Archive for June, 2009

In one important way a friend lacks what a brother possesses by definition: shared blood.

Yet in one important aspect the friend defies this elemental distinction, acting for all intents and purposes like the best of brothers: a friend is present permanently as can only be expected of the best of brothers.

The biblical collector of proverbs does not miss out on this most stubborn comfort:

A friend loves at all times,
and kinsfolk are born to share adversity.

As one tips toward the tribal end of the scale of social glues, the friend’s behavior becomes all the more remarkable.

The woman who finds herself navigating life’s most turbulent waters with family aboard is a fortunate woman, yet a true friend in the mix—even if only one—makes her richer still. A man does battle, sadly, against all manner of treachery, disappointment, and fickle allies. Yet just one friend makes adversity a passing affliction rather than the anteroom to ruin.

This permanence, this stickiness, this circumstantial ubiquity can be expected of blood ties. A friend does it because he chooses.

There is one, perhaps two or at most three comparable kinds of wealth in the whole world. That is all.


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The biblical tradition struggles mightily with the apparent excesses of YHWH’s commitment to David and his city.

It is unlike the Mosaic tradition to make promises without outlining the responsibilities that accrue to divine generosity. Yet one or two of the classic ‘Davidic’ or ‘Zion’ covenantal statements do just that. In my judgement, the largest theological errors lie by the side of the road where one attempts to restrict divine liberty. Still, we ought to consider the possibility that an implicit conditionality inhabits even the most absolute YHWH-promises to David and his offspring. At the end of the day, YHWH is in the biblical drama a master at the creative rescuing of situations placed in peril by human weakness, stubbornness, or both.

If these caveats sound obtuse and at some remove from the text that lies before us, they are not unlinked to it. The tradition’s very struggle suggests that angles of view that we might label as ‘theological’ emerge from the content of the YHWH-promises themselves.

Leave it to the psalms—arguably one of the less cautious genres when it comes to articulating things that really matter—to juxtapose YHWH’s sure oath to David to an outsized if that towers above Zion and its royal/religious edifices:

The LORD swore to David a sure oath
from which he will not turn back:
‘One of the sons of your body
I will set on your throne.
If your sons keep my covenant
and my decrees that I shall teach them
their sons also, forevermore,
shall sit on your throne.’ (Psalm 132:11-12 NRSV)

Though a pedantic logician might swallow hard at the appearance of naive contradiction, the tradition that is here inscripted is conscious of two realities. First, the poetic legacy is well aware of YHWH’s inscrutable decisiveness. Second, it will not disavow the deeply rooted responsibility that YHWH’s uncanny way with those upon whom his love falls presses into the lives of those who seem rarely to have reached out to him. More often such people—David chief among them—become ensnared in the web of divine amour. They find it difficult—if, in theory, not impossible—to break free from the tenacious, enwrapping netting that has found their feet, their legs, their arms, then all of them.

YHWH promises. Human beings more or less screw up the postlude. YHWH finds a way.

On such a dialectic redemption, this world, and the next appear somewhat safely—if not without tragedy—to hang.

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We could go to school on the strength of how we react to calamity suffered by another. Our response tells us that much about ourselves.

He who mocks the poor shows contempt for their Maker;
whoever gloats over disaster will not go unpunished.

The German language loans us English speakers the delicious term Schadenfreude. It is the joy one feels upon observing another’s loss. This often unanticipated response represents one of evil’s deepest impresses upon our life.

The biblical anthology of accrued wisdom tell us that Schadenfreude is not a mere defect in our social skills. Rather it spits in the face of the poor man’s Maker. It allows us to glimpse something we believe that is too awful for utterance and so only rarely rises to the level of awareness. That something is a hellish doctrine: the suffering of another means less than mine, is more deserved than my own, and ought to bring no sorrow to my more superior heart.

Such conviction smells of sulphur. We cover it well, mask its stench, posture ourselves to lean against it when people are looking.

The proverbial anthology knows both the damage Schadenfreude inflicts upon human community and the judgment it brings upon those who feel its brief, shallow thrill.

Schadenfreude is a deadly serious matter, a canary in the mine that leads its explorer ever onward towards the Accuser who lurks deep within. So long as it passes unremarked, he knows the sound of footsteps that press inexorably, satisfyingly towards his lair. He need not lift a finger, for hell’s direction is set and unaltered.

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