Destroying the Oppressor

Destroy all those who would oppress me, for you are my redeemer, O Lord. – Psalm 143

Today I’m reading Chanting the Psalms by Cynthia Bourgeault. I bought it, logically enough, for tips on learning to chant the Psalter. Being of a musical bent, I have always been very attracted to the meditative power of chant, and the fact that my faith has a millenia-old tradition of it just sitting there unused has picked at me for long enough.

As I was browsing through the book, confirming that it should indeed prove interesting and useful (and it comes with a CD!), I found a section discussing the issue that some people have with the language of the Psalms themselves. The passage quoted above, for example. For a lot of people – and certainly for many non- and ex-Christians, I think – quotes like this are proof of the violent and condemning nature of God and/or of faith generally. Right away that comes into issue because these are not the words of God but petitions to God, prayers said by people – most often King David, according to canon – in a whole wide variety of human conditions, some very harsh. That people in dire straits prayed to God for the destruction of their enemies tells us more about people than it does about God.

Still there is the issue, and I have felt it myself, of how a Jew or Christian of modern mindset and good conscience can continue to utter prayers like this one in our own practice. In this book, Bourgeault describes taking this question to a woman who had been a contemplative Christian for many years. The woman’s answer was, “This used to bother me too. But what I’ve come to understand is that this prayer really means destroy in me that dualizing tendency of the mind that divides my world up into friends and enemies. Let me see through the eyes of divine Oneness that my so-called oppressors are all projections of my own deepest fears.”

That sounds very Eastern, doesn’t it? The non-dualistic tradition certainly does exist in some forms of Christianity, mystical and contemplative ones in particular, but it doesn’t make a big show of itself; you have to go looking for it. Or else you have to have already studied something like Buddhism or – oh, say, Sakta Tantra – for long enough to have references like this pop out at you when you cross them.

What are the real sources of oppression? Not some particular person or creed. If you get rid of those, others will arise in their place, just as bad or maybe worse. And if oppression were purely external, how could we have so many historical figures, great ethical heroes, who were treated with every kind of external harshness and yet refused to act properly oppressed? How did Nelson Mandela get kinder and wiser in prison? Why didn’t Rosa Parks just stand up? How could Frederick Douglass, in his time and place, develop such a fierce conviction that he was not intended by God to be a slave?

What is it that really oppresses us? States of mind. If I become so fixated on possessing material goods that it becomes the focus of my life, at the expense of all other goods including the good of others, then I am oppressed by greed, and I aid the spreading of greed’s oppression. If I fixate on my own glory and honor, I am oppressed by pride and become its servant in oppressing others. 

I can be oppressed easily by superstitions, by prejudices. We all carry a thousand of these. Muslims are violent, Christians judgmental, Jews greedy, Buddhists wishy-washy, Pagans flaky, Atheists smug. Women can’t drive, men think with their genitals, the fat are lazy, the thin are superficial, the poor are greedy, the rich are heartless. Those who dress conservatively are unliberated, and those who dress suggestively are beholden to their lusts. It goes on and on. But these are not facts, only superstitions. They are rules we impose on the world, not real natural laws; they are ways we remove ourselves from the reality of the moment, and in doing so we cripple ourselves against responding to truth in an honest way. That is oppression.

Destroy all those who oppress me, for you are my redeemer, O Lord.

This Week in Scripture, 12/4/11

A little late, partly because reasons and partly because there was so much to work with this week that I had trouble deciding where to focus.  A lot of good lines in this week’s scriptures, particularly famous ones and ones I know from classical music pieces. “Comfort, O comfort my people” and “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd” (both from Isaiah 40); “Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other” (Psalm 85:10).

But what I really find myself thinking about is the reading from the second letter of Peter 3:8-15a, so much so that I am going to give it in its entirety:

Do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed. Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire? But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home. Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish, and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.

This is the passage that always comes to mind for me when I hear or read about the sort of Christian who seems to form the popular opinion of what Christians are today: the one who wants this to be a “Christian nation,” not in the sense of promoting love between neighbors or aiding the poor and oppressed but of making sure no other voices are heard and people who stand out or commit “sin” by their definition are punished. The one who, far from holding out the promise of grace from a loving God to others, seems creepily gleeful at the prospect that those different from themselves will burn forever, hopefully starting as soon as possible. The one who prays for Judgment Day to hurry up and get here.

There are, of course, lots of places in the Bible I would take to imply that God does not endorse this kind of attitude in His followers, that what He wants as our guiding principle is love, not vengeance.  Likewise there are lots of places where He warns us that if we are hateful in our condemnation of others, it will count more against us than them. But this from Peter is a particularly direct and, bless him, tactful reminder that this warning applies to our thoughts on the Judgment itself. Even if it ultimately means an age of righteousness, dude, the elements will melt. What kind of person wishes that on anyone?

It sounds in this passage as if Judgment is something of a last resort: perhaps (in fact certainly, in context) He would prefer for us to do at least some of the work of saving the world ourselves. And “saving” anything in the New Testament, at least, almost always involves things like healing and feeding and forgiving. Things many of us sadly remain bad at, particularly those of us who get the most excited about condemning each other to fiery judgments.

God is waiting, and the patience of the Lord is salvation. Maybe He is giving someone time to have a change of heart – maybe the person you’re yelling at or about. Maybe you.  Maybe you’re getting a minute to think about whether you really are without sin before you cast that stone. Maybe you’re being given time to ask yourself whether you really know better than God who needs punished and when it needs to happen. Whether it really is holy, or even decent, to hurry toward the end of the world.

This Week in Scripture, 11/27/11

It’s the first Sunday of Advent, and therefore of the liturgical year. I’m going to try to make a point of posting on this topic every week throughout Year B (as we Episcopalians lovingly call it), but being a falliable mortal being, I make no promises.

Taken as a set, this week’s readings set the stage by contrasting the pre-Christ and post-Christ worlds.  In Isaiah 64:1-9, the prophet begs God to show Himself to His people like He did in the old days (as with Moses, say), and laments that in his present time, God hides His face and punishes humans for their iniquities. He ends with, “Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.”

Psalm 80 reflects the same theme, lamenting present punishment and asking God to send His blessings again. Verse 16 says “Let your hand be upon the man of your right hand, the son of man you have made so strong for yourself.” While of course Jewish readers of the Psalms don’t interpret it the same way, Christians tend to read “the son of man” as a title of Jesus. By that interpretation, the Psalm asks for Christ’s arrival, and goes on to describe the effects of Christ’s coming: “And so we will never turn away from you; give us life, that we may call upon your Name. Restore us, O LORD God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.”

Putting the reading from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians 1:3-9 right after this turns it into an answer to the prayer, as Paul promises the Corinthians that “in every way [they] have been enriched in him” and that “He will also strengthen [them] to the end.” “God is faithful,” he says. Those who ask for God will be answered.

Finally, in the gospel reading from Mark 13:24-37, we skip over the initial incarnation entirely, and Jesus describes how He will come in the end: He also says, in words that one always wants to go over in bold yellow highlighter for “Judgment Day is X” people, “about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

And then He says, several times, “Keep alert…keep awake.”

There are several ways to look at this command: both of the ones I’m going to mention here are informed by my knowledge of other faiths. One, particularly if you read this within the context of parables like that of the wise and foolish maidens with their lamps, is “do what you’re supposed to be doing, because you never know when you’re going to be called on it.” Even polytheistic gods might show up unexpectedly one day, disguised as ordinary people, and pass judgment on whole cities based on the treatment they are shown during their visit. (In fact, angels do exactly this a few times in the Old Testament. The actual judgment, of course, they leave to God, but they gather and present the evidence for Him and carry out the sentence.)

For my money, reward and punishment systems are not the highest form of moral decision-making, but in all honesty there are plenty of people in the world for whom it is the highest form they can attain.  And it’s better than nothing, as virtually every human culture seems to agree.

But there’s also a possible sentiment here that most people would think of now as something Eastern: be aware of the moment. Perhaps there was a time when we saw God as residing just in heaven, just in the great temples (like the one in Jerusalem, the destruction of which Jesus foretells): but even if that used to be so and not just our imagining, now God has come down from the mountain and moves through His creation at will. The Holy Spirit, for example, is said multiple times to abide with all Christians, forever. “Forever” is not something that starts someday far from now: “now” exists within “forever.” Be with the Holy Spirit now. Recognize that you already are. Notice God’s creation all around you right this moment; have your eyes open to what He might wish of you right this moment.

E-confession

I learned on facebook today that the Catholic Church has given the official seal of approval to an iPhone app on which you can track your sins, so as to have the list handy for confession.

I’m kind of jealous, honestly. Not that I even have an iPhone, but I love tracking and lists, and it seems to me that if you’re going to have the concept of regular confession, something like this is really going to be handy and useful. It seems to me like the kind of thing my home church (Episcopal) wouldn’t get around to doing, because although we technically have the concept of confession we’re much more laid back about it, at least at my particular parish.  (I expect it’s not just us, though, because of Eddie Izzard’s thoughts about confession in the Church of England.  “Forgive me, Father. I have committed many sins.” “Well, so have I! …Drink five Bloody Marys and you won’t remember.”)

To be honest, maybe it’s also partly because counter to the principle of grace unearned by works, there is still a part of me that misses Knowing the Rules.  Which is pretty darned comical coming from an ex-Wiccan, a religion in which the only universal rule is “An’ it harm none, do as you will.” (Which I have now learned is suspiciously like “Love God and do as you will,” not only in wording but also in deeper sentiment.) But there it is – I am consecrated to God, therefore I want to please him, and therefore I want a clear picture of what will please him. That bit is easier with smaller gods: you learn their favorite colors, flowers, and so on, make a little altar, offer what they like offered, and Bob is your uncle. While love sometimes develops between a god and a practitioner, it’s not uncommon for the relationship to be largely or even entirely contractual. (Devotion-oriented Pagans often complain about this, in fact, because there are so many people who treat the gods as nothing but contract workers. “I’ve never spoken to you or worshiped you, but I burned the pink candle, now give me a girlfriend.”)

It’s not like that with God. He doesn’t quite have favorite “things,” unless you count Israel. (Try to fit Israel on your home altar.)  His favorite “things” are virtues – but that means you have to understand which virtues he favors and how to correctly apply them. Except that instead of spinning my wheels thinking about it I’m supposed to be allowing the Holy Spirit to instruct me – and that’s in the parts of the “old law” that even apply to me as a Christian, which is a whole other hotbed of contention.

Yes, you would not be the first person to say I overthink this kind of thing. Neither was my priest.

Anyway – when I shared my envy of this app with a Buddhist friend, she thought it sounded depressing. And I’m not sure I can explain what’s changed for me that makes it not depressing. One of my own main sins has always been perfectionism, a particularly cruel form of pride that doesn’t even give you the fun of feeling superior.  So the realization, deep down in my soul, that no one – let alone myself – could live up to my standard, and that God knows that and still offers me grace, and that therefore it’s okay to recognize and admit where I’m weak or selfish, has been huge for me. And that, in some weird way, makes the idea of confession liberating rather than guilt-inducing.

So, there you go, Episcopal Church. Make us an app!

Faith and works

Apparently there is a good deal of controversy over whether good works are necessary to salvation, or if faith is sufficient.  I have heard from an Orthodox friend that she has been torn into by Protestants for the Orthodox belief in the importance of good works.  I know, myself, of Christians who not only feel that faith is enough in itself, but seem to actively despise several things that I would place under the heading of “good works.”

Then again, at the other extreme, I also know that some of the more liberal Christianities seem to almost take faith out of the game – it’s all right to treat not only miracles but God Himself as metaphor, as long as good works are done.

I’m new, so maybe I’m wrong about how obvious the answer is.  And it helps, I suppose, that I have the blessing of experiencing God as a person, which makes it awfully hard to regard Him as metaphorical.  Faith supported by experience is easier (just ask Thomas); being able to physically feel the settling-in of grace makes the importance of faith self-evident.

But it says in 1 John that faith without good works is dead.  My personal perspective on this is colored by the fact that I am a bhakti, someone whose path toward God is driven primarily by love.  I think that good works are not necessary to earn grace, but rather, that doing good works is evidence that grace is present. The presence of the Holy Spirit is meant to lift us toward holiness, and we are told repeatedly that holiness consists of loving God with all our hearts and loving our neighbors as ourselves. Being human we are bound to continue in some errors, but if we are open to the Holy Spirit, we should find ourselves drawn to love both God and our neighbors more and more, and to express that love.  Conversely, if the evidence of good works is lacking, we might conclude that the Holy Spirit is being shut out – which would show a lack of faith, faith that is “dead.”

(This also explains why good works are not sufficient in themselves, as we tend to imagine or hope in secular life: there are plenty of motivations for doing good other than loving God, and we cannot expect God to gather to Himself those who do not love Him.  So faith opens us to grace, and good works express grace.  In faith we love God with all our hearts, and in good works we love our neighbors as ourselves.)

For myself, I also feel that whether or not faith was sufficient by itself, I would want to do what was pleasing to God – as it is abundantly clear that good works are – as an expression of my own love for God.  To accept eternal love and salvation and give back nothing but complacency is to be a spoiled brat.  It was an attitude that was annoying enough in Paganism, where some practitioners see their gods as little more than spell ingredients to be plugged in to get what one wants.  (I must add that there are also many Pagans who see this attitude as ridiculous and insulting and in defiance of the entire idea of religion.)  But when we are talking specifically about a God who descended into the flesh to suffer with us and for us, answering that sacrifice with the reverence of a rich teen who just got the Mercedes they thought they deserved for their birthday seems particularly awful.

Of course we can’t fix the world by ourselves, and we can’t give back God’s love in equal measure.  But that does not excuse us from making some attempt.

Long-distance running

There’s an episode of “King of the Hill” in which Bobby (perpetually underachieving son of main character Hank) takes up a young, hip form of Christianity.  His group relates to Jesus largely through tattoos and extreme sports.  At the end of the episode, Hank explains his reluctance toward this by pulling out a box of old trendy gismos Bobby has left behind when they weren’t cool anymore, saying, “I don’t want the Lord to end up in this box.”

When I find a new passion, I tend to feel a compulsion to glut myself with it.  I buy all the books, all the materials if such apply; I wolf it down in huge portions of time and effort.  I join organizations, take on jobs.  By the time I realize I’ve exceeded my real interest or the amount of energy I really have, I’m in way over my head.

I don’t want the Lord to end up in that box.  And I’m particularly concerned about doling out my energy wisely since I developed chronic insomnia two years ago.  I’m still in the process of putting my life and my priorities back together, and it’s teaching me to take things in one at a time and in measured steps.  In my spirituality especially, I want every step I take to have its maximum impact and to be sustainable for me in the long term.

So I’ve resisted the temptation to start reading up on monastic life, wedge myself into observing all the Hours, and engage in depth-charge studies of the Bible complete with maps, commentaries, and concordances.  I’m trying to pace myself.  When I feel like this makes me too lukewarm, I try to console myself that on the whole, a smile and a brush of the fingertips every day adds up to more than one bouquet of flowers followed by nothing for a month.

Right now, that means saying the Lord’s Prayer in the evening instead of trying to follow the Hours, and reading through the Bible once for general familiarity before I start combing through it like a graduate student.  (I’m using an amusing tool for that at biblestudytools.com, where you can set up a Bible reading plan and check off the passages you’ve read as you go.  Sometimes I read a few days’ worth at a time instead of one, but I don’t let myself gorge.  The site also has a lot of material for deeper studies, and more than a dozen translations, so I’m able to work with the NSRV rather than some random denomination’s pet variant.)

How do you find what is a sustainable amount of practice for you?  What are the cornerstones you make sure are in place first?

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