Monday, March 29, 2010

The Tough Guy

By Eric Von Salzen

I’m not a big fan of Lent. Lent makes me think about things I’d just as soon not think about. In Lent — and particularly in this week, this Holy Week — we’re supposed to think about some very unpleasant things, like betrayal, cowardice, oppression, injustice, violence, torture, pain, and death.

Of course, the discomfort of hearing about these things is eased for us by the fact that we know where it is leading: To Easter and the Resurrection. We’ve already read the last chapter of the book, seen the final reel of the movie; we know how it’s going to come out.

But the people who lived through those events didn’t know that everything was going to turn out all right in the end. Even though Jesus had told them what was going to happen, they didn’t understand it, they didn’t believe it. They didn’t believe it when he told them he was going to be killed, and when he was killed they didn’t believe that he would rise, although he’d told them that, too.

When Jesus was arrested, condemned, and taken to the place of execution, the Disciples thought that it would be all over if Jesus died. And he did die. How terrible that must have been for the Disciples, and for Jesus’ family and friends. Unlike us, they didn’t know that Easter was coming.

And yet, even in those dark days, before anyone knew there would be an Easter, there was the shining light of redemption. And it came at the worst hour of those ghastly days: the crucifixion itself.

The Gospels tell us that Jesus was crucified with two criminals — or robbers, or bandits, or thieves, depending on the translation. And Matthew and Mark tell us that these thieves joined in with the Roman soldiers, and the chief priests and scribes, and the others who gathered below the crosses, in mocking and reviling Jesus.

But Luke tells a fuller story. He says that one of the thieves did indeed mock Jesus, saying, “If you are the Messiah, save yourself and save us!”

Think about that. Here is this criminal, who has been condemned to death, to a painful and dishonorable death. And while that terrible sentence is being carried out on him, he takes the time to mock another human being who is under the same sentence and is suffering the same agonies that he is suffering.

Why did he do that?

Luke tells us that the thief spoke after the Roman soldiers said much the same thing to Jesus, and I think the thief was seeking the soldiers’ approval by joining in with them. The thief was proud of himself for being a tough guy, and he wanted the Roman soldiers – and everyone knew that they were toughest guys around – to know that he was a tough guy, too, he was really one of them, even though they were torturing and killing him at the time. He wanted their respect. So he mocked the man dying on the next cross.

To the first thief, it was important that he be respected by the tough guys, by the people that he respected, and he hoped that they would remember him as a tough guy even after his death. Perhaps they did. For awhile.

But the second thief didn’t join in the mockery. On the contrary, he rebuked his fellow thief. (I’m drawing an inference when I call him a “fellow thief”. Luke doesn’t tell us whether the two thieves knew each other. But the second thief says to the first:

“We have been condemned justly; we are getting what we deserve for our deeds.”

So it sounds to me as though the two thieves knew each other pretty well.)

And then the second thief goes on to say that Jesus “has done nothing wrong.”

Now, if that were the whole story, it would be powerful enough. It would be the story of a condemned criminal, suffering and dying for his crimes, able to see that the man suffering beside him was innocent, and using his last breath to testify to that man’s innocence.

But there is more than that to the story. For then the second thief speaks to Jesus and says: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

The second thief understands that Jesus is just who we (who have read the last chapter of the book) know that He is: The Messiah, the Christ. The second thief knows that after the crucifixion Jesus will come into His kingdom.

Think about that: It will not be until the third day that the Disciples realize what a dying thief knows on day one.

The two thieves offer us two very different visions of what is important in life. Like the first thief, we can seek the approval of those people that we think are important in our world, by doing and saying what they do and say, or what we think that they want us to do and say, and we can hope that they will respect us as their kind of person and even remember us, for awhile, after we’re gone.

Or, we can follow the second thief, and ask Jesus to remember us.

And if we do ask, the promise is there. Because what Jesus said to the second thief was: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

“You will be with me in Paradise.”


Two days before Easter.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

A Prayer Card

By Eric Von Salzen

The other day, a Roman Catholic friend enclosed a prayer card with my birthday card. It was a “Prayer For Judges”. I’m a lawyer, and I supposed my friend couldn’t find any prayers for lawyers (we’re hopeless, I guess), and sent the next best thing.

It wasn’t, though, a prayer to support judges in their difficult but important work, or a prayer that God grant them wisdom and discernment. It was a prayer about abortion.

The Prayer For Judges said that judges had legalized abortion by putting their own opinions ahead of God’s Law, and it called on judges to start applying God’s Law and end abortion. I can’t quote it exactly, because I didn’t keep it.

Now the fact is, I oppose abortion, and I think that Rowe v. Wade was wrongly decided. There’s nothing in the U.S. Constitution that prohibits states from regulating or prohibiting abortion. The Supreme Court majority did read its own social and moral values into the Constitution in reaching its decision. I don’t think judges should do that. To that extent, I agree with whoever wrote the Prayer For Judges.

But my mother taught me as a little boy that two wrongs don’t make a right. If it was wrong for the Supreme Court majority to impose their social and moral values on the country by legalizing abortion, it would be just as wrong for different judges to impose their notion of God’s Law to end abortion. The Constitution doesn’t embody the personal opinions of Harry Blackmun, nor does it embody the religious convictions of the Conference of Bishops or the College of Cardinals. Or even of The Godfather.

But judges are a special case. The rest of us, as citizens in a democratic republic, as voters, as writers of letters to the editor, as participants in political parties or tea parties, certainly have the right to use God’s Law, as we understand it, in deciding what policies are right and wrong, and therefore what candidates do and don’t merit our support at the polls. And as Christians that’s what we think we ought to do, isn’t it?

Of course, translating our religious convictions into political choices isn’t easy, and in this post I’m not going to discuss how we decide, based on God’s Law, who we should vote for, or what policies we should support. That’s too big an issue. I’m going to focus on a narrower issue: How our religious faith figures in the way we talk about political issues, and how we try to persuade our fellow citizens to support the positions and candidates we favor.

And the first thing you notice, when you think about that issue is that we don’t often use religious arguments when we try to persuade people to support whatever position it is that we advocate. Our religious convictions may lead us to support or oppose particular policies or candidates; but when we try to persuade others to join us, we don’t usually do so by telling them that it’s God’s will.

One of the reasons we don’t do so is because we know that it generally won’t work. If someone doesn’t share your religious convictions, or isn’t sure what he or she believes in that regard, the religious argument is unlikely to persuade them to support the policy or candidate that you support. Before the religious argument could be effective you’d have to first persuade them that your religious view are right; you’d have give them a full-fledged indoctrination in your religious tradition, and persuade them to embrace it. If you succeed in doing that, you’ll have accomplished a conversion and may have saved a soul, but by the time you do so, the election will be long since over. So when we try to persuade those who don’t already agree with us on a political issue, we usually don’t base our arguments on religious principles, even if those are why we support of oppose the policies we do. We try to construct arguments based whatever values they already have.

Another reason that we usually don’t use religious arguments when we are trying to persuade others to support our positions is that we sense that such arguments can be divisive in a society like ours, with a wide variety of religious and secular faiths. Divisive arguments are sometimes necessary, but we try to avoid them if we can. Suppose I want to persuade someone to support teaching Creationism in the public schools. If I argue that the Bible says that God created the world in seven days so it must be true, no matter what atheist scientists say to the contrary, not only will my argument fail to convince someone who isn’t already a Biblical literalist, I will offend non-fundamentalists and drive them away from my position. A more effective approach might be to argue that the schools should present both sides of controversial issues, because that’s being open minded and tolerant of the views of those we disagree with. We all like to think we’re tolerant, don’t we?

A third, and critical, reason not to use religious beliefs in political discussions is that religious beliefs tend to be about ends, and political issues tend to be about means. Christian religious beliefs, for example, may lead you to believe that you have a moral duty to help the poor, but they won’t tell you whether raising the minimum wage will help the poor or hurt them; for that you need economics. Your religious principles may lead you to want to free the oppressed, to protect the helpless, to stop the evil doer, but whether it’s possible to do this by military action, or diplomacy, or covert action – or whether under the circumstances the best thing to do is admit our helplessness in the face of evil – requires knowledge, experience, and expertise that must be found elsewhere than in scripture.

It’s not impossible to find political issues that can be resolved (for some) solely on religious grounds, but it’s not common either. In writing this post, I’ve used abortion and Creationism as examples of political issues that, for a lot of people (not all, by any means), can be resolved on purely religious grounds. I’m hard-pressed to think of a lot of other examples.

So we generally don’t rely on religious arguments to persuade others to agree with us on political issues or candidates. Yet religious beliefs – or our understanding of God’s Law, to go back to the Prayer For Judges – are important to political decision-making. To many of us, religious principles underlie our political principles, even though we don’t use religious values to explain our politics to others who don’t share them. Our religious beliefs may give us the courage, the energy, and the endurance to pursue political goals. Religious principles may also help us to energize others, who share our beliefs, to join in trying to implement them. The civil rights movement is an obvious example. So is the Prayer For Judges; it probably won’t persuade Protestant or secularist pro-choicers to become pro-lifers, but it may rally Roman Catholic pro-lifers to try harder to support a cause they already believe in.

The other day, I saw another example of how religion can be used to support political advocacy. The Raleigh paper ran a front-page story about people, hit by hard economic times, increasing their use of food assistance programs. The paper illustrated the story with a photo of an out-of-work father and his two daughters holding hands as they say grace over a meal made possible by government food assistance. Leave aside the question whether such advocacy belongs in a news story, and just focus on how effective it is. It’s effective because we think that religious people, those who pray before meals, are good, hard-working folks, who are more likely to give a hand-out than take one. If they need this kind of help, aren’t we glad they can get it? It’s a picture worth a thousand words.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

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Monday, March 1, 2010

“. . . Until an Opportune Time”

By Eric Von Salzen

Today is my birthday. No, I’m not hinting for cards or presents. I’ve been thinking. Today I’m 67. In 1976, my father died, a few days short of his 67th birthday. I’m now having the birthday my father didn’t get to have.

At the time, I thought that my father’s death was awfully premature. I didn’t, though, realize then how very young 67 is. I do now. Sixty-seven is no age at all. If it weren’t for Social Security and my AARP card, I wouldn’t even call myself a senior citizen, much less “elderly”. I feel like a youngster of 50. Most of the time anyway.

So did my father, until the brain tumor. So, as I said, I’ve been thinking.

One of the things I’ve been thinking about is cancer. I hate cancer. Cancer killed my father. Cancer killed my best friend from prep school when he was barely 50. Cancer killed other friends in their 50’s and 60’s. When I was 15 I had a friend at YMCA summer camp; he didn’t come back the next summer; he’d died of leukemia. Most of the people I know who died prematurely died from cancer.

Of course, one of the reasons for that is that science has defeated so many other diseases that in earlier times would have killed us before cancer got to us. My father, for example, came back from Ethiopia, where he’d been a medical missionary for six months, with tuberculosis. He hadn’t contracted the disease there, though; it turns out he’d had a latent case of TB since his youth, and it became active when he got rundown and exhausted in Ethiopia. Dad thought it was interesting to contemplate that if that disease he’d been carrying had become active years earlier, before the antibiotics to treat it were developed after WW II, it would likely have killed him. As it was, a course of drugs and a couple of months in a sanatorium, and he was cured. Until the cancer got him five years later.

I hate cancer. There’s no excuse for it. I don’t understand why God created it. Of course I know that earthly life is not supposed to be perfect. That’s what makes it earthly. If it were perfect it would be Heaven. I accept that in this world we must bear mosquitoes and hurricanes and Rosie O’Donnell and other greater and lesser tribulations, but isn’t that enough? Must there also be cancer?

The other thing I’ve been thinking about is eternal life. That’s the great promise of Christianity. It’s only natural that we would think about it more as the span of earthly life ahead of us grows shorter. But what does it mean, this “eternal life”?

If you listen to some “liberal” Christians (I hate using political terminology for a religious category, but what can you do?), the Christian promise of eternal life means a fuller and richer life while we’re here on earth, not something we get later after we die. That’s what the Unitarian minister said she believed in the discussion with Christopher Hitchens that I wrote about in “. . . A Knife to a Gunfight.” Well, there’s surely some truth in that. I know that Christianity has made my own life better, and happier, and more fulfilled than it was before. But I don’t think that’s all there is to it.

Certainly that’s not what the first Christians believed. They didn’t risk life and limb, endure imprisonment, torture, and death, to obtain a richer and more fulfilled life here on earth. I can’t imagine Peter, dying crucified upside down, saying to himself that it was the rich experiences of his earthly life that made it all worthwhile. The first Christians, the ones who actually heard Jesus, thought that when he spoke of eternal life he meant something beyond this earthly life, something after and greater. They thought that when he said “eternal life” he meant, well, eternal life.

The other side of the coin is the idea that life here on earth really doesn’t matter, except as a pathway to Heaven. I remember that on a television show about Heaven some years ago, one of the talking heads, a Roman Catholic priest, said that the entire purpose of life here on earth is to get into Heaven when we die. Well, in a way that’s just common sense. As the old saying goes, life’s short, and you’re a long time dead. If you have to balance the importance of your three score years and ten (or four score and seven years, or whatever modern medicine gives you) of life on earth against eternity, then it’s just logical that where you’re going to spend eternity is the most important issue.

The problem is, while we’re living life here on earth it seems pretty important. What happens later seems remote, no matter how important logic tells us that it is. And that perhaps is why Jesus took the time in his ministry to tell us how to have a richer, fuller life while we are here on earth. Doesn’t the Sermon on the Mount, at least in part, tell us about how to live a good life on earth? Isn’t that what the Parable of the Good Samaritan is about? If the only thing that counts is getting into Heaven when we die, why shouldn’t the Samaritan leave the traveler to die in the ditch, as the priest and the Levite did, and let him go to Heaven sooner rather than later? Is the only reason why we should resist casting the first stone, and should forgive those who trespass against us, and so forth that that’s how we get into Heaven? Aren’t these ways of living better on earth?

Perhaps I’ve created a false dichotomy when I contrast the opinions of the “liberal” minister and the conservative priest. Perhaps the way that we’re told will get us into Heaven is often the way that will also get us a better life here on earth. Not always, of course. If we’re called to be saints or martyrs, well then “rich full life” (in the conventional sense) may not be on the menu. Then the promise of eternal life has got to get us through.

And even for those of us who are not called to be saints or martyrs, the promise of eternal life is part of what can make our life here on earth as full and rich as possible. Life at its best nevertheless includes its disappointments, its tragedies, its pains, its losses. I’m not sure that age brings wisdom, but it does provide perspective. There comes a time when you realize that there are dreams that will not be fulfilled, that the crest of the hill is behind you, that dusk is falling. The promise of eternal life perhaps begins to shine more brightly then.

Imagine life as a night at the opera. If you don’t care for opera, then just imagine any opera. If you love opera, then imagine your least-favorite opera, sung by uninspired singers, with a mediocre orchestra. It isn’t a completely wasted evening. Even poor singers may perform a particular song well. The costumes may be colorful. The sets may be imaginative. But it does drag on.

Now suppose that after the opera is over, you know that you will be joining good friends, or a loved one, for a feast, with your favorite foods and libations; you will be able to share with them what was good, and what was disappointing, about the opera. Don’t you think that this knowledge would make it easier to bear the soprano who can’t quite reach the high notes? Wouldn’t this make you more likely to appreciate the rich-voiced basso in the small role?

Or suppose on the other hand that you have nothing to look forward to after the opera. Wouldn’t that make it even harder to bear?

Anyway, that’s what I’ve been thinking about.