Who Is the Greatest? I’ve Got Two Answers

Liturgical churches, beginning to wind down their year of Matthew, will hear a portion of his gospel this Sunday in which a Pharisee asked Jesus which commandment is the greatest. Jesus answered: “You shall love the Lord hour God with all our heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment and the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matt. 22) Luke’s gospel records the scene differently. In his version the Pharisee asked Jesus what was needed to inherit eternal life. Jesus asked in return for him to take a guess, what did he read in scripture about it? In response, the Pharisee recited the two great commandments: one from Deut. 6, the other from Lev. 19. (Luke 10)

The most recurring question throughout years of teaching adult Christian education was about how to interpret the contradictory complexity of moral teaching contained in holy scripture. Many adults, even in the Episcopal Church, have been influenced by television and radio programming from evangelical fundamentalists who insist on scriptural literalism. They deny that some parts of scripture are more worthy, or have greater value, than other parts. They infuse listeners with fear of challenging scripture lest it break or make God angry. It suffocates the holy mystery of scripture, and it stifles honest conversation unafraid to ask challenging questions. Scripture isn’t weak or brittle. It won’t break. Addressing it with challenging questions won’t undermine it. The gospels are filled with challenging questions, including the reading from Matthew, and its near kin in Luke.

The two greatest commandments are the answer to the recurring question. All scripture, every word of it, must be weighed by whether it points toward the love of God, self and neighbor. In the episode as recorded by Matthew, Jesus followed his endorsement of the commandments by asking the Pharisees to explain how the Messiah could be David’s son, which scripture says he is, if scripture also cited David as claiming the Messiah was his Lord. Matthew goes on to say that no one dared to ask more questions, but I doubt it. I imagine it turned into a donnybrook of rabbinic argument about the proper interpretation of conflicting passages. And that’s not a bad thing; God’s holy word was not injured in the least. Who knows, they might have learned something. We readers will have, if we dare to enter into it.

In Luke’s version, Jesus commended the Pharisee for knowing the two greatest commandments, but the guy went on to challenge both Jesus and scripture on the question of who one’s neighbor is. The passage from Leviticus cited as the source of the second great commandment seems to be clear: neighbors are kinfolk, members of one’s tribe, the people who live nearby. I wonder if the Pharisee’s question ended with an “isn’t that so?” So Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan featuring a despised minority walking in a place he had no business being in, a couple of ranking clergy, a compliant innkeeper, and a robbery victim about whom we know nothing. Jesus’ question about who was the neighbor, and his injunction to go and do likewise, has generated two-thousand years of conversation, some quite heated. He didn’t cite any scripture to prove his case, but then God incarnate doesn’t have to, but he could have. Laws asserting the status of neighbor extends to sojourners and resident aliens are scattered all through scripture. Psalm 37 claims the status of kinship for close enemies and far away nations, it even includes the unnamed: “this one and that one were born in [Zion].”

Scripture is meant to be wallowed in, wrestled with, argued with as vehemently as did Moses, the prophets and psalmists. It’s how the Word of God contained in it is discerned. You can’t hurt it. In the tussle it will teach you and change you. Through it, God will speak to your heart and head. Like Isaac wrestling with the Holy One all night, it may even leave you limping. Go for it. It’s worth it.

Trump and The Myth of Pioneer Individualism

I have a small handful of correspondents firmly rooted in their brand of tea party libertarianism that led them to endorse Trump, albeit with limited enthusiasm. Nevertheless, they feel obligated to defend him, and are deeply suspicious of Biden: a nice old guy they are certain is subservient to radical left wing forces intent on turning America into a socialist state destroying the values of individual self sufficiency that built this country. Trump, they admit, may not be worth much, but at least he will protect the way of life they believe in.

What way of life do they believe in? I think it has to do with a world view firmly grounded in the myth of rugged pioneer individualism. It’s a story, partly true, about pioneer families leaving Eastern civilization behind to find a new life of freedom and opportunity in wide open Western lands. Good land was there for the taking if they had the grit to wrest it from nature and defend it from others. It required hard work with no expectation of help, but it escaped oppressive rules and taxes serving the interests of monied coastal elites. It’s an odd myth mixing self sufficiency, freedom of open spaces, and a defensive stockade mentality always on guard against potential threats, real or imagined.

The truth of the story lies in the courage and perseverance of those who came, stayed and built the communities of the West. It conveniently ignores the Indian Wars that cleared the land for them, the Homestead Acts that gave them rights for a part of it, and the state authorized and funded railroads giving them access to urban markets. It cherishes the romantic stories of gun slingers, prostitutes, and vigilante law, but not the reality of violence and degradation that accompanied them . It knows nothing of the Chinese exclusion acts, or Sundown Laws. It’s ignorant of American Indian history, and is only marginally interested in today’s reservations. In our day, it ignores the tax funded reality of highways, dams and locks, airports, and gigantic farm programs providing a modicum of economic stability to the risky business of farming. It’s unaware that it’s a myth of hard won opportunity reserved for whites only.

Though succeeding generations are far removed from a pioneer past that never existed, they have adopted for themselves the values and virtues the myth celebrates. It isn’t preached or taught so much as assumed. From time to time it bursts into the political arena with a vengeance, as it did with the advent of tea partyism after Obama’s election. Perhaps its darkest side is denial that any other ethnic or racial group has had it any harder than they have. They’ve had to overcome all the obstacles placed in anyone’s path, and have. If others haven’t, it’s their own fault, and has nothing to do with racism – a word they believe liberals use to indiscriminately malign hard working, straight thinking conservative libertarians.

Those whose world view is anchored in the myth of rugged pioneer Individualism appear to believe government (whether local, regional or national) is an incidental necessity and an ever present threat to freedom. It can never be trusted and must always be held in check. They’re not disinterested in the greater good of the community, but define it as local, voluntary, and limited to those near by who share the same values. For them, the liberal consensus that has guided American policies since the 1930s is an abhorrent attack on their freedom, a dangerous path to communist servitude. It’s a curious thing because the benefits of modern society on which they rely, and would be loathe to give up, are products of the liberalism they detest.

A world of radical libertarianism they cherish, one founded on the right of each person to act with limited restraint in his or her self interest would, I believe, prove Thomas Hobbes right. It would devolve into a world of savage competition in which wealth and power would accrue to the few, with the many becoming little more than serfs: “no arts, no letters, no society, and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Somehow, I think they know that too. It’s revealed in their enthusiasm for law and order. Maybe it’s not socialism they fear. Maybe it’s tax funded resources extended to undeserving others, others who are not the hard working, self sufficient descendants of the mythical pioneers.

Mourning In The Time Of COVID

My friend Deirdre Good wrote about her concern that, as a people of faith, we have not honored or mourned the deaths from COVID19 of 200,000 fellow Americans. She pointed the way to an article in the Harvard Gazette that opened with a question: How does a society grapple with such a loss? The article went on to offer thoughts from five Harvard faculty who share the concern, but with different insights. I’ve heard versions of the same expressed by television commentators, editorial columnists, and friends in casual conversation. Most of us, I suspect, would like to come to some sort of emotionally and spiritually satisfying place that accommodates the reality of such a loss.

It might not be easy. We have rituals to honor the military dead, and days to mourn martyrs and victims of (some) genocide, but we don’t mourn victims of plague. We may examine the significance that times of plague have had on the history of economic, scientific and political developments, but we don’t mourn their victims. We ignore them, hide from them, write fairy tales and compose nursery rhymes to shield us from them. Bereaved families and friends mourn, as they do for any death of a beloved, but society doesn’t. If society does anything, it’s likely to assign moral culpability to a handily available herd of scapegoats, and invest in protective amulets and imaginary cures. Maybe it’s time to be more honest with our collective selves about our fears and moral obligation to lovingly grapple with such a loss. And it’s not only about the dead. It’s also about all who were sick and lived, many with debilitating effects that may last a lifetime; it’s about all who have not yet become infected, but live in anxious fear they might; it’s about all who whose public behavior endangers those around them; it’s about collective anger at being misled and lied to by our leaders; it’s about our human vulnerabilities to the ways of nature we cannot control; it’s about the economic and social disruptions that have upended everything we call normal; it’s about our fear that we, as a people, have lost forever a better future.

I don’t think it’s too trite to begin with John Donne’s familiar words. In his time of plague, and lying sick nearly to death on his own bed, he could hear the bells of London churches ringing out for the dead of each parish.

No man is an island, entire of itself.

Each is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.

If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less.

As well as if a promontory were.

As well as if a manor of thine own, or of thine friend’s were.

Each man’s death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind.

Therefore, send not to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.

How can we, as people of faith, recognize and grieve in hope for all the dead in our own time of plague? Our annual remembrance of all saints and souls is soon upon us. I can’t think of a better time for whatever it is that we do. What will we do? We might start with tolling the bells for a symbolic number of times, say 200. The AIDS quilt is a dramatic and emotionally powerful recognition of the victims of AIDS. It belongs to them and should not be duplicated for COVID victims, but perhaps there is another way to create a powerful public symbol. As followers of Jesus, it may be most important for us to hear words from the pulpit that give voice to our fears and anxieties in the context of suffering and deliverance that is the story of God’s people.

I’m told the Black church understands what that means. By and large the White church of my experience doesn’t. Seventy years of relative comfort and reasonable insulation from global events of mass suffering have given us a false sense of security, confident that the general good we’ve enjoyed is ours by right. The individual trials and tribulations of our lives are nonetheless significant, but the collective story about what is culturally our due is quite different. The COVID pandemic has ruptured that story for at least a generation or two. Maybe that’s a good thing. We shall see.

The Election and Second Retirements

Most who rise to senior positions in their chosen occupations don’t continue into their late 70s and beyond. A Dr. Fauci, or Admirals Rickover and Hopper are exceptions. Corporate policy and personal limitations encourage retirement sometime between 65 and 70, which always bring major adjustments to life.

At 77, I’m starting my second retirement, and it feels uncomfortable at times. I changed careers in my 50s, moving from the corporate world to serving the church as an Episcopal priest. Retiring at 65 from being rector of a thriving congregation, I dove into community work, some a continuation of what I had been doing, and some new. It was a time of self satisfying work with the freedom to travel widely, and enjoy extended time in our favorite vacation haunts. By my mid 70s, and looking around at the other elderly men and women filling chairs at board and commission meetings, it seemed time to make room for a younger generation. In fact, it became something I harped on whenever given the chance, which led to laying plans for my second retirement.

It isn’t that easy to disentangle from years of community engagement that provide a strong sense of purpose in life. The work may be unpaid, but it’s foundational to the health and well being of many people. Awards are given for service rendered, experienced wisdom is sought after, and self satisfaction of a job well done is ego building. My disentanglement was a slow, incremental process that ended abruptly when we moved from coast to coast to be closer to family. Now, in a city where I have few connections, I’m just a retired guy who writes a blog. Maybe I’ll buy a boat.

All the preamble about my second retirement was triggered by an article James Hohmann wrote in the Washington Post (10/6/20) about the nation’s aging leadership. Both presidential candidates are in their 70s, and congressional leadership is older yet. Is it time to make way for a much younger generation of leadership to take their place? Certainly it is, but giving up long held positions of power and prestige is even harder for national leaders who’ve become fixtures in the rarified atmosphere of political power and position. Ordinary people of modest wealth and social status are living longer with more vigor than ever before, which makes them reluctant to give up hard earned status in their communities. The nation’s political leadership is more than moderately wealthy, and political power is seductively addictive. Electoral interventions may be the only way to pry them out of office.

In his NBC town hall (10/5/20), Biden answered a challenging question that came close to an intervention. A twenty-something man asked him point blank if it was time for him and others his age to get out of the way. It is, Biden said. It is time for a younger generation to take its place. His term as president would be, Biden said, a time of transition preparing the way for younger women and men to take over. But age is not without its merits, he added, years of experience have produced wisdom only age and experience can produce, and he will use it to restore common sense, integrity and dignity that will repair the chaos these past four years have foisted on America. They weren’t his exact words, but that’s the gist I got out of it. Which isn’t to say age and experience always produce wisdom. They haven’t for Trump, nor have they for a good many others each of us know personally.

Biden is a man of age and wisdom. He’s suffered the tragedies of life, overcome great obstacles, made mistakes and learned from them, and worked hard to achieve success in high office. He knows his role: to restore global trust in America, relay foundations for sustained economic growth, reopen doors to the American Dream, and prepare the way for younger generations to assume their place of leadership. He knows his limitations, and has the needed humility to turn to others for their gifts of knowledge and wisdom. They don’t add up to perfection, but they are gifts much needed in the face of the Mussolini posturing wannabe dictator whom we’ve endured for the last four years.

Afteward he can enjoy his second retirement.

Marx, The Gospel & Jesus

We have endured generations of Christians claiming the socially acceptable mores of their own political and economic beliefs as biblically correct. They’ve put cultural conformity at the center of the gospel and used Jesus to endorse it. At their worst, they’ve used the bible as a cudgel to coerce conformity to their socially acceptable way of doing things. Preachers who’ve challenged them have often been accused of left wing heresy. Politically conservative parishioners who get nervous when the gospel is preached from the pulpit with too much force that upsets the cultural equilibrium with which they are content are likely to complain that preaching has become too political, and worse, it sounds like radical left wing socialism. Left leaning clergy should not interpret the gospel through a Marxist lens, they say. Clergy should stick to biblical preaching.

Marxism has been a popular multipurpose bogeyman for many decades, and not without reason. We have had a genuine communist party in America, but even self described democratic socialists are more mainstream than not. The marxist bogeyman is generally brought up by those with little understanding of what it means. Even dedicated marxists disagree about what it means. Whatever, it’s a long way from what Marx actually wrote in the mid 1800s about class and conditions in industrializing Europe. His expectations that history would unfold in a rationally predictable way have failed the test of time, and his imaginary communist workers’ paradise turned out to be a downward spiraling disaster wherever tried. Yet, he did offer insights on class dynamics influenced by economic stresses that have found their way into a broad range of modern political thinking. Oddly enough, that includes right wing populist ideology, which publicly detests anything remotely marxist. But I digress.

The point of this short essay is that politically conservative Christians have put the fear of marxist socialism at the center their concerns, which displaces Jesus from his rightful place at the center. It isn’t marxism that informs the gospel or inspires preachers, but the gospel that illuminates some elements of marxist insight that are consistent with God’s holy word. What resonates with both is the moral evil of conditions that allow people in positions of power and status to systematically oppress and exploit those without. God’s holy word, from Genesis through Revelation, is clear about that. Faithfully proclaiming the good news of God in Christ Jesus always and everywhere challenges conditions and persons that contribute to oppression and exploitation.

Marx offered some observations that have helped others explain how changing industrial technologies and class structures that centralize control of capital among the wealthy few can lead to populist discontent and political uprisings. Preachers can use those observations to illuminate where God’s expectations for economic and social justice have not been met. And that includes conditions in nations that have tried marxist solutions, which have never worked, leading only to worse injustices forced on the most oppressed and least powerful.

The center of the gospel is Jesus, and the center of Jesus is God. All other things are contingent. God cannot be claimed as the defender or endorser of any political or economic system. It is God’s holy word to which all of them are all held accountable. All economic systems and forms of government are subordinate to God’s word. As Americans, we are committed to representative democracy. We employ the powers of government to ensure the social welfare of the nation while protecting individual freedom. It is not a form of government with God’s seal of approval. It’s just the one we think is best. It’s a government Christians believe must be held accountable to God’s standards of social and economic justice. They are standards expressed in God’s holy word as recorded, and as God is yet speaking. They are not to be confused with the socially accepted ways of doing things.