Monday, March 14, 2011

Innocent Killing

We are all praying for the victims of the terrible earthquake and tsunami in Japan. I’m sure we’re looking for ways to help; if you have a checkbook on you, or can find an envelope in which to put some cash, just write “Japan” on the memo line of your check or on the envelope and we will make sure that it gets to Episcopal Relief and Development, which is rushing assistance to the Diocese of Tohoku, which has been hit hard by the disaster.

When I heard about the tsunami on Friday, I turned the TV on and watched the stunning footage with disbelief, as I’m sure many of you did. The bit of video I still can’t get over was the sight of a fairly large ship, swept onto its side and rolling around, carried by this massive influx of water like a plastic toy in a bathtub, and you could see it headed toward a building. It looked to me like there were people, bobbing up and down, also caught in the same current, between the boat and the building, and I thought about the lives that were hanging in the balance, completely at the mercy of the random action of the water. I could see that if the boat revolved slowly it would hit the building broadside and crush those people; but if the boat turned just a little more quickly it might not hit the building at all and maybe the people would survive. Then the frame shifted and I couldn’t see what happened next.

As I was watching that massive, unrelenting destruction I found a voice within me rising in protest: This isn’t right, it was saying. I found myself begging the wave to have mercy on those caught in its grip – as if the wave could hear me; as if it cared. And then it hit me with renewed force just how brutal this world can be.

It sounds stupid now even to say something so obvious, but what the video captured for me was just how unthinking this killing was: that wave was not conscious of the people in its path; it was dumb, silent, unfeeling; the worst kind of monster – one with no reason, no mercy or pity.

The wave moved along in blissful ignorance of the destruction it brought. The wave, like the rest of the natural world, was in that way innocent, even as it killed.

This state of innocence is the elemental truth found this morning in the ancient story of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden (Genesis 2:15-3:7). Sometimes we might find ourselves thinking that this is a story about a non-violent paradise – but it’s really a story about the innocence of a world that has no self-consciousness. It’s a story about the eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil – which is the difference between us humans, and that tsunami.

Unlike that wave, we can see the destruction that we cause, and we know it’s a bad thing. We have eaten of that fruit of the knowledge of good and evil; for us, unlike that wave, killing can never be innocent.

When I was a child I saw my adorable standard poodle tear across an open field, chasing down a rabbit, and kill it cleanly with a snap of the neck. Then she came trotting back to me, the bloody rabbit between its teeth, and she was as happy and as proud of herself as a child coming home from school with straight A’s.

I never looked at her quite the same after that.

In the wild – the Garden of Eden, where there is no self-consciousness, no knowledge of good and evil – there is no remorse, no guilt. Until we came along, the world spun about on its axis for millions and millions of years, species evolving and going extinct on the principle of kill or be killed, and all of it as un-self-consciously innocent as that wave that hit Japan.

And then we come along, with our knowledge of good and evil, and with this gift we are categorically separated from the rest of creation. We are cast out of the garden of innocence: the Garden of blissful ignorance, the Garden of simple animal existence, the Garden in which death and life is all the same, and poodles chase down rabbits in perfect bliss.

So then: what do we do with our guilt? How do we release ourselves from it?

Well, we begin by inventing the law; we make distinctions between good and bad; and we try to enforce the law as best we can. But we discover to our dismay that the law does not restore us to the Garden of innocence; that as much as we try to live our lives in obedience to what we believe to be good, we are still animals, but guiltily; we are still killers; and there is no paradise, no place that will restore our innocence. In Paul’s terms, with the law there is always, also, condemnation.

So what do we do?

Well, along comes Jesus, who creates for us, if you will, a third stage in our evolution. If the first stage is the Garden of Eden, and the second stage is this guilt and this sense of alienation from the rest of creation, the third stage is what Jesus brings.

Consider: when Jesus was tempted in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11) he was offered all the elements of evolutionary advantage: abundant food; physical invulnerability; limitless power. If he had been an ordinary alpha-male, just another strong man seeking advantage, he would have seized upon those advantages. He would have become the ultimate Muammar el-Qaddafi.

But instead he saw a new path.

As the world all around him was fulfilling its evolutionary destiny, seeking more strength; more power; more resources; seizing the advantages and opportunities offered to them, Jesus answered a call to a new way of being. Not a return to the old Garden of innocent violence, but a new place – a new creation that he called the Kingdom of God.

Jesus invited us into an evolution toward compassion and peace, rather than ruthless competition. Jesus would rather have fasted for the sake of mercy and compassion than to have eaten like an animal whatever food was offered to him. He would rather have served humanity than dominate it.

If there is a tsunami here, it is a tsunami of love, accessible to us through our relationship to God through Christ and the Holy Spirit. Ironically, it is the very consciousness that separates us from creation, the very same capacity for choice that cast us out of the Garden, that is our pathway to this new creation.

Because unlike the rest of the natural world, we have the capacity to choose love.

When Jesus rejects the advantages that are offered to him by the devil, he is not making choices that any self-respecting animal would make. No, these are the choices that a god would make. The same choices available to us, through Christ who lives in us.

As we are called to follow Jesus, we are called into the perfection of our humanity. We are called into a new paradise: made real through him; a paradise in which the sum total of all our vain striving, the sum total of all our evolutionary struggle, is brought to fulfillment and perfection in love.

Now our purpose is no longer merely to survive. Our purpose is to love. Our purpose is to serve. And to that purpose we dedicate our lives, our hearts, our souls; even, perhaps, our genetic heritage.

Now, more than ever, we are called to choose love over evolutionary advantage.

Because it is our evolutionary advantage that is leading us to extinction. Our ability to dominate and to kill is now so advanced that we threaten the very survival of our own species.

Now, more than ever, we need to follow the example of Jesus in the desert. Calling upon the power of God, made manifest in compassion and reason, we need to learn how to renounce resources, not seize them; we need to learn how to let go of our power, not impose it; so that we might live in greater balance with the earth. We need to develop our capacity for compassion for all species, because they are the key to our own survival.

And so like Jesus in the desert, we stand before God and we say yes to our humanity.
We declare that in Christ, the new creation is fulfilled. The new Adam has arrived. And in defiance of millions of years of self-serving behavior we declare, with Paul, that in Christ we live no longer for ourselves, but for him who died and rose for us, that we may find our perfection in him, who lives and reigns, now and forever.
… Amen.

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