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Thinking Out Loud


by Michael Jinkins | May 16, 2017

Charge to Louisville Seminary's Graduating Class of 2017

MercyIn Anne Lamott's delightful new book, Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy (Riverhead Books, 2017), she remembers a cartoon that once appeared in The New Yorker magazine. It pictured two dogs, one of whom says to the other: "It's not enough that we succeed. Cats must also fail."

"This is the human condition," Lamott writes, "that ... cats must lose."

This is the human condition. And there's never been a time when we found it easy to be merciful, as I'm sure John Calvin would want to remind us. But I think it is also true that we live in a particularly unmerciful age. This age might be summed up in that phrase: "Cats must also fail."

The unmerciful especially surfaces in the politically charged atmosphere of our time.

Recently I was reading a collection of obituaries written by William F. Buckley, and the thing that immediately struck me was how many very close, very dear friends this arch conservative, this intellectual founder of libertarian conservatism, had who were among the leading liberals of his day.

I've often marveled at the wisdom of the late Jack Stotts, the ethicist and seminary president, who noted with lament that moment in our country when we stopped saying, "I disagree with you. You're wrong." And started saying instead, "I disagree with you. You're evil." When we crossed that line, political opponents became implacable enemies. Clashes over ideas and values became battle lines that no one could question without transgressing the orthodoxy of the right or the left.

So why am I talking about politics today when you are all graduating from a theological school? Surely, religious faith represents the solution to the problems of polarization and division, hatred and violence. Surely, religious faith lifts us up into a transcendent realm far above such mundane matters.

You and I both know this isn't true. Somehow politics always seems to find a way to co-opt faith.

Mercy 1Whether we are reflecting historically on the ways in which imperialism co-opted Christianity in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Europe and the United States leading to two world wars and the slaughter of untold millions; or we are reflecting on the impotence of Buddhism to resist the rise of radical nationalism in the second of these world wars in Japan; or we remember the violence that followed in the wake of the independence of India from its colonial oppressors when Hindus and Muslims slaughtered each other in their thousands. In each case, religious faith followed political allegiances toward hatred and division, rather than leading their adherents toward mercy, compassion, love and peace, all of which are valued above other qualities in each of these great faiths.

The powers that work against mercy are as seductive as they are ubiquitous. It is hard for the canine representatives of any economic class to imagine succeeding without also wanting "the cats" to fail. And it is nigh on impossible for the dogs of most any group in society to imagine their own liberation, freedom or flourishing without wanting the cats to suffer.

Nation, culture, tribe, family all will make their demands on our loyalty, and they will be suspicious of any obligations of faith that counter their interests. They will lift up this sacred text to justify their hatred and reinterpret that sacred passage to fit their interests, assumptions, prejudices and bigotry.

Even, maybe especially, our highest aspirations can fall victim to the unmerciful impulses of inhumanity.

Hatred dressed up as faith, justice, righteousness, peace-making or any other lofty aspiration is no less hateful than hatred dressed up in the most vile uniforms of division and suppression, colonialism and fascism. If the devil can successfully convince us to hate other people in the name of God, he has us three-quarters of the way down the path to hell. An evil must appear good to be really attractive.

So what are we going to do? Are we sending you the graduates of 2017 out, as the Bible says, like sheep to the slaughter? Some of you will be pastors of flocks, preachers called to speak the Word of God. Some of you will counsel those whose lives have been broken on the rack of hatred and violence and those who are breaking others. Some of you will be leaders of communities, congregations and organizations charged to do some good in an often angry and divided society.

Graduating class of 2017, I want to ask you please to stand to receive your charge:

My charge to you today is deceptively simple:

Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with your God, as the Prophet Micah exhorted us. Remember when you stand in a pulpit to preach that all of us stand under the grace and judgment of God's Word with the people to whom we speak. Don't allow the altitude of your pulpit to fool you into thinking you are above your people, morally, intellectually or theologically. Remember that however difficult it is to be merciful and to love kindness it is the thing God requires of us especially when we are seeking justice. Humility demands that we never stop recognizing that we are not God, that we don't know the mind of God. But we do know this: we do know what it means to see a man sent by God broken on a cross built by human hands, and we do believe that seeing him, we have looked into God's heart. Jesus reminds us that for the dogs to succeed, the cats have to succeed also.


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