27 September 2009

change versus tradition

Recently, a survey instrument crossed my path. One question was how I 'felt' about change versus tradition. That question did stick with me.

My response for the survey was: Change is what Jesus did - Calvary is what tradition did.

Jesus was 'making all things new.' Jesus changed the very idea of the chosen people and the kingdom of God from the traditional views to his own. Jesus violated norms so often that one can read the entire Gospel of Mark as being about his authority and calling to do so.

Caiaphas on the other hand was in the tradition business. He understood that the Temple was dependent on the maintenance of a Jewish client state relationship with Rome. The last thing he wanted was direct rule from Rome. The Herodians to protect themselves from revolution had to support the temple and act as Hebrew devouts at least to some extent. Their claim to legitmacy required it because doing so supported their claim as successors to the Hasmonians.

Change, from exclusiveness, ethnocentrism, legalism towards inclusivity, equality for women and evangelism was simply not acceptable to Caiaphas and the temple authorities. Change meant taking on the structures that supported them and to their way of thinking made it possible to co-exist with Rome.

We should be somewhat sympathetic towards Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin. They lived in a very Jewish world. They knew that their status was only on offer because Rome found them handy. Examples of what happened to client kingdoms that did not keep the peace, keep trade moving, provide the required tribute and generally fit into the Roman mosaic existed only in blood drenched memory. Rome was not fooling around.

And they were right. When in the late 60's CE, the radicals attacked the Herodians and Romans, the response was devastating. In the only definitive account, Josephus argues that the Jewish people had been a sophisticated, ancient and civilized nation. Josephus acted as an apologist for a dead state and its remnants. After Masada, Jews were a dispersed remnant whose culture and survival depended on not anoying Rome.

Change is in fact dangerous, crying justice more dangerous. Princes frequently react badly when called to justice. Caiaphas had a point. And so, tradition had to be defended, even if that meant sending someone who might be a prophet and turning him into a silenced martyr.

Jesus of course refused to be silenced. The message of the resurrection is that his call to radical inclusive change lives on with him. Ever since, the traditionalists have sought to mold that call into legalism. Rome swims in legalism and the forces of the "Anglican Covenant" are striving to drag my faith community into it.

Like Caiaphas, todays defenders of exclusivity, legalism and tradition are not completely wrong. Calling a culture to justice is dangerous. Swimming against the the tide often produces drownings. The safe way is clearly not to shake things up. In our own day, the dead of the civil rights movement, the dead revolutionaries from Dr. King to Gandhi and many others show us what happens when one speaks justice to power.

I think the bravest man mentioned in the entire Old Testament may well be Nathan. Nathan who walked into David's presence and cryed out for justice over the murder of Uriah the Hittite, "You are that man!" Nathan who told the king who could simply kill him that he had sinned. We need more Nathans.

In our time, it has fallen to us to confront racism, sexism, heterosexism and that one constant: abuse of power. Is our day that different from Nathan's? Of course we North Americans and British know that we wont be killed for crying "Justice!" We might loose seats at Lambeth, invitations to the next White House prayer breakfast or participation at conferences with the Nigerian hierarchy. Rome may not smile on us, which appears to matter to at least one archbishop.

There is always a choice. Ours is to consign some to "crucified places,"1 as did Caiaphas or to go there ourselves as did Jesus. Tradition, safe, easy and secure, or change, dangerous, scary, even deadly -- there is always a choice.

In choosing we have to be aware we may be wrong. We may well perceive we are crying justice when we are simply wrong about the issues -- the USA house of bishops is particularly prone to this on economic issues. But if we consistently seek to do what Jesus did, what Nathan did we can not fail in the end, even if we are killed for it.

Change or tradition? Sending some to a, "crucified place" for us or walking into it. How do you choose?



1. In an interview shortly after the infamous B033 resolution passed through General Convention, the presiding bishop responded to an interview question about where that left the lesbian and gay Episcopalians. She responded that it was in a, "crucified place."

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