The Greatest Commandment

May 24, 2016

As an anchor in my understanding of what God is asking of me, I turn often to the Bible passage often known as The Greatest Commandment. It’s told in three of the Gospels. Here’s the version from Matthew (22:34-40):

34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35 and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37 He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

There are also versions of this same story in Mark (12:28-34) and in Luke (10:25-28). For me, this story contains the distilled essence of Jesus’s teaching. Nevertheless, the more I look at the three versions, the more I am struck by the differences–and one element in common.

What leads up to the encounter? In Matthew, a group of Sadducees had been talking with Jesus, testing him, no doubt trying to trip him up. Then the Pharisees take up the questioning. Referring to the Mosaic requirement that a man marry his brother’s widow, they ask Jesus with which brother will the woman be reunited after the resurrection. In answering, Jesus scolds them telling them you “know neither the scriptures nor the power of God.” (Ouch.) Nearly the exact same story appears before the Greatest Commandment account in Mark. In the Luke version, there is no adversity. Jesus has been talking with the 70 he has appointed to “go on ahead of him, two by two.” He then has a private word with his disciples, telling them “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see.”

Who asks the question? In Matthew, it is a Pharisee who asks the question, and he is identified as a lawyer. In the Mark version, it is a scribe who asks and it is not clear that this scribe is a Pharisee (or a Sadducee); he is simply identified as one who heard Jesus disputing with others. In Luke, the questioner is identified as a lawyer. Presumably he must be one of the 70 since there were no lawyers among the disciples. The Sadducees and Pharisees are nowhere about.

Who answers the question? In Matthew the question is asked, and Jesus answers straightaway. In Mark, the scribe asks and Jesus answers, and the scribe responds that Jesus is right. After being praised, Jesus tells the man that he is “not far from the kingdom of God.” In Luke the answering and the praising is the other way around. Jesus turns the question back on the lawyer asking him “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” After the man answers, Jesus praises him, saying, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

Does it matter who asks the question and who answers it? Perhaps not. Does it matter whether Jesus told his interlocutor that he was “right” or that he was “not far from the kingdom of God?” Perhaps not, even if those don’t mean the same thing. Perhaps these are insignificant details in tellings of basically the same decisive story. Jesus is drawn into efforts by the Jewish authorities to show him up, and instead he deepens their understanding. Jesus adroitly sidesteps rank ordering the Ten Commandments by gathering their essential guidance into just two. I find the differences in what happens next more interesting.

What happens next? In Matthew, Jesus continues disputing with the Pharisees by posing a question to them: “What do you think of the Christ? Whose son is he?” In Mark, Jesus raises the same matter but asks a question: “How can the scribes say that Christ is the son of David?” He asks it while teaching in the Temple; apparently he has turned away from disputing with the Pharisees. Does that matter? Perhaps not.

In Luke, however, the dialog with the lawyer simply continues. Having said that one should love your neighbor as yourself, and having been told he was right, the lawyer asks Jesus, “who is my neighbor?” In response, Jesus tells a story, one of the most memorable and oft-discussed stories of the Gospels, the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 29-37). That story doesn’t appear in Matthew or Mark. I can’t help wondering why not. Surely anyone who had witnessed the encounter as described in Luke would have found that exchange fascinating and memorable. Any retelling would have included that story. So why didn’t Matthew or Mark include the parable of the Good Samaritan along with the Greatest Commandment? I don’t know. Perhaps the author of Luke drew that story from some other occasion and grafted it on to the encounter we know as the Greatest Commandment.

Who dares question Jesus? One other detail fascinates me about the Greatest Commandment accounts. Mark adds to his account, right after Jesus tells the scribe he was right, that “After that no one dared to ask him any question.” Matthew adds roughly the same sentence but puts it after the ensuing discussion with the Pharisees about who is the Christ. “No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.” And Luke? He does include this sentence, but not until ten chapters later (Luke 20: 27-40) when he tells the story that in Matthew immediately precedes the Greatest Commandment story, the exchange with the Sadducees about which brother will wind up with the wife after resurrection. In Luke’s account, Jesus does not rebuke them; rather one of them says, “Teacher, you have spoken well.” And Luke adds, “For they no longer dared to ask him any questions.”

We generally praise teachers for inviting and encouraging questions, and criticize teachers who shut down questions. That’s why this detail common to the three accounts—even if differently placed—fascinates me. Perhaps the gospel writers are trying to communicate that Jesus’s understanding was far beyond that of any mere human. Perhaps. But if that is so, what leads some of us to be so certain about the precise meaning of the details of Jesus’s teachings?

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Arguing for Shared Security in the NYTimes

May 5, 2016

I have a letter in today’s New York Times.  It’s title A New Foreign Policy Elite and responds to an op-ed piece yesterday by Evan Thomas (don’t know him) on Why We Need a Foreign Policy Elite.

The Times (as it does) edited my letter, largely by removing mention of Afghanistan/Iraq/Syria to the list of failings of the long-playing foreign policy elite we have.  They said Evan Thomas had noted that failing; I just don’t see that he did.  But I decided enough of my letter would survive that I wanted it published.  I wanted the occasion to say this:

Membership in that foreign policy elite requires unswerving commitment to the proposition that the United States must maintain overwhelming military superiority vis-à-vis the rest of the world. That commitment will bankrupt us while making us less and less secure.

And this:

We need a new foreign policy elite committed to seeking shared security in a partnership with other countries, one based in dignity and human rights, not unquestioned military might.

Of course I wouldn’t have used the word “elite” if I were writing my own piece, but a letter to the Times is a counter-punching opportunity.  I needed to stay somewhere in the frame that Evan Thomas provided.

I did want the term “Shared Security” to make it, and it did.  Shared Security is a Quaker view of U.S. foreign policy jointly produced by the American Friends Service Committee and Friends Committee on National Legislation.  I was one of many who helped launch that statement, and I’ve written about it before herehere, herehere, and here.

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What’s Wrong With “Christian Fiction”

April 14, 2016

Walking the shelves of my local library, I was surprised to find a label on a book that said “Christian Fiction.” It was just above the regular label that makes books findable in  the stacks.

christianfictionTopsham Public Library puts labels on fiction that say FIC, and then below that, again in caps, the first three initials of the author’s last name: JAM for a book by Marlon James that I’m reading now. Across the river, Brunswick Public Library puts  labels on fiction that say FIC, then below that the author’s last name, below that the author’s first name, and below that the first eight letters of the title.  That’s a little more detail, but it’s essentially the same idea.  Without these labels a library user would have a hard time finding a book.

The “Christian Fiction” label, with the image of the cross, is clearly meant for a different purpose.  It categorizes the book, and for certain readers calls it to their attention.  In a way, it recommends it.

genre labelsThis is a genre label, and I’m familiar with other such genre labels.  I regularly see books with similar stickers on them that say Mystery or Science Fiction or Western or Crime.  Some people stick predominantly to books in just one genre, and these labels help them find them.  Publishers, I gather, have begun marketing books under the genre label “Christian Fiction,” and library services companies have begun such selling spine labels.  Library patrons, I understand, ask for books in the genre.

I have no problem with a “Mystery” sticker or even one that says “Classic,” even if I think the book so labelled is no such thing.  So why does “Christian Fiction” give me pause?

One reason is that it has my public library recommending a book (yes, all such labels recommend) on a basis that I don’t think a public library should use. Another reason is that there is no corresponding label in use that says “Islamic Fiction” or “Jewish Fiction.” (I gather some libraries do label some books Jewish fiction, but not mine.)  These are reasons that go to the heart of the intellectual freedom issues with which libraries regularly wrestle.  The American Library Association provides professional guidance for librarians on such matters.  Here’s what the ALA says in recommending that public libraries not use labels like “Christian Fiction:”

What are examples for determining whether a genre label is a viewpoint-neutral directional aid or a prejudicial label?

Fiction genre labels such as romance, mystery, and science fiction are used by many libraries as viewpoint-neutral direction aids. While there may be some differences of opinion about which titles fit within specific genre areas, the choice of genre is viewpoint-neutral and does not suggest moral or doctrinal endorsement. On the other hand, some public libraries label Christian fiction with a cross as a symbol. This practice, especially when other religious fiction is not designated, communicates a message of preference for Christianity, a violation of the separation of church and state that is prohibited by the establishment clause of First Amendment as well as the Library Bill of Rights. People of all persuasions and traditions have sincere, heartfelt concerns when their government addresses religious issues, fundamentally different from an interest as to whether a library item bears a “Mystery” or “Western” sticker. In recognition of this, some libraries seek to avoid entanglement with religion by using a label to identify “inspirational fiction”, including material that does not have religious-based content. As long as both the selection of materials to be so labeled and the label used are viewpoint-neutral and inclusive, this practice would not violate the Library Bill of Rights.

The most important reason I don’t like the practice is something different, and it goes to the question of what those who use the label mean by “Christian Fiction.” Genres have rules that authors need to respect (not necessarily follow slavishly) to make a book count as belonging in the genre.  Here’s one list of the genre rules of “Christian Fiction:”

Rules :
1. Accept the infallible authority of the Bible
2. Addresses life’s dilemmas through faith in Jesus
3. Believing that Jesus is divine, died, and rose again for the sins of humankind and will return again.
4. No profanity, sex, or extraneous violence
5. Characters do not have to be Christian in the beginning, but will be by the end.

I have no problem with someone writing a book that adheres to those rules. I have no problem with a publisher selling such a book or with a library acquiring it.  But I do object to a public library affixing a label that says “this is what it means to be Christian.”  The genre label hijacks the word “Christian” for a very particular understanding of what it means to be “Christian.”

No, I don’t think you have to believe in the infallible authority of the Bible to be a Christian. No, I don’t think you have to avoid reading about “profanity, sex or extraneous violence” to be a Christian. (I wonder, have those who promote the label read the Bible? Do they know how much profanity, sex and extraneous violence it contains?)  And there’s a creed implicit in those rules: I don’t think you need to accept a creed to be a Christian.

I don’t want my library to be subtly coaching people about what it means to be a Christian, and that’s what this genre label does.

also posted on QuakerQuaker

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The Gist of Quakerism

April 13, 2016

Chuck Fager has been running a series of Quaker FAQs to provide an introduction to Quakerism.  Of course he knows people disagree about such matters, but Chuck has a gift for plain speaking and he thinks his plainspoken FAQs might help people (even, or especially Friends) understand Quakerism better.  He’s now up to the sixth installment in the series, which in turn are collected into a booklet.

I’m enjoying the series, but I was intrigued by this item that leads the sixth installment:

Q. Can You Sum Up Quakerism In Only Two Paragraphs?
(Yes. Here goes.)

About 360 years ago in England, God had an idea. He (or She) wanted a group of people to come together and do some special pieces of God’s work, in some particular ways. So when a man named George Fox climbed up a place called Pendle Hill, God called to him and showed him that there was “a great people to be gathered” there, to do that particular work, in those particular ways.

That “people” or group was the Religious Society of Friends, the Quakers. It appeared because God gathered it, to do some particular work, in the particular ways we’re supposed to do it. (What we call the Testimonies are part of this work; but only part.) We’re not done yet, and God’s not done with us, and that’s why Quakers are still around.

Fager takes Quakerism to be a movement: a gathering of people for a purpose that continues to the present day.  I understand why he can see it that way, and I know he isn’t alone in seeing Quakerism in that way.  But it isn’t how I see Quakerism.

The gist of Quakerism for me lies in its being a particular spiritual discipline, a particular approach to knowing God.

I work from the assumption that all who seek God are seeking the same God, whoever or whatever God is.  God is hard to know so people come up with different understandings. That’s awkward, but that is the way it is.  Efforts to simplify knowing God lead regularly to trouble.  That’s my principal beef with fundamentalisms of all kind: they think they’ve got it all figured out.  Because God is difficult to know, people have different approaches or practices to help them.  Because people are different, I don’t see any point in insisting that there is just one best way to know God.

The Mass works well for some people. Monastic life works well for a few. Hymn singing is essential for some.  Fasting, the Labyrinth, sacred dance, Bible reading, even community suppers: all these work for some.

This is the clearest understanding I have (also the most generous) for why people divide into different religious groups even if everyone is seeking the same God.

For me, gathering with others in waiting worship is best for me.  Too many prescribed, ‘authoritative’ words from others tend to drive me away. I need a more active approach, and I prefer silence (at least my own) to saying things that call forth my doubts.  Too much ritual is not good for me as a steady diet, though I find occasional doses quite moving.  I find that waiting worship in Quaker meeting.  That’s my discipline, my approach.

Underneath any spiritual discipline is a hunch about why it works — when and to the degree it does work.  For me, that hunch implicit in waiting worship is that God is still wanting to speak to us, still has more to say; we have to still ourselves and listen. We can do this by ourselves, but joined in community we can do better, hear more and more clearly.

Are those Quaker meetings that have turned to pastoral form a break with this core spiritual discipline? (I am a member of such a meeting.)  I don’t think so, especially if they still provide a significant place for waiting worship.

The practice of waiting worship: that’s the gist of Quakerism for me.  It’s important to add that I’ll worship in community with anyone who wants to try the same approach to knowing God.  I don’t need them to agree with me about the gist of Quakerism.

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Claude Monet, Vétheuil in Winter

April 7, 2106


This is in the Frick Museum, where I recently had the pleasure of an hour. The river is the Seine. Monet lived in Vétheuil from 1878 to 1881 and painted about 150 pictures there, many of them including the river.

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Who, Me?

January 18, 2016

It is Martin Luther King Day and I am thinking about how difficult it is to know our own worst capabilities.

I’ve been thinking about an experience in the 1980s. I was living near a Quaker day school that had an ugly, racist incident. The school community awoke one day to find a large surface on the school grounds had been painted with unquestionably racist graffiti. There were KKK-robed figures, there was an African-African head with a bullet traveling through it, there was the ‘N-word’, and there was much more all on display. It took until noon for those responsible to be identified, all seniors at the school, and for them to be expelled for having violated school values the students had known for many years were defining of the school community. Let’s call those 24 hours between the painting and the expulsion of those responsible the Phase I of this incident.

Phase II lasted months longer. This was the push-back from the parents of the expelled students and from their friends and supporters who opposed the severity of the punishment. They pressed hard against the schools’ administrators and board of trustees to reverse the expulsion and to allow the seniors to graduate. In the end, the school stood firm, and those responsible graduated from nearby public high schools, not the Quaker school.

At first I was flabbergasted by the push-back. Surely the parents could see that what their children had done was wrong. Surely they could see that the students were old enough to be responsible for their actions. I could understand parents defending their children and wanting to protect them from harm, but even more I could see that minimizing the gravity of this incident would do their children even more harm.

As the weeks passed, I came to realize something else. For the parents to acknowledge the ugly racism of the graffiti-painting incident, the parents would have to acknowledge their own responsibility for the deeds. They would have to acknowledge that their own households, the ones in which these students had grown up, incubated and nurtured these ugly sentiments. (As the Rogers and Hammerstein song in South Pacific has it, ‘you’ve got to carefully taught:’

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught!

The parents, I realized, weren’t just defending their children, they were defending themselves; they were defending their own conception of themselves as well meaning and good.

And thus I learned something else: that one of the sturdiest faces of racism is denial.

I have come to accept that I have ugly impulses within me. Some of these I have been taught (likely by well-meaning people) and some arise from my own deep well of selfishness. I know this about myself. Who, me? Yes, it can be me. And so I know, too, that I need to put continuous effort into overcoming these ugly impulses. This is a large part of what leads me to prayer and waiting worship in the manner of Friends. It can be me, but it doesn’t have to be so.

I’ve been thinking about this ‘who, me?’ predicament (this tendency within us all to deny our worst impulses) as I try to understand the stalemate over gun policy in the United States.

Perhaps it’s like this. There many gun owners in the United States, and they know – they are certain — that they would never use their gun to do anything cruel or deadly to another person. It’s beyond comprehension. They can’t imagine what they might do in a moment of despair or fear even as they read daily news stories about shooting after shooting. They may not say it over think it, but deep down they believe ‘that’s not me; that’s nothing I would ever do.’ And so any move to regulate or restrict gun ownership appears to them as questioning their goodness. Each such urging for gun control gives rise to a powerful personal denial

Who, me?

Yes, me. We need to begin by acknowledging that we have ugly impulses, each and every one of us.

Also posted on QuakerQuaker.

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War Has Been Given a Bad Name

December 27, 2015

War Has Been Given A Bad Name
By Bertold Brecht

I am told that the best people have begun saying
How, from a moral point of view, the Second World War
Fell below the standard of the First. The Wehrmacht
Allegedly deplores the methods by which the SS effected
The extermination of certain peoples. The Ruhr industrialists
Are said to regret the bloody manhunts
Which filled their mines and factories with slave workers. The Intellectuals
So I heard, condemn industry’s demand for slave workers
Likewise their unfair treatment. Even the bishops
Dissociate themselves from this way of waging war; in short
The feeling
Prevails in every quarter that the Nazis did the Fatherland
A lamentably bad turn, and that war
While in itself natural and necessary, has, thanks to the
Unduly uninhibited and positively inhuman
Way in which it was conducted on this occasion, been
Discredited for some time to come.


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