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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Nonviolence: A Response #1

The most important thing to recognize about nonviolence is that it is a response to a prior violence.  Nonviolence comes into play because harm is already being done.  We only understand nonviolence in the context of this foundational reality.

This is not stating the obvious.  It is establishing a crucial point–a point hidden and/or denied by the perpetrators of violence, who want to paint the nonviolent resistors as “the bad guys.”  Until this error is called out, it deflects the problem away from its source, and caricatures the cause/effect reality. So, in order to understand the response of nonviolent resistance, we must first identify the tactics of those who make it necessary.  [See note below]

To begin with, we must recognize that the word ‘violence’ means more than something physical.  In fact, it is an attitude before it is an action. Degrading words (as ideology and/or speech) precede destructive actions. Harm means the subjugation of others by whatever means that the in-group deems appropriate and effective.

Violence, as we are defining it here, arises from the motive to establish, maintain, or restore power to the in-group.  It is fundamentally a process by which “we” prevent “them” from having something which would change the current reality in ways which the in-group does not want–ways that would create a new reality that diminishes the in-group’s control.  At its heart, violence is always about one group wanting to hold power.

Consequently, to understand both the need for and the nature of nonviolence, we must first identify some of the most-obvious characteristics of in-group subjugation.  We will do this in the next few blogs.

[Note–For a more extensive, scholarly study of subjugation, see Lonnie Athens’s book, ‘Domination and Subjugation in Everyday Life’]

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Year of Mercy: Extravagant Love

In addition to the two parables that Pope Francis cites in his writing, a supplemental resource entitled ‘Parables of Mercy’ (published by Our Sunday Visitor) explores five more.  Today, we look at Luke 7:36-50, the story Jesus told to explain a woman’s extravagant love to the Pharisee who thought it was excessive.

In essence Jesus said that the more we are aware of God’s forgiveness, the more extravagant our love will be.  The woman was an open book when it came to her need for forgiveness, and having been forgiven by Jesus, she literally poured out her love on his feet as she simultaneously bathed them with her tears of gratitude.

By contrast, the Pharisee had not given much thought to his sinfulness or his need for forgiveness, having concentrated his time and energy identifying “those sinners.”  Consequently, his love was small and largely limited to whomever he deemed worthy to receive it.  In fact, he had parceled love out in small portions to Jesus that very evening–and offered only contempt to the woman.

Mercy does not flow from a forgiveness-starved heart. A religion that leads us to spend our time “naming sinners” but not ever getting around to naming ourselves as sinners will deplete the well of love, replacing it with the throat-choking sand of self-righteousness.

Pope Francis, like Jesus, spends a lot of time with people whom the world calls “sinners” but whom God calls beloved children.  He does this so that he might never forget that he too is a sinner and so that the streams of mercy will never cease to flow from his life into the lives of others.

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Nonviolence: A Brief History

An exploration of nonviolence begins in recognizing the longstanding history of it.  Today we take a brief look at its practice over time.

Nonviolence can be traced back through literature to the 6th century BC in India, most notably in the writings of  Mahavira and the Buddha.  In the 5th century BC it is found in China in the writings of Mo Di.  Another major expression appears in the 4th century BC in Greece in the writings of Aristophanes and Plato.

In all these writings, the foundational idea is ahimsa– ‘no wounding’–what we today refer to as “doing no harm.”  The term ‘nonviolent resistance’ is a newer way to describe this longstanding principle in philosophy and religion to refrain from damaging another through words or deeds.  The means advocated for doing no harm have varied over the centuries and also depending on the type of harm being inflicted.

Worth noting in this blog series is that John Wesley made “doing no harm” the first of the General Rules of the United Societies–the precursor to all the denominations which trace their origin to early Methodism.  Wesley’s use of “do no harm” was not his invention, but rather the expression of a commitment he saw in his Anglican tradition–itself a child of Roman and Orthodox Christianity, where the same idea can be found.

More recently, Mahatma Gandhi naturally assumed the posture of nonviolence from his Hindu tradition (within which he included Jainism and Buddhism), but he also saw it in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  He was particularly influenced by Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount in general, but particularly in Matthew 5:38-41.

Gandhi’s influence upon Martin Luther King Jr. came through his reading of E. Stanley Jones’ book, ‘Gandhi: Portrayal of a Friend,’ writing “This is it!” in the margin where Jones was describing Gandhi’s nonviolent principles.  King went on later to write his ‘Six Principles’ and ‘Six Steps’, which are still taught at The King Center in Atlanta.

The idea of nonviolent resistance continues to be lived out by people like John Lewis, and by a host of women and men committed to it (e.g. the “Waging Nonviolence” movement: http://www.wagingnonviolence.org).  I  have also been influenced to explore it through the witness of people like Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day.

The point today is to show that a commitment to nonviolence is stepping into a stream which has been flowing for thousands of years. It is a legitimate and often effective means of resisting evil and achieving a greater good.  And most of all, it is a way to keep the fruit of the Spirit alive in the midst of struggle and suffering.

For Further Reading
     Robert Holmes & Barry Gan, ‘Nonviolence in
          Theory and Practice,’ 3rd ed (Waveland
          Press, 2011)
     Ramin Jahanbegloo, ‘Introduction to
          Nonviolence’ (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014)
     Gene Sharp, ‘Waging Nonviolent Struggle’
          (Porter Sargent Publishers, 2005)

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Year of Mercy: Mercy It Forward

The second parable that Pope Francis references is Matthew 18:21-35, a story Jesus used to answer Peter’s question, “How many times should I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me?”

The parable has some enigmatic nuances, but the answer to Peter’s question is obvious, “Forgive those who sin against you over, over, and over.”  In other words, do not ever change from forgiveness to punishment.

That is what the servant did.  He received mercy for a huge debt, but then turned around and exacted  punishment toward a fellow servant who owed him only a small amount–Jesus’ way of reminding us that the indebtedness of others toward us is small in comparison to our indebtedness to God–which only makes our unwillingness to forgive others all the more putrid.

The message is clear: we must never create a system where retributive justice (punishment) replaces restorative justice (forgiveness).  For one thing, judgement is not our job.  And for another thing, retributive justice creates the illusion that we are the “good guys,” when the fact is, there is none righteous, no not one (Romans 3:10).

Mercy only flows from those who have recognized their need to be forgiven along with everyone else.  Mercy is our response to having been forgiven.  As long as we thank God that we are not like others (Luke 18:11) and create punitive systems to use against others, we remain strangers to grace, selling waxed fruit rather than the fruit of the Spirit.

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Nonviolence: Inside the Story

It would not be correct to begin a series like this without first giving you a glimpse of my journey into nonviolence.  This is not a subject that can be written about purely from the vantage point of an onlooker.

But at the same time, it would be wrong to give you the impression that I am anything other than a neophyte in comparison to others–something akin to Thomas Merton’s sense of being “a guilty bystander” when he wrote about nonviolence in the 1960’s.  However, the fact remains that I have a story which brings me to the present moment.  You have a right to know something of that story.

I grew up in West Texas during the civil rights’ era of the 1950’s and ’60’s.  Montgomery, Nashville, Little Rock, Birmingham, and Selma all unfolded before my eyes and left indelible impressions, some which were (at the time) only seeds which would grow and bear fruit later.  I realize this whenever I watch a documentary about that time in our nation’s history and sense how deeply the sights and sounds go into my mind and heart.

I did not experience the extreme violence of the civil rights era as so many others did.  But I did know and participated in another kind of racism, which I can only describe as “accepted racism”–a form of it in which whites and blacks cooperated in a discriminatory system.  It was so “accepted” that it simply appeared to be natural.  I understand Rosalynn Carter’s comment in a PBS interview, when she said that many of us grew up not realizing anything was wrong.

But something was wrong–terribly wrong.  And whether it took the form of violence or passivity, it was the same thing–the subjugation of one group of people by another group.  White supremacy and privilege was just as alive where I grew up as it was anywhere else.  And we all went along with it.

That is, until people like Martin Luther King Jr. called out our national sinfulness.  I devoured his early books (e.g. ‘Strength to Love’ and ‘Stride Toward Freedom’), seeing in his words and deeds a vision that simultaneously convicted me and compelled me.  It was an awakening for me, and before I graduated from high school, I had aligned my soul with the movement Dr. King and others were calling my generation to join.

It was a slower process for me to recognize that racism was/is a symptom of a deeper cause–an expression of the original sin (egotism in the individual and etnocentrism in the group)–the creating of a superior/inferior hierarchy in life that destroys the unity of the human family and does harm along the way.  Over time, I came to see that the subjugation of any person or group by another person or group is wrong.

Fast-forward to the present (which leaves a lot out of the picture), I am able to see through eyes taught by the earlier civil-rights era that we are going through another period of history when egotism/ethnocentrism (often called partisanship today) is once again at work in the society and church.  We are living at a time in history when the wrongs inflicted by a superior/inferior view must be challenged.  Nonviolent resistance is needed once again.

In the coming weeks, we will journey through a “mini school” of nonviolence.. As people like James Lawson taught in the 1950’s, it must begin by learning how the harm is done.  Only then can we understand the nature and practice of nonviolence.  Without a knowledge of how harm occurs,  nonviolence gets off on the wrong foot–becoming an emotional reaction to subjugation rather than a considered response to it.  I will follow Lawson’s pattern in these weekly posts.

I do this fully recognizing the small role I play in comparison to what others have said and done over the decades.  But I take counsel and comfort from John Lewis, who says repeatedly that in a time when subjugating voices speak so loudly, every voice for good (large or small) not only counts, but is necessary if things are ever going to change.

I offer the following posts in the hope that you might find encouragement and guidance in bearing witness to love, which is what the practice of nonviolence is ultimately all about.

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Year of Mercy: Mercy and Grace

The third parable (Luke 15:11-32) is usually called the parable of the prodigal son, but like the previous  two parables, it is a story about God: “a man had two sons.”  How God related to each one is the point of the parable.  Both were beloved sons, and God showed mercy to each.

To the son who left home, God’s mercy was essentially, “Stop your groveling and come into the house.”  Read the text and you will find that the younger son already had his “I am not worthy” speech ready to give.  But while the father allowed him to confess his sin, he stopped the young man right there and he never got the words “I am not worthy” out of his mouth.

Here is the danger for those who have left home–they come to feel unworthy, and can then easily believe even God doesn’t really want them to come back. They have this mistaken notion reinforced by Christians who don’t want to have anything to do with them, and shun them “in Jesus’ Name.”  But God is not like that.  God has a ring, shoes, a robe, and a fatted calf waiting.  Amazing grace!

To the son who stayed home, God’s mercy was essentially, “Cease your jealousy and come into the house.”  In words not a lot different from Cain’s in Genesis 4:9, the older son wants retributive justice meted out to his brother.  “Why should he get all this” the older brother fumes, “when I’ve gotten nothing despite all my time of faithful service?”

Here is the danger for those who stay home.  Religion ceases to be grounded in grace and deteriorates into some form of meritocracy.  Our years of faithful service eclipse mercy, casting the noxious cloud of self-righteousness over the whole thing. Religion deteriorates into a system of reward/punishment.  But God is not like that.  The son who is outside the house because of pride and judgmentalism is invited to the party also.  Amazing grace!

The great tragedy is that the son who was closest to home for the longer period of time–and should have been the first to accept the invitation–was the one who rejected it, preferring to remain a lost sheep and a lost coin despite God’s call to come home.  And so it is for anyone who eschews mercy and becomes a stranger to grace, both as a receiver and giver of it.

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