"That which does no earthly good cannot be heavenly minded." R. Rivera

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Why Did Jesus Cross The Road? To Get To The "Other"

By Ruben Rivera© Thanksgiving Day, 25 Nov 2010
"To end otherness, every single one of us, like Jesus the archetypal Samaritan, must cross the road. Christians will readily acknowledge that Christ crossing the road was the greatest divine act of all. If so, then people crossing the road may well be the greatest human act of all." Ruben Rivera
My profession and my passion have long situated me in the midst of dialogue and debate over the application of faith to challenging contemporary issues. At the university where I teach, one long-standing issue is the work of reconciliation. Depending on one's social class, race, gender, political party and the like, there are for the word "reconciliation" a variety of definitions, visions for successful outcomes, and of course "ways" of getting there.(1)

Empirical evidence shows that North American Christians tend to see reconciliation as "vertical", a term I have used for some fifteen years to indicate an emphasis on individual conversion, or "getting right with God". Of the two parts that make up the Cross upon which Jesus was crucified, this can be seen as the vertical piece that extends from earth to heaven, symbolically representing humans reconciled to God. Based on the growth of their churches, evangelical Christians in particular have been very good at the work of vertical reconciliation.

Unfortunately, what evangelicals, and Christians in general, have historically not been so good at is what I call "horizontal reconciliation"(2): a radical conversion and reorientation that leads to justice and equality for, and harmonious conviviality with people different from themselves. Using the image of the Cross again, this is the piece that extends horizontally, to any and all parts of the world, reconciling humans to each other. Genuine reconciliation, said Miroslav Volf, would result in the "embrace" of the "other", and in so doing, bring an end to otherness.(3)

Cristo Redentor, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Christianity loves to tell how God came to earth and became the archetypal "other": he was Nazarene, but "can anything good come from Nazareth?"; the friend of society's outcasts; and himself an outcast, "had no place to lay his head"; the "prophet unwelcome in his own country"; the "corner stone that the builders rejected"; mocked, slandered, oppressed, and horribly crucified. Indeed, judging by the Anglo Saxon standard that has dominated the globe of what it means to be human and what it means to be beautiful(4), Jesus would still qualify as "other" today, in our society, even many of our churches.

From Mike Fillon, "The Real Face of Jesus,"
Popular Mechanics
, 7 Dec 2002.
Image of an average 1st century Aramaic-speaking male Jew based on data gathered from forensic anthropology and biblical texts. Would this Jesus be embraced if he came for the first time today? Or would he be treated as other?

Yet, the Christian story is essentially this: God, the Holy Other, so loved sinful others, that God came to earth as socially other in order to end otherness forever.

So the redemption of God is both vertical and horizontal. Yet, Christians tend to focus on the former while ignoring, downplaying, or openly resisting the latter.

If anyone imagines that they and their religion are exempt from this historical observation, ask yourself a simple question. Despite the many ways you are a good person, who are the human beings who to you are "other"? These are the individuals, groups or parties that you see as different and not in a good way. They are excluded from your life and certainly your heart. Just the fact of their existence, but especially if they are competing for something you want, is threatening to you. The "other" are those who do not meet standards that you yourself fail to meet sometimes in your life. But when the "other" disappoints you or commits a wrong, you likely blame it on internal traits, and therefore are apt to talk judgmentally about them. Yet when you or your in-group commit a similar wrong, you likely blame it on external causes, and therefore are apt to talk about you and your group in terms of the need for understanding and mercy.(5)

How do you think of certain people or groups? How do you speak of them? The poor, the rich, blacks, Hispanics, Indians, Asians, whites, gays, straights, liberals, conservatives, men, women, the old, the young, the disabled, immigrants, non-English speakers, other religions? Create your own list. Who is "other" in your heart?

Judging from the rampant otherness in the world's societies, including our own, it seems that people from all religions have learned to exorcise social justice and responsibility from their personal piety in direct contradiction to their religion's teachings. And yet, here-and-now horizontal reconciliation is the only evidence that vertical reconciliation has occurred at all.

In Christianity, for example, you must love and treat others the way you want to be loved and treated. Nor can you claim to love a God you have never seen, and not love persons you can see all around you. (Matthew 7:12; Luke 6:31; 1 John 4:19-21) In Jesus' parable of the sheep and the goats, not to care for society's least cared for, is not to care for God. And no heaven for you. Don't believe me. Check for yourself (Matthew 25:31-46).

One of the most powerful of Jesus' teachings on otherness and reconciliation is the Parable of the Good Samaritan. (Luke 10: 25-37)

The parable is a response to an expert in Judaism who attempted to separate love of God from love of people, even though he just finished saying (and Jesus thereafter affirmed) that the two loves are inseparable "in order to inherit eternal life". (Luke 10: 25-28)

"...You shall love the Lord your God....and your neighbor as yourself", says the religious expert, quoting famous commands (Deuteronony 6:5; Leviticus 19:18) in the Torah (or "Law" as it is translated in most English Bibles), the first five books of the Tanakh or Hebrew Bible. Jesus replies, "You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live."

The expert then asks Jesus "...and who is my neighbor?" People are listening to the conversation, you see. And the expert needs to justify his unspoken but clearly narrow definition of "neighbor" as being applied mostly to those who belong to his in-group, in order to continue his exclusion of untold numbers of people, classes and groups, and still be able to "inherit eternal life."

To me, this religious expert represents all religious people past and present who want the world to believe that they love God even while maintaining otherness in their hearts and social institutions. The Parable of the Good Samaritan refutes this as a lie.

In the parable, a traveler is beaten, robbed, stripped naked and left for dead. A Jewish priest sees him but passes by on the other side of the road. A Levite, or member of the priestly class, also keeps to the other side of the road and does nothing. But a Samaritan [whom Jerusalem Jews despised as half-breeds with a competing, illegitimate temple of worship at Mt. Gerizim (John 4:9, 21)] had compassion on the traveler, bound up his wounds, took him to an inn and paid all the costs for his stay and recovery.

Dinah Roe Kendall, "The Good Samaritan"

Jesus then asks: "Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?"

The Jewish expert was checkmated and he knew it. For the Priest and the Levite in the story were part of his in-group, and any such story would have included them as the most likely candidates to be the heroes. But instead, the person he would have thought the least likely candidate, a Samaritan, turns out to be the one with true religion.

The lesson is so plain that even a child can see it, and so to Jesus' question the Jewish expert must answer: "The one who showed mercy [on the traveler]." Jesus responds: "Go and do likewise."

This parable can be viewed from many angles. It has often been pointed out that Jesus refutes the unscriptural and hypocritical narrowing of "who is my neighbor?" by turning the tables and effectively saying: You are asking the wrong question. The real question you have to answer is, "To whom are you a neighbor?"

I find the logic here to be profound. The religious expert's original question was, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" But then he sought to justify himself not being a neighbor by implying an outward cause: that is, there are many people who are not worthy to be called my neighbor, and I am therefore not required to love them as I love myself. Jesus' response argues: You didn't ask what other people had to do so that you can inherit eternal life. You asked what you had to do. That was the right question. Your second question about who is a neighbor to you was the wrong one. For people do not have to be neighbors to you for you to inherit eternal life. Their actions don't save or condemn you. You have to be a neighbor to them. All of them. Your actions save or condemn you.(6)

Though Jesus does not use terms like "in-group" and "other", his parable effectively obliterates any in-group expression, including religious, that maintains otherness.

In the parable, the assaulted traveler is "other" both to the robbers who nearly kill him and to the religious who would have let him die. The Samaritan is "other" to Jerusalem Jews like the expert questioning Jesus, who would never have thought to include him in any story where he was God's hero.

And of course, Jesus himself is "Other" -- a sort of archetypal Samaritan who, as the teacher of this parable (as well as in the gospels as a whole), crosses the road out of love for a person so dehumanized, so disregarded and treated as "other" that even laying there and bleeding out the last drops of his life, no one else, not even those who claimed to know and love God, had enough compassion to save him, even though it was mandated by their faith and well within their power to act. During his ministry Jesus repeatedly crossed the road to get to "others", at great cost to his reputation.(7)

This parable powerfully illustrates what reconciliation is all about. There is no vertical reconciliation with God without horizontal reconciliation with others. The work of horizontal reconciliation, and not just vertical, is how we join God in ending otherness forever.

To put it another way, to end otherness, every single one of us, like Jesus the archetypal Samaritan, must cross the road. Christians will readily acknowledge that Christ crossing the road was the greatest divine act of all. If so, then people crossing the road may well be the greatest human act of all.

Why did Jesus cross the road? To get to the "other".

Should we not all "go and do likewise"?

Ruben Rivera
Note: I wonder if Christians today are in some ways like the Jerusalem religious leaders in Jesus day? In other words, who are the Samaritan "others" to Christians today? One glaring example in a post-9/11 world is Muslims. Can American Christians imagine a world in which Muslims can be God's heroes? What reaction would we get in our churches if someone preached on "The Parable of the Good Muslim"? (Stay tuned. That will be the subject of my next article.)
1. A recent helpful book in this regard is Emmanuel Katongole and Chris Rice, Reconciling All Things: A Christian Vision for Justice, Peace and Healing (IVP, 2008).
2. For the issue as related particularly to race, see, Michael Emerson and Christian Smith, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (Oxford University Press, 2001).
3. Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness and Reconciliation (Abingdon, 1996).
4. Special Beauty Report: Erasing Ethnicity, MSN Report, 27 Oct 2007 (google "erasing ethnicity" to find articles).
5. See chapter 8 in Emerson and Smith on the inward preferential and outward prejudicial tendencies of ingroup dynamics.
6. Jesus' parable of the sheep and the goats (or last judgment) is clear on this (Matthew 25:31-46).
7. Perhaps one of the greatest insults Jesus' opponents hurled at him was this: "Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan who is demon possessed?" (John 8:48). Of course Jesus had his own harsh words for those who robbed religion of love, social justice and mercy and replaced them with ritual, hypocrisy and oppression, especially against those who challenged their authority (Matthew 23).

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Dead Still Speak. But Are We Listening?

By Ruben Rivera© 6 Nov 2010

The Greek philosopher Socrates (5th c. BC) famously said "The unexamined life is not worth living."

But Socrates did more than examine his own life -- testing the reliability of what his senses told him, even questioning the cultural assumptions, intellectual knowledge and religious beliefs upon which society's institutions and behavior were built. He spent much of his time questioning the people of ancient Athens about everything they thought they knew. They did not like it. So they had a democratic vote and told Socrates something like this: "You are one sick, sick anthropos. But if you swallow this drink made from a delightful little herb -- Ahhemlock! -- it will all be better."

"Death of Socrates," Daniel Chodowiecki, 17th C.

The Socrates affair has crisscrossed the globe through the ages in many different forms, but with the same caution to the wise, the summation of which only the king's English will do.

Never expose unto the people that they knowest not what they thinketh they know. Neither reveal unto them the gaps between their vaunted ideals and who they are in truth. For thou shalt surely suffer for it, and that right smartly.

Perhaps this maxim is easier to remember: The truth shalt get thee in a pickle. Pray, therefore, to love pickles.

I have written elsewhere on the need for education as soulcraft. I am saying here that foundational to soulcraft is the examined life. I am saying here that examining self and society may be an important step in the salvation of both.

One thing that desperately needs examination today is the difference between what we think we know is going on, and what is going on. Another thing that needs examining are the gaps between our ideals and who we really are. Take, for example, our much vaunted ideals of liberty.

Excerpt: Declaration of Independence.

Some inconvenient truth here. When Jefferson said that "all men are created equal" and endowed by their creator with rights of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," he did not mean black people, whom he himself owned as slaves; he did not mean women, who did not get the universal right to vote in the U.S. until 1920; he did not mean Indians, whom he called "savages" in the Declaration. Jefferson, and the other founding fathers who signed the Declaration, did not mean a lot of people.

However, the Declaration, despite its obvious shortcomings, was actually a more radical document than the U.S. Constitution that was constructed for the new nation. For the Declaration stated the Enlightenment basis for a revolution for liberty. The Constitution promptly codified inequality and denied liberty to many.

For example, the Constitutional Convention of the new United States not only refused to abolish the very antithesis of liberty -- slavery -- but to add insult to injury, the Constitution defined black slaves as 3/5th persons for the express purpose of legally denying them democracy while simultaneously giving the white southern elite strong democratic representation in congress (U.S. Constitution, 1789, Article 1, Section 2).

"The elite," the great Latin American liberator Simón Bolívar once lamented, "want liberty, but only for themselves." That sentiment has never changed.

The 20th century was characterized by three developments of great importance, said Alex Carey:
"the growth of political democracy; the growth of corporate power; and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power against democracy."
Alex Carey, Taking the Risk Out of Democracy (1995)
In 2005, the international financial conglomerate Citigroup sent an equity investment memo recommending a strategy of luxury investment in the era of emerging "Plutonomies" which are, especially, the U.S., UK, and Canada. (See the whole document here.)

"Income inequality", said Citigroup, is at "the heart of plutonomy". For example, in the U.S. 1% of richest households have some 40% of the nation's wealth, "more than the bottom 95%...put together".

Citigroup was careful to disclaim that it was not arguing whether Plutonomies were good or not. It was just stating the fact of their existence. The question for investors: "How do we make money on this theme?" But it seems that pesky democracy can ruin the whole investment opportunity. No, wait. Good news. The growing gap between the few haves and the many have-nots will likely never be challenged, as long as "enough of the electorate believe they have a chance of becoming a Pluto-participant...the embodiment of the American dream". Translation? Plutonomies, their illustrious 1%, and you as a prospective investor in what the 1% luxuriate in, have little to fear that actual democracy by the other 99% will ruin your day.

Does anyone see anything wrong with this thinking? Is this a civilization that values anything higher than money -- when push comes to shove, in the final analysis? Are political parties of the right and left manipulated into demonizing and fighting each other for scraps from the tables of the Plutocrats while plutonomies may be the biggest threat to democracy in generations? What about this year's Supreme Court decision to lift the ban on corporate political spending? Do we really still believe there is one-person-one vote democracy in this country? Think again.
"We are now in a situation where a lobbyist can walk into my office...and say, 'I've got five million dollars to spend and I can spend it for you or against you."
Alan Grayson, Dem-Rep, Florida (defeated in recent election)
Why isn't government working for everyday Americans, asks Bill Moyers?
"Because it's been bought off. It's as simple as that. And until we get clean money we're not going to get clean elections, and until we get clean elections, you can kiss goodbye government of, by, and for the people. Welcome to the plutocracy."
The victorious rise of plutocracy is just one issue in a sea of troubling issues that face all people. I am challenged to my core to examine my religious beliefs and my life. To ask myself: is mine a faith that is heavenly minded and earthly good?

I think the reader can see that engaging in the examined life, let alone trying to get others to do so, is not a work for the faint of heart. One needs the strength of Hercules, the patience of a monument, and the conviction of a martyr.

The Hebrew prophets of old tried to convey to the world somet
hing of the realities of eternity. The world conveyed its appreciation by sending them there.

Jesus of Nazareth once said that "a prophet has honor except in his own country." His message, that right belief means little without right action, crossed a line. He ended up crossed.

But what of the claim of the resurrection? It is true that Jesus' resurrection for life in the hereafter has long been popular with Christians. It is Jesus' teaching about life in the here and now that historically has not been so popular. Following Jesus into heaven is one thing. Following him on earth is another.

And therein lies the paradox. Oh how people love and admire these prophets and teachers of rational ideals, religious verities and social conscience -- but from a safe historical distance, when there is often little at stake in loving and admiring them. This allows us to believe one thing and live another.

But where would we be without these gadflies of the world who examine self and society? What would the world have been like if people listened to them while they were alive? But there is still hope. For, if I may borrow a phrase from the Christian New Testament, "though they are dead, yet do they speak". What may the world still become if we would but listen to them now?