Biblical Politics

The latest in a long tradition of US Presidents citing Jewish or Christian scripture in political rhetoric was included in President Obama's address to the nation on Thu Nov 20. He said:
ABC News photo
"Scripture tells us that we shall not oppress a stranger, for we know the heart of a stranger -- we were strangers once, too. My fellow Ameicans, we are and always will be a nation of immigrants. We were strangers once, too."
Various commentators were critical. (The following four were cited in a Huffington Post article HERE):
"So there, the president of the United States last night in the Cross Hall at the White House invoking scriptures which I believe had to do with feeding the poor and the hungry and nothing to do with visas." (Steve Doocy of Fox & Friends)

"It's repugnant, for this guy specifically, the president who spent his career defending late-term abortion, among other things, lecturing us on Christian faith? That's too much. That is too much. This is the Christian left at work, and it's repugnant. To quote scripture? That is totally out of bounds" (Tucker Carlson)

"To guilt someone into [supporting immigration reform], that's not what the scholars behind the Bible would interpret as proper use." (Elisabeth Hasselbeck)

"I always thought that Scripture was eternal and unchanging, but apparently, now that Obama is President, Scripture gets rewritten more often than Bill Cosby's Wikipedia entry." (Former Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee)
The President, however, was not "re-writing" scripture. He cited it accurately and in context: that is, if moral principles from the Ancient Near East 3,000 years ever have relevance to situations today, then this one pretty directly applies.

There is, in fact, a long and deep theological grounding for for the kind of action our President announced on Nov 20. The Bible doesn't address the extent of presidential authority for executive orders allowed by the US Constitution. Nor, in this post, will I. The Bible is, however, pretty clear about an obligation to justice for immigrants. It's a point made, in fact, repeatedly:
“You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 22:21)

“You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23:9)

“When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” (Leviticus 19:33)
(From the NRSV. The term translated here as "alien" is variously rendered in other translations as "foreigner," "sojourner," "stranger," and "foreign resident.")

The theological basis of this commandment is crucial. The land belongs to God, not to the Israelites whom God allows to settle and use it. God tells them:
“The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants.” (Leviticus 25:23)
The authors, Hebrews writing under the conditions of the Babylonian captivity, were making the point that there is no true ownership of land – the land and the trees and the water under it and flowing over it – belong to the earth, belong to all life, not to me or you. We're all just aliens and tenants here.

If the spiritual is whatever lifts us out of “I, me, mine,” lifts us out of protective fear into a spacious perception of abundance -- lifts us out of any “we, us, ours” that doesn’t include all sentient beings, then recognizing that all of the Earth belongs to all of life is a spiritual act. I believe that’s what the Hebrew people were really saying, in their own way. The moral and emotional truth of “the land is mine, saith the Lord, with me you are but aliens and tenants,” is that the Earth is not truly ours.

You may have deed and title to your house and a plot of land, and the law may say that you own it – but this is a legal fiction. For the squirrels, finches, juncos, and various other assorted wildlife who pass through your yard, that land is as much theirs as yours. The spiritual truth, articulated in the second and third books of the Bible, is that all of the Earth belongs to all of life, a.k.a. God.

There is a fear and a hatred in the land. As people of faith, we are called to stand against it, to stand on the side of love, to know and to renounce our unjust privilege in the name of the much greater rewards of connection and solidarity and siblinghood. Our national heart is closing against itself, but the scriptural resources of our Jewish and Christian heritage enjoin us to hospitality.


This Week's Prayer

Holy and loving reality, we come to this season of Thanksgiving knowing that every season, every moment, every breath must be a season of gratitude – that the most basic spiritual practice, discipline, virtue, and grounding is gratitude.

Grateful constantly for earth and sun, air and water, life and love, life becomes possible. Without thanksgiving, life is only a kind of walking death.

Thank you, thank you, thank you for “this amazing day, for the leaping greenly spirits of trees,” (many now displaying the beauty of their bare branches) -- “for the blue, true dream of sky.”

Thank you for our home – and our capacity to find ourselves at home wherever we are – for the earth, the universe, wherever we go, is our home.

We will always have problems. Approached with gratitude, we can learn to love our problems, for they are the arisings of life. With hearts of thanksgiving, we can respond with compassion to all that arises.

Grateful for life, we can respond compassionately to those who are sick, supporting the medical teams in West Africa fighting against a deadly virus.

Grateful for our capacity for concern and respect and fair treatment, we can respond compassionately to both perpetrators and victims of unjust abuse, oppression, racial distrust and prejudice.

Grateful for what we know of peace, we can respond compassionately to those whose lives are torn apart by war, supporting the efforts of peaceful and fair conflict resolution.

Grateful for the abundant bounty of our lives, we can respond compassionately to those who suffer poverty.

Grateful for simplicity (beautiful simplicity that liberates from the burden of things, for the things we own and consume also own and consume us) we can turn away from the crazy getting and spending that lays waste our powers.

Grateful for the love of family and friends, we can respond compassionately to affirm those bonds in ways other than buying stuff.

Let our hearts, then, overflow constantly with gratitude.


The Ground of Hope

“Keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars.”
- Radio DJ Casey Kasem’s signature sign-off

Hope can go bad. We can use hope to evade reality and escape into rosy fantasies. In the name of hope, people may dwell in a hoped-for future rather than living in the present.

Psychiatrist Scott Peck’s very useful book, People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil, gives many examples from his patients where evil and mental illness blur together. The evil/ill patients he discusses share a habit of attacking others instead of facing their own failures. When things go well, it’s just what they deserved; when things go badly, it’s always someone else’s fault. By contrast, an ideal of mental health would be just the opposite: when things go well, the healthy think with gratitude of all the others who made their success possible, and when things go badly, they examine what they might have done differently. Peck then defines mental health as “an ongoing process of dedication to reality at all costs.” The evil/ill tendency to blame others and credit the self is a refusal to face reality. The evil/ill prefer the comforts of the illusion of blameless virtue and undeserved victimhood to “a life of continuous and never-ending stringent self-examination and honesty with oneself” (Peck).

When hope goes bad, it turns into the enemy of reality, honesty, truth. It beckons us to retreat into pleasant illusions of an imagined future – or succumb to temptations of visions in which other people have finally wised up and stopped standing in our righteous way.

When hope is ungrounded, it is merely another name for fear. What commonly goes by the name “hope” – hope for a specific result – is nonacceptance. This kind of hope is no more than fear of the world as it is, or the world as we are afraid it may become. "I hope the bill passes," or "I hope I get the promotion" is not substantively different from "I'm afraid of the bill not passing," and "I'm afraid of not getting the promotion."

There is surely a place and a need for hopeful visions of a better future – for powerful dreams such as Martin Luther King’s. (There's a place and need for fear, too.) Hope, by its nature, wants to reach for the stars. To keep hope from going bad -- to hope within the context of "dedication to reality at all costs" -- we must also plant its feet in the ground of love of reality. Hope’s grounding lies in making peace with the possibility that the future may not be different in any particular way that you or I would call “better.”

Hope’s grounding is action taken here and now without knowing what effect, if any, the action will have. Hope is grounded in what the poet John Keats called “negative capability” – the capacity not to insist on a determinate knowable meaning. Grounded hope reminds us to hold our visions lightly, for they are projections of our ego needs, and the best of them can become despotic and demonic. A grounded activist knows, “I do this not to make the world different. I do this to be who I am.” When our hope is grounded in loving what is, we can be courageous, we can join the resistance (to injustice, oppression, sources of violence) with our hearts and our breath and our being, comfortable that we cannot predict what will come of it. Hope’s grounding lies in listening deeply, speaking truth, then letting go of attachment to outcomes.


Forgveness 4

Safety may sometimes be a higher priority than forgiveness. Once safety is established, however, and the long slow process of healing is well underway -- once blame and prosecution has long finished serving whatever purpose it may serve in our justice system -- then attending to the possibility of inviting the heart to release its blame becomes a key aspect of the continued healing.

The author Dwight Lee Wolter, was at a book-signing event for his book, Forgiving Our Parents. One person
“merely glanced at the title, glared at Dwight and asked, ‘Why the hell should I?’” (Buerhens 6)
That’s a person who has given up on forgiveness.

In such cases, the work will be hard, and no one can say “you should” – no one can say the work will be worth it. The grace of forgiveness – the grace of being able to forgive, and the grace of coming to be forgiven – can, if not short-circuited, have a power to raise new life from a kind of death. Forgiveness can
“break through the normal calculus of morality that calls for evenhandedness and balance.” (Lewis Smedes, religious psychologist)
We can’t make the grace come. We can take some steps to invite that grace: steps for both the injured and the injurer.

For the one who has been harmed, the first step is to tell the truth about our pain. We have to be able to say that we’ve been hurt and how. Even articulating that hurt may be arduous. It’s often difficult to speak one’s pain frankly.

One barrier is an inner belief in our invincibility. A person may deny her or his own suffering because to hurt is to have an unacceptable weakness. And acknowledging this hurt means recognizing that we can be hurt again. Or we may fear that acknowledging a hurt will make it worse.

An Offender Reconciliation Program in Wisconsin “brings the victim of a crime together with the perpetrator of the crime, in front of a trained mediator,” if the victim desires such a meeting, and the perpetrator is willing. One woman met with the drunk driver who had killed her husband.

He said, "I’m sorry."

And she said, “‘I’m sorry,’ won’t cut it. I lost the love of my life. My other half. I suffered depression. I had to deal with being a single parent with three kids.” (Larsen 3-4)

Sometimes we aren’t ready to get, don’t want to get, don’t need to get, to forgiveness. Just the first step of speaking her pain – without expecting that she accept his apology: “it became possible for her to get on with her life” (Larsen 4)

At the next step we do face a choice. Having named our pain, grieve it. If we don’t grieve, we are much more likely to pass on the very same injury to others. Unitarian Universalist minister Rebecca Parker writes:
“The capacity to grieve unlocks the psycho-magic of passing the pain on to someone else. Grief allows the pain to pass through one with its full power. The ability to mourn is the foundation of the capacity to forgive, and it is strengthened by those operations of grace which mediate comfort and consolation to us.”
The final step, then, is letting it go. Again: you can’t make yourself let it go, and you certainly can’t make anyone else let something go, but you can deliberately open yourself to inviting the release to come. Letting go releases the violator from the obligation you would place upon them to suffer for their violation, or be punished for their sin.

This is not a release from accountability. Forgiveness involves "calling another to accountability, but relinquishing the desire for retribution” (Parker 16). When I say accountability, I mean accounting for ourselves to one another – a relation in which we accept the task of trying to make our selves make sense to another human being – who has seen our past behavior as making no sense.

The injurer, for her or his part, also has steps that can help open the iron gate through which forgiveness may enter. Here, too, truth-telling must be the first step. Tell the truth about the violation. Acknowledge responsibility. Accept the call to accountability.

Step two is justice-making. This is about restorative justice, not retributive justice.
“One cannot always repair the damage one does, but one can commit oneself to create healing or transformation somewhere, somehow” (Parker 21).
In the example from Gandhi, the man could not bring back the child he killed. What he could do was commit to creating healing or transformation somewhere, somehow. We can’t always put thing back, make things right, but we can make things better – create healing or transformation somewhere, somehow.

In the end, as at the beginning, forgiveness is a form of love, and like love generally, it is a need. We need it in both directions. We need to love; we need to forgive. We need to be loved; we need to be forgiven. As the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr said:
“Nothing we do, however virtuous can be accomplished alone. Therefore we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as from our own. Therefore, we are saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.”
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This is part of 4 of 4 of 'Forgiveness'
Previous: Part 3
Beginning: Part 1