Saturday Night Theologian
24 December 2006

Micah 5:2-5a

Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond. His fame rested on solid personal achievements. As a young man of eighteen he had brought honor to his village by throwing Amalinze the Cat. Amalinze was the great wrestler who for seven years was unbeaten, from Umuofia to Mbaino. . . . That was many years ago, twenty or more, and during this time Okonkwo's fame had grown like a bush-fire in the harmattan.
Nigerian author Chinua Achebe's 1958 novel Things Fall Apart is the story of a local strong man whose lifetime of achievement and honor drifts away from him as he fails to come to grips both with the changes taking place in his world and with his own demons of fear and anger. Okonkwo, the story's protagonist, is transformed from a respected clan leader at the beginning of the book to a pariah at the end. Hard as he tries, he is unable to effect the changes of character and perspective that will allow him to continue to lead his people into a new age. In eighth-century B.C.E. Judah, the capital city of Jerusalem was the undisputed center of the nation's life. The king ruled from Jerusalem, the temple stood there, and the city was the largest in Judah. Nevertheless, when the prophet Micah envisions the future, he does not see Jerusalem as the focus of the nation's rebirth. Instead, he sets his eyes on Bethlehem, a small village some nine kilometers to the south. The power and wealth of Jerusalem do not properly equip it to be the home of Judah's savior. In fact, Jerusalem's prestige may very well work against it, for its role as the leading city in Judah blinded its leaders to the need for repentance and reform. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, some Americans have liked to refer to America as the world's only superpower. However, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, America's continued military and economic hegemony over the rest of the world is in grave danger, in large measure because of its moral failures and its arrogance as a participant in the world community. It shouldn't be the goal of Christians, even American Christians, to keep America or any other country in the role of world leader, but it should be our goal to influence whatever country we live in to exhibit the moral fiber, courage, justice, and compassion necessary to impact the world positively. Military might is often exaggerated, as the U.S. administration is learning (one hopes!) in Iraq (since they didn't learn the lesson of Vietnam). Economic might is fleeting, as the falling dollar and rising trade deficits with China demonstrate. Nations that want to leave a lasting, positive mark on the world need to remember that the power of Jerusalem can easily be replaced by the humility of Bethlehem, and global leaders are those that win the respect of the world community, not those that attempt to force it at gunpoint.

Luke 1:46b-55 (first published 12 Dec 2004)

Wangari Maathai was in Oslo on Friday to accept a prestigious award, the first African woman to win it. Maathai is no stranger to firsts. She was the first woman from east or central Africa to earn a Ph.D. and the first woman to head a university department in Kenya. A veterinarian by training, she led Kenya's environmental movement for years. She was beaten and thrown in jail on several occasions during the autocratic rule of President Daniel arap Moi, but she persisted in her efforts to preserve the environment from the encroachment of corporate interests. When arap Moi was defeated in December 2002 by Mwai Kibabi, Maathai also won a seat in parliament at the same time. She is an outspoken advocate not only for the environment but also for women's rights, democracy, and peace. When she was born in a rural area of Kenya in 1940, few if any would have predicted what she has been able to accomplish, but 64 years later, her name is forever associated with what is quite possibly the world's highest honor, the Nobel Peace Prize. Mary of Nazareth was also a woman of humble origins. Born in an obscure village in a backwater province of the Roman Empire, she is the kind of person who could have been easily overlooked. Despite her inauspicious beginning, she became perhaps the most revered woman in the history of the world by virtue of becoming the mother of Jesus Christ. Mary gives voice to the upheaval that God has wrought in her life in a song the church calls the Magnificat, based on the first word of the song in Latin, which begins, "Magnificat anima mea Dominum," "My soul magnifies the Lord." Mary's sings a song of change, a song in which the social order of the world is reversed. The rich are overthrown, and the poor are filled with good things. Mary herself was living proof that such a reversal of fortune was possible. Even within her lifetime, according to church tradition, she was honored for her role in the nurture of Jesus, and she died in Ephesus an old and happy woman (or, according to Catholic doctrine, she was taken up bodily into heaven!). The Magnificat is not just a song about Mary, however. It is a song that can be sung by all of God's people who long for a world of justice and equity. There are many good people who are rich, and there are many wicked or amoral people who are rich, but there are many more who live their lives with little awareness that their wealth negatively impacts many, many people. Money that is hoarded in banks, securities, stocks, and real estate is money that is not being used to feed, heal, or employ the poor. There is no magic formula that tells people how much money is enough. There is no set amount of money that is OK to keep in a retirement account, beyond which it is hoarding. God expects all of us to examine our own lifestyles to determine what we should do with the riches with which God has blessed us. Before we take too much comfort in that, however, we should remember these words of Mary: "He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly." We have seen God raise up the lowly to great heights, both in the distant past and in the present day. We can be sure that God is just as ready to bring down the proud and mighty today as God has been in the past.

Hebrews 10:5-10 (first published 21 Dec 2003)

In the movie Life is Beautiful, Guido, played by Roberto Benigni, and his wife and son are taken to a concentration camp in Italy. Guido has to hide his son, Giosué so that the Nazis won't kill him, so he tells him that they are playing a giant game of hide and seek, and that the team that wins will get a tank. By taking a terrible situation and transforming it into a game, he is able to protect his son, both physically and emotionally, from the tragedy of the concentration camp. Have you ever "made a virtue of necessity"? When confronted with a situation in which you had no option but to do something unpalatable, or something that under normal circumstances you'd rather not have done, have you managed to make the best of it? If the book of Hebrews was written after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple, as many scholars believe, then the author has transformed a difficult situation--the destruction of the temple and the demise of the sacrificial system so central to Second Temple Judaism--into a statement of hope. God has not brought an end to an important religious rite without replacing it with something much more profound. In the place of actual sacrifice, which was no longer possible, God has substituted the sacrificial death of Jesus, and Jesus' followers have a new relationship with God because of "the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all." Sometimes it takes a tragedy to make us reexamine our understanding of God, and sometimes believers gradually realize, because of changed worldview, that they need to reevaluate their understanding of God and religion. Almost 500 years ago Martin Luther launched a Reformation of the church that brought about profound changes throughout Christianity, and not only among Protestants. The printing press was perhaps the most important invention of the second Christian millennium, because it allowed new ideas to spread far and wide, effectively bringing an end to the established church's control of information. The European "discovery" of the New World and the fall of Byzantium to the Muslims changed the way Europeans thought about themselves and the world, so Luther was the right person in the right place at the right time to proclaim new ideas. We find ourselves today in a similar situation. A new medium of communication--the Internet, and especially the Web--offers individuals unprecedented opportunities to communicate with one another. The dangers of living in a nuclear age have made the peace movement more vital than at any previous time in history, if only because it is now a matter of life of death for the planet. Advances in science have given us a greater understanding of our universe and ourselves. The time is ripe for a new Reformation. Following the example of the author of Hebrews, we need to recognize that the world has changed. We no longer live in the nineteenth century, nor can we return to the 1950s--and we shouldn't want to! We live in a brave new world of opportunities and dangers, and Christians need to set positive examples for people of other faiths and people of no faith. We need to offer our generation and subsequent generations a picture of God that is compatible with science while remaining connected to our historical faith. We need to offer forms of worship that are meaningful to people living in a postmodern world. We need to offer analyses of both the Bible and current events that are consistent with our new understanding of how God works in the world. The author of Hebrews boldly states that Christ abolished the sacrificial system in order to do God's will in a new way. What aspects of our current understanding of Christianity do we need to abolish in order to do God's will in the third millennium?

Luke 1:39-45 (first published 21 Dec 2003)

In the trailer to the movie American Beauty, the audience is shown what appears on the surface to be a normal, suburban, American family: husband, wife, daughter, neighbors, job. But everything is not right. There's conflict, betrayal, love, hate, obsession, rebellion, violence. Still that's not all there is. Look closer, the trailer urges, and find the beauty in all of it. Christianity is based on the teachings of a man executed as a common criminal, who was born to a woman who got pregnant out of wedlock. Who could find anything of beauty in a story like that? Elizabeth did. When Mary visited her relative in the final days of Elizabeth's pregnancy, Elizabeth greeted her with the strange words, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb." Despite the circumstances, Elizabeth saw the beauty of Mary's situation. Are we able to see beauty in difficult circumstances today? How does the church react to an unwed, pregnant teenager? Do we pile our reprobation on top of her already well-developed guilt? Or do we offer our support and love through a difficult time? Can we see the good that can come out of the situation? And how do we deal with those in our midst who have been convicted of crimes? Do we shun them and hope they'll go to another church, or just drop out? Do we condemn the criminal to a life of perpetual ostracism? Do we think of prison as a place of punishment or rehabilitation? I heard Jimmy Carter speak once about the prison system. He said that when he was governor of Georgia, he and his fellow southern governors would compete with one another to see who could develop the most enlightened, effective prisons, where convicts were rehabilitated and recidivism was minimized. Now, he said, governors compete with one another to see which state can have the harshest laws. Rehabilitation is hardly discussed, and recidivism is expected. Christians need to remember our roots and show love to those in difficult circumstances, even if the circumstances are of their own making. In Mary's beautiful song, the Magnificat, she speaks of God looking with favor on the lowly, not only herself, but others like her. If we truly believe in the God Mary spoke of, we would do well to consider the poor and lowly, the unwed mothers and convict fathers, the homeless and the illegal aliens, with the compassion that God has for them. Maybe then we'll see the beauty that's in all of them.