Tuesday, May 31, 2005

What is man?

Psalm 8
Journal entry dated February 27, 2005

"What is mortal man, that you should even think of him, the son of man, that you should even care for him?"

This question represents, not only the turning point of this psalm, but the axis upon which the human quest for self-understanding revolves. People have the wrong idea when they think that the purpose of religion is to answer the question, "What is God?" for, as this psalm makes clear, this is a question utterly beyond our ken. Religion seeks to answer the question "What is mortal man?"

The psalm proposes two answers to the question of human existence and identity. The first is that human beings are utterly insignificant in relation to the vastness of the universe, a speck of dust carried by the wind, a puff of smoke rapidly dispersing, a momentary disturbance seeking to resolve itself into some greater harmony.

The other answer is that humans are immensely dignified, "little less than a god, crowned with glory and honor." The psalmist also introduces here the notion of "dominion" that has proved so troublesome in human history. While accepting the essential premise of the psalm, that human beings are bearers of dignity, we must also have the courage to craft a new language of dignity, a new terminology in which humans are dignified, not by achieving dominance, but by preserving harmony and balance.

Almost nothing--almost a god. This is the human dilemma, the existential quandry, the two poles that define human existence. As St. Philaret of Moscow wrote, "All creatures are balanced upon the creative Word of God, as if upon a bridge of diamond; above them is the abyss of divine infinitude, below them, that of their own nothingness."

Monday, May 30, 2005

If I have done wrong...

Psalm 7
Journal entry dated February 26, 2005

"If I have done wrong, if my hands are covered with guilt..."

This psalm is full of an ebullient confidence, bordering on arrogance, that the psalmist is blameless, and that God will therefore vindicate him "according to the justice and innocence that are mine." "If" here is clearly a kind of contrary to fact supposition--"If I have done wrong (but of course I have not)." "If" is simply a show of confidence, like the statement attributed to Madeline Murray O'Hare: "If there is a God, let Him strike me with lightning right now." "If," in other words, means "not."

But in a modern setting, perhaps as a result of global communication, this confident "if" loses its certainty and becomes haunting. "If my hands are covered with guilt, if I have returned evil for good..." Can I really say with any absolute certainty that there is not blood on my hands? I did not pull the trigger, perhaps, but I paid others to do it for me.

"Oh," I say, "but I am a peacemaker, a pacifist." Did I go out into the streets screaming, tear my clothes, weeping and wailing? No. I shook my head and clucked my tongue at the headlines, and turned to the comics. And this silence became my consent. For when it comes right down to it, I am a beneficiary of those who are paid to pull triggers in my name.

"If I have done wrong... then let the enemy pursue me and overtake me." This is the "then" that corresponds to the "if." The enemy, the one who was formerly in my crosshairs, will put me in his crosshairs, will do to me what I have done to him.

Is there not some other way, some other option than this arrogant "if" and this terrible "then"?

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

How long?

Psalm 6
Journal entry dated February 24, 2005

"My soul writhes in anguish, but you, O Lord, how long?"

"How long?" is the prayer of those who wait, who wait for a world to be revealed in which the oppressor no longer oppresses, in which enemies are reconciled, in which evildoers cease from the evil of their doings. It is an exclamation of impatience that describes the present situation as unacceptable. This prayer invites us to place ourselves in the heart of the tension between present circumstances and the future Kingdom, to experience the urgency of those who suffer.

To put this in another way, to the extent that we lack this sense of urgency, to that extent we have aligned ourselves with the oppressors and evildoers, to that extent we show ourselves comfortable with the present situation, and therefore as belonging to it.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

The land of life and prosperity

Psalm 5
Journal entry dated February 23, 2005

"Lead me into the land of life and prosperity"

This is a prayer that people might be permitted to experience life in its fullness. Human enmity and the machinations of the wicked have created an environment that threatens life and prosperity; life and prosperity are threatened by people of "blood and deceit." We pray, then, that God may lead us forth from this death-dealing realm, where human dignity is compromised, where justice is disregarded, where life is threatened, into the land of life and prosperity, that place where life is cherished and safeguarded, where we are given the opportunity to realize our full potential, where people live in fidelity to their truest selves, rather than serving the interests of those who exploit them, existing as adjuncts to the prosperity of others.

"Lead me into the land of life and prosperity" is a prayer that we may live without exploitation, without taking advantage of others or using them for our own ends.

We are deprived of life and prosperity by people of blood and deceit. Deprived of life by unsafe working conditions, unhealthy living conditions, stress, overwork. And deprived of prosperity by being forced to live in relationships of exploitation. This deprivation of prosperity is not merely a loss of economic opportunity; it is "deceit," being forced to live in a way that is false to our true identity. At its basis, every relationship of exploitation is a lie, a falsification of our being. The lie is, "You were made for me, you belong to me, you are mine."

To be on the path to the land of life and prosperity, then, means we must renounce the lie and embrace the truth about ourselves: that we are endowed with dignity and created for freedom. "Give me space and freedom" (Psalm 4:1).

Monday, May 02, 2005

Let justice be your sacrifice

Psalm 4
Journal entry dated February 22, 2005

"Let justice be your sacrifice, and trust in the Lord."

"Let justice be your sacrifice;" this is a theme found in Isaiah 1, as well as in the teachings of Jesus, that the establishment of just relationships is the sacrifice desired by God, the elimination of oppression and exploitation.

What does a sacrifice of justice look like? Following on yesterday's reflection, it means the creation of a dignified space, where the children of God hold their heads up high. It means the elimination of relationships of dominance.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

You let me hold my head up high

Psalm 3
Journal entry dated February 21, 2005

"But you, Lord, are my shield, my glory, for you let me hold my head up high."

This psalm presents God as the one who gives dignity to the human situation. O perhaps better, God, the "lifter of my head," is the restorer of human dignity for all those who have been placed in a humiliating posture of subservience and abasement. God is portrayed as both "glory"--the one who gives dignity to human beings created in God's image--and shield, as the defender of this dignity against the onslaughts of those who would deprive people of dignity, stripping them of security, well-being, hope, self-determination, and even life itself.

To seek God's kingdom, then, requires the creation of a situation that allows people to hold their head up high, that recognizes and safeguards their dignity.

Perhaps what prevents us from creating this dignified space is the fact that people who hold their heads up high are much more difficult to control, to keep in line. On some level, human dignity is even inimical to the smooth functioning of society, at least society in its present incarnation. Tonight, we watched the movie "The Magdalene Sisters," the ultimate expression of a humiliating situation in which people are stripped of their dignity in order to be controlled.