Perhaps We Have Something Better Than Power: Thoughts on the Cana sequence from The Robe (1953)

The spring of the year brings with it an observance of a great event: many Christians around the world remember the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.  Much has been written about that event.  Movies have been made, and sadly, many may seem to trivialize its gravity and importance.  Some pictures do, however, capture the miracle of Jesus.  One such film was The Robe, from 1953.   

In the film, Richard Burton plays the spiritually beleaguered Roman officer, Marcellus Gallio, who, after angering the rising emperor was all but exiled to Palestine.  When his tour was ended, he was tasked with one last mission: oversee the crucifixion of Jesus.  He complied, thinking it was only a routine execution.  He discovered it was anything but that when his Greek servant left him with Jesus’ robe, that apparently ‘bewitched” him and drove him to madness. In order to save his sanity, Gallio returns to Palestine from Rome to seek answers. 

One of his first stops is Cana of Galilee.  There, he meets Justus (played by Dean Jagger, whom you may remember as the General in White Christmas), an elder of the Jesus followers in Cana, kindly, welcoming, and humble.  Before he introduces Gallio to the Big Fisherman, Simon Peter (portrayed by Michael Rennie), he tells him something of Jesus’ actions and influence in and around Cana.  Jesus had healed his grandson of a club foot, allowing him to live a normal life.  He also touched the life of a young woman named Miriam, played beautifully by Betta St. John.

The movie is so compelling in so many ways.  It captures the essence of Christianity and juxtaposes it against the anxiety of a person who is lost and struggling to make sense of his privileged yet somehow meaningless life. In the Cana sequence, there are a couple of magnificent exchanges both about and with Miriam.  Following is a fairly accurate transcript of those scenes.   

 Marcellus Gallio – Who is she?

 Justus- Her name is Miriam.  You’ve seen my grandson. Miriam is another on whom Jesus looked.

 Marcellus Gallio – Another miracle?

 Justus – If you want to use the word. When she was 15, she was struck down by paralysis. It left her hopelessly crippled, and hopelessly bitter about life. She ate herself away with hate and consumed everyone with her envy and malice.

 Marcellus Gallio – But she’s still a cripple. She still can’t walk.

 Justus – No, she can’t.

 Marcellus Gallio – If he was such a magician, why didn’t he cure her?

 Justus – He did.

 Marcellus Gallio – I don’t understand.

 Justus – Have you had supper?

 Marcellus Gallio – No.

 Justus – Perhaps you will honor my poor house.

 Marcellus Gallio – Thank you.

 Justus – Then one day there was a wedding here in Cana. The whole village took part in it, all but Miriam. She stayed home and wept. A wedding, you see, when no man would look at her and her twisted body.  But when her parents returned to the house, they found her, as she is now, as you saw her, smiling and singing.

 Marcellus Gallio – Was Jesus at the wedding?

 Justus – Yes. But he came late.

 Marcellus Gallio – So now she spends her time singing fables about the man.

 Justus – But they’re not fables.

 Marcellus Gallio – Surely you don’t believe that he rose from the dead?

 Justus – He lives more surely than we do.

 Marcellus Gallio – He’s dead. And no moonstruck girl can sing him back to life again.

 Justus – How do you know that he’s dead?

 Marcellus Gallio – A soldier told me.  A soldier who saw the lance thrust into his side. A soldier who was… who was out there!

 Justus – What’s wrong?

 Marcellus Gallio – Were you out there?

 Justus – You’re ill. Let me help you.

 Marcellus Gallio – No. Let me alone. Since the voyage, I’ve been…I’ve been indisposed.

 —–

 Miriam – Is it that you resent what our master taught us?

 Marcellus Gallio – Why should I resent it? He means nothing to me.

 Miriam – Then why do you consider him your enemy? You see, we know why you’re here, Marcellus. It’s simple, really. No merchant, even a stupid one, would have paid those prices. And the look of you, those shoulders. We guessed at once what you were.

     Sit down, please, here in the shade. The sun’s hot.

     Why must you do this, Marcellus? Is it for Rome?

 Marcellus Gallio – Yes. And for myself, to save my reason.

 Miriam – Justus said you were ill. There’s one who can help.

 Marcellus Gallio – No. No. He was crucified and buried. That was the end of him.

 Miriam – That was the beginning. He’s with his father, but he left his word with us and taught us how to use it.

 Marcellus Gallio – Don’t confess to sorcery. You’ll make things worse.

 Miriam – He was no sorcerer, Marcellus. He cast no spells. He only asked two things of us: “love God,” he said, “and love ye one another.” And he meant not only the Jews, but Romans and Greeks, slaves and soldiers, the strong and the weak, everyone. He asked us to build our lives on this love, this charity. To build a new world.

 Marcellus Gallio – Worlds are built on force, not charity. Power is all that counts.

 Miriam – Perhaps we have something better than power. We have hope.

 Marcellus Gallio – That you of all people should say that.

 Miriam – What do you mean, Marcellus?

 Marcellus Gallio – You say he could work miracles, but he left you as he found you.

 Miriam – I used to wonder at that myself, until faith taught me the answer. He could have healed my body, and it would have been natural for me to laugh and sing. And then I came to understand that he had done something even better for me. He’d chosen me for his work. He’d left me as I am so that all others like me might know that their misfortune needn’t deprive them of happiness within his kingdom.

 Marcellus Gallio – It’s beyond reason that anybody should think as you do.

 Miriam – If you had only known him, if you had ever looked into his eyes, heard him speak…

 Marcellus Gallio – I did.

Where it is revealed that Jesus had not healed Miriam of her disability, I was reminded of the healing of the paralytic man, lowered into the house through the roof.  The story is related by Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  Jesus does a most unusual thing in Luke 5.20: “And when he saw their faith, he said, “Man, your sins are forgiven you.”  

Of course the Pharisees were up in arms, declaring that none but God could forgive sins. 

 Luk 5:22  When Jesus perceived their thoughts, he answered them, “Why do you question in your hearts?  23  Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? 24  But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the man who was paralyzed—”I say to you, rise, pick up your bed and go home.”

 25  And immediately he rose up before them and picked up what he had been lying on and went home, glorifying God.  26  And amazement seized them all, and they glorified God and were filled with awe, saying, “We have seen extraordinary things today.”

The obvious desire of the paralytic man was to walk.  Jesus did far more than heal his physical infirmity.  In The Robe, Miriam was healed not in body, but in mind and spirit.  She rose above adversity to serve and to share. 

But there are also some more beautiful points in this short segment from the movie.  Miriam explains to Marcellus the underlying foundation of how Jesus wants us to live, and that is to live by love, both love for God and love for one another.  She says Jesus wants us to build a new world.

In true Roman fashion, Gallio replied that worlds are built on force, that power is all that counts.  That is the mindset that is encountered all too often throughout the world, and has been encountered throughout history.  Force and power may subdue and even subjugate.  But neither force nor power can instill love and good will, only fear and subservience.

Miriam says Jesus’ followers have something better than power: hope Hope is perhaps one of the greatest messages of the cross, and even more directly, the empty tomb.  Paul said that after all else is dust, three things would remain: faith, hope and love.  Through faith, we experience the love of God and the love of others who love and serve him.  Through faith and love, we have the hope of becoming something more, something beyond the limitations and frailties of the human organism.  We have hope to see and experience and become part of a new order, a new world, a restored universe not cast into the entropy of despair and disarray by the tragedy of the fall and its ongoing iterations in every life, but as fresh and as vibrant as the instant God conceived it in thought.

Although The Robe is not inspired, it is indeed inspiring.  It presents the essence of Christianity virtually untainted by denominational dogma.  That essence is love

It is sad that some people only think about the Jesus twice a year, at Christmas, to mark his birth and at Easter to mark his death and resurrection.  Some would say that it is pointless to live a life directed by such “fables,” but I would counter, what do you lose?  The richest, most contented lives I have ever seen are those that are steeped in love.  That is the Jesus way. And I, for one, am glad I found it.      

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On Justice, Kindness, and Walking Humbly with God

As I have revealed in previous posts, I am a fan of country music.  Well, I guess I could refine that a bit and note that I am a fan of country music that was played during my formative years.  That may seem unfair to artists performing today, but so much of their music just seems to leave me cold.  My experiences are different from theirs.  I have little in common with them.  That’s probably why I shake my head in wonder and disbelief when I see a man chasing a woman young enough to be his daughter.  But that is a topic for a different essay.

I reflect on this because I was listening to a song written by Phil Vassar and made popular by Tim McGraw, titled “My Next Thirty Years.” It really captures a feeling that I have been harboring for a long time now.  Obviously the song is written from the perspective of a man turning that landmark 30 year milestone.  While it has been a while (ahem, a long while) since I’ve seen 30, the words always speak right to my heart.  Vassar says,

“My next thirty years, I’m gonna settle all the scores.

Cry a little less, laugh a little more;

Find a world of happiness without the hate and fear;

Figure out just what I’m doin’ here in my next thirty years.”

 You would think that I would have figured that out by now.  And I guess for the most part, I have.  But the future is a moving target, and ideas and aspirations change.

When I was a younger man, I wanted to really make my mark on the world.  I wanted to be involved in making things happen.  I wanted to be next to the captain, if not at the helm.

Then, while you aren’t looking, life happens.  You make choices that change your path.  Dreams shift from visions of grandeur to finding contentment.  And contentment is a biblically commended virtue.

But there is a part of me that can never be content.  I am a man who is impatient and far from content when I see suffering and injustice.  I cannot be happy and content in my comfortable life while others are struggling to exist. 

What bothers me most at times is that choices and consequences and unforeseen eventualities have hedged me in, preventing me from being able to travel to faraway places to help people in need.  It’s hard for me to be able to do as much after hours kinds of activity related to my job.  More directly, being the father of a growing boy on the autism spectrum, I must be ready to jump at a moment’s notice to deal with any of a plethora of problems that may arise.  Any time the phone rings, I wonder if it is word that he has gotten into trouble.  Again.  While most parents look forward to being able to relax a little as their children grow, I almost think the anxiety increases for parents of ASD kids.

Now, I stress again that I am not fishing for sympathy.  Far from it.  I accept my responsibilities, and shoulder the burden as best I can.  But when people wonder why I don’t get more involved in some activities, that is why.  While those responsibilities may constrain me physically, they cannot completely cloud my mind and prevent me from all measures of action and involvement.  That is one reason I teach and more pointedly, one reason I write: I hope that my words may resonate with someone, somewhere, and spur them to action, to greater things.

I have written often about the calls to social justice throughout the Old Testament.  Poverty, oppression, and injustice must never be tolerated as a norm.  That they exist is not a cause for acceptance of some cosmic status quo.  We are not subject to the same laws of entropy as the physical universe: we are more than leaves drifting inexorably downstream.  We have the power to change things.

That is why I have tried in a small way to be a voice for those who have none.  I have deep respect for organizations whose mission is to bring life-saving water to people who desperately need it.  I admire people who leap into action to alleviate suffering when disaster strikes.  I speak out often about the need to fully engage the enemy in the war on hunger.  That any child dies for lack of food makes me sad and angry and frustrated to think that there are people who have plenty who look the other way.  We are better than that. 

One of my favorite verses in all the Old Testament is from the “minor” prophet, Micah.  In Micah 6.8, the prophet says, “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”  How can I do justice if I turn away from need?  How can love kindness if I ignore oppression?  How can I walk humbly with my God if I refuse to share my blessings with others?  There are times that I ache to see and to be involved more in actions to bring help and hope to people in need.

So I have resolved that if I cannot go where help is needed, I can support those who can.  I can call attention to opportunities to join in with others to make change happen.  I know my friends probably grow tired of my solicitations for donations to good causes.  I cannot stop in my efforts, regardless of how weary they may become of my crying in the wilderness.  I hope, however, that they will join with me in giving even a little to these initiatives. Nothing gives me a greater sense of satisfaction than to know I have helped change the world, and to give someone I may never meet from somewhere I may never visit a chance to experience a better future.

I cannot help but think about Jesus’ vision of the Judgment in Matthew 25, where he describes the separation of the sheep from the goats, the saved from the condemned. 

“34  Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.  35  For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36  I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’

37  Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?  38  And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you?  39  And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’

40  And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’

As I write this, it is March 22, 2015—World Water Day.  It is a day set aside to remind if not inform the world of how important water is to life.  Millions of people remain in need of basic necessities like clean water and life-saving sanitation.  There are many organizations that are actively working to bring clean water to those desperately in need.  Won’t you learn how you can help them?

http://water.org/

http://www.worldvision.org/

http://www.charitywater.org/

http://www.unicefusa.org/

http://www.savethechildren.org/

The Strange Dance of Politics and Religion

It has been said that there are two big topics that should be avoided in polite conversation: politics and religion. I guess I’m not very good at taking that advice, since those are two of my favorite topics, not because I delight in argumentation, but because they are so central to the dynamics of human interaction. Each topic, by itself, has the potential to be rather divisive. But together, they engender a strange attraction, yet repulsion, like magnets in constant motion, if slightly out of phase.  Together, the mix becomes volatile, i.e., when politics impinges on religion, or religion attempts to hijack politics. Each has its very important role in life. But maintaining a healthy distance between them is essential for balance. Perhaps that is why the founders of this country, soon after crafting its unique Constitution, wrote in the first great amendment to it an assurance or guarantee that the Congress would neither make a law establishing a state religion, nor would it infringe upon the right to the exercise of religion.

That right to freedom of religion is central to the American freedoms. It is the first among the near sacred rights, and first among the firsts of that first amendment. It is established before the freedom of press, assembly, or speech. It is first before the right to bear arms, or any other right in that list.

That being said, why is there conflict and controversy over the role of religion in government? One vocal segment of the population apparently would like to see what could only be described as a theocracy established, enshrining Christianity as the official guiding influence of government. One big problem with that—beyond the fact that it violates the First Amendment—is, which brand of Christianity would be embraced? With hundreds, even thousands of Christian denominations, which would rise to supremacy? Christian denominations range from ultra-conservative to quite liberal. The conflict would likely not go away, and may even intensify were religion to encroach upon government. And that doesn’t take into consideration the many citizens who practice non-Christian religions, or no religion at all.

Conversely, the greater danger in my estimation would be the imposition of the government’s will on religious bodies. The separation of church and state must go both ways. If politics is to remain unsullied by the burden of religion, then religion must be protected from the imposition of government influence. This will become more and more difficult to maintain as social norms shift in this nation.

I am a firm believer in the separation of church and state. However, I cannot embrace the position held by many of the luminaries of the Restoration Movement’s early years that held that Christians must not serve in the military, and should not participate in government. That position relegates the Christian to the same level of society as a person who, though he lived under Roman rule, was not a Roman citizen. Some say to vote for a particular candidate is to condone every position held by that candidate. These people are likely to become single issue voters, which presents its own set of dangers. I disagree with that position, because I am compelled to look at the whole candidate, i.e. his or her position on on all issues. Since I opened my eyes to the vast array of political positions and opinions, I have not been in total agreement with any candidate for any office. I have tried to consider broader impacts as I assess a candidate’s potential, not embrace or dismiss them based on a single issue.

Of course, it can be argued as to whether the United States remains a representative democracy. Indeed, it has been suggested that we are no longer that, but rather an oligarchy run by a select cadre of shadow leaders from the military industrial complex or perhaps even more insidiously, just big industry. That’s all a little too conspiracy-theory-laced for me. I choose to give the nation the benefit of the doubt, and suggest that participation in democracy is neither right nor privilege, but a solemn responsibility or obligation, in that the will of the people must truly be an expression of all people, not only those with money enough to buy an election.

When religion is forced upon a people, it does not remain the positive influence that an expression of faith out of free will provides. Rather, it becomes another weapon of power and control. When religion is forcibly denied to people, it may become a rebel’s rallying point, which ultimately strengthens the government’s resolve to stamp out its last vestiges.

The conscientious exercise of faith, however, can and should become a positive force, in that the life of the faithful is one guided by enduring principles. In this way, religion does not control, but informs and instructs. A principled life should lead to principled decision-making, involving an examination of all aspects of an issue, not merely knee-jerk responses prescribed by adherence to some collection of dogmas.

Of course, it may be argued that a principled life directed by morality and ethics need not be encumbered by the trappings of religion. There are many ethical and moral atheists. I understand that. However, I am not here arguing the validity of atheism. I hope to impress the idea that politics and religion can peacefully and productively coexist.

To that end, I assert that Christians need to be involved in government, from active participation in the electoral process to the active pursuit of elected office. Good people are needed to counter-balance the weight of the unprincipled. People of good will must rise to be the light of goodness and Godliness without forcing an overtly religious view. This in no wise compromises one’s duty or privilege to always be ready to give an answer for the hope that he or she possesses. It does mean, however, that one must be able to determine the appropriate time for each.

Too often, politicians use the mantle of religion as a stage prop, demonstrating their piety with frequent appeals to observe the exercise of their faith. I have seen many modern day Pharisees among the conservative movement’s ranks, praying loudly in the market place, ordering God to commend their righteousness, not petitioning him for his mercy. These kinds of leaders would use religion as a weapon. But the shepherd’s staff was never meant to beat the sheep: it serves to direct and to protect.

Few topics are as volatile and divisive as religion and politics. Both are deeply ingrained in the human experience. Both are rooted in deep conviction. But they can coexist as long as people are willing to maintain the appropriate balance. I know there are good people who can achieve that. Finding people willing to withstand the scrutiny and attacks on character…that may be more difficult.