June 28 — The Idea of Humanity

A week ago Friday, in the aftermath of the Iranian elections,  the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei preached an Orwellian sermon, to borrow David Brook’s characterization of it, where he reiterated the total control the theocratic arm over the quasi democratic arm of the government.  That control would be asserted by bloody crackdown upon the protesters who dispute the counting of the votes in the election 2 weeks ago.  David Brooks wrote in a curious coincidence with my own recent reading:

The Iranian regime has always been fanatical of course. During the war with Iraq they recruited groups of children to march across the battlefields to set off the landmines. But over the years religious insanity has cooled and it has been replaced by a more traditional autocratic insanity.

I use that word — insanity — advisedly. In “The Origins of Totalitarianism” Arendt deciphered the way autocratic regimes, and the people under them lose touch with reality. Everything becomes suspicion. Conspiracy theories fester. No one can trust one another. Words lose their meanings.

Today’s gospel story comes as a kind of coda to Jesus’ description of himself as the good shepherd.  This self-portrait is unique to John.  The other gospels do not speak of Jesus this way.  But John’s writing is also of a different kind from the three synoptic gospels.  In John, words lose their literal meanings.  John’s Jesus is imaginative and poetic.  Water becomes wine, Nicodemus struggles in the middle of the night with the meaning of life, bread from heaven feeds the multitudes.  The good is no longer wrapped up in the temple religion — it belongs to the people — they are gods.

When we read the gospels, we recognize that words are slippery – and that in that elusiveness, they are powerful. The question is always whether that power is used to heal divisions, to expose the dark corners of humanity to the light of criticism and love or to stir up the mob and lead us on the procession of endless capital and power accumulation – the origins, suggests Arendt, of totalitarianism.

But just this is a problem.  Jesus’ poetic words challenge people’s hold on power, challenge their claim for unlimited control over the lives of some people. And Jesus’ enemies demand to know how he can so liberate.  Bu because the idea of humanity Jesus poses is so radically free, so deeply connected to the needs of the other,  they cannot understand and they are threatened. They seek to kill him.   People are really upset.  In the encounter with Jesus this happens.  His demand for a decision based on inward authority and grounded in one’s own radical freedom no matter who they are, slave or free, jew or gentile, straight or gay, drives people from the church today.

Of course, Jesus’ demand for a decision, is only accepted as one experiences his generous ideal of humanity — a New World is ours for the embrace — but we must become like babies.  It will not be taken by force — nor will it forcefully take those who preach against it.  Nevertheless, it offers something else — peace to those who are poor and persecuted, happiness to those who forgive those who hurt them.  Its risks are great — your life may be threatened.

But now I’m getting ahead of myself.  Let me backup a bit and mention why I refer now to the Gospel of Thomas.

The reason most scholars look to the gospel is that it appears to be a sayings source for the four gospels in the New Testament, meaning that unlike the other odd gospels discovered in the last 75 years, Thomas has enough shared material to be obviously related.  And the fact that it is arranged is a collection of short, pithy sayings, half of which or not found in any other gospel, leads us to believe that it may have been used by other gospel writers as a source for their works.

It is also quite interesting that it contains no stories of Jesus’ life, and no stories of his death and resurrection.

Why does all of this matter?  In part because it helps us think about how to read the gospels.  There was not just one early version of Christianity — there were many.  And the people who emrbaced these different versions had diverse sets of beliefs and practises — and yet nevertheless, shared a common essence.

Stating what that essence is, is always fraught with difficulty.  Someone will no doubt complain, after I do, that I’ve missed something important.  Nevertheless, and in the context of the incredible struggle for a responsible, open society in Iran, let me offer the following:  The essence of Christianity is that through Jesus people discovered, and still do, a possibility of faith in God’s love as a radical freedom that is both a gift and a demand.  I use the word radical in its old sense, meaning the most basic — something which is in no way derivative.  The freedom Jesus revealed, or re-presented is not unique to Jesus, but is the possibility of faith in God as the expression of pure, unbounded love, and as such theoretically open to Christian and non-Christian alike.

When I heard about the martyrdom of the Iranian woman we all know by her first name, Neda — I was refused to get on youtube and watch it.  I did not want to watch another human being die, and be a part of an internet voyeur crowd curious to see what that might look like.  I’ve seen that.  And its hard.  But yesterday morning, I heard an Iranian woma

Our reading from Thomas today, nicely illustrates how the gift and the demand which is the essential characteristic of the freedom God’ offers as pure unbounded love, works. The idea of the baby expresses the pure gift of freedom which is not shrouded by the self’s drive to power accumulation.

When the disciples don’t understand that Jesus uses words poetically, he tries another approach. He outlines the demand, hoping that if they get what he is asking from them, they’ll get what he is offering — the two are connected. Because we’re free, by the mystery of the love of God which actually makes a difference to us in our creative futures, we’re free to treat women and men as humans alike. We’re free to behave honestly, we’re free to respond to the body language of another. We’re free to be free, and to use the power of words to make for freedom.

When I heard about the martyrdom of the Iranian woman we all know by her first name, Neda — I refused to get on youtube and watch it. I did not want to watch another human being die, and be a part of an internet voyeur crowd curious to see what that might look like. I’ve been there. I’ve seen that. And it’s hard. But yesterday morning, I heard an Iranian womanon the news who’d had the same reaction.  This woman later realised that this was a film of unprecedented importance — the body language of all of those involved in that traumatic moment translated the body language of a nation struggling against the Philosophy of Hobbes, a nation struggling to be human within a regime that excludes in principle the idea of humanity.  The video clip is in no way voyeuristic, it is heart-wrenching, but not cheap.  Somehow, watching video clip and despite the tears of sorrow, I was moved to feel that common origin of the human race and of our great responsibility, the demand that comes with the gift of freedom, to do away with the philosophy of Hobbes, to do away with all that could possibly move a people to act like Hobbes’ Leviathan, to do away with all that could explicitly or implicitly contribute to a situation where the protection of power and wealth is paramount, even over life and freedom in it.

Perhaps, you’re thinking that since you don’t know what Hobbes’ Leviathan is, that I couldn’t possibly be talking to you.    Again, without getting to heavy for a summer Sunday morning let me quote Hannah Arendt who reminds us that

it is significant that modern believers in power are in complete accord with the philosophy of the only great thinker who ever attempted to derive public good from private interest, and who for the sake of private good, conceived and outlined a Commonwealth whose basis and ultimate end is accumulation of power.

Arendt goes on to illustrate how the safety and security of the private individual is the sole purpose of the Commonwealth and how that purpose subtly undermines through the accumulation of capital and power, the notion of community that extends beyond borders, the notion of community that is necessary if we are not to continue on in a perpetual state of war. The final, logical progression of the people who conceive of life as a proces of perpetually becoming more powerful, is, sadly, no end to the Neda’s of this world.

When Herman Daley, a World Bank Economist who has written on environmental economics mentioned to some of his colleagues that the root of our problem is the economic model of unlimited expansion, and that he wanted to explore with them ways to bring third world countries out of poverty without bringing them into this trap of unlimited expansion, he was viewed as a pariah.  If we want to avoid Hobbes’ Leviathan, I suggest that we need to join Herman Daley, and think about ways to grow for the sake of the common good.

Iranian national poet Simin Behbahani has written two poems that I want to close with today.  The first, called Stop Throwing My Country to the Wind, is ostensibly directed to Ahmadinejad.  But it is better read by Westerners as a poem directed to us.  We too have a responsibility.

Stop Throwing My Country To The Wind

If the flames of anger rise any higher in this land Your name on your tombstone will be covered with dirt.

You have become a babbling loudmouth. Your insolent ranting, something to joke about.

The lies you have found, you have woven together. The rope you have crafted, you will find around your neck.

Pride has swollen your head, your faith has grown blind. The elephant that falls will not rise.

Stop this extravagance, this reckless throwing of my country to the wind. The grim-faced rising cloud, will grovel at the swamp’s feet.

Stop this screaming, mayhem, and blood shed. Stop doing what makes God’s creatures mourn with tears.

My curses will not be upon you, as in their fulfillment. My enemies’ afflictions also cause me pain.

You may wish to have me burned , or decide to stone me. But in your hand match or stone will lose their power to harm me.

Simin Behbahani — June 2009

That poem was a telling of the great responsibility that is ours — the demand that comes from the knowledge of the mysterious unbounded love of God that calls all of God’s creatures beloved.

The next is the poem of the gift of freedom — The gift that sets us free, even in the face of death.  It is “For Neda Agha-Sotan:”

For Neda Agha-Soltan

You are neither dead, nor will you die.

You will always remain alive.

You have an eternal existence.

You are the voice of the people of Iran.

Simin Behbahani

Neda happens to be the persian word for calling. And while her death is no more tragic than the thousands of others who have died in the Middle East in the past few years, many Iranians see her still calling all people to a common humanity – to an idea of peace according to which brown, yellow or black races are predestined not for war, but for commity and international cooperation.

There is, I admit, a difference between fact and fact. The actual external details are always a matter of controversy; and in this sense Lessing was perfectly right when he warned us against coupling matters of the highest moment with “accidental truths of history,” and hanging the whole weight of eternity on a spider’s thread. But the spiritual purport of a whole life, of a personality, is also an historical fact: it has its reality in the effect which it produces; and it is here that we find the link that binds us to Jesus Christ. It is a feeling which is one with devotion itself; and this is what the same Lessing meant when he spoke the word of deliverance: “Even though we may be unable to remove all objections that may be made against the Bible, nevertheless, in the heart of all Christians who have attained an inner sense of its essential truths, religion remains steadfast and intact.


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