The Tonto Principle

by Jason Micheli

Length: 26:00

Matthew 5.5  (click to see Scripture text)

June 26, 2022

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

Notice how unlike the first two beatitudes, the promise of the third is not the Kingdom of Heaven but the earth. It’s not a pie in the sky sentimentality. It’s a politics. The meek shall inherit this earth. Later in Matthew’s Gospel, when calling his followers to take up his yoke and carry his burden, Jesus describes himself as the meek and even predicts that imitating his meekness will be the cause for the world’s hatred of his followers; meanwhile, St. John the Revelator prophesies of the day when the lamb, who was slain from the foundation of the world, will return to the earth to rule as its true Lord and King, it’s Alpha and Omega. One day the One who is our Beginning will be our End, and only means commensurate with him who is that End are justified. It follows therefore that the trajectory of time, belongs to those who abide in the gentle, non-coercive way of the cross. 

“Blessed are those who are meek unto the cross, for they shall inherit the earth.”

It’s not piety. 

It’s a politics. 

That this third beatitude is not piety but a politics can be seen clearly by putting Jesus’s promise in the inverse: The earth— this world— will not ultimately belong to those who wield power and coercion. Those who now possess the earth by any means necessary will one day lose it, and those who now renounce all other ways but the gentle, self-giving way of the way of the cross will one day share in the Lamb’s rule over the new earth. 

Not only is it a politics not a pie in the sky piety, it’s a promise that makes the Son sound much like Mother Mary who, despite her troubled, shameful pregnancy, declares upon the news of her unborn baby’s advent, “the Mighty One…has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

Blessed are those who trust the truth of Mary’s claim and so do not themselves resort to power or greed, violence or coercion, to make history come out right— the meek. No matter how things may appear today, one day the Lord will bequeath the earth to them. 

It’s a politics. 

As Dietrich Bonhoeffer notes in his commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, “with each successive beatitude Jesus deepens the breach between the people and his disciples.” As a result, obedience to Christ’s call makes his disciples more and more visible. By calling forth followers out of the crowd, Jesus is creating an alternative community, a witnessing minority— a light to the nations, as Jesus puts it in the sermon—whose way of life in the world will augur the world that is still but is nevertheless surely to come. 

It’s a politics. 

The community of discipleship is Christ’s politics.

In addressing the need for Christians to make discriminating political judgments, the theologian Stanley Hauerwas appeals often to what he calls the “Tonto Principle of Christian Ethics.” Once upon a time, Tonto and the Lone Ranger found themselves surrounded in the Badlands of South Dakota by 20,000 Sioux. Seeing the grim odds stacked against them, the Lone Ranger turned to Tonto and said, “Gee, this looks pretty tough, Tonto; what do you think we ought to do?” And Tonto replied to the Lone Ranger, “What do you mean “we,” white man?” The Tonto Principle of Christian Ethics critiques the culturally determined assumption that our reaction to political events should be a response that combines the American “we” with the Christian “we” when, in fact, the two represent distinct peoples as Tonto and the Lone Ranger.  Like Tonto surrounded with the Lone Ranger by scores of vengeful Sioux, we Christians are called to discern political events in a manner that is different— unique— from a response shaped by American presuppositions. Whether the issue is gun violence, the war in Ukraine, or abortion, we Christians should sound different than the Americans on MSNBC and FoxNews. Moreover, we have to step back and ask what we Christians have done that we find ourselves so implicated in the world that we cannot differentiate our response as God’s people from the American people’s response. 

Just as Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount distinguishes between the crowds and his followers, the fundamental task of discipleship is very often to distinguish the American “we” from the Christian “we.”

Though I’d read about the Tonto Principle years before, I don’t think I truly understood it until I was a student in seminary and serving as the pastor of an ordinary, humble church outside of Princeton, New Jersey. It was already nearly sundown and I was in the sanctuary, changing the paraments to purple for the season of Advent. Irma was tinkering with the organ which she played every Sunday as though it was an emphysemic kitten. In addition to being the volunteer organist, Irma was the lay leader, the church council chair, the Sunday School superintendent, and the head of the visitation team. Her hair was the color of the cobwebs that hung from the neglected sanctuary lights and her face was creased with the lines and crows feet that attended a lifetime of worrying over and caring for others. Their last pastor had looked like Abraham Lincoln and had been nearly as old; thus, Irma frequently lingered around me, their rookie pastor, as though she was my set of geriatric training wheels. 

I’d just changed out the white altar linen when a middle-aged woman wandered inside the sanctuary. I did not know her nor did I recognize her. She fingered the seam on her purse, nervous, and asked if she could speak with the minister. I was wearing a black Strokes band t-shirt so she looked dubious when I announced myself as the pastor.  

I looked over and saw Irma’s thick-soled shoes sticking out from under the organ as though she was a mechanic changing a muffler. Because 

the small church did not have an office for the pastor, I gestured to a pew and invited her to sit down. I could tell she was uncomfortable about all of it— being in a church, sitting in a sanctuary, speaking with a pastor. I could tell too that she was exhausted and that she had been crying. After an awkward silence, like it leaked out of her, she said, “We don’t what to do.” Then she burst into tears. Once she had gathered herself again she proceeded to tell me about her teenage daughter, Rachel. 

Rachel had a drug and alcohol problem. 

Rachel had dropped out of school. 

Rachel was pregnant. 

Just then the organ let out a moan. 

Irma, I knew, was stuck to me like a pair of training wheels. And she was eavesdropping. 

Rachel’s mother cried and shared how confused and overwhelmed she felt. Rachel was her only family. She had no one to whom she could turn. Rachel, she knew, was not able to raise a child and, given her addictions, she worried what would be the resulting health of Rachel’s baby. Rachel’s mother suddenly asked me if it was wrong for her daughter to get an abortion. “Does the Bible say it’s wrong?” she asked me. 

And then I moaned to myself, feeling wholly inadequate for my calling. 

I sometimes think pastors in the mainline church act as though they’re terrified they’ll be caught having a conviction and maybe I suspect as much because I know that’s how I felt that afternoon. I stammered and cleared my throat. I determined to avoid saying anything that might offend her. I started to offer her some vague but generally unhelpful gibberish about God’s love and forgiveness when Irma spoke up. I turned around and discovered that with the stealth of a ninja Irma had crept over to us and was standing directly behind me. 

“We’ll help you two,” she said, “You three,” she added, correcting herself. 

“What?” Rachel’s mother asked, assuming she’d misheard Irma. 

“What?!” I thought to myself, knowing I hadn’t misheard her. 

“We’ll take of you, the church here. If she has the baby, we’ll take care of you all like you were our family.” 

“Take care of them!?” I screamed in my head, “It’s a good Sunday if we’ve got fifty people here. How are we going to take care of anybody? I couldn’t even get a volunteer to change out the paraments.” 

Rachel’s mother just started at the old woman standing before her in her black podiatrist shoes and smiling her gray wrinkled face. 

“Tell me,” Irma asked, sitting down in the pew between us, “What do you think is the best thing can happen for the three of you?” 

Rachel’s mother wiped her nose and thought for a moment. “I guess— I suppose it’s the reason I’m here— I just want us to be at peace.” 

And Irma nodded like this was not the first conversation of this sort she had stewarded. “And tell me, what is the worst outcome? What do you fear the most?” 

She answered immediately, “I’m afraid Rachel will have this child. I’m afraid it will have defects. I’m afraid our family will be ashamed. I’m afraid our friends will fall away. I’m afraid we’ll be left all alone. I’m just so afraid.” 

Irma straightened the pleats on her tan pants and nodded. “You know,” she said, “You really have come to the right place. If what you want is peace and what you fear is being left alone, then what you need is the church.” 

Rachel’s mother stared at her looking as dumbfounded as me. 

Mention of the word “church” must’ve triggered some reflexive response because Rachel’s mother replied, “I always thought the church was against abortion, that the church said people who have abortions are going to hell.” 

Irma ignored her comment and put her hand on the woman’s shoulder. 

 

“Dear, look at you right now. It’s not about rights or choices, laws or— goodness— damnation.” And Irma giggled at the immaturity of such a word. 

“All those people with their certainties and self-importance, where are they right now? They might be sincere in their beliefs— certainly some are. It just goes to show what little difference sincerity makes at the end of the day. Such folks have left someone like you and your daughter all alone. You’re alone with this decision and no doubt you’ll be alone months from now when you need more help than you do even now. All alone, with no one to help you and no hope for the future, of course a medical solution seems the most sensible to you.”

Rachel’s mother looked shocked to be hearing such candor in a church sanctuary. 

“But take it from an old woman,” Irma continued, “your true problem isn’t one that termination will remedy. Your daughter and you need people who won’t leave you by your lonesome. You need a promise of the future that doesn’t depend on you getting your present life right. You need people around you who will make your life beautiful even if your life is not happy.”

And Irma held out her hands towards the sanctuary like she was unveiling the grand prize on Wheel of Fortune.

“You need the church. This church has raised three children not our own and, as followers of Jesus, we’re always ready to do it again.” 

“But is it right?” Rachel’s mother asked, returning to her presenting question. “I know she has the right to…”

Irma waved her off. 

“There you go again. Rights.”

And Irma leaned towards her and stared at her intently. 

“Don’t go and let America limit the possibilities you can imagine for your life.” 

Irma might as well have said, “What do you mean “we,” white man?” 

There’s a difference between making the Constitution your bible and making the Bible your constitution. The former says, “You do not have the right to…” The latter says, “We’ll take care of you— we must.” 

Rush hour horns honked at the traffic light outside. I stared at Irma in her homemade blouse and taped together spectacles. She was completely at ease with the situation thrust upon her; as though, all the earth was her possession. When Rachel’s mother got up to leave, Irma tapped me on the stomach with the back of her hand. 

“I think we handled that pretty well, didn’t we?” 

“Uh, yeah, I think we both handled that just swell.” 

“I think so,” Irma said. 

And she said it again ten months later when we baptized Rachel’s baby. 

Rachel named her Leah. 

And thanks to the people called church they are on their way to a hard but happy ever after. 

Commenting on the third beatitude in his book Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes that in the community of Jesus the End time is already sown into this world’s time. A sign is given. Already the poor in spirit, those who bear suffering by mourning, the meek who wreak the weakness of the cross, those who wage peace, and the children who are pure in heart are already given a piece of the earth. They have the church. 

In other words—

Discipleship is not about what works in the world. 

Discipleship is about bearing witness to the world that is to come. 

Discipleship is not instrumental. 

Discipleship is teleological. 

That is— 

It’s not a means to an end. 

It’s a mode that points to the End. 

At stake in the Tonto Principle is a simple question about the nature of the church. I think it’s one of the most important questions. Do you think Jesus was seeking to create an order for society that enabled people to live their regular lives, or do you think Jesus was providing such a challenge to society that it would be almost impossible for a follower of his ever to live a normal life? If you choose the first option, then it’s easy to see how so many Christians make the Constitution their bible. But if you choose the second option, then the Bible— specifically, the Sermon on the Mount— is your constitution. 

And it is not the constitution of the nation. 

It is the constitution of the light to the nations. 

The community of disciples. 

The church. 

Such a vision of the Christian “we” might strike you as impossible or impossibly idealistic, yet not only is it the kind of community Jesus envisages in his Sermon on the Mount, it’s the character of community that first caught the attention of the wider Roman world. Don’t forget, in the first and second centuries Christians were a small, inconsequential sect of Jewish schismatics. Rome cared not at all how Christians understood the doctrine of the Trinity or how the church parsed Christ’s status as fully divine and fully human. But we know from the first century Jewish historian Josephus, for example, that Christianity first caught the attention of the Empire because of a peculiar practice that set them apart in the wider world. 

What turned the eyebrows of the empire was the church’s discipline of rescuing unwanted newborns who were abandoned in fields by pagan parents. 

It reveals the limitations of our modern presumptions that we somehow think abortion is a contemporary issue. In fact, the Didache, a manual for Christian witness that is older than any document in the New Testament and dates to as early as the middle of the first century, stipulates that “Christians should not murder a child by abortion nor should you kill one who has been born.” 

So when the Social Principles of the United Methodist Church state that “Our belief in the sanctity of unborn human life makes us reluctant to approve abortion. But we are equally bound to respect the sacredness of the life and well-being of the mother” they are merely reaffirming a position literally as old as the holy, catholic, and apostolic church. Christians have no illusions about how difficult much of life can be. Such illusions are an impossibility if Christians are truly engaged in ministry alongside the kinds of people named by the beatitudes. Nevertheless, Christians persist in welcoming children because it’s most precisely with those we cannot control or anticipate that we best learn how to love. As Stanley Hauerwas writes, “Children, the weak, the ill, the dispossessed provide a particularly intense occasion for such love, as they are beings we cannot control. We must love them for what they are rather than what we want or wish them to be, and as a result we discover that we are capable of love…the difference between the non-Christian and the Christian is only that what is a possibility for the non-Christian is a calling for the Christian.”  

About ten years ago, I was leading a church-wide study on Christian perspectives on ethical issues. During the session on abortion, I told the same story about Irma that I told you. After the evening session, we were stacking chairs in the fellowship hall and a woman about my age came up to me. She looked both righteously PO’d and desperately earnest. 

“I saw the blurb about the class on the church sign out front so I thought I’d check it out.” 

“Oh really?” I said and silently congratulated myself for my savvy church marketing. “It’s great you came.”

“Not really,” she replied in a flat tone, her voice just below a tremble. “Maybe it’s because you’re man, it certainly doesn’t help your that you’re a man,” she said, “But I think it’s because you’re a pastor.” 

“Um, I don’t know that I follow…”

“The only church you ever attend is your own church, am I right?” 

“Uh, I guess so. Yeah.”

“Well then— I mean, damn, you couldn’t possibly know, could you?”

“Know what?” I asked, genuinely flummoxed. 

“You can’t possibly know how rare is that lady and her church is.” 

The tears had started to well up in her eyes. 

“I had an abortion five years ago. I went to dozens of churches before and since and I’ve never once found the kind of community you described.”

“That’s too bad,” I said, lamely. 

She shook her head. 

“I’ll tell you what’s bad, pastor— bad for your argument anyway. I discovered more grace and forgiveness, more compassion and companionship, more hands-on support and unconditional acceptance of my brokenness in the abortion clinic than at any church who claimed to welcome me.” 

I just stood there, silent. 

Red-faced. 

Unsure which of my go-to excuses I should choose. 

“It seems to me,” she said, “there would be a lot less need for abortion if the church was half as good at its job as the clinic is at theirs.”

And then she shook my hand and walked out without even realizing that the earth was her inheritance.

For Christians—not for Democrats or Republicans, liberals or conservatives, men or women, Americans— abortion is not fundamentally a question about law or medicine but about what kind of people we are to be as the church because, of course, Christ’s aim in the Sermon on the Mount is to insure that he himself cannot be known apart from the lives of his disciples. The purpose of Jesus’s sermon is to make it so that the world cannot know Jesus without witnesses. 

Like Irma. 

Like you. 

Like me.

It seems like a terrible gamble to me but take it up with Jesus.

I was flying home on a plane last night. I boarded early and I had my Bible and laptop open on the tray table when the man assigned to the adjacent seat sat down. It’s usually functions as a sign that says, “Leave me alone.” He looked at my Bible and said for our whole section to hear, “I’ve never believed any of that make-believe.” Excellent, I thought. 

About an hour into our flight, I started to read the front page of the newspaper. 

“What do you think we can about it?” He asked me, pointing to the headline about Friday’s decision. 

“What do you mean we?” I asked. 

 

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

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