A few weeks ago, in a discussion with some of my church friends about a particular social issue, someone made the following comment, which is edited for clarity:
I recognize and accept the fact that my rights and freedoms are not ultimately ever going to be met through the government or any earthly organization. Otherwise, I might spend my entire life fighting for things that don’t really last (like earthly peace, social justice, or marriage equality) instead of laying it down for what can never be taken away.
Wow. Not the way I think at all.
My wife says that I’m a very Jewish Lutheran. Now I didn’t grow up Jewish, but I didn’t grow up Lutheran either. I grew up reading, and that’s what got me where I am today. I was interested in Judaism as being the ultimate source of Christianity, and wanted to know how things might have been in the early Church before the Greeks and Romans got their hands on it and screwed things up.
But my point, and I do have one, is that my Christianity is very much informed by my knowledge of and interest in Judaism. And as a result, this comment during the discussion had me raising the metaphorical eyebrow.
“That doesn’t sound a whole lot like tikkun olam,” I said to myself.”
So what’s tikkun olam? It’s a Hebrew phrase that means “to repair the world,” and describes the Jewish concept that each of us is here to take some part, no matter how small, in the task of repairing the world. I like this concept. I like this concept a whole lot better than the ideas I hear coming out of the mouths of some Christians, that make it sound like we’re all just supposed to sit on our duffs until Jesus comes back, and then he’ll make everything right. You know…the people who say, “I don’t have to worry about the environment because Jesus is coming back for us.” (And by the way, it’s Christians like that who make the rest of us look bad.)
Now maybe this isn’t exactly what the person in the conversation meant, but it still rubbed me the wrong way. It still seemed to imply that there was no sense in trying to work to improve anything in the world we have now, because the only important thing, the only lasting thing is our lives with Jesus later.
And quite frankly, that still sounds a little lazy to me.
The idea of tikkun olam implies that I’ve been invited…yes, invited to work with God to make this world a better place. And that invitation to work with him should be seen as an honor, not as something that’s pointless, since our efforts could never compare to his anyway.
Now there are those, such as Humanist author Greg Epstein, who argues in his book Good Without God that the idea of tikkun olam is flawed, because since it talks about repairing, it assumes a “golden age” that we’re trying to get back to…a golden age that never existed. OK, I get his point. Even in the Bible, there seems to have been no golden age, because even in the beginning, that serpent was just slithering around, waiting to suck someone in. But he’s right, if you’re not religious at all, and don’t believe that there ever was a golden age to return to, then the idea of repairing the world makes no sense. What can we do then? What can we say that makes sense to everyone?
But you know what? “Repair the world” is only one interpretation of tikkun olan. It can also mean to improve it. Yes, rather than saying that the world is broken and needs fixed, it says that it’s flawed or imperfect, and needs some improvement. Either way, it says that things ain’t right and we should get off our duffs and do something…no matter how small, and no matter how pointless it seems in the long run.
And perhaps, for those who look at this from a Christian perspective, instead of looking at the mess we’ve left and saying, “Well, you lazy, arrogant little so-and-so,” when he comes back, Jesus will look at what we’ve tried to do in the name of earthly peace, social justice, and all those other things “that don’t really last,” and say “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
You can do what you want, you can say what you want, but as for me and my hands, I’m picking up a hammer. I’ve got some repairing…oops…I mean improving to do.