Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Tolerance and Openness in the Christian Community

26th Sunday of Year B
(Mark 9:38-43; 47-48)
September 27, 2009

IF one looks back to what happened in the former Soviet Union in the early 1990s, one may probably assert quite convincingly that at the root of the upheaval in the Soviets was the search for a way of life that would give comfort, contentment and security to the people. Is there a single formula to achieve it? This is a question that has not been sufficiently answered even to date. Of course, under the regime of Lenin and Stalin who rejected anything that has to do with capitalism, the answer did not surprise anyone: there was only a formula: the Communist formula. But after the collapse of the union, each of the republics seemed to have had a different idea on just what kind of system would give the people the kind of life they longed for. For some, like Kazakhstan , some form of union with Moscow was necessary. But for others, like the Baltics, there was no substitute for complete independence. To be sure, what Lithuania did could have invited the intervention of Moscow , were it done 25 years before. One easily recalls the tanks that rolled when Yugoslavia attempted in the 50s to break away from the union. But in this decade, the slogan of Gorbachev’s Moscow is glasnost, openness, tolerance.

Can this be said of Christianity? Though some people would wish that uniformity be observed in everything that has to do with religion, the 1st Reading and the Gospel share the view that we should have tolerance and openness to those who differ with us. Our relationship with others, which arises from our relationship with God, is to be informed by openness and tolerance. In the first reading we are told that Moses bestowed the spirit on the gathered seventy elders who began to prophesy. But Eldad and Meldad, who were not in the gathering but had been left in the camp, likewise spoke in enraptured enthusiasm. Having known this, Joshua asked Moses to stop the two from prophesying, but the latter answered, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the people were prophets! Would that the Lord might bestow his spirit on them all!” (Num 11:29). In the Gospel, John and other disciples tried to exclude a non-member from exercising the ministry of healing and exorcism in the name of Jesus. But Jesus did not stop the strange exorcist. On the contrary, he warned the disciples against arrogance, jealousy and intolerance and challenged them to open to others, for God rewards those who show even the small courtesies to those who teach in Jesus’ name (Mark 9:38-41).

What do these stories signify? Reading the first Genesis account on creation (Gen 1:1-2:4), we notice that all that is good comes from God. In effect, we cannot limit, nor claim to know, the many ways by which God shares his goodness with the rest of humanity. What is obvious is that where there is goodness, God is at work, whether we like it or not. It would be presumptuous of us were we to claim that God communicates his goodness only through us, or through our Christian community. We must admit that God is free to share his goodness with other than us. Regrettably, various sects claiming to be rooted in Christ keep attacking each other, as if they had the monopoly of God’s truth or his goodness. Yet, we find that in Num 22:28, God can make an ass talk. In Isa 6:5, we read that the prophet had unclean lips, unworthy of being God’s messenger, and yet God used him to proclaim his message. Indeed, it is not incorrect to say that God is even at work among atheists. That is why we should be tolerant of those who are not part of our Christian community, those who do not share our views, and those who disagree with us. What is decisive is that their good words and deeds come from God (see 1 John 4:1), that is to say, they manifest God’s goodness.

Indeed, within the Christian community, there has to be room for openness and tolerance. And this is said not as a suggestion. For tolerance and openness should in fact characterize the community. Of course, differences always arise. In Paul, there are two things that are important in Christian relationship, when it comes to differences within the church. First, whatever is said or done is a witness to Christ; it proclaims the risen Lord. If it is consistent with Christ, we can be sure that its inspiration comes from the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 12:3). Second, whatever is said or done, far from creating violence, division, quarrel or friction, contributes to the unity of the community (1 Cor 12:7). Most things are to be subordinated to these, and have to be tolerated and accepted. For we must not become obstacles to the saving power of God, we must not allow ourselves to stand between Christ and other people when it comes to the work of salvation. Doing so would be scandalous, and as the Markan Jesus puts it, “it would be better if anyone who leads astray one of these simple believers to be plunged in the sea with a great millstone fastened around his neck” (Mark 9:42). That is why, even in terms of belief, we cannot lord it over others on the presumption that we have the monopoly of truth and goodness, we cannot be oppressive or cynical of others who are not with us. Jesus himself said that “anyone who is not against us is with us” (Mark 9:40).

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Reorientation of Life and Its Demands

25th Sunday of Year B
(Mark 9:30-37)

September 20, 2009

A few months ago, we visited China , and what a surprise! It was not the China of Mao, who saw almost nothing good in capitalism. Of course, the perception that capitalism—an economic system characterized by private or corporate ownership of capital goods, private decision, and competition on a free market—is not necessarily the best economic system in the world is not new. Karl Marx has shown as its ugly head, and even presented an alternative system distinguished for its emphasis on state control and elimination of private property. But the more than 70-year experiment of Russian Leninism and Stalinism proved that heaven is nowhere nearer under a Communist regime, and therefore that one cannot take the alternative economic theory hook, line and sinker, for all its avowed promises. No wonder, Deng Shao Ping had to restructure the system in China , adopting some form of capitalism. So, with Gorbachev who advocated perestroika, a restructuring of the system. For if the people are really to achieve a better life, and a life of integrity, For one thing, the Russians after all had a desire similar to the capitalists’: a better life, and integrity in life, they and their government have to undergo a reversal of their thinking, and have to give up some things that they hold dear in communism which had been unable to fulfill their dreams..

We, Christians, also speak of a better life. In the 2nd Reading (Jas 3:16-4:3), James refers to it as the Christian way of life that all of us must aspire for. That life is not simply characterized by freedom from hunger and want, political equality and participation. It is rather known for the relationship that obtains among the community members—peaceableness, leniency, docility, richness in sympathy, kindly deeds, impartiality, sincerity, and justice (Jas 3:17). Without them, a Christian community cannot live in peace. There may be plenty of food, wine, clothing and fine things, but they would not live in harmony, because human passion, which gives rise to covetousness and jealousy, would prevail. Hence, it may be said that such a life is one that is lived according to the wisdom of God.

How is such a life attainted? Like the Chinese of Deng and the Russians of Gorbachev, Christians must undergo a kind of restructuring or perestroika, a form of value reorientation. In fact, it calls for a reversal of values. In our life that is secularized, there are so many values that have to be reversed, but our Gospel (Mark 9:30-37) focuses on one value: the value of greatness. In our largely secular world, what is greatness? Who is the greatest? It is common held that greatness is measured in terms of success. A person is considered great if he has made it in business or in politics, if he has accumulated vast wealth and power, if he has landed on the front pages of Time or Newsweek. Having succeeded in life, they have even become untouchable. And people regard them as respectable, no matter the way they acquired their wealth and power. Thus, greatness is oriented toward what a person has: wealth, honor and fame.

But the Gospel holds a different view of greatness. In the story about the discussion among the disciples on who was the greatest, the most important, among them, Jesus, who overheard them, declared: “If anyone wishes to rank first, he must remain the last one of all and the servant of all” (Mark 9:35). Such a view implies, of course, that the disciples must reverse the commonly accepted values and, consequently, alter their thinking, behavior, and the way they perceive the world and other people. The greatest person, far from being one who has amassed power and wealth, is one who has offered his life for the service of the community, who has looked after the needs of its members. This explains why Jesus rejected the pagan values of power and domination. Though they may be held in high esteem among pagans, they have definitely no place in the Christian community: “You know how among the Gentiles those who seem to exercise authority lord it over them; their great ones make their importance felt. It cannot be like that among you. Anyone among you who aspires to greatness must serve the rest; whoever want to rank first must serve the needs of all” (Mark 10:42b-43).

To illustrate what it means to be servant of the community, Jesus pointed to a little child (Mark 9:37). Since in the Jewish society at the time of Jesus, a child was a symbol of the person who had no rights at all, whose importance was not recognized, to accept a child is to accept anyone in the community, however lowly, make oneself available to him, suffer even for the scum of the earth, and recognize oneself as no better than the marginal in the community. Having this attitude, we no longer aspire for greatness in terms of power, wealth, fame or importance. Indeed, what makes it difficult for us to realize an authentic Christian life is our aspiration for these secular values. They inflame our passion, and, as James observes, “where do the conflicts and disputes among you originate? Is it not your inner cravings that make war within your members? What you desire you do not obtain, and so you resort to murder. You envy and you cannot acquire, so you quarrel and fight” (Jas 4:1-2b). But once we reverse our value system, and once we begin to see that greatness lies in service to the community, then we will no longer crave for these secular values, and real peace in the community will be secured. Of course, like the Russian perestroika that was not wholly acceptable to many soviets, or the adoption of some form of capitalism by Deng that fell on deaf ears on Maoists, a Christian reversal in thinking and acting would entail much pain, and would even be unpalatable to many, for it would unsettle them from their comfort and privilege. But then, we have to undergo this process if we wish to achieve the real Christian way of life, even as Jesus had to be delivered into the hands of men and put to death in order to achieve the glory of the resurrection (Mark 9:31).

What Informs Christian Life?

24th Sunday of Year B
(Mark 8:27-35)
September 13, 2009

One of the glaring contrasts between the Philippines' and the U.S. elections relates to how presidential campaigns are waged. In the latter, presidential debates matter, whereas in the former, even a candidate who refuses to debate could be catapulted to the presidential chair. In the recent presidential race between Barack Obama and John McCain, debates made a difference. The subjects ranged from international concerns like the ongoing war in Afghanistan and Iraq , the nuclear saber-rattling of Iran against Israel to the controversial local issues such as social security, insurance and taxation. How a presidential candidate treats of these issues was important to the individual American because the former's stand on these questions would really inform his governance. In other words, the day-to-day running of the government by the elected president would be informed by his stance toward these issues.

Now, just as Presisent Obama’s decisions on how to govern the United States depend on how he viewed the international and domestic issues during the presidential campaign, so our Christian attitude, values and life depend on how we understand Jesus. For Jesus informs our attitude and behavior in much the same way that natural law informs judicial interpretation and decision. In a way, it is then easy to understand the random poll in the Gospel reading: how do people recognize the identity of Jesus (Mark 8:27). People’s perception of who Jesus ultimately determines their attitude toward him. According to Mark, the people—that is to say, those who were outside the circle of disciples--had various image of him: he was Elijah, who returned (Mal 3:1; 4:5); for others, he was John the Baptist, in whom Elijah reappeared. For still others, he was “one of the prophets,” “the prophet like Moses” who was expected to appear in the final days. But if Jesus asked about people’s perception, it was to prepare the disciples for the more intimately and vital question, because this involved them who are following him on the way to the cross. One may follow him without really knowing him, and that is why we have the Jesus of Che Guevarra, the Jesus of the Hippies, the Jesus of the mystics and the Jesus of the Revolutionaries.

How did the disciples perceive him to be? Apparently, Peter’s answer was given on behalf of all the disciples: “You are the Messiah!” (Mark 8:29). Since Jesus never rejected Peter’s answer, it would seem that Peter got the right perception. It is obvious, though, that he had the wrong significance. As can be noted for the way Jesus corrected them for their wrong behavior, the meaning they attached to the title Messiah was rather far removed from what Jesus wanted them to perceive. The disciples thought they would accumulate wealth in the kingdom (cf Mark 8:36), realize their ambition and achieve glory (Mark 9:33-37), and gloriously sit at the right and the left of the Messiah’s throne (Mark 10:36).. In other words, the disciples thought of him as a political Messiah. And Jesus corrected them by foretelling his passion: “The Son of Man had to suffer much, be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, be put to death, and rise three days later” (Mark 8:31). The Messiah of suffering is described in the 1st Reading : “I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; my face I did not shield from buffets and spitting” (Isa 50:6).

What does this mean for us? Because at the heart of Christian faith is Jesus Christ and our following of him in discipleship, this means that the Messiah of suffering should inform our attitude and action as Christians. Our whole life—our words and deeds—must be informed by our belief in the Messiah who suffers for others. We often hear it said: “I have accepted Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior.” One could hardly quarrel with that affirmation; but we should not stop at that faith. We still have to task: what kind of Lord and Savior? Shall we reduce Christ to a consoling Lord, or at worst a domestic help at our beck and call? Shall we call him the Savior of our emotional and interpersonal problems? Shall we make him a personal Savior who has nothing to do with the structures of power and domination?

In the light of today’s Gospel, we must insist that our Lord is not a triumphant Messiah, but a suffering one who saved us and the world by humiliation, defeat and surrender. As one whose life informs our thoughts and actions, and our way of life, Jesus challenges us to give up ourselves, to renounce the constant human desire to preserve and enrich our own person at the cost of others. We struggle against the forces of darkness and evil by constantly dying to our “I” and by dying for others. All this we do not only twice or a hundred times, but as part of our daily activities. Once we accept this and once this becomes our second nature as it were, then we will learn the paradox that in humiliation, we are exalted, in giving up life, we save it, in allowing ourselves to be defeated, we become victorious.