Greetings, SBT Readers!
The turmoil and terror in Afghanistan bring home the reality that the chain of human suffering is forged link by link, over generations. This week's evacuation debacle is linked to the Trump administration's 2020 agreement with the Taliban; in turn, the presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan can be linked to the Bush administration's response to the massacre on September 11th, 2001; purportedly, Osama Bin Laden and his allies were seeking revenge for the U.S.'s support of Israel and involvement in the Gulf War in 1991; that war, in turn, was caused by Saddam Hussein's annexation of Kuwait over disputes in oil pricing and production; going back further, it was a coup in 1968 that brought Saddam Hussein to power while a coup in 1958 overthrew the monarchy; before that... well, I think you get the picture.
If we look at any situation of human suffering, usually there is a chain of cause and effect. Even natural disasters tend to follow this pattern, with insufficient warnings, resources and evacuations being in place, or with "human error" -- or corruption-- worsening existing situations. When we examine our own lives, we will see that what happens on a global scale has its microcosmic parallels: each bad choice usually has its causes and consequences, setting in motion personal suffering as well as suffering and inconvenience for those closest to us. Sin, then, is not just a personal event but has societal consequences. As Jesus points out, it is the things that come out of us which cause pollution; conversely, "good" choices and actions can transform the world around us.
The Pharisees and scribes questioned Jesus,
“Why do your disciples not follow the tradition of the elders
but instead eat a meal with unclean hands?”
“Well did Isaiah prophesy about you hypocrites, as it is written:
This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines human precepts.
You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition.”
He summoned the crowd again and said to them,
“Hear me, everyone, and understand.
Nothing that enters you from the outside can defile you,
but the things that come out from within are what defile.
It is from within people, from their hearts, that
come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder,
adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within and they defile."
Mk 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Though it may be impolite to say this in a church or other religious setting, Jesus's teachings on defilement could be described as "scatalogical"; that is, they draw an analogy between the process of food intake and "elimination." What he points out is that it is not what we eat that is unclean but what we excrete -- "evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder,
adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly." We could add to the list gossip, negativity, judgmentalism, narcissism, exploitation, bullying, emotional abuse, violence, hate crimes, discrimination, and all other forms of human depravity. In other words, outward signs of being "kosher" or "spiritually pure" can camouflage the cesspit that exists within each of us-- even from ourselves!
Sadly, not even the holiest among us is free of this cesspit. To continue the analogy, our inner "blockages" prevent us from truly mirroring the Presence of God. We might perform all that society expects of us on the outside, but the sewage within contaminates our good deeds: We volunteer for a project but then complain that others have taken advantage of us; we show kindness to a friend or colleague but then exact re-payment; we host a social gathering and then gossip about non-attending invitees; we make a hefty charitable contribution but then ensure everyone knows about it...
The parable that comes to mind here is that of The Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Lk 18:9-14). The Pharisee is obsessed with his own virtue and his sense of moral superiority-- he fasts more, he donates more, he scrupulously observes the Law. To all outward observers, he is "squeaky clean" and no background check will ever reveal lapses in judgment, criminal behavior or unworthy associates. However, oblivious to his inner cesspit, he lacks both humility and the capacity for self-reflection. In contrast, the tax collector is a societal outcast who knows himself and can therefore pray for God's mercy. He may be "unclean" but he doesn't pretend to be anything but who he is.
Examining excrement is the unsavory work of scatologists or gastroenterologists; examining our "inner cesspit" and its outward expressions is something each of us must do if we wish to be self-aware.