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The Muck of it All

The Muck of it All

Tuesday, August 16, 2011 — Week of Proper 15, Year One

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer, p. 980)

Psalms [120], 121, 122, 123 (morning) 124, 125, 126, [127] (evening)

2 Samuel 18:9-18

Acts 23:12-24

Mark 11:27 – 12:12

It is easy to get completely sick of politics. Sometimes you just want to wash your hands of it. It’s all so corrupt and disappointing. What can a good person do? The odds are stacked against you. It’s tempting to withdraw into our own little circles, reinforced by comfortable pieties. It is also easy to slide into cynicism. Cynicism is fun and tempting. You can stand back in smug self-righteousness and hurl snide insults at a system that is really easy to insult. You can say that the whole thing is corrupt. People are stupid and self-serving. Why spend the energy to try to fix or help, when it proves so fruitless, over and over? You can wash your hands of the muck of it all.

All three of today’s readings are stories of the dirty muck of power and politics. If you thought you’d mind your own business today, retreat into the private purity of your sanctuary, turn off the TV, ignore the newspaper, read the scriptures, and simply pray the Daily Office… Gotcha.

Vast swaths of scripture are enmeshed in the mess — telling stories of God’s people struggling and fighting in the ugly ambiguity and violence of power. You can’t escape the muck, at least not if you want to carry your Bible with you.

Today the sordid tale of Absalom’s rebellion and coup against his father David comes to a bloody end. Or does it? So much of it started with the dysfunctional parenting of David. He allowed his son Absalom to grow up without healthy boundaries. He did not pass along his own spirit of servanthood. The king only bequeathed David’s own Machiavellian temperament to his son. Even as David sends his loyal troops to fight their own brothers in a deadly war, David tells them to deal gently with the instigator of the rebellion. David will receive his soldiers’ sacrifice and triumph with a grief that will dishearten the very people who risked their lives for him. It’s an ugly tale.

Paul is under a gentle form of arrest as the Romans try to investigate what happened to cause a near riot. Some of Paul’s enemies, religious people acting out of loyalty to their beliefs, conspire to assassinate Paul. Paul’s nephew hears of the plot. Paul gets the intelligence to the authorities, and they take him under a considerable guard to the capitol to meet the governor. Politics, conspiracy and threats. More ugly stuff.

In the gospel we see Jesus fending off questions from those who aren’t really asking questions. They only want to trap Jesus. So he turns the tables and traps them with his own lose-lose question. “I’ll answer your question if you’ll first answer mine. Was John’s baptism from heaven or of human origin?” If they say “heaven,” Jesus has them, for they opposed John. If they say “human,” he has them, for the people loved John. Jesus plays the political brinkmanship game well.

Then Jesus tells a political parable. It is a metaphor about Israel. It is a story about corrupt leadership. The tenants will not give the landowner his due. It is also a story about the futility of violent rebellion. If some other tenants think they can succeed with violent rebellion, they risk utter catastrophe. Underneath the story is a metaphor about non-violent resistance. It is the rejected stone which actually becomes the cornerstone.

Those of us who are Biblical Christians do not embrace our traditional values when we withdraw from the dirty fray of politics. We are called to bring our values into our public struggles. If we don’t, the politics of power and money and fear will trump the politics of Jesus.

Recently the politics of power, money and fear has dominated our political debate. Some politicians are willing to bankrupt the government to protect historic low taxes for the wealthy or to make partisan political points for their party. Welcome to the Biblical world. Threat and violence and conspiracy; corrupt leadership and a lack of imagination that can think only in terms of power. This is the stuff of David and Jesus and Paul. The Scriptures invite us to bring our values into the struggle, and work the system to help it do the best it can.

We can ask the tough questions and play the political brinkmanship game well, like Jesus did. We can bring the dangerous conspiracies to light, like Paul did. We can recognize when those we love are tearing the fabric of society apart, and deal with them with healthy self-definition, rather than David’s dysfunction. Getting disgusted and withdrawing is an unacceptable option. After all, washing your hands of the whole matter was Pontius Pilate’s solution.

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Lora Walsh

Thank you for the reminder to engage (imaginatively!) the politics of power, money, and fear—lest they trump other values in the public sphere. I found myself convicted by the man who saw Absalom’s living body hanging in the oak tree. This man doesn’t want to get involved: He is caught between his commander (Joab, who wants Absalom dead) and his king (David, who wants Absalom spared). But while this man is weighing his options and reasoning that he shouldn’t take the blame for killing Absalom himself, Joab basically says, “I don’t have time for this.” Then Joab and ten men kill Absalom brutally. The man who actually found Absalom keeps himself clean from financial incentives and direct moral responsibility . . . but violence still wins. This story is a good reminder not to sit on the sidelines with our ethical reasoning and the cold comfort of our consciences.

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