When I was in 7th grade the middle school band, in which I was second chair clarinet, played a concert at the high school. After the concert I walked the hallways looking for my family, expecting them to be there cheering me on and, of course, take me home. But my family was no where to be found. Eventually I faced the obvious, and walked home. Arriving home I found the lights on, and my brothers, quietly playing in their bedroom. My father was not home and my mother was in the basement, in a rage, recklessly throwing and breaking dishes and yelling. I remember thinking that my mother was furious because my father had not come home to take them to my concert. It was the 1960’s and we were a one car family. No doubt both of my parents could have made different choices that day, although afterward we always had two cars.
Today, everywhere I turn, there are people who are struggling with anger, with how to express their rage, their worry, their fear, their concerns. Some people insist on not expressing it, working to keep everything neutral and calm. But often this is just a surface calm, ignoring the deep well of anxiety that lives beneath the surface. Others rage on and on, blaming, name calling, treating others horribly. And some people are struggling to be focused and active, without resorting to reactivity and increased angst nor suppressing their feelings.
No doubt we live in challenging times. And what are we to do?
Kaj Munk, a Danish pastor killed by the Gestapo in 1944 is quoted as saying this in The Irresistible Revolution by Shane Claiborne:
"What is therefore, our task today? Shall I answer: 'Faith, hope and love'? That sounds beautiful. But I would say--courage. No--even that is not challenging enough to be the whole truth. Our task today is recklessness. For what we Christians lack is not psychology or literature....we lack a holy rage--the recklessness which comes from the knowledge of God and humanity. The ability to rage when justice lies prostrate on the streets, and when the lie rages across the face of the earth...a holy anger about the things that are wrong in the world. To rage against the ravaging of God's earth, and the destruction of God's world. To rage when little children must die of hunger when the tables of the rich are sagging with food. To rage at the lie that calls the threat of death and the strategy of destruction peace. To rage against complacency. To restlessly seek to change human history until it conforms to the norms of the Kingdom of God.”
I suppose, if I had not had the childhood experience that I had, I might be more inclined to agree with Munk, that a faith-filled response to the injustices in the world, in order to bring forth the kingdom of God, requires a reckless holy rage. I do agree that reckless holy rage can be our catalyst to act, but it cannot determine how we actually act. To feel the reckless rage is to acknowledge the depth of injustice and an abiding passion to right the wrongs. That holy rage can inspire action motivated by passion and inspiration. But to recklessly act in rage is to act out of control, saying and doing things that are often not helpful in reconciling situations or bringing forth justice. Transforming the rage into inspired but more thoughtful responses is taking holy action. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the movement he inspired in the 1960’s is a perfect example of taking holy rage and transforming it into holy action for the sake of justice, bringing us closer to the kingdom of God on earth.
Our story in Exodus launches the Jewish season of Yom Kippur, a season of atonement for sins, with the directions for preparing a holy meal. It also portrays God protecting the Hebrews and punishing the Egyptians. The only problem is, if one reads Egyptian history, there is no matching story, there is no indication that something happened that killed all the first born sons of the Egyptians, including Pharoah’s son. There is a story about exiled Hebrews being freed, but without the severe consequences for the Egyptians we hear in this reading. What does that mean? Only that the Hebrews and the Egyptians recorded different versions of a similar story. Versions that reflect their experiences, one version was of the perpetrators of injustice and slavery, the other as the enslaved and oppressed set free.
There is a tendency for groups of people to claim that God is on their side and use that justification to support a one-sided set of experiences, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. And in small passages of the Bible one can even justify the idea that God takes sides. But when one reads the Bible in its entirety one hears that God does not take sides, God loves all, equally. God loved Sarah and Hagar, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Jonah and the Ninivites, Jesus and the tax collectors, Mary Magdalene and the woman at the well.
While loving all people means respecting their dignity, it does not mean that there are not consequences for attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. God holds people accountable for acts of injustice, cruelty, and downright evil behavior. God loves and at the same holds people accountable. That’s what we hear in Matthew, Jesus teaching us the process of holding others accountable, or being held accountable ourselves, in a loving way.
There is no doubt that my parents could have handled their anxiety better and been higher functioning parents. On the one hand I understand that they did the best they could with what they knew. I could look back with bitterness on my childhood, but instead I choose to look back with compassion and with insight, knowing that I can be different. I can hold myself accountable for becoming a healthier person. I can be more mature and make better choices and teach my children and grandchildren to make good choices.
Our Christian responsibility in times like these, when people are recklessly raging, is to access the passion of that holy rage while responding in the least anxious way one can, aiming to respect the dignity of others by not shaming or name calling, gossiping or belittling, while also holding people responsible for acts of racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and any other way that people diminish or devalue another human being or whole groups of human beings. More specific to us, as we begin our annual “Season of Creation” worship services, is to contemplate how we as a body of the faithful, and as individuals, can continue our efforts to reduce our carbon footprint, and be good and wise stewards of the environment.
It is not easy to both respect someone’s dignity and hold them accountable. I was not taught how to do this in my family, and have had to learn the hard way as an adult. But it is the kind of maturity that Jesus asks of us. It is rooted in our ability to access our holy reckless rage and utilize it effectively to make a difference, healing and transforming the broken places of our lives and world into wholeness, with love. Christian communities, now more than any other time in recent history, are asked to do this, to recognize anger and utilize it for holy action, to stand for justice and take effective action, to hold people accountable while respecting the dignity of every human being. Ultimately to love everyone as God loves.
a reflection on the readings for Proper 18A: Exodus 12:1-14; Matthew 18:15-20