(and Cosmos: Possible Worlds)
This summer I’ve been preaching to you on my summer reading. I picked four sciencey books and this week I’m preaching on the last one: “Cosmos: Possible Worlds” by Ann Druyan.
Druyan is the widow and writing partner to the world-famous astronomer Carl Sagan. Sagan and Druyan were cowriters of the original Cosmos, which was a PBS television series and book. The series premiered in 1980. I remember watching some of it as an 80’s kid and being absolutely transfixed by it. It was this potent brew of science, imagination, awe, wonder, storytelling, and a compelling synthesizer-infused theme song by the same guy who did Chariots of Fire.
So, I was really excited to see what this latest installment of the series would hold. Because right now with everything we’ve got going on I need a little inspiration for the future and to believe that another world is possible. And I wasn’t disappointed. In a time of extremely low self-esteem on the part of humanity, when almost every vision of our future in popular culture is dystopian, Cosmos: Possible Worlds is a soaring achievement of both urgency and optimism.
The book squarely faces our disenchantment with the 21st century. In the 80s when I watched the original Cosmos many of us thought that we’d all have flying cars, robot butlers, and a colony on Mars by now. Instead, we face tremendous problems over basic human rights and equality, healthcare and public health, political discourse and enfranchisement, and (to top it all off) a global warming climate catastrophe. But Druyan reminds us that these problems will be solved (as they have been solved in the past) by people who have awakened to the beauty, mystery, and sacredness of the universe and who are moved by that awakening to act in the best interests of humanity and the world we live in.
Many people believe that spiritual awakenings and turning your life around are the realm of religion. Druyan believes that science is what will lead us out the darkness of the current moment and into the light of a better future. Are science and religion so different from one another (and they are different) that they have to be at odds in our lives and in our culture? Or can they coexist and maybe even cooperate?
The science writer Steven Jay Gould recounted a typical story about the feeling on behalf of some religious people (and now some of the “new atheists”) that science and religion are not compatible. An undergrad at Harvard came to him and said, “I am a devout Christian and have never had any reason to doubt evolution, an idea that seems both exciting and particularly well documented. But my roommate, a proselytizing Evangelical, has been insisting with enormous vigor that I cannot be both a real Christian and an evolutionist. So tell me, can a person believe both in God and evolution?" Gould, who’s an agnostic Jew, was put in the strange position of having to reassure this young man that there was no inherent contradiction between Christianity and science—that fundamentalist creationism is the exception, not the rule in Christianity.
Gould goes on to say that the supposed conflict between science and religion can be eliminated by understanding a term he invented: “nonoverlapping magisteria.” By which he means that both science and religion have their separate realms over which they have authority to teach. Facts and theories belong to science. Meaning, morality, and values belong to religion. And never the twain shall meet. They do not overlap.
But nonoverlapping magisteria is not the sense that you get from reading or watching any book or show in the Cosmos series. Is it possible for science to get spiritual? I think that Ann Druyan would say, yes, for lack of a better word, science is spiritual.
She quotes Albert Einstein as one of the inspirations for the book. At the 1939 World’s Fair Einstein said, “If science, like art, is to perform its mission truly and fully, its achievements must enter not only superficially, but with their inner meaning into the consciousness of people.” This isn’t just about facts and theories. This is about meaning. It’s a “spiritual” mission to empower science to affect people with the same profundity that art does. Or, you could say, with the same depth of meaning that religion does. If science can get spiritual in its goals, I wonder if it’s possible for spirituality to be more (for lack of a better word) “sciencey.”
Science didn’t exist at all at any time that any of the books of the Bible were written. So, it’s difficult to turn to the Bible for a defining statement on how we should relate to science as Christians. But the burning bush from our scripture reading this morning may be a way of exploring this idea. One way that some Christians dismiss thinkers like Druyan and Sagan is to say that the universe, all of Creation, is sinful and fallen and impermanent and will ultimately all be wiped away by God and the good Christians will be whisked off to heaven to live a purely spiritual existence.
But the Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart emphasizes the Biblical ideas of incarnation, resurrection, and that God’s salvation will be a salvation of the whole world (all of Creation). He points to the image of the burning bush as the way that our spiritual ancestors understood the universe, how it was made, and how important it is. The image of the burning bush is a metaphor for God and God’s creation: ordinary matter, fully infused with the glory of God, lit up like a divine fire, but not at all consumed, not destroyed. Holy! Holy ground! All around us. Everywhere we look. No division between the sacred and the profane.
The idea is that God made the universe and will save all of it, so our understanding of God can’t be limited to pie-in-the-sky and it can’t be limited to “spiritual” concerns. Because God’s plan for all of creation is and has always been a physical and a “spiritual” plan. And so when we understand the physical facts of God’s creation, we understand more about God. And we are better enabled to think about meaning and values.
Science is simply another a way (to use James’ language from our second scripture reading) of looking into the mirror of God’s Word and seeing ourselves. And as James said, if we look into that reflection and then walk away and don’t let it affect how we live, don’t let it turn us around, turn us to action—we’re lost.
So, here’s the situation as I see it: Science is on a spiritual quest to save humanity, save the planet, and understand the deepest mysteries of God’s creation. Some Christians have rejected that project all together. They don’t believe it matters. But there is no contradiction between being a devout Christian and being inspired by the spirit of the mission of science. Not because of nonoverlapping magisteria, in my opinion, but precisely because science is spiritual and spirituality cannot be divorced from facts or from the great human project of creating a better tomorrow by using the best knowledge and tools available to us. Christianity that stands in the way of learning and facts, risks becoming anachronistic and irrelevant. Christianity that embraces the best of science as a partner says to the whole world: science brings us closer to understanding God and closer to a better future.
I took a long five-month hike on the Appalachian Trail in 2004 right before I started seminary. And I remember meeting a hiker at a shelter one evening and talking with her about religion. And she asked me what I thought of Buddhism. I don’t remember my answer exactly, but I remember to my embarrassment saying things like, “Well, Christianity as all about incarnation and passion and Buddhism is all about emptiness and disengagement.” Now, there might be some truth there, but my tone was dismissive and my attitude was superior and surprise, surprise, I didn’t really know what I was talking about. I had barely studied Buddhism and I had never dialoged with a Buddhist.
When I arrived at seminary, one of my professors described herself as a Buddhist-Christian. I began studying Buddhism and interfaith dialogue. I started reading Buddhist texts, doing Buddhist meditation, and talking to real Buddhists. And that’s when I realized that these two religions—so different from one another—were not incapable of communicating. And as my understanding and experience of Buddhism grew, and the more deeply I engaged its values and worldviews, the more I felt my Christian faith expanding by the dialog, by the challenges, and by the very different but very valuable perspectives. For instance, I found my way to the ancient tradition of Christian contemplative prayer through the Buddhist practice of Zen meditation.
The same kind of dialogue and collaboration are possible between the religions and the sciences. Will science challenge what we think we know about faith, spirituality, values, and meaning? Of course it will. If the Perseverance rover, launched to Mars last month, discovers evidence that there was once early life on Mars (which is one of its objectives) that will radically change our worldview, our idea of life and our idea of ourselves, and our idea of God and what God is up to in this universe of ours. We will be challenged. But that’s OK. Our faith can handle it. And the rewards for thinking scientifically about our world will be a deeper understanding of God and God’s creation.
I believe in the biblical vision that God’s plan for salvation is a plan for all creation. I believe that the rocks, the trees, the animals, the planet, and the stars are all important and they’re all covered with God’s fingerprints. I believe that when we understand Creation—from the billions of lightyears of the observable universe to the four dimensions of spacetime, to the uncertainty of the quantum realm—we are better equipped to stand in the presence of the God who made and sustains and redeems them all, we are better equipped to worship that God, and we are better equipped to undertake the scientific and spiritual project of making a better future.
Who do you say that Jesus is? Who do you say that Jesus is? I want you to take your time with this question this morning. In fact, I hope you let this question stick with you way beyond this sermon and way beyond this worship service. “Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks us. Who do you say? You matter. Do you hear that? You’re an important part of the equation here! With this question YOU are being offered an invitation into grace and relationship.
It can be hard to hear this invitation and just what it’s offering us. Often, I think when we’re posed with questions like this, it’s easy to feel like we’re just being quizzed. Like there’s one right orthodox answer that is the one right answer for everybody and that the goal of Christianity is to be taught the right answer and then to spit the right answer back out at the right time. Sometimes, we think that that’s what church is about: Receiving and then giving the “correct” answers. Like a pop quiz in school: What’s the capital of Wyoming? How do you spell Mississippi? Who is Jesus?
Some of us get a little sweaty when we hear this question, “Who do you say that I am?” Some of us think, “Well, I didn’t grow up going to church so I never had Sunday School and I don’t really know the right answer.” Other people think, “Well, I know the answer I’m expected to give, but I’ve never really understood what it really means or how it’s supposed to relate to my life.” We can feel put on the spot by a question like this. We can feel like frauds for attending church but not knowing the answer. Or for knowing, but not really feeling it. We sometimes hear this question like a request for a secret password on the other side of a locked door we’ll never get through. If you do, I hope that you can begin to hear this question instead like a deep profession of love.
I remember the heady days falling in love with my wife, Bonnie Mohan. I remember the hours we spent alone together, snuggled up and staring into one another’s eyes. I remember dinners for two. Meeting one another’s friends and families. Learning about one another’s personalities, desires, and dreams. I remember the misunderstandings and the fights—oh boy—and the terrible vulnerability of true intimacy. I remember the ache of exposure the first time I said, “I love you,” to her and the physical thrill that ran through my body when she said, “I love you too.”
And what is all of that? What is falling in love if it’s not two people trying to mutually answer the question, “Who am I to you and who are you to me?” The answer wasn’t “I do” or even “I love you.” The answer is everything we share with those we love. Bonnie has shaped and defined me. And I have shaped and defined her. And our relationship will hopefully never become just an answer. Because once that’s all it is, it’s not alive, it’s not growing anymore. Hopefully, our relationship will always be a living, growing acknowledgement of one another full of love. Hopefully, I will always look to her and she will always look to me as one source of identity, meaning, and purpose—“Who do you say that I am?”
And now we’re parents to a squirmy 11-month-old son named Romey. And every day that that beautiful wild little man spends with us, I hear the question of my relationship to him and his to me. He can’t talk very much yet, but I hear the question echoing in my heart—in my father’s heart: my son is asking me, “Daddy, who am I becoming? How will you help me to figure it out? Will you give me the answer one day? Or will you live every day that you have with me with a love that will help me to love whoever I may be?” There is no answer to “Who is Romey?” There can only be relationship.
And this is one of the bizarre and miraculous truths that hits many of us when we become parents—we were living full, productive, good lives before we had kids. But when Romey arrived I realized that I had not fully known myself until I knew myself in relationship to him. Every moment I spend in relationship to Romey, especially when I let those moments resonate with real attention and intimacy, is a moment of asking Romey, “Who do you say that I am?” and hearing his response.
I can imagine that there might be some people listening this morning who say, “Well, that’s nice, Pastor Jeff, but this isn’t one of your ‘living the questions,’ ‘it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey,’ hippie-dippie, wishy-washy, swirly questions. The question of who Jesus is is central to our whole faith. This is about creed! This is about a proclamation! Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God! Isn’t that the heart of what we believe? Isn’t that what holds us together as a Church?”
And, of course, you’re right. The answer that Peter gave to Jesus’ question is at the very heart of who we are as Christians: You are the Christ, the Son of God. And yet. If I’m not 100% sure that Peter’s answer is my answer, does that close the door on the invitation to figure out an answer to, “Who do you say that I am?” on my own? I think Peter’s answer is central to who we are as Christians. But Jesus’ question and his invitation to us are foundational to who we are as Christians.
When I arrived here last summer many of you asked me, “What do we call you?” And I said, “Well, you can call me whatever you want, but I invite you to call me, ‘Pastor Jeff.’” Now, it is true that I am a pastor. And it is true that I am the minister here at your church. So, yes, it is true that I am your pastor. But I don’t invite you to call me “Pastor Jeff” to provide you with some sort of knowledge about my position. I do it to invite you into the pastoral relationship with me. Pastor Jeff is my name around here, but the reality of what it means can only be discovered in relationship to one another. No two people are going to have the same relationship to Pastor Jeff. And Pastor Jeff is going to respond a little differently and grow with each new relationship. But the name Pastor Jeff highlights the very best of what I can offer in my calling here with you.
So, Peter’s answer (You are the Christ, the Son of God) shouldn’t close the door on our invitation to discover our relationship to Jesus. Instead, it’s meant to make the invite shine brighter. To draw us in to the way, the truth, and the life, like lights along a runway at night that a pilot sees from way, way, way off so she knows which direction to head in.
Another way to say it is that we receive Peter’s answer not to regurgitate it, but to actually digest it in the journey of our own relationship with God. The problem with simply falling back on the received answer to the question, “Who do you say that Jesus is?” is that it could lead us to make Jesus an object of the past rather than a relationship of the present. After all, Jesus didn’t say to the disciples in our scripture reading this morning, “Today we’re having a lesson on who I am and tomorrow there will be a quiz. I hope everyone gets 100%!” The “lesson” wasn’t a lesson at all, it wasn’t an answer in the traditional sense. It was just Jesus living with the disciples in relationship, working, and doing ministry together. It wasn’t about an answer given in the past, frozen in time. It was about a relationship right there in the present moment actively unfolding all around them. Who do you say that I am? What do I mean to you? What is it that you think we’re doing together? The answer, “The Christ, the Son of God” points at that relationship. It directs us to that relationship. But it cannot replace a relationship. And we have to remember that the relationship came first, and then came the proclamation of faith, the words to describe it.
A hundred years ago, the great philosopher Martin Buber published his most influential work, I & Thou. In it he defines two classes of relationships: the I-it relationship and the I-Thou (or I-You) relationship. I-it is the way we relate to objects and machines and things without souls. I-Thou is the way we relate (hopefully) to other people.
But Buber is not just a philosopher, he’s a poetic prophet. And he sees an increasing tendency in modern culture to treat other people as “its” rather than as “thous.” Buber believes that the only way that we can truly grow, transform, or better understand ourselves is in relationship. It can’t be done alone. It can’t be done with objects. “Its” cannot reflect you, they cannot challenge you. Growth can only happen in connection to someone we treat with full humanity. Buber says that the I-Thou relationship can be achieved when we live with respect, attention, and love to other people, to the natural world, and to animals. And that all of these I-Thou relationships are what define our relationship to what Buber calls “the Eternal Thou,” God.
Buber warns us that we can even treat God like an “it.” Like a means to an end. Like an answer we know that distracts us from the relationship we need. Buber says that there are some atheists who have a better relationship with God than some theists because they more fully live their lives in I-Thou relationships rather than in smaller, more manipulative, objectifying I-it relationships.
When Jesus asks us, “Who do you say that I am?” he’s inviting us to experience him and to know him and to live with him as more than an It. His question is not a demand for the right answer. It’s an open door into a relationship that will define us and that God promises to respond to. So, Beloved, who do you say that Jesus is?
(and The Soul of an Octopus)
Every two weeks this summer I’ve been preaching on a book from my summer reading list. You’re all invited to read along and to join me in a discussion group before I preach on the book. This summer I’ve picked four sciencey books and the book I’m preaching on this week is “The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness” by Sy Montgomery.
Sy Montgomery is a literary naturalist who has written about all kinds of animals—tigers, and moon bears, and a pig named Christopher Hogwood, O my! Her books aren’t dry biology texts, they’re zoology mixed with memoir. The Soul of an Octopus isn’t about octopuses in general, it’s about four specific octopuses—Athena, Octavia, Kali, and Karma. It’s about Montgomery’s relationships with them. And it’s about the aquarists, the marine biologists, the divers, the student volunteers, and the aquarium janitorial staff who also bond with these octopuses. It’s a book about how human lives and work and hearts intersect with octopuses.
There’s Bill, who’s the main aquarist at the New England aquarium and he can smell fish stress through glass and he carries great personal stress worrying about the welfare of his beloved octopuses. There’s Wilson, a retired engineer who builds the octopuses challenging toys and who visits with them even while his wife is in hospice. There’s Anna, a high school junior with Asperger’s who’s kept fish tanks since she was two-years old and who’s processing the suicide of her best friend in the company of the octopuses. And there’s Danny, who has a developmental disorder and wants nothing more than to meet a real, live octopus—and he gets his chance!
On the surface, it may seem incredible that human beings can bond with these eight-armed, underwater aliens. Human beings diverged from octopuses on the tree of life more than half a billion years ago. Instead of fingers, an octopus’ eight arms are each covered in hundreds of suckers that can exert thousands of pounds of force. If an arm gets bitten off, it can grow back. To swim they don’t use their arms. Instead they suck water up into their head and squirt it out a little funnel to propel them through the ocean on a jet of water. They taste and smell through every inch of their skin—even their eyelids. They have a beak for a mouth like a parrot’s beak inside their armpit and their bite is poisonous. Their brain is distributed through their body and they have more neurons in their arms than they have in their heads. They have three hearts and blue blood. They can squeeze themselves through a hole just a few inches wide. They can change colors and often do to express their mood. But they can also camouflage their skin by changing its color and texture to perfectly match their surroundings. If they’re threatened, they can squirt out a cloud of dark ink. They are solitary. They are cannibalistic. And they only live a few years.
As Montgomery writes, “Octopuses represent the great mystery of the Other.” It’s hard to imagine creatures more different than us. But octopuses are also smart, curious, and playful. They enjoy solving problems and puzzles and are renowned escape artists. Octopuses appear to be self-aware and to understand that other creatures have minds and motivations separate from their own. Each octopus has its own unique and varied personality. Their complex behaviors are more than instinctual and suggest that they have something like thoughts and feelings. When you look them in the eye, it feels like someone is in there looking back at you. And the people who care for octopuses in aquariums or meet them in the wild can feel deeply emotionally connected to them.
Montgomery learns to scuba dive in the book so she can meet octopuses in the wild on coral reefs. On one diving trip to Tahiti she goes to worship one Sunday morning at an eight-sided church. It has eight sides for a reason—it was built on the site of a much older temple to the local octopus god. And this is what she writes about the experience:
“The service is conducted in Tahitian, a language I don't understand. But I understand the power of worship, and the importance of contemplating mystery—whether in a church or diving a coral reef. The mystery that congregants seek here is no different, really, from the one I have sought in my interactions with Athena and Kali, Karma and Octavia. It is no different from the mystery we pursue in all our relationships, in all our deepest wonderings. We seek to fathom the soul.
“But what is the soul? Some say it is the self, the ‘I’ that inhabits the body; without the soul, the body is like a lightbulb with no electricity. But it is more than the engine of life, say others; it is what gives life meaning and purpose. Soul is the fingerprint of God.
“Others say that soul is our innermost being, the thing that gives us our senses, our intelligence, our emotions, our desires, our will, our personality, and identity. One calls soul ‘the indwelling consciousness that watches the mind come and go, that watches the world pass.’ Perhaps none of these definitions is true. Perhaps all of them are. But I am certain of one thing as I sit in my pew: If I have a soul—and I think I do—an octopus has a soul, too.”
The traditional Christian view of things is that, yes, God created all living things, but God created humans to be different and we’re the only living things who were given souls. Obviously, we are different from other animals—we have science, technology, language, culture, literature, art, and religion. But our growing understanding of evolution, genetics, and animal behavior forces us to ask if the difference between human beings and animals is one of kind or one of degree. Are humans and animals two different kinds of things on totally different trajectories? Or are humans with our incredible brains capable of reshaping the planet just one interesting branch on a tree of life full of complex, interesting creatures—and sometimes maybe even thinking, feeling creatures.
The Bible says that God created human beings in God’s own image. But it doesn’t say exactly what that means. And it doesn’t say that other animals or other parts of Creation don’t also reflect God’s image in some way. I believe we were created in God’s image, but I also think that God’s image is way bigger than us. Could the octopus be another reflection off another piece of God’s great big mirror?
If science is telling us that animals are more like us than we’ve previously wanted to admit, is it possible this similarity could extend beyond the boundaries of what science can tell us and go all the way to the soul? Is it possible that the belief that we’re the only ones with souls is just another example of misguided human exceptionalism—like thinking that the Earth is the center of the solar system?
Our scripture reading this morning says that on the sixth day God breathed the breath of life into the dust of the ground and the man, Adam, became a living soul. The word being translated as “soul” is the Hebrew word nephesh.
And our scripture reading says that on the fifth day God said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures.” So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm... And the word translated into English twice here as “creature” is the Hebrew word nephesh, the very same word translated as “soul” when it was referring to Adam. So, even when we translate the Bible, we sometimes like to separate ourselves from the animals.
Of course, we still haven’t defined what a soul is. Is it a supernatural part of you that is eternal and flies off somewhere when you’ve died? Is it your conscious experience living inside the phenomena of your material brain? Is it the great struggles and questions of your life? Or is it the simple enjoyment of a sunny day or the simple satisfaction of offering kindness to a stranger? Or is it a little bit of all these things?
I think sometimes words like “soul” and “spirit” can be too big to define. You could talk about them all day, you could write whole books about them, and the more you talk, the more you write, the bigger they grow. Sometimes, soul is just something you need to feel—feel without words: know, experience.
Sometimes, I just want to pray silently. And in my silent prayers I sometimes feel God more fully, more accessibly than I do when I’m preaching a sermon. All of God can be present in silence. But a sermon can only contain the tiniest little reflection of God. I think it may be the same for soul—for our own souls and the souls of other people and any other souls there may be in the other living creatures. Sometimes we need to stop thinking, quiet down, and just be present. If there is such a thing as soul somewhere, it won’t be defined by words or discovered by science. It happens within and between us.
As Montgomery writes, “While stroking an octopus, it is easy to fall into reverie. To share such a moment of deep tranquility with another being, especially one as different from us as the octopus, is a humbling privilege. It’s a shared sweetness, a gentle miracle, an uplink to universal consciousness.”
Perhaps we have been reluctant to assign souls to animals, especially squishy, slimy animals like octopuses, because we haven’t spent enough time with them—quality time, building meaningful relationships. It was only in the 1960s when Jane Goodall began studying our closest relatives, chimpanzees, in the wild by living with them that she learned that chimps made simple tools, and communicated, and (she asserted) were conscious beings more like us than different from us. Until she went to live with the chimps, we had no idea what or who they really were.
One of the things we have to consider when evaluating our beliefs is the consequence of those beliefs. The consequence of thinking of animals as soulless I believe has led to a reluctance to think morally about how we treat the animals in our care and how we treat animals in the wild. We often don’t think about the needs of animals at all because as soulless creatures we don’t imagine that they can be truly harmed, or if they can be harmed, then that harm doesn’t really matter morally because being soulless, animals don’t rise to a level of human or divine concern. We can mistreat them. We can wipe them out. Their suffering isn’t true suffering.
What would be the consequence of granting animals the benefit of the doubt? How might the world look if the birds and the fish and the wolves and the pigs were creatures with at least a little soul or the possibility of a little soul? Would we be kinder to the environment that animals need to survive? Would we work harder to protect endangered species? Would we stop animal testing? Would we raise the welfare standards for animals in factory farms?
Could animals with souls make the world a little better? I think they might. And I could even imagine a walk through the woods with your dog could become an even more beautiful, more spiritual, more God-filled experience. Imagine if a walk in the woods was not just an opportunity to spot living creatures, but an opportunity to meet and to get to know living souls.
Listen to how Montgomery describes one of her scuba dives:
“At last, in the warm embrace of the sea, breathing underwater, surrounded by the octopus’s liquid world, my breath rising in silver bubbles like a song of praise, here I am.
“There follows a parade of wonders: A splendid toadfish hides beneath a rock… It’s pancake flat, with thin, wavy, horizontal blue and white stripes, Day-Glo yellow fins, and whiskery barbels. A four-foot nurse shark sleeps beneath a coral shelf, peaceful as a prayer. A trumpet fish, yellow with dark stripes, floats with its long, tubular snout down, trying to blend in with some branching coral… A school of iridescent pink and yellow fish slide by inches from our masks, then wheel in unison like birds in the sky.
“I have known no natural state more like a dream than this. I feel elation cresting into ecstasy and experience bizarre sensations: my own breath resonates in my skull, faraway sounds thump in my chest, objects appear closer and larger than they really are. Like in a dream, the impossible unfolds before me, and yet I accept it unquestioningly. Beneath the water, I find myself in an altered state of consciousness, where the focus, range, and clarity of perception are dramatically changed.”
What if we altered our perceptions the way that Montgomery has? Because I think her description of that scuba dive is a description of a world filled will soul as diverse as life. Maybe that’s a world we’d all like to live in.
Before he died last month, John Lewis was (at least in my heart) the greatest living American. Born into poverty to a sharecropper family in rural Alabama during the time of segregation, he became a young leader in the Civil Rights Movement. He was one of the 13 original freedom riders, an integrated group who traveled by bus through the South to protest segregation. He was one of the founders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, which used civil disobedience as a tool in the fight for justice. He was the youngest member of the “Big Six,” the six Black leaders who organized the 1963 March on Washington. He stood at the front of the line at the first Selma-to-Montgomery march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on what has become known as Bloody Sunday. He had his skull fractured by a police baton that day and was beaten and bloodied by white police and white mobs more times than can be counted, not to mention that he was arrested 40 times for civil disobedience in the fight for civil rights. Later he served as a representative in Congress for more than 30 years (an office he held until his death) and in 2011 he was awarded our nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, by Barak Obama.
John Lewis was a believer in the American dream, and he worked all his life to make sure that America lived up to her ideals for everybody. By all measures he was a tremendous patriot who was absolutely willing to lay down his life for his country, a country that he loved but that (because of the color of his skin) didn’t always love him. And, as he deserved, over the last few weeks, much has been said about his patriotism and his accomplishments for his country and I’m sure that you all have followed his memorials and remembrances in the news and that you’ve mourned for the loss of this great American.
John Lewis was a great American, but as the Church, we also need to remember him as a great Christian and a disciple of Jesus. John Lewis was not just incidentally a Christian. He didn’t just happen to be a Christian. John Lewis is an example of a person who lives out the fullness of their Christian faith and identity in their life.
John Lewis was born into a little boat on rough seas. And when God called, he jumped out of the boat and right into the storm. It was a big ask. But he did it and he stayed out in that storm because he had a faith that told him it was the right thing to do and that God would be with him no matter what.
When he was once asked about the spirituality of the Civil Rights Movement Lewis said, “The early foundation, the early teaching of the movement was based on the Scripture, the teaching of Jesus, the teaching of Gandhi and others. You have to remind people over and over again that some of us saw our involvement in the civil rights movement as an extension of our faith.”
One way to be a Christian is to be a Christian on Sunday only. Or to be a Christian in church only. Or to be a Christian for heaven only. This kind of Christianity can easily get disconnected from the rest of our lives—our work and our relationships and our life goals. We don’t turn away from God exactly, but we don’t give ourselves all the way over either. What we do in our lives and how we do it doesn’t necessarily coincide with our faith, with the needs of our neighbors, or with the deepest longings of our own hearts.
The other way to be a Christian is to work every day to fulfill your Christian identity—the promises of our faith, the world’s deep needs, and the deepest longings of your heart—fulfill your Christian identity in the fulfillment of your life’s mission. And it was exactly John Lewis’ Christian faith that motivated him to live a life fighting for justice and serving his country. And it was precisely his Christian faith that informed him about the best way to conduct that struggle—through nonviolent (but aggressive) Christian action—what Lewis frequently and famously called “good trouble.”
Three weeks ago, I was preaching to you on my summer reading (The Righteous Mind) and Jesus’ morality. I told you that Jesus wants us to be free from oppression, but the challenge of Jesus’ liberty is that as we fight for our humanity, we are not allowed to dehumanize ourselves by dehumanizing others because God also cares for those others. And that is a Christian principle that John Lewis brilliantly enacted in his life’s work.
In that sermon three weeks ago, I also told you that we’d need to come back to this “turn the other cheek” scripture. I told you that its often been interpreted to mean that good Christians are just supposed to take any old abuse that comes our way and be nice about it, and we were going to need more than one sermon for me to explain why this isn’t a good interpretation for what Jesus is saying.
So, this Sunday it turns out is the perfect time to return to this piece of scripture. Because what Jesus is actually asking us to do (when he asks us to turn the other cheek, to give our cloak, and to go the second mile), Jesus is asking us to get into “good trouble.” And this piece of scripture inspired John Lewis’ nonviolent (but aggressive) action. Listen to what he said in an interview from 2004.
“I’m deeply concerned that many people today fail to recognize that the [civil rights] movement was built on deep-seated religious convictions, and the movement grew out of a sense of faith—faith in God and faith in one’s fellow human beings. From time to time, I make a point, trying to take people back, and especially young people, and those of us not so young, back to the roots of the movement. During those early days, we didn’t study the Constitution, the Supreme Court decision of 1954. We studied the great religions of the world. We discussed and debated the teachings of the great teacher. And we would ask questions about what would Jesus do. In preparing for the sit-ins, we felt that the message was one of love—the message of love in action: don’t hate. If someone hits you, don’t strike back. Just turn the other side. Be prepared to forgive. There’s not anything in any Constitution that says anything about forgiveness. It is straight from the Scripture: reconciliation.”
John Lewis’ life is proof that when Jesus tells us not to hit back, it doesn’t mean that we’re supposed to just resign ourselves to being beaten. And when Jesus asks us to forgive, he’s not asking us to accept injustice, he’s asking us to act up for a repaired and reconciled world. And, in fact, what the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s believed and demonstrated is that there was a moral force in not hitting back that was powerful—powerful enough to be able to transform the consciousness of a nation and to lead to major victories for Black people in America.
So, let’s look a little more closely at the ways Jesus is pointing out this power in our first scripture reading. My understanding here was informed by the great Biblical Scholar and theologian Walter Wink. He points out the cultural contexts of Jesus’ teachings.
First, notice Jesus’ says if you are struck on the right cheek. In Jesus’ day there were two kinds of strikes—the fist and the backhand. The fist was a punch for social equals. The backhand was an especially insulting slap used by a social superior to hit a social inferior. A single blow would have been dealt with the right hand because the left hand was the hand you used in the toilet and so there were rules about not using the left hand to touch things like food or people. So, if you follow all that in your imagination, you see that Jesus’ audience knew that a single slap across your right cheek was a backhanded slap. And when you rise up from that backhanded slap and turn the other cheek, you turn your left cheek which can then only be struck with the open palm (or fist) of the right hand—but that’s a respectable way to fight with your equals, it’s not how you slap down your inferiors.
So, yes, Jesus is teaching us nonviolence, but he’s not asking us to cringe in the corner and to accept abuse. Baked into the command to turn the other cheek is a subversive, nonviolent, aggressive resistance to unjust power—a rising up in a self-affirmation of equality that affirms an oppressed person’s humanity without dehumanizing anyone.
In Jesus’ day a poor person would have owned two pieces of clothing. An undergarment and an overgarment. Let’s call them a shirt and a coat just to make it easier for us. At that time a poor person could literally be sued for the shirt off their back by a creditor or landlord, but the creditor or landlord couldn’t take their coat because that would have left this person naked and in danger of freezing.
In Jesus’ culture they felt a little differently than we do about nakedness. In our culture, if I were standing up here naked in front of you, I’d be mortified and ashamed and you all would be a little embarrassed but also maybe laughing and making fun of me. In Jesus’ culture it was flipped around. If I were standing here naked in front of you I would probably be a little embarrassed, but you all would be mortified and ashamed and you would feel like the transgression was yours for seeing me naked, rather than mine for being naked.
So, when Jesus asks a poor person to strip off their coat in court after their shirt has been taken away, he’s asking them to stand there naked. He’s asking them to remind the rich and the powerful of God’s law which forbids taking everything from the poor. And if the powerful are unable to feel shame for their actions, then perhaps they will be confronted with their own shame when they are forced to see the human being that they sued naked in front of them. This was nakedness as a disruptive protest against injustice—revealing to the world your own human vulnerability and confronting the powers that be with their sins.
If you’re having trouble imagining nakedness as a protest, consider the naked Quaker. In 17th century Massachusetts, our Puritan ancestors made it illegal to be Quaker. Some Quakers were even put to death by our spiritual forebears for not conforming. Quakers were expected to attend a Puritan church. We know that at least one Quaker woman, Lydia Wardell, would come into a church on Sunday morning, take off all her clothes, and sit down in the front pew for the Sunday service. You can imagine just how much our stodgy, puritanical, Puritan forebears didn’t appreciate this. And you can begin to imagine what an effective disruption nakedness can be given the proper context.
In Jesus’ day Roman troops were legally entitled to gang press local peasants into carrying their packs for them. But military discipline was strict, and troops were only allowed to force someone to carry their equipment for one mile—no more. A friendly Judean or Galilean peasant marching a second mile would have put the Roman soldier who forced him to carry his pack in the first place at risk of punishment from his commander. Again, we see that even going the second mile was a way of taking control and subversively resisting injustice.
John Lewis never hit back. Much was taken from him by his country and by white people, but he kept giving the best he had, even when it laid him out. John Lewis went the second mile. He accepted Jesus’ way as his way, as the guiding principle of his life’s work. We know that it wasn’t an easy decision to make. It wasn’t easy to put life and limb on the line over and over again for freedom and for justice. It wasn’t easy to turn the other cheek again and again when it would have seemed like justice demanded punishing those who were so cruel and so wrong. But John Lewis was a believer.
Believing in Jesus’ way and believing in justice and non-violence in an intellectual way are one thing. True belief, real faith, requires something more than intellectual assent. It requires us to jump from the boat into the storm. It requires courageous action. John Lewis lived a life of courageous Christian action. I wonder, what would courageous action look like in your life? What would courageous action look like in our life together as a church?
This is what Lewis said about courageous action:
“When we’d go out to sit in or go out to march, I felt, and I really believe, there was a force in front of us and a force behind us, ’cause sometimes you didn’t know what to do. You didn’t know what to say, you didn’t know how you were going to make it through the day or through the night. But somehow and some way, you believed—you had faith—that it all was going to be all right.”
What would it look like if we all believed like John Lewis believed? And what would it look like if we all lived like John Lewis lived?
Jesus the Imagination
Thoughts and dreams, musings and meditations