Friday, April 7, 2017

Air Strikes, Beatitudes & Bob Dylan


After I had finished my forty days in the wilderness, I felt compelled to spend the month of April meditating on, praying and finding ways to live out in my daily life the Beatitudes. How can I be poor in spirit, meek, hunger and thirst for righteousness, merciful, pure in heart, and a peacemaker as I go about my routine, interacting with others, being a husband and a Papa, being a neighbor and friend and coworker. How do the Beatitudes effect how I interact with strangers? How can I live out these teachings of Christ without my even saying a word? How do the Beatitudes effect how I treat a cashier at a grocery store? Or a slow driver in front of me? Or someone I disagree with politically?

It's challenging. The Beatitudes cut to the heart. It gets to a person's motivations and asks, quite pointedly, "Why are you doing what you're doing?" 

When I began to undertake spending a month focusing solely on the passages of scripture known as the Sermon on the Mount in the gospel of Matthew, I did not know the direction our country would take, in regards to Syria. For years my  heart has been broken by the war and atrocities committed against the Syrian people by it's own leader. I have been even more discouraged by the indifference the world has taken to the Syrian people's suffering. It is paralyzing to watch this tragedy unfold and to see people in my own country have such distrust and hatred towards Syrian refugees. I kept hearing the word "terrorists" used in regards to them despite the fact that refugees are fleeing terrorists and terror. No one willingly risks their lives and the lives of their families to get into small rubber rafts to brave oceans to flee to a foreign land if what they were fleeing wasn't far worse a fate. 

And then our President approved air strikes against Syria after its leader, Bashar al-Assad, used chemical weapons against his own people. While I want this war criminal stopped, I am always hesitant to endorse war. "Blessed are the peacemakers," Christ proclaimed and yet we seem deaf to his words thousands of years later.

Nowhere does Christ say, "Blessed are the" violent, the strong, the oppressive, the domineering. Yet how does one respond to such horrific human rights violations and still choose mercy, love, grace, and peace. How can I be peaceful in a country that worships the idols of nationalism and militarism? In a country whose consumerism spills over into its militarism so that war is big business and there is money to be made with weapons?  War tends to unify people, frightening as that truth is. Just look at how bloodthirsty we were for revenge after the attacks on 9/11.

I must admit, as I watched those towers collapse, after the horrors that preceded it, I don't know that I was praying, as Saint Francis did, "Make me an instrument of your peace."


On his 1963 album The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, Dylan recorded the song "Masters of War." Dylan is both a poet and a prophet. His songs have had a huge impact on my own theology. "Masters of War" was written in response to the Cold War and would gain even more impact with the Vietnam War. It is a harsh, cold and unforgiving song. Unlike so many of his other recordings, this one does not bear out hope. And it was, after hearing this song, that I came to, "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy."

For those who might be unfamiliar with "Masters of War" it begins:

Come you masters of war
You that build all the guns
You that build the death planes
You that build the big bombs
You that hide behind walls
You that hide behind desks

As I'm listening to Dylan sing these lyrics, it reminded me, not of the Sermon on the Mount, but Christ's Sermon on the Plain (in Luke 6) in which Jesus not only proclaims the "Blessed are" that we are familiar with in the Beatitudes, but the "Woe to you." Dylan's song sounds like a "Woe to you." 

Jesus warned:

But woe unto you that are rich! for you have received your consolation
Woe unto you that are full! for ye shall hunger.
Woe unto you that laugh now!  for ye shall mourn and weep.
Woe unto you when all men shall speak well of you! for
so did their fathers to the false prophets.

Both Dylan and Christ are warning them, "I just want you to know / I can see through your masks."

It is a strange tension and paradox to carry within myself the lyrics to that song while reading the Beatitudes before silently meditating on them, especially in the context of this air strike on Syria and what it means in terms of our relations to not only that country, but Russia. Where will this end? 

I pray that we do not find ourselves entering into yet another war. 

Dylan sings:

Like Judas of old
You lie and deceive
A world war can be won
You want me to believe

Whenever we respond in violence, we are choosing the way of Cain over the way of Christ. "Those who live by the sword," Jesus warned and yet we seem to shrug it off as if to say, "But Jesus you just don't understand the way the world works." He does, but, more importantly, he understands the way the kingdom of God works. The Beatitudes are not a checklist of personal requirements for holiness, but a way of living in order that on earth as it is in heaven can come about. Christ is never referring to some far off kingdom, but the kingdom of God is meant to be lived out here on earth and the only way we can even begin to start is by following "Thy kingdom come" with "Thy will be done." Thy will is the Beatitudes. 

The Beatitudes are a vision of the age and the age to come. It is Christ saying, "The world is not supposed to be this way. No, I will show you how it is meant to be lived out. And it's not the way your leaders and priests have taught you. It is not about propping up a political and economic system that favors the wealthy, makes money off of killing, uses might to promote self-interest and empire." 

I understand all that, Lord, but how do I live that? Practically speaking, how do I, in my day to day life, live out your words?  How do I not join in the chanting of our cause is just and, instead, pursue the justice of the kingdom. A justice that favors the poor, the meek, the merciful, the peacemakers, the marginalized, the suffering, the brokenhearted, the mournful, the exhausted, the forgotten, the sojourner, the refugee. It's all well and good to proclaim that I believe all of this, but it means absolutely nothing if I am not living it out. 

But how?

"Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy."

The Hebrew word for mercy is rachum. It means full of compassion, full of mercy.  Mercy is used again and again to describe God's dealings with humanity. Mercy is the foundation for God's covenant with man. God's mercy is unfailing and endless. 

How do I show that mercy, that compassion to others? 

"Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful."

Prior to that statement, Christ is telling us to love our enemies. "Love thy enemies" was the most quoted verse in the early Church and it grew exponentially. Why? Because the Church's true power was in that very theology. It is only when the Church sought out power, especially politically, that it lost it's true strength. Whenever the Church strays from the Beatitudes, from the way of Christ, we find that it goes in the way of Caesar, of Pharaoh. This can be seen in many of our religious leaders today.

Power comes not from violence, but from a love that transforms, as violence cannot, an enemy into a brother. Only love can do that.

Yet that does not address my question. That is not what I am pondering and struggling with right now, in this moment in time, in my own life. No, if there is to be peace in this world may it begin with me.

How do I honestly and truly live out being merciful to others, especially my enemies? This is not a natural reaction, but a spiritual one. This can only come about through the divine presence and guidance of the Holy Spirit.  

I, by nature, tend to respond to such violent aggression and acts of war as Dylan did in his song:

How much do I know
To talk out of turn
You might say that I'm young
But there's one thing I know
Though I'm younger than you
Even Jesus would never
Forgive what you do

Yet I know that last line is untrue. Thankfully and mercifully untrue. I know from my own life, that he extends mercy and forgiveness even when I do not deserve it. Infinite mercy. Infinite love. Infinite compassion. Infinite forgiveness. Those are the realities of who Christ is. It is also meant to be the reality that shapes my own and how I am to live and relate to the world around me.

If I do not know inner peace, then I cannot work for peace in the world around me. To know that inner peace, I must be living and abiding in the Prince of Peace. Thomas Merton wisely wrote, "We are not at peace with others because we are not at peace with ourselves, and we are not at peace with ourselves because we are not at peace with God."

When I am at peace with God, I am at peace with myself and then I can be at peace with my brother and sister around me.

This morning, as I'm reflecting on this passage from Matthew 5, I took my car in to the shop to be serviced. They had a TV on with the news and coverage of the air strike and political reaction. As I'm watching clips of the missiles being shot from the battleships, I kept repeating, "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy." And I was praying, "Help me to be merciful, that I might receive mercy." Over and over again. When my car was finished and after I'd paid, I went out to get in my car when an older African-American woman called out to me, "Can you give me some money to buy something to eat?" 

The shop was right next to a fast food place, so I said, "Come on, let's go get you something to eat." 

I walked with her over to the fast food joint and she talked about herself, about her son who is in the military and her father who had died and her estranged mother, and she began to pour out her life story to me over a simple breakfast of eggs, sausage, a biscuit and a cup of coffee. I paid for her meal and listened to her story. It was a rambling, often incoherent one. I don't know if she was on drugs or was mentally off, but it did not matter in that moment. What mattered was, "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy." This meal was mercy to her. From the way she wolfed down her food it was obvious that she was hungry. But what surprised her wasn't that I bought her breakfast but that I sat at the table and listened to her. "There is folks that will give me money," she said, "but I can't remember the last time that they bought me food and then sat with me and listened to me." Tears welled up in her eyes. "Why would you do that?"

There are many people who might ask me the same question. And they have over the years. Yet it is in such small acts of mercy, of love, of compassion that I most often find Christ. All of the people he "blessed" in the Beatitudes are the ones we neglect. They aren't the wealthy and powerful and beautiful. They are the broken, the hurting, the neglected, the forgotten, the lonely, the poor. 

No, I still don't know how to answer how to be merciful in the situation with Syria. It is heartbreakingly complicated. But what I can be is merciful and kind and caring in my daily life with those I come across who need it most. Peace begins with such small acts. Peace begins when we stop seeing a woman like the one I bought breakfast as a problem, but as a person who has a story that maybe needs to be heard because no one is listening.

So I will continue to read and meditate and study and pray the Beatitudes. I will wrestle and struggle with Christ's words and how to best live that out in my home, my community and in the world. It is not easy or comfortable or simple, but it is holy and righteous and necessary. It is only when the followers of Christ live as Christ that we will ever begin to see traces of that kingdom come.


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