Empathy, perspective, and the log in all our eyes.

A story about ancient Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu goes like this,

One day Chuang Tzu and a friend were walking by a river. “Look at the fish swimming about,” said Chuang Tzu, “They are really enjoying themselves.”

“You are not a fish,” said the friend, “so you can’t really know if they are enjoying themselves.”

“You are not me,” said Chuang Tzu, “so how do you know that I do not know that the fish are enjoying themselves?”

 

I don’t know why, maybe it’s because of our roots and heritage that the Christian church is obsessed with sin. What is it? Is this a sin? Is that a sin? Is it something I do? Something I think? Something I believe? All the above? In fact we’re so gripped by the idea of sin, actually we’re gripped by the idea of sins more so than “big S” Sin, so obsessed with them that we read the idea of transgressions back into the text where it may not even exist.

Consider Matthew 7:3-5:

“Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ and behold, the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.”

Now this passage, in my personal experiences, especially in the house church movement, has been read in two major ways.

On the one hand, it has been used as a reactive defense against confrontation. If someone says to you, “You sinned by going to watch that Batman movie.” (I wish I could say this is a fictional example.) You might say to them, “Yeah well I saw you smoking a cigarette! Get the log out of your own eye!) Hopefully shutting down the confrontation.

On the other hand, some have focused on the last verse and said “Look! Jesus meant for us to help the brother to get the speck out in the end. As long as I am free from sin in my life I have every right to point out my brother’s sin and help them remove it.” In my experience if the brother in question didn’t agree to accept the “help” it wouldn’t be long before exclusion from the community was a consequence. I’ll write more about this sad process later.

But what if we have sort of missed the point of the whole thing? If the basic premise of living a Christian life means slowly but surely eliminating your sins until you look like the “sinless” Jesus then yes, this verse would seem to fit into that paradigm somehow though it becomes very destructive. I can bear witness to this in my own experience.

But does this look different with a new paradigm of the Christian life? I think it does. What if the Christian life is about transformation through renewing our mind? Finding and exploring new ways to think about everything! And what if this is a lifelong process instead of a one time destination? This is much closer to my current view of living the Christian life. Along with other things of course.

So with a paradigm of mind renewal driving personal transformation, how might we read this verse anew?

How about instead of seeing the speck and the log as sinful behaviors or even thoughts, we look at them as faulty modes of thinking or faulty ways of seeing reality. Here’s why I think this makes sense. The eye is the key here. If something is in your eye, you can’t see properly. Everything is skewed and blurry and distorted. This isn’t a metaphor for sin. It’s a metaphor for illusion or blurred perception. I think most people who didn’t grow up in the church, or who have rejected the church at some point but are now exploring faith and spirituality understand very well the concept of not judging others and showing mercy. I would like to think I’ve tried very hard to get past my tendecy to judge the thoughts and actions of others. What I have replaced that with is a pattern of evaluating the views, beliefs, thought patterns, and perceptions of others to contrast them with my own, pass judgement on their correctness, and do my damndest to bring them over to my point of view and my way of seeing things. I want to read this passage again in terms of illusions and paraphrase a bit to explain how it’s challenging me.

Why do you always take notice of these little “incorrect” pieces of other people’s beliefs while ignoring that your entire perspective is fundamentally flawed? And how can you possibly help them change their perspective when yours is so wrong? First fix your perspective until you understand reality, then maybe you’ll be able to help the others with their illusions.

The powerful and paradoxical part of this is that most likely, it was your flawed perspective that made you think your friend was incorrect in the first place! Another paradox is that if this mind renewal perspective shift IS a lifelong process, when does it become appropriate to try to force anyone else’s perspective to get closer to yours? Reading the passage in this way really challenges me to consider that there may be better ways of sharing our journey without constantly trying to correct each other’s perspective. This is where the Chinese philosophy comes into play.

In the story at the beginning, Chuang Tzu is a victim of his friends attempt to “fix” his perspective. Just stopping right there, I have to reflect on how many times per day I do this, both internally and out loud. Just think about that. It’s not a matter of whether or not this activity is right or wrong, The fact is, I have to assume my own clarity of perspective to be so confident in my denunciation of a differing one, and where does that confidence of clarity come from? Do I really imagine that my friends don’t have that same feeling of clarity? It would be foolish to assume that my perspective is somehow more valid in an objective sense than my neighbor. So the log in my eye isn’t some bigger sin than my neighbor for which I need to repent before judging my brother, the log is the very idea that I can have certainty about the clarity of my perspective. And what if this log is removed? Perhaps the friend of Chuang Tzu, instead of denouncing his perspective, would have sought to learn more about his perspective, to understand what Chuang Tzu was really trying to say or perhaps how he was so familiar with fish feelings. In other words, he may have acted from a position of trying to experience what his friend was experiencing in that moment, which can loosely be defined as empathy.

That’s where I’m going with all of this. I think Chuang Tzu in his response was being a good friend AND a good teacher. He could have flatly contradicted his friend and emphatically stated that he knew the fish were happy. He could have backed off for the sake of avoiding conflict by saying something like, “It just looks like they are happy. You’re right, I don’t really know.” He could have gone into great detail in his knowledge of fish emotions and attempt to persuade his friend that you can know what fish feel. But instead Chuang Tzu took another path. He bypassed the assumption that there was, indeed a speck to be removed in either party’s eye and he went right for the log. “You are not me, so how do you know that I do not know that the fish are enjoying themselves?” This whole conversation is about a simple question:

Do you believe that empathy is truly possible? 

Chuang Tzu’s friend, in order to make his correction, had to assume that he understood the full range of human experience possible. So he assumed his own full empathy with humanity while ignoring the possibility that his experience was limited and growth was possible. Chuang Tzu simply took the argument to its logical extreme, which is that no empathy is actually possible because “you are not me.” In fact, the statement, “you are not a fish” is actually just another form of the more general “you are not me”. If this is true, empathy is gone. Understanding another point of view is gone. Not only will we never understand the perspective of our friends, but they cannot understand ours either and so we cannot convince them. The whole system, built upon the desire to change the mind of our brothers and sisters into the form of our mind, falls apart at the seams because if they are truly different, than they always will be and each of us is an island of self, surrounded by dark waters of our perceptions of reality, unchangeable by those around us.

The log of Jesus is the logical conclusion of Chuang Tzu’s friend. “You are not me.” If we believe empathy is possible, we fundamentally assume some kind of essential sameness. We can debate all day about the fine points of that sameness but it is required for empathy. To some extent the idea of “you are not me” is not true. The log is both the idea that I can be certain of the clarity of my perspective and the idea that you are not me. The path away from the log is one of humility and empathy.

Humility leads us away from the certainty of our own clarity and empathy leads us toward oneness with everything. Another hidden lesson in the Chuang Tzu story is the arbitrary category separation of humanity and other parts of creation in terms of the ability to empathize.

I am not saying we should never try to convince others of things, even this article is trying to convince you of something, as were Jesus and Chuang Tzu. But perhaps our arguments would look different if we were walking with the humility of knowing we are still working on our log and mentally tearing down the walls of differentiation that we build between us and everything else through the process of growing up. Both the Chinese story and Jesus’ parable give us a way to examine these ideas with benign examples void of much emotion. Only by becoming disentangled with the actual issues can we realize the bigger log, otherwise our emotional response to controversial and passionate issues blocks our ability to see it.

Of course if we find ourselves in a state of the log being removed, which some would call enlightenment, we may see that the speck in our brother’s eye was an illusion, that it isn’t important compared to the log we all carry, or we may realize that we were seeing a part of our self all along.

In the Name of Love – A reading of Acts 4

There’s an extremely annoying and useless debate among some Christian groups that is nearly enough to make me contemplate jumping off a cliff with one of those squirrel suits every time I hear it come up. Here it is: 

Some Christians think that when you baptize someone, the following words ought to be said “in the name of the father and the son and the Holy Spirit.” I guess they think this because Jesus said to in some verse. Other Christians think you should say “in the name of Jesus.” Because Jesus is god’s name and so what Jesus really meant in that verse somewhere was that you should say his name since the name of the father, son, and Holy Spirit is Jesus.

Now hold on, if I could just bring you back from the brink of insanity after hearing such “debate”, I think I can just about redeem this by explaining further than promptly changing the subject.

So, the smart Christians usually come in at this point and say something like, “hey chaps, it doesn’t matter what you say. You don’t have to say anything in fact! Jesus wasn’t asking you to say some phrase or use some name, he was simply letting you know that god’s authority is behind your inclusion of the nations into the good news and the family of God through baptism! See, the use of the word ‘name’ here is a fairly common way of saying ‘with the authority of’. So go out and invite in all sorts of people. Gentiles, Jews, sinners, Romans, Greeks, barbarians, whoever!” They usually say something like that.

So what does this have to do with Acts 4? Well, smart Christians, while talented at settling debates that very few people care about, are often blind to some of the implications of their conclusions for other, more “settled” passages.

Like a lot of my recent readings, things strangely take the opposite meaning that they used to have once you introduce some cultural context.

“When they had placed them in the center, they began to inquire, “By what power, or in what name, have you done this?” Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers and elders of the people, if we are on trial today for a benefit done to a sick man, as to how this man has been made well, let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead-by this name this man stands here before you in good health. He is the STONE WHICH WAS REJECTED by you, THE BUILDERS, but WHICH BECAME THE CHIEF CORNER stone. And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.””

‭‭Acts‬ ‭4:7-12‬ ‭NASB‬‬

Now, this whole section is often reduced to one, all important, irreducible, and undeniable truth. You can almost hear the important voice of a bearded, sunglassed street preacher exclaiming, “ONLY CHRISTIANS ARE SAVED! ONLY THOSE WHO CALL ON JESUS NAME!” Well good sir, we probably don’t agree on what salvation means but to put that aside for a moment, I think this verse means the opposite of what you think.

Peter and John are in a pickle. They just healed a guy and caused a stir. When the official religious deciders bring them in, they have questions. They are the deciders after all. They want to know, “who you are working for?” Read it again in a Russian accent or perhaps German. Now you have the sense of it. So Peter says quite boldly that not only does this healing come by authority straight from Jesus, but so does salvation! Basically Mr priest, you’re not the decider, I’m not the decider, Caesar isn’t the decider, and no council or group is the decider. Jesus is the decider, and it has nothing to do with a particular name or group or religion. It has to do with the fact that God has spoken! Shalom, forgiveness, reconciliation, you’re in. That’s good news right there.

So an explanation usually given to explain a cute little baptism wording argument actually has real power to help us shift from an exclusionary reading of Acts 4 to a daring, in your face, establishment be damned inclusionist reading. Isn’t that neat?

Good day.

Photo by Marcelo Quinan

God is not the owner, or the vineyard keeper

I’ve been reading a lot more about second temple Judaism lately. That’s the culture Jesus grew up in BTW. Thanks to folks like NT Wright and Michael Hardin who have made the topic approachable for someone like me. Wright’s book “Paul and the Faithfulness of God” alone is a wealth of information. I would also recommend Hardin’s book. “The Jesus Driven Life” which also can help couch Jesus in his culture for us.

So one interesting thing that happens when learning this history is that when you read the gospels you start to see things once missed. A perfect recent example for me is my recent reading of Luke 13:1-9

“Now on the same occasion there were some present who reported to Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. And Jesus said to them, “Do you suppose that these Galileans were greater sinners than all other Galileans because they suffered this fate? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or do you suppose that those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them were worse culprits than all the men who live in Jerusalem? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” And He began telling this parable: “A man had a fig tree which had been planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and did not find any. And he said to the vineyard-keeper, ‘Behold, for three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree without finding any. Cut it down! Why does it even use up the ground?’ And he answered and said to him, ‘Let it alone, sir, for this year too, until I dig around it and put in fertilizer; and if it bears fruit next year, fine; but if not, cut it down.'””

‭‭Luke‬ ‭13:1-9‬ ‭NASB‬‬

This passage was always confusing to me. On the one hand Jesus seemed to be saying that the listed misfortunes weren’t necessarily connected to how bad a sinner the victims were but on the other hand warning his disciples of a similar fate if they didn’t repent. The moral story usually conveyed by preachers of this passage is that sinners always run the risk of terrible catastrophe unless they repent. Once I learned about a couple things common to Judaism  at this time some things began to fall in place not just for this passage but for verses 5-9 as well. And this interpretation I think could be very freeing for folks. Let me explain.

First of all, nowadays I approach the term repentance in its most general sense when I encounter it in the scripture so that the context of the situation can provide the scope of the repentance. Repentance is basically a change of direction or intention. It does not mean to be sorry for sins or even to stop sinning. There are even times the scripture describes God repenting, indicating a change of direction. So the first thing to keep in mind is that the rest of the passage can inform us as to what change of direction Jesus is referring to.

A common belief among second temple Jews of Jesus’ time was that if Israel could remain pure before God, that He would help them overthrow the Roman occupation and take back Israel. Another common belief was that, in general, God protected and gave favor to those who were faithful and pure while bringing destruction on sinners. These two ideas were deeply embedded in the culture.

When I read this passage yesterday, some things fell into place which showed me how Jesus was actually dismantling a belief that it appeared he was reinforcing on previous readings. The passage addresses two catastrophes, galileans being killed by the Roman governer, and some structure falling on some folks In Jerusalem. I always thought these were disconnected random misfortunes because I assumed Jesus was reinforcing the idea that disaster was a constant risk for those outside God’s protection. But I was wrong. These events are connected in the sense that Jesus uses both to address the same problem, the ongoing and impending violent resistance against Rome, and the subsequent destruction of Jerusalem as foreseen by Jesus. The parable of verses 5-9 also can be seen in light of this problem as well.

With all this context in mind, I’d like to present the following reading of Jesus’ response to the question of the Galileans.

“Do you really think that it was because they were worse sinners that these Galileans were slaughtered by Rome? No, but if you continue believing God will give you victory over Rome and protect you in war you will meet the same fate. And what about those 18 people in Jerusalem who were killed when that tower fell, do you really believe that happened to them because they were worse sinners than others in Jerusalem? I’m telling you that’s not the way things work. But again, if you don’t turn away from your agenda of the violent establishment of the kingdom of Israel, you will meet the same fate when ALL the structures of Jerusalem are toppled by Rome.”

I’m just trying to present this in the way I’m understanding it as I’m reading. So this reading basically disarms the whole holiness/protection/sin/punishment paradigm and also denounces the idea that God is on the side of Israel against Rome. Jesus is warning Israel of their coming destruction, not by the anger of God against their sins, but by virtue of the fact that they are trying to establish a kingdom of God based on the same principles as Rome. Cultural supremacy and justified violence among other things.

Since the idea that God is protecting the faithful and judging the sinner with catastrophe is also very prevalent today, a reading that shows Jesus as denouncing this principle could be huge for christian communities in how they understand God and encourage one another in difficult times and catastrophes.

Verses 5-9 can now be easily seen as a continuation of Jesus’ point about Rome and Jerusalem. Perhaps, like me, you always heard that the meaning of this parable was that if you didn’t eventually bear fruit, God would uproot you and Jesus is the merciful vineyard keeper trying to give you more time. In this interpretation God is the owner, Jesus is the vineyard keeper, and you are the fig tree. Or perhaps you heard the more nuanced interpretation where Israel is the fig tree and God is the owner who no longer sees fruit coming from Israel so he wants to uproot it to make room for new trees ( Christianity perhaps?). Who the vineyard keeper represents is less clear in this interpretation.

I prefer to read this in the context of the Rome vs Jerusalem issue that Jesus addresses earlier. Rome is the owner seeing the people and culture of Israel as more of a problem than as a useful resource to the empire. The vine keeper represents those who are in Jerusalem trying to stave off the wrath of Rome (Pilate, Herod, priests, sympathetic Romans, etc…) and the fig tree is Israel. In other words, Jesus rightly understands the politics at play in the relationship between Rome and Israel and he realizes just how close to the brink they are. He is desperate for peace but knows the opposite is inevitable if Israel, including his followers, remain on their trajectory. This reading frees us from an understanding that Jesus already disarms, that God is rewarding the faithful/fruitful with safety and prosperity, while also submitting to disaster the sinner/unfruitful.

In conclusion, God is absent from our power struggles while still present in our midst just as Jesus separated himself from the ultimate power struggle of his day, even denouncing the struggle, while still being present among the people.