I'm back in New Orleans for the moment, visiting friends, Brothers, family. The SLU Ignatian retreat is coming up in a couple of weeks, and I have to prepare a talk on sin, but doing so got me reading back to last year's talk, on the kingdom of God. That thing came before this blog got up and running, so I figured I would do a "rerun," since the television shows seem to be doing the same thing these days. Here goes:
When I was in high school, I was pretty heavily involved in the martial arts, and I thought I was a pretty tough kid. I was strong, I could hit hard, and I figured I knew a lot about fighting. The best lesson I ever learned came one day, though, when we were doing an exhibition at some little county fair type thing. After I did my thing, three good old boys in their 20s (I must have been about 16) came over to me and talking smack for about 5 minutes. I let them say their thing and paw at me without a word, but afterward I felt ashamed for not standing up and letting them have it. I went through the incident a hundred times in the next couple of weeks before I figured out that, had I gone with my impulse to get after it with one or all three of those guys, I would either have gotten my butt kicked or gotten in trouble with the law, or both, just because my ego got bruised by someone questioning how tough I really was. Later on, my teacher told me that the loudest of this trio had come over to him and told him, “I want that guy,” meaning he wanted to have a go at me. “Oh, you can have him, just come on back when we’re finished,” my teacher told him, presumably because he knew the guy was full of hot air. Needless to say, the guy never came back. I spent all that energy, not trying to defend myself from an attack, but defending my ego from an insult from a stranger whose opinion really didn’t matter to me at all. That impromptu test ended up teaching me more than the tests I took for any of those belts, any of the little weekly sparring sessions we would have in class. That was the real beginning of my education; up until that time I had been building the skill to know how to fight guys like those three dudes, but that day I learned a lesson about fighting the need to “prove” how tough I was to myself or anyone else.
In all three synoptics there is also a tradition of Jesus being tested in the desert, but MT and LK expand MK's quickie version into the familiar story of the three tests. In both cases, of course, the tests immediately follow the experience he has at his baptism, namely the experience of being identified as beloved son. The texts say Jesus was driven out into the desert by the Spirit and tempted or tested by the devil, which I think means he had to work through what it could possibly mean to be beloved Son of God. Whether you believe in “the devil” or not, the tests that Jesus undergoes are just the kind of thing that someone with his kind of power HAS to undergo; the person who doesn’t face his/her “demons” of egocentrism will become a manipulator or a tyrant or an eternal adolescent. Did you ever notice that in two out of the three temptations, the tempter starts off with, “If you are the Son of God,…” trying to define for Jesus what being Son of God “should” be about? Jesus passes the tests by refusing to make life secure for himself or use his power for his own benefit. Spiritually, this is right on. For most of us, we would think that to be the Son of God or Daughter of God means having the divine hook-up. If God’s the king, that makes us the prince or princess, and everybody knows how the prince or princess is expected to live. We all know that Paris Hilton has the luxury of acting like a complete juvenile because she can bask in the perks of having a rich father. We also know that simply having power doesn’t make you a hero or even an adult, but whether you use that power for the sake of others, whether you are willing to put yourself on the line.
The first temptation is for Jesus to turn stones to bread after having fasted for a long time. In other words, “if you are the Son of God,” says the tempter, you shouldn’t be hungry, vulnerable, in need. On the contrary, Jesus knows that what it means to be the Son of God is not focusing on his own comfort or his own security, but on “every word that comes from the mouth of God," allowing his consciousness to be transformed for doing the will of God. Second, following MT’s order rather than LK’s, the tempter encourages him to throw himself down from the top of the temple, so everyone can watch as angels catch him, because “if you are the Son of God,” you should be acclaimed, popular, surrounded by crowds cheering your miracles. Sometimes that happens to Jesus, but more often, he is unpopular, rejected, misunderstood. To be the Son of God does not mean gaining cheap popularity through magic or miracles, getting followers who want tricks more than transformation, but being centered enough to deal with failure and unpopularity. The third temptation is perhaps the most insidious – the temptation to gain power by “selling your soul,” that is, selling out on what you know to be right, doing even the right thing, but for the wrong reason. I imagine the tempter telling Jesus, “Think of all the good you could do if you ruled all those kingdoms, all the good laws you could pass and the people you could help” and certainly, a man with Jesus’ intelligence and insight could easily have become a popular, well-respected Pharisee or even a powerful leader of a Zealot movement, a “Messiah” in the military sense that the people expected, had he so chosen. All it would have taken is for Jesus to make himself, not the Kingdom of God, the center of his vision. This is focusing on the ends without regards to the means; when Luke Skywalker asks Yoda if the Dark Side of the Force is stronger, and Yoda replies, “No. Quicker, easier, more seductive,” this is what he is talking about.
What Jesus encounters out there, that I think leads him directly to his vision of the kingdom of God, is one truth repeated in each of the three tests: it isn’t about me. I’m going to say it again because this is about the hardest thing we can hear: My life is not about me. Sure, at one level it is all about me, so that God is more “for me” than I am for myself, but in fact that means that it is about handing myself back over to something much bigger than I, to God’s purposes in the world. To truly be the son of God, the daughter of God, is to be like God, who is absolute self-giving; it is not to cling to the perks of power that come with having connections, or even merely to enjoy the consolation of having a warm-and-fuzzy prayer life. Paul understood that, which is why he incorporated the following early Christian hymn into Philippians 2:
Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross. Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil. 2:5-11)
What is it, according to this hymn, that leads to Jesus’ glorification as Lord? His self-emptying (the Greek word is kenosis) all the way to death. Unlike the rest of us, who grasp after status and thereby lose it, Jesus doesn’t grasp after it, he lets go of any kind of ego-reinforcement, and paradoxically, that’s what brings him glory. At some instinctive level, we all know that this is how it works: we code it into all of our myths and stories, from lives of the saints right down to comic books. Archbishop Oscar Romero is able to say, “If they kill me, I shall rise in the Salvadoran people,” because his concern for their liberation went all the way to his death. Martin Luther King is upheld because he was more concerned with getting his people to the Promised Land than making sure he got there with them. Spider-Man is revered as a hero by the people of New York because he lays his life on the line for them, because he knows that his power isn’t for him, that “with great power comes great responsibility.” This preoccupation with our own egos is the central struggle of our lives; if you think our focus on self doesn’t run right to our roots, ask yourself this: whenever I look at a photo album, say on Facebook or in a yearbook, whose face do I look for first? It is because it is so difficult to de-center the ego that we prefer to put our heroes on a pedestal, to worship from a distance rather than imitate, to make the cross into a piece of jewelry or a decoration for our walls rather than a pattern for living and dying and rising. The problem is that Jesus says very little about “worship me” and a lot about “follow me,” and following Jesus leads to the cross, where we just can’t bear to go.
So, what does any of this have to do with the kingdom of God? Well, everything. For Ignatius, the Exercises are about following Jesus, and that which we see Jesus doing is announcing and bringing about the kingdom: preaching and healing, healing and preaching. For us to encounter Jesus is to encounter the kingdom of God being made present, like Gandhi’s quote, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” The term “kingdom of God” is code language for the fulfillment of God’s will, for the world to run the way God wants it to run. Jesus tells us as much in the Our Father: “Your kingdom come” – what does that mean? “Your will be done.” It isn’t so much going to heaven (although that's in there) as the coming of heaven to earth. This is why I have never understood it when people say, “Everything happens for a reason.” Seeing genocide, rampant starvation around the world, the global AIDS epidemic or any other horrible reality through that lens would mean that God has written all this awful stuff into some cosmic script for a larger purpose that would allegedly make it ok. No! The very point of the kingdom of God is that things are NOT as they should be, that God’s will is NOT being done “on earth as it is in heaven.” Getting there from here is just as urgent, and just as difficult, as it was in Jesus’ time, because it demands that people de-center their egos and risk change, rejection, death, all of which we avoid at all costs. That is, for God’s kingdom to come, it means that my kingdom, the tower of success and popularity that I dream of creating, may well have to go. We can’t even reduce the kingdom to trying to fix all the problems of the world “out there,” because, to quote Thomas Merton, we first of all recognize that the power of error “was after all not in the city, but in ourselves.” How easily we can do ostensibly good things, helping others, protesting war or fighting unjust conditions out of an unenlightened egocentricity, a smug certitude of our own superiority and righteousness against the warmongers and the overlords, hating the rich rather than loving the poor. Ignatius does not intend for us to become social workers or to create messiah complexes in us, but to be converted to the person and ministry of Jesus as a necessary first step of our own ministries.
Paradoxically, the point of all of this stuff is not to deny who we are; it is, in fact, to bring to bear all the abilities that we have, to become our best selves. We become men and women of the kingdom not by becoming some sort of emotionless robot, not trying to live up to some kind of abstract, “one-size-fits-all” holiness, but by incarnating holiness in the unique mix that we are. The history of Christian holy men and women should make clear that there is no one standard for what we have to do to be holy or to help bring about the kingdom: Mother Teresa cared for the dying, Dorothy Day fed the hungry, Martin King went to jail, Thomas Merton wrote books, Karl Rahner taught theology. There are others, though, that are less “churchy”: Oskar Schindler ran an enamelware factory to protect Jews from execution, Adam Neiman runs a fair trade clothing company, Bill Quigley teaches law students to seek justice rather than manipulate the system, and Jim Deshotels runs a free mobile clinic on the streets of New Orleans. You have something in you that can help others, and at a certain level, it doesn’t much matter whether that something is saving thousands of lives or making a really fine banana cream pie: the point is not to abandon that, but to us it for the center that lies beyond you, instead of using it to make yourself the center. The Hindu tradition puts it this way: “Plunge into the heart of battle and lay your heart at the lotus feet of the Lord.”
It is a really hard balance between using our gifts and letting ourselves shore up our own egos with them. Notice how often throughout the gospels we see Jesus urging people to focus away from whatever would lead them to shore up their egos and find their identity in something other than God: avoid all greed, sell all you have, take up your cross, whoever wishes to be first must be last. Think about it like this: what kind of value would I see in myself if I didn’t “produce” anything, if I weren’t doing something “useful” that gave my ego something to latch onto? This is the real value of the desert for Jesus, I think – it’s like the Buddha under the bo tree, helping him understand that life still goes on just fine without him. I can imagine Jesus in the desert arguing with himself, his ego trying to come up with reasons to leave the desert – there are sick people out there to be healed, there are outcasts to be forgiven, and you’re not helping anyone out here: you aren’t “producing.” Can you hear the insidiousness of this kind of thinking? It leads us to convince ourselves that we are acting nobly, desiring to help others, when in fact we are probably looking to convince ourselves that we are important, we are accomplishing things, so we can feel good about ourselves. When all those self-images are stripped away, who am I? What if no one paid me any compliments, what if I couldn’t work, what if I were unable to be a “useful” or “productive” member of society? What would my identity be then? When I went to the Navajo Nation to start teaching, it was a real culture shock, because the students were not very emotionally expressive, and I was used to getting lots of emotional feedback from my white, upper-middle-class, all-boys’-school students. I had to totally redefine my style and my expectations, because it let me know clearly that my life was definitely NOT about me.
As our self-created identities get ripped away, we slowly figure out that who we finally are is defined by our relationship to God and nothing else. It takes a lifetime to even begin to figure this out in our guts, but once we start we don’t have to try so hard to protect our little false identities, and we can stand with the powerless, who are precisely those who have no socially created identity to hang their hats on – the poor, the socially and religiously unclean, the disposable members of our world. This is why Jesus so often moves among the nonpersons of his society – to let them know that God’s valuation of them does not depend on what society thinks of them. I find it interesting that MT has Jesus say, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect,” and LK’s parallel is, “Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate.” What does it mean to be perfect, and in particular, what does it mean to be like God? Be compassionate. The episodes in each gospel that immediately follow Jesus’ testing are instructive, because each is about compassion: in MT, the first protracted episode is the Sermon on the Mount, which lays out Jesus’ vision for the Kingdom, beginning with the Beatitudes, which can be broken down into two groups: blessed are the downtrodden, and blessed are those who put themselves on the side of the downtrodden. In LK, Jesus goes home to Nazareth and reads to his neighbors the text that answered his question of what it means to be the Son of God: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to announce a year of favor from the Lord.” (LK 4:18-19)