Sunday, April 9, 2006

If I May...

On the issue of "Living like Jesus" I would humbly suggest an alternative way to look at the subject.

All of us have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. There is no way we can "live like Jesus".

The four gospels present our Lord in four different perspectives. In the book of Mathew as Jehovah's KING. In the book of Mark as Jehovah's SERVANT. In the book of Luke as Jehovah's MAN. And in the book of John as Jehovah HIMSELF...GOD.

In each of these perspectives, Jesus demonstrated perfection in each of these roles.

To live "like" Jesus would require that we be as GOD and as we are fallen man we have no ability in and of ourselves to attain to such a goal. It simply isn't possible and any attempt to do so will fail utterly. But there is a way for the world to see Jesus in us and the way is for Jesus to live through us.

While space doesn't permit a full treatment of my position here, I'd suggest to our readers that are interested to check out Robert Mulholland's The Deeper Journey. In his book, Mr. Mulholland speaks to our "false self", a self-referenced self. It is this "self" that most of us are and it's only through the dying of this "self" that Christ can live in and through us. Consider the following references of Christ's indwelling us:

  • Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you...(Rom 8:9-10)
  • He is not weak in dealing with you, but is powerful in you. (2 Cor. 13:3)
  • Do you not realize that Christ is in you? (2 Cor. 13:5)
  • My little children, for whom I am again in the pain of childbirth until Christ is formed in you (Gal 4:19)
  • Christ in you, the hope and glory. (Col 1:27)

It is only as we crucify our "false self" that Christ is able to live in us and then and only then the rest of the world may perceive us as living "like Jesus".

Bottom's not something we do. It's something Jesus does through us.

Taking the Collar

The Washington Post's Richard Cohen invariably fails to be persuasive in his columns, and his latest effort keeps his record unblemished. He argues that Zacarias Moussaoui should not receive the death penalty for his role in the 9/11 attacks. It's not that he doesn't deserve it, mind you. Rather it's that the death penalty is what he wants and we shouldn't help him get what he wants. Even by Mr. Cohen's lax standards, this is nonsense.

He writes:

[The world] might marvel at how much effort had gone into the killing of a single man. They will note his trial and the lengthy part of it devoted to determining if he is worthy of the death penalty and then whether or not he will get it. The process is almost a parody of justice -- a laborious procedure to carry out what most of us recognize is nothing more than revenge.

Or, contrarily and at least as plausibly, the world will note how careful we are to make sure that the man has every opportunity to establish his innocence and to demonstrate compelling reasons why he should not die.

Call it justice if you will, we all know what it really is.

In other words, it's only pretend justice to bend over backwards to ensure this man his legal rights. It's not really justice if the whole process culminates in Moussaoui's execution. And why would that be? The only answer is that the death penalty is inherently unjust. Cohen's assumption that anything we do to protect Moussaoui's rights means nothing if the end result is his execution makes everything else he's about to offer as reasons for not killing the terrorist a hypocritical smoke screen.

Moreover, we wonder why Cohen assumes that if the execution is for revenge that it is therefore not just. What reason does he give for assuming that revenge and justice are mutually exclusive? Unfortunately, he simply assumes that we'll agree with him and lets the matter drop with no explanation.

He seems determined to become a martyr. He might have slipped the noose after the government bollixed up its own case when a lawyer coached some witnesses. Had he simply not taken the stand and let his lawyers talk for him, he might have averted the death penalty. Not only did he insist on testifying, he was insulting and unfeeling and downright hateful. Here was a man crying out for execution. With the government's help, he will attain what he always wanted -- martyrdom.

If I had my way, I would deny Moussaoui his opportunity. I would do so not just because it is pretty clear the man is crazy and, on account of that, he played a marginal role at best in the 9/11 plot, but because I would not complete the plot for him. I would not grant him what he wanted from the day he stepped foot in America -- his own death. If, in his case, the punishment is to fit the crime, then he would suffer most by spending the rest of his life behind bars. When he dies of old age, he will have been forgotten. In no place will people gather to mark his death. That will not happen if he is executed.

No, execution is not what he wants. He wants to die in the act of killing as many Americans as he can. If he is executed by the state that won't happen. His death will be shrouded in ignominious failure. As long as he is alive, though, he will harbor a hope that somehow, someway, he will one day find himself in a position where he can carry out his dream. Why not argue that he should be denied that hope and that opportunity? Why not argue that he should die knowing full well that his life was wasted?

The answer, of course, is that these are not Cohen's real reasons for being reluctant to execute him. Cohen is simply being disingenuous. In the end he comes right out and admits it:

Of course, I would not seek his death in any case. I am opposed to capital punishment -- not for Moussaoui's sake or for another guy's, but for our own. The taking of life is something we should not permit government to do. In the first place, life is inviolate.

The death penalty is wrong, Cohen claims, because human life is inviolate, but where does that come from? What makes it inviolate? Why is it wrong for a government to put a man to death? Cohen gives us no answer. He just assumes the reader will nod in agreement with this amiable sentiment and move on without giving it any further thought.

Second, governments have abused this power in the past and will do so in the future. It is no accident that Europe bans the death penalty. Under Hitler, Stalin and others, Europeans learned what government can do.

Governments should not use the death penalty, Mr. Cohen is here averring, because it has been abused in the past. Well, now. What else should governments not do because it has been abused in the past? Incarcerate criminals? Tax citizens? Pass laws? Confiscate property? The fact that something has been abused is not in itself a reason for not doing it, it is only a reason to insure that it is done carefully and with respect for the rights of the accused. But doing it carefully in Moussaoui's case is exactly what Cohen scoffs at in the beginning of his essay.

Anyway, like spectators rooting for the kid at the bottom of the lineup who can never manage to get a hit, we keep expecting that Richard will one of these days, perhaps with a wild swing of the bat, make contact with the ball, even if only by pure luck.

Although Mr. Cohen appears to have it as his personal goal, nobody takes the collar forever.

Living Like Jesus

My friend Byron Borger, who has been an occasional guest on these pages, has a blog called Hearts and Minds Booknotes devoted to reviewing books that he sells in his shop.

In the course of discussing a set of books by a couple of authors affiliated with an organization called the Rutba Group, Byron remarks that he was "a bit surprised that nobody commented on these extraordinary books which make such expansive claims that we should all live like Jesus."

The last clause in Byron's remark got me to wondering exactly what it means to live like Jesus.

I jotted down some thoughts off the top of my head and sent them along to him. On this Palm Sunday it might be appropriate to share them with you, with only some minor emendations, along with his reply:

I thought about your comment, By, or at least the last six words of it, and I've asked myself about it a couple of questions to which, as is often the case, I have no good answers.

To what extent would the authors you write about say we should pattern our lives after that of Jesus? Don't misunderstand. I agree that Christ is our model, but I just don't know how far we are to take the idea of modelling our life upon that of Jesus.

If we are to take it as far as possible, of course, then we should all remain single and devote our lives fully to itinerantly preaching God's word. I suppose the Rutba group would agree that that radical sense of Christ-likeness is not incumbent upon us all, but I wonder why not.

I think the question is important because once we agree that marriage, family, and vocation are all valid callings then we find that everything changes. A single man with no job or family has relatively little stake in society. He can afford to be a John the Baptist, a prophet. All of his decisions affect mostly just him. But a husband, father, and employee has other responsibilities. He has, to take one example, an obligation to be a protector of his wife and children. As a wage-earner, provider, and citizen he also has a political obligation to society that the prophet, who sees himself, really, as none of these, can transcend.

Our status as husband, father, employee, and citizen affects our views on war and the use of force, material possessions like homes, cars, etc., and political ideology and governance. The prophet can rise above these and not soil himself in the nitty-gritty of life as it is lived by those who don't pattern their lives after that of Jesus to the extent the prophet does, but not having to live in the midst of life's nitty-gritty is not a "luxury" many of us have or feel called to.

It's one thing to live like Jesus by remaining single and living in a commune, rising above the cares of those whose commitments are less radical, but as soon as we begin to deviate from the pattern of Jesus' life in even the smallest particular we find that the consequences ramify.

So, I guess what I'm wondering is where, exactly, would the Rutba writers draw the line in terms of following Christ's example as a model for our own lives, and why would they draw it there and not somewhere else? What does it mean, in other words, to live like Jesus in 2006?

I don't expect you to respond to these questions because I'm sure you don't feel that you can speak for those guys. Even so, the line in your blog that I quoted above caused some thoughts to crystallize which had been bouncing around in the back of my mind for some time, and I wanted to share them with you.


Byron's reply is here:

Thanks Dick, good conversation. I don't want to minimize the cost of discipleship or the radical call to live fully for Christ (or to minimize his direct teachings.) But your questions are good ones. I don't think "what would Jesus do" is exactly the right question (I was chided last week for this reason by a friend who is convinced it is the wrong question, and I wasn't hard enough on an article that went in that direction and which I applauded.)

Anyway, I don't know if you were able to read through my full review of Irresistible but I did spend the last half of it mildly rebuking them for not being committed to ordinary careers and middle class cares and for being basically against institutions. I like their revolutionary spirit (and am a little suspicious of you saying that once you're married those kinds of concerns may not be as pressing....why are we willing to tolerate young men leaving their wives and children to fight in a war, but might find it excessive if they, say, pick up a hitchhiker or give away the family budget??) But, I still find the personalistic tradition, being like Francis, being like Jesus, not quite the way to go. So I hear you and appreciate your concern. Thanks.

One thing, though, that comes to mind: Jesus himself may not be the model--obviously, we need not wear his outfit, eat the same food, and be unmarried, since those things were contextualized to his calling and culture. But his teachings--ah, that is another matter. He spoke as one with authority, representing the perfect will of God. If he said to give to whomever asks, live simply, love all, not take oaths, eat with the sinners and invite the poor to your parties, well...that isn't a peculiar mimicking of his contextualized habits--like riding a donkey--but get to the heart of his message, his definition of the Kingdom, His holy commands, his ethical lifestyle. It seems fairly easy, doesn't it, to sort out the former from the later, to take seriously his ethical commands and ethos, and ignore his dietary and fashion tastes...

The question of having no wealth, being itinerate, even, are a bit in the middle ground; he didn't forbid those things, exactly, at least not having a home, but they do seem to nearly come with the territory of his teachings of being free from worldly care...