by Marilyn McCord Adams
In Jesus’ time and ours, many people work hard to eradicate the worst evils: evils that gerrymander societies into rich versus poor, haves versus have-nots, people that matter versus others who don’t count; diseases and traumas that bi-polarize, dissociate, and twist psyches; physical maladies that make life difficult and full community participation impossible.
In Jesus’ time, not only systemic social evils, but also mental illness, blindness, deafness, crippling paralysis, seemed super-human, humanly insuperable. In Jesus’ time, people reasoned: if the causes were something humans could handle, conquest would be within human reach. In Jesus’ time, they concluded: since life’s worst evils are overwhelming, they must be traced back to super-human malevolent powers. Because life’s worst evils do not simply erase, but distort and caricature, such powers must be personal, cruel and deliberate in mocking what creation was meant to be. We have to admit, they have a point. No matter how much we know about biochemistry and systems dynamics, don’t we still call the most insidious evils “diabolical” and “demonic”?
In Jesus’ time, the cure for individual and social demon-possession was exorcism. The exorcist “channeled” super-natural power to rout demons. Mark’s Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, a fortiori a powerful exorcist who strides into ministry to send the demons packing. Mid-course, Jesus ordains disciples with the authority to proclaim Kingdom-coming and to cast out demons. Onlooker exorcists perceive that the name of ‘Jesus’ is–more than ‘abracadabra, please and thank you’–an efficacious magic word. The disciples are indignant, want to sue the copycats for trademark infringement. But Jesus counters: “don’t forbid them!” Using the name of ‘Jesus’ and finding that it “works” could well be the first step that slippery-slopes them into discipleship!
In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus and the disciples are the insiders and the “strange” exorcist is the outsider. In today’s pluralistic America, the situation is reversed. Many lefties here work overtime to uproot social injustices, to provide for the poor and homeless, to defend prisoners and the powerless, to open up educational opportunities. Many take for granted that a core allergy to human degradation, a deep revulsion at environmental exploitation, are part of what it is to be a decent human being. For many, religion is at best a non-starter, more likely superstitious nonsense, worse still, pious irrationality that could easily turn divisive and do more harm than good.
So, there they are, secular humanists in the best sense, speaking truth to power, championing what is good and wholesome. And here come the Christians, working alongside them, standing up for the homeless, supporting transitional housing and drug treatment programs, sponsoring prisoners on work leave. To secular humanists, we are the strange exorcists. We are the ones who, despite seeming normal, hold silly religious beliefs. (I remember sixties activists who compared faith in God to believing in fairies!) Political theorists scramble to figure out how people with deeply contrasting world-views can fight for the same causes or live and work together in the same town.
One approach popular among political scientists is to forbid us to use the name of ‘Jesus’ (and for that matter to prohibit Catholics from wearing crucifixes or Moslem women from donning the hijab). We are told to compartmentalize, to cordon off our religious convictions from our humanitarian sensibilities, to base our social-justice work on “public reasons,” on motivations that all decent human beings can be expected to share. Compartmentalization tells us: people with different world views can live and work together in the same place, so long, and only so long, as we ground our public life on the least common denominator of shared commitments.
If we agree to this, we may still give our secular social-activist partners pause. They will have to ponder how our passion for justice can co-exist with deep-seated religious delusion. They will be challenged to consider whether it is really possible for the same people to be so rational and high-minded and yet so crazy at one and the same time. It is barely possible that for some the question would flicker, whether religion is only (in the words of Tony Blair) for “nutters” after all.
Nevertheless, compartmentalization is a bad bargain for us, first, because it is an invitation to psycho-spiritual fragmentation that puts human decency in one cupboard and the “God-thing” in another. Compartmentalization not only invites us to see, but calls on us to make sure that our faith is separate from our deep-seated social and political convictions. This move turns faith in God into a fifth wheel that does no work, into something irrelevant to what we most care about in our lives.
Compartmentalization is an unfaithful and spiritually misleading strategy. It is not as if our passion for justice is one piece and our supernatural beliefs are a different piece and the one has nothing to do with the other. No! Remember St. Augustine’s famous exclamation: “O God, you made us for yourself. Our hearts are restless until they rest in you!” Our passion for justice, our hungering and thirsting for righteousness, are rooted in our hungering and thirsting for God Who is the source of all righteousness. Our heart’s revulsion to cruelty, our anger at oppression, our rage at the rape of the land: all of these arise from our natural bent towards honoring God by honoring God’s likeness in all God’s creatures.
Compartmentalization is tempting, because we can be aware of our passion for justice and of our belief in God without being conscious of the deep-structure rooting of the one in the other. To experience the connection, we have to “act out” our longing for God in fervent prayer. Prayer awakens us to God deep within us, stirring up our longing for God, rearing us up into family-resemblance that shares God’s loves allergies.
Praying our way into recognized connection, cancels fragmentation, and reveals God to be the ground of our personal integrity. Prayer exposes how there is not enough to us on our own to fight the good fight. To revert to biblical language, our social-justice battles are not with flesh and blood but principalities and powers. What keeps us from “burning out” is that our zeal is rooted in the fierceness of God’s own passion for justice. In this sense, we “channel” it. The Power that is with us is stronger than the forces that are against us. And, so, come hell or high water–and we know, they do come–the struggle will go on! Mother Teresa and her nuns understand the importance of prayer in consciously connecting us with our ground. Every day, they spend as much time contemplating the Blessed Sacrament as they do on the streets.
But isn’t there a danger that digging down to recognize God as the root of human decency, will alienate us from our allies, make us intolerant and intolerable?
Not necessarily. Prayer and reason agree: if God is the root of our passion for justice, God is its root in each and every human being. Roots are below ground. God is sneaky. People do not have to believe in God, for God to be at work in them, stirring them up to love what God loves and to be revolted at what God cannot stand. Everyone is a temple of the Holy Spirit. Marvelous as it is, the gift of faith is no occasion for “holier than thou.”
Neither does recognizing God at the root have to turn us into obnoxious ‘are-you-saved-brother’ evangelists. Holy Spirit works to bring people to the knowledge and love of God according to unique individual syllabi. Everywhere and always is not the time to make our faith explicit. Happily, abstraction is an alternative to compartmentalization. If I tell you that my study is rectangular, I abstract from its exact size or wall-color, but I do not thereby imply that its shape exists without any size or that its walls have no color. In fact, shape could not exist without a size; walls, without a color. But I can explicitly call attention to one without mentioning the other. Likewise, we can at times abstract various aspects of our beliefs from their theological roots. We can join secular colleagues in declaring that torture is wrong everywhere and always, that people are too entitled to food, housing, and healthcare just because they are human beings. Unlike compartmentalization, abstraction is not spiritually fragmenting. Not always mentioning God is compatible with our being fully aware that God’s own passion is what drives us! And in the long run, integrity, not fragmentation, may pique other people’s curiosity enough to ask: why do you stick with this? What is your bottom line? Our faithfulness will have earned the right to tell them, to use the attention that our deeds have earned to point to God who makes it all possible!