What do you care about? How do you like to spend your time? What is your idea about how life ought to be lived? Our answers reflect our character, our depth of soul and spirit, the quality of our lives. The people at the heart of the urban violence in France have their answers. The pirates operating along the coast of Africa have their answers. Gang members in Chicago and LA have their answers. Buddhist monks and Catholic friars have their answers. Poets and philosophers have their answers. Our answers are not the same, but they say a lot about us, perhaps, all you need to know about us. Our answers create the culture which shapes our lives and forms our future.
The forces of anarchy and destruction have no need of a future. What do they hope for beyond burning and looting? And, what good is the loot beyond the thrill of snatching it, the power to take it? What do they envision for retirement? What do they want for their children? Servants of the forces of anarchy and destruction can only laugh and shoot people who ask such questions. They cannot ask them themselves.
How to move people beyond the questions they are asking to the questions they cannot imagine is the question. Our questions define us, determine us, but, what determines our questions? Ah, we’re in the spiritual soup now, Mattie. Where do our questions come from? Why these and not those? Why this one and not that one? The pirates and the pillagers don’t worry with such things. They rip, rape, burn and loot to rip, rape, burn, and loot tomorrow.
When the values that form the foundation of culture are not valued by a high-enough percentage of the population of a particular culture, there is going to be a problem for the culture. Wealth is not a value. Loot is loot no matter how you acquire it. What are you going to do with the loot is the question. If you only care about loot; if you like to spend your time getting loot; if your idea of how life ought to be lived is that it ought to be lived stockpiling and acquiring loot, there is going to be a problem for the culture.
The Enron executives used the booty of their corporate pillaging to buy fine artwork. That did not make them cultured, and it did not advance the culture. There have been cases in which students who needed a certain grade point average for membership in the National Honor Society cheated on exams to raise their grades to join the club. Whether we are dealing with pirates on the high seas or in corporate offices or in high school classrooms, the problem is the same one. How do we get people to value the values that serve life in the deepest, best, truest sense of the term? How do we transform the world?
The church has always tried to transform the world by shaping others into its idea of who (okay, whom) they ought to be. It has never been content with shaping itself into who (okay, whom) it ought to be. The church has lost the ideal of the Ought To Be in trying to give others what it does not want itself. That’s the first problem. The second problem is that the church has never believed in the efficaciousness of grace over time. Here is where the two problems become one: The church refuses to focus its energy on becoming who (okay, whom) it ought to be and waiting. So, if we are going to not be the church of our experience, this is where and how we have to not be the church. Or, if we are going to be the church as it ought to be, this is where and how we have to be the church as it ought to be. We have to focus our energy on becoming who we ought to be and waiting.
Three questions immediately arise in response to that statement: Who ought we to be? How long must we wait? How do I know what I’m talking about? Let’s deal with them in reverse order. How do I know what I’m talking about? How would two thousand years of doing it the other way do for an answer? Four thousand if you take the Jewish effort into account. Between the two groups, Christians and Jews have been forcing their way on the world for four thousand years, and the world is getting worse all the time.
Well, okay, maybe it isn’t getting worse. Overstatement is what I do best, you know. But, it certainly isn’t getting remarkably better. It’s better for those of us with means, and it is easier for more of us to have means than it was four thousand years ago, but that’s due to the structure of the world economy as much as anything, and if you a marginalized, malnourished, individual in Somalia, say, or the Sudan, you probably wouldn’t experience much difference in the quality of your life over four thousand years. At any rate, my case is that four thousand years of experience suggests that telling the world to repent or else hasn’t worked.
Now, I know the Jews didn’t spend the first two thousand years telling the world to repent or else, but they did have that “chosen people” idea which caused them to separate themselves from the world, much like some evangelical Christians have done with their idea of the Rapture, in a “you can go to hell if you want to, but we are going to be sooo saved” kind of way. And, there were others within Judaism, like Jonah, for instance, and some of the prophets, who envisioned the entire world being saved through its repentance and emulation of the Jewish way. The Apostles picked up that theme and proselytized the world of their day and tried to force discipleship upon all nations by telling them to repent or else. Well, it isn’t working.
And, what isn’t working most obviously about the repent or else approach to the transformation of the world is not the four thousand years. The time factor is inconsequential in my scheme, and cannot be used to determine the ultimate value of a particular way of achieving a desired end. Once I say we have to wait to see, you can say, well, we just haven’t waited long enough for the repent or else message to take hold. But, then I would say that there is no evidence anywhere that anyone has ever repented.
Of course, that isn’t quite true. Jesus is a wonderful example of repentance in action. Jesus was a man of his word. He lived the life he envisioned as worth living. He clearly perceived how he ought to be and he lived to align himself with his vision. Jesus was the church as it ought to be. And, there have been others like him through all the years. The Suffering Servant of 2nd Isaiah, Lao Tsu, the Buddha, Rumi, all come to mind as living images of how it ought to be done, of what repentance and reorientation can mean in the lives of human beings. But, overall, we have mostly talked about repentance without repenting.
We have wagged the Bible about all these years without ever once applying it to ourselves, or, without applying it to ourselves for very long. Specifically, we have not embraced the story of the Pharisee and the Publican in the temple, or the story of the Good Samaritan, or the story of the Prodigal Son, or the story of the sheep and the goats, or the story (and here we get into the importance of waiting) of the yeast in the dough, or the seed in the earth, or the light in the darkness. We have taken the idea of repentance to mean that other people should do it the way we tell them to do it, the way we think it ought to be done, and we have used the Bible as a weapon to effect our way upon the earth.
The Ten Commandments are a beautiful example of what I’m getting at. “Thou Shalt Not Kill.” How’s that for clear and precise language? And, some of us want to place large replicas of stone tablets with the Ten Commandments inscribed upon them in our court houses, and court rooms, where people are regularly sentenced to death. We wield the Bible to achieve our ends without ever allowing it to confront our own excesses and deficiencies. We will not understand that the Bible is only about us—that, along with David, we, WE, are the ones, that, along with the goats, we are always saying, “Lord, when did we see you and not recognize you?” That, along with the Pharisee, we are always saying, “We may not be perfect, but at least we don’t gamble, or carouse, or flirt, or go to bars, like those poor lost souls who are going to be left behind when the Rapture comes.”
The approach “repent or else” hasn’t worked in four thousand years because in that time, we can count on our wrists and elbows the number of people who have repented and lived life as it ought to be lived. So, instead of telling the world to repent or else, I’m suggesting that we simply concentrate on becoming who we ought to be and waiting. Waiting for the transformation of the world over time. I’m suggesting that we focus on doing it right—on doing it the way it ought to be done—and waiting for as long as it takes for Right Seeing, Right Thinking, Right Doing, Right Being to transform the world. Of course, that is going to require us to know what we are doing. Awareness is the foundation of enlightenment, you know. So, we will continue to gather here to wake up and know what we are doing. At least, we know that much. May we know the rest over time!