October 6, 2019
Do the Right Thing?
St. Paul exhausts me—it’s like watching a man wrestle a polar bear to the ground! He writes in a feverish state. Paul, the Pharisaic Jew, writes with the same intensity with which he violently persecuted the fledgling Christian communities.
One day, on the famous road to Damascus, Paul has a cataclysmic vision of Christ that turns him around. He then applies the same cataclysmic energy to building “churches” out of nothing, based only on this conversion experience and what he learned from those little cell groups he tried to extinguish.
Other than this, mind you, Paul had no direct experience of Jesus, nor any acquaintanceship with the written Gospel record—because Paul died in 57 C.E., ten years before the first gospel (Mark) is thought to have been written.
With seeming ferocity, he crisscrosses the eastern Mediterranean four times and travels the periphery many more times, following up with letters to these remote outposts that result in Christian communities that soon covered the then known world which survive to this day, as our presence here attests.
A combination of Jewish theologian, Greek philosopher, and free-thinker, Paul was utterly single-minded in attempting to be faithful both to his Jewish roots and to Christ—this was what set his mind and his heart on fire, and reading him, you feel it.
But it’s a bona fide labor for us to read Paul as he attempts to reconcile the conflicting claims of traditional Jewish practice—circumcision, dietary limits, etc.—with a radical new relation to God. Just read a whole chapter of Corinthians, or Galatians, or Romans. You are standing in a swirl of high, dark and dramatic storm clouds not seeing much very clearly when suddenly a thunderclap yields a lightning strike that lights up the ground in all directions. That’s what it’s like to read Paul—out of the densest parts of his arguments, then comes lyrical lines like, “there is neither Greek nor Jew, neither male nor female, neither free nor slave,” and “faith, hope and love abide, but the greatest of these is love.”
Paul’s struggle is at its most intense when dealing with the Law of God versus the new freedom in Christ. It would have been simpler to choose one over the other (many have), but Paul, with the ardor of a Beethoven, constructs a symphonic tapestry out of these opposed poles.
Because his struggle is not only intellectual but also profoundly psychological and emotional, because for him the Law of God is not some abstract thing but actually embedded very deeply in him where it encounters an almost equal and opposite tendency which is to oppose that Law or to be a law unto himself.
Paul wants to understand how he experiences some other law to be at work within himself contrary to the law of God. This perception is so accurate: The good I would do, I do not, and the evil I would not, I do. Realizing this required him to look hard at the way we live our lives.
He writes about this moral struggle as vividly as Fyodor Dostoevsky ever did almost 2000 years later, and succinctly captured the whole moral struggle of the human individual in a very frank and honest paragraph! Paul names the existential reality we all face on a daily basis at work, at home, at play. We are often of two minds, as the saying goes, even three or four. We are often at sixes and sevens within ourselves, isn’t that true?
What does it take for human beings to make the right decision, to do the right thing? Or can we ever? Should we, for that matter, even try to? But, then again, neither do we want to be subject to the penalty for wrongdoing—alienation from our loved ones, from society, punishments meted out by government, eternal damnation (as it was conceived)?
Are human beings not trapped in a lose-lose situation, Paul asks? Maybe better not to be human at all, let’s just embrace our primal nature and its laws—hurt, be hurt, hurt back.
Recollect with me now the hottest day of the summer in Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of NYC 30 years ago. Everyone in this African-American and Hispanic neighborhood is dragging themselves through their business until the combination of heat and inter-racial tension explodes, literally.
Over some minor neighborhood dispute, the normally high tensions break into open conflict, the streets fill, the cops show up, a struggle ensues and one of the black youth is strangled to death by the police. A full blown riot then ensues when a local pizza joint owned by an Italian-American family is torched. The fire is doused, the dead black youth is rushed away with others being arrested, and dismay, resentment and shame settle over the neighborhood.
A tragedy has just taken place.
This is, of course, the plot of the Spike Lee movie, “Do the Right Thing,” which not incidentally was produced in the aftermath of the Central Park Five, Rodney King, and the Howard Beach incident.
In the movie, the protagonist, Mookie (played by Spike Lee), is a well-meaning but un-motivated innocent who rankles under his employment as the pizza-delivery guy for Sal; he is also a peace-maker between Sal’s two sons and between Sal and the black community. After his friend, Radio Raheem, is killed by the police in a strangle hold exactly like the one that killed Eric Garner in Staten Island July of 2014, Mookie inexplicably does precisely the wrong thing—he picks up a garbage can and throws it through the plate glass window of Sal’s pizza shop.
Somewhere between his desperation and his anger, Mookie makes his choice.
In the subsequent melee, another youth lights a match to the place and the building and parts of that block go up in flames. Do the right thing, as the title says to do, really?
Mookie has lost a job, destroyed a friend’s stake in life, sacrificed a future, and the neighborhood got a new bruise on its battered body. Everybody is undone.
With far less provocation, many of us have irrationally taken the wrong action ourselves, perhaps in haste, perhaps without animus, or possibly, maliciously(?). The struggle continues to be worked out in our society this very day through Black Lives Matter and through own personal sleepless nights and distracted days.
But when the movie ends, the story is really only half over—because Spike Lee takes us right smack into St. Paul’s quandary, purposely posing the exact same question: what are we to do with our tragic contradictions, persist unto death?
But the deed is done. Will we die of the guilt? Will we undergo punishment? Will the fallibilities of individuals always compound the failures of society? Will the sins of society always be paid for by innocent individuals? How will people bear their grief over the loss of self-worth, not to mention net worth?
Who is there to take responsibility for any of it—us? Why will anybody feel like getting up and going to work the next morning?
Of course we can get up the next morning, once we understand the Gospel, that as humans this inner contradiction, as deep within him as Paul feels it is, is not a permanent stain. The evil is not one with our flesh, like the defilement early religion sought to purge through ablution. Our fallibility, our error, and our being prone to error, is transient and has a remedy—God’s forgiveness.
In the Bible, our fallibility, our error, and our being prone to error is called “sin,” which is a good word because it means that wrongdoing is capable of being accepted and transcended. A stain and a blemish must be scrubbed over and over—like Lady Macbeth when she cries, “Out, out, damned spot!”—all in vain.
But a sin, because it can be forgiven, permits me to continue living, to go forward to make new history, more better history—we can, in fact, take up our palette and walk. For both Jews and for Christians, and also for Muslims in the Kor’an, God’s righteousness incorporates mercy—the God of the Bible is the original of what we call today “restorative justice.”
God is our model—setting to rights through forgiveness what was out of joint. God leads, and we respond with confession, repentance and repair. An excellent prayer to offer is printed on the bulletin cover [reprinted below] from the Rosh Hashanah service which took place here last week—take it home with you.
The sum of the matter is this—forgiveness explodes writer’s block; forgiveness lifts depression; forgiveness reunites siblings; forgiveness is the door to the future.
And here we are now about to approach Jesus’ table—this miracle of liberty and new life, where before there was only walking death, is summarized here. It is compacted, compressed, concentrated into this humble act, wherein the Word become Flesh has become Bread for our reconstitution.
The Bible collectively declares that we are in fact born to be “upwardly mobile,” spiritually speaking. Wrongdoing can be survived; indeed, we can grow to do the right thing.
Immediately following this passage, then comes another one of those lightning bolts from Paul—“There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Thanks be to God.
—Rev. Richard Chrisman
Let us ask ourselves hard questions, this is the time for truth.
How much time did we waste in the year that is now gone?
Did we fill our days with life, or were they dull and empty?
Was there love inside our home, or was the affectionate word left unsaid?
Did we deceive others, did we deceive ourselves?
Did we acquire only possessions, or did we acquire new insights as well?
Did we fear what the crowd would say and keep quiet when we should have spoken out?
Did we live right and, if not, then have we learned, and will we change?
–Rosh Hashanah Service