August 22, 2010
First Christian Church of San Jose
"Your kindom come, your will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven"
From a prayer Jesus spoke when he taught us to pray. He was teaching us to pray, nobody was recording his private conversation with God. Here we don't risk abusing the authority of our Lord, it was given to us by Jesus himself. We are given the message from our Lord in the most prophetic way. Jesus knows us, he knows what we are capable of understanding.
Considering our human weakness, our ability to deny, perhaps the only place this message could be hidden, is in our repeated recitals every Sunday. We do examine it from time to time, this is true. Certain words have a tendency to change more often then others. “Bread” never changes, but, “Forgive us our ____,” trespasses, debts, sins. I wonder sometimes, are the debtors on good terms with the trespassers, is there maybe some tension there? Will the sinners prevail? I think we can all agree, we can insert our own sin in that place and to not have to repeat a phrase twice. Yet the meaning seems clear, at least we do not dwell on it. But there is disagreement on how parts of the Lords prayer are interpreted. I don't think these enter our minds when we recite the prayer.
It seems clear to me that Jesus is pronouncing the coming of the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God, to come to us, on Earth. Many theologians have looked at this. They tell us it falls on us from above, perhaps onto one generation. That it is just around the corner, so look busy. When it comes it is over. The wheat is sorted from the chaff. But who cannot see the effect of Jesus Christ on the Earth and wonder if the kingdom's coming isn't more gradual? Jesus' influence is touching everything, quickening all progress. There is earth bound evidence that the kingdom of God is coming. We know more about creation, we see this in the science. I think we can place the origin of the universe with more precision than the age of the earth using current cosmological science. With study of God's creation there are benefits. We get neat stuff, cell phones, computers. As we study God in the character of Jesus we also grow morally. And there are benefits here too. In fact, when you combine the progress in our understanding of creation as science, with moral progress, you see changes in something called economy. The two are intimately connected. Economy is largely based on stuff, made from our understanding of creation, but it also has a moral component that is even bigger. But who believes in moral progress on earth. Inside a person’s lifetime we accept this, but reject it for the culture for the race. But there is evidence of moral progress.
In February of 1840, Wm. Ellery Channing wrote his introductory remarks for his lecture on the elevation of the laboring classes. In the essay he writes, “... I am not discouraged by the objection, that the laborer, if encouraged to give time and strength to the elevation of his mind, will starve himself and impoverish the country...” He is arguing that educating the laboring class will not destroy the country! It's a long argument because there is a lot of resistance to the idea. Its a game changer, the playing field is going to have new rules. One lifetime later enter the First World War, aerial combat, tanks, poison gas, radio communication, automobile, telephones and medicine, justice is becoming wide spread (always in comparison). Yes, justice marched forward too. The world is transformed, yet we say morally nothing has changed. I have taken a survey and could not find one person to admit moral progress. No one argues that there is no technological progress, only that there is no moral progress. The industrial revolution was not a moral revolution, even if income of the whole world increased 10 times in the two centuries that followed, instead we probably focus on child labor or helpless factory workers, as well we should.
A common misconception about our down-hill path we draw is our conception of modern warfare. That modern warfare is worse then primitive warfare that preceded it seems logical. Let your hearts be lifted then. As Lawrence Keeley in War Before Civilization writes, “Imagine living in a society in a near-constant state of war, both within and without. A society where you lose 0.5% of your population to violence every year, a rate which would translate to 2 Billion war deaths during the 21st century.” World war II in contrast killed 63-77 Million world wide. Warfare methodology changes with technology becoming more efficient, we see this escalation, it frightens us, and it should. But we also have forgotten as a culture the smaller constant raids and wars that were rarely interrupted by periods of peace.
Let's consider warfare, it is often repeated that war will be with us always. But how great are the chances that Germany will once again declare war on Poland? The spread of social justice and equality are pushing back the prospects for war. And in time war will become unwelcome police actions and civilian deaths will continue to decline as they have in non-genocidal wars. In the space of lifetimes there is much progress, and disappoint too. For me when the United nations weapons inspector Hans Blix felt that Iraq had been disarmed of weapons of mass destruction and that for the first time in history we had intervened successfully to reduce the threat of war. Opening the door for other interventions in North Korea and Myanmar or with other belligerents. There was great value in this while preserving the current governments, after all, what despot would not use every drop of his people’s blood to preserve his power, especially when the outcome for him would be death. We were standing on the edge of a new world. Of course the yellow cake uranium forgery undid this hope, leading to interventions costing the lives of 10s of thousands. Will war be with us always? Perhaps, but not war as we know today, we will succeed at some time. War will further erode after this police stage, even into economic trade aggression. Eventually there will be no mass death from this cause, it shall become insane and irrational with the advancement of the kingdom of God.
Another sign of moral progress which can be found in the record is in the continuous decline of homicide. As many as 1.4 million Americans have died from homicide in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Compare this to 535,965 Americans who died in both world wars. Some cities and small states have kept census and homicide data in Europe that allows us to look back a long way. In fact, homicide rates have been in continuous decline for 800 hundred years. State murder also declined. In England there were 75,000 executions in the 100 years between 1630-1730, a rate of 750 a year. It fell to 140 a year between 1770-1805 and again to 75 a year between 1805-1832. Today there are no executions anywhere in Europe.
It is not as easy to separate economic progress from moral progress. This is perhaps because economic progress is in lock step with equality, fairness and our understanding of value and justice. We need to go back a long way to connect the industrial revolution to moral progress. The first iron bridge made crosses the River Severn in Shropshire, England. It was built in 1773. It is an exceedingly moral bridge. When you consider that iron could be a threat to the Crown, power is jealous of power. Industry required secure property rights. Building an iron foundry may get the owner killed, this was a disincentive for progress. Iron foundries make armor and weapons, and money too, which is a potent form of power. Property rights are a threat to a Sovereign. Emperor's and Presidents like to have their power without strings attached. Is it moral that you can own something? How secure in your rights of ownership do you need to be before you invest. If it is immoral to steal, how can the property of ownership not also be moral? The bridge, like the industrial revolution, could not happen without morality. Morality evolving to become contract law. Institutionalized fairness, and what a battle that must have been. Shares were issued to raise the £3,200 required to build the bridge. Iron master Abraham Darby cast the bridge and agreed to pay for overruns. The world needed to have rights given to the individuals, then needed to be secure in their possessions, power had to be given up by the powers of the day. We see the elevation of the human in this place.
We do not always understand the economic, logistic or logic behind a good decision and use our moral compass. Moral decisions are usually early and of great value. Later, always as far as I know, we can fill in the logical and economic reasons and they make sense to us. Because the kingdom of God will make sense, eventually. Why would progress toward the kingdom of God be any other way? But this does not mean that logic alone can guide us in this place, it has its many dead ends and circles that fold back in itself, it has a tendency to be cold and has a great deal of trouble placing value on some types of consideration. Particularly those considerations having to do with the coming kingdom of God.
We do not see the Kingdom of God coming, we do not see the agency of Jesus at work bringing about that part of change that we call progress. Our gaze is fixed on our decline and destruction. It seems irresistible to us that some end is to come, brought to us by our unworthiness. Make no mistake about this, our destruction is there as an option on our horizon, and it is all together fitting that we keep close watch and fear it. Surely as we can decide our course, our destruction must be available to us. I am sure that God has allowed us such latitude to control our destiny, he has breathed freedom into our beings and would not keep from us from any well deserved destruction we could bring down on our heads. We deserve this much freedom. We might even test God, you love us God but would you deny me my self destruction?
But such great hope comes from our knowing that even our time in life is not futile. That this world we have spent so long in is becoming compliant, moving toward the unity with the Kingdom. That our suffering is heard in Heaven and recorded here on Earth and we should demand it recorded on Earth as well. Who would take our suffering and have it repeated endlessly for those who come after us. Our contribution to the record protects us from injustice. How many times do we hear the call that if the injustice we suffer would only be recognized? We would like to be restored but the barest minimum we would accept is that we not be denied to render our mark on this world in vain as though erased. There is a mark left on Earth. For better or worse, that shall be felt in some mysterious way on the future of this wondering sphere spinning in space. Does the engineer leave this world knowing he has delivered clean water to millions, saved perhaps hundreds of lives. Why cannot then the victim of injustice hold up there injury to the record and expose injustice. It is true we can never let our self be satisfied, Martin Luther King Jr. said, “No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” We must be accustomed to increasing progress and demand nothing less. Seek and find reasons when we do not see the change we expect. Our recognition of progress is not to be a call to complacency.
Channing writes, “It is idle to hope, by our short-sighted contrivances, to insure to a people a happiness which their character has not earned. The everlasting laws of God’s moral government we cannot repeal; and parchment constitutions, however wise, will prove no shelter from the retributions which fall on a degraded community.”
It seems that we must make every single mistake. That we cannot escape one lesson, and if we do we are doomed to go back for it. Perhaps the question becomes how many times is enough. Let us lift up the record, demand more fidelity and hold our selves accountable for each measure. And also be comforted by the knowledge that like the engineer, what we do we also leave behind. So let goodness and justice rule in our lives. And be comforted by our savior whose agency is quite active in the world today.
The twentieth-century estimate of 1,266,660 is from Douglas Eckberg, e-mail, September 5, 2004; Eric Monkkonen obtained the nineteenth-century estimate of 135,460 using New York City as my source for the rate of homicide per capita.
Homicide rates per 100,000 population in English counties and cities, 1200–1970. From Ted Robert Gurr, "Historical Trends in Violent Crime: A Critical Review of the Evidence," Crime and Justicen> 3 (1981): 313. © 1981, The University of Chicago Press.
Vic Gatrell’s study of English executions, The Hanging Tree, In the waning years of capital punishment, 1805–1832, more than 2,000 people were publicly hanged; only 20 percent of those were for murder. Those numbers—about 75 a year—were down from an estimated 140 per year for 1770–1805, and even more dramatically