Readings (click here for full text of the readings):
Zechariah 12:8-10, 13:1; Psalm 63:1-8; Galatians 3:23-29; Luke 9:18-24
I spend a fair amount of time thinking about right and wrong, which makes sense, given what I do for a living. A lot of people think that’s what religion is all about: telling us what’s right and wrong, and good and evil.
The funny thing is, though, that most of the “religious” people of Jesus’ day had it backwards. What they thought was wrong Jesus said wasn’t all that bad, and what they thought was right was anything but. To the Pharisees working on the Sabbath was about as bad as it gets; to Jesus picking an apple on the Sabbath was just common sense – of course God would want you to do that – and focusing too much on legalities distracted people from what was really important. The Pharisees thought that if you were a Jew you had it made, but if you weren’t you were in big trouble; Jesus didn’t look at what religion you were raised as or where you went to school or who you hung out with: He looked into the hearts of people, and He saw both good and bad there, and He loved us all the same. And the Pharisees thought everybody should get exactly what they deserved, but Jesus made sure that people got better than they deserved, thank goodness.
My work as an ethicist is more complicated, though, because in the ivory towers of academia a lot of people don’t think there really is an absolute right and wrong. A lot of people who’ve spent too much time going to school think that this whole idea of God telling us what to do is outdated and simplistic. The modern way of thinking is to believe that science or logic or philosophy can reveal what’s right and wrong. But even that’s old hat nowadays. Today the prevalent way of thinking in liberal society is called postmodernism, which basically says there’s no absolute right or wrong. It makes no sense to say that Christianity is true and something else isn’t. All you can say is what’s true for you, and if you say Christianity is true for you, then all you can be judged on is whether you do what Christians are supposed to do.
I was reminded of how vehemently postmodernists deny absolute truth a few months ago when I wrote a column for the Fletcher Allen newspaper. I was trying to describe what “ethics” was, and I wrote that ethics is about “right and wrong.” I have to admit, that seemed pretty darn obvious to me. There are a lot of ways to define ethics – some of which are debatable – but that seemed about as basic as you can get. I didn’t think anyone could disagree with that, but I was wrong.
Someone wrote to me expressing his strong objection to my statement, because who was I to tell people what was right and wrong? (Never mind that I never said that was my job.) He said that nothing is right or wrong; things are only right or wrong for certain people. What’s right for you might be wrong for me. It sounded to me like he was writing the rules as he went along, basically saying that whatever people want is right for them. He was very postmodernist.
Christians reject the idea that “different strokes for different folks” applies to everything. There are some things that are matters of personal preference, but there are some things that are just plain wrong. But our noble quest to restore a sense of morality comes with two big dangers: we might mix up what’s right and wrong, just like the Pharisees did; and we might make things a little too simple.
The first danger is that even as we proclaim that there are some things that are right and others that are wrong, we get the two mixed up. And when people disagree with us, we might accuse them for not standing for anything, because they don’t stand what we stand for. I sometimes hear that about the Episcopal Church: “Anything goes in the Episcopal Church,” people say. They point out that we don’t tell people what to believe about everything or how to act in every single situation. When I quote the old Episcopal saying – “Uniformity in essentials and freedom in nonessentials” – they usually say our church could do with a few more “essentials.”
But what those people are really saying is: “You don’t agree with us about what’s bad.” And that’s true, but it doesn’t mean that the Episcopal Church doesn’t stand for anything. The Episcopal Church stands for a lot of things, many of which aren’t necessarily religious: like food for the hungry and shelter for the homeless and clothes for the naked. The same things Jesus talked about and told us we’d be judged on. And the specifically religious things we believe in tend to be “big picture” stuff the Nicene Creed talks about: the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. We don’t tell people how to dress or who to vote for or what books to read – we just tell them that Jesus died so that their sins might be forgiven, and all we need to do is ask for it.
The other danger we run into is that we might make things a little too simple. Nowadays it seems like there are a lot of people who are eager to call people who disagree with them all kinds of unpleasant names: godless, sinful, unpatriotic. You only need to pick up a newspaper to see how violently people in this country respond to others who see things differently. Conservatives think our President is wonderful and the Democrats are terrible; liberals think the President is terrible and at least some of the Democrats aren’t.
But we reserve the most black-and-white language of damnation for our enemies outside this country. Especially after the events of September 11th, many of us (including our government) are eager to brand certain people as evil, barbaric, inhuman. And in certain cases I’m tempted to agree, especially in light of the murder of innocents that day in New York, and of late in the Middle East. But we mustn’t come to see others as pure evil and ourselves as pure good, and we certainly mustn’t confuse the perfect goodness of God with our own human attempts at doing what’s right.
That’s exactly what Zechariah is talking about in this morning’s reading. He’s prophesying about the Day of the Lord – which isn’t going to be a bright sunny day full of joy, but rather a dark, gloomy day of judgment and destruction. But on that day God will come to the aid of the faithful, and even the most feeble among them will stand strong like David, for God is on their side. So far, so good. Even the people who see our current war on terrorism in black-and-white terms like that are okay up to there.
But then look at what Zechariah says: “I will pour out a spirit of compassion and supplication on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that, when they look on the one whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn.” I couldn’t get that line out of my head this week. For each night as I go to sleep and each morning as I wake up, I thank God for Catie, and sometimes I wonder if I could go on if she weren’t in the world. The sorrow in my heart if anything were ever to happen to her would be so great that it probably would destroy me. But that’s precisely the sorrow that God calls for, when we look upon our fallen enemies, who despite all the horrible things they might have done, are still children of God. As God weeps for them, so should we.
God is calling us to be Christians above all. We are residents of Vergennes and Vermont and the United States, but we are Christians first. Just as Paul said: “There is no longer Jew nor Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Those are fighting words, because in his day as well as ours the Jews and the non-Jews hated each other, and slaves were abused by their masters, and women were treated worse than men. Paul is telling us that we are all the same when it comes to God: we’re all sinful and in need of forgiveness; and we all hope for the same things in life: a hot meal at the end of the day, a safe bed for our children to sleep in, and someone to hold our hand when we’re dying.
And so in this polarized world of ours, we have to be very careful not to confuse God’s goodness with our own. On the first anniversary of the September 11th attacks a politician said: “This ideal of America is the hope of all mankind…. That hope still lights our way. And the light shines in the darkness. And the darkness has not overcome it.” Those are encouraging words, and the big problem with them is that they’re a direct quote from the gospel of John, but in John the light shining in the darkness is the Word of God, not the United States. Later the same politician said that “there’s power, wonder-working power, in the goodness and idealism and faith of the American people,” misquoting the famous hymn that actually says that there’s “power, power, wonder-working power in the blood of the Lamb.” What that politician was saying was that America is perfectly good, that America is the source of our redemption, that America is God. In theological language, that’s known as blasphemy.
The technical term for that way of thinking is Manicheanism, an ancient heresy that said that some things are purely good and others that are purely evil. Today many have adopted that same outlook: we’re good, they’re bad. But the Church declared Manicheanism a heresy because it contradicts the gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus said that all of us are good, because God created us in His own image. Jesus also told us that all of us are sinful and fallen and in need of forgiveness, which is why He died for us. No one is all good; no one is all bad. All of us are one in Christ Jesus.
This isn’t postmodernism; this isn’t saying there’s no right and wrong. And this isn’t saying that America doesn’t have important responsibilities and honorable aspirations. This is saying that America isn’t God; that we’re imperfect, and we can’t spend all our time pointing out everybody else’s faults without accepting our own. This is saying that there is a right and wrong, but it’s a lot more complicated and a heck of a lot harder to live than most of us think. Because we’re not called to fight the evil, inhuman barbarians; we’re called to fight for the rights of the poor and the vulnerable against anyone who threatens them, both far away and close to home, whether the perpetrators be those of different culture and religion, or our very own, perhaps even ourselves.
And when the battle is over and God has prevailed, we’re called to weep for our fallen enemies – those evil barbarians – as if they were our children, our firstborn. Because they are children of God just like us, and He loves them that much, and so should we.