Year of Mercy: Reciprocal Mercy

We like to think that we learn to give mercy to others in keeping with the ways we have received it ourselves.  But unfortunately, the parable in Matthew 18: 21-35 teaches us that this not always the case.

The servant owed his master an unbelievable sum–ten thousand talents–an amount roughly equal to what it would take 164,383 years (60 million days) to earn!  Jesus made the amount so high that those who heard the story likely laughed outloud at the preposterous idea.

But….the master forgave the servant the debt–wiped the slate clean–reduced the amount to zero.  The crowd likely gasped at the thought that such amazing grace could ever have been given. 

The servant left his master completely off the hook, but soon crossed paths with someone who owed him three-months (100 days) worth of debt.  No doubt, the crowd was ready to hear that the servant forgave the debt (paltry by comparison to what he had owed) since he had just had his enormous debt cancelled.

But no, the servant grabbed the person by the throat and demanded that he pay up in full.  He had just been given unimaginable restorative justice, but he turned around and exacted extreme retributive justice on the person.

And so…we are left silent and sobered as Jesus causes us to see one of the greatest sins committed by those who have received mercy–the sin of not giving mercy to others.  There is nothing worse than turning grace into law, love into judgment.  It is spiritual alchemy in reverse:  turning the gold of mercy into the lead of legalism.

If we find ourselves saying, “That is awful!” that is exactly what Jesus wants us to think, and he wants us to call out the sin of mercilessness in our day just as he did in his.  Mercy is meant to be reciprocal–we are intended to give what we have received.

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Nonviolence: A Response #4

Last week we briefly identified three tactics which in-groups use against out-groups, tactics which do harm.  Today, we look at two more.

Defensiveness emerges as the in-group establishes a “fortress mentality”–a further distancing from those whom the in-group has identified as dangerous.  Historically, defensiveness has manifested itself in two main ways: a compound system and a retributive legislative mentality.

When Britain wanted to dominate indigenous people groups in India they built compounds and established clubs where only in-group members could fellowship.  Out-group persons could be servant staff, but never members.  The popular PBS docu-drama, “Indian Summers,” captured this practice well.  In the civil-rights era in The United States the same mindset established white-only country clubs, civic clubs, schools, churches, department stores, lunch counters,etc.

To insure that the compounds were preserved, laws were passed by the in-groups that defined and limited access by the out-groups–with clear and swift punishment for any violations of those laws.  The most pervasive were voting-restriction laws passed by individual States even though a national voting rights act had been passed.  These included the requirement for Negroes to pass tests which were so detailed that a professor at Harvard Law School could not pass it–thus insuring that only a tiny percentage of African-Americans were allowed to vote.  And even the few who passed the test had to be approved by a white-only panel, further reducing those permitted to vote.  In addition to this, additional laws were in place that elevated the defensiveness through a judicial process that was weighed in favor of the white in-group. [See Note below]

A fifth in-group tactic is deliverance.  The distortion, danger, distance, and defensiveness all come together in leaders and groups who can “save the day” and “fix” whatever breaches of control the out-group attempted.  Subjugation over the course of history has almost always been engineered by an individual or small group (self-avowed or group elected) to insure the preservation of the in-group.

With these tactics at work–combined with the in-group’s assumption that the general public will never expend the energy or take the time to explore things on their own–the in-group now  has great potential to do harm toward the out-group through efforts to establish, maintain, or restore in-group power.  The in-group has produced the causes that make the response of nonviolent resistance necessary.  They have established a scenario which only leaves nonviolent resistance as an option for those who disagree.

With the context of in-group dominance in place, we are in a position to examine the principles and practices of nonviolence, which is the focus of this series.  Next week we will begin that exploration.

[Note–John Lewis describes the legislative/judicial system that preserved racism in his book, ‘Across That Bridge]

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Year of Mercy: Mercy Given

Today we look at one of the great parables of contrast: Luke 18:1-8.  Simply put, Jesus is saying that if we can persist and eventually prevail over another’s reluctance to help us, how much more will we receive help from God, who is not reluctant.

Perhaps Jesus was thinking about the reluctance of the Pharisees, because the very next passage zeros in on them.  And twenty centuries later, Jesus’ parable indicts the Church whenever we turn a deaf ear to the cries of others.

It is as if Jesus is commending those in need for not giving up–for continuing to cry out, “You can help us.  You must do so.”  Then and now there are people who persist in their cries.  The Church, as the reluctant judge, must be eventually roused to respond through a spirit of compassion and concrete acts of caregiving.

The persistence in prayer is fueled by the assurance that slow-coming mercy is not because God is reluctant, it is because people are reluctant.  God’s heart is warm from the get-go.  The flow of mercy is not blocked at the Source, but rather blocked somewhere else downstream.

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Nonviolence: A Response #3

In-groups do harm (violence) through identifiable tactics.  This week and next, I will briefly identity some of them.

The first tactic is distortion.  Out-groups are caricatured and stereotyped in ways that treat them as categories–as problems to be solved rather than people to be known. Universalization (“All _______are _______”) is frequently employed, so that individuals in the out-group are immediately suspect.  Inuendo and flat-out misinformation are used to paint the unreal picture.

A second tactic is danger.  The out-group is a threat to goodness, truth, etc.  Danger creates fear, and who in their right mind would not want to eliminate danger from the community.  But it is not right-minded fear, it is fear generated by fear mongering.  It perpetuates danger by a lopsided means: calling out the worst in the out-group while extolling exagerated virtues of the in-group (bad guy/good guy)–and again, who wouldn’t want to be one of the good guys?  Danger makes the choice appear obvious.

Distortion and danger are accompanied by a third tactic: distance.  Ongoing relationships, much less friendships with out-group people, are not cultivated or encouraged, because the in-group people know that would reframe the picture and raise questions about the distortation/danger narrative.  Instead, the in-group portrays itself as the source for “all you need to know” about the out-group. They say in effect–get close to “us” and stay away from “them.”

Distance is also kept from those in the in-group who risk interacting with the out-group, and as a result, begin to see things differently.  These colleagues are now ostracized and deemed going down a “slippery slope.”  Distortion and danger are now applied to those willing to raise new questions or offer new evidence.  The in-group can no longer afford to associate with them.  E. Stanley Jones experienced this when he associated with out-groups in India.  Some fellow Christians ceased to have fellowship with him.

Distance essentially brings to a halt communication between the in-group, former but now suspect in-group people, and out-group members.  In-group members only talk to other approved in-group members.  E. Stanley Jones found this dynamic in place when he arrived in India, and that is why his Round Table alternative was viewed as a threat by the white civic and religious in-groups (which largely overlapped), but which was a method that gave hope to out-groups.  He writes about this in his books, ‘Christ of the Indian Road’ and ‘Christ at the Round Table.’

There are other major tactics used by the in-group.  We will look at a couple more next week.

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Year of Mercy: Mercy Eventually

Luke 16:19-31 is not an easy parable to interpret.  But one thing is clear: mercy will be given to all who failed to receive it–even if it only happens in heaven.

The rich man never gave Lazarus a crumb.  Dogs were more compassionate.  The rich man was so into himself that he never lifted a finger to help Lazarus even though he passed by him every day.  In time, both men died.  What should have been, never was. 

Well, not quite.  Lazarus is shown mercy in eternity, and whatever that actually turns out to be, it is a sign of hope for anyone who should have received mercy but was deprived of it.  The rich man stands for those who live cold heartedly saying in effect, “What’s mine is mine, I’ll keep it.”

But God holds the great balancing scales and offers mercy even when we withhold it.  God’s open heart says, “What’s mine is yours, I’ll share it!”

Mercy and compassion are conjoined.  Mercy and generosity go hand-in-hand.

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Nonviolence: A Response #2

Not every act of differentiation is violent.  Some things are the expression of a legitimate need to arrange life together in a community.  Covenants, Constitutions, and contracts are illustrations of this.

But differentiation becomes dominance/subjugation when a particular group seeks to exercise power over another group and uses harm to do it.  The types of harm have varied over the course of history and according to the kinds of control the in-group wanted to establish, maintain, or restore.

Major types of harm can be identified: ideological (philosophical, theological), economic (deprivation), political (legislation), psychological (shaming), physical (abuse), etc.–usually it is a combination of actions that the in-group uses to exercise power and justify itself.  The exploration of these dynamics require the independent study of each.  But they are powerful instruments in the hands of in-groups.

But what we want to see now is how the in-group uses the aforementioned dynamics.  We get an answer from the civil rights era. The in-group establishes deformative premises: a superior/inferior categorization of the human family, a higher estimation of human potential than is real or possible, an either/or thinking that will not deal with the varying complexities of life, a belief that compromise is bad, a rejection of new information which could reframe the issue, an ostracizing of any in the in-group who entertain new ideas, and the advocacy of solutions which keep the in-group in charge.  [See Note #1 below]

Over the course of time deformative practices like these have been studied under the topic of Manifest Destiny, particularly in American history, where the God-given right and mandate to control others was added to the picture and advanced in both theory and practice–almost always using morality-based language (good, right, correct, true, orthodox) to further justify the discrimination and domination.  [See Note #2 below]

These means for doing harm and their deformative premises create a social/ecclesial climate which enables the in-group to order itself and to operate.  Within this organization, some key elements are used.  We will turn to them next week.

[Note #1–these premises are gleaned from David J. Garrow’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, ‘Bearing the Cross’]

[Note #2–David & Jeanne Heidler, ‘ Manifest Destiny’]

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Year of Mercy: Mercy Demonstrated

No parable is better known than the story of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), and it is a parable about mercy (v. 37).  The one-word for mercy in this parable is ‘neighborliness.’

Jesus cuts through theological jargon and religious complexity by using the word ‘neighbor’ to describe mercy.  Essentially, Jesus says, ” If someone near you needs something, give it to him.”  That’s what the Samaritan did and what the religious leaders failed to do.  It is what the one who asked, “Who is my neighbor?” was supposed to do–what we are supposed to do.

Mercy is not complicated.  It is being aware of what’s going on around us and contributing good to it.  As Jesus said elsewhere, “The Kingdom of God is at hand”–imminent, nearby, within reach, in the present moment. I do not know who will cross my path next, but I already know what I am supposed to do when the next person arrives.  I am supposed to be a good neighbor. 

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