The phrase `Alternate facts’ has come into play since the election in the United States, and although that seems like a ridiculously clear way of saying `lies,’ it did get me thinking of how easily we can fall into `alternate truths.’
Both this classic story of the `fall’ from Genesis and the story of Jesus post-baptism time in the wilderness invoke a tempter. Whether we call it a serpent, Satan, the devil, or the tempter, what the stories show us about ourselves is how easily it is, how `tempting’ to blame something or someone outside of ourselves for our actions, or at least for the way we are feeling. This is so prevalent is society that in the Alcoholics Anonymous program, step 4 says, we must make a “searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” Note, it does not say we must make a searching and fearless moral inventory of someone else!
Think about it: Last week in Nova Scotia, a case of sexual assault of an inebriated woman by a taxi driver was dismissed. Basically the defense was, `Well she didn’t say no, so she must have meant yes.’ Or – I feel fearful of Muslims, therefore they must be terrorists. Or – the serpent tricked me into taking the fruit. Or – the woman tricked me in to eating the fruit. In any case, it cannot be my fault – there must be an alternate truth.
When I was a student minister serving at First United in Vancouver, I went with my supervisor to do a Bible study at the Remand centre. I remember a young man saying, “Well if Eve hadn’t taken the `forbidden fruit’ and screwed it up for the rest of us, I wouldn’t be in this place.” What? You’re blaming an archetypal construct in Jewish Literature for the fact that you stole a car and got arrested?
The Genesis story is not about Eve and Adam messing it up for the rest of us and God being eternally mad about it and requiring Jesus to die for our sins. Just get rid of that notion!
It’s a story told backward to explain the way things are. We are told – `Don’t touch’, so of course we want to touch! We get into trouble for something and we blame someone else! It’s not pretty, but story after story still has God remaining in relationship with humanity regardless of our manifold flaws.
The brokenness of the world is because people are hell-bent on blaming others for what they are feeling or experiencing rather than seeing where their moral responsibility is. Indeed, there are legitimate victims, and real villains, but oh so much damage is done and passed on by finding someone convenient to blame. And if you cannot get back at someone who hurt you, you find someone else to hurt. It is disturbing part of the human condition – that we look for scapegoats.
In the Matthew reading we hear of Jesus’ temptation – maybe not so much to blame another, but to be other than God calls him to be. As those who blame others seek to avoid suffering, Jesus finds that he is tempted to avoid suffering by seeking an alternate truth about his role and destiny.
In Parker Palmer’s book, “The Active Life – a spirituality of work, creativity and caring”, he looks at the temptations of Jesus in a refreshing way.
Stones to bread: We begin with the devil using Jesus’ hunger as an opportunity. If you are the Chosen One, turn these stones to bread. The main temptation isn’t to do a magic trick, and it’s not even about satisfying his hunger. It’s about proving your identity.
The taunt that takes a familiar form. “If you are the Chosen One…” Palmer says “…the tone of that taunt should remind us of those voices in our own head, or outside of us – If you are so able, if you are such a good parent,…if you are a real man… or woman… if you are truly the caring person you say you are…. The temptation is to prove our identity, which many of us feel we must.“ But identity on whose terms? Jesus idea of being the Chosen One (the Messiah) was radically different than what the tempter was suggesting.
Throw Yourself Down: Theologian Henri Nouwen calls this the temptation to be spectacular. Being `effective’ is highly regarded, being `spectacular’ even more so. You can inspire awe that leaves your ego inflated without any obligations. We live in a highly individualist society, so the pressure to be spectacular is particularly great. Whether it’s pushing everything else, or everyone else out of your life in order to reach the top – think of the sacrifices one has to make to achieve Olympic gold, or committing acts of violence that say, “Look, I have power, pay attention to me,!’ people want to be noticed. Is it ok not be spectacular? Is it ok to just let your light quietly shine?
Again Palmer writes “When I think of the great works we are called to in our lives, works we avoid at peril of our souls, I think of works in which we cannot possibly be “effective.” I meant such things as loving other people, opposing injustice, comforting the grieving, bringing an end to war. There can be no “effectiveness” in these tasks, only the commitment to work away at them. And if we judge such work by the standard of measurable outcomes, the only possible result will be defeat and despair.” P76
He continues – “Jesus’ ability to see through the illusion is at the core of his resistance to the devil. He knows `right action does not require us to be relevant, or spectacular. It only requires that we respond faithfully to our own inner truth and to the truth around us. The right action is no more or less than the action it is right to take, taken without anxiety about results. If right action is taken with integrity, its outcomes will achieve whatever is possible – which is the best that anyone can do.”p115
The third temptation is the lure of power:
The tempter says, “All this is mine to do with as I will, and this is your lucky day, I’ve decided to give it to you, all you have to do is worship me. Note that power means power over someone or something, not power with or for.
Palmer say there are two illusions that go with power over: The first is thinking that power over will keep us from being immersed in the suffering of those under our power.
What I found on my visit to Palestine and Israel, is that as long as the Palestinians are not treated with justice and compassion, the Israeli people will live in a constant state of defensiveness and fear. This is true of any country or group that tries to have power over others – the well-being of the oppressed and the oppressor are deeply interwoven.
In Canada, hearing from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, listening to the testimony of residential school survivors makes it abundantly clear that having power over others is not life-giving for anyone. We will be immersed in the suffering of those under our power until all hold power equally.
The second illusion is that power will not corrupt us – we don’t have to look far to see that illusion shattered time and again.
The sense of who holds power is often misplaced. Palmer says, “People cannot give away what they do not have, and yet a million exchanges are made every day in which people promise to do exactly that.” Think of pretty much every advertisement that you see or hear – there is always the implicit promise that you will get more than the product itself. E.g. you will also get power, fulfillment, love, prestige, and adoring fans.
Elect me – and `make America great again’. I confess it’s easy to pick on such an obvious temptation to power, and I’d like to stop right there.
But we all need to face these and other temptations – Go to this course, buy this book or import this charismatic speaker and make the United Church of Canada great again!
On our Lenten journey that wild and holy Spirit that sent Jesus out to the desert also sends us to examine what motivates us, what frightens us, inspires us, inhibits us, challenges and tempts us. May that same Holy Spirit companion us on our journey, and may we prove to be – not relevant, not effective, not powerful, but faithful and loving. Amen.