30 Aug Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 22th, 2021
Proper 16 – Holy Gospel: Ephesians 6:10-20
Rev. Phil Schmidt
When Joseph Stalin ruled the Soviet Union, countless people were imprisoned in forced-labor camps because of their political or religious beliefs. However, totalitarian regimes do not acknowledge the existence of political or religious prisoners, because that would make them open to criticism on an international stage. Therefore, in some cases, before a suspicious person was sent to a labor camp, he was manipulated into confessing to a crime which he had not committed.
It has been reported that Stalin had psychologists who were capable of making people confess to any crime. They used a method which has been called the “Mongolian peasant scheme”. A Soviet psychologist explained this scheme by telling a story:
Imagine that a person enters the office of a general, a general who has grey hair, rows of medals on his uniform and who radiates authority. The general says to his visitor: “I have one million Rubles in a drawer of my desk. You can have this money, but only under one condition: you have to press this red button on my desk”. The visitor asks: “And what happens when I press the red button?” The general answers: “An old peasant in Outer Mongolia dies: He dies immediately – without pain!” The visitor wants to know: “But why? What has he done?” The general answers: „That does not concern you. Trust me. It is good for the people if he dies”. The visitor, standing in front of the desk, considers what he should do. After a while he slowly stretches out his arm, presses the red button, takes the money and goes home. However, for the rest of his life, he will never find peace. He cannot enjoy his life unreservedly. He tries franticly to fill his life with activity, trying to forget what he did, but under the surface he can never pacify his conscience.
After telling this story, the psychologist interpreted it by saying: “Everyone has a Mongolian peasant in his life. Everyone has something for which he is deeply ashamed. I interrogate a person relentlessly until I have discovered the Mongolian peasant hidden in his subconscious. And then I accuse him of his disgraceful behavior until he experiences deep shame and acknowledges that he is loathsome. He is then ready to confess to any crime I suggest because he wants to receive the punishment which atones for his feeling of guilt.”
The Mongolian Peasant scheme is more than a psychological weapon; it is literally Satanic. The word “Satan” means the Accuser, the Slanderer. The starting point for all evil in this world is slander and accusation which awakens a voice in the subconscious which says: “You should be ashamed of yourself!” This inner voice comes to the surface in many ways. For example, in sermons. I once heard a sermon on Christmas Day, in which the preacher used a variation of the Mongolian peasant scheme. He said:
We live in a horrible world, filled with suffering, violence, hunger and greed. People are dying in poverty, but you allow yourself to live in comfort. How dare you celebrate Christmas! How dare you enjoy your life! Shouldn’t you be feeling shame and guilt because you survive, while millions are perishing? Shouldn’t you renounce the exploitation of the poor from which you profit so enormously? Shouldn’t you be feeling miserable and living a life of total self-sacrifice in order to make this a better world!
There are certain types of Christian preachers and certain types of parents who know how to exploit a sensitive conscience, using allegations to produce emotional blackmail.
In our epistle reading Paul gives us background information to this accusing inner voice which produces shame and guilt. Paul talks about demonic forces:
For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.
These words reflect a supernatural world view. In the ancient world, people believed that the earth and the sky were infested by demons. The entire world, including the space between heaven and earth, was supposedly permeated by demons and devils. According to one estimate, there were 7-1/2 million of them. They sat on thrones, they howled in the desert, they defiled cemeteries. They were responsible for blindness, disease, disability and disorders, especially visible in epileptic fits. Demons conveyed the message to humanity: you do not deserve to enjoy your life. The supernatural viewpoint of the apostle Paul is outdated, but it is still relevant, because it is still true that our fight is not against flesh and blood. For us Christians no flesh and blood human being can ever be regarded as an enemy. Our enemies are, as Paul describes them; cosmic powers of darkness, spiritual forces of evil.
Paul talks about putting on the armor of God. One piece of armor is called the breastplate of righteousness. Righteousness is the Biblical word for God’s justice. I believe that the most important piece of armor in our world today is a proper understanding of divine justice. Spiritual warfare is a struggle to define the true meaning of justice.
In this context we can learn something from Martin Luther. Soviet psychologists would have enjoyed talking to Luther before the year 1515. They would have convinced him that a Siberian labor camp is just what he needed to find peace of mind, because Luther was constantly plagued by a guilty conscience. He was convinced that he fully deserved eternal punishment. He sometimes spent as much as 6 hours in a confessional trying to remember and confess every sin that he might have committed. He entered a monastery in order to live a life of self-sacrifice, trying to punish himself for everything he had done wrong.
When Luther read the Bible, he became hung up on one term which was a catalyzer for all of his fear and guilt; it was the term: “the justice of God.” For medieval church people, the justice of God meant only one thing: unrelenting punishment for every single sin.
Then, one evening Luther shut himself into his study and decided to take another look at the “justice of God” as described in Paul’s letter to the Romans. Luther looked meticulously at the structure of the sentences. He looked at the precise context in which the term “justice of God” was defined. Suddenly, Luther had an electrifying revelation, which changed the course of church history. He realized that the justice of God does not mean retribution and punishment, as he had been taught to believe. He made the breathtaking discovery that justice and grace are identical. The unconditional grace of God is not the cancellation of justice; it is actually the essence of justice. Justice is identical with unconditional mercy and forgiveness. Luther felt reborn; he felt that the gates of heaven had opened for him. He spent the rest of his life working out the consequences of his recognition that grace alone determines our destiny.
Because divine justice consists of unconditional forgiveness and not retribution, no Christian should ever be susceptible to the Mongolian peasant scheme and its variations. In word and sacrament God says to us again and again:
- You are not a worthless or disgusting person –regardless of what you have done or not done.
- Because God loves you unconditionally, you are absolutely precious.
- Do not let a guilty conscience determine who you are. Feelings of guilt will turn you into a nasty person.
- You are not obligated to live a miserable life of self-sacrifice. You may choose to live a life of selflessness, but only if you do it freely, out of love for your fellow human beings and as a witness to the grace and glory of God.
Putting on the full armor of God, as Paul writes, means believing in unconditional forgiveness as the foundation of life. Unconditional forgiveness is the key to justice. It has been said: “Without forgiveness, life is governed by an endless cycle of resentment and retaliation” (Roberto Assagioli). There will never be peace anywhere in the world until one side has the courage to forgive wholeheartedly – with no strings attached.
At the beginning I mentioned Soviet psychologists who exploited feelings of guilt. Correspondingly, there are psychologists who claim that all healing begins with forgiveness. The head of a large psychiatric clinic in England once said, “I could dismiss half my patients tomorrow if they could be assured of forgiveness.” And as C. S. Lewis wrote: “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you”.
May God arm us with an inner voice which says to us again and again:
“You are forgiven! You are loved! Your destiny is eternal glory! Feel free to live in the joy of the Lord!”
Holy Gospel: Ephesians 6:10-20
Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints. Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.