Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Forgiveness and Neighborliness

Our neighbor Mary took this slip from
her rosebush and rooted it for us.
Reminds me of The Little Prince.

In recent weeks I’ve been writing about the relationship of community and compassion. Last week I summed up my post, “Loving our neighbors as ourselves requires first recognizing them as neighbors.”  That post also explained the role of confrontation on behalf of our neighbors. This post from October 22, 2014 talks about how forgiveness plays into neighborliness.

I recite the Lord’s Prayer daily, and often the most challenging phrase for me is the second part of “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”

Though I’ve received everything I have from a generous and gracious God, it’s hard to let go of grudges and wrongs and the feeling that others owe me something or that somehow I have unfairly missed out.

Or if I pray, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,” I think about how often I impinge on God’s territory by profaning the sacred, by judging or pre-judging others, by invading the space of one of God’s creatures, by polluting God’s property: earth, water, and air; or by playing God—a role which, in all modesty, I play rather well. 

To the poor who followed Jesus, “forgive us our debts,” must’ve sounded pretty good. It sounds pretty good to us today, weighed down as we are with loans, credit cards, church pledges, expectations from elderly parents or children of any age or our beloved pets, not to mention Comcast bills.

To the sinners who followed Jesus, “forgive us our trespasses” or “sins” must’ve sounded pretty good. It also sounds pretty good to us today, burdened by moral failings, hurt we’ve inflicted on those we love most, toes we’ve stepped on or boundaries we’ve crossed, injustice we’ve ignored.

Thank God, there’s a lot of forgiveness in the Bible, and, according to Old Testament professor Walter Brueggemann, longtime oracle of Columbia Theological Seminary, forgiveness may involve money, land, power, politics, morality, and religious pretensions.

Religious scruples are what the late-converted apostle Paul often addressed. Paul when he was Saul was a Torah fundamentalist who followed every jot and tittle of the Law of Moses, not simply the Ten Commandments on which it’s based, but all the interpretations, applications, court rulings, and explications of Mosaic Law.

As we know from our own Christian tradition, no one can claim the moral high ground better than a self-righteous legalist, traditionalist, or fundamentalist. As an aside, Brueggemann also points out that no one can claim the moral high ground better than a self-righteous liberal, progressive, non-literalist such as myself. All of us tend to equate God’s views with our own, what Brueggemann calls “the cunning little secret of certitude.”

And that’s the tension in the early church—legalists wanting other Christians to follow the Laws of Moses, including dietary restrictions and Sabbath observance, and others who experience freedom in Christ as to such spiritual beliefs and practices. Paul comes down on the side of freedom in Christ, but urges all Christians to respect and regard one another’s positions. Paul is truly a recovered fundamentalist, but doesn’t twist others’ arms to come to 12-step meetings of Legalists Anonymous.

“Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another?” Paul rhetorically questions the Romans, and then observes, “It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.”

Christians have entered into a covenant with Jesus and with one another that requires the interweaving of our lives, beliefs, and practices. Every strand is needed to create the fabric of our spiritual community, one that hopefully reflects Jesus’ meaning for our neighborhood and for the world.

Discussing the Ten Commandments in his book of essays, The Covenanted Self, Brueggemann affirms that the first three commandments about Yahweh give rise to the other seven, which all have to do with living in community, being good neighbors, and loving the neighbor as oneself.

In awe of God, we are called to, in a sense, privilege the neighbor to be truly neighborly and faithful to God. We are to consider their needs, their beliefs, their practices above our own needs, beliefs, and practices. It’s like what is said about marriage, each partner must give 150%. 50% doesn’t cut it, not even 100%. But if we strive to give 150% we are more likely to make a marriage or a spiritual community work.

That requires forgiveness—forgiving that the other is not all we expected, forgiving mistakes and ignorance and insensitivity, forgiving wrongs and inabilities and limitations. And forgiving ourselves these things as well. We are not perfect people. We are forgiven people.

Our model is Jesus, of whom our Christian tradition says that he emptied himself to be a servant. Jesus emptied himself into the neighbor, Brueggemann asserts, and urges us to “imagine that neighborliness is more important than good economics or good politics or good morality or good orthodoxy.” While accepting that challenge, I would add that truly good economics, politics, morality, or orthodoxy must be based in neighborliness.

In Living Buddha, Living Christ, the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh tells the story of a woman who invoked the name of the Buddha hundreds of times a day for ten years, but “was still filled with anger and irritation.” Noticing this over the years, a neighbor knocked on her door and called to her. Annoyed, she struck her meditation bell hard to make it clear she was chanting. The neighbor called again and again, and finally the woman shouted, “Can’t you see I’m invoking the name of the Buddha? Why are you bothering me now?”

The neighbor responded, “I only called your name twelve times, and look at how angry you have become. Imagine how angry the Buddha must be after you have been calling his name for ten years!”


Related posts:

Recovering Compassion

Compassion and Community

Donations to Progressive Christian Reflections may be given safely by clicking here and scrolling down to the donate link below its description. Thank you!

Copyright © 2014 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved. 

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Compassion and "Good Trouble"

I’ve continued and now completed reading Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life by Donald McNeill, Douglas Morrison, and Henri Nouwen. Like my post about the medieval Christian classic, The Cloud of Unknowing, I find myself wanting to simply list some of the outstanding insights of these three Catholic authors who collaborated on this 1982 book.

One insight that startled me in my “well-deserved” retirement is this: “Are we really servants when we can become masters again once we think we have done our part or made our contribution?”

There’s a part of me that wants to conclude “I’ve done my part.” Nearly 40 pages later I am brought up short by this truth: “As the years go by, familiar images and ideas are often pushed out of place. Ways of thinking, which for many years helped us to understand our world, come under criticism and are called old-fashioned and conservative.”

Between these two observations the authors discuss the role of “voluntary displacement” in living a compassionate life, as Jesus did: “He did not think equality with God as a thing to be held onto, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness…” (See Philippians 2:6-7).

Now, we can theologically dither over this early understanding of Jesus’ nature, but let’s take it as a metaphor of God letting go of everything God-like to enter our world and become God-with-us. In an earlier post I explained the authors’ belief that compassion first requires community—sensed, actual, and/or geographical. In this early Christian confession of faith, the apostle Paul is illustrating how Christians are to be in community, “in humility regard[ing] others as better than yourselves.” (Phil 2:3)

I thought of entitling this post, “Compassion and ‘Voluntary Displacement,’” but doubted that would attract readers. Our late Congressman John Lewis’s understanding of “good trouble,” that is, protesting injustice, has a far richer ring to it.

From Compassion:

We cannot suffer with the poor when we are unwilling to confront those persons and systems that cause  poverty. We cannot set the captives free when we do not want to confront those who carry the keys. We cannot profess our solidarity with those who are oppressed when we are unwilling to confront the oppressor. Compassion without confrontation fades quickly into fruitless sentimental commiseration (p124).

Saying “no” to evil and destruction in the awareness that they dwell in our own heart is a humble “no.” When we say “no” with humility, this “no” is also a call for our own conversion (p125).

From first grade to ninth grade, I attended a Christian school where my mother taught first grade for thirty years. Each classroom was assigned a missionary for correspondence and contributions, a kind of “voluntary displacement” that took us out of our privileged and largely white American world. When the missionaries came back to the United States on furloughs, they would regale us with tales of their travels and work. As much as I enjoyed those stories, I prayed to God that I would not be called to the foreign mission field—I didn’t want to eat beetles or have a dirt floor. That was a voluntary displacement I did not want!

But I was given a different kind of mission field—an involuntary displacement, so to speak: being gay! I guess you could say my “voluntary displacement” was being open about it and becoming an activist and author.

Right now you and I have been given another involuntary displacement, coping with a worldwide pandemic. And those of us who are white have heard a call to voluntary displacement as we recognize our white privilege (yes, again!) and welcome Black Lives Matter.

Around the world, those who colonized or enslaved, infected or exploited other peoples face involuntary displacement as we come to appreciate their lives, their customs, their suffering, our sins and our privilege. We may form the communities the authors of Compassion affirm are the prerequisite for compassion, Martin Luther King’s “Beloved Community.”

Loving our neighbors as ourselves requires first recognizing them as neighbors, members of our communities, residents of our countries, and fellow citizens of God’s Commonwealth.

A beloved LGBTQI activist giant died last week. Co-authored with Letha Scanzoni, Virginia Ramey Mollenkott’s signature book, one of the earliest of our movement, raised the question, “Is the Homosexual My Neighbor?” Thanks be to God that so many people throughout the world are finally answering “yes”!

The question “who is my neighbor?” asked of Jesus came from someone possibly hoping to limit the possibilities, and so Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan, a member of a hated “foreign” “mixed” race of a different faith who proved redemptive for a victim of violence.

 Jesus thereby teaches the universality of our neighborhood.

Related posts:

Recovering Compassion

Compassion and Community

Thanks to a reader who informed me the above image is of the sign board outside the United Methodist Church’s general board of church and society building in Washington DC, across the street from the U.S. Supreme Court building. As I recall, other denominations also have offices in that building.

Donations to Progressive Christian Reflections may be given safely by clicking here and scrolling down to the donate link below its description. Thank you!

Copyright © 2020 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.