In anticipation of leading my Matthew study group’s consideration of the Beatitudes in a couple of weeks, I’ve been gathering insights from as many sources as I can. Recently a couple of welcome, serendipitous messages came my way, and they deepened my sense of the kind of reflection I need to do. I’m hung up today on “hungering and thirsting for righteousness.” This comes after two friends sent me pastoral pieces – one, a pastoral epistle written for his parish newsletter; the other, a funeral sermon – dealing with peacemaking. Each in his own way begins with peacemaking and connects it to the other Beatitudes, which I think is inescapable, to focus my attention on hunger and thirst for righteousness.
Brother Daniel (aptly named for the OT witness) struggles with the (at least seeming) paradox inherent to peacemaking – the need for activism to make peace (not just wish for it) in tension with the alienation that so easily results when people on opposite sides of the argument clash. He writes (and has previously spoken) movingly about his student-activist days (he’s only recently not a student, so it’s not a good-old-days trip), including conflicts with the student Republicans at Luther Sem over the invasion and occupation (or “liberation”) of
Daniel (rightly) raises concerns about any effort to identify the peace of Christ with any earthly or political system or program of peace: “Human peace, whether imagined by the Christian left or the Christian right, kills inasmuch as its very incantation ends the possibility for transforming conversation,” Daniel writes. And then he goes on to highlight peacemaking that more adequately models Christian peacemaking -- what he calls “counter-intuitive peace actions [i.e., counter-intuitive to the world’s logic about how to make peace] that mirror, however furtively, the will of God as shown on the cross: the Christianity of the Civil Rights movement, the insistence of love for one’s enemy in Mohandas Gandhi’s Jesus-conversant satyagrapha (truth force) experiment, and the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission.” Nevertheless, throughout his epistle, he betrays a certain ambivalence about how one activates a desire to make the peace – i.e., he shows the allure of or the temptation to quietism.
Following directly on that was a sermon from Brother Paul (unarguably an apostle, but not that apostle), preached at the funeral of one of his members (who died at an age only one year older than I am). His parishioner, Galen, was passionate for peace, “troubled by the violence of this world, troubled by the politics of this world that sustained violence, troubled by Christians who perpetrated violence in God’s name.” He, then, aptly draws meaning from Galen’s life in terms of the Beatitudes: “If you listen to all these blessings Jesus speaks in the Beatitudes, peacemakers are part of a list of those who end up going hungry in this world… . If you’re a peacemaker, then you’ll have an uphill battle, arguing for reconciliation when the rest of us are ready to put up our dukes. … This was Galen where peace and politics were concerned: hungry, frustrated, and perplexed.”
Sidebar: Both of these guys are terrific preachers, which means that they are, in my book, great theologians (even when I disagree with them – as I regularly do). I have set as my rule that no one can a great theologian unless he or she is a great preacher: If you can’t preach it, it ain’t worth teaching it – and it most certainly ain’t theology!
My friends’ pastoral counsel coincides with my own most recent obsession – viz., the USAmerican policy (or lack thereof) on torture. I can think of nothing more incompatible with the peacemaking that Christians are called to do than the calculated and carefully calibrated dehumanization of another person by means of psychological and physical abuse. Even if one grants legitimacy to some kind of “just(ified) war” theology (something I have difficulty squaring with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but that’s a minority position among Christians through the ages), I absolutely cannot understand how one can even attempt to justify torture. It seems to be murder (in the biblical sense) writ large – more than the murder of the body, it is murder of the soul; it is personalized terrorism, as dehumanizing of the perpetrator as of the victim.
My outrage (an expression of my hungering and thirsting for righteousness – at least in my own mind) is heightened by the efforts of the current USAmerican administration to play cute with this fundamental issue by reducing it to semantics: We will define torture to exclude anything we do and then we’ll say that we don’t torture. Thus, of course, torture, by definition, doesn’t include waterboarding (a practice for the use of which we have prosecuted people for a century), beatings, “stress positioning,” and the like – because we want to use them. So we, by definition, don’t torture – even though we do those things. Such foolishness is unconscionable, and I wonder how the doublespeakers sleep at night. (And that doesn’t even broach the issue of my concern for their well-being at the judgment promised by Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew.) I am horrified, both as a Christian and as a lawyer, that anyone presumes to do this – and even more so when they claim to carry on such horror in my name or for my benefit.
Now, lest someone think that I am showing my progressive underwear here, let me make clear that this is no partisan issue. There is virtually no push-back from this announced policy by the supposedly “liberal” loyal opposition or by the “family values” Christian community. (One of the reasons that I am not a registered Democrat is that I don’t think that it matters: There is no opposition – loyal or otherwise – to systematic policies and procedures that violate basic principles of life.) There are people from across the intellectual, partisan, and spiritual spectra on both sides of the issue of torture. So this is not a right-left thing, a liberal-conservative thing: I’m inclined to say it’s a right-wrong sort of thing, instead.
But in my outrage, Brother Daniel’s reflection gives me pause. He raises the possibility that in my eagerness to defend the right – ahh, the correct and honorable, not the “right” as in “right wing” – I may be closing the door on those whose positions and actions I oppose and, in effect, denying to my opponents the very humanity that I think they deny others in their support of torture. Am I dehumanizing them by refusing to converse with them? What if they only spout platitudes about defending
Such rumination can easily lead to passivity. One can be so concerned not to violate the humanity of an opponent that she says nothing, does nothing, engages in no way. But that is certainly not the example or counsel of Jesus: Look at the way he stood up to power structures, criticized scribes and Pharisees and Sadducees, called on every-day Jews to “repent!” Passivity was and is not Jesus’ way. How do we draw the balance? How, then, shall we live?
Martin Luther may provide some insight. In his most recent book translated into English, Oswald Bayer notes that Luther characterizes the life of faith as the vita passiva – but Bayer doesn’t (and his translators after him don’t) translate that phrase as “the passive life,” but as “the receptive life.” Christian faith is reception of the benefits of Christ and it lives out of His power and protection. Faith (= then, all of Christian life) is allowing Him to gather us into his kingdom – the kingdom which, according to the Evangelist Matthew, has already drawn near (and is getting closer). And it is to live out of the freedom which such power and purpose confer. It is to learn to discover courage in Him and to abandon fear – except, perhaps, for that fear common to every one who has known love, the fear that one will not live consonant with love for loved one. For it recognizes that all comes and will come from Him – food and drink, protection and security, intellect and strength.
As Brother Paul rightly reminded Galen’s mourners, “ [I]t’s the hungry that Jesus came to feed. This is why he pronounces a blessing on the poor, the meek, and those who mourn. He’s here to feed the hungry.” Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be fed; peacemakers’ efforts will not be in vain: That’s the promise and the fact of the Gospel – no limiting conditions (the cross and resurrection demonstrates that), no doubt. Poverty of spirit and meekness and all the rest give me freedom to pursue God’s purposes without concern for my own well-being and also without necessary recourse to the entrenched (and ineffective) systems of the day. I need not and may not rely on the current (supposedly two) political parties to work God’s will; I am not bound to the approaches, programs, idea sets, or ticky-tacky-boxes of the realists and the idealists.
James Nestingen, in the article I reference in a previous post, makes the point that Christian faith is a living out of repentance, but not a repentance “for” or “toward” something, but a repentance “because” of something. I don’t change my way of thinking and live in order to gain something or prepare for something; I “turn around” because that something has already been given me – more specifically, that someone, Jesus Messiah, Lord of History. Henceforth, mine is a life of receiving the benefits of Christ which I then live out among those with whom I have been placed: “Repentance is a correlate of freedom. The tearing away that takes places in detachment is only possible because a deeper, more powerful and superior attachment has come: the attachment of faith, the grip of the kingdom. ... Jesus' repentance is a reflex of the gospel, a detachment that is the result of his attachment to us in grace.”
So our detachment from systems, powers, principalities (in the modern and ancient sense) is made possible by the attachment established by Jesus. From that attachment, we may abandon fear, which is the cause of most, if not all, of the conflicts in and around our lives. But it is not a passive freedom or detachment. We may actively live free of the fear that Osama may win, that the economy may tank, that my child may turn rebellious, that I may lose face. And we may live free to speak the truth to those systems, powers, principalities. And we may, as the martyrs of every age have, live free to stand unarmed before the military forces of the world. We may face governments; we may face torturers; we may face collaborators – and with the cry of Jesus: “Repent! For the kingdom of heaven has drawn near.” And we may trust that what we hunger for will be provided; the rich wine that came from water at
Thus, I am not free to hold my tongue or to cap my pen or to log off my computer or to close my checkbook when I see and hear of the horrors of torture – especially when it is perpetrated in my name or in the name of my defense. I must refuse to accept that protection – a false, evil, satanic protection. I will not try to shout down my opponents: remembering Bible: “Come, let us reason together.” or Aristotle: “Politics is the art of keeping people human.” But I will not let their assumptions go unchallenged – most especially when the assumptions are contrary to the Gospel and are uttered in the context of the community of the Crucified One. And I will donate more the Center for Victims of Torture here in
For the most fundamental freedom I receive from the Lord is the freedom not to be alone in all this. I live in the midst of a community of similarly called, gathered, enlightened, and sanctified followers of Jesus. I am never alone, for the One who calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies makes Himself corporal for me in this corporate gathering. In the midst of this company, I am formed and reformed into a disciple of Jesus by the encouragement and rebuke of others who are similarly living the vita passiva. In fact, I can’t go it alone; nothing is more contrary to poverty of spirit, meekness, and hunger for righteousness than to assert my life as a solitary enterprise or something of my own device. I am driven into the arms of the other members of the Body of Christ.
Christians live as their Lord lived – incarnation and announcement of the coming final reign of God, when He will be all in all and there will be an end to all the roadblocks to celebration. We are not called to sit on our hands, but neither are we called to build a new world from scratch. We are witnesses – in thought, word, and deed; by what we do and by what we leave undone – to the kingdom of heaven (Matthew’s formulation). Witnesses may not deny testifying. But our testimony is to the one who does the building.
We must hear the Gospel to speak the Gospel; we must live the Gospel to believe the Gospel. Neither arrogant self-sufficiency nor faint-hearted (or even brave) quietism is appropriate to living as a Christian. And so I have no option to suffer in silence the presence of torture in the world. I invite you to join me in a witness to neighbor, state, and world.