self. How can we safely and effectively integrate those on the margins into society? How can we expand our boundaries to make them feel included? How can we give them a sense of belonging and social responsibility?

In today’s scripture, the followers of Jesus wanted to know who was responsible for a man being born blind. In his day, many believed the man’s blindness was due either to his or his parent’s sin. Jesus said the man was born blind to reveal God’s works – works performed by the hands and hearts of those seeking to love God actively in the world. Whose fault is it we live in a violent world? Ultimately, it is ours. For what purpose? Perhaps it is so those willing to be the hands and heart of God on earth can manifest God’s glory by transforming divine violence into divine love. That is how we will open the gates to God’s kingdom on earth.

This is the 34th in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

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[1] Pope Francis, “Nonviolence: A Style of Politics for Peace,” Message of His Holiness Pope Francis for the Celebration of the Fiftieth World Day of Peace (January 1, 2017).

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Divine Violence, Part 2

 For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come… Mark 7:21a

Last week I reflected on how we can read the violent sections of the Bible in a metaphorical way that helps us reconcile a loving God with a sometimes violent text. This method of biblical interpretation is based on the foundational belief that our inner struggles not only mirror the violence recorded in the Bible, but also mirror the external violence we witness in our world today. These inner struggles occur between our ego-self – the part of us that is overly identified with our mortal, physical being – and our true-self – the part of us that is inseparably wedded to God, others, and the eternal. These two selves, both of which are us, find themselves in frequent conflict because their goals, values, and perspectives differ widely. Unfortunately, the violence in our world is not metaphorical. The murder of innocents, physical abuse, oppression, and the heartbroken victims and families left in their wake are all very real.

Let me restate the proposition that some will find silly or heretical: The world outside of our selves mirrors the world inside of our selves. As such, our eternal fate is inseparably tied to that of all others. Salvation is not an individual achievement; rather, it is a communal awakening. The traditional view of heaven would not be heaven if we were there alone. That would be hell. We have neither the wisdom nor the perspective to judge who is worthy of either glory or damnation. What we have is a commandment to love each other. Followers of Jesus, by definition, try to do what he did. Jesus reached out to and served those on the margins of society – prostitutes, tax collectors, widows and orphans, the sick and lame, immigrants, the blind. In no uncertain terms he told us to go and do likewise. This command was not simply because loving these people is a nice thing to do, but because bringing them into our circle of care is a necessary step for our own entry into the kingdom of heaven. Remember, our inner life mirrors what we witness externally as their life.

A common question I hear in discussions of mass tragedies like the Holocaust is this: Where was God? That question is as wrong as it is reasonable. We are far too quick to blame God for evil manifestations of human brokenness and ignorance. The correct question is: Where were we? Granted, most of us were not alive during the Holocaust, but where are we with the immigrants at our southern border? Where are we in the mass shootings occurring throughout our country? Where are we in human trafficking and the myriad of other continuing forms of human slavery and oppression? If we are God’s hands and feet on earth, where are we? We are an integral part of the fabric of this society and the communities where we live. We help perpetuate that which we do not oppose. What public action have I taken on gun control, global hunger, immigration, or human trafficking? Personally, I have done far too little.

So here is our dilemma: If the outer world mirrors our inner world, what are we doing about the senseless violence within? I think the answer begins with the degree to which we consciously identify with our ego self. The ego has no problem with personal gain at the expense of another. It has no problem looking the other way when someone else is being beaten or robbed, as long as the perpetrator does not come after it. Is it any wonder we live in a violent, self-centered society? The ego has no social conscience, and a lack of social responsibility is at the heart of mass human tragedies. Assuming personal responsibility for the suffering of others is lacking. The ego is very quick to assign blame elsewhere. And the first to suffer and last to recover are those at the margins – the ones to whom Jesus dedicated his ministry.

Once we identify more strongly with our true self, our connection to others becomes more apparent. We can no longer stand by and witness the persecution of others because their persecution is our persecution. Refusing to consider scripture and the life around us as a reflection of our inner world is like praying with one eye open. We allow into our awareness only those parts of reality that support our ego-self. And those at the margins pay the price for our ignorance.

I will attempt to wrap up the loose ends of this discussion next week.

This is the 33rd in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

Prefer to listen? Subscribe to Life Notes Podcasts at https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/life-notes-podcast/id1403068000

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 Poor Stewardship

Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. Ezekiel 34:2a-4

I have found myself in positions of stewardship since 6th grade, when I was the Chief Crossing Guard for my school. My responsibility was to assign a trained crossing guard to each intersection around the school before and after classes. In the days before paid, adult crossing guards, the 6th grade class shepherded the younger children safely across the streets. Being appointed the Chief crossing guard was an honor of sorts, I suppose, but it seemed a lot of responsibility at the time.

A shepherd stewards the sheep in his or her care – leading them to food and water, keeping them safe from predators, healing their wounds, and reuniting them with the flock when they wander away. Near the end of the Gospel of John, Jesus tells Peter that those who love him (Jesus) will feed his sheep. Good stewards take their responsibility seriously, understanding it to be a holy calling. There are numerous examples of solid, sacrificial stewards in our history: Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, and Florence Nightingale to name a few. They used the power, authority, gifts, and talents available to them for a higher purpose – lifting others up – and not allowing the allure of personal gain to deflect them from their calling.

The writer of the book of Ezekiel proclaimed God’s judgment on the poor stewards of his day, calling them shepherds who used their sheep for personal gain. These were harsh words directed at the behavior of the unethical “shepherds.” Although I know there are excellent and faithful stewards in our world today, it seems the poor stewards – the ones who steal from their charges – are more likely to be glorified. News stories abound about greed in the C-Suites and Boardrooms of corporations. Many people consider an honest politician to be an oxymoron. Ministers and Elders of churches too often treat themselves as being among the needy in their care. Is this type of behavior the norm today? I do not believe it is. My point, however, is that the examples of stewardship we are most likely to find in the news are examples of poor stewardship. God calls us to be faithful stewards, using the resources available to us for the care of those in need. As in Ezekiel’s day, we are to strengthen the weak, heal the sick, and lead the strays back into the family.

Come home to church this Sunday. Find a flock to join…or a flock to tend.

 

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