On Whose Shoulders Do Governments Rest? (Third Sermon in Series: Preaching from a Humanist Bible)

 

 

I.
Dr. Michael Roizen is the chief wellness officer of the Cleveland Clinic and also the founder of RealAge.com.  He has studied presidents going back to 1901, and Dr. Roizen’s research has led him to conclude that US presidents age two times faster while in office than do their constituents.  The primary reason for the doubled aging process is high stress, but Roizen says it’s not just the stress; instead, it’s exacerbated by the loss of friends.
Those who were formerly their friends sometimes become their critics; few so called “friends” are above asking for favors.  There is almost no one on whom the president can rely just to be a good friend with a nonjudgmental listening ear.   ABC News, in August near President Obama’s 50th birthday, ran side by side pictures of Senator Obama next to President-for-two-years Obama.  The result is striking, shocking.  Two years in office have grayed his hair and left him with a more gaunt-looking face; he’s a trim guy, not in need of losing weight at all.
Dr. Roizen says a good number of presidents deal with the weight of the world on their shoulders by gaining weight.  He pointed to Bill Clinton as one example of a weight-gaining president, and another weight-gaining president was Teddy Roosevelt whose weight increased from something like 240 to 310 during his term.  In the our time, this aging at twice the rate of the typical American citizen is a part of what it means for the president to have the world upon his shoulders.
The Season of Expectation has come to Silverside.  Many other churches, most really, call the same season Advent.  During the season of Expectation, we honor Jesus of Nazareth who was born just like every other baby is born, but who grew up to live a life of total devotion to God.  Also in this season, we pause for a few weeks to ponder the possibility of God’s will for the world becoming more of a reality than, thus far, it has.  Could, for example, peace really come among all people on the face of the earth?  Of course it could, but will we let it?  That is one of the key questions of the season.
During Expectation or Advent, it is commonplace to hear portions of Handel’s Messiah performed all over, and if you hear a version of it, you will hear Handel setting parts of the prophecy of Isaiah to magnificent music.  There is stand out piece after stand out piece; one especially memorable for me is the way Handel set Isaiah, chapter 9, verse 6, to music:
“For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The Mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.”
Christians and never Jews, oddly enough it being their scripture and all, have taken this child who was born to have been the Messiah, the one for whom Jews had hoped from ancient times would come to deliver them from their latest and all future oppressors.  Many Christians have taken references in Isaiah to be looking ahead to the birth of Jesus, but they weren’t.  First Isaiah spoke to and for people in his own time, just as we discovered with the Seer John and the book of Revelation.
“Messiah” means anointed one, and there is no reason to attach divinity to whomever the Messiah would be.  For Jews, whose ancestors spoke these words of promise, the Messiah never came, and for some modern Reform Jews the thought is that he wasn’t intended to and never will.  Rather, the Messiah is for them more of a symbol of who the nation of Israel at its best could become; how odd that early Christians superimposed on Jesus of Nazareth all the attributes of the ancient anticipated Messiah or whoever else was being referred to by Isaiah–most likely King Hezekiah.
Many of these attributes do not fit Jesus well at all, and a number of them contradict each other.  I mean how could the Messiah have been both a man a war who would call Israel to arms in order to overthrow Israel’s oppressors and, at the very same time, be the Prince of Peace?  How could the government rest on his shoulders if he were a spiritual leader?  Well, if you have a culture in which there is no separation of church and state, there is no problem with a Messiah who has one foot in politics and another foot in organized religion, but in our culture here today, that should be an impossibility.
In Isaiah’s time, there would have been no conflict because there was no separation of religion and state.  They were clearly intermingled.
“The government will be upon his shoulders,” would make perfect sense in Isaiah’s day whether the Messiah referred to an individual or Messiah was a symbol for the ideal Israel.  He will be involved in politics, and if he is an individual he will age two years for every one year he rules.  Someone has suggested that the government being on his shoulders was a literal imagine, that there was something he carried across his shoulder or shoulders to indicate his position–a sash, a should strap for a sword’s sheath, a scepter in a protective covering he hung on a shoulder.
Jesus was never a king, never ruled an earthly kingdom.  Some thought he was to become king of the Jews, but he didn’t think that; and that never came about–not even almost!  There are symbolic images only in the book of symbols, Revelation, of a risen Jesus ruling with God in heaven, but God is clearly the King of Heaven.  Occasionally, in the Revelation visions Jesus sits on a throne alongside the central throne in heaven, which is reserved for God alone.
If you’ve ever sung Handel’s Messiah you’ll know that he makes “Wonderful” and “Counselor” two separate titles for whomever is being described in this verse, but from all indications, contextually and literarily, they go together, the adjective describing the noun.  The son born will come to be the Wonderful Counselor.  There’s a scholar who says that we can’t read that the way it most readily reads to modern Americans–“wonderful” meaning something like terrific and “Counselor” meaning something like a member of some leader’s cabinet.  The scholar I have in mind says the accolade being laid on this unnamed person, “Wonderful Counselor,” refers to an advisor in a political and/or a military context who is so gifted that his insights cause us to stand in awe and wonder at his wisdom.
Jews would not have called anyone God except God, and even then they’d never have attempted to pronounce what they took to be the name of God so there’s no way “Mighty God” could refer to anyone but God Godself.  Thank goodness for another scholar who says the intent of the language demands a translation something like this:  godly hero.
The son who would be born in Isaiah’s time would display his wisdom and cause people to stand in awe and wonder at his counsel.  Beyond that he’d be a godly hero–a big time winner and never a loser.
“Everlasting Father.”  Great leaders in many cultures have been called “Father” by those whom they led, but as far as Isaiah knew, only God was eternal, everlasting.  God would be the loving, parental leader of an age, unlike all other eras in history, that would have no end.
“The Prince of Peace.”  This is the capstone of Isaiah’s list of titles and attributes.  Prince, not king, of Peace.  The kingdom of which he would have a part in leading would be a kingdom of peace, and he would be so closely identified with peace that he’d be called its prince.  We’re talking about Hezekiah, not Jesus.

 
II.
Let’s pick up with the image of the Prince of Peace.  Tadatoshi Akiba was the recipient of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation’s 2011 Distinguished Peace Leadership Award.  Dr. Akiba, began his academic career as a professor of math at Tufts.  With a little shifting of gears, he eased over into the discipline of humanities and was Professor of Humanities at Hiroshima Shudo University.  He served in the Japanese House of Representatives, from 1990 to 1999 after which he became Mayor of Hiroshima, a position he held until earlier this year.  During 12 years as a mayor, he served a term as the president of Mayors for Peace; under his leadership, the organization grew from 400 to 5000 active members.  Mayors for Peace established what they called the 2020 Vision Campaign, pressing for the abolition of nuclear weapons worldwide by the year 2020.  Until that dream is realized, the Mayors for Peace put another initiative in place directed to nations at war:  “You may not target cities.  You may not target children.”  As far as I know, Dr. Akiba has no religious commitments that drive him to push for peace, and yet he sounds very much like a Prince of Peace would sound, don’t you think?
Three dynamic women won the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize.
The Nobel organization gave the reasons for their selection: “their nonviolent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.”  These remarkable women are Leymah Gbowee, Tawakkol Karman, and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
Leymah Gbowee brought Liberian women together from often competing ethnic and religious groups to put unified pressure on then President Charles Taylor to end the seemingly endless, atrocious civil war.  As opportunities arose, Gbowee played pivotal roles in ousting Taylor who is currently on trial at The Hague for his role in the civil war. Gbowee championed the processes that enhanced possibilities for women to participate in elections. As if that weren’t enough, Gbowee got the needed training so that she could be a counselor to women and girls who were raped during the Liberian civil war.  Gbowee remains committed to world peace, which alone would be the solution to nearly all the problems she has given her life to correct.
Tawakkol Karman is another courageous woman.  She is a journalist whom the Nobel Committee praised for taking stands for women’s rights, democracy, and peace during the Yemen Revolutions.  She founded Women Journalists Without Chains in 2005, which began by advocating human rights for all and, eventually, along with that mission it began to demand freedom of expression for all.  She is at times a one-woman crusade calling for the minimum age for marriage in Yemen to be raised.  Parents may give a daughter to a man who marries her as a child, promising to wait for sexual intercourse until the girl is of a suitable age, often officially thought of as at the onset of puberty.  Everyone knows many of the men do not wait at all, and religious leaders insist such men are perfectly within their rights.  Karman has been arrested numerous times.  She has been attacked on a public platform where she was to speak, but no opposition has deterred her.
Another Liberian, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, has a nickname there, “Iron Lady,” which apparently has stuck because of her iron will.  She once served a prison term for her criticism of the military regime of Samuel Doe, but now she is the President of Liberia, the first and so far the only elected female African president. President Sirleaf is successfully maintaining peace in Liberia.  Part of her strategy to upgrade the view of women’s worth in Liberian societies has been to appoint women to strategic positions in her cabinet.   She unapologetically thought that the ripped apart country needed a little “motherly” support to get back on its feet emotionally and otherwise.
These people are living for peace.  They are peacemakers.      The Season of Expectation inevitably brings us face to face year by year with beautiful words from Isaiah that were superimposed upon Jesus hundreds of years after Isaiah wrote them about a King he knew in his own time, Hezekiah, so “Price of Peace” was originally intended for King Hezekiah; ironically, those who tried to turn Jesus into the militaristic messiah hoped for by many of the ancient Hebrews for thousands of years, I’d guess, wanted also to turn him into the Prince of Peace.
While Jesus was too smart to create a situation in which the Romans would trounce upon the Jews and stomp them hands down, he did not approve of Roman rule over his people.  He, therefore, looked for ways to subtly challenge Roman rule.  While Jesus was absolutely not in favor of war, failing on the spot thereby to fulfill the role of the promised Messiah, he was in favor of reaching as far as one could for freedom.
One of the sayings of Jesus that few people want to deal with is this one:

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Matt 10:34-38, NRSV).

What happened to gentle Jesus, meek and mild?  Even if we strike this sword image up to symbolism as I do and the family member against family member thing up to hyperbole, there is still something intentionally unsettling about what Jesus has said here; and it lacks any qualities I can see that make for peace.  Certainly Jesus wasn’t a thug or a warmonger, but he did realize how unsettling his message would be for many people; that remains true today.  I think it’s fair to say, too, that he longed for peace though he never knew a single taste of freedom or a life free from threat by occupation forces.
He knew that his message couldn’t go down easily with a spoon full of sugar.  It was disruptive and disturbing to almost everyone who’d gotten all nice and comfortable in the plush status quo.  How ironic that preaching a God of love and his, Jesus’, own love for others would get him killed by people unconcerned about peace except militarily mandated peace.
Jesus’ core ethics come out more clearly, perhaps, in his Sermon on the Mount than anywhere else.  That collection of sermons begins with what scholars call the Beatitudes.  Here’s one of those:  “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matt 5:9 NRSV).  If we want to find the peace at Jesus’ center, this is where we have to look–not back to Isaiah and Hezekiah, as lovely and poetic as Isaiah’s language was.  If you want to adopt one of Hezekiah’s nicknames and use it for Jesus, there’s no reason you are unentitled to do so, but you have to keep in mind that that is exactly what you’re doing.  In God’s empire, peacemakers are blessed because they are immediately recognized as God’s children.  In secular empires, peacemakers may not be recognized at all; they may be disdained or done away with.  Even so, the goal for any government should be to make peace among its own people and then with other governments.  There is no greater goal for a government and no greater need in our world.

III.
Hear with me again, an excerpt of the reading from the Humanist Bible for today:

“If people’s minds were as easily controlled as their tongues, every king would sit safely on his throne, and government by compulsion would cease.”

People’s tongues may be easier to control than their minds, but this is not to say that it’s very difficult at all to control minds through hypnosis, hysteria, or consistently well-told lies.  I teach two courses at Wilmington that have to do with human world views, mostly in the western world.  The way we come at discerning what the critical world views were at a given time is to look at the ideas by which people of any given period lived–from ancient times to the Protestant Reformation in the first course and from the Reformation to the present in the second course.
Here’s the bottom line and how I begin each of those courses every time I teach them.  Ideas determine how we humans live.  The ideas that we decide to claim as ours do not have to be true at all in order to be powerful and stirring; they only have to SEEM to be true, and for all too many people in the past and in the present that’s enough.
Most of what Hitler told Germany and much of the rest of Europe about the Jews was absolutely untrue, but he lied so zealously and so consistently about the Jews that in a relatively short amount of time he had the masses on his side and ready to do whatever heinous deed he suggested to be rid of them.  He nearly wiped out Jewish populations in Europe because of the power of his lies.  Plenty of those who believed him were smart enough to know that he was lying, but, in context, it was easier to believe him than to resist believing him.  He ended up in control of the minds of most of his fellow Germans and many of his fellow Europeans.
Look at us free Americans when we go the polls to vote.  We have lived through political lie after political lie, empty campaign promise after empty campaign promise, and still many of us go to mark our ballots each time with an almost childlike hope that, finally, we have someone for whom we can vote who will do all that she or he has promised.  Then the system seems to manipulate the minds of those whom we’ve elected convincing them that they couldn’t or shouldn’t try to make the changes they promised they’d make.  After a few rounds of this, it’s hard to be critical of the politicians who don’t deliver because in those moments when we face reality we have to admit that we allowed ourselves to be swayed into believing whole political packages hook, line, and sinker.  We gave a politician who appealed to us control of our minds.  We have to believe somebody if we’re going to bother voting at all, but we should know that many, maybe not all, of the promises that are too good to be true probably are.  By the way, the answer to the question, “On whose shoulders do governments rest?”, if asked in a democracy, is:  your shoulders.
We’ve had some noticeable, memorable instances lately of people dominated and abused by their governments getting to the last straw and rising up to reclaim their personhood and their dignity.  End result:  dead dictator.  Plenty of the good people lose their lives too because they dared to stand up for basic human rights, but eventually the political leader who beat them down is dead or exiled or on trial.
I believe that the “Occupy” protests are tips of icebergs that our elected leaders had better sit up and note.  Our people are not protesting against blatant despotism; but they are saying, “We’ve had it with a political process that gives elected leaders enough power to hurt the very ones who elected them and to shut down the government altogether.”  How can you love your country the way a patriot wants to love her or his country when those who are in power can’t or won’t help anyone and instead spend all we have, including our so called surpluses, to fund wars and occupation forces until no money is left for those who are truly in need–an older person, for example, who has outlived even her children and has absolutely nothing coming in month by month except her social security check, which politicians frequently talk of cashing out.
I am a staunch, staunch advocate of separation of temple/church/mosque and state, but I think religious groups have the right to call the government to moral accountability–not that the institutional church is without its own moral lapses.  When I say “moral accountability” I’m not talking about trying to make a politician buy into your religious group’s most narrow, idiosyncratic views.  I’m talking about broad, widely accepted moral standards–telling the truth, for example.
It is not up to religious groups to try to dictate the candidate for whom those in their group should vote; that is a blatant violation of separation of temple/church/mosque and state.  A call, though, to be involved in the political process with its warts and blatant failures clearly in view is an appropriate word from an imam, a rabbi, a pastor, priest, or bishop.
Conversely, the government must not favor any religious group though Christianity is, for all practical purposes, favored at least informally in this country.  This is not to say that courts would favor one religious group over another, but lawmakers do; in fact, many of them could not have gotten elected unless they identified with Christian conservatism.  Wanting to be elected again, most of them will remember not to bite the hands that fed them or feed them.
Here’s an anonymous quote worth chewing on:

“A Great law protects me from the government. The Bill of Rights has 10 GREAT laws. A good law protects me from you. Laws against murder, theft, assault and the like are good laws. A poor law attempts to protect me from myself.”

The Ten Commandments or Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount do not belong on a courthouse lawn or in the courtroom where a judge is trying a case.  Quotes from some of the great legal minds in history?  Sure thing.  If I’m in a courtroom, and of course I hope I’m never there unless I have to serve on a jury or appear as a character witness for one of you, I as a follower of Jesus should absolutely take what I learned from Jesus with me into the halls of justice.  Without saying a word about Jesus or wearing my Jesus tee shits or my What Would Jesus Do Wristband, I can honor the founder of my faith by showing compassion to all, by remembering the inherent dignity in all human beings, and by living out love to the best of my ability.
If I were to be elected to public office, and by the way one of my parishioners in Baltimore suggested that I should run for office–another suggested that I move out of ministry into stand up comedy. You figure out which is best.  But if I were to be elected to public office, the same “rules” would apply.  I would not be there to use my position to promote my doctrinal perspectives, and I certainly wouldn’t be there to try to convert anyone to the Christian faith.  I couldn’t help, though, being influenced quietly by the ethical norms I find in the teachings attributed to Jesus and other great religious leaders.  I should be compassionate, yes.  I should live out my respect for all people who have inherent worth and, thus, deserve to be treated as persons of dignity.  I would be a peacemaker because I believe that Jesus justifiably inherited Hezekiah’s nickname “Prince of Peace.”  I should also–were I a politico–live out love, showing it to all persons to the best of my ability.
Amen.

Advertisements

Comments are closed.