Are we still of any use? What we shall need is not geniuses, or cynics, or misanthropes, or clever tacticians, but plain, honest, straightforward [human beings]. Will our inward power of resistance be strong enough, and our honesty with ourselves remorseless enough, for us to find our way back to simplicity and straightforwardness?
Deitrich Bonhoeffer, “After Ten Years”
Matthew does not delineate gradations of ‘church,‘ with the greatest of these residing somewhere beyond the local congregation; nor does he feed modern idealizations of ‘community’ by glossing over the sins of his own group.
Richard Lischer “The Sermon on the Mount as Radical Pastoral Care”
Several wrong turns could immediately take us off the path of understanding the Beatitudes. One of them is to presume that “blessed” carries the popular meaning of “happiness.” Ellen Charry calls out our culture by saying that we have “unlinked happiness from goodness and linked it to excitement.” Whatever else “blessed” may mean, it is part of the arduous path of goodness.
Another possible wrong turn is to understand the Beatitudes as a prescription for individuals. In a recording of his matchless lectures on the Sermon on the Mount, Clarence Jordan wrestles with the correct translation of ‘makarioi,’ and finally rhapsodizes in a drawl as thick as molasses:
‘Blessed’ means to be in a relationship; to have the deeeep security that comes from loving and being loved; to have the soooul-satisfying experience of being in a fellowship of which you feel a part…and carried along by; to be in uuunion with God and other brothers [and sisters], and to be a part of a family, a team that’s doing something, that’s going somewhere. ‘To beee God’s peeeople…’ That is the joy! That is the blessing!
Similarly, Richard Lischer locates the congregation as “the most appropriate theater for this, Jesus’ greatest teaching.” The congregation Lischer has in mind is not a collection of well-intentioned individuals, but an “eschatological community.” That is to say, the Beatitudes are affirmations of those who are already blessed with life in the Rule of God. The Beatitudes are in the present tense, “an indicative with the force of a promise” (Lischer). Jesus doesn’t say, “You’ll be blessed one day,” or “Blessed are you – if…” Those to whom Jesus refers believe that the Kingdom of God has now become a present reality and have brought themselves “into alignment with the hidden but real dynamic of God’s governance in the world” (Lischer).
This past Friday, Rev. Samuel Rodriguez read the Beatitudes during the inaugural ceremony of President Trump. What role did the Beatitudes play in that setting? To whom did they refer? Did the hearers’ reception avoid the wrong turns mentioned above? Some claimed afterwards that Rev. Rodriguez intended his reading of the Beatitudes to be a rebuke of the new President. Others heard it as an affirmation. Which is it?
That is the question the Church must ask in this present historical moment.
For some, the answer the clear. The prayer John Hagee prayed for Donald Trump this past Sunday at the Cornerstone Church in San Antonio was a coronation prayer for a new messianic king, one of the lines being, “give him the vision of Joseph, to see the future and to save our generation.” The conflation of the new President, the United States of America, and the nation-state of Israel (“Let freedom ring from Washington, DC to Jerusalem, the city of God”) was complete and total.
The Scripture texts for Sunday, however, announce that God has turned the wisdom and power of the world on their head. God’s character and intentions have not been made known in obvious, expected ways, Instead, the death of Jesus, Christ crucified, is “God’s shocking intervention to save and transform the world” (Richard Hays). More than a disembodied celestial transaction, or a rubber stamp for even our most sincere ambitions, Jesus’ death is the way God has chosen to save the world, thereby revealing to the world a new kind of wisdom and power, illuminating those who are being saved (that is, “blessed”) and those who are perishing.
Without this eschatological context, Sunday’s Scripture passages will be lost in the ‘suffocating atmosphere of moralism’ (Lischer). When the rest of Micah’s prophetic words are neglected, and the fact is ignored that he was the first prophet to proclaim the destruction of Jerusalem, Micah 6:8 becomes a smug stroll of the enlightened. And, of course, it cannot be stressed enough that the One who spoke the Beatitudes was executed.
While these days demand our stewardship as citizens, there is something for the church even deeper than the current challenges. I recently watched Richard Rowley’s 2013 documentary Dirty Wars about journalist Jeremy Scahill’s investigations into the covert activities of the Joint Secret Operations Command (JSOC) and former President Obama’s extensive use of predator drones. While I’m aware of some of the negative critiques of the documentary, I was deeply unsettled to be reminded of the stark, unarguable reality that one of the very definitions of the “state” is an entity that controls the authorization to kill. What about the United States? Who has the authority to draw that line, the line between ‘homeland security’ and ‘murder?’ Such a line of thought quickly leads to what Thomas Merton named “the Unspeakable”: “It is the void that contradicts everything that is spoken even before the words are said; the void that gets into the language of public and official declarations at the moment when they are pronounced, and makes them ring dead with the hollowness of the abyss. (quoted in James Douglas’ JFK and the Unspeakable).
Who can dare talk about these things and what could one possibly say?
Few have written more profoundly and more extensively about ‘the power and action of death in all things in the world and the simultaneous presence of the Word of God in those same circumstances’ than William Stringfellow. A layperson who was a practicing lawyer, he had piercing insight into the daily operations of what the New Testament calls ‘principalities and powers,’ and into the ways nations and conglomerates and institutions are beholden to death’s work in the world. In particular, he demanded of the church that we “do not read the Bible Americanly, but read America biblically.”
With equal insight he understood the Resurrection of Christ as the power over the work of death in this world, and the Resurrection of the people of God in concrete, historical terms. “We do not now have to do what God has already done,” he claimed. “Our task is to live and act in such a way that acknowledges that whatever has to be done about the power of death has been done.” Our call is not to be seduced by that power.
It is instructive to me that one who looked so deeply into the power of death saw an unexpected parable of the eschatological community in the circus (Simplicity of Faith, 87-91). In the circus menageries, the sideshows, and the reclaimed lost dominion over the animals, Stringfellow recognized that “the eschatological company of all sorts and conditions of life is congregated.” The performers confront the power of death, ridiculing it by walking a high wire, or dangling from a trapeze, or being shot from a cannon. “Death defying acts,” the ringmaster shouts.
While all this is going on, the clowns, in costume and pantomime, reveal “the absurdities inherent in what ordinary people take so seriously – themselves, their profits and losses, their successes and failures, their adjustments and compromises – their conformity to the world.”
Often better than the church, the circus portrays that death is the only enemy in the midst of life. But as both “eschatological parable and social parody,” the circus signals what the world looks like when the power of death is transcended.
(It needs to be said here that the circus image works literally and as metaphor. Lischer makes the astute insight that the Sermon on the Mount most powerfully operates metaphorically, “producing an imaginative shock to the moral imagination and enabling the hearer to see his or her own life in a radically new way”).
Among the many things that happened last week, Feld Entertainment officials announced that Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus will shut down this spring after 146 years on the road. Animal rights activists claimed a long-fought victory. Perhaps. In any case, the main reason given by the company CEO is that “we have a world of specialization.” The previous week the company had 26 tours going around the world, and only two of them were the circus. “The circus is the future until May, then it will be part of our glorious past.”
In a world of specialization, endless amusements, and countless lures toward idolatry, the odds for a circus-like pilgrim church don’t look too good. They never have. It takes the eyes of Jesus to discern the places and people where death is being confronted, ridiculed, and overcome; where worldly wisdom and power are turned on their heads; where fellowships of resistance and remorseless honesty are at work forming straightforward human beings.
Lischer reminds us that the lectionary places the Sermon on the Mount during the season of Epiphany, when the glory of God begins to shine in the face of Jesus. “That glory will move,” Lischer says, “from mountain to mountain in the Gospel of Matthew:” from the Sermon on the Mount, to the Mount of Transfiguration, to the Mount of Olives, to Golgotha, to the Galilean mountain where the epiphany is culminated.
It’s time to break camp and follow.