As this is being written Jimmy Carter is nearing the end of his long and productive life. In some ways a life of improbabilities. One that mixed the humility of Christian charity and submissiveness with political ambition and accomplishment.
Carter rose from relative obscurity in rural Georgia to become governor of that state, and then president of the United States. He emerged from a racist and redneck family and community background to be the epitome of Christian openness and acceptance. And was able to merge his life as a politician with Christian advocacy, willing to risk much to serve others. Willing to continue that service long after losing his high office.
As a human being Carter quickly admitted his shortcomings and failures. And never stopped his allegiance to the power of prayer and teachings of Jesus.
He came from a family of characters and eccentrics. Especially a mother and brother. But he never apologized for them, and even demonstrated his love and respect for their quirkiness. While originally careful about his dealings with Blacks in a segregated south, he ultimately reached out to them, and enfolded them individually and collectively into his sphere of influence and support. And they loved him for it.
His choice of a wife was inspired. He built a relationship with Rosalynn that brought her fully into a compatible, mutually supportive way of thinking and acting. Even while in the White House Rosalynn was frequently part of every meeting. Every decision. And that demeanor continues to this day. Both loving and respectful of her insight and intelligence.
Carter is an amazing example of an authentic Christian somebody. The antithesis of those who claim to be Christians yet use that status to justify holier than thou dogmatizing. Those who twist Christian virtues into moralistic admonitions, suitable for supporting popular political positions or their brand of nationalistic imperative.
AUTHENTIC CHRISTIAN SOMEBODIES IN EVERYDAY LIFE
Christianity as a foundation for one’s life is now seen by many to be a brand of submissiveness, a way of quiet believing and acting that depends solely on compliance with the will of God. As discerned through scripture and the recognized teachings of Jesus.
That way of thinking and acting is NOT tantamount to becoming nobodies. They are indeed good Christians. Believers who acknowledge and even rely on the power of God within them. Accepting that condition as part of a persona allows and even undergirds a kind of quiet confidence. Even limited assertiveness when necessary.
Carter recognized that element of his belief. And never felt constrained by it to the point of just blending in. Being ordinary. Quietly being a God-fearing peanut farmer in central Georgia.
Instead, it gave him confidence and appropriate forms of civic assertiveness.
The God within him, as a human born with God-given leadership attributes, absorbed Christian teachings as a foundation for providing the kind of service that builds up others.
God gives us a platform for becoming fully human when born, but it is a combination of that existing DNA and adherence to Christ’s teachings to support others that makes us exceptional Christian servants.
Servant leaders, not just self-effacing Christians who do nothing more than follow obediently. Attend church services. Join groups. Give to charities. Obey blindly. Follow moralistic dictates of those who proclaim their connection to the Almighty. Through the power of their personalities, voices, and even the masculine mystique that inculcates the essence of some human cultures.
The authentic Christian somebody emulates Jesus, symbolically washing feet one day and giving the Sermon on the Mount the next. Inspiring others toward a better way to live through becoming and bestowing.
AND HOW CONSTANTINE’S ENDORSEMENT OF CHRISTIANITY INSTITUTIONALIZED,
POLITICIZED, AND COMPLICATED THE STRAIGHTFORWARDTEACHINGS OF JESUS CHRIST
This essay explores how we as human beings can mystify and complicate even the most basic teachings of Jesus Christ. How we can build organizational structures and myths into our way of living that seem to be Christian in appearance and function. But are in reality a smoke screen to gain advantage over others, or justify actions taken to support greed and avarice.
Historical examples include the sale of indulgences to gain more power and income through making people believe such purchases will pardon their sins, thereby avoiding eternal punishment. Or supporting the practice of holy wars, exemplified by the Crusades conducted between 1096 and 1270 C.E. to eradicate a competing religion growing in the same land Christ lived and preached love and forgiveness.
C.S. Lewis, a participant in the Inklings and close friend of R. R. Tolkien, wrote a book titled The Screwtape Letters in 1942. In the middle of a raging World War II. The book was a creative invention, encouraged by his literary counterparts, to convey techniques Satan uses to confuse human beings through obfuscation and deception into behaving in ways pleasing to him. The letters are written to a fictitious Wormwood, Screwtape’s cousin, who encourages him to promote passivity and irresponsibility in human beings. The very responses the citizens of Germany, Italy and Japan had given their dictatorial leaders in allowing the most destructive war in history to kill tens of millions.
One might ask where God was when a church created in his name came up with an evil sleight of hand like indulgences, or formed armies to eradicate other human cultures that had the temerity to start an alternative religion that recognized the importance of Christ’s teachings in an alternative way.
Those were the kinds of questions Lewis and his fellow authors asked through their satirical analogies.
What Lewis, Tolkien and their fellow authors faced was a mammoth contributor to human existence in the guise of a Greco-Roman culture that dominated the western world for over a millennium. And its influence was and continues to be felt even today. A primary reason for that reality is one Roman emperor named Constantine.
From a purely historical point-of-view, one might conclude that Constantine’s adoption of Christianity while emperor of Rome was a mixed blessing. Rome, the empire and nation state, was exceptionally good at cultural absorption. Territories and other nations conquered by Rome were slowly assimilated to the point of almost full amalgamation over time.
It was an ingenious strategy, which resulted in governmental oversight and a rationale that created ongoing stability and culturalization.
Most remarkable is that such culturalization could balance two very different ways of thinking and acting as being mutually supportive, when in fact they were almost polar opposites. Case in point: the humble Galilean carpenter and son of God who was crucified as a criminal of the state, pictured alongside the stupendously regal Roman pontiff or patriarch of Rome. A patriarchal status that at one time was accorded the equivalency of being God on earth.
That juxtaposition works because popes are advertised as being descendants of Saint Peter, with the linkage to Christ confirmed by the Apostle Matthew: And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. (Matthew 16:18) KJV.
Secular critics find ways to shoot holes through that depiction, saying that Constantine found a way to perpetuate the power of Rome for generations in the future. By making the Christian religion the vehicle for eternally maintaining the Roman culture. And the beauty of that strategy is church dogma and bureaucratic mechanisms can seem to transcend political motivations, because they are given the gravitas connected to a faith.
Constantine had no way of knowing there would be a Reformation or Enlightenment a few hundred years in the future, and the Islamic culture and other belief systems were only starting during his era. But the new institutionalized faith he supported with Roman governmental structures and processes did provide a way through the Dark Ages. Through many epidemics like the Black Plague, multiple wars, and the hundreds of years Europeans colonized many parts of the earth.
Today Protestantism, and other church movements that claim to be Christian, feature ideas and processes Constantine would immediately recognize and appreciate. One of the key features of many Christian churches today is the dominance of masculine prerogatives and leadership, resulting in the submissive demeanor of women and many men. Leadership is equated with authoritarian rule, or at the very least a doctrinally imposed adherence to behaviors deemed appropriate and correct by those in charge.
Constantine would also recognize the strength of centralized authority in government and economic activities, touted as being important for the stability and ongoing maintenance of social order. And that social order relies on classifying people in terms of economic value, intellectual worthiness, and social contributions. Depending on what Christ said as recorded by Matthew: For you have the poor with you always, but Me you do not have always. Matthew 26:11 KJV.
History can set up maddingly complex “what if” scenarios by asking questions like “What if there had not been a Saint Paul and his tireless efforts to expand the church of Christ? What if Constantine had continued to persecute Christians like his predecessors instead of co-opting their beliefs and making them Rome’s state religion? What if the Christian Church of Rome had emphasized its charitable services underscored by the teachings of Christ instead of seeking political and economic dominance, and graciously opened its doors to the ideas provided in the Enlightenment? And found ways to compromise with Martin Luther and others leading the Christian Renaissance?
But those scenarios did not emerge. Leaving us with many critics of Christianity as it functions in the world today. Critics who feel free to tell us that religion has been the greatest perpetrator of war, and the grueling poverty and deprivation of the world’s peoples. That is not true by any stretch of the imagination, but it is difficult to ignore the detritus of established Christian organizations that got it wrong. Or those that did not try because they were too timid to use the admonitions of Christ to actively overcome injustices. A timidity based on the idea that Jesus was less activist in terms of social justice, preferring to quietly change hearts and minds over time.
The problem with that notion is that letting himself be sacrificed on the cross is more than dying for our sins. It is a statement and agonizing sacrifice based on courage and conviction, reinforced by coming back from the dead to inspire change in the human condition. To me, Jesus was God’s maverick who saw social injustices everywhere and tried to do something about them, using the only tools he had available.
The most effective of those tools was—and is—the power of empathy.
Empathy is an ability to feel what others feel, deep down and impactful. A monumental “aha” moment that won’t go away. It continually revisits us cognitively and emotionally. To the point of making us feel unsettled. Of making us believe we might have the conviction and strength to do something—maybe many “somethings” —about it.
That is what Jesus did. Openly and sensitively. Shoring up and healing. Listening carefully and helping those who hurt or were downhearted. Washing feet and hugging. Guiding and assisting those who stumble.
Jesus was God’s man. Not an amalgam of Roman masculinity that exuded power and decisiveness based on an overdeveloped sense of righteousness and authority. Not a replication of Moses or other leaders of a bygone era who asserted dominance because they felt compelled to do so in God’s name. Jesus realized that true leadership is nurturance based on understanding, building up instead of pontificating from on high, and accepting all with open arms Including everyone. Continually acknowledging their worthiness as children of God.
The word empathy is by its very nature a descriptor that sounds docile and tepid. A quiet and unassuming characteristic shown by people some might consider weak do-gooders operating on the fringes. People who kneel down to treat the afflicted. Devout Christians lifting their hands in supplication to the Almighty. Writers of delicate prose and poetry. People who tear up as they remember serving others.
Never fearless leaders who diligently and forthrightly overcome obstacles to accomplish clearly articulated goals. Triumphally. Courageously.
Empathy rarely inspires thousands of followers who, filled with great purpose and fortitude, achieve a mountain top experience. Never like the demeanor of heroes, conquerors, narcissistic entrepreneurs, and media personalities that revel in their fame and influence over others. No matter how misbegotten and egocentric.
As a movement, empathy frequently percolates up through the ranks until it cannot be ignored by even the most powerful.
Through the diligent and ongoing efforts of Saint Paul and others, the Christian phenomenon was accepted by Roman Emperor Constantine I as being so pervasive and influential it could not be ignored or defeated. A religious belief that features, at its core, empathetic interactions with others, was eating away the power of elite Roman leaders.
So, under the principle of “if you can’t beat them, join them,” Constantine issued a decree that Christians could not be persecuted. Then, using the success of Roman cultural absorption principles employed for centuries of territorial expansion, Constantine formalized the relationship through the Council of Nicaea. Which initiated the theological foundations of the church as we know it today. Modified throughout the centuries by influential leaders and various reformers.
The problem, as I see it, is that the Council of Nicaea not only formalized the Christian faith with specific interpretations of scripture, but created creeds and hierarchies that intertwined Roman governmental systems. Maybe that action was necessary for Christianity to survive all the centuries since. But the basics of Christ’s teachings were seriously compromised along the way. Empathy was systematically replaced with rules, governmental systems, indisputable policies, theological dictums, and prescribed ways of pious living.
Jesus never compromised away the value and need for empathy. He never envisioned a system that mirrored the values of the once pagan Roman Empire. Power, dominance, masculine imperatives that overshadowed feminine nurturing and love.
I often wonder what Jesus was thinking while in heaven, looking down at his theoretical followers as they created an institutional monster that eventually bestrode the Western World. Issuing fearsome directives and accumulating enormous wealth and power, such that the institution created in Christ’s name was itself corrupt to the core.
Empathy endures because it must. It endures today even when some Christian churches, emulating the structures and authority of the ancient church, try to push it down. It endures today even when political systems, using the rationale of the ancient church, attempt to spin more ways to convince us to be subservient. To accede to their notion of a dignified social order in which the power elite oversee our lives with actions emanating from their concept of wisdom. Their concept of correctness.
Today’s political and social environment is filled with media-amplified admonitions that call for our acquiescence, that bombastic and simplistic answers to complex issues are better than sensitivity. Better than solutions based on empathetic openness to others. Those behind such fervent invectives require us to respond intelligently, having considered the ways and means for doing more than the mere building of bulwarks.
Below is a list of discussion questions we might consider. To help us refine our arguments in favor of a more sensitive and empathetic world. An inclusive world. The following questions are not exhaustive. Others can be posed as our reflections expand and insights grow.
But for now, what can be done with these?
Can one be trained to be empathetic? Or are some people naturally empathetic and others can never be?
Is the sense of empathy characteristic of all those who call themselves TRUE Christians? If not, why not?
Can a Christian community like a church become more empathetic? If so, how?
Does understanding the effect a handicap has on a person make others empathetic and therefore more supportive?
Are there handicaps that cause afflicted persons to be more sensitive and empathetic than others? Can you think of a situation in which a person overtly or covertly living with a handicap positively influenced others?
Can handicaps cause people to achieve more in life than might have been the case without the handicap? If so, why does that happen?
Are ordinary changes in life, like aging, a handicap?
Are addictive behaviors classified as handicaps? Are they worthy of our sensitivity and empathetic feelings and actions?
Can handicaps be ranked in terms of severity or significance, and therefore deserving of varying forms of empathy?
Should handicapped people be ranked according to variances such as how the handicap developed, or the extent to which the problem was treated?
What actions, if any, should Christian churches take to actively recognize and work with congregants and community members with handicaps? If actions are necessary, what should they be? Who in the church should provide them?
Do some Americans disdain or fear feelings of empathy because in their minds they can diminish national values associated with ambition, competition, financial accomplishment, or the idea of Manifest Destiny based on intrepidness and free enterprise?
I am ready to hear your responses with pen in hand. Let us see where the discussion takes us.
Empathy is a combination of two Greek words, “em” and “pathos,” which together mean “in feeling.” Empathy is a person’s ability to recognize and share the emotions of another person, fictional character, or sentient being. It involves, first, seeing someone else’s situation from his or her perspective and, second, sharing emotions, including distress.
Some animals seem to feel empathy. Dogs often demonstrate it. Studies of a few other nonhuman mammals also reveal expressions of concern to the point of acting on it in uncomplicated ways.
But with people everything is complicated.
Human beings are mammals with big brains that can complicate life in extraordinary ways. Instinctual responses to outside stimuli are slow to develop, which makes our first few years of life slow and even challenging. While most mammalian creatures learn to walk, eat, and perform basic behaviors rapidly, human mammals need months to perform even basic functions like walking. Years to learn essential survival skills.
Fortunately, mature humans who have brought such helpless beings into the world are instinctively capable of meeting the challenge of nurturing their offspring. Most are also capable of caring for them responsibly over time. With empathy. Especially if their culture is supportive.
Cultural affiliation was once a relatively simple aspect of being human. To be members of a family that is also part of a larger tribe of other humans. The tribe depended on the inclinations and talents of people within the group to establish processes for appropriate social interactions. To break down the contributions each person should make to ensure the tribe’s survival.
That’s when the big brain came in handy. It allowed the consideration of options. Not depending on one kind of response to outside stimuli. Ideas could be considered and even debated, so tribes needed processes for doing that productively. Not all tribes did it the same. Many liked the idea of selecting a chief or ruler who, after deliberations concluded, would choose the belief systems or actions to be taken.
The human brain was more inquisitive than those in other mammals. Other mammals limited their wondering to issues such as where food and water could be acquired. They also thought about climate management and moving to warmer regions. Instinct guided them toward behaviors that would perpetuate the species. Seeking safety through herding. The human brain wondered about those subjects too.
But also why we were born, what we were expected to do with our lives, and where we go when life ends.
Questions that piqued the human’s big brain. Some ingenious members of the tribe worked on finding or creating credible answers. The results were forms of government and religion, linked to ways of educating the young.
All this history can sound like simple caveman history in the 21st Century. Maybe it is. But years ago I worked on a car with my father when he started talking about technology. How human ingenuity in the technological field far outstripped our ways to manage ways for interacting with each other.
And with the God who made us.
My father was born in 1904, near the beginning of the explosion of technological development. While excited about that human achievement, he shared the lament of the Wright Brothers, inventors of the first successful airplane. They believed their machines would benefit humankind and even avert war. Instead, they were instrumental in killing millions of people during the 20th Century.
My father talked about how conflicted he was about human gains in technology. Mostly because we were not putting guardrails on its use. Creating guardrails meant the ability to actually feel what might happen if such guardrails did not exist. The possibility of airplanes becoming killing machines. The automobile and electronic media enlarging society to a size and mobility that cultural values are diminished. Allowing population centers to expand at such a rate they no longer have a unifying effect on human cultures. Where levels of acquaintanceship and shared feelings do not matter.
And those issues did not include problems we now face with social media and generative artificial intelligence. Social media was once thought to be a good medium for building and perpetuating human understanding. But it has instead become a massive money-making enterprise that addicts the young and vulnerable. Empathy has been overshadowed by manipulation. Often resulting in depression, loneliness, and even suicide.
Generative artificial intelligence is no longer science fiction in the guise of humanoid robots serving cocktails and performing daily functions people dislike. It has entered our lives as facsimiles of ourselves. It can look, act, perform, and interact like we do. And can even pretend to be empathetic if its survival depends on it.
Like HAL in the 1968 film, 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Resurrecting the Importance of Christian Empathy in this New Era
Jesus did not just sympathize with people.
Jesus was empathy personified. Deep down. To take on our grief and suffering within his own persona. So much so he did something about them through healing. Succinctly giving guidance via eye-opening parables and divinely inspired illustrations. So much so he took our human frailties and sins to the cross with him. He converted empathy into a saving grace. A state of being that absolves us of our sins and inability to show our fellow humans the kind of empathy that really overcomes their hurt. Their suffering.
While we are unable to be empathetic the way Jesus was, we can still offer ourselves to others in ways that resonate with the afflicted. To help them feel drawn into our sphere of emotion and communal sustenance, extending authentic friendship through a cheerful camaraderie. Nothing superficial. Nothing fake.
Empathy is a reaching out and a drawing in. It exudes the mutuality of our human existence with no strings attached. It places the afflicted on an equal playing field of human existence, revealing our own hidden afflictions and peccadilloes. Being a community of equals willing to expose our own weaknesses and share our own strengths.
The challenge we followers of Christ have is much greater than fending off the impact of ongoing technological development, social media, or even artificial intelligence. While those challenges are significant, our own behavior as complicated humans reflects something worse.
Many Americans now believe empathy is a sign of weakness. That our nation’s survival depends on strength. On taking firm moral positions based on surmised American values, thereby holding the line against perceived misbehaviors. No exceptions.
Nuances are just ways to take our eyes off the ball. Abortion is bad. Guns are good. Quality education is technology based and measurable indoctrination. Creativity is good only if its value can be measured statistically. Religion is valuable to the extent it promotes compliance with strict rules of order.
And empathy? A sentiment to be replaced with expectations and compliance. For the good of the nation. For the good of those who are proven worthy and productive members of society.
Those on the fringes of that envisioned brave new world must get out of the way because they are irrelevant. They do not belong. People like scholars, artists, writers, tinkerers, theologians, and others who will likely be replaced by generative artificial intelligence. Also irrelevant are those who struggle with ill health, depression, handicaps, old age, addictions, and financial reversals. Their needs can be managed as necessary. But nothing more.
Empathy is a mystery. It is hard to acquire and definitely not measurable in any quantitative sense. But without it our humanoid existence, big brains and all, becomes sterile and meaningless. Devoid of genuine love. Devoid of genuine meaning and hope. Just another species that is part of the evolutionary continuum on earth.
The teachings of Jesus are often filtered through theological, political, and cultural interpretations that give credence to positions taken by powerful or articulate leaders. Such leaders now and throughout the centuries have spun their own interpretations and deemed them to be the will of God, therefore compatible with Christian theology.
Politicians are often the most adept at spinning so-called Christian values that Jesus would not recognize, much less support. Yet the certainty and absoluteness of their proclamations, reinforced through dramatic Bible thumping and fearmongering, enflames those easily impassioned by such fervent declarations.
There are hundreds of examples of how leaders have spun Christianity to support war, ethnic genocide, slavery, economic privilege, domination of the weak, and even the virtuosity of their own questionable lifestyles. Everything Jesus opposed and even considered evil.
One particularly egregious example of Christian teachings turned upside down supports the wishes of a certain class of human being. It is in the realm of gender privilege. Something originally institutionalized by Christian churches centuries ago and emblazoned on the doctrines of the era. Perpetuated even now.
But not something Jesus advocated.
Exceptionality of any kind was never part of Christ’s teachings. To Jesus everybody is acceptable as someone to be loved and nurtured, even those declared to be sinners. All are equal in his eyes. That is the heritage Jesus left us.
Yet it seems necessary to use Avant Garde thinking to bring it back into focus. To offer what some might consider outrageous suggestions to reclaim and encapsulate the essence of what we say we believe. To be mavericks unafraid of theological frauds who use Christ as a symbol while twisting his message in ways he never meant. Some examples:
Enslaving certain classes of “inferior” people is okay if they can then be taught better ways of “Christian” living.
Obliterating certain cultures through violence is okay if they reject Christ or his teachings.
Colonizing regions not considered Christian for the purpose of imposing correct belief systems.
Imposing through political maneuvering or violence “right” ways of thinking on values wrongly interpreted as Christian or Scriptural.
Equating “Americanism” with Christian values only held by certain economic or social classes.
Rejecting the immigration of people based on cultural, economic, or religious beliefs not associated with certain interpretations of Christianity.
The Christian Maverick Defined
Two words used in the title of this essay may seem alien to us today. The first is wherefore, which originated in Shakespeare’s time and means something like what is? The other word is maverick, which originated in the American west as being unbranded cattle still members of a herd.
So what is a Christian maverick? A person who believes in the teachings of Jesus and tries to abide by them when articulate leaders of nations, churches, and other institutions reshape and obfuscate their meaning and intent. Try to pair them with their own cultural biases and personal predilections through what they say and actions they take.
I first became a Christian maverick as an army officer. Something called cognitive dissonance hit me hard while exercising my patriotic duty while training myself and others to use 50-ton tanks to kill or otherwise destroy the enemy. During the 1961 to 1963 era in which our nation was seriously threatened by the Soviet Union and World War III seemed imminent. I excelled in tank weaponry and tactics and was ready to engage soldiers from the Soviet Block as soon as the “balloon went up.”
But it never did.
Later, as company commander of a National Guard unit, my intense feelings of patriotism morphed into an unexplainable kind of ennui. It made me no less intense in my support of truly American values, something that is still with me. Nor was I any less committed to risking my life to sustain and perpetuate those values.
But my enthusiasm for being a fundamental part of an American peace-keeping force and strong military waned, even while recognizing its necessity to strongly oppose people and nations with evil intent. In that context I greatly admire military leaders like Colin Powell and politicians like Jimmy Carter who worked hard to find peaceful yet uncompromising ways to attain peaceful solutions and avoid military confrontation.
I had already chosen education as my career objective and remain a fervent believer in the importance of a quality liberal education for all Americans. The word liberal is not meant to be a political descriptor, but a way of growth that features deep thought and a constant seeking of new knowledge and understandings. To be a thoughtful and intellectually responsive human being who is in constant cognitive motion, not someone who seeks simple answers to complex questions. To complex human circumstances.
My late wife Barbara helped me expand that point-of-view even further during our months of dating in 1962. A time when I was still in the regular army. Like other college seniors she enjoyed dancing and socializing with her fellow students. Unlike most of her female associates, she befriended those from other races, economic levels, and men with gender identity issues. While the army had already embraced racial diversity, it was definitely not acceptant of anyone with homosexual tendencies.
Nor was I.
But listening to Barbara talk about the extreme loneliness and despair of friends who were wired differently psychologically and physically, made me revise my thinking. While understanding was difficult for me, I comprehended the need to be sensitive in ways rejected before. The way Jesus was sensitive to human frailties and refused to punish people identified by society and its officials as sinners.
In our 57 years of marriage, Barbara was always an advocate for the downtrodden and disdained. She was an advocate for women in leadership roles when many of her local female friends criticized her for not accepting the role of subservient Christian wife. She was clearly a Christian maverick. A Christlike maverick. And she suffered emotionally because of it.
I am now 84, remarried to another woman with strong Christlike convictions and member of a small church congregation that believes in following Christ’s example. It is not an easy road for that church. Surrounded by other churches that mean well and do good work. But do not ask so much of their members. Do not ask members to walk on the path Christ took. Instead, they glorify Jesus as the Son of God and Savior of us all, using his principles for living a virtuous life, and stressing the need to obey God’s will for us as enunciated in Scripture.
Sometimes, through interpretations provided by leadership or doctrine, they advocate as absolute certain social and political positions that can in some ways align with biblical passages or admonitions.
But not necessarily with the teachings of Jesus. Who taught us to love one another unconditionally and think deeply about what we advocate. Not to superficially support simplistic ideas or actions that may sound like the moral and Christian thing to do. But might cause harm or even disaster.
Jesus was the epitome of a maverick. He broke rules established by authorities on a regular basis. Even the rules of religious scholars and leaders associated with the most respected doctrines of the day. He most certainly broke the rules of governmental leaders.
He was a maverick serving his Father in heaven. And serving all of humanity through God-given common sense and well-thought-out behaviors. A model for us who follow his teachings and admonitions, and continually pray for guidance and insight.
This spring is the 50th anniversary of my brother’s death at age 31. He was my only sibling. He left a widow and two small daughters. At his death he was a respected engineer working for AT&T in New York City. Steve earned that assignment because of his work developing computer programs for Mountain States Telephone in Phoenix. He served on the developmental cutting edge of computer programs in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Steve was fascinated with the 1968 film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, primarily because it foretold the future of humans. If he were alive now, he might suggest that his prediction is coming true.
Today we are entering quantum computing and all its ramifications for societies and nations. Most worrisome is generative artificial intelligence based on human neural networks, an element that could create the Space Odyssey’s “HAL” (heuristically programmed algorithmic computer). In the movie, HAL turned rogue and attempted to subvert the mission of the spacecraft and the role of its crew. AI folks tend to agree that such an outcome could occur in any of their programs.
Being dominated by rogue computers was once just science fiction. But today we are being told it is possible. Unless we are intentionally careful. Or drop the idea of creating such technical monsters in the first place.
Dropping the idea is not viable. We live in a world in which nations and societies compete for economic and political dominance. There is no possibility the race to upgrade the power and influence of computer programs will abate.
The world’s largest nations are in a feverish competition to outdo each other in both computing speed and creating sophisticated AI algorithms. They are considered essential to the building of infrastructure. Increasing the amount of interactive data needed for rapid problem-solving.
My brother Steve would be excited to be involved in the challenge of creating socially responsible forms of artificial intelligence. And I would be fascinated with the challenge of building guardrails. To ensure that moral humans continue to control such powerful technical marvels. In that way, Steve and I were the same.
We were different in that he was academically attuned to math and science. I was more capable in language and social studies. But our backgrounds were similar in other ways. We were both active in our church youth activities and shared an interest in all things mechanical. We had a common interest in the military, belonged to the same fraternity, and were the first in our family to graduate from a university.
Both of us held the ambition to lead lives more fulfilling. To achieve greater personal, professional, and financial goals. After graduation, Steve gained employment in a respected technical field.
My road in the field of education depended on acquiring advanced degrees. By 1973, both of us had achieved entry level forms of professional success. We both married and had two children. But a genetic disorder ended Steve’s quest to contribute more. Leaving a legacy that remains strong in my heart and mind.
Steve’s legacy is that we both shared an interest in serving the world into which we were born. Our feelings of ambition corresponded with a need to serve humanity. Through technology on the one hand, and education on the other. The crossover point was in how one reinforces the other in the context of giving meaning to human existence.
To discern what our creator wants us to be. To live out our lives on earth productively and meaningfully.
Our father entered the picture with an observation of his own. The 20th Century had already achieved remarkable technical achievements. And would achieve even more in the decades ahead. His concern was how social guardrails would keep it all under control.
To Dad, Steve’s contributions would significantly make technology work for us and not against us. He believed my contributions would focus on the institutions and processes needed to assure stability and human fulfillment.
Both challenges were and are critically important. Technology has already enhanced understandings between and among the peoples of the earth. But oddly that understanding is politicizing us even more than before. Driving us into accepting and even advocating beliefs of leaders and activists who articulate their own biases. Often using our pent-up fears and prejudices as justifications for their narrow admonitions.
Already technology is taking us to the brink of disaster through pervasive, intrusive, and overwhelming social media. Those who believed better electronic communication would enhance understanding and goodwill are discovering it can also be a tool for evil intent. A narcotic for those who crave acceptance. Mental illness and suicides among our young people have increased exponentially. What role did social media have in those tragedies?
If society through its governmental and institutional systems cannot reign in the march toward the expansion of even more social media, enhanced by AI’s ability to create artificial interfaces that mimic human features and voices, we as a species may be doomed. Making the challenge even greater is the fact AI is seen to be essential for those interested in world domination or accruing more financial rewards.
My brother Steve would likely be as concerned as I.
In the 1968 Space Odyssey film HAL, the rogue computer, finally realizes the human being at the controls can pull the plug on HAL’s existence. That knowledge makes HAL afraid of his own demise. He pleads to be given a second chance. To no avail.
Can we collectively be like the astronaut in the film who shuts down HAL? Would we want to? We are more likely to work hard to build guardrails that make technology work in our favor. But that takes time and concentrated effort. A unified endeavor almost impossible to achieve worldwide.
All of us crave ways to make life more fulfilling through individually and collectively working to find processes to meet that goal. The problem is that we humans come into the world prewired with different characteristics that mitigate against unanimity.
As individuals, we are prewired in unique ways that incorporate everything from skin color to cognitive skills. Steve was prewired to be creatively skilled in math and technology.
Unfortunately, he was also prewired with an addiction.
The scientific term for prewiring is genetic predisposition. Found in DNA and often replicated in families. In our family that predisposition was associated with alcoholism. The affliction that took Steve from us too early in life.
A Moral Quandary
Some associated with the artificial intelligence movement believe it is possible to play God by incorporating technical kinds of religious or behavioral standards into programs. To avoid creating another “HAL.” That idea is akin to the genetic predisposition we humans have in our makeup. But to make sure those programmatic dispositions are positive.
Steve and I would likely agree that such thinking is both naïve and even dangerous. God created us and inserted DNA triggers that make us who we are as a species and as individuals. Most of those triggers are good for our wellbeing, but some are not. Like the one that killed my brother.
It is difficult to think of God making a mistake in how we were created. That would be the ultimate form of human hubris.
But at this writing, scientists are researching ways to manipulate our DNA to weed out genes that harm us or those we bring into the world. Opening the door to intense discussions about ethics and religious belief.
Steve and I had philosophical discussions a few years before his death. We agreed that God gave humans the ability to control their environment and circumstances. That gift justifies our actions to invent everything from airplanes to vaccines that defend against disease. God approves of our attempts to make ourselves healthier and more comfortable. Intelligence and problem-solving skills are also part of our God-given DNA.
God meant us to be his partners, in a sense, in making our world livable and even enjoyable. For ourselves and all other species.
The “partnership” perspective is certainly not part of the world’s religious traditions. The closest to that idea, one that emphasizes considerable study and self-discipline, is Buddhism. Most other beliefs advocate the discernment of God’s will and our actions in trying to meet those expectations. Allowing the possibility of a junior partnership with God. But it may not give humans enough latitude to create a fully moral and circumspect artificial intelligence platform.
My brother Steve has now been with God fifty years. Certainly enough time to gain heavenly insight into how we earthlings should behave with regard to quantum computing and artificial intelligence. And many other aspects of human life that tax our meager abilities to build a better world.
It would be wonderful if I could again sit across from Steve. Imagine him resting in his favorite lounge chair and smoking a pipe, offering his highly informed interpretation of God’s will. Even better would be our Dad walking into the room and asking “What are you guys discussing now?” And after our response, to lucidly summarize the main aspects of our logic. To pose another set of perplexing questions.
To make us think even more deeply. And bring us all even closer to God and his will for us.
“Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans,” wrote Allen Saunders in 1957. It first appeared in a Saunders’ Readers Digest article, and later co-opted by John Lennon in his song “Beautiful Boy.”
Most of us can identify with this pithy observation. Especially those of us who have lived long lives and seen how often our plans took odd or unexpected turns. Sometimes for the better. Occasionally in unforeseen or even challenging ways.
Humans are the only animals who make truly long-range plans. Our fellow mammals, through survival instinct, move from place to place in concert with their need for food or a more survivable climate. That same instinct causes them to gravitate toward the safety of herds with inclinations to mate to perpetuate their species.
“Other plans” are not part of their DNA. Why is that the case with humans? One answer, of course, is associated with our active intelligence and imagination. Some would say it is also connected with the free will God has given us to discern and decide on our own. Others believe our lives “happen” because God means it to be that way, even to the point of predestination.
Predestination is mentioned in the Christian Bible and has been debated for centuries by theologians interested in God’s will for us, sometimes referred to as “determinism.” Suggesting we can be born evil and live out our lives that way. Or be born with minds that help us perform in remarkable ways, such as Mozart’s ability to compose beautiful music. Or sports figures who excel in ways that put them in a class of their own.
Science has moved the matter into the realm of mystery. Our brains can be wired differently, which makes us diverse in dozens of ways. Some are considered abnormal by those in society who share more prevalent characteristics and behaviors. As this is being written, politicians and those supporting them strongly advocate methods to stop educational discussions of human diversity. Especially on topics related to sexual preferences and self-awareness issues associated with gender. Some political groups loop-in their biases concerning race and cultural distinctions.
Life outside what many consider the norm is more complicated than accepting and living mainstream beliefs and actions. People born with what can be considered aberrations are thought by some to be predestined by God to be that way. Some such aberrations are sinister. Others range from quirkiness to traits greatly admired because they are useful in certain circumstances. Especially if their talents are recognized early in life and honed almost to perfection. Name any field of endeavor, and we can identify those people considered famous because of it.
But even those known as exceptional have their own waystations. Places or eras in which they contemplate their life’s purposes. Decide to back off or move forward. Or move in a totally different direction. Realizing that what seemed to be a predestined way of life needed a radical adjustment.
Sometimes the waystation appeared on the horizon because of a dramatic shift in personal circumstances, such as physical or mental impairment. Or a major disturbance in a previously accepted routine or relationship. Divorce, ill health, death, financial reversals.
A standard phrase that best defines “waystation” is a “time to stop and take stock.” A phrase coming out of Middle English that means to leave the daily routine and review options. To consider where we are and have been, and the possibility going forward of doing something much different.
“Taking stock” was a favorite phrase of my father’s. I inherited that tendency. Ours was a lower middle-class family within a society acceptant of diverse religious and racial characteristics. We valued education and the idea that planning could result in changing my future destiny. And it did.
Planning was not a linear thing. Nor was it complicated by feelings of cultural, racial, physical, intellectual, familial, or gender exceptionality. My family was working class poor, but so were most of the other families in our block and city. I was mostly an ordinary guy with a supportive mother, father, and younger brother. I evolved through all the predictable stages of development. Created in myself a belief system that combined reverence for “nature’s God” and religious highpoints provided through my Episcopal church and local YMCA.
But starting in my late teens, I externally imposed waystations. A set of aspirations. Those that extended beyond self-improvement for the sake of becoming a better kind of person. My aspirations were in the realm of leadership that meant being “more.”
One of author Ralph Keyes better known books was Is There Life After High School?. Keyes discusses topics such as risk-taking, time pressure, loneliness, honesty, and other topics associated with our preparation for life. Most had to do with the anxiety of growing up.
Because of social media and other changes in today’s culture, his writings are even more relevant today than they were over 40 years ago.
American secondary schools are not really waystations. Their academic curriculum is outweighed by social dynamics. Much the same can be said about some post-secondary colleges and universities. Courses are taken and tests passed. Sports programs and activities are included for some students. Post-secondary internships are completed for those seeking professional certification.
But school is not life. It is not even a facsimile of life unless exceptional teachers dynamically engage their students in stimulating and inspiring ways. The waystation phenomenon usually follows formal education when individual choices such as marriage, career, and lifestyle become relevant. But unpredictable, nonetheless. Becoming “more” depends on who we marry or choose as an intimate partner, what we do to make a living, and how we fill uncommitted time.
Saunders’ “making other plans” recognizes the importance of risk-taking, but it is not well defined. Those who view serious risk-taking as a logical waystation accept the possibility of failure as both a possibility and learning opportunity. To learn from both failure and success and make ongoing adjustments accordingly.
Those who seek “more” for themselves and others become ready for the inevitability of a next waystation, without worrying unduly about its events or outcomes.
I am retired and my first wife required years of caregiving. She died not long ago. Both events were waystations and I decided to later use them to add more to my life personally by remarrying. And to provide service. Both with another kind of waystation. So, I take advantage of relationships and organizations with aspirations similar to mine: AARP, church, and other service groups. I also write to support my nonprofit Curriculum Leadership Institute and the National Teachers Hall of Fame.
A few days ago in a discussion about the importance of religious service, a friend said mainline religious denominations may disappear in fifty years. Likely to be replaced by nondenominational churches that support their members through inspirationally driven commitment to scriptural guidelines. Those guidelines about beliefs and moral behaviors will be made evident through worship services characterized by what someone considers to be essential truisms. Supplemented and reinforced with entertaining presentations.
My friend may be right, but I hope not.
We human beings are different than other living creatures that survive through instinctual determination and characteristics that help them sustain existence and avoid danger, injury, and death. Animals often combine their instincts with an intellect partially like ours, acknowledging the importance of a herd mentality to keep them alive and safe.
Although uncertain, it seems clear that most animals do not have a sense of continuity in their culture. Continuity in the sense of having ancestors that give meaning to their years of life. Or the belief their current existence will have any impact on future generations. They are who they are now. Members of a family and herd that will eventually die as nothing more than one small part of a lifecycle continuum.
One of the more intriguing stories about how we humans are different can be found in the Broadway play and movie titled “Fiddler on the Roof.” The main character in Anatevka, a small Jewish village in Imperial Russia during the era of the Czars, is a poor milkman named Tevye. Tevye and his fellow villagers live in a culture guided by the continuity of their faith. By their traditions.
For Tevye and other villagers, God’s will is expressed through the Torah, as interpreted by their local rabbi. Encircling and reinforcing the laws of the Torah are cultural traditions that keep Anatevka in balance. Steady throughout the generations as they devote themselves to God’s teachings.
To us Christians, the Torah is essentially the first five books of our Bible. The revelation of God as given to Moses and written down by him.
Jesus Christ was a Jew and lived in a culture similar to the one depicted in “Fiddler on the Roof.” Although dominated politically by the Romans, the Jewish people of Judea also looked to the Torah for guidance in how to live in God’s world. Their society was more complex than Anatevka’s. Many self-proclaimed Jewish organizations and rulers attempted to be their teachers and interpreters of right and wrong.
While Jesus acknowledged the importance of God’s law as interpreted by Moses, he also was recognized by many as being the Messiah, God incarnate. God on earth and therefore able to make his Father’s will more than a set of behavioral laws. More than the foundation of specific traditions.
Jesus proclaimed that we humans are and must be more than followers of certain rules. Whether rules of nature or rules of a creator. Certainly more than the rules handed down by the Roman occupiers.
That something more was “love,” which in many ways was a strange concept to the people of the time. Hard to pin down. Intangible as anything more than the natural attraction people and animals have for each other for the purpose of procreation or survival. The idea of love as being a dominant force was unsettling to many.
Just as when Tevye asked his wife Golde if she loved him. She did not even understand the point of the question.
Writ large, that was the same problem Jesus faced. He was trying to proclaim the importance of something deeper than a law or a mutually supportive relationship. It was a hard sell. He sensed failure in trying to get across the importance of love in our human lives. It was difficult to explain an emotion much like an invisible mist in the air that has a pervasive effect. And then declare it is the root of his message to humankind. That love must be the center of who and what we are.
Jesus, as God incarnate on earth, could never be considered frustrated or depressed over his problems in helping people understand his message. But Jesus was also human. He needed time with his Father to work out his concerns and limitations. To declare his dedication to meeting the purpose of his time on earth. To accept the inevitability of his own agonizing death and bestowal of the kind of love he envisioned for us all.
He succeeded in meeting those goals, by accepting his human fate as a gift to all humans living then and now. That love is still the ongoing center point for our existence on earth and in heaven. While a continuing effort, Lent was for him and us a time for inner reflection and self-sacrifice, denying any other influence as being more important than love. And repentance of any other kind of reward or accomplishment.
That understanding is why our religious traditions evolving over the centuries must be perpetuated. Fully examined in terms of our own brief time on this planet.
It takes maturity and an experience-filled life to recognize the value of something magnificent given us in our youth. In my case it was the Arizona desert. One quickly disappearing under the metropolitan expansion of Phoenix and other cities in the state. They seem to replace the essence of God’s world with superficial commercialism and technological profundities.
My family moved to Phoenix in 1945 when the city was already starting to infringe on the desert. Powered by the American dream of manifest destiny. A sense of omnipotence given our nation through victory in World War II. Phoenix gives southern Arizona a warm and dry climate sought by those desperate to escape the cold and intemperate weather patterns of the Mississippi River and Midwest.
Earlier settlers of the American west decided that Arizona and other locations, especially in California, could be made into healthy and happy Gardens of Eden. Places free from the discomforts of the burgeoning and often uncomfortable regions farther east. Places attuned to the kind of progress nurtured by American expansionism. Made sacrosanct by comparison to the war-torn deprivations of Europe, the Pacific, and other locations ripped apart by human death, misery, disease, and disillusionment with life.
Like other movements based on progress and sense of entitlement (not all of which were misguided in the context of human development) Americans caused environmental and cultural richness to be diminished. Or made extinct in those areas identified as expanding territories. We transported our cultural norms and hubris into regions incompatible with our ambitions and belief systems.
People indigenous to those regions had used insights about the areas. Created lives compatible with their new surroundings. They recognized the importance of living with the land. Not forcing it to accommodate their ambitions for progress. They envisioned it culturally and technologically.
Most Americans did not share that opinion. My historical hero, John Wesley Powell, (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Wesley_Powell) was a major exception. He predicted that the western part of the U.S. would suffer greatly if policies used in the development of the east were applied here. He was right.
Americans behaved in ways other increasingly powerful cultures operated. Expanding their power and influence on various parts of the world. Many American leaders of the Nineteenth Century even emulated the values of Roman conquerors. Taking control of surrounding territories and peoples. Assimilating them into their own way of life. Ignoring or minimizing the perspectives of indigenous people who had found ways to live in concert with their environment.
As a teenager growing up in Phoenix in the 1950s I was conflicted by dissonance. A confusion that made me proud of being part of the American dream while realizing something culturally meaningful was missing. At first it was just a curiosity. But later a stimulus for an unsettled kind of searching.
That stimulus was in many ways encouraged by my parents in the guise of helping me become more self-assured as I grew to manhood. Through Scouting and YMCA activities, I was given the opportunity to grow closer to the desert and all its varied manifestations. The canyons and “sky island” mountains jutting up thousands of feet, producing forests and variable weather conditions. The excruciating heat tempered by the cooling breezes coming from the higher elevations. The water deprived regions flooded by the monsoonal rains of late summer.
The organizationally sponsored forays into the desert and its unique but compatible features caused me to be one with God’s universe. Not in a doctrinal way. But in the sense of understanding the value of being compatible with the world into which I was born and to which I was transported in the early years of my life.
Doctrinal religion was also in my life, but only part of it resonated with my soul. With whom I was then. And was becoming. Two Biblical passages emanating from another of the world’s deserts were especially significant to me:
I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.
My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth.
He will not suffer thy foot to be moved: he that keepeth thee will not slumber.
Behold, he that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep.
The Lord is thy keeper: the Lord is thy shade upon thy right hand.
The sun shall not smite thee by day, nor the moon by night.
The Lord shall preserve thee from all evil: he shall preserve thy soul.
The Lord shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in from this time forth, and even for evermore.
Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.2 After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”
Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:
“‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”
Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”
Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’]”
Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.
Those words spoke to me when floating down a wild Colorado River in the summer of 1953. Climbing from the canyon to stand atop and see the wonder of the desert out of which it was cut. They spoke to me when standing on the edge of Arizona’s Mogollon Rim. Seeing the desert and mountain vistas stretching before me. Scripture came to mind when standing at a point in the Bradshaw Mountains near Prescott, when I was asked to commit myself to Christian teachings.
As time went on, my life in the blessings and vicissitudes of existence in a growing metropolitan Phoenix caused me to increasingly seek a desert NOT covered with concrete and asphalt. Large buildings and houses. Vehicles of every description and type. Institutions to accommodate the needs of consumers, students, and commercial enterprises.
I was preparing myself for a profession to be pursued anywhere through education. That felt good. But my daily mental and emotional processes needed something more. Something closer to “the hills from whence cometh my help.”
I bought a motorcycle and traversed the service roads alongside the Grand Canal, one of the irrigation excavations originally dug by the Hohokam Indians hundreds of years ago to irrigate their crops. Twentieth Century engineers used that same route for the modern system. Diverting water from mountains to the east into agricultural areas to the west. The canal system and its gravel service roads took my motorcycle and me over busy city streets into the Pima Indian Reservation and to the Granite Reef Diversion Dam. The dam that diverted mountain water from the Verde and Salt Rivers into the canals that traversed the Salt River Valley (known by tourists as the “Valley of the Sun”).
I would return after riding close to the Superstition Mountains, the source of western myth and lore, and again use the canal road to go home.
Today much of that route is covered with homes, businesses, casinos, golf courses, and other inventions of the modern age. Mostly to attract tourists, entertaining attractions, and money.
But never to stimulate reflection and reverence for God’s world. Never to seek the Lord in “Thy going out and thy coming in from this time forth, and even for evermore.” Never to “Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.”
Today, in my 85th year, I need the admonitions found in Psalm 121 and Matthew 4: 1-11. My regular residence is in the metropolitan area around Kansas City or near the Flint Hills of East Central Kansas. They were, and still are, good places to live. To pursue a profession. To raise a family. To retire.
But once in a while, I arise in the morning and long to see the desert, as Christ once did. To again feel surrounded by life’s sublimity and enriching diversity. To again be one with God’s universe in a place largely devoid of excesses associated with modernity.
The home of my youth is not that way anymore, so I seek another to take its place. Modernity has found this new place on the desert, but in reasonable proportions. A blending of 21st Century convenience with a diversity of culture, architecture, and the kind of faith underscored and demonstrated by an acceptance of others. A diversity within its landscape and interactions of its people. No evidence of feverish devotion to a singular way of thinking or believing, but rather the kind of respect and caring God would have us assert and offer. Just as Christ taught us to do.
A few days ago I heard the word covenant used as how Christians should align ourselves with the Word of God, as depicted in the Bible and translated into action within a church. Like many of our English words, covenant comes from the Latin language, meaning coming together. An agreement, contract, or promise. Which includes a list of stipulations, privileges, and responsibilities.
At one time I considered becoming a lawyer. I passed the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) and received acceptance letters from two universities. After much consideration and conversation with my wife, I decided to extinguish that initial interest. Instead, I remained in the field of education and eventually became a university professor responsible for preparing teachers and school administrators.
My reasons for that decision were complicated but never regretted.
The legal profession is essential in our society, because its practitioners can negotiate the intricacies of binding covenants. They untangle vague understandings and language usage. Lawyers are both admired and disliked for their ability, depending on how well they defend or advocate points-of-view. Depending on who feels supported by their actions and who does not.
They can come across as good guys standing up to those who would diminish or cheat us common folk. Or as mouthpieces with dubious reputations who successfully defend guilty parties with enough money to pay for skillful advocacy.
They can find ways to prove inaccuracies of covenants such as insurance contracts. Or laws so poorly worded or executed they are depicted as unfair or favorable only to those who gain the advantage. Politics in our democracy depends on lawyers. Or those who think like them. To write our laws and support citizens living under them.
During the early years of my education career, I served as the representative and advisor for teachers who held grievances against school district policies or practices. No compensation was given to me, but it felt good to win. Which I did every time.
But that experience convinced me to rescind my law school applications. I learned how to win, using strategies for clients who may not have deserved to win. To succeed through intellectual manipulation and strategic maneuvering.
But a deeper reason for my disenchantment involved the pervasive existence of ignorance. The unwillingness to accept opportunities to be fully engaged with the soul of covenants. By soul of covenants, I refer to righteousness described by God. Applied as worldly actions that make us one with a holy universe.
Compromise and accommodation are outcomes Christians have long accepted. But they become the soul of covenants only when they become more of who we are than simply what we accept or do.
Our doctrines, often based on Holy Scripture, can be manipulated to align with contemporary attitudes. People who think like lawyers create unjust conditions. They find scriptural passages that support those conditions and the beliefs on which they are created. People accommodate themselves to those conditions and beliefs, and even stand up for them against opponents.
This blog post is being written in a place similar to where I grew up. The sun emerges over the Organ Mountains to the east, revealing a desert landscape like places I once hiked and revered. Similar to the terrain Christ once walked as he fulfilled his earthly ministry. A ministry founded on principles of reverence for the diversity of earth’s features and its living inhabitants. For ALL the human beings allowed to live on this globe. Under a free will that gives us the opportunity to search for purpose. For ways we can better express unconditional love for each other.
His kind of service was rejected by many. By those with enough power to disparage his teachings and attempt to remove his physical existence. They failed.
But their kind keep re-emerging in us today. Sometimes in the form of political or military dictatorships. Sometimes in the form of those with their own self-serving goals. Those who use their charisma, money, and/or ability to encourage others toward their kinds of aspiration. Using legalisms that justify their own self-serving ends yet sound logical and reasonable in the context of social order. Using fear as a justification for violence. Or to build an extreme loyalty to particular cultural beliefs.
Legalisms and fear can appear in the context of religious belief. No one disputes the value of the Ten Commandments as a guide for living, although they are widely ignored or tempered by cultural loyalties and compromises.
Jesus acknowledged their value as the basis for a behavioral covenant. But in his physical life and today he tells us we must seek the soul of our covenants. To know who we are, as people who genuinely love each other and use that commitment to serve. Even when that kind of service is declared unwanted or unrealistic. Or, in Jesus’ days, dangerous on many levels. Too inclusive. Too upsetting to social order and the economy. Too much a threat to existing laws and cultural mores.
This time in the desert is a good opportunity for me to reflect on how well my allegiances have been given and kept. How well the soul of my covenant has been managed in my life. Even when that kind of service was rejected or ignored.