Sunday, December 16, 2018

Advent III—What Then Should We do?

Biblical characters are frequently demanding and commanding in the name of God, even to the point of name-calling, like John the Baptist’s indictment of the crowds seeking baptism: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Trees that do not bear good fruit will be thrown into the fire and burned up. This is harsh. John the Baptist would never win any popularity contests. And yet he sheds glaring, revelatory light on human behavior. What you do matters to you, to your neighbors, and to God.

Does God judge? Yes. Does God condemn forever? No. Does God call for repentance and change? Yes. Does God love with zeal equal to the zeal with which God judges? Yes.

“What then should we do?” the crowds asked John. They, like us, wonder about this kind of God, and feel threatened, a little scared.  

The Baptist’s answers are inconvenient but quite clear: give away one of your several coats; do not extort money falsely; no usury or threats of violence; be content with your own wages. Someone more powerful than I am is coming.

Ah, good: our Jesus Christ is coming with the Holy Spirit in tow. Good news! Whew!

Not so fast. This Christ, whom we think is our Christmassy Jesus, has a winnowing fork and bears exactly the same message as the Baptist delivered. The harsh light of judgment exposes us all, inside and out. It hurts. Certainly no one would dare be silly and sentimental about the power of this Word, this Christ, this God who calls for right behavior.

What then should we do?

The first thing to do is to scrutinize your own greedy habits. The second thing to do is to realize you can’t blame the OLD testament for this one. It is in our NEW testament. Then resist the temptation to blame, even yourself. Historically and today, one of the first reactions when we feel afraid, challenged, insecure, and powerless is to defend self by blaming others, rather than taking into account our own behavior.

Just like the crowd the Baptist warned, we are in disarray, not centered, unclear about what to do, how to behave. Our values are askew, so we blame: Republicans, Democrats, climate-deniers, the media, the atheists, the theists, God godself, science, the White House, the northeast, the southwest, the midwest, Catholics, Muslims, Sikhs, the law, religion, the Bible, the police, car salesmen, LGBTQI  people, THE Institution—on and on. Add your favorite blamee—even shaming yourself neurotically counts. All of this gets us off the hook. Face it: we might just be a brood of vipers who need to get honest.

Throughout history, the preferred blamee has always been the Jews. NOTE: John the Baptist, Jesus, Mary, Paul, the gospel writers, all of our beloved biblical forebears, were Jews.

I worry about this die-hard and deadly habit of blaming the Jews. All -isms are on the rise in our confused world, and anti-semitism is too. It’s always the Jews, or the OT, which is to say the same thing in disguise. Why is that? Cynthia Ozick proffers an answer in her essay “Hep! Hep! Hep!”, published in A Sense of Wonder (2016).

H.E.P. was the call of the Christian Crusades in 1099. It stood for Hierosolyma est perdita (Jerusalem is destroyed.) Hep! Hep! Hep!—a raging marching song, a Christian cry, a Nazi cry, an anti-Zionist cry. It’s the cry of blamers and haters anywhere. If you listen carefully to your deep inner self you might hear the impulse to cry Hep! when you feel frustrated, angry, wanting to vilify another and declare yourself absolutely right. Toddlers do this well.

Such impasses happen everywhere and any time to any society and people, so why do Jews bear more of the brunt than other groups? Ozick suggests it has much to do with: “. . . the forceful powerful resistance to what Jewish civilization represents—the standard of ethical monotheism and its demands on personal and social conscience.”

We’re right back to the Baptist’s cry, to Jesus’s winnowing fork—calling us to high standards of morality. We plain don’t like it. Think Ten Commandments—foundational divine expectations, the manifesto of the Jews.

I think the worldwide symptom of this resistance is that we are stuck in fight mode—spewing toxic, hostile energy, and humor that falls short of being prophetic, into the midst, rather than enough respectful intelligence to open up relationships with and any and all putative blamees.
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Still: are we less divided than we think we are, or than we are told we are? As long as we think we have to fight we will have to blame. The space between us will remain contaminated, and that space is where commonly held values live—gasping for air.

Think tug of war. If each of only two teams dropped the rope and abandoned the fighting spirit, the passion to win and to be right, the dust would settle. Could we then see clearly and hear each other clearly? Is this the baptism of the Holy Spirit and cleansing water? 

Is this then what we should do?