Welcome to the website of a retired United Methodist pastor! This corner of the Internet continues nearly fifty years of a weekly column in a church newsletter, on topics ranging from the ridiculous to the sublime. The opinions expressed are the author's and represent no institution, although it is hoped that within these pages you will find a reflection of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, who, in his own borrowed words, insists that we love God with, along with all the rest of what we are, our minds. "Critical" as used in the title does not mean being nasty or grumpy; it means using intellectual faculties in the service of God. Your reactions, rebuttals, comments, and questions can be addressed to: BobHow9846@comcast.net.
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January 16, 2015 - Essays: There's a Wideness in God's Mercy... Never to Be Forgotten
January 25, 2015 - Essays: My Life as a Gentile
February 12, 2015 - Essays: It's All Relative
February 21, 2015 - Essays: Retribution
The savagery of ISIS fouls the nightly news day after day
The savagery of ISIS bloodies the news day after day.
That savagery prompts a like response in me: to treat savagely
the perpetrators. With the decapitations in mind, we could devise a modern
guillotine that would clang down its track stopping just short of the prisoner's
neck, repeated two or three times to add the horror of anticipation to the
penalty, and on the third and final fall doing its cleaving all the way. Or we could
lock several of them in a cage mounted over gas burners and let them fry to
A neck for a neck and a roast for a roast. Something
like that. A very natural impulse. Do it to me and I'll do it to
you; and, if not shamed by the Law, I'll do it twice as bad to you. Sainted
imaginations are not immune to the internal clamoring for retribution. "Django
Unchained," Quentin Tarantino's retributive fantasy for African-American slaves,
in which the owners are savaged, suggests the victims of the Old South harbored
sentiments other than "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." I understand.
Thank God, not everything thought is done.
There is a counter impulse abroad in humanity. And I
think I know where it originated: a couple of thousand years ago on the eastern
edge of the Mediterranean Sea in and around a small village of little account
where a young man got it into his head that the brutal cycle of retribution
should be stopped for God's sake and ours. The fellow in question
was steeped in the Law of Moses, knew it by heart, and, better yet, knew in his
heart the purposes of God.
He taught, "If anyone strikes you on the cheek, turn to him
the other also." In those days they hadn't heard of "machismo," but they
laughed nonetheless at the naiveté of the young carpenter from Galilee,
wondering where on earth he came by that strange notion. Then when he
added, "Love your enemies"; and "Do good to those who treat you badly"; they put
him in the company of those who were gently addled, but addled nonetheless.
Imagine, if you can (and I think you can) what his contemporaries would have
thought when he taught the world to pray about being forgiven for our sins only
as we are ready to forgive others theirs.
But it did not occur to those who knew a thing or two about
the way the world really operates to honor Jesus' words as wisdom.
We still don't. We put them on a pedestal as idealistic, sure.
We think wistfully, "Wouldn't it be
wonderful if it were true": of course. But as a strategy for lancing the
poisonous savagery of retribution? Believe that and I've got a pistol to
sell you that shoots magic bullets turning the raging bull into a little lamb.
That that peripatetic carpenter rabbi meant what he said and
thoroughly believed in the efficacy of forgiveness and self-sacrifice to change
the world and the way we deal with each other... well, I also have a cross to
show you. On which Jesus, according to one of the faithfuls' most frequent
refrains, died to save us from our sins. There on Golgotha, Christians are
supposed to believe, he was the victor over sin, death, and evil, which evil
includes the impulse to savagery.
A couple of millennia later Christians are hard pressed to
provide evidence that the world has changed much because of that Jewish
carpenter. But I heard an acknowledgement of just that on a TV news
program where one of the talking heads used the term "modernity," insisting that
the Islamic world had yet to come to terms with the modern age. I think he
meant more than that savagery is or ought to be out of vogue. I heard his
comment as an echo of the words of the peripatetic rabbi referred to previously.
I mean, where did it enter the consciousness of the human race that savagery
is... well... savagery, something beyond which the human race should have grown?
When did we get to the point that beheadings and hangings and burnings at the
stake are inhumane? Meditate on that word, "inhumane." And still
more to the point, ask why they have become so.
You can easily guess my explanation. We are reaping the
fruition of two thousand years of the seminal thought of a young man on a
mountainside preaching peace and, on another mount, dying for it.