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 The Centered Act


Old Testament Reading: Tobit 4:14-19

New Testament Reading: Phillipians 3:3-11

This morning I have a modest agenda. I seek to weave no web of either metaphysics or of rhetoric. I seek only to share a few thoughts, a few notes, which occurred to me as I considered a text from the Gospel of Thomas, the simple imperative "Do not do what you hate." It has many possible meanings, ramifications. Let's consider a few of them. 

First, what does the saying mean? The answer is, of course, anything you want it to. Or to be a bit more sober, at least it means anything you ­think­ it does. We might ask after the original intent of the evangelist, or of Jesus, but that is also going to amount to your guess.

Many commentators think that what we have here is an abbreviated version of the Golden Rule familiar from Confucianism, from the sayings of Rabbi Hillel, and from the New Testament, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." A form of it that sounds a good bit like Thomas' occurs, as you have just heard, in the Old Testament book of Tobit. Let's suppose for the moment that this is indeed the meaning of the saying.

That means the saying is subject to the same objections that Walter Kaufman and others have aimed at the Golden Rule, namely that it breaks down at the point when others do not ­want­ to be treated the way we wish people would treat us. Then for you to treat them the way ­you­ want to be treated becomes patronizing, imperialistic. 

"All right," you say, "I'll treat them the way they ought to want to be treated, the way I myself want to be treated." How arrogant! Are you the model for all humanity? 

But let's lay that headache aside for some other Sunday. Let's restrict ourselves to the bare idea that the Golden Rule at least implies we ought to treat people with respect and not do them violence. That we should give them a break and believe the best of them until we hear proof to the contrary. That if we can do some favor to the other, we will do it. I doubt that by following such a policy you would go far wrong or get anybody very mad at you. 

If the Thomas saying forms a parallel with the Golden Rule it is an ­antithetical­ parallel: it does not say to do what you want done to you, but rather to avoid doing to others what you hope they can omit doing to you. But the point is the same. If you hate it when people are inconsiderate or obnoxious, when they are oblivious to your interests, then make it a point not to be the same kind of person. 

Now why would you take pains, as Jesus asks you to do, to make somebody's world better for them? Is it because you hope they will return the favor? Is your motive that you can perhaps increase the reciprocity of such behaviour and thus make the world the kind of place you'd prefer to live in? If so, I don't criticize you. I don't condemn enlightened self-interest. One certainly finds it often enough in the sayings attributed to Jesus. 

But I suspect you're being a bit over-optimistic. I think you're still going to find that you live in a world which few people are interested in making better for you. You may never see any return on your efforts to bring a little sunshine to the lives others. The New Testament warns you that the more righteous you seek to be, the more flack you may get! 

So if you want to live the Golden Rule, it had better be for the sake of the other, not for yourself. And this is truly a neglected marvel. The command of the Golden Rule presupposes a powerful thing about you. It says that you are a creator, a co-creator of the world of another. You are something of a god to the other, and the other, insofar he determines your world, some thing of a god to you!

Will you be a good and benign creator? You see the terrors as well as the wonders of the larger world God created. Some of its pains and plagues are so terrible that you wonder if the Creator is perhaps the very Devil. Well, here is your chance to do better, if you think you know so well how to run the universe.

Whatever threatens to turn your life into a living Hell, don't do it to others! ­Do not do what you hate­! Your creatures, those whose lives you share in shaping, will be grateful, or at least they should. They may be as ungrateful, though, as you may be to God. 

So the Thomas text may be a parallel to the Golden Rule; it may be the Golden Rule in different dress. But, as some interpreters point out, there is not actually anything in the saying about "others." Maybe it means something else. 

I think it does. I see in it, for one thing, an intriguing link between avoiding certain behavior and hating it. You naturally shun what you hate. You don't seek out food to eat that is distasteful to you. You try to spend time with those you love, and you steer clear of those you hate. And so you will only turn away from sin, from ill-advised behavior, once you come to hate it. 

Have you ever been so disgusted with another person's actions or so shocked by the extremity of their behaviors, even of their quirks, that you vowed silently, "I'll never do that, God help me."

Unless you had seen the sad spectacle you saw you might never have come to the point of resolution. You would not have made yourself a determined enemy, an implacable foe, of whatever behavior it was. The behavior must come to the point of being hateful to you before you can oppose yourself to it. 

It is a powerful experience to see in someone else a more exaggerated version of yourself. You see some trait, some behavior that repels you, but you cannot help but recognize there your own tendencies writ large. You suddenly realize that you are being given the chance to see yourself as others see you--or as they may eventually see you if you don't change. This is the gift Marley gave to Scrooge, to see what would become of him on his present trajectory. 

You see such a person and say, "There but for the grace of God go I!" And then the uneasy feeling begins to dawn, and you say, "There go I!" And you feel ashamed of your milder but similar behavior, embarrassed as if you had been caught red-handed at it. Your behavior has become hateful to you and you begin to think of abandoning it. 

This is what happens when sometimes a person sees a life ruined by alcohol and vows, "I'll never take a drop!" That may be an extreme reaction if you yourself are in no danger of alcoholism. But if you are, take a lesson. And chances are, if you are in danger of becoming an alcoholic, it may be the disgusting spectacle of your own loathsome, hateful behavior that does the trick. You may have to reach the point of despising yourself, your actions, before you can be sufficiently motivated to change. 

But I can think of another way to apply the saying. Do you ever feel that your faith requires of you some sacrifice, and that you are unwilling to make it? Traditionally we have been told that the very reluctance, the very repugnance we feel at such moments, is a golden opportunity for sacrifice, sanctification. If the hand offends your conscience, cut it off, cast it forth. If you love your Isaac too much take him to the altar on Moriah. The greater the unwillingness you must overcome to make the sacrifice, the greater the merit in making it. So we are told. 

But I think it is different. I think that such a sacrifice of what you love can only make you sooner or later hate the God, the faith, that called for the sacrifice. Such a sacrifice is a service under duress, and the obedience shown in the act is an out ward conformity such as one might render to a tyrant one could not afford to affront.

The heart is no closer, but is in fact driven farther, from the god that demands such sacrifices of love. Make them and you will sooner or later discover that you hate him. So I am advising you, do not make such a sacrifice. Do not do what you hate.

Ask yourself whether to follow the path of sanctification someone has marked out you must suppress and deny your authentic self. If you must, then stay your foot from the path! Do not do what you hate! Do not become a self-betraying Judas in your attempt to follow Jesus! 

Your sacrifices will mean nothing until you can see why you should make them, till you can come to the point of wishing and willing to jettison what at length appears to you yourself, not just to another, to be a besetting sin. 

Whatever you do against your conscience, against your judgment, against your secret heart, cannot be a centered act, and that is the only service God will accept. He it is who must be served with all one's heart, soul, mind, and strength. If you are not doing some supposed religious duty with a whole heart, you are not serving God at all. It must be a centered act of the whole person, as Tillich said. 

Must you turn the other cheek? Not as long as doing so seems to you a betrayal of honor and self-respect. Should you divest yourself of your possessions? Not as long as you still treasure them. Should you undertake to believe the items in the Nicene Creed? Not as long as they seem to you a fantasy, their acceptance a sacrifice of your intellect. ­Do not do what you hate­! 

Don't misunderstand me: the day may come when you will not hate the prospect of any of these things. When you feel you have matured and gladly slough off childish things. You may arrive at the point where all that you once gloried in you count as dung for the sake of the impassible riches of knowing your Lord. In that day you will gladly make what no longer seems remotely like a sacrifice. You will rejoice to make it. Make it then. But for now, do not do what you hate. 

Is not our saying still something of a paradox? Isn't it peculiar that one should have occasion to frame such an imperative at all?

After all, who would do what he or she hated? I have just noted the commonplace that we quite naturally avoid doing what we hate.  This saying almost sounds like it assumes that we are to be found compulsively driven to do what we would rather not do. Absurd, isn't it? Absurd, and yet all too common. Who ever said human behavior made any sense? Not me. 

Of course, this is just the situation described so poignantly in the soliloquy of Romans chapter 7: "I am carnal, sold under sin.  I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing that I hate" (Romans 7:14b-15). Does that sound familiar? Is that not in fact a verbatim transcript of your own thoughts on many occasions? Sorry, I don't mean to get nosey.

Not to do what one hates--perhaps much easier said than done, eh? I have had precious little success in these matters, but I will share an idea or two as to how one might break the chains--or at least start filing away at them. 

I think of Socrates here. He thought that even the most self-destructive behavior is what we think is good for us. We just don't realize, not deep down anyway, that it is not good for us. 

But even if we know it, we still do it, because as Gurdjieff knew, we are all like Legion, the manifold demoniac. We have many splinter-selves in a constant state of civil war. We will never get anywhere until we can persuade the factions to form a united front as the Communists and the Kuomintang made against the Japanese. 

We love our vices even as another "we" hates them. Is there any way to rally the forces? Here are a couple of ideas. First, you might try to learn to think of your actions not as isolated moments (this drink, this slice, this bet, this what ever), but rather as a link in the whole chain, culminating in the result that you hate. Come to ­see­ every excess as a step toward the dissipation you hate, the danger you fear. That is what you are doing in the moment you yield to temptation. You are drinking a glassful of lost job, of disappointed spouse. Christ, throw the poison glass away! Keep the end in view and you will come to hate the individual steps to that end. And you will not do what you hate. 

Second, you might try to place yourself within a support group, a therapy group, a peer-pressure group. Alcoholics Anonymous or Rational Recovery, whatever it takes. Other faces and voices that will remind you of how hateful what you are doing really is. Who will not let you forget, who will not be so readily fooled as you are by your pathetic rationalizations. A part of you, as Socrates said, believes that this hateful thing is good. You need to make it hard for yourself to take that voice, that part of yourself and its belief, seriously. 

I speak occasionally of the discipline called the Sociology of Knowledge. It has some very revealing things to say. And one of them is that it is easier to believe something when you are in a crowd of believers. It is harder to maintain a belief if you are surrounded by people who don't believe it. It becomes implausible by majority vote. That is exactly why you need to get in a group that believes that your self-destructive behavior is bad. You need to breathe in an atmosphere that makes your hateful desires appear in their true, hateful colors. That's why it's easier not to sin if you go to church. It's easier to maintain your integrity. It's easier not to do what you hate.

Robert M. Price



CopyrightŠ2004 by Robert M Price
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