STEVE BOUSER: When Glad Tidings Make Us Sore Afraid
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As I heard the Christmas story from Luke being read once again the other day, I was struck by something I hadn't noticed before.
When the angel of the Lord appears to the shepherds, how do they react? With rejoicing? No. They're "sore afraid." Or, depending on the translation, "filled with fear." You can practically hear the knees knocking under those robes.
Interesting. Here you have this entire choral society of angels belting out the best kind of news humankind could ever hope to hear, and the tendency on the part of its recipients is to run scared.
"This is too much to handle," they seem to say. "Let me just have my old shepherd life the way it was. Don't complicate it with all this crazy stuff about peace on earth."
We're not that much different after all these years, are we? We've heard that message about good will toward men so many times that it seems old and maybe stale. Yet, as the horrifying events unfolding in Christ's home region today remind us, that message -- or the need for it -- is still urgently new.
And humankind still can't handle it. The idea of giving up so many of our familiar suspicions and comfortable antagonisms still fills us with fear.
Let me go on hating my neighbor instead. He's a Shiite (or Sunni, or Kurd, or Christian, or Israeli or American), isn't he? And we're supposed to hate Shiites (or Sunnis, or Kurds, or Christians, or Israelis, or Americans), aren't we? Things are simpler that way. Don't bother me with your hopelessly impractical idealism. Keep your book. I've got my good old AK47.
Never mind taking a step back and trying to understand my neighbor and maybe even see if there is a way to break this catastrophically vicious cycle. Easier just to bomb his house. Or plant an IED by the road and catch him when he drives by. Or kidnap him, torture him with an electric drill, and dump his body and 35 others in a field somewhere. Or, at the very least, teach my kids to hate him and bide my time until they grow old enough to start acting it out.
Though there has been a lot of that kind of thing in the news lately, there's nothing new about it. It's been going on since at least the day the first caveman took a notion to pick up a stone ax and bash the head of the guy in the next cave. The new thing was the revolutionary message that the world began to hear a couple of thousand years ago, accompanied by the blare of heavenly trumpets. It's still new and audacious after all this time -- and still, for the most part, ignored.
Take the parable of the Good Samaritan. We've heard it so many times that we've forgotten what it was all about. Jesus urges his listeners to love their neighbor. Somebody asks, "Yeah, but who is my neighbor?" So Jesus tells his story. The holier-than-thou priests and Levites -- our priests and Levites -- see the poor robbery victim but pass by on the other side of the road. The fellow who stops to help him is the real "neighbor," even though he's one of them -- a member of the despised ethnic group, the Samaritans.
Neighborly is, in other words, as neighborly does. If Jesus were again living in the land that we now call Israel, I imagine he would be telling the parable of the Good Palestinian. And his hearers would have as much trouble stomaching it now as they did then.
We as individuals can't get off the hook, I fear, just because we haven't bombed anyone's house lately. Have we lobbed emotional bombs at the others in our daily lives? Have we seen someone in distress and been too busy to stop and bind his wounds?
Because of our traditions in America, Jesus' message -- love thy neighbor, blessed are the peacemakers, the meek shall inherit the earth -- seems particularly eloquent to us. But it is not unique. As far as I know, the preachings of the great prophets of most of the world's other major religions include parallels to things like the Beatitudes and the Golden Rule. The problem is, we keep honoring all of them more often in the breach than in the observance.
Granted, given the realities of the post-9/11 world, a people or a government can do only so much turning of the other cheek. Given an intolerable provocation, sometimes an Old Testament reaction seems more appropriate. Like: "Vengeance is mine, says the Lord."
But at this time of year, at least we can pause, listen to the ancient good news with fresh ears, and wonder what it would be like if all the peoples of the world really were to decide, on one command, to heed the angels' song and reach out to one another in good will and brotherhood. ...
OK, so it's not going to happen. But we'd better keep hoping. The alternative is to continue spiraling in the other direction of ever-more-vicious hate and violence, and that's definitely enough to make you sore afraid.
Did I say Merry Christmas?
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