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True Inclusiveness According to the Word of God (Part I) - by Fleming Rutledge


The Beacon Lecture Series at All Saints, Chevy Chase, Maryland

By Fleming Rutledge

I have two topics on my mind that I propose to disclose gradually rather than announce them at the beginning. The two are related to one another. I propose to divide this presentation into two parts, pausing in the middle for some discussion.

I understand that I am inside the Beltway here, and in a presidential election year at that; therefore I know that everything I say will be in a political context. I am certainly capable of making a politically partisan speech, but as a preacher of the gospel I do not do that. I did not do it last Advent when I preached at the National Cathedral on the eve of the Iraq war, and I am not going to do it now. What I do intend to do is raise questions that all American Christians should be thinking about in these dangerous times. I am also aware that I am speaking in the midst of a volatile situation in our Episcopal Church. I hope that when I am finished you will see that I have addressed that situation, but indirectly, by focusing on something else that I think is even more important that the issue that divides us at present.

I have extensive files on my two topics and I am adding to them all the time. A recent addition is a review of a new book called In the Land of Magic Soldiers. The title refers to the widespread belief in the sub-Saharan African countries that there are certain magic rituals, going even to the extreme of cannibalism, that will guarantee immunity to bullets, hence, “magic soldiers”. The book is about the gruesome civil war in Sierra Leone. The section of the review that caught my attention begins, “What is of value in this book is less what it says about Sierra Leone than about the human condition.”

I am always interested in what people are writing about the human condition. The review discusses “the most haunting figure” in the book, a white South African mercenary who flies a combat helicopter for the Sierra Leone government, indeed the only one that the government owns. This white man from South Africa says that the thrill of machine-gunning people on the ground from the air is “better than sex...There’s a lot of adrenaline going. You’re all keyed up, and when you realize you’re on target, that you’ve taken out the enemy, that’s a great feeling.” This same man pays for schooling for local children out of his own pocket and plans to start a local burn center because there isn’t one anywhere in Sierra Leone. The reviewer observes that this man “is so memorable because the strange blend of killing and healing in his life is a reminder of how precarious is the balance between them, and of how easily it can be tipped one way or the other by the societies we build for ourselves.”

Another recent article in The New York Times features an interview with Dr. Allen Keller, the kind and self-sacrificing director of the Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture. The interviewer is clearly appalled by the ghastly stories that Dr. Keller tells him about his patients. The doctor says, “How could people do such things? I’m scared that it’s easier than we think.” That is in part why he opposes torture to extract information from terrorists. “We mustn’t go there, It cheapens who we are.” Clearly this doctor who ministers to victims is aware that our propensity for harming others is closer to the surface than we like to think.

Adam Michnik, the enormously wise philosopher of the Solidarity Movement in Poland, wrote these words in his classic letter from prison:

I am not afraid of the general’s fire. There is no greatness about them; lies and force are their weapons... I am sure that we shall win...we shall leave the prisons and come out of the underground onto the bright square of freedom. But what will we be like then? I am afraid not of what they will do to us, but of what they can make us into....I pray that we do not change from prisoners into prison guards.

I have collected these thoughts, and dozens of others like them, into a file which has become my constant companion in recent months. I am offering some of them now in the context of the movie that a lot of people think is going to win the OscarThe Lord of the Rings. I am not a fan of the movie but I am a lover of the book, and indeed I have a book on the subject myself coming out some time this spring, a book called The Battle for Middle-earth. The title is significant because I wanted to convey the sense of a great conflict. Because of the movie, this conflict is now being widely misinterpreted as a clear-cut battle between Good and Evil. The Danish-American actor who plays Aragorn in the movie, Viggo Mortensen, has been campaigning against this misunderstanding. Here is some of what he wrote in the illustrated guide to the second movie in the series:

The second installment of The Lord of the Rings comes to theatres in a world that is no more secure than the one in which the first was released last year...It would seem from even a cursory reading of world history that there is no new horror under the sun, that we will perhaps always have to contend with destructive impulses in ourselves and others...The most enlightened beings in Middle-Earth are conscious of the ubiquity of good and evil in neighbors, strangers, adversaries, and most important, themselves. ]

Everywhere I go I hear people talking about the Lord of the Rings movie as a battle of Good vs. Evil. This would have displeased the author, J. R. R. Tolkien, a great deal. He made it very clear in his many letters that he did not mean it to be interpreted that way. All of his characters are vulnerable to the power of evil. Not even Gandalf, the archangel figure, is immune; some of Tolkien’s angels (the Valar) and Elves were themselves responsible for all the evil that had come into Middle-earth. All of this mythology is based on the Christian tradition, suggested in the book of Isaiah, that the angel Lucifer had rebelled against God. In Tolkien’s letters, he often put quotation marks around the word “good” as if to say, this person that thinks he’s so good may not be so good after all.

One of the most challenging things about growing into Christian maturity is learning and acknowledging one’s own faults and weaknesses. When we have done this, we are not so quick to assign others to the category of “bad” or “evil.” In Shakespeare’s play, All’s Well That Ends Well, two young noblemen are discussing the mixed motives of the characters around them. One says to the other, “The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together.”

I was at a dinner party the other night consisting of some exceptionally intelligent people, some of whom were political conservatives and some liberals. The conservatives kept talking about “evil.” One of the liberals burst out, “I don’t believe in evil!” The others looked at him in shock. I was shocked too, at first, but something told me he hadn’t meant it quite the way it sounded. Upon being questioned further he admitted that he didn’t mean to say there was no such thing as evil. What he didn’t agree with was the way the others were talking so readily about who was evil and who was not.

The reason that Europeans look askance at Americans when we talk about evil is not that they don’t know evil when they see it. It’s that we Americans love to think of ourselves as innocent and good. (Graham Greene’s cynical journalist in The Quiet American is typical here: “God save us always from the innocent and the good” ) We feel injured when other countries don’t like us. I encountered anti-Americanism for the first time on my first trip to Europe when I went out on a date with a Dutch boy. I have never forgotten how wounded I felt when I learned that there were people who thought American intentions were malign. I took it personally. We Americans are used to thinking of ourselves as supremely well-intentioned, so we are outdone when others don’t see us that way.

Polls are regularly released about the religious beliefs of Americans. A majority of Americans, especially in the “red” states that voted Republican in 2000, believe in heaven and hell. Of these, close to 90% percent believe that they themselves are going to heaven. An equal percent think they know someone else who is going to hell. This should not surprise us. Twenty-two years of parish ministry showed me that most people consider themselves entitled to judge the motives and actions of others in a negative way while giving themselves a pass.

If we read the Psalms regularly, as all Christians should, we will readily come up against a contradiction. Many of the Psalms contain passages in which the speaker declares a distinction between the righteous and the wicked. For example, Psalm 1:

Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous; for the Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish. (Psalm 1:5-6)

When I started looking through the Psalms for examples of this, though, I got a surprise. I was expecting to find many Psalms where the speaker (singer) calls himself righteous and the other person wicked. But there were far fewer examples of this than I thought. Even in the Psalms where the speaker prays for terrible things to happen to his enemies, the imprecations are always provisional. The general sense is, “God, this is the way I feel about these wicked people, I’d like you to bash their children’s heads against the wall, but I realize it’s up to you, not me, to make these judgments.” It’s as if the speaker is hoping that he is one of the righteous but isn’t quite sure; there is always a proviso that only God can determine and only God can punish. Throughout the Psalms the words of the singers seem to indicate that no matter how bitterly angry they may be at the “wicked,” they are neverin the final analysisexempting themselves as if they were beyond judgment.

In any case, the imprecatory Psalms are balanced by those written (and sung) in the voice of a worshipper who knows himself to be a sinner before God, no better than anyone else, and unable to save himself by himself.

Remember not the sins of my youth, or my transgressions; according to thy steadfast love remember me, for thy goodness’ sake, O Lord!.... For thy name’s sake, O Lord, pardon my guilt, for it is great. (Psalm 25:7, 11)

Day and night thy hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. I acknowledged my sin to thee, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord”; then thou didst forgive the guilt of my sin. [Psalm 32]

O Lord, rebuke me not in thy anger, nor chasten me in thy wrath! For thy arrows have sunk into me, and thy hand has come down on me. There is no soundness in my flesh because of thy indignation; there is no health in my bones because of my sin. For my iniquities have gone over my head; they weigh like a burden too heavy for me. (Psalm 38)

Those of us who are over sixty will remember how we used to say “there is no health in us” in the General Confession. That last Psalm is one of the sources for that declaration:

There is no soundness in my flesh... there is no health in my bones because of my sin.

The point of all this is to show how the line that the Bible draws between the “bad guys” and the “good guys” is not as sharp as we think it is. Jesus makes a great many statements about what will happen to the unrighteous, but he almost always makes these statements to those who think they are the righteous, especially when he perceives that they were congratulating themselves on being better than others. There is much wisdom about this in the book of Proverbs:

All the ways of a man are pure in his own eyes, but the Lord weighs the spirit...Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall. It is better to be of a lowly spirit with the poor than to divide the spoil with the proud (Proverbs 16:2, 18-19). Another Proverb, stated more strongly, asserts, There are those who are pure in their own eyes but are not cleansed of their filth. (Proverbs 30:12)

At last year’s Academy Awards you will remember that two major Oscars were given to The Pianist. A whole new marketing strategy was promptly rolled out to pull in a new audience. From the new ads, you would never have known it was a movie about the Holocaust. The illustration looked like My Big Fat Greek Weddingit shows a happy, smiling family raising glasses and toasting one another. OK, fair enough, maybe that would attract more people to see the film. But the new pitchand here’s my pointwas “Experience the Triumph of the Human Spirit.” Those of you who have already seen this superb movie will know that it is not in the least about the triumph of the human spirit. It is about human beings exhibiting extremes of wickedness and goodness often within the same person. It is about the way that enormous evil takes over people in wartime so that so-called “good” people often do shameful things and seemingly “evil” people occasionally do good things. It is about the pressure of forces spinning out of control, causing people who were friends or neighbors or even blood relatives to turn against one another because of the moral chaos and loss of context that occurs when evil runs rampant, and whowho?can say what he or she would have done under those circumstances?

So this evening I am placing the emphasis on the predicament that you and I share, every single one of us in this room. Evil lies close at hand. Who said that? Well, actually, it was St. Paul. I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. And he continues: I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate...I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me (Romans 7:15-20). Is there anyone here tonight who does not recognize this?

Many church members today who do not know much about the Bible have been led to think that Jesus was loving, embracing, inclusive and so forth whereas St. Paul was harsh and punitive and enjoyed excluding people. This is a very serious misunderstanding of Paul’s relationship to the witness of the four Gospels. If we had only the four Gospels we would not have fully understood the radicality of the new society that our Lord was creating when he sat at table with those who were considered notorious sinners. Paul is the one who spelled it out for us. It is Paul who says In Christ Jesus you are all sons [children] of God, through faith. For all who were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:26-28). It is Paul who said For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. (I Corinthians 12:13) Above all it is Paul who wrote Romans 9-11 which gives us the most comprehensive vision of salvation across boundaries that we have in the entire Bible.

So it is crucially important to understand how the Epistlesthose by Paul and those by othersinterpret the theological consequences of the stories that are told in the four Gospels. I have been in conversation with the religion editor of Time magazine. He is doing a story for Time about the Crucifixion, slated to appear on Ash Wednesday when the Mel Gibson movie is finally released. The religion editor is Jewish and knows very little about Christian faith, though I found him eager to learn. The thing that I tried to stress in our conversations is that what’s missing from all the movies about Jesus is the apostolic preaching, that is, the post-Easter preaching. The movies tell the story of what happened, or what the Gospel writers say happened, but they can’t tell us very much about why it happened or what it meant unless they include some of the apostolic preaching, which they never do. (Of course the apostolic preaching shaped the Gospels, but that is more implicit than explicit. The Epistles are wholly explicit in their teaching.) St. Paul is the one who fought for the inclusion of the Gentiles in the gospel, and by extension the inclusion of anyone who lay outside the boundaries of what was considered righteous and godly. That is why he wrote in Romans 5 that Christ died for the ungodly.

The most radical of Paul’s equalizing, inclusive statements, are in Romans. For instance:

All human beings, both Jews and Greeks [godly and ungodly], are under the power of sin; as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one...All have turned aside, together they have gone wrong;...There is no fear of God before their eyes. (Romans 3:9-18)

You may be turned off by this, but just wait. The next one is the most radical of all. It is from Romans 11:

God has consigned all men to disobedience in order that he may have mercy upon all. (Romans 11:32)

I would argue that this is the most inclusive verse in all of Scripture, yet many resist it, partly because it seems to put all the responsibility on God, and partly because the typical human being does not like to think of himself as “consigned to disobedience.” Yet only yesterday I saw a big feature story in the Norfolk paper about all the people who are feeling guilty because it’s only February and they have already broken their New Year’s resolutions. Consigned to disobedience! Have you taken a look at the Ten Commandments lately? If you are honest about yourself in relation to them, you will understand that if you were left to yourself you are consigned to disobedience.

The General Confession of the church is meant to embody these truths about the human condition. We say it all together without any distinctions being made among us. “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done...we have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts...and there is no health in us.” Last weekend I talked with a woman who is a chaplain on Death Row in a Virginia prison. When she is with a prisoner and they say the confession, there is no distinction between them.

I wonder if you caught that quotation from Scripture as it went by. From Romans 3: There is no distinction; all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (3:22-3).

One sign of a true Christian, and a true Christian society, is a recognition of this truth. Humility and repentance are therefore hallmarks of our faith, because they are based in the knowledge that the entire human race without distinction is imprisoned by disobedience until God has mercy on us. The Church’s role is to take on this repentance and this humility for those who will not do it for themselves. That is what we do on Ash Wednesday. As the first Epistle of Peter says, The time has come for judgment to begin with the household of God (I Peter 4:17).

I worry about American arrogance. Our two greatest Presidents understood something about the need for collective repentance before the divine judgment. George Washington and Abraham Lincoln both called America to repentance. It is hard to imagine any President doing that today. It is strange that in the controversy about President Bush’s overt references to God, no one has mentioned Lincoln. Lincoln was a theologian profound enough to stand alongside the giants of Christian history. I am quite serious about that. A recent book discussing his theology is an examination of the Second Inaugural called Lincoln’s Greatest Speech, which I urgently recommend to you.

It is well known that Lincoln changed his mind about slavery. This shift on his part has often been negatively construed by Southerners as an insincere political move, but his writings do not support that conclusion. Lincoln wrestled long and hard with theological questions raised in his mind by slavery and the Civil War. He thought deeply about the South and the North before God. Lincoln never spoke of “evildoers” or “the evil ones.” Slavery was a great wrong, he came gradually to understand, but he did not cut up the nation neatly into good and evil with the Union on the good side and the Confederacy on the evil side. In this respect he was profoundly biblical in his understanding. He had read and pondered the Psalms and prophets. For example, when the Lord spoke to the prophet Isaiah saying, Destruction is decreed (Isaiah 10:22), he did not mean that he was going to destroy the bad guys. He meant that he was going to chasten his own people, the people of Israel. I will be developing these themes and quoting further from Lincoln on Sunday morning.

Paul writes further in Romans 5: Sin came into the world through one person and death through sin, and so death spread to all humanity because all humans sinned (5:12). This is repeated in I Corinthians 15:22: In Adam all die. Human solidarity in bondage to the power of sin is one of the most important of all concepts for Christians to grasp. This doctrine of original sin, as it’s called, is unique to Christianity. Likewise unique therefore is the meaning of the Crucifixion. In the Cross we see the Son of God taking into himself the entire force and power of Sin. This is what the Mel Gibson movie will never be able to teach, no matter what its merits and demerits may be. The Cross is radically equalizing in a way that we have not always fully appropriated. The distinctions between human beings and groups of human beings that we are accustomed to making are invalid in the sight of God. This is what Paul knew and what Paul preached; this is what the apostles proclaimed throughout the Mediterranean world, giving up their lives for the sake of the gospel.


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