When I think about fear and shame and their connections with the compulsion to self-protection and harming ourselves and each other (perhaps a word to summarize that might be ‘sin’), in some ways it softens me. It helps me have compassion even on those who are harming others. In my best moments, it helps me have compassion even on those who are harming me.
At the same time, it reinforces the overwhelming sense of helplessness and hopelessness that anything in life can actually be healed or improved. I might be able to fix something in my own life, but can life for all people everywhere ever get better? It seems unlikely.
That despair of the possibility of universal reconciliation and healing for me comes from knowing that aggression and hatred and prejudice and violence and selfish disregard for others all stem from shame, and ultimately, fear. How can we overcome that for everyone who has already learned to see the world and others as dangerous? How can we prevent children from growing up with that worldview if their caregivers actually are dangerous? Is there any hope?
This fear and shame and pain-based way of living is something we all do. In the biblical narrative, the story continues on from Cain to describe the pain and conflict between person after person, growing into a whole world characterized by violence to the level where even God seems to despair of healing it and instead starts over. Full reset. Except it’s not a full reset. The slate isn’t fully wiped clean. Noah and his family all have the baggage of trauma and shame and the instincts of fear and self-preservation, and they carry it forward.
That is what the story about Noah getting blackout drunk and sprawling out fully naked for all to see was about (again, why is this story the number one choice for nursery decorations at churches?). He was dealing with trauma. Probably full-blown PTSD. He literally just survived the worst tragedy in human history, and nearly everyone he’s ever known just died. Addiction and dissociating via alcohol make sense in that context. It’s not a good choice, but it makes sense. That’s the instinct to bear the unbearable.
And then the story goes on and on, and humanity keeps trying to protect itself by being stronger, bigger, more aggressive, more powerful, richer, higher status, hoping desperately to reach a point of invulnerability. Maybe if we build a temple big enough, with a tall enough tower, then we can rest and know that nothing is beyond our grasp, that nothing can hurt us, because we can do anything. We’ll be safe, and we’ll finally be able to rest in believing it.
But of course, that was a lie too. Even if you manage to keep everyone working collaboratively on a project like that, which seems unlikely, there’s no way it’s going to stay that way. The consequences of making power and ultimate security the priority is that power of that nature is logically impossible to share. Humanity was divided, and tribes formed and separated, each speaking past each other, no one really hearing the others and no one being able to communicate fully their own perspective and experience. Just like with Cain, the results of elevating power and security over people and love was separation from each other and from the Divine.
What began in the Garden with the man of the earth and the mother of all the living passed to the one who refused to be his brother’s caretaker and spread into the whole world, making it what we have known ever since.
And then the Spirit moved over the chaos and filled the void, giving shape to creation once again. The original calling of humanity was spoken again, this time to one family, to Abram and Sarai, later to become Abraham and Sarah.
Maybe another time I’ll begin to explore more of that story, but for now, I want to use it to fast forward. The promises Yahweh made to Abraham and Sarah have been at work ever since. And Mary recognized it. She was inspired to sing of it in Luke’s Gospel.
My soul glorifies the Lord,
My spirit rejoices in God my Savior.
The Lord looks on me a lowly servant;
Henceforth all ages will call me blessed.
The Almighty works marvels for me.
Holy is God’s name!
God’s mercy is from age to age,
On those who are faithful.
God puts forth an arm in strength
And scatters the proud-hearted.
Casts the mighty from their thrones
And raises the lowly.
God fills the hungry with good things,
Sends the rich away empty.
Protecting Israel, God’s servant,
The mercy promised to our ancestors,
To Abraham, Sarah and their children for ever.
(Magnificat, Mary’s song, Luke 1:46-55)
We can live into these promises. We can rest in the security that comes from trust that Jesus fulfilled the Torah and rescued us from sin and death, including the precursors: fear and shame. We can rest in the belief that we are the light, the yeast that spreads, the salt that flavors the whole recipe, the long and patient ferment that changes the whole dough over time.
We have learned that tower-building leads to death. Promoting our own power and status and wealth and security leads to death, but promoting connection caring for those around us leads to life. The paradox of the gospel is that the way of the cross is the way to overcome death and secure truest and fullest life.
I saw this quote attributed to the Babylonian Talmud, Avot 2:21:
“Don’t take the burdens of the world’s problems upon yourself. Don’t ignore them either. As Rabbi Tar’fon (first century) put it: ‘The work is not upon you to complete, but neither are you exempt from trying.’”
I have no idea if that actually comes from the Talmud. From what I can tell the following is a paraphrase of that same idea along with additional that’s, and it is attributed to the Talmud but seems more to be a distillation of Talmudic ideas rather than a direct quotation:
“Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly now. Love mercy now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”
Both of these variations carry much wisdom. We join with Jesus in loving the world sacrificially, weeping with people’s pain, and serving people’s needs however we can. We can also join Jesus in celebrating goodness and stepping back to rest when we need it.
Many of us see too clearly the pain of all the world, and it destroys us. Others of us know deeply of particular pain in people near us, and it tears us apart. We are tired and heartbroken, and hope eludes us.
But the truth is that the world is better than it used to be (there is actual data on this, not just a sentimental wish, but I’ll let you look it up if you’re interested), and we can participate in that. Of course, ups and downs will come. And we will weep and dance and everything in between, and in fact, I think some of the responsibility communicated in the above quotes includes honoring and celebrating the goodness we have been gifted and the victories achieved.
The yeast spreads through the dough, and likely we won’t see when the whole loaf has risen, but we can take comfort that it is rising and we are part of that.
And if we have received and plan to share the trust and faithfulness, hope, and love that are the greatest qualities of life in Christ, the promises take on a reality that lifts them out of the pages of Scripture and into day-to-day moments.
This is the part I understand, the part that makes sense to me and has meaning. Also, there is the part I don’t really understand, but that I want to trust. That’s the part about all things being reconciled to the Creator. About everything being made new. About everything being put right. It deserves more time and thought and sitting with hard things. I will continue to do that too. For now. I try not to bite off more than I can chew, to take only enough worry for one day at a time. To set my aim on things I can influence or at least take up in prayer and meditation. Together, we can do even more. And maybe we will. That’s the work of the Spirit.
For today, let’s weep and grieve. For tonight, let’s laugh and feast. Tomorrow, we will face whatever comes while hand in hand as one body and one people and one family united in Christ.