Monday, February 25, 2019

The Bible & Abuse

What do we do about people who hurt us?  There are a lot of factors at play when we attempt to answer such a question, and truly how we answer it depends on our particular circumstances. Our lectionary this past Sunday attempted to provide responses to two such scenarios—how to process and move forward after a hurt has already taken place, and how to respond to a hurt as it is currently happening to us.

'Joseph said to his brothers, "I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?" But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence.

Then Joseph said to his brothers, "Come closer to me." And they came closer. He said, "I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, 'Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not delay. You shall settle in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children's children, as well as your flocks, your herds, and all that you have. I will provide for you there--since there are five more years of famine to come--so that you and your household, and all that you have, will not come to poverty.'"

And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him.'

--Genesis 43: 3-11, 15

Let’s start with the first scenario, which we find in the story from Genesis about Joseph.  You remember Joseph, Jacob’s son with that amazing technicolor dreamcoat? 

Image result for joseph's dreamcoat

Actually, the Bible only says it was a coat with long sleeves, not one of many colors, but that’s a topic for another blog post!  

Joseph’s 11 brothers were homicidally jealous of Joseph’s ability to interpret dreams and his high favor with his father, so they sold him into slavery.  If anyone had a right to bear a grudge, it was Joseph. Years later, as Joseph finds himself in the court of Pharaoh, he is reunited with his brothers when a famine strikes the land. We almost expect him to enslave or imprison them as the consequence of reaping what they sow. How many of us would blame him? Yet when given the choice to act out of vengeance, Joseph instead chooses to feed his brothers and ensures their survival (and that of the 12 Tribes of Israel). He kisses them and weeps over them, and it seems the hurt has been forgiven.  But how?

In Joseph’s case, he had years to process the incredible pain of being forced into slavery.  Day after day he must have wrestled with it.  Over time, though, Joseph comes to see that the grace of God has worked even with this horrific set of circumstances, and now, in a reversal of fortune, as Joseph has authority over his brothers, he is able to act from a place of compassion for them. It is only in retrospect, however, and by way of claiming his own power, that Joseph is able to affirm that even the event that ripped him from his homeland and family and sent him into the hell of slavery has now been turned by God to a providential purpose.  It took time, and it took Joseph coming to see that even in misery God was still moving, still acting, still giving him strength.  Standing before his oppressors, looking back on God’s activity in his life, Joseph is given a choice, and he chooses mercy, able to let go of whatever temptation he once had for vengeance on his brothers because now it is he who has power over them.  A family that was once broken apart by jealousy and sin is reconciled, but only because Joseph managed to see God’s action and claim the power that God was working through him.

For those of us who have been hurt deeply, the Joseph story provides hope that God can transform a curse into a blessing, but it does not happen immediately.  It happens with time and the gift of retrospect, and it happens when we claim the power that God is working through us.  Those who hurt us do so because they have power over us—as Joseph’s brother did—but God’s grace can work in us—as it worked in Joseph—to bring us to a place where we can claim our power, and once we seize that power we can make the choice, as Joseph did, to act with compassion, rather than vengeance.  But what, then, for those of us who are still caught in the cycle of hurt, who have not had the gift of retrospect and chance to process, who cannot claim our power? What then can we do?

'Jesus said, "I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you."'

--Luke 6: 27-31

This is where Jesus’ teachings in the Gospel come in.  He begins with the oxymoronic statement to 'Love your enemies,' then gives examples of what that love looks like in action:  do good to those who hurt you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who abuse you.  If we take this passage and try to put it side-by-side with the one from Genesis, we might be quick to say that the way we address being hurt is to not seek vengeance, as Joseph does not seek vengeance, and to simply love and forgive and do good, as Jesus instructs.  This, quite frankly is the low-hanging fruit that we could easily grab, but it’s fruit that’s rather rotten.  The fact is that Joseph and Jesus are in two very different contexts.  Remember, context is everything!  Jesus is talking to people who are in the middle of being oppressed themselves by their Roman occupiers, while the story of Joseph happens years after the initial offense.  The ability to forgive, to choose not to seek vengeance and to have compassion, is only possible if you are in a position of power, as Joseph ultimately finds himself in.  The folks Jesus is speaking to, however, have no power at all.  Simply forgiving will only repeat the constant cycle of oppression and abuse that they are experiencing.  So what are they to do?  His advice to do good, bless, pray, turn the other cheek, and giving their shirt are actually methods by which the power dynamics of their time are flipped upside-down.  To do those things robs their oppressors of the power they have and restores dignity to those being oppressed.  For more detail on what those actually mean, you can check out my blog post here from two years ago.  

Yet if we are perfectly honest, this text has some problematic pieces for those of us who may be in the midst of a hurtful relationship right now.  If we are in an abusive relationship, doing good and blessing our abuser will not stop the cycle of oppression. Turning the other cheek doesn’t have the same transformational power in our culture as it did in Jesus’.  This is also where it does not help us to try to apply the example of Joseph to the example of one who is still in the midst of being hurt. Too many people—especially women—have remained in abusive relationships because they are told—especially by clergy—to be like Joseph and to not seek vengeance, and to just forgive.  They are told, in the words of Jesus, to love the one who beats them, to bless that person, and to keep treating them way they would want to be treated.  But what if the other party isn’t interested in that arrangement and only continues the cycle of abuse?  In that case, Jesus’ words may be of little comfort, but there is one line that can help those caught in that cycle to claim some power for themselves:  pray for those who abuse you.  Honestly, this is a hard one, and again, it has been misused by clergy to condone remaining in abusive relationships, but when we pray for someone we do, indeed, take some of their power over us away.  We commend them to God, and therein lies some a measure of hope for our future.  Therein lies power for the powerless.  Prayer is the only weapon we Christians have, and do commend an abuser to God in prayer is a powerful action. We must remember, however, that praying for one’s abuser does not equal staying with that abuser, and sometimes the most loving action one can take is to walk away and end the relationship—as Jesus instructs his disciples to do when they themselves enter a town and are abused:  shake the dust off your feet, he tells them. 

Brothers and sisters, how we deal with hurt is hard and complicated.  So much of hurt has to do with power, who has it, and how it is wielded.  Sometimes there is no simple solution, and while I wish our Scriptures gave us universal truths that can always be applied to all places and circumstances, the reality is that that is not always the case, thus the similar, yet distinctly different, messages of our texts today.  Indeed, it takes some real digging, some hard analysis of the context to find good news sometimes, but it’s there. It’s always there. The lesson from Joseph’s forgiveness of his brothers gives those of us who have processed our hurt the hope that we can claim our own power and act with compassion instead of vengeance when the opportunity is given to us.  For those of us still caught in the cycle of abuse and oppression, Jesus’ words to love, bless, and do good may ring somewhat hollow, but his urging the abused to pray, to commend the abuser over to God, and when necessary to leave and shake the dust off of their feet is a mighty reclaiming of power and the truth that they are beloved of God.  At the core of all Scriptures, even the hard ones, is that truth, that we are beloved of God, and that our power lies in that truth.  When we seize that power all things can and will be healed. And that is always Good News!

Monday, February 18, 2019

Lessons in Truth from Iron Man, Q, and the Beatitudes

One of the things I appreciate most about comic book superheroes is that they get reinvented time and time again.  Every so often the story gets rebooted, which keeps characters fresh and relevant, so that someone like Iron Man is introduced in the 1970s as a Vietnam War veteran, but then gets a new introductory story during the Persian Gulf War, and once more in the 2008 film, which gives him yet another origin as an arms dealer in the War on Terror.  The same is true for every other superhero.  Yes, the characters remain new, in a sense, but in comic book store conversations the question always comes up:  which version of the story are you talking about?  Which Iron Man?  The Vietnam vet, or the film version?  Each has something to say in his time and place.  But which one is the true one?  Which version of the story is the real version?

Image result for iron man 
Iron Man as he appeared in his first film appearance in 2008.

What these conversations, these debates, speak to is something that is ingrained in our western brains; that is, the need to know the truth.  The Enlightenment taught us that all things can be proven, and if something cannot be proven, then it is not “true,” and therefore is not to be taken seriously.  As you can imagine this inevitably led to people leaving the church in droves because, it was declared, this stuff cannot be proven.  Christianity is something of an anomaly among religions, as the most important piece of our faith narrative—the story of Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection—has not one, not two, not three, but four versions.  And those are just the ones the powers-that-be deemed canonical—the ones that “count.”  Each has a different version of Jesus, a different take on the story.  Which version is the real one? Which one is the truth?

If you think the point of this blog post is that I am going to tell you which version is the “real” one, then I’ll save you the trouble and go ahead and tell you.  None of them are.  And yet, all of them are.  You see, we Christians are a paradoxical people.  We believe that death is the gateway to life.  We believe that in order to be filled, we must first empty ourselves.  We believe in hope when all around us is despair.  Thus, when the world says that Christianity cannot work because we do not have one version of the story that is THE version, that Christianity is wrong because our Jesus stories sometimes contradict one another, we Christians can laugh and lean into the paradox; it is there that we find Good News.

'Jesus came down with the twelve apostles and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.

Then he looked up at his disciples and said:
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.

“Blessed are you who are hungry now, 
for you will be filled.

“Blessed are you who weep now, 
for you will laugh.

“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets."
"But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.

"Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.

"Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.

"Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets."'
--Luke 6: 17-26

As you can see from the text above, our Gospel from this past Sunday is an excellent example of this.  Most Christians, when asked to describe the Beatitudes, will say something along the lines of:  they’re part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount from the 5th chapter of Matthew.  They include an assortment of nine blessings and several more teachings that last 3 whole chapters.  True.  But the Beatitudes are also in the 6th chapter of Luke.  They are part of a teaching Jesus gives, not on a mount, but on a plain or level ground.  Instead of nine, we get four blessings, and then four woes to go along with them, and the differences in the versions are pretty strong.  

Matthew:  blessed are the poor in spirit; Luke:  blessed are you who are poor.  Matthew:  blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness; Luke:  blessed are you who are hungry now.  There's a big difference there. And as a mirror to those blessings, Luke adds:  woe to you are rich, for you have received your consolation, woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.  Unlike in Matthew, Luke’s Jesus also speaks in a different tense—second person plural, instead of third person plural, meaning the message is a personal teaching for those who are poor and hungry right then and there.  But which version of the Beatitudes is the real version?  Which is the true Beatitudes?

Both.  And neither.  In order to understand the paradox we have to dig a little, do some biblical scholarship.  We might start by asking why the paradox exists?  Matthew and Luke sure sound similar, but why the difference?  Was Luke working off of Matthew’s version and simply didn’t like it, seeing as how Luke was written a handful of years after Matthew?  No; in fact, scholars are in agreement that Luke didn’t even use Matthew’s version of the story.  Both used Mark, the first Gospel, which is why anytime Matthew and Luke use a story from Mark it is almost word-for-word identical. But as for the sayings of Jesus, like the Beatitudes, they both used a source that history has come to call Q.  

We don’t know who Q was, and we don’t know precisely when Q was written, but what we do know is that the writings of Q contained nothing but sayings of Jesus, no narrative just sayings. When Matthew and Luke got their hands on those sayings they adapted them for their own communities.  Matthew, writing to a Jewish audience, draws parallels between Moses and Jesus, placing the Beatitudes on the side of a mountain (where Moses gave the 10 Commandments long before), and such an imagery would have brought comfort to the people.  Luke, meanwhile, writing to a community made mostly of Greek-speaking Gentile converts, has a more direct approach, a more economic one, which makes this version more challenging than comforting.  When we unpack these two versions of the story we realize that both, in fact, are true, because both were speaking to the realities of their given communities.  As Obi-Wan Kenobi once said, “What I told you was true, from a certain point of view.”

Image result for obi wan kenobi 

The task, then, for Christians in the 21st century is not to get bogged down in what is the “truth” and what is not, which stories are more real than others.  Our faith tells us that the Truth—with a capital T—is Jesus Christ.  The Scriptures, when studied and appropriately applied to our lives—point us to Jesus, to the Truth.  But the literal words of Scripture, by themselves, are not where the truth lies.  And so our goal is not to figure out which Scriptures are more truthful than others. When we are met with something that appears paradoxical or contradictory, we must not ignore them outright or pretend that the contradictions aren’t there or don’t matter, because they do.  We can, however, learn from them. We must dig into them, ask what was going on for the communities that produced them, and then in that digging we will find the Good News for us even now.  In the case of the Beatitudes, for example, whether Matthean or Lukan, we can hear the Good News that the ones who are blessed are those who live in dependence on God, rather than self, that the blessed ones are those whose trust and hope and purpose of life lie in the love and mercy of God, rather than in the power and privilege, and possessions of this world. 

Probably the one question I get asked as a priest more than any other is:  what version of Christianity is the true version?  Who got it right?  It’s a natural question to ask because we want to make sure we are obeying God and not being misled.  But that question is somewhat misguided because it comes from a place of simply wanting to be on the right side, to know what to do, to check off our boxes, and to get in good with God.  What Christianity really invites us into is a relationship with Jesus Christ that is grounded in love for and with God, a relationship that, like all of our relationships, values the complexities of life, including the paradoxes and contradictions we often face.  Like those comic book shop debate, there is no “right” or “wrong” version.  There is only what exists, and our task is to unpack it and find meaning in it.  Iron Man, no matter which version, is a hero who stands up for those who cannot stand for themselves. Jesus, no matter which version, invites us to walk the way of love, to find our blessedness in God, and to be set free.  And so, when we enter such a relationship with him, walking the way of love together, studying and challenging one another, even in the paradoxes and complexities of our lives, of our Scriptures, and of our faith, we will find Good News.