Sin and Society

The children of Israel—priests, Levites, and the other returned exiles—celebrated the dedication of this house of God with joy.
Ezra 6: 16

“My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and act on it.”
Luke 8: 21

We are living in a time that constantly reminds us of the truth that what we call our “social fabric” is woven together quite tenuously. We discover, over and over again, how easy it is for one who sees division and conflict to be in his or her own self or political interest to exacerbate the ever present tensions that always exist among a people. As in societies, so in families. As every family experiences from time to time, relationship by blood does not always mean unanimity of thought and communion of spirit. Today’s readings remind us that our communion with each other lies in the truth of our shared relationship to that which totally transcends us. In Ezra we read of the jubilation and celebration of all the segments of Israeli society as they dedicate the newly restored Temple, as they submit in worship to the God who has called them by covenant into a relationship of responsibility and obedience that is the source of their shared identity. In Luke, Jesus tells us that we are his family to the degree that we “hear the word of God and act on it.”

We human beings are too diverse to build a common life according to our own lights and values. We tell common familial stories and we take those to constitute the bonds of relationships. We create national myths and societal rituals and we call those the bonds of nationhood. We facilely employ the term “the global community” when we are well aware of the seeming impossibility of coming to common agreement at the transnational level. Leaders at each level, who desire to keep us united, fix our attention on those basic stories and myths that, in all our uniqueness and diversity, we hold in common. Leaders who for the sake of personal or political gain seek to divide us can easily focus our attention on our wounds of division.

In the United States, for example, the perennially open wound of racism is always festering under the surface. Sometimes, for relatively brief moments, that wound is forgotten in the midst, for example, of spontaneous human empathy being evoked by natural disasters or other social tragedies. To witness such moments is to be moved even to tears as we actually see ourselves as a people responding in care, mindless of the other’s race. At such moments a spontaneous human compassion and even love overcomes our basic fear, and the hatred born of that fear, of each other. At such moments our public leaders will claim that this shows “we are all Americans.”  Yet what has happened is not American but rather a more foundational human experience of “a love that is common to all.”  So deep is the wound of racism and the spiritual inheritance of slavery that it remains readily manipulable by anyone who seeks to personally and politically profit from it.

It is not difficult to set us human beings against each other, for we each and all take our very narrow perspectives on life as absolute. Although we are capable of empathy, it is not our default consciousness. Even the gods that we worship are usually merely projections of our own “flesh and blood” perspective. No sovereignty at the pre-transcendent level of human life is capable of making us a common people, or, as Jesus  says in the gospel today, a family. Even shared bloodlines and a common gene pool do not make us brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers in the deepest sense.

Thus we read in the prologue of John’s gospel:  “He gave the right to become children of God—children born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of human will, but born of God.” (John 1: 12-13) There is but one relationship that all hold in common, and it is as “children of God.”  Put another way, we discover our common bonds to the degree we realize that we live a shared responsibility. That responsibility is to the sovereignty of God. The God who is sovereign of all creation, however, is not the god whom any of us claim for our own. Our lesser gods are but another source of our division.

Reinhold Niebuhr says that the Biblical conception of human history “calls attention to the fact that the human agents do not simply conform to the divine will in history; but that they defy the divine purpose, precisely because they identify their purpose and power too simply with the divine purpose.”  We are constantly insisting that others submit to the god that we have made in our own likeness. So, we claim that God wills that we should pray in public spaces, but this is but an insistence that others submit to our prayers. We create so-called “culture wars,” which are really pseudo-religious wars, because we demand that others bow down before our arrogant and prideful perspective. Far too often we confuse God’s will with conformity to our perspective.

To admit and to try to live in response to the sovereignty of God is to live always in fear and trembling. When we sincerely and wholeheartedly try to do what Jesus says in today’s gospel and “hear the word of God and act on it,” we discover how ignorant and unknowing we truly are. As Thomas Merton famously prayed:

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. 

We are mother and father and brother and sister to Jesus when we are living in the truth that we have no idea where we are going and that we are never certain that we are doing God’s will. Those who truly desire to do God’s will, in such fear and trembling, are truly of one family. This is Jesus’ teaching on how we are a human family. it is by forsaking all our arrogance and sense of superiority.  It is to cease “being as gods” ourselves and creating gods in our own image and likeness, and to fall together on our knees before the One whose way and will is always mysterious to us and which we so often defy.

It is quite easy for one who intends to do so to manipulate our human self-centeredness and sinfulness. As the contemporary expression goes, all one need do is push our personal or societal “buttons.”  It is in honesty and humility that we cease to be so subject to manipulation. It  is the selfish, the fearful, the sinful in us, individually and corporately, that those who would seek power and dominance are able to manipulate. Can we recognize,  when our “buttons have been pushed,” that it is time to repent? If we as American society had not been fostering and preserving for generations and centuries a personal and societal racism, we would not so easily be set against each other. Every moment is a summons to “hear the word of God and act on it.”  We  repent by recognizing our sin and doing otherwise. When the Pavlovian bell of fear, hatred and racism is rung, we need not salivate at the prospect of dominance over and conflict with others. We can recognize the pain of our own and our society’s sinfulness, and by humbling changing our ways become more brother and sister, mother and father to each other.

Two ideas, basic to a Biblical interpretation of history, are implicit in this radical conception of the relation of God to historical destiny. One is the idea of a universal history. The other is that history is filled with man’s proud and pretentious efforts to defy the divine sovereignty, to establish himself as god by his power or virtue, his wisdom or foresight.

The idea of a universal history emerges by reason of the fact that the divine sovereignty which over-arches all historical destiny is not the possession of any people or the extension of any particular historical power. The other idea lays the foundation for the Biblical conception of the complexity of history. It calls attention to the fact that the human agents do not simply conform to the divine will in history; but that they defy the divine purpose, precisely because they identify their purpose and power too simply with the divine purpose. Thereby the creativity of human freedom is turned into destructiveness. If there is a pattern and meaning in the historical drama it must be worked out against this human rebellion, which sows confusion into the order of history and makes its final end dubious.

Reinhold Niebuhr, Faith and History, Chapter 8, pp. 1-2

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