The vital lie and living truth...
Gospel: Luke 6:27-38
‘But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. 30Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. 31Do to others as you would have them do to you.
32 ‘If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. 35But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. 36Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
37 ‘Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; 38give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.’
The vital lie and living truth...
Triggers: extreme domestic violence, existential doubt about one's own existence.
But I say to you that listen... these seven words from the beginning of the reading set for this week, point us to the end of what we call Luke Chapter 6:
I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them. 48That one is like a man building a house, who dug deeply and laid the foundation on rock; when a flood arose, the river burst against that house but could not shake it, because it had been well built.
Listen to these words, act on them, and you will build your house; that is, your life and your very being, upon bedrock. Don't act on them, and you risk all that you build being swept away in life's floods.
I find it extraordinarily valuable— and discomforting— to ask how it is that I am reading a text. What am I bringing to it; what affects how I read it; what blinds me to aspects of it; what do I want to see in it?
So I begin this reflection about a 'house' with firm foundations by asking:
How do we find bedrock in a world of terror?
Ernest Becker, in his book The Denial of Death1, says that humans live a vital lie.
All our meanings are built into us from the outside, from our dealings with others. This is what gives us a self... Our whole world of right and wrong, good and bad, our name, precisely who we are, is grafted into us; and we never feel we have authority to offer things on our own... (pp48)
See this, and it is difficult not to wonder if "we" have any existence at all. Becker says this lie is vital because
the human animal is characterised by two great fears that the other animals are protected from: the fear of life and the fear of death... (pp53)
This starts as a child, of course, and Becker's outlining of our existential dilemma from our earliest days is lyrical, which makes the pain of it worse. One wants to weep for us. (I have edited the text to remove the gendered language of the early seventies in the following excerpts.)
we understand that if the child were to give into the overwhelming character of reality and experience it would not be able to act with the equanimity we need in our non-instinctive world. So one of the first things a child has to do is to learn to "abandon ecstasy," to do without awe, to leave fear and trembling behind. Only then can we act with a certain oblivious self confidence, when we have naturalised our world. We say "naturalised" but we mean unnaturalised, falsified, with the truth obscured, the despair of the human condition hidden, a despair that the child glimpses in their night terrors and daytime phobias and neuroses. This despair the child avoids by building defences; and these defences allow them to feel a basic sense of self-worth, of meaningfulness, of power. They allow them to feel that they control their life and their death, that they really do live and act as a wilful and free individual, that they have a unique and self-fashioned identity, that they are somebody— not just a trembling accident germinated on a hothouse planet that Carlyle for all time called a "hall of doom." We called one's life style a vital lie, and now we can understand better why we said it was vital: it is a necessary and basic dishonesty about oneself and one's whole situation... (pp55)
And of course the child grows up to be... us; you and me.
It gets worse. Our character, the person we build ourselves up to be is a "grand illusion" and a defence to protect us from reality and the despair it brings. What if we seek to rise above this; what if we seek to be 'real?' Becker says
If character is a neurotic defence against despair and you shed that defence, you admit the full flood of despair, the full realisation of the true human condition, what humans are really afraid of, what they struggle against, and are driven toward and away from. Freud summed it up beautifully when he somewhere remarked that psychoanalysis cured the neurotic misery in order to introduce the patient to the common misery of life. Neurosis is another word for describing a complicated technique for avoiding misery, but reality is the misery. This is why from earliest times sages have insisted that to see reality one must die and be reborn. (pp57)
In this situation we really are ptôchos; we are reduced to begging. The ptôchos are the grindingly poor folk of Luke 6:20, the destitute ones of whom Jesus says: yours is the kingdom of God. Everything we read this week, it must be remembered, is speaking to people who are ptôchos. Or grimly warning those who, by chance, are rich.
Human beings are "embodied souls." We are not souls finally independent of our body. That is the mark of Gnosticism and of a Christianity which has lost touch with its Hebrew roots. Therefore, if the gospel speaks to us, it must speak to our bodily conditions; that is, address the issues of justice and compassion for the poor and 'destitute in body.' But it must also address the issue of the "soul." It must address the 'destitute in soul'; that is, all of us, for all of us are bound up in the vital lie, the need to defend ourselves from being overwhelmed by the ecstasy of life, and to defend ourselves from the terrors of death which Becker outlines so powerfully.
I would add that unless we deal with the terrors the soul faces, the existential fears and horrors which are always breathing down our neck, or hiding around the corner, we can never really address bodily justice and compassion. That is because what we do to address these things will be driven not by justice for all people, all of whom God loves just the same, but will tend to be driven by our need to alleviate our own fear even to exist. If we remain unconscious of this, we will not understand what we are doing is to help us, not others.
The opposite of gnostic christianity is the religion which has degenerated into a functional atheism because it ignores the spiritual dilemma in which humans live, treats their terrors lightly, and so avoids confronting the God who has created us and, at first glance, seems to take life away from us. It hides from our dilemma under a façade of activism.
In an essay I have not yet posted I say that the vital lie is also the space of grace.
We need a space where we can grow to gain, or be given, the ability to face our deaths2. This is the space of grace. Grace is a resting place in the presence of death [and in the context of this current post, also a resting place in the terrifying presence of life!]; it is the gift of being able to pause when death thrusts itself into our face, and to remember the Christian teaching that death is not the definition of our being. Grace is the place where we can be open about our fear, yet know that we are not judged or rejected by God because of our fear, and grace is also the place where we can find that our fear is, as John Newton said, "relieved." For here, death begins to lose its hold on us.
Grace is also that place where God says that God knows we are lying, but that it's OK. Grace is the giving of time and life to learn to let go of the lie and to find a deeper freedom to hold onto. "I know you need something to hold onto. Here is the place to learn how to hold on to me."
I seek to come to the text of Luke 6 remembering all this. Otherwise, I will succumb to the temptation to get bums on seats, to save the church from dying, to build it up, never asking if perhaps this is all about my self-esteem, my seeking to keep up with the "successful" pastors. To give in to this temptation would be my seeking to make something of myself, when everything I am is given to me, and when being 'given-to' is all there is. Becker makes the terrible statement that we can find that all we have done and strived for was "not in the real world but [was] instead in the playpen of our fantasies." (pp56)
As clergy, I take it that my task is to dive deep into the flood, to risk it, to seek something closer to bedrock, to trust that even though there seems no foundation able to be found, something will yet be given to me. Otherwise everything else I do is building on sand I cannot even see, and will not let myself see, and will encourage others to follow me.
What the text is not saying
The text is not some kind of warrant to demand that we accept abuse. Especially disgusting is the understanding that a woman, for example, should simply turn the other cheek to domestic violence and endure it. To preach this is to become the abuser; it is to side with the abuser whom the whole text speaks against. For the text speaks from the perspective of the ptôchos who suffer constant abuse, and offers them a way to resist which begins to open them to finding bedrock for the survival of their suffering, and to begin to thrive despite it. It offers a way to step out of the cycle of violence and be a person of dignity, rather than being defined by the abuser and by the violence.
I spent the weekend studying backhand blows, and brought my results to class. “What we are dealing with here is unmistakably an insult, not a fistfight. The intention is not to injure but to humiliate, to put someone in his or her ‘place.’ ” I had learned that one normally did not strike a peer, and if he or she did the fine was exorbitant. A backhand slap, then, was the normal way of admonishing inferiors. Masters backhanded slaves; husbands, wives; parents, children; men, women; Romans, Jews. We have here a set of unequal relations, in each of which fighting back and retaliating would be suicidal. The only normal response would be cowering in submission.
This realization opened a floodgate for all sorts of new insights. It became important to ask who Jesus’s audience is. Jesus’s listeners are not those who strike, but their victims (“If anyone strikes you”). There were, among his followers, people who were subjected to these very indignities and forced to stifle their inner outrage. These were people who suffered dehumanizing treatment meted out to them by the hierarchical system of caste and class, race and gender, age and status, and as a result of imperial occupation. Why then does Jesus counsel these already humiliated people to turn the other cheek?
And it clicked: Because the action robs the oppressor of the power to humiliate. The person who turns the other cheek is saying: “Try again. Your first blow failed to achieve its intended effect. I deny you the power to humiliate me. I am a human being just like you. Your status does not alter that fact. You cannot demean me.”
Such a response would create enormous difficulties for the striker. Purely logistically, what can he do? He cannot use the backhand because the slave’s nose is in the way. He cannot use his left hand regardless... (in that society the left hand was used only for unclean tasks)... If he hits with his fist, he makes himself an equal, acknowledging the other as a peer. The whole point of the back of the hand is to reinforce the caste system and its institutionalized inequality. Even if he orders the person flogged, the point has been irrevocably made. The oppressor has been forced, against his will, to regard this subordinate as an equal human being. The powerful person has been stripped of his power to dehumanize the other. This response, far from admonishing passivity and cowardice, is an act of defiance. How far this is from the passive reaction taught by the churches! (pp65 Available as an eBook)
This turning of the other cheek is, of course, an extraordinarily dangerous thing to do. Rather than being passive, it is, finally, a pricking of the delusions of a powerful person, which may lead to a terrible revenge, for who can bear to see that they are powerless even in the face of a beaten down woman? This is why men would rather kill the woman, and themselves and their children, or spend the rest of their lives in gaol, for who can bear to be bested by a woman? She, at least, gave his lie to having agency and power some substance; now that he has nothing, and his pretence has been thrust in his face, he would rather die.
To live as the one who will not cower before the abuser, who mocks the occupying soldier by going the extra mile, (Matthew 5:38-41) who makes the seizer of debts a laughing stock by taking off even your undergarments, (Luke 6:29b) is to face death as a real and close reality. It is to live in another way, highlighting the injustice of violence, but not responding with violence. And it is to dare to live as if death did not, in the end, matter. Which is, of course, the great controlling fear of our existence, for it seems that death, of all things, matters the most.
What the text seems to be saying
The text has a pattern of living the opposite to the way we normally live and respond:
love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,
28bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.
29If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also...
In particular, it calls us to step outside the pattern of mutual obligation to those who are close to us, and upon whom we depend:
‘If you love those who love you... even sinners love those who love them
33If you do good to those who do good to you... even sinners do the same
34If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive... even sinners lend to sinners
35But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.
The violence under which the ptôchos suffer begins with mutual obligation. For mutual obligation says, by definition, that some people are deserving, and some are not. Whereas the gospel, at base, says God values all people, and God loves all people, just the same. Our original sin, the thing about us which leads to the violence and pain and the undoing of the world, is rooted in the idea that some are more valuable than others. It takes a shortcut through the pain and terror of being human together, and dealing with our rivalry and fear, by designating some folk as less, as scapegoats, as expendable, as inferior. And so justifies us as more worthy. Mutual obligation among family, village, class, and so on, is the systematising of violence for survival. It is setting up a defence to enable us to survive the terrors of life.
The teaching of Jesus in this, is a sketching out of a life which does not navigate by all this, but which seeks to learn to live by a different maxim: grace.
But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. 36Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
Underlying this is the promise that we will be children of the most high, which means we will become like God; that is, we will begin to stand on bedrock, and not be swept away by the terrors of life. If we imitate the way God is, the way Jesus lives, then we will become like him.
I am fascinated to discover the Greek which lies under the question Jesus asks three times in the text: what credit is that to you? What credit... is a good translation; after all, to give knowing you will receive a return, is to do nothing special. It is only to take part in the normal commerce of the world. And I see in the words the normal commerce of the world that so much of what we do in relating to people is just... commerce. It is the trading of obligations and insurances which allow us to stay alive in our terrors and fears.
But the Greek word is: grace! What grace is that to you? At base, I do not think that by our own efforts we can escape the terror in which we find ourselves as a human being. What we trust from God, what The Faith consists of, is the hope that God gives us, and graces us with, an increasing ability to walk towards death, rather than living our life fleeing it. If we simply live by mutual obligation, what grace is that to us? It is the avoiding of death, pure and simple. It is to live under the lie of pretended safety. And it is to walk away from the gift of living more deeply.
There is a play on words in Becker's vital lie. Vital is necessary. But something vital is also life giving. Seeking to live outside the mutual obligations of human existence and pretence is vital; that is, it gives life, because it seems, in my experience, to open me to something beyond myself, and something beyond what I can achieve by myself.
Bill Loader says
We may baulk at the notion of reward here, but perhaps we should not play games about why we make decisions. We want what is best for us. We are always acting in our interests.
The idea that we can be disinterested about life is naïve. To be human is to be by nature narcissistic: "each of us repeats the tragedy of the mythical Greek Narcissus: we are hopelessly absorbed with ourselves." (Becker pp2) How else could we be human or even hope to survive? Loader goes on:
The bid being made by Jesus is to persuade us that it is in our interests to merge with God's interest and with others' interests - to live in love and compassion. Any other choice breaks that unity of common life in which there is room for all and cuts someone out. The great deceit is to persuade ourselves that our interests are best served by not loving, which effectively makes everyone who is not our supporter our enemy.
There is another thing that we will find we bring to the text here. We come either with a sense that God 'sort of loves us, but we don't really deserve it,' or with the understanding that we are 'the apple of God's eye,' loved lavishly and beyond anything we deserve, and loved without reservation. If that is who we are, life is not about 'toeing the line' or 'keeping our nose clean.' It is about a space for grace into which we can enter, in which we can find ourselves being opened to a richness and wealth beyond what we can imagine, for God really does love us.
Then we may see that all the terror, all the struggle, is about being formed, about being created, and about being graced: given the means to become human at last. Or we can live behind the walls. There is the old joke that people tell against others; the person in heaven asking about the wall, and being told that is where the 'such and such' live, because they think they are the only ones here. Maybe it's another way around: Jesus offers us life, offers us ecstasy and something we can only describe as being 'divinised,' and we wall ourselves off in terror; terror at the beauty, and terror that the way into the beauty, is by dying. I suspect that even if we wall ourselves off so well that we die unseeing, he will persist in gracing us, pulling bricks out of our wall, here and there, until we can finally let the whole thing fall down.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
1. You can find the book here, although I suspect this copy is in breach of copyright.
2. This footnote is in the original essay, quoting pieces of Becker:
It is clear that for an organism to stay alive, and for a species to survive, it must in some way "fear" death; that is, live in a way that for as long as possible keeps it from dying. This is the double bind in which we live. We must fear death to evolve as humanity, but the fear of death is a torture. Quoting Becker, The Denial of Death pp16-17: This fear is actually an expression of the instinct of self-preservation which functions as a constant drive to maintain life and to master the dangers that threaten life:
Such constant expenditure of psychological energy on the business of preserving life would be impossible if the fear of death were not as constant. The very term "self-preservation" implies an effort against some force of disintegration semicolon the effective aspect of this is fear, fear of death.
In other words, the fear of death must be present behind all our normal functioning, in order for the organism to be armed towards self-preservation. But the fear of death cannot be present constantly in one's mental functioning, else the organism could not function. Zilboorg continues:
If this fear were as constantly conscious, we should be unable to function normally. It must be properly repressed to keep us living with any modicum of comfort. We know very well that to repress means more than to put away and to forget that which was put away and the place where we put it. It also means to maintain a constant psychologically effort to keep the lid on and inwardly never relax our watchfulness.
And so we can understand what seems like an impossible paradox: the ever-present fear of death in the normal biological functioning of our instinct of self-preservation, as well as our other obliviousness to this fear in our conscious life:
Therefore in normal times we move about actually without ever believing in our own death, as if we fully believed in our own corporeal immortality. We are intent on mastering death ... A man will say, of course, that he knows he will die someday, but he does not really care. He is having a good time with living, and he does not think about death and does not care to bother about it— but this is a purely intellectual, verbal admission. The fear of death is repressed...