Thursday, July 31, 2008

Rami: Response to Mike's 7/31 Post

I can’t help but wince when listening to the reductionist version of the Beatitude. Jesus is so often forced to fit the agenda of those who use him to excuse actions that he himself would condemn.

When we invaded Iraq in 2003, Larry King had a panel of Christian ministers on his show. He asked one of them how she understood “blessed are the peacemakers” in the context of this preemptive war. Without missing a beat she said, “Our soldiers are peace makers. They will invade Iraq, kill our enemies, and make Iraq a more peaceful place. This is exactly what Jesus had in mind.”

True, I’m recalling her words, and they may not be exact, but her message was as I portray it.

A year or so later, I was attending a Christian rock concert in Nashville and heard the MC ask the joyous crowd, “OK, how many of you are ready to kill for Christ?” At first I thought I misheard him, but when he repeated it, and when the crowd shouted happily that they were ready to do just that, I left. It’s never safe for Jews in crowds of Christians ready to kill for Christ.

I don’t mean to suggest that this is kind of thinking is unique to Christianity. One can hear much the same sentiment, with different particulars of course, in certain Jewish and Muslim settings as well. It just saddens me to see the Prince of Peace used to excuse acts of violence.

You need not respond to this. I know you feel the same. And there is no need for, or even way to, excuse the fear, greed, anger, and violence that passes for religion in so many people’s lives. All we can say is this is why we need prophets like Hillel, Jesus, Rumi, Hafez, Kabir and others who have seen through the veils of human difference and seen the One who is all.

On to the next Beatitude?

Mike: Response to Rami's 7/29 Post

Your take on "children of God" strikes me as classic mysticism. Christian mystics use similar language. I've always found such language moving for several reasons, not the least being its reliance on analogies, such as your wave to ocean metaphor.

My tradition tends to speak of the matter in one of two ways.

First, you do not have to look long to find Christians who believe the phrase has to do with heaven and judgment. They believe the status is conferred by God, and that it is received in a final judgment. Those who take this view rely on the passive construction of the phrase ("shall be called"), noting that it suggests the title is something given as the gift of God. Some who hold this view, then go on to interpret "blessed are the peacemakers" to mean "blessed are those who share the gospel and lead others to acknowledge Jesus as their savior, and so help others find peace with God." In short, the beatitude is interpreted as a call to practice evangelism. I find this approach reductionist at best, a distortion of Jesus' intent at worst.

A second, and to my mind better, approach draws on an analogy based on the family. I have a son and daughter. Both were conceived and born as my children. Nothing can change their essential status. On the other hand, each has spent well over two decades becoming himself and herself, while remaining my child.

Along the way, they picked up many of my values and some of my practices. We often tease one another gently. With reference to one of their own beliefs, ideas, approaches to challenge, or actions toward others, either of them is apt to say, "Well, I guess that proves I'm your child."

Oceans and waves, fathers (and mothers) and their children--both analogies help us remember who we already are and what we might best do with ourselves. Both preserve our unity with God and our uniqueness. Taken seriously, each conditions us for the work of peace making.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Rami: Response to Mike's 7/29 Post

Thanks, Mike. A couple of quick comments before getting to “the children of God” idea.

First, as you well know, I tend to be very broad brush in my thinking, and you are of course right to bring up pathological violence and irrational violence. There will always be violent people who suffer from illnesses that cannot be cured or controlled, and who must be put away for their sake and ours.

Second, thanks for bringing up the order of repair. In Hebrew these two efforts are called tikkun and teshuvah, repair and return. Do I repair the world with godliness, and then return to my true nature as a manifestation of God? Or do I return to God first, and then engage the world with godliness? The fact is tikkun and teshuvah are different ends of the same pole. You may start toward one side or the other but in the end the whole pole is engaged.

Lastly, I appreciate your definition of unity as “becoming aligned with God's nature and purpose.” While we differ subtly on this point, we end up in the same place regarding action.

So, on to my thoughts on the “children of God.”

I take my starting point from Philo of Alexandria (20 BCE-50 BCE), the Hellenistic Jewish philosopher who read the Torah with an allegorical eye. In his work, Confusion of Languages (28, M. i. 426) he defines “Children of God” as referring to all those “who have real knowledge of the one Father of all.”

The rabbis, and perhaps Philo himself, understood this as a kind of knowledge as Imitatio Dei, Imitation of God: to know God is to do godly. This they linked to Leviticus 19:2 where God says to Israel, “Be holy as I, YHVH, am holy.” This is God’s correction to the serpent’s distorted promise in the Garden of Eden that “you shall be as gods,” (Genesis 3:5). The serpent’s view leads to the alienated god-playing ego. God’s version leads to the peacemaking and fearless Child of God.

To be holy as God is holy implies that humanity and God share a common essence. Just as Jesus is fully human and fully divine, so each of us is fully human and fully divine. This is like an ocean wave being fully a wave and fully the ocean. It is not that the wave includes all of the ocean, but that the ocean includes all of the wave.

When we realize that God embraces and transcends all things, we realize that all things, without giving up their uniqueness, are yet part of the One Thing, God. In short we realize that “I and the Father are one,” (John 10:30).

This makes perfect sense to me. The previous Beatitude spoke of the “pure in heart” as those who “see God.” Being “pure in heart” means being transparent, allowing the Light of God to shine through us as us. When we see this, we are free from fear, free to make peace, and free to reveal the good news that wholeness, not fragmentation, is the true nature of reality.

Mike: Response to Rami's 7/27 Post

Beautifully written! The nature and practice of "shalom" appears to be something you've mulled over a great deal.

I agree that "shalom" is the key background concept in question, and I resonate with your description of the role of separation and alienation.

Human violence certainly is driven by fear and want. I suspect other factors are at play as well. Violence incited by want and fear at least has some semblance of a rational basis, usually related to self-perceived survival issues. What are we to make of pathological violence? Irrational violence? I mention this only to suggest that eliminating fear and want might not prove enough to end violence.

You write: "To put an end to violence, we must put an end to fear; and to put an end to fear we must re-pair ourselves with the world..., and then re-pair the world with God." I might tend to reverse the order. On the other hand, I suspect that if we pick up part of the task, we eventually find ourselves involved in what remains.

I strongly agree that unity with God is the way to find peace within ourselves, thus opening the way to pursue peace in other contexts. From the perspective of my tradition, I probably would speak of unity as becoming aligned with God's nature and purpose, but the end result appears to be similar.

I am interested to see what you have to say about "children of God."

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Rami: Response to Mike's 7/22 Post

When it comes to matters of peace two Jewish texts come to mind, both of which would have been known to Jesus. The first is Psalm 34:14, “Seek peace, and pursue it.” The second is from Rabbi Hillel’s “Love peace, pursue peace, and love humankind,” (Pirke Avot 1:12).

Before we can talk about loving, seeking and pursuing peace, however, we have to define peace itself. The Hebrew word for peace is shalom and it shares a root (sh-l-m) with the Hebrew word shalem, wholeness. Peace is what arises when there is wholeness; that is to say when we realize that all opposites are complements in the greater unity of God.

To achieve shalom/shalem (peace/wholeness) we must overcome our sense of separation from God, and consequent alienation from one another and from nature. When Adam eats from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, God says he has become k’achad mimenu (Genesis 3:22), not “like one among us,” as most English translations put it, but, more accurately, “like one unique from us.” Being “unique from God” means being separated from God, and hence separated from all things for God includes all things. It is this sense of separation and alienation, symbolized by our expulsion from Eden, that is the human condition.

The “original sin” in Judaism is a shattering of wholeness, our sense of belonging and place where, as the Prophet Micah puts it, all people have enough to eat, and no one is afraid (Micah 4:3-4). The loss of this wholeness gives rise to alienation, which triggers fear, and fear in turn leads the alienated ego to engage the world angrily and violently, seeking to grab what it wants at the expense of both person and planet. To put an end to this violence, we must put an end to fear; and to put an end to fear we must re-pair ourselves with the world (what Judaism calls tikkun haolam), and then re-pair the world with God (tikkun hanefesh). We must become, as Jesus said, shalom-makers, makers of the wholeness that gives rise to peace.

Peace, then, is not simply the ending of conflict, but the making of wholeness. Peace is learning how to embrace conflict without losing one’s sense of wholeness. This, I think, is what Jesus means when he says, “Love your enemies,” (Matthew 5:44). He still recognizes that we have enemies, but urges us to encounter them in a way that recognizes the divine within them, and in so doing work toward re–pairing all beings in the greater oneness of God.

How do we do this? How do we seek peace and pursue peace? I think Micah holds the key: “They will beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning knives; nation shall not lift sword against nation, nor will they learn war anymore. They will eat, each man under his vine and under his fig tree, and none will make them afraid…” (Micah 4:3-4). Reverse the order of Micah and we have a program for peace: End fear, provide security of place and abundant food, and there will be no need to study war or wage it.

The 23rd Psalm tells us something very similar. Fear, primarily fear of not having enough of what we need to survive, drives the alienated ego. The 23rd Psalm tells us that when we surrender to God’s guidance, that is when we learn to act in harmony with the Whole, we “shall not want,” we will no longer lack for anything. Without want there is no fear, and without fear there is no need to separate myself from you in order to exploit you to get what I want. Micah and the Psalmist are saying the same thing, and so, I suggest, is Jesus.

So, to be as clear as I can, to seek peace is to seek peace within myself: to end my sense of fear, and the anger and violence that accompanies it, by realizing my unity with God. To pursue peace is to pursue peace outwardly, to work toward ending fear in the world, and thus ending the need for violence, oppression, exploitation, and war.

I want to come back to the second half of this Beatitude, “they shall be called the children of God,” but let me stop here for a bit and invite your response.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Mike: The Sixth Beatitude

"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God." (Matthew 5:9) (NRSV)

Blessed are the "eirenopoioi"--the makers of peace. I sometimes think this the most challenging of all the beatitudes.

Consider the historical context. Simon "the Zealot" was among the closest followers of Jesus, and Judas may have been a Zealot, or at least sympathetic to their position. Peacemaking was not part of the Zealot's agenda, though perhaps they might have said, "We shall have peace. We shall have peace when every Roman is dead or driven from our land, and when those who cooperated with the Romans have been punished." By saying these words, Jesus took a position within the complicated political life of the time. Obviously, peacemaking does not require that everyone agree with or like the peacemaker's position. Ironically, peacemaking may well put one at odds with others or a group!

Many evangelical Christians tend to restrict the beatitude's application to interpersonal relationships. The historical context disallows such a limit. At the very least, the beatitude was a political statement. Followers of Jesus, by implication, are called to be voices for peace and workers toward peace in the world of politics. Christian advocates for war (even "just war")are hard put to justify their position, let alone investing their life resources in such a way.

Jesus claimed to reveal the nature of the rule of God, the kingdom of God, and so the very priorities of God. Peacemaking is a top agenda item with God, indeed part and parcel of the character of God. Using God's name, therefore, to invoke or justify violence, division and war may well amount to taking the Lord's name (character) in vain.

Peacemaking is not restricted to the political arena. Interpersonal relationships do come into play. Reconciliation is the life work of a Christian. I use the term "work" intentionally. Peacemaking should not be confused with passivity, "going along to get along," or the like. It requires active engagement in the lives of others. Theologically, the Incaranation underscores God's commitment to reconciliation and calls Christians to join in God's work.

The sixth beatitude's promise is that such peacemakers shall be called or recognized as children of God. On the one hand, the promise offers a bit of comfort as we struggle to "make peace" in a divided world. The promise also suggests that peacemaking is the mark or identifying characteristic of a genuine follower of Jesus. So much for going to war (in any fashion) over creeds and the like, as if discerning and adhering to just the right formulas marked one as a genuine follower of God.

"The devil is in the details," I suppose. It's one thing to embrace all the above in general, quite another thing to practice peace-making with regard to particulars. It's much like the well-worn (but quite accurate)saying with regard to love: "I love humanity, it's people who give me trouble." Still, I see no way out. To follow Jesus well requires that we become and remain peacemakers.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Rami: Response to Mike's 7/18 Post

Ah, the old “nature versus nurture” gambit. I agree this is a dead horse argument. Indeed, I'm not sure nature and nurture are the opposites we claim them to be. Doesn’t the way we nurture reflect our nature? So we are in agreement here.

I also agree with you that people would invent divisions if the ones we have already invented disappeared. You mentioned The Once and Future King, and I’m thinking of Dr. Seuss’ The Butter Battle Book where the Yooks and the Zooks go to war over which side bread should be buttered on. This is just part of human nature.

I may have mentioned this before, but in Judaism we speak of the two inclinations at the core of human nature: Yetzer haTov, our inclination toward altruism, and Yetzer haRah, our inclination toward selfishness. Both are necessary, and each must be informed by the other in order to operate to the benefit of the person as a whole. So there is no way we can create a society that is totally good or totally evil. And yet…

If you put a Palestinian baby in a room with an Israeli baby the two don’t go to war. Sure one may push the other over to get a toy, but it is the desire for the toy that motivates them and not some ontological hatred of the other as other. That level of hatred and fear has to be feed to them over long periods of time. So while I agree that without the divisions we have now the world would not be perfect, it still might be a lot less violent.

I think the image of wholeheartedness is very important. Moving from a divided heart to a whole heart is key to understanding both Judaism and Jesus. When in Matthew 22:37-40 the Pharisees ask Jesus to name the most important mizvot (divine commandments) Jesus quotes the two central texts of the Jewish religion: Deuteronomy 6:5, Love YHVH your God with a whole heart, and Leviticus 19:18, Love your neighbor as yourself. When you love God with a whole heart, which means you direct both Yetzer haRah and Yetzer haTov “Godward” toward acts of compassion and justice, you realize the nonduality of all life in, with, and as God, and naturally love your neighbor as yourself.

Just imagine a religious school devoted to making hearts whole! Rather than learning creeds and traditions, kids learn how to live whole and holy lives. With a focus on wholeheartedness we could share traditions and contemplative practices from our respective religions as means for cultivating wholeness. No religion would be right or wrong, true or false, as long as it worked toward wholeheartedness. Fantastic!

In fact I think we should start this school right here in Murfreesboro. I would call it the Dr. Michael Smith Academy for Spiritual Whole-heartedness. Of course since your name is on the program, you will have to fund it. I assume the check is in the mail.

Mike: Response to Rami's 7/15 Post

Two additional matters occured to me as I read your post.

I agree we are taught to see and take advantage of divisions. This raises the old question of nurture and nature. To put it bluntly, I'm afraid that were we not taught division we would invent it anew on our own. This applies both to the external (political, tribal, territorial, etc.) world and to our own hearts. From my perspective, environment reinforces our inborn tendency toward division and fragmentation. We are born into the kind of world our species has created, and we have the created this world out of the inherent turmoil of the human heart. To put it another way, we have made the world in our own image: a divided heart.

As to the second matter, I quite agree with your point. We use our divisions in order to justify our drive to control. The ant queen's song in The Once and Future King comes to mind, the tune by which she incites her subjects to go to war with another ant colony. In essence, the song celebrates the supposed differences between the two colonies, which boil down to "they do not smell like us."

I also think, though, that a divided heart can lead one to withdraw from others and their struggles, to become only an observer. Frankly, I've not thought this through well. In fact, the possibility only ocurred to me as I read your post. Both of us know of legitimate motivations for such a withdrawal. Some, for example, do so out of a sense of vocation to engage in focused worship and prayer, which includes prayer for the creation and humanity. Others, though, learn just enough to see the dangers of the divided heart. They seek to protect themselves from others (and, perhaps, others from themselves) by retreat. This kind of pseudo purity of heart might serve for some as a first step toward what Jesus had in mind, but it must not become a destination.

Well, as I said, I've not thought the matter through--so I look forward to seeing what your fertile mind might do with it!

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Rami: Response to Mike's 7/15 Post

Psalm 24 is, as you say, a likely source for this Beatitude. So is Psalm 73:1, “Surely God is good to Israel, to the pure in heart.” And I agree with your take on “heart” as the seat of will. We are not talking about feelings here at all. I am curious, though, as to what it means to “see God.”

I am a panentheist. I believe that all (pan) reality is in (en) God (theos). This differs slightly from a pantheist who equates God with the universe. While I believe the universe is part of God, I do not believe it is all of God. God is not other than the universe, but God is greater than the universe.

Anyway, as a panentheist, I see God all the time. Everything I see is God. Of course this is an intellectual seeing, and not the transformative seeing that reveals the kingdom of God. To achieve that level of seeing one must be “pure of heart,” so it is vital to our understanding of this Beatitude that we understand what being “pure of heart” means.

Let’s start with the word pure, bar in Hebrew. When coupled with the word lev, heart, it means “straightforward;” one who is pure of heart is one who is simple, honest, without deceit and conceit. Now, why would this person see God?

To me the answer is this: the simple person sees self and others without labels, just as they are in and of themselves, which means as manifestations of God. It is only when we drape people in “isms” and ideologies, seeing race, religion, creed, ethnicity, and political affiliation instead of the person they are that we fail to see people as God.

When we do see people as they are—God manifest in time and space—then we see God in, with, and as all people (and I would say all beings as well). This kind of seeing is transformative in that it leads to a deep sense of compassion for all beings; we see our neighbor (mineral, vegetable, animal, human, etc.) as our selves. This awakening to the nonduality of God in, with, and as all reality is the key to living the kingdom of God.
And to do this we have to see with the blinders of belief.

I think this leads easily into your comment on the divided heart (as opposed to the simple or whole heart). A divided heart separates self from others, from nature, and from God. But division has to be learned. So much of what we do as parents, clergy, and teachers is to cloud the heart, distort the eye, and promote and perpetuate the delusion of division and duality that excuses our desires to exploit and control the world and those in it.

I would even go so far as to say that by saying, “Seek you first the kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added unto you,” (Matthew 6:33) Jesus is challenging us to step beyond belief, to cleanse the heart of division, and, in so doing to then see the world as it is: the kingdom of God.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Mike: The Fifth Beatitude

"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God." (Matthew 5:8) (NRSV)

Psalm 24:3-4 probably serves as background to the fifth beatitude. The psalmist asks who shall ascend God's hill and stand in "his holy place?" The answer is he (or she) with clean hands, a pure heart, a life given to truthfulness. The Psalm may well have been used in worship, perhaps just before the people entered the Temple.

In any case, Jesus opts for a briefer statement. Who will see God? The pure in heart. The "heart," in the New Testament, is the will. We might paraphrase the beatitude: "Blessed are the pure in will, for they will see God." Jesus, to borrow a phrase from Kirkegaard, calls his followers to choose to "will one thing." They are to cultivate a single-minded devotion to God. Such focus may open our eyes, so that we see God.

The beatitude, of course, implies most of us lack such a focus. I think this is true. Most people of faith genuinely want to see (experience, know, etc.)God, but they also want a good many other things. To borrow from other sayings of Jesus, we find it hard to sell all we have in order to purchase the pearl of great price. We like to think we can keep what we have yet get the pearl as well. We're like a young man who greatly desires to marry a certain woman yet refuses to stop dating other women. A divided heart (will) ultimately leaves us out in the cold.

Perhaps this is why Jesus found it necessary to say, "Seek you first the kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added unto you."

What happens if we become "pure of heart?" At the very least, we start to "see God." We see what we learn to see. Focused on God, we begin to see the divine in others. Some of us catch a glimpse of God in history, a good story, or nature itself. The longer we focus on God, the more apt we are to see God in ourselves as well. As a teenager once put it: "Every thing in life becomes a God thing."

Most of us, myself included, never achieve sustained purity of heart. Fed by the occasional experience, however, our desire to do so grows. With practice, we get better. A kind of spiritual muscle memory develops. Good orship, both private and corporate, is largely devoted to strenthening our spiritual muscle memory.

Rami: Response to Mike's 7/13 Post

Humans, I agree, are tribal creatures. We run in packs, and form clans, tribes, states, nations, etc. I doubt we will ever overcome this drive to huddle together, nor should we. Belonging to tribe is part of what it is to be human. One of the problems with tribalism, however, is its tendency toward jingoism and exclusivity. When we begin to think that our tribe is superior to others, or that other tribes should be subsumed into our tribe, or at least subjugated to it, then community becomes a cancer in the body politic. We need a new sense of tribalism that honors diversity in a greater system of unity.

A second danger inherent in tribalism is its lack of respect for the individual qua individual. The true celebration of individuality is a creation of the Enlightenment thinkers of 18th Century Europe and America. They planted the ideas that ultimately grew into the abolition of slavery and women’s suffrage, two hallmarks of individual freedom that much if not most of the world has yet to embrace.

Free thinkers from Socrates to Jesus to Mary Dyer, the Quaker who was hung by her Christian neighbors for her faith on Boston Common in 1660, all face the same fate. And while I agree that both individuals and institutions go bad, it is the evil of the institution that I fear the more deeply. Hitler without the German State behind him was just another anti-Semite.

Your example of John Woolman is heartening, and there are many examples of individuals who have changed, and perhaps even revolutionized society. Think of Moses, Jesus, Marx, Freud, and Einstein, to name but five in the Jewish Pantheon of Civilization Shifters. This is why I am more apt to place my hope in individuals that institutions. But I am really interested in where you bring God into the picture.

God, to me, is the ultimate antiestablishmentarian. God is a force of creative destruction: knocking down the old and giving birth to the new. This is how I understand the death and resurrection of Jesus (as well as Osiris, Isis, Horus, Tammuz, etc.), and the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem some decades later: the death of God and Temple is the death of our ideas about God that allows for the truth of God to emerge.

Religions, especially creedal and theologically driven religions, mistake ideas about God for God. They worship what they know, and what they know cannot be the true God for the true God is unknowable. God is like the horizon: we can march toward it, but we will never arrive at it. The death of Jesus and the destruction of the Temple are, mythically speaking, God’s way of pulling the theological rug out from under us, forcing us to live by faith rather than belief. You cannot create an institution around God, for as soon as you do God is reduced to “god” and you simply have another idolatry.

But when we face the unknown and unknowable God, when we move toward the horizon of justice and compassion, we are stripped of all our ideologies and “isms”; we are transformed by grace, and made merciful. I believe that mercy, along with compassion, justice, and humility, are the hallmarks of one who knows she does not know, and has learned to live in the free-fall that is true faith.

People like these, known and unknown, continually reshape our institutions in the light of mercy. It is in them that I place my hope for a better world.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Mike: Response to Rami's 7/11 Post

The Parable of the Loving Father and His Two Sons probably generates more commmentary than any other parable, with the possible exception of The Good Samaritan. Both speak to "mercy."

We seem to be in broad agreement as to the meaning and necessity of mercy. In God's kingdom mercy is both given and received. You might say mercy is the coin of the realm.

We may differ over institutions. Perhaps now is the time to unpack the matter and see if this is so.

Humans build community and institutions. It matters not whether one relies on biblical accounts, evolutionary theory, or historical study--all three suggest humanity's bent in this direction. The same sources, though, also confirm and affirm the importance of the individual. Both individuals and institutions may go bad, that is become self-centered, defensive, and dedicated primarily to self-protection. Conversely, both may be instruments of grace and mercy. Individuals usually run far ahead of institutions in this regard. The institution may, in time, be reformed by such individuals.

Take the matter of slavery and the Quakers in the United States. Colonial era Quakers generally supported slavery and some owned slaves. John Woolman, a Quaker, came to believe slavery to be a sin. Over the decades of his life, he traveled throughout the colonies, challenging his faith community to abandon slavery and any economic practices that supported it. To say the least, he often was not well received. Yet by the end of his life, Quakers in the United States changed, community by community. They adopted Woolman's stance. The institution had been reformed, so that it became a force for abolition.

I am not fond of institutions. They are big, given to support of the status quo, often impersonal, and self-satisfied. This is certainly true of organized religions, and I suspect it is true of any institution. God, though, seems to be out to redeem (reconnect, recall, awaken, etc.)the entire creation. Institutions are part of the human world, so I find myself compelled to focus not only on the individual but institutional redemption.

That's a long way of saying we are called to practice mercy, certainly toward others and most likely toward institutions as well. Our previous discussion about the interplay of justice and mercy comes into play and should not be forgotten.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Rami: Response to Mike's 7/10 Post

I thought you might be referring to the Parable of the Prodigal Son, but since there is also the Parable of the Two Sons I figured I was wrong. So, let me take you up on the offer to comment on the Prodigal Son story as it is one of the most subversive of Jesus’ teachings.

For those who might not remember, the story is of a father with two sons, one who is dutiful and the other wayward. When the latter finds himself at rock bottom he returns home asking only to be accepted back as a slave. His father welcomes him home with full honors, much to the chagrin of the dutiful son.

The reason the story is so subversive is that the father, who is of course God, neither stops the wayward son from being wayward nor punishes him for the life he has chosen. God is beyond reward and punishment; God simply allows us to reap what we sow. We make our own heaven and hell, and God won’t keep us from either. But when we hit rock bottom—that is to say when we have taken the illusion of our separation from God and godliness so far as to leave ourselves unable to function—and ask to come home, i.e. ask to be reawakened to the radical nonduality of woman, man, nature, and God, God is only too happy to do so.

This kind of God is so NOT the god most people want. Most people want a god who welcomes them and rejects those that they themselves reject. We create god in our image to justify the lives we want to live and the evil we desire to do. Religion is too often simply an institutional expression of human fear, anger, ignorance, and greed. Religions, especially those that mistake monotheism (there is one God) for monopolistic theism (there is one God and we control him), hate the theology of Jesus. If they can ignore it, they will. If they can’t ignore it, they will pervert it.

Obviously I have strong feelings about this, but I am not that far off the mark.

I agree with you, Mike, that religion provides structure, meaning, and direction, and I agree that many other things do as well, I simply doubt that any institution can be trusted when it comes to questions of justice and mercy.

I prefer to understand religion etymologically. It comes from the Latin religio, which itself is a combination of two words: ligare, “bind, connect” and the prefix re which gives us the meaning “reconnect.” Religion is the way we overcome the illusion of our separation from God and reconnect, or as I put it, realize our unbroken unity with God, the One who manifests as the many. Religion for me is more about contemplative practice than about creed, belief, and the politics of piety.

While I value the need for community, I find little need for organized religion in my life. What I do need are contemplative practices designed to wake me up from the egoic illusion of Divine separation. You mentioned one of these practices, Centering-Prayer, as central to your life, and I would urge people to look into this practice either by finding a community devoted to it or by reading any of the books by Father Thomas Keating, one of the two living gurus of contemporary Centering Prayer practice.

For anyone interested in Jewish contemplative practice I would recommend Minyan, Ten Practices for Living a Life of Integrity, and for anyone interested in an interfaith approach to compassion I would recommend The Sacred Art of Loving-Kindness. Yes, this is a shameless plug since I wrote both of these books, but I trust you will have mercy on me for trying to make a living.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Mike: Response to Rami's 7/9 Post

Rami, I apologize for not providing a scripture reference for The Loving Father and His Two Sons. I had in mind Luke's account of what we used to call the Parable of the Prodigal Son. If you want to alter your comments in light of this information, have at it!

I especially like the way your interpretation of the beatitude makes room both for the visionary and the doer. In addition, I suspect you may be right in connecting mercy-giving to "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

You may be correct. All religions may stress such a teaching. I've never had the resources or time to verify the truism. Like "mercy," we might need to determine the definition of religion in question. For example, if religion is that which brings structure, meaning and direction to life (the broadest definition I can think of, off the cuff), many "isms" and their ilk come into play. The two of us could generate quite a list! For example, I would argue that raw consumerism, capitalism, communism, and the like give short shrift to mercy. In fact, undiluted versions of such "religions" regard mercy as weakness.

Mercy, it turns out, is highly subversive!

The practice of mercy changes us in a number of ways and quickly teaches us our limits. We run out of steam in short order. In my own experience, I find the practice of centering prayer essential to the ongoing practice of mercy. Mercy-giving prompts the development of empathy as well. The more often we grant mercy, the more keenly we come to sense our kinship. All of us fail and hurt others and stand in need of mercy. My hunch is that mercy-giving ultimately engenders the growth of God's kind of love within us, both "hesed" (unbreakable love) and "agape" (self-giving love). In fact, the practice of mercy may be the key spiritual discipline required.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Rami: Response to Mike's 7/8 Post

Your Jewish friend is not alone in the notion of “no justice, no peace.” And he has a point. Peace in and of itself can simply perpetuate the exploitation of the powerless. Justice is the higher value, and will in time lead to peace. But I doubt that is what your friend was talking about. He doesn’t want justice; he wants revenge.

The primary justice issue for Jews today has to do with Israel and her treatment of her Arab citizens and Palestinian neighbors. Many Jews want to blame the Palestinians for all the ills of the region, but any objective observer knows that both sides act wickedly. Mercy might be the more strategic choice, allowing Palestinian anger and fear of Israelis (and Israeli anger and fear of Palestinians) to cool. Then they might be able to work together for justice. There are hundreds of peace groups in Israel involving Israelis and Palestinians, and all of them take compassion and mercy as the first step to justice and peace.

In the Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) the Tree of Life is considered the map of the universe that reveals the spiritual DNA of every part and particle of both Creation and its Creator. Justice (called Gevurah or Din in Hebrew) is paired with Chesed (mercy). The idea is that each balances the other. Too much din in the world and you have a police state; too much chesed and you have anarchy. Too much din in God and you have a dead world lacking all creativity and the mutations necessary for evolution. Too much chesed and you have a dead world lacking all law and structure. There is no ideal balance but a dynamic harmony between the two (both in God and the world) must be sought in each case. It is up to the people involved to determine what that dynamic harmony is.

The real challenge I see in this Beatitude is to define what we mean, or what Jesus may have meant, by “mercy”. I would define mercy behaviorally: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to others,” to quote Rabbi Hillel (Talmud, Shabbat 31a); or, in Jesus’ formulation, “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you” (Matthew 7:12). Every religion teaches this ethics of reciprocity, and because it is so clearly reciprocal it may well be the idea behind this Beatitude: be merciful and you will receive mercy.

With this definition in mind we can take up the questions you raise. Should Jews in Jesus’ day act mercifully toward their Roman occupiers? Yes, for that is the only way to effect change. Should the Priest and Levite violate their legal obligations to avoid dead bodies, and looked to see if the person they passed on the road was actually dead? Of course, isn’t that what they would want of others if they themselves had been mugged and left dying on the roadside?

The Parable of the Two Sons (Matthew 21:28-32), however, seems to be a different kind of story. First, there is no reason to assume as you do that the father was “loving.” Jesus only says “a man had two sons.” Second, there is the assumption that doing the will of the father is the right thing to do. Knowing nothing about this father I can’t say if working the vineyard was the right thing to do or not.

If, of course, the father is God, and the vineyard is the world, and working in the vineyard means feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, freeing the unjustly imprisoned, etc, then I would say it is the right thing to do, and doing it, even against one’s initial inclination is superior to not doing it. But where does mercy come into play?

At first I didn’t see it. The father isn’t merciful; we know nothing of his reaction to his son’s decisions. But Jesus is, and his mercy really struck me. Jesus clearly equates the priests with whom he is talking with the son who agrees to work the vineyard but does not actually do so. Rather than condemn these people, Jesus just says that “tax collectors and prostitutes are going into the Kingdom of God ahead of you” (Matthew 21:31). The priests won’t be denied access to the Kingdom, they just won’t be at the head of the line.

This is another stunning act of mercy that most of Jesus’ followers have yet to imagine, let alone practice.

Your application of this beatitude to our personal life was right on target. But let me highlight your reminder that Jesus was a visionary.

It isn’t that Jesus saw what the world could be like if people lived the principles he taught in the Beatitudes, it was that Jesus actually saw the Kingdom of God as a reality. To pick up and invert an earlier point, it isn’t only that we live “as if” we were in the Kingdom of God and in so doing bring the Kingdom into being; it is also the case that the Kingdom of God is here and now, and that by seeing it (being a vision-ary) one knows how to act in accordance with it.

Both ways work. Jesus embodied the former: he saw the truth and lived it. But in the Sermon on the Mount he taught the latter, knowing that not everyone has the eyes to see. Both the way of the seer and the way of the doer lead to the same reality: a just, compassionate, and peaceful world where all beings are seen as the children of God.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Mike: The Fifth Beatitude

"Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy." (Matthew 5:7) (NRSV)

Most Christian commentators of my acquaintance argue the first four beatitudes deal with the interior life, then go on to say that the fifth beatitude stikes off in a new direction, namely behavior. I think the distinction too neatly drawn. All the beatitudes assume a vital connection among one's heart, mind, tongue, and hands. They deal with the whole person.

The fifth beatitude calls for those who would live under the rule of God to act mercifully toward others. Micah 6:8 no doubt informed the beatitude ("What does the Lord require of you? To do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.") Various commentators note that late in the first century C.E., Gamaliel II said, "So long as you are merciful, the Merciful is merciful to you." In short, the core concept was in the air.

That's not to say it was the majority position in first century Jewish life, let alone broader Graco-Roman culture. The position's call for mercy naturally raised the question of limits. Should such mercy be extended to the Romans, in other words even to one's oppressors? Did the mercy requirement cross religious and ethnic boundaries (example: the Samaritans)? Could someone's decisions and actions place him or her beyond the possibility of mercy (think of the parable of the Loving Father and His Two Sons)? I think we continue to ask the same questions. Only the examples have changed.

What about justice? If living under the rule of God required that one become merciful, who would ensure justice was done? Rami, a Jewish friend in another part of the USA pointedly raised this question in a group setting. He said (more or less): "You people (he meant Christians) don't get it. We (he meant Jews)aren't interested in grace or mercy toward those who try to kill us. Only justice will suffice. Mercy changes nothing. In fact, it only encourages the oppressors. Justice, though, strikes the needed blow. The world needs justice, not mercy." He was angry, of course. Knowing him, I think his emotion led him to overstate his point. Still, it was well made, and it gave me pause. I suspect this kind of question lurks in the back of the minds of most of us.

Jesus was a visionary. We must keep this in mind as we wrestle with the fifth beatitude. When all live under the rule of God, mercy and justice become one. In the meantime, those who willingly subject themselves to God's rule experience his mercy. As we come to grips with being forgiven by the One who is just beyond our comprehension, our potential for practicing mercy toward others grows. Strangely enough, the more mercy we extend the more aware we become of the mercy we receive, both from God and others.

At the personal level, the practice of mercy changes us. Over time it blunts resentment, reduces our thirst for revenge, expands our friendship circles, teaches us to pause before reacting, induces empathy, and fosters humility.

Lest I sound naive, I hasten to add that mercy-granting is dangerous in the world as it is. The merciful are blessed, but they may also be victimized by the violent, greedy or vengeful. The merciful may find they are prime candidates for martyrdom. Christians, of course, do well to remember a phrase Jesus spoke from his cross: "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do."

Monday, July 7, 2008

Rami: Response to Mike's 7/7 Post

OK, I think we've taken this far enough. Let's get back to our text.

No, wait. I just can't let it go without one more comment, albeit one that is somewhat tongue-in-cheek.

You mentioned that Luke's version of Matthew's Sermon on the Mount is called the Sermon on the Plain. Even if we were to allow that people hear what they want to hear, and that this explains the differences between Matthew and Luke (something I cannot fully accept), still it strikes me as odd that the people listening to Jesus couldn't remember if they were standing on a mountain or a plain. Talk about not paying attention!

All right. Enough. Please lead us to the next Beatitude before I start babbling on about how Paul wrote long before any of the Gospel writers and that since he mentions almost nothing of the Jesus narrative (Virgin Birth, parables, Sermon on the Something, etc.) there is a case to be made that these were all narrative flourishes of great writers.

I love the Bible— the Hebrew Bible, the Apocrypha, and the New Testament— and one of the reasons I love it is because it is great fiction, and like all great fiction it is at times deeply and powerfully true. I have no more problem with the differences between biblical texts than I do with differences among Shakespeare's plays. And just as the truth found in Shakespeare has nothing to do with the historicity of his plays, so the truth of the Bible has, for me, nothing to do with historicity of the stories. The story's the thing. Let's get back to it.

Mike: Response to Rami's 7/7 Post

Obviously, I managed to push a few buttons!

I agree that the story of the blind men and the elephant works best. That's why, insofar as I know, it's the "standard." The Yellowstone fable works along the same lines, only with a more heavy-handed comedic tone. Like all fables, it breaks down if subjected to "objective" analysis. Fables deal in broad strokes, not particulars.

Differences matter. We agree. Still, I suspect the modern era (the past few centuries) has taught most of us to analyze and define most everything in terms of differences. I think this works well for science, and it's a handy tool for almost any academic discipline. It's been quite useful for biblical scholars as well. Still, I wonder if we have not become so conditioned to pounce on differences that we sometimes forget it might be as well to start with something as it is.

Take a good story, for example. The first thing to do with a story is to hear or read it as it is, to enjoy and respond to the whole, to allow it interface with your imagination as it may. Later, perhaps, there may be good reason to play the critic. While doing so, we may discover or guess at the origin, writing process, and editing of the story. We may even suggest how the plot, character development or dialogue could be improved. Critics, of course, face a particular danger: they may lose sight of the story itself. I'm not picking on critics (I am one!) but instead merely stating the obvious: all disciplines carry within themselves their particular temptations and dangers. Biblical criticism is not exempt.

As for the human capacity to witness the same event yet report it in wholly different fashions, I suppose we simply disagree. After 34 years of speaking several times a week to people who have come to know me well and who listen with some attention, I continue to be amazed at their diverse memories. They tend to hear and see everything through their personal filters, including not only basic content but even setting, body language, and intent. Their memories sift through and select pieces of a given sermon or lesson, and they organize their memories in ways that may or may not accord with my memory of the sermon event!

As for Mark, John and even Paul, I'm not certain it's correct to say they know nothing of the sermon simply because they do not deal with it per se. We could go round and round over whether or how the three incorporated insights from the sermon into their works. For example, I think 1 Corinthians 13 probably owes a great deal to Paul's reflective assimilation of the sermon, which then spills out "in his own words."

All of the above leads me to choose to try to deal with the story of The Sermon on the Mount as we receive it in Matthew, even as I make use of Luke's own version as a supplement. When I focus on Luke's account (sometimes called The Sermon on the Plain), Matthew becomes the supplement.

Great fun! Looking back over this entry, I suppose I must say that you managed to push a few of my buttons as well!

Rami: Response to Mike's 7/6 Post

I agree we should move on, but I have to say I’m not convinced by your professor’s parable. If the point is that no one Gospel has the whole picture, then I prefer the Indian fable of the blind men and the elephant. Each man sought to explain what an elephant is from his own narrow vantage point: one touching the trunk, another the tail, etc. None were wrong, but none were right, either. They each had a piece of the truth, and only by putting all the pieces together do we get a closer approximation of what an elephant truly is.

Using this analogy each Gospel adds to our understanding of Jesus, but none has a complete picture. I agree with this and would urge people to read noncanonical Gospels as well to get even more pieces of the puzzle. But I don’t see that the Old Faithful story helps us here at all.

While we can argue that the guide in the story had a piece of the truth, i.e. that the eruption of Old Faithful was a predictable event, and while we can argue that the eruption was catastrophic for the bear, I don’t see how we can say it was a miracle, unless we define miracle as a natural event about which people are simply ignorant. This eventually does away with miracles altogether, something I’m not sure your professor meant to do.

I’m also having trouble with your idea that focusing on the differences among the Gospels is a modernist conceit. There were lots of Gospels from which to choose when the New Testament canon was formed. Those who did the choosing were clearly concerned about the differences among the Gospels, which is why they left most Gospels out of the New Testament. The fact that they were less troubled by the differences among the four Gospels they did choose doesn’t mean we should ignore those differences. Indeed, when we see what the Canonical Gospels have in common over and against the other Gospels we can see the biases of the Church Fathers who put the canon together.

For me differences are everything, and I can’t see how “the differences found in the Synoptic Gospels… fall within the normal limits one might expect among various witnesses.” To take only the example of the Sermon on the Mount, how is that the witnesses in Luke heard so much less than the witnesses in Matthew? And how come Mark and John (not to mention Paul) know nothing of the Sermon at all?

Again, differences are crucial to our investigation. I think this focus on differences may be a Jewish trait: we are trained to look for the discordant in our sacred texts, and believe it is in that place of disagreement and conflict that new insight can be found. But then I’ve never been to Yellow Stone National Park.

On to the next Beatitude!

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Mike: Response to Rami's 7-4 Post

Much ink (and considerable electronic space) has been taken up by discussions of the differences between Matthew and Luke. The differences are interesting, but I suspect we moderns make more of them than those in the ancient world. Try as we might, we can not shed our contemporary assumptions regarding strict accuracy, spin, scholarly review, consistency and the like. One of the ironies of our time is that both higher criticism and fundamentalism have been shaped in the crucible of modernity.

Here's how I think of the task undertaken by the Synoptic Gospels writers. An old teacher of mine used to tell a fable which went as follows. Once upon a time a group of tourists took a tour of Yellowstone National Park. Their guide led them near Old Faithful and explained how heat and pressure built up inside the earth on a fairly predictable schedule to produce an eruption. He assured his group that an eruption was scheduled to occur at any moment.

Just then a man appeared seemingly out of nowhere. He was running for his life. A large, angry grizzly bear was right on his heels. The man leaped over Old Faithful. The bear followed. The geyser erupted, throwing the bear high into the sky and saving the man's life.

My teacher liked to end the story by saying: "To the crowd, the eruption was a predictable event of nature. To the endangered man, it was a miracle. To the bear, it was a catastrophe."

I'm not inviting a discussion about "the God of the gaps" (an approach to theology I reject). My point is that one may see and hear the same thing, yet focus on various aspects and possibilities of the experience. The differences found in the Synoptic Gospels, for the most part, seem to me to fall within the normal limits one might expect among various witnesses.

Matthew, it seems to me, tended to notice and arrange the teachings of Jesus. Luke, on the other hand, loved a good story, especially if it had a strong human interest angle. Taken together, they help us see a more nearly complete portrait (not photograph) of Jesus.

Let's shift to playing "as if." You and I certainly agree on this point. I appreciate the Hebrew Bible references. The same idea crops up fairly often throughout Christian history. If you want a modern example, look no farther than Dorthy Day (20th century). In her journals she noted how very hard it was to love many of the stubborn, cranky, ungrateful persons to whom she devoted her life. She also insisted, though, that the best way to start to learn to love was to act lovingly. I find this approach works with regard to all Kingdom of God matters.

As for your final point, the one you label nitpicking, I suppose we disagree a bit. I do not think the world as it is accords well with God's dream for creation. Certainly, we agree that we bear enormous responsibility for marring the creation, and that subset of creation we call human society. Simply because we mess up a recipe and produce a disasterous meal does not mean the recipe has changed. It means we need to learn to read and follow a recipe!

If we practice being Kingdom of God people, we get better at it. Eventually practice produces faith and faith, in turn,sustains practice.

I'm not sure I have much more to add in regard to this beatitude. If you wish, we can move on to the next one.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Rami: Response to Mike's 7/3 Post

I’m struck by the differences between Matthew and Luke regarding the Beatitudes. Luke doesn’t know about the mourners and the meek. He has no idea that Jesus spoke about the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, or the persecuted. Given the centrality of the Sermon on the Mount to Jesus’ message one would expect all four Gospels to record it, and to do so with some consistency. But of course they don’t.

My sense is that each Gospel writer shaped Jesus in his own image, after his likeness. Matthew’s Jesus, for example, is concerned with the poor in spirit (Matthew 5:3); Luke’s Jesus is concerned with the poor (Luke 6:20). Matthew’s Jesus is concerned with those who hunger for righteousness (Matthew 5:6); Luke’s Jesus is concerned with the hungry (Luke 6:21). In other words, Matthew’s Jesus is a revolutionary, while Luke’s Jesus is a social worker.

Given this, I think it is crucial that we not skip over Luke’s use of the word “now.” In Matthew Jesus puts off the fullness of those who hunger and thirst after righteous into the future, in Luke he wants to fill the bellies of the hungry immediately.

The two ideas are not antithetical, however. They are sequential: As any good revolutionary knows you can’t win over hearts and minds until you have won over empty bellies and parched throats. Matthew also realizes this, which is why in Matthew 25:31-46 his Jesus speaks about caring for “the least of these.” Because this text brings Matthew’s revolutionary into alignment with Luke’s social worker, it is surprising to me that Luke doesn’t record the speech at all.

You seem to favor Luke over Matthew in your last comments, and I am struck by your notion of playing “as if.” When we act as if the Kingdom of God were among us, it is.

This reminds me of the response of the Israelites to the reading of all God’s commandments by Moses in Sinai: “Na’aseh v’nishmah, we will do and we will hear” (Exodus 24:7). One would expect the word order to be reversed: “We will hear and we will do,” but that isn’t what Torah says. Why? Perhaps because we only hear the deeper meaning of the commandments when we are actively doing them. This is a central Jewish concept with which Jesus and the Gospel writers were undoubtedly familiar, and one you, too, seem to have adopted.

When we act as if this were the Kingdom of God rather than the Kingdom of Greed we actually establish and expand God’s Kingdom in the world. This is not simply affirming the primacy of deeds over faith, but recognizing that it takes faith in the efficacy of deeds to act for the Kingdom of God in the face (and it is often a dazzlingly seductive face) of the Kingdom of Greed.

So, once again, we are in basic agreement. But lest we be mistaken for clones, let me nitpick your closing comment: “The world is not the way if ought to be!”

On the contrary, given the way we act, the world is exactly the way it ought to be, which is why your suggestion is so compelling. If we don’t like the way the world is, and we recognize the world is the way it is because of our actions, the proper response isn’t to wish things to be otherwise, or even to have faith that God will, sometime in the future, make it otherwise, but to do things differently here and now. To paraphrase from the film Field of Dreams, “If we live it, it will come.”

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Mike: The Fourth Beatitude

Thanks, Rami, for the clarification regarding "land" and "earth. You've corrected several Christian commentators with regard to that point! Now, on to the fourth Beatitude.

"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled." (Matthew 5:6) (NRSV)

Once again, it's important to note Luke's briefer version: "Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled." (Luke 6:21) (NRSV) Whatever else Jesus' vision of God's kingdom entailed, it included satisfaction of plain human hunger. I suspect many of those who heard Jesus' words interpreted them in just this fashion. To my way of thinking, this is a sharp reminder that any theology or religious practice that separates the body's needs from spiritual needs is fatally flawed.

During the latter part of the first century, the Christian movement deliberately made provision for feeding the poor and hungry part of its worship and practice. More often than not, an offering of food was taken, that food then being distributed to the hungry. Christian communities became known as places where a hungry person could get a meal. Such communities, at the very least, had caught a bit of the vision of Jesus.

Matthew's account expands the saying's reach to include a hunger and thirst for righteousness. Many of those who heard Jesus would have had experience with hunger. They knew the kind of physical/mental/emotional yearing genuine hunger or thirst generates. Jesus blessed those who had a similar consuming need for rightousness.

What kind of rightousness? I think the most natural and likely answer is the rule of God, the kingdom of God. It's the kind of yearning that causes one to ache for things to be as they are supposed to be, for God's rule to be fully effective in the world at large and in each individual. That which we've thought to be nourishing food and drink now sticks in our throats. If swallowed, it neither feeds or waters us. We know we need something more, something real.

Jesus promised such yearnings would be satisfied. The Greek term "choriasthesoniai" carries the notion of being completely filled. Insofar as I can determine, Jesus believed he had come to begin the fulfillment of the promise.

Let's step away from language, the first century and theology for a moment and ask: "How might the beatitude play out in my life?" That's my primary concern. In my own case, I sometimes find I yearn deeply for God's rule in my life and in the world at large. The simplest way to satisfy (partially) such a hunger is to do something congruent with the active rule of God. Feed a hungry person, intervene in the life of an abused child or spouse, take a loving action toward an enemy--you get the drift.

The world is not the way it ought to be! But each time I act as if God is ruling, I challenge the way of the world. I offer an alternative. Whether the world pays any attention or not, at least for a moment God rules in the small space I occupy, and my hunger is satisfied for a time. Someone else might just experience the loving rule of God through me as well.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Rami: Response to Mike's 6/27 Post

You have covered this text fully, Mike, and I don’t have much to offer. Let me just add a few comments around the edges.

Regarding Jesus substituting “earth” for “land.” The Hebrew word eretz is used three times in Psalm 37 (verses 11, 22, and 29), and in all three “earth” is an accurate translation. We see the same thing in Psalm 24:1: The earth is HaShem’s, and the fullness thereof. The Hebrew is again eretz, and it clearly means the whole planet. So Jesus is operating well within the Jewish tradition when he says the meek will inherit the earth.

Who are the meek? Psalm 37 tells us that to be counted among the anavim, the meek, one must trust in God, refrain from competing with those who do evil, avoid anger, practice generosity, cultivate grace, turn from evil and do good, and speak wisdom and justice.

I am drawn to verse 3, Trust in HaShem and do good; and verse 27, Turn from evil and do good. The parallel form suggests that you demonstrate your trust in God by turning from evil and doing good. Surrounded by evil the temptation is to battle it, and when we do we inevitably come to imitate it. Torah and Jesus offer us an alternative. Torah calls it turning from evil, Jesus calls it nonresistance.

Jesus says, Do not resist one who is evil. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if anyone would sue you and take your coat, let him you’re your cloak as well; and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles (Mathew 5:39-41).

These are bold acts of nonviolent revolutionaries.

Why does Jesus specifically mention the “right cheek”? Because Roman occupation law allowed Roman soldiers to strike Jews backhanded on the right cheek. Slapping someone on the left cheek was done only among equals. Jesus is saying, “Do not acquiesce to being treated like a dog. If they are going to hit you, dare them to hit you like a fellow human.”

The same is true of walking the extra mile. Roman occupation law permitted soldiers to force a Jew to carry his gear for up to one mile. Jesus is saying, “Don’t resist the first mile, but don’t let them treat you like a mule, carry the gear as a human being by freely going the second mile.”

It isn’t only the injustice of Roman that Jesus confronts, but the injustice of the Jewish courts as well. In an economic system that exploits the poor and powerless, Jesus says, “If they take our outer wear, give them your underwear as well, and walk naked into the street that all may see the moral corruption of the courts and those who uphold them.”

This is what it is to be anav, meek. Through bold acts of nonviolence the anavim reveal just how immoral the system is, and in this way bring about its collapse under the weight of its own immorality.

The game Jesus challenges us to opt out of, then, is not the game of life in general, but the game of exploitation, oppression, suppression, and evil that comes to dominate life of so many societies.