15 December 2022

Have mercy

Master of Alkmaar, The Seven Works of Mercy, ca. 1504, polyptych (Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum); source.

To be "merciful" is to demonstrate compassion and forgiveness to someone in an context where you have  the ability to withhold those things, whether "you" are God or an ordinary person.

In the years Judy and I lived in Russia, we had several friendly conversations with Russian Orthodox Christians comparing our respective Christian cultures. In Sorochinsk, for example, a priest told us that in the West there's a culture of straight lines and sharp angles, a culture of hard and fast judgment. "In contrast," he said, "look at our church. Round and organic—the culture of mercy."

A staff member of a cathedral in Vladimir made a similar point to us in describing the merciful spirituality of Rublyov's beautiful icon of the Last Judgment. As I wrote in describing this visit,

In those moments ... and in that specific part of the cathedral, I felt I was experiencing the warm heart of the Orthodox heritage. It was a complex joy, because I felt surrounded by evidence of the spiritual paradox that is Russia: an ancient Christian faith that preaches mercy and grace, simplicity and avoidance of judgment, contrasting with centuries of relentless violence, conspiracy, invasion, aggression, suspicion, and mass-scale cruelty. Furthermore, that impulse to cruelty sometimes even tries to cover itself with the terms and symbols of Christian faith.

Without denying that this contrast shows up scandalously often in many corners of the Christian world, for me today's biggest scandal is the Russian war in Ukraine. Along with other dubious justifications for this war, it is blessed by the Moscow Patriarchate as a holy war, and pro-war commentators are increasingly portraying the Ukrainian leadership, even the nation, as anti-Christian and Satanic, and openly calling for its elimination as an independent country.

Clara Apt at Just Security has compiled this roughly chronological list of quotations of "eliminationist" Russian rhetoric against Ukraine. Note the increasing instances of spiritual venom. The list ends November 1, but as I've noted in previous posts, the theme of Satanic forces in Ukraine has continued to show up in pro-war Russian commentary, along with previous threads of Nazism, russophobia, and co-optation by NATO and the USA.

A few weeks ago I mentioned journalist (and "foreign agent") Katerina Gordeeva's interview with Hieromonk John (Guaita) at the Cathedral of Cosmas and Damian in Moscow. In the course of the interview, she questioned him about the "traditional values" and "traditional ties" that supposedly give Russia its spiritual unity. (This link cues up to that point in the video.) He replies,

What traditional values? Christian values are non-traditional values! There was never a Golden Age where people lived according to Christian values; that’s a myth. They lived no better in the middle ages than we do now. Christianity’s values are love of God, love of neighbor, mutual love, love of enemies. One Orthodox historian at a conference said that we live in a post-Christian era. That doesn’t correspond with reality; we live in a pre-Christian era. We’re only now just getting started on learning to live by Christian values.

To make the obvious application to the war in Ukraine: this merciless and criminal war is no way to protect "Christian" values.

Speaking of mercy, here are some excerpts from a sermon I gave at Spokane Friends Meeting a few weeks ago.

Luke 18:9-14: To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

The Pharisee in Jesus’ story is of course a stock character, although maybe we’ve known one or two people in the religious world who are equally full of themselves. Maybe we look back and gulp when we realize we may have wandered down the same path of self-exaltation. I can tell you that in my years of being neck-deep in denominational politics, I sometimes looked at people with utter exasperation and probably credited myself with at least not being that narrow, that ungenerous! I could tell you some stories to illustrate my point, but fortunately for me, we don’t have enough time.

What the Pharisee didn’t understand in his comparison of the two men was that Jesus wasn’t comparing their productivity but their willingness to meet God face to face in total honesty. The Pharisee thanks God that he’s not like other people who don’t measure up to his standards of piety, but is completely confident in his own righteousness. He is confident of God’s affirmation; he doesn’t need mercy.

Where do we see the honesty of the tax collector? Jesus recounts his very simple and short prayer: “God have mercy on me, a sinner.” As short as it is, let’s pull it apart a bit. First, he doesn’t take for granted his righteousness. He speaks directly to God, but he doesn’t presume to look up to heaven.

Anthony Bloom, in his book Meeting, talks about what it is like to meet with God. In such a meeting, we must be as honest as we would be with anyone who already knows us inside and out—with our dear friend, our lover, our spouse. We are also aware that the one we are meeting is the Creator of the Universe, to whom we owe our very existence, and our every breath. So we see that the humility as well as the candor of our tax collector are not out of place.

But what I see is a refreshing Eastern corrective to some among Western Christians who love the theme of original sin and our total depravity, Bloom also emphasizes how precious we are to God. God is the one who loved us into existence, as Bloom says. As Brennan Manning used to say, Jesus would rather die than live without us. God did not create us to be like stereotypical reptiles—in Russian, the word “reptile” literally means “belly-crawlers”—but instead we are to stand before God in our full human stature.

Our tax collector, however, at the moment is not thinking about standing upright before the God who created him. He seems overwhelmed by his sin. Now the word “sin” definitely has an ethical component. It applies to the breaking of a promise, to deception, to self-gratification at the expense of his own dignity or of someone else’s well-being.

But by reaching out to God with his confession, he is also acknowledging another understanding of sin. And that understanding is what Anthony Bloom calls a deeper meaning of the word “sin.” He writes, 

Before all else, sin is a person’s loss of contact with his or her own inner depths. We are created with great depth, but too often we live superficially, we limit ourselves to the next thing that comes along in daily life, or to the next sensations; we live in reaction to whatever stimuli come our way. And when we lose contact with our deepest selves, we lose contact with God, because it is there in that place where we meet God.

The good news is that, in this understanding of sin, our contact can be restored; that alienation can be overcome. If the tax collector is beating himself on the breast, we can guess that he is repenting of some sharp dealings, creaming off some of the remittances before sending them on to Rome, or something of the sort, but he is not proclaiming any sense of original worthlessness or ultimate despair. With God’s mercy, he can be restored to what he was meant to be all along.

This word “mercy” is endlessly fascinating to me. It is equally a quality of God and a capacity of humans. “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy.” The tax collector knows he has a need, he’s come before God, he’s repenting of the way he’s fallen short of who he was made to be; he’s asking for mercy. I can’t help wondering: is he confident that God will in fact give him mercy? I believe the answer can only be “yes.” As Peter says, “God does not want anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance,” and so the tax collector can come humbly but with full confidence. It’s not the misplaced confidence of the self-righteous, but a confidence grounded in the very nature of God.

But how does the tax collector—how do any of us—maintain that capacity to ask for, receive, and then give mercy, in season and out of season? How would the tax collector resist the whole taxation system of the time, and obey John the Baptist’s command to “take no more than what is due”? How do we come clean with God and ask for mercy, with humble faces but best posture, and in turn give mercy to those who have mistreated us, or who’ve bombed our friends in Ukraine, condemning them to a freezing winter?

That’s where praying without ceasing comes in. (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18: Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.) Theoretically, I’ve believed this for a long time, but, really, I’m just getting started.

Some of you may remember when I spoke about my time with Christian Peacemaker Teams in Hebron, Palestine. When I was in Hebron in 2019, counting the children and teachers going through the Israeli checkpoints, I tried to make every click of my counter a blessing. When I saw the Israeli bulldozer operator knocking down the Palestinian homes, I looked through the window of the bulldozer and prayed for the operator. But how often I get distracted. I’m trying to learn to make even the distractions occasions for prayer, instead of beating myself up for lack of perfect attentiveness. I, too, need healing. But you and I are in the perfect place to start.

I’ve been speaking to you about themes that some of you know more about than I do. That’s ok. You’re a wonderful learning community. I just hope that, if there’s anyone here who might sometimes forget how ready God is to show you mercy, and help you show mercy, I’ve helped crack open a door that should never be closed.

Jesus, show us where we need mercy. Show us who needs to hear the words of mercy from us. With every breath we take, or maybe every hundredth breath, every five hundredth breath, help us find our home in that deep place within us, which is where we meet with you. Lord Jesus, have mercy.

I suppose that, tomorrow or the next day, when I hear of more attacks on Ukrainian civilian infrastructure, I'll need to re-read my own sermon, and remind myself that, whatever our pretensions, we are indeed living in pre-Christian times. And I'll need to pray for mercy, healing, peace.

Yesterday, Friends Committee on National Legislation posted on YouTube a Zoom conversation with FCNL staffers Bobby Trice and Hassan El-Tayyab and Ramallah Friends School's Head of School, Rania Maayeh. At the end of the video, FCNL recommends these links: to support legislation that reduces U.S. complicity in the violations of Palestinian human rights; and to give financial support to the Ramallah Friends School.

Here's a nostalgic (for me) glimpse of my last visits to Ramallah.

More on that legislation on U.S. complicity in Palestinian human rights violations.

Jeremy Morris asks: What has Russia’s invasion of Ukraine revealed about the state of Russian social science?

Philip Gulley's Geezer's Manifesto (in English, and here in Russian).

Meet Anna Scott-Hinkle. (Another interview in a series of "stories of the people of Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting of Friends.")

The epilogue to Becky Ankeny's fascinating series of blog posts on "Jesus and his Bible."

Little Arthur Duncan actually gets his back scratched....


Phil McLain said...

A good reminder, Johan... thanks

Johan Maurer said...

Christmas blessings, Phil!