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In a recent gathering of like-minded explorers in the progressive Christian faith tradition, a common phrase in the conversation was repeated by a number of participants. In the face of various observations about the state of affairs in our current human story, there was repeated reference to the notion of “making the world a better place.” While hardly startling or revelatory, it did beg the question inherent in such a phrase. What might constitute an adequate improvement to the world order?
When that question and the title for this topic arose, what immediately came to my mind was a scene from the 1987 film, “Good Morning, Vietnam.” The late Robin Williams played the part of Adrian Cronauer, the Army DJ broadcasting from Saigon, and sending out a musical greeting to the troops in the field. As the recording of Louis Armstrong’s song, “What a Wonderful World” played, a montage of scenes included peasant farmers working in their rice paddies, followed by helicopter gunships blowing up villages, suspected insurrectionists in Saigon summarily rounded up and shot, civil protests in the streets, etc. Satchmo’s mellow voice ends the song, “It’s a wonderful world. Oh, yeahhhh.”
Over a half-century later, it takes little imagination to see history repeating itself in other daily news footage from the most recent hotspots around the globe; most notably perhaps this month the economic crisis in Venezuela, and the unrelenting, U.S.-assisted bombing and starving of civilians in Yemen. And, to drive home the point further, it’s more than a little ironic that as I write this commentary the site of the current summit between the U.S. and a third-world nuclear threat will take place in Hanoi; a city once heavily bombed during America’s War in Southeast Asia during our holy observance of Christmas in 1972.
This commentary constitutes an exploration of this pesky, perennial question about “a better world” from the vantage point of one faith tradition, and in contemporary context. Its intention is not to offer novelty or any new revelatory insight, but rather to remember and restore a perspective that lies at the heart of a biblical gospel tradition; based on the teachings of a pre-Easter human Jesus.
That alone may be a sufficient challenge, given our state of affairs.
Back to the Future: Creation and Restoration
“The end of all our exploring
will be to arrive where we started
and know the place for the first time.”
T.S. Eliot, The Four Quartets
The compendium of scripture from the Judeo-Christian faith tradition begins with two creation myths in the first chapter of Genesis; mythic tales not dissimilar to numerous other variations found in the Mesopotamian world, between the third and first millennium BCE. That same collection of scriptures then concludes with an hallucinogenic vision of hope for a “new heaven and a new earth.” (Rev. 21:1) But as writer Elaine Pagels reminds us, the author of Revelation came to see that “the kingdom that actually had ‘come with power’ was not God’ – it was Rome’s.” (Revelations: Visions, Prophecy & Politics in the Book of Revelation.)
Between Genesis and Revelation are – among other things – historical chronicles, prophecies, gospel narratives and early Christian writings deciphering the life and death of a Nazarene, his teachings and deification. We live in what has been for a mighty long time the mean-time.
In the Genesis stories, each day of creation ends on a positive note. It was all “very good.” But the idyllic world initially begun as “very good” culminates with the creation of human beings, and everything seems to quickly fall apart after that. The fatal flaw was the inclusion of the corruptible temptation that seems an inherent part of will and intention to what was once our once-immortal make-up. Our expulsion from Eden has subsequently left humankind seeking re-creation or restoration of what presumably once was, and is no more. Whether viewed as evolution, or devolution, there is an unavoidable sense that things seem to be going downhill fast. The classic “category of vices” hardly need be enumerated.
At the same time, it’s worth noting that such obvious awareness to our human failure to learn from history is certainly not limited to any religious lens through which we might face where the fault truly lies. In a recent commentary, I suggested the synonymous nature between both political and religious posturing. Donning a “MAGA” hat while wearing a crucifix around one’s neck, for example, is evidence of just two humanly conceived formulas to presumably try to recreate and/or restore what we’ve messed up so badly.
Some Old Time Religion
In some ways, it seems almost quaint to pose the question about “making a better world” from the perspective of what constitutes the core of gospel tradition; namely, the sayings and teachings the historical Jesus, as near as we can strip away all the additional religious verbiage and identity attributed to him. It begs the question, whether these teachings still constitute a viable and realistic instruction manual about how one might exist most meaningfully in this world, and for its betterment.
The world in which we find ourselves these days might seem vastly different from the one Jesus and his contemporaries faced. Debate over global warming and a climate crisis foreshadowing the doom of our planet was hardly a consideration two millennia ago. And, while the imbalance of military might under the Roman empire was certainly real, international squabbles over denuclearization to avoid mutual self-destruction was an unknown dilemma.
So, when Jesus emerged out of what is sometimes referred to as a Jewish Wisdom tradition, with his little quips, aphorisms and parables, he encompassed it all in a certain paradigm with this similitude: “The kingdom of heaven is like …” Or, “The reign of God is like …” [ As a post-theist, I resonate more with the essential nature of a “god” notion, e.g. “The reign of loving-kindness is like …”]
One way or another, Jesus was describing what the world might be like; instead of the way it seems to have been for a long time. It’s the way the world could be better, if we were better at a few things. What are those things? Here’s one of numerous such examples.
In his little book, The Seven Sayings of Jesus, the late biblical scholar Harry Cook provided a list, along with interpretation and examples, as a formula for our consideration:
1. Turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:39, Luke 6:29) In Jesus’ day, striking the right cheek with the back of the hand was considered a major insult. Offering the other cheek, as well, was an ultimate form of passive non-violent resistance. Is it lunacy in today’s “real” world? Consider a Martin Luther King, or Ghandi.
2. Walk the second mile (Matthew 5:41) The world in Palestine in the 1stCentury CE was dominated by a Roman political and military establishment. Martial law allowed a Roman soldier the right to force a non-Roman to carry his gear for the equivalent of one mile. What consequential benefit could possibly come by offering to voluntarily do twice what is required to ease another’s burden?
3. Give up your shirt as well as your coat (Matthew 5:40), Luke 6:29) The Palestine world of the 1stCentury CE not only clearly knew about wealth disparity, but equally well the thin line between poverty and destitution. To surrender your full raiment was Jesus way of referring to a 100% effort for the sake of the other. As Cook describes his understanding of Jesus’ thinking, “Having was desirable only so one could give. Giving was life. Keeping was death.”It’s about how to save one’s life (and one’s world) by loosing one’s hold on it, and losing.
4. Forgive seventy times seven (Matthew 18:22, Luke 17:4) While this saying has often been adapted to refer to emotional, interpersonal relationships, Jesus’ intent was originally, once again, intended to refer to an economic arrangement in reference to debt and the inequity it produces.
However, if you want to start on more intimate, interpersonal level, there’s no greater example than one of Jesus’ two greatest parables, about the Prodigal Son and his father. Unconditional, unmerited forgiveness (grace) is what may give us individually the experiential opportunity to see it in the larger debtor/creditor context, as well.
Cook explains, “Debt is an advantage to the creditor and disadvantage to the debtor.” This understanding could shift the emphasis of such a saying from the inter-personal to a global scale in our own world. Currently, when the world’s most powerful nation is simultaneously the world’s greatest debtor with a ballooning deficit resulting from greed and self-aggrandizement, what a peculiar notion a biblical “jubilee year” would be to our global economic house of cards!
5. Love your neighbor (Mark 12:31, 33, Matthew 5:43, 19:19, 22:39, Luke 10:27ff) The active verb in the original Greek conveys the idea of a self-giving versus self-possessing kind of love. Cook points out the two obvious problems: One, the people one is commanded to love aren’t always loveable; let alone inclined to reciprocate. And two, such altruism runs counter to our basic human instinct. We have to overcome our most natural human tendency.
The biggest problem embracing such an idea has to do with the question, “Just who is my neighbor?” It’s the question asked of Jesus preceding the other most powerful parable he tells, the one about the Good Samaritan. Now think contemporary context.
In the California county in which I reside, a newly-launched program by an organization called Impact Justiceprovides an Air-B&B for vetted ex-cons; asking local residents to offer safe and stable housing for properly vetted ex-cons whose options would otherwise be homeless shelters, outside tent encampments, or precarious, temporary, transitional housing.
6. Love your enemy (Matthew 5:44, Luke 6:27) Once you figure out who your neighbor is, your enemy – or presumed enemy – is not going to be substantively different from that; or any more loveable! The challenge comes when the enemy is the seeming embodiment of seeming pure evil; something with which human beings are fully capable. The current occupant of the White House boasts of his exchange of “love letters” with the North Korean regime’s murderous dictator; as they jostle for advantageous positions on the world stage. It is uncertain what kind of loving relationship this represents.
On the other hand, there are organizations like convergence, whose mission is to convene people and groups with divergent views to build trust, identify solutions, and form alliances for action on critical national issues. And, on a personal level, it’s my privilege to know and support a Jewish pediatric cardiologist, who makes three mission trips each year to the Palestinian camps to offer his skill and compassion.
Do to others as you would have done to yourself (Matthew 7:12, Luke 6:31) The Jewish teacher Hillel, who lived just before the historical Jesus, formulated the negative variation of the so-called Golden Rule: “What you would not have done to you, do not do to another.” When Jesus uttered such a phrase as “The kingdom of God is within you,” (Lk 17:21),he believed human beings had the capacity to live their lives (and re-shape their world) under such a rule of life. Cook writes:
“What is not said, but, I think implied, is that one needs to live life not in a calculated fashion in which one schemes to erect a quid pro quofor every last thing. In other words, I do not love you so that you will love me. But I love you because I love you, and if you respond in kind, then, Jesus would say, the kingdom (the rule) of God has been realized. If not, it is there in potential.”
When we look at the global issues facing us today, it seems like some of them represent a well-worn path that has been trodden before. At the same, our present crises and state affairs seem to place this global village on an even more precarious footing.
Before we enthusiastically don our “MWGA” hats, we might do well to consider how the sayings of the Galilean sage with his vision of a new heaven and earth might redeem this tattered and weary world.
© 2019 by John William Bennison, Rel.D. All rights reserved.
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