The Orthodox Heretic

March 16, 2010

The Orthodox Heretic

There was once a small town filled with believers who always sought to act in obedience to the teachings of God. When faced with difficult situations the leaders of the community would often be found deep in prayer, or searching the scriptures, for guidance and wisdom. Late one evening, in the middle of winter, a young man from the neighboring city arrived at the gates of the town’s church seeking refuge. The caretaker, a man of deep faith, immediately let him in and, seeing that he was hungry and cold, provided a warm meal and some clothes.

After he had rested the young man explained how he had fled the city because the authorities had labeled him a political dissident. It turned out that the man had been critical of both the government and the church in his work as a journalist. The caretaker brought the young man back to his home and allowed him to stay until a plan had been worked out concerning what to do next.

When the preist was informed of what happened, he called the leaders of the town together in order to work out what ought to be done. After two days of discussion it was agreed that the man should be handed over to the authorities in order to face up to the crimes he had committed. But the caretaker protests, saying, “This man has committed no crimes, he has merely criticized what he believes to be the injustices perpetrated by the authorities in the name of God.”

“What you say may be true,” replied the priest, “but his presences puts the whole of this town in danger, for what if the authorities find out where he is and learn that we have protected him?”

But the caretaker refused to hand him over to the priest, saying, “He is my guest, and while he is under my roof I will ensure that no harm comes to him. If you take him from me by force, then I will publicly attest to having helped him and suffer the same injustice as my guest.”

The caretaker was well loved by the people, and the priest had no intention of letting something happen to him. So the leaders went away again and this time searched the Scriptures for an answer, for the knew that the caretaker was a man of deep faith. After a whole night of poring over the scriptures, the leaders came back to the caretaker saying, “We have read the sacred book all through the night seeking guidance and have found that it tells us that we must respect the authorities of this land and witness to the truth of faith through submission to them.”

But the caretaker also knew the sacred words of Scripture well and told them that the Bible also asked that we care for those who suffer and are persecuted.

So there and then, in desperation the leaders began to pray fervently. They beseeched God to speak to them, not as a still, small voice in their conscience, but rather in the way that he had spoken to Abraham and Moses. They begged God to communicate directly to them so that the caretaker would see the error of his ways. Sure enough, the sky began to darken, and God descended from heaven, saying, “The priest and elders speak the truth, my friend. In order to protect the town this man must be handed over to the authorities.”

But the caretaker, a man of deep faith, looked up to heaven and replied, “If you want me to remain faithful to you, my God, then I can do nothing but refuse your advice. For I do not need the Scriptures or your words to tell me what I ought to do. You have already demanded that I look after this man. You have already written that I must protect him at all costs. Your words of love have been spelled out by the lines of this man’s face, your text is found in the texture of his flesh. So, my God, I defy you precisely in order to remain faithful to you.”

With this, God turned to the town’s leaders and addressed them directly: “If I cannot convince him, the neither will you. Now leave him in peace.” Then God smiled and quietly withdrew, knowing that the matter had finally been settled.

——————————————-

“The moral arc of justice is long, but it bends towards justice.” –Rev. King. This idea is behind this parable. I’ve written before about the ways that law can end up preventing justice from being served, and this is another case of it. Everyone in this story is acting in good faith. Everyone is trying to be faithful to God in the best way they know how. The caretaker’s ideas surpass fidelity to the words of the Word of God, and go into fidelity to the meaning of the Word of God, even going so far as to defy the words coming out of God’s mouth.

Yes, of course this is an outrageous example, but take a step back and see that the caretaker’s actions are not far out of line of what other people in the Bible did. The caretaker has internalized the scope of God’s desires for the world in such a way that he can see where the written words of men struggling to comprehend what it means to live in that world in a Godly way fall short of actually articulating the truth of the matter. The words of the Word may be present for all to see, but they require deep engagement to actually know. It’s been compared to the way the physical presence of a person can be understood, superficially at least, but actual knowledge of another human being requires deep engagement, and it will open up vast regions of internal space to be learned. The truth of a person lies behind the truth of their person.

So with the word of God, so while the Words of God might tell us to give heed to the authorities and submit to them the Word of God tells us that we should care for the oppressed when we find them– even if that means defying authority.

Edit: The idea here is that the words of the Bible illuminate something beyond the words, and that reading them, understanding other, holy people’s striving to articulate God, should turn a person on to the “long arc” as it may be. This is what I’m trying to get at when I say that sometimes law doesn’t do justice to justice. Sometimes the words don’t do justice tot he word, but you have to read the words in order to understand the word. I think we all know plenty of people who have read the Bible and no huge portions of it by heart but have very little comprehension of what it actually means for those passages to be relevant in their lives.

Thanks for pushing for clarification, Evan.

——————————————-

One last word: one of my former teachers, Kevin Reed, died of cancer Monday morning. Mr. Reed was one of the most influential teachers I had in high school, and his example helped spur me to pursue a history degree. His classes taught me how important it was to learn history well, and I’m a better person for having learned from him.

God bless you, Mr. Reed.

Go now in the light of your God
Go now in the love of your God
Go now in the peace of your God
Go now in the joy of your God

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3 Responses to “The Orthodox Heretic”

  1. Mom said

    Beautiful. That would be nice to send to Mrs. Reed. I know she would appreciate it. I read what you wrote to him about a month or so ago, and I know she read everything to him. He knows how he helped to shape your life. Now, keep working like he did to help shape the lives of others. That will make him proud, and it will fulfill one of your dreams.

  2. Evan said

    hmmm once again I’m conflicted by one of the parables you lay forth here (which I suppose is the point). It seems to me that in praising the caretaker for his fidelity to the “Word” of God, you reject the fidelity of the church leaders to “Word.” Let me clarify what I mean by that. If, as the beginning of this parable claims, the inhabitants of this small town really desired to be true to the word of God (that is, they passionately desired the furtherance of God and his kingdom), it would seem to me that they (church leaders included)had imibibed the “Word” of God. This sort of innate desire for obedience is not something that would be characteristic of people who hadn’t in some sense understood in their hearts the “Word.”

    In addition, I’m not quite sure about the paradox that seems to be set up in the last paragraph. In order to be able to be true to the “Word” of God, you must first know the “Words” of God. Of course knowing the Words doesn’t mean that you imbibe the “Word” into your heart. The Old Testament Pharisees are, of course, perfect examples of this. However, once you know the “Words” you don’t progress beyond them to the “Word” leaving the “Words” behind. If you accept the testimony of the Bible to be infallible, then the “Words” and the “Word” would be inseparable, would they not? In short, I guess what I’m trying to say is that you can know the “Words” without knowing the Word, but you can’t know the “Word” without knowing the “Words.” Thus, I would be wary of implying that the “Words” and the “Word” could be at odds in this way.

    And once again I’ve rambled, in that sort of incoherent way that I’m prone to…

    • christophermahlon said

      I think it is important to note that this parable isn’t condemning of the leaders of the town. Indeed, their position is a prudent, if utilitarian position to take. They’re taking the position that the safety of the village is more important than the safety of this one man, and their position can indeed be justified, if not by scripture, then by considered ethical reasoning. The leaders’ problem isn’t that they’re pharisaical, but rather that they aren’t willing to go quite far enough. They’ve heard the word, and understood it to a degree, but not quite enough.

      As to your second point, I think we’re in agreement here, and I don’t think the parable would disagree with you, either. The idea here is that the words of the Bible illuminate something beyond the words, and that reading them, understanding other, holy people’s striving to articulate God, should turn a person on to the “long arc” as it may be. This is what I’m trying to get at when I say that sometimes law doesn’t do justice to justice. Sometimes the words don’t do justice tot he word, but you have to read the words in order to understand the word. I think you and I both know plenty of people who have read the Bible and no huge portions of it by heart but have very little comprehension of what it actually means for those passages to be relevant in their lives.

      Maybe I should revise the paragraph.

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