Honest-to-Goodness, Real, Live People

A few friends and I have been sitting with the Sermon on the Mount the last few weeks. We are part of a small group – our “village” – that increasingly wants to take discipleship more seriously than we have and as a starting point, we’ve been asking the question: “What would it take for our village to look more like the Sermon on the Mount this time next year?” To answer that, we’ve started by simply dwelling with Jesus’ teachings in Matthew 5-7.

 

Here’s one of the more important observations I’ve run across in that time: the Sermon is all about honest-to-goodness, real, live people. It’s about how God relates to them, and how they relate to God, and how we relate to them, and about how our relating to them shapes the way we relate to God.

When I say it’s about honest-to-goodness, real, live people, I mean the Sermon largely concerns itself with a view of humanity in which humans cannot be reduced to the sum of their virtues, vices, and pragmatic usefulness. For all they do right and wrong, for all the ways in which they are helpful and hurtful, they remain fully, beautifully, and frustratingly human, and in the kingdom, God’s insistence is we continue to see them as nothing less.

The Beatitudes, for instance, are addressed to people we tend not to see. In claiming the kingdom is for the poor, Jesus challenges me to see an entire class of people I tend to pass over or malign for a whole host of reasons. If the kingdom is the place where the poor find dignity and a way forward, I can no longer ignore them, vilify them, or use them and claim to be a part of God’s kingdom. Jesus asks me to learn to treat them like honest-to-goodness, real, live people.

The same sort of thing is going on the long section of teaching, beginning in Matthew 5:21. This is a rich, complex teaching that goes right to the heart of our deepest woes. Within that complexity is the insistence we not see our neighbors as objects. We don’t have to worry about murder when we refuse to dehumanize our neighbors into objects of our anger and problems that need fixing. We need not worry about adultery when we stop valuing our neighbors as nothing more than pieces of flesh that feed our appetites. Jesus spoke this difficult word about divorce into a culture where many thought a wife could be cast off as a disposable household appliance. Jesus even went as far as to insist we see our enemies – those we are most likely to dehumanize – as brothers and friends worthy of our blessings.

He begins that teaching by saying our righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. At the heart of this kingdom righteousness seems to be a commitment to seeing those around us as our Father in heaven does.

Beginning in Matthew 6, Jesus is teaching about where we derive our worth. At the beginning of the teaching, he warns us not to do things for the sake of impressing others. At the end of the teaching, he warns us not to derive our worth from things that fade, rust, or can be taken away. In between, he gives us three examples of things the average Jew might master in order to be important, or cool, or valuable in their religious culture.

In his insistence that our value be rooted in God, Jesus forbids us from reducing others to mere tools by which we aggregate our own identity. Your neighbors, he insists are not there to bolster your self-esteem.

I could go on through the entire Sermon, but let me give you one more brief example and I’ll stop. In the beginning of Matthew 7, Jesus warns us the way we judge others will be the standard by which we are judged. Among the things we might learn here is the value of treating those around us with the grace, dignity, and understanding we typically feel we are owed. Of course, this would require we treat our neighbors with their full humanity, as that is what we typically assume we are.

So, what would it look like for us to begin living the Sermon more fully? There are, of course, lots of places that journey could start, but here is a good place: practice treating the people in our lives as honest-to-goodness, real, live people.

How would that look in your life?

Honest-to-Goodness, Real, Live People

The Ethics of Empire

At 8&H, I’ve been teaching a class with my friend Arnold Robledo about immigrants and refugees in Scripture. Yesterday we made it to the Exodus narrative, and I was able to review some of the underlying ethical impulses that guided Egypt’s response to the Hebrews as an immigrant population. If we pay attention, these impulses guide much of our decision making today.

The ethics of the empire is rooted in the reality of death. In Genesis 3, sin opened the door to death, and death created a frightening existence that terrorizes us from every angle. This is evident from the very earliest moments of our experience with death. God tells Eve childbearing will now have an attendant anxiety with it. Adam will now anxiously work for his next meal in a world re-defined by scarcity in the Fall. Because of death, fear and anxiety are ever-present realities in our world. It doesn’t take an especially religious person to realize this. Each of us will regularly come face to face with the scariness of our situation.

When this happens, a natural inclination is to ask, “Why?” Why is the world a scary place? Why do so many bad things happen? Why, try as we might, are we unable to bolster the economy, make lasting peace, or conquer our many demons large and small? Equally reflexive is the tendency to cast blame for this brokenness on someone else. In Scripture, this is the fundamental role of the satan – or the accuser. To highlight how this tendency to blame and accuse works functionally, notice the verb we translate accuse in Greek is katagoreo, from which we derive our word categorize.

In our dangerous world created by death, the fundamental move in the face of our anxiousness is to divide everyone into camps of us and them, which almost always plays out as us versus them. They are the ones to blame. They are the threat to our way of life. They are the problem with the world.

We can see each of these elements clearly in the Exodus narrative. The new Pharaoh was anxious and the Hebrews were to blame. He was a afraid that if an enemy attacked Egypt, the Hebrews would side with those enemies and defeat him. A little later, when Pharaoh’s plans to curtail the problem failed, the text tells us the Egyptians began to look on the Hebrews with disgust and dread.

Having identified the problem, the ethics of empire then calls us to find ways to overpower or dominate the source of our anxiety. At the end of the day, I propose this is what functionally makes the empire the empire. It is the ethic of out-vote, out-shout, out-spend, out-legislate, and out-bomb, in which the solution to our fears is to have more power than those that scare us.

Pharaoh is concerned about the Hebrew problem so he institutes a domestic policy of forced labor for the Hebrews – a title which, by the way, marks the Israelites out as immigrants in Egyptian society. When various iterations of that plan fail, he adds the additional measure of calling on all loyal,patriotic Egyptians to murder all Hebrew boys. All of this is done, in the face of Egyptian anxiety, in the name of national security.

So, in short, these are the ethics of empire: The way one responds to the frightfulness of our anxious world is to identify and dominate those who cause our anxiety. This is the ethical underpinning beneath Pharaoh’s actions in the Exodus narrative. It is also the thought process at work in the gospels, as the religious elite conspire and act against Jesus. And, the ethics of empire are still very much alive today.

What does this have to do with the way we treat immigrants and refugees today? I suspect you can put many of those puzzle pieces together yourself. Let me say this: Whenever we approach a people group with fear, accusation, and domination, we are living out of the empire and not the kingdom of God.

 

 

The Ethics of Empire