28 Mar

LIVING INTO TRUTH

By Barry Casey … One of the things that enlivens any gathering of Adventists is the flow of stories about their upbringing. There will be stories about polishing shoes for Sabbath on Friday afternoons or cleaning the house or what could or couldn’t be done on Sabbath afternoon. Some will raise memories of Sabbath School, others of falling asleep to the bedtime stories of Uncle Arthur and of the change from the Youth’s Instructor to Insight.

These are origin stories, something like a personal Genesis of Adventism. We would be incomplete without them, both as individuals and as a community. Were we to do this ritual in any country in the world with fellow Adventists, we would hear continuity and disjunction, common themes as well as all the particularities of place and time, gender, ethnicity, and language? As has been pointed out many times, Adventists are wonderfully diverse.

Diversity within Adventism brings its own tensions: witness the painful struggle to come to terms with our sons and daughters in the LGBTQ+ community. Progress toward equality for women arrives in fits and starts, especially concerning women in leadership, including pastorships and the ordination that should accompany it. Racial inequality continues to shake our foundations, challenging the assumptions of the North American church.

It’s the assumptions that undermine us. Most of the time they are hidden, like foundation stones, and as long as the house stands upright, everything at right angles, they rest unchallenged. But when the house begins to sink and tilt, we dig down around the foundations and hope that it’s not too late for major repairs.

As they relate to diversity of thought within the church, there are two assumptions I have had to examine for myself.

The first is the construct that the Seventh-day Adventist Church is playing a unique and decisive role in history, that it will stand forth as the hinge upon which the whole universe will turn.

This was so much a part of my religious education that I saw no reason to question it until I began to read and study other world faiths and traditions. Then it became clearer that in order to maintain this unique position, it was necessary to believe that other religious traditions were either victims or perpetrators of deception. Our unique role was to save the victims from their deception and refute the deceivers.

The questions I had were about the certainty of our interpretation of the Bible and of prophecy, and whether the Holy Spirit was exclusive to our domain. In time I came to see that our truth claims could be understood from different perspectives, not all of them asserting that we had sole rights to The Truth.

It seemed likely that the emphases on the beauty and creativity of the Sabbath, the assurance of the Second Advent, and the importance of caring for the body, mind, and spirit, were recollections of resistance to a materialistic and despairing world. They offered practical ways to live from a stance of hopefulness. Our remembering and living out of this resistance were our contribution to humanity. These modest truths were among the many ways the Spirit had lifted up truth in the history of Christianity.

These truths that we hold in humility and exercise in grace do not—and should not—keep us from enjoying and benefiting from the rich traditions of other Christian traditions and other faiths. Every religion has something of value to share with us among a long history of practice. We can work alongside them, enjoy their worship, and be in fellowship with them. We may learn through comparison and contrast: the similarities will strengthen us; the differences will cause us to test our own assumptions.

The second assumption I continue to examine is related to the previous one. If the first singled us out from all of humanity, the second assumption, exclusivity, is the result of the first. It’s not something entirely within our control. Paul calls us to live sober lives, to live according to the Spirit and not the flesh. Yet, Jesus calls us to be light and salt and yeast in the world, to immerse ourselves in our communities and to be present to others. We are fallible humans attempting to be faithful disciples.

This is one of those fruitful tensions in the Christian life—how to be in the world and not of the world. I think it begins with humility and is sustained through grace. Before we are Christians, we are humans: fallen beings of glorious potential. We are part of the human race, subject to all its failings, horrors, despair, and fallibility. Humility is the proper response to these limitations; grace is the means to live with them.

This does away with triumphalism and the arrogance of “Onward, Christian Soldiers.” It calls us to avoid the prosperity gospel in all its forms and its opposite, a martyr complex that results in paranoia. We are here on this earth, and we have been called to God’s kingdom. We live in that tension.

This tension speaks of the most basic and most pernicious assumption, the one we rarely confront: that diversity as a fact within Adventism is an obstacle and a hindrance to uniformity. But that is a discussion for another time.

Practically speaking, living within that tension blurs the line between the so-called “sacred” and “secular.” As Jesus said to the Samaritan women, we will worship neither in Jerusalem nor in Samaria, but in the Spirit—a portable worship within the world. Like Jesus, we do this in order to speak and to listen to those who are unlike ourselves. This is hard. This is something I shrink from, even as I am curious and hungering to know how others think and act. But these metaphors of salt, light, and yeast are the very templates of life in Jesus’ kingdom.

The experiences we live are the currency of human communication. The experiences of others—written, spoken, lived out, viewed—are our textbooks for life. But I should amend that: to call them “textbooks” connotes a fixed curriculum, a grade, and a final result. They are more likely points of contact between people and imply a presence that lingers, overcoming distance, time, and prejudice. It is through this presence, a voice and a spirit, that we grasp by analogy what it means to worship God in spirit and in truth.

If our experiences of God in Christ mean anything, they will come to us as we are immersed in our lives of doing laundry, sitting in traffic, and trying to understand and be understood by others. God is God overall. This continual act of translation between the inward work of the Spirit and our outward life with others invites suppleness and receptivity rather than isolation and exclusiveness.

The most authentic response to the Spirit I can make every day is to recognize the risen Christ in the midst of the buzzing, blooming confusion of life. The work of the Spirit is to lead me into truth, not once for all, but continually, day by day, for life.

–Barry Casey taught religion, philosophy, and communication for 37 years in Maryland and Washington, D.C. He is now retired and writing in Burtonsville, Maryland. More of the author’s writing can be found on his blog, Dante’s Woods. His first collection of essays, Wandering, Not Lost, was recently published by Wipf and Stock. Email him at: [email protected]

10 Jan

A CUP OF TRUTH

By Barry Casey — These are perplexing times. You and I might be perplexed about different things, but I’m fairly sure that both of us— at least some of the time—are lost in the maze. On the other hand, should you find yourself absolutely certain about any number of things such as reality, the existence and the nature of God, the mystery of evil, and the resurrection of Christ, your spiritual life might appear to be blissfully tranquil. But a word of caution: Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” still reverberates like a gong struck in the night.

We are living in a time of alternative facts, an oxymoron which has achieved a certain likeness to truth, mostly because many people have accepted it at face value. This means that people have assigned value to facts, some having more value than others and some having no value at all because the facts clash with their personal worldview.

This is the tail wagging the dog or the effect producing the cause or any other analogy that puts the cart before the horse. When we try to apply the facts, we are simply trying to arrive at an accurate description of a set of affairs. The accuracy is based on certain natural laws or the logic of syllogisms or on distinguishing the meaningful from the meaningless or good from evil.

When we try to determine what is true about the Jesus story, we find ourselves in puzzles from the start. Are the Gospels subject to the methods of verification we are used to in historical accounts? Are they biographies? Or are they the subjective narratives of four individuals who differ, sometimes widely, on the details of Jesus’ life?

Most readers of this essay will have some notions about taking the context of a text into account when reading and studying it. That would be the minimum benefit of an historical and critical approach to the Bible. Biblical scholarship about language, about textual and literary typologies, about sociological, archeological, and ultimately, theological ways to read the Bible have added immensely to our knowledge of Scripture. They help us to realize that our context, the way we read the Scriptures, is part of the long history of Scripture study in the life of the Church.

Recently, I was talking with a friend about where we situate the Bible in our lives and what affects us as we read it. We thought of the visual metaphor of transparent domes within which we ‘live and move and have our being.’ These domes intersect and overlap one another, so that we are able to distinguish one from another while still moving freely within all of them. For us, they are sociology, psychology, physics, neuroscience, art, literature, music, religion, ethics, philosophy, and theology. They all contain valuable resources for life and each of them is part of our search for meaning. Every one of them has an opening to the sky as a means of continuous refreshing of knowledge and understanding.

Our description might be the shared experience of many Christians today, as we understand every facet of life to be open to the search for truth. But we also agreed that the most important dome was at the center of this complex, that it tied all of them together, and that its opening to the sky was both the widest and the freshest. It is the dome of our experience with God through Jesus as channeled by the Spirit.

To bend this metaphor (perhaps to the breaking point), let us say that we are beings whose life force relies on exposure to light and, while every dome is open to the sky, the best place to be for the light is under the dome of the God experience. We are free to wander between all the domes, but we wish to be closest to the experience of God in our lives.

Like all metaphors, this one falls apart when pushed too far. But it expresses right now how I understand the interplay between God-in-Christ and myself with regard to “truth.” For me, truth is that which both fully represents what it means to be a human being and that which opens us to the transcendent—that which goes beyond the human. This includes both Job’s experience and 1 Corinthians 13; the grim reality of the Holocaust and the sublimity of Rilke’s poetry, Bach’s sacred cantatas, and Mozart’s Great Mass in C Minor.

I will venture to say there is nothing under the sun that is not in some way revelatory of ‘the light that lightens everyone who comes into the world.’ But as anyone knows who has read the Gospels, this is the paradoxical way of life. Jesus’ yoke is easy, but the way is hard. He himself is the Truth, but he is often hidden. The Truth will set us free, but we must see it first—and we’re all naked and blind and lame.

Most of all, this takes humility. Thomas Merton said, “Humility contains in itself the answer to all the great problems of the life of the soul.” Humility should also remind us that when we come up against the limits of reason in trying to understand the mysteries of God and God’s action in this world, we can at least admit that we have understood only a cupful of the showers of truth we receive from God.

There’s a certain liberation in realizing that faith acts in order to understand. That in entering the maze of life with the Spirit of Jesus, we are entering into the life of Christ here and now. In fact, we are entering a new reality. As The Unvarnished Gospel puts it from the Gospel of John: “But whoever accepts his testimony has signed his name to the reality of God.”

— Barry Casey taught religion, philosophy, and communication for 37 years in Maryland and Washington, D.C. He is now retired and writing in Burtonsville, Maryland. More of the author’s writing can be found on his blog, Dante’s Woods. His first collection of essays, Wandering, Not Lost, was recently published by Wipf and Stock. Email him at: [email protected]

29 Sep

A MORE SPACIOUS VISION

By Barry Casey — I think I have always been fascinated by imagination. When I was a teenager, it seemed to be the element that separated the true artists, musicians, poets, and writers from the rest of us. It was a quality that transcended mere talent and hard work. It was mysterious.

When I listened to the singer/songwriters of my time, like James Taylor, Paul Simon, Jackson Browne, and Joni Mitchell, they all seemed to have imagination in abundance. So did the Beatles, Sting, Peter Gabriel, and Bruce Springsteen. All of them produced music and lyrics that looked afresh at the universals of love, loss, tragedy, beauty, and the spirit.

I studied them, pulled apart their lyrics and musical structure, looking for keys to their brilliance. What they did seemed effortless, an economy of words and composition that didn’t waste a note or a syllable.

I noticed the same in some of my favorite writers, beginning with Hemingway, a master at creating a scene with as few words as possible. In different ways than Hemingway, but no less imaginative, were Saul Bellow, Kurt Vonnegut, John Gardner, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Joan Didion, and James Lee Burke.

All of them, writers, and musicians, drew on an inner power that expressed a more spacious vision than I found within myself. I wondered if you had to have lived a respectable number of years to write in that way. But many of these icons were doing some of their best work in their twenties and thirties. Maybe you had to travel the world on a merchant freighter, be a short-order cook, do time in a county jail, start a business, and fail at it, get married and divorced, or give up a law practice to write full time. Well, no, not really. All of that might give you experience to draw from, but it wasn’t necessary. There was something else.

Anne and Barry Ulanov’s book, The Healing Imagination, emphasizes imagination as the creative activity of the psyche and the soul. We work with the images that appear to us, often unbidden. “They just happen,” they write, “They arrive in consciousness from the unconscious, like a wisp of spirit. . . they speak of another life running in us like an underground river-current.”

I’ve come to believe that this creative impulse in all of us originates with the Holy Spirit, even if we don’t recognize it as such. No matter how it plays out and through whom it appears, imagination is critical to our humanity and to our spiritual growth.

The development of imagination, for example, in the act of creative writing, whether it be fiction, essays, drama, sermons, songs, or poetry is an exercise in dropping the barriers to one’s inner life. “Art’s desire,” comments Jane Hirshfield, in Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World, “is not to convey the already established but to transform the life that takes place within its presence.” The presence of an unexpected newness.

We see this newness in the parables and sayings of Jesus. They are a wellspring of wisdom, never depleted on multiple readings. I believe Jesus discovered how to listen to his unconscious, that depth which is in all of us, and how to open his mind and spirit completely to God. What he offered the disciples was a glimpse of that imaginative power.

Our reflex is to reject these images. The new breaks in upon us often without form, almost unrecognizable at times. Hirshfield comments in Ten Windows that it’s a question of how much of the random, the chaotic, and the mysterious we are willing to admit into our lives, assuming we have a choice.

We can also draw a distinction between hope and imagination. We can think of hope as an extension of present reality, but with the possibility of God breaking in to make something new. Then imagination is the seed from which hope grows. Our difficulty is in perceiving and believing that God can bring a new creation from the chaos of our situation.

Cease to dwell on days gone by
and to brood over past history.
Here and now I will do a new thing;
this moment it will break from the bud.
Can you not perceive it (Isa. 43:18,19)?

The Ulanovs note that our play as children in imaginatively creating personalities for our stuffed animals and toys, sustains our capacity as adults to enjoy and create images of God from tradition, Scripture, and experience. “Imagination digs the soil,” they write, “and brings the water so that what comes to us grows . . . In this space between our single unconscious life and our shared conscious life with others, imagination plays and heals.”

For poets, artists, and the rest of us, what really matters in life begins with questions: Who are we now? What shall we be? Where will we find healing for our souls? How can we respond to hatred and indifference with love, justice, and mercy?

Since the first thing to go in a crisis is imagination, our subversion of the status quo is plain: we must begin to imagine together the newness of what our worship, our service to our communities, and our spiritual arts could look like in the face of such global shifts as climate change, the displacement of millions, and the presence of COVID in our midst.

–Barry Casey taught religion, philosophy, and communication for 37 years in Maryland and Washington, D.C. He is now retired and writing in Burtonsville, Maryland. More of the author’s writing can be found on his blog, Dante’s Woods. His first collection of essays, “Wandering, Not Lost,” was recently published by Wipf and Stock. Email him at: [email protected]

23 Jun

MIND THE GAP

By Barry Casey … In the London Underground, there are signs cautioning us to “Mind the Gap,” calling us to attention when getting on and off the Tube. It’s a sign that should be posted in a lot of other places in our lives.

There is the gap between our public aspirations to equality and the stark realities of systemic racism, the deconstruction of voting access for millions of people, and the constant inequity between the top one percent in this country and almost everyone else.

There’s the gap between what corporations claim are their highest values of equality, service, and diversity, and the reality of discrimination, indifferent service, and a whiter shade of pale in corporate boardrooms.

There’s the gap between our personal best intentions and what we actually display to the world. And there’s the gap between what we, the church, claim as the kingdom and what we substitute in its place.

Show us the Father, the disciples challenged Jesus. And he replied, “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father.” The disciples, like us, saw only that which fit the scope of their vision. The Father was too sovereign, too remote, too terrifying to be anything less than thunder in the mountains or a mighty wind rolling back the waves of the Red Sea.

Jesus brought the Father across that gap between the human and divine, slipping the invisible footprints of the eternal God into his own along the roads of Galilee. He called his Father by an endearing name. But old habits are hard to break: we can be sure not many prayed to God as “Abba,” or “Daddy.” There was an unbridgeable gap there, fixed and immovable in their eyes—and ours.

How often do we think of Jesus as divine? Most of the time. How often do we see him as fully human? Far less. There is a gap. Yet, as human, he suffered all the temptations we do and more. To whom much is given, much is required.

If we really saw Jesus as human, we would not be surprised when his anger flares up, when he weeps over Jerusalem or when he pounces on the hypocrisy of the religious leaders. These are not weaknesses; they are evidence of an impassioned soul completely immersed in this world, yet constantly breathing the air of transcendence.

Within the spectrum of the visible, Jesus’ divinity ripples, fades, reappears and vanishes. “I and the Father are one,” Jesus claimed, infuriating the keepers of the sanctuary and bewildering the disciples. “Divinity flashed through humanity,” said Ellen White, in a metaphor as visceral as it is inadequate.

We keep trying to summarize Jesus in a thirty-second elevator pitch. It can’t be done. We want something we can carry with us, an amulet for the fingers when we are tempted or grieving. We have the images we’ve gathered from the Gospels: Jesus making his way across the waves to the terrified disciples, rubbing his thumbs across a blind man’s eyes, and enveloped in a brilliant cloud as the voice of God reverberates across the dry hills. These are part of our inner art galleries, companions to the work of artists who have stretched his likeness across their canvasses.

The senses need touch, though. Body yearns for body. We would take the Emmaus Road in the late afternoon, our hearts broken, if we thought there was the slightest chance, we could relive that moment with the mysterious stranger who innocently asked what happened in Jerusalem that weekend.

We are not within the same chronological trajectory as Jesus. There is a gap. He burns across the skies at light speed. When we read his story in the Gospel of Mark, the prose itself is breathless. The narrative runs to keep up with him. He emerges from the wilderness, the habitation of demons, and immediately turns his hometown synagogue upside down. Full of the Spirit, he announces the breaking in of the kingdom. “The time is ripe,” he says, “and God’s kingdom has come close. Change your purpose and trust in the good news.”

A man tortured by possession is in the synagogue screaming in pain. Jesus reaches deep and drags the demon out, leaving the man shaken, but grateful, the onlookers stunned by the authority of Jesus’ word. Across the gap between the stiff sanctity of the sacred service and the raw clawing out of the demon from its midst, the word of Jesus sizzles through the air: “Put on a muzzle and come out of him!”

We come up against a mystery: Jesus and his mission are one and the same. To have some inkling of Jesus as a living, breathing person is to take tentative steps across the gap between this world and the kingdom. He shows us the way to God, not through a formula for successful salvation, but by being the person in whom God was most fully seen. At the risk of cliche, the way God acts in the world is through Jesus as the Way.

We get this not through a painstakingly logical progression of thought, but by a leap of trust across the gap. In Jesus we see God as God wants to be seen and known.

Even so, there is still a gap between Jesus and us—a gap that cradles history and human nature. Over the course of a lifetime, we are drawn to Jesus in a multitude of ways. We may see him in art, sense him in music and poetry, revel in the gospel stories, interpret his words for our situation.

There is always the situation and the story. A gap stretches between the two.

The situation is this moment in history, the events, and structures we find ourselves within. Language, myth, and symbol are how our story creates us in this situation. Our situation and Jesus’ situation differ, not in nature but in degree.

The whole of human life consumed and transformed him in ways that we will likely not experience this side of death. We get glimpses of it, we hear the music occasionally, but the heavens will not part for us as they did for him. The gap remains. Therein lies our glory and our salvation. He has done what we cannot do that we might live through his life.

–Barry Casey taught religion, philosophy, and communication for 37 years in Maryland and Washington, D.C. He is now retired and writing in Burtonsville, Maryland. More of his writing can be found on his blog, Dante’s Woods. His first collection of essays, “Wandering, Not Lost,” was recently published by Wipf and Stock. Email him at: [email protected]

29 Mar

SPARE CHANGE – A MEDITATION IN FRAGMENTS

By Barry Casey

1. We take change in three ways: we refuse it, we resign ourselves to it, or we leap at it. Attitude plays a role here. Your mileage may vary.

2. Most change happens without warning. We brace for impact. We anticipate some changes; we plan for them. And many changes happen while we’re worrying about the first two.

3. Sometimes, in order to see the changes, we have to go away and then return.

4. Maybe the change we long for is to return to what is familiar. We look for stasis as soon as possible after change.

5. We are stretched between stability and novelty.

6. Nicodemus is a literalist. He plays it safe. Jesus speaks in metaphors. He risks it all.

7. The prodigal son cannot bear the same old routine every day, so he tears it up and leaves. But, on his way back, all he can think about is his mother’s soup and the way his father throws his head back when he laughs.

8. Jesus’ baptism sets ablaze his experience of God’s showering love. It is a pinnacle moment, one that anyone would long to dwell within forever. But the Spirit drives him, throws him, propels him, into the wilderness. It is a shattering change. The desert is the habitation of demons and Satan is waiting. Every vulnerability in Jesus is savagely probed and battered. All that remains, all he can cling to, is that voice in his head saying, “You are my son, my beloved, and I am well pleased with you.” Satan pushes, Jesus pulls.

9. God changes and remembers everything.

10. We change and forget the changes. If our memories fade, do the changes blur and smear? If we can’t remember a change does that mean, we have not really changed?

11. Are our changes merely adjustments to keep us in place, like treading water to stay afloat or walking backwards on a moving sidewalk?

12. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. (Psalm 51:10) The spirit lay rusting from disuse. It needed a clean heart to work.

13. Heart is stained and broken. Spirit is rusting. Weeds have grown up between them. “I miss you, Heart,” says Spirit. “I am nothing without you.”

14. The prophetic writings are entirely about change. The people have lost their way. They have trusted other gods, gone down a dark path. When this happens the land itself becomes infertile.

15. Change is constant in the Scriptures. Someone is always moving away, reversing course, changing names, repenting. The history of the people of God is the history of constant change.

16. We don’t get used to change, even though it’s happening constantly. Every change rings a bell somewhere that says, “It’s all slipping away. Nothing stays the same. You can’t stop it.”

17. The only change that makes a real difference is knowing that everything put together falls apart.

18. Random notes on change:
personal changes
personnel changes
changes in relationships
changes in my body
change in how I think about the Bible
change in how I imagine Christ
change in how I view God as Father or Mother
change to the church vs change by the church
change over time or cataclysmic change
gradual change—do we notice?
is it really change if we don’t notice it?

19. Heraclitus: You cannot step in the same river twice. God: Behold, I make all things new. Heraclitus: This is what I’m saying.

20.Cease to do evil and learn to do right, pursue justice and champion the oppressed; give the orphan his rights, plead the widow’s cause (Isa. 1:17).

21. Possibly overheard outside a Metro station. “Hey buddy, you got any spare change?” “Sorry, I haven’t got any cash. I have a Starbucks gift card, though.” “Thanks anyway.”

22.Rilke famously murmured in one of his poems, “You must change your life.” I came across this line in a novel where an American mercenary is about to push a nun out of an airplane over the sea off the coast of Nicaragua. She says this to him with a half-smile on her lips. In the novel, the mercenary hears this every night in his dreams.

23. Then one of the seraphim flew to me carrying in his hand a glowing coal which he had taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. He touched my mouth with it and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your iniquity is removed, and your sin is wiped away” (Isa. 6:7).

24.The draw, the excitement of change, is in the anticipation. The imagination blossoms, connections snap together, attention distills the sensory flood to a charged and concentrated fusion. We are, paradoxically, open to everything.

25. A voice says, “Cry,” and another asks, “What shall I cry?” “That all mankind is grass, they last no longer than a flower of the field . . . the grass withers, the flowers fade, but the word of our God endures for evermore” (Isa. 40: 6,8).

26.Listen! I will unfold a mystery: we shall not all die, but we shall all be changed in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye . . . (1 Cor. 15:51 NEB).

27. Tents
Let us say,
the church is not
a fortress. That would be
God says Luther.
No, the church
would be a tent
folded in the night,
carried toward the dawn
in another country,
having done
what we could in this place
filling the stomachs
of the famished, making a wall
against the destroyer of souls,
opening the eyes of the dead,
surprising the living once again.

28.Repentance, in the New Testament, is metanoia. It means “to turn around,” go in the opposite direction. “Change” means doing a 180, retracing one’s steps. But I like what Moses did when he saw the burning bush: he turned off the path he was on and cut a new trail toward the fire.

29.“Change will come,” we are advised. “The wheels turn slowly.” As if it was a machine without a human operator. As if there were no moral currents involved. As if we are looking at it through the wrong end of a telescope. As if Change was an old man with a walker and a heart condition.

30.I say I want the Church to change, to be inclusive, to recognize its diversity. These are phrases: what I really want is to belong without changing.

31. Buber says, “All real living is meeting.” All encounters change us. Therefore, we are continually changing. The Church could be the place where we are not afraid of that.

32. “Be the change you want to make in the world.”

33. With relation to divinity, the Greeks sought perfection, the Hebrews sought dialogue. Only one of these can be achieved. Only one can be improved by change.

34.Change is conflict with “the way things are.” After conflict comes something new. And the new becomes “the way things are.” Rising and falling; is there an end to this?

35. “She had a change of heart,” we say. How casually we speak of such an operation!

36.In math, change is a constant. The same could be said about God.

37. I had a friend who used to say, “Nothing . . . has changed.” Which was true—if you were Nothing.

38. William James did some of the first research in America into attention as a learning component. In order to hold attention, he said, the teacher must change the angle to the subject every few minutes, for without change we cannot learn. The absolutely old cannot hold our attention and the absolutely new cannot either. But the old in the new commands a lively attention. The friction between the old and the new makes the fire.

39.What does it take to make us change? I have been driven by fear to change. I would rather run toward it.

40.“For we are not now as fully whole in Christ as we will be one day.” —Julian of Norwich

41. To change oneself is the result of ambition. To allow oneself to be changed throws open the door of desire that longing is standing behind.

–Barry Casey taught religion, philosophy, and communication for 37 years in Maryland and Washington, D.C. He is now retired and writing in Burtonsville, Maryland. More of the author’s writing can be found on his blog, Dante’s Woods. His first collection of essays, Wandering, Not Lost, was recently published by Wipf and Stock. Email him at: [email protected]

05 Jan

WAS JESUS A SOCIALIST?

By Barry Casey — “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” So said Inigo Montoya in one of my favorite movies, The Princess Bride. The word under scrutiny in this article is “socialism,” and it was used in the last U.S. presidential election to demonize, terrify, and coerce people.

Many of those who feared the outbreak of socialism, should the Democrats prevail, came from lives upended by communism, the centralization of power in the state, power to control the economic means of production and every aspect of social interaction. Power to repress religion, censor artistic expression, rewrite history, and co-opt athleticism for the glory of the state. Marx’s dream of the state withering away under communism turned into the nightmare of the state becoming all-powerful. No wonder they were afraid. I have been reading books about socialism, the better to understand and decide whether Jesus was a socialist. Once you enter the forest of such books you learn that you walk always in the hours before sunrise, never in the light of day. The sky, when you can see it through the trees, is an indeterminate shade of gray: it could be cloudy, or it could just lack light. But daylight does not come. The promise cannot be fulfilled.

It’s not that there is a lack of definitions, it’s that there are too many of them. There are so many precisely because there are so many variations of socialism that one definition cannot characterize all of them. The one that seems to me the closest to the ideal is Michael Newman’s. “In my view,” he comments, “the most fundamental characteristic of socialism is its commitment to the creation of an egalitarian society.”

That is a commitment that I share and that I believe most Christians could share. It is a hope that is rooted in the Gospels and in Jesus Himself. And Jesus held it because it was an ancient calling to righteousness that Yahweh, through the prophets, had held up to God’s people.

But we do not get far into discussion of socialism—or any social and political movement, for that matter—without running up against the nature of humanity. What kind of creatures are we?

Christians say we are made in the image of God and that image has almost been effaced in all of us. It’s still there, traces of it, sometimes more in the ideal than in the actual, but it is our highest and best hope for an egalitarian society. A society of people who regard each other the way God regards each person.

Christians thus believe that humanity has incredible potential, but that it is bent away from that potential by sin— by willful disobedience, by ignorance of the truth, by an inability to hit the mark because of our finitude.

Those are three options in this game of life and the one we choose to view ourselves and others by makes a lot of difference in how we go about doing anything in this world. For many Christians, what is most striking about their view of human nature is how low a value they put upon actual, present, living, human beings as opposed to the abstract principle of Life. They echo Linus in the Peanuts cartoon, “I love mankind . . . it’s people I can’t stand.”

Generic socialism, based on a materialistic philosophy of life, looks to the empirical as its foundation and believes that our failings are through ignorance. Knowing rightly makes acting rightly possible, hence the emphasis on education and even re-education.

Ignorance as a cause of injustice is also reinforced by the appalling conditions of poverty and oppression imposed by a system that exploits the many and benefits the few. That is something many Christians can agree with.

Yet, there are plenty of Christians who make the argument that Jesus endorsed capitalism, not socialism. They point to Jesus’ refusal to make a man’s brother split his inheritance with him, and they hold up the parable of the talents as Jesus’ stamp of approval for capitalistic investment. The parable of the Good Samaritan, they claim, calls us to aid those who are hurt, not to fund the welfare state through our taxes.

Likewise, the story Jesus tells of the landowner who hires workers at the end of day and pays them the same as those who worked all day, is a testament to supply and demand, the right of private property, and voluntary contracts, not socialism. They assert that Jesus’ command to help others is rooted in free-market capitalism, the only thing that has generated wealth. Individual responsibility, not coercion by the state, is what Jesus wants.

That would be ideal if all of us, acting in our God-given freedom and from our moral responsibility, were to care for each other. But as we’ve seen in this pandemic, millions of us cannot be relied upon to care for others through the simple act of wearing a mask and social distancing.

Here is the weakness in trying to build a society on the notion that Jesus was—or was not—a socialist: both positions misunderstand moral responsibility. Those for free-market capitalism believe they have few, if any, responsibilities to their larger community, while those for socialism don’t trust individuals to contribute to the welfare of the community.

If our individual measure of success is the ability to make and keep as much money as we can, then capitalism is the best means to that end. If our measure of an equitable society for all is our goal, then some form of democratic socialism is our best bet. The problem is that we want both: unfettered opportunity for individual wealth and no poverty in our society.

The most revolutionary statement of human rights is the Sermon on the Mount. To read its three chapters, Matthew 5, 6, and 7, without sanding down its sharp imperatives is to be twisted like a pretzel. We long for such a world, yet we admit, in frustration and even anger, that it is nigh impossible, given our desire for autonomy and comfort. The closest that some have come to it are the Bruderhof, religious communities that hold no private possessions but share everything in common.

But what makes the Sermon on the Mount so revolutionary, so dauntingly comprehensive, is that Jesus includes actions and intentions. Turning the other cheek springs from gentleness and courage; not giving in to lust begins with respect for another; not making a show of your religion arises from faith and humility. In every measure we could apply, Jesus asks more of us than can be achieved, either through personal will or state requirements.

We cannot legislate morality, but that doesn’t mean we can ignore those whom Jesus especially cared for, much less exploit them. If we could do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly as Christians in our society, those actions alone would redress a multitude of sins. If we can speak clearly and courageously to the systemic injustice that locks in exploitation and misery for millions, the text, “I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me,” becomes our means to that end.

Was Jesus a socialist? No, he was so much more, more than any ideology could contain or aspire to. Light of Light, Day Ascending, Word from the Beginning, Alpha and Omega.

–Barry Casey taught religion, philosophy, and communication for 37 years in Maryland and Washington, D.C. He is now retired and writing in Burtonsville, Maryland. Read more of his work on his blog, “Dante’s Woods.” Casey’s first collection of essays, “Wandering, Not Lost,” was recently published by Wipf and Stock. Email him at: [email protected]