The Lord said, “All right” he is in your power. Just don’t kill him.” He covered Job with boils, from his scalp to the soles of his feet. Job took a piece of broken pottery to scratch himself with and sat down in the dust. His wife said to him, “How long will you go on clinging to your innocence? Curse God and die.” – Job 2:6-9 (Translated by Stephen Mitchell)
It is often enough, and always with great surprise, intimated to me that there is something both ordinary and unusual in all my writings, from the “Birth of Tragedy” to the recently published “Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future:” they all contain, I have been told, snares and nets for short sighted birds, and something that is almost a constant, subtle, incitement to an overturning of habitual opinions and of approved customs. What!? Everything is merely human – all too human? With this exclamation my writings are gone through not without a certain dread and mistrust of ethic itself and not without a disposition to ask the exponent of evil things if those things be not simply misrepresented. – Nietzsche, Human, All too Human
A few weeks ago, at Rutgers university, a young man named Tyler Clemnti, committed suicide, following an instance of cyberbullying. Clementi was surreptitiously filmed and the video broadcast to the world having an intimate moment with another young man. Clementi was an 18 year-old freshman student and was just one of the many recent instances of bullying on campuses leading to suicide.
In another, ironically related piece of news, the Supreme Court opened session this week by hearing the case of a family traumatized by an anti-gay, anti-war chanting slogans at the military funeral of their son.
My thoughts this morning are only secondarily about bullying. It is not that I think that a sermon about bullying is illegitimate or unhelpful — on the contrary, I suppose we need, more than ever, explicit help around the question of bullying. We see bullying, not just in school yards or college dorms, but in so-called adult behavior. One of the candidates for governor of New York, Jim Palladino, took a page out of the book of the television and radio talk show bully pulpit recently. In an interview last Wednesday on NPR he yelled at the host that he’s taking out the trash and that that includes the current speaker of the state Assembly, Sheldon Silver.
Yes, we need to be thinking about bullying.
It seems to me there are two basic approaches to doing this. One approach might look at case studies so that we might see the effects of bullying and get a glimpse of what it looks like when it begins.
Another way might be for us to train our moral fiber so that we see in our enemy, not the object for bullying, but the subject of prayer. The point cannot be that our behavior toward our enemies is to be a sudden departure from from our behavior in general. Our moral fiber is just that which allows us to pursue, even given serious differences of opinion, the good.
Just what I mean by that pursuit of the good is precisely the purpose of my sermon this morning as we talk some about, what one mentor of mine called, the most sublime book in the bible, the Book of Job.
I’m not sure, however that you might call the book of Job very sublime at all, if you were to pick it up and read from the beginning to the end of this morning’s reading. In these first few chapters, that Old Testament image of God — old, resentful, angry, bullying, seems to be up to the same old junk.
But Jesus’ statement that a house that is divided against itself must fall is more than just a useful biblical quote for politicians to bandy about disparaging partisanism, it is Jesus’ refutation of that old idea that God is bully. It’s not complicated — Jesus simply argues that for God, God cannot be lover and bully. In fact the politicians’ use of it is somewhat misleading since the point is that humans, not God, divide the house all of the time.
It is painfully obvious that our world is divided and contains within it a great deal of evil. Students, who were otherwise model students at a prestigious university engage in inexplicable and despicable behavior. Politicians who have aims for high office in order to make their communities better places get defensive and treat their opponents as something less than human. Personal finances in ruins because of an economy brought down by greed.
Classical thinkers — and here we must include the initial perspective of Job — talk about a God who is able to do anything. There is no power God cannot be. And so the question naturally arises, if God is so good, then why does God allow such evil?
Even while Job maintains his innocence in these early chapters, he maintains it with a kind of anxiety about the future. He is presented as a pious man and a man of perfect integrity — and yet he wonders if God might operate by the same cause and effect rules of our world. Assuming as he does that God is both all good and all powerful, his assumption is that God takes care of the pious and destroys the wicked. In fact, he has his children come once a year for a feast and a purification, taking no chance with them either.
At this point, Job’s wife steps in — saying that if God’s law is unjust Job ought to grow up and protest it. Mind you, they both continue to operate under the assumption that God responds to human sin with divine punishment — it’s just that Job is uncertain how good he has to be, while Job’s wife is certain that he’s been good enough and therefore unjustly punished. So sure is she that God and Job are wrong, that she famously urges Job to curse God and die.
Job’s wife has history on her side. In Judaism and, later in Christianity, injustice was often perpetrated by powerful rulers who had no qualms about being the bully. The only recourse the people could have to proclaim one’s innocence was to take one’s life in an act of martyrdom. Job’s wife offers Job “a means by which to perform the ultimate act of resistance to the violence of oppressive legal systems: martyrdom.” R. Magdaelene
It’s important to remember that we’re not talking about committing suicide. Martyrdom comes from the greek word meaning witness. The witness here is to the freedom that lies beyond the power of any ruler or state to oppress. Martyrdom is an act of resistance that disarms the e bully of his power which has long term reverberations for others oppressed by the unjust legal system.
Job obviously does not go down in history for taking his life, but he does go down in history for having changed the debate. Or at least he would have if we’d have paid attention.
Job does not martyr himself, but his wife’s words do cause him to think. Famously, Job is silent for a week. He breaks his silence by cursing God. He is no longer passive. He will engage God in debate about the injustices. The bulk of the rest of the book detail the arguments that he carries on with his friends and with God. His friends, of course argue that Job is wrong, that he must have done something to deserve this. Their metaphysics remains classical through and through. God is all powerful. “The evil from which you suffer,” Job, “is created by God, because nothing exists or happens that God does not ordain.”
But Job, already worn down by Job’s friends, has new ears to hear God’s side of the case. In poetic style God paints a picture of the independence of the world from God.
Does the rain have a father? Who has begotten the dew? Out of whose belly is the ice born?. .. Can you tie the Twins together or loosen the Hunter’s cords? Can you light the Evening Star or lead out the Bear and her cubs?. . . If you shout commands to the thunderclouds, will they rush off to do your bidding?”
Slowly Job begins to realize that he has uttered things too human about the incomprehensible. Slowly Job begins to realize that he has groped for the infiinite and been in error. Slowly, Job begins to realize that to call the divine infinite in power is to reduce God to a mere abstraction and creation to a mere stage for puppets.
A merely infinite anything, including God, is indefiniteness. It is sheer continuity, and sheer continuity is a blur. The God Job encounters in the whirlwind is not, cannot, be an abstraction.
But if a merely infinite God is an idolatry; is a merely finite God the answer?
Job’s final answer to the question of life is far more profound than anything the word “merely” can modify. Job’s answer is that God cannot be other than love. Real love. The kind of love that does not fight its embodiment in finite things; love loves so truly that it cannot create to control, loves to set free.
Job’s beautiful final answer to the question of life? “I had heard of you with my ears; but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I will be quiet, comforted that I am dust.”
Let me finish this morning by making a brief nod to Nietzsche. We don’t make many nods to Nietzsche in church — he being so generally antagonistic.
But sometimes, as in his critique of religion as it’s usually practiced, he gets to something important about the way religion should be practiced. This short excerpt is from the first chapter of Human, All too Human, which challenges the traditional Christian idea of good and evil. The very idea that I’ve challenged this morning.
His point, if I understand him correctly — is to wonder how it is possible to find ourselves becoming more conscientious people if our moral standard, God, remains mired in the tradition about God that Job’s friends represent. Nietzsche wonders if his own writings are not read with a certain amount of suspicion because we the readers are skeptical of real freedom, blinded by our idea that God must be infinite in power. We are saddled with an image of God that is human, all to human and have held, as the form into which our moral lives are cast, a God of power and might, and not a God of love in free, creative interchange.
Perhaps it seems that a life free of snares is just the goal to which all moral thinking aims. But for Nietzsche and Jesus, the problem is not the snare, but the short-sightedness. To be free to love is to be free to be caught in a net.
But, and this is Job’s point, to be caught in a net for failure to be free is to be in need of a partner to say — common’ let’s get up and curse this human, all too human business. For it has nothing to do with God and nothing to do with the life God would have us live.
Our moral fiber is weakened as it imitates a God who bullies. It is strengthed as it sheds these human, all too human forms and reaches for higher, better, truer aims. Then, too, we might find comfort in our own mortality. May it be for you. Amen.