From Morning Sun on a White Piano
For I desired mercy, and not sacrifice;
and the knowledge of God more
than burnt offerings.
On a bright spring morning, three days after Easter in Oklahoma City, a clean-cut but lonesome drifter with a pathological hatred for the U. S. government drove a truck packed with homemade explosives to the front door of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building and blew a gaping hole in the myth of the American Heartland.
Bottle-fed on Hate Radio, and estranged from everything and everyone, including himself, this crusader against the Evil One has finally shown us what the politics of fear can produce: sow enough bad seeds, and eventually you harvest a mutant crop.
This is the city where I live and work, teach and preach. On the morning of April 19, at two minutes after nine, I am standing in front of a group of sleepy-eyed public-speaking students at Oklahoma City University, taking roll. Without a cloud in the sky, we hear it thunder, and within the hour I stand a few blocks from the most grotesque sight I have ever seen. People wander the streets in shock, and the air is full of the smell of death and the numbness of disbelief. It feels like the first time I got the wind knocked out of me as a child and couldn’t get enough of the right kind of air. I ask myself: are we losing our minds, or just our souls?
As an ordained minister, I feel the insult of insults: to be reminded that the “militias” which breed the Timothy McVeighs of this world do so with a Bible in one hand and a gun in the others. The word, Christian, is now being attached to the most violent, the most paranoid, the most dangerous elements of society. Clinic workers are murdered by people calling themselves “pro-life.” Under the banner of Jesus, Prince of Peace, we hear more hate-filled rhetoric, see more homophobia, and witness more suspicion of women than from any other group. Christianity has been hijacked, and the ugly joyride is far from over.
For all of us who preach the gospel, these are painful times, reminiscent of the refrain of a once popular tune: “Look what they’ve done to my song.” Because the best things in the world are the easiest to corrupt, religion is in constant danger of destroying itself. Millions of intelligent people have already given it up, and yet go on searching for enlightenment and spirituality, often in solitude, disconnected from community.
The religious impulse is universal. In the famous words of Augustine, our hearts really are restless, “until they find rest in thee.” In every great religious tradition, the object is to overcome separation – from God and from one another. The marks of the truly religious person are the same no matter what name is used for God, and regardless of the rituals employed to “bring down the divine.” The person of true faith gets reconnected, and the signs of this reunion are unmistakable. No longer a captive to fear and hatred, this mended heart now sees life’s chief business as reconciliation, made possible by the only thing that can save us – unconditional love.
The problem comes when revelation gets itself organized into systems, and the systems harden into doctrine. Insight begets teaching begets rules. Before you know it, revelation meant to connect us becomes ecclesiastical doctrine certain to divide us.
There is no better example than Jesus of Nazareth. Just reminding people that he wasn’t a Christian will bring bewildered stares from the man on the street. Preacher and theologian Ernest Campbell has summarized the ministry of Jesus thus: a reforming Jew, convinced that his people had turned love into legalism, he went about asking those people who thought they were “in” (Pharisees, Sadducees, and other officially religious people), “Are you sure you’re in?. . . I know you think you’re in, but are you sure you’re in?” And to those who thought they were “out” (widows, tax collectors, prostitutes, the sick and dispossessed, and other officially irreligious people), he asked, “Are you sure you’re out?. . . I know you think you’re out, but are you sure you’re out.”
His ministry was one of constant and unbridled compassion, and his parables made the point again and again: our thoughts are not God’s thoughts, even on our best days. When the prophets called Israel to examine her faithfulness, the questions were never theological – they were always ethical: “How goes it in the land with the stranger, the widow, the orphan?” When Jesus gave his first sermon in his hometown, it was an announcement that he was the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, that God had what Roman Catholic theologians, especially in the Third World, call “a preferential option for the poor.” Marcus Borg calls it the “politics of compassion,” as opposed to the “politics of purity.” But whatever you call it, it certainly wasn’t “Jesus, meek and mild, gentle as a little child.” After the benediction, they tried to kill him.
So what does all this mean to us, to you and to me – trying to live a simpler and more sacramental life? It means that we will have to examine our religious beliefs to see whether they make us more or less merciful, for any religion that doesn’t make us kinder isn’t worth our time, and may even be hazardous to our health. Any religion that closes us down instead of opening us up; makes us less tolerant, not more tolerant; builds walls of separation instead of bridges of understanding must be condemned.
Civilization, from a Heavenly point of view, is nothing but the long slow process of learning to be kind. Therefore every religious institution that promises its followers exclusive rights to the kingdom, woos them with the intoxicating drug of certainty, and make them believe that salvation is reserved for the chosen few must be rejected as the seeds of Holy War, of Inquisition, and of every dark and bloody chapter in the history of organized religion.
This then is the ninth prescription for those who wish to live a simpler and more sacramental life: measure your faith by measuring its mercy. Ask yourself whether it makes you more likely to forgive and to reconcile, to be patient and self-sacrificing, to put your own house in order before trying to rearrange the rest of the world’s furniture.
The sacramental life is a life infused with religious meaning, but not the kind that leads to new forms of idolatry. The truly religious person sees nature, life, and mind as a unified whole and is neither compulsive nor controlling. Vanity gives way to gratitude, and every single act, no matter how insignificant, is viewed as meaningful within the mysterious web of life.
What’s more, all the conventional definitions of power and prestige are turned on their heads. To be weak in the eyes of the world is to be strong in the eyes of God. To give to the beggar, to strengthen the disinherited, to bring hope to the destitute, and to build up with love and affection what the world is always trying to tear down with cleverness and deceit – this is the measure of the sacramental life.
Do not live to be watched and rewarded. Age gracefully and surrender the ego of youth along with its presumption of immortality. Do not look past the moment in search of some miracle – miracles are in the moment. Do not make cheap sport of blaming the poor for being poor, but do what you can to change their lot, and share more of what you have received.
If you happen to be Christian or Jewish, give some thought to what an upside-down world it would be if Mary’s song, the Magnificat, were the order of the day. Remember that a penniless rabbi who never wrote anything down changed the world by rendering every square inch of it sacred and by pronouncing every man, woman, and child a beloved son or daughter of God. When it starts to feel too pleasant to be a Christian, too easy, remember that it used to be dangerous – that its Founder was put to death as a common criminal, a victim of capital punishment.
Religion has done more harm and more good in this world than anything else. It should never be trifled with, or worn as a badge of decency. It should never be manipulated for sentimental value or invoked for the sake of advantage – in war or in politics. Its purpose is to reunite a broken world with the source of every good and perfect gift, to turn feverish little clods of petty grievance and self-absorption into partners in pursuit of the holy.
The simple life of simple pleasures is the religious life, if simple means contented, gracious, and austere. In a world where millions starve in the shadow of bigger and bigger castles, there can be no integrity in a faith that encourages, even blesses, conspicuous consumption. An Oriental visitor to the United States was asked recently what one impression of America stood out above all the rest. She said, almost apologetically: “In my country, we only take what we need.”
What a novel concept.