Bob Massie

Posts Tagged ‘Matthew’

Overturning the Tables

In Business and Sustainability, Education, Politics, Theology and Spirituality on March 17, 2009 at 2:03 pm

Some of you have perhaps been wondering what happened to me over the last few weeks – did he simply stop writing? The answer is no – I transferred my writing to a few other listservs and also to the Massachusetts blog known as “Blue Mass Group” where I have been making the case against some very foolish policies in the state under the name of “bmass”. You can look those up if you like – and comment on them. Some of this debate came to a head when I had the opportunity to preach at St. James in Cambridge, my wonderful home parish, and I discovered the readings were from Exodus and John. I haven’t preached in nearly two years, so it was a challenge and a joy. This is what I said.

A sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Robert Kinloch Massie at St. James’s Episcopal Church, Cambridge, Massachusetts, on March 15, 2009

I. Introduction: The Daily Struggle To Remember

Every week or so at my house Anne and I endure an abrupt ritual of panic. We are about to go out the door and suddenly …. I can’t find my wallet! I know I had it somewhere, in a pair of pants, but those pants seem to have jumped up and run off to a dark corner. So for a few minutes Anne and I have to rush around, playing hide and seek with a pair of trousers.

Other times it is the car keys. I have noticed that car keys seem to anticipate when I am about to leave? Just before I need them, they quickly slide under a pile of old magazines and again, Anne and I get to play hide and seek.

Has that ever happened to you? I am always pleased to read when such very human problems pop up in the Bible. One sheep wanders off, and the shepherd has to leave the ninety-nine and go running after it. [Matthew 18:12] A woman loses a coin in her house, and she has to turn everything upside down and sweep the whole place out until she finds it. [Luke 15:8]

We lose important things all the time. Why do you suppose that is?

Three reasons. We get distracted, we forget, and we lose what is important under a pile of junk.

Today, I want to propose that just as we often lose physically important things we can also lose spiritually important things. We do this all the time… and for the same reasons. We get distracted, we forget, and lose what is important under piles of junk.

Jesus knew this and spent a lot of time trying to point it out to people. In the Sermon on the Mount, for example, he suggested that people spend too much time worrying about the details of daily life – and by the way, in a community far less affluent than ours. “Do not be anxious about what you shall eat or what you shall drink … [or] what you shall put on.” [Matthew 6:25] “Seek first the realm of God and the righteousness of God, and the other things will be yours as well.” [Matthew 6:33]

To the spiritual pundits he said: you are worrying so much about appearing more holy than other people that you have forgotten what holiness is really about. Forget the long prayers, he said, use few simple words and even better, do it in secret. [Matthew 6: 5-14]

In Jesus’ day people worried a lot about what they had done wrong, so they spent a lot of time and money calculating how to please God with exactly the right behavior. And out of those anxieties arose a whole God-pleasing-calculation industry, much of it built on animal sacrifice. Those things don’t matter, Jesus said; what God wants is mercy, and not sacrifice.” [Matthew 12: 1-7]

II. The Demons of Mess

In pointing this out, Jesus was not inventing something new – he was drawing attention to the gems that existed in Hebrew scripture. “I desire mercy and not sacrifice” is a quote from the prophet Hosea [6:6]. His message was: don’t get distracted, don’t forget, don’t lose what is important under a pile of junk.

And today, in this season of Lent 2009, we need to hear that lesson again, more than ever, in both our personal and our public lives.

Anne and I don’t watch a lot of TV but some months ago we came across an remarkable program called “Clean House.” How many of you have seen that?

For those of you who don’t know this show, this is how it works. A crew of specialists shows up to rescue a family whose lives are being wrecked by the demons of consumption and disorder. Their houses and their lives are a mess.

And when I say “mess,” you have to multiply whatever is in your head by fifty. One small house had boxes to the ceiling in every room. The parents were losing tempers, their minds, and their marriages. One sad eight year old son was reduced to trying to do his homework on the only remaining tiny patch of clear real estate on the dining room table that was not covered with junk.

In another show, a woman who had gained a lot of weight after having children had filled not just her closet but most of her bedroom with hundreds of shoes. And not just any shoes. She had hundreds of pairs of expensive designer shoes, that her husband bought on his slim salary to express his love and she was hoarding them in the hope that one day they would fit.

Some of the men in these families filled up rooms and garages with golf clubs, ancient magazines, weight equipment, sports memorabilia, and old appliances that reminded them of their dads.

And by the way I just want you to know that when you all come over to our house, none of you is allowed to go into the basement.

What makes these shows so fascinating?

1) They tempt us to judge, so that we can feel superior just like the Pharisee in the Temple, “Lord I thank thee that my house isn’t as cluttered as that family of messy tax collectors.” [Luke 18: 9-14]

2) They attract our sympathy, because the physical and emotional transformations that take place as the TV team persuades the owners to give up their stuff, sell it at a yard sale, and then use the money to remake the home – are often fascinating and deeply moving.

3) And finally they signal something we know but can’t express: the physical mess in these people’s lives is an outward and visible warning about inward and spiritual chaos.

Like many of us, the people are in a kind of bondage both to their memories and their dreams, they are anchored to illusions about the past and the future. They have been captured by the absurd mixture of insecurity and greed create by a consumption economy run amok. Watching one of these shows, Anne turned to me and said, “we turn to stuff to fill the empty places in our hearts.”

In others words, we get distracted, we forget, we lose what is important gets buried beneath a pile of junk.

So how do we fix this? Our readings today give us an idea.

One way to stop losing the wallet and the car keys is to keep putting them, day after day, in the same place.

And one way not to lose ourselves spiritually is keep ourselves and each other of what is important, every morning, every Sunday, in the same place.

This isn’t easy. Today’s first reading gives us an example. You would think that the people who had followed Moses into the desert would be able to keep track of what was important. After all, God had helped them escape from soul-stifling, bone-crushing slavery in Egypt – and they were on their way, if they could stay focused, to the Promised Land.

But what happens? Moses goes up the mountain for a little facetime with God — and the next thing you know, when he had been gone a short time, his followers get distracted. They forget about Egypt, they forget about Moses, they forget pretty much about everything. They tell Moses’ brother, “Get up, and make us some new gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, who brought us up out of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” [Exodus 32: 1] They gave all their jewelry to Aaron who melts it into the shape of a golden calf, which, when you think about it, is kind of the ultimate symbol of meaningless junk.

This is one of the earliest management problems on record. And so God tries to simplify things by sending Moses back with a two page memo, although the memo wasn’t on paper, it was stone. He says, okay, I understand that living together can get complicated, so I am going to distill what is important into a few basic rules. Four of them are about our relationship with God. Six of them are about our relationship with other. Ten in all. One for each finger.

And, as we know from human history, that pretty much solved the problem, we know those Ten Commandments by heart. Right?

Well, the truth is – they are not that easy to remember. I mean, ten things is a lot , especially when some are long and others are short, especially when some say you should do this and should do that. But years ago, when I was a chaplain at Grace Church School, a wonderful teacher taught me the easy version in verse. So this is the congregational participation part. Repeat after me:

Above all else, love God alone
Bow down to neither wood nor stone
God’ name refuse to take in vain
The Sabbath rest with care maintain
Respect your parents all your days
Hold sacred human life always
Be loyal to your chosen mate
Steal nothing neither small nor great
Report with truth your neighbor’s deed
And rid your mind of selfish greed.

The kids in my fourth grade loved this. We used to do speed trials. I think the record was 12 seconds for 10 commandments. I will post it on the webpage, and we will see if anyone can beat that.

III. Frustration, Repentance, and “Godly Grief”

But you know, despite the simplicity of these Ten Commandments, in Jesus’s day people still got distracted and forgot. In fact, they asked Jesus if he could give them an edited version. Ten’s too much, give us two.

So Jesus did: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself,” [Luke 10:27]

Maybe we begin to see why Jesus occasionally got frustrated. We sometimes gloss over this aspect of Jesus’s ministry – because his core message was one of endurance and patience and love — but to me those flashes of annoyance make him seem fully human.

He explains things, repeatedly, in the most vivid way, with the most memorable stories and parables, and people still look at him blankly and say, in essence, what do you mean by that?

And so he tries again, with a new story, or a new angle. But sometimes he says, “you have eyes, but you do not see, ears but you do not hear.” [Mark 8:18]

On another occasion he shakes his head and says:

“To what shall I compare this generation? You are like children, sitting in the marketplace and calling to each other, “We piped to you and you would not dance, we wailed for you and you would not mourn.”[Matthew 11:16-18]

No matter what approach we try, no matter how we try to draw your attention to what is important underneath the pile of junk, you get distracted. What will you listen to?

And every now and then Jesus’ frustration boils over into anger, an anger designed to produce what St. Paul called “godly grief.” [2 Corinthians 7: 9-10] That’s a great phrase for Lent. Godly grief is when we are reminded of something a bit painful in a way that produces repentance.

The gospel passage from today is an example of Jesus acting in a way that was designed to induce godly grief. We know that these actions were centrally important to his followers because it appears in all four gospels.

It is hard for us to appreciate the power of the Temple today or the shocking nature of Jesus’ behavior. The Temple of Solomon was not just a place of national reverence. It was a place of immense spiritual power. For at the center of the Temple was a hidden room, called the Holy of Holies, which only one person could enter only once a year. In this room, in total darkness, sat the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark of the Covenant, as you know from your Bible and from Raider’s of the Lost Ark, was said to contain the original tables described in Exodus. According to Jewish tradition, in and around this object and this room, hovered the actual power of God.

It was sort of like the core of a nuclear reactor combined – times a million. Think about it. The creative force of God, who brought forth not only humanity, not only this world, but God “who stretched the spangled heavens infinite in time and place and flung the suns in burning radiance through the silent fields of space” could be encountered there.

But what did Jesus see when he arrived there in the courtyard surrounding this place?

It has become the Temple Livestock Exchange. When Jesus approached this immensely powerful place, what he saw was disturbing. Inside the courtyard was a market where people bought and sold animals in order to slit their throats, drain their blood, and burn their bodies in the hope this would earn them spiritual points. A place where some leaders paraded around to show off who was more important, more holy, more special, more deserving than whom. A place where you had to change regular money into Temple money, at high rates, at the table of a money-changer. In the version in Matthew he quotes both Isaiah and Jeremiah: “My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves.” [Matthew 21:21, Isaiah 56:7, Jeremiah 7:11] So he drew together some cords into a whip, scattered the coins, turned the tables over, and drove the changers out.

We don’t use animal sacrifice any more — in fact we despise it — so it seems as though what Jesus doing makes sense. But this act was probably the single most direct political and economic act of disruption in his ministry. Some scholars feel it was the principal reason that the religious authorities began to plot his death. It is as though Jesus had been offered a public tour of the White House, and then taken the opportunity to run into the Oval Office and shove the President’s desk through the smashed windows and right out into the Rose Garden.

Jesus did this to make a point. In his view, in his zeal of the moment, the people of faith had followed too much the devices and desires of their own hearts, and in his view the whole spiritual enterprise had become buried under a huge, horrific pile of junk. It was time to clean house. So he did.

But the question for us in this Lenten season is not whether the people in the Temple courtyard had gone off track. The question is in what manner we – not only individually but collectively – are going off track.

IV. The Modern Moneychangers

I could suggest a number of ways, but I am going to close by zeroing in on one. In this state we have reached a level of despair, dishonesty, and denial so severe that our elected officials are about to approve a proposal that says, in essence, in order to save some of us, others of us must be destroyed. Holly’s email signature line quotes the wonderful phrase from Paul Farmer, “the idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that is wrong with the world.” I agree with that. I fear that many leaders are about to act as though they do not.

What do I mean? Our frightened, confused, and avaricious officials have are about to expand predatory gambling in order to cover a budget short fall. There is no sugar coating this. They believe that because we are experiencing temporary financial difficulties we should permanently crush tens of thousands — if not hundreds of thousands — of people.

Many of you may not have not given this a second’s thought, but if not, I would like you both to trust me and to find out for yourself. I have been down this path of raising concerns before they were not commonly recognized many times before. I began fighting the outrage of South African apartheid more than 35 years ago, before many Americans had ever heard of that country. I spoke out on climate change more than 20 years ago, before many Americans knew anything about the dangers of greenhouse gases.

And now, in 2009, I want to tell you that we are facing one of the worst decisions that will be made in this generation, that makes a mockery of the very word Commonwealth. This decision is being supported uncritically by many members of the Senate, the House, by cabinet secretaries, by the unions – most disgracefully by the teacher’s union — by the Globe, by the Herald, by Treasurer Tim Cahill . It is even being supported by my friend, Deval Patrick, the governor for whom we pray, as we should, each week.

What would we have thought of Franklin Roosevelt if he had proposed that the solution to the Great Depression was to set up a million one-armed bandits all across the United States to “raise public revenues” at the very moment that people were plunging into financial despair? Yet nearly a million for more sophisticated and dangerous machines have already been scattered around our nation today.

What should we think that after a decade of casino capitalism in which our savings were destroyed by the equivalent of high tech slots on Wall Street our leaders are proposing to hurl many of our brothers and sisters into even deeper financial ruin?

What are we thinking when, after telling our teens to work hard and to save, we encourage them to slide effortlessly from the video games of their youth to the tens of thousands of video slot machines and video lottery terminals that they are planning right now to drop all across this state?

Do not be deceived. This is not about fun or free choice.

This is not about social gambling, or playing poker with your friends, or having an office pool over basketball.

This is the deliberate exploitation of poor and middle-income people dressed up as fiscal salvation.

Gambling is our modern golden calf. Our dance around it is the idolatry of “something for nothing.” Slot machine manufacturers are like 1950s cigarette companies. They are lying about the addictive nature of their product, even as they exploit the research showing how the lights and sounds and near-misses of slots cause our brains to emit the euphoria inducing neuro-transmitter of dopamine. This is why a national commission called these devices the “crack cocaine” of gambling.

The actual phrase that the slot industry uses for what they hope will happen is that a person will “play to extinction,” that is, will drain their financial assets. These machines are reverse ATMs, designed to remove money from your account as fast as you can push a button. Many addicts – including young people – now rely on adult diapers so that they don’t have to get up from a “hot” machine.

This is a sleeper social justice issue, and today I am asking you to wake up. I know that at St. James we are busy with many challenges – real challenges, worthy challenges — to serve the hungry and to help prisoners, to rebuild our space and to save our planet and to remember, and always to remember to love our neighbors as ourselves. But if we do not awaken to this danger in time, isn’t it also true that our food lines will grow longer, our prisons fuller, and our democracy more vulnerable to its addiction to the golden calf?

I started this sermon on a light note, about wallets and car keys and cleaning the junk out of our houses. What Jesus told us is that sometimes the junk in our collective life gets piled so high that the divine light by which we are intended to see each our begins to falter, and we are at risk of losing what we most value about our communities.

In Lent we are called to examine our lives, in peace if possible, in godly grief if necessary, and then to follow Jesus. We are to follow even unto to the contemporary courtyards of power, right up to the tables of flashing lights and spinning dials of the mechanical moneychangers.

They are deceptive and cruel.

They are immoral and unjust.

And it is our responsibility – acting with the humility and the strength that only the Spirit can provide – to insure that they are swiftly overturned.



Jonah and the “Wail”: The Prophet as Coward, Doomsayer, or Fool

In Theology and Spirituality on February 19, 2009 at 1:41 pm

As someone who has spent a good part of my life trying to rouse others to tackle unwelcome new challenges, I have a special love for the Book of Jonah. It is one of the shortest in Scripture – only four chapters long. It is simple enough to be told as a bedtime story, sly enough to be recounted as humor.

It also has a profound spiritual side, not only for people wounded by the divine compulsion to speak out about the destructive consequences of human behavior – the deepest meaning of the word “prophet” – but also for anyone who needs greater instruction (as we all do) in the meaning and practice of humility. What we do know about the story of Jonah? Generally not too much. We might remember that early in his travels he was swallowed by a “big fish”, or, as it is usually translated, a whale.

Once released into human culture this story, as they would say in Hollywood, had legs. Jesus made passing reference to it in the gospel of Matthew. The concept made into the story of Pinnochio. The Maine children’s author Robert McCloskey, who wrote Make Way for Ducklings, penned a book about the early 20th century Maine sea-faring man Burt Dow (someone I actually knew as a very little boy). The real Dow told the story of being out in his fishing dory and hooking a whale who towed him all the way out to sea. McCloskey expanded on the story and threw him down the whale’s throat for dramatic effect. Then, for good measure, the good people at Pixar poured Marlin, the fish-father in Finding Nemo, down yet another whale gullet. There’s some deep and memorable archetype at work here.

But few stop to ask: why was Jonah swallowed by the whale?

Because, the story suggests, he was being disobedient – or cowardly. He was running away from what he was supposed to be doing.

So let me review the story in brief: God notices that the people of the great city of Nineveh (modern day Mosul in Iraq) are behaving badly. He summons Jonah, an Israelite prophet, to go there and preach that unless they change their ways, bad things will happen to them. Jonah listens to this request, ponders the idea of heading eastward toward Nineveh, and then chooses instead to do exactly the opposite – to head west on a ship towards Spain. Enter the prophet as coward.

During the voyage a storm arises and the sailors suspect that the tempest might be evidence of God’s displeasure with their passenger, so they throw him overboard. The whale swallows Jonah both to save him from drowning and to give him some time to reconsider his destination. After Jonah has spent three uncomfortable days in the dark, grumbling and praying, the whale vomits him up on to dry land.

At this point, the soaked, wrinkled, and grumpy prophet having apparently having learned his lesson heads back in the direction he was supposed to go, that is to the city of Nineveh. As soon as he arrives he marches up and down the streets of the city, predicting that unless the king and everyone else stops cold in their tracks, expresses regret for their behavior, and mends their ways, they are going to be wiped out. Nineveh was large for its time – the Bible makes clear that it took “three days” to walk from one side to other. One can imagine the popularity of this angry foreigner, who smelled like old fish, as he stomped up and down, denouncing everyone and everything, and predicting that soon the whole town was going to be obliterated. As he did so, he fulfilled the second unattractive choice open to the prophet: the doomsayer.

Whether in Biblical times or today, people don’t usually embrace prophets. Most people are busy, tired, and defensive, and they don’t like to be told that they are doing anything wrong. As a result, prophets are usually ignored, laughed at, run out of town, or stoned to death. This accounts for that initial impulse towards cowardice.

In the book of Jonah, however, there is an unexpected plot twist: the people of the city actually listen to him. They come to believe that they are in immediate danger of destruction, and they take instant corrective action. The king himself announces that he will immediately begin a fast and changes into scratchy and unfashionable sackcloth. He insists that all his nobles and people do the same. They all promise to discontinue their thoughtless ways and they humbly ask God not to obliterate the city from the face of the earth. Watching this display of contrition, God is impressed and informs Jonah that this display of repentance is sufficient. Nineveh will be spared. Everyone is happy — God, the king, and all the residents. Everyone, that is, except Jonah.

The next twist in the story reveals the deeply human insight of some parts of the Bible. In a Disney film the townspeople would have carried Jonah off on their shoulders. There would have been a feast and fireworks and praise. Jonah would have smiled and said modestly that he had really done nothing – the appreciation should go to the people for their wise and mature actions and to God for God’s divine mercy. And after all the back-slapping and expressions of relief, everyone would have gone home and lived happily ever after.

But the Bible has a much more realistic view of human behavior. Jonah is not pleased that God has changed course, because, from Jonah’s standpoint, God has made Jonah look like an idiot. Day after day, the prophet had loudly foretold the downfall of Nineveh. He had endured – we can imagine — dismay, defiance, derision, and outright danger. Nonetheless, he had persisted. After all that hard work, his predictions turned out to be flat wrong. First, Jonah had fled as a coward. Then he reluctantly became a doomsayer. Now he had been proven a fool.

Jonah’s reaction to God’s mercy is both sharply comical and psychologically revealing. He stomps up to the top of an overlooking mountain, hoping against hope that God will go ahead with the original plan and reduce the city to rubble. To us – and apparently to God – Jonah’s massively self-centered ego is ridiculous, even offensive. But to Jonah this is no laughing matter: I didn’t want to come, I didn’t want to do this, and now, at the very least, I should be proven right.

Instead of arguing with Jonah, God discovers a means of revealing the absurdity of his fury. As Jonah waits beneath the throbbing Iraqi sun, sweating and swearing as he awaits the fulfillment of his prediction, a tall plant grows up to give Jonah a little shade. Jonah is delighted with the plant – finally, something is going right! Then, equally quickly, the plant dies, and Jonah again vents his anger at God. Why did you kill of this plant, which was helping me? God’s ironic answer comes shooting straight back. Let me get this straight: you pity a plant that has been in existence for less than twenty-four hours, and you think it is wrong for me to have destroyed it, yet you have no sympathy for a huge city of more than 120,000 confused and ignorant human beings, some of whom, as the Hebrew scripture memorably puts it, don’t even “know their right hand from their left?”

The story stops right there, with the question hanging in the air, a brilliant punchline. Every listener had a lesson to take away and ponder.

But there is an implied, though unspoken additional question, one which in our day and age we made need to make explicit. The question to Jonah – and to us – might be expressed in this manner: is your self-importance, is your self-identity, is your lack of compassion so great that you would rather be right than that others would be forgiven?

Buried in the children’s story, in the ancient and slightly mocking tale lies one of the most important moral and political questions for any individual and for any society in any age. It strikes in every direction, at every form of hard-heartedness.

We can see how the story points most particularly at the problem of prophet: are you willing to risk being seen as a coward (if you choose to do nothing); or being shunned (for speaking out against something unpopular); or being proven wrong? This is a real risk for anyone foolish or pig-headed enough – as I have sometimes been – to point out distressing facts about the world. Human moral somnolence and inertia are powerful forces. It is for this reason that Jesus, in his prophetic role, spoke in frustration and wonderment at people who have “eyes but they do not see, ears but they do not hear.”

Over the last three or four decades I have seen people resist the prophetic word. I have done so myself.

I observed the blind eye which conservatives turned toward human rights violations in Central America because such authoritarian regimes suited America’s need for allies against Communism. I have also witnessed the left’s refusal to listen to or speak of the brutalities of Castro’s Cuba or Soviet tyranny.

I remember how hard it was to get anyone to care about a distant country in which whites who made up only 10% of the population exercised absolute political and economic control over the 90% black majority.

I recall how bored and impatient or angry people became when early advocates raised the possibility of planetary damage because carbon dioxide emissions might lead to something called “climate change.” And how resistant Wall Street was to thinking about sustainability, because they were certain that if something were truly important they would already have taken it into account.

Today I am battling the skepticism and fatigue – all understandable — of people who are so busy with the problems of today that they have little room for concern about tomorrow. So I am constantly pondering my own sometimes unattractive prophetic choices: should I become a coward, doomsayer, or fool? Often I plunge ahead anyway, hoping that if I am headed in the wrong direction, a whale will redirect me.

Right this minute I am sounding the alarm about how intensive neurological research is being used to entrap and fleece the poor through gambling addiction. Companies that design and build slot machines are like 21st century cigarette companies, exploring the profit potential of technological heroin and selling it to state legislatures – and poor people — as a solution to their financial problems. But the awareness of such abuses – and the necessary public outrage to stop them – is not yet common.

Even as I pursue something like this, I know that there are many topics – too many – that I shamefully ignore, unconsciously mimicking the priest on the road to Jericho who is too busy and self-important to notice all those who are lying beaten by the side of road.

I can tell sometimes, as I launch into another litany of concerns – blurting out a statistic in the middle of a dinner party or depositing some stark fact among the chirpy exclamations on Facebook – that I am at risk of running down my own Jonah-like pathway of coward, doomsayer, or fool. I would just as soon not bring this up. And I would, on balance, prefer people to like me. And I have no desire to be shown as having sounded a false alarm. The intensity of the prophetic life is such that I recognize – even as I describe it here that — I might also be tempted to want to be proven right rather than be laughed at as a person who worries and cares just a bit too much.

The story of Jonah, as powerful as it is for the person tempted to the arduous path of prophecy, also contains a caution for others who, in stating their views with self-confidence, might be looking for recognition of their superiority.

It asks of the harsh fundamentalist: are you so sure that you understand the inner nature of God that you can state with complete certainty that two people of the same gender cannot be married?

It asks of the smug economist: are you so convinced of the universality of self-interest that you feel it necessary to make light of the transformative power of self-sacrificial love and forgiveness?

It asks of the confident rationalist: are you so well informed about the nature of a universe stocked with billions upon billions of yet-to-be revealed secrets that you can affirm with absolute conviction that we are the highest form of consciousness ever to have existed or currently existing in the entire cosmos?

It asks of the romantic idealist: are you so persuaded that the studious avoidance of unhappy thoughts, the awkward denial of discomfort, the breezy superficiality of modern culture are a credible match for the ancient and ever-present realities of grief, evil, and death?

The story of Jonah is one of the great literary accomplishments of the human race, for in four short chapters in teaches us both the necessity and the dangers of prophetic courage, it laughs at our foibles, even as it unlocks our hearts.

In short, it gives us more than enough to ponder if we ever find ourselves with a little extra time in the belly of a dark whale.

Borrowing Words: Some Thoughts on Oral Tradition in Advance of Obama’s Speech

In Politics on January 15, 2009 at 3:08 pm

I have not read Barack Obama’s inaugural speech, which still lies a few days in the future, but I am confident that it will enter the pantheon of top ten inaugural addresses.   

And it will do this not only because he – and his team – will find wonderful and evocative new phrases, but because his speech will also resonate with old rhythms and references.  We will find ourselves moved not only because he will point us forward, but because he will also reach back in order to strike the mystic chords of memory deep in the American mind.

Sound at all familiar?

Most of those who love U.S. history will know already I borrowed the words of one President to compliment another.   Whose?  Lincoln’s – from the final sentence of his first inaugural address. 

We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory …will yet swell the chorus of the Union….

So – today’s question – was I plagiarizing Lincoln or was I relying on our common knowledge of the mighty code that shapes our national values and political culture?

The press always seems horrified when one person – particular a politician, who is assumed to be a hypocrite — is found to be using someone’s else words.   I understand the elementary moral logic of this – don’t steal someone else’s property.   But sometimes we all seem to lose control of the concept.   

Both Barack Obama and Joe Biden have been through the mill of criticism on the use of other’s words.

When Barack Obama was criticized for his elevated rhetoric during his campaign, he turned around and rebutted the attacks with quotations from various major pieces of American literature, lightly mocking the idea that words were not important in and of themselves.

We hold these truths to be self-evident… just words.”  Ask not what your country can do for you, but you can do for your country … just words.” 

The problem for Obama was that this particularly brilliant formulation had originated not with him, but with Deval Patrick, our governor here in Massachusetts, a warm and wonderful speaker in his own right.   Patrick had invented and used the exact same phrasing several times towards the end of his campaign for governor of Massachusetts in 2006.   I heard Patrick myself roll out the phrases in a speech at Powderhouse Park in Somerville during the summer of that campaign.  

People attacked Obama for using Patrick’s words, even though Obama and Patrick are close friends, Patrick wanted him to use them, and Obama had inadvertently slipped – through the tedium of repetition — from carefully attributing the phrases to Patrick to simply using them.

Some will remember that when Joe Biden ran for President in 1988 he was forced to withdraw from the race after plagiarizing Neil Kinnock.   David Greenberg, writing in Salon at the end of August in 2008, put it this way

Biden’s downfall began when his aides alerted him to a videotape of the British Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock, who had run unsuccessfully against Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The tape showed Kinnock delivering a powerful speech about his rise from humble roots. Taken by the performance, Biden adapted it for his own stump speech. Biden, after all, was the son of a car salesman, a working-class kid made good. Kinnock’s material fit with the story he was trying to sell.

Greenberg goes on to attack Biden for other instances of plagiarism and uses these examples to question whether he had adequately been vetted.

I have been a university professor and I know that the unattributed use of others’ work is a serious problem, especially in the age of the Internet.  I am also the son of two authors who have made their livings carving sentences out of thin air – and who have both been plagiarized at different times.  So I don’t view it lightly.

At the same time, I am a preacher.  A good many of the words I have delivered in public have been expositions of other people’s words – most notably those of Jesus.  And I am mindful that in Jesus’ day and age, most people could not read and so the primary medium for communication was the spoken word.  And the more memorable that spoken word was, the better. 

Indeed, the gospels record the words and actions of Jesus preserved in the memories, compiled in different ways and different times, by people who had heard what Jesus had said.   Thus we have Jesus in Luke saying “Blessed are the poor” and in Matthew saying “Blessed are in poor in spirit.”

One major cultural transition that we have undergone is that many people no longer understand references to Biblical stories and language.  This gap allowed Mark Gerson to write skillful references into George Bush’s speeches that could be heard by religious conservatives as references to Christian hymns and scripture, while those same comments swept past other Americans unnoticed.

But this gap also makes for real confusion.

Quick – who said: “a house divided against itself cannot stand”?   Most people would say Lincoln.   And it’s true.  But he was quoting Jesus.

And who said: “Let justice roll down waters”?   Martin Luther King.  Yes, but he was quoting the prophet Amos.

And (for extra credit) who said “some people see things that are and ask ‘“why?”  I see things that never were and ask: “why not?’”  Bobby Kennedy?   Correct – but he was quoting George Bernard Shaw.

The media confusion that can build up about this is quite amusing.   The most loopy example of hysteria came this past summer from right-wing-absurdist-artist-cum-anchorman Steve Doocy, who accused Barack Obama of quoting Mario Cuomo “practically verbatim.”    On June 17, Jon Stewart brilliantly satirized Doocy’s looniness by putting up the two supposedly matching quotes and identifying that they shared exactly three words: “of”, “to”, and “we.”

But let’s take a look at a real string of verbal tradition.   Mario Cuomo’s 1984 Democratic convention address is considered one of the greatest American speeches of the late 20th century.  This is an excerpt:

Ten days ago,  President Reagan admitted that although some people in this country seemed to be doing well nowadays, others were unhappy, even worried, about themselves, their families, and their futures. The President said that he didn’t understand that fear. He said, “Why, this country is a shining city on a hill.” And the President is right. In many ways we are a shining city on a hill….

Mr. President … the hard truth is that not everyone is sharing in this city’s splendor and glory. A shining city is perhaps all the President sees from the portico of the White House and the veranda of his ranch, where everyone seems to be doing well. But there’s another city; there’s another part to the shining the city; the part where some people can’t pay their mortgages, and most young people can’t afford one; where students can’t afford the education they need, and middle-class parents watch the dreams they hold for their children evaporate.

Cuomo was attacking Reagan’s use of the “city on the hill” imagery.  Reagan, in turn,  was quoting John Winthrop’s speech on board the Arabella before he landed in Massachusetts in 1630.   And Winthrop was in turn quoting the Sermon on the Mount – thus, again, Jesus.

This is not plagiarism.  This is a cultural conversation over several centuries.   In holding a conversation within such a community, we rely on shared knowledge that is rooted in phrases and stories.   That’s one reason comedy is so hard to translate – to appreciate a joke, we often have to understand the rich context in which it sits.

The problem of drawing the line between plagiarism and oral tradition is particularly acute when it comes to telling stories.  When I heard that Donald Neale Walsh had been criticized for using someone else’s touching story about a Christmas pageant, I thought, “uh oh, that sounds bad.” 

But then I realized that I tell dozens of stories of unknown origin.  I don’t say that they happened to me.   But I can no longer remember exactly where I heard them.

Indeed, when I first started preaching more than two decades ago I realized that I desperately needed good stories to spice up my thin theological perspectives.  So I began to collect anecdotes.  When I heard a good tale, I wrote it down.  And being an earnest scholar, I often tried to record the source.  Often that was unsatisfying.   I had heard the story on the radio.  I had heard someone tell it at a dinner party.  I had read it in a waiting room in a doctor’s office.

As I told the stories over the years, I gradually reshaped them.  I figured out what moved people, where the emphasis should lie, how the punch-line should be framed.  And, in doing so, many of these stories became like old friends who I can bring forward and introduce to new people.   Yet through years of doing this, I know no longer remember how to attribute them. 

And the truth is that no one, sitting at a dinner table, would want me to take the time  to share the detailed provenance of every anecdote or illustration.   It would look like – and be – pure pedantry.

Telling good stories is a waning art.  Abraham Lincoln was superb at it.   It would be a shame if people killed off this lovely form because they were anxious about being blamed for having told something that began somewhere else.  Almost everything begins somewhere else.  

Of course, I still follow a few rules.  I don’t say that things happened to me that did not take place.   I don’t quote people directly without attribution.   But I do make references – clumsy or clever, silly or sly – to things that other people have said, including people in the Bible or people in politics or even people in my own family.  This is how culture is created and passed on.  We share our words and our stories and pass them on to each other, across the oceans and down through the ages. 

There is nothing wrong, and much that is good, with that.


/\/\ END /\/\