Living Out the Beatitudes
A sermon delivered by Jim McKibbin at Beach United Church January 30, 2011
If blessedness is goal of a Christian the beatitudes form a radical theological structure for that blessedness. As rules of God, the beatitudes stand in contrast, perhaps to the easier to understand 10 commandments.
The “shall nots” and “shalls” of the commandments are very clear. That is not the case with the beatitudes. They are much less clear. They require constant theological reflection, contemplation, dialogue and action.
But in looking at the question of the beatitudes I’d like to bring to mind a couple of events both of which took place about 30 years ago. The first is the publication of this book called the Be (Happy) Attitudes by Dr Robert Schuller, founder of the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California and long time host of the Sunday morning Hour of Power telecast.
The second is the death of this man Archbishop Oscar Romero, murdered in 1980, by government assassins, in his church, celebrating a funeral mass, because he spoke out against government human rights violations. In so doing he came to personify the resistance of the people of El Salvador against the oppression of the corporate state.
In examining this scripture today I’d like to focus on the issues of righteous resistance, persecution and the poor in spirit.
Now Dr Schuller has a remedy for the poor in spirit, if we are to understand the “poor in spirit” as being those who exist on the margins, the impoverished, the oppressed, depressed, disadvantaged and dispossessed.
In a light and lively format Dr Schuller transforms the beatitudes into 8 happy attitudes that can change your life. So blessed are the poor in spirit becomes, “I need help. I can’t do it alone.” And blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” becomes “I can choose to be happy anyway”.
Now not to diminish the clearly invaluable contribution to self-help culture that Dr Schuller has made with this New York Times best seller, and how useful it might be to use the beatitudes for self improvement, this may not be what Jesus had in mind.
Dr Schuller makes the beatitudes a me-focused exercise. In writing about the poor in spirit he says that everybody is poor in their own way and in this way directs our focus inward.
The culture of self help is very inward. It is not about the “other”. So in practicing Dr Schuller’s approach we need to recognize that it may cause us to turn away from those who are genuinely poor and poor in spirit.
Archbishop Romero struggled with this very concept; the application of the Beatitudes to the oppressive feudalism of a ruling elite in El Salvador.
Ordained in 1942 Romero was a conservative priest opposing the plea for renewal coming out of Vatican 2.
In El Salvador he supported a policy of peace any price.
As his biographer Victor Shepherd writes when Romero became editor of the Archdiocesan magazine he contradicted the previous editor who had cried out against social injustice.
Instead Romero focused inward on the addictions of the people – alcoholism, pornography, drug addiction.
Ultimately however, Romero was faced with the historic “turn” in his life, when his circumstances necessitated deep personal reflection about what it meant to live out the beatitudes.
The decision he made was as much about what it meant to be church in El Salvador, as it was a personal one for Romero.
With the Jesuits’ declaration of an “option for the poor”, masses of people came to believe in their own blessedness. There was resistance to the oppression and exceedingly cruel state measures against that resistance.
In 1975 a series of events catalyzed Romero. The National Guard hacked people to death in a village as it rampaged from house to house, ostensibly searching for concealed weapons. Soldiers machine-gunned demonstrators killing dozens when 50,000 people demonstrated against rigged elections.
Summoning priests to his residence he told them he no longer needed any evidence, he knew what the gospel required of church leaders in the face of the people’s misery. All priests were to afford sanctuary to those threatened by police and government authorities.
Almost immediately government forces gunned down Rutilio Grande, a Jesuit friend, together with an old man and sixteen year-old boy.
“Undeterred,” Shepherd tells us, “Romero prayed publicly at length beside his friend’s remains, and then buried all three corpses without first securing government permission – a criminal offence. Next he did the unthinkable: he excommunicated the murderers. In a dramatic gesture he cancelled all services the following Sunday except for a single mass in front of the cathedral, conducted outdoors before 100,000 people. When he went to Rome to explain himself, the pope replied, “Coraggio – courage.”
Courage? As Shepherd tells us, Rightwing groups were leafleting the nation, “Be a patriot: kill a priest.”
Romero’s ‘turn’ was based on his recognition that the church needed to take a stand on the people’s resistance. “Would it help move them past an oppressive feudalism or retrench, thereby strengthening the hand of the oppressor?” His “turn” was based on his outreach into the world to those who are poor and poor in spirit, who are meek, who mourn and who hunger and thirst for righteousness.
Days before his murder he told a reporter, "You can tell the people that if they succeed in killing me, that I forgive and bless those who do it. Hopefully, they will realize they are wasting their time. A bishop will die, but the church of God, which is the people, will never perish."
Fundamentally, this is what the beatitudes are. They are about the people – the other if you will. They are not singular in their approach.
They require reflection, contemplation, dialogue and ultimately action. As Christians this is an ongoing discussion.
This discussion extends to even identifying how many there are: 7, 8, 9, 10.
My simple mind tells me to count the verses and when one does that there are nine.
Now the ninth one is a most interesting one. It is also one that many people lump in with the eighth. Dr Schuller, for example lists 8 beatitudes – the eighth being “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
He doesn’t mention the 9th which says “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad for your reward is great in heaven. For in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were there before you.”
Now the interesting thing about the 9th is that it is the only one which is directed to you as the reader – not “those” who are someone else and may or may not be you. The 9th is for you.
Is this an invitation from Jesus for us to stand with the oppressed, to resist evil and pursue social justice, to step into the shoes of the persecuted? Is it a message for the church – that the church cannot be a centre of disengagement but rather, must become a centre of resistance?
Jesus is saying “How about it?”
Romero acknowledged this call. He acknowledged that the beatitudes were about what he did. He spent time in reflection, contemplation, dialogue and action. He saw himself in the ‘you’ of the 9th beatitude.
He recognized that there were those who were poor and poor in spirit, and those who were not. He recognized that the amoral corporate state cared not at all, for the blessedness of the people.
In the competitive, globalized world in which we live it is easy to set aside concern for the other. The culture encourages it.
As we know from Romero’s example it is not easy to suffer persecution for righteousness sake.
People are persecuted because they are demonized and hated and singled out for attack. In Romero’s case, because he was unpatriotic – kill a priest.
Just as Jews became the Anti-Christ during the Shoa or Holocaust.
First Nations children were subject to beating because they spoke their own language.
The persecuted are criminalized and made demonic.
As retired US Army Colonel Harry Summers states, "It always makes it easier to fight a war if you demonize people so that you're not killing human beings, you're killing the devil."
In his classic work, Peculiar Institution, Kenneth Stampp, wrote about this principle. “Whites decreed that the slaves had no souls, they were not considered human beings, and since they were not human beings, anything could be done to them. And Stampp cites the case of a female slave owner who chopped up one of her slaves to relieve her frustrations.
When we ask how these things can happen, we must recognize the kind of evil that arises from a perspective of demonization and hatred.
It is a perspective of war. It allows soldiers to kill an enemy and step across that sacred line and take a human life. We ask our soldiers to suspend their consciences in war and reactivate them when they return home.
But it is not just our soldiers who are at war. We are at war. There is a culture of permanent war in the world - permanent war - where the persecution of the demonized other, is a staple of the culture.
Political debate reeks with toxicity of demonization, hatred and the singling out of people for attack. Jared Lee Loughner's diabolical mug shot reminds us what happens when the culture of persecution holds sway.
Ultimately in all this the church has choice. As Romero had a choice.
In speaking of persecution Romero said, 'While it is clear that our Church has been the victim of persecution..., it is even more important to observe the reason for the persecution. ...The persecution comes about because of the Church's defence of the poor, for assuming the destiny of the poor."
For living out the beatitude.
Is the church about resistance? For Romero yes. His church lies with the people.
As for Dr Schuller he lives on, once again in retirement in Garden Grove. The Be Happy Attitudes and his other books on how to find personal happiness are still available on the Hour of Power website. But there have been challenges. Three years after appointing his son as his successor Dr Schuller cited a lack of a shared vision as a rationale for removing his son from his position as senior pastor and installing his daughter in his place.
In October of 2010 the Crystal Cathedral declared chapter 11 bankruptcy in the US with debts of $50 – 100 million creating a creditor and media frenzy about salaries paid to executives.
And the beatitudes, they still instruct us on how to live and how to understand the rule of God. We need only take the time to reflect, contemplate, dialogue and take action.
Thanks be to God.