The election, inauguration, and first days of President Donald Trump have deepened divisions between the nation’s political parties and its people.
Many, afraid and angry, wonder how to respond in the years ahead. We could all do worse than revisit Jesus’ program in the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel according to Matthew, which many Christians will hear and ponder between now and the beginning of Lent (March 1).
In Matthew 5: 3-10, we find the well-known Beatitudes:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Such are the blessings that Jesus promises for those who are in the midst of the struggle for God’s kingdom. They are consoling, they are deeply challenging to our ordinary way of viewing the world, and they are timely guides in our current troubled political situation.
The Sermon is a fundamental text of Christian identity and tradition, encoding wisdom and values deeply grounded in Israel’s sense of its identity and God’s plan for this world. The Sermon also offers an inclusive and universal vision. No one is excluded by virtue of their religion, race, gender, or other factors. Some of God’s children are in great need, hungering and thirsting, as humble as the earth, mourning, at risk; others are persecuted by those in power; still others are (for the moment) in the position to work for justice on behalf of others and to manifest mercy.
This is not a time for spectators, and so Jesus challenges those who hear his words to share in the work of the Kingdom, rather than admiring it from afar:
Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (5.11-12)
To get involved is a great risk, sure to cause trouble, but this is what Jesus wants: a few good people willing to get in trouble by acting radically and anew.
If we recognize that the Beatitudes are not just guidance for private faith but more importantly ground a vision for society reimagined, we will be in a better position to resist less inclusive, less humane, and less communitarian views of our nation. If we heed Jesus’ words, we will be discontent until this inclusive and just and community breaks through cynical compromises rooted in power and profit.
To see the United States from a deeply Christian perspective through the eyes of Jesus is a powerful starting point not for blessing the status quo or sanctioning majority domination, but also for staging long-term resistance to unjust political and social practices.
One nation, under God: this may seem just piety, or just a favoring of theistic (and deistic) ways of speaking, but more is at stake. Seeing the world religiously allows us to a deep American unity and sense of community without romanticizing our country or sanctifying all it does, and certainly without absolving its many sins. One can be a Christian and resist the political order of the day. Indeed, there is a long Christian tradition of resistance to abusive leaders; we know how to resist unholy powers and outlast them. Despite our sins and failings, we have also resisted unjust power for millennia.
And yet, in America’s multicultural and multireligious society, it is also true that we cannot imagine that a single set of values, even as simple and clear and inclusive as those of the Sermon, will by themselves successfully call all of us to great acts of sacrifice for the sake of community.
We are not just a Christian tradition indebted to our Jewish roots. We know that there are resources in other traditions—classic texts that can be potentially transformative today as well—that enable us to resist crude power even as they deeply affirm life in all its forms, individual and communal, economic and spiritual, from conception to death.
For example, in my field of Hindu studies, and from among texts I teach and study regularly, both the Bhagavad Gita and the Yoga Sutras offer sustenance in the long-term work of building a more humane and just society. Although the Gita is rooted in a conservative world view, it has for millennia been read as offering fresh insight into self and action, duty and results, for the sake of purifying and deepening the core values of Indian society.
The Sutras, though ostensibly directed at individuals, change how we look at soul and body, experience and suffering, ways of life in and not just apart from the world. Modern day yogis, moving beyond private and individualistic notions of self and responsibility, can be powerfully resistant to visions of America driven by fear and greed.
I could go on. There are Muslim and Buddhist resources, there is deep wisdom in indigenous traditions everywhere. The point is that religiously grounded wisdom and action do more than a vaguer, general sense of human commonality.
Adaptation is required. We need also to be listening to the spiritual but not religious, the humanists in our midst, and others who have not been guided by the kinds of traditions I have in mind. Obviously, too, the great texts were not written with today’s world in mind, nor do all the scriptures point to the same conclusions. The texts and their traditions differ, for the better.
Negotiating the differences among these great, spiritual visions of society is a daunting task. To cross the gap between all these traditions and the actual situation on the ground in 2017, even while refusing to settle for a least common denominator that in effect leaves all our traditions behind for the sake of a bland sense of agreement, is still harder work. But if we listen to the Sermon on the Mount and other great texts of instruction and prophecy and take them to heart, they will surely alter our way of looking at today’s world, whatever faith we practice or path we follow. And if so, they have the potential to make us ready to act with freedom and in accord with truth, regardless of what difficulties arise, for however long the struggle continues.
It is here that HDS, rich in diversity, experience, and expertise, can make a valuable contribution that does not simply match the many worthy initiatives already being taken on behalf of justice. Many good initiatives are already happening on campus these days, at HDS and across Harvard. But wisdom on and from specific traditions is our strong point. We spend our time teaching and studying religions in theory and with respect to practice, and most of us are constantly in conversations that bring their truths and values into dialogue with the modern world.
Drawing on the resources distinctive to our teaching and study and practice across religious boundaries, we are in a position to counter the current political blindness by convening more comprehensive conversations, difficult conversations, as one student terms them, that compel us to spell out the religious—theological, even revealed—grounds on which we can manifest our hope for a revival of American community, for a social order not riven by political divides, not skewed merely to a liberal or a conservative perspective, and not imagining a peace that excludes religious values. In our own way, we thus contribute to the coming of the kingdom, so yearned for, so unexpected, so disruptive, that Jesus proposed to us.
This old wisdom will be more than sufficient, when shared and consumed together, to guide us through today’s maze of social and political troubles. Standing firm on spiritual ground, we can speak truth to power, firm in faith and urged on by God’s promises to resist the myopia of fear and self-centeredness that holds sway in our country at the beginning of 2017. Perhaps this is what Jesus had in mind when he said:
You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:14-16)
I invite all of us to study and pray with Jesus’ words in the weeks to come. We have much to talk about, at the table, in class, and on the streets.
—by Francis X. Clooney, S.J., Parkman Professor of Divinity, Professor of Comparative Theology, Director of the Center for the Study of World Religions