first preached on October 22nd, 2011
Robert Lifton met a Jesuit priest when he was traveling in Europe in 1958. The priest was a victim of the thought reform that the Chinese Communist government practiced on its people and on foreigners who had been living in China. The priest, Father Simon, had been born at the turn of the century in a small French village. His family was very religious, and as a child he was austere and conscientious, having decided that “life was something serious.” He felt the call to be a priest at the age of 11, at at 15 he was old enough to act on it. He entered the Jesuit order, where he was trained in theology, but also in science and philosophy. Part of his training took place in the United States. He spent three years here when he was in his thirties, and when he returned to France he often annoyed his colleagues by singing the praises of American science. He wasn’t an easy man to work with – always serious and always deeply enthusiastic about some unpopular idea or another. The Jesuits sent him off to China during the 1930s. Simon loved living in China. He was given a teaching post at a university. He often seemed cold and reserved, but he would take his students on long camping trips every year, and it was obvious that there, in nature, surrounded by young Chinese people, he could relax and be as happy as his personality would allow him to be.
He stayed in China throughout the course of the Second World War. These must have been perilously hard times. The Japanese invaded and then, after they had withdrawn, the nation fell into civil war. When the Communists came to power, they left Simon alone for a couple of years. But as they began to consolidate their grip on the nation, they turned their attention to remaking the Chinese people in their image. They engaged in a project of thought reform, inflicting imprisonment, torture, and re-education on their own people, and on foreigners who were living in the country . Those who disagreed with the communist system were either sent to prison or to special universities that existed for the sole purpose of brainwashing students into accepting Communist ideology. These institutions were very subtle in their approach. It wasn’t just the people in authority who exerted pressure on students to give up their beliefs and accept the state-sponsored ideals. Fellow students were co-opted and used to apply peer pressure. Anyone who thought for themselves would soon be isolated, derided, and verbally abused by everyone. It is not surprising that most people caved to social pressures that were applied both by those in authority and by their friends and fellow students.
Simon was imprisoned with other Jesuits. At first he was deeply rebellious, fighting the authorities harder than anyone. He was subjected to nights without sleep and constant verbal abuse. And then, one day, he simply caved. He told Lifton that: “I thought that I was one of those with the best chance to stay [in China]. I had received instructions from my superiors to stay. I realized that if I did not change my mind, I would have no chance at all to stay. I would try to see what was right, and if doubtful, I could try to adopt the Communist point of view.” It’s easy to abhor this reversal, but in many ways its understandable. He loved China. He loved his students. Surely his individual relationship to the place and people couldn’t be completely warped and distorted by the government’s insistence on thought reform. What he did next was less understandable. He became an informer against his fellow prisoners, a stool pigeon who joined the prison officials in trying to force everyone else into his own conversion.
None of this helped him in the end. While he was in prison, articles were published in the Chinese newspapers that attacked him. When he was released from prison, he was deported to Hong Kong. There he found himself once again among his fellow Jesuits. They were kind to him, but the brainwashing had stuck. He was convinced that the Communists were right about everything except the existence of God. It was that one point which had kept him from going over to Communist ideology entirely. Simon believed that, to belong to a group, you needed to accept all of its ideas entirely. He called this “writing a blank check.” He couldn’t write a blank check to the Communists because he believed in God. Now that he was in Hong Kong, he found that he couldn’t entirely accept the blank check that he’d once written to Roman Catholicism, either. He argued with his colleagues ceaselessly. He wanted to return to China. He wanted to leave the Jesuit order. The Jesuits were patient. They waited for him to begin to regain himself. He wasn’t the only victim of thought reform to have found his way to Hong Kong. Other Jesuit priests were trying to recover, to rebuild some sense of themselves and deal with the trauma of their experience. But Simon didn’t want to recover. He was hard on everybody. Still, the Jesuits wouldn’t abandon him. He was sent back to France, where they took care of him, putting up with his ideas and bad manners, waiting patiently for healing to begin. When Robert Lifton met Simon, he had been back in France for three years. The Jesuits had calmly made a deal with him. He could believe anything he wanted to believe, and argue with them privately as much as he wanted, but he couldn’t express his love of Communism openly. Simon remained alone, isolated in the balance, being pulled by the Chinese Communists on one side and the Catholic Church on the other.
Robert Jay Lifton is a psychologist who has spent his life studying the effects of unwavering, dominating systems of thought. He has studied the actions of Nazi doctors, the experiences of Hiroshima survivors, the processes of thought reform, while wondering about the effects that these systems have on human life, and how we recover from their influence. His work is important to me today because of the 32nd chapter of Exodus. In that chapter the Israelites give up on Moses, who’s on top of Mount Sinai, talking to the Lord, and they have Aaron make them a golden idol out of their jewelry. When the Lord hears of it, He wants to give up on the Israelites and start all over, making a new nation out of Moses’s offspring. Moses talks the Lord out of this option, and convinces Him to forgive the people. But then Moses himself goes down the mountain and sees the orgy that the people are engaged in as they worship the Golden Calf. It enrages Moses. He calls the Sons of Levi to his side and tells them to go through the camp and kill all of the ringleaders, the people who had been most insistent about building the Golden Calf. He tells them to kill their brothers and their fathers if necessary. And they do. Three thousand Israelites fall to the sword. It is the kind of horrifying massacre that would dominate the news cycle and bring down a government today. As I’ve been reading Robert Jay Lifton, and thinking about this story from Exodus, I’ve been faced with a very basic question. How can I claim that Moses’s actions aren’t thought control. He orders his followers to murder everyone who disagrees with him. It’s the kind of thing you would expect from a totalitarian state.
In the 33rd chapter of Exodus, right after this massacre, the Lord tells Moses to lead the Israelites up into the promised land, but tells Moses that they’ll be going alone. The Lord has decided not to go with them. “I shall not go up in your midst, for you are a stiff-necked people, lest I put an end to you on the way.” The Lord is worried about being so provoked by the people that He’ll erase them from existence. If I were an Israelite, there in the desert, after the slaughter, I would begin to wonder how I could feel any certainty about the Lord at all. This is not God as we meet God in Jesus. Jesus tells his disciples that he will be with them always, even until the end of the age. When Jesus says those words, he speaks with deep reassurance. All will be well, he says, don’t worry. When the Lord speaks to Moses, he speaks out of anger. Maybe its righteous anger. The people did break their covenant by worshipping the Golden Calf. But there’s no reassurance there, and I don’t think the people could have felt much certainty in God’s goodness.
I am not a fundamentalist. I don’t believe that the Bible was written by God and that everything in it is perfect and literally true. The Bible was written by human beings, and it was written over a long course of time. It is a record of our thoughts about God. In the 32nd and 33rd chapters of Exodus, it’s safe to say that the Israelites’ thoughts were uncertain. How could they know that the Lord wasn’t a bully or a tyrant? How could they know that the Lord wasn’t subjecting them to thought reform? Did the Lord tell Moses to send out the Sons of Levi to slaughter the three thousand, or was that Moses’s own doing? They didn’t know what we know, that the massacre was Moses’s initiative, and a wild and unjust one, given that he’d just talked the Lord into forgiving the people. There, in that crucial moment at the foot of Mount Sinai, the people had one vital question. Who is the Lord, and will he abandon us?
Again, Moses argues with the Lord on behalf of the people. “If you’re not going with us, then don’t send us to the promised land. If you’re going to go with us, first show us that we’ve found favor in your eyes. Show us, and show the whole world, that you love us.” The Lord agrees. “I will go with you. You’ve found favor in my eyes.” But Moses keeps arguing. He says, “Show me your glory.” He’s wants to know the Lord in His entirety. He wants to know the Lord so intimately that there can never be any more uncertainty about who the Lord is and what the Lord will do. But the Lord says no to this request. He won’t show Moses His glory, all of His power, all of those inscrutable things about God and the universe that we can never grasp. Later on in the Bible, God will inform Job that our minds aren’t great enough to grasp and understand everything, certainly not great enough to entirely understand God. So if Moses and the people saw the Lord’s glory, it would do them no good. Instead of His glory, the Lord chooses to show Moses His goodness. “I shall make all My goodness pass in front of you, and I shall invoke the name of the Lord before you. And I shall grant grace to whom I grant grace and have compassion for whom I have compassion.” In other words, “you shall see My morality, and you will know My name, and you will feel My grace and compassion, but that doesn’t mean you will know Me entirely.” Some part of God’s nature will always remain inscrutable to us. It is God’s goodness that we will know.
We do not have to give blank checks to the things we believe in. No system of thought will ever attain even a passing similarity with the glory of God. If God is the source of ultimate being, if God is ultimate being, than we must learn to accept that the most important things are always going to be beyond our knowledge. When we claim that our system of thought is the only true system of thought, we deny the inscrutable glory of God. When we try to force our systems of thought on other people, we deny not only God’s glory, but God’s goodness, by trying to replace it with the systems of morality that we have built for ourselves. Poor Father Simon was stuck believing in God’s glory but not in God’s goodness. He rejected Communist atheism but accepted Communist morality. To my mind, the heroes in his story are the other Jesuits, who took him in and tried to love him and had the patience and wisdom to let him think what he wanted to think. These were men who understood that God’s glory would always be just out of reach of their understanding. But they had seen God’s goodness, and they chose to emulate God’s grace, and God’s compassion.
That is our task, as well. We can’t know God entirely. We’ll never see God’s glory. But we can see God’s goodness, and know God’s compassion. And when we think about what it takes to be a people of God, what it means to imitate Christ, we must realize that it’s more about goodness than glory, more about morality than dogma. Do good in the world, and you will be a true follower of Christ. Get hung up on ideas and spend all your time trying to argue other people into believing what you believe in, and you won’t be a true follower of Christ. That doesn’t mean that ideas aren’t interesting and fun. That doesn’t mean that they’re not useful for morality. But at the heart of a life lived in faith is a simple desire to imitate Christ’s goodness, to heal and bless.
*Translations of Exodus taken from Robert Alter’s The Five Books of Moses.