In the early 1970s a horror movie was released entitled Willard; it was about a social misfit with a creepy affinity for rats. The movie’s tagline was “When your nightmares end…Willard begins“. Creepy. I can understand why Willard Romney would run for president in 2012 using his middle name Mitt instead. I’m waiting to see the movie poster re-worked with Mitt’s face on it instead of the rat – you just know it’s going to happen at some point. But this isn’t about either of them.
In 1998, a former pastor turned USC philosophy professor by the name of Dallas Willard published a book entitled The Divine Conspiracy. This seminal work had a profound impact on a wide range of religious leaders, including those who ultimately led the short-lived “emergent” movement. It also connected with me at a time when I needed it most as my family fled the oppressive “home church/cult” we had been involved in for six years and sought to rediscover and redefine who we wanted to be moving forward.
Willard’s book provided a fresh focus on the teachings and example of Jesus, especially as it relates to the passage in The Gospel of Matthew 5-7 known as “The Sermon on the Mount”. Willard asserted:
“Jesus is not just nice; he is brilliant. He is the smartest man who ever lived…he always has the best information on everything and certainly also on the things that matter most in human life.”
For many evangelical and fundamentalist Christians, the focus is on the writings of Paul and Jesus is only important so far as the crucifixion and resurrection are concerned. For those who primary aim is to reach a blissful afterlife, the teachings of Jesus are of little interest compared to “the finished work of the cross”. But Willard argued that what Jesus taught (and lived) is actually the most profound and important of all.
The order in which Jesus presented his good news, values, and principles reveals a keen understanding of human nature and the sequence in which inner transformation occurs most effectively. He starts with the good news of the “Beatitudes” as he proclaims who is included and welcome and “blessed” in his society: misfits, outcasts, down-and-outers, the hassled and marginalized. These are the people who have the most to gain and the least to lose, those who need really good news outside the social/economic/political/religious systems of the day. He first of all provides hope and vision of what could be.
Jesus continues on to the inner attitudes we need to cultivate to truly be in harmony with his way (his torah). First stop: anger. Our dealings with one another should always be with civility and kindness, because the seed of anger grows into the weed of brutality and murder. We live in a very angry generation – just listen to an hour of talk radio or read the comments at the bottom of any online news article if you doubt this. Road rage. Hate speech. Shout-downs.
The media leverages this frenzy to sell more advertising so they make more money. Politicians and media have a vested interested in this divided country, and we are doomed unless we let go of anger and instead embrace civility, love, kindness, and a willingness to understand one another without necessarily having to agree.
Jesus then moves on to the topic of pleasure, especially sexual. We are a society that indulges our appetites without restraint. Telling someone else they should consider delayed gratification, self-denial, public propriety… might fall back on us and we would have to restrain ourselves.
In this culture, that would never do. But in Jesus’ society it is part and parcel of how we achieve harmony with one another. We don’t view each other as objects to manipulate for our personal pleasure, but rather as humans created in the image of God… as brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers… as family.
When anger is diminished and mutual respect and care are fostered, then his other topics like adultery, divorce, business integrity, peace-making instead of revenge, etc. become possible. When sacrificial, compassionate love become the hallmarks of our society, we can live at peace with one other (both at home and abroad).
When these attitudes are in place, then our good deeds, spiritual practices, etc. are not used to draw attention to ourselves bolstering our pride, but are truly motivated by heart-felt charity. The spiritual disciplines of giving, praying, fasting/self-denial, serving, trusting without worry, accepting without condemnation or condescension – these practices strengthen us and transform us into the kind of people who truly reflect the way of Jesus. As we cultivate these, as we let them do their inner work, we become ambassadors of a new society that can restore this planet.
“[Jesus] matters because of what he brought and what he still brings to ordinary human beings, living their ordinary lives and coping daily with their surroundings. He promises wholeness for their lives. In sharing our weaknesses he gives us strength and imparts through his companionship a life that has the quality of eternity.”
– Dallas Willard
Can I get an amen?