I’m on a Sirach kick again, as happens every couple of years. I have a deep affinity with the Wisdom of Jesus Son of Sirach, or Ecclesiasticus. It might also be called Ben Sira. Fun, huh? It’s a unique kind of book among the Apocrypha and scripture in general as the work of a proud grandson, an interpretation out of Hebrew of his grandfather’s acquired knowledge and wisdom.
Pressing Down. As a young Christian I was taught to primarily read scripture in a transactional way: do this and get this, don’t do this and don’t get this. Life was a cosmic vending machine and God was the correct change. Most things in life were a linear transaction of cause and effect, and the scriptures were a guidebook for making the best transactions. While many passages seem to support this way of reading scripture, there’s much more to be experienced. Pressing down into the way of a passage can remake us into new people, whole new communities.
Ecclesiasticus looks very much like the guidebook to end all guidebooks. However, like shifting one’s focus from the nearest trees to the farthest, we can press deeper and farther. Rather than take the transactional sounding statements as the product, let’s view them as the tools to create something bigger: a more just and blessed world.
and do not keep needy eyes waiting.
or delay giving to the needy.
or turn your face away from the poor.
and give no one reason to curse you;
their Creator will hear their prayer.
bow your head low to the great.
and return their greeting politely.
and do not be hesitant in giving a verdict.
and be like a husband to their mother;
you will then be like a son of the Most High,
and he will love you more than does your mother.
Exodus 23:9, “Also you shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the heart of a stranger, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” New King James Version
I want to carry yesterday’s idea forward another day. We looked at the passage in Colossians 4 and chatted about the way that our grace, particularly civil attitude and conversation, wasn’t just reserved for “us” but was also for “them.” Today, I want to show that this isn’t a new idea introduced in the New Testament, but this was in the formative concepts of justice when God gave Law to the Israelites.
That verse from Exodus is a nice example of the way God included “care of the other” from the earliest days of expressing divine will on justice and fairness. The people of Israel had been the strangers, the foreigners, the aliens, the “other” while living in Egypt. They began that sojourn fleeing famine, but ended up as slaves. They knew the truth of injustice. The passage above reminds them that they should know “the heart of a stranger,” how it feels to be unknown, on the outside, seen as “the other.” From that experience, they are commanded to care for those not like them and not from among them. Justice was for all, and this is a firm foundation for civility being for all.
There are other verses that echo this idea of God wanting Israel to transcend the “us and them” divide in life, even to the point of acting as if there was no difference between they and the other. All people’s value was to be supported and Israel’s behavior was to be consistent:
Leviticus 19:33-34, “And if a stranger dwells with you in your land, you shall not mistreat him. The stranger who dwells among you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”
Exodus 22:21 “You shall neither mistreat a stranger nor oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
Deuteronomy 27:19 “‘Cursed is the one who perverts the justice due the stranger, the fatherless, and widow.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen!'”
I think God has always wanted to break down barriers between us. The “chosen people” language of God’s nation Israel might cause us to think otherwise. The “called out” ecclesial language of the church might cause us to think otherwise. But the choosing and the calling has always been purposeful, and I believe part of that purpose is to break down the barriers of division, animosity and hatred that arise between us.
I need to be a safe person for all others, even “the other.” My civility is an extension of this truth. I cannot reserve a special hatred for the outsider because she is an outsider. I cannot reserve my love only for those I know. I cannot hoard my peace and civility for those who like me or think like me. My heart needs to beat for the stranger, for the outsider, for the alien. I need to be “safe” for all.
Writing about the death of Osama bin Laden is a complex and frightening thing. I was up late Sunday night and caught the earliest rumbles of his demise and then saw President Obama’s comments and official announcement of the operation which found and eliminated bin Laden at his palatial hideaway in Pakistan.
And then I thought about it. I heard of people in the streets just a few miles away at the White House having an impromptu party. Come Monday morning I had heard of the same kind of celebration at Ground Zero. And of course, Monday was a day of Facebook and Twitter soundbites back and forth between many varied and nuanced responses to his death.
I posted the first confirmed report of the death I could find late on Sunday night with only one word to accompany it: “Wow.” I’ve not said anything else online about it. And really that was my first and has been my most poignant feeling since I heard the news. I was stunned. It was long coming and overdue. It was world-changing. I can almost trust myself now, after a day and two nights of thought and listening and reflection, to say a few things.
I still have had no desire or impulse to celebrate the death of Osama bin Laden with song and laughter and light heartedness. But I can honestly say that I am glad we now have a world that can spin on without his distorted views and his ability and willingness to impose death sentences upon the innocent and the defenseless. Osama bin Laden was a part of the evil from which so many of us daily ask deliverance, “…but deliver us from evil.” His willingness to kill and to send others to kill necessitated his own death. But I do not want war and death to cross the line from necessity to celebration in my own heart.
It was past time for Osama bin Laden to be gone. I am glad that he has lost the power to kill. I am glad that our world is now without him. I am glad that he is dead. I do not wish he had been arrested. I do not want him to have had a voice any longer than he did. I do not want his stain on our planet to have grown any darker or to have sunk in any deeper. I am glad he is over.
Almost ten years later it is too easy to see Osama bin Laden in a war of ideologies and caught in a contest of competing worldviews. It’s very easy, after ten years of being hunted, to see him in the context of his philosophical arguments. But for those of us who are old enough to have watched the towers fall in 2001, the necessity of bin Laden’s death is not ideological, it is visceral and quite real. From watching the towers fall on live TV, to those earliest tapes of Al Qaeda beheadings of innocent people, we have seen the face of evil in this world. Of course, for the families of those who died his evil is even more real and present.
While I am glad Osama bin Laden is dead, I cannot find it in me to celebrate death, even his. I won’t sing in the streets. That just doesn’t feel right to me. But the women and men of the United States Intelligence Services and Armed Forces have my gratitude and respect. I thank them and I am proud that we have rid the world of that evil. I am glad we persevered in the face of such heavy necessity. Our people who have sacrificed and given so such much in the face of what needed to be done are our heroes and I celebrate them, their courage, their service to our nation and world, and their sacrifice to confront such evil.
I don’t condemn or mean any slight at all to those who are joyfully celebrating in the streets the death of such an evil. I’ve watched threads on Facebook in which people have “unfriended” those who will not celebrate Osama bin Laden’s death with patriotic chants, capital letters and lots of exclamation points. I’ve watched the vilification of many who simply asked something along the lines of, “Wait… am I really supposed to be a happy that death is still the best or necessary option to any problem?” We should not use this as yet another opportunity to divide and feed any hostilities. Whether you or I celebrate the man’s death, or don’t, our need for civility in discourse and conversation is as real as ever.
Here’s maybe the bottom line for many people of faith… we recognize the justice in Osama bin Laden’s death, the justness of it. We recognize the necessity of his death, we feel the relief that he is gone, and we are glad that his hatred and evil have been removed from our world. He earned that death over and over, more than 3,000 times in one day back in 1991, and many times since. But even as we recognize justice, we have been taught to hope for something greater, and that is grace. Our gladness that justice has been served is tempered by regret that grace was missed. Grace was missed so many times in the life of Osama bin Laden. He did not know grace, show grace nor bring any grace to our world.
Our faith has informed us that a better world is possible, and we still wait for it. That better world is forestalled by the evil of creatures like Osama bin Laden and the necessary sacrifice of good people to hunt and kill him.
I pray, from deep down inside, that with the passing of that evil another death dealing prophet will not stand to carry the banner forward. I pray that the great day of peace will come sooner than later for our globe. I pray that we might no longer be a species which produces such a monster and then has to wage ten years of war to find and stop him.
Almost two years ago I’m at a conference in Albuquerque, NM, and I hear a dream being described for a festival built on the idea of allowing streams of life like art, justice and faith to freely create a nexus point, an intersection of creativity and action. Really, they had me at the word festival.
Festival is a noun that the esteemed Merriam and Webster say means “a time of celebration marked by special observances, a feast, and an often periodic celebration or program of events or entertainment having a specified focus.” (Pulled right from http://www.merriam-webster.com!) My imagination immediately presented me some mental images of a feast of art, an observance of justice and a celebration of what happens when we give free reign to those streams to mingle and dance together creating new things. I wanted to be there to see that, to hear that, to taste and hold it.
I volunteered to keep in touch with the dream and friended the fledgling Facebook profile, and I began to dream myself of the coming feast. Today I’m a part of the planning to make art happen at the festival. We are dreaming of canvases and paints, clay and paper. We will use our creativity to vision changes in ourselves, our communities and our world. We’ll bless the land and the people which play host to us in the four-day feast.
Making art is an a tangible expression of the spiritual streams running through our hearts and souls. Making art is presence. Whatever your past experience of art has been, we will help make an exercise of creative expression very accessible for you. This won’t be a time for seeing who is an “artist” and who isn’t, but it will be a time for each of us to dig deeper into the creative veins which God has implanted in all.
I can’t know where your hungers are or what kind of feasting you need. But I know that tables are being prepared for us. We will sit down together and share a rich fare as our faith, our dreams and needs for justice, and our creative hearts all come together for a few days in North Carolina. And if Merriam and Webster are correct, this will be just a beginning of a many more feasts to come and we make a community chasing the Wild Goose and making time together for years to come! I hope to see you there!