Oliver Sacks, “In memoriam” (1933-2015)
“For this is what the LORD says: "To the “homosexuals” (eunuchs) who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant, to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will not be cut off.” Isaiah 56: 4,5.
The 14th annual European Kinship Meeting (KEM) took place on August 27-31, 2015, in the charming and breezy city of Florence, Italy. Well organized by Ruud Kiebomm and Lisa Verona, LGBT Adventists from all over Europe met to share their experiences and to encourage each other in their Christian living. Under the general title of “This Church is Our Church, is your Church, is mine” and led by an emphatic Italian pastor, the group tried to understand and discover the sense and need of healthy religious roots and belonging. Two dimensions were kept closely in mind during the whole long week-end.
First, the enormous value of the real, concrete life of these Adventists – sons and daughters, brothers and sisters of us all – who attend the same Sabbath school meetings, sing the same hymns, and read the same Bible. Adventists who are deeply attached to the same hope in Christ’s second coming. This heterogeneous and existentially rich group, here in Europe or elsewhere, doesn't represent a problem or a risk for Adventism, as some still believe, but rather a resource and an opportunity to understand and re-articulate the real priorities in our Church. Being a religious community very much attached to its high ideals and standards it becomes easy for Adventists to forget that those values are emptied of meaning if we isolate them from the actual life and experience of the people they are supposed to inform and orient. Real people are not ancillary realities or entities subservient to ideals. Rather they help correct, reshape and – above all – distinguish which ideals are ideological and dehumanizing and which are life-promoting and thus truly binding.
The concrete life of people can't be reduced to just an application of our ideals. It must become the assessment-place of our cherished high ideals. This happens in healthy families and must also happen in our Adventist community. Ideals can help us but may also deeply damage us. Ideals are not God, and therefore are not absolutes in themselves but need to be continually assessed and re-oriented. The best way to do this is by confronting them with the real lives of people. That is what LGBT Adventists can really represent for us. A mercy, a gift, a human space to check the validity and real force of our ideals. We can't give them up. We would become poorer and hollowed, merely methodological Adventists without dimensions of hope and laughter. A reduction to religious machines, trying to make others as predictable as ourselveves.
Second, we have used the Bible to keep us blindly attached to our unduly absolutized ideals. This attitude is visible in the rule-based understanding of the Sabbath, the Second Coming, vegetarianism or other life-style issues. But we can't rescue and renew these fundamental Adventist experiences if we keep maintaining the same rigid and monolithic principle-based hermeneutics. For this reason our typical “exclusive principle-based” hermeneutics must become an “inclusive poetic-narrative hermeneutics” that allows us to privilege plurality and complexity instead of univocal homogeneity. Our exclusivist hermeneutics has led us to deform our understanding of the Sabbath. We have been attentive to all the passages which are predominantly rule-based and therefore exclusivist. But the Bible also has strong inclusive Sabbath-related verses such as the one quoted at the top of this essay. In reality both perspectives belong to the Bible, the inclusive and the exclusive. But we need to modify and update our massively exclusive Sabbath hermeneutics introducing important corrections. And the most important corrective is to allow inclusive texts their rightful dominance. This is just what Jesus himself taught us in the Gospel: "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27)
This is what the group gathered in Florence was debating, without fully realizing it, after the opening Friday evening meeting, in the nice but still impersonal hotel “Stibbert”. A seemingly practical decision: where to go to church Sabbath morning. But the discussion also implied an important theological positioning. They decided to go to the Central Adventist Church in Florence because that was the place where they felt the most sense of belonging. During the service the leading Elder welcomed the Kinship group and the Italian Adventist University, “Villa Aurora”, offered its beautiful garden to have the afternoon Sabbath meeting – thus showing an inclusive Sabbath hermeneutics.
This same inclusive hermeneutics caught our attention later that afternoon by the corporative reading of Oliver Sacks' last short narrative “The Sabbath” that simultaneously had appeared some days before in the New York Times and in the Italian newspaper “La Repubblica”. (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/16/opinion/sunday/oliver-sacks-sabbath.html?_r=0 ) Sacks' narrative indirectly describes three important conditions about religion and the Sabbath:
1) The bewildering ambivalence of religion – every religion. Religions can both help and damage. We’ve known that since … forever. But usually we interpret this fact in a convenient way, believing that wrong religions do really damage but not the true ones (i.e. ours). Sacks' point, however, is that “true religions” are the ones which damage the most. His own very Orthodox English Jewish Community gave him an incredibly positive sense of belonging but simultaneously a chronic and incurable sense of rejection when, on one Sabbath day, he confessed his homosexuality to his father. When his mother also learned this she screamed at him, saying: “You are an abomination. I wish you had never been born."
2) Religions survive more for the relations they are able to build and care for than the doctrinal apparatus they proudly exhibit and defend. This is not a matter of whether the religion is conservative or liberal. Sacks implicitly welcomes the positive figure of his religiously orthodox cousin Robert John Aumann – winner of the 2005 Nobel prize in Economics for his work on Game Theory. He praises the deep religious commitment that pushed Aumann to say he would have renounced the Nobel Price if had he been invited to go to Stockholm on a Sabbath. But Aumann's religious commitment was never divorced from a deep human warmth, tenderness and inclusiveness. So much so that, in his last visit to Jerusalem, Sacks and his lover Billy were invited by Aumann to join him and his family at their opening Sabbath meal.
3) Religions are not true because they believe correctly in what God, reality or human existence is. All religious ideas are just approximate knowledge. For this reason both true and false religions keep making mistakes. Their truth-validity resides instead in their capacity to confess, repent and re-orient themselves in favor of people’s well-being and renewal. The Jewish community that had excluded him, after 60-65 years, now welcomed him back and accepted him and his partner Billy without understanding. Sacks says of this moment: “The peace of the Sabbath, of a stopped world, a time outside time, was palpable, infused everything”. And, sometime after his visit to Jerusalem – laying in his bed, beaten by irreversible metastatic cancer – Sacks still feels himself coddled like a baby by the memory of his inclusive and welcoming Jewish family, and the Sabbath blessing they succeeded in transmitting to him. That blessed memory gives him peace and trust when he writes: “I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.”
In our last meeting with the Kinship European group, near the “Ponte Vecchio” in Florence's magic “Oltrarno” quarter, we were eating a delicious pizza and still remembering the healing touch of Sacks’ narrative on the Sabbath when we got the news that he had passed away that same day.
Sixty years had passed until his orthodox Jewish family and community that rejected him finally welcomed him back again – and still without understanding. But they did. Will we be able to do the same?
How many Bryan, Carlos, John, David, Linda, Klaus, Ulrich, Marjorie, Gianni and Carmen Adventists need to pass away, isolated and abandoned, without having been included in our church’s Sabbaths? Oliver Sacks was blessed and, with timid and wavering hope, I dare to trust it will also be true for my children, in the community where they were born.
Hanz Gutierrez is a Peruvian theologian, philosopher and physician. Currently he is Chair of the Systematic Theology Department at the Italian Adventist Theological Faculty of “Villa Aurora” and director of the CECSUR (Cultural Center for Human and Religious Sciences) in Florence, Italy.
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