Jesus’ Compassion for Thomas (John 20:19-31)

This reflection on the Gospel for the Second Sunday of Easter is the first of what I hope will be a series of reflections on the lectionary’s Gospel readings. My hope is to offer a reflection for each Sunday’s Gospel, but if this proves to be too ambitious time-wise, then I will simply offer what I can. I hope others might find this useful in some way. And I welcome your reflections, too.

The Second Sunday of Easter (Divine Mercy Sunday)

John 20:19-31 deals with the period of time immediately following the Resurrection. According to John, Jesus has just appeared, risen, to Mary Magdalene at the tomb site. There she had gone weeping after the Jewish Sabbath had ended, expecting to anoint his corpse in accordance with the Jewish burial customs. Instead, she was beyond shocked to see him approach her in the garden and speak to her by name: “Mariam.” Mary. He told her to go back and tell the apostles that he was risen, and instruct them to wait for him to come to them. This she did. However, most of them did not believe what she told them. They remained frozen, in a room with locked doors, for fear that they might be hunted down and executed as well. Their hopes and their expectations had been crushed by Jesus’ horrifying murder, instigated by Jerusalem’s corrupt and power-hungry religious leaders, and carried out by the Roman Empire’s well-oiled execution machine. Resurrection was not on their radar. Their own short-term survival was. Struggling through their grief, fear, and humiliation, was. But not Resurrection. As for Mary, they must have theorized, she was perhaps out of her mind with grief, seeing things. In any case, women were not even considered reliable witnesses to testify. Something this extraordinary would be hard to accept even coming from a man; from a woman, the truth of a thing so astonishing could hardly be hoped.

In the middle of all this, the Gospel tells us, “Jesus came and stood in their midst [despite the locked doors] and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ ” The Greek word written here for “peace” — eirēnē — reflects the Hebrew/Aramaic word that Jesus would actually have spoken: shalom. English cannot render in only one word the full meaning of shalom: it means not only peace, but wholeness, health, complete well-being. These are the first words they hear from him since before he died — since before they had either claimed that they didn’t know him in order to avoid arrest, or had simply run away in fear and horror during his Crucifixion. Many people have noted that these first words of the resurrected Jesus to the stunned apostles are simply a gift of forgiveness and reconciliation, a wiping clean of the slate of their less-than-stellar faithfulness and friendship on Good Friday. Their fear-induced abandonment of him on that day and the night of his arrest prior to it is purged away, wiped clean, put in the past as though it never occurred. He understands. He forgives them. He doesn’t hold it over their heads or throw any anger or hurt in their direction. What matters, he communicates to them, is what they are going to do from now on. “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” He will be with them on and off for around the next 40 days, to instruct them and be with them before he ascends to the eternal world.

But Thomas, for some reason, was the only one of the apostles who didn’t happen to be there when Jesus appeared in the room. By the time Thomas rejoined the rest, he had to listen to them fall all over themselves trying to tell him that the Lord had been there and they had all seen him. This was too much for Thomas. Now, surely, the rest of them had lost their minds just as Mary and the other women had. This was beyond the pale. “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nail marks and put my hand into his side [where the centurion had pierced it with a spear], I will not believe.” For this reason people have over time given him the unflattering moniker “Doubting Thomas,” which does not appear anywhere in the New Testament. But this, as our parish priest pointed out in a homily and as I have read elsewhere, is really a bit unfair. It’s even a little hypocritical, given how many of us nowadays struggle to believe anything that cannot be conclusively and scientifically replicated to prove its veracity. We cannot in any self-righteousness cocoon call him “Doubting Thomas.”

In any case, Jesus returns a week later, again despite the locked doors, and this time Thomas is there. Again Jesus’ first words are “Peace be with you,” as if he is replicating for Thomas what he had been unfortunate enough to miss. As he had for the others, Jesus understands Thomas and his actions. He has compassion for our limitations, and forgives them. He speaks to Thomas with gentleness. “Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands, and bring your hand and put it into my side, and do not be unbelieving, but believe.’ Thomas answered and said to him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you come to believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.’ ”

May we all be comforted, in our many faults and limitations, by his compassionate tenderness.

Copyright © 2017 Elizabeth Keck

The Luminous Mysteries

Until very recently, I was not aware of the meditative power that the rosary can hold. For many years I did not meditate on the rosary at all, and when a while ago I did return to praying it, for several months I didn’t even bother with meditating on the Mysteries that are assigned to it. Perhaps I felt that simply moving through the prayers with the right attention and frame of mind was all that I could manage at one time, until I got my rosary “legs” underneath me again. Whatever the reason, though, I eventually progressed to the point where I was at last ready to try the most enriching dimension of the rosary, the dimension that holds such fullness of potential for encountering God: reflecting on the Mysteries.

There are twenty Mysteries, which are divided into four groups of five. The four groups are the Joyful Mysteries, the Luminous Mysteries, the Sorrowful Mysteries, and the Glorious Mysteries. Since the rosary is divided into five parts, or “decades,” which correspond to five Mysteries, the person meditates on only one of the groups. S/he is spared the task of choosing which group, since there is a customary order that goes by the days of the week. In any case, each of the twenty Mysteries focuses on an event in the life of Christ, with the exception of a few that come from the life of Mary. Yesterday, I found some time to pray the rosary while meditating on the Luminous Mysteries, which are these: 

  1. The Baptism of Christ in the Jordan (Mark 1:9-11)
  2. The Manifestation of Christ at the Wedding at Cana (John 2:1-12)
  3. The Proclamation of the Kingdom of God and Jesus’ Call to Conversion (Mark 1:14-15)
  4. The Transfiguration (Mark 9:2-8)
  5. The Institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper (Mark 14:22-26)

This meditative form of Christian prayer involves focusing the mind on each of these events in turn (following the sections of the rosary) with imagination — visualization — as the lion’s share of the process. For this a person simply needs a humble openness to God, and an openness to wherever the visualization of these Mysteries might lead. Despite a bit of trepidation at first, owing to uncertainty over whether I would be “good at it” or not, I soon found myself with the feeling of drawing back further and further into my mind, into these scenes in the life of Christ. It did not take long for me to enter far enough into each of the scenes in my mind to feel as if I were present there, watching. Though still aware of my surroundings, I also felt considerably detached from them, as if I had mentally entered a different but safe and richly promising place.

I want to write about one thing that occurred to me during this meditative prayer, as I reflected on Christ’s baptism by John the Baptist, who famously expressed shock at the idea that he was being asked to baptize the one “whose sandals he was not fit to untie.” Nonetheless, John did baptize Jesus, after which we are told the Spirit descended upon Jesus like a dove, and God gave a message from Heaven about His Son. As I envisioned this scene in my mind, I felt John’s astonishment as he looked up from the river in which he was baptizing the crowds, to see the very man who represented the Kingdom that John was proclaiming, walking toward him. I imagined John’s awareness that the scene was playing out ostensibly the reverse of how it should — the baptizer knew how outrageous it was that he was baptizing the one who had every right to baptize him.

And that particular point was what got my attention. As John unflinchingly admitted, he himself was only “the voice crying out in the wilderness,” someone who raised his hand to point at someone and something else beyond himself, knowing that the attention belonged elsewhere. But God, in the person of Christ, elected to subordinate Godself — not only in the Incarnation as a human being in the first place, but in the subordination to human hands, with the baptism in the Jordan as a striking example. In his letter to the Philippians, St. Paul quotes a hymn that praises God the Creator for “emptying Himself” by taking on human form in Christ and experiencing human weakness in an unpredictably radical demonstration of divine love. 

This, it turned out, was not going to be a God who would emerge loudly from the sky with dramatic clouds and blowing trumpets, or who would swoop down with a holy saber to eradicate enemies, or who would instantly make everything triumphantly perfect with a wave of His hand. This, instead, was going to be a God who would send Himself here to be born. Not to gloriously appear in the atmosphere with orchestral accompaniment, but to be born the old-fashioned, messy, “unclean” way. This was going to be a God who would submit Himself to hunger, thirst, pain, despair, suffering, and even the disgrace of execution. This was a God who would take the hand of Jairus’ young daughter who had died, incurring (in the belief of onlookers at least) the strong ritual uncleanness that came from touching a corpse. The holy and the divine were supposed to be strictly separated from any ritual uncleanness, and never the two should meet. But here was a God who didn’t seem to think so. This God, after all, was the one who said to St. Paul, “My power is made perfect in weakness.”

All these things seemed encapsulated in the image of Christ submitting himself to be baptized. A profound respect the Creator must have for His creations, it seemed to me, in order to do these things. What if we looked at one another with the same respect? And even though this God’s power is made perfect in weakness, it is a formidable power that can assure the 14th-century English mystic, Julian of Norwich, that at the end “all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of thing will be well…And I saw full surely that ere God made us He loved us; which love was never slacked, nor ever shall be…and in this love our life is everlasting. In our making we had beginning; but the love wherein He made us was in Him from without beginning: in which love we have our beginning. And all this shall we see in God, without end.” (Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love)

© 2012 Elizabeth Keck

 

The Wisdom of the Simple

Recently, I watched a PBS documentary on the tiny country of Bhutan, which is south of Tibet. The people of Bhutan live by the philosophy espoused by their leader, who, incredible as it might sound, seems to be the embodiment of Plato’s “enlightened philosopher-king.” He frequently moves among the poor and is transitioning the country to democracy. The philosophy in which he guides his people is known as “gross national happiness,” meaning that policies enacted in Bhutan should always be enacted with the goal of happiness for all the country’s inhabitants — and not just the human ones, but also the animals and the environs. This will in turn lead to greater human happiness.

Until only a couple of decades ago, Bhutan had no real interaction with the outside world. They also had very low crime, practically no drug use, and a population who overwhelmingly categorized themselves as “happy.” They were happy even though they were mostly subsistence farmers with no extra money to speak of. Then, with the opening of Bhutan to the global world, televisions and the Internet arrived — and with them, advertising. While most of the countryside population still does not have televisions or computers, many of the city folk do, and have begun to report a major decline in happiness. Crime has risen, as has drug use. Fast food joints — though no McDonald’s yet — have cropped up, and there is a higher rate of depression. This seems to be partially the fault of exposure to advertising, and to Western ideals of the “perfect” body and the “perfect” life. Bhutanese women, who previously measured themselves according to the traditional notion of the ideal woman — the strong, capable, wise person who holds her household together — now report feeling ugly as they compare themselves to sleek fashion models with perpetual hunger pains and thousands of dollars of product in their surreal hair. Ads for all the new “must-have” products can be seen anywhere in the urban areas, urging viewers to evaluate the material quality of their lives and find it lacking.

Now you might say: surely the subsistence farmers would be happier with these extra things and the money to go with them, since their lives are filled with backbreaking work and very little formal education. How could they truly be happy under those conditions? However, when the documentarist went to the countryside to interview these farmers who lived in huts with their families, the response seemed universal. They were happy. And they weren’t just saying it; you could see it on their faces. These were people with very little (if any) extra cash, with no modern gadgets or even running water, who spent entire days in rice paddies with yaks. Surprising, then, was their seemingly universal answer to the question: “Would you want more things if you could have them, and more money?” They answered no, as long as they continued to have their necessities and just a bit more for comfortable leeway. They did not want any excess.

More astonishing was their answer to the follow-up question: “Why do you not want more?” Seemingly as one, these simple Buddhist farmers responded, “Because if you have too many things, you’re not happy anymore. Instead you’re always worried about people coming and stealing your money or your things, and you want more. You think you don’t have enough and you become very attached to these things. So then you are not happy; it causes suffering.”

These were not people who had attended some local Buddhist seminary for graduate training. Yet there they were, espousing the quintessential Buddhist philosophy, which as a way of life frequently eludes scholars of religion, and being quite happy about it. They were espousing the philosophy that so many of their urban compatriots had perhaps unconsciously let slip away. Yet this philosophy is by no means limited to Buddhism. It can be found in most religions of which I am aware, including Christianity — or at least Christianity in its purer form, one not watered down by its affiliation with the majority culture in the West.

The farmers’ statements are also backed up by a major recent study showing that people, worldwide, report being at their happiest when they have enough to cover their basic needs, plus a little more for comfort. In one of the greatest paradoxes, people from all over the globe report that the more excess they have, the unhappier they are. The wealthiest nations have the highest suicide rates.

I believe that all this says much less about Buddhist philosophy than it does about the fundamentals of humankind. One does not need to be Buddhist to experience what these Bhutanese farmers are talking about. My Catholic grandparents experienced it, living out their lives in their small, but very solid, household. I experience it when I don’t feel the need to buy the latest gadget and throw out the earlier version that I only got last year, which still works perfectly. I experience it when I know that I really don’t want a bigger house — even if I could afford one — or a bigger widescreen TV that would mount on my wall, or even cable. (With that last one, I’m often met with incredulity). It is true that in our modern society, one cannot disengage from everything unless one enters a cloistered religious order. I do have my computer, my iPod, my cell phone, and a TV. But we can be content with what we have, and not think we need more because someone we know has a fancy car or an Internet TV. Let’s distinguish between what we want and what we need.

So there is wisdom in simple things. There is also wisdom in a simple approach to life and faith. When we become caught up in ourselves, things go from simple to complicated to a hopeless mess in quite a hurry. Pope Benedict XVI, in Jesus of Nazareth, Part Two, writes of St. Paul’s statement that even though he was an expert in the Law, he was ignorant of how God truly worked:

In view of his earlier self-assurance as a perfect disciple of the Law who knew and lived by the Scriptures, these are strong words; he who had studied under the best masters and who might reasonably have considered himself a real expert on the Scriptures, has to acknowledge, in retrospect, that he was ignorant…This combination of expert knowledge and deep ignorance certainly causes us to ponder….Clearly this mixture of knowledge and ignorance, of material expertise and deep incomprehension, occurs in every period of history….Are we not blind precisely as people with knowledge? Is it not on account of our knowledge that we are incapable of recognizing Truth itself, which tries to reach us through what we know? (Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, Part Two, pp. 206-207)

How we work all this out in modern society is anyone’s guess. Certainly no one is advocating that we renounce education. But as we educate ourselves, as we learn and as we seem to acquire more and more things — including, perhaps, a deceptive sense of our own self-sufficiency — we need to remember humility, simplicity, and happiness.

Copyright © 2011 Elizabeth Keck

Marias and Mysteries

Recently, I’ve been doing a lot of genealogical research into my ancestry. Just over a hundred years ago, eight foreigners (six of them miserable for weeks in steerage) on different ships sailed past the Statue of Liberty and started the American branch of their family trees. Six of them were from southern Italy and two were from northern England. They were all my great-grandparents. Some of them brought over some of their siblings and cousins; many more family members forever remained in the Old Countries. In the course of my research, I’ve also managed to reach back a couple of generations into those Old Countries, and have been delighted to uncover the names of many of my ancestors. As I uncovered those names, I was astonished to see just how many of the Italian women – on both sides of the Atlantic – were named Maria. In one branch of the family, all the females carried Maria as their first name, but each was called by her middle name, to distinguish among them: Maria Francesca (the mother), Maria Giuseppa, Maria Concetta, Maria Letizia, and Maria Rosa (all her female children).

Of course, Maria is for Mary the mother of Jesus (Miriam in Hebrew), who is revered and emulated – but not worshiped – in Roman Catholicism, as well as in Eastern Orthodoxy. My survey of all the Marias in my family caused me to wonder about the source of widespread devotion to Mary, when we know so little about her. One aspect of it is surely that Mary offers a genuinely needed feminine presence in a religion that, from its origins, inherited male terminology for its triune God. The three manifestations or forms – or perhaps avatars is an effective word to use in this wired age – of the one Christian God are termed the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The first, even though Catholicism and many other branches of Christianity happily acknowledge that God has no real gender, is termed Father instead of Mother because he is Yahweh, who was male in the Hebrew Bible. The second became incarnate in the form of a male human being, Jesus, so there’s not much option for terminology there. The third, even though the term “Holy Spirit” conjures neither male nor female associations, assumed male pronouns out of convention, and probably also because Yahweh (as I mentioned already) was always thought of as male.

The need for a female presence in the religion is not a need felt by women alone, as evidenced by the large number of men who revere Mary. Pope John Paul II was famous for his Marian devotions. It stems, rather, from a sense of the balance in life that is experienced by men and women alike. A triune God with all male terms – even if that God’s intrinsic lack of gender is acknowledged in the theology – is not in balance. This, I believe, is one reason that Christians find themselves drawn to Mary, not as a type of goddess, but as the female balance that she is by nature as Jesus’ mother. It is this maternal aspect that draws mothers and women hoping to be mothers, men young and old alike, to the mother of Jesus in their religious lives. There is a sense that by virtue of being Jesus’ mother, Mary is in some way a symbolic mother to us all.

But it also seems to me that another source for the attraction to Mary is the very lack of information about her that I mentioned earlier – the reason I wondered about the reverence in the first place. She is a mystery. Beyond the birth narratives, especially the one in Luke, we hear almost nothing from her. Mystics, saints, clergy, and ordinary people across the ages have spoken of revelations of her or from her, but such things only increase the mystery surrounding Mary, rather than diminish it. This could be part of the reason that Mary finds herself with billions of people down through the ages thinking about her, sending prayers to her, turning to her for maternal help, and giving their children her name. Mysteries allow us to imagine, to dream, to search for what we need and find it. Beyond being Jesus’ mother, Mary is a page waiting to be filled in. Thus, those who have Mary as part of their religious lives invest in her their hopes, their sorrows – and perhaps, everything they need in a mother.

Copyright © 2011 Elizabeth Keck

Ascension Day

For Christians, yesterday was Ascension Day — the day in which the bodily ascension of Jesus Christ to Heaven is commemorated. Some churches offer special services on this day because of its solemnity, and certainly Catholic churches, for whom the Ascension is a holy day of obligation (although some dioceses transfer it to the nearest Sunday so that more people can celebrate it). I had already planned to attend one of these services with my daughter, but felt even more so after the area in Massachusetts where I live was hit with multiple destructive tornadoes and severe lightening storms for a stretch of hours the day before. Parts of my state were devastated – even parts of surrounding towns relatively close by – and my town had been listed as one of those that could very well be in a certain tornado’s path. As it turned out, my town escaped, but so many others did not. For our family, it was a terrifying near-miss. In Massachusetts, tornadoes touching down is a surreal experience.

I woke up the morning of the Ascension with profound sadness for those who had lost their homes, but also with profound relief and gratitude that my home and my family had been spared. This happy relief felt as if someone had infused a shot of extra, fresh oxygen directly into my lungs, and I wanted to give expression to it. My daughter and I arrived for a noon Mass.

As I mentioned before, it was a holy day of obligation; so naturally I assumed no one would be there. I was surprised, though, to find quite a few people there – perhaps others had woken up that morning sharing my thoughts. The readings for the day centered on Jesus’ ascension skyward in the sight of his disciples, including Acts 1:1-11, in which the disciples cannot stop themselves from continuing to gaze upward where he had gone. The text then says that two men in white (these would be angels) appeared beside them and asked why they continued to stand there and look upward, since “this Jesus will return in the same way” that they had seen him go. The Gospel reading concluded with what Matthew presented as Jesus’ last words before the ascension, telling his disciples, “Behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Mt 28:20).

It was this last reading that factored most heavily into the priest’s homily, which, as I had hoped, centered on the upheaval of the preceding day and its psychological aftermath. His message concerned the presence of God with us through such disasters, pointing out that while we all felt for those whose lives had been upended by storms in the Midwest, having a natural disaster hit geographically so close to home gives it a different meaning entirely. So, quite rightly I think, he connected Jesus’ words in Matthew to current events, noting that they apply to us just as much as the early disciples.

I did go to church because it was Ascension Day, but I also went to give expression of my thankfulness that my family and my house were preserved from the worst of the storms. I am aware that expressing my thanks to God also raises questions theologically. I know that weather is random and its own beast (I explored this in an early post,”The Fall-Guy for the Weather?”), and it is not God choosing to smite certain innocent homes with tornadoes and spare others. So I knew that expressing my gratitude to God might be inherently illogical. After all, I knew there was nothing special about me or my house that God would actively spare it while ignoring other homes that ended up destroyed. That is also why I hesitate to say that I feel blessed, because does that imply that God has blessed me but not others? That he has intentionally withheld blessing from others? I’m not comfortable believing that, and it seems arrogant to do so. In fact, I believe that God does not cause destruction but is very present with those who suffer from it, because I believe my faith when it tells me that God, in Christ, suffered both with and on behalf of humanity.

So if I believe that God did not choose some houses to be destroyed by the tornadoes and others to be spared, what is the logical basis for my thanks? To me, the answer is that there is none. But perhaps strangely, I am mostly comfortable with that. That knowledge will not prevent me from thanking God that I and mine were spared from a deadly natural disaster. It will not prevent me from praying that my house will still be there (as I did on Wednesday evening), nor prevent me from feeling profound gratitude to God afterward. I cannot identify any rhyme or reason to the destruction of June 1 in Massachusetts (or, for that matter, natural disasters elsewhere). But I will still be thankful. And I still believe that God is very much present with the suffering of those who have lost homes and even loved ones. If there is one thing about which Christianity is unshakably clear, it is that ours is a God who is acquainted with suffering, and who does not shy away from it.

© Elizabeth Keck 2011

Unraveling the Complications of Things

Lately I have been reading Pope Benedict’s book, “Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week.” I find it to be a humble and well-reasoned work of fine theology. Just the other day, I thought about a certain passage, in light of the non-ending of the world that was just witnessed on May 21. For those who might have spent the better part of a month either out in a boat in the North Atlantic or frolicking on a beach with pina coladas in Bora Bora, and who thereby might somehow have missed the much-fanfared non-Rapture, here is what happened. One Harold Camping predicted the “Rapture” (an event anticipated mostly by evangelical Protestants; believers will be bodily caught up to Heaven and non-believers will face terrible tribulations before the Last Judgment), for May 21. He did this based on his own calculations that the Rapture should happen exactly 7,000 years after Noah’s Flood. Setting aside for a moment the fact that not even the Bible purports to be exact about when the Flood occurred, and setting aside for a moment the fact that there doesn’t seem to be any prediction of 7,000 years involved, many of Camping’s followers quit their jobs and spent most of their savings traveling to proclaim this Rapture, so that more might be saved. The Gospel of Matthew records Jesus stating that of the end of the world, “no one will know the day or hour,” and it will come “like a thief in the night”; but never mind. The reason I’m writing about it relates to the central premise that Camping’s followers (and others) espoused: Christian believers will be “saved,” non-Christian believers (or non-believers in general) will not be saved.

Presumably, some of the folks advocating this model include Jews among the unsaved non-believers. In any case, the deplorable ways in which so many Christians have treated Jews — even coining the degrading epithet “Christ-killers” — are not secret. Nor is it secret that even today, some Christians look unfavorably upon Jews, or at least consider them part of the unsaved group. So, the passage that I came across in “Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week” talks a bit about the origin of this tragic animosity: the misperception that “the Jews” demanded Jesus’ death. Even on the face of it, it is a ridiculous statement: all of Christ’s original disciples were Jews, and Christ in his human nature was himself a Jew. Benedict notes that the Gospels do not indict “the Jews” as a whole, but imply that persons in power desired Jesus’ death. That said, he then notes the verse that probably takes the lion’s share of blame for historical Christian animosity to Jews: Matt 27:25, which states that the crowd shouted, “His blood be upon us and upon our children.”

Of this “blood be upon us” statement, Benedict offers a theological reinterpretation. He reminds us, “the Christian will remember that Jesus’ blood speaks a different language from the blood of Abel (Heb 12:24): it does not cry out for vengeance and punishment; it brings reconciliation. It is not poured out against anyone; it is poured out for many, for all….These words are not a curse, but rather redemption, salvation. Only when understood in terms of the theology of the Last Supper and the Cross, drawn from the whole of the New Testament, does this verse from Matthew’s Gospel take on its correct meaning.”

While this interpretation comes from Benedict, its spirit is inspired by a Vatican II document called Nostra Aetate, which describes the Church’s relationship with non-Christians. Of religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, etc., Nostra Aetate says, “The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions. She has a high regard for the manner of life and conduct, the precepts and doctrines which, although differing in many ways from her own teaching, nevertheless often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men…Let Christians, while witnessing to their own faith and way of life, acknowledge, preserve and encourage the spiritual and moral truths found among non-Christians, also their social life and culture…The Church also has a high regard for the Muslims….Over the centuries many quarrels and dissensions have arisen between Christians and Muslims. The sacred Council now pleads with all to forget the past, and urges that a sincere effort be made to achieve mutual understanding.”

After a section discussing that it is from the Jewish faith that the Christian faith sprang, Nostra Aetate states, “Remembering, then, her common heritage with the Jews and moved not by any political consideration, but solely by religious motivation of Christian charity, she deplores all hatreds, persecutions, displays of antisemitism leveled at any time or from any source against the Jews.”

Regardless of what one thinks of Nostra Aetate (personally, I like it very much), one must be struck by Benedict’s interpretation of what Christ’s blood signifies, and how incompatible that is with any poorly-reasoned theology that damns all unbelievers with black-and-white simplicity. At the very least, one must acknowledge a proper humility that we are bound to leave these things in the hands of God, who is the only Judge of anyone. In the words of Lao Tzu, “We should blunt our sharp points, and unravel the complications of things.”

© Elizabeth Keck 2011

He Who Lives By The Sword

Of the killing of Osama bin Laden, the Dalai Lama, always the voice of ultimate compassion, said that while bin Laden might have deserved forgiveness as a human being, “forgiveness doesn’t mean forget what happened…. If something is serious and it is necessary to take counter-measures, you have to take counter-measures.” The Vatican, expressing what was likely a similar sentiment, noted that bin Laden was responsible for the destruction of countless lives, spreading division and hatred, and manipulating religions to that end. The statement concluded: “In the face of a person’s death, a Christian never rejoices, but reflects on the serious responsibilities of each person before God and before humanity, and hopes and works so that every event may be the occasion for the further growth of peace and not of hatred.” Explicit in this statement is the lack of condemnation of the manner of bin Laden’s death. These statements from these respective religious leaders are striking, because both the Dalai Lama and the Vatican can usually be expected to make statements affirming life in all forms and disapproving of actions that lead to another’s death.

In the last several days, religious people of different traditions have struggled with conflicting responses within themselves to the news, and have sought whether their responses are in accordance with their faith. Thousands of people Sunday night rushed the streets, cheered, waved flags, sang, and chanted “USA!” Reactions against this jubilation have come from some quarters since, declaring it uncivilized or ignorant. Others refrain from judging that jubilation, but express concern that we should not celebrate or feel satisfaction at the killing of even someone as heinous as bin Laden, even though we are all better off with him out of commission, and even though he received every bit the justice he deserved.

But I think the tempered responses of the Dalai Lama and the Vatican speak to the reality that even if we know our noblest selves might refrain from taking satisfaction from this event, this was a man who, together with his associates, murdered innocent people. And not just our people, but many others across the globe, including Muslims. This was a man who spread hate like a bacterium. He needed to be dispatched from this world for a functional reason – that is, so that he could no longer plot murders and motivate new followers with his charismatic presence. But on a more emotional level, we do feel gladness that he was taken down, and taken down by one of our own warriors. Surely his followers do not see this as our victory, but that is irrelevant to the emotional release of a nation whose citizens were murdered merely because they went to work one day 10 years ago, or boarded a plane that one day — a nation whose psyche and daily reality were suddenly and permanently changed by the act of savagery that was 9/11.

From a Christian perspective, the New Testament teaches that we do best when we emulate Christ, who exhorts us to be peaceful, longsuffering, compassionate, forgiving, non-violent, and non-vengeful. The central message of Christ’s journey to the Cross, after all, was his willing endurance of a grave injustice and grave suffering when he was innocent of any wrongdoing, thus revealing God’s solidarity with suffering, and the glorification that ensued. But even the New Testament – even some of the words attributed to Jesus – recognize that we are still living in a broken world that harbors both chaos and evil, and people who choose evil. We strive toward the divine world, but it is still “not yet.” Sometimes, in this world, we are left with no realistic choice besides what happened Sunday night. Bin Laden chose his fate years ago, and went into it with eyes wide open. As the Vatican spokesman noted, we all bear a responsibility before God, and bin Laden reaped what he sowed.

Jesus did teach and demonstrate love, compassion, and forgiveness. But the New Testament also observes that  “he who lives by the sword, dies by the sword.” As humans, we should reflect soberly and sadly on the chain of events that led here, and that stretches back more than a decade. There is an Old Testament scripture that states, “Vengeance is mine – so says the Lord.” So it is. And we will leave such matters in his hands.

© Elizabeth Keck 2011

The Cosmic Breach

Most religions and philosophies over the course of human history have understood that human actions often fall short of — and sometimes run directly counter to — what is good, generous, loving, humble, and in line with the desires of an infinitely good God. Different systems place differing levels of emphasis on the problem of this disparity between human behavior and divine example; in Christianity, it is certainly one of the most central concerns of the faith. Those of us familiar with Christianity have often heard the phrase, “Jesus Christ died for our sins.” But what does that mean? It can almost become one of those phrases that loses its meaning; it is heard often but is hardly self-explanatory. It invites the questions, “Why? What for? And in what way?”

Christian faith holds that Jesus’ voluntary death on the cross and subsequent Resurrection was necessary to mend the divide between humanity and God, to step into the cosmic breach that sin tore open between them, to bring humankind back into right relationship with its — and the world’s — Creator. Christianity holds that this was necessary because of the gaping distance that sin creates between humans, who are so often willful, selfish, vindictive, cruel, unthinking, and hypocritical, and God, who is none of those things. Hence, according to Christian faith, God united with human flesh, becoming one of us in what Christians call the Second Person of the Trinity: Jesus Christ. In so doing, God and humanity became united in that person in the Incarnation, in a profound act when Christ-God “emptied himself” (Greek, heauton ekenosen) to take on servant form, says Paul in his letter to the Phillippians. Self-emptying, indeed, for a God to come to the level of a human, submit Godself to human needs, limitations, and struggles, and then to humiliation in a grisly and eminently unjust death. Why, in the Christian worldview, was this necessary to permanently heal the breach between humanity and God and bestow grace for sin?

Just how Christ’s death functioned to forever absolve human beings from sin and heal the cosmic breach between God and humanity has been a subject for theologians from the earliest Christians onward. In ancient Israel, the sacrificial system provided a way to make reparation for sin. The Hebrew Bible describes two types of sacrifice that were made for sin: the hatta’t and the asham. It seems that the first type was made on behalf of “unintentional” sin, while the second type was performed to make reparation for intentional sin that incurred guilt. Just how the Israelites understood the efficacy and symbolism of the sacrificial system is a massive question in biblical scholarship, since the Bible itself says several things on the matter — not mutually exclusive things, but things that emphasize different aspects of the meaning of sacrifice. Further, there is no systematic explanation of how sacrifice was understood to “work,” probably because the ancient Israelites had no need to explain it systematically, and were not writing for our benefit. Complicating matters even further is the fact that there were several different types of sacrifice that served clearly different purposes, having nothing to do with sin. There were thanksgiving offerings, for example, and whole burnt-offerings, and offerings of peace and well-being. In any case, some of the Church Fathers in the first centuries after Christ concluded that Christ’s atonement on the cross was sacrificial in nature in the way that the hatta’t or the asham was — Christ effected the ultimate sacrifice to dispense forever with the pernicious effects of sin upon the soul and separation from God, and he could only do this because he came from God.

There are a couple of verses in the New Testament that hint at this interpretation, but in many of the earliest New Testament writings (the first three, or “Synoptic” Gospels, and some of the letters of Paul), there is not a clear indication that this was a predominant early interpretation for how Christ’s death and Resurrection worked. More often, we find either ambiguity, or the idea that Christ’s death and Resurrection served as a reconciling event. That is, it was a demonstration of God’s solidarity with and love for humankind, and victory over death, that proclaimed God’s healing of the breach that sin causes between humans and God. In other words, not a required blood atonement under a sacrificial system, but a demonstrative act that effected reconciliation through its power. We see this interpretation in Paul, in one of the earliest-dated writings in the New Testament (Paul wrote his letters and died before the Gospels as we know them were circulating):

“So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation….All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” (2 Corinthians 5:17-20)

In her book Joy to the World! Mission in the Age of Global Christianity, Dr. Dana Robert, expert in world Christianity and mission history, describes it this way: “For his followers, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the ultimate sign that God loves the world. In becoming human, God identified with our sufferings, failures, and weaknesses. In dying on the cross, he chose to take on the pain of human vulnerability rather than commit violence by fighting or by seizing earthly power. In the resurrection, he promised us life over death. Just as God became one with us through becoming human in Jesus Christ, so is humanity united with God. The resurrection of Jesus carries in it the assurance of humanity’s permanent reconciliation with its Creator.”

There is probably more than one way for a Christian to interpret the significance and purpose of the Christ event. But for Paul, one early and influential Christian who wrote roughly between 50-60 CE, the theology of reconciliation of humanity with God — and thus, crucially, the divine invitation for the reconciliation of human beings with one another — was at the very heart of it.

© Elizabeth Keck 2011

More than Lip-Service for a Legacy

Anyone who follows the news knows that the topic of Islam in America has been a leading headline lately.  The word “Islamophobia” is popping up on various media outlets. A nationwide controversy exists over whether a New York Muslim community can have a mosque within an Islamic Center that would also include spaces  for members of other religions, including Christians. The Center would also include recreational spaces where people of various backgrounds could come together and get to know each other. But the controversy exists because the Center would be a few blocks from the Ground Zero of the horrific 9/11 attacks. It is worth noting that, as General Colin Powell stated on The View this morning, the plans for this Center had existed for quite some time without any uproar over it, until certain media outlets publicized the story. And one would have to be living in a cave not to have heard about the other major controversy: Terry Jones, the clearly attention-hungry pastor of a small church in Florida, plans to burn copies of the Qur’an on Saturday, the anniversary of 9/11.

Add to these the fact that a number of average Americans are becoming louder and louder about their broadbased anti-Muslim sentiments — no longer even feeling it necessary to couch anti-Muslim rhetoric in a veil of American religious tolerance — and it is no wonder some people fear that “Islamophobia” is getting to be a real problem in our country. The Washington Post came out with a poll saying 49% of Americans now have an unfavorable view toward Islam; mosques are becoming sporadic targets, with a mosque outside Fresno, CA having been vandalized more than once.

The broader issue in our society should not be about whether any given person “likes” or “dislikes” Islam as a religion, or whether a person is afraid of it or has any interest in it at all. All that should be secondary and is a private matter to each person. The issue at hand is about upholding the American Constitution and the legacy of freedom and tolerance of which Americans claim to be so proud. Upholding that legacy cannot merely be about lip service, or merely be about groups with which we identify or to which we belong. If we argue for the rights and human dignity of only those groups to which we ourselves belong, such clannishness hardly does honor to the American traditions we were all taught in school, and is hardly something for which we ought to pat ourselves on the back as inheritors of the American tradition.

Some people fear Islam as a “violent religion,” pointing to the horrifying events of 9/11 and the acts of terrorism that have occurred around the world since then. But the fear that Islam is in general a violent religion is typically born from a lack of real exposure to ordinary Muslims and what they believe, and how they live. I do not live in an area with a particularly high number of Muslims, but for whatever reason, there are still several people in my life who happen to be Muslim. They are ordinary families consisting of a husband, wife, and kids; regular people with regular family dynamics, not strange folk with opaque practices and sinister intents, but normal, kind people who are pleasant to be around and care about the same things my own family does. One of these families routinely gives us abundant produce from their own garden, and has shown us impeccable hospitality.

Do these families pray to God? Yes. Are they extremists? No, and whenever the subject has come up, they have unfailingly expressed frustration and dismay that the actions of terrorist extremists have tarnished and misrepresented ordinary Islam across the globe. One of them lamented to me that Islamic radicals espouse beliefs that are nowhere in the Qur’an and that are not properly Muslim, but rather part of local pre-existing cultures that would exist whether Islam were the local religion or not. Such radicals claim to act in the name of Islam, but in reality, act only according to their own criminal intent. In the words of one Muslim woman I know: “That is not Islam. They are not human. They are worse than animals.”

Indeed, if one takes a small effort to learn about Islam, one learns that Jesus and Mary are held in very high esteem in the Qur’an; this fact would surely surprise many Americans who hold blanket assumptions about the Qur’an. Jesus is not considered divine, but he is considered the greatest of the biblical prophets. If one takes a small effort, one learns that the Qur’an states: “Anyone who kills an innocent person, it is as if he has killed the entire world; anyone who saves an innocent person, it is as if he has saved the entire world.” Such a doctrine is hardly in line with radical terrorist mentality.

But this should not surprise us. People have always and everywhere killed in the name of every religion, including Christianity. The religious wars between Catholics and Protestants that blighted Europe for centuries bear bloody witness to this. Were the killers on either side truly acting in the name of Christianity? No, they were acting in their own name, and justifying their own intent by trying to wield a religious motivation. When Jesus said, “I come bringing not peace, but a sword,” it was not an admonishment for his followers to go out and slaughter people; it was a recognition that his movement would change things in a way that, at least in this world, had the potential to introduce havoc and conflict. And it did.

The Qur’an is not a terrorist tract, but if the pastor in Florida insists on burning it, he will galvanize terrorists who use it as a front for their own murderousness. He will feed terrorism, and give the terrorists another reason to attack both us and innocent people abroad, including our troops. But I suspect that perhaps he does not care about that; he does, after all, now have an international stage, and has tapped into a fear that is bubbling close to the surface in this country. This morning, an otherwise friendly and rational person suggested to me that maybe Muslims in America should just live in their own areas, separate from the rest of us, leave us alone, and never the twain should meet. This person did not seem to realize that without groups having real, everyday-life exposure to one another, there is nothing to dispel misunderstanding and fear of the other. And then mistrust and violence receive a blank check.

© Elizabeth Keck 2010

Postscript: Since this writing, the media has reported that Terry Jones, the pastor of the Florida church, has canceled his book-burning.

Born in the Garden of Eden

The story of the Garden of Eden and the Fall of humankind (incidentally, the term “Fall” is never used in the biblical account) can be interpreted in many different ways by its religious inheritors. In the world of Christian interpretation, there are some that take this story only at its most literal face value. Adam and Eve were two historical individuals who ate a fruit [not necessarily an apple, since the Hebrew word pri can mean any fruit] because they were tempted by the serpent [not necessarily the devil, since the serpent might represent any tempting, deceptive impulse], and were kicked out of a real geographical Eden for violating God’s one command not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad. Other Christians see this story as metaphor, a lesson on why life can be so far from the ideal world we are all capable of imagining. In classical Christian theology, it is a story (metaphor or otherwise) that details the arrival of imperfection and sin into the human experience, and explains why such things afflict all of us.

The Eden story seeks to provide the answer to some of life’s most troublesome realities: why childbirth, a joyous event, comes accompanied with unparalleled physical pain, and why a man can work in his fields until he has no skin left on his fingers and no sweat left in his body and the earth might still not yield enough to live on. And why even if it does, that yield cannot ever come forth without hard, physical dedication. In short, the Eden story recognizes that this world and that human life are imperfect, and seeks to tell us why. That, at least, is something on which both literalists and non-literalists can agree. Beyond that, literalists often believe the story is a straightforward one about how two people disobeyed God by giving in to greed and temptation, lost out on Paradise, and thereby doomed the rest of us to sin and the school of hard knocks. Non-literalists often believe the story is a quaint, perhaps somewhat embarrassing tale of origins that observes (1) life’s a bitch, and (2) why it’s a bitch.

To my mind, the essence of the story is neither of these. The Eden story is a sophisticated and multi-layered coming-of-age tale, a commentary on the point in time (and maybe that point could be a process over thousands of years) when humans came to know good and bad, truth and deception. That is to say, the point in time when humans became sentient as a species. When humans gained a knowledge and capability they had not had before: the knowledge that it is possible to deceive and to cause gratuitous harm with aforethought for one’s own gain, or worse, pleasure. The serpent, which I take to represent all those capabilities we have and wish we didn’t, tempted Adam and Eve — the prototypical humans — to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad, even though God had warned them not to. And they did. The serpent’s “promise”? That they would become like gods, that they would become wise.

This is a story in which God finds out that Adam and Eve had eaten of the Tree when God goes for a stroll one evening to enjoy the cool part of the day. This is not a literal story and it was never intended to be, to my mind. God had told the humans they could eat of any tree except the forbidden one, for the day they ate of that one, they would surely die. It seems to me that they did die when they ate of the Tree, but not by a stopping of the heart. What died was the creature — the species — they had been before gaining such knowledge.

The Garden of Eden is a story that describes the loss of innocence; I believe, the loss of innocence as a species. Innocence is not the quality of being good all the time (any parent of a child can tell you that). Innocence is the state of not knowing — of not being capable of hurting someone or something as a result of deliberately intending to do so. And the innocent being is not capable of that because the innocent being does not even know such a thing is possible; such a being cannot think of doing that because that awareness does not yet exist within its mind. It is not yet wired for it. Most animals are innocent in this way: they might cause harm or kill, but they do so either to eat or to defend themselves, their group, or by extension their home territory. They do not cause hurt out of malice, deception, or for kicks.

Some of us are still in Eden, in a way. Among humans, innocence still lives — in very young children. This does not mean young children are always paragons of behavior. But it means that very young children do not think to themselves: “I want to hurt mommy’s/daddy’s/my friend’s feelings, so I will do x-y-z and hurt their feelings that way.” A very young child might do or say something that does hurt someone else, but they are not doing so in a knowing fashion, or for pleasure, or for some selfish gain. They are going on what they want or feel in the moment, without aforethought. I say “very young children” because eventually, children do get to an age — biologically, get to a point in their brain’s wiring — where hurting someone else because they want to, or because it benefits them in some way, becomes possible. At that point, they are no longer in Eden. Even if, hypothetically, they never intentionally hurt another being, they are aware that such a capability exists and that there are people who do it. That is the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad.

In that sense, it seems to me that the Eden story not only tells of a species’ development from innocence to knowledge of good and bad, but also of each individual within that species. Very young children are innocent, and it is our job to teach them how to treat other living beings in preparation for the time when they grow older. That job is a sacred responsibility. It is all the more sacred because another quality of the innocence of a young child is the implicit trust that child has. Children have a capacity for trust that humbles us. You could tell a small child the sky is blue because God colored it that way with God’s Crayola marker, and that small child could very well believe you. At night when I give my child her allergy medicine, it strikes me how completely she trusts that what I am giving her will cause her no harm. She has no apparatus for doubting that, and the sweetness of that trust speaks to me.

All of this, I believe, is what Jesus meant when he told the disciples not to prevent parents from bringing their little children to him. As recorded in Mark 10:13-16, the disciples thought the children would bother him, but Jesus’ response was emphatically the opposite. He said, “Allow the little children to come to me; do not stop them, for to these belongs the Kingdom of God. Very truly I tell you, unless you receive the Kingdom of God like a little child, you will never enter it.” Then Jesus gathered the children into his arms and blessed them.

Knowledge of good and bad, in addition to all of the above, also extends to the awareness that bad things happen in the world. My young daughter accidentally caught sight of a photo of the Polish plane after it had crashed to the ground, and she said with furrowed brow: “Oh, the plane fell out of the sky! Oh, the plane is sad.” Then, after thinking another moment, she brightened up: “Slinky can help! Yeah, Slinky can help get the plane off the ground.” No knowledge of the tragedy involved — and at her age, I intend to keep it that way. Hers was a lack of knowledge of the scale of what had gone wrong, and hers was a sweet and simple desire to help, and then happily going to read her bedtime story with us. That is innocence, and I will preserve that for her as long as possible — even while teaching her how we as humans should behave in the world outside of it.

© Elizabeth Keck 2010