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We must be prepared

A brief meditation for the living of these days

by Ken Sehested

We must be prepared.
Things are likely to get worse
before they get better. We
must listen to the news,
from a variety of sources.
But we must not draw our
bearings from that news.
Ours is a larger horizon.

We must be prepared to
take emergency action, to
go completely out of our
comfort zones, in resisting
the Powers-and-Principalities’
sway over current events.

In the meantime, however,
we must not neglect
our common duties:

• to care for those close,
especially our young ones,
in guiding them toward a
life commitment to empathy,
simultaneously brave and humble;

• to care for neighbors, for
friends and acquaintances
and co-workers—no less
than for the earth itself.

• to be faithful in communities
of faith, in whatever form that
takes, to listen for and proclaim
the Word’s invitation and direction;

• to building a culture of peace
in the zip codes, the watersheds,
the time zones, in which we live
and with special attention to and
advocacy for those who presently
have no seat at the table of bounty;

• to risk the status we have been
given in the world as is present
on behalf of the world that is promised.

In light of these and an endless
list of other similar commitment,
       we plead:
Lord have mercy on our frail
appeal; and grant what we need
for the living of these days.

©ken sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org
16 July 2018

Where do you put the anger?

Anger and the animating presence of God

by Ken Sehested

            Few topics are as ambiguous for people of faith as anger. All of us get angry from time to time. But something inside us tells us we’re not supposed to be angry—even though sometimes it feels right.

            The Bible itself seems to be ambiguous. Jesus appears to forbid it when he says “every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment.” (Matthew 5:22—although a textual note adds: “Other ancient authorities insert ‘without cause’ in this verse. The rest of this text involves Jesus’ warning about insulting behavior.)

        God surely gets angry. A lot. How come God gets to, and we don’t? The Psalms, in particular, are packed full of angry statements., though we almost never read those. (For more on this, see “Angry words in the Psalms: A collection of texts.”)

        One Saturday evening a church member called my wife about worship the next morning. She had assigned him a Scripture reading.

            “I made a mistake and wrote down Psalm 109,” he said.

            “That’s the one,” Nancy said.

            “Are you sure?” he replied, “This one’s not very nice—and you want me to read this in church?”

§  §  §

            Sometimes we muster the will power to “swallow” our anger. Doing that, however, is like swallowing a mouth-full of nails. It usually produces serious digestive problems. (Have you ever heard someone described as “eaten up with anger”?)

            Psychologically speaking, swallowing anger leads either to depression (when internalized) or aggression. I am convinced you can no more stamp out anger than you can destroy energy. It simply assumes another form.

            I probably have as many questions about anger as anyone. I know four things for sure.

            1. If you’re never angry, you’re not paying attention. Conflict is constitutive to life as we know it, and envisioning and practicing redemptive response is the heart of faith.

            2. Anger is the appropriate response to every form of abuse and injustice. It is, in fact, the animating presence of God; for life as we know it is not finally fated to destruction and will be transformed. This is the promise on which faith is formed and engaged.

            3. Yet anger’s sway easily becomes a cover to act out our own fears and self-centeredness—and is especially brutal when cloaked in religious identity and claiming divine blessing. Truth be told, the only way to God is through unwelcomed, unruly neighbors. (See Matthew 5:23-24.)

            4. As with all such weighty matters, talking about the appropriate use of anger is immeasurably easier than practicing it. We remain acquainted with failure; it is risky; and sometimes bruising. But such is the stuff of glory.

            Unfortunately, few people ever admit to being angry “without cause”—any more than politicians and generals admit to waging war “without cause.” All of us are guilty of assuming a posture of righteous indignation when, in reality, we’re merely serving our own narrow self-interest. In actual fact, much of our anger is rooted in fearfulness. And fear, according to John’s epistle (4:18), is the opposite of faith. The only remedy for fearfulness, along with the anger and destructive behavior it produces, is grace.

§  §  §

            A good friend once shared an anecdote about the dilemma of handling anger as depicted in a favorite episode of an old television show, “Hill Street Blues.” Ramona wrote:

            “At the time I had small children and a house that had become a community center for children in the neighborhood. The show dealt with the ugly realities of daily life in the inner city. I watched the show faithfully and considered the characters portrayed as friends—people who understood the violence of poverty and the drug culture, realities that characterized my neighborhood.

            “In one episode, one of the young police officers was being praised by his boss for how well he had handled a case of domestic violence, and an arrest of a drug dealer, and a confrontation with a prostitute—all in a night’s work. The officer thanked him for the encouragement and then asked him, 'But, sir, where do you put the anger?'”

§  §  §

            All of us—virtually every day, in small, personal ways or in large public ones—encounter conflict and wrestle with the question about where to “put” our anger. Every episode is an exercise in faith development and the occasion for deepening grace, grace that calms our fretful habits, provides buoyancy amid the contention, and unleashes imagination and energy for building bridges across walls of enmity.

            Faith formation and the ministry of reconciliation are interwoven in the drama of redemption.

#  #  #

For more on this topic, see “How do you deal with anger? Pastoral commentary. “
©ken Sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org

News, views, notes, and quotes

Signs of the Times  •  12 July 2018  •  No. 167

Special edition
ANGER

Commentary and a collection of quotes

Introduction

        Few topics are as ambiguous for people of faith as anger. All of us get angry from time to time. But something inside us tells us we’re not supposed to be angry—even though sometimes it feels right.

        The Bible itself seems to be ambiguous. Jesus appears to forbid it when he says “every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment.” (Matthew 5:22—although a textual note adds: “Other ancient authorities insert ‘without cause’ in this verse. The rest of this text involves Jesus’ warning about insulting behavior.)

        God surely gets angry. A lot. How come God gets to, and we don’t? The Psalms, in particular, are packed full of angry statements., though we almost never read those. (For more on this, see “Angry words in the Psalms: A collection of texts.”)

        One Saturday evening a church member called my wife about worship the next morning. She had assigned him a Scripture reading.

        “I made a mistake and wrote down Psalm 109,” he said.

        “That’s the one,” Nancy said.

        “Are you sure?” he replied, “This one’s not very nice—and you want me to read this in church?!

§  §  §

        Sometimes we muster the will power to “swallow” our anger. Doing that, however, is like swallowing a mouth-full of nails. It usually produces serious digestive problems. (Have you ever heard someone described as “eaten up with anger”?)

        Psychologically speaking, swallowing anger leads either to depression (when internalized) or aggression. I am convinced we can no more stamp out anger than we can destroy energy. It simply assumes another form.

§  §  §

        I probably have as many questions about anger as anyone. I know four things for sure.

        1. If you’re never angry, you’re not paying attention. Conflict is constitutive to life as we know it, and envisioning and practicing redemptive response is the heart of faith.

        2. Anger is the appropriate response to every form of abuse and injustice. It is, in fact, the animating presence of God; for life as we know it is not finally fated to destruction and will be transformed. This is the promise on which faith is formed and engaged.

        3. Yet anger’s sway easily becomes a cover to act out our own fears and self-centeredness—and is especially brutal when invoking religious identity and divine blessing. Truth be told, the only way to God is through unwelcomed, unruly neighbors. (See Matthew 5:23-24.)

        4. As with all such weighty matters, talking about the appropriate use of anger is immeasurably easier than practicing it. We remain acquainted with failure; it is risky; and sometimes bruising. But such is the stuff of glory. —continue reading “Where do you put the anger? Anger and the animating presence of God

 

A collection of quotes

§ “But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment. . . .” —Matthew 5:22a

§ “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil.” —Ephesians 4:26-27

§ “Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage: anger at the way things are and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are.” —Saint Augustine

§ “Anger, used, does not destroy. Hatred does.” —Audre Lorde

§ The truth will set you free but first it will piss you off.” —Joe Klaas

§ “Give in to your anger. With each passing moment, you make yourself more my servant.” —Emperor Palpatine in the “Star Wars” movies

§ "If it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?" —Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

§ “Grab the broom of anger and drive off the beast of fear.” —Zora Neale Hurston

§ "Beneath the shouting, there’s suffering. Beneath the anger, fear. Beneath the threats, broken hearts. Start there and we might get somewhere." —Parker Palmer

§ One Saturday evening a church member called my wife about worship the next morning. She had assigned him a Scripture reading.
        “I made a mistake and wrote down Psalm 109,” he said.
        “That’s the one,” Nancy said.
        “Are you sure?” he replied, “This one’s not very nice—and you want me to read this in church?!

§ “Do not be quick to anger, for anger lodges in the bosom of fools.” —Ecclesiastes 7:9

§ “Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.” ―Mark Twain

§ “Declare your jihad on thirteen enemies you cannot see—egoism, arrogance, conceit, selfishness, greed, lust, intolerance, anger, lying, cheating, gossiping and slandering. If you can master and destroy them, then you will be read to fight the enemy you can see.” ―Abu Hamid al-Ghazali

§ “Men in rage strike those that wish them best.―William Shakespeare, Othello

§ “The best answer will come from the person who is not angry.” —Arabic proverb

§ “Anger as soon as fed is dead– / 'Tis starving makes it fat. ” ―Emily Dickinson

§ “Not the fastest horse can catch a word spoken in anger.” —Chinese proverb

§ "Jesus does not weep in anger or in indignation or with any satisfaction. He weeps in profound grief for this gift of God that has died." —Walter Brueggemann

§ “The fiercest anger of all, the most incurable, / Is that which rages in the place of dearest love.” ―Euripides

§ “Anger is the prelude to courage.” ―Eric Hoffer

§ “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves: one for the enemy, one for yourself.” —Confucius

§ “At the heart of all anger, all grudges, and all resentment, you'll always find a fear that hopes to stay anonymous.” ―Donald L. Hicks

§ “How much more grievous are the consequences of anger than the causes of it.” —Marcus Aurelius

§ “You will not be punished for your anger; you will be punished by your anger.” —Gautama Buddha

§ “Hatred bounces.” —e.e. cummings

§ “Talk to us about reconciliation / Only if you first experience / the anger of our dying. / Talk to us about reconciliation / Only if your living is not the cause / of our dying.” —excerpt from a poem by Filipino author Justino Cabazares

§ “No matter how hot your anger is, it cannot cook yams.” —Nigerian proverb

§ “Every war already carries within it the war which will answer it. Every war is answered by a new war, until everything, everything is smashed.” —Käthe Kollwitz

§ “I have learned through bitter experience the one supreme lesson: to conserve my anger, and, as heat conserved is transmitted into energy, even so our anger controlled can be transmitted into a power which can move the world." —Mahatma Gandhi

§ “Anger makes us all stupid.” —Johanna Spyri

§ “If I have learned anything in my life, it is that bitterness consumes the vessel that contains it.” —Rubin “Hurricane” Carter

§ “If you are patient in one moment of anger, you will escape a hundred days of sorrow.” —Chinese proverb

§ “Conquer anger by love; conquer evil by good; conquer the miser by liberality; conquer the liar by truth.” —Gautama Buddha

§ “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” —Romans 12:21

§ “Let us not be afraid to protect the weak because of the anger of the strong, or to defend the poor because of the power of the rich.” —Brazilian theologian Rubem Alves

§ “What Christians call discipleship is nothing less than organizing people for another way of life that deals with the inequalities, the frustrations, the anger, and the hopelessness of their times in constructive ways.” —Joerg Rieger

§ “For what we Christians lack is not psychology or literature . . . we lack a holy rage—the recklessness which comes from the knowledge of God and humanity. The ability to rage when justice lies prostrate on the streets, and when the lie rages across the face of the earth . . . a holy anger about the things that are wrong in the world. To rage against the ravaging of God's earth, and the destruction of God's world.” —Kai Munk, Danish pastor killed by the Gestapo in 1944

§ “Holding on to anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.” —Gautama Buddha

§ The seven deadly sins: Luxuria (extravagance, later lust), Gula (gluttony), Avaritia (greed), Acedia (sloth), Ira (wrath, more commonly known as anger), Invidia (envy), and Superbia (pride).

§ “What do you think we ought to do with the anger and the yearning for vengeance that is so powerful among us? I proposed in [Praying the Psalms] that what the lament psalms do is show Israel doing three things. First, you must voice the rage. Everybody knows that. Everybody in the therapeutic society knows that you must voice it, but therapeutic society stops there. Second, you must submit it to another, meaning God in this context. Third, you then must relinquish it and say, ‘I entrust my rage to you.’” —Walter Brueggemann

§ “A Cherokee elder sitting with his grandchildren told them, ‘In every life there is a terrible fight—a fight between two wolves. One is evil: he is fear, anger, envy, greed, arrogance, self-pity, resentment, and deceit. The other is good: joy, serenity, humility, confidence, generosity, truth, gentleness, and compassion.’ A child asked, ‘Grandfather, which wolf will win?’ The elder looked him in the eye. ‘The one you feed.’” —Cherokee parable

#  #  #

©Ken Sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org. Language not otherwise indicated above is that of the editor, as are those portions cited as “kls.” Don’t let the “copyright” notice keep you from circulating material you find here (and elsewhere in this site). Reprint permission is hereby granted in advance for noncommercial purposes.

Feel free to copy and post any original art on this site. (The ones with “prayer&politiks.org” at the bottom.) As well as other information you find helpful.

Your comments are always welcomed. If you have news, views, notes or quotes to add to the list above, please do. If you like what you read, pass this along to your friends. You can reach me directly at kensehested@prayerandpolitiks.org.

 

Angry words in the Psalms

A collection of texts

Introduction by Ken Sehested

Years ago, in putting together a special issue of Baptist Peacemaker on the topic of anger, I asked two friends (thanks again, Steve & Marion) to do a bit of research. Read through the Psalms, I asked, and compile a list of verses that speak about anger and its various synonyms—expressions of hatred, longing for vengeance, threat of retaliation, etc.

Needless to say, there is a lot there; and it’s actually shocking that the believing community’s prayer book contains such a level of vile and violent accusations and bequests. (This material is formally referred to as the imprecatory psalms.)

In his Praying the Psalms, biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann says this material reveals ancient Israel doing three things. “First, you must voice the rage. Everybody knows that. Everybody in the therapeutic society knows that you must voice it, but therapeutic society stops there. Second, you must submit it to another, meaning God in this context. Third, you then must relinquish it and say, ‘I entrust my rage to you.’”

#  #  #

How much longer, Lord, will you forget about me? Will it be forever? How long will you hide? How long must I be confused and miserable all day? How long will my enemies keep beating me down? • My God, my God, why have you deserted me? Why are you so far away? Won’t you listen to my groans and come to my rescue? I cry out day and night, but you don’t answer, and I can never rest. • I have no more strength than a few drops of water.  All my bones are out of joint; my heart is like melted wax. My strength has dried up like a broken clay pot, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth. • You, God, have left me to die in the dirt. • God despises evil people, and he will wipe them all from the earth, till they are forgotten. • Get angry, Lord God! Do something! • Don’t let those proud and merciless people kick me around or chase me away. Look at those wicked people! They are knocked down, never to get up again. • Fight my enemies, Lord! Attack my attackers! Shield me and help me.  Aim your spear at everyone who hunts me down, but promise to save me. • Chase away and confuse all who plan to harm me. Send your angel after them and let them be like straw in the wind. Make them run in the dark on a slippery road, as your angel chases them. I did them no harm, but they hid a net to trap me, and they dug a deep pit to catch and kill me. • Surprise them with disaster! Trap them in their own nets and let them fall and rot in the pits they have dug.  • I have stumbled, and worthless liars I don’t even know surround me and sneer.  Worthless people make fun and never stop laughing. But all you do is watch! When will you do something? • Disappoint and confuse all who are glad to see me in trouble, but disgrace and embarrass my proud enemies who say to me, “You are nothing!” • Proud and violent enemies, who don’t care about you, have ganged up to attack and kill me.  • Do something, God! Defend yourself.  Remember how those fools sneer at you all day long. Don’t forget the loud shouts of your enemies. • Each of those nations sneered at you Lord. Now let others sneer at them, seven times as much. • You have ignored me! So pay close attention or I will tear you apart. • In his anger, God told them, “You people will never enter my place of rest.” • You have put me in the deepest and darkest grave; your anger rolls over me like ocean waves. You have made my friends turn in horror from me. I am a prisoner who cannot escape, and I am almost blind because of my sorrow. • Your anger is like a flood! And I am shattered by your furious attacks that strike each day and from every side. My friends and neighbors have turned against me because of you, and now darkness is my only companion. • God don’t keep silent! Destructive and deceitful lies are told about me, and hateful things are said for no reason. I had pity and prayed for my enemies, but their words to me were harsh and cruel.  For being friendly and kind, they paid me back with meanness and hatred. My enemies said, “Find some worthless fools to accuse him of a crime. Try him and find him guilty! Consider his prayers a lie. Cut his life short and let someone else have his job. Make orphans of his children and a widow of his wife. • You shot me with your arrows, and you struck me with your hand. My body hurts all over because of your anger. Even my bones are in pain and my sins are so heavy that I am crushed. • My days disappear like smoke, and my bones are burning as though in a furnace. I am wasting away like grass, and my appetite is gone. My groaning never stops, and my bones can be seen through my skin. I am like a lonely owl in the desert or a restless sparrow alone on a roof. My enemies insult me all day, and they use my name for a curse word. Instead of food, I have ashes to eat and tears to drink, because you are furious and have thrown me aside. My life fades like a shadow at the end of day and withers like grass. • Show how much you love me by destroying my enemies. • In heaven the Lord laughs as he sits on his throne, making fun of the nations. The Lord becomes furious and threatens them. His anger terrifies them. • Be smart all you rulers, and pay close attention . . . the Lord might become furious and suddenly destroy you. • Come and save me, Lord God! Break my enemies’ jaws and shatter their teeth. • Make your teaching clear because of your enemies. Nothing they say is true! They just want to destroy. Their words are deceitful like a hidden pit, and their tongues are good only for telling lies. Punish them, God, and let their own plans bring them downfall. Get rid of them! Attack my furious enemies. See that justice is done. • Evil people are trapped by their own evil deeds. The wicked will go down to the world of the dead to be with those nations that forgot about you.  • Make his children beg for food and live in the slums. • Now break the arms of all merciless people. Punish them for doing wrong and make them stop. • The Lord will send fiery coals and flaming sulfur down on the wicked, and they will drink nothing but a scorching wind. • Won’t you chop off all flattering tongues that brag so loudly? • I am innocent, Lord! Won’t you listen as I pray and beg for help? • You made my enemies run, and I killed them. They cried out for help, but no one saved them; they called out to you, but there was no answer. I ground them to dust blown by the wind, and I poured them out like mud in the streets. • May the Lord bless everyone who beats your children against the rocks. • With your mighty arm, Lord, you will strike down all of your hateful enemies. They will be destroyed by fire once you are here, and because of your anger, flames will swallow them. You will wipe their families from the earth, and they will disappear. All their plans to harm you will come to nothing. You will make them run away by shooting your arrows at their faces. • Good people will be glad when they see the wicked getting what they deserve, and they will wash their feet in their enemies’ blood. • The wicked kill with swords and shoot arrows to murder the poor and needy and all who do right, but they will be killed by their own swords, and their arrows will be broken. • Everyone the Lord curses will be destroyed. • Your vicious waves have swept over me like an angry ocean or a roaring waterfall. • Wake up! Do something, Lord! Why are you sleeping? Don’t desert us forever. • Send your sharp arrows through enemy hearts and make all nations fall at your feet. • My enemies are liars! So let them be trapped by their boastful lies. • Make their table a trap for them and their friends. Blind them with darkness and make them tremble. Show them how angry you are! Be furious and catch them. Destroy their camp and don’t let anyone live in their tents. • Do something, God! Judge the nations of the earth; they belong to you. • Our God, don’t just sit there, silently doing nothing! Your hateful enemies are turning against you and rebelling. • Babylon, you are doomed! I pray the Lord’s blessings on anyone who punishes you for what you did to us. • Don’t let the wicked succeed in doing what they want, or else they might never stop planning evil. They have me surrounded, but make them the victims of their own vicious lies. Dump flaming coals on them and throw them into pits where they can’t climb out. Chase those cruel liars away! • My Lord is at your right side, and when he gets angry he will crush the other kings. He will crack their skulls, leaving piles of dead bodies all over the earth. • Let trouble hunt them down. • Praise God with songs on your lips and a sword in your hand. Take revenge and punish the nations. Put chains of iron on their kings and rulers. Punish them as they deserve. • God will destroy you forever! He will grab you and drag you from your home. You will be uprooted and left to die. • Do I not hate them that hate you, O Lord?

#  #  #

Ken Sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org

How do you deal with anger?

Pastoral commentary

by Ken Sehested

Introduction

Many years ago a friend wrote to ask about how to handle anger, naming a specific incident regarding
her congregation’s skewed budget habits. Of course, the incident is not unique, and the question
of what to do with anger stretches across a wide range of personal and public contexts.
Below is her question and commentary, then my response.

Dear Ken,

I have a question on which I would really appreciate your thoughts: what is the role of human anger in God's work?

At the moment I am working through some issues surrounding anger. On one hand I often see it as part of the passion to do God's work—as a response to injustices, thus a force that gets one to work for change. However, I am also aware that people get burned in the process of (my) anger—hmm, not likely a God objective.

Our congregation’s annual meeting is on Sunday. This is the time where money decisions get made. I am angry that our congregation has, and likely will continue, to focus on maintaining our building and not take on work outside the walls of the church. There are many issues here: the congregation's lack of vision of substantial work other than bricks and mortar, the failure of the spiritual leaders of the congregation (clergy and lay) to name this and act upon it, a lack of development and feeding of spiritual issues with the congregation.

The list goes on. I will speak on Sunday to the budget and name the shortfalls I see in it, but this is something I am really angry about. I think this is a ball of tangled thread I need to unwind. I think in the process I will separate the multiple issues of anger, including the force of God's presence, acting on the side of the oppressed, and being a catalyst for change.

How have you dealt with the anger, which I assume you feel and have felt over situations of injustice and willing blindness?

Chris

§  §  §

Dear Chris,

You ask a great question, about anger. From what you've described, I'd say your instincts about the appropriateness of anger are much the same as mine. I’m not sure I have anything to say which you don’t already know; but we all need reminding of what we know, so let me make a few comments.

As you note yourself, anger is always the appropriate response to injustice. I would go so far as to say that in such circumstances, it is evidence of the work of the Holy Spirit. (You've probably heard this quote from St. Augustine: "Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage: anger at the way things are and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are.")

Unfortunately, I suspect that you and I were both reared in a religious culture that strongly discouraged the expression of anger. (Typically, females have been more repressed than males, for reasons of gender.) And we don't have many good models on appropriate expression of anger.

On the face of it, Scripture seems contradictory at this point. Jesus warned that "every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment" (Matthew 5:22). Yet Jesus himself is pictured as expressing anger, particularly when he overthrew the tables in the temple. On the other hand, Paul wrote what I think is the pivotal text: "Be angry, but sin not" (Ephesians 4:26).

How do we do that? How do we avoid sin in the midst of anger?

Like you, I have had numerous experiences where I was very clear of the truth of my convictions, in the course of discussion or debate (in church contexts, in particular). What I have to constantly do is make a crucial distinction between the power of the Truth and the power of my argument.

I am well aware, in times past, when I was advocating for a particular position (not unlike the one you describe, re: the church's self-absorption with its own building), that part of the agitation I felt stemmed from fear—fear that I wasn't going to win the argument. When that happens, the fear in me gets expressed as aggression and enmity toward those with whom I'm debating; and it often provokes a response in kind: they become defensive and respond with hostility (often masked with piety, of course—which is the worst kind of hostility).

It's this latter kind of "anger" which, I believe, is sin. It's rooted in our own insecurities—ultimately, in our own shaky confidence in the power of the Gospel itself. (i.e., If we don't win the argument, evil will prevail—the attitude from which, in the extreme, wars develop.)

This is why the notion of nonviolence is so central to my theology and is slowly but surely impacting my actual behavior! Our tendencies to violence, like ground-in dirt, often takes a lot of “soaking” to loosen their grip on the fabric of our lives.

For each of us, I think, the true power of the Gospel gets expressed in the refusal to coerce, to insist that my conviction be upheld over alternative convictions. In other words, in the ability to "lose" without "losing it" (i.e., without getting angry in a sinful way). This confidence, ultimately, rests in our confidence in the Resurrection: that not even death, finally, can take away anything of essential value; for God is at the Center; that "while the moral arm of the universe is long, it bends toward justice" (one of M.L. King's favorite sayings, quoting Carlisle).

But be very clear at this point: This confidence is no justification for passivity or withdrawal. We will do our very best to speak the truth, as compassionately, as powerfully, as strategically, and as intelligently as possible.

In the end, though, even with this commitment to nonviolence, you can't help but make some people mad. Trying to always be "nice" (i.e., behaving so that no one is unhappy with you) is itself a form of self-absorption and self-preoccupation. It didn't happen for the prophets, for Jesus, for the disciples—why should you think you could do it if they failed?!

We do everything possible not to make people mad, of course—including taking on unmerited suffering without retaliation. But even at this point (as my wife is fond of saying), there's a difference between taking up the towel and basin of water (to wash feet) and being a doormat for people to wipe their feet on. The latter is never, ever a form of righteousness.

Of course, even when we already know these things (as I know you do), learning about how to "be angry, but sin not" comes from practice. Unfortunately, experience is a hard teacher because she gives the test first, the lesson afterwards.

So, be angry, dear sister . . . but sin not.

Ken

©ken sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org

Being Good and Doing Good

Martin Marty, Fortress, 1984

reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

This is an old treatment of ethics by a veteran theologian and historian, and it’s significant that its relevance remains constant still.  An interesting perspective is Marty’s identification of a literary basis for being ethical.  ‘Let a text speak to us and present a horizon through imagination and emotional acts’ (p 57); this is an alternative to the rational arguments for ethical discourse and action.  The final two chapters deal with how we live:  the public sphere where the individual is linked with fellow believers as well as non-believers in the whole world of human beings, and the personal sphere, various areas of private life that also have public effects (p 91).

Marty’s methodology does not go into details about what to do in certain issues (eg abortion, pacifism) but to see the relatedness of all life in what he calls ‘zones’.  The zone of the body (the self), those where we are intimately related to family, friends, the neighbourhood, institutions (schools, local church), place of employment.  The impetus to responsible living comes from our baptism, living the forgiven life.  He closes his book with an appeal to Christians to contribute to the common good, to find themselves at the foot of the cross in sight of an open tomb.  ‘That is the space where Jesus meets humans’ (p 128).

Vern Ratzlaff is a pastor and professor of historical theology at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.

Toward a True Kinship of Faiths

The Dalai Lama, Three Rivers Press, 2010

reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

This is a moving examination of inter-faith sharing, with the Dalai Lama reflecting on the implications of our world’s spiritual dimensions.  His paradigm for spiritual sharing is not the identification of religious elements that are the lowest common denominators.  ‘The move to the pluralist position of interchange with other religions by no means involve abandoning one’s central commitment to one’s own faith; it hugely enriches the understanding and practice of one’s own religion.  It allows one to see convergences with other religions; it broadens one’s respect for the extraordinary range and diversity of spiritual approaches developed entirely outside one’s faith tradition’ (pp 17,18).  He draws a distinction between what can be seen as three key aspects of a religion:  ethical teachings, doctrines (metaphysics), cultural specifics (p 150).  He points out that there is a ‘great convergence of the world’s religions:  the central message of all these religions is love and compassion; the purpose of all religions remains the same:  to contribute to the betterment of humanity.  There are fundamental doctrinal differences among the religions.  The challenge is to find a way in which the followers of these traditions can remain true to their doctrinal standpoints and see them as representing legitimate paths to G-d.

For me as a Christian, the question is not what I believe as I meet others, but how Jesus would interact.  A powerful book that struggles with the possibilities of religious pluralism from the perspective of Jesus.

Vern Ratzlaff is a pastor and professor of historical theology at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.

Wresting With G-d

Roland Rolheiser, Penguin, 2018

reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

The last few decades have brought about major changes in our lives. Globalization has reshaped virtually all of our communities in terms of ethnicity, culture and religion.  The sexual revolution has radically altered how our world sees love; political and religious extremism polarize our communities. This sets before us a whole range of new challenges in terms of how we understand life, love, sexuality, family, country, religion, faith and G-d.  Rolheiser’s book helps in a search for not only meaning and faith but a greater steadiness in life.  ‘Steadiness is the key word.  Real faith is not a set of answers; rather, it leaves us in mystery, in longing, in desire, but open to something bigger…. Our deepest desire is a gnawing disquiet inside us, a longing for Someone big enough to embrace our questions and hold our doubts’ (p 16).

Embracing our questions, struggling with our own complexity, is a continuation of the Socratic claim that ‘the unanswered life is not worth living’, and so Rolheiser outlines our wrestling with seven areas of life (eg our nature, our eroticism, our fear, our mandate to reach out to the poor, G-d, Faith and culture.  The final chapter suggests guidelines ‘for the long haul’.  Trim our spiritual vocabularies to three words:  forgiveness, forgiveness, forgiveness!  Religious and moral fidelity, when not rooted in gratitude and forgiveness, are not enough.  Metanoia is the large-hearted reminder to never close the doors to others.  Taking away the sins of our community, by transforming tension. Praying—being aware of the Spirit praying in us and for us.  Remember that we are safe through G-d, even in death. Choose the regrets we can live with best.

A powerful book of analysis and of life.

Vern Ratzlaff is a pastor and professor of historical theology at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.

The Beginnings of Politics

Moshe Halbertal & Stephen Hollmans, Princeton University Press, 2017

reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

The biblical book of Samuel is a book of political thought; it does not paint a flattering portrait of any of the work’s principle characters (eg Samuel, Saul, David, Absalom and a handful of others); no one party or individual is endorsed.  In the pre-Samuel period no standing army was established and no unity of purpose or centralization of political-military power was achieved. No standing army was established and no enduring unity of purpose or centralization of political-military power was achieved.

No single stable ruler capable of asserting his supreme authority over tribes and clans often embroiled in blood feuds could emerge.  But a supreme authority is the underpinnings of any human political order.  This is why all political entities aim to organize a smooth transfer of power one leader to the next.  Dynastic-monarchy offers one possible solution to the problem of regional continuity; the bloodlines of the king’s family provide a possible nonviolent transfer of power.  Dynastic succession is the experience of the Samuel-era Israeli state as dynastic succession seeks to provide unity and continuity. The price paid by the people for this is the imposition of taxes and military drafts.

In detailing the rise and rule of two very different kings, the writer(s) of Samuel focus on the concept of power that refuses to acknowledge moral restrictions for living among their supporters.  They end up using the power they have been granted for the welfare of the community by clinging to political power for its own sake (eg Saul’s plot to have David killed, 1 Samuel 18); the writer(s) of Samuel point out the need for community of sovereignty.  The author of Samuel does not argue against the dynastic solution to the continuity problem, but points out what centralized power inflicts on the ruler and on his children, mingling family love and political ambition.

The Beginnings of Politics is a powerful treatment of political implications of power in politics, whether in David’s time or in ours.

Vern Ratzlaff is a pastor and professor of historical theology at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.

The Sin of Uncertainty

Peter Enns, Harper, 2016

reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

Our beliefs provide a familiar structure to our life; they give answers to our big questions:  does G-d exist?  Is there a right religion?  Why are we here?  Church is too often the most risky place to be spiritually honest.  For Enns, true faith and correct thinking were two sides of the same cover, and his religious structure no longer constituted an unshakeable persuasion.  He came to see that ‘knowing’ as his church held, has its place but not at the centre of faith, and he realized that he could choose to trust G-d regardless of how certain he felt (p 15), when we too often confuse G-d   with our thoughts about G-d (p 19). This results in the problem of trusting our beliefs rather than trusting G-d (p 21). The problem is that knowledge based faith is a largely unquestioned part of our western culture.

Faith in the biblical sense is rooted deeply in trust in G-d.  A life of faith that accepts this biblical challenge is much more demanding than being preoccupied with correct thinking.  ‘Trust is not marked by unflappable dogmatic certainty but by embracing as a normal part of faith the steady line of mysteries and uncertainties, seeing them as opportunities to trust more deeply’ (p 205)  ‘Trust in G-d, not in correct thinking about G-d, is the beginning and end of faith’ (p 211), a faith rooted in trust, not in certainty.  ‘The life of Christian faith is more than agreeing with a set of beliefs about Christ, morality or how to read the bible.  It means being so intimately connected to Christ that his crucifixion is ours’ (p 162).

Enns focuses on the essence of Christian faith, on trust ,not on formulae.

Vern Ratzlaff is a pastor and professor of historical theology at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.