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Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Entanglement of Right

            The ancient Greek king, Agamemnon, is most known for his role in the destruction of Troy during the Trojan War.  Less well known are the dynamics in his family history which make him a tragic figure.  The ancient Greek playwright, Aeschylus, tells Agamemnon’s story in the three tragedies known as the Oresteia.  Agamemnon and his brother Menelaus come to their thrones largely through the atrocities committed by their father against their uncle and cousins.  When Menelaus’ wife, Helen, is seduced and taken to Troy, the brothers seek to punish the Trojans for the act. Like his father, Agamemnon also commits atrocities.  He sacrifices his daughter in order to incur the favor of the gods in the war.  Instead of merely punishing Helen’s lover, he destroys the entire city.  While he is away, the one remaining cousin whom his father hadn’t killed seduces his wife and gains control of his throne.  Upon Agamemnon’s return, his wife murders him along with the mistress he brought back with him from the war.  In turn their son avenges his father’s death by killing his mother and Agamemnon’s cousin.  Each atrocity is justified as the just punishment for the previous act.  The author of an introduction to Aeschylus’ work concludes that he is not describing right versus wrong, but right versus right.  But although each person defends his actions as being appropriate for the situation, although each claims to be in the right, things escalate and get out of hand.  They are caught up in entanglements.  In the end “Every correction is a blood-bath which calls for new correction.”  The Oresteia points out the folly of accepting the viewpoint that the end justifies the means.
            Today we live in a world which is much like Agamemnon’s world.  Our society is also caught up in entanglements.  We focus upon rights to a large degree.  We use them to justify our actions.  We falsely assume that actions performed for the right reasons are acceptable, even if they are morally wrong; whether it was the bombing of ROTC centers on campuses by anti war protestors in the Vietnam era of the 1960s, or the bombing of abortion centers by anti abortionists in the 1980s and 1990s, or the shady practices committed by our political parties in most elections.  Similar to the actions described by the Greek playwright, basing our actions on the philosophy that the end justifies the means is wrong.
            As we have moved into the twenty-first century, society’s focus on narcissistic rights has come to the forefront, whether it is women’s rights, gay rights, illegal alien’s rights, animal rights, etc.  While the issues involving rights are complex, and some of the concerns are legitimate, many of the proffered solutions are troublesome.  They have many of the same problems that Aeschylus describes in his plays.  We can become so caught up in our own rights that we attempt to legitimize all of our actions, moral or not.
            Self legitimization is dangerous precisely because it feeds upon the view that the end justifies the means.  When we accept this view, it becomes easy to believe that as long as our purposes are achieved, it makes no difference whether our actions are morally right or wrong. 
It is also tragic when this viewpoint occurs in the church, for it destroys Christ’s body.  Sin is legitimatized if it has achieved the desired end.  In each case the desired end has been used to justify the means used to achieve it.  It is important to remember that in God’s eyes the end never justifies the means.  Do you find yourself in agreement?

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Our Flirtation with Paganism

            Over the past fifty years we have been sliding down a slope into paganism.  Over time the slope has appeared to become steeper, the slide more rapid, and the descent more difficult to halt and reverse.  Its cessation requires a robust faith, concentrated effort, and a strong voice countering evil.  Whether as a society we any longer have the will and the strength to reverse the slide is questionable. 
            The sad fact is that we do not even know that we have adopted various forms of paganism.  But like the wolf in sheep’s clothing we have too often become pagans in religious garb, namely by embracing one of paganism’s most cherished tenets – fatalism.
            Fatalism holds to the belief that the God who created and sustains the universe has become impotent, unable to contend against the societal forces arrayed against him.  As his power lessens, that of paganism ascends.  Our slide into paganism is illustrative of the problem facing Christianity today.  As mankind has become more self centered, as we surrender ourselves to the way things are, as we become less shocked and more complacent concerning the many facets of evil around us, our view of God as active in all parts of the universe and particularly in the affairs of history, diminishes.  We become accustomed to evil.  When we lose our moral outrage towards evil, believing that its practice in society is inevitable, we fall prey to helplessness and despair.  When we abandon the crime infested areas of our inner cities as irredeemable places we conclude that God has limited power to change things.  The fatalistic viewpoint that this is just the way things now are, and that we must learn to live with it, comes straight out of paganism. 
            The biblical picture is vastly different.  Nowhere in the pages of Scripture do we find fatalism advocated.  We are constantly told that we have a choice: “Choose life, not death!”  “Choose whom you will serve”.  Instead of callousness towards evil, which paganism embraces, we are called to moral indignation.  But unless we have an all encompassing belief in a God who acts, in a God who controls the affairs of history, we will find ourselves grasping hold of paganism more than of God.
            The early church father, Tertullian, living in the days of pagan Rome, called for Christians to become the “soul” of the culture in which they lived.  He believed that the Church could transform society in this way.  He was well aware that in so doing, he was calling Christians to a life of sacrifice, even to the point of death.  The Church heeded his exhortation.  It was a mere century after his death that the Roman emperor Constantine converted to Christianity.
            The culture in which we live is quite similar to that of Tertullian.  Both cultures have experienced wide-spread corruption and disregard for the sanctity of life.  The early Christians, rejecting fatalism, believed that God was calling them to redeem their culture.  They took a stand for God, willing to risk everything.  Choosing God’s way always requires risk, and it is in the area of risk where we often will discover where our true allegiance lies.  The acceptance of risk requires faith.  The question before all of us is this: “Am I willing to step out in faith, much as Abraham did when he left Ur of the Chaldees for an unknown land, risking everything to stand against the evil in the society around me?”  To answer “No” suggests we have transferred our allegiance to paganism, believing that it is more powerful than God.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Spiritual Tranquilizer

            Thomas Merton, reflecting on the 1958 Christmas Address of Pope John XXIII noted that
 “Christ our Lord did not come to bring peace to the world as a kind of spiritual tranquilizer.  He brought to His disciples a vocation and a task, to struggle in the world of violence to establish His peace, not only in their own hearts but in society itself.  This was to be done not by wishing and fair words but by a total interior revolution in which we abandoned the human prudence that is subordinated to the quest for power, and followed the higher wisdom of love and of the Cross.” 
Although his words were written during the height of the Cold War, they are as relevant today as they were then.  We are still living in a world of violence.  We see the effects of terrorism all around the world.  We still seek to obtain power, whether as religious right or left, as conservative or liberal, or Republican or Democrat.  We are often asked to compromise our convictions.  We still find comfort in pursuing a tranquilizing peace that never quite solves the problems we face.  It doesn’t appear that much has changed in the past fifty years.
            The role of a tranquilizer is to soothe over issues and reduce tension.  While it covers over problems, it never solves the basic issues.  Merton’s statement leads us to a probing question. To what extent do we seek peace as a spiritual tranquilizer?  If we do, we will find ourselves eventually willing to accept “peace at any price”.  And this leads us down the slippery slope which ends up in a compromise with error and evil.  Unfortunately it is all too easy to justify this in the name of peace.  The Old Testament prophets excoriated the religious leaders who preached “peace, peace when there was no peace”.  We saw what occurred when world leaders sought to appease Hitler during the 1930s.  Many church leaders of his day also fell under his charismatic leadership, refusing to take a stand against the Third Reich as it became more and more evil.
            But true Christianity never makes compromise with evil in order to achieve peace.  We see this in the life of Jesus.  Even though it eventually cost Him his life, He refused to go along with the religious leaders of His day whose teachings had distorted God’s intent.  We see the same in the lives of His disciples when they declared “Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him? You be the judges!” (Acts 4:19b).  And we also see it in the lives of the Christian martyrs as they peacefully faced the wild animals and gladiators in the arenas before the taunting on-looking crowds   Refusing to worship the emperor and live in peace, they gladly accepted death. 
            In the spiritual realm, peaceful coexistence never seems to work.  Those on the side of evil will almost always come out ahead in the exchange.  Despite our vain attempts to coexist with the world, Satan will never play fair, always manipulating things to his advantage.  He simply cannot be trusted.
            As Merton eloquently notes, God requires an interior revolution or transformation that totally changes our character and our lives. This alone brings true peace, even in the midst of violence, for it is an interior peace that only comes from a total allegiance to and complete trust in God.  It relies upon complete dependence on Him.  What kind of peace are we willing to live with? Is it a tranquilized peace that lasts only for the moment?

Community Spirit

             During the 19th century and first half of the 20th century community spirit was much in vogue.  It was common for neighbors to help neighbors during times of need, especially in rural America.  Growing up during the latter years of this period, before the radical shift to individualism occurred, I was fortunate enough to witness this phenomenon.  While still a young boy, I had the privilege of attending a barn raising where farmers from twenty miles around came together to help a neighbor to build a new barn.  As part of a threshing ring, our family along with several others bought a threshing machine to harvest grain.  During the harvesting season, the entire group would move from farm to farm, harvesting each farmer’s grain, the men and boys working in the fields, the wives and girls cooking the meals.  I have always felt privileged to have been old enough to participate in this activity prior to its cessation from American life.  One spring, when my father was ill and unable to prepare our fields for planting, several neighbors showed up one Saturday morning with their tractors and plows to prepare the fields.  These types of activities were common during my youth.
            Moving into the latter half of the 20th century things radically changed with the rise of both industrialization and individualism.  The urban flight to suburbia with its protected yards and garage door openers, the vast increase in mechanized equipment on the farms, the shift in attitude towards “doing one’s own thing” and “I’ve got to be me” all led us away from community.  Front porches, with neighbors sitting on them and conversing, were replaced with decks in backyards, resulting in further loss of community.  Churches, by en large, also succumbed to this loss, as, with better roads and faster automobiles, coupled with the thrill of individualism, the concept of local community churches disappeared.  It is not uncommon today for people to live thirty or more miles away from the church where they worship.  This makes community life much more difficult.
            The emphasis upon individualism which began in the 1960s, moving through modernism into the postmodern era has increasingly fractured society, with many today feeling alone, aloof and disenfranchised.  The void that individualism brings can only be filled by community because God, being triune, is in community, and expressed our need for human community when he said “It is not good for man to be alone.”  In constituting the church, God has chosen the symbol of the body to illustrate its communal nature.  We are called together, with the understanding that we need each other to function properly.  
            The church, because of its body structure, is poised to overturn the aloneness and abandonment of our current individualistic society.  As a caring community, it can reach out to the world, meeting the needs we find there.  But community does not occur by osmosis.  It requires intentionality.   It will not occur without deliberate effort. To be successful, it will require men and women coming together with the conviction that God has called them to such an endeavor. 
            God calls each of us to be a part of His redeeming community.  He calls us to reach out to the alienated world around us and draw them into His community, the church.  But it will not happen unless we are willing to abandon our own individualistic ways of living.  It is only by our active involvement as the body of Christ that others will find the Christian community attractive and seek to enter.  Are you willing to make the effort?