Ancient Answers


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Messages of the Just

A friend shared with me the concluding stanza of the poem September 1, 1939, by W. H. Auden. Here it is:

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

Auden wrote this poem at the outbreak of the Second World War. It was first published in The New Republic on October 18th, 1939. Auden wrote it at the beginning of a very dark period in human history.

There is darkness today also, of various kinds: climate change and environmental destruction, poverty and inequality, terrorism and the threats of new world wars, racism and prejudices of many types, deadly viruses and the potential of biological warfare, tyrannical governments, electronic surveillance and cyber attacks, religious confusion, superstition and conflict, and I can go on with more. The darkness Auden confronted in 1939 was focused on one enemy; our darkness comes from many directions and different enemies. But the overall picture today is just as bleak as it was in 1939.

Most of us are able to go about our daily lives without much of a feel for this darkness. We watch manifestations of it in our evening or morning newscasts, but then quickly immerse ourselves in our work, family obligations and favorite forms of escapism. That’s one way to respond to the darkness. The other way is to acknowledge it, and oppose it as “ironic points of light” in the language of Auden.

I prefer the confrontational approach. Though I also have my favorite forms of escapist entertainment, I leave much room in my daily life for the Auden approach. I read, I inform myself about the world through reliable sources, I commune with the greatness of the human spirit – in music, literature, philosophy and religious writings – and I try to write and develop my own thoughts. I post stuff here on this website, though not nearly often enough. And I exchange ideas and encouragement with friends and people who also want to rise above the darkness. The friend who sent me Auden’s poem did so to encourage me. And I post it here to encourage you if you also are struggling or need reminding that you are here on earth to be light in the darkness.

The cover of LIFE magazine, March 26, 1965 (click to enlarge)

Physically I’m not able to take part in demonstrations or other forms of resistance, but I admire people and groups who engage in non-violent resistance and follow in the footsteps of Martin Luther King, Jr., and other men and women who took a stand for what is right. Our own Archbishop Iakovos walked hand in hand with Martin Luther King in the famous walk in Selma, Alabama. He was one of the few white clergy and the only church leader to participate in the walk! He was on the cover of the March 26, 1965, issue of LIFE magazine.

I recently watched the film Selma. An actor played the role of Archbishop Iakovos in the re-enactment of this important event in the history of civil rights in the United States. Iakovos was often quoted saying how important it was for him to support Martin Luther King and his struggle. Iakovos even received death threats warning him not to walk with King, but he did, and he made his mark in American history. On that day he was a point of light. He was one of the Just in Auden’s poem.

 

The walk in the film Selma, with the actor Michael Shikany portraying Archbishop Iakovos walking arm-in-arm with Martin Luther King Jr., portrayed by the actor David Oyelowo (click to enlarge)

The real message of Auden’s poem is in the lines:

… wherever the Just

Exchange their messages.

Who are the Just? They are those who hunger and thirst for justice that Jesus calls “Blessed” in the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:6). The Greek word in verse 6 and also in verse 10 is δικαιοσύνη, dikaiosyne. It is a pity that all English Bibles translate it as “righteousness” because the most direct literal translation of this word is “justice”. Righteousness is too focused on the personal, and Jesus himself wasn’t particularly fond of righteous people if you don’t mind my saying so. He attacked those who were righteous in their own eyes or in the eyes of others. And quite frankly, few people are going to be persecuted for being righteous (verse 10). But people can be persecuted when they stand in support of justice – as Archbishop Iakovos stood on March 15th, 1965.

Archbishop Iakovos sends us a message today, 52 years after he walked with Martin Luther King. He sends us a message as one Just man to the Just men and women of today: Where do we stand? Do we even stand for anything? The fight for civil rights is not over, it continues. Do we care for civil rights? Do we stand with those who are denied justice? What is our own message to future generations? Do we care for our planet and its environment? Do we care for climate change? Do we care to eliminate poverty and hunger? Do we care to end all wars? Or are we too busy with our lives to care for anyone or anything else? Let’s translate Jesus’ words a little more accurately so we can hear more clearly the call to be Just.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they shall be filled.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of justice, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven!

Let’s exchange messages with other Just men and women of today, of tomorrow and of the future – if there is to be a future.

Kneeling in prayer in the film Selma. Prayer of the Just – a message to us.


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Revolution thwarted – but not dead

It is a fact of human history that revolutions almost always end up as something other than originally intended. The revolution of faith that God initiated in chapter 12 of Genesis, when Abraham obeyed God’s call in faith and moved from the land of his father to the land God chose for him, that revolution of faith has led to four thousand years of conflict in that land that we have mis-labeled “holy land.” What is holy about a land that has caused more bloodshed, more hatred than any other land on the planet? Already in chapter 13, we see the beginnings of what is to come, when Abraham and his nephew Lot agree to a parting of ways to avoid fighting over land.

But our lectionary reading for today, Genesis 13:12-18, avoids the reason for the separation of Lot and Abraham and jumps directly to God’s promise of the land that will be the source of so much conflict. Did God not know that this land would become the source of so much ungodly hatred? But that’s to ask the question from the wrong perspective. God did not write Genesis, people wrote it – people who had a vested interest in pressing claims on the land and the various promises God made. God has his own purposes; how those purposes are interpreted by humans and how they are put down on stone and paper is another thing.

Or are we to take the promises to Abraham and his descendants as another test, like the test in the garden? If it was a test, then we have failed royally, for 4,000 years! And we’re still failing, as the recent re-election of Benjamin Netanyahu clearly shows. One of the hymns of the Third Sunday of Lent, the Sunday of the Veneration of the Cross, has these words:

Come, all you kindred of the nations (αἱ πατριαὶ τῶν ἐθνῶν), and let us honor the Cross of the Lord. Rejoice, O Cross, perfect redemption of fallen Adam. Glorying in you, our faithful kings laid low by your might the people of Ishmael.

These are the words of an imperial Orthodoxy facing the threat of Arabs (“the people of Ishmael”) in the Middle Ages. Today the land is the place where apocalyptic violence by followers of the three Abrahamic religions feed into dreams of “armageddon” that extremists in all three religions promote as literal interpretations of their “scriptures”!

Today’s reading from Isaiah 37:33-38:6 certainly does not help: “For I will defend this city to save it, for my own sake and for the sake of my servant David” (verse 35). The problem arises when scriptures are given a political spin that they don’t originally possess. God defends the city because of his own commitment to it and to David. But God also does not hesitate to destroy the city or hand it over to enemies of David. And we see this ambivalence throughout the historical and prophetic books of the Hebrew scriptures. The bottom line for God is not the political meaning of Jerusalem and the “holy land” but the presence of justice and righteousness.

The Hebrew word for justice is the same word for righteousness: tzedakahצדקה. It is the same in Greek: δικαιοσύνη, one word for both concepts. In the mind of the biblical writers, justice and righteousness are two sides of the same thing. It’s only in the minds of some Christian interpreters of Paul’s letters that “righteousness” has become something narrower, defining a particular view of salvation. In interpreting Paul’s statements that we are not “justified” (=made righteous) by the “law” but by faith alone (Galatians 2:16 and elsewhere in Romans and Galatians), it seems to me that some Christians have thrown out the baby with the bathwater and have lost the double meaning of the one word in both Hebrew and Greek scriptures. Throw out the “justice” meaning out of some dogmatic concern not to do “works of the law” (Galatians 2:16 again) and you’re left with an inward-looking, one-on-one version of faith that has nothing to do with God’s abiding concern for social justice throughout the scriptures.

That’s also the danger with how we usually translate the 4th and 8th Beatitudes:

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

In both, the word in the original Greek text is δικαιοσύνη. When “righteousness” is only a personal virtue characterizing one’s relation to God, I can’t quite see how one might be “persecuted” for it. But people who hunger and thirst for “justice” and work for it might very well be persecuted, even in our allegedly enlightened modern age. They are the same people who are also “merciful” and “peacemakers” in the 5th and 7th Beatitudes.

In these Lenten Reflections I have not often referred to the daily readings from Proverbs, but today I choose to do so. Consider these assertions from today’s reading:

He who oppresses a poor man insults his Maker,
    but he who is kind to the needy honors him.
The wicked is overthrown through his evil-doing,
    but the righteous finds refuge through his integrity.
Wisdom abides in the mind of a man of understanding,
    but it is not known in the heart of fools.
Righteousness exalts a nation,
    but sin is a reproach to any people.

God’s view of righteousness is inseparable from acts of justice, both on the personal and national level.

The call to us today is the same as the call to Abraham in Genesis 12:1, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” But for us, the calling is not so much to leave our homes, but to leave our inherited thoughts behind, to encounter God with open minds and hearts, to learn anew the meaning of promises and to renew the revolution that has been thwarted. The abrahamic call to us is to join God’s revolution of faith and righteousness and justice! The revolution has been thwarted, but it is not dead or buried. As long as we can honestly encounter the scriptures as if for the first time, the revolution can happen again – a revolution of faith, a revolution of the renewed heart and mind that God seeks to cultivate in us. May Lent always be a time to pause and open our hearts to God’s renewing spirit.