II. Beyond Cynicism
Jesus said, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem,
how often I have desired to gather your children.” (Luke 13)
Cynicism is defined by the dictionary as the belief that people are entirely motivated by self-interest. In that sense, we could be said to be living in a very cynical age: it is widely accepted that banks seek only maximum profits; that politicians look only for power and political advantage; that religion is used as a defense against cultural difference; and that even education is primarily about getting ahead in a material and competitive world, rather than seeking understanding and wisdom.
Last week, under the theme of “livin’ in these (troubled) times,” we talked about the anger, fear and impatience of the current political environment as temptations of the spirit that are symptomatic of these days. We pointed to the temptation that we sell ourselves short by giving in to lower aspirations and narrower visions of what life in community might be. Like Jesus tempted by the devil in the wilderness, we too are tempted to settle for too little when God calls us to lives of mercy, compassion, solidarity, and fraternity.
Today I’d like to take up a related problem, which is the prevalence of cynicism, and the gospel once again provides the context to do so. The setting is this: as Jesus gains more and more of a following by working various signs of healing among the people, the authorities grow increasingly suspicious. Jesus is warned that King Herod is threatening to have him killed, with the implication that he should avoid Jerusalem. Jesus, however, knows that his mission must inevitably take him to the capital city to confront those very powers that threaten him, and so he sets his face toward Jerusalem, knowing that it is most likely leading him toward his death.
The episode reminds me of a scene in the movie Romero, which tells the story of Oscar Romero, the martyred archbishop of El Salvador. At one point, as Romero visits the site of the murder of one of his closest colleagues in resisting the armed oppression of the poor by the Salvadoran regime, he realizes that he too is on a path toward his own murder—and yet one from which he cannot turn aside without being untrue to himself and the sense of the mission that he has been given by God. It is, he realizes, only a matter of time until he will be eliminated, and indeed he is gunned down at the altar while saying mass soon thereafter.
In either case—Jesus’ turning toward Jerusalem, or Romero’s solidarity with the poor—one might have expected that at some point they would lose heart with such a bleak future before them; that they would give in to the cynical attitude that the powers that be are, after all, selfishly motivated and will never change, especially not just by being confronted with the injustice of their actions by a single man. Both Jesus and Romero had ample reason to lapse into cynicism and abandon their struggle.
But in our gospel passage today, Jesus has something more to say that helps to explain why neither he, nor Romero, did choose to quit: his lament over the city Jerusalem. “O, Jerusalem, Jerusalem,” he says, “the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!” At one level, this is a statement of blinding reality: Jerusalem is indeed a place where God’s prophets have historically been ignored at best and silenced at worst. But a lament is something more than just a statement of despairing realism: it also contains within it a measure of hope, precisely because it is so aware of the gap between what is, and what should be.
Think of the Lamentations of Jeremiah, that prophet of dark despair because of Israel’s apostasy before the Lord. “How lonely sits the city,” his book of Lamentations begins, “that was full of people! … She weeps bitterly in the night, tears on her cheeks.” Yet Jeremiah’s woeful outpouring of lamentation over the city ends with a plea that what God still holds in promise for it may be realized: “Thou, O Lord, dost reign for ever. … Restore us to thyself, O Lord, that we may be restored. Renew our days as of old!”
Lamentation, in other words, expresses both regret—and hope. It expresses the deepest despair, but it does so only in the context of holding on to the expectation that something better is still possible. It releases anguish, but offers consolation.
So Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem is likewise both of those things at once: despair and hope. Despair at the defensive motivations of power and control manifested by King Herod and his court, and yet hope in the continuing promises of God that his kingdom shall prevail in the end.
And herein lies the lesson for us: these troubled times in which we live also give us ample reason to lapse into cynicism, to read the signs of the times as indicative of a society that has become entirely motivated by greed, fear, anger, and bigotry. And while we may lament these signs, our lament must contain within it that longer and larger confidence that these forces are ultimately no match for the holiness and justice of God.
But this motivation to stay beyond cynicism is not just true at a societal level: it is also true in the life that it is ours personally to live. We must guard against letting set backs freeze our spiritual and emotional life into the unproductive stance of the cynic. A bitter breakup of a relationship, for instance, could poison our view of human relationships in general, if we allow an unrelenting sense of regret to set in. Or the loss of a job could hold us captive in a resentful bitterness. Or the sudden violent death of a loved one could stifle our sense of the still open possibilities of life.
Such cynicism, you see, is an emotional and spiritual dead-end, as no less a philosopher than Stephen Colbert has pointed out. “Cynicism,” he said recently, “masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don’t learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us. Cynics always say no. But saying ‘yes’ begins things. Saying ‘yes’ is how things grow. … So for as long as you have the strength to, say ‘yes’.”
Now, I don’t know whether Colbert was aware of it or not—but his statement noticeably echoes what Paul wrote to the Corinthians, that in Christ, all of God’s promises find their “yes” (II Cor.1). Our life in Christ therefore means remaining open, hopeful, expectant—not closed, despondent, and cynical.
Think of Abram in today’s Old Testament. There he is, having been promised by God that he would be the father of a great nation, but as an old man he is still without an heir. He has every reason to become cynical—even the God who promised him great things seems to be toying with him. But God reiterates the promise, and so Abram checks his temptation to cynicism, opening himself to a renewed confidence in God. And, as the scripture says, “The Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.” What God required of Abram, in other words, was to remain open to possibility, to hold onto the expectation of dreams fulfilled, to avoid the spiritual closure that would come from an all-too justifiable yet nevertheless inappropriate lapse into cynicism.
So the response to which we are called in the midst of the these cynical times is a renewal of the confidence and perseverance toward which our faith encourages us. We will be on this Godward side of life, if when we cynically feel like turning inward and shutting out the challenges which face us, we instead open ourselves toward engaging with life as it presents itself to us. We will be on the Godward side of life if when our thoughts are prone to bitterness or regret or resentment, we instead let it all go, and face life openly and expectantly.
As Crystal Gayle sings in that old country-western song that serves as the inspiration for this preaching series, “It takes all the faith that’s in you, takes your heart and it takes min, livin’ in these troubled times.” Isn’t that the call the Pope issued to the people of Mexico this past week as he faced down the death-purveying drug cartels and corrupted civic leaders—that one cannot give in to cynicism. That is true death, for it robs us of hope. Rather, Francis showed us this week how one can lament the evils of the world and yet not lapse into cynicism and vitriol; indeed, his strategy seemed to be to appeal to our highest instincts of mercy and compassion, as the counterpart to our basest emotional reactions of anger and resentment.
So beware of cynicism, both in yourself and in others. Because it knows only the language of “no,” it stifles progress; it blocks relationship; it prohibits partnership; it seeks to tear down rather than build up; it demonizes rather than valuing the other; and worst of all, cynicism robs us of hope, which is what we need most, “livin’ in these (troubled) times.” Amen.
© Joseph Britton, 2016