alternative facts

The Beatitudes and Alternative Facts

This past week, “alternative facts” have been in the news.  The Trump administration claimed that the crowd at his inauguration was the largest ever.  On Meet The Press Chuck Todd interviewed Kellyanne Conway, one of President Trump’s top advisors and asked her why the administration was promoting a “provable falsehood”.  She responded saying that the administration had “alternative facts”.  Todd pushed back saying, “Alternative facts are not facts, they are falsehoods”.

This got me thinking.  What if Chuck Todd could interview Jesus about the opening statements he made in his famous Sermon on the Mount - the Beatitudes?

The Beatitudes include sayings like:

“Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.”

“Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted.”

“Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy.”

“Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”.

If Chuck Todd interviewed Jesus about the Beatitudes I can imagine it going something like this: “Jesus, these statements are “provable falsehoods!”  “Meek people don’t inherit the earth, the powerful do.”  “Those who mourn are often not comforted, and merciful people usually get their butts kicked!”  “Respectfully Jesus, you’ve got to admit it, your Sermon on the Mount is just a collection of alternative facts!”  “People would be foolish to live by these statements!”  

From the point of view of many, Chuck Todd would have won this debate. Now, I’m not implying that there is any sort of moral equivalence between the “alternative facts” of the Trump administration and the Beatitudes, but I am interested in the concept of “alternative facts” in order to shed some light on the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount.

So, are the Beatitudes a collection of “alternative facts”?  First, lets establish some things that the Beatitudes are not intended to be.

The Beatitudes are not a description of the way things currently work in the world.  They are not instructions for people to mourn, to be merciful or to make themselves poor in order to be blessed by God.  They are not just for “super saints” like Mother Teresa, and they are not the idealistic, unattainable musings of Jesus. 

Stanley Hauerwas says, “The sermon…is not a list of requirements, but rather a description of the life of a people gathered by and around Jesus.”  

In the Beatitudes, Jesus is not describing how things currently work in the world. Rather, he is introducing an entirely new way of being in the world.  And don’t make the mistake of thinking this kind of community will only happen off in heaven in the future.

Perhaps more than any of Jesus’ other teachings, the Sermon on the Mount is the one many want to push off into the afterlife, or explain away. Often, because it includes teachings like “turn the other cheek”, and “go the extra mile” and “love your enemies” people say trying to live by the Sermon on the Mount today is foolish and even dangerous - foolish because the world just doesn’t work that way, and dangerous because if you don’t fight your enemies, your enemies will defeat or kill you. 

But when Jesus concludes these teachings he summarizes his entire sermon saying; “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock.  The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand.  The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!”  (Matthew 7:24-27)

Jesus clearly expects people to both hear and act on these teachings.  What would have been the point of telling the crowds listening to him this if he didn’t expect them to begin living this way?  And did you notice that he considers those who hear and act on these teachings to be the wise ones, and those who don’t hear and act on his teachings to be foolish?  This is so different from the way things work in the world that it sounds like an alternative reality, based on alternative facts.

Brian Zahnd, in his book “Beauty Will Save The Word” writes, “The Beatitudes are subversive to the established order – they are the subversive values of the kingdom of God…We have not been formed by the values of the Beatitudes; we have been raised on the received text of a superpower.  Contemporary Americans are scripted in a way that is completely counter to the values of the Beatitudes.”

We who claim to be Christians, who claim to be followers of Jesus, should look like we are living in an alternative reality, based on alternative facts.  Sadly many of us are indistinguishable from the rest of the world.  (…preaching to myself here.)  The lives of a people gathered by and around Jesus should be a shelter from the storms of the world, a place of comfort for those who mourn, and a peaceful place for the meek to exercise the gifts that find no outlet in the furious world around us - a place where the meek inherit the earth today.

Call these alternative facts if you will - even call it an alternative reality.  I’ll just call it the Kingdom of God.