1 Corinthians 15:12-20
These words of Jesus may seem familiar to you, but also strange. You may be saying to yourself, “I know what this is, the Sermon on the Mount!” But it’s not the Sermon on the Mount. Some of you may know that this is the Sermon on the Plain, or Luke’s version of Jesus’s famous sermon. The dead giveaway is in the first Beatitude: Matthew records Jesus as saying “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” but Luke writes that Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor,”—full stop. Matthew says Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” but Luke writes that Jesus said, “Blessed are you who are hungry.” And Matthew doesn’t follow the blessings with woes, like Luke does. “Woe to you who are rich, woe to you who are full, woe to you who are laughing, woe to you when all speak well of you.” Matthew saves his woes for the religious hypocrites of Jesus’s day, and of course, we are all very comfortable saying “Woe to you, religious hypocrites!” It somehow feels a lot more satisfying than saying woe to you who are rich! Which is strange, because we God-botherers here who believe we are sinners and in need of God’s grace are therefore almost by definition hypocrites, and I’m not sure how many of us would like to claim that we are rich. I’ll leave that discussion aside for today, but at any rate: Who knows if Jesus gave this sermon on a mountain, or on a plain, or both. It’s justifiably famous, influencing everyone from St. Francis to Gandhi. You have probably heard it before, in one of its forms. There’s more to it, and we will continue with another section next week. But it’s enough for today to contemplate this mysterious blessing Jesus gives, which is so wrong and so antithetical to our understanding of justice and righteousness—blessed are you who are poor, hungry, weeping, and blessed are you who are hated, excluded, reviled, and defamed on account of Jesus. If you’ve ever been poor, or at least broke, you might be tempted to say: keep the kingdom of God. I’d rather have a full fridge.
I read about a new book called The Goodness Paradox: The Strange Relationship Between Virtue and Violence in Human Evolution, by Richard Wrangham. I want to stress that I read about this book in newyorker.com. I don’t generally like to be a preacher that stands and talks to you about what I’ve read in the New Yorker, but in this case, I think human evolution might just be a good way to think about the Beatitudes, a refraction of them, or a new vantage point to see them, because evolution is all about stress and scarcity and competition and adaption. The blessing is survival and the passing on of genes, a more natural way of looking at morality. So this book, at least as it is reported, has a nice way of framing the Sermon on the Plain.
Now, you may have read his books Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence, or, his most famous book, Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. Wrangham is an evolutionary primatologist, as you may have noticed, and he teaches at Harvard. And ever since his first book, he has been wondering why human beings are both as violently aggressive as chimpanzees and gentle and docile as bonobos. Wrangham writes, “Compared with other primates we practice exceptionally low levels of violence in our day-to-day lives, yet we achieve exceptionally high rates of death in our wars. That discrepancy is the goodness paradox.” He might also note, I suppose, that most wars are fought over scarce resources—and all the blessed of Jesus are in the wars, the hunger from the famines, the weeping of the mourning, the poverty of the defeated.
The nutshell of Wrangham’s argument seems to be this—that capital punishment gave humans morality. Now bear with me here—I’m telling you this third hand, but it makes a certain amount of sense. His thesis is that there are a couple sorts of aggression—the alpha male type, or reactive aggression, or the communal-strategic proactive aggression. The articles tells us to think of a villain in a Western as a reactive aggressor, the lawman as the proactive aggressor. Now, for groups of humans to survive, they need a way to rid themselves of the reactive aggressors, who are destabilizing and domineering, who “monopolize food and females.” In other words, it was either the community of people, or single, domineering individual. So to best survive, communities of people killed the reactive aggressor in order to achieve stability and more equitable distribution of resources. Blessed are the “coalitionary proactive aggressors”, for they shall pass on their genes! And woe to the reactive aggressors, for they shall not!
The article says that because the proactive aggressors banded together, others needed to understand their decisions, which gave rise to rules, and over time, abstract standards of right and wrong, and positive social behaviors. In other words, the article says, “By making us reflect on our the rightness of our actions, capital punishment gave birth to virtue.” But just as “planned, coordinated violence” gave us virtue, it also made exploitation and oppression possible, “either by the state or favored subgroups.” Thus, humans are, “Wrangham concludes, ‘the best and worst of species.”
Intuitively, this seems to make sense to me. In the tradition of twentieth-century theologians, this even seems to be a good enough explanation of the doctrine of original sin—we are born and adapted to precisely this disorder of violence and paradox of violence begetting virtue. If Wrangham’s hypothesis is accurate, it helps explain the taint of human action, which is always tinged with greed and lust and all the other emotions that help us propagate our species. We used cooperative violence to strike down single, powerful aggressors, and to stabilize human communities, we made rules on its use. And from this, society and morals evolved. Jesus’ Beatitudes seem, however, to be consciously counter to this development and this evolution by simply bypassing both types of aggressors and blessing directly the people possessed by them. If so, it is a sermon that is a supreme act of moral imagination. The article says that Wrangham believes in both nature and nurture, that evolution and culture both shape human lives, but, the writer of the article takes a lesson from this book: “evolution is much less relevant to our growth than moral imagination.”
What can give rise to this imagination? Jesus, you remember, is part of an oppressed people, in occupied territory. The Romans were the greatest coalitionary proactive aggressors the Western Hemisphere had ever seen. But Jesus does not call them blessed. He does not call the cagey ruling class of Judea blessed, as they try to work their way through the political minefield of being under Roman occupation and loyal to the God of Israel. But Jesus instead throws it all out—blessed are the poor, woe to the rich. And he speaks especially to his disciples, who have left everything that they have, all that they have to live on, to follow him.
The history of human evolution, it seems to me, is the history of struggle against nature and one another to establish peace and enjoy abundance. It is bloody work, exploitative of humanity and of nature, and it is always doomed, because death ends everything. We can keep it off for a few decades, but death comes for us all. Wrangham’s paradox makes inherent sense to me. But Jesus simply says that it will all be changed—the struggle against death is over.
Paul says, “For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.” If we think of it in evolutionary terms, if Christ has not been raised, we are still trapped in the paradox of violence and virtue. But the resurrection has ended this. Our struggle now is the struggle of living as if the resurrection is real, because if Christ is raised, everything has changed. Amen.
The Reverend John Zachary Flack