Monday, November 24, 2014

DJ Jesus teaches prayer

We forget that Jesus' words were actually spoken to illiterate people for whom the message had to be put in memorable terms. In this sense, Jesus was almost a modern rapper, speaking to a beat and a rhyme.

Possibly the best known words attributed to Jesus are those in the prayer known among Christians as either "the Lord's Prayer" or "the Our Father."(1) The gospels of Matthew and Luke offer slightly different texts, but scholars argue persuasively that the Jesus probably said:

hallowed be your name.
Your Kingdom come.
Our daily bread give us today.
And forgive us our debts
as we forgive our debtors.
And do not lead us to the test.

One hypothetical version in Aramaic, the Hebraic dialect Jesus spoke, would yield the following in transliteration:

yitqaddas semak
te'teh malkutak
labmana di misteya hab
lemah yoma demah
usebuq lamah hobaynah
kedi sebaqna lehayyahayna
we'al elinnana lenisyon

Note the two- and four-beat rhythm and several simple and internal rhymes. You can almost imagine the disciples repeating it to hands clapping, swaying to the singsong of these words.

1. I borrow rather heavily in this post from John Meier's A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Volume II, pp. 291-293.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Atonement: a thought experiment

I interrupt the regularly unscheduled and a little quixotic programming to introduce a thought experiment based on an idea I was recently given: What if we accept our misfortunes as atonement for our wrongdoing?

I won't argue that God punishes the bad and rewards the good. This would mean that many rich, power, famous and beautiful people have God on their side and the rest of us, well, we've been bad and have gotten what we deserve. That's Calvinist nonsense.

Behind every fortune lies a crime, as Balzac well pointed out, power belongs to the ruthless, fame is a whimsical thing (witness the Kardashians, whose raison d'etre as celebrities totally eludes me) and beauty is in the eye of the beholder. So, no, sorry rich, powerful, famous and beautiful people, God loves everyone, not just you.

But consider what things might be like if you and I were to say, when misfortune befalls us: "I have been fortunate beyond what I realistically deserve. I did nothing to be alive and the justification for my existence is iffy. Moreover, I have hurt people and have deserved punishment that I have not received."

Perhaps then misfortune might be a small way to "work off" our wrongs and set the universe a little more in balance. Or, maybe, just to accept what we cannot change in a moral and faithful way.

Of course, there remains the problem of evil. Misfortune is not apportioned proportionately and we don't know why. There surely are people who are poorer, sicker, more in pain than we are, yet there is in most cases little evidence that they have behaved much worse than we have.

For example, although I generally do not agree with the notion of the innocence of children, why are there children with cancer whose worst deed is most likely no more than a minor fib or taking something from a sibling and Wall Street executives are walking freely enjoying millions despite having had a hand in the impoverishment of millions of Americans?

I don't have an answer. One of the reasons to desire finding oneself in the presence of God one day is the possibility of being able to ask her questions like this, face to face, so to speak.

But right now, I like the idea of misfortune, real or imagined, as a kind of atonement. Here is a prayer for it:

Thank you, God, for the opportunity to share in the woe I have contributed to this world. Thank you for the chance to experience the unfairness with which I have treated others. I am humbled in my suffering. Help me to cleanse myself in my suffering, to learn compassion for others in my pain and to radiate your love rather than my discomfort. Amen.