Every so often, someone comes forward with proclamations of doom for America. Whether it’s Carle Zimmerman in 1947, Francis Schaeffer in 1975, or William Bennett in 2003, they see themselves as prophets pointing us back to an ideal time that has passed us by, an ideal place we seem unable to still find. We have lost our way, our moral compass. The problem, as Schaeffer puts it, is that we have placed value in the ephemeral, the impermanent, instead of the absolute. They look back to something that never existed. Any claim to an absolute is just the claimant making themselves into the absolute. Of course, they never say, “You know who has really made a mess of things? Men. The rich. White people. The straights.” No, the threat always comes from somewhere else. It’s the feminists who desperately want more teen mothers. All the non-white people are lazy and breeding at an alarming rate. The greedy poor are jealous of what others have achieved through hard work. I’m not sure what the gays are doing, but I’m sure it’s icky – and dangerous! Any perspective from the margins threatens these moralists’ world. These postmodern approaches destabilize a society that works very well for some people.
We have been accused of being a deconstructive church and that has produced some anxiety about the possibility of building something. What do we have to offer other than critique? What is our bottom line? Do the questions ever end? But we have suffered from the same misunderstanding, often self-inflicted, that has plagued Derrida and other postmodern thinkers. It is commonly thought that deconstruction is nihilistic, Nietzsche’s horrific abyss left in the wake of God’s death. I would suggest to those critics that they should actually read Derrida. I haven’t read much, but it doesn’t take much to realize that is not the objective.
All deconstruction suggests is that the things we take for granted about the way the world is organized – race, class, gender, disability, etc. – are all constructed. That is, things like race don’t really exist except as ways to categorize people. That’s why Wanda Sykes jokes about how Tiger Woods got less black the more success he had. It’s not that people don’t have different skin color or different biology or different amounts of wealth. It’s just that we have decided that those things matter in particular ways. They matter because of the value we attach to them. And because we attach value to them, some people benefit and some people are harmed merely by being on the wrong side of an arbitrary line.
What deconstruction suggests is that, because these things are constructed, they can be deconstructed. We can take them apart and see how they work. We can ask who wins and who loses by constructing things the way we do. Thus, contrary to the claims of the naysayers looking for absolutes, deconstruction is primarily ethical. As Grace Jantzen says of the abyss as represented in Hadewijch’s writings, if the abyss is the site of all possibility, a natal space, “then we could hardly imagine that all attitudes and actions are equally relative, that nourishment and care do not count for more than contempt or cruelty.” Deconstruction is certainly a playful adventure and one without a clear end, but it is far from immoral. Good is always good for, and deconstruction asks, “Who is this good for?”
I submit that we see the same deconstructive posture in the law. Our passage from Deuteronomy is an account of the time just before the Israelites enter the Promised Land, though written very much after the fact, a retelling of the Exodus narrative from the perspective of the exiles. As the Deuteronomist tells it, they had not had a ruler up to then, but God knows that they will ask for one. So God says, “Sure you can have a ruler, but only with some conditions.” First, the ruler cannot acquire horses, which means there will be no army. Second, the ruler cannot acquire a lot of wives. Wives of rulers at that time were essentially treaties, so this ruler cannot negotiate relationships with other nations. And finally, the ruler cannot hoard money. This is really everything a ruler did at that time: make war, make treaties, and rake in the cash. The Israelite ruler would have none of it. Instead, the ruler was to read the law all the time and keep its statutes, never placing him- or herself above the rest of the people. If the ruler can rule in this way, he or she would rule for a long time. To properly rule is not to rule. To properly rule is to be equal to everyone else, struggling to live with one another. To properly rule is to be powerless. The purpose of the law, then, is not to give power, but to construct a society around an ethic of love, a society of justice.
Just before Jesus came on the scene, the chief religious leader in Jerusalem was Rabbi Hillel. Hillel had frequent disagreements with Rabbi Shammai, which are recorded in the Talmud. Their disagreements were over interpretations of the law. Hillel’s were typically more liberal, looking at the law as grounded in a principle, whereas Shammai was more conservative, demanding strict adherence to the statutes. There is a story, often told, of a Gentile who wanted to understand the Jewish law, so he posed the same challenge to Shammai and Hillel: “Explain the Torah to me while I stand on one foot.” Shammai told him to go away and slammed the door in his face. Hillel said, “Certainly! That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah. All the rest is commentary.” It’s not that the Torah and its statutes didn’t matter – he advised the Gentile to study the commentary if he really wanted to understand – but without a principle of concern for your neighbor, it is meaningless, useless.
As static statute, the law becomes a system of power that oppresses. At the time of Hillel, the temple cult held the most power within Jewish society and it was oriented entirely around strict adherence to the law and the sacrificial system of atonement. Though history has not been kind to Shammai, always playing the foil for Hillel, he seemed to be winning in the year 0. If you’re poor, you must have sinned and need a sacrifice. But if you’re poor, you have no money to buy a sacrifice. And if you take a day off work to travel to Jerusalem, you get even poorer. You can go into debt. There are people at the temple who will loan you money, but you can probably never pay it back. So then you become a debt slave and lose whatever meager property you had. It’s not that different today, by the way, but we’ll talk more about that in a couple of weeks. The promise of a just society is not only not fulfilled, but it is turned on its head. This is the world in which Jesus finds himself.
The law is a system of oppression that Jesus sets out to deconstruct. Jesus’ words reported by Matthew curiously echo those of Hillel: “’You must love the Most High God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ That is the greatest and first commandment. The second is like it: ‘You must love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments, the whole Law is based – and the Prophets as well.” Everything the law is intended to be is expressed by love of God and love of neighbor. If the law or its application does not do either of those things, it is not the law. Feeding and healing people on the Sabbath is not a violation of the law. As Jesus says in Matthew 5:17: “I have come not to abolish (the law), but to fulfill (it)!”
Love deconstructs power. Love asks, “Who is this good for?” If you’re a privileged, straight, white male, you can bet your absolute will be good for privileged, straight, white men. We – and I say “we” because I certainly have benefited from this – built a system of slavery and segregation; of monogamous, heterosexual marriage with clearly defined gender roles; of hyper-masculinity; and we made sure that the rich get richer while the poor get poorer. Who is this good for? Jesus announces in Luke that he is bringing good news for the poor. Would Jesus even recognize those who claim his name today? Matthew 25, the story of the sheep and the goats, makes me think otherwise.
Would Jesus recognize us? Who do we have good news for? Who do we love? Ourselves? Each other? What systems of power are we willing to take apart? And how do we go about doing that?
In our series on John’s church, we learned about how love, friendship and oneness require equality and mutuality to reveal ourselves to each other. It is often thought that, in the real world, such relationships are impossible. Derrida says that deconstruction is “the experience of the impossible.” I would argue that’s a pretty good definition of life in God and life in love. As my professor, Dr. Theo Walker is fond of pointing out, there was a time when people thought that the abolition of slavery was impossible, that it simply was the way the world functioned. It’s just crazy to think otherwise. And it was, for thousands of years. But then someone – a Christian, in fact – thought otherwise. Bartolome de las Casas, the author of the phrase “human rights,” saw the Indians of the New World as friends and knew he could not hold power over them. It took about 300 years, but now no one can imagine a world in which slavery would be okay. Out of love, de las Casas deconstructed the way of the world.
Now our struggles are different, but somehow the same. Slavery has ended, but discrimination, poverty, sexism, homophobia – evils too numerous to mention – are thought to be the way the world works. We must have poor people. Men and women are just inherently different. There just isn’t enough in the world. We are told that the things that plague our world are impossible to fix, a part of the nature of reality. But love asks us – God asks us – to experience the impossible. In the remainder of this series, we will talk about what that means for us as individuals and as a church.