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Truth or Consequences – 4/8/2012

Imagine something for me, for a moment if you would. You a riding on a subway car, through a tunnel underground. You are in the city of Berlin, in Germany, and it is roughly 30 years ago. When the Second World War came to an end in Europe, the super powers divided Germany into two halves: East and West. And the dividing line as they carved it ran right through the city of Berlin – the old capital. Eventually, one side built a wall along that borderline – not really to keep the other side out, but to keep their own people in. For many years, this was how life was in the two Berlins: broken and incomplete.

So now, close your eyes, and imagine yourself riding on the subway, under the streets of the divided city, going from the West to the East. Your train has passed underneath the wall. You have business or a train connection on the other side – this is all permitted – but as you approach the first station, something is strange. The lights are dim, and the train slows, but it doesn’t stop. The platform is set with barbed wire and soldiers wait there with machine guns standing guard. This is how almost all the stops on the East side are: they are called Geisterbahnhofe – ghost stations – kept dark and useless so that no East Germans can use them to escape to the West. Like the city itself, the subway continues to run, to do what it exists to do, but its function – its life – is bent and distorted. Everything seems out of order; anyone could see that things were not right.

I offer you the image of the Geisterbahnhofe and the divided Berlin because it is so obviously wrong, a system so clearly out of whack. The injustice of that situation arises from the denial of something that is obviously, plainly true: a city suffers when divided against itself. This holds true for any grouping of people: a nation or a family, a planet, a person, or a congregation. Despite the reservoir of words that I pour out every Sunday to remind myself and you of it, the truth of our existence as human beings is simple: we are all connected to each other. Justice is our arrangement into healthy and life-sustaining relationships, and injustice occurs where these relationships are damaged or broken, or perverted into harmful connections that wound our bodies or our spirits. We have heard two lists this morning: the ten plagues that helped to deliver the people Israel out of Egypt, and the eight beatitudes which Jesus proclaimed in the sermon on the mount. They occur in stories set a thousand years apart, but both can be read as warnings or signposts to guide us in our relationship to that truth of our deep connectedness.

The story of the ten plagues can be hard for many of us to engage with. In the text of the Torah, of the Hebrew Bible, these escalating calamities are presented as literal signs from God; they would have been terrifying things to experience or behold. Most people, I believe, and certainly most Unitarian Universalists, do not prefer to imagine God as angry and judgmental – and in the final plague, the death of every first born child in every family in Egypt, the line between the simply cruel, and the unspeakable seems to be crossed. Reading the story at that literal level, there is not much space for a God defined by love and compassion: the vision of God that persists in our own tradition, and that is commonly upheld in Judaism and Christianity, and many other religions besides. So I would suggest approaching the story of the plagues from a different direction.

Things were deeply, profoundly wrong in ancient Egypt. The system was profoundly out of whack. The society was set up to benefit only a few, at the cost of the dignity, and the freedom, and the lives of a great many. The Israelites, as the book of Exodus tells it, were slaves to Pharaoh for generations, groaning under the burden of slavery until eventually, “their cry for help from bondage rose up to God.”[i] Injustice can be awful in its persistence – things can be very wrong, and stay very wrong, for a very long time. But in the story of the Exodus, a series of hardships and disasters eventually break the broken system open far enough that the people caught at the bottom of it are able to escape. In this way the ten plagues can be understood as the suffering that systems of oppression bring on themselves: the natural consequences of collective evil, and the painful price that is often required to unravel it. In the history of our own country, the violence and suffering of the Civil War were understood by many at the time as a judgment owed against both North and South alike, for having profited from the inhuman institution of slavery.

We human beings can be very powerful, particularly when we work together. And we can use that power to do terrible things, to struggle against the truth of our connectedness and our responsibility and relationship to one another – but bitter consequences are destined to follow. As one of you remarked to me last night at our annual Seder, after the recounting of the Exodus story and the tale of the ten judgments against the Egyptian system: we also have our own plagues, today. War and civil strife; an air of public discord and acrimony which sometimes reminds me of the curse of the Tower of Babel: everyone talking at once, while no one seems willing or able to listen and understand. Many of the ills that plague our society can be traced to our nation’s two original sins: the theft of a continent and the near-annihilation of its native peoples, and the theft of human beings from their own lands and homes to be treated as property and put to work in the service of greed.

The society that might hope to be free of the painful consequences of its own injustice would need to do far better than rendering slavery technically illegal. Exodus hints at what that ideal might be by instructing the listener: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”[ii] The society founded in truth would then be a nation without strangers, in which no group or people would be excluded or oppressed. To get there from here would require us, as a nation, to confront our painful racial history, to drastically change our immigration system, and to overhaul our code of law and process of punishment.

If it sounds like a lot to think of undertaking, that is fair – it is a lot. But it also brings me to that second list, the blessings described by the prophet Jesus in his first major public teaching. They certainly sound good – that those in mourning should be comforted, and those who yearn for righteousness should be satisfied – but they can seem a bit challenging from a practical perspective. The example of five thousand years of recorded human history would seem to point less towards Jesus’ teaching that the meek shall inherit the earth, and more towards one attributed to Frank Zappa that the meek shall inherit nothing.

The reading that I would offer you here, is that the Beatitudes are also a list of natural consequences, ones that follow from living in truth of our spectacular connectedness as human beings. But they describe the way things should be, not the way that they always are. As Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote as he languished in a jail cell, “time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively.”[iii] This list of blessings describes the constructive use of time. The best way for those in mourning to be comforted is for other people must offer them comfort. Human beings are most often at the mercy of other human beings, so let them then be merciful, and receive mercy. If we looked to the peacemakers as the children of God, maybe then the leaders of nations would listen to them more often. If those who hunger for righteousness are to be filled, then it will depend on human action, not least of all their own. To ensure that the pure in heart see God, I would suggest that we show them God in action, in the practice of compassion and loving-kindness from one person towards another. For the persecuted and the poor in spirit to possess the kingdom of heaven, which was in Jesus’ teaching the purpose and the promise of all life on earth, that ideal state – in which no one is a stranger – must first be accomplished by people working together. Then the meek shall inherit the earth, once we have all gotten it to a state that is suitable to pass on to them.

Every person, and so every community of people, has the capacity to recognize the truth of our interrelatedness, to notice the fact that we depend upon each other, and to follow that understanding into the work of fashioning a finer world. It is difficult. It is challenging. But the happy lesson of history is that it is possible to succeed. To do what the Israelites did, and leave slavery for freedom. To do what the early Christians did, and follow our truth with a steadfastness stronger than death. Or to do what the people of Berlin eventually did, and tear down the walls that divide us against ourselves.

[i] Exodus 2:23

[ii] Exodus 22:21

[iii] From his Letter From Birmingham City Jail, 1963


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