19 nov 2016

The space of hope

Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, woodcut for Die Bibel in Bildern, 1860.

How do we bring values into public arenas of debate? A well-known story from my own religious tradition will be my starting point to show how stories are at the origin of my identity and how they influence my attitude in public life.

The interpretation of stories we grew up with form our views on the world. Our values emanate from a living relation with the stories in and the stories of our lives. Some of them have been given to us or even forced upon us by others, others we have chosen or found ourselves. We live and relive them, interpret and reinterpret them. Our experiences shape the interpretations, and the stories shape our experiences.  It is within this ongoing hermeneutical circle that our values are born, grow and change. My story today is about the space of hope which can be found within this circle.

Firstly, I will try to show you how the dialogue with my own protestant background inspires me to take a certain attitude in public debates. The story itself as well as its historical reception underline the importance of making space for others by not immediately judging them on the basis of socially fixed images.

Secondly, I will make a connection with the relationship of political and religious traditions as was done in the book Green Values, Religion and Secularism.

Finally, I will make some concluding remarks about this value of hope.  

1. Reading a Parable

Let’s start with the story. It comes from the New Testament, Luke 18: 9-14 : The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (translation NIV):

Regarding those who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people - robbers, evildoers, adulterers - or even like this tax collector here.  I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

In the Christian tradition, we have known those two – the Pharisee and the Tax Collector - since a very long time. Through the centuries, in which a certain type of interpretation prevailed, the image has been created of the Pharisee as a sanctimonious person, the very word pharisaic meaning hypocrite today. But this image doesn’t do the Pharisee justice. What do we know about him?

Perspective

The Pharisees were highly respected by their fellow Jews. There were different groups of Pharisees, who sharply debated among themselves. Jesus was very close to them. The very fact that he constantly criticized them (just as they criticized him) shows his engagement with them. In a situation of occupation and oppression both Jesus and the Pharisees held the view that ‘no title or iota shall by no means pass from the Torah’. For both Jesus and the Pharisees the Laws of Moses were part of the covenant between God and his people and had to be cherished in a world full of abuses. The Pharisees dissociated themselves from the Romans and did not collaborate with them, unlike the tax collectors. Those asked people to pay more than the Romans wanted, for their own profit. The Pharisees kept their distance from these dubious practices. They wanted to do the right thing in everyday life. That’s why they criticized Jesus for having dinner with one of those tax collectors. Jesus might have been a friend of tax collectors, but he didn’t follow them in their unjust behaviour. In that respect, he was like a Pharisee.

It would have been a good thing, if the Christian Church would have done its best to be a little bit more like the Pharisees. Instead, it choose to identify with the publican, the tax collector. The Church liked to see itself as a justified sinner, in contrast with the arrogant Pharisee. But, by doing so, it changed the perspective in a dangerous way. The Church became just like the Pharisee from our story, thanking God for not being like ‘this Pharisee’. Many preachers even went a step further and designated the Pharisee - this particular image of the Pharisee as a hypocrite - as the Jew par excellence. The tax collector – this one, this humble one – was made into the image of the Christian. As a consequence Christians started to show exactly the behaviour which Jesus criticizes in the parable: they looked down on all Jews. That is how the interpretation of this text has contributed to the antisemitism within the Christian Churches.

It is all about perspective. Jesus told this story regarding those ‘who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on others’. He wanted the listeners to identify with the Pharisee, not with the tax collector. They were his discussion partners. He wanted to teach those men, wanting so much to respect the Torah and be just, a lesson. Which lesson?

There is a beautiful play in the text with distance and proximity, distance and closeness, which unravels the message of the parable in a very eloquent way. I cannot go deeper into that here, I will go straight to the lesson learned.

The possibility of change

If we assume that for both Jesus and the Pharisee it is all about following the Torah, than it seems to me that Jesus wants to point to a danger to which all of those striving for justice can succumb.  It is the risk of wanting to do everything good, better, best – which can result in fanatic behaviour. It is the risk of starting to think that one knows better than the others, which can lead to fundamentalism. Others are excluded, because there is no room anymore for any hesitation or doubt. You get a ‘those who are not for us, are against us’ mentality. Those who do not follow ‘the right doctrine’, those who are ‘wrong’, are labelled as ‘the others’. They can never ever become like us. They can never be part of ‘making the world great again.’

This is where the Pharisee in our story trespasses the line to arrogance. This is the point at which he earns to be criticized. He doesn’t do any harm, in my view, when he thanks God for doing the right thing, nor when he dissociates himself from the unjust in general. But the moment he dissociates himself from a particular human being, standing next to him and praying like him, he makes a mistake. This man next to him is a tax collector, he probably is involved in some dirty business, but: there is always a possibility that he could change. This whole parable is about thís possibility. Seen from the Torah, as a class, a certain social type, the tax-collector is certainly wrong - but as a human being he can change. Jesus puts his finger on this possibility of change, of conversion. His parable shows that it can happen. This possibility is not a reality or certainty, it is a space of hope. Anyone who ignores this space, misses that tiny opening that brings justice into our world.

For me, this is what Jesus mission was about: giving the unjust, the sinners, the opening to change themselves and get their share in a different life, a new life, a just life. By dissociating himself from the tax collector, the Pharisee fails to acknowledge the possibility of a radically different world, the world he is striving for every day. By continuing to believe in this possibility of change, and by creating himself the space in which it could happen, Jesus put love in the centre, without sacrificing justice. This space of hope meant so much to him, that he was willing to die for it.  

The value of space

Why did I tell you this story?  

Firstly, to show you how the critical dialogue with my own tradition gives me guidance in the debate on different ethical, social and political questions. This story teaches me not to judge others easily - which is not the same thing as justifying the choices others make. It teaches me to keep on seeing others as human beings, even if I do not understand or even loathe them. To be critical of all fanaticism and fundamentalism, also within my own tradition and my own ranks.

Secondly, I told the story to let you experience the power of our stories and to show the importance of interpreting and reinterpreting them. There is a play between the distance between ourselves and this story - in time, in context - and the proximity: it can still speak to us and touch us. The tension this creates opens up a space between the text and us, and in this space the whole Christian tradition can live. Without this space, it would be a dead story, fixed to the past, or fixed to a certain interpretation.

Consequently, both what I have learned from this story and my relation to the story point to the value of space. Not an empty space, but one that is full of tension between distance and closeness. This tension is not easy to accept. It needs practice all the time. Reading and rereading the biblical stories gives me that practice,  just like living with all the different people in our society does.

2. Politics and Religion

What is this space about? It could be characterized as a ‘space for others’ , or even as a space belonging to others, since it is within this space that we can meet people, texts etc. who and which are strange to us. One of the reasons Nuala Ahern and myself started the project which resulted in the book Green Values, Religion and Secularism, was a concern about the lack of space for non-secular party members within the green parties in which we participate.

The ‘secularisation thesis’ still has a grip on the Green movement, as it has on the left. During the 1960s and 1970s, left-wing intellectuals expected religion to disappear from society in the long run. Secularisation and emancipation would make religion superfluous. It has been pointed out by many scholars that this concept no longer makes sense. Religion shows no signs of disappearing from modern life, but it does manifest itself differently. On the one hand, in a more political way (the Islam debate), on the other hand in less institutional and more individualized forms.

Doubt

Religion and politics have much in common. They share the longing for another world, one in which peace and justice will reign. They also share the dangers of this desire: the temptation to force their own imaginative order onto others. Enough reasons for an exchange of thoughts and stories between the world of politics and the world of religion. The separation of Church and State should provide a level playing field for these conversations, although the question of power should continue to have our attention when we try to dialogue.

Since the world around us has changed, our old reflexes should be replaced by reflection. That goes for the interpretation of biblical stories just like our attitude regarding religion.

By defining ourselves by what we are not, like the Pharisee did, we create fixed images, stereotypes for our own identity and those of others. By leaving room for doubt we create space for a real dialogue. At least let the other speak his mind before we define who he or she is. This attitude is at the very heart of democracy.

With our book on Green Values, we have tried to make a start with a dialogue on religion and politics among Greens, by asking politicians from all over Europe to reflect on the relationship between politics and religion, both in their own lives and in society.  

The result was a huge variety of views, stories and backgrounds. All interviewees give different definitions of the word religion, their definitions reflecting their own experience. We noticed that Green parties often have a split relationship with religion. There is much common ground, not only through the presence of religious party members, but also in the criticism by most green parties and religious communities of the idea of the human being as an autonomous being. Both greens and religious people stress the relational aspect, seeing human beings as part of a larger whole (not necessarily in a transcendental way), living in connection with each other and with their ecological environment. At the same time, Greens often see religion as something backward and old-fashioned, that hinders the liberation of individuals and society. A better understanding of all the different religious traditions and the changes in the position of religion in our societies, would give space to religious party members and would prevent Greens from acting like the Pharisee in our story.

3. About hope

As a conclusion, I would like to have one more closer look at this space of hope. Of course, space itself is not a value. Maybe the acknowledgement of its existence and the wisdom to deal with the tension between distance and closeness, is the real value. 

Giving space to others is important to be able to live together in a society of growing differences, caused by globalisation. It helps to cope and canalize our conflicts in a non-violent way.

This could be enough, but I see something else, something that surpasses or transcends this democratic function and by doing so, gives democracy its fundament - but maybe that’s my theological outlook.

Firstly, by making space for others, we express the experience that we cannot control our lives. Our modern world is caught in this paradox between more and more control on the one hand, and more talk of the symbol of liberty and freedom on the other hand. We tend to ward off our fear - raised by the fact that we can control neither our own lives nor the world - by proclaiming more measures, more regulations, to control the ‘others’ or ourselves. The moment we restrain ourselves and our dynamism for a minute – you can understand how difficult that is for a Calvinist! - and listen to somebody different from ourselves, a space opens up. 

In this space we are helpless, since we cannot control what the other will do or say. This moment, which for most of us is a repeating everyday experience, is the acknowledgement of the fact that we are basically defenceless in this world. It is a basic human act and it deserves our attention. This space between people shows that in the end, being human is about trust, not control.

You and me

The second and final thought I would like to share with you brings me back to the story of Luke. In this story, making space for the other is about keeping a possibility open. The possibility that the sinner could convert himself. The possibility that a bad person can turn around as long as he or she is alive. The possibility that the world can become a place where peace and justice reign. The space the story refers to is an ethical space.

In this little space that opens up between ourselves and the other, we might get a glance of a radically different world. Like the Jewish German thinker Walter Benjamin says: every second can be the moment that the Messiah enters our world. The moment we sojourn in the space between me and the other, the other becomes a ‘you’, somebody we really notice. Somebody who is not a symbol or an image, but a person with his or her own stories, hopes and difficulties.

The moment we dwell in this space full of tension between you and me has an eschatological value: the value of hope. It is within this space that we breathe as longing human beings. And sometimes, what we hear and see, what the other in front of us offers us, takes our breath away.

 

This is the text of a lecture given during a seminar on ‘Green Values, Religion, Secularism and the ethical basis for social and environmental action’ at the Irish School of Ecumenics, Trinity College Dublin, 10th November 2016.

 

To order this book: https://bureaudehelling.nl/publicatie/green-values-religion-and-secularism

Onderzoeker en docent aan de Protestantse Theologische Universiteit. Oud-hoofdredacteur van tijdschrift de Helling.
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