That's the word for it. It's Aramaic in origin, and given the semitic affinity for gutturals, you almost feel like you're coughing something up when you say it- which is fitting because the word means "fool" or more literally "empty one." To call someone rhaka was a linguistic way of spitting in their face. A rhaka is subhuman, someone whose life is void of meaning. Simply to say the word is to reduce the other person's value and humanity.
I thought about that word this week as I received the news that 49 people had been shot and killed in Orlando, their lives treated as if they were nothing. Then came their names, one by one. Then came their faces and the images of people carrying bodies while the blue lights twirled all around them. It was agonizing.
Anyone with so much as the moral conscience of a rock would be broken hearted at the loss of life in the largest mass shooting in US history. Everyone knows this act was heinous, despicable, and vile. The admonition against murder transcends religious traditions and cascades down the centuries. It is a given. But Jesus had a propensity for getting down into the heart of a thing rather than dancing around the periphery of it. In the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, Jesus says,
You have heard that the ancients were told, 'You shall not commit murder' and 'whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.' But I say to you that everyone who is angry with their brother shall be guilty before the court and whoever says to his brother, 'Rhaka' shall be guilty before the Sanhedrin.
In this text, Jesus seems less concerned about external behavior as about internal attitudes like anger and hatred (or rhaka) which give rise to murderous acts. His focus is on the the things that act as the fuse of our violence, rather than concentrating on the effects of the bomb itself. He is advocating for some introspection in the depths of our humanity rather than simply focusing on surface behaviors. He's asking us to get at the root of things, rather than trying to find out who's to blame for the rotten fruit. After all, taking a life with our hands is the natural and logical outgrowth of seeing someone as rhaka in our souls. Dehumanization in our hearts leads to bodies in our streets, especially the kind that deals in categorical condemnations that refuse to see so much as one single human face or bother to listen to one single human story. It's so very easy to marginalize an entire category of people when you don't even know one name on the roster.
If the images in Orlando impacted you this week and if you long for a different tomorrow, might I urge you to check the spirit of rhaka that lives in you. Whom do you see as less than human? What categories of people are you quick to dismiss and ignore? LGBTQ? Muslims? Where is there unbounded anger, long-lasting disdain, or frigid indifference?
As Christians, we are called to be peacemakers and reconcilers of ALL people, which begins in the depths of our souls. With this in mind, I'd like for the LGBTQ community in Central Arkansas to know that they have a friend in me. I will laugh with them and cry with them. I see them as beloved children of God who bear the image of their Father. They have a place at my church. I will oppose any effort to see them as lesser humans, objects of scorn and ridicule, or causes for mockery- especially of the theological and religious sort. May the images of this week cause us to see the severity of crude and careless language, bombastic self-righteousness, and cold exclusion.
I want my Muslim friends in Central Arkansas to know that I stand in solidarity with them as they condemn the violent ones who would distort their faith. The very word "Islam" is related to the Hebrew word shalom which means peace. I support those who live into the true intent of their faith. I also want local Muslims to know they have a friend in me. I will laugh with them and cry with them. I hope they see in me the One who is called the "Prince of Peace." While I ask them to hold accountable those who distort their faith, I hope to do no less with my own.
For decades, many of us have decried the violence of our streets while harboring a spirit of rhaka in our souls. We have created us/them dichotomies that were neither true nor faithful. We have politely ignored the significant suffering around us until it spilled into the streets, and we had to take notice. We have allowed oppression, mockery, disdain, repulsion, and sheer hatred in word and deed to go unchallenged. We have protected the things which make for violence and ignored the things which make for peace. We have dug into the trenches of our culture wars to the point that we no longer hear Jesus calling us to something far greater, better, and more transformative. We have talked about taking Christ to the marginalized without realizing that it's amongst the marginalized that we most often meet Christ. We have allowed politicized fear to overwhelm our faith, and we have shut doors in the name of the one who tore down walls. A better tomorrow doesn't begin by focusing on others, but by doing the hard work of taking responsibility for the life in our own souls.
Every single one of us can name the despicable atrocity that occurred in Orlando on Sunday. It was the work of one deeply disturbed gunman. But while none of us are guilty, in a way, we are all responsible (response-able). What I hope to do- and invite you to do with me- is some deep introspection. I want to rid myself and my surroundings of anything that smacks of rhaka. You might even call it repentance. I want to think about the world that lives within me- within my church- within my culture. Because sooner or later, the world that lives within us will spill over into the world without. What we don't allow to take place in our hearts and minds, we won't have to worry about spilling into our streets. May it be so with me...and all of us!