Sunday, October 31, 2010

Demons By the Finger of God (10/31/10)

Demons By the Finger of God
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
October 31st, 2010

Gospel of Jesus 5:1-17

Rising early, while it was still very dark, he went outside and stole away to an isolated place, where he started praying. Then Simon and those with him hunted him down. When they had found him they say to him,
“Everybody’s looking for you.”

But he replies:
“Let’s go somewhere else, to the neighboring villages, so I can speak there too, since that’s what I’m here for.”

So he went all around Galilee speaking in their synagogues and driving out demons. Now right there in their synagogue was a person possessed by an unclean spirit, which shouted,

“Jesus! What do you want with us, you Nazarene? Have you come to get rid of us? I know you, who you are: God’s holy man!”

But Jesus yelled at it,
“Shut up and get out of him!”

Then the unclean spirit threw the man into convulsions, and letting out a loud shriek it came out of him. And they were all so amazed that they asked themselves,
“What’s this? A new kind of teaching backed by authority! He gives orders even to unclean spirits and they obey him!”

So his fame spread rapidly everywhere throughout Galilee and even beyond. And some in the crowds around Jesus would say,
“He drives out demons in the name of Beelzebul, the head demon.”

Others were testing him by demanding a sign from heaven. But he knew what they were thinking, and said to them:

“Every government divided against itself is devastated, and a house divided against a house falls. If Satan is divided against himself—since you claim I drive out demons in Beelzebul’s name—how will his domain endure? If I drive out demons in Beelzebul’s name, in whose name do your own people drive them out? In that case, they will be your judges.”

Jesus said,
“But if by God’s finger I drive out demons, then for you God’s imperial rule has arrived.”

Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar, The Gospel of Jesus (Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 1999), p. 27, 29. Mark 1:23-28; 35-39; 3:22-26; Luke 4:33-37; 42-44; 11:15-20; Matthew 12:24-28.

Since it is Halloween, I thought it would be a good time to talk about demons.

My daughter and I went to see Paranormal Activity 2 the other night. It was clever. There were several places that incited a good scream. The plot for these films is always the same. No one “believes” in these supernatural demonic agents until they get ya. Then it’s too late.

Some people like scary movies, others don’t. Some people like Halloween, others don’t. I find there is a great deal of ambivalence about Halloween in this part of the country. I personally think it is fun and harmless as long as people are mindful and careful, as in "drive carefully, there are children in the streets." Others, particularly church people, think that Halloween invites “satanic” influences and so on. That should be no surprise. One cannot trust superstitious people to get anything right.

Scary movies are fun because they are movies.

This entire notion of the fear of Halloween by some evangelical Christian people is a good illustration of missing the point. Demons and unclean spirits and what not are a carry over from the ancient world. In the ancient world, or in the pre-modern world, reality is externalized. Gods, angels, demons and so forth were seen as influences upon life. They existed in heavens or in the mountains and forests and what not.

For them what is happening on Earth is being enacted in the heavens at the same time. The spirits of earthly political institutions do battle in the heavens. These gods in turn give favors to mortals if they the mortals do the right sacrifices and so forth.

This was a helpful lecture yesterday by Art Dewey and Brandon Scott of the Jesus Seminar regarding how the ancients conceived of meaning. They projected in outward. We internalize. For us, there are no beings out there. It isn’t a matter of belief. It is where we locate reality. We use psychology and other means of knowledge to talk about what is happening within us or sociology to talk about what is happening between us.

The gospels are written from an ancient perspective. From this perspective, Jesus casts out demons. Others did as well. The Jesus Seminar voted red that Jesus was an exorcist. He cast out what were believed to be demons. Jesus was a product of the ancient world. That is not a worse world or a better world. They are not dumb and we are smart or vice versa. It is a different way of seeing reality and meaning.

While we use the language of psychology, economics, politics, sociology, and so forth, they would use the language of gods, angels, unclean spirits, and so forth. It did not mean that they were superstitious. The superstition is on our behalf when we appropriate something from the ancient world to our world. We distort it.

For the ancients, you didn’t need to believe in unclean spirits, or in the divinity of Augustus for example. These were realities. It was obvious that Caesar was divine, it was written on all the coins. If there was any doubt, he had legions to persuade you. It is not a coincidence that Mark’s gospel has a name for the demon Jesus casts out into the swine. Legion. That is a not so subtle reference to Roman occupation.

When Jesus casts out demons “by the finger of God” he is not engaging in supernatural hocus pocus. This is not the film, the Exorcist. Instead Jesus is empowering people. He is waking people up. He is casting out fear. He is telling them and showing them that the gods are favoring them. Which is crazy. Because everyone knows that the gods favor the top 15 percent of the pyramid not the bottom 85% who exist to serve the top 15%.

No wonder they call him Beelzebul. No wonder they call him crazy. He has it upside down. He says things like the Empire of God is for the poor. The unclean spirits that Jesus casts out are the spirits of occupation, grinding poverty, and hopelessness that have been imposed by the peace of Rome. This peace of Rome is good for the top 15%. It is oppressive and deadly for the other 85%.

At the seminar yesterday, Brandon Scott said:
“There is no middle class in the ancient world. There are the elite and the masses who serve the elite.”
After saying that he quipped that there are folks today who want to turn our country back to that state of affairs.

The point I am making is that the Gospels or Jesus or the Bible for that matter, is not about religious stuff. It isn’t about fantasies of life after death, or demons or the existence of supernatural beings. It is about real stuff.

Walter Wink in his very important book, Engaging the Powers, writes:
“…what people in the world of the Bible experienced and called “Principalities and Powers” was in fact real. They were discerning the actual spirituality at the center of the political , economic, and cultural institutions of their day.” P. 6
What is fascinating is that today we cannot even name it. We cannot even be honest with ourselves about our political and economic realities.

Why is the American Empire in Afghanistan?
Why is the American Empire in Iraq?
Why does the American Empire have military bases in virtually every country on the planet?
Why does the American Empire spend more on its military machine than the next 18 countries combined?

To bring democracy to the world?
To fight terrorists?
To bring peace?

At least Rome was honest about its ambitions. They were brutal. But they were honest. The historian Tacitus is writing to a people considering whether or not resist Rome’s domination. He writes:
By the prosperity and order of eight hundred years has this fabric of empire been consolidated, nor can it be overthrown without destroying those who overthrow it. Yours will be the worst peril, for you have gold and wealth, and these are the chief incentives to war. Give therefore your love and respect to the cause of peace, and to that capital in which we, conquerors and conquered, claim an equal right. Let the lessons of fortune in both its forms teach you not to prefer rebellion and ruin to submission and safety. Tacitus, History 4.73-74.
Two choices: rebellion and ruin or submission and safety.

That is what it means to bring democracy to the Middle East.

At least Rome was honest as to what war was about.
Gold and wealth.
We cannot even name it.

There are two numbers that you should tattoo to your forehead.
The mark of the beast.

20 and 8.

Nice round numbers. Approximations really, but helpful.
20 and 8. Think of millions. 20 million and 8 million.
I have said before and will say again,
In oil we live and move and have our being.
Civilization is based on oil. There is no energy source that is anywhere close to providing for us what oil has provided for us. It appears that we have used up the cheap easy to get stuff. Yet we have become accustomed to it. It is the "American way of life", that our former president told the world is "non-negotiable".

The American Empire consumes 20 million barrels of oil every day.
It extracts 8 million barrels.

Where do we get the extra 12 million?

We need to “persuade” the nations that have oil that we deserve to consume a quarter of the world’s supply while having 4% of the world’s population. And we would like it cheap. That is a tough sell. So we persuade them with the presence of the most expensive and powerful military Earth has ever seen.

But that is not all.
China wants some of that oil too.
And they have a few guns.

This is not going to end well.
We are entering the end game.

And we are not even talking about it.

When more people know about Charlie Sheen’s hooker in his hotel closet than they know about Peak Oil, we can pretty well assume that we are in denial.

Those whom we trust to tell us the truth are not doing it.
The President is not talking about it.
The politicians we are supposed to be voting for on Tuesday are not talking about it.
The media, and I am not talking about individual reporters many of whom are incredibly courageous and conscientious, but the media corporations are not talking about it.

It is up to us.

The reason I brought the Jesus Seminar here is not because I am interested in esoteric theories of the Bible or the ancient world. It is not to satisfy intellectual curiosity. They are some of the few intellectuals left within the Christian tradition with any integrity.

At Westar’s 25th anniversary just a few weeks ago, historical Jesus scholar, Dominic Crossan talked about his purpose.

He talked about what he lives for.
That is a good thing to do.
It is good to have both a purpose and a source of identity and meaning.
It is good to have a mythos.
It is especially important to have a mythos that works.

He referred to a book by Thomas Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization. This is what Amazon says about the book:
In this delightful and illuminating look into a crucial but little-known "hinge" of history, Thomas Cahill takes us to the "island of saints and scholars," the Ireland of St. Patrick and the Book of Kells. Here, far from the barbarian despoliation of the continent, monks and scribes laboriously, lovingly, even playfully preserved the West's written treasury. When stability returned in Europe, these Irish scholars were instrumental in spreading learning, becoming not only the conservators of civilization, but also the shapers of the medieval mind, putting their unique stamp on Western culture.
Crossan said that this is could be a role for us during the collapse of the American Empire. We need to be able to preserve the wisdom we have gathered so that future generations won’t have to start from scratch. How are we going to do that?

How to plant seeds,
Know how diseases are spread,
how to make a shelter—basic information that will be lost in the collapse.
It is no good to save all that on a disc.

It was refreshing, in fact I think I felt a lump in my throat which I think was grateful recognition, when Crossan said plainly that the American Empire was heading toward collapse and that we have a purpose. There is wisdom within our tradition that we need to bring forth onto the lifeboats that we need to build now.

I realize that it is weird that a preacher says this kind of stuff about oil and Empire when those we trust are silent or soft pedal it so much that there is no urgency or political will to change.

The point is not to scare people.
The point is to encourage you to build lifeboats.
We build these lifeboats not for us so much but for those who will inherit what we leave them.

In addition to practical things we all should be doing,
  • having emergency supplies of food and water,
  • skills in first aid,
  • learning how to live on a fraction of the energy we currently use,
  • learning to grow food,
we also need to find the spiritual resources to help identify the struggle and the hope. We need both a purpose and a mythos. What can we take from our tradition that can help us?

That is why I find the Jesus Seminar especially helpful. For those of us in the Jesus tradition, who do not want to give it up, we can find a credible Jesus who can help us make sense of Empire and our purpose in its collapse.

The first century gospel critique of Empire and alternative way of living as opposed to Empire is helpful.

When Jesus casts out demons,
he was casting out for those who could see..
...the way of Empire that is based on domination, violence, and power over.

He was casting out fear and panic.
In place of fear, Jesus says,


Trust yourself.
Trust each other.
Trust the Universe.
Trust God.

Not Empire’s god,
but the god of Jesus,
the god of non-violence,
the god of sustainability,
the god of justice, of joy, and hope,


Sunday, October 24, 2010

A "Generous" Man (10/24/2010)

A “Generous” Man?
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

October 24th, 2010

Jesus used to tell this parable:

Heaven’s imperial rule is like a proprietor who went out the first thing in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the workers for a silver coin a day, he sent them into his vineyard.

And coming out around nine a.m., he saw others loitering in the marketplace and he said to them, “You go into the vineyard too, and I’ll pay you whatever is fair.” So they went.

Around noon he went out again, and at three p.m. he repeated the process. About five p.m. he went out and found others loitering about and says to them, “Why did you stand around here idle the whole day?”

They reply, “Because no one hired us.”

He tells them, “You go into the vineyard as well.”

When evening came, the owner of the vineyard tells his foreman: “Call the workers and pay them their wages, starting with those hired last and ending with those hired first.”

Those hired at five p.m. came up and received a silver coin each. Those hired first approached, thinking they would receive more. But they also got a silver coin apiece. They took it and began to grumble against the proprietor: “These guys hired last worked only an hour but you have made them equal to us who did most of the work during the heat of the day.”

In response he said to one of them, “Look, pal, did I wrong you? You did agree with me for a silver coin, didn’t you? Take your wage and get out! I intend to treat the one hired last the same way I treat you. Is there some law forbidding me to do as I please with my money? Or is your eye filled with envy because I am generous?”
Gospel of Jesus 4:4-21

Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar, The Gospel of Jesus (Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 1999), p. 27, 29. Matthew 20:1-15.

You may have seen a series of commercials regarding a certain bank.

In one particular commercial a man is sitting at a children’s table with two little girls.

He says to one:
“Would you like a pony?”
She smiles and answers,
He pulls out a toy pony and gives it to her. She smiles. She is happy. She has a toy pony. To the second girl he asks,
“Would you like a pony?”
She also smiles and answers, 

He makes a sound, clicking his tongue, and in walks a live pony. The camera stays on the first girl while we hear the man say to the second girl:
“Here you go this is for you.”

says the second girl.

The first girl says,
“You didn’t say you could have a real one.”
The man answers,
“You didn’t ask.”
While the camera stays on the first girl as she narrows her eyes, the narrator says:
“Even kids know it’s wrong to hold out on somebody.”
So is the man with the pony generous or is he holding out?

Technically, the guy is right. The first girl didn’t ask for a real pony. Not only that, she was perfectly happy with her toy pony. It was only when the second girl received a real pony that the first girl saw that it seemed unfair and gave the man the evil eye.

Only then was she filled with envy.
Only then did she begrudge his generosity.
She should just buck up right?
They are his ponies, after all.
He can do what he wants.
The first little girl is just greedy and spoiled.
She is self-righteous.
She doesn’t appreciate the grace and generosity of the man who owns the ponies.

Even kids know it’s wrong to hold out on somebody.
Is the owner of the vineyard generous or is he holding out?

Technically, the owner is right. Those who worked from 6 a.m. on did agree on the bargain they had made with the owner. They seemed OK with that agreement. He didn’t go back on his word. He paid them what they had agreed upon. It was only when they saw that those who worked less also received the same pay that it seemed unfair and so gave the owner the evil eye.

Only then were they filled with envy.
Only then did they begrudge his generosity.
They should just buck up right?
It is his vineyard. It is his money.
He can do what he wants.
Those who worked all day are just greedy and spoiled.
They are self-righteous.
They don’t appreciate the grace and generosity of the owner of the vineyard.

That is how we are supposed to read this parable. It is an allegory for grace we are told. God is as gracious to the deathbed convert who throughout his life ignored his religious duty and spent every Sunday morning in idleness, debauchery and pleasure as God is to the faithful church mouse who sat on a hard pew each and every Sunday morning after long Sunday morning, and always paid her tithe and always did the dishes after every potluck.

In the end it doesn’t matter. Everyone gets to heaven. God grades on the curve. Works are irrelevant.

It is all about God’s grace as David Buttrick in preaching on this parable writes:
Look, in God’s world everything is grace, amazing grace. You can’t earn grace, you can’t deserve grace, you can’t be moral enough to merit grace. Grace is handed out free to sinners, while the self-righteous who won’t accept “bleeding charity” take their pay and go." Speaking Parables, p.117
There you have it.
What looks like injustice…
What seems like injustice… only so because we are not looking at it through God’s benevolent and generous eyes. It’s not fair but it is the way God works, so just buck up. Hallelujah.


Even kids know it’s wrong to hold out on somebody.
Then we have this other complication. Not only does the landowner give the late hour laborers a little extra cash because he is generous, he does it in front of everyone, paying the late hour workers first.

What could possibly be the point of that except to make a point?
What is the point exactly?
That because he owns land he can do whatever he wants?
Does he do it to shame these first hour workers?
Does he do it to make a show of his generosity?

The owner says:
Is there some law forbidding me to do as I please with my money?
Actually there is. It is called the fair wage law. Of course, they might not have had such a law in first century Palestine, but they knew about fairness and wages. The Hebrew prophets talked about justice to the poor on a regular basis. Jesus did too.

The landowner says:

Or is your eye filled with envy because I am generous?
say the workers.
“It is not because you are generous that we are giving you the evil eye. It is because you are arrogant and a grandstander. You think it is fun to play with people’s lives. You make a spectacle of us. You devalue our labor.”
The owner might reply:
“Now wait a minute. I am concerned about the late hour workers and their plight. If it weren’t for me they would have nothing. I have been moved by compassion at their condition and I offer them more than they have earned. Out of my own pocket I put food in their stomachs. I have created a social safety net. Isn’t that what you left wing socialists are all about? Don’t hate me because I am a generous capitalist.”
And thus the question we have to answer. 

Is the landowner just and generous or not?

Before we go further with that, we should say a couple of things about parables. We tend to interpret them as allegories or as illustrations that make a moral or theological point. In this case, the landowner is a stand in for God and the moral of this parable is God’s amazing grace for the undeserving.

I suggest that parables in general including this one are not allegories. They are open-ended invitations to view the world differently than previously we have viewed it.

Whenever Jesus tells a story about landowners, judges, kings, and those with authority and power, we should be very skeptical that that character is a stand-in for God.

If we see this landowner as God, we will have to engage in a great many gymnastics to make sense of it.

We don’t have to see the landowner as God. The landowner could be just a landowner. The meaning, the empire of God, could be within the text of the parable or outside of it.

Is the landowner generous? He says he is.

However, a silver coin or a denarius a day will make no one rich. Whatever agreement he made with the workers you can bet it was for a subsistence wage. He apparently had plenty of landless peasants available to work his vineyard. If one won’t work for a denarius, ten more will.

Now we should start asking some questions.

Why are there landless peasants?
Where did they come from?
Who owns the vineyards?
Who profits from the harvest and the marketing and the taxation of this fruit of the vine?
Finally, who gets to drink it?

We don’t know.
We can be sure that Jesus knew and
his landless peasant audience knew, and
the vineyard owners who were listening in knew, and the
compromised religious authorities knew, and the
political authorities who eventually executed him knew.

You can bet that none of the landless peasants enjoyed the fruit of the vine. You can also bet that they all knew the words of the Hebrew prophets such as Micah who when speaking about the great day of the Lord said:
He shall judge between many peoples,
and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more;
but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid; (Micah 4:3-4a)
Everyone shall sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees.

That is the empire of God.

The empire of God is not getting a denarius a day if you are lucky harvesting someone else’s vine. That is the empire of Caesar.

In early first century Palestine, as Herod built his mini-empire he had to fund his projects. You don’t fund massive projects by dealing with individual people and their puny little vines. You bring in agribusiness. You find whatever means you need to drive those inefficient people off their land and give it to large landowners who can then turn a profit.

This is the context for our parable.

The parable is a fiction but the setting is a real as a hungry child.

The hearers of these parables would recognize a landless peasant hoping to get hired to work in a field that used to be his daddy’s.

At the end of the day what the landowner has succeeded in doing is to pit the laborers against each other. It is similar to the huge coal companies in West Virginia, Kentucky and Southwest Virginia who pit people against each other. They say the same thing all the time,
"Mountain top removal mining creates jobs."
That is not true of course. Mountain top removal mining uses far fewer workers than conventional mining. A small number of people have these jobs. Others do not. The people who live there are embattled and embittered against one another. Meanwhile, mountains are destroyed forever and billions of dollars flow into the pockets of energy companies.

I am starting to meddle, aren’t I?
I am not talking about religion anymore, am I?
Religion is about Jesus dying for your sins so you can go to heaven.

You know, Jesus talked about two things more than anything else.
These two things were NOT abortion and homosexuality.
They were economics and something he called the empire of God.
Money and Power.

The empire of God is not an empire anymore than the school of hard knocks is a school. The empire of God is a metaphor for a way of seeing actual empires. One of the things we need to see is the empire of Caesar in all of its manifestations.

Empire loves spectacle. It loves to demonstrate its power and to spin itself as benevolent power.

I think this is what Jesus is illustrating in this parable.

First of all, in Jesus’s world you give to charity without a big show. This is Jesus speaking just a few chapters earlier in Matthew 6:1-4:
“…when you give to charity, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so your acts of charity may remain hidden.” Matt 6:3-4
And yet in our parable the landowner has a big show at the end of the day in which he pays the late hour workers more than they deserved and then tells the early hour workers how generous he is. His point is to grandstand. He is demonstrating both power and phony generosity. He is giving away ponies to some and not to others.
Even kids know it’s wrong to hold out on somebody.
Just a few verses after today’s parable in Matthew 20:25, Jesus tells James and John who are fighting over power, about how things work in the empire and in contrast how they should behave:
‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you…”
In our parable, the landowner lords it over them:
“Is there some law against my doing what I please with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous.”
It reminds me of the television commercials for British Petroleum. The commercials are all spectacle about how great BP is. They show local folks working hard day and night processing claims. BP is creating spectacle. They are creating image. They want to be seen as generous, honest, and caring, when in fact, they are doing everything they can
  1. to conceal and downplay the destruction,
  2. to take the least amount of responsibility for it as possible, and
  3. to pay little as they can get away with paying.
BP is a corporation. That is what corporations do. We think it is all perfectly normal. Yet...

Even kids know it’s wrong to hold out on somebody.
I read this parable as Jesus exposing an unjust system shrouded in spectacle.

This spectacle of spin--this show of “generosity”--is what those who control wealth and power do all of the time. Jesus exposes this spectacle with this anti-Empire parable.

Where is the Empire of God in all of this?

As Jesus said elsewhere it is among you, within you, and outside you.
  • Perhaps it is in the discussion we have within ourselves and with others about justice, fairness, stewardship, generosity, and our daily bread.
  • Perhaps the Empire of God is about opening our eyes to how power works and how money works.
  • Perhaps the Empire of God is asking whether or not the way power and money works is the way it must work or should work.
Perhaps the Empire of God is asking how it could work.


Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Unforgiven (10/10/14)

The Unforgiven
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

October 10, 2010

Gospel of Jesus 7:6-19

Jesus said, “Forgive and you’ll be forgiven.” 

And he said, “Father, forgive our debts to the extent we have forgiven those in debt to us.”
This is why Heaven’s imperial rule should be compared to a secular ruler who decided to settle accounts with his slaves. When the process began, this debtor was brought to him who owed ten million dollars. Since he couldn’t pay it back, the ruler ordered him sold, along with his wife and children and everything he had, so he could recover his money. At this prospect, the slave fell down and groveled before him:

“Be patient with me, and I’ll repay every cent.”

Because he was compassionate, the master of that slave let him go and canceled the debt.
As soon as he got out, that same fellow collared one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred dollars, and grabbed him by the neck and demanded:

“Pay back what you owe!”

His fellow slave fell down and begged him:

“Be patient with me and I’ll pay you back.”

But he wasn’t interested; instead, he went out and threw him in prison until he paid the debt.
When his fellow slaves realized what had happened, they were terribly distressed and went and reported to their master everything that had taken place. At that point, his master summoned him:

“You wicked slave,” he says to him, “I canceled your entire debt because you begged me. Wasn’t it only fair for you to treat your fellow slave with the same consideration as I treated you?"

And the master was so angry he handed him over to those in charge of punishment until he paid back everything he owed.

Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar, The Gospel of Jesus (Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 1999), p. 39, 41. Matthew 6:12-15; 18:23-34; Mark 11:25; Luke 6:37; 11:4.

In 1992 Clint Eastwood directed and starred in the film, Unforgiven. When I first saw it I thought Eastwood was repenting for all his Westerns in which the gunslingers were made into heroes. In Unforgiven, the line between hero and psychopath is blurred.

Eastwood plays retired gunslinger, William Munny, who gave up whiskey and killing and became a pig farmer. He is raising his children as a widower. But his wife is dead. His pigs are sick. Farming is tough. He gets an offer to pursue a bounty.

Some prostitutes in Big Whiskey, Wyoming have offered a $1000 reward for anyone who will take vengeance on two cowboys who disfigured one of them. The local sheriff (played by Gene Hackman) did not administer justice adequately in this case. When the sheriff hears of the bounty he is angry and is determined to make an example of anyone who pursues it.

Clint Eastwood’s character, Will Munny, after at first declining the offer changes his mind and gets one of his old now reformed hired gun buddies, Ned (played by Morgan Freeman) to help him. This is what Will Munny says:
I ain't like that no more. I ain't the same, Ned. Claudia, she straightened me up, cleared me of drinkin' whiskey and all. Just 'cause we're goin' on this killing, that don't mean I'm gonna go back to bein' the way I was. I just need the money, get a new start for them youngsters. Ned, you remember that drover I shot through the mouth and his teeth came out the back of his head? I think about him now and again. He didn't do anything to deserve to get shot, at least nothin' I could remember when I sobered up.
As you can imagine even if you haven’t seen the film, a lot of killing ensues. Munny does go back to the way he was. In fact, we discover that the only way Munny can shoot straight is when he drinks whiskey.

The film won a number of academy awards including Best Picture. It has been called “the eulogy for the American Western.”

Part of the film’s genius is that it messes with our sense of justice.

It is a critique of the Myth of Redemptive Violence. The myth of redemptive violence is a myth that we live by most of the time. We find it played out in film and literature and in the way we determine right and wrong.

The Myth of Redemptive Violence says that violence can be redemptive, and at times it is the only redemptive act against evil. Violence is redemptive when used by the good against the bad.

We are initially on the side of the prostitutes who seek redress both from the crime done to them and from local law enforcement that did not do not justice. And we are on the side of Will Munny who is rather lovable in a weird way. He gave up drinkin’ and gun slingin’ for his wife. He is raising two kids. He is going on just one last job and to the audience it is a just cause, a righteous kill.

He is Clint Eastwood after all. The righteous killer. He was often the Christ figure in his previous films.

We know how these films are supposed to work. The bad guys are ruthless and their ruthlessness builds up. The good guys are beaten down, but finally draw from a well of heroism and righteousness and in a final scene kill the bad guys and we feel good because justice has been done. That is how these movies work.

That is the game.

That is the myth.

And that has been the formula for Clint Eastwood's films. Until this one.

We are manipulated. As the film unfolds we find ourselves rooting for the the good guys to give the bad guys their just reward and then when they finally do, it is so over the top in terms of violence that we feel soul-sick. There are no heroes. No good guys or bad guys. It is mixed up. It isn’t clear. It is just violence. That I think is what the film wants to communicate. The genre of the Western had lost its innocence. The myth of the Western film had died.Unforgiven was its eulogy.

Perhaps not only the American Western but the myth of the American West itself is being turned upside down. Making heroes out of gunslingers who were nothing more than psychopathic killers perhaps wasn’t such a great idea. In the end it is mostly greed and violence.

Will Munny summarized the entire genre:

He didn't do anything to deserve to get shot, at least nothin' I could remember when I sobered up.
This leads us to our parable.

Maybe the parable of the king’s accounting is a eulogy for the myth of redemptive violence.

We know what is supposed to happen. We know the game. The King is supposed to be God and God is good and so whatever God does is right. The parable is simply an illustration of the truism:
Forgive others as God forgives. If we don’t forgive, God won’t forgive us. Let that unforgiving slave be a lesson.
That is how we are supposed to read it. That is how we have read it. That is how the Gospel of Matthew reads it.

Or mis-reads it.

Matthew’s gospel adds a commentary at the end of the parable by putting on the lips of Jesus this warning:
That is what my heavenly Father will do to you, unless you find it in your heart to forgive each one of your brothers and sisters. 18:35
But is that really the character of God? Is God really as fickle as the king in this parable?

In Matthew’s Gospel just before this parable, Peter asks Jesus how many times he should forgive his brother, seven times? And Jesus says no, seventy-seven times, or seventy times seven. In either case, the exaggeration means,
“Don’t calculate, just forgive.”
That is what we are supposed to do. We are supposed to forgive seventy-seven times. OK, fine.

Then he tells the story of God, the king, God, who only can manage to forgive once. Then he takes it away and actually tortures the poor schlep who he originally forgave.

Now the poor schlep is no saint. After being forgiven a debt of 10,000 talents which should be translated a zillion bazillion dollars, he goes and shakes a guy down for a couple hundred bucks. He is certainly no role model.

But neither is the king.

If God is like the character of this king, then the whole notion of grace and mercy is a sham. I don’t know about you, but if I were to be truly honest there are brothers and sisters who I have not forgiven. I guess God won’t forgive me then. Even if God did forgive me, I can’t count on it, because God could take it back.

This is a religion of terror. This is a religion upon which fundamentalism thrives. That is the religion of empire. God is not about forgiveness but punishment and torture. That is God’s real nature.

This parable is like the film Unforgiven in which the audience is drawn into a cycle of violence. By rooting for and expecting justice through vengeance we find ourselves complicit in the violence that ensues, so hearers of this parable are drawn into a cycle of unforgiveness.

We are impressed that the King would forgive such a huge amount. What a great guy. See the game is good! Then we are disgusted that the man who is forgiven much cannot forgive a little amount. So we are on the side of the slave who was not forgiven and on the side of those slaves who were watching. Like them, we want vengeance. We want redress. We want justice for our fellow slave who was not forgiven.

That is how the game is played.

So as hearers of the parable we cheer as the slaves tell the king what happened. We are expecting justice. The bad guy is going to get his. But then as the king calls the “bad guy” on the carpet and reverses the forgiveness and exchanges it for torture we may find ourselves wondering if we as hearers were rooting for the right thing after all. Has justice been served? Is God’s kingdom a place in which no one is ultimately forgiven but only tortured?
That is what my heavenly Father will do to you, unless you find it in your heart to forgive each one of your brothers and sisters.
As hearers we find ourselves implicit in this. Bernard Brandon Scott writes:

Thus the parable catches everyone in evil, not intentional evil, but implicit, unanticipated, systemic evil. …A wholly other system is needed, a system outside empire, outside honor and shame, outside patron-client, outside royal power. Pp. 106-7.
The God of Jesus is not the king in this parable. The kingdom of God is not the king’s accounting system. God is outside this parable. This parable is a spoof or a critique. Whatever God is and whatever God’s kingdom is, this parable is not it.

Jesus Seminar Fellow, Ed Buetner offered a great illustration for the phrase, “kingdom of God” or “empire of God.” When someone tells you that they went to the school of hard knocks, you know that they aren’t talking about school as we normally think of school.

The school of hard knocks is a metaphor that points to something very different from Elizabethton High or ETSU or any other school we might bring to mind. The school of hard knocks is not a school, even though people might have learned things from the school of hard knocks.

When Jesus says empire of God he is not talking about empires or God in the way we normally think of empires and God. I think Jesus used empire of God to at once bring to mind Roman Empire and at the same time to spoof it.

When we find a parable in which a king appears to stand for God, it is good to suspect that Jesus is messing with us. It may mean that the real character of God and the kingdom is closer to the opposite.

As Brandon Scott writes:
The parable paints a bleak picture of every effort to organize the world on the model of the empire. Whatever the empire of God might be, it cannot be that. P. 107.
Let’s move from parable to real life.

Let us not forget the obvious. 

This parable is about money

It is about stuff and who has the stuff and who controls the stuff and how the stuff is controlled.

In the end, finally by means of torture, the king gets the stuff.

We live in a world of strict accounting like that of the kings and slaves. In that system there are winners and losers, good and bad. We know that the world in which we live, people are piled with debts. Well…they should have known better. Too bad for them.

We know the world in which we live the “too big to fail” banks and corporations and power brokers have their debts forgiven. That is normal. That is the way the world works. Don’t blame the game. Blame the players. The men in their suits and ties and their Harvard MBAs (and Princeton M. Divs) are so smart and so authoritative and they know what is best for all of us.

This past week was educational for me. We had our international peacemaker visit us from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. On one afternoon he spoke at Emmanuel School of Religion. Dr. Elolia and Dr. Perkins set up a tea with international students. A couple of folks were there who live in the U.S. now but are from the Congo.

Our peacemaker, Rev. Mukendi, showed us his presentation and a video of his children and wife and neighbors walking two kilometers to get water from a spring. The women carry 40 pounds of water on their heads, three, four, five, six times a day. They get electricity from a generator. He wasn't complaining about any of this. He was showing us his life..

Rev. Mukendi is not one of the poor ones. He is a big deal in his area. He is like our executive presbyter or synod executive. He has a large church and is responsible for important programs and ministries in the DRC.

At the presentation at Emmanuel School of Religion, one of the guys who live in the U.S. now but is from the Congo said:

“It is possible that all of us here have a piece of the Congo in our pockets.”
He was referring of course to our cell phones. It applies also to our computers. Many of the valuable minerals that make our cell phones fast and cheap are from the DRC. But the people who live in the DRC, who live on top of this wealth, don’t have cell phones or laptops.   Some of the wealthier do of course. But most folks don’t even have electricity or running water.

But that is the way the world works, isn’t it?
It is normal.
One wouldn’t think to criticize the system.
It is not the game that is fault, we say, just the players.

I think if Jesus were with us today he might say:
“No, the players are all children of God.
Whether in the Congo, China, West Virginia, Johnson City, or Wyoming.
The players are fine.

Join with me and let's change the game.”

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Peace Is Every Step (10/3/2010)

Peace Is Every Step
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
October 3, 2010
World Communion Sunday

Gospel of Jesus 3:15-17; 7:2-4
Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar,
The Gospel of Jesus (Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 1999)

“I tell you, don’t react violently against the one who is evil:
when someone slaps you on the right cheek, turn the other as well.”

“If someone is determined to sue you for your coat,
give that person the shirt off your back to go with it.”

“When anyone conscripts you for one mile of service,
go along a second mile.”

“To you who are listening I say, love your enemies.
If you love those who love you, what merit is there in that?
After all, even sinners love those who love them.
And if you do good to those who do good to you, what merit is there in that?
After all, even sinners do as much.”

Today is World Communion Sunday. This is an observance that began in 1933. Rev. Hugh Thomas Kerr, a minister at Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh is the founder. In the midst of the Depression with Fascism and Nazism on the rise, Rev. Kerr and other leaders felt a need for a symbol of unity.

According to Hugh Kerr’s son, Donald Craig Kerr:
"The concept spread very slowly at the start. People did not give it a whole lot of thought. It was during the Second World War that the spirit caught hold, because we were trying to hold the world together. World Wide Communion symbolized the effort to hold things together, in a spiritual sense. It emphasized that we are one in the Spirit and the Gospel of Jesus Christ."
The Presbyterian Peacemaking Program chose World Communion Sunday as the day to emphasize world peace and to receive a special offering, the Peacemaking Offering, to encourage the church at all levels to engage in acts of peacemaking.

This week our presbytery is participating in the International Peacemakers program. We have a visitor from the Democractic Republic of the Congo. He is Rev. Augustin Mukendi. He will be here Monday night at 7 p.m. to share with us what is happening in his part of the world.

I had the opportunity to spend yesterday with him. We went to Magill Memorial Church in Roan Mountain and watched them make apple butter, enjoyed lunch, and then I took him to Carver’s Gap.

Augustin and I walked up to Round Bald. I think he was impressed with that. It was a beautiful day. You could see a long way.

He said, “God is big.” God is big, indeed.

I asked him what his message is to Americans. What message does he want to communicate this week with us? He said that the message is that we are one. We are one world community. He also said that it is important for Americans to learn about other people around the world and who they are and what they are doing. He didn’t mean to be critical when he said this, but he said that the world knows what America is doing. But Americans don’t often know what the rest of the world is doing.

That is certainly true. We cannot do the things that make for peace if we don’t know our neighbors. We make a big footprint around the world and the products that we use have costs of which we are often unaware. For instance, some of the minerals (tin, tantalum, tungsten, and gold) that are mined and refined for our cell phones, I-pods, and other electronics, come from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. OK. Except that in the words of this article:
A horrific war has raged on in the Congo since 1994, killing an estimated 5 million people and earning the nation the moniker "the rape capital of the world." The persons responsible for this brutality and abuse are financing themselves through the extraction of these minerals.
These are called “conflict minerals” and part of the financial regulation bill that was recently signed into law by President Obama will require
“thousands of U.S. companies to disclose what steps they are taking to ensure that their products — including laptops, cell phones, and medical devices — do not contain "conflict minerals" from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.”
Credit for awareness of the situation and activism toward enacting this legislation goes in part to the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program. The folks at the Peacemaking Program and the UN Office have been trying to communicate this to us for some time now. Part of the calling of being peacemakers is being aware of the hidden costs (not just money and energy, but ecology, and human life) associated with what we take for granted and consume on a daily basis.

World Communion Sunday is a day to be reminded that we are interconnected.

The phone call I make on my cell phone is connected to someone’s life in the Congo.

The light I use to read by at night is connected to someone who lives near a mountain top removal strip mining operation in West Virginia.

The hamburger I eat is related to a factory farm in California which may or may not be the most just and humane use of food energy.

The point of this is not to get bummed out about every possible thing we do. The simple point is to reiterate what our peacemaker of the Congo said to me yesterday:

the world knows what America is doing. Americans do not often know what the world is doing.

We don’t know because we are intentionally kept in the dark. It takes a lot of energy to keep us dumb and docile. It requires a great deal of spectacle, advertising, and info-tainment to keep us from looking behind the curtain. Because if we did look behind the curtain we might be repulsed at what we see and demand change.

Now there is such a thing as compassion fatigue. We can only take so much before we tune out. If we attempt to carry the weight of the world on our shoulders we will be crushed by it. So we have to carefully pick our battles, address those things that are most important to us, always have (even if it seems very small) a concrete action to take, and walk our path for peace one step at a time. Peace is every step, as Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us.

And perhaps most importantly, to remember through prayer and ritual that God is big, as Rev. Mukendi said when he saw the beauty of Appalachia from atop Round Bald. To use Christian words (which when used correctly is a particular symbol for the universal) Christ is our peace.

God is big. Christ is our peace.

That is enough.

We participate in peace when we penetrate barriers.

Jesus reminded us to love our enemies. He told us to turn the other cheek, go the second mile, and offer our shirt when they take our coat. Jesus was not advocating passivity. In all three cases he is speaking to those who were abused and humiliated to respond to abuse in ways that do not return evil for evil, but do not accept evil passively. Instead each of these actions is intended to assert one’s dignity.

Walter Wink, in his book Engaging the Powers has helped us to understand these puzzling statements by putting them in context. He writes that each of them is a strategy of responding to evil by disarming it.

If a superior backhands an inferior with the back of the right hand striking the right cheek, the person struck could do a couple of things. Strike back which would be suicide or look down and be humiliated. Turn the other cheek would do something different. In this non-verbal communication the person struck is saying,
“I am not humiliated. I am a person. You may have the power to strike but you do not have the power to take my humanity.”
The second mile refers to a soldier who was prohibited by Roman law of requiring a peasant to carry his pack for more than one mile. So if a soldier tells you to carry the pack for one mile, don’t resist. You’ll just get beaten for that or worse. Don’t be humiliated. Offer to carry it two miles. Now you have put the soldier on the defensive. You are causing him to break the law. Now he has to wrest his pack back from you.

In the case of the coat, it is really an outer garment and an inner garment. You could take a person’s outer garment in lieu of payment on a debt. The law stated that you must give it back at night so the person would not freeze. So when humiliated by having your outer garment taken, the third way of resistance is to take off your inner garment and hand it over as well. What are you then? Naked. The idea here is to show the world the injustice being done.

Walter Wink suggested that these activities were not meant to be understood as passively receiving evil and humiliation from another. They were instead creative attempts to expose the injustice of the relationship and forcing the oppressor to see the humanity of the person humiliated.

You will see me as a person.
That is the purpose of non-violent resistance. The point is to expose the injustice. The point is to show the oppressor and the world the injustice of the relationship and ultimately to disarm the oppressor. You don’t love the enemy because you have some kind of masochistic tendency. You love the enemy in order to change the relationship. You love because hate makes you the monster you are trying to disarm. You love because you are seeking to move from labels that de-personalize and de-humanize to one of equal relationship: I – Thou.

That of course is the meaning of peacemaking and the meaning of world communion.
  • We are in relationship with all family members on Earth. I – Thou.
  • We are in an I – Thou relationship with our friends in the Congo.
  • We are in an I – Thou relationship with all of our non-human friends of Earth.
  • We are in an I – Thou relationship with Earth itself.
Thou art that. That is what John Martin is attempting to tell us with his study of Joseph Campbell’s book by that name. Come tonight to that study

Thou art that
You and I are each other.

That is what is being said here.

The philosopher Schopenhauer understood Thou Art That or I – Thou in this way.

A person gets it when he identifies with someone not himself so much so that the barrier between persons is penetrated…
“ that the other was no longer perceived as an indifferent stranger but as a person “in whom I suffer, in spite of the fact that his skin does not enfold my nerves.” Joseph Campbell Thou Art That, p. xii.
That is compassion. That is what makes us human.

Any kind of injustice and violence that disturbs that I – Thou must be resisted. We cannot resist in a way that increases the violence. It results in cycles of violence that never end. We must resist in a way that disarms and elevates human dignity. That requires creativity.

I ultimately have great hope for humanity and for Earth.

I know I sound apocalyptic now and then about our future.

That is because I do not trust our economy, our politics, our technology, or our ideology (or anyone else’s for that matter). I do believe we are in the midst of major change.

But I believe in, I trust in, the I – Thou
in the Thou Are That
in the Communion of Saints,
in the compassion we humans have for one another when we allow barriers to be penetrated.

At the table we become aware that we are one. When you suffer, I suffer. Regardless of our creed or metaphor, The Divine Spirit, Buddhahood, Allah, the Cosmic Christ, is within each of us.

It will be kindness and compassion that will carry us through.

Let us Celebrate Christ, Our Peace.