October 14, 2005

Because He COULD

N AN INTERVIEW WITH TV ANCHOR DAN Rather, former U.S. president Bill Clinton made a statement that has resonated with me: "I think I did something for the worst possible reason: Just because I could. I think that's just about the most morally indefensible reason anybody could have for doing anything."

Whether it be a national or a personal decision, all humans are faced daily with the moral challenge of doing what is honorable and just, rather than what is expedient or abusive. What complicates this decision--which for a Christian would seem to be easy--is that values associated with social or political position, gender, race, ethnicity, and other phenomena that separate human beings make it possible for some to misuse their privileged position to redefine the boundaries of justice.

It's precisely this human tendency to self-serving that thwarted God's chosen people in the past and threatens to do the same for contemporary keepers of the new covenant. As Christians, we are every bit as susceptible to the temptations of power and privilege as were those ancient believers who thought that Temple attendance was more important than treating their workers justly. In the book of Amos words of entreaty, begging God's people to return to the ways of justice and mercy, are intertwined with words of condemnation: "They do not know how to do right. . . . [They] store up violence and robbery in their strongholds." "Hear this word," the Lord says, "you . . . who oppress the poor, who crush the needy," "you that turn justice to wormwood, and bring righteousness to the ground!" (Amos 3:10; 4:1; 5:7).*

Deeds--Not Just Words
What I find most noteworthy about these divine recriminations is that they have nothing to do with the do's and don'ts that we normally associate with the practice of religion. The people are not condemned for what they do or leave off doing in the ecclesiastical practice of their religion, but in the "moral" practice of their faith. It's the absence of moral fiber and the presence of moral turpitude that earn them God's harshest criticism.

1542 story2"I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.  Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon.  Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps.  But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream" (Amos 5:21-24).

Verse 24 became the watchword of the civil rights movement in the U.S. in the 1960s, a social justice movement that transformed the way we think--not only about African-Americans but about others whose right to justice has been denied.

Justice is linked intimately to the practice of a religion that is not limited to rites and rituals, but that extends to everyday living. In fact, it would appear that the moral practice of religion is of greater consequence to God than the ecclesiastical and ceremonial practice of it.

God Won't Stand for It
The picture painted in the book of Amos is one of tension and release, tension and release. On the one hand, God is doling out punishment for His hard-hearted people while relenting when the prophet intercedes to ask forgiveness for them. He is calling down condemnation on those who count the minutes for the Sabbath to be over so they can continue cheating the poor and bringing ruin on the needy (Amos 8:4).

They cheat because they can; they abuse because they can; they close their hearts to their neighbor because they can; they wield undue power because they can.

On the other hand, God is constantly calling His wayward children back. He would rather relent than destroy, rather restore than break down.

But God cannot tolerate injustice, and He will do what He must to put a stop to it. When humans exercise their God-given free will to trample on those who cannot fight back, God will surely resist them. When a husband uses his physical strength abusively to have his way with his wife; when a woman uses her beauty to steal another woman's husband; when one Christian cheats another out of her hard-earned money; when a leader abuses his privileged position to violate the body of a child, God will call for justice to be restored before He will accept worship from such a person.

And yet, let it be understood that God is not eager to destroy, but to restore. Amos intercedes for the people: "O Lord God, forgive, I beg you! How can Jacob stand? He is so small!" (Amos 7:2). Then God does what He loves to do: "The Lord relented concerning this; 'It shall not be,' said the Lord" (verse 3). Yes, God sets just boundaries to ensure that the strong do not overwhelm the weak. But when they do trespass those boundaries, He is willing to forgive, if there is repentance. His infinite love stops only where perverted human will stubbornly resists His entreaties.

Our Role Model
"Just because I could." The connotation need not be negative. For there was another Man who used His infinitely free will to do the most morally and spiritually defensible thing that anyone could do for another: Jesus Christ gave His life for mine, just because He could. He had many other options, but He chose to exercise the option of love and forgiveness. Consequently, He is and will be forever the world's greatest moral role model.

Jesus had the choice of using His infinite strength to squelch a rebellious race, and yet He opted to use that strength to fortify the weakened will of humanity. To this day He remembers that we are dust and that we are most redeemable when we've reached the end of our rope.

Jesus had the choice of using His infinite beauty to bask forever in His own infinite admiration, and yet He chose to share His beauty through the creation of angels and the natural world and human beings. When I look at a shamelessly gorgeous rosebush, like the one in my own front yard, flaunting its fragrance and gaudy colors, I see the face of God and thank Him for sharing His beauty with me.

Jesus had the choice of using His infinite wisdom to silence the actuation of any other being in the universe, and yet He chose to employ it to give light to those in darkness and a voice to those who could not speak. Through His wisdom He brought light out of the darkness, and form out of the shapeless chaos. In the Proverbs Jesus is the woman Wisdom who creates and shares knowledge without pride or haughtiness. She shouts in the streets, calling out to the foolish and inviting them to the sumptuous banquet table laid out and provided for by her generosity.

As followers of this strong, beautiful, and wise Savior, we are invited to take on His moral graces in our daily lives. We're not asked to imitate Him, but simply to invite Him to take us over. "Christ in me, the hope of glory" (see Col. 1:27)--this is my guarantee of living an honorable life here and in the hereafter. When Jesus Christ has taken full possession of me, I will use my power to strengthen others; if I have beauty, I will use it to model Christ's love of truth; if I possess wisdom, it will be adorned with humility.

Because He could, I can! And so can you.

*All scriptural references are from the New Revised Standard Version.

Lourdes Morales-Gudmundsson is chair of the Department of Modern Languages at La Sierra University and president of LEARN, an organization that promotes education among Hispanics. She is also the presenter of "I Forgive You, But," a seminar on the topic of forgiveness.