When the court officers had brought the Apostles in and made them stand before the Sanhedrin, the high priest questioned them, “We gave you strict orders did we not, to stop teaching in that name. Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and want to bring this man’s blood upon us.” But Peter and the Apostles said in reply, “We must obey God rather than human beings.”Acts 5: 27-29
For the one whom God sent speaks the words of God. He does not ration his gift of the Spirit.John 3: 34
If, indeed, our life is “a task, an assignment, a mysterious call” from God, as Adrian van Kaam says, then our fulfilling of that task will, inevitably at times, bring us into conflict with the exercise of power in the world that seeks to impede the carrying out of God’s will and call. This is the dramatic scene presented in today’s passage from Acts. There is a blindness to that “worldly” power, as we see in the fact that the Apostles have been mysteriously liberated from their imprisonment but the high priest now addresses them as if this had not occurred. In short, the witness of the Apostles had been substantiated by the actual reality, the unfolding of actual events, but so strong is the willfulness of the authorities in maintaining their power that not even actual evidence will affect their judgment.
An enduring result of post-modernity seems to be a pervasive relativism. As we in the United States are now well aware, people now speak of conflictual perspectives as alternate facts or realities. The basic belief is that it is the politically powerful who, therefore, determine the global reality. Journalist Ron Susskind related a conversation with a member of the George W. Bush administration:
The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’ […] ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.
As astounding as this description is, we must admit that it is not far from the truth of human experience throughout history. It is power that determines our human reality, and most of us are left to study, and so work within, the reality that the powerful establish. For example, yesterday the White House asked the Congress to appropriate 4.5 billion dollars for the “crisis” at the southern border of the United States. Admittedly there is a developing humanitarian crisis there. Yet, the crisis is the result of a politically driven administration policy, the goal of which was exactly to precipitate a crisis. So, the powerful created a reality that now becomes the “work” of the rest of us.
Given the context of our lives, we can think of God’s will as yet another contending force, to be chosen or rejected. Yet, whether we speak of God’s will as the Law, or as the Way, or as the Tao, what we are speaking about is Reality. Peter tells the High Priest that he and the other Apostles must obey God rather than human power because they are witnesses of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. They know it to be the truth.They realize what is real. And so, unless they choose to compromise this truth, they must obey God, even when it conflicts with the demands of the powerful around them.
All of us who attempt to live with integrity our own life-call have been in the place where Peter and the Apostles find themselves. And, much of the time, we attempt to live in accommodation between the will of God which we know in our soul and spirit and the powers that be. Although we would, hopefully, never state the position as crassly as the politician that speaks with Susskind, we are constantly tempted to confuse power with reality.
I know for myself that I am, by disposition, a personality that wants to appease everyone. I want to find a way that will make everyone happy, or at least somewhat satisfied. At times, of course, this is a helpful way of being. It can help arbitrate serious but sincere differences and help us, in those differences, to come closer to the real than by remaining limited by our own perspective. Yet, as I experienced fairly recently, there are moments when a desired accommodation to the power of a contending force would require a denial of reality, of the truth of a situation, of denying what we ourselves have witnessed. Such a moment is a moment of judgment for us. It is also a moment of self-definition.
It seems as if Peter could have accommodated to the Chief Priest. Jesus himself had said to the disciples that when they went to a home or a town to preach the word, “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet” (Matthew 10:14). So, Peter could have justified appeasing both God’s will and the demands of the powers before him. But, he could not do this. Somehow, he knew it was part of his life task, assignment, and call to preach what he had witnessed in this place and at this time.
These moments of trial that we face are necessary for us if we are ever to truly exist, other than in mere conformity. Not infrequently these experiences happen close to home for us, within our very families, or communities, or neighborhoods. Quite often it is those closest to us who exercise the greatest “human power” over us. To live as a witness to the God from whom all creation, and so Reality, springs requires that we live in a continual mode of appraisal or discernment. Because we live in a world where human power expresses itself in demand for submission to its will, we must take stock at each present moment of the call embedded within it, a call to the unique task and assignment that is ours.
Society overprices conformity. I think that for much of my life my inherent tendencies to appeasement and conformity made me a most acceptable member of any group. In turn, I think I overvalued dispositions of conformity in others. This makes, of course, for a certain kind of harmony in groups, but the cost of that conformity is life, creativity, and meaningful action. As Isaiah 55; 8 tells us, “’For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord.” If indeed this is true, then we must be constantly acting discerningly to reform our mistaken thoughts and ways.
A striking example for me of our drivenness to conform to human power is how we often define mental health versus mental aberration. We send young men and women, often not yet out of adolescence, into battle where they witness and participate in modes of barbaric and inhuman behavior. When they adversely react to this, often severely so, we diagnose them with a psychological disorder. Their inability to conform to sub-human situations and behavior we diagnose as mental illness. Might it not be more true that the illness is the ability to conform one’s psyche to ways of being that are not distinctively human?
There are less extreme variants of this in everyday life. We have an epidemic of gun violence in the United States. Political and economic power, however, has brought us to a point as a society that we allow this to continue. In order to do so, we submit even our youngest children to lock down drills and to training in how to deal with an active shooter, behaviors that cannot but have a traumatic effect, rather than take those steps, proven effective elsewhere, that can greatly reduce if not eliminate the epidemic. Strikingly enough, it is young people, not yet sufficiently conformed to our society’s distorted ways of thinking, who are the strongest voices calling us to recognize the truth of our madness.
We, unlike the Apostles, have not seen with our eyes the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. So, what is the witness on which we rely? It is the witness to our own call and to the impulse of God’s grace that abides in each present moment. It is our own spiritual power to know the truth beneath the societal representation, the power of the powerful. It is a witness born of humility that knows the truth of what Isaiah teaches, that our ways become God’s ways and our thoughts become God’s thoughts only through a way of living that is a continual conversion and reformation of our dispositions of heart.
Dag Hammarskjold, writing at a most difficult time of his life in which it seemed that all to which he had devoted his life had been sacrificed on the altar of the competing interests of the great global powers, identified a place in human intimacy where, unlike what he was experiencing in the United Nations, “power expresses itself in meaningful and beautiful forms.” The distinctively human in us is that which transcends those impulses that would conform us to the present age, as St. Paul puts it in Romans 12: 2, but that would lead to the renewal of our minds. Hammarskjold says that the present moment, although the intersection of past and future, is a moment of freedom from past and future. Our habitual mode of living and acting is by habit. Yet, every moment is, as present, freedom from past and future. This is the meaning of free choice.
We are formed in conformity to those forces that exercised power over us from the very beginning of our lives. To become truly and distinctively human is to be, moment by moment, reformed and transformed from that conformity to a place where we, in the distinctive and unique mode of our own lives, “obey God rather than human beings.” We do so because, as our eyes become clearer and truer, we have witnessed in our lives the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, in the Reality of our life and the world.
Beside our need for a meaning, also a need for human intimacy without conventional trappings — for the experience of a circle where power expresses itself in meaningful and beautiful forms. The holiness of human life, before which we bow down in worship.Dag Hammarskjold, Markings, trans. Leif Sjoberg & W. H. Auden, p. 60
Blood, grime, sweat, earth — where are these in the world you desire? Everywhere — the ground from which the flame ascends straight upwards.
Offspring of the past, pregnant with the future, the present moment, nevertheless, always exists in eternity — always in eternity as the point of intersection between time and the timelessness of faith, and, therefore, as the moment of freedom from past and future.