by Ellen Sims
texts: 1 Kings 19:4-8; Ephesians 4:25-5:2
Upon the recent death of my father, I became the eldest person of the eldest generation in my immediate family. More generally, I am easing into the larger society’s eldest generation that has long been responsible for political, economic, social, and environmental problems. Suddenly I’ve begun to wonder how history may judge me, or rather, my generation. We Baby Boomers were quick to blame our parents for Vietnam, racism, sexism, poverty, and a culture of hypocrisy. But the Boomers have been leading governments and businesses and churches and think tanks for a long time now. Some strides have been made, but much harm has also been done on our watch. So it was with a fresh awareness of posterity’s judgement that I read Elijah’s despondent confession to the Lord in 1st Kings: “I am no better than my ancestors.” Step into that confession for a minute: “I am no better than my ancestors.”
After that realization, Elijah asked God to take his life, so great was his sense of failure. Let’s not despair. But let’s do consider our personal and collective responsibility. It was my generation that coined the term “generation gap” and blamed our parents’ generation for the mess they’d made of the world. The last thing Baby Boomers want to admit is that we are no better than our ancestors. But at times, we, like the discouraged prophet Elijah, now sit under our own version of a “solitary broom tree.”
If you have an ounce of responsibility or optimism in you, you aim to leave this world better than you found it. If you admire those who came before you, you hope to do them proud by not letting their gains be lost under your watch. If you critique your immediate predecessors, you try to undo the harm they’ve caused. I ruefully realize that my generation and I are no better than my parents’ generation who, to put it harshly, sent young soldiers to Vietnam and voted more than once for George C. Wallace. We have just made different errors in judgment and have committed different acts of indifference or irresponsibility. Like people of every generation, our mark on history has been mixed. And now folks close to my age bracket are in the process of turning over the reins to the next generation that surely looks at us with the dismay of someone receiving an out-of-style, hand-me-down dress or a hideous family heirloom. “Oh gee,” the recipient mutters. “Thanks? Now what am I going to do with this mess?”
The epistle to the Ephesians opens with the writer declaring that the Gospel of salvation is their inheritance. Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus then challenged the recipients not to squander their inheritance; instead they should pass it on to the next generation. But problems beset that young church.
This Pauline letter* emphasizes Christian morality more than a Christian theology in order to create a foundational communal harmony so the next generation of Jesus followers could recognize they were “members of one another” (4:25) and forge a caring community. Without a stable community, it would not be possible to transmit Jesus’s vision of God’s kin*dom to the next generation.
Interestingly, the book of Ephesians presents a kind of moralism that is not especially interesting. Today’s text presents moral codes that resembled those common in ancient Greco-Roman philosophy. Much of this section seems to offer fairly common admonitions about controlling anger and maintaining honesty, for instance. But this unoriginal moral code provided a valuable means of supporting the communal life of the early Church. And the Pauline themes about being members of one another are as relevant to us now as then.
Unfortunately, this epistle—-otherwise full of community-fostering teachings on harmony and equality within the body of Christ– includes other advice that has harmed fellow Christians and perpetuated injustices. For instance, early in our country’s history, Christians justified slavery by quoting Ephesians 6:5 declares: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ.” Likewise, the subjugation of women has been supported using Ephesians 5:22-24: “Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior. Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands.”
No. Just no.
Within the moral perspective of this epistle, especially in passages like today’s reading, we find internal contradictions to Paul’s support for slavery and diminishment of women. For instance, in today’s lection we read of a moral code that lifts up the lowly, that equalizes and unifies the body. Verse 25 emphasizes our equality: we are, within the body of Christ, “neighbors” and all are “members of one another.” Verse 28 frowns on stealing because it’s by doing honest work that we can earn money in order to help “the needy,” which is a somewhat surprising rationale for doing “honest” work. And (v. 29) Paul warns against using hurtful words because our words must be used to build up the body of Christ. The moral code being developed in this section aims to do the opposite of diminishing certain members of Christ’s body (slaves and women). The morality of this section lifts up the needs of the lowly.
But we don’t have to find a way to make excuses for either of these immoral positions. The writer of this sometimes moral, sometimes immoral code is a product of his culture. It’s okay for us to say simply, “Here, he is wrong.” Slavery is wrong. Treating women as inferiors is wrong. This part of the Pauline morality code is immoral, and we can state that without feeling we must first catch Paul in an inconsistent argument. He’s just plain wrong in these instances.
We conclude this examination of this portion of Paul’s moral code for the church by addressing one of the most challenging and confusing of Paul’s moral admonitions: “Be angry, but do not sin.”
Some may wonder if such a thing is possible. Isn’t anger a sin? A few verses later Paul seems to say that anger is indeed a sin when he insists: “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you (432-33). “Putting away ALL anger” contradicts the earlier instruction to “be angry but sin not.”
Turning to Jesus’s example helps here. Because even Jesus was angry at times, though the Gospels paint his anger as never springing from hatred nor leading to harmful actions. He was righteously indignant on behalf of those being mistreated. As Richard Rohr has said, “Jesus was never upset with sinners; only with those who didn’t think they were sinners.” We can use our anger to fuel our work for justice. In fact, I can’t imagine that Christians can look upon injustice and not be stirred to oppose injustice nonviolently. If we’re too intent on sounding Sunday school sweet, we won’t challenge the powers that be. Holy anger is a nonviolent and constructive anger that works with and for the sake of the vulnerable. It would be immoral NOT to speak out against people and practices that violate the safety and dignity of others. And in fact, today’s Epistle reading began by urging us to speak the truth in love. Do you hear the emotional tension in that command?
In a Facebook post this week my friend Jenny O’Farrill Arras coined the term love rage, a means of truth telling that expresses rage on behalf of the vulnerable we’re called to love. She did so while sharing an article about a mother and young daughter who were put on a plane to El Salvador while a US judge was still deliberating their plea for asylum for fear of the danger awaiting them in their homeland. According to the article, our government’s forced removal of the two “directly violated government promises in open court the previous day that no one in the case would be removed before 11:59 p.m.Thursday night.”
The article continues: “Judge Sullivan was outraged, saying ‘it was unacceptable’ that someone who had alleged a credible fear and was ‘seeking justice in a U.S. court’ would be ‘spirited away’ while her attorneys were literally arguing on her behalf. He ordered the government to ‘turn the plane around.'” And it was done. “Further, the judge suggested that if the situation was not fixed, he would hold contempt proceedings for those responsible—starting with Attorney General Jeff Sessions.”
Jenny commented on the situation in her Facebook post.** She said, in part: “We are acting like total monsters right now. . . . But I am so grateful for the truth-seekers and justice-seekers of this world who didn’t just let the story of this mom and her little girl fleeing domestic violence end with them on a plane back to danger and despair. Instead, it ended with our courts proving once again that justice is still alive and well as this amazing judge . . . passionately instructed the government to turn the plane around and bring mother and child back to the United States. The judge was rightfully enraged and kept claiming their removal was “’outrageous’ as they had already been ordered to remain here while they awaited trial. And his voice, his order, his indignation was fueled by nothing other than an unyielding love-rage that is surely what the poetry of justice must sound like.”
How do we use anger to defend the weak without damaging our spirits? We practice what Jenny calls love rage. You can feel love and rage at the same time. You can love that mother protecting her daughter—and you can love that judge who believes in justice—and you can even love government officials who are instruments of cruelty without loving their actions. But you need to rage against the harmful actions. And you are enraged and indignant because you love.
Be angry. But sin not. This paradoxical command is the means by which we have any hope of being better than our ancestors.
O God, how easy it is to self-deceive, to claim we’re working for justice when we’re really working for self-justification of our hate and anger. Love must be the way, the language, the practice, the question and the answer. Love must be the heartbeat of our actions for justice. Fill us with love, Compassionate One. Then justice will flow from there. Amen
*Since most scholars believe the author of Ephesians was someone writing in the same school of thought as Paul and as a tribute to him, I’ll refer to author as tradition has named him.
**Jenny O’Farrill Arras gave permission for me to share her commentary on the article.