Jesus began to reproach the towns where most of his mighty deeds had been done, since they had not repented. “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty deeds done in your midst had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would long ago have repented in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you.
It is always a little bit terrifying to hear Jesus reproach the towns of Chorazin and Bethsaida, especially as we are told that they are “the towns where most of his mighty deeds had been done.” Personally, I know undeniably the multiple miracles of my life and the gifts of God that I have received so abundantly. Among those gifts is the clear call of Jesus to give away all that I have to the poor and to come follow him without reserve. So, I tremble a bit at the call to repent, because I very much know my need to do so, and I am not sure I want to pay the cost.
As we have seen in the words of the prophets we have been reading for some time, what is true for us as individuals becomes even further challenging when the call to repentance comes to a people, a culture, a nation. It is challenging because the call and the values of Jesus are always counter-cultural. Cultural values have the purpose of putting our deeper lives to sleep, of keeping the promptings and urgings of the spirit in us quiet. Their end is not personal unfolding and human flourishing, but rather social conformity, which requires a degree of individual and personal stultification. Most of the time these social and cultural norms are successful enough that we come, in practice, to recognize them as the highest values, as the measure of human fulfillment and success.
In his book Going Sane, Adam Phillips quotes a John Maynard Keynes text from 1932. Keynes looks forward to the time when the accumulation of wealth will no longer be of high social importance, and he says that then “We shall be able to rid ourselves of many of the pseudo-moral principles that have hagridden us for two hundred years, by which we have exalted some of the most distasteful human qualities into the position of the highest virtues.” If Jesus were to issue his call to repentance to our culture, it would certainly be the challenge to rid ourselves of those pseudo-moral principles of wealth, ownership, status, greed, power, self-centeredness, and self-aggrandizement that masquerade as the highest virtues for us.
We take for granted, for example, that independence and self-determination is superior to interdependence. We see those who do not work to accumulate wealth as inferior and irresponsible. We see children in need as well as the poor, aged and sick as “drains” on our society. On the other hand, we call successful those who hoard the bulk of the society’s wealth and exercise domination over the rest. The heroes of our society are the rich and the famous, while those structures of society intended for more equal distribution of wealth and the more equitable sharing of resources are consistently more circumscribed or destroyed.
In the realm of religion, the person and teaching of Jesus have been co-opted by a “prosperity gospel.” In its light, as Adam Phillips says, “what was once considered to be most distasteful about people—the callous ruthlessness of their greed, say—begins to be described as morally impressive (realistic, bold, ingenious, and so on). Keynes and Phillips are saying that our pursuit of the accumulation of wealth is, in fact, madness, masquerading as sanity. Concretely this is acted out in every aspect of our societal experience. We deny the reality of climate change, if not in theory then in practice. We allow ourselves to work increasing hours for the same salary, while executives and stockholders are gaining enormous sums of wealth due to the increasing profits. We devote less and less of our common wealth to education, to the creation of good public spaces and public transit, to supporting artists and the arts, to caring for the poor and sick. We allow a health system which mostly profits unnecessary intermediaries to the detriment of the quality of care for most people and minimal care for the poor. We take for granted the expansion of a military and law enforcement whose principal purpose is the protection of the wealth of the few. Isn’t it madness to allow the quality of life of most people to diminish while the wealth of the very few spirals?
What is most frightening about Jesus’ and the prophets’ call to repentance is not that it asks too much of us. Rather, their call is to be faithful to the truth of the incarnation, which is the truth of our humanity. On the personal level, it is to be faithful to the person we are called to be. The call seems to be too much because we tend to wander so far. This morning I was reading about the trauma that is already showing itself in those children who were separated from their families at the border. What some of these children will be living with for years if not, in some cases, for lifetimes is a totally human-made horror. Be it a church or a country, the measure of our humanity is attested to by the way we treat our children. When church and government institutions can rationalize their abuse, we must wonder how far we have strayed.
The truth is that we human beings can rationalize anything. We do our rationalizing in light of the “common sense” of our culture, much as we rationalize our behavior on the personal level in response to our unconscious. Finally, we do this instead of truly living humanly and spiritually, because it is easier. In our own lives, it is easier to live by impulse and ambition than by inspiration. In our culture it is easier to follow the crowd and to move in tune with the pulsations of the culture than it is to exercise our response-ability to the daily inspirations of grace and to each other.
What then tends to begin as laziness can become in time insanity. To be truly sane, in the human and spiritual sense, means far more than the ability to function and to be successful as the culture defines it. In fact, it often may mean not being successful in cultural terms. Sometimes, when I experience very childish and even infantile reactions, I will say to myself, “John, you are being a bit crazy right now.” We are all crazy at times in this way. Yet, it is probably because we recognize our insanity that the “way back” to repentance and sanity remains open to us.
John Maynard Keynes looked to a time when the accumulation of wealth would cease to be of high importance. Perhaps for it to do so, we must come to recognize its insanity. For that, we must hear the call of the truly sane. In Jesus we have seen who we are called to be in ourselves and for each other. His poverty, his compassion, his hospitality to all are the markers of humanity. So, to fear the call to repent is really to fear ourselves. It is to prefer our illusions to the truth, and our living death to eternal life. The woes which Jesus pronounces are not acts of an angry God, but are rather the results of our own madness.
The “money-motive,” which Keynes suggests we are too frightened to assess, is a kind of moral alchemy, a magical act in which the bad is made to seem good; in which what was once considered to be most distasteful about people—the callous ruthlessness of their greed, say—begins to be described as morally impressive (realistic, bold, ingenious, and so on). When this relatively new transvaluation of all values comes to an end, when we finally see through the accumulation of wealth as a paramount project, we will have something akin to a secular revelation, Keynes hopes. The love of money will be revealed as an aberration, a form of madness by which we were temporarily assailed. In this extraordinary utopian fantasy, the most successful people in the culture, the rich, will be handed over to the only people who know how to treat them, the specialists in mental disease. There had been a moral catastrophe, Keynes believed; the mad are ruling the world. The sane will be those who dare to assess the money-motive.
Adam Phillips, Going Sane, pp. 148-149