Thursday, October 20, 2011

Situational Commandment

When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest? ’He said to him, ‘“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. ”This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’ Matthew 22:34-36

What is the greatest commandment?

For many, the answer requires some thought and no one is better at thinking than our oldest daughter. Years before Lauren was in kindergarten, a Sunday school teacher asked her if she knew God’s law. Thinking carefully, she replied, “Always wash your hands after you go potty.”

What a testimony to parental guidance sending a child down the fastidious path of godliness. I can almost hear Jesus, suffering the children as he did, responding indulgently, “Um, yes, but the second greatest commandment is love the Lord your God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself.”

Jesus did us a favor by summarizing the law of the prophets into two simple phrases. As we have noted earlier in this space, there are 613 laws set down in the Old Testament, ranging from huge (don’t kill, don’t steal) to pissante (don’t yoke an ox and an ass together, don’t wear weaves of wool and linen). There are, to be sure, rabbinical and ecclesiastical lawyers who, perhaps lacking a life, can discuss the laws in benumbing detail. But for most of us, a quick digest saves a lot of time.

Jesus was not the only religious leader to summarize the law in a few words. The Rev. J. Richard Fairchild, a Canadian pastor whose online sermons are read unaccredited each week from innumerable pulpits, has helpfully isolated some of those abstracts:

“What does the Lord require of you?” inquired the Prophet Micah.  And then he answered with just three commands: “Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)
The Prophet Isaiah based the commandments on just two of them. He wrote: “This is what the Lord says: ‘Maintain justice and do what is right, for my salvation is close at hand and my righteousness will soon be revealed.’”  (Isaiah 56:1)
Amos saw one guiding principle upon with all the commandments are founded, He wrote: "This is what the LORD says to the house of Israel: "Seek me and live" (Amos 5:4)
The Prophet Habbakuk, too, expounded the Torah on the basis of a single thought: "The righteous shall live by their faith." (Habbakuk 2:4)
The great teacher Akiba, virtually a contemporary of Jesus, said this when asked the same question that Jesus was asked: “The greatest principle of the Torah is expressed in the command: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Leviticus 19:18)
And Hillel, also from the first century of our era summed up the Torah in this maxim: "What is hateful to you, do not do to others. The rest is commentary: you must go and study it."
Finally, the teacher Ben Azzai found a principle even more fundamental in the words: "This is the story of humanity: when God created us, God made us in His likeness."

The summaries are simple and direct. But life is complicated and oblique. There are times when we have to wonder: is the Golden Rule an adequate guide for all conduct?

I went to a sectarian college where rules were rules and the student handbook recorded almost as many regulations as the Old Testament 613. Alcohol was strictly forbidden on campus, and they meant it: a Korean exchange student was summarily expelled for cooking with wine. Men and women were encouraged not to sit close enough to touch, and the handbook strictly forbade “public displays of affection.” But public displays of animosity, as I enjoyed pointing out to the dean, were not explicitly banned and often erupted on the soccer field.

And, in the necessarily oxymoronic atmosphere that existed on a Christian campus in the psychedelic sixties, the rules were often contradictory. Eastern Baptist College in 1968 may have been the only institution of higher learning in the U.S. where the religion department taught Darwinian evolution and the biology department promoted creationism. I was always proud of that eccentricity, but it was confusing. The Eastern Baptist College disparities made it anyone’s guess how the rules of Christian conduct might be stated in a simple, declarative sentence.

Then at the very end of my senior year, I took my first course in philosophy under Dr. Peter Genco, a black-bearded mensch whose dissertation was rumored to have proven the existence of God. Among the text books we studied was Situation Ethics, The New Morality (1966, Westminster Press) by Joseph Fletcher, a medical ethicist who, more interestingly, was an Episcopal priest turned atheist. The book was, for me, an apotheosis of philosophical discovery because it offered an enticing formula to guide ethical behavior.

Simply put, the greatest commandment of Fletcher’s domain was love. Ethical behavior was measured by the amount of love expended in the process. The more love you showed, the more ethical was your behavior.

The idea made ethics quantifiable and opened doors traditionally shut to nice Christians. I’m talking about sex.

Fletcher offered four situations in which ethical behavior might be contrary to conventional morality but would be okay depending on the amount of love you showed. The greater the amount of love, he said, the more ethical your behavior.

Given the hormones flushing through my 20-something arteries, the idea was most appealing.

One of the examples Fletcher cited (it may or may not have been a real-life story) involved Mrs. Bergmeier, a German woman caught in the cataclysm of the Second World War. She was picked up by a Soviet Army patrol one day while foraging for food for her three children and sent to a prisoner of war camp in the Ukraine. Her husband, after rounding up the children, spent months in a desperate search for her. In the Ukraine, Mrs. Bergmeier learned that her family was looking for her but Soviet rules would not allow her to be released unless she was pregnant. A friendly camp officer graciously offered to help and before long the expectant Mrs. Bergmeier was released to her family.

That worked for me. Here was Mrs. Bergmeier and the generous camp officer, each loving their neighbor as themselves. And wasn’t this extra-marital coitus an expression of the purest kind of love?

Actually, Fletcher doesn’t say. He leaves that to his readers to figure out. Professor Genco, as I recall, was having none of it. “Sex,” he said, “requires three magic words: ‘I take thee.’” Without a lifetime commitment to your partner, sex is a sin. So went the official line of the Eastern Baptist College faculty. But would it also be a sin for Mrs. Bergmeier to remain morally pure but separated from her children? Again, Fletcher doesn’t say. You tell me. It’s an ethical dilemma.

Every Sunday morning before church, I do a quick scan of the New York Times Magazine, especially “The Ethicist” column by Ariel Kaminer. Each week, the ethically challenged seek Ms. Kaminer’s advice. It’s fun to guess what solution she may suggest for each moral quandary.

Not long ago, the following letter appeared:

I smoke a fair amount of marijuana. Sometimes I ask my friends if they want me to pick up weed for them as well, in which case they give me the money upfront. As with any other commodity, prices are usually cheaper when buying in bulk. I will often not give the change to my friends and instead use those few dollars to further my own discount. Is this unethical? I’m the one going through the effort of gathering buyers and conducting the illegal transaction. Or does that just make me a drug dealer? NAME WITHHELD

The letter made me choke on my coffee. Here, under the guise of neighborliness and with a sensible entrepreneurial spirit, this dude was trying to justify illegal activity. How do you rationalize that? Smoking weed doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t love God. But is the writer treating his neighbors as he would want to be treated himself? Is he violating the golden rule?

Ethicist Ariel Kaminer saw right through him:

The size of someone’s commission doesn’t make him a drug dealer. What does? Same thing that makes someone a Toyota dealer: acting as a go-between on a commercial transaction involving a producer and consumers. So you’re a dealer — one with a distinctly mellow business plan but no doubt lots of friends.

She added:

Opinions abound, of course, about the ethics of buying drugs in the first place, based on the right to pursue your own pleasures, the risk of supporting narcoterrorism, the damage that drugs can do, the damage that the war on drugs can do, the duty to obey the law, the duty to oppose the law and so on. But that’s not what you’re asking about. You’re asking about your cut.

If nothing else, this example from “The Ethicist” shows how far some people will go to justify their behavior.

It also suggests how difficult it is to make ethical decisions, even if all 613 biblical laws are digested into that seemingly effortless phrase:

‘“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. ”This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

On these two commandments, Jesus said, hang all the law and the prophets. But they are not like the cheese cracker commercial in which a plain cracker is magically infused with 613 pounds of cheese so that you get all that cheesiness in one tasty bite. And you know, if you’ve actually tasted the cracker, it’s not that cheesy.

In the same way, infusing 613 laws into a single phrase isn’t going to make it equally potent. You have to know a little bit about the laws that are being summarized. You can’t love God and love your neighbor without some understanding of what that kind of love is all about.

As Fairchild (hereby appropriately credited) once preached:

Jesus loved God - and he loved the world that God made.  All of it. And so he came among us as a servant rather than as a master, as one who forgives and heals rather than as one who judges and destroys; as one who made himself poor so that others might be made rich; as one who was obedient to God - even when obedience meant he would suffer and die; as one who trusted that God would judge rightly and reward those who lived by faith. You know that God first loved us. That God is with you even now to fulfill all his promises. Our response should be to walk humbly with God - and to do justice and love mercy, trusting in God’s great mercy by which we are born anew to a living hope.

The greatest commandment is not a substitute for the law. It is a reminder of what the law and the prophets are about. It is a reminder of what love is all about.

And, most important of all, it is a reminder that neither the greatest commandment nor the 613 laws it summarizes will be worth anything unless they guide us to the love of Christ, and to the understanding that it is easiest to love Christ when we remember that he first loved us.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Caesar Fever

Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, ‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? ’But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Then he said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away. (Matthew 22:15-22)

The first I remember hearing that story was in 1956, when Daisy Jo Morrison read it to our Sunday school class in the United Church of Morrisville, N.Y. Daisy Jo was nubile and cute and triggered pre-pubescent stirrings in us 10 year old boys. Mostly I remember the way her lips formed the words, “I Would Be True,” which was hymn 180 in our little red hymnals. She’d lead the singing nearly every Sunday and we responded with wistful lisps, as if it were a futile lovers’ pact.

But I digress. The biblical reference to a coin attracted my attention because I knew the value of money. A dime could be exchanged for an thick Superman comic book at Dougherty’s Drug Store, and when I wasn’t absorbed with Daisy Jo’s evangelical tools I was trying to imagine what a biblical coin looked like. The Indian head nickels in the collection plate were possible clues, but I suspected they looked little like the coinage carried by Pharisees. So I wondered.

Naturally, there was no way to Google the Caesarian coin; Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin weren’t even born in 1956.

But now we live in an age of instant gratification where a few well-chosen keystrokes will fill the computer screen with pregnant links. Hundreds of photos of 2,000 year-old Roman coins appear to satisfy any numismatist’s curiosity, and so do links to thousands of articles about the Caesar who reigned in Jesus’ time: Tiberius Julius Caesar Augustus.

Historians refer to him more simply as Tiberius, to distinguish him from his predecessor emperors whose names he acquired to show his superior pedigree.

Daisy Jo Morrison never went into this kind of detail and perhaps it was just as well. I don’t know how the other kids imagined Caesar, but my image was of President Eisenhower in a toga: ancient, smiling, bald, and good. When Jesus told the Pharisees to “render unto Caesar,” I didn’t consider that to be a bad thing. Probably my parents did the same thing, rendering their offering unto the collection plate every Sunday and unto Ike every April 15. It sounded like a reasonable plan to me.

But – and it’s a big but – Tiberius may have been a soldier-statesman, but he was no benign Ike. Those of us of a certain age learned all that in 1978, when I, Claudius – a BBC television adaptation of Robert Grave’s two novels on the first Roman emperors – appeared on PBS. Tiberius was convincingly portrayed as a paranoid, dispeptic, sadistic and homicidal wacko by George Baker, MBE, a British actor and writer who, in real life, was very nice. (Baker, 80, died October 7.)

Historians generally agree that Tiberius was not nice, although it’s hard to be sure because accounts of the emperors were written by either their friends or their enemies, both of whom were known to distort their anecdotes for devious ends.

Even so, we probably know more about Tiberius that either Jesus or the Pharisees knew when they beheld the Emperor’s countenance on a dinarius. Tiberius was the son of Livia, the second wife of the Emperor Augustus. At Livia’s insistence, Augustus adopted Tiberius, thus placing him among several possible successors to the throne. Livia moved to strengthen her son’s position by convincing Augustus to order Tiberius to marry the emperor’s daughter, Julia. This made it necessary for Tiberius to divorce his wife Vipsania Agrappina, whom he loved dearly. A marble bust of Vipsania, although missing her nose, suggests she was quite beautiful.

But Tiberius hated his new wife, Julia, and the forced marriage appears to have sent him on a downward spire. He declared he had no desire to be emperor, but by the time Augustus expired, all Tiberius’ rivals had been killed or died of what may have been natural causes. The way Robert Graves tells it, Livia arranged to have her son’s competitors poisoned or otherwise removed. It makes a better story, but the historical evidence is unavailable.

Once Tiberius ascended to the throne, he seems to have lost interest in politics. He eventually retired to Capri, where he pursued a life of sexual depravity. He delegated most of his power to a soldier crony, Lucius Aelius Sejanus, who ruled despotically in Rome. Sejanus, as admirers of the PBS series know, was played by Sir Patrick Stewart, better known for his later role as Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Sejanus eventually plotted against Tiberius so the emperor had him removed and executed. The rest of Tiberius’ reign was a blood bath of debauchery.

When Jesus was shown a coin with Tiberius’ likeness, he was looking at one of history’s most evil villains. In that context, an invocation to “render unto Caesar” sounds like an encouragement to aid and abet.

The question is whether Jesus’ is saying citizens have equal obligations to the church and their government. The problem is, both institutions are equally imperfect.

Once during the Vietnam War I helped prepare a young man to present a biblical case to his draft board to obtain conscientious objector status. “I told (the board) that Jesus said to turn the other cheek and love your enemy,” the young man reported later. “They said, ‘Jesus also said to render unto Caesar, and military service is how you’ll do that.’”

Throughout history there have been good Caesars and bad Caesars, and it seems unlikely Jesus intends us to render unto all of them.

I was born 16 months after Adolf Hitler died, but he was one bad Caesar whose evil impact endured long after he was gone. To my knowledge, no circulating German coins ever bore his likeness, but he did appear on Reich postage stamps. In fact, so many Hitler stamps were printed that they exist as worthless curiosities. It’s gratifying to note that a stamp commemorating a German pastor who opposed him has greater value.

Pastor Martin Niemöller is well known for this Nazi era statement:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out -
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out -
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out -
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me - and there was no one left to speak for me.

The Nazis came for Niemöller in 1937 after he became the leader of a group of German clergy opposed to Hitler. He was sent to the Sachsenhausen and later to the Dachau concentration camps until he was released by the Allies in 1945. He was charged with “not being enthusiastic” in his support for the Nazi regime. The crime was actually a capital offense. His most famous colleague, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was hanged at the Flossenbürg Concentration Camp. But Niemöller never wavered, and he remained under the constant threat of death at Dachau until he was liberated by the Allies in 1945. He became a president of the World Council of Churches when the ecumenical body was formed in 1948.

One of the most powerful tributes to Niemöller is a play written by Gordon C. Bennett, retired professor of language arts at then Eastern Baptist College: God is My Fuehrer, a dramatic interpretation of the life of Martin Niemöller. Written in the midst of the Vietnam era, the play is Bennett’s testimony that a Christian’s highest authority is God in Christ, not governments and certainly not draft boards.

The play is out of print, but its impact on my life has been long-lasting. I took several courses from Gordon between 1968 and 1970, and I recall his research involved a trip to Germany where he met with Niemöller. Gordon has spent his entire life as a witness for peace, rendering unto God the things that are God’s.

I never met Martin Niemöller, but I had colleagues at the World Council of Churches who knew him well. I think what makes him such an impressive figure is his ordinariness: soft spoken, small in stature, with unexceptional aims. He admitted that he supported Hitler when he first came to power, “mostly because I yearned for a return of the Kaiser.” But once it became clear that Hitler sought to take God’s place at the center of national life, Niemöller turned away from Caesar and never looked back.

“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

Jesus’ statement reverberates throughout history, not only as an ingenious rhetorical device to avoid a lawyerly trap but as a clear affirmation of what Baptists have historically maintained: the state and church must be kept separate.

That way, when the state begins to stray from the commands of God, it is easier to remember that Caesar’s authority is not equal to God’s: not in A.D. 30. Not in 1940.  Not now.

“For it is, and must remain the case,” Martin Niemöller said, “that we must obey God rather than human beings.”