Jesus, Social Engineer

Lectionary Reading: 1 Timothy 2:1-7
This American Life: Episode 358

Timothy comes up again this week in the lectionary. And, as Andrew pointed out last week, the Revised Common Lectionary denotes a sense of ambiguity by having a few verses but dropping before some of the more controversial mysagonistic tone encountered in the following verses. Along the same, albeit ambiguous lines that Andrew moved along last week, so do I take on this section of Timothy which, at first glance, doesn’t seem too distressful. After all, how can a peaceful, quiet life mediated by our savior, Jesus Christ, full of God’s truth be something that brings on anxiety?

But for me, at least, verse 4 can be very loaded: “[God] desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” What is truth? Easily, truth can be conceived as something absolute and unchanging. Once we cross that threshold, then we can judge ourselves – and, lets be honest, judge others as well – and determine whether something is good or bad, right or wrong. I don’t want to turn into a discussion of what truth is – whether or not is absolute, unchanging, infallible, etc. Simply, similar to what Andrew did last week, I will look at truth, not as truth vs. non-truth, but as what is known, what is unknown and how the unknown can be uncovered through some mediation. All this, leads me to an episode of This American Life, dealing with just that: mediations.

Episode 358: Social Engineering tells several stories of people mediating their own lives and the lives of others. “Social Engineering” in this context moves away from the overtly political scientific notion and moves into a much smaller, personal scale. In the verses from 1 Timothy 2, the author identifies Jesus as mediator between humanity and God, meaning Jesus, in some way – and this can take many theological interpretations but for my writing purposes simply in some way – steps in between God and humanity. The chapter, however, begins with a call for prayers and intercessions. This means that we have some agency in this mediation process, even if it’s a simple as a prayer or thanksgiving. We realize, however, that sometimes we need more than a mere prayer. We find out that, through some action of our own, that what we know as truth changes; we learn something new, a different reality, that allows us to see something differently.

The episode of This American Life introduces the theme with Tim White’s story. Tim works in Chicago for an organization called CeaseFire. His title, “interupter”, basically means he gets in the way to interrupt violence. A former gang member, Tim finds himself in prison and makes drastic changes in his life by the time he gets out. Now, he attempts to mediate violence, showing people on the streets that a different reality – a different truth – is possible. A bar fight, which is seemingly leading to a much larger conflict, involving several people and death threats, is deterred. Tim brings in the two guys involved and talks to them separately – “it was just a fight; you got a black eye; it happens, you don’t need to seek a bigger confrontation”, he tells one of the guys. To the other, he says, “you won the fight; let it go; don’t get more offensive.” Tim is not interested in their activities, what the guys do to bring money; simply, he wants the gun fight to not happen. Tim mediates, providing an alternate truth – something not known to these guys and now known to them: this conflict doesn’t need to keep going on.

The first act of the episode is perhaps much more ambiguous yet within the theme of mediation in someone’s life. Daniel and Gregory did not chose to be homeless, however, several conditions led them to that situation. This one particular story serves to illustrate truth not as one absolute, ultimate reality but simply as knowing something and knowing something new and different. Listening to the story, anyone can say that perhaps, it should have been easier for Gregory to not fall into homelessness – he was making good money as computer tech. Even for Daniel, the conditions seemed to be rather favorable. In other words, these two men chose to be homeless and used that to re-engineer their lives into something different. Both wanted to write but few things such as jobs, marriage and otherwise life, got in the way. Once homeless, they found the time to actually dedicate to their writing as they had always dreamed. And so, this is not a story about two men hitting rock bottom and getting back to the place where they were before. Rather, it is the story of two men who were somewhere they did not want to be and get to a place where they are doing some of the things they wanted to accomplish. This doesn’t seem that bad except that the place where they are accomplishing something involves homelessness. And so, this is why truth might not be seen as simply an absolute to attain (a state of security and not being homeless in this case) but rather a place where new things are discovered, leading to a situation different from what it was before – a situation with new knowledge.

These changes in knowledge don’t just simply happen. Sometimes we need something or someone to act as mediators. Whether Jesus, ourselves, or some particular situation, there are catalysts that serve to uncover some new truth. Those people and situations act as mediators or intercessors in our lives revealing something unknown before. In act two, David learns that the world is not safe and one must be careful, but sometimes you do get second chances and so it is not as unsafe as it might seem. In other words, David’s truth lies not on a binary of opposing values – safety vs lack of safety – rather, in an ambiguous pool where sometimes the world is safe and sometimes it isn’t. This he learned through his father’s mediation, thus revealing a new truth, not something absolute, but something new, not realized before.

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