I went to church two weeks ago for All Saints’ Day and revisited the familiar sensation of being baffled by contradictory extremes in the Bible. The Episcopal lectionary readings were Psalm 149 and an excerpt from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Luke 6. Thus, in quick succession, we heard this:
Let the faithful rejoice in triumph; *
let them be joyful on their beds.
Let the praises of God be in their throat *
and a two-edged sword in their hand;
To wreak vengeance on the nations *
and punishment on the peoples;
To bind their kings in chains *
and their nobles with links of iron;
To inflict on them the judgment decreed; *
this is glory for all his faithful people.
And then this:
Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.
Honestly, neither of those sound like the healthiest attitudes, you know? I could get into the Psalm by praying for Trump’s impeachment. As a call for accountability for corrupt leaders, rather than for God to aid our amoral conquest of other nations, these words fit the justice-seeking spirit of the Hebrew Bible. I am very wary of the supercessionist narrative among progressive Christians, who explain away anger and violence in the “Old Testament” by treating ancient Judaism as a primitive, inferior precursor of “New Testament” sweetness and light. Read Amy-Jill Levine for fresh alternatives to the subtle anti-Semitism of common Bible interpretations.
The gospel message was even more disconcerting to me. I’ve been in too many relationships where appeasement of “those who abuse you” improves neither their behavior nor their character. How is it loving to enable someone’s bad habits of greed and violence? I don’t think I’ve ever seen a good outcome from this.
Insight came the following day when I took my monthly online class from the Temple of Witchcraft, “Exploring Four Archetypes of Mature Masculinity”. Our source text is Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette’s King, Warrior, Magician, Lover (HarperOne, 1990), one of the Jungian-inspired texts of the 1990s Men’s Movement (remember Robert Bly’s Iron John?). The original book is heteronormative and sometimes oddly whiny about feminism, but instructor JT Mouradian is doing a great job of updating their ideas for a more gender-expansive era. During our session on “The Warrior”, we discussed this anecdote from the book:
There is a story about a samurai attached to the household of a great lord. His lord had been murdered by a man from a rival house, and the samurai was sworn to avenge his lord’s death. After tracking the assassin for some time, after great personal sacrifice and hardship, and after braving many dangers, the samurai found the murderer. He drew his sword to kill the man. But in that instant the assassin spit in his face. The samurai stepped back, sheathed his sword, and turned and walked away. Why?
He walked away because he was angry that he’d been spat on. He would have killed the assassin, in that moment, out of his own personal anger, not out of his commitment to the ideal his lord represented. His execution of the man would have been out of his Ego and his own feelings, not out of the Warrior within. So in order to be true to his warrior calling, he had to walk away and let the murderer live. (pgs. 84-85)
Look again at the gospel passage. In all of Jesus’ examples, the action is reactive: what to do after someone abuses you, hits you, or robs from you. One could say he was instructing us to have the equanimity and self-transcendence of the Warrior, who may need to use force in service to a goal larger than himself (e.g. clearing the money-changers from the temple), but never lets himself be overcome by wounded pride, defensive fear, or the “red mist” of rage that clouds one’s vision. Maintaining self-discipline is more important than settling scores in that moment, even if the aggressor will get off too easy.
Even so, I don’t wholly agree that the ability to tolerate infinite amounts of bullshit is a virtue. But it’s a more nuanced and defensible interpretation of the gospel than the usual idealization of codependent pacifism.