On Frothing, Retribution, and Our Better Nature

MaryOliverThePoetCompares

I like to start each morning and end each day with a spot of wisdom or poetry. I cannot consume massive tomes to ruminate or meditate on all day or night long, so pieces like the poem above are perfect. They impart deep meaning or ask thoughtful questions that leave me appropriately pondering the stuff that matters–even when my answers fall short.

I posted the above poem on Instagram with the following caption: “When will we choose our better nature? Why are we so quick to do craziness, toss havoc, froth, and withhold?”

In the current cultural climate, these are apt questions. Yet, I cannot seem to find satisfactory answers. I am not innocent of these crimes against my better nature. I, too, froth. I, too, do craziness. I, too, have withheld and tossed havoc. I try to be gentle, but I also attempt, at least, not to mince words. What I say may not always be popular, but I genuinely work to use my words–written or spoken–to foster and spread love, kindness, hope, and faith.

Sometimes that means making unpopular appeals or saying the “wrong” thing. If it appears I am tossing havoc or trying to provoke, it may be true, but it comes from a desire to teach. If it seems I seek to “stir it up,” I do not do so in vain. I do it to teach, provoke thought, and appeal to our better nature.

So when I look around at our world and the chaos that has occurred among various populations in these recent months, I wonder. I wonder if the masses are capable of finding their better nature, or if they are so blinded by pain, fear, and hate that they cannot see clear to it.

When one of my children hits his brother, I don’t tell him to hit back.  Jesus of Nazareth specifically admonishes retributive behavior, instructing, rather, that when we are struck on one cheek, we should “turn the other.” If it isn’t appropriate for the disciples and isn’t something we teach our children to do, why then, do we think retribution is appropriate conflict resolution for twenty-first century adults?

It’s strange to see among a certain contingent of American Christians who espouse the virtues of God’s salvation, forgiveness, and grace–who claim to follow Christ with questions of WWJD, who shout about religious freedom even if it denies basic rights to others–a deep-seeded strain of angry rhetoric that overrides common decency and the Biblical commands of love and hospitality. It’s a constant refrain that President Obama is somehow unamerican or that all of Islam is in somehow extremist, terroristic, or incompatible with American values. Yet, if I’m being honest, I can’t think of anything less compatible with the idea of the American “melting-pot” than excluding people solely on the basis of their religious beliefs or ethnicity. We excoriate the horrors committed by those who excluded and then committed genocide against the Jewish, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the disabled, and others in WWII, but refuse to acknowledge the genocides and exclusions committed in our own country against Native Americans, Africans, and even Japanese-Americans during the same time in history. Somehow that’s different. Our intentions were good. We had to protect the homeland. It was about national security.

But there’s a reason we don’t talk about these attitudes, behaviors, and injustices: it’s a national embarrassment. It’s a dark stain on our shared history. It’s a shameful memory of time we hope is long past. Textbooks are attempting to white-wash over these stains by leaving them out or painting them with rosier language. But the truth cannot be painted over. In 70 years, when we look back on the national sentiment in 2015, will we be proud or ashamed? If you are called one day before God to account for this time in your life, will your words, attitudes, and behaviors bring God joy or sorrow? 

I said during the gay marriage debate that if my greatest sin is that I loved and accepted too many, I feel comfortable standing before God with that track record. When I read the gospels, the biggest lesson I take away is the unparalleled love and compassion of Christ. Yes, he admonished sin, but he did not withhold mercy based on the worthiness of the person suffering. He helped the poor people of his own ethnic background as freely as he did the foreigner. He told his disciples to put down their swords when the authorities came to arrest and crucify him saying that his kingdom is not of this world.

We are so quick to point out the parts of the scriptures that agree with our worldview, even using it to exclude the other. We are slow to accept the literal words and overarching message of Christ: love God and love your neighbor as yourself.

If we’re going to brag about God’s grace, expounding on how freely it has been given to us even though we are “worthless sinners,” then we ought to at least extend that same grace to our fellow human beings whether we see them as “worthy” or not.

Would that we all would pay less attention to the worthiness of others, and more attention to climbing down to the level of “the least of these,” returning grace for grace. Not because it is popular, but because it is just.

If my legacy to my children is one of not just tolerance, but of genuine hospitality and acceptance, then that’s a legacy I can live with. If my faith and ministry is controversial for the wideness of its love and the scope of its mercy, it is one I am grateful to offer in service of God and my fellow human beings. If I can impart even a small percentage of the love of Christ, helping to bring this world a little closer to the kingdom of God, then I will feel I have served some purpose.

Whether you’re Christian, Jew, Muslim, Atheist, Buddhist, Agnostic, American, European, African, Asian, Male, Female, Transgender, Intersex, Conservative, Liberal, Moderate, White, Black, Green, or Purple: I invite you. I love you. Join me, won’t you?

 

 

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