Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Stuck in the middle with you

"Trying to make some sense of it all,But I can see that it makes no sense at all,
Is it cool to go to sleep on the floor,
'Cause I don't think that I can take anymore
Clowns to the left of me, Jokers to the right,
Here I am, stuck in the middle with you."

~Joe Egan;Gerry Rafferty (AKA Stealer's Wheel) 1973

"It is good to grasp the one and not let go of the other.
Whoever fears God will avoid all extremes."
~Ecclesiastes 7:18

During Jesus time there were two dominant groups of religious leaders, you might think of them like political parties. 

On the one hand, there were the Sadducees, they emphasized man's total free-will, our ability to choose good or evil, but they did not believe in an afterlife or a spiritual realm. Sound's a lot like some liberals today; secularist and skeptical, respecting only the hear and now, what they can understand empirically and operating systematically.

A lot of Christians (especially conservative or "Evangelical" ones) fear and loath folks like that. They blame relativism and rationalism for everything wrong with the world. But I don't think we should view them as the enemy, rather, they are our neighbors. And how did Jesus tell us to treat our neighbors?

On the other hand, there were the Pharisees. Unlike the Sadducees, the Pharisees did believe in life after death, but they also believed in a little thing called predestination- the idea that you think you have free-will, but God has destined some people for salvation and others for damnation. They were hyper-religious and legalistic, they believed that you had to be absolutely meticulous about keeping all the rules because you never know which rules will be more important. 

A lot of intelligent thinkers and progressives are suspicious people who act and think like Pharisees today because they see them as being inflexible, uncompromising, volatile and aggressively working to shore-up their influence in society.

If you read the New Testament, the Pharisees are the guys who were always trying to trap Jesus and ultimately plotted to have Him killed because they were paranoid that either He would usurp their own power and influence, or disrupt the comfortable arrangement they had built up with the Roman occupation. 

The thing is, BOTH extremes are wrong. A secular humanism on the one side, may have good motives for making society better, but it's farsighted with it's optimistic view of human nature and attempts at applying systems and structures. It doesn't account for how messy and imperfect life can get or how importance of the intangibles in life.

On the other hand, fundamentalists, Calvinists, conservative Evangelicals and the religious-right are just as wrong and their absolutism and legalism are just as or more dangerous than the relativism that they're constantly railing and ranting about. They're NEARsighted with their obsessive focus on personal piety and individual responsibility at the expense of massive societal, corporate, and institutional evils.

They're the ones Jesus was talking about when He said they strain out a gnat but swallow a camel (Matt.23:24).

They're adamantly opposed to teaching the theory of evolution in Biology classes in public schools, yet they blindly accept and live by the tenants of Social-Darwinism.

They vehemently oppose abortion yet they oppose programs to reduce poverty and social safety programs, support capitol punishment and applaud unprovoked military action.

They ardently oppose secularism in all forms, yet laud an atheist hedonist like Ayn Rand as a heroine of individual responsibility and economic liberty!

They claim that they uphold the U.S. Constitution strictly and abhor activist jurists, unless the activism favors their ideology.

How can you grant First Amendment rights to Corporations and Political Action Committees but deny 14th Amendment rights to real human beings because of their sexual orientation, race, or immigration status?

These are the white-washed tombs Jesus talked about (Matt 23:27) who hypocritically talk about returning to traditional values and religious heritage but  care nothing about justice, mercy and faithfulness. But prophets like Malachi, Zechariah, Micah, Amos and Hosea all  stand ready to indict them.

So here we are in the middle. On the extreme left, we have unspiritual Sadducees and on the extreme right, we have hyper-legalistic Pharisees. Ultimately both succumb to the idolatry of self-worship. Each thinks they know best. On the left they say everyone makes their own way, on the right they demand that you follow only their way because they believe that only they know best.

Instead, we should be confident enough to trust that there is such a thing as truth, yet humble enough to recognize that we may never be mature enough, experienced enough, wise enough or enlightened enough to have an absolute monopoly on that truth.

If we truly follow Jesus Christ, we can not trust our own vision. We cannot be either farsighted and miss what's right under our noses, namely that God is real and loves us and that people need Him. Nor should we be nearsighted and be so caught up in our own little kingdoms that we fail to see the world around us and how much they need our help, effort, intercession, and inclusion- not just our scrutiny and condemnation.

Instead of using God and religion to defend our political and philosophical opinions, we should consider how Jesus spent his time and listen to His teachings and imitate Him and implement His directives. We need to wash the inside of the cup, and not just the outside (Matt.23:25).

We have to recognize that as citizens of the greatest and most successful empire on Earth and throughout history, we Americans are especially vulnerable to complacency, greed, and self-indulgence and we have to ask God to help us repent of that and to keep us from being too comfortable with it and defensive and protective of the false god of our standard of living and our unique privileges.

We can't be Christians of Emperor Constantine, but instead of a poor, homeless Palestinian Jewish carpenter who hung out with fishermen, prostitutes and tax collectors.

Perhaps I've rambled too long here, but this post is really emblematic of the main purpose of this blog. That is to give a voice to those who believe and love Jesus, yet feel that the much of American Christianity is often short-sighted and not necessarily following Jesus with blind faith (2 Corinthians 5:7) but unfortunately are too often acting as blind guides (Matt. 23:16).

I want all Christians to know that you don't have to conform to a monolithic Republican way of thinking politically and philosophically- and that if you read Matthew 5 (and 23) and see a Jesus who perhaps aligns more with progressive (dare I even say liberal) values, you are not alone.

And I want secular, agnostic, atheist, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist and other liberals to realize that Jesus is not a rich white American, He's not homophobic, xenophobic, plutocratic, Machiavellian, oligarchic, militaristic, nationalistic, or nihilistic. He's not imperialistic.

He's loving, patient, kind, does not envy, does not boast, and He is humble. He does not dishonor others, is not self-seeking, is not easily angered,  keeps no record of wrongs. Jesus does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. He always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. What's more, He's real, He's alive, He's here, He's now, and He loves them enough to die for them.

I think that often, Christians are afraid to step out of the Pharisee camp because they're afraid that any lack of condemnation, and (Heaven-forbid) any engagement whatsoever with the Sadducee camp will be misinterpreted as condoning falsehood. I say both sides are sometimes wrong but both sides are sometimes right. During the Reformation many parishioners told Martin Luther that they were afraid of making mistakes in what they did and taught and how they worshiped because they were so used to simply obeying the Pope. Luther told them to "Sin Boldly." I guess that's what I do by ranting on this blog, sinning boldly.

Alas, being in the middle not only means being caught in the cross-fire between the two extremes, it means that both sides perceive you as at best uncommitted and at worst, traitorous. But as Martin Luther famously said, "here I stand, I can do no other."

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