With apologies to the Rev. Daryl Witmer, I’d like to posit a “good news” addendum to his Voices column of Dec. 13, 2008.
Titled “The black and white of gray,” Daryl’s column describes a God who encircles us with “Thou shalt nots.” He points to a world of humans rationalizing God’s commandments in order to violate them, in a pervasive mind-set of moral relativism. In other words, we make gray of what to God is black-and-white.
I agree with Daryl that we have an enormous capacity for rationalizing. Often we rationalize God’s laws in order to intimidate other people’s behavior, while justifying our own. Let’s take a couple of the Ten Commandments, for example, such as, “Thou shalt not murder.”
The United States went to war in Iraq for oil (or, if you still want to believe it, for weapons of mass destruction.) Hundreds of thousands of civilians, women and children, have been murdered as a result. We have a healthcare system that discriminates against the poor. Many die prematurely as a result. We formulated and subsidized a policy of converting corn to ethanol (even though uneatable bio-waste products would have served just as well). Many thousands in the world have died of starvation, or disease caused by starvation, because food prices have doubled as a result. There are hundreds of people on death row in this country, many because they are poor and black and could not afford a good lawyer. As the system grinds on, we kill the guilty and murder the innocent. Yet, because we are high profile in criticizing abortion, we rationalize ourselves as Christians opposed to murder.
Or take the “Thou shalt not covet …” commandments of God. The capitalist system is driven by coveting — from seductive advertising techniques to the organized gambling of the stock market, where your gain, by definition, means someone else’s loss. Face it; anyone who hopes to profit through stock market gyrations is only reaching into his brother’s pocket for his reward. Yet we call it a blessing of the “invisible hand.”
And then there are Christian men who walk down the street staring at (coveting) other men’s wives; yet because they criticize homosexuality as against God’s law, they consider themselves the moral bulwark of a Christian country.
When it comes right down to it, we are all sinners in God’s eyes, yet God’s eyes see far more than our black-and-white perceptions of him. Abraham negotiated with God for the salvation of Sodom, saying if only a remnant were acceptable, the sinners would be spared, as well. And God agreed — to a point. Jacob was a liar and a cheat, yet God loved him and rewarded him. David was a murderer and an adulterer, yet he was a man after God’s own heart. Why all this gray from God?
First, because God has his own reasons (Joseph told his brothers, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done.”) Second, because God through Jesus came to see the law as a measure of man’s brokenness, not of man’s potential for love.
Just look at what mankind does with rules. The Jews took the Torah’s more than 600 rules and overlaid them with traditions, just to make sure the basic rules weren’t broken. And what was the result? Well, there were the Pharisees, telling Jesus he was a sinner because he was healing people on the Sabbath. Jesus was a sinner because he ate and drank with sinners. Jesus was a sinner who deserved to die because he attacked the greed and corruption of the Temple priests. They called him a blasphemer, and though he was innocent, he was murdered under the law.
Look at Islam, another religion built on laws plus tradition. Though it’s not in the Koran, Islam in some countries demands that women cannot drive, or show their faces in public, or go to school. In such religious settings, including the Christian Inquisition, the laws and rules become the gods each priesthood worships. A religion where laws and rules are paramount is a nightmare to God and man alike. It’s a setup where “good” is more evil than evil itself, and, I believe, an anathema to God.
Then why did God set down rules in the first place? In the wilderness of the Sinai, structure and discipline were called for. But I believe a remarkable transformation took place when God became man in Christ. It’s hard for us to grasp the magnitude of that event, but every aspect of Jesus’ time here has had profound consequences. When Jesus heard of Lazarus’ death, he wept. Those tears alone may have changed our relationship with God.
When God became man in Jesus, everything changed. God’s love and grace became freely available to all of us sinners, in hopes we would thereby desire not to sin — not out of fear of God’s wrath, but for love of our Creator. We don’t know the intrinsic change that was felt in the world, but I have no doubt the very matter we are made of was touched by the Holy Spirit in that instant of Jesus’ resurrection. When the Temple curtain was torn asunder, God became freely available to us all — not only to Christians, but to the whole world.
And when we come to be judged in the end, Jesus will meet each of us (since “none come to the Father except through him”), and judge us, not according to our religious affiliation, or our adherence to that religion’s laws, but according to the greatest commandment — the love we gave, in our lives, to God and one another.
Love is the highest law: Not only does it turn black and white to gray, it merges the rainbow of distinct colors into the pure white light. It is the language of God, and the skills we develop in speaking that language on Earth will be the measure of our ability to dialogue with God in Heaven. Jesus’ sacrifice covers our sins; beyond that, it’s our capacity to embody God’s love that makes us acceptable in God’s eyes.
Lee Witting is pastor of the Union Street Brick Church in Bangor. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Voices is a weekly commentary by Maine people who explore issues affecting spirituality and religious life.