Sunday, June 6, 1993

Location - Newtonville
Bible Verses - Joshua 8:1-23
Matthew 8:46-56

Then Jesus said to him, `Put your sword back into its place: for all those

who take the sword will perish by the sword.'

Matthew 26:52

In recent weeks, I have been doing research into the life and thought of

Charles Bonney, the Swedenborgian lawyer who was the originator and guiding

spirit of the 1893 Parliament of the World's Religions. It is striking how

much things have changed since then, not just in terms of technology, but

in terms of our thought-world. Bonney was well aware of serious social

evils and very active in efforts to combat them, and yet he could honestly

believe that a new era of world peace and prosperity was within reach.

When he addressed a Jewish gathering, he was able to call himself "as ultra

and ardent a Christian as the world contains," and to say that "The supreme

significance of this Congress and the others is that they herald the death

of persecution throughout the world, and proclaim the coming reign of civil

and religious liberty."[1]

On reflection, and in the light of several articles he wrote, it seems as

though the strength and the weakness of his outlook were closely allied.

By comparison with present views, he saw his world in black-and-white

terms. He was able to talk about "vices," and about "the better classes."

He saw as a primary purpose of the Parliament "to unite all religion

against all irreligion."[2] In an earlier address calling for the reform of

the politically corrupt jury system, he said, "It is an encouraging sign

that a meeting for such a purpose is held in a church. When the churches

become centres of practical reform, as well as of worship and praise, the

dangerous classes will find themselves confronted by a power that will

overmatch them in organization, skill, and available means. The very soul

of religion is the reform of evils of life; and hence the church is engaged

in its legitimate work when it gives its aid to the enforcement of the laws

for the repression of vice, and the removal of obstacles in the way of a

pure administration of justice."[3]

Since his time, it seems that we have discovered that the problems go

deeper than he realized. Thanks to people like Bonney, many of the most

obvious societal evils have been addressed, but the result has not been

"the pure administration of justice" or "the death of persecution and the .

. . reign of civil and religious liberty." We have discovered instead that

"the dangerous classes" include just about everyone. We have discovered

that technological advances do not result in the elimination of poverty.

It is certainly arguable that we have gone too far. Bonney may have

oversimplified things with his apparently sharp distinction between the

better classes and the dangerous classes, but his zeal and his

effectiveness rested in large measure in his conviction "That the moral law

should be obeyed as necessary to human happiness, and because such is the

will of the Creator."[4] In this he was simply being faithful to his

Swedenborgian theology, which insisted that a moral life was the necessary

foundation of a civil life, and that these two provided the only foundation

for a spiritual life.

The argument against Bonney's stance is simply that, so to speak, it ran

out of effectiveness. It worked against some obvious social evils, but even

within his own community, it did not bring about the just society that

seemed to be within reach. If we look for the reason, we may find it in

another familiar theological principle, one which Bonney quotes in the

usual translation. Unfortunately, the "usual translation" leaves something

to be desired.

As one of the themes for the Religious Parliament, Bonney proposed, "That

evils of life are to be shunned as sins against God."[5] This is one of the

most familiar of Swedenborg's statements, and what is generally overlooked

is that the word translated "shunned" would more precisely be rendered

"fled." The word does not mean simply to turn one's back on, but to run

away from. It certainly has nothing to do with fighting against.

Now, if we look to Scripture for images of our encounters with evils, we

find a great many images of combat. The Old Testament especially is full of

wars. In our first reading, we did have an example of running away, when

the Israelites attacking Ai fled in order to lure their enemies into an

ambush. Clearly, though, this was only a ruse. Normally, the army that

flees is fleeing in defeat.

When we turn to the Gospels, though, the picture is different. The only

time Jesus approached violence was in his cleansing of the temple, and

this strikes the reader as uncharacteristic. More in keeping with his

character and his teaching is his rebuke of Peter at the time of the

betrayal. "Those who take the sword will perish by the sword." This is,

after all, the Jesus who taught that we should agree with our adversaries,

love our enemies, bless those who curse us, do good to those who hate us,

and pray for those who despitefully use us and persecute us.

The general message seems to be that we must begin with a militant stance,

but that we are to grow into a more peaceable one. If we recognize that as

we grow older, we discover deeper and subtler enemies within ourselves,

then it appears that the more obvious problems can and should be dealt with

by direct opposition. Where there is a clear issue of moral versus immoral

behavior involved, we are to haul up our socks and, in Swedenborg's phrase,

compel ourselves.

When we get to the subtler issues, though, this does not work. Take, for

instance, our tendency to evaluate ourselves by comparison with others, or

to evaluate others by comparison with ourselves. This can be too slippery

for us to get hold of. If we try to combat it directly, we find ourselves

enmeshed in thoughts about our own worth or lack of it, proud of our

humility and ashamed of our pride. We know from experience that the only

way out of this mire is to become absorbed in something else, usually

because the phone rings or because some person or some task comes into our


The issue turns out to be a fairly obvious one. When the "enemy" is our

trust in our own moral or spiritual strength, we cannot defeat it by the

exercise of moral or spiritual strength. We do not overcome

self-righteousness by forcing ourselves to be more righteous. We do not

overcome it by becoming less righteous, either. In fact, we do not overcome

it at all. It is overcome for us.

Perhaps the most radical way of describing how it is overcome is to turn to

the image of "fleeing" or "running away," and to say that

self-righteousness is overcome for us only when we run away from a

particular form of responsibility--the form of responsibility that involves

accepting credit or blame. It means learning to say "I have done well"

without a trace of the thought, "I am a good person," and to say "I have

done badly" without a trace of the thought, "I am a bad person." I am

accountable for what I do and say, yes, but that has nothing to do with my

worth as an individual. It simply means that I should try to build on

whatever good I have accomplished and should try to remedy any harm I have

done. There is no way to face the issue of my worth. I can only "shun" it,

can only run away from it.

This is no light matter, no optional feature for the specially gifted. Our

theology tells us that this taking credit and blame, under the title of

proprium, is at the heart of all our evils. As long as anxiety about our

self-image persists, out moral efforts will be flawed. The moral life will

be experienced as a life of privation rather than as a life of happiness.

We will not be able to give our attention to others, because we will be to

worried about their opinions of us. We will not be able to forgive those

who have trespassed against us, because we will be so preoccupied with our

own hurt feelings that we cannot even begin to see the world through their


"Those who take the sword will perish by the sword." The first "sword" in

Scripture is the flaming sword placed with the cherubim at the entrance to

Eden after Adam and Eve were driven out. Swedenborg takes it as a symbol of

"our `own' love (and "own" here is basically the same word as proprium)

with its insane cravings and the misbeliefs that result from them." This is

the evil we cannot take arms against, the evil we cannot accept

responsibility for. This is the sword that will kill us if we take it in

hand, whether it is the sword of our self-esteem or the sword of our

self-abasement. In another image, these are the possessions we must sell if

we are to enter the kingdom--everything good or evil that we claim as our


In a sense, then, the message is very simple: "Don't worry about it." When

we get caught up in the pride/shame treadmill, about all we can do is

remember that if we are faithful in the decisions we can make, the Lord

will eventually deliver us from this enemy that we cannot fight. For as our

theology assures us, as we tend to our temporal issues as best we can, the

Lord tend to the eternal ones that are beyond our ken.



. Charles C. Bonney, "The Genesis of the World's Religious Congresses of

1893," The New Church Review (Jan. 1894), p. 93

. ibid., p. 82

. ____________, Jury reform: the corruption of the jury system, and the

remedy, A speech delivered in behalf of the Citizens' league of Chicago, by

C. C. Bonney (Chicago: Cowles and Dunkley, printers, 1882), p. 11.

. Genesis, p. 82.

. ibid.

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