18 April 2021

Called To Be Free, I Must Choose Well

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love.

"Called to be free".

It is a curious notion that one might be called to be free. Freedom, after all, is the great desire as well as the great seduction. Freedom is the power to turn choice into action. That such power might be anything but a gift seems almost absurd.

Yet we are told that freedom is a calling. How can this be?

 A Commandment Given

When we are called, we are summoned. We are commanded. We are required. This is the very essence, the core meaning, of what it is to be "called".

As we are called to be free, freedom is not merely a gift, but a mandate. There is expectation laid upon us that we will embrace freedom, and make use of it.

Freedom is a commandment given. 

The command is a simple one: "Choose". In every situation we are faced with options and alternatives. In every situation we are faced with choices, of which we must pick one. As we are called to be free, we are commanded to make that choice.

These choices make freedom a most dangerous concept. With each choice we not only initiate our own actions, but we set in motion all the consequences arising from that action. As consequence flows inevitably from our own actions, there can be no freedom from consequence. As we choose our own actions we of necessity choose our own consequences, be they good or bad.

Freedom is dangerous, but if we are called to freedom we cannot avoid the danger. We do not have the luxury of not choosing, of not acting. We are called to freedom, therefore we must choose--left or right, up or down, this way or that way--and we must contend with all that follows from that choice.

In this, freedom is also paradoxical. If we elect not to choose, that election is itself a choice, complete with its own course, actions, and consequences.

We are called to be free. We are commanded to choose, and we cannot refuse.

How Shall We Choose?

Since we must make choices, it follows that it is in our best interest to always choose wisely. Who would willing choose that which yields only bad consequences, or more bad consequences than good?

How, then shall we choose? How can we be assured of more good than bad outcomes to our choices?

As anyone who has had too much to eat or drink, and suffered the unpleasant aftereffects can attest, unrestrained indulgence has some very direct bad outcomes, all of which are foreseeable. Choosing to surrender to the impulses of the moment yields more bad outcomes than good.

A thoughtless word or insensitive remark can quickly earn us the enmity of our neighbors, and can turn friends into enemies. Choosing to disregard those around us thus also seems likely to yield more bad outcomes than good.

Taking whatever we want, merely because we want it, will quickly create a variety of legal and other complications in our lives, none of which can plausibly be considered "good" outcomes. Choosing to despoil the property of others again is likely to yield more bad outcomes than good.

Wanton indulgence, self-centeredness, and simple greed are quite clearly not the choices that will give us the outcomes we desire. Momentary pleasures invariably turn into lasting pains.

Yet simply denying ourselves momentary pleasures by itself yields no pleasure at all. If the alternatives are momentary pleasure or no pleasure, then even lasting pains might be seen as a worthwhile exchange. 

Neither indulgence nor denial of the impulses of self are choices which can assure us of more good outcomes than bad. For such assurance, we must look beyond ourselves, beyond those momentary impulses. Following this reasoning to its conclusion, the "good" choice must invariably be one which takes into account the people around us. Choosing wisely means thinking of friends, of family, and of community as we make our choices.

On even a mercenary basis of trading favor for favor, kindness for kindness, we can see the logic of this. If we extend ourselves on behalf of our neighbors we are not unreasonable in expecting our neighbors to extend themselves on behalf of us--and is not such reciprocity the very basis on which communities are built, and even friendships founded?

Yet even without explicit reciprocity, cultivating an awareness of the needs and desires of others is far more likely to inspire similar awareness in others than casual disdain. Not everyone will repay kindness with kindness, but no one will repay contempt with kindness.

Whatever we choose, we raise our chances of good outcomes if we extend our thinking to the wider world around us as we choose.

Lead By Example

If we assert a premise that consideration for others is our best bet for positive outcomes in our own lives, what assurance have we that an act of generosity on our part will be repaid with generosity from others?

We have no assurance whatsoever. Our generosity may or may not be repaid in kind. Those whom we help may return scorn and contempt instead.

How others respond to our actions is not a choice we get to make. We invite the consequence by acting, but we never have the luxury of choosing the consequence that will follow from an action. Our ability to choose our consequences is limited to our choice of actions.

This limitation is applies to everyone, however. The response of others to our actions is a choice--and therefore an action--for them. The challenge each of us faces to make choices which maximize good consequences in our lives is the same challenge for all.

As the response to our actions is a choice for others, so too is our reaction to that response a consequence for others. If generosity is not met with generosity, what motive have we to remain in the company of such people? If generosity is met with scorn, why would we not remove ourselves from such people?

If we remove ourselves from such people, one certainty that exists is that we will not be in position to offer them generosity when they need it, Another certainty is that they will need some generosity at some point. There can be little doubt that this is the order of things for everyone.

If we take the initiative, and show generosity without assurance of receiving it in return, we will be at least some of the time disappointed. Some of the time we will be well rewarded. At all times we will promote the ideal that generosity is beneficial to everyone. Even if we only persuade but one other person of this, by so doing we increase our chances of receiving generosity in return for our own.

We maximize our chances for this good outcome by leading by example, and showing generosity without knowing the outcome.

As we are called to be free, as we are commanded to choose, our best fulfillment of this command--and our best service to ourselves--is to be generous, and serve one another humbly in love.

That is how we choose well.

04 April 2021

He Is Risen

After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb. There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.
The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.” 
So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
Matthew 28:1-10
Thus Matthew recounts the miracle that is the essence of Christian belief, and the font of all Christian tradition: that Jesus, having suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried, descended into Hell, yet on the third day rose again from the dead.

Whether the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is miracle or myth is, ultimately, irrelevant. Miracle or myth, the relevance of the Resurrection in daily living is as metaphor: Jesus overcame even physical death, transcending into Divine Being. 

The Good News that is the Gospel is simply this: through faith--in Jesus and in God--all men may similarly transcend into divinity. Indeed, the Christian community is called to such transcendence,  as Paul points out in Romans:
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—His good, pleasing and perfect will.
The Resurrection offers meaning and hope. Through the Resurrection, Christ redeems all of Mankind. If the Resurrection is the foundation of Christianity, redemption is surely its most essential teaching. 

Redemption is Christianity's greatest contribution to Western thought and Western civilization. Redemption shifts the meaning of law--both the laws of men and the Laws of God. Redemption displaces the highly conditional and consequential ramifications of Mosaic Law (and the many other ancient legal traditions of which the Mosaic Law is but a part), replacing atonement as the key to righteousness, and thus the essence of justice. Redemption, the particular gift of Jesus Christ, is thus relevant to even the most avowed non-Christian.

Consider the words themselves. "Atonement" is "reparation for an offense or injury". "Redemption" is an act "serving to offset or compensate for a defect." Atonement is something we ourselves must do; redemption is something that is done for us, and offered to us.

This is no small change to the meaning of law. When Christ healed the paralytic, proclaiming the man's sins were forgiven, the scribes and priestly authorities accused Him of blasphemy. The notion of redemption was as radical--and as threatening to the established social order--then as it is today, the era of political correctness and "#MeToo" pogroms against the slightest of sexual faux pas. When redemption displaces atonement as the measure of justice, those who enforce the law are themselves displaced, for what need is there of priestly intercession or priestly justification when the demand for atonement, the insistence upon acts of contrition, is mooted?

In teaching redemption vs atonement, Jesus articulates an inescapable and universal truth: regardless of who we are, where we are, what we have done or not done, we are all human. We are all part of the same Mankind whom Jesus came into the world to save. This is not a truth that is confined to the Bible, nor to the teachings of Jesus, and there are innumerable secular sources that echo this same truth--one of my personal favorites comes from John F. Kennedy's American University commencement address in 1963: "...our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal."

Thomas Jefferson positioned this truth at the center of the Declaration of Independence, brilliantly transforming a simple proclamation of the American colonies' intention to rid themselves of British rule into a profoundly eloquent proclamation of humanity, and the universal bequest of civil rights and civil liberties that is given to all men in all places at all times. This is a theme President Kennedy would reiterate in his 1960 inaugural address: "...the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God."

Redemption is thus the essential prerequisite to liberty. As redemption is the fundamental proclamation of our humanity, it is also the foundation of our freedom. Redemption establishes that the ultimate authority--the sole arbiter of right and wrong--is not a judge, nor a king, nor any head of a State, but only God Himself. Redemption renders us all equal, and thus through redemption we derive the Jeffersonian precept that all government derives its just powers from the consent of the governed--for when we are all equal before God, and when we are all redeemed by God, on what authority may any one man impose upon his fellows?

The theme of redemption is subtly woven throughout the text of the United States Constitution. We see it in the unconditional pardon power granted to the President in Article 2 Section 2. We see it in the prohibition in Article 1 Section 9 against Bills of Attainder. We see it in the prohibition against "corruption of blood" in Article 3 Section 3. We see it in the rights expressed in the 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th Amendments. The wording of each of these passages is noteworthy for being unconditional. These rights are not held to the whimsy of a government, nor of any court nor judge. These rights belong to all people, in all times, at all places. Being unconditional, they are neither earned nor can they be rescinded.

Without the hope of redemption, how could any people even contemplate the "more perfect Union" mentioned within the Constitution's Preamble?

Redemption is the eye to the future. Atonement is ever focused on the past. Redemption is what makes possible the societal transformations sought (and, in large measure, achieved) by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as laid out in his historic "I Have A Dream" speech:
And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.  
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." 
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. 
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. 
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. 
I have a dream today! 
I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of "interposition" and "nullification" -- one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. 
I have a dream today! 
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; "and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together."
The Good News of this Easter Sunday, of every Easter Sunday, is not merely that Jesus has risen from the dead, but that, by His rising, we all may hope to rise--rise above our failings, rise above our faults, rise above the petty differences that separate us from each other. The Good News of Easter is that it is within every man to rise up and be free--and we are all called to freedom, even as Paul reminded the Galatians:
You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
My prayer this day is that all may rejoice in the day, for He is Risen and we are made free.