Inevitably, the Chapter Six subject of "Says Who?" or what/who constitutes authority in our lives raises again the danger of idolatry. I trust I've spent enough time for now on that issue except to remind you of Martin Luther’s succinct definition of an idol, a false god: “That from which you get your sense of worth, and to which you give your loyalty, is properly your god.” All of us need to hit the Pause button frequently and think about how easy it is to attribute more authority to finite entities than they warrant and how hard it is to wrestle our way out the consequences of that. We have a constant challenge to sort out our answers to "Says Who?” Sooner or later, if we’re at all discerning, we discover how disillusioning or inadequate our little gods, our chorus of “authorities” turn out to be. It isn’t a matter of denigrating or discarding them. Rather it’s about determining what good, necessary and rightful place they have for us.
So we come to the second speed bump question, namely, "What's at stake?" This is a particularly thorny question because it has several responsible, yet contingent, answers depending on the circumstances of our lives at various times and stages.
The question, “What’s at stake?” implies there are moral, spiritual qualities by which we evaluate what our day to day choices and personal investments mean to us and about us in honestly shaping our answers.
So let me begin with a sort of preamble. As the pace of life constantly quickens, as the “rat race” accelerates, it’s crucial not to avoid the question or take our answers for granted. the invention and escalation of technology - computers, the Internet, cell phones, iphones,ipads - have taken our lives to near warp speed. But it’s not those technological advances that control us and accelerate our lives; it’s our choices to use them as though they did. That’s what makes our “What’s at stake?" question so crucial.
Technology enables us to do amazing things, expanding our options while also limiting our face to face and reflection time if we let it. For example, pediatricians warn against using television for baby sitting, having TV’s in the bedrooms of 2 year olds, computers for 4 year olds and reducing the interaction between kids and adults that is essential to their growth in language, imagination, problem solving. And there’s our “What’s at stake question?” When the tsunami hit Japan with its terrible nuclear reactor damage leading to radioactive contamination spread around that nation, and to some extent the rest of the world, we once again hit the speed bump question, “What’s at stake here?” There are a plethora of more personal examples of how over-investment in careers, or acquiring money wreaks damage to individuals and family life when the question of “What’s at stake here?” doesn’t get asked or honestly answered.
Sooner or later we usually realize that many of our fevered disagreements and arguments as well as our hurried actions really have little at stake beyond our pride or ambition. On the other hand, many of the things we value and to which we give allegiance are good and necessary things. Our work, family, friendships, country, causes, political parties, institutions of education, art, music, medicine, human rights have just that kind of importance in our lives, and should have.
Investing our care, thought, active interest, time, support in those good and right things is not only a key to personal integrity but equally important, it is the way to project our personal values and concerns into the public arena in accordance with Jesus' parable of the Samaritan.The critical condition of such investing is to make every effort to have it be rooted in our longing for the quality of life which is eternal.
Please understand: I do not mean “eternal life" in the sense of getting to heaven, which is about God’s grace, not our achievements. Rather, I take "eternal life” to mean living in the finite present a life grounded in that revealed in Jesus. Such grounding empowers us to do everything we can to do justly, to make peace, to love neighbor and enemy, to care for the poor and be stewards of the earth while leaving the outcomes of our labors to God. It gives us the energy to persist in the struggle and not to despair or give up because such grounding in God’s grace delivers us from taking the good and valuable things we invest in as sufficient in themselves. Good, Yes; sufficient, No.
In my view, many of our problems come when we claim OUR good to be THE best. After all, that's what the pharisee and the scribe did in Jesus parable, and in a different way, so did the lawyer. It wasn't that they weren't committed to doing good things, it was their claim that the way they were, what they stood for and how they practiced it was absolutely the best. Therein lies their hypocrisy and self-righteousness. Therein lies our own constant temptation and common trespass.
Certainly, it is always possible, helpful, even necessary that our good become better. We can always see, or be shown, ways to become better persons and find ways to make conditions for ourselves and for others better because those two efforts are inevitably linked. We can, and should grow in discernment, empathy, compassion, courage, hopefulness, faith (as in the epileptic boy's father's response to Jesus' healing his son, 'I believe, help my unbelief).
Better is always within our reach, best is always beyond it. A lot of grief, ours and others, could be avoided if we keep that in mind. Or better, if we keep praying about what matters most to us. Prayer goes deep, is a kind of a parentheses or time out, (or maybe a time in) in which we weigh who we are or are trying to be. It’s a reach for integrity or wholeness to life. Henri Nowen is on target here: “The real question is not ‘What can we offer each other?’ but ‘What can we be for each other?’ Prayer is about the ... greater gift of our own life that shines through all we do.” More often than we might realize, "What’s at stake?” is the integrity and the core meaning of our lives, and therefore, of life itself as we discern it. What’s at stake is what we can be for each other.
As I write this chapter, the pedophile scandal of Penn State University’s football coaches and program is swamping the entire university, the alumni, the state of Pennsylvania and the country’s college athletic programs, along with some degree of corollary damage to the wider public. What’s most obviously at stake is the legal issue of why the acts of the offender weren’t reported to the police at the time. Indisputably, serious mistakes were made by those in authority leading to tragic consequences for the abused boys.
But the issue goes beyond the legal, even moral, ramifications to the deeper one of misjudging what was really at stake in the matter. That misjudgment prompted the iconic coach Joe Paterno and school administrative leaders to put protecting the reputation of the university and its football program above their ethical responsibility to protect children from a predator who also needed help for a serious psychological illness. For one thing, all of us who are fans of collegiate and professional sports have contributed to establishing the closed, self-serving, institutional aggrandizing, nearly sacred culture of athletics in this country. Surely that culture and our collusion in it, needs our thoughtful examination and confession
For another thing, the nature of the response to the tragedy by the media and general public, which includes most of us, is also at stake. The response has been nearly universally self-righteous and arrogance in the assumption that we would have certainly handled things differently and ethically. Yet, there are dozens of incidents of crimes and serious offenses committed in which people neither intervened or reported. More over, who doesn’t know, remember and regret making bad mistakes we wish we hadn’t and though not criminal still hurt others, even our own kids.? What honest person won’t admit how easily losing our way can happen and how alert we need to be to our own frailties and to misdirecting our deepest loyalty and longing toward objects or purposes that are deficient and damaging for us and those around us. That is not in any way to excuse the offenders who caused the PSU tragedy. It is only to confess our own flawed humanity, our sin, and be more gentle and compassionate in our judgment of others. A part of the summons of our longing is to keep asking ourselves, every day, with every choice, “What’s at stake? What can I/we be for each other ... and for God?
The truth is that we don't have to insist that our good is the best in order to be effective activists for what we believe. In fact, if or when we claim the best for ourselves or our “good,” we betray our selves and, more importantly, we actually mock what we value most and what we truly long for, namely, a deeper love of self, neighbor and God. In truth, the “Best” always stands as a kind of corrective judgement and course correction as well as the liberating assurance of the truth that our lives, thoughts and actions are, good, can be better, but never best. That is the rock bottom of what's at stake for us. That's the core integrity undergirding our commitment to the good we chose, and the better towards which we reach in ourselves and through the actions and involvements that reflect what we value and believe.
The outcomes are beyond our control and ultimately up to God. Dag Hammarskjold, the second secretary general of the United Nations and a deeply religious person, put his view of his work this way: "The United Nations was not created to bring us to heaven, but to save us from hell.”(1)
Hammarskjold’s analysis compelling and accurate. Our challenge, the challenge of faith, lies not in making heaven on earth but in saving ourselves, our neighbors, humanity, the earth, from hell. Since my mother frowned on swearing, when I was a kid, often when asked how they were doing, men would say, “I’m working to beat hell.” I loved that. It seemed a legitimate to use the cuss word that way. Now I believe working to beat hell is what we are all called to do what we are called to do. Hammarskjol’s perspective has it memorably right. Attend to the summons of your longing and remember: insisting that our views, ways and works are “the best” often escorts us to “hell” while “the good” saves us from it. That’s what's at stake for us and something of what the mystery of our deep longing is about.
I’m a grateful citizen of the United States, and yet, I find it disturbing that we habitual proclaim our country as "the best in the world," the most exceptional, most important and exemplary, indeed, God’s chosen people. That is one of the most dangerous idolatries of all. It is in itself, a betrayal of the very foundation of our country. It distorts our relationship with other nations as well as our personal perspective and values. It also betrays the longing for a love, a grace not to fulfill us temporally, or temporarily, but to sustain us in our life journey in this world and time.
The notion of “the chosen people” stretches way back in human history. It is a factor in the establishment of the Hebrew people and the nation of Israel as "God’s chosen people”. The claim of being God’s chosen people extended to Jesus followers, then to the the church which was defined as the body of Christ. In that process, being called “God’s chosen people” came to mean being a special, privileged, superior, “the best,”people, certainly in their own sight and, they assumed, in God’s sight, too. Everyone else who did not convert to their view and creed were deemed the unacceptable, the enemies of truth and goodness, the damned to hell which, incidentally, is another version of hell we need to save ourselves and others from. More often than not, the claim of being chosen got extended to people not only of a single religion, but of a single race, or gender, or class, or nation, which is to say, - i.e. us and ours, perhaps most notably, our country.
But when God first chose Abraham and made a covenant with him, it was to make him and his family “ ... a great nation ... and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (2) That means a chosen people are chosen for responsibility for others, not for separation from them. Chosen people are not chosen for privilege, or preference or elevated status but to be humble, generous, compassionate, merciful. We are chosen to love God with all our hearts ... and our neighbors, even our enemies, as ourselves. That is what’s at stake in life. It is not easy or simple; it’s complicated and hard. But there is some nurturing sense of okay-ness or rightness about it and about the direction in which it takes us. Yes, our “good” and even our “better” falls short. We are finite, limited creatures. None of it satisfies our longing, but it does clarify it little by little. Accompanied by God’s grace, it’s the longing way home.
I want to share something Toni Morrison said as 2011 Commencement Speaker at Rutgers University. "I have long wished that Jefferson had not used the phrase 'the pursuit of happiness" as the third right -- although I understand in the first draft it was 'life, liberty and the pursuit of property" ... so I suppose happiness is an ethical improvement over a life devoted to the acquisition of land, acquisition of resources, acquisition of slaves. Still, I would rather he had written 'life, liberty and the pursuit of meaningfulness' or 'integrity' or 'truth.’ ...Personal success devoid of meaningfulness, free of steady commitment to social justice, that’s more than a barren life; it's a trivial one. It's looking good instead of doing good.”
Morrison’s challenge to those graduates, and to us, underscores the relevance of the speed bump, What’s at stake?” It’s about us working to beat hell. And, Yes, those are a huge and complicated questions played out on a larger stage than is our personal venue. But the challenge also pertains to our every day choices and involvements, from the arguments we have with each other over trivial matters to the way we treat our families, do our jobs, relate to neighbors and the community, use our money, pick the causes we support, attend to our spiritual life, chose the groups we join, spend our time. It’s about everything we think, feel and do in our daily round. “What’s at stake in all this?” It’s about what we can be for each other, about who we are, who we want to be, what we really believe and care about.
No one of us can save the world from hell or change things much by ourself beyond what the Good Samaritan did. But together, we can change a lot. AS has been said, Good Samaritans need to get organized and become active in the public arena. A few weeks ago, dedication of the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial was dedicated in our nation’s capital, a just and earned tribute to him as another Father of this country. King was the preeminent leader of the Civil Rights movement that changed the racial discrimination laws of this country.
But the key word is, “movement.” I march many times for civil rights. I was one of thousands to be march the last stage of the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965. It was one of the most privileged and memorable moments of my life to be part of that historic occasion. I carried the coat and bag of a black woman as I tried to keep up with her as tears rolled down her cheeks and jubilation rolled off her tongue. We marched through streets crowded with people cursing at us, threatening to kill us, calling us ugly. obscene names. The march never faltered. The people in it never turned tail or backed off. It essential ways, it was the church, certainly the black church, that was on the march. Together with all who signed on with it.
After the march ended, some of these haters made good on a few of their threats. Viola Liuzzo was killed as she drove home. Others were beaten. But that march and that movement helped change the country. It helped King’s composite “Dream” come closer to fulfillment. It helped bend the long arc of history toward justice, as King so graphically put it. It wasn’t a safe time or an easy time. One way or another, most times are not. So Dr. King’s words are as relevant to us in our time as it was that day: “The ultimate measure of a man (or woman) is not where he (she) stands in movements of comfort and convenience, but where he (she) stands at times of challenge and controversy.” The key is to stand together, to go public with our personal beliefs, to be brave and wise putting them in action TOGETHER.
Sister Mary Scullion is the Mother Teresa of Philadelphia. I am blessed to know her as a friend. Years ago, she began a ministry to homeless people, street people in this city. starting in an abandoned building. She called it Project H.O.M.E. which meant Housing, Opportunities, Medical Care, Education and Employment. She’s enlisted hundreds, even thousands to her project as volunteers and supporters. Now there are projects in ten additional urban locations with a myriad of services.
Sister Mary, and her co-founding friend, Joan Dawson, received from Notre Dame University the 2011 Laetare Medal, the most prestigious honor given to American Catholics. They received the award at the Commencement ceremony at which they gave the speech. In it they identified what’s at stake for us and our society. Here are some excerpts.
“We live in a complex and deeply challenging times. Our society, we believe, is one most often measures the value of a person by his or her productivity alone and discards the unproductive along the way.
"We live in a society so mesmerized by its view of success that it considers only that real which can be touched and weighed, measured and counted, a culture in which human and spiritual values have almost vanished from consciousness
“We must refuse to be blinded by the false values of excessive individualism and phony materialism. We must instead reignite the quest for the common good … "Strive to live a life you admire, rather than one you envy.” (3)
Far too often, our values, our faith, seem to be primarily a personal matter. And yet, to consider it as that is a cop out. Of course, the "What’s at stake?” question has to be asked first of all of each person, each of us. But we can’t stop there. Each of us are a neighbor, have neighbors so Jesus parable of the Good Samaritan is a call to take faith into the public area.
Please, do not take that as in any way advocating for a theocracy in our country. Such advocacy would violate a faith in God’s grace and our own humility and love. We do not have to claim to be the best in order to be good. Our country’s constitutional separation of church and state not only protects the church from dominance by the state but equally important, and I would add, Christian, it protects the state from dominance of the church or other religious institutions.
That only emphasizes the relevance of the “What’s at stake?” to involvement in and our potential influence for justice and compassion on our society, our political process and economy, even to our global economy and diplomatic relations with other nations. My point here is that to ask the question of ourselves personally has implications for the larger human. By asking it of ourselves, we are, or should be, asking it in some form to our society as a whole. The attitude of assuming we are helpless to make a difference in the larger community is immoral, and unChristian.
I hold that to be true because I am tired of hearing about Christ as our Savior, and to insist that our enemies are God’s enemies, is to dismiss Jesus as an example, a leader who cared passionately about poverty, sickness, children, the oppressed, the exploited, the least of these in the human family, who lived that out publicly and calls us to live likewise.
The issue isn’t that we are helpless, it’s that we are frightened. Jesus risked confronting the entrenched religious and political power. He held them accountable for their indifference, their hypocrisy, their deceit, their pretentiousness and and self-righteousness. And it cost him a price he was willing to pay, a sacrifice we well know. That frightened his disciples as it does us.
But the mystery is that Jesus did that because he loved the persons he confronted. He wanted something different from them and for them. That changes our easy, sentimental version of love, of grace. God grace includes God’s justice, holiness and righteousness as well as God’s mercy and reconciliation. Someone once put it this way: “The Gospel is bad news before it is good news.” It takes courage to accept and apply that truth, to keep asking ourselves, and our community, our country, “What’s at stake?” as we live and labor and love God and our neighbors as ourselves, That takes courage and courage is the partner of faith without which faith is pap.
So, how do you answer the essential but often muted longing in the question, “What’s at stake?" in the choices and actions of our every day living?
(1) Quoted by Brain Urquhart - New York Times column - September 17, 2011
(2) The Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version, 1971 Edition, Thomas Nelson Inc. - Genesis 12:3
(3) Project Home’s DWELLING PLACE - July 2011 - all quotes page 1 & 2