Those in charge of that unlawful sacrifice took the man aside, because of their long acquaintance with him, and privately urged him to bring his own provisions that he could legitimately eat, and only to pretend to eat the sacrificial meat prescribed by the king. Thus he would escape death, and be treated kindly because of his old friendship with them. But he made up his mind in a noble manner, worthy of his years, the dignity of his advanced age, the merited distinction of his gray hair, and of the admirable life he had lived from childhood.2 Maccabees 6:21-23
Today we read the story of Eleazar, a ninety year old man who is being forced to deny his God by eating pork, which, of course, is prohibited. In our own age, that Eleazar would give his life rather than defy the demands of the Law of the Covenant can seem extreme. Yet, it is important to understand that obedience to the Law is the bond between God and the people. As called by God as one of God’s people, the choice not to follow the Law is both a betrayal of God and of oneself.
Now all this is even more complicated in the story because those responsible to carry out the King’s demand that Eleazar compromise his faith are “friends” of his. As most friendships, the relationship is obviously quite ambiguous. Eleazar’s friends want to compromise in such a way as to find a space where their fealty to the state and their friendship with him can co-exist. They propose that he bring meat to the sacrificial banquet that he is allowed to eat and pretend that he is eating the meat prescribed by the king. Eleazar refuses the compromise, however, asserting that it makes no sense at his age of 90 to bring shame and dishonor on his life and to give such a negative witness to those whose lives are still before them.
This story is reminiscent of the interchange between St. Thomas More and his daughter in Robert Bolt’s A Man For All Seasons:
Margaret: Father, “God more regards the thoughts of the heart than the words of the mouth,” or so you’ve always told me.
Margaret: Then say the words of the oath, and in your heart think otherwise.
More: What is an oath then, but words we say to God? Listen, Meg. When a man takes an oath, he’s holding his own self in his own hands like water. And if he opens his fingers then, he needn’t hope to find himself again. Some men aren’t capable of this, but I’d be loath to think your father one of them.
Adrian van Kaam says that one of the principal tensions that give form to human life is the tension between congeniality and compatibility. That is, we are both our foundational form of life that we receive in the beginning from God and a social being that must live that call in relationship to others. Very often in life, we experience the demands of these realities in tension. In both the story of Eleazar and that of Thomas More the tension is between integrity to the very core of their being, which is to God, and the demands of the state at their time. In the story from 2 Maccabees, the “friends” of Eleazar, who are also the officials of the state, attempt to seduce him, for the sake of “friendship” among other things, to compromise his integrity — keeping the law literally but denying its spirit. Similarly, More’s daughter prevails upon him to do something we do in many ways and much of the time. To say one thing aloud while believing another in the heart. Both Eleazar and Thomas More make the decision that they have reached the limit of compromise in the congeniality-compatibility tension. As they see it, to do what is proposed would necessitate denying their very self for the sake of compatibility. As Bolt’s Thomas More says, “And if he opens his fingers then, he needn’t hope to find himself again.”
We experience and receive and give form to our lives in tension. At the level of our unconscious, however, tension is unbearable. And so, we are always tempted to dissolve it. We dissolve a tension by stifling one or other of the poles of that tension. Thomas More says that to affirm the oath would result in the loss of himself, in short that he would then cease to exist as the child of God he had been created to be. Similarly with Eleazar. He says that if he even appeared to be willing to forego his duty to God for the sake of the demands of the state, then young people would more readily come to believe that even their own faith, their very identity as God’s people, would not be worth sacrifice. He also says that beyond the judgment of society is the judgment of God. If he saved his life through falsity in the first case, he would likely lose it in the second.
So, we too must ask ourselves about the fidelity and integrity with which we live out the congeniality-compatibility tension in our own lives. It is very easy, at least in my own life, to lose the dialogue between the inner and outer, as the noise and demand of the outer is so much stronger. We need others and so are understandably willing to make compromises with our own call in order to have those relationships. We swim in a culture formed by the society of which we are a part. And the values of that culture are powerfully formative in us. In truth, we are often quite apt to attempt to conform our inner selves to those external values, rather than to have our distinctive call give shape to the culture around us.
Yesterday we spoke of what it means to be a gospel-oriented believer when immersed in a culture whose values have become so counter to those of the gospel. A good example can be found in those with whom we, as church, primarily associate. Of course, we find the church today with and for immigrants and the poor. But much more we find it, that is ourselves, among the more affluent. Today we are challenged with the question of where we draw the line. We human beings are extremely adaptable. That’s good news in terms of evolution, but it can be bad news psychically and spiritually. Societally and politically we are very close to, or perhaps already exceeding, a place where we do not seek the truth but only a reinforcing of our own prejudices. To begin to relate in this way politically, does not end there. We then take it into our everyday family, community, and relational lives. Instead of our being formed through our contact with reality, we are attempting to force reality into conformity with our own perspectives and biases. Where once we may have at least pretended that the exercise of power was in service to the truth of things, now we unabashedly attempt to contort reality in order to enhance our power.
To ask the question of where the line is to be drawn is to recognize how much we are prone to keep moving the line. Last week the counsel for those defending President Trump in the impeachment hearings struggled to find questions supporting his case. To watch his examination of William Taylor is to witness what it is like when we try to make a case for which we have no substance or ground, to speak absent a self that has already drained through our hands. At one point, his defense consisted of how the behavior concerned was “irregular but not outlandish.” But we must also not be self-righteous. How have we moved the line, dissolved the tension that our true congeniality creates in us, in our own lives? How have a church and religious people whose very faith commits them to eschewing power over others devoted so much of our energy to exploiting power? How has a church committed to poverty so consistently through the ages shown itself an ally of the wealthy and tyrannical?
Today we speak much of “normalization.” We are struck by how quickly an entire society normalizes socio-pathological behavior. We normalize socially, perhaps, to the same degree that we “normalize” our own lack of integrity. When and where do we hold our very selves in our hands like water? And when is the time that we must not open our fingers?
We Lived Happily during the WarIlya Kaminsky, Deaf Republic
And when they bombed other people’s houses, we
but not enough, we opposed them but not
enough. I was
in my bed, around my bed America
was falling: invisible house by invisible house by invisible house—
I took a chair outside and watched the sun.
In the sixth month
of a disastrous reign in the house of money
in the street of money in the city of money in the country of money,
our great country of money, we (forgive us)
lived happily during the war.