Thursday, June 7, 2012

Over the Cuckoo's Nest

NOTE: These weekly musings are prepared as sermons for the blessed remnant at North Baptist Church in Port Chester, N.Y. -- a small but gracious group of folks who indulgently tolerate most anything they hear. May their tribe increase. P.E.J.

Mark 3:20-35

The crowd thought Jesus had lost his mind.

Why? Because he was hanging around crazy people?

Or was it because he was acting like he thought he was Jesus?

The Jesus delusion is not unusual among schizophrenics. “I have three Jesi,” my spouse’s seminary suite mate reported during her clinical pastoral education cycle.

There was an episode in the third season of M*A*S*H in which a bombardier’s head wound led him to believe he was Jesus. The officer presented a gentle wisdom and loving empathy so convincing that some soldiers in the 4077th began to believe he was who he thought he was.

As the story unfolded, many M*A*S*H viewers thought the unfortunate Captain Chandler reminded them more of their personal Jesus than Jeffrey Hunter or Max Van Sydow, who played (or, perhaps, overplayed) Christ in two Technicolor extravaganzas. In this episode of M*A*S*H, psychiatrist Sidney Freedman denied so vociferously that Captain Chandler was Jesus that one could almost hear the cock crowing. But of course the doctor was right. This burned out bombardier could not be the Lord.

Could he? As the episode climaxes, Corporal “Radar” O’Reilly, holding fast to his faith, asks Captain Chandler to bless his teddy bear.

One reason the delusional Captain Chandler was so convincing is that he acted the way we think Jesus should act: loving, tender, caring, welcoming, giving, wise. Even if these attributes were delusions, what could be the harm? I suspect most shrinks would prefer a Jesi or two on their rounds than someone who thinks he’s Ed Gein or Jeffrey Dahmer.

But the line between sane and nuts gets blurred when it involves delusions of Jesiosity. Everyone from the Apostle Paul to Thomas à Kempis urged us to imitate Christ, and for many of us that means we must be loving, tender, caring, welcoming, giving, and wise. Most of us quickly discover that being Christ-like is not easy because we are painfully aware that we not anything like Jesus. Or, to put it another way, we are miserably sane.

Even so, most of us are egotistical enough that we don’t dismiss our godlike potential entirely.

We humans are endowed with egos strong enough to persuade us that we are creatures of colossal value in the firmament. This is a good thing. As we grow up, all of us experience at one point the ontological epiphany that we are unique, that there is only one me, that no one else in creation is like me. The only thing that keeps most of us from growing megalomaniacal is the discovery that we are far from perfect – a revelation reinforced by parents, peers, and pastors who bestow upon us the gifts of guilt and feelings of inadequacy. It makes you wonder who is crazier: the Captain Chandlers whose wounded brains but undamaged egos nudge them across the Twilight Zone where they see no compelling evidence that they are not Jesus? Or the rest of us guilt-stricken neurotics who fixate on our failings and see nothing at all about ourselves that is holy?

It’s too bad if some of us are crippled by shame and remorse. All of us know we are not perfect, that we have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Those who believe the universe has made special dispensations for them will either be disappointed or doomed to a lifetime of sociopathic chimera.

In the third chapter of Mark we see Jesus’ friends and family fretting that he is out of his mind, and they try to whisk him away from the crowds before he causes further embarrassment for himself or for them.

Of course, Jesus knows he is not out of his mind. But it makes you wonder: how did he know for sure?

The crowd is simultaneously fascinated and horrified that Jesus is casting out evil spirits from demoniacs. The people are awed he has the power to do it but they do not know where it comes from. When they last saw him back in Nazareth, this exorcist was only Jesus Bar Joseph, the carpenter, the familiar local boy who, though perhaps a little eccentric, seemed unlikely to have special powers or a unique relationship to God. If Jesus the local boy is casting out devils, the crowd fears, it can be for only two reasons: either he has lost his mind or the Devil is playing with him.

Jesus is of course annoyed by the crowd’s ignorance and announces that it is by God’s Spirit, not Satan’s, that he displays such power against the Underworld.

But it’s not hard to understand how the crowd reached its ignorant conclusions. How do any of us know for sure whether the convictions of our minds are thoughts from God or constructs of the devil?

Indeed, how did Jesus know?

In The Last Temptation of Christ, Nikos Kazantzakis’ 1953 novel that has spent most of its existence as a banned book, the fictional Jesus resists the crazy notion of his messianic calling and desperately evades it. God is forced to drag Jesus into service with sharp talons dug into his scalp. Apparently, Kazantzakis believed the whole idea of incarnation was so mad that a sane human would resist it. As the schizophrenic Professor John Nash concluded in A Beautiful Mind, the only way he could function as a rational human being was to summon the will to ignore his delusions and pretend they weren’t there.

Happily, history has resolved most of these issues for us. Jesus was born to be the Messiah and he knew it. When God spoke to him, Jesus the Incarnation recognized God’s voice and never doubted it. And even in Kazantzakis’ novel, Jesus did not succumb to temptations to abandon his role, including the last temptation, which was to avoid death on the cross.

The crowd that gathered around Jesus in Mark 3 thought he was out of his mind because he wasn’t acting the way they expected Jesus to act. But Jesus was acting the way God expected him to act, which suggests it was the crowd’s attitudes, not Jesus’ behavior, that were barmy. Just about everyone on the scene that day – the crowd, Jesus’ brothers, the Pharisees – piously asked themselves, What Would Jesus Do? And everyone came up with the wrong answer.

That’s helpful to keep in mind the next time you’re tempted to WWJD your way through a problem. If you think you can think Jesus’ thoughts, you may be wrong. You may even be crazy.

“What would Jesus do” – WWJD – was the theme of a late 19th century novel, In his Steps, by Charles M. Sheldon.

The book –still a popular gift to newly born again Christians – opens with the visit of an indigent man to the home of a minister. The minister, busily preparing his sermon, listens impatiently to the man’s pleas for help before shutting the door in his face. On Sunday, the poor man stands in front of the pulpit and confronts the congregation about its lack of compassion to persons in need. Then he collapses and, days later, dies.

Driven by guilt and remorse, the minister tells his congregation, “Do not do anything without first asking, ‘What would Jesus do?’” The rest of the book traces a picaresque trail through the different answers individual church members believe they get to the question.

I first read the book in 1966, and even then the WWJD decisions of its characters seemed highly selective, if not dated. One character, Rachel Winslow, receives an offer to sing professionally for a “very large salary” and spurns it to spend the rest of her life in the church choir. In my experience, some of the best sermons I’ve heard have been preached in musicals, so Rachel’s decision strikes me as absurd.

Even more inexplicable to me is Edward Norman, editor of the local Daily News, whose WWJD inquiry leads him to reject a front page story: a report of a prize fight at the local resort.

I don’t know what this Christian editor was thinking, but his decision would have given the managing editor I once worked for – an upstanding Episcopal layman – a myocardial infarction. Regardless of one’s opinion about professional pugilism, there is just so much wrong with Editor Ed Norman’s smug and arbitrary decision to kill a major story: the rebuffing of thousands of readers who had a right to read it, the arbitrary quashing of the First Amendment, the needless threat to the newspaper’s revenue base and the concomitant jeopardy to the financial wellbeing of its employees and their families. I could go on.

The problem with asking what Jesus would do is that the answer is always filtered through what YOU would have Jesus do, and you never know if your thoughts stem from brilliant moral insight or undiagnosed psychosis. For myself, I believe that if George Bush had asked WWJD, he would never have started wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; and if Barack Obama asked the question he wouldn’t be sending drones to obliterate terrorists along with the innocents standing next to them.

But – as hard as it is to imagine Jesus starting wars or launching drones – I want to stop short of speaking for him. There are just too many examples of people whose WWJD conclusions are based on ignorance, bigotry, stupidity and madness. One Baptist pastor believes Jesus would burn the Qur’an and consign Muslims to Hell. Another Baptist pastor would barricade Gays and Lesbians in separate pens until – being unable to reproduce – they would die out. Still another Baptist pastor (we’re seeing a trend here) encourages parents to slap little Johnny silly if he acts effeminate. And let’s not overlook Pastor Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist Church who pickets the funerals of war heroes with posters emblazoned, “God Hates Fags.”

What a reversal of scripture. Jesus must shake his head at these guys and mutter, “They have gone out of their minds.”

As we take another look at these 15 verses in Mark 3, what do we see? Jesus is casting out demons – casting the crazy out of people he meets along the way. But more people come along whose crazy takes the form of ignorance, bigotry or family mortification and they have the temerity to think Jesus is the mad one.

But Jesus sets them straight – and offers a timely warning:
“Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.”

Theologians have argued for centuries what you have to do to blaspheme against the Holy Spirit. Probably Jesus was reminding them how dangerous it was to suggest that the spirit within him is “unclean.”

But there are other possibilities that could also be seen as blasphemy.

Among them: telling yourself and others you know What Would Jesus Do when you don’t know what on earth you are talking about.


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