10 blog-points if you knew that this entry was named after an MxPx song. 10 extra points if you go listen to that song right now. 20 points!
Yesterday, my parents, my wife, and I went to the Franklin Institute to see the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit. I’m a sucker for museums especially when they have exhibits in ancient languages that I can read. It’s one thing to see something that was created thousands of years ago, but it is something entirely different to read the exact words that someone composed before Jesus was born. It’s like spying on someone through a wormhole. The exhibit had some very interesting pieces and it got me thinking.
The Dead Sea Scrolls were most likely written by a group of people called the Essenes. They were a radical sect who lived in Judea between the 2nd century BC and the 1st century AD. According to them, Israel had sold its soul to the devil and would soon reap the punishment for their idolatry. The leaders of Israel had gotten too cozy with the Romans and the priests were corrupt. They believed that no one was following God anymore and the only way to actually be a good follower of Yahweh was to leave society behind, move to the desert, and live a communal monastic life in anticipation of the apocalypse. They forsook all wealth, privilege, and pleasures so that they could be more spiritual. They ate simple meals, were celibate, and spent much of their time in prayer.
Meanwhile, the Zealots had a similar idea with a radically different strategy. Not too long after the birth of Jesus, a man named Judas of Galilee incited a riot and started a movement to overthrow the Roman overlords. The land was rightfully theirs and God would help them to reclaim it. They drew upon the great images in the prophets of final galactic battle and colorful images to inspire people to fight back. God had promised them salvation, and they were going to take it by force. At least one of Jesus’ apostles was a Zealot, and there are some who believe that Judas Iscariot was also a zealot who was frustrated with Jesus’ inaction and wanted to force his hand to bring on the final battle. It was primarily their fault that the war between Israel and Rome began in the late 60’s, and they were eventually finished off anticlimactically at Masada in 73.
The most famous group in Israel to people who follow the life of Jesus is the Pharisees and they also believed themselves to be at the end of time but had still yet a different strategy for achieving it. They thought that our future hinges on our morality. The bloody conquests at the hands of the Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks, and Romans were actually divine punishment for Israel’s disobedience. They were stubborn and sinful, so God punished them. They believed that the Messiah would come if all of Israel would just keep one perfect Sabbath. They were so obsessed with “getting it right” that they made up hundreds of laws that were just a little stricter than the biblical laws just to make sure that they never actually broke any of God’s commands. It’s like telling someone who is chronically late that the meeting starts at 4:45 instead of 5:00 to make sure that they are on time. If Israel was ever to be spared from God’s judgement, they would have to take their morality more seriously. They wanted to see the Messiah come so badly, that they missed him when he was standing right in front of them. When Jesus came, he wasn’t as morally upstanding as they would have wanted. He broke the Sabbath, did not keep the purity laws, and cavorted with the worst kind of people. They missed God incarnate because they were unable to see past how they thought God should be.
The eschatological fever was building.
The people were uneasy.
Rome was rolling up its sleeves.
Everyone had an idea of how God should/would respond.
Who was right?
The Essenes thought that the world was 100% evil and the best solution was to remove themselves from the world, spend time with God, and wait for salvation.
The Zealots thought that “God helps those who help themselves”. The pagans have desecrated the name of God and the end will come when we make it happen in His holy name.
The Pharisees thought that the suffering in the world was our own fault for being so immoral and if they can get into positions of power and enact good, moral laws then peace will finally reign over the land.
Which group do you fit into?
The world is overflowing with pain and misery. People are dying, innocents are being punished, and injustice coats the Earth like pollen on the hood of a car. What do you do about it? How do you think about it?
Do you move as far away from the suffering as possible? Do you drown out the cries of the oppressed with your well-rehearsed praise songs and (very) short term mission trips? Do you shrug your shoulders and think, “Only God can fix this world”, so you live your life without trying?
Maybe you are like the zealots and you assume that the weight of the world’s future is on your shoulders. Maybe you are overcommitted at the dozen places that you volunteer. Maybe you stay up at night fretting over the problems in your neighborhood and your inability to solve them all. Maybe you have even gone off the deep end and committed acts of terrorism to force the hand of “the enemy”.
Perhaps you remember “back in the day” when things weren’t like this (see Ecclesiastes 7:10). Remember when we had prayer in schools, children behaved, people were decent, and society had some sense? If only we could get back to that place before there was sex, violence, and obscenity all over the place and people still believed in the Christian morals. Maybe you campaign for Christian politicians who will vote in laws that legislate the kind of morality you think this country has lost.
Maybe you are none of these. Actually, I hope that you are none of these. While all three groups had some good points, they all miss the mark. Despite the value that we have gained from the solitary life of the monastics, leaving society to wait for the end is not the answer. Jesus calls us salt and light for this dark and dying world. We are put here to work the garden, till the soil, and pull out the weeds of society. We are completely ineffective and useless when we wash our hands of this world and wait for Jesus to clean up the mess.
Likewise, we do more harm than good when we pick up our guns and start fighting in the name of God. While God wants to use us to help the world, God does not need us to take over as generals in God’s army. There has not been a single “Holy War” that has left the world a better place. Each and every time, people are hurt, the message is lost, and we are worse off than before. The same is true on the local level. We cannot assume that we have the ability to fix everything. When you walk into a situation with that kind of attitude, you end up sounding like these folks. We are God’ instruments, God’s vessels, God’s tools. We are the hammer not the contractor, and when we get our roles confused, we end up patronizing and destructive. We are called to walk in humility, meet people where they are, and be what we want to see in the world.
It is no use pining over the “olden days” when things were better because I guarantee that things were not actually better. If the world seemed better when you were growing up, it’s probably because you were a kid and didn’t have to worry about the ills of society yet. Perhaps the past was actually better for you, but it was probably worse for someone else. If I lived in the 18th century, I would have had it MADE, but that’s only because I would have lived in a society that was made easy for a few people by the suffering of countless slaves. We were not more moral “back then” when we burned crosses, oppressed women, killed the Jews, enslaved Africans, and lynched homosexuals. This is also not the worst that we have ever been as a society either. Movies might be violent, but we all know that it is fake. We are not cramming 50,000 spectators into stadiums to watch people kill each other and be eaten by wild animals. We sucked then and we suck now. We have always sucked. Ever since humans first started thinking, we have sucked at being decent human beings, and no amount of religion will ever save us. If we become a Christian nation on Christian principles who follow Christian morals perfectly, we will still not save the world. Religion cannot save us. Morality will not bring the Second Coming of Jesus.
What are we supposed to do?!
It’s simple. In fact, it might be too simple and that’s why we keep complicating things.
We were put here on the Earth to love. That’s our purpose. If the Sun exists to fuse hydrogen atoms, we exist to love. We are called to love our mother, our spouse, our boss, the president, terrorists, and every stranger we meet exactly the same. Of course we will screw it up, and God does not expect perfection, but God does expect that we will love each other as best as we can. Loving someone means that you look out for them, care for them in their need, and obviously do not blow them up. That’s it. Jesus will come back to the Earth when he is good and ready, and that is none of our business. We will not precipitate his arrival and we will not be able to “tidy the place up” before he gets here. We were idiots when He hung out with Adam and Eve, we were idiots when He walked around Israel, and we are idiots now. I’ll never understand why God still loves us, but the least that we can do is to pass it on and stop worrying so much. If my eschatology has taught me anything it is to stop worrying so much. God has already redeemed the universe, and while it may not seem like it right now, the end will come and it will all make sense.
So stop starting wars in the same of morality, religion, and ideology. Don’t waste your time. Use your creativity to find new and exciting ways to love people instead. We are not as important and powerful as we tend to think that we are, and the sooner we realize how tiny we are, the easier it will be to let go of the lie that we need to fix the world right now and bring about the end of all things.