Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Three Rabbis

This is an excerpt from Orson Scott Card's novel, Speaker for the Dead. It's a quote from an imaginary character in the story named San Angelo who started a Catholic Order centuries earlier. I thought it was good.

A Great Rabbi stands, teaching in the marketplace. It happens that a husband finds proof that morning of his wife's adultery, and a mob carries her to the marketplace to stone her to death. (There is a familiar version of this story, but a friend of mine - a Speaker for the Dead - has told me of two other Rabbis that faced the same situation. Those are the ones I'm going to tell you.)

The Rabbi walks forward and stands beside the woman. Out of respect for him the mob forbears and waits with the stones heavy in their hands. "Is there any man here," he says to them, "who has not desired another man's wife, another woman's husband?"

They murmur and say, "We all know the desire, but Rabbi none of us has acted on it."

The Rabbi says, "Then kneel down and give thanks that God has made you strong." He takes the woman by the hand and leads her out of the market. Just before he lets her go, he whispers to her, "Tell the Lord Magistrate who saved his mistress, then he'll know I am his loyal servant."

So the woman lives because the community is too corrupt to protect itself from disorder.

Another Rabbi. Another city. He goes to her and stops the mob as in the other story and says, "Which of you is without sin? Let him cast the first stone."

The people are abashed, and they forget their unity of purpose in the memory of their own individual sins. "Someday," they think, "I may be like this woman. And I’ll hope for forgiveness and another chance. I should treat her as I wish to be treated."

As they opened their hands and let their stones fall to the ground, the Rabbi picks up one of the fallen stones, lifts it high over the woman’s head and throws it straight down with all his might it crushes her skull and dashes her brain among the cobblestones.

"Nor am I without sins," he says to the people, "but if we allow only perfect people to enforce the law, the law will soon be dead, and our city with it."

So the woman died because her community was too rigid to endure her deviance.

The famous version of this story is noteworthy because it is so startlingly rare in our experience. Most communities lurch between decay and rigor mortis and when they veer too far they die. Only one Rabbi dared to expect of us such a perfect balance that we could preserve the law and still forgive the deviation. So of course, we killed him.

-San Angelo
Letters to an Incipient Heretic

Monday, December 27, 2010

The Final Transformation

I've had a small mole beside my nose since I was born. At least it used to be small. It also used to be light in color and mostly unnoticeable. People even used to call it a beauty mark. A mole can make a face interesting if it's small and in the right place. Did someone say "Honey West?"

But during the past ten years that mole of mine got bigger and darkened in color. Instead of a beauty mark, it began to stick out like a witch's nose wart. I finally decided enough was enough and went to have it removed. No big deal right? I mean, it wasn't hurting or bleeding or anything. It was ugly, not cancerous. Any doctor/dermatologist could do the job in five minutes. I used to be in the VA health system until a few weeks ago when they told me I made too much money and promptly booted me out. Serves me right. I was a bad soldier. My soldiering was almost as bad as my singing. I haven't gotten any other health insurance yet. No health insurer would have paid for this anyway unless I lied and said the mole was hurting or something. But I figured, how much could it cost? It's not much worse than popping a zit. Sure enough, the doctor put a shot in to numb it (moles don't have much feeling anyway), cut it off, cauterized it, and bandaged it up. It took maybe five minutes. The bill—$200!!!!!!!!!!!

To say I was put out would be a great understatement. I asked why such a hefty fee. Would you believe his reply was, "It's cosmetic surgery." I said, "So is a haircut, except it takes considerably more time and talent to perform."

Doctors are as greedy as anybody else. Have you noticed that the more money people have, the more they want (and think they deserve)? Now I've always been a republican at heart, but this is exactly why we need a two party system. Many republicans are greedy, but many democrats are power hungry. Their faults are what actually allows them to keep each other in check.

We need a new kind of court system. One that allows you to take someone to task for their greed. I didn't pay just to have a mole removed. I made a greedy man's boat payment this month. This is exactly the point CS Lewis was making in his Reflections on the Psalms. Many of the Psalms are about the topic of justice. "Lord, these people have mistreated me. When will you bring them down low and exalt your faithful servant"? The Jews wholly believed that in this world, or some world to come, there would be a just account given for every action in this life. They were anxious to get what they felt was rightfully theirs, but they were also anxious to see sinners punished. But you'll notice that there were precious few prayers for their enemies.

That to me is the most striking aspect to reading the Old Testament. Forgiveness seems all but lost on the Jews. They're always anxious for God to forgive them, but where do they ask God to forgive their enemies? Where do they themselves forgive their enemies, especially those who are not Jews? You seldom run across such a passage. They had trouble just forgiving members of their own families.

When Jesus came into the world he brought about a true paradigm shift on the subject of justice. He implored us to temper justice with mercy. But forgiveness was better than either. I heard a friend talking on the phone to someone a while back saying that Christianity was all about forgiveness. Without forgiveness, justice and mercy go out the window. If we don't forgive, we won't be forgiven. And if we don't love others, God won't love us.

In Lewis' Till We Have Faces the character of Orual in many ways exemplified the Old Testament (the old paradigm) view of justice, while Fox, whom she called grandfather, saw the new paradigm coming into view.

Orual: "Are the gods not just?"
Fox: "Oh no, child. What would become of us if they were?

Jonah slept through a storm because he had no conscience. Jesus slept through one because he did, and it was clear. Most people don't sleep nearly so well as either.

Till We Have Faces was about a young women's journey from childhood to adulthood, about her awakening from childhood selfishness to adult selflessness, and about learning to let go of anger while learning to love her enemies. She also learned to see herself for what she truly was and what she truly was becoming. She learned that her own heart was the most deceitful one of all and that with a deceitful heart comes a false face. And by the end she learned that in order to find her true face—the person she was meant to be—she had to seek the face of another, the face of a God.

Her story reads very much like the story of the Old Testament's transformation into the New. We find a different kind of man in the old one full of selfishness, envy, greed and violence and yet remarkably intent on getting an undeserved justice from God. But in the new we find a man humble, claiming to own nothing, giving all his excess to the poor, loving his enemies and wishing them the best, and perhaps most importantly we find him at peace while the world around him is in turmoil because his conscience is clear and beaming. And in the end we find the new man transformed yet again into a new body and a new world. It's not a new paradigm but a perfection of what began with Christ.

It's the final testament, but not the final story, for the best story has been saved for last, and only God knows its content. I often imagine it will be like that show "Stargate SG1" where we find these adventurous people stepping through a stargate for the first time, not knowing what they'll find on the other side. It must be very much like being born again. Personally, I can't wait. I like to say that the older I get, the better eternal rest sounds. But I'm only joking because I'm expecting eternal life—not rest. And it will happen. But this stargate will have a sign above it: NO MASKS ALLOWED.