Picking favorites

every now and then, ill meet an escapee, someone who has broken free of self-centeredness and lit out for the territory of compassion. you’ve met them too, those people who seem to emit a steady stream of, for lack of a better word, love-vibes. as soon as you come within range you feel embraced, accepted for who you are. for those of us who suspect that you rarely get something for nothing, such genialty can be discomforting. yet it feels so good to be around them. they stand there radiating photons of goodwill, and despite yourself you beam back, and the world, in a twinkling, changes.
i appreciate these compassion-mongers, even marvel at them. but i’ve rarely thought that i could be one of them. sure, i’ve tried to live a benign life, putting my shoulder to the wheel for peace, justice, and mother earth. like most people i love my parents, despite the corkscrew of childhood; dote on my siblings, though there is that scrapbook of old slights; and treasure my friends, even if they sometimes let me down. conventional wisdom wouldnt fault me for saving the best stuff for my nearest and dearest and giving the rest of humanity the leftovers.
thus it is, say the sages, that the harvest of kindness – of kindredness – is winnowed down to a precious few grains. for the center of all spiritual traditions is the beacon of a truly radical proposal: open your heart to everybody. everybody.

is this even possible?

platinum rule?

Mere sentiment without moral action can be a deadend. We may weep at a preformance of Les Miserables but spurn the panhandler outside the theater. Or perhaps we do hand him some money (because his misery gives us a twinge), but its more akin to putting a coin in an expiring parking meter. We want to avoid the aversive stimulus of a guilt ticket. (To act out of guilt can be better than doing nothing, of course – just ask the man who’s been given enough coins for a meal.)
But the prime example of perspective-taking, even of compassion itself, is often held to the Golden Rule, regarded in most religions as a benchmark of moral development.
the Hindu – “Do not do to others, what would cause pain if done to you.”
Confucius – “What I do not wish men to do to me, I also wish not to do to them.”
Jesus – “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.”
Mohammed – “None of you truly believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.”
The Golden Rule is an ethical stanchion, a virtual 11th commandment. But what is it really saying? It does acknowledge that others are subjective beings, just as I am, placing us all under the same big tent. But the central tent pole is, well… me. I start with what I would want, assuming that another would want the same thing. One of my favorite quotes is by G.B. Shaw, “Do not do unto others as they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same.” If you really think about it the Golden Rule is less like putting ourselves into another’s shoes than imagining our own head transplanted onto their shoulders. Dont get me wrong: I’d rate it as a moral triumph and ample reason to hang up my selfish-girl spurs if I could really live by it. But I cant help but feel that empathy contains yet greater mysteries.
Perhaps a Platinum Rule; “Do unto others as they would like to be done unto.”

the “respectable” prejudice

i want to confront homophobia for two reasons. the first is that the “gay agenda” has replaced the “communist threat” as the battering ram of reactionary politics. instead of a commie behind every bush, there’s a gay person sick and sinful.

the second reason is that while the church has generally given at least some support to the oppressed, in the case of homosexuals the church has led in the oppression.

the better to refute the assertions of contrary-minded christians i want to speak as a christian who shares bishop tutu’s sorrowful conclusion: “the lord of the church would not be where his church is in this matter.”

I do best with texts. today mine comes from the fourth chapter of luke, when jesus quoting isaiah, says he is come “to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of site to the blind.”

who are the captives, and what is it these days that holds them in bondage?

many of us have a strong allergic reaction to change – of any kind. and some of us even go so far as to embrace “the principle of the dangerous precedent” put forth by the academic who said, “nothing should ever be done for the first time.”

the result is an intolerance for nonconforming ideas that runs like a dark streak through human history. in religious history this intolerance becomes particularly vicious when believers divide the world into the godly and the ungodly; for then, hating the ungodly is not a moral lapse but rather an obligation, part of the job discription of being a true believer.

think how, for example, fleeing british persecution, our puritan forebears sailed to america, only to become equally intolerant of religious ideas other than their own, which they enforced as the official faith of the massachusetts bay colony. first they banned that early church dissident, anne hutchinson, who, as she exited the church where the trial was held, said words haunting to this day: “better to be cast out of the church than to deny christ.” (everything churchly is not christlike!)

in 1660 these puritans went further, hanging mary dyer, an early quaker, for insisting, in effect, “truth is my authority, not some authority my truth.”

three hundred years later, in the 1960’s, this same intolerance made many christians consider martin luther king jr more an agitator than a reconciler. and to this day most churches refuse to ordain not only gays and lesbians but all women. youd think that if mary could carry our lord and savior in her body a woman could carry his message on her lips. as for the argument, repeated frequently by the pope john paul, that there were no women among the twelve disciples – well, there also were no gentiles.

why all this intolerance? because while the unknown is the mind’s greatest need, uncertainty is one of the heart’s greatest fears. so fearful, in fact, is uncertainty that many insecure people engage in what psychiatrists call “premature closure.” they are those who prefer certainty to truth, those in church who put the purity of dogma ahead of the integrity of love. and what a distortion of the gospel it is to have limited sympathies and unlimited certainties, when the very reverse – to have limited certainties but unlimited sympathies – is not only more tolerant but far more christian. for “who has known the mind of god?” and didnt saint paul also insist that if we fail in love we fail in all things else?

the opposite of love is not hatred but fear. “perfect love casts out fear.” nothing scares me like scared people; for while love seeks the truth, fear seeks safety, the safety so frequently found in dogmatic certainty, in pitiless intolerance.

so i believe the captives most in need of release, those today whose closet doors most need to be flung open, are really less the victims than their oppressors – the captives of conformity – the racists, the sexists, the heterosexists, all who live in dark ignorance because their fears have blown out the lamp of reason. so groundless are these fears that fence them in, i am reminded of a folk tale:

“a friend of mine has an electric fence around a piece of his land, and he keeps two cows there. i asked him one day how he liked his fence and wether it cost much to operate. “doesnt cost a damn thing,” he replied. “as soon as the battery ran down i unhooked it and never put it back. that piece of fence wire is as dead as a piece of string, but the cows dont go within ten feet of it. they learned their lesson the first few days.”

apparently this state of affairs is general throughout the united states. thousands of cows are living in fear of a strand of wire that no longer has the power to confine them. freedom is theirs for the asking. rise up, cows! take your liberty while despots snore. and rise up too, all people in bondage everywhere! the wire is dead, the trick is exhausted. come on out!”

yes, come on out, fearful people; the pasture is greener where love prevails and discords end and the joys of unity are proved. come on out, especially you christians, because “for freedom christ has set you free.”

here’s what many a christian has learned: it is absolutly right to live and learn from the sixty-six books of the bible (seventy-one if youre roman catholic). but it is wrong to fear their every word, for everything biblical is not christlike. for example: “now go and smite amalek… do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass… thus says the lord.” besides, we christians believe in the word made flesh, not in the word made words. and for god’s sake lets be done with the hypocrisy of claiming “i am a biblical literalist” when everyone is a selective literalist, especially those who swear by the anti-homosexual laws in the book of leviticus and then feast on barbecued ribs and delight in monday night football, for it is toevah, an abomination, not only to eat pork but mearely to touch the skin of a dead pig.

homosexuality was not a big issue for biblical writers. nowhere in the four gospels is it even mentioned. in fact, in all of scripture only seven verses refer to homosexual behavior.

although all of these verses forbid or deplore homosexual behavior, nevertheless, in many discussions of these texts, thinking is woefully slack. take, for example, the story of sodom and gomorrah. as the cities were already under sentence of doom, the destruction of sodom could hardly have been the result of the attempted gang rape of the angels. the prophet ezekiel makes this abundantly clear: “behold this was the guilt of your sister sodom. she and her daughters had pride, surfiet of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and the needy.” likewise, isaiah and amos compare the israelites of their day to sodom only because “your hands are full of blood,” “the spoil of the poor is in your houses.” and the prophet Zephaniah proclaims: “moab shall become like sodom, and the ammorites like gomorrah” for they have filled their houses “with violence and fraud.”

how ironic it is that biblical misreading made “sodomy” a crime, while the truer crime, gluttony, gets off scott-free!

if we make the levitical text on homosexual behavior normative – “a man shall not lie with another man as with a woman” – what do we do with the other prohibitions? I’ve already mentioned eating pork; what about wearing garments made of two different materials and sowing a field with two kinds of seed?

and what about all the normative behavior in scripture no longer considered so today? no biblical literalist that i know of publically advocates slavery or stoning to death an adulterer; nor do people today believe, as did the ancient israelites, that a man could not commit adultery against his wife – only against another man by using the other man’s wife.

polygamy too was regularly practiced, and again its ironic that mormon polygamy was outlawed in america despite constitutional protection of freedom of religion and despite the fact that it was a biblical practice nowhere explicitly prohibited in the bible.

prostitution was considered natural in old testament times and celibacy abnormal. today the roman catholic church talks of celibacy as a divine calling, but in the case of gays it legislates celibacy not by calling but by category.

saint paul thought all men were straight. he knew nothing of sexual orientaion. he assumed that all homosexual activity was done by heterosexuals. this assumption is true as well of old testament writers, which means that all the biblical passages used to flay gays and lesbians have really nothing whatsoever to say about constitutionally gay people in genuinely loving relationships.

in short, it would appear that everyone reserves the right to pick and choose among sexual mores in the bible. Walter Wink, to whose writings i am much indebted, says: “there is no biblical sex ethic… this doesnt mean everything goes. it means that everything is to be critiqued by jesus’ commandment to love.”

when everything biblical is not christlike, we christians need to develop an interpretive theory of scripture. i think the love of jesus is indeed the plumb line by which everything is to be measured. and while laws may be more rigid, love is more demanding, for love insists on motivation and goes between, around, and way beyond laws.

in no way do i wish to discount the central role of scripture. the bible, after all, is the foundational document for all churches the world around. but if you take the bible seriously, you cant take all of it literally. and you dont honor the higher truth you find in the bible by ignoring truths found elsewhere. christians should be impressed by the fact that in 1973 the american psychological association declared homosexuality per se was no sign of illness. likewise, they should heed natural scientist who have discovered homosexuality in mammals, birds, and insects that were around long before the human species arrived.

fundamentalist forget that love demands discernment as well as obedience. here are two biblical verses they never quote: “why do you not judge for yourselves what is right?” and “do you not know that we are to judge angels? how much more mattters pertaining to this life?”

finally, let me say that i am sure that no word of god is god’s last word.

let’s turn now to my earlier suggestion that the gay agenda has replaced the communist threat as the battering ram of reactionary politics. why is this so?

pride is not accidentally but essentially competitive: i can go up only if someone else or some other group of people goes down. it is for that reason that there is so much conscious and unthinking social subordination in life. and some people cant live without enemies; they need them to tell them who they are. anticommunists for years needed communists and vice versa.

gays are natural enemies because of the personal revulsion many straights feel about gay sexual behavior. sex, lets face it, is dynamite, and we should recognize the power of involuntary revulsion and not to act in ways that hurt others.

what i hold against the religious right is its cruelty. its cruel because its ignorant; and as its ignorance stems from selfrighteousness and complacency, it is an ethical, not an intellectual default.

of course, it may be that instead of an irrational prejudice, homophobia represents a completly rational fear of sexuality divorced from reproduction, justified by pleasure alone. if true, heterosexuals are caught between longing for more freedom and fear of losing a more orderly and virtuous, if more repressed, world. were that the case, then straight people opposed to what they percieve as gay promiscuity should be supporting same-sex unions.

although the academic community is more tolerant than the religious right, it is also more passive, and tolerance and passivity are a lethal combination. it’s easy to forget how frequently compassion demands confrontation.

confrontation is necessary to shake up the complacent, the “good people” who are indeed “good” but within the limits of their inherited prejudices and traditions. someone has to play hamlet to their horatio. “there are more things in heaven and earth, horatio, than are dreamt in your philosophy.” someone has to recall to them jeremiah: “woe to those who say ‘peace, peace’ where there is no peace”; and jesus too — “i came not to bring peace but a sword.” surely, he was refering to the sword of truth, the only sword that heals the wounds it inflicts.

now comes the really hard part, the part only gays and lesbians can play. the feminist movement in norway has a slogan, “not to do to them what they did to us.” in other words, if you are gay and people are screaming at you that you are a moral pervert, can you so speak and act as to rob their position of any moral cogency? gandhi and martin luther king have shown that it is the temper and spirit with which a movement conducts itself rather than a particular action that makes the greatest difference. divested of moral pretensions, a prejudiced person becomes a samson with his locks shorn. nonviolence does not mean turning yourself into a doormat so that people can walk all over you. but it does mean returning evil with good, violence with nonviolence, hatred with a love that is obliged to increase upon pain of diminishing.

because all this he understood so profoundly, the great agitator of the 1960’s won the nobel peace prize, and most of america now celebrates a national holiday in his honor. because they too, in christlike fashion, returned evil with good, both anne hutchinson and mary dyer have statues in their honor in the center of the very city where one was banned and the other hanged.

the good tidings are that we live in a moral universe. “human beings really do the right thing, but only after exhausting all alternatives.” already there are signs of progress — movies and television shows that bring awarness and normalcy, the many churches who have declared themselves “open and affirming”, 17 states legalizing gay marriage, the repeal of “dont ask, dont tell”, the existance of openly serving politicians.

other signs of progress are the gradual de-ghettoization and de-urbanization of gays. more gays are living openly in smaller and smaller towns. and gay-straight alliances are forming in high schools – with official support. anti-bullying and support groups like ‘it gets better’ are popping up everywhere for adults and youth alike.

without a doubt, such progress as has been made is due primarily to the determination of the gay community. despite the aids epidemic, the legal setbacks, the violence that goes on against them all over the country, the gay communities of america have continued to fight, not for “special rights” but for equal rights long overdue them. and the fight has been hard, for as every liberation movement has learned, those who benefit from injustice are less able to understand its true character than those who suffer from it.

just as african americans have proved that the problem all along was one of white racism; and women, that the problem all along was one of male chauvinism; so GLBTs are proving that god’s creation is far more pluralistic that the eyes of many straights have wished to percieve.

so here’s to the gay community and to all it’s doing for all of us. and praise the lord who brings liberty to the captives of conformity and recovery of sight to the blindly prejudiced.


“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.”

The Dalai Lama has often claimed he is a simple person. Though this may come off a little coy, on one level it rings true. Isnt our image of holiness just a place holder for what we all might be if our best moments were multiplied to an nth degree of consistency? The religious icons of compassion reach out to us in an apotheosis of recognizably human caring. The chinese goddess Kwan Yin weeps as she extends her thousand-armed embrace to those who need comfort. The Hindi deity Hauman, depicted as 1/2 ape, 1/2 god, cleaves open his chest to reveal his naked, undefended heart. The sacred heart of Jesus, son of man, is pierced with thorns, bleeds real blood. Vulnerability, these images say, is holy. It is our capacity to be profoundly moved by each other that makes us whole.


My choice to love

“I love you so much that I can’t live without you”

“I dont know what I’d do without you”

“I need you in my life” 

Even if none of these things has been said to you directly – you have heard them said; probably more times than you can count. You hear these phrases, or similar ones, in movies, books and real life constantly. There is nothing wrong with this kind of love, but I don’t subscribe to it. 

I love my husband with all my heart but I would be lying if I said this is how I feel. I think what I have is something more, something deeper. I can live without my husband, I did it for the majority of my life just fine. I do not “need” my husband, I’m a self sufficient woman with a good history of taking care of herself and I feel confident that I could survive. I do know what i would do without him, if he left or passed away – I would do what i needed to do to take care of myself and our family. I know that at times these phrases are said with a less literal intention but I feel they cheapen my love. 

I am with my husband and choose to make a family and spend my life with him because I want toI admit to being a difficult woman to be with – I am stubborn, opinionated, sensitive, hypocritical, self conscious, harsh, socially awkward and a long list of other things that I’m sure my husband could tell you. He is not an easy man to be with – his Bipolar disorder paired with his ADD/ADHD is a struggle on it’s own, without taking everyday flaws into account. I stay with him not because I need to – but because I want to. To imply that it is out of need takes away the romance and meaning – it implies your there because you don’t have a choice. 

I am here everyday because Morgan is everything that I’ve ever wanted in another human being. That includes his flaws, I love having a man that will argue with me, push back at my ideas and call my bullshit. I have a man whose very nature forces me to practice patience and understanding on a daily basis. He is 100% worth every hard day – because I truly love him as a whole, not because I can’t imagine another choice. 

Our marriage is two imperfect people who love each other even when they arn’t being lovable. Two people who always pick each other first and believe in each other when we cant always believe in ourselves. I am not going to say I cant live without him, I can – I just don’t ever want to. I have a choice and I choose him


right or wrong

i dont always make choices the standard way, the way people nowdays call healthy. i dont, at every crossroads, weigh the options, measure the odds, check my schemata to see how x or y fits. i stand at the fork waiting to be pulled by a force stronger than psychology, more precise than logic.
i make a hundred choices everyday, decisions about where to put my money, who to talk to, what food to eat. and yet the fundamental experiences which have shaped my life, the cities i’ve lived in, the family i’ve been born into, the people i’ve been attracted to, the color of my skin, the books i’m drawn to read, the ideas which compel me, none of these i choose. i find my map without a traditional trajectory, too fragmented for a linear narrative. there is always a direction. there is never a dead end, never a path that does not make me more a human being than i was before. i am always moving. i am always in life, walking.


A little to ze left

One of the great church people in this hemisphere was archbishop Helda Camara of Brazil. I have an image of him etched in my mind, with a broad smile and in a heavy accent: “Right hand, left hand – both belong to ze same body but ze heart is a little to ze left.”

I share this image because I too believe that “ze heart is a little to ze left.” You don’t have to give socialist answers, but you do have to press socialist questions. These are the ones that point toward greater social justice.

Right now I want to talk as a convinced Christian, the better to refute the answers of my fellow Christians “a little to ze right.”

In religious faith, simplicity comes in at least two distinct forms. One lies on the near side of complexity. Those of us who embrace this kind of simple faith dislike, in fact are frightened by, complexity. We hold certainty dearer than truth. We prefer obedience to discernment. Too many of us bear out Charles Darwin’s contention that ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge. And apparently such religious folk were as abundant in Jesus’ time as they clearly are in ours. Also, in Jesus’ time, as in ours, conventional religious wisdom stressed correct belief and right behavior.

Then there is the religious simplicity that lies on the far side of complexity. That’s where, I believe, we must look for Jesus and his message. I believe that when all’s said and done, when every subtle thing has been dissected and analyzed every which way, Jesus’ message remains incredibly simple, unbelievably beautiful, and as easy to translate into action as for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.

Nowhere is this simple message more clearly stated that in the parable of the Good Samaritan (found in the 10th chapter of Luke). I hardly need to remind you that the two men who passed by on the other side, the priest and the Levite, were considered the most religious persons in the Israelite community, dedicated as they were to the preservation of the faith through full-time religious service. But the third man – the one who showed mercy, who had compassion, who proved neighbor to the bleeding man on the side of the road – this Samaritan was only part Jew and believed only part of the Jewish scripture. To Jews, Samaritans were heretics; Samaria was a dangerous place. Yet it was the heretic, the enemy, the man of the wrong faith who did the right thing while the two men of the right faith flunked.

The same simple, subversive message comes through in Jesus’ other well-know parable. Of course we tend to identify with the older brother of the prodigal son because, like him, we want the irresponsible kid to get what he deserves. But the prodigal love of the father insists that the son get not what he deserves but what he needs – forgiveness, a fresh start, which is exactly what – thank God – God gives all of us. We cant be relieved of the consequences of our sin, but we can be relieved of the consequences of being sinners; for there is more mercy in God than sin in us. Wrong behavior is not the last word.

The culture of his time prevented Saint Paul from seeing many things, but the simplicity, beauty, and difficulty of Jesus’ message was not one of them. He ends 1 Corinthians 13 with “and now abide faith, hope, love, these three. And the greatest of these is love.” And he begins the next, the fourteenth chapter: “make love your aim.”

Make love your aim, not biblical inerrancy, nor purity, nor obedience to holiness codes. Make love your aim, for “though I speak with the tongues of angels” – musicians, poets, preachers, you are being addressed; “and though I understand all mysteries and have all knowledge” – professors, your turn; “and though I give all my goods to feed the poor” – radicals take note; “and though I give my body to be burned” – the very stuff of heroism; “but have not love, it profiteth me nothing.” I doubt if in any other scriptures of the world there is a more radical statement of ethics: if we fail in love, we fail in all things else.

So Socrates was mistaken: it’s not the unexamined life that is not worth living; it’s the uncommitted life. There is no smaller package in the world than that of a person all wrapped up in himself. Love is our business; if we can’t love, we’re out of business.

In short, love is the core value of a Christian life. And the better to understand what we’re saying, lets briefly review four major ethical stages in history. Most people shudder when they hear “an eye for an eye” and “a tooth for a tooth.” But far from commanding revenge, the law insists that a person must never take more than one eye for an eye, never more than one tooth for a tooth. Found in the Book of Exodus, this law became necessary to guard against the normal way people had of doing business, namely unlimited retaliation: “kill my cat and I’ll kill yours, your dog, your mule, and you, too.”

The father/mother of unlimited retaliation is, of course, the notion that might makes right, an uncivilized concept if ever there was one and one that to this day governs the actions of many so-called civilized nations. So limited retaliation is certainly an improvement over unlimited retaliation: “get even but no more.” Limited retaliation is what most people have in mind when they speak of criminal justice – “you did the crime, you do the time.” Limited retaliation is also the justification most frequently used for capital punishment, the most premeditated form of killing in the world.

Unlimited retaliation, limited retaliation. A third stage might be called limited love. In Leviticus 18:19 it is written: “you shall not take vengeance nor bear a grudge against children of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Again, a step forward. Limited love is better than limited retaliation, and limited love can be very moving – a mother’s love for her child, children’s love for their parents. But when the neighbor to be loved has been limited to one of one’s own people, then limited love, historically, has supported white supremacy, religious bigotry, the Nazi notion of Herrenvolk, and ‘America for Americans’ (which excluded Native Americans). Actually, limited love is often more self-serving than generous, as Jesus himself recognized when he said, “if you love those who love you, what reward have you?”

Jesus, of course, was pressing for a forth state, unlimited love, the love that is of God, the love you give when you make a gift of yourself, no preconditions (have you ever noticed how Jesus healed with no strings attached? To the owner of the withered hand he restored Jesus didn’t warn, ”no stealing now”). And the neighbor to be loved according to the parable of the Good Samaritan is the nearest person in need regardless of race, religion, or nationality, and I think we can safely add gender or sexual orientation.

Such was the love that Saint Paul extolled; such was the love of God when he gave the world he so loved, not what it deserved but what it needed, his only begotten son that “whosoever should believe in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

In order to live for all of us, to strive for the unified advance of the human species, we have to recognize that there are two kinds of simplicity – one on the near, the other on the far side of complexity – so there are two kinds of love: one lies on this side of justice, the other on the far side.

The prophet Amos said “Let justice” – not charity – “roll down like mighty waters,” and for good reason: whereas charity alleviates the effects of poverty, justice seeks to eliminate the causes of it. Charity is a matter of personal attribute; justice is a matter of public policy.

To picture justice as central, not ancillary, to the Gospel often demands a recasting of childhood faith. Many of us were brought up to believe that what counts is a personal relationship with God; inner peace, kindness to others, and a home in heaven when your years come to an end. And many of us never get over the religion of our childhood that we either loved or hated. Either way the results are disastrous.

It is also true that many pastors deliberately perpetuate a childish version of faith, particularly if they are ministers of mainline middle-class churches, for, not surprisingly, they find it easier to talk to their congregations of charity rather than of justice. Charity, after all, threatens not at all the status quo that may be profitable to a goodly number of their parishioners. Justice, on the other hand, leads directly to political controversy.

So there is a real temptation to think that an issue is less spiritual for being more political, to believe that religion is above politics, that the sanctuary is too sacred a place for the grit and grime of political battle. But if you believe religion is above politics, you are, in actuality, for the status quo – a very political position. And were God the god of the status quo, then the church would have no prophetic role, serving the state mainly as a kind of ambulance service.

In the 1990s, both the Million Man March and the Promise-Keepers let the political order off the hook. Theirs was a purely spiritual message that just happened to parallel the antigovernment message of the republicans. By contrast, Martin Luther King Jr. led the 1963 March on Washing and later the Poor Peoples March to confront the government, to put the government on notice.

The Christian right talks a lot about “traditional values” and “family values.” Almost always these values relate to personal rather than social morality. For the Christian right has trouble not only seeing love as the core value of personal life but even more trouble seeing love as the core value of our communal life – the love that lies on the far side of justice. Without question, family responsibility, hard work, compassion, kindness, religious piety – all of these individual virtues are of enduring importance. But again, personal morality doesn’t threaten the status quo. Furthermore, public good doesn’t automatically follow from private virtue. A person’s moral character, sterling though it may be, is insufficient to serve the cause of justice, which is to challenge the status quo, to try to make what’s legal more moral, to speak truth to power, and to take personal or concerted action against evil, whether in personal or systematic form.

It is no accident that the welfare reform bill was called the Personal Responsibility Act. Most talk of responsibility these days is directed at the most powerless people in our society. If you believe, as do so many members of the Christian right, that the ills of society stem largely from the carelessness and moral failures of America’s poor, if you separate economic issues from cultural concerns, if you cant see that economic coercion is “violence in slow motion,” that it is the economy that consigns millions to the status of the unwanted, unused, discarded, then you find little need to talk of homelessness, poverty, hunger, inadequate medical care, for these are created by illegitimacy, laziness, drugs, abetted by welfare dependency and sexual deviation. To the Christian right, the American underclass is far more a moral phenomenon than an economic one.

In this fashion the theological individualism of the religious right serves its political and economic conservatism; the victim is blamed for a situation that is largely systematic. What the religious right persists in ignoring is that, although self-help is important, self-help alone will not solve the problems of the poor. And to blame the poor for their oppression and to affirm the affluent in their complacency, to oppose sexual permissiveness and not say a word about the permissiveness of consumerism – which insists that it is right to buy, wrong to defer almost any gratification – these positions are anything but biblical.

Clearly, the love that lies on the far side of justice demands a communal sense of responsibility for and a sense of complicity in the very evils we abhor.

A wise man, Rabbi Heschel, constantly contended that in a free society “some are guilty but all are responsible.”

Poverty is a communal failure. It is hardly the fault of those Americans willing, even desperate, to work that there are simply more unskilled workers than unskilled jobs and nowhere near the money necessary for training people to land jobs that would lift them out of poverty. Or consider these two facts: (1) a child of affluent parents is 6x more likely to have an undergraduate degree than a child of poor parents; and (2) the odds are 3 to1 that a pregnant teenager is poor, which suggests that poverty traps girls in pregnancy more than pregnancy traps girls in poverty.

Without question, education is the best way out of dead-end jobs and welfare dependency. Lack of it then, is another communal failure. A recent study showed that 36% of those on welfare had learning disabilities that had never been remedied.

Crime is a communal failure. We’re not tough on crime, only criminals. Were we tough on crime, we’d put the money upfront, in prevention rather than in punishment. We’d be building healthier communities, not more and more prisons. “Some are guilty but all are responsible.” We stress the guilty in order to exonerate the responsible.

In short, it is not enough to be a Good Samaritan, not when, from coast to coast, whole communities lie bleeding in the ditch. What the poor need today is not piecemeal charity but wholesale justice.

And that’s what is so lacking today. The comfortable are in control – we have the best congress money can buy. Until we Americans get serious about reforming campaign financing, our politicians will increasingly become lapdogs for the rich.

Surely, we should be calling America’s poor “the impoverished,” especially when we see our congress reversing priorities, filling the rich with good things and sending the poor away empty. Why, the way we are cutting taxes for the wealthy and social programs for the poor, you’d think the greedy were needy, and the needy were greedy!

Some people even deny the need for the government to subsidize a daily guaranteed hot meal for every poor child in this country, and today such children number 1 in 4. You have to be morally malnourished to treat any child of God that way in one of the richest countries in the world.

Jesus was certainly something more than a prophet but surely nothing less. And that means, once again, that the love that is the core value of our individual life should also be the core value of our life together. Love has a corporate character as well as a personal one. So just as the simplicity we should embrace lies on the far side of complexity, so the love we should embrace lies on the far side of justice, never on the near side. This understanding is crucial today, when, as I said, no longer is it an individual who lies bleeding in the ditch but whole communities in city after city across the land.

We Americans have so much, and we’re asking of ourselves so little. What we are downsizing more than anything else are the demands of biblical justice.

Let Christians remember how Jesus was concerned most for those society counted least and put last. Let us remember what King and Gandhi never forgot – that for its implementation compassion frequently demands confrontation.

I said at the outset that conventional religious wisdom in Jesus’ time stressed correct belief and right behavior. Conventional religious wisdom in America does the same today. To many American evangelists, faith is a goody that they got and others didn’t, an extraordinary degree of certainty that most can’t achieve. This kind of faith is dangerous, for it can be and often is worn as a merit badge or used as a club to clobber others.

In contrast, Saint Paul sees faith as confidence in the face of NOT knowing. “For we walk by faith, not by sight.” Saint Paul’s faith is a thankful response to grace, to the outpouring of God’s love, that persistently seeks to get everything right in this world, including us. Such a faith is never exclusive, always inclusive and deeply ethical, never moralistic.

Jesus subverted the conventional religious wisdom of his time. I think we have to do the same. The answer to bad evangelism is not no evangelism but good evangelism; and good evangelism is not proselytizing but witnessing, bearing witness to “the light that shines in the darkness;” bearing witness to the love that burns in every heart, deny it or suppress it as we will; and bearing witness to our version of the truth just as the other side witnesses to its version of the truth – for lets face it, truth in its pure essence eludes us all.

And that’s where I think a Christian should stand, one whose heart is “a little to ze left.”


My art of war

when i was in the 3rd grade, my younger brother broke my favorite thing. i yelled at him, he screamed back, and then, to my surprise, he launched himself at me in a fury, scratching me hard on the arm. my reaction was blind, unthinking; i raked my own nails down his forearm, making marks that, to my shock, began to ooze blood. i was punished, but nothing cut so deeply as the guilt i’d felt for causing him pain.
i’ve wondered from time to time what happened in this primitive, instinctual tit for tat, a variant of any playground fight. some kid pinches you, and you pinch them back: there, now you know how it feels! the word revenge doesn’t quite cover it; in an odd way, its more like enforced empathy, a need to make others feel, firsthand and in rough proportion, the suffering they caused us.
its not such a leap from the dynamics of schoolyard rivalry to the logic of clan warfare:here’s what it felt like when you dishonored my family, terrified my child, killed my brother. carried to its extreme, it is the twisted reasoning of warfare itself: this is what it feels like to have your church destroyed, your crops burned, your city ruined. see how you like it.
on a typical day, some fifty conflicts rage on the planet, from armed clashes of massed troops to guerilla skirmishes, civil uprisings, and border incursions, most of them classified as “low intensity” (though scarcely so for the thousands of lives they claim daily). the differences between sides – religious dogmas, nominal ethnicities – are often so tragically trivial they only affirm the combatants’ commonality. even the most “just” wars seem heartbreakingly preventable had the victors in a previous conflict been kinder to the defeated, who rose up to become aggressors in the next. despite their specifics, the basic narratives of territory, ideology, and historical grievance are so standard that all thats required is to fill in the blanks with the countries’ names. 
if we really want to heal our world, we’d better find an antidote beyond the topical remedies of truces and treaties. if war is an infection in the human system, its cure must lie in strengthening what it most directly attacks: compassion itself. if strife builds up impenetrable armor (emotional, literal), compassion calls for mutual vulnerability. if fighting is justified by some historic grudge, forgiveness destroys its rationale. if war is repayment of blood debts, peacemaking assumes the infinite debt of love.
but how do we get there from here? we may all be in this together, but when i pick up a newspaper i want to throw in the towel. every official road to peace has a dotted white line running down the middle of it, like a perforation that says “Just Tear Here.”



What could be. It starts with me.

    It seems that we suffer from a collective cognitive dissonance. we know the children are starving; the ice caps really are melting. we know our designer sweats are connected to designer sweatshops, our automobiles to the turbid atmosphere, the food on our table to the dwindling water table and the chemicalized soil. we sense that life in the developed world has become a desire machine cranked up to maximum RPM, spinning out a dizzying succession of induced wants for which satisfaction is supplied, scratches for itches, at fair market price – no matter the cost. we also know there’s already enough to feed, clothe, house, heal, and educate everyone, without exception. it’s less a shortage of resources than a shortchanging of imagination: compassion being an ability to imagine – to see – the connection between everyone and everything. everywhere.

     From that standpoint, isnt that connection love itself? isnt it love itself that underlies all wanting? dont we only consume the earth in our hunger for a love already abundant in our own hearts – and waiting in each other’s? and if, enriched by that love, we took less and gave more, would we not see the Midas world we’ve built recede, and the outlines of the beloved community emerge?Image

I’m Sorry

what is it about being the injured party that is so paradoxically seductive? i just found out that, in the early days of internet spam, marketeers discovered that people would readily open any e-mail whose subject line read “I’m Sorry”, proving that most of us feel somebody somewhere owes us an apology. i have to acknowledge the truism that we judge most harshly those who embody our unadmitted failings. 
maybe it’s possible to forgive others’ trespasses by realizing how blindly they harm us. like empty boats, adrift on their own currents, colliding with us by happenstance, they are not quite all there, and neither, if we can admit it, are we. 
unless we are solitary anchorites, cartoon hermits with beards down to our toes, we live in relationship, which guarantees we will be hurt by others and inevitably will hurt them. forgivness, the binding of wounds, is indispensable to our lives together. to accept our own hurt, taking it in rather than projecting it out, distills the healing elixer. 
unresolved emotional pain is the great contagion of our time – perhaps of all time. this does not deny the struggle for justice: there is a world out there, and it cries out for rectification. but those who cannot sense the pain of the one who wounds them will despense, under the banner of righteousness, a misshapen justice and create yet more enduring wrongs. i could be deep in goody-two-shoes territory, but i suspect that the final extention of forgivness is just as Lao Tzu said: “it is the way of the Tao to recompense injury with kindness.” 
i’m inspired, but it’s still lofty enough to give me vertigo. we have all experienced that hardness of heart that makes reconciliation seem unattainable. god, i still get miffed with an acquaintance passes me in the store without a warm enough hello. i know people for whom a simple social snub has fueled a lifetime of rancor. to forge my own minor act of forgiveness has taken years. 
and arnt there some individuals we should place beyond the pale? – the ones who’ve tromped on our insteps without a murmur of apology, who’ve scewed us in the past and, given half a chance, would stick it to us again, this time with a little more torque? and what of the rotten people, the cold-blooded calculators and hot-blooded haters, the ones we justifiably loathe? in the greek new testament, the term used for compassion toward one who has wronged us is splanchnizomai, from the word for “intestines” (to pour out one’s insides: forgiveness is gut-wrenching work). sometimes it just feels impossible. 
but now and again we hear of people who have forgiven the unforgivable. how do they keep their hearts open amid the buffetings of true malice? I want to find out.