“Revolution” is all over the news. The Middle East is rife with it, as the Arab Spring has turned into summer, autumn, winter, spring, and summer/autumn again. Images from Africa and Latin America of young men–and sometimes young women– armed with machetes and machine guns disturb and even frighten us. The “Occupy Wall St.” movement just marked its one-year anniversary. Upheaval, overthrow, disturbance, confrontation, sometimes peaceful, too often violent. Such news can be scary, as these human wildfires threaten to burst into higher flames at the slightest gust of insult, foolish speech, perceived humiliation. Revolution.
Remember, though, that our country was born out of revolution–a refusal to have no say in how we are governed, a demand that the fruits of our labors not be merely sent overseas to a distant monarch, a protest against the seizing of ships and cargo and sailors engaged in legitimate trade, a desire to create a new form of government and way of living together, a recognition that this new physical environment offered new possibilities. “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” were lifted up as inalienable rights.
Jesus was and is viewed by many as a “revolutionary,” teaching and modeling a way of life that upset the status quo, that moved beyond rigid family structures and hierarchical ways of thinking. The kingdom of God which he preached stood in stark contrast to the kingdom of Caesar. When Jesus’ followers called Jesus “Lord” and “Son of God,” that was in direct contradiction to the Roman Empire’s claim that Caesar was “Lord” and “Son of God.” Jesus was most likely crucified because of this “revolutionary” teaching and activity.
And what was Jesus’ revolutionary “platform”? It was that God, not Caesar, not money or wealth, is to be served. “You cannot serve two masters,” he said, “for you will either love the one and hate the other, or hate the one and love the other. You cannot serve God and mammon, or money.” His revolutionary platform was that the first in the revolution would be those who the current system considered last–and he drew a child into their midst, saying, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” Children were considered the lowest of the low, with no status, no rights. “In antiquity,” writes one Biblical scholar, “childhood was a time of terror. Infant mortality rates sometimes reached 30% of live births. Sixty percent were dead by the age of sixteen. These figures reflect not only the ravages of unconquered diseases but also the outcomes of poor hygiene…A minor child was considered equal to a slave.” (John Pilch, The Cultural World of Jesus, Cycle B, p. 139)
“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” To welcome a child is to welcome God! That’s revolutionary talk!
Or what about Jesus’ follower who wrote, “Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it, so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.”
In a world where craving new things or more things, where resources and power are considered to be limited, where success of one person or group always comes at the expense of another, these words that we find in the Letter of James are revolutionary talk. It was even too revolutionary for the Church as the years and centuries went on, and it accumulated more wealth, more power, all in the name of God. So Jesus’ revolution went underground. Some followers of Jesus formed monastic communities, sharing everything in common, devoting themselves to serving God. Other communities and pockets of followers took Jesus’ revolutionary talk at his word, and cared for children and orphans, fed the hungry, tended the sick, stood with the oppressed, used the resources entrusted to them not to accumulate wealth but used them to make the revolutionary kingdom of God or reign of God more visible on earth. They sought happiness and meaning not seeking more “stuff” or power or wealth or celebrity, but in serving others, in discovering God in the most unlikely places–within themselves and in others whose divinity wasn’t all that obvious.
Imagine, then, my initial surprise but then “ah ha” moment when I read this in Tal Ben-Shahar’s book, Happier. Tal teaches the course I’m taking in Positive Psychology and is one of the field’s leading scholars and teachers. He was talking about the many benefits of the scientific revolution– things like greater life expectancy through discoveries in medicine, better productivity in agriculture through greater understanding of soil cultivation, improved seeds, advances in astronomy so that we have been to the moon and beyond, have greater understandings of our place in the universe, and so forth. But, he writes,
…our perception of science as omnipotent can lead to a new set of challenges. One of these challenges, a by-product of the scientific revolution, is the prevalence of material perception, the belief that the material is the highest on the hierarchy of importance…The problem arises when the freedom to pursue material wealth is replaced with a compulsion to amass it. The alternative to material perception is happiness perception, which is about moving away from seeing the material as the highest end, as our central pursuit.
(op cit., p. 159)
Now, I’m not crazy about the word “happiness”–it’s a little too “smiley-face.” I prefer Martin Seligman’s phrase “well-being,” so you might want to substitute that whenever you hear the word “happiness.”
Tal often speaks of happiness perception as the spiritual opposite of material perception. “Happiness perception [he writes] involves finding the overlap among the three questions ‘What gives me meaning?’ ‘What gives me pleasure?’ ‘What are my strengths?’ It is about asking, ‘What is my calling?’” (160)
“I believe that the spread of happiness perception can bring about a society-wide revolution,” Tal writes, no less significant than what Karl Marx had hoped to achieve.”
What would happen if most people internalized the change from material to happiness perception? First, envy, among individuals and cultures, would be reduced considerably…The need to bring others down comes from a materialistic perception of a world in which resources are a zero-sum game and one’s success implies another’s failure, where one’s gain is another’s loss. More generally, if happiness perception prevails, individual and international conflicts would be reduced significantly. Most wars are fought over land, oil, gold, and other material goods. The leaders in these countries who are responsible for fueling these conflicts accept the false premise that the ultimate currency for their country–and for themselves–is how much material wealth they possess.
…The quantity of happiness is not fixed: an abundance of happiness for one person or country does not deprive another. The pursuit of happiness does not set up a zero-sum game but a positive -sum game–everyone can be better off. As the Buddha said, ‘Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared.’ Unlike material possessions, which are usually finite, happiness is infinite.”
It is clear that the material revolution has not brought us happiness. Research has shown that those who pursue wealth as their ultimate end and obsession actually have a lower sense of self-actualization, are more depressed, and have more physical symptoms (although those who see wealth as an indicator of hard work, as a vehicle to do good, do not necessarily experience those negative symptoms). The average age of the onset of depression in our culture is now 15. Except for those in the lowest income brackets, having more money does not lead to greater happiness. This idea of happiness, rather than the material, as the ultimate currency is reflected in the question, Would you rather be a miserable millionaire or a happy pauper? Which is it for you?
“Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? [writes the author of the Letter of James] Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it, so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts.”
The Asian country of Bhutan, tucked between the two super-powers China and India, actually measures its success not in terms of Gross National Product, but in Gross National Happiness. There’s a revolution that doesn’t get too many headlines.
“I have sheep that are not of this fold,” Jesus says in the gospel of John, and I have no doubt the revolutionary movement of the Holy Spirit is at work in surprising ways. Maybe the 500 year rummage sale that the church is going through includes the ways that the secular field of Positive Psychology is permeated by the wisdom of Jesus. Maybe the revolution is popping out in the tiny Buddhist nation of Bhutan, concerned about happiness rather than product. Krista Tippett’s conversation on “Speaking of Faith” this morning on VPR was with two young evangelical Christian leaders who are part of the “next Christianity,” as she calls it–less strident, more concerned about walking the walk than talking the talk, being engaged in working for the common good, building bridges rather than putting up walls. What a concept! It sounds a bit like the really old Christianity, the one that Jesus lived and talked about.
No revolution is peaceful for everyone. Those who benefit from the status quo do not readily give up those benefits or that comfort for a new way of being. That the “Jesus Revolution” or the “Happiness Revolution” is not all fun and games is made clear by Jesus’ insistence that “The Son of Humanity is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” Happiness, or well-being, which really expresses it better, is not a matter of surface bubbles, but of the deep, underlying well of Life and Love from which we can draw even in the most difficult and tragic times. Betrayal, loss, even death cannot penetrate deeply enough to empty that well. Suffering is part of the fully human life, but it does not have to define our lives.
A friend of mine did her Psychology residency at the Dana-Farber Institute, where she worked with children with cancer. She learned many lessons from these children, but one that stands out for me is this–”If you can live in the moment [Maria writes] doing what you love, as children can, and you are surrounded by those you trust, then suffering is ameliorated and it becomes a part, not the whole, of your life.” (Maria Sirois, Every Day Counts, p. 24).
“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, [Jesus said] and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
The wisdom to live into this revolution is both ancient and new–”The wisdom from above [or deep below, to keep the image of the well] is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.” God’s intention for us and for our world persistently, powerfully, gracefully is still seeking to become manifest, to blossom forth in ways both wondrous and beyond our imagination. May we offer our lives to the cause and join the revolution. May we be part of this harvest of peace.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark