Sunday, June 10, 2012

In Defense Of The Snake

We have just heard a slice of the story of Adam and Eve.

It’s an old story -- like an old piece of furniture

            that has been covered over with layer after layer of theological varnish

                        – varnish about the Fall of Humanity, Original Sin, and so on.

We can learn a lot from traditional interpretations.

But sometimes it’s good to strip away the varnish

            and take a look at the bare wood.

Genesis says nothing about the Fall or Original Sin.

 The serpent is not Satan. He’s just a smart reptile.

If we strip away the theological varnish and read the story straight

            – it gets more interesting.

When we read it straight, frankly God doesn’t come off so well,

            Adam and Eve are sniveling snitches,

            and the most likeable character to my way of thinking is the snake.

God told Adam and Eve not to eat the fruit of knowledge.

He was telling them to remain blissfully ignorant and innocent,

            illiterate and uninformed, barefoot and pregnant, so to speak.

Was God right to do this?

Were Adam and Eve wrong to disobey such a dehumanizing command?

If God said they would die on the day they ate the fruit

            and the serpent said they would not,

                        just who was telling the truth?

The serpent, who is the wisest creature, wiser than humans,

            was in favor of wisdom, and wanted to share it.

So, like a good teacher, he encouraged the people to eat the fruit and think.

So, they ate and their eyes were opened.

Had they -- at this point in the story -- done anything wrong

            or merely something for which they are at risk of getting in trouble?

There’s a difference.

So far, I am pretty much on Adam and Eve’s side.

And I am not entirely alone.

Even St. Augustine who invented our idea of the Fall called it a “felix culpa”

            a blessed Fall.

Call Jung called it a “fall into consciousness.”

Choosing to become thinking, reflecting, decision-making persons

            is not such a bad thing.

But once they became more fully human,

            they didn’t behave so well.

The first thing they did was hide from God.

They didn’t have the chutzpah to stand up on their own legs and say,

            “Hey God, we ate that fruit and now we can think.

             Jus what kind of a God are you, keep us from knowing

                        the glory and the wonder of your creation?”

Instead they hid from God,

            and that’s when they learned their first lesson.

You can’t do that.

You can’t hide from God.

We read it in Psalm 139:

            “O Lord you have searched me and know me.

             You perceive my thoughts from afar.

             You discern my going out and my lying down.

             You are familiar with all my ways.”

You can’t hide from God anymore than you can hide from yourself

            because the God of heaven is also inside your heart.

When God found them,

            Adam tried to explain their sneaky behavior by saying

            it was because they were naked,

                        but God wasn’t buying that.

He knew right away what had happened.

When God invited Adam to confess, he still kept hiding through

            the most insidious tactic of self-concealment

                        known to the human race – blame-shifting.

When threatened, when challenged, when called to account,

            people almost reflexively find someone else to point the finger at.

God said, “Adam did you eat the fruit?”

            but Adam didn’t say what he did or did not do.

            He started talking about Eve and how it was all her fault.

God said to Eve, “What have you done?”

            But she didn’t say what she’d done.

            She went off about what the snake did and how it was his fault.

The only one who didn’t try to blame somebody else was the snake.

Maybe that’s because he was the wisest creature in the garden

            and knew it wouldn’t work.

In that respect, the snake comes off as the most admirable character here.

If Adam and Eve represent humankind,

            the point of the story seems to be that something in us

                        wants to be free and intelligent;

                        wants to know and to understand;

                                    to grow up and be fully human.

But then we don’t want to take responsibility for ourselves.

And that’s where we “fall.”

We don’t fall from a state of primordial innocence

            which was just primordial ignorance.

We fall short of becoming fully human persons

            because we don’t have the chutzpah

                        to stand by our own decisions and be accountable.

Suppose Adam had said,

            “Darn right I ate the fruit and it was good.

             I like knowing right from wrong, true from false, up from down.

             I ate the fruit and it made me a better person.”

That would have set an entirely different tone

            in his relationship with God.

Maybe God would have said, “Ok I see your point.”

Or maybe God would have explained why it was wrong,

            so Adam could see his mistake and say “Ok, I’m sorry.”

Instead, Adam rolled over on Eve who rolled over on the poor snake.

Even criminals regard that kind of behavior is reprehensible.

And we keep doing it.

Time and again, politicians say right out loud what they will do if elected,

            we elect them, and then we act shocked when they do what they said.

We voted for it; then blame them for doing it.

In the church, we choose leaders – both clergy and laity

            – to make hard decisions,

            hard because there are pros and cons;

                        there will be good and bad consequences.

Then we blame them for the bad consequences.

That’s really what we chose them to do – take the blame.

In his classic book, Escape From Freedom,

            psychoanalyst Erich Fromm said that we turn our freedom over

            to despots to avoid the anxiety of being responsible for ourselves.

Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr agreed,

            freedom makes us nervous.

We don’t want the responsibility;

            so we try to give it way.

We want someone to blame.

Had we not read today’s lesson about blame-shifting in Genesis,

            the other option for an Old Testament lesson this Sunday

                        is from 1st Samuel.

From the time that Moses led the Israelites

            out of slavery and into freedom,

            they had been nostalgic for the good old days in Egypt.

They missed being oppressed by Pharaoh.

Hundreds of years later, in 1st Samuel,

            they are were demanding a king to rule over them

            – to take from them the responsibility for their lives.

Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann traces the history Israel

            to the point where Solomon becomes the new Pharaoh

                        and does to Israel just that the Egyptian Pharaoh

                                    had done to their ancestors.

Like Adam and Eve, Israel tasted freedom;

            then skittered like groundhogs back into the cozy cave of tyranny.

We do it in government. We do it in the church.

We do it in the family.

We lock ourselves into boxes of habitual patterns of feeling and action,

            then blame it on our spouses, our children,

            or best yet what our parents did to us or didn’t do for us decades ago.

The moral I would draw from today’s lesson is this:

            If we want to be fully human, if we want to be free,

                        all it takes is the courage to be responsible.

            If we want to walk upright in the world

                        instead of cringing in fear

                        and hiding from God, each other, and ourselves,

                        all we have to do is take responsibility for our own actions.

We can say what we did and why we did it,

            and if we were wrong, then we’re sorry.

That’s why we have weekly confession – not to grovel

            – but to stand up and say “Yep that’s what I did alright.”

There’s courage in that – and dignity.

More than that, there is freedom.