Monday, March 22, 2010

The Beatitudes: A Black perspective

I am working on a small group project at ESR looking at the Beatitudes from different social locations. I have very much appreciated the comments on the first Beatitudes post. Below is a look at the Beatitudes from a different social location. This is a bit more formal than my usual more spontaneous posts, but still readable, I hope--and short. I'm interested in what you think--I believe Hayes's view align with the responder Steven, even though he looks at the Beatitudes from a Torah-based location. Both see the Beatitudes as a radical call to change.

In "Through the Eyes of Faith : The Seventh Principle of the Nguzo Saba and the Beatitudes of Matthew," Diana L. Hayes views the Beatitudes from the perspective of an African-American Roman Catholic. She identifies the Beatitudes entirely with the oppressed and enslaved, and places them within a context of African religious beliefs, rejecting Eurocentric readings that spiritualize their message as otherworldly.

To Hayes, the introduction of slavery into the New World overturned the prior assumption that all humans, regardless of race, were equally part of the human family, and replaced it with an ideology of racial superiority and inferiority. Conversely, the Beatitudes (along with the rest of the Sermon on the Mount) represented a “dramatic shift in understanding from … ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ … to the calling down of God's healing grace upon those who suffered trials and tribulations for the sake of the Kingdom of God.” (20)

The Beatitudes, to Hayes, are nothing less than a call to revolutionary change. (20)

For Hayes, the Beatitudes, in both Luke and Matthew, address slaves and former slaves, but not the rich. Both versions are equally important: Luke speaks to material needs, but Matthew calls the downtrodden to internalize their own significance: “For, as the poor, as the mourners, as the oppressed and marginalized … Matthew's audience was in the unique position of having the freedom to see clearly what was good, what was just, and what was righteous before God, because they had no vested interest in the outcome.” (21)

Further, Hayes identifies Jesus with the subject of the Beatitudes. He is not simply the speaker from afar: “Jesus knew how hard it was to be poor, because he was poor; to thirst after justice, because he did and died still thirsting; to mourn the loss of loved ones, because he brought Lazarus back to life. Jesus knew … .” ( 33)

Likewise, the American slaves understood the Beatitudes through lived experience and drew comfort from Jesus’ promises in these verses.

Hayes also aligns the sermon on the mount with the African Nguzo Saba or Seven Principles: unity, faith, purpose, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics and creativity. (These principles are celebrated in Kwanzaa.) (26) Like the Beatitudes, Hayes says, the Seven Principles call for revolutionary change in this world, not an afterlife. (22)

Finally, Hayes understands Jesus as black. “The Jesus of history … was and is black himself in his very being, if not physically, because he was born into and identified with the poor and marginalized.” (31) She quotes from James Cone’s God of the Oppressed (New York: Crossroad/Seabury, 1975): "It is in Jesus that blacks see the validation of their humanity; Jesus is, therefore, black because we, as the oppressed, are black. It is because the black community is an oppressed community, because—and only because—of its blackness, that the Christological importance of Jesus Christ is found in blackness.” (31)

Hayes’s social location is quite different from mine and offers a powerful reading of the Beatitudes as a text that excludes me and my peers. By marginalizing my group—whites, the well-to-do, the not-oppressed—Hayes challenges me to understand Jesus’ message in a more radical way and to knock on a door that is closed to me, whether or not I realize it. If Jesus is black and is himself suffering oppression, mourning, spiritual brokenness and persecution—and if I love and align myself with Jesus—I must also align myself more closely with the marginalized and suffering. Hayes’s message is humbling: whites must join blacks and other afflicted people, and not vice versa. In the circle around Jesus, whites and the wealthy stand on the periphery. Blacks and the poor are closest to Jesus.

Do you agree that Jesus was "black himself in his very being?" IS Jesus the Beatitudes embodied?

Friday, March 19, 2010

Why we blog?

This from the New York Times:

"It may sound counterintuitive, but people who spend more of their day having deep discussions and less time engaging in small talk seem to be happier, said Matthias Mehl, a psychologist at the University of Arizona who published a study on the subject.

“We found this so interesting, because it could have gone the other way — it could have been, ‘Don’t worry, be happy’ — as long as you surf on the shallow level of life you’re happy, and if you go into the existential depths you’ll be unhappy,” Dr. Mehl said.

But, he proposed, substantive conversation seemed to hold the key to happiness for two main reasons: both because human beings are driven to find and create meaning in their lives, and because we are social animals who want and need to connect with other people."

Is this true for you?

What should we talk about?

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

How would you respond?

Recently, a blog asked the question: Should the government get out of the business of charity and leave that work solely to faith groups?

The conversation was civil. Some answered that government help should be avoided because it's inherently immoral to give people goods they have not worked for. One line of thought went as follows: it damages the recipient to receive something for nothing. We are helping people more to insist they pull themselves up by their own efforts.

As humans, I think we're expected to do many things simultaneously, rather than either/or, so I support both private charity and government help. I also believe that as a civilized country, we're morally obligated to establish an economic baseline so that people don't have to go hungry, naked or homeless. I understand that some will cheat the system, but I accept that as the price of doing the right thing.

On the blog, I asked whether there were not two sets of standards, one for the rich and one for the poor. If receiving money you haven't worked for is morally destructive, what of inheritance? Should young people --or any people--become fabulously wealthy from money they didn't earn? Should we block (tax) inheritance to encourage people to work?

I received this response, which was a polite attempt at discourse.

"Thank you for your comments. I do think it is different when money is passed down from one family member to another. We can hope that there was some teaching/training/modeling about charity and sacrifice going on before the money was passed down. The teaching the government is doing is that there is no accountability to use the help offered and get back on your feet- thus allowing people to become more and more dependant [sic] on the government funds."

What would be a helpful response?

The Beatitudes

The Beatitudes (see below) have always been clear statements to me of what we might expect in the Kingdom of God. They reflect the "upside-down" kingdom that Jesus preached, and speak to deep longings in the human heart for justice, peace, mercy and comfort.

The Beatitudes say that everything we might be tempted to do out of haste, fear, self-interest or thoughtlessness--letting the hungry go hungry, arming ourselves to feel safe, denying our need to mourn, trodding on the meek--are the opposite of what we need to do to participate in God's kingdom. They are a reminder of God's justice and of the way God looks at the world. God blesses the gentle, the humble, the sorrowful, the hungry and the peacemaker, as well as the persecuted and the merciful.

The Beatitudes advise my community to behave gently and build peace, to walk humbly and seek righteousness.

As we know, Matthew's Beatitudes are more "spiritualized." Luke's Beatitudes treat physical situations: blessed are the poor, not the poor in spirit; blessed are they hungry, not those who hunger and thirst after righteousness. The Lukan Beatitudes also offer four warnings or woes directed toward those with money and status.

My social location as a woman, a Quaker, and a person in solidarity with the poor and oppressed draws me towards the Beatitudes. The Beatitudes reflect what I wish my values to be and challenge an aggressive world (and self) to become gentler. As an educated, middle-class white person from a wealthy country, they also challenge me to resist aligning with ruling class attitudes and complacency. The "woes" in Luke raise a certain level of discomfort, and remind me that God--rather than money or the opinions of the world--confers blessings and sides with the poor.

Because of my location in a highly individualist culture, I tend to look at the Beatitudes through the eyes of "me," rather than "us," and see them as a "personal conscience inventory" for assessing my own journey. My challenge is to interpret them as communal values and shared goals in which I can participate. They encourage me to find out where God is already at work in the world and to join that effort.

Do the Beatitudes mean anything to you? If so, what? Do you have any ideas how we can we enact them in more communal ways?

The Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12)

Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are the meek: for they shall possess the land.

Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after justice: for they shall have their fill.

Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.

Blessed are the clean of heart: for they shall see God.

Blesses are the peacemakers: for they shall be called children of God.

Blessed are they that suffer persecution for justice' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are ye when they shall revile you, and persecute you, and speak all that is evil against you, untruly, for my sake: Be glad and rejoice, for your reward is very great in heaven.

Source: Douay-Rheims 1899 American Edition of the Bible (in the public domain)

Beatitudes ( Luke 6:20-26)
20 And he lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said: "Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 21 "Blessed are you that hunger now, for you shall be satisfied. "Blessed are you that weep now, for you shall laugh. 22 "Blessed are you when men hate you, and when they exclude you and revile you, and cast out your name as evil, on account of the Son of man! 23 Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets. 24 "But woe to you that are rich, for you have received your consolation. 25 "Woe to you that are full now, for you shall hunger. "Woe to you that laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep. 26 "Woe to you, when all men speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Bonhoeffer and Peace

Kevin writes: Diane, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed by the Nazis for attempting to bring peace through treachery and murder. In my opinion, the lesson he has to teach us is that even compassionate and deeply sensitive people can be led astray when they decide they know better than God what it is he wants from us.


I agree and am grieved that Bonhoeffer chose the path of violence in responding to Hitler, in essence becoming the mirror of the thing he hated.

I don't think Bonhoeffer ever truly became clear on pacifism. He was strongly influenced in that direction while at Union Theological Seminary, but when the crisis came, I don't think the small plant of peace growing in him was big enough to withstand his need to "do" something.

He makes a strong argument for "exceptionalism"--Hitler was an exception to the normal rules--but pacficism lives or dies on our ability to love all our enemies, even in exceptional circumstances (And aren't "our" circumstances always exceptional?) On the other hand, I believe the mature Bonhoeffer was groping away from blanket, universalist laws, maxims and principles in favor of a lived particularity centered on the reality of the suffering of Jesus. How this turned into killing Hitler--which I believe is not what Jesus would have done--is an interesting set of arguments. He wanted to stand with the suffering people--with Christ--which was right, but he couldn't quite bring himself to stand with the suffering in weakness and powerlessness--he felt compelled to try to act from a position of worldly power.

Bonhoeffer knew he was participating in activities that were less than pristine. He accepted that he would possibly be disowned by the church after the war when his role in the various plots and subterfuges were uncovered. He ultimately justified himself as willing to get his hands dirty --to look bad--to do the right thing. How much of this was self-deceptive romantic posturing? I don't know. Bonhoeffer had a strong sense of his own importance--but he WAS important. He was a privileged person from a privileged family with options unavailable to many desperate souls. If we had wanted to stay in the U.S., he was welcome with open arms and had several job options at a time when many U.S. citizens would have been thrilled beyond measure to have even one job offer. One doesn't even need to imagine how many German Jews would have given anything for the visa he was handed to come the U.S. Further, his sister, who married a man with some Jewish ancestry, was able to ride out the war with her husband and their children in England. Again, how many German Jews would have given anything--their right arms- to change places with his sister? Finally, in Germany, it seems fairly clear that the Nazis were, to some extent, trying to avoid entanglements with families like the Bonhoeffers, those upper and upper-middle class Aryans who were, after all, the people they courted. He was treated relatively gently, even in prison.

I think, however, all this privilege did weigh on Bonhoeffer, and that he believed "to whom much has been given, much is expected." A case can be made that his sense of Self and Destiny led him to know better than God what the answers were. On the other hand, he was aware of--and fought--his own self-aggrandizing tendencies as far as he could. Perhaps his mistake, if it was one, was his tortured desire to "do" something rather than "just" "be" something?

I can't help but think that if he had sidestepped the plot to assassinate Hitler and other overheated machinations to unseat the Nazis--which were actually not welcomed with open arms by Allied governments--he could have survived the war. Yet on the other hand, I am acutely aware of whom am I to judge--would I even had done an iota of what he did?

Thanks, Kevin ... I'm taking this opportunity to think aloud. Bonhoeffer is compelling and frustrating, a fully human person who was trying to live in obedience to Christ. Bonhoeffer's life makes us think. I can't help but be awed at him and yet wish he had followed a different path ... but I wasn't, thank goodness, in his shoes. As a Quaker, I'm impressed that he tried to enact his faith--that it wasn't divorced from his everyday life, that he took a stand.

I wonder, is it better to take the somewhat wrong stand, with passion, or no stand?