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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, and near his children, in Austin, TX, and commutes to Durham, NC. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Beatitude--It's Probably Not What You Think

Among contemporary church folks, maybe especially those in the "small 'b' baptist" or "small 'p' pentecostal" camp, the word "beatitude" has a very specific and technical meaning.  It refers to sayings of Jesus at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew 5.  It means the list of "bless-eds," pronounced in two syllables, not in the usual one syllable way that someone might say, "Haven't we been blessed this year!"  Or for those of us who were around for the extremely popular launch of the Good News Translation, the beatitudes may be the list of "happy" things Jesus told the disciples. 
Happy are those who know they are spiritually poor;
the Kingdom of heaven belongs to them!
I'm certainly overgeneralizing, but the rank and file of these churches are not likely to be reading ancient and medieval theological and philosophical writings which use the Latin term that becomes "beatitude" in English.  Beatitude, sort of like the English "blessedness," describes a condition of well-being.  Unlike the idea of "well-being" in popular psychology, it is not talking about merely "feeling good about oneself."  It is not an inwardly achieved and uncontextual "self-esteem."  This sort of well-being, defined by a different set of assumptions than those of our individualistic age, encompasses a state or location within one's intended purpose.  Blessedness in a theological setting entails a proper relation to God and God's creation, including the people around us whom God has created. 

Beatitude, used this way in theological texts, points the church and believers toward the goal or telos of existence, including human existence in the larger whole of created existence.  It is where we strive to be, where we aim to be, what we are made to be.  Some theologians frame the notion by writing of the "beatific vision."  The beatific vision means to look upon the goodness of God, or in more familiar language, to fix our eyes upon Jesus.  In this use, looking upon is a way of receiving and absorbing into oneself the One who is looked upon.  It is focused attention toward being reformed in God's image.

There is a way of talking about the beatific vision that leaves me a bit uncomfortable, when it seems that the ancient writer has tried to Christianize some kinds of Greek and European thought without enough of the material scandal of Jesus, seeming to import Neo-Platonic "contemplation of the pure form," rather than following Jesus, as the ultimate calling of God. 

But we don't have to use the term that way.  To look upon the goodness of God, to fix our eyes on Jesus, to see now, through a glass darkly (but with intimations of face-to-face), what the Lord, the Spirit, is doing, is powerful language.  It can help us in the day-to-day to recognize God's presence and power, and it can motivate us and draw us onward toward the goal of the high calling of Christ Jesus.

One of the more recent theologians (from the 1700s in the American colonies) who made much good of this sort of language was Jonathan Edwards.  His phrases "consent to being" and "beneficence to being-in-general" are rooted in the notion of looking upon the goodness of God both in creation and uncreated being.  We consent to God when we acknowledge the goodness of God that surrounds and sustains us.  As Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians, "there is a new creation....All this is from God."  In our churches, we sing a contemporary song that captures well Edwards' thought: 
I'll say, "Yes, Lord. Yes,"
To your will and to your way.
I'll say, "Yes, Lord. Yes,"
I will trust You and obey.
When Your Spirit speaks to me,
With my whole heart I'll agree,
And my answer will be,
"Yes, Lord. Yes."
To behold the goodness of God, become immersed in God's good ways, participate in God's providential care--that is what beatitude is.  To know God better moves us to be able to love God better, and to love God better forms us to be able to love one another and all of creation better.  So the beatific vision, beatitude, is a telos that draws us ever toward the reason that we exist at all.  And as the Shaker's song says,
When we find ourselves in the place just right,
'Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
Having now chased down the historical and deeper meaning of the term beatitude, I'll get back to what got me started on this post anyway.  The beatitudes as we know them in Matthew are a kind of virtue ethics teaching.  They describe character traits, admirable qualities, that a community of Christians should exhibit in order to live well.  To have these characteristics is to be on the path of being blessed, of becoming happy, of finding ourselves in the place just right. 

It's certainly not original to me to point out that there are two Gospels which report on similar sayings, beatitudes, from Jesus.  It is probably in part because baptists tend to like the feeling that all the scriptures are easily harmonized that they tend to ignore the beatitudes from Luke and memorize the beatitudes from Matthew.  Matthew's list is longer and more comprehensive.  Matthew's list is also more easily interpreted individually and inwardly.  And although Matthew's list is certainly not without challenging and controversial language, Luke's beatitudes will really shake things up.

When John Howard Yoder sought in The Politics of Jesus to demonstrate the political and economic significance of Jesus' ministry, he pointed to Luke's beatitudes for contrast to the usual reading strategy of twentieth-century United States church people who watered things down by trying to make Matthew's beatitudes be about mere personal piety.  Barry Harvey states this argument well as he encourages better and more faithful reading of Scripture in Can These Bones Live? 

Alerted by Yoder, taught by Harvey, awakened by John Perkins and the CCDA, reshaped by Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church and affiliate congregations of Durham CAN, I am at this moment inclined to say this should be a year for Luke's beatitudes.  They challenge the complacency of United States church folks who have believed too long that things will keep getting better for most of us if we keep doing the things we have always done.  They upend the assumptions that when we look upon the prosperity of the extremely wealthy we are seeing what beatitude must be.  They put the axe to the root of the idea that those who have large houses, magnificent churches, exhorbitant expense accounts, luxurious cars, exclusive addresses, and posh clothes, that they are the blessed.  It's probably time to take a look at Luke's text, chapter 6, verses 20-26.
Then he looked up at his disciples and said:
‘Blessed are you who are poor,
   for yours is the kingdom of God.
‘Blessed are you who are hungry now,
   for you will be filled.
‘Blessed are you who weep now,
   for you will laugh.
‘Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you,
   and defame you on account of the Son of Man.
 'Rejoice on that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven;
   for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
‘But woe to you who are rich,
   for you have received your consolation.
‘Woe to you who are full now,
   for you will be hungry.
‘Woe to you who are laughing now,
   for you will mourn and weep.
‘Woe to you when all speak well of you,
   for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets. 
The first thing we notice is that Jesus paired these "blesseds" with a set of "woes."  The longer context of Matthew's Sermon on the Mount has many similarities with Luke's Sermon on the Plain.*
Both use moral contrasts as a rhetorical device.  The contrasts come later in Matthew's version.  In Luke's, they find their way into the beatitude/woe section.  Both gospels dictate challenging economic revisions, but in Luke those find their way into the opening beatitude/woe section.  It is not surprising that many of the radical movements in Christian history have drawn upon the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew, so we have to acknowledge that Luke is not offering a more revolutionary gospel than Matthew.  But when it comes to the limited section of the beatitudes and how we read them, turning to Luke's beatitudes and woes shakes things up.

The thought that struck me and led to my writing this post has to do with what pastors and church people think of when they think of a "blessed church."  What do pastors of small, struggling churches have in mind when they imagine to what a successful ministry career might lead?  What do church people who find TV preaching attractive think about the comparison between their own congregations and the opulence and exhorbitance of TV churches?  I find that quite often, the unstated (and occasionally stated) understanding of what a church could become if it were blessed and successful, what a ministry career could lead to if it were blessed and successful, is massive material wealth. 

Even people who deny the official line of the "prosperity gospel" still are tempted to idolize pastors who are bringing in massive amounts of cash.  They look with admiration upon conspicuous opulence.  Those who give in to the temptation of this false beatific vision are likely to believe that those who become wealthy through ministry "deserve" the material blessings they receive.  They are getting rich because God is proud of how faithful they have been.

I don't know what Bible these people read.  Well, I do.  It is the one I read, but they read it very differently.  And they don't read the Sermon on the Mount or the Sermon on the Plain very intently.  They don't let Jesus' words guide whatever else they read.  They prefer the Prayer of Jabez to the Prayer of Jesus. 

What are Jesus' words to that TV preacher who has people swipe their credit cards and go into debt to make him or her rich?  What does Jesus think about preachers getting folks to put money on the dais so that they can run their feet through it and kick it around and in the air?  "Woe! You have received your consolation!"  You thought money could solve your problems.  You thought money would make you happy.  And whatever happiness, whatever solutions you have found in it, that's all you're going to get.  That's the only love you have.  And when you are hungry, who in hell is going to care?  Not you or the people of the hellish world you are building for yourself.  And when you are weeping, let your swiped cards and foot-kicking cash wipe away your tears.  Woe unto you!  That is not how I taught you to live.

If church people could read the Bible better, could let the Sermon on the Mount and Sermon on the Plain speak with more authority than Wal-Mart, Starbucks, Armani, Jared's, Lexus, and the many other powers, authorities, principalities, and powers that organize our lives, then we could begin to break through to beatitude.  We might start to see the beatific vision.  We might realize that the material wealth we have is to be shared among all God's people, not denied to the masses.  We would see that any blessing we receive is not merely for us but for us to share with others in need.  We would see, as did Basil, Chrysostom, Augustine, and so many others, that to have surplus goods when others are in need makes us into thieves.  And that should make us open our tight-fisted hands and share with people in need.  For the sake of Jesus' calling, for the sake of being the body of Christ here and now, it is critical that we do so.

The world in which we live is ever more structured around maintaining the poverty of most of its inhabitants.  Even in the wealthiest of nations, the masses become poorer each year while a tiny percentage grow richer and richer.  The gap between rich and poor is as wide as ever, both in this country and in most lands of the world.  Slave labor, child labor, debilitating labor conditions, pittance wages--these are the primary tools of wealth-building in this age.  Financial maneuvering to create schemes that transfer masses of wealth from the middle class to the elite are the standard for Wall Street.  Profiteering from mortgage scandals, foreclosing on houses, shipping jobs overseas, ignoring the human costs of financial advantages--this is the world in which we live.

It is a world to which the church needs to say a clear and powerful, "Woe to you!"  There is a better way.  It may cost us, because the wealthy will not easily change their ways.  Just think how hard it is for any of us to give up the luxuries and pleasures and material things we enjoy.  The prophets always had a tough road, and Jesus says we should realize we are blessed when the powers and dominions start to fight back against our challenge to their ways.  And he also warns us, that if everyone likes us, we are probably just like all the false prophets who figured out how to get the status quo powers to butter their bread on both sides.

I hope that every preacher, every teacher, every Bible lover, will make this year a year to preach, teach, and converse about Luke's beatitudes and woes.  Beatitude may not be what we have been thinking that it was.  What we thought it was--that may actually be woe.  So let's get ourselves on the path to beatitude.  Speak a word.

*(People resolve the similarity and difference in various ways. Some would say that they are two different lengthy sermons that Jesus delivered in different places and at different times, but with similar thoughts and purposes, returning in each case to topics and phrases he regularly spoke about, and in each case also taking up different topics.  Others would say that the Gospel writers collected sayings and grouped them together into a "typical" or summary sermon, and each had access to different sayings and chose to use some identical and some different sayings.  Both sound pretty reasonable to me.)

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