-THE LEFT HAND OF GOD
Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps
Old First Church, Middletown, NJ
May 3, 2020
Texts: Acts 1:1-11; Luke 24:44-53
For many years there was a wonderful person who lived in our neighborhood named Angelo. He had huskies he ac-quired through a husky rescue organization and because he was retired, he spent a good deal of his day walking those dogs. A deeply religious man, he went to the New Jersey State Prison to give Bible studies every week.
Back in the day when I also had dogs, we would walk together on Saturdays and talk about pretty much everything. One Saturday morning Angelo told me about the time that his grandson looked up at him one day and asked, “Grandpa, what does God do with his left hand?” As a retired elementary school principal, Angelo commented how remarkably literal children are. Having heard that Jesus was seated at God’s right hand, it seemed like a perfectly normal question to the child. We chuckled about it but it made me wonder why we have the imagery we do.
The image of God’s right hand being a source of strength and power has its roots in pre-Scriptural tradition. In ancient Mesopotamian culture, the right hand was used as a source of legitimacy; that is clear from ancient bas-reliefs that still exist. In Exodus, this imagery is used in the song attri-buted to Moses and the Israelites as they sing of God’s triumph over the Egyptians after crossing the Red Sea. David uses it in the Psalms, and it is used repeatedly in Isaiah as a sign of God’s glory and righteousness. In both the Greek and the Hebrew, the words probably should be more literally translated, “at God’s right side,” the words for “arm” or “hand” not being added but implied, usually from ancient depictions of judgment. Alas, for the southpaws, the dominant right side has always held sway.
In fact, the image of the left hand of God has until recently been seen as less than desirable, almost with a touch of evil. In the film, The Left Hand of God, Humphrey Bogart plays a downed pilot who pretends he is a priest during the Chinese Civil War that brought the Maoist government to power. If you have never seen this 1955 film, I recommend it. His disguise revealed, Bogart is told by a Chinese general, played by Lee J. Cobb, if you can imagine him being Chinese, to leave the town and join the fight or he will have the town destroyed. I won’t reveal the ending but the ethical issues are treated in an unusual way.
The image of the left hand of God has been used to signify death, destruction, and mayhem. The heavy metal group Behemoth––note the choice of name––has a piece of music, for lack of a better word, called “The Left hand of God.” Heavy metal’s not the kind of music I particularly care for and I really don’t recommend it unless you’re really adven-turous, but it seems like God’s left hand doesn’t sit well in traditional imagery.
In his book, The Left Hand of God: Taking back our Country from the Religious Right, Michael Lerner, the editor of Tikkun, an interfaith magazine with a decidedly Jewish bent, challenged the traditionally anti-religious political left to give up its fears of religion and to examine the prophetic call for social justice found in Hebrew Scripture and the New Testament.
For us to recover as a Nation, Lerner argued that we must rethink our relationship to God, champion a progressive spiritual vision, reject the old bottom line that promotes the globalization of selfishness, and deal head-on-with the very real spiritual crisis that many Americans experience every day.
Our spiritual crisis in the United States is a real one. For years, we who consider ourselves progressive and open-minded have let the religious right define religion and its role in American life. What is it that makes us so afraid to talk about the real religious values that served to establish us as a Nation? Those values were not defined in sectarian or exclu-sivist terms; they were based on the values of the Enlighten-ment, which were not anti-religious but pro-rational.
The men and women who established this Nation believed in the values of tolerance; that’s why there was no established religion. They believed that people of good will could establish a common ground of discussion and com-promise because humankind was endowed by its Creator with not just natural rights of life and liberty, but with reason. The religious right has no use for common ground nor does it have faith in the ability of reason to help us determine what our national policies should be. It only has use for a call to the irrational and the politics of fear.
As Christians we have the obligation to rescue God’s left hand and to restore the rule of reason and compassion in our national discourse. As Christians we have the obligation to look critically at what our common values are and should be, not because we have the answers to life’s problems, because we really don’t but always with the realization that we look through a glass darkly and see only in part, to use the words of Paul.
Those early disciples who experienced the risen Lord all had different perspectives of that experience. That’s one of the reasons we have four Gospels, not one, and why Paul’s letters and the other letters included in the New Testament have such different frameworks in their approach to the life of the church. There is no one answer. There are many perspec-tives and many approaches to our life in God.
In looking at God’s left hand we are given the oppor-tunity to rethink our imagery of God; we are given the oppor-tunity to re-examine the role of religious values in public life by using the rational faculties given us by the very God who calls us to love mercy, do justice and walk in humility. Today we would have shared communion with each other. Although we do not do so physically but in spirit, it reminds us that none of us is whole without the other for we do not have the Lord’s Table on an individual basis but in community with each other. In spirit we know that we are not alone, and during this time of struggle, it is most important to realize that.
Let us pray: Creator who still creates, bring us into a deeper understanding of your call to the common life, bring us into a deeper appreciation of each other, and help us to always remember that you are the source of all. In the name of him who is in our midst, even Christ Jesus our Lord, Amen.