I once taught a history lesson to a bunch of ten year olds. The lesson involved then President Andrew Jackson and the Cheyenne Indians. For those of you who have forgotten your American history, here is a thumbnail version of what happened.
The American government, as usual, wanted to …ahem…”acquire” the native Americans’ land. Now we had a treaty with the Cheyenne that said they got to keep their land. But now we wanted the land, so Jackson told them to vacate. Instead of killing us, which is probably what the Indians should have done, they decided to play by our rules. They sued us. That’s right. They took us to court. They went all the way to the Supreme Court. And guess what happened. Surprise! Chief Justice John Marshall and the other justices ruled in favor of the Indians. The United States Supreme Court rules that the Cheyenne were allowed to stay on their land. So Andrew Jackson sent in the soldiers and kicked the Indians off their land and marched them far away on the Trail of Tears.
That’s right. The president of the United States of American thumbed his nose at the supreme court and did what he damn well pleased. You see, the point of view of the Indians was that these particular Indians, the Cheyenne, considered themselves to be Americans. As such, they felt they had the same rights as any other American. Boy, were they naïve.
I asked the kids what they thought about that. Most of them, the ones that cared at all, thought it was a bad thing. I asked them what was so bad about it. In general, they answered that the president shouldn’t be able to break the law. This seems to be an issue with which several presidents have had difficulty. Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan come to mind, not to mention our current president. I told them that wasn’t the real bad thing. I mean, it was bad, yes; but the real bad thing was something else. The real bad thing was that we let him do it. The Cheyenne were move off their land, abused and murdered.
I guess the truth is that America has failed to live up to her promises from the very beginning. We began to ignore our constitution and the principals it declared before the ink on it even began to dry. And yet, we haven’t given up on America, have we? For the past two hundred plus years there have been brave Americans, much like the people of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement, who have tried to force our government and our society to live up to the dream our constitution and Declaration of Independence promise. And as long as we still have some semblance of liberty in the land, there will always be men and women of courage who will continue to do so. We still believe in the dream. We still believe we can make it happen. We get angry when our country fails to live up to the promise.
Jesus spoke to the crowds and to his disciples, saying,
"The scribes and the Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair of Moses.
Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you,
but do not follow their example.
For they preach but they do not practice.
They tie up heavy burdens hard to carry
and lay them on people's shoulders,
but they will not lift a finger to move them.
All their works are performed to be seen.
They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels.
They love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues,
greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation 'Rabbi.'
As for you, do not be called 'Rabbi.'
You have but one teacher, and you are all brothers.
Call no one on earth your father;
you have but one Father in heaven.
Do not be called 'Master';
you have but one master, the Christ.
The greatest among you must be your servant.
Whoever exalts himself will be humbled;
but whoever humbles himself will be exalted."
This story only occurs in Matthew. It should be remembered that Matthew was written for a particular group of people. Matthew was mostly written to Jews who had become Christians. Their church was composed of these Christian-Jews and of gentiles—pagans, who had also adopted the crazy religion of the revolutionary teacher, Jesus of Nazareth. And the Jewish-Christians, being children of Abraham and Moses, felt they had some special standing in the new church. They tried to discriminate against the new Christians, the gentile Christians. Matthew was teaching against that practice. Jesus taught that God loves everybody, that salvation was available to everybody.
So, in the story, Jesus is pissed. I guess as King of the Jews, you could say he was “royally” pissed. I deplored the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and the Scribes. In fact, the word hypocrite occurs six times in Chapter 23 of Matthew. So the whole point of the story seems fairly clear. Don’t set yourself up above others. You are no better than anyone else. And God doesn’t love you any more than anyone else just because you follow all the rules. Jesus was talking to a group of people who followed all 613 of the rules Moses told them to follow and yet still managed to treat people like shit.
But it’s a poor Bible story that only teaches one lesson. So I call your attention specifically to the advice Jesus gives his followers, “Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you,
but do not follow their example.” There’s nothing wrong with the teachings. The problem is with the teachers.
I remember once sitting in the staff lounge at school talking with some fellow Catholic teachers about the whole child abuse scandal that has rocked the church for the past twenty years or so. A substitute teacher who was sitting at another table overheard our conversation and said, “I don’t see how anybody can stay catholic after all this.” And instead of beating him to a bloody pulp and asking what the hell he was doing listening in on conversations that had nothing to do with him, we smiled and tried to explain that the church and Jesus had nothing to do with what these pedophiles were doing. Neither the church nor Jesus condoned pedophilia, unless you want to take that suffer the little children thing to a whole other level.
People keep bitching about the church, whether evangelical, catholic, or otherwise, and religion in general, when it’s really the people who stand for the church who did all the bad crap. We didn’t turn our backs on America because a president or two, or three, or fifteen, or so, failed to promote the general welfare of the people. We just keep on trying to make it work.
The message of Jesus that day was to his followers. And the message of Matthew was to all the members of that particular church. Follow the teachings. Love one another. Love God. Take care of one another. Comfort one another. Feed one another. Embrace the love of God. Yeah, there are some shitty people out there who claim to be holy. They say one thing and do something else. Don’t copy them. Just follow the teachings. And he makes it clear that there is only one teacher that matters. It’s your responsibility to reach out to God. Jesus taught that if we reach out to God, God will reach out to us.
The leaders of the temple, the leaders of the early church in Antioch, they both did a bad thing. The leaders of the church today, of all religions today, often do bad things. It’s a bad thing that they do those things. But it’s a worse thing if we let the bad things they do keep us from looking within to our own spirituality and reaching out to the spirit of love around us.
Moreover, this lesson of Christ reminds me to look for my own hypocrisy. I cannot help but laugh when I see that the driver that just cut me off and flipped me the finger also has a Christian fish on his/her car. I find it interesting that so many of the people who oppose abortion and “respect life” are also in favor of the death penalty. As a martial artist, I am supposed to work at killing the ego. If you want to attain skill, you have to let go of the “self”. And yet, I have to confess that I take a secret pleasure in having people treat me with a certain amount of deference because of my standing in the kung fu club. And because I take pleasure in my rank, I have quit wearing my instructor’s belt, or any other outward sign of my ranking in the club. If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him. That’s Zen teaching.
I talk a lot about loving people. I have to make sure that I’m living that out on a daily basis and not just talking about it. I have to make sure that I am loving even to those people that I don’t like very much. I have to do that because that’s what Jesus told me to do, not so I can get into some eventual heaven, but because that’s how you become a part of the field of love that is all around. As the Beatles so profoundly taught us, “The love you take, is equal to the love you make.” And love is all we need.