Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Conundrum of the Coconuts

I think coconuts are very interesting. I like coconuts especially when they are immature. I once visited the island of Dominica and was fed a fresh, immature coconut off the back of a poor truck. Well, the truck wasn’t poor. The man who drove the truck was poor. At least, he appeared poor. The truck was ramshackle. Hurdy gurdy. Reminded me of a hurdy gurdy. Neither this nor that, altogether. Neither here nor there. Ontologically tenuous but carrying a goodly Godly freight. A whole large load of immature coconuts that the man had taken off their trees and driven down from the mountains early that morning, when it was still mostly dark.

The man hacked off the husk of the coconut and cracked the thing open. He spooned out the white and translucent jelly-like substance, and oh. Oh my. This was a revelation. This was an experience. It was, I believe now, an example of what people call general revelation. What philosophical theologians or theological philosophers or apologists call general revelation. Maybe it should be capitalized. I don’t know. To contain the presence of God. Or point to the presence of God. To mean God’s presence.

Because that was what happened when I tasted that coconut jelly. I experienced such a rushing beauty. Such an improbable impossible altogether immense sweetness and richness and depth and height and breadth of sensation that I didn’t know where I was. I didn’t know if the world hadn’t fundamentally changed. Didn’t know if the kingdom of heaven hadn’t suddenly supplanted the quotidian world. The world of improbably poor trucks and men. I didn’t know for a moment whether I hadn’t been swept up in the hands of God and blessed by him directly.

And these coconuts, see. They’re huge things. Even the immature ones. I mean the husk and then the shell on them is big. Really big. The husk is oh. I don’t know. Like maybe the size of a galaxy compared to the black hole at its center. Like maybe the size of the human body compared to the size of its soul.

In any event, that one experience is what I think about when I think about God and coconuts. I think about the coconut having the exquisite part. The general revelation part. The God infused or God inspired or God informed or God associated part. And then I think of the waste part. The part that will go into the coconut husk heap. The Dominican Ghenna, if you will.

And sometimes I think that we are like coconuts. Sometimes I think there is the huge not-so-pretty part that will get thrown away. The part in which sin and anger and the need for justice and hate and selfishness and cruelty reside. And then I think there is the sweet part. The immature part. The part that God is in. The part that will last forever.

God's Own Justice

I think we mistake God. I think we take our own ideas of justice for God’s. This is the way we think about justice, we think. Therefore this is the way God thinks about justice. We think the concept of justice is fixed for all of us, God included. So our concept of justice is the concept of justice. God can’t have another concept of justice because there is only the one, the one we work with.

For us, justice is punishment. Justice is what happens to criminals who are convicted. Justice is what happens to terrible people or to middle of the road people who have done something wrong and need to be taught a lesson. Need to experience a dollop of pain and suffering for what they did. After all, we think. The transgressor has caused someone else pain or humiliation or suffering; so the transgressor deserves pain or humiliation or suffering or all three in return.

This is David’s idea when he hears Nathan’s story about the rich man with all the sheep and the cattle and the poor man with the one ewe who he raises like a daughter. Who he treats like a member of the family. And then of course the man takes the ewe from the poor man, slaughters it, and feeds it to the traveler.

David says the rich man deserves to die. But he doesn’t see the parallel. It is easy for David and for most of the rest of us, I think, to see the error in someone else but not so easy to see it in oneself.

In any event, David’s idea of justice is that the rich man should die. Why? Oh because he is unfair, is greedy, is cruel, because he has no pity. Because he kills something precious to someone else. Because he inflicts suffering on a man who is already suffering enough because of his poverty.

So David’s idea of justice is that the rich man should die.

But now let us turn to Jesus. The story of Jesus. The Gospels. For our sins, what is our justice? What punishment does God inflict upon us for our sins? He inflicts suffering and death upon his son. Upon himself. Or he allows others, who have a retributive and punitive and torment-oriented sense of justice, to inflict suffering and death upon his son. A man who has not sinned. This is God’s justice. Allowing the Sanhedrin and the crowd to kill Jesus. Giving them freedom. The freedom to become angry and to kill.

Odd. His idea of justice is to take away the reason for justice. His idea of justice is freedom and forgiveness. His idea of justice is to love us in the face of our sin. His idea of justice is to suspend punishment. Withhold punishment. Eliminate the possibility of punishment. And to substitute love.

What about those who will as Jesus says be burnt up in the fire. Be thrown onto Ghenna. Or into Ghenna. What about them?

What is God’s attitude toward these people, who he will throw into the fire. Who will be burned up and disappear? Does he love them or hate them? Is God really capable of hate? Which of us will end up in the fire and for what offenses? We don’t know. This is a mystery.

How can God love us? All of us. And throw some of us into the fire. We don’t know. This is a mystery.

When God throws—or more accurately, if God were throw (subjunctive)—some of us into the fire, is this just? (And I point out the use of the subjunctive here because it is not at all a sure thing that God will do this.) Is this God’s justice? I don’t think this is God’s justice. The Gospels suggest otherwise. Jesus suggests otherwise. God’s justice is forgiveness. Is love. Is freedom. This looks like something else.

Maybe its like coconuts. You get a coconut. You crack it open. You enjoy the inside. Maybe you share it with your friends. You put the shell in the garbage. This isn’t punishment. This isn’t revenge. This doesn’t teach the shell a lesson. You put the shell in the garbage to get rid of it, since it isn’t what you are after. It has served its purpose and now its purpose has been fulfilled. It has carried the coconut meat into our home, and it now needs to be disposed of. Is incinerated, maybe. And its ash and gases rise into the heavens.

Or maybe it’s like carbon dioxide. Maybe those who might be thrown into the fire are like carbon dioxide. Maybe they are a by-product of something else. Maybe when God breathes, he breathes in oxygen and breathes out carbon dioxide, metaphorically speaking. Maybe he breathes some of us in—allowing us to enter his kingdom—and expels those of us who end up. Well. Being recycled in some sense. As carbon dioxide is recycled, say, by plants. As carbon dioxide is transformed into oxygen again. Let’s say. Through the mystical process of photosynthesis.

But let’s face it. This is a mystery. A conundrum. Only God knows.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

This Desire for Blood

Where does this desire for blood and death come from, I wonder. This rage for slaughter. Is it merely us? Merely who we are? Merely how we were designed and made?

This idea that when we kill. When we offer our violence up to God. In war, for example. That we are doing something right. That we are righteous when we do this. Where does this idea come from?

And when we harm someone. When we do an evil to someone else. And we say to ourselves that the person deserves it. Had it coming. Is better off for it. Where do we get this odd idea?

Had it coming? The person, we think, had it coming, as though, what? As though we were God? As though we were the very instrument of God’s justice? As though we were God’s own intimates on the ways of his justice?

I was reading Psalm 51 the other day. A Psalm that has fascinated me for years. The Miserere or the Miserere Mei. The Psalm in which David asks God for mercy for what he has done—committed adultery with Bathsheba and had her husband, Uriah the Hittite, killed in battle.

Nathan, the prophet, has come to David and told him a story about a rich man with many sheep and a poor man, who only has one little lamb. A traveler visits the rich man. The rich man entertains the man and takes the lamb from the poor man for the traveler’s dinner. In response, David says, “As surely as the Lord lives, the man who did this deserves to die. He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity.”

Nathan is of course teaching David something about how to live by telling him a little story. At first, David doesn’t recognize the parallels between his own life and the story, but Nathan helps him to understand. David is the rich man. The rich man who in David’s own words “deserves to die.” But of course God does not kill David. God does not insist upon a justice that David would have insisted on.

And so, recognizing his guilt and the horror of what he has done, David asks God for mercy. He asks him to wash away his sin. But of course the source of his sin cannot be washed away. It remains with him. In him. It can only be forgiven.

David asks God to create a pure heart in him. Which is of course impossible. But he also asks God to not cast him from God’s presence and not to take his Holy Spirit from him. He asks for the joy of his salvation to be restored and a willing spirit.

He asks to be saved from his bloodguilt. From the evil that is in him and has been from birth.

And then comes the really interesting part. As if momentarily touched by divine inspiration, David says, “You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;/you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.”

And then David says, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;/a broken and contrite heart,/O God, you will not despise.”

As if blood sacrifices of all kinds are not what God is after. As if human justice that involves killing is not what God is after at all. As if what God is after—and he is willing to suspend his own judgment and punishment and justice to get it—is humility and recognition of one’s own sinfulness and contrition and grief over what one has done. Over who one is without God. As if what God is after is our understanding of how lost we are without God’s forgiveness and his participation in our lives.

It’s almost as if the evil that is in us is there by design. It’s almost as if God wants us to understand him and to seek him and the means for our coming to this is the evil that is in us. An evil that we cannot deal with on our own. An evil that requires us to find God.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Rage & Righteousness

Odd, isn’t it, how rage and righteousness fit so neatly together. How alliterative, we think. How just. The aesthetics of it really weaken me behind the knees. The two together have a terrible, a fearful symmetry.

The rightness. The sense of perfect justification. The sense that one has in oneself both the aggrieved and the aggrieved’s hero. The person who was wronged and simultaneously the person who will right the wrong through justice. Through punishment. Through the speaking. The enacting of one’s rage. Through the delivery of justice. Justice itself!

The sense that one is suddenly raised out of one’s quotidian moral quagmire into the mountain heights of purity of suffering, purity of humiliation, purity of oppression, purity of purpose, purity of motive, clarity of moral vision. As the adrenaline rushes through one’s body, one has the sense that one has achieved a momentary and somewhat rare oneness with God. Oneness with the One who is purity himself. Justice himself. One speaks. One acts. In such a heightened state of being. And one wants to finish each statement and action completed in this frame of mind with the phrase, “Thus sayeth the Lord.”

A phrase that is like the sudden slowness of Errol Flynn’s rapier penetrating and then being withdrawn from a pirate’s torso, for example. Like God sending a plague or a thunderbolt. “There, now. Have that, you miserable sinner! Take that, you contemptible swine!”

Thus sayeth the Lord.

Many of us live for moments like these. We are truly alive when events conspire to make us pure victims of someone else’s evil or witnesses to the pure evil of someone else’s actions on someone else. Moments when we have it in our power to respond. When we at least have the opportunity to speak and perhaps to be heard by those perpetrating the evil.

I’m thinking for the moment about the news clips throughout the month of August. News clips capturing the contorted, blood-engorged faces of people at town meetings held by members of Congress. I’m thinking about what rage and righteousness those people possessed.

Oh, and I’m thinking about the many times. The nearly infinite instances in my life in which rage and righteousness came together. What delight! What transcendence! What holiness I felt then. What satisfaction! What justification. What redemption. I knew then.