Dean Baxter: “Tyranny and Grace: An Inter-generational Challenge of Faith”
The Prophet Ezekiel wrote: “The word of the Lord came to me [and said]: What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, ‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’? As I live, says the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel… only the person who sins shall die.” [Ezekiel 18:1, 2]
In 1958 Lorraine Hansberry published a play destined to become an American classic, A Raisin In The Sun. The play is about an African American family in the 1950’s. It deals with the survival of communal values and identity prized by one generation and the hunger for individual values and self-determination pursued by a new generation. The five members of the Younger Family (Mother, adult daughter and son, daughter-in-law and grandson) live in a small two bedroom apartment on Chicago’s Southside. The family is in the process of moving into a small house in one of the city’s integrated neighborhoods.
0147;Mama”, recently widowed, is the family matriarch. She is shaped by the harsh realities of life for a black working middle class family in the ‘30’s and ‘40’s. She is obsessed with keeping the family together, conserving and transmitting her children family values, obligations and pride. She believes in the priorities of family survival and cohesion over individualism—she, a domestic and her late husband a laborer—have suffered the dehumanizing lashes of racism and sacrificed youthful dreams and sometimes personal dignity so the family could survive and advance safely as a unit.
Mama did not blame God for the circumstances, which oppressed them; rather, God was the miraculous power and source of strength, which had allowed the family to move from southern poverty to northern ghetto life and now (anticipating home ownership) to the bottom step of the middle class American dream. Therefore, Mama believed that her children, who had benefited from their parents grit and God’s grace, had a grateful responsibility to carry on this collective obligation and preserve middle class family values of hard work, sacrifice, gradual progress and ultimate trust in God.
Her daughter, Beneatha, is 20, and a college student with a very un-American afro hair style. Beneatha’s priorities are individual and she is determined to be a doctor. Beneatha’s independent values and ambition are shaped by the contemporary realities of the 50’s. She represents a new impatient generation’s desire to be liberated from old conventions and constrictions of individual submission to group survival; from the priority of constricting family roles, especially for women, over individual ambitions; and in contrast to Mama, Beneatha’s soul is shaped by a kind of intellectual existentialism rather than naively ascribing to God things which she believes come from human ambition and self-determination.
In Scene I there is a conversation between Mama, her mid-thirty year old daughter-in-law and Beneatha about Beneatha settling down and marrying a well-to-do recent suitor. Beneatha indignantly announces that couldn’t be bothered with that “wife and mother stuff.” She’s going to be a doctor! Mama responds with maternal condescension: “‘course you going to be a doctor, honey, God willing.”
Beneatha informs Mama that she’s tired of hearing about God, “God doesn’t pay the tuition”. Then she says defiantly, “There simply is no blasted God—there is only man and it is he who makes the miracles!”
Mama is livid, and rises to the peak of her matriarchal authority. She slaps Beneatha and says: “Now repeat after me, in my mother’s house there is still God.” After a long emotional pause Beneatha accedes to Mama’s overwhelming authority and repeats with a monotone of compliance but not submission, “In my mother’s house there is still God.” Mama walks out of the room. Beneatha turns to her sister-in-law and says: “I … see that it’s all right for Mama to be a tyrant. But all the tyranny in the world will never put a God in the heavens!” She picks up her books and leaves.
In our first lesson today, Ezekiel had to deal with a similar generational conflict. Ezekiel’s generation was steeped in the culture of Jewish experience and remembrance—temple liturgies, family lore, the Law and its daily codes, high holy days, and their heritage of faith in the stories of Abraham and Moses, Egyptian slavery, the Exodus, the Promised Land. This was also the generation which knew the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, survived the humiliation and desperate grief of being taken into exile, of being forced to live in a foreign culture — with strange customs, conflicting values, and no regard for their identity or traditions as a conquered minority.
But a new generation had grown up without knowing the temple or Jerusalem or the liturgies and laws or the culture which these institutions anchored. They prized new social and theological ways of thinking about life in the prosperous culture of Babylonia. They did not want to be burdened with fears and compromises; exile mentality, minority obligations, or assumptions about exile being God’s “trans-generational retribution”. To this new generation, the issue was not only about accepting life’s sufferings or consequence of the sins or misfortunes of the fathers and mothers, but about imposing the obligations and ideas of earlier generations on survival, memory and cult. The old ideas of God did not serve a new generation seeking active rather than passive liberation and individual expression. They rejected that there was divine endorsement for obliging one generation’s sins, consequences and perspectives to another. Ezekiel realized that mores and morals embodied in traditional proverbs—such as “the parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge”—imposed by a patriarchal culture and reinforced by theological authority was not only driving one generation from another, but was also dividing a new generation from God. Like Lorraine Hansberry, Ezekiel knew that “All the tyranny in the world will never put a God in the heavens.”
So Ezekiel offered a new theology, saying: “The word of the Lord came to me [and said]: What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, ‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’? As I live, says the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel… only the person who dies shall die.”
Even as we gather in this Cathedral today, thousands of our young people gather in the heart of this global capital focused upon the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund Conference. They gather to protest the traditional values of wealth and its distribution, and what they believe are wealth and capitalism’s unjust and destructive effects upon humanity and the environment, especially in the poorest countries.
As I see them I am reminded of the post World War II beatniks, socialist and Afro-centric youth of Hansberry’s generation; or the Hippies, black nationalists, and war protesters of the 60’s and early 70’s, my generation (many of whom now shop at Brooks Brothers and Nieman Marcus). As did other generations, they exercise our most cherished democratic rights to protest the values, policies, ideas and practices of a former generation. To insist that they will not accept the consequential sins, assumptions and practices of their fathers’ and mothers’ uses of power, must necessarily set their teeth on edge.
Like Mama many of us have forgotten what it was like to stand on the first knoll of life’s complex terrain, where we could see the possibilities of new paths cut from the ruts of convention, and the compromises of national interest and personal survival and comfort. Can you remember standing in that place—on that sunlit knoll of just innocence? Can you remember that place in your youth where you could see vividly the sins and failures of another generation and just as clearly, the promise and possibility of a more just and humane world; a world to be embraced even at the cost of our own national and family interest?
On the other hand, I wonder, if like Ezekiel, we can see that deeper values are being preserved which may justify a change in traditional wisdom. Can we look beyond the antics to see that these protests are part of what keeps democracy vibrant and alive! Can we see past the sensitivities of our mores and note that these challenges to convention keep us examining the deeper ideas of our faith and democracy—justice, human rights, sustainable environment—against our practices, our operating values and policies?
I am sure when we see the faces of young protesters on television, or in newspapers we see faces just like those of our own children and grandchildren. They are middle class, well fed, articulate, confident, and well educated. In fact, they are our children, right down to their “un-American” purple hair! Like Mama we watch them enjoying the rare privilege of innocence, of protected expression of public independent thoughts. We watch them and wonder if they know the complexity of the issues they idealistically embrace, and the cost of the liberties they enjoy even as they protest us, our values, our systems, the imperfections and sins of the world we would bequeath to them.
Are we embarrassed as we see them “performing” for the world amidst the hallowed halls and shrines of American democracy, economic power, military supremacy, law and order and religious faith? Do we wonder about their commitment to this nation which has afforded them the privilege? Do we wish like Mama to rise to the full authority of our national parental powers and slap them with arrest and a night in jail; and make them repeat after us, the Pledge of Allegiance—especially the part about “under God”? Or can we accept that “All the tyranny in the world will not put a God in the heavens” or our deportment of democracy in their hearts.
Just maybe this is an opportunity to for us to actually examine ourselves as a nation — beyond our good intentions—and consider our use of power, our policies and their effect upon other nations and the environment. Perhaps it is a time to consider whether capitalism has become confused with democracy or whether our self interest has overtaken our values.
Jesus gives us a clue in his parable about another working class family and their two sons, each of whom the father asks to go into the family vineyard and work. One son concedes, perhaps feeling some obligation to at least articulate the expected reply; but he has no intent of following through. The other son, clearly by individual volition and personal integrity, declines but later chooses (again of his own volition and integrity) to take his part in the family obligation. What is most interesting to me in Jesus’ telling of the parable is that even though a first century father had the power to severely discipline or kill a disobedient son there is no indication of coercion or the tyranny of authority. The father only offers the invitation to responsibility.
We and our children have gathered today in this city of monuments—they amidst the World Bank and White House, and we in this monument—this National House of Prayer for All People. Monument comes from the French word “Monere” meaning “to remember”. This Cathedral is a national monument to the spiritual heritage of America and the fruits of our democracy. Throughout its art, crafts and architecture is depicted not only our Episcopal and Ecumenical heritage but the spirit of our nation’s history in medicine, civil rights, human rights, science, military, politics, law and so on. But above all it is a monument to Christ and our Christian faith, reminding us of the words of St. Paul in our second lesson, “…that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend. …And every tongue should confess that Jesus is Lord to the glory of God the Father”. The “bending of the knee” represents respect or reverence; and “Lordship” means that the values and precepts of the message he lived and spoke, should rule for all people.
A new practical theology for our time may be that although everyone of our children’s generation may not become Christian, we believe that through our Christian living, our constantly examined faithfulness, our values and practices in our private life and public policy, and through the Jesus of the Beatitudes, the Jesus of “love thy neighbor” and “justice for the poor;“ we will see the spirit of that radical and demonstrative Jesus “reverenced” by all persons of goodwill in any generation.
Can we consider a new theology that says wherever there are people who give pre-eminence to peace, justice, reconciliation and hope in higher values with a source beyond human invention, we will find people who have in some way confessed God’s message in Jesus? But they will only know that these are more than Platonic philosophic forms if we, as Christians, are willing to confess them as God’s presence in Christ and exemplify them in our lives and attitudes without coercion or religious tyranny.
As in Jesus’ parable of the two sons, perhaps if we focus more on “doing” than “saying” of the deepest values of our faith, more of our children will honor and share the Christ values they recognize in and through us. They will acknowledge that Christ’s values of peace, justice, hope and reconciliation have lordship over selfishness, greed, convenience and personal comfort.
As I conclude, perhaps these words of St. Paul to the Church at Philippi read as our second lesson can help us today in our self-examination.
“If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind [as Jesus Christ], having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” Then Paul adds these poignant Christian values: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interest, but to the interest of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” [Philippians 2:1, 2] Amen.