An Ode to Advent’s Personal Blessings and Policy Challenges, Dr. Robert Zuber

29 Nov

Based on a sermon preached in Ann Arbor, Michigan in early November

Each year I write an Advent message to my friends and colleagues highlighting some part of our neglected spiritual heritage.  This is a tradition that some have begged me to abandon, but the original impulse came out of the my experiences in a Roman Catholic church in particularly challenging area of Harlem where I found a spiritual home and to which I attempted to provide some pastoral support in the late 80s and 90s. Much of the “neglect” I tried to expose through those Advent messages related to our lack of collective thoughtfulness about ourselves, our actions and their consequences, our creeping inability to sit still in a quiet place, staring at the stars and heeding the lessons of the void: beholding the irony that in the vastness of creation, on this little spec of a planet that we neither properly care for nor can easily replace, we have our niche, our role, our responsibility.   Somehow, some way, despite the testimony of deep space and the annual descending of Advent’s unsettling darkness, we continue to matter, sometimes even deeply.

I was going to use the opportunity of preaching in an Ann Arbor church to test out some ideas for this year’s message, to speak again about our reflection deficits, our aversion to the occasional bout of healthy melancholy, our predisposition to indulge in too much reaction and too little reflection, firmly invested in appearances rather than intimate disclosures, turning too much of life into one big selfie.

And then Paris happened, with echoes of Beirut before it and Bamako to come.  And the world quickly pressed into service all of the patriotic rhetoric, the grim determination and the increased military fire power needed to ostensibly “eradicate” this contemporary menace.

Ironically perhaps, the lessons in the Christian bible for pre-Advent Sundays were largely about wrongdoing and retribution, the evil that we experience and the God who will, or so some of us believe, both eliminate evil doers and vindicate our own choices.   This is a faith narrative that is rooted in divine power to restore the moral order as well as an affirmation of confidence in our own place in that cosmic drama.  It is a narrative eerily well suited to these threatening times, this need that some of us have for a deeper sanction for the pursuit of our own “righteous” responses to the evil we experience.

This deep instinct to right the wrongs of the world is hardly unique to our religious institutions. Where I work now, in a small independent policy office at the UN in New York, the single most pervasive aspiration of diplomats and officials is to bring about an end to impunity for the most severe violations of international law, such as we see in Syria, Yemen, Central African Republic and also Paris and Mali. Perhaps no issue undermines the credibility of the UN quite like the perception that wrongdoers get away with wrongdoing to a degree that most of us can barely imagine and certainly cannot sanction.  “Oh Lord how long must evildoers triumph” is a lament that could just as easily be heard in Security Council chambers as in churches. And yet, despite these reputational challenges, or perhaps because of them, there are few aspects of the UN’s work that are as intensely engaged as this one.  We mean business on impunity, even if our business model remains slightly flawed.

As well we should mean business.   With all due regard for the mild hypocrisy embedded in the ways that we at the UN formulate the law and single out perpetrators to address by those same standards, there is no more essential element to a healthy multi-lateral system than a clear articulation of and commitment to international principles — the norms by which we choose to live together and conduct our affairs. Indeed, in the absence of such lived principles, it is unclear how we will ever find our way to a place of trust and confidence in the ability of our evolving global system to solve pending development, climate and security threats. Or even find reason to hope that the cycles of bombings and terror attacks can once and for all be made to grow silent.

And let’s be clear — ending impunity is no abstract matter confined to states and situations like Paris. From children “telling” on each other and barking at parents who they believe have meted out punishment unfairly to the complex matters of jurisdiction and jurisprudence characterized by our international legal mechanisms, fairness in the moral order is part of our cultural expectation. And regardless of where we fall on psychological standards of moral sophistication, or whether we privately posit some deity at the beginning or end of those standards, it is both inconceivable and even emotionally paralyzing that so much abusive and humiliating behavior remains unpunished in this world.  Many of us in New York (what I often refer to as the “global capital of self-importance”) bristle when we are “cut” in line or delayed by insensitive subway behavior.   What should then be our response to unaddressed crimes against humanity?   Surely we can find ways to apprehend and mete out appropriate justice to mass murderers at a higher rate than the street level drug users or “Black Friday” shoplifters who are routinely being squeezed into our prisons.

Surely we can.  But we don’t seem to always know how, and we certainly don’t seem to have many strategies to suggest that don’t involve lots of bombs and missiles and drones.   In other words, we don’t seem to know how to respond to threats of terror without recourse to acts of dubious moral value which simply fuel the next cycles of retribution, the next incarnations of evil which we will then be compelled to address.

We can do better than this.  Indeed, our survival as a species depends on it.

But where is our inspiration for this different way to come from? As the days grow shorter and our fattening squirrels get the message that the feasts of fall are nearing an end, our liturgical lessons of my faith tradition shift their tone – from hard retribution and divine justice to softer, more reflective tones.   Less about what a God is going to do and more about what we have yet to do; less about divine vindication and more about our own thoughtful engagement with the ethical dimensions of local and global governance; less about evil doers and more about our common humanity, humans who seem so clever and powerful at times, until those moments when we catch our breath at the true majesty of the created order, the creation outside our smart phones, even beyond the reach of our deep spacecraft, scoffing at our social conventions and confounding all our policy certainties.  In our anxiety and impatience to deal with all the problems staring us in the face, we lose sight of this bigger picture and its lessons of humble discernment –all of us – more often than we acknowledge.

We have much to fix in this world, much to account for, much to overcome.  We have terror to subdue, development promises to keep, a planet to heal. It may be that the God of one or more faith traditions will somehow, sometime, rush to our side to vanquish and vindicate.  But my suspicion is that this one is mostly on us, our moment to gain some compassionate control – of ourselves and our world – to bring justice which is thorough but not partisan, and to recognize the cycles of violence and abuse that stain all of our political and religious banners.

As I have noted elsewhere, the great Reinhold Niebuhr once said that “the evils against which we contend are the fruits of illusions similar to our own.”  This can be a crushing insight to those who feel that “the good” is found only in the values and practices of their own households, only within their own social rituals and political policies, only at the tips of their own weapons of retribution.   It isn’t so.  It never was so.   Our response to grave threats requires much of us, surely including discernment and some lump-in-your-throat courage. The time for righteous crusades is long past.

During this period when vindication seems to be the understandable order of the day, I beseech us all to keep some energy in reserve for the distinctive blessings of Advent – its vast and awesome uncertainties, but also its deep emotional longings for a peace that is more than patchwork.  Behold the wonder of sitting at the edge of a hillside in the chilly starlight and calling out to anyone who will listen — oh come, oh come Emmanuel.   We have a lot to sort out here.  We have a lot of hard decisions to make.  We need insight and clarity now more than tools of vindication. And we could certainly use a hand.   Emmanuel’s hand.  May it come to us.

 

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