Giving of Ourselves

In Matthew 6:1, Jesus says:

Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. [NIV]

But when the poor widow imposes herself as the rich make their donations to the temple treasury, Jesus celebrates her act with [Luke 21:3]:

Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them.

Jesus justifies his opinion in financial terms: the widow’s gift was a far larger part of her wealth than were the larger contributions of the wealthy. But why does that make a difference?

I was asked one Sunday to help with the collection. When the time came to combine the plates, I found myself under a strange compulsion, and arranged matters so that the collection ended up in my hands. The deacon was a little piqued when I carried the plate up to the front of the hall. As I set it on the table, my hands hovered over it, and I felt the angel thoughts rising up out of it. On a later occasion, when I did this while the minister held the collection, I felt one wing through my chest.

In Genesis, it is said that God made us in his image. We know that the Almighty does his work in love, so one way of understanding that likeness is that we are designed so that actions taken in love are far more powerful than those done selfishly.

I think that this is why Jesus celebrates the widow. We might wonder why she made this offering: it could have been as a political statement, a reminder to the rich of why they gave. Perhaps she had longed all her life to make a contribution, and in her last days, took her wealth to the temple in gratitude for God’s provision through the Law. Or perhaps she had woken that morning with Jesus’ voice in her ears, telling her to seek under a stone for two copper coins to bring to the temple.

Whatever the reason, I believe that Jesus is recognizing that her intentions would take root in the entire collection. The rich put nothing of themselves into the treasury, because their interest was in their own image. Once the money was surrendered, they walked off with their pride. The widow, though, brought her obedience, her gratitude and her thoughts for those in greater need.  In that surrender, she invested those intentions in the entire offering. No one touching it could avoid being influenced by those impulses.

When I give money, I always give to a charitable organization. I know that many among the poor lack discipline, and so direct donations of cash can be a temptation. But when asked by a homeless person to give, I never sneer. I smile, and apologize without explanation. As I pass, my thoughts linger on them, tendering silently my hope that they will find strength and assistance that will allow them to find the security, hope and opportunity to provide for themselves.

Christianity and Paganism

In response to this post in Gods and Radicals.

It is misguided to found any argument about the future of a spiritual tradition upon the success of political figures in corrupting Christianity.

All gods wish for their followers to worship only them, because it is through the acts of their followers that they are invested in the world. That investment long predates humanity – there were Neanderthal gods, and before them gods of mice and gods of dinosaurs. The problem facing humanity was to create a human god in the context of billions of years of predecessors. That is the project of monotheism – to create a god that manifests and supports the expression of humanity’s unique talents.

Now perhaps the essence of humanity’s talent is political organization, but I see it differently. Looking at our evolutionary success, I would argue that humanity is a manifestation of intelligence. For the original adherents (not those indoctrinated in service to the priests, which is a problem in any tradition), the attractive proposition of Christianity was that the divinity served humanity. Christianity is the original humanism – it is to assert that the human god should be a god of love, and serve all equally, without regard to station or industrial skill.

Obviously this is a reasonable proposition, and the power of the Church in the Roman world came not because of the allegiances that joined the interests of emperors and priests. Rather, it was because in the Roman context of utilitarian worship, the Church followed Christ’s edict of charity. The Church, though oppressed, took care of the orphans and widows, the sick and poor, and organized their gratitude to the service of others. When the Empire collapsed, the Church assumed control because they were the administrative and organizational backbone of Roman society.

I see paganism as a political act on the spiritual plane. Humanity, having succeeded in propagating the tyranny of utilitarianism through the application of intelligence, is confronting the fact that it is destroying the fundament of its own existence. It needs to think about all of those forgotten gods. It needs to infect them with rational understanding, and engage them in expression of mutual support. In other words, Humanity needs to join in loving the world, rather than just itself.

This is a difficult pivot. Our religions are still infected by expressions of our physical vulnerability: as an illustration, the vulnerability of a child whose cave is invaded by the saber-tooth cat while father and mother are away. Many people still live in circumstances of vulnerability, although the predators are no longer other species, but rather politically powerful people.

Jesus preached that the meek will inherit the earth. As a reaction against abusive political structures, I see paganism as furthering that goal.

Stopping the Violence

The exhausted pleas of the Mayor of Kansas City touched me deeply today. Decrying the shooting death of a one-year-old child, he observed that our city officials can’t be everywhere at once, and exhorted all of us to stand up against violence. As a policy prescription, that translates to instituting restrictions on gun access.

It is true that ready access to firearms inflates violent death. Emotional shock or dehumanizing abuse can create a driving urge to remove the source of our pain. When a gun is at hand and familiar to the touch, it represents an immediate solution. But equally true is that a strong person does not employ that solution unless life is under threat.

The problem is that people are becoming weaker, not stronger. This is obvious in the comments on conservative bulletin boards. A steady theme is that the average American is not valued by the social elite, whether political or business leaders. Looking at the decline of the middle class, it is hard to argue with them. We suffer from the naivete of politicians that believed that the war on drugs could be won through incarceration, or that growth would stimulate China to liberalize its economy. And we suffer from the greed of business leaders that lobby to hold down wages and weaken environmental and public health regulations, often using the threat of Chinese competition as a rationale.

A recent study on sexism and racism on gaming sites reveals the social dynamics of the downward slide. What the researchers discovered is that the most successful gamers are nice to everybody – it’s those that struggle that hurl abuse. That abuse is reserved for new entrants to the competition – the skill of winners is widely admired. The abuse is directed at those trying to enter the community and acquire skills. It’s a means of keeping down direct competition.

I think that this is an important aspect of America’s perverse love affair with guns. They provide a false sense of security to those that bear them. They allow the dispatch of the physical intruder that comes to take our property or our jobs, while the elite collects credit card interest every month, drives up working hours and pushes mortgages into default.

But the love affair doesn’t end there. Our over-sized military and jails are social support systems, providing for the basic needs of large cohorts of our society while incubating violence. Our media appeals to our primitive psychological urges with the portrayal of life-threatening circumstances visited upon sexually attractive people whose mastery of physical violence produces victory. And our sports heroes become ever more powerful and intimidating in their performances, to the point that no padding can protect them from long-term disability, and so we simply throw them into the arena without covering for anything except their genitals.

This sounds terribly gloomy, but the celebration of brute physical power above strength of mind and character has a silver lining. It makes those that struggle against violence all the more powerful.

It’s hard to explain until you’ve actually experienced it (though I try in Ma and Golem). It’s to be stalked by a mountain lion in the moonlight, and to calmly escape it from ten feet after freezing it with the mental command, “Go eat something that can’t talk.” It’s to react to the men squared off over a woman in a night club – not by screaming “take it outside” – but by sucking the violence out of the air to the point that the one that threw a punch actually fell over on the floor, reporting later that “I just got all weak all of a sudden.”

But it’s also to give of our selves. It was the CEO of FMC who, having planned a series of acquisitions that created a vertically integrated company without redundancies, offered to the employees of a small, struggling subsidiary that he had “felt your pain.” It is to look the homeless in the eye, validating them as people. It is to tutor in a school for children that walk mean streets every night to homes that may not contain food to fill their stomachs.

It is to let people in fear know that “Yes, this is what it is to be loved.” Once they know, the short-term thrills of adrenaline and lust just don’t have the same attraction.

And more: through an encounter with a disciplined mind and compassionate heart, the promises of our religious avatars become obvious truths. The overwhelming power of those instruments has no material support – they are what they are only because an infinite source of unconditional love enters the world through them. It is through this knowledge that the long-suffering find patience that blossoms into enduring hope. In that endurance and strength, the threat of violence loses the last of its power.