Prof Karen Kilby, 12 February 2017
A few days ago, I was picking up my son from the train station. I’d warned him that he would probably arrive first, and have to wait for a bit. When I pulled into the parking lot, I thought of sending him a text saying “I am here now.” And then I noticed what a ridiculous thing to do it would be, since of course it is always true that “I am here now.” It is about as empty a thing as one could say. Most of the words in the sentence, including “here” and “now” are what philosophers call indexicals, words whose reference shifts from context to context, and in this instance they shift together in such a way that the sentence “I am here now” could never be false.
In the passage we have heard from Deuteronomy,in which Moses reaches the climax of a long speech to the Israelites, there is also an indexical which plays a prominent role: “today”. “Today,” or “this day” occurs four times in this text “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity”; “I command you today to love the LORD your God”. “I declare to you today…”, “I call the heavens and the earth to witness against you today”. What’s it doing there? Surely it is every bit as redundant as saying “I am here now” – when else could Moses possibly be speaking to the people than on that day on which he is in fact speaking? Why say it even once, much less four times? Should we suppose this is just a crude piece of writing, composed at a time before people were clever enough to spot tautology, and before they understood the importance of avoiding repetition?
Probably not. It is not generally a good hermeneutical principle to think that that people who lived long ago could not have been very intelligent. The “today” is there, I think, not as a redundant way to record the specificity of a moment in the past, but in order to reach out and make a connection to those who listen in the present. This choice, between following in the ways of the Lord and life, or following after false gods and death, which Moses set out that day before those Israelites, is with deliberate emphasis also laid out before all who hear Deuteronomy being read, who listen in their own today. Perhaps originally the intended audience was not us, those who live in the age of ecological threat and Brexit and Donald Trump; perhaps originally that “today” was expected to be heard by later generations of Israelites living in that same land of which Moses spoke, or scattered from it and wishing to return to it. But as Deuteronomy is received into the Christian canon, as it is read in the Christian liturgy, as we understand ourselves to be in some way grafted into Israel’s history, this text now reaches out to us also and confronts us with this stark choice: Today, we have had set before us life and prosperity, death and destruction; today we too have been commanded “Now choose life.”
I want to try to think for a little bit about what it could mean to take this command seriously, to accept that we too have set before us life and death, and have been commanded to choose life. But the very first step in doing so, I think, needs to be a look at some considerations that might make us want to dismiss it.
The passage we have heard is all about radical alternatives: “life and death, blessings and curses”. But is the world like that—black and white, good and bad, one or the other? Don’t we all know that it is in fact better to avoid thinking in terms of binary oppositions? That is the way of seeing things of a child, with good guys and bad guys, simple choices, everything very clear. Life in reality is more hazy, more mixed up and complicated and ambiguous. As a young person, full of ideals, you may want to make a radical choice for the good—you choose life, and the love of the Lord, and obedience to the Lord’s commands, and so, maybe, you give yourself to the Church, or you go to work for a charity, or you devote yourself to teaching, or to the pursuit of truth and beauty in university research. But then what do you find? In the church you discover ecclesial politics, hypocrisy, concern for power and image, mixed motives everywhere you look. In the world of charity you discover difficult choices, the demands of marketing and of protecting an NGO’s brand, maybe the waste and demoralisation caused by bad management; in the school where you go with high ideals to teach, you find bureaucracy and league tables and resistant students; in the universities, bureaucracy, ambition and self-promotionIt is never only this, of course, but life as we find it is just hazy, mixed up, complicated and ambiguous. There is no pure choice of goodness which will take us away from all this. In fact this very text from Deuteronomy has its own share in ambiguity, with its reference to “land which you are going to go in to possess” and all that this carries with it. To grow up, we could say, means to realise that the world doesn’t meet us in pairs of binary opposites, neatly contrasting with each other, life and death, blessings and curses, prosperity and destruction.
In fact we may need to go further. The problem with thinking in black and white is not in fact just a problem of immaturity. Dualism is actually the pattern of the most pernicious kind of politics. The other, the different, is evil. They are out to get us, we who don’t want to harm anybody, we who are all innocent, we who want nothing but to protect ourselves. So then it has to be us against them, white against black, good against evil. Any manner of thing we care to do, in the name of security is justified. This is the politics of binary thinking, of simple, clear, sharp, distinctions, and this is the now familiar politics of “lock her up,” of “keep them out,” of “build a wall”.
So a question to consider is this: can we really listen to these simple, clear, sharp oppositions in the text from Deuteronomy today, and take them seriously, take them to heart, without falling into naivety, or being drawn into a vicious form of politics?
I think we can. In fact, I’d like to suggest that if there is a danger in remaining naive and refusing to grow up and see the complexity of things, there is also a danger—maybe an even greater danger– in becoming too much the adult, too comfortably ensconced in ambiguities and complexities. This kind of adult-hood can be a form of evasion, a refusing of our own responsibility, of the seriousness of our own lives. Even in the midst of a complicated world, there really is a question about our own direction of travel, about which way we are faced, whether it is towards the love of the Lord, and life, or whether we are drawn away to bow down before false idols, to chase after other gods. And crucially, this is a text which does not ask us to pronounce judgement on the rest of the world, to look upon the landscape of humanity and see in it two camps, life and death, good and evil, us and them: this is a text we only hear it properly if we apply to ourselves—calling us into question, calling us to a choice, to a choice that makes all the difference. This is a text written in the second person, and it is to be heard in the first, not in the third.
Now, I have listened to many more sermons than I have preached, and I know that if I were listening now, to this sermon, I’d be thinking, OK, maybe, but now why don’t you do something practical and tell me what exactly it means. How am I supposed to do this thing, this choosing life business? What’s the point of taking it seriously if I don’t know what, concretely, it means? What choice in particular am I supposed to make?
And of course I can’t say. I can’t specify what choosing life amounts to, what it should mean concretely, in each person’s life. In a general sense this is the choice we all make, in our baptism. But in particular? What is the choice for life in your own life? We are here into the realm of vocation, of discernment, of things to be worked out in reflection, in prayer, maybe in conversation with those one is close to. But in general terms, perhaps, there are a few things that can be said.
First of all, it is today that we are commanded to choose life. It is not enough to say, there was some day in my past on which I made a fundamental decision—on that day I did my choosing, once and for all. Some lives do contain dramatic moments of conversion, or reorientation, but one cannot just coast along on the wake of these: the need for remaining true to the conversion, of ongoing conversion, of continuing in the direction you began on that day, remains. Equally, it is not enough to say, there may be some day in my future on which I will really have to choose. It is easy to speculate: “maybe one day I’ll be put to the test—I wonder how I will do?” If I were called to be a martyr, could I do it? If I had the Nazis at the door, would I have the strength to hide the fugitives, or would I hand them over? If I found myself archbishop in El Salvador, at the time of a murderous regime, would I have the courage to stand up for my people, even at risk of assassination? But this is not in fact an especially useful line of self-questioning. It is today, this day, according to Deuteronomy, that we have life and death, the love of the Lord and the following of idols, set before us—not some other day that might never come.
Secondly, although I have been talking of sharp oppositions, the Christian faith is not ultimately Manichaean, nor is this in fact a text that lends itself to a Manichaean vision. This means that while there is a dualism here, it is not the dualism of Star Wars, of equal and opposite powers of good and evil, forces of light and forces of darkness. For if you look closely, there is no real alternative to the love of the Lord indicated here, no true alternative power to which or to whom one might turn, but only false gods. And in opposition to life, there is not some equal and opposite thing, some other life or anti-life that presents itself, but only death, the absence of life, privation, nothingness. If you think like a mathematician, this is not the opposition of 1 to -1, but of 1 to 0.
The options which confront us in our todays, in other words, will almost never look like an option between good and some positive evil, some glittering, satanic anti-good. It is more likely that we stand before a choice between the good, the love of the Lord and obedience to his commands, and not the anti-good, but just… nothing much. Maybe even what we stand before is the decision between a choice—choose love, choose the Lord, choose life—and just not bothering to make a choice.
I have seen people who have a real love in their life and have slowly, over time, abandoned it. And they never said, “I will choose what is not worthwhile, what does not give life, what does not seem to be my calling, rather than what is”. They just always deferred the choice—at each stage, it is a matter of keeping options open, of doing something that they don’t care too much about but that would at least, provide security. And gradually they changed, lost their vision, became diminished, became more and more shaped by the search for security. They did not choose death, they just never chose life.
Augustine famously described evil as a lack, an absence, a privation of the good, and Hannah Arendt, more recently, picked up the theme with her notion of the banality of evil. Evil is not a positive force in itself, on this view: it is fundamentally parasitic on the good. And the relationship is not symmetrical: the pattern doesn’t hold in reverse. We can never try to make the good, the love of the Lord and walking in his ways, parasitic on evil. I do not become better, I do not fulfil my vocation, my calling as a Christian, by finding more and more ways to hate and ridicule Trump and those who support him. Choosing life has to be positive, it has to be connected to the love of God; it cannot be fuelled by a negation of a negation, by being against.
And yet again and again, of course, we try to do precisely that. We focus on what we are against. We fail to choose life. There is, as Paul says to the Corinthians, jealousy and quarrelling and childishness among us, fighting over who belongs to which faction. There is anger that Jesus, in today’s Gospel reading, tells us makes us subject to judgment. We pour all our energy into despising that which we are against, into defining ourselves as “not that”. Or else we fritter away our time in the search for security, or in distraction. In so many of our todays, we don’t rise to the challenge of choosing life.
This is a text which challenges us, and which should challenge us, again and again, but, even when we fail, it should not terrorise us. Why not? Because we believe and trust that there is a larger context to our own life and death; He who is life, who is the way, the truth and the life, has definitively chosen life, so definitively that he has already defeated death, even those deaths which we continue to bring on ourselves in our failure to choose life. We are genuinely called, today, to choose life; and we are genuinely enabled, today, by the grace of Christ, by the working of the Holy Spirit, to choose life. And yet even when we fail, we know that our failure, our death, is not the last word; the last word, as the first, is with him who is the life, and who even in our death, has already chosen us.