Thursday, July 3, 2014

On Blessing the Pope, Sarah Palin, and Richard Dawkins

            The story of Balaam in Numbers 22-24 is perhaps most famous for the talking ass.  The Moabite king Balak is nervously watching the approach of the Israelite horde that had so recently laid waste to the armies of Sihon and Og.  Divining that military prowess alone may not do the trick he calls on the prophet Balaam for a curse to deter his enemies.  After the comic misadventure with his famous ass, Balaam arrives and proceeds not to curse but to bless Moab’s enemies.  A distraught Balak tours Balaam around the Israelite host like a real estate agent pointing out the advantages of a new property, but to no avail.  Balaam can only speak blessings, not curses.  Finally the exasperated Balak cries out, “Neither bless them nor curse them at all!”  But Balaam can only bless.

            This passage cannot help but bring to mind the most startling thing Jesus ever said (well, one of the most startling anyway): “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heave.  He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends his rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:44, 45).  Now of course this passage has been sonorously intoned and generally ignored over the first 2000 years of Christian history.  But it stubbornly, uncomfortably remains a command of Jesus, marked out in some Bibles in red letters.  It is the kind of passage, as Wendell Berry puts it, that gives rise to “biblical exegesis.”  By this he alludes to the tendency of my beleaguered discipline to evade or explain away difficult texts.  I would protest, but throughout those aforementioned 2000 years the critique has often been true enough, especially with regard to the Sermon on the Mount.

            And so the question remains: was Jesus really serious about our blessing our enemies?  Sadly (or happily) I think he was.  And this, I think, is a gift that we Christians, that is the church, have to offer to the world.  I fear this gift has often gathered dust in our theological and intellectual closet.  We have been embarrassed to share it; fearful once the ribbon and paper are removed we will be looked at with scorn or bemusement.  But the events of recent weeks in the Middle East have reminded me how desperately this gift of enemy blessing is needed.  Three Jewish boys are kidnapped and murdered in an act of inexcusable brutality.  The cries for revenge are as inevitable as they are understandable.  And then a Palestinian boy is found murdered and set afire.  As I write no blame has yet been assigned for that horror, but the suspicion is that it is yet another revenge killing.  In the face of such crimes to bleat about blessing and loving enemies may sound, to say the least, inadequate.  And yet, I have to ask if the cyclical Jewish/Palestinian story of bloodshed and violence, outrage and revenge has gotten them, or the world, anywhere.  What might it mean for them to step back and refuse to curse, but bless? 

            In the United States our political, religious, and social right and left wings have settled in a mutual mud-slinging contest that is as alarming as it is idiotic.  I say idiotic because it is frequently (or even largely) based on simplistic slogans, purposeful misapprehensions and out and out lies.   We, of course, have different kinds of enemies: political enemies, religious (and irreligious) enemies, and even intellectual enemies.  Depending on where we stand, those enemies have different names.  In his book Unapologetic: Why Despite Everything Christianity Can Still make Surprising Emotional Sense Francis Spufford argues that for Christians especially this means that we cannot look at other Christians and say “no kin of mine.”  He writes, “I find Sarah Palin, for example, ridiculous and terrifying . . . but I can’t just shun her. . . . I have to believe that she’s got something right, that she’s a member like me of the body of Christ, in need like me of the grace of God, and as sure as to receive it. She is, despite everything, a sister.  And I have to recognize her as such, while being very glad that Alaska is a long, long, way away; and to hope that, in the same way she would recognize a brother in me, despicable, gunless, high-taxin’ Euro-weenie that I am.” 

            So we bless our “enemies” even if we think they are wrong.  That is, I repeat, our Christian gift to the world. So God bless Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens; God bless Mark Driscoll and John Piper; God bless the bishop of Rome and the Archbishop of Canterbury; God bless John Boehner and Ted Cruz; God bless President Obama and Nancy Pelosi; God bless Israel and God bless Hamas; God bless the United States and God bless Iraq.  God bless red blooded, gun totin’ Americans and God bless “gunless Euro-weenies”; God bless you and God bless me.  Perhaps Tiny Tim had it right after all, “God bless us every one.”  With Paul, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone.  If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:17).  In other words, bless, don’t curse.

John E. Phelan, Jr.

1 comment:

  1. It is hard to bless sometimes when you have been cursed and hurt yourself. But because He has forgiven us, He gives us the strength to forgive those who wrong us. I need to only share whatever is of good report, and yet seem to need to bear my burdens with selected others. But I think it is here at the foot of the cross, when I, wounded, can experience spiritual growth as I lean on Him, the great burden bearer.