The Theology of Rain
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
The body of the Declaration of Independence is a long list of crimes against these rights committed by those acting as agents of England’s King George, including this terse summary near the end:
“He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.”
Thus the justification for the existence of our country is a set of moral principles with a theological foundation. God our Creator has made us equal, and has given us certain rights that we are not free to violate, including the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Launching the Trajectory of Equality
These words say more than Thomas Jefferson himself had worked out. The “men” who had been “created equal” did not include, for him, the slaves he owned, but the fundamental principal he articulated did eventually culminate in the abolition of slavery.
We can see the clear path that an idea like equality takes, starting out like one of last night’s fireworks, launched onto a trajectory that takes time to explode into full color and glory. The explosion of the implications of the equality of all people that God created still continues today. Jefferson’s statement of equality used the word “men” as everyone did then to mean “humankind” – but it is sadly the case that women were not “as equal” as men – remaining, for the time, without the right to vote, and without all kinds of other legal protections. Even though the very text of the Bible that narrates the creation of humans says specifically:
God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
Nevertheless, it took many years for women to gain equal protection in this country. In some circles, progress on that trajectory is still painfully slow.
We must not be too hard on Jefferson and his colleagues for not having followed the trajectory of universal equality all the way to the abolition of slavery and universal suffrage because even the folks who gave us the New Testament did not follow that trajectory all the way either. Slavery was assumed in the New Testament, and women were certainly not men’s equals.
Nevertheless, we affirm that the statement Jefferson wrote is true, and we are the blessed heirs of the brave, committed people who signed that Declaration with a theologically grounded promise, saying,
“with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”
Ideas over Time: slow to change
We human beings resist change. Like cattle who walk down the same narrow little trail through wide-open pasture, we prefer to tread on footprints rather than fresh grass. We get notions fixed in our finite minds, and resist changing them to the very end.
In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson noted this resistance to change – even when it meant continued suffering under tyranny, saying:
“all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.”
Accepting that the earth is not flat and that it is not the center of the universe took time, just like getting used to the new idea that the right to govern comes up from the people, not down from above as the “divine right of kings.” And yet, once a trajectory has been launched, once fundamental ideas have been set in motion, such as the equal creation of all human beings, then it is only a matter of time before a change of thinking becomes necessary.
For Jefferson, the trajectory of equality, based on the belief that we all have been created equally by God, had reached such a point at which it was no longer possible to suffer tyranny. And yet the trajectory of equality for slaves and women was still an idea that he resisted changing his mind about – he was in process as his life demonstrated – but he was not there yet when he wrote the words of that Declaration.
Jesus and Moral Trajectories
I believe that it is not only right, it is our task to continue to follow moral trajectories, to keep pushing the implications of our fundamental beliefs. What Jefferson did by following the trajectory of the doctrine of creation into new territory is what we have done after his time, by the abolition of slavery, the achievement of universal suffrage, and the progress of the civil rights movement.
Our Lord Jesus himself taught us to follow moral trajectories. The text we read from the famous Sermon on the Mount contains a trajectory that we are still in the process of trying to follow to its conclusion today; and it is pushing us to change our thinking – and to no one’s surprise, is being resisted.
Jesus, in this text, is reflecting on a concept we will call “the theology of rain.” The trajectory he is following also starts with Creation: God created the world, and all humans equally, in his image. The problem is, however, that in a morally-real universe, evil is possible, and in fact there are people who choose to listen to the snake, bite the apple, and do evil. Some of them, like King George or President Ahmadinejad, become tyrants and dictators who cause great suffering. Some become unscrupulous creators of Ponzi schemes who bilk thousands of people out of their whole life’s savings. Some blow-up civilians in the market place. Others simply lie, or cheat, or steal or commit adultery in Argentina (or wherever).
When the evil they do hurts us, what should we do? Well the easiest thing to do is to follow the cow path through the pasture; walk in the well-worn footprints of those who came before us; think the same things that the flat-earth men of old thought. This is our default position – as Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said…”
And what is that old way of thinking?
‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’
“True”, we reason: “You need a reliable social network of quid-pro-quo neighbors, so return borrowed tools, reciprocate Christmas Cards, and keep your lawn acceptable; love your neighbors. But enemies are for revenge; hate them. It’s what God does, right? Reward the good guys, punish the bad guys. If they get bad enough, for long enough, well then open the heavens and drown them all in a great flood. Save a few, like Noah and his clan, so you have something to work with after it’s over, but let the rain fall.”
Jesus says, “not so fast.” As he reflects on the theology of Creation he comes to a conclusion that requires a change of thinking. As he follows the trajectory of the implications of God as Creator of all humans in His image, he finds another model for understanding that also comes from the rain. There is this interesting phenomenon to observe; God:
“…sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”
Even the Taliban’s opium poppies get watered.
Taking a lesson
There is a lesson here; God’s ultimate goal for his creation is not its destruction, but its redemption. His rain is meant to water, not to flood; to facilitate life and blessing, not to cause death and suffering. Why? Because; follow the trajectory. If God created us all, equally, in his image, then he is the Father of all humankind. What father would rejoice to see his children become enemies of each other? What father would find joy in one child achieving vengeance on another? For every victory of one child, another child is defeated. The Father’s goal must be the redemption of all His children; the reconciliation of all the ones who call each other in the family “enemy.” The goal is that they would all finally comprehend that they have one common Father.
44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.
“The righteous and the unrighteous.” – hmm. That distinction gets harder and harder to make. Why? Because all moral laws, just like all rules of mathematics, aim at perfection, by their very nature (people who read C.S. Lewis will recognize this analogy). When you add or subtract figures on your bank statement, there is only one right answer – all the others are wrong. Similarly, moral rules all aim at perfection. We are not commanded “thou shalt not steal – most of the time.” But rather, categorically, “thou shalt not steal.” Moral standards are standards of perfection. This is how Jesus concludes:
48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
And that is precisely the problem. We know that we are not perfect. Sometimes we do lie. We have cheated. We have coveted and we have taken God’s name in vain and all kinds of things. And, truth be told, we have not done all the perfectly good things we ought to have done. So in the end, if we are hoping for a flood on all the bad guys and gentle rain on the good guys – who, exactly, are the good guys? The truth is, it is only morally insensitive people who believe in their own essential goodness. Moral maturity is always accompanied by greater understanding of culpability and responsibility. It is saints, not scoundrels who write books of confessions (unless there is a lucrative publishing-deal involved, and movie rights to sell).
The nagging question we are left with is this: If I cannot claim perfection for myself, then I have lost the moral high ground; who then, do I have a right to exclude from the family of my Heavenly Father? It it is indeed self evident that all humans are created equal, that they are equally endowed by their Creator with the same inalienable rights then who could own slaves? Who should not have voting rights? Who should I feel good about calling “enemy”?
This is a morally-real world in which evil does happen; people suffer. There is a need for police, and there will be wars as long as there are tyrants and terrorists; but our goal is to work for a better world. Our desire is not for a world flooded out, but a world reconciled. We believe that this is what Jesus Christ came to do, as he died for us to reconcile us to God. We believe he has given us the ministry of reconciliation. Our job is to go as far as we can along the trajectory he set out for us, even to be willing to change our thinking from old patterns in order to more fully and completely embrace God’s goal for a world made One.