Thursday, October 8, 2009

Serious Business

At times, I've been told that I'm too serious, too intense, and at times, too observant and out-spoken for others' comfort levels, and for their political and financial ambitions. May I propose this: the central idea of Religion concerns the serious nature of life in all its difficulties, relationships and outcomes.

Regarding justice and injustice:  Most of us think of law and consequences when we think of justice. If people we know, or if we ourselves have experienced injustice or criminal behavior, our thoughts may quickly jump to returning fire for fire. Christians may cringe at the images in Psalm 137:9 "Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock."  Many of us cannot imagine wishing such harm to other people's infants and children, much less carrying it out! Taken in the context of the previous verse, the source of pain in this imprecatory prayer becomes clear: "O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us!"

The cry of the psalmist is for retributive justice against the perpetrators of the horrible suffering and pain caused to their children, and to them by watching their children die. We cannot ignore these cries from those who are the most abused, the most downtrodden, the poorest, and the sickest among us. Every one of us has experienced some time in life where we have been victimized by others, but few in the U.S. have experienced this particular pain. The message of this psalm should be considered when we consider the pain war and terrorism bring to the people of Iraq and Afghanistan. We know that other groups have also victimized the people, but we shouldn't be surprised at the backlash which occurs when US soldiers and military actions kill or injure children and family members. They cry out for justice, and the natural human response is to seek revenge.

If we look at this Psalm's lament, however, we see a foreshadowing of Jesus Christ. The psalmist does not claim that the people of Israel will be happy when they take revenge on the Babylonians who have taken them captive and killed their children in front of the parents. The avenging people are an ambiguous, "THEY." Why is that?

We should know ourselves well enough to understand that the enacting of vengeance and the exacting of justice according to human measures harm us. There is no detached "justice"; we can only try to increase the distance between ourselves and those whom we have judged. Distance can be measured in miles: an impersonal missile launched from a ship or a plane may feel "impersonal" to the owner of the hand on the trigger, or the commander giving the order to fire, but the missile's explosive destruction is very personally experienced by the people in the impact zone. Distance can be measured in relationships: a distance of race, gender, political party affiliation, religious system, education, economic status, nationality or ethnicity can permit the perpetrator to depersonalize the offense in her imagination, but the offended party knows exactly how personally wounded s/he is. Distance can be created by lies: liars frequently fabricate a false reality that is a combination of blatant lies, innuendo and semi-truths in order to push the truth or the truth-teller away from the liar's self, or worse, to kill the truth-teller by slander, gossip, libel (all of these are a form of judgment and death).

God-with-us, God-in-Christ, the God who reconciles humans to God and to one another - this God loves the victim and the perpetrator. This God loves Nineveh and Jonah, the Persians and the Israelites, the Babylonians and their captives, the Afghans, the Iraqis and the Americans. Our God knows that distancing ourselves in order to cause pain with words or actions, or distancing ourselves from sensing the pain we cause others inflicts harm on us, not just on those whom we've hurt.

During an internship at the Denver Veterans Administration Medical Center, I saw firsthand the damage done to soldiers by their participation in wars. Perhaps, to the people of Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan, these soldiers may have seemed akin to the Babylonians of Psalm 137. Yet, these soldiers also experience pain from participating in war, even those who joined the Army because a relative or friend was killed on September 11, 2001. Their own physical injuries may be healed or treated medically, but the psychological damage may last and last. One Vietnam vet was broken in ways he'd been able to ignore for most of the 40 years since leaving that country. Then, too, our government's system of treating soldiers and vets refuses, at times, to diagnose psychological harm from combat in the interest of saving money, denying benefits' claims, and maintaining troop levels. A soldier may "justify" their actions because "I was only following orders." Nevertheless, he will know - in his body and person - that his actions killed or injured other people. The more people the soldier kills, the higher the risk of PTSD. Imagine then, the soldier returned home is told by the VA that his experiences of anger outbursts, sleeplessness, nightmares, flashbacks, discomfort or fear in crowded places, anxiety if someone stands behind him, are nothing. Our society believes a myth that we have the resources to heal all ills and to treat everything, and to perpetuate that myth people in authority do lie to the suffering, and will "kill" anyone who endangers their myths.

We need to reconsider our myths! That reconsideration is part of the "serious business" of religion.

The Psalmist knew that any revenge against the captors by the captives would harm the captives, too. The implications of our belief in One God and One Creator of all things, and in humans being created in God's image resonate strongly. If God is truly with us in our experiences of suffering and injustice, and not distant from us in dispensing justice, then the Christian call to be conformed to Christ means that Christians love the victims and speak truth to the perpetrators; we reflect grace and truth to every person just as God-in-Christ has done to us. We know that for all that we have been victims of injustice and suffering, we have also been perpetrators of injustice and suffering. We are responsible, we are accountable, and we face and confess the truth about ourselves knowing that the judgment of God against sin has been lifted from us by Jesus Christ's sacrifice.

Christians and our churches must not participate in the polarizing rhetoric that characterizes our national political debates right now. We should and will testify to justice, against unjust and inequitable systems, to the care our society should give to all people, and to the harm we cause ourselves by our distancing ourselves from one another. Our system of providing medical care only to the rich, the employed, and the dying is akin to passing by on the other side of the road from the poor, wounded and sick. Our strategies that harm others in the name of the harm done to us will always damage us, too.

On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life's roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway." ~Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

1 comment:

  1. You are just serious enough for me! Thank you for these words.