The extremists in American politics say that God is on their side, but such statements are lacking in content. Their “God” is not really expected to supply any concrete assistance, such as plagues or angelic legions, to carry them to victory. “God-on-our-side” language is just a dramatic way to say that “we are right and you are evil.”
However, a new video ad is selling the startling idea that God has indeed, in these latter days, directly intervened in history by anointing a human messiah to enforce divine will through political power. Over God’s-eye aerial views of land and sea, we hear a caricature of Charlton Heston recite a text with biblical cadences and a lot of reverb:
“And on the 8th day, God looked down on his planned paradise, and said, ‘I need a protector.’ So God made a fighter.… God said, ‘I need someone to be strong, advocate truth in the midst of hysteria, someone who challenges conventional wisdom, and isn’t afraid to defend what he knows to be right and just.… someone who will take the arrows, stand firm in the face of unrelenting attacks.’”
As we hear these words, photographic images of the Chosen One fill the screen. The new messiah is revealed to be—wait for it—Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida! I knew he had presidential ambitions, but now he’s in the running for the Antichrist! Are there really enough rubes out there to fall for the old false messiah gag? [i]
About 60 years ago a southern preacher named Clarence Jordan liked to ask his fellow Christians: “What’s the biggest lie told in America today?” He’d let that sink in for a bit, and then he’d say, “The biggest lie told in America today is: ‘Jesus is Lord.’”
In other words, if you say “Jesus is Lord” and foster racism, you’re a liar. If you say “Jesus is Lord” and support white supremacy, you’re a liar. If you say “Jesus is Lord” and foment bigotry and hate, you’re a liar. If you say “Jesus is Lord” and afflict the vulnerable, you’re a liar. If you say “Jesus is Lord” and do harm to your fellow beings, you’re a liar.
Someone recently posted a short video on the internet depicting Jesus as the incarnation of our worst politics. It shows Jesus teaching his disciples in a variety of settings:
“I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink. And behold: Now I’m all lazy and entitled. You shouldn’t have done that.”
“What is a man profited, if he gains the whole world, but loses his own soul? A lot! He has profited a lot. One soul for the whole world, that is an amazing deal!” [ii]
Sad to say, some people would prefer the anti-Jesus who does nothing but reflect their own pitiful values. In any case, as the song says, “You gonna have to serve somebody: Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you gonna have to serve somebody.” [iii]
So who’s it going to be? Whom do we serve? Who—or what—rules our life? To whom do we belong? To what do we surrender?
In a culture of hyper-individualism, the idea of submission to a larger reality, a greater good, goes against the grain. But we are all governed by something, maybe even a whole crazy stampeding herd of somethings, pulling us here, driving us there. Whether we are conscious of it or not, there are voices, inside us and outside us, which direct and rule our hearts in every moment.
A hundred years ago, Scottish theologian P. T. Forsyth suggested that “The first duty of every soul is not to find its freedom, but its Master.” And then he added: “If within us we find nothing over us, we succumb to what is around us.” [iv] When that is the case, there is no shortage of impulses, passions, ambitions, ideologies, agendas and distractions to swallow us up and sweep us away.
On the last Sunday of the Christian year, the Feast of Christ the King, we pledge allegiance to the Divine Love that governs the universe. As Frederick Denison Maurice, nineteenth-century Anglican priest and social reformer, reminds us, the reign of Christ extends into every province of our common life:
When we say, ‘Thy kingdom come,’ we desire that the King of kings and Lord of lords will reign over our spirits and souls and bodies, which [belong to God]… We pray for the extinction of all tyranny…; [we pray] for the exposure and destruction of corruptions inward and outward; [we pray] for truth in all departments of government, art, science; [we pray] for the true dignity of professions [and labor]; [we pray] for right dealings in the commonest transactions of trade; [we pray] for blessings that shall be felt in every [dwelling].[v]
“Crown him Lord of all,” we sing at the Feast of Christ the King. But the gospel for the day does not show us a mighty ruler, but only a naked man nailed to a tree. Soldiers mock the pathetic absurdity of his “kingship.” The sign above his head—“King of the Jews”—is a mocking irony. His only apparent subject is the dying thief hanging next to him. “Jesus,” he gasps, “remember me when you come into your kingdom.” [vi]
Some kingdom! Some king!
Does Christ’s kingdom exist only in the future? Or is it somehow breaking into the here and now, even in the killing fields of history, where you need the faith of a dying thief to see it?
The question we began with—whose world is it?—is, alas, undecidable within the flux of history. You can’t choose on the basis of the evidence, because for the time being the evidence is mixed, like the wheat and the tares.
But you can decide who’s got the better story—Jesus or Satan. And you can choose which story you want to belong to: The story which overflows with life, or the one that ends in death.
“Noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with the good.”
— Martin Luther King, Jr.
At the end of World War II, there were 8 million Nazis in Germany, about 10 percent of the population. Millions more, whether from fear, ignorance, or true belief, had also given their consent to the evils of the Third Reich. Of those who had chosen noncooperation, most were either dead or gone, and the occupying Allied authorities believed that a program of “denazification” was necessary to awaken Germany from Hitler’s bad dream.
One of the Allied strategies was to make people attend documentary films before they could receive their food ration cards. The hope was to reshape indoctrinated minds with the facts. Years later, a German writer recalled the experience of sitting through death camp footage in a Frankfurt cinema:
“In the half-light of the projector, I could see that most people turned their faces away after the beginning of the film and stayed that way until the film was over. Today I think that that turned-away face was indeed the attitude of many millions; … The unfortunate people to which I belonged was … not interested in being shaken by events, in any ‘know thyself.’” [i]
That postwar Frankfurt screening could be a sad parable for my own country, where tens of millions continue to turn their faces away from reality. Forty percent of Americans still approve of Donald Trump. Sixty percent of Republicans believe his “big lie” that the 2020 election was stolen. And 345 Republican candidates for federal or statewide office continue to push the big lie despite zero evidence. At least 58% of them are expected to win.[ii]
In his absolutely indispensable handbook, On Tyranny, Timothy Snyder notes that many of the democracies founded in the wake of two world wars collapsed when authoritarians (mis)used the electoral system to seize power and eliminate opposition. The relatively long history of American democracy suggests stability, but the future of our democracy suddenly seems terribly uncertain. As Snyder observes:
“Some of the Germans who voted for the Nazi Party in 1932 no doubt understood that this might be the last meaningful free election for some time, but most did not.… No doubt the Russians who voted in 1990 did not think that this would be the last free and fair election in their country’s history, which (thus far) it has been. Any election can be the last, or at least the last in the lifetime of the person casting the vote.” [iii]
Democracy is on the ballot next week, they say. But since it is hard for most Americans to conceive an absence before it happens, or grasp the immensity of the threat, I would state the emergency in more urgent terms: Tyranny is on the ballot! The barbarians are at our gates! Democracy is burning! The end is near.
If we act as if this were a normal election, where we choose between ordinary political parties based on habit, tribal preference, or the issue of the moment, then I tremble for my country. The GOP is no longer a mainstream party. It has become the vehicle of choice for racists, white supremacists, liars, thugs and criminals. It is trying to dismantle democracy by any means necessary.
Many traditional Republicans who have not yet left the party are surely uncomfortable with where the far-right has taken them, but the voices of conscience and truth remain disappointingly silent. Adam Kinzinger, one of the few Congressional Republicans to speak out, says it’s simply his duty to put country over party:
“By the way,” he said recently, “Liz [Cheney] and I are not courageous. There’s no strength in this. We’re just surrounded by cowards.”
I know we must be careful about throwing the word “Nazi” around. Although American neo-Nazis have a love affair with Trump, and some 50 current Republican candidates have been advertising on a website frequented by Nazi sympathizers, it would be inaccurate, unhistorical, and inflammatory to apply the term directly to Republicans.[iv] However, I do find some chilling affinities, which in a sane world would disqualify the GOP, in its current state, from any voter’s serious consideration. Let me offer a florilegium of various sources to make my point.
For those who wonder why people surrender their wills to charismatic leaders, Stephen Jaeger describes the “mindset of the followers that enables them to dream the master’s dreams, to create or acknowledge a higher world in which he lives, to be deaf to criticism, resist with aggression any attempt to undermine the idol, and long to live in that world themselves. It is a condition in which the mind is under a spell and in the grip of an uncritical awe that extends to selfless devotion and beyond, to self-sacrifice.”
We may be puzzled by the ardent devotion that attaches itself to demagogues and tyrants—even the repulsive ones—but Jaeger says the rewards seem worth it to their uncritical followers:
“Through him the troubles of the world will end; he will redeem from its dreariness a world threatened by disenchantment. He embodies renewal. He awakens extravagant hopes in the devotee, visions of happiness, heroism, divinity, the restoration of the spirit, and the realization of fantasies. The charismatic and the followers create and share a world in which the boundaries of reality become unclear. Dreams and impossible or unlikely enterprises appear realizable, the deepest hopes and desires appear attainable.” [v]
The Big Lie
Trump and his enablers have shown the effectiveness of the shameless lie told over and over. Say it enough times, and people will come to believe it. Hitler provided the cynical playbook for all his successors:
“All propaganda must be popular and its intellectual level must be adjusted to the most limited intelligence among those it is addressed to. Consequently, the greater the mass it is intended to reach, the lower its purely intellectual level will have to be.… The receptivity of the great masses is very limited, their intelligence is small, but their power of forgetting is enormous. In consequence of these facts, all effective propaganda must be limited to a very few points and must harp on those in slogans until the last member of the public understands what you want him to understand by your slogan.” (Mein Kampf, 1925) [vi]
“Above all one must get rid of the idea that ideological concepts can satisfy the crowd. For the masses, knowledge is an unstable basis. What is stable is feeling, hatred.… What the masses need to feel is triumph in their own vigor.” (1926 speech) [vii]
Imagine what Hitler could have done with Twitter.
Contempt for Democracy
Once the Nazis were in power, Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels explained how easy it was to use “the stupidity of democracy” for undemocratic ends. “It will always remain one of democracy’s best jokes,” he said, “that it provided its deadly enemies with the means by which it was destroyed.” [viii]
Republicans hope to seize total control of the voting process across the United States, through gerrymandering, limited eligibility and access for voters, partisan supervision of vote counts, and the empowering of state legislatures to override unfavorable results. The Republican candidate for governor in Wisconsin said it out loud last week: “Republicans will never lose another election in Wisconsin after I’m elected governor.” [ix]
Authoritarian movements need to amputate dissenters from the body. This can be done through rhetorical dehumanization of opponents, physical intimidation of critics, imprisonment, or even murder. Right-wing violence in America is nowhere near its heyday under the Nazis, but it is real and it is growing. Threats against political office-holders and anyone “not like us” has increased alarmingly since Trump took control of the Republican party. Timothy Snyder says that this is a matter of cause and effect:
“What was novel in 2016 was a candidate who ordered a private security detail to clear opponents from rallies and encouraged the audience itself to remove people who expressed different opinions. A protestor would first be greeted with boos, then with frenetic cries of ‘USA,’ and then be forced to leave the rally. At one campaign rally the candidate said, ‘There’s a remnant left over. Maybe get the remnant out. Get the remnant out.’ The crowd, taking its cue, then tried to root out other people who might be dissenters, all the while crying ‘USA.’ The candidate interjected, ‘Isn’t this more fun than a regular boring rally? To me, it’s fun.’ This kind of mob violence was meant to transform the political atmosphere, and it did.” [x]
In January, 1933, a German girl named Melita Maschmann was taken by her parents to watch a Nazi torchlight parade. Suddenly one of the marchers attacked a bystander, who apparently had shouted a criticism of the Nazis. The man fell to the ground, where his bloody face turned the snow red. Maschmann later recalled her excited reaction:
“The horror it inspired in me was almost imperceptibly spiced with an intoxicating joy. ‘We want to die for the flag,’ the torch-bearers had sung.… I was overcome with a burning desire to belong to these people for whom it was a matter of death and life.… I wanted to escape from my childish, narrow life and I wanted to attach myself to something that was great and fundamental.” [xi]
In 1933, the Nazi leaders were still making some effort to appear respectable, stoking political violence with their rhetoric while distancing themselves from the consequences. They needed to consolidate their power before showing their darkest colors. We have seen that in America as well, most recently in the brutal attack on Paul Pelosi, husband of Nancy Pelosi, the third person in line for the Presidency. After years of dehumanizing and sometimes violent rhetoric against Speaker Pelosi, most Republicans have indignantly denied any responsibility for the consequences of their words. A deplorable few found the violence to be humorous.
Kari Lake, Republican candidate for governor of Arizona, joked about the attack in a campaign appearance while 82-year-old Paul Pelosi was lying in the hospital with a skull fractured by his assailant’s hammer. Lake’s audience burst into laughter, and she did nothing to stop them in the name of human decency. When criticized for her tasteless insensitivity (I’m being kind here), she doubled down, claiming that her remark was taken out of context by “creative editing” which ignored her other remarks about security blah blah blah. “I never made light of the attack,” she insisted.
Well, you can judge for yourself. The following clip isolates her remark and the laughter it provoked. Whatever was said before and after cannot disguise the callousness of what she said, or the inhuman, howling amusement of her crowd. And yes, I did some “creative editing,” repeating, and finally slowing, the clip, giving us sufficient time, as the political mask slips for an instant, to contemplate the true face of democracy’s destroyers.
[i] Tony Judt, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (New York: Penguin Books, 2006), 57.
How hath man parcel’d out thy glorious name, And thrown it on that dust which thou hast made …
— George Herbert, “Love (I)”
I sometimes meditate on a poem by George Herbert in my morning prayers, assisted by Helen Wilcox’s marvelous annotations [i] (the poet’s 17th-century idioms can be obscure for the contemporary reader). And although “Love (I)” is not one of Herbert’s best poems, these lines jumped out at me when I read them today, for the debasement of the divine Name by American extremists has been very much on my mind.
For example: Last week on Newsmax, a far-right cable channel, Eric Bolling (fired by Fox News in 2017 for sexual harassment) was interviewing conspiracy fabulist Lara Logan (“dumped”—her words—by Fox six months ago). Their subject was immigration at the southern border, which Logan said was a plot “to dilute the pool of patriots” in the United States.
Bolling: “How does it end?”
Logan: “… this is a spiritual battle. I am a firm and solid and immovable believer in God and I believe that God wins.… and if you fight for god, god will fight for you.”
Bolling: “I have to ask you, because my audience is very god-fearing, god-loving, etc. Final thought, please, just a couple seconds: Is god ok with a closed border?”
Logan: “… God believes in sovereignty and national identity and the sanctity of families and all the things that we’ve lived with since the beginning of time, and he knows that the open border is Satan’s way of taking control of the world through all of these people who are his stooges and his servants … the ones who want us eating insects, cockroaches and that while they dine on the blood of children.”
A day later, the opening prayer at the “ReAwaken America” tour in East Hempfield Township, Pennsylvania, went like this:
“Father god, we come to you in the name of Jesus. We’re asking you to open the eyes of president Trump’s understanding, that he will know the time of divine intervention, that he will know how to implement divine intervention, and you will surround him, father, with none of this Deep-State trash, none of this RINO trash. You will surround him with people that you pick with your own mighty hand. In the name of Jesus.”
The crowd, including Eric Trump, Michael Flynn (his father’s disgraced national security adviser), and the current Republican candidate for Pennsylvania governor, repeated this evil prayer phrase by phrase.
White “Christian” nationalism is on the rise in America. It’s a toxic mixture of xenophobia, racism, anti-Semitism, resentment and rage, thinly dressed in pious nostalgia, theological ignorance, and historical lies. For the increasingly extreme right, these are features, not bugs: 61% of Republicans—and 78% of Republican evangelicals—believe the United States should be declared “a Christian nation.” [iii]
I shudder to imagine what they have in mind, but I’m sure it has more to do with reactionary tribal identity and fear of the “other” than with the gospel, or love, or justice, or caring for the vulnerable, or welcoming the stranger, or healing God’s creation. And it’s not just a disgruntled and deluded mob that wants a more theocratic and less inclusive America. The defilement of both democracy and religion extends to the highest levels of government.
I have written previously about the Supreme Court rushing in where angels fear to tread, substituting highly contested theological assertions for legal reasoning. If Republicans have their way in upcoming elections, it will only get worse. In a carefully argued response to the Dobbs decision on abortion, legal scholar Laurence Tribe warns,
“… as the Court continues on the path of replacing long-settled individual rights with religiously inspired mandates, the odds would increase that the rules under which we live will reflect the preferences of ever smaller minorities.” [iv]
Gilead, here we come.
In the January 6 insurrection, the rallying cry was “God! Guns! Trump!” The mob carried signs and shouted slogans proclaiming the will of God and the will of Trump to be identical. One attacker later told the Wall Street Journal how he sought divine guidance before storming the Capitol:
“Lord, is this the right thing to do? Is this what I need to do?” He says he felt God’s hand on his back, pushing him forward. “I checked with the Lord,” he says. “I checked with Him three times. I never heard a ‘No.’” [v]
It is distressing to hear the word “god” on the lips of the wicked. But not shocking. Taking God’s name in vain is an ancient sin, from the Crusaders and Inquisitors of the past to the terrorists and extremists (including elected officials!) of our own day. Whether they sincerely believe that ultimate reality is backing them up, or cynically employ the word to authorize their own seething id, “god” on their lips becomes drained of meaningful content. It refers to nothing outside themselves. To borrow Herbert’s image, they have “parcel’d” out the divine Name, cut it into tiny pieces and tossed it into the trash.[vi]
Of course, “God” has never been a proper name. It’s more of a nickname, enabling us to talk to or talk about the “ground of our being” (Paul Tillich) or the “Love who loves us” (my personal favorite[vii]) without thinking we have reduced the Real to the dimensions of language. The Holy One has many such nicknames: Kyrie, Deus, Abba, Creator, Deliverer, Father, Mother, Spirit, and countless others. In Herbert’s poem, the “glorious name” is “Immortal Love.” If “love” had been invoked instead of “god” by the mob at the Capitol, might it have tempered their violence or extinguished their rage? Or would Love, too, have been thrown so carelessly into the dust?
Seventy years ago, Jewish philosopher Martin Buber wrote a moving defense of the problematic necessity of “God” language in human discourse. I first heard this passage read aloud in a theology class by one of my great mentors, the saintly Robert McAfee Brown. It touched my heart then, and has remained with me through the years:
“‘God’ is the most heavy-laden of human words. None has become so soiled, so mutilated. Just for this reason I may not abandon it. Generations of men have laid the burden of their anxious lives upon this word and weighed it to the ground; it lies in the dust and bears their whole burden. The races of man with their religious factions have torn the word to pieces; they have killed for it and died for it, and it bears their finger-marks and their blood. Where might I find a word like it to describe the highest! … We may not give the word ‘God’ up. How understandable it is that some suggest we should remain silent about the ‘last things’ for a time in order that misused words may be redeemed! But they are not to be redeemed thus. We cannot cleanse the word ‘God’ and we cannot make it whole; but, defiled and mutilated as it is, can raise it from the ground and set it over an hour of great care.” [viii]
[i] Helen Wilcox, ed., The English Poems of George Herbert (Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011). Each poem is accompanied by extensive notes and a survey of modern critical views.
[iv] Laurence Tribe, “Deconstructing Dobbs,” New York Review of Books, Sept. 22, 2022, p. 81.
[v] Michael M. Phillips, Jennifer Levitz, and Jim Oberman, One Trump Fan’s Descent Into the Capitol Mob, Wall Street Journal, Jan. 10, 2021, www.wsj.com/articles/one-trump-fans-descent-into-the-u-s- capitol-mob-11610311660 I found it in Andrew L. Seidel, “Attack on the Capitol: Evidence of the Role of White Christian Nationalism,” which contains many such examples. Seidel’s article is Part VI of a highly recommended report and analysis, “Christian Nationalism and the January 6 Insurrection”: https://bjconline.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/02/Christian_Nationalism_and_the_Jan6_Insurrection-2-9-22.pdf
[vi] Herbert’s poem was contrasting the immensity of divine love with the trivializing reductions and diminishments of love we creatures of dust make when we apply it to the wrong object. But as I say at the outset, his lines seem a perfect match for the misuses we make of “God” in our political life.
[vii] From Terence Malick’s film, The Tree of Life (2011).
[viii] Martin Buber, The Eclipse of God (1952), 8-9.
Only a tramp was Lazarus’ sad fate He who lay down by the rich man’s gate To beg for some crumbs from the rich man to eat But he left him to die like a tramp on the street
— Grady and Hazel Cole, 1939
Jesus was a great storyteller. He knew how to use a good story not just to make a point, but to change lives. But today’s story isn’t quite like any other parable. It’s the only one where a character is given a name. The poor man is called Lazarus, a variant of Eleazar, which means “God helps.” The rich man is unidentified in Scripture, but tradition has given him the name Dives. That’s Latin for “rich guy,” so readers of the Latin Bible began to treat it as his proper name.
This is also the only gospel parable about the afterlife.[i] Most scholars suspect it to be a version of a popular Egyptian folk tale widely told the in the first century. The fact that it makes it into Luke’s gospel suggests that Jesus liked the story well enough to use it in his own preaching.
It’s easy to see why people loved the story in a time when economic inequality was as appalling as it is in America today, where the 3 richest billionaires have more money between them than the bottom 50%. In first-century Palestine, the rich had scooped up most of the land and money, leaving tenant farmers with pretty much nothing of their own, while those who hired out as laborers got only starvation wages. So the idea of a great reversal of fortune was an appealing and consoling image.
The reversal theme certainly resonated with St. Luke, whose gospel, more than any other, expresses a “preferential option for the poor.” [ii] We hear this in Mary’s Magnificat: “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.” And we hear it in the Beatitudes: “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven.”
A twelfth-century Italian bishop, Bruno di Segni, said of this parable, “These words are most necessary both for the rich and for the poor, because they bring fear to the former and consolation to the latter.” [iii] In Herman Melville’s 19th-century novel Redburn, his protagonist invokes the parable when he cries, “Tell me, oh Bible, that story of Lazarus again, that I may find comfort in my heart for the poor and forlorn.” [iv]
We all love reversal stories, where the bad get their comeuppance and the lowly are given a happy ending. I have to confess that I myself would take pleasure in a story where, say, the governor of Florida is tricked into boarding an airplane, only to find himself dropped in the middle of a burning desert, with nothing but the desperate hope that a passing migrant might appear with a canteen of water. “Oh Señor, have mercy on me! I beg you, give me a drop of your water to cool my tongue!”
So is Jesus telling a reversal story in the parable of Dives and Lazarus? Or is he doing something else? The Bible certainly can be critical of wealth’s dark side. We’ve heard plenty of that in today’s readings:
Woe to those who are at ease in Zion, and for those who are complacent on the mount of Samaria… Woe to those who lie on beds of ivory, and sprawl on their couches, stuffing themselves with lamb and veal, singing idle songs and drinking wine by the bowlful, who anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph. (Amos 6: 1, 4-6)
And St. Paul, in his first letter to Timothy, warns that “those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from faith and pierced themselves with many pains.” (I Timothy 6:9-10)
But while the parable presents a strong contrast between situations of extreme wealth and extreme poverty, between high social status and low social status, between easy pleasure and terrible suffering, the point is not about changing places, or even about trying to reduce the contrast to some extent—a little less for the rich, a little more for the poor. This parable isn’t about making the game fairer, but about changing the game entirely.
Right now, in our time, our country, the game is so much about individual winning. The lucky ones win the lottery, invent the Internet, crush the competition, or throw more touchdowns than interceptions. The rest must fend for themselves. Dog eat dog. There have been notable attempts to counter the personal, social, and environmental damage of our careless individualism, but in the absence of a more widely supported vision of the common good, it continues to be an uphill battle. Can we order our lives and our society to be more in accord with divine intention? We’d better. As W. H. Auden put it on the eve of World War II, “We must love one another or die.” [v]
We all enjoy the hymn, “All things bright and beautiful,” celebrating the wonderful world God has made: “Each little flower that opens, each little bird that sings,” and so on. But one verse—thankfully scrubbed from our hymnal—celebrates an archaic social order as divinely ordained:
The rich man in his castle, The poor man at his gate, He made them, high or lowly, And ordered their estate.
In the kingdom of God, the economy of God, such sundering of neighbor from neighbor is definitely not bright and beautiful. We all belong to one another; we are all intended to share God’s gifts in just measure. To forget this is to choose death and hell.
Kathleen Hill, an American writer, lived in Nigeria when the traditional cooperative social ethic was being eroded by the lingering effects of colonial rule. She tells of a driver who sped by a hit-and-run victim lying on the side of the road. He didn’t stop because he was afraid that if he put the wounded man into his car, he’d get bloodstains on his new seat covers. “He’d felt no need to apologize,” Hill said, “no need to feel ashamed. It was a culture of money that was growing in Nigeria, a new emphasis on personal wealth.… [N]ow, without the play of traditional values that had connected one person to another, there seemed no limits to self-interest, to the tendency to regard someone else exclusively in the light of one’s own personal imperatives.” [vi]
Where there are no limits to self-interest, no one is my neighbor. Dives feasts inside his mansion, while Lazarus starves on the street. And never the twain shall meet. I think that Jesus would say that Dives was in hell from the start. He didn’t have to die to get there.
But is this state of separation and disconnection the way things must always remain, now and forever, Amen? Is there any chance for the twain to meet? I think the key to this parable is the gate. The rich man is on one side; Lazarus is on the other. In the story, the gate never opens. In fact, its role as a barrier eventually translates into an uncrossable chasm in eternity.
In the parable, Dives in hell is able to see, across that chasm, Lazarus at ease in the bosom of Abraham. But the gap between them is uncrossable. If only he had opened his gate and experienced Lazarus as a fellow child of God—not just a tramp on the street—there would be no uncrossable chasm between them now. He wouldn’t be stuck in the lonely hell of self-interest and self-isolation. It turns out that the closed gate keeping Lazarus out has also been keeping the rich man in. Even after death he remains in the prison he built for himself, behind the locked gate preventing the communion for which every person is made.
New Testament scholar Bernard Brandon Scott says this about the gate: “In this parable the rich man fails by not making contact.… The gate is not just an entrance to the house but the passageway to the other.… In any given interpersonal or social relationship there is a gate that discloses the ultimate depths of human existence. Those who miss that gate may, like the rich man, find themselves crying in vain for a drop of cooling water.” [vii]
“I came that you might have life,” Jesus said, “and that you may have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). So is there abundant life in the rich man’s future? Can the chasm ever be bridged by repentance and mercy? Ebenezer Scrooge, after being shown what a mess he was making of his own future, put this question to the final spirit in A Christmas Carol,:
“Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only? Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead. But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me.” [viii]
Can there be a different outcome to the story of Dives and Lazarus? A couple of poets have explored interesting options. James Kier Baxter (1926-1972) of New Zealand concentrates on Dives, who is far worse off than Lazarus even before he departs this life:
Two men lived on the same street But they were poles apart For Lazarus had crippled bones But Dives a crippled heart
In an intriguing twist, Baxter leaves Lazarus on earth and puts Dives in the Divine Presence. ‘My poor blind crippled son, [God] said, / ‘Sit here beneath My Throne.” And instead of eternity in Hades, Dives is given a chance to change his life:
‘Go back and learn from Lazarus To walk on My highway Until your crippled soul shall stand And bear the light of day, And you and Lazarus are one In holy poverty.’ [ix]
Canadian William Wilfred Campbell (1860-1918) focused his poem on Lazarus, giving him a voice he never had in the original parable. While enjoying the bliss of the afterlife, Lazarus is suddenly troubled by a “piercing cry of one in agony, / That reaches me here in heaven.” It’s the rich man’s anguished plea from hell, drowning out the more amiable sounds of heaven.
So calleth it ever upward unto me It creepeth in through heaven’s golden doors; It echoes all along the sapphire floors; Like smoke of sacrifice, it soars and soars; It fills the vastness of eternity.…
No more I hear the beat of heavenly wings, The seraph chanting in my rest-tuned ear; I only know a cry, a prayer, a tear, That rises from the depths up to me here; A soul that to me suppliant leans and clings.
O, Father Abram, thou must bid me go Into the spaces of the deep abyss; Where far from us and our God-given bliss, Do dwell those souls that have done Christ amiss; For through my rest I hear that upward woe.
Lazarus can’t ignore the sinner’s plea, nor does he want to. In a replication of both the Incarnation and the Harrowing of Hell, he begs “Father Abram” to let him descend to the uttermost depths on a mission of redemptive love. The journey is immense, and when the poem ends Lazarus is still on the downward way, with cries of pain ahead, shouts of glory behind. As he traverses the infinite gap between heaven and hell, we suspect this outward motion of self-diffusive love will go on and on, until that day when the tears are wiped from every eye and “God is all in all” (I Corinthians 15:28).
Hellward he moved like radiant star shot out From heaven’s blue with rain of gold at even… Hellward he sank, followed by radiant rout…
‘Tis ages now long-gone since he went out, Christ-urged, love-driven, across the jasper walls, But hellward still he ever floats and falls, And ever nearer come those anguished calls; And far behind he hears a glorious shout. [x]
It’s a striking image: Love perpetually reaching for the hopeless and the lost, opening every gate, overcoming every obstacle that separates us from God. However, in the original parable, the rich man’s repentance is not off to a promising start. In his cry from hell, Dives doesn’t deign to speak to Lazarus at all. Instead, he asks Abraham, a personage he considers of equal status, to treat Lazarus like a common servant. “Have him dip a finger into cool water and come to me, so he can drip it onto my tongue.” Even in his agony, the rich man’s arrogant self-interest is unabated.
In Luke’s gospel, this parable always ends the same way, no matter how many times we read it. Dives will stay stuck in the prison of his own making for as long as the story is told. If we want a new ending, we must write it with our own lives and times, as we push through the gate into a deeper union, a more loving communion with our fellow creatures. This is not only radically personal work, it is also the collective endeavor of Church and society. In a time when the common good and neighborly love are in acute peril, love and mercy ceaselessly call us to choose the better way.
This homily was written for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church, Bainbridge Island, Washington.
[i] Matthew 25: 31-46 (The sheep and the goats) is also about the afterlife, but many scholars say it does not fit the definition of a parable.
[ii] The term was popularized by Liberation theologians and activists in Latin America in the 1960s as a key element of Catholic social teaching.
[iii] Cited in Stephen L. Wailes, Medieval Allegories of Jesus’ Parables (Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1987), 255.
[vi] Kathleen Hill, She Read to Us in the Late Afternoons (Encino, CA: Delphinium Books, 2017), 57.
[vii] Bernard Brandon Scott, Hear Then the Parable: A Commentary on the Parables of Jesus (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), 159.
[viii] Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol (1843), Stave IV.
[ix] James Kier Baxter, “Ballad of Dives and Lazarus,” in Divine Inspiration: The Life of Jesus in World Poetry, eds. Robert Atwan, George Dardess, & Peggy Rosenthal (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 260-261.
“What is difficult is to advance into unknown lands, to be aware of the danger, to take risks, to be afraid.”
— Jean-Luc Godard
On the afternoon that Columbia sophomore Phillip Lopate was released from the hospital after a suicide attempt, his brother picked him up, and they immediately headed downtown to catch a terrific double bill at the Bleecker Street Cinema in New York’s lower East Side: Renoir’s Grand Illusion and Kubrick’s Paths of Glory. It was the early 1960s. In those days, films were not available on demand, anywhere, anytime. You had to keep watch for their brief appearance at a local cinema and seize the moment. When the Lopate brothers emerged from the double bill, they weren’t done. “Still movie-hungry after a two-week drought,” Phillip later wrote, “I insisted that we race uptown to see Zazie dans le Metro.… What an orgy! I had gotten suicide out of my system but not cinema.” [i]
I was born 8 months after Lopate, so I too was an impressionable young man in what he calls the “heroic” age of filmmaking, when we were all falling in love with the revelatory perspectives and styles of world cinema: Eisenstein, Kurosawa, Ray, Fellini, Antonioni, Renoir, Bresson, Truffaut, and so many others. Movies mattered then in a way they no longer do. It always seemed a privilege and a thrill to catch a rare screening at an art house, or in some packed campus room with a 16mm print chugging its way through a portable projector, then talk endlessly about it afterward.
This week, Jean-Luc Godard, one of the last pioneers of that heroic age, departed this world at age 91. His first film, Breathless (1960), would be a revolutionary turning point in film history, exploding narrative traditions and production practices to open radically fresh understandings of what we expect of cinema, and what cinema expects of us. For the next seven years, Godard would make fifteen extraordinary films which broke old rules—even his own—to explore countless new possibilities. I have five of those films in my library, and yesterday I paid my respects by watching all of them in chronological order, plus some of the commentaries and interviews on the discs. I started at 10 a.m. and finished 14 hours later. Let me share something of what I saw.
This was Godard’s first work, shot on location in Paris in documentary style, with handheld cameras and available lighting, liberating filmmaking from large crews, unwieldy equipment and stagey sets. It’s both fragmented and frenetic, full of joyous and jazzy energy. It jumps around in time and space, omitting many of the images and sounds thought necessary for visual and aural continuity. For example, when small-time hoodlum Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) shoots a pursuing policeman, we don’t see him aim, or get any realistic sense of the spatial environment. We see a close-up of the gun, we hear a shot, we see the policeman fall. We know a killing just happened, but we don’t quite know how or why.
Godard’s other fragmenting techniques include music which suddenly starts or stops in ways disconnected from the action on screen. Or diegetic (natural) sounds of street or café suddenly cease, as if we are watching a silent movie. Such devices prevent us from getting so caught up in the narrative flow that we forget we are watching a movie. In a later work, a character would ask, “How did I get into this film?” Godard wanted us to reflect on the differences between art and life, representation and reality. When we are totally enthralled by the narrative flow, lost in the illusion, thinking gets suspended.
Throughout Godard’s early films, there are numerous references to both high culture—Mozart on a turntable, an art poster on the wall, a book read out loud—and pop culture—music, billboards, cars, newspapers, and, of course, movies. Characters go to the cinema or stroll under marquees displaying a relevant film title. When Belmondo saunters past a poster for Robert Aldrich’s Ten Seconds to Hell, it seems to announce Michel’s own rush toward doom.
Criterion’s trailer gives a nice sense of the film in a minute and a half:
There is a story, of sorts. Two stories, actually: a crime story, with Michel on the run from the law, and a love story, where he and Patricia (Jean Seberg), a young American in Paris, try to figure out whether they are in love. However, the two stories never quite intertwine. Unlike film noir, the love story doesn’t precipitate the crime story. And the narrative remains subordinate to Godard’s real interest: how do Belmondo and Seberg look while they are doing mostly ordinary things? What do we feel as we watch them? The camera never gets tired of their faces, nor do we.
But can we ever get beyond the surface to see their inner life? Belmondo does confess his own exhaustion. Mentally, spiritually, he is out of breath. “I’m sick of it all,” he tells his lover. “I’m tired. I want to sleep.” The police oblige by shooting him as he runs down the street. Patricia gets there in time to watch him die. But we’re not sure what’s going on inside her either. In the film’s final shot, she turns to look directly at us (another rule broken!), as if to ask, What do you make of this movie? What do you make of me? Then she turns her face away from the camera, showing us only the back of her head as the film fades to black.
Had Breathless been made five years earlier, critics and audiences might have dismissed it as a confusing mess. But at the outset of the Sixties, it struck the nerve of the emerging Zeitgeist. It was not only a big hit; it had a lasting effect on the future of cinema. But for his second film, instead of repeating his success in a formulaic way, Godard pushed the boundaries again, choosing a topic so controversial that his film would be banned in France for nearly three years.
Le Petit Soldat (1960, released 1963)
When Godard made this film, the Algerian struggle for independence was tearing France apart. By 1960 popular opinion was turning against colonialism and the brutality that sustained it, but right-wing French nationalists and Algerian terrorists continued a clandestine war on French soil. I myself was in Paris during a 1961 bomb threat. Police were everywhere. People were on edge, like America today. When Godard finished his film, showing both sides in a poor light, the French government suppressed it.
While Godard continued the fragmented style of Breathless in his second film, he added a political dimension which would become a signature element in his work. Godard wasn’t sure what his own politics were in the Algerian struggle, and his protagonist Bruno is equally confused. Recruited by the nationalists, he refuses to perform an assassination. He can’t give them a specific reason. He just doesn’t feel like killing. When he’s captured by Algerian terrorists and tortured for information, he resists them as well. “Why didn’t I give them the phone number?” he wonders later. “I can’t recall.”
The torture scene is very Godardian in its avoidance of emotional effects, allowing us to think even as we watch various waterboarding techniques. There’s no blood, no screaming that we hear, no anguished face (we only see Bruno face down in the bathwater, or covered with a hood). What we do get is Bruno’s strangely dispassionate thoughts, as though there is a part of him they cannot touch: “Torture is so monotonous and sad.… Between torture sessions, we had great political discussion. They said I was an idiot with no ideals.” The most horrifying portions of the sequence are the cutaway shots of a woman in the next room, calmly reading Mao and Marx at her desk while her comrades do their worst behind closed doors. For her, it’s just a boring job.
In some sense, Le Petit Soldat is about trying to think clearly when confusion reigns. Philosophy was a passion for Godard, and he wasn’t afraid to insert large doses of it into his films. “We do things without conviction,” Bruno laments in a monologue to his lover. “We no longer know where to love.… There’s something more important than ideals—but what? There’s something more important than not being conquered. I wish I knew what, exactly.… Where does speech come from? Maybe people talk endlessly like goldminers, looking for the truth. But instead of digging in rivers, they dig in their own thoughts. They eliminate words of no value, and end up finding one, just one, just one golden one, and already all is silence.”
Vivre sa vie (1962)
This film, Godard said, is about a woman who “sells her body but keeps her soul.” Unable to make ends meet, Nana (Anna Karina), spirals downward into a life of prostitution. But the commodification of her body, while evoking our empathy, is outshone by an expressive presence which burns brightly on the screen. As one critic has noted, “Karina remains one of cinema’s greatest presences.… You don’t watch Karina, or absorb her uncanny relationship with Godard’s camera,” in order to see her fictional character, “but for herself, alive and captured in the filmmaking moment, as in amber.” [ii] It’s no surprise to learn that Godard married her.
Just before Nana takes up her sad vocation, she spends her last few francs to see Carl Dreyer’s classic silent film about another woman ill-treated by the world of men: The Passion of Joan of Arc. The martyred saint is portrayed by one of cinema’s greatest faces, Renée Falconetti. In a pitch-dark theater, we see Joan’s face, on the verge of tears during her trial, then we see Nana’s face as her own tears flow. In this celebrated scene, the two women become one in their beauty and in their suffering. [iii]
Later in the film we find Nana striking up a conversation in a café with a man at the next table. He turns out not to be her next customer, but a well-known French philosopher (Brice Parain, playing himself). It’s a perfect opportunity for Godard to engage us with some of his key themes.
“We must think, and for thought we need words,” Parain tells Nana. “There’s no other way to think. To communicate, one must speak. That’s our life.… Speaking is almost a resurrection in relation to life. Speaking is a different life from when one does not speak. So to live speaking, one must pass through the death of life without speaking.… From everyday life one rises to a life—let’s call it superior—why not? It’s the thinking life. But the thinking life presupposes that one has killed off a life that’s too mundane, too rudimentary.… I don’t think one can distinguish a thought from the words that express it. A moment of thought can only be grasped through words.”
For a moment during this discourse, Nana turns to the camera, gazing at the viewer as if to say, “Are you getting this?” When Parain pauses, she asks him, “What do you think about love?” Without answering directly—love being a mystery—he reflects that thinking is performed by embodied, relational beings, each with their own incomplete perspectives. Therefore, in the collective pursuit of truth, error is an inevitable part of the process. “One thinks with the constraints and errors of life,” he tells her. “We must pass through error to arrive at the truth.”
Masculin féminin (1966)
Among this film’s frequent intertitles, interrupting the narrative to deliver a message, is one that reads: This film could be called “The Children of Marx and Coca-Cola.” Let them understand who will.
It’s 1965. Not much happens in the way of story. We hang out for 104 minutes with five young people in Paris. They have some good times. They pursue relationships, or fail to. They try out different poses as they figure out how to present themselves to the world. They read, go to the movies, strive to speak interestingly about ideas, the arts, politics, sex, whatever. They are still rather unformed, lacking the depth that comes with age and experience. But they all have their measure of charm. But there is a lostness about them as well. The film’s last line is spoken by a young woman, Madeleine, who is asked about her plans in the wake of a sudden tragic loss. After a long, reflective pause, she can only say, “I’m not sure … I’m not sure.”
Here are all the Godardian touches: disconnected moments rather than a continuous narrative; spontaneous—and sometimes awkward—interviews with the characters, who do not know the questions beforehand; fascination with pop culture (one of the leads, Chantal Goya, was beginning her successful singing career in real life); literary recitations; a mixture of different cinematic styles and camera techniques; and a quirky soundtrack, with random audio interjections by music, street noise, silence, and even gunshots.
Jean-Pierre Léaud, who plays Paul, is 21 years old in the film. That’s how old I was in 1965, so the innocence, the folly, the experiments in self-representation all resonate with me, as does the cultural energy that was in the air. It was an exhilarating time to come of age. As for the painfully archaic gender stereotyping in Masculin féminin, I do hope that’s not exactly the way we were.
I tend not to remember the hard parts, so, much as I love Léaud’s work, I can’t entirely identify with the “Paul” described by critic Claude Mauriac: “the image of the young man for all times—nervous, worried, unhappy, despondent.” I remember being happy. Mauriac, uncle to Godard’s second wife, thought he saw something of the filmmaker himself in Léaud’s character.
This apocalyptic “comedy” (as many laughs as Dante’s Inferno!) is crammed with multiple layers of meanings, parables, visual jokes, film references, appearances by characters from literature and history, recitations of political, poetical, and philosophical texts, and pretty much no one to like. A heady blend of Alice in Wonderland, the Wizard of Oz, Karl Marx, Bertolt Brecht and Hieronymus Bosch, Weekend images the unraveling of the social contract and the collapse of Western civilization, all during a weekend in the country.
The opening credits include two separate intertitles, warning the viewer to proceed with caution:
A FILM ADRIFT IN THE COSMOS
A FILM FOUND IN A DUMP
Corrine and Roland leave Paris for the weekend, with the goal of murdering her mother for the inheritance. Along the way they encounter the worst traffic jam ever, shown car by car in one of the longest tracking shots in film history (a brilliant must-see!). After that they begin to find clusters of wrecked and burning cars, with dead bodies scattered around—an excruciating metaphor for the Vietnam War.
As their iniquitous quest continues, they encounter various odd characters, including a self-professed son of God (they pester him for some miracles—A big Mercedes sports car? An Yves St. Laurent evening dress? A Miami Beach hotel? Make me a natural blonde?—but such desires are judged too banal, and their wishes are denied); two sanitation workers who face the camera on their lunch break to recite dour texts on oppression and revolution by Frantz Fanon, Stokely Carmichael, and Friedrich Engels (critics at the time advised going to the lobby for coffee during this interminable interlude); and Emily Brontë and Tom Thumb, wandering whimsically through the forest like characters in Wonderland, incapable of giving useful answers:
Roland: “Which way is Oinville?” Emily: “Poetical information or physical information?” Roland: “Which way to Oinville?” Corrine: “This way or that way?” Emily: “Physics does not yet exist, only individual physical sciences, maybe.” Roland: “What a rotten film. All we meet are crazy people.”
Frustrated, Roland sets fire to Emily’s 19th-century dress. Corinne watches pensively as Emily is consumed by flames.
Corrine: “It’s rotten of us, isn’t it? We have no right to burn even a philosopher.” Roland: “Can’t you see they’re only imaginary characters?” Corrine: “Why is she crying, then?” Roland: “No idea.”
In the end, Corrine and Roland fall into the hands of long-haired guerillas with guns, who survive in the wild as cannibals, cooking and eating the weekend tourist trade. Their motto: “The horror of the bourgeoisie can only be overcome with more horror.” Don’t expect a happy ending.
Weekend is a hell of a ride. When it had its American release in the fall of 1968, our nation was experiencing its own apocalypse. I found the film cathartically funny and stunningly inventive at the time. But after my recent midnight screening, I was gasping for air, like Dante emerging from the Inferno’s suffocation, desperate to return to the open air beneath the stars. András Bálint Kovács says Godard intended his film to be grueling:
“In addition to providing a picture of the underlying violence in human relations in society and creating a form that does not let the viewer forget that she is watching a film, Godard’s goal was also to eliminate everything that conventionally provides the viewer with the comfort of watching a film.… Godard wanted the act of watching his film to be as painful as participating in the reality depicted would have been: ‘By Weekend I wanted to represent monsters in a monstrous film—a film that is a monster itself.’” [iv]
After its French premiere, people thought Godard had gone too far past reality with his imagined chaos and violence. A few months later, 1968 arrived, and the movie suddenly made more sense. When the word “Fin” (The End) comes on after Weekend’s final scene, “de cinema” is added underneath: The End of Cinema. And with that, Godard’s greatest period comes to a close. He would continue to explore and push boundaries without compromise for another 50 years, but for the most part his audience didn’t come with him. His penultimate production was called Goodbye to Language (2014). With regard to accessible cinema, he had been saying goodbye for decades.
I will always be grateful for what Godard gave us—so many marvelous moments and indelible images. Like countless others, I often borrowed his ideas for my own films (although my characters were more likely to recite from St. John of the Cross than Karl Marx). But after fourteen hours submerged in these five iconic works, I found myself, like Michel in Breathless, exhausted. I just wanted to sleep.
Perhaps I no longer have the stamina for marathon screenings. But when I finished the fifth film at 2 a.m., I also felt dispirited by the absence of God in Godard. I do believe, as the Psalmist says, that “even if I make my bed in hell,” God is yet there (Psalm 139:7). And I know that part of the spiritual work of repairing the world involves looking at alienation and suffering with unflinching eyes, and finding grace in unexpected places. But while Godard is a reliable guide through the Inferno, and even through much of Purgatorio, he stops well short of Paradiso. For that I need another guide, someone like Robert Bresson, whose films, even the ones about suicide, always leave me in a state of prayer.
Still, with immense gratitude and respect, if not exactly love, I give Jean-Luc the last word:
“This wasn’t the film we’d dreamed of. This wasn’t the total film that each of us carried within himself … The film that we wanted to make, or, more secretly, no doubt, that we wanted to live.” [v]
[i] Phillip Lopate, “Anticipation of La Notte: The ‘Heroic’ Age of Filmmaking,” Against Joie de Vivre (New York: Poseidon Press, 1989), 124.
[ii] Michael Atkinson, “The Lost Girl,” in the booklet for Criterion’s Blu Ray disc (2010), p. 20. The Criterion discs of Godard films are superb.
[iii] In this scene, the only sympathetic priest (played by Antonin Artaud,the avant-garde genius of French theater in the mid-20th century) asks her questions: “How can you still believe you were sent by God?” (“God knows our path,” she replies, “but we understand it only at the end of our road.”) “Are you a child of God?” (“Yes, I am God’s child.”) “And the great victory?” (“It will be my martyrdom.”) “And your deliverance?” (“Death!”). These words could belong to Nana as well.
[iv] András Bálint Kovács, Screening Modernism: European Art Cinema, 1950-1980 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2007), 336-337.
[v] In Masculin féminin, Paul thinks these words as he watches a film in a movie theater with his friends.
Praise, praise! I croak. Praise God for all that’s holy, cold, and dark. Praise him for all we lose, for all the river of the years bears off. Praise him for the stillness in the wake of pain. Praise him for emptiness … Praise him for dying and the peace of death.
Frederick Buechner, one of the greatest of contemporary Christian writers, has departed this life. Born July 11, 1926, he died on August 15, 2022. Buechner pursued a life of faith in an age of doubt, and his wrestling with the language and content of belief in books, sermons and lectures has inspired, instructed, and delighted countless believers and seekers.
My first encounter with his striking words and novel images was during my senior year in college. On the last Sunday of Advent, 1965, my father, James K. Friedrich, a priest and film producer, staged a dramatic reading of Buechner’s imaginative rendering of the Nativity story at All Saints Episcopal Church in Beverly Hills. Before a packed congregation, three distinguished Hollywood actors, two of whom were members of that parish, played the roles of Shepherd, Innkeeper, and Wise Man, each recalling his own experience on that strange night in Bethlehem.
Edward G. Robinson—whose original given name was Emmanuel—registered the Shepherd’s amazement with his familiar dusky growl:
“The air wasn’t just emptiness any more. It was alive. Brightness everywhere, dipping and wheeling like a flock of birds. And what you always thought was silence stopped being silent and turned into the beating of wings, thousands and thousands of them. Only not wings, as you came to more, but voices—high, wild, like trumpets. The words I could never remember later, but something like what I’d yelled with my mouth full of bread, ‘By God, it’s good, brothers! The crust. The mud. Everything. Everything.’”
Frederic Worlock, a veteran character actor in dozens of films from How Green Was My Valley to 101 Dalmations, sounded the Innkeeper’s lament with his distinctive British voice:
“All your life long, you wait for your own true love to come – we all of us do – our destiny, our joy, our heart’s desire. So how am I to say it, gentlemen? When he came, I missed him.”
And the formidable Raymond Massey lent a patrician aura to the Wise Man’s melancholy reflection on his brief encounter with the Real.
“I will tell you two terrible things. What we saw on the face of the new-born child was his death. A fool could have seen it as well. It sat on his head like a crown or a bat, this death that he would die. And we saw, as sure as the earth beneath our feet, that to stay with him would be to share that death, and that is why we left—giving only our gifts, withholding the rest.”
Only in retrospect would the Magus realize that “to live without him is the real death … to die with him is the only life.” [ii]
You can hear a 23-minute recording of the 1965 performance, “A Christmas Triptych,” here:
Searching for the Holy One in our midst is a core theme of Buechner’s work. His vivid description of a papal mass on Christmas Eve, when the writer was in his early thirties, is one of my favorite moments in all his writings. When Pius XII, carried on a golden throne by Swiss guards, passed among the throng in St. Peter’s that night, his glasses “glittering in the candlelight,” he was “peering into the crowd with extraordinary intensity,” as though he were “looking for someone in particular.”
It was Christ he was looking for, thought Buechner, and a theologian might insist that the holy face was already “visible, however dimly, in the faces of all of us who had come there that night.” For the old pope that wasn’t enough. There was intense longing in his face, but Buechner also detected a “madness”—as if the pope were straining to exceed any settled account of reality.
And it is the madness that has haunted me through the years. Madness because I suspect he hoped that Christ himself had come back that night as more than just the deepest humanity of everyone’s humanity, that Impossibility itself stood there resplendent in that impossible place. [iii]
All of Buechner’s work is an attempt to put that Impossibility into words, that we might see and grasp its invitation to new life. His nine years as chaplain to Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire were formative for him. The student body was a diverse and youthfully cynical lot, and Buechner’s challenge as a preacher was how to connect with the unwilling and the unbelieving. I attended an Episcopal school with compulsory chapel in the same years Buechner was at Exeter, and much later I would preach a sermon at Groton, Franklin Roosevelt’s Episcopal prep school. I know how daunting a roomful of resistant and dubious faces can be. For Buechner, the experience was a refiner’s fire. He learned how to make the case for faith in a fresh and accessible tongue. He did it with a remarkable gift for narrative and phrasing. “It’s on the house,” for example, was his translation of “divine grace.” But he also gained credibility by taking doubt seriously.
In our culture of disbelief, where the awareness of divine presence does not come naturally, even believers must live with persistent doubts. There is no way to prove there’s anything beyond the visible world, that our choices have an ultimate dimension, or that our heart’s desire has an abiding home.
Buechner never denied the validity of doubt. The only thing certain about faith is that it may not be true. “How could God reveal himself in a way that would leave no room for doubt?” he said. “If there were no room for doubt, there would be no room for me. [iv] But it’s always “a fifty-fifty chance” between faith and doubt.[v] You have to choose—not between specific linguistic formulations, which even at their best cannot encompass the Real—but between saying Yes or No when Love invites you to dance.
“To be a saint,” Buechner wrote, “is to work and weep for the broken and suffering of the world, but it is also to be strangely light of heart in the knowledge that there is something greater than the world that mends and renews. Maybe more than anything else, to be a saint is to know joy.” [vi]
In Buechner’s Nativity dialogues cited above, the Divine Mystery has appeared in the world. The Shepherd embraces it. The Innkeeper fails to notice. The Wise Man, reckoning the cost to himself, refuses the offer. Those remain our options as well. And in a lifetime of extraordinary writings, Frederick Buechner explored the urgency of the choices set before us. We can choose life; we can choose death. We can say Yes; we can say No. Or we can simply ignore the big questions and opt for the unexamined life.
One of Buechner’s great influences was the Scottish writer George MacDonald, who, like himself, was an ordained minister. In 1990, I heard Buechner conclude a lecture with lines from MacDonald’s novel, Thomas Wingfold, Curate. Published in 1876, it posited faith as a brave rejection of the depressing sway of Victorian doubt. The way of faith may not be provable, argues MacDonald’s fictional curate, but it will always be more beautiful—and more “true”—than the alternative. No wonder Buechner loved this passage:
Even if there be no hereafter, I would live my time believing in a grand thing that ought to be true if it is not. No facts can take the place of truths, and if these be not truths, then is the loftiest part of our nature a waste. Let me hold by the better than the actual, and fall into nothingness off the same precipice with Jesus and John and Paul and a thousand more, who were lovely in their lives, and with their death make even the nothingness into which they have passed like the garden of the Lord. I will go further … and say, I would rather die for evermore believing as Jesus believed, than live for evermore believing as those that deny him.
Buechner died at 96. When my mother died at the same age in 2010, I happened to find a quote from his novel Godric among her papers. I put those words on the cover of her requiem bulletin, below a Byzantine image of Christ rescuing the dead from their tombs:
I see a star, said Godric, at the age of 100 and more. Sometimes this star is still, sometimes she dances. Within that little pool of Wear she winks at me. I wink at her. The secret that we share I cannot tell in full. But this much I will tell. What’s lost is nothing to what’s found and all the death that ever was, set next to life, would scarcely fill a cup. [vii]
[i] Frederick Buechner, Godric (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1980/1983), 96.
[ii] The performance of the text as “A Christmas Triptych” was in December, 1965.Buechner’s text would be published the next year in The Magnificent Defeat (Seabury Press, 1966)..
[iii] Buechner, The Hungering Dark (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1969/1985).
[iv] Ibid., The Alphabet of Grace (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1970/1989), 47.
[v] Ibid., The Book of Bebb (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 2001), 143. In the novel, Bebb is asked what he believes. “I believe in everything.” “You make it sound easy,” the other says, and Bebb replies, “It’s hard as hell.”
Outside, the mountains have been drawn into the garden, becoming a part of it. Aritomo was a master of shakkei, the art of Borrowed Scenery, taking elements and views from outside a garden and making them integral to his creation.
The Rev. James Bramston, an eighteenth-century English cleric, was known for his satirical verses. One of his targets was Archibald Campbell (Lord Islay), who wanted to improve his extensive gardens by removing some of the trees blocking his view of the world beyond his private Eden.
Old Islay, to show his fine delicate taste, In improving his gardens purloin’d from the waste, Bade his gard’ner one day to open his views, By cutting a couple of grand avenues; No particular prospect his lordship intended, But left it to chance how his walks should be ended.
With transport and joy he beheld his first view end In a favorite prospect — a church that was ruin’d — But also! what a sight did the next cut exhibit! At the end of his walk hung a rogue on a gibbet! He beheld it and wept, for it caus’d him to muse on Full many a Campbell that died with his shoes on. All amazed and aghast at the ominous scene, He order’d it quick to be clos’d up again With a clump of Scotch firs, that served for a Screen. [ii]
In those days, landscape design cultivated the idea of the “Picturesque,” in which a visual environment is composed like a painting. In a picturesque scene, whether discovered or constructed, every element presenting itself to the eye of the beholder plays a part in summoning a feeling, stimulating reflection, or creating a mood. “Views were created resembling paintings or recalling events from myth or literature with the aim of producing desired states of feeling in the observer.” [iii]
One of the more unusual elements of the Picturesque was the ruin. A decaying church or temple, a weathered pagan statue, a partially collapsed arch or a broken column—traces of human pastness amidst the greenness of the natural world—aroused “la douce mélancolie qui parle à l’âme sensible” (“the sweet melancholy which speaks to the sensitive soul.”) [iv] Since authentic ruins were few and far between, it became the fashion to build new ones, in either classical or medieval styles, fabricated to appear like ancient remnants. In 1767, Diderot described the intellectual and emotional effect this way:
“The ideas aroused in me by ruins are lofty. Everything vanishes, everything perishes, everything passes away; the world alone remains, time alone continues. How old this world is! I walk between these two eternities … What is my ephemeral existence compared to that of crumbling stone?” [v]
When the poem’s Lord Islay told his gardeners to “open his views” by cutting a couple of wide avenues in the woods around his estate, he was reaching for the Picturesque, though rather by chance than careful design. In the first instance he succeeded wonderfully. At the end of the first avenue, perfectly framed, was a ruined church, promising many pleasurable ruminations on time, history, and divinity in the days to come.
But when more trees were felled to make the second avenue, the results were less agreeable. Lord Islay’s eyes were met with a ruin of the worst kind: a human corpse hanging on a gallows. “Amazed and aghast,” he quickly closed off the terrible vista with a planting of tall firs.
I recently came across Bramston’s poem in Roy Strong’s marvelous anthology, A Celebration of Gardens. While I can’t vouch for the factuality of the story, it struck me as a vivid image of the challenge for spirituality in this troubled and suffering world. How can we enjoy our gardens—the necessary environments and practices for emotional and spiritual health—and yet remain vulnerable and responsive to the cries of distress from near and far?
From the Garden of Eden to the medieval cloister, the hortus conclusus (enclosed garden), a tranquil space of beauty and calm, walled off from the outside world, has been a significant image of the interior life. We all need the kinds of spaces, both physical and spiritual, where we can shelter from the storm, sink into the depths of holy Presence, and “study to be quiet.” [vi]
But we are long past the innocence of the first Eden. We know, all too well, of the terrors and horrors raging beyond the protecting walls which nurture our peace and shield our joy. We may, like Lord Islay, be aghast at the sudden glimpse of the victim on the gallows—or the cross—but we are long past surprise. A row of tall firs cannot protect us. The knowledge remains. How do we live with it—and act in response to it—and still guard our heart in its hortus conclusus?
Tan Twan Eng’s deeply moving novel, The Garden of Evening Mists, suggests a way. The Japanese gardening practice, shakkei, is described (see the epigraph above) as “the art of Borrowed Scenery.” Sometime after the Second World War, Aritomo, a Japanese master gardener living in Malaya, agrees to teach his art to the Malaysian narrator, Yun Ling. But their collaborative garden project does not enjoy the innocence of Eden. Yun Ling’s sister had suffered abuse and death in a Japanese internment camp during the war, and she wants to create a memorial garden for her lost sibling. Years later, she returns to the garden while investigating war crimes by the occupying forces. Aritomo, who had participated in that occupation, carries his own secret burdens and sorrows.
Aritomo and Yun Ling are not insulated from pain, guilt, grief and loss. Even from their beautiful garden, they can glimpse the gallows. And yet, the garden’s beauty—and the spirituality it engenders—is not diminished by the pain outside its sacred enclosure. Yes, look just beyond the garden, and you will see immense suffering. But look further, beyond the gallows. Can you borrow what lies in the greater distance? Can you make the Transcendent an integral part of your view?
Are the mists, too, an element of shakkei incorporated by Aritomo? I wonder. To use not only the mountains, but the wind, the clouds, the ever-changing light? Did he borrow from heaven itself? [vii]
[i] Tan Twan Eng, The Garden of Evening Mists, (New York: Weinstein Books, 2012), 25.
[ii] Cited in Roy Strong, A Celebration of Gardens (Portland, OR: Sagapress/Timber Press, 1992), 105-106.
[iii] Diana Ketchum, Le Desért de Retz: A Late Eighteenth-Century French Folly Garden (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997), cited in Susan Stewart, The Ruins Lesson: Meaning and Material in Western Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020), 224.
[iv] Christopher Woodward, In Ruins (New York: Pantheon Books, 2001), 158.
Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37) is usually heard as a reminder to care for the needs of others, including strangers or even enemies. That’s why some hospitals have taken their name from the protagonist. I myself was born in the Episcopal Hospital of the Good Samaritan in Los Angeles and, four days before my 22nd birthday, my father died in the Intensive Care Unit of the same “Good Sam.” So this parable carries some special meanings for me.
We all hope to be like the Good Samaritan, but the late Doug Adams, an extraordinary friend and professor of Religion and Art at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, proposed an alternative reading of the parable. Instead of asking us to identify with the Good Samaritan, he wondered, what if Jesus wants us to identify with the man in the ditch?
The Samaritan is the person with all the power in the situation. He has a donkey, oil and wine, enough extra clothing to make bandages, the strength to lift the wounded man onto the donkey, and money to pay for the man’s medical care. He gives, most admirably, out of his own abundance.
But the naked, beaten, half-dead man in the ditch has no power. He has no capacity or ability to help himself. He is entirely dependent on the kindness of strangers. And who is the one who stops to help him? Not the priest, not the Levite, not one of his own kind, but a Samaritan. For a Jew, including everyone in Jesus’s original audience, a Samaritan was a bad person, a despised enemy.
Now you don’t need to understand the history of the cultural and religious enmity between Jews and Samaritans to grasp Jesus’ point here. Think of anyone of whom you disapprove, or someone you have a difficult history with. If you are lying helpless in the ditch, you don’t get to be selective about your rescuer. You have to accept their help, even if they happen to be your worst enemy. And that would mean you’d have to change your mind about them and, like it or not, be in relation with them.
Remember the question that prompted Jesus to tell this parable: “Who is my neighbor?” And the answer turns out to be: Everybody! In God’s alternative version of reality (which the gospels call the Kingdom), everyone—even my enemy—is my neighbor.
When I first heard Doug talk about this parable, it was during the first Gulf War. “Imagine you are lying helpless in that ditch,” he said, “and down the road comes Saddam Hussein. When he sees you, he bends down, offers his hand and says, “Can I help you out of the ditch, brother?”
Today we might substitute Vladimir Putin for the Samaritan to experience the same radical discomfort that Jesus’ first listeners must have felt when they heard the parable. Or suppose the person in the ditch is a white supremacist, and the Samaritan is a person of color? What if the victim is homophobic, and the rescuer is gay? What if a misogynist is the helpless one, and a woman comes by? What if it’s a Progressive in that ditch, and along comes a Proud Boy?
Do you find any of these scenarios unsettling? Parables are meant to be hard. They are meant to break us open.
And as I listen to this parable in the Year of Our Lord 2022, it strikes me that America itself is in the ditch, wounded by its sins, torn by its conflicts, half-dead from innumerable unaddressed ills. White supremacists and so-called “Christian” nationalists seek a cure in the subjugation or even the elimination of those they consider to be “other”—that is, those who are “not our kind,” whether that be people of color, the LGBTQ community, empowered women, Muslims, Central American refugees, nonwhite immigrants, or whomever. That way lies madness and death.
If we are ever to be delivered from the ditch of our own national folly and sin, we desperately need the help of the “other”—the ones whose race, religion, class, gender and life experiences are different from our own. We need to listen to their voices, their perspectives, their pain, their anger, their sorrows, their hopes, their dreams. We need not only to learn from them and be taught by them; we need to receive their stories into our hearts. Otherwise, we’re just going to stay stuck in that ditch.
A recovering alcoholic reciting the Serenity Prayer, a Catholic nun telling her beads, a child crossing himself before a meal, a quaking Shaker, a meditating yogini, a Huichi Indian chewing a peyote button, a Zen monk in satori, a Lubavitcher dancing with the Torah, Saint Francis receiving the stigmata, a bookie crossing his fingers before the final race, Ebenezer Scrooge pleading for just one more chance, dear God, just one more chance: all this is the work of prayer. In this world one may sit, stand, run, kneel, fall prostrate, dance, faint, or whirl in imitation of the cosmic spheres. One may chant, sing, shout, mutter, groan, or keep silent. One may make use of nuts, beads, books, flags, wheels, shells, stones, drums, idols, icons, jewels, incense, flowers, blood, and fruit, for all these belong to the armamentarium of prayer.
“I wasn’t going to stop my prayer because there was kids around me.”
— Joseph Kennedy, football coach
If January 6th is the coup that failed, the Supreme Court is the one that has succeeded. The extremist majority, abandoning both precedent and good sense, has gone rogue, wreaking havoc with a barrage of malignant decisions. While the recent decisions on abortion and climate change are the most broadly calamitous, I want to address the case of Kennedy vs. Bremerton School District, a poorly considered ideological gambit with unsettling implications for both politics and religion.
Joseph Kennedy was an assistant football coach at Bremerton High School, a few miles by water from my island home in Washington State. Hired in 2008, he began to kneel in silent prayer at midfield after the game. He got the idea from a televised movie about a coach at a Christian school who prays and witnesses with his team as he leads them to the state championship.
At first, Kennedy prayed alone, but over time he was joined by most of his players, as well as members of the visiting team. At some point he began to add religiously flavored “motivational” speeches to this postgame ritual and, it seems, his prayers were no longer entirely silent. It took seven years for the Bremerton School District to take notice, but when it did, it expressed concerns about upsetting the delicate balance between private religious expression and the religious neutrality mandated by the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
In September, 2015, the District instructed Coach Kennedy to refrain from religious talks and prayers with his players, and to keep his personal religious activity “nondemonstrative” while on duty, “to avoid school endorsement of religious activities.” At first he agreed to the terms, but while driving home after a game, he felt he had “broken [his] commitment to God” by not praying on the field after the game. So he returned to the empty stadium to kneel at the 50-yard line for a brief prayer.
But that would not be enough for him. On October 14, two days before the Homecoming game, he informed the District that he planned to resume his “private” postgame prayer practice, insisting that he would not invite or encourage anyone to join him. This was disingenuous, since he had been throwing gasoline on the fire through social media, complaining to the world that he was being persecuted for praying. And his choice of the well-attended Homecoming for his defiant display ensured maximum attention.
Predictably, he was joined in “prayer” not only by players and news cameras, but also by spectators who jumped fences in a rush to midfield (knocking over some band members in their stampede). This “prayer” circus continued for another two weeks, joined by the sort of politicians who profit from religious resentment.
By the end of October, Kennedy was out of a job. He likes to say he was fired for praying, but the record reflects a more complicated story. As Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor would note in her carefully argued dissent, there were a number of reasons for Kennedy’s suspension:
“In Kennedy’s annual review, the head coach of the varsity team recommended Kennedy not be rehired because he ‘failed to follow district policy,’ ‘demonstrated a lack of cooperation with administration,’ ‘contributed to negative relations between parents, students, community members, coaches, and the school district,’ and ‘failed to supervise student-athletes after games due to his interactions with media and community’ members. The head coach himself also resigned after 11 years in that position, expressing fears that he or his staff would be shot from the crowd or otherwise attacked because of the turmoil created by Kennedy’s media appearances. Three of five other assistant coaches did not reapply.” [ii]
The head coach’s fear of being “shot from the crowd” might have raised eyebrows in 2016, but it would surprise no one today. The rise of white “Christian” nationalism in the United States has made home-grown terrorism a significant threat. And given the Trumpian swerve of so many white Evangelicals, a lot of that terrorism is tied to twisted religious rhetoric. The Supreme Court’s decision in Kennedy, along with its dismantling of Roe and other radical rulings, will only encourage the Guns-and-God crowd further. Inch by inch, we are slouching toward Gilead.[iii] Lord have mercy.
In his opinion for the Supreme Court majority, Neil Gorsuch began with a lie: “Joseph Kennedy lost his job as a high school football coach because he knelt at midfield after games to offer a quiet prayer of thanks.” But a lower court judge, in the ruling subsequently overturned by SCOTUS, drew a more honest picture:
“No case law requires that a high school teacher must be out of sight of students or jump into the nearest broom closet in order to engage in private prayer, but it cannot be denied that this football coach’s prayer at the fifty-yard line, immediately after a game, under stadium lights and in front of players and spectators, objectively sent a public message.” [iv]
Personal prayer, which Jesus called praying “in secret” (Matthew 6:6), has no human spectators, and any self-consciousness about one’s appearance to others is an interruption of prayerful attention. But liturgical prayer, performed with others in public, is meant to be seen. Worshippers are strengthened and encouraged by the knowledge that they are bound together in ritually shared speech and practice. At the same time, public worship makes a visible statement to the world.
But liturgical prayer requires a common language and worldview. In a pluralistic society, such specific religious commonality is rarely possible. Worship is most authentically and effectively situated within each particular tradition. In the United States, therefore, the government should neither restrict the diversity of worship practices, nor endorse or favor one religious expression over any other.
Given the importance of religion in American history and culture, and the large number of religious believers in public life, the separation of church and state lacks a firm and absolute boundary. There are Inaugural prayers, Congressional chaplains, funerals for public figures at the “National Cathedral,” and the frequent invocation of divinity by political speakers. Some of that is boilerplate civil religion, but no one can doubt the formative effect of religious belief and practice on our political life, for better or worse. For the record, all six justices who voted against abortion and for school prayer are conservative Catholics, although Gorsuch has been attending an Episcopal church. Sonia Sotomayor is also Catholic, with the remaining justices comprised of one Jew and one Protestant.
For a long time, public schools have had relative clarity about the Establishment Clause. Justice Sotomayor, in her Kennedy dissent, cited the precedents:
‘The public school is at once the symbol of our democracy and the most pervasive means for promoting our common destiny,’ meaning that ‘[i]n no activity of the State is it more vital to keep out divisive forces than in its schools.’ Families ‘entrust public schools with the education of their children . . . on the understanding that the classroom will not purposely be used to advance religious views that may conflict with the private beliefs of the student and his or her family.’ Accordingly, the Establishment Clause “proscribes public schools from ‘conveying or attempting to convey a message that religion or a particular religious belief is favored or preferred’ or otherwise endorsing religious beliefs.
I myself went to an Episcopal elementary school where every day began with worship. From 7th to 12th grade I attended an Episcopal boys school. We had religion courses, and two chapel eucharists each week. The popular chaplain, Father Gill, conducted a gorgeous Sarum rite, and our hymns were propelled by a youthful desire to make loud sounds in a resonant space. When I returned for my 40th class reunion, I found a school mostly secularized by its merger with a non-religious girls school. When we visited the chapel in a campus tour, I asked our student guide what remained of the school liturgies. “I don’t really know,” she said. “I’ve never been in here before.”
That made me sad, since my religious schools had been so formative and joyous for my own faith. But I know that public schools are neither appropriate nor feasible venues for common prayer. Inclusivity and diversity are a part of their strength, and in matters of religion they must remain neutral ground. That is why the SCOTUS ruling in Kennedy is so unsettling. It opens the door to some very undesirable outcomes.
The overview provided at the top of the ruling states, “Respect for religious expressions is indispensable to life in a free and diverse Republic. Here, a government entity sought to punish an individual for engaging in a personal religious observance, based on a mistaken view that it has a duty to suppress religious observances even as it allows comparable secular speech.” I have no idea what is meant by “comparable secular speech.” Does it mean anything not involving religious language, or any human rituals—like football games, for example—which do not invoke the divine? The misleading fiction of competition here feels like an absurd whine: They get to be secular, but we don’t get to be religious!
The Bremerton School District was not trying “to punish an individual for engaging in a personal religious observance.” I can’t judge the sincerity or quality of Coach Kennedy’s initial silent prayers, but once he became the presider at a public ritual as a school employee in a school setting, eager to display himself as a visible and symbolic champion of white Evangelical grievance, it was no longer a private act. Gorsuch argued that non-Evangelical, non-Christian, or non-religious students would be mature enough to feel no pressure to join the prayer circle, whether to please their coach (and get more playing time), or to blend in with their peers. Nope, no pressure at all to conform! Apparently, Gorsuch never went to high school.
There are many nuances to explore in this case and the Establishment Clause in general. If you want to dive deep, you can read the lower court decision here, and the Supreme Court decision here. But one question in particular interests me. When people say they want prayer back in the schools, what are they imagining? As a liturgist committed to eloquence, poetry and theological depth in verbal prayer, as well as the beauty of holiness in public rituals, I’m not sure I would want to trust an ad-libbing football coach with bad grammar to set the standard for spiritual expression in my community. I suppose that’s my elitism showing.
But seriously, where do you draw the line? If we sanctioned prayers in schools, who would write them and who would critique them? Can you imagine the state prayers if white Christian nationalists ever seize power? In any case, who would decide what could or could not be included in officially approved forms of prayer? Would there be a government liturgical commission? How would we arrive at the government definitions of such broad and inexact terms as “religion” and “prayer”? And should SCOTUS manage to reestablish prayer in public schools, would any and all forms of religious expression then be acceptable, or only the ones favored by conservative Catholics and white Evangelicals?
The best prayers are rooted in specific traditions. Generic prayers risk a bland vagueness. But there are occasions—mostly tragic—when some ritual spiritual expression as a nation is regarded by most as a good and necessary thing. President Obama’s singing of “Amazing Grace” during his eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, murdered in a mass shooting by a white supremacist in 2015, is a powerful example.
Might we draw inspiration from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Transcendentalist vision of “unlocking at all risks [our] human doors and suffering the ethereal tides to roll and circulate through [us].” [v] (Kids, don’t try this at home!) Or is it possible to emulate the broad sweep of Martin Luther King’s elegantly inclusive phrasing?
“Whether we call it an unconscious process, an impersonal Brahman, or a Personal Being of matchless power and infinite love, there is a creative force in the universe that works to bring the disconnected aspects of reality into a harmonious whole.” [vi]
But what about the “religious speech,” say, of Allen Ginsberg, who after taking acid in the Sixties burst naked out of Timothy O’Leary’s bedroom to declare: “I am the Messiah. I’ve come down to preach love to the world. We’re going to walk through the streets and teach people to stop hating.” [vii] How would that go over on the 50-yard line of your local high school?
The Supreme Court has lifted the lid on this rabbit hole—and many others. May we find a way to curtail the ambitions of that power-mad cabal before they drag us all into the dark.
Luckily for us, I’m not a government official, nor are you, dear reader, under any coercion whatsoever. After so much talk about prayer as a political question, let us simply consider the nature of prayer in the wise and powerful words of Native American poet Joy Harjo:[viii]
To pray you open your whole self To sky, to earth, to sun, to moon To one whole voice that is you And know that there is more That you can’t see, can’t hear Can’t know except in moments Steadily growing, and in languages That aren’t always a sound but other Circles of motion Like eagle that Sunday morning Over Salt River. Circled in blue sky In wind, swept our hearts clean With sacred wings. We see you, see ourselves and know That we must take the utmost care And kindness in all things. Breathe in, knowing we are made of All this, and breathe, knowing We are truly blessed because we Were born, and die soon within a True circle of motion, Like eagle rounding out the morning Inside us. We pray that it will be done In beauty. In beauty.
[i] Ann and Barry Ulanov, Primary Speech: A Psychology of Prayer (Westminster John Knox Press, 1982), 10.
[iii] Gilead was the new name given to the former United States after a violent takeover by a patriarchal Christian theocracy in Margaret Atwood’s harrowing novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. Of course the original reference for my phrase is from W. B. Yeats’ poem, “The Second Coming,” where an apocalyptic beast, a hideous antichrist, is “slouching toward Bethlehem to be born.”
Any number of things can happen when we encounter Jesus. We might be comforted—or we might be uncomfortable. We might be healed—or we might be wounded. We might be instructed—or we might be turned upside down. Jesus is a difference maker. For better or worse, he comes to interrupt—and disrupt—our lives.
Sometimes Jesus speaks to our heart. Sometimes he speaks to our mind. But every time, he speaks to our will, as he puts the crucial question:
Will you come and follow me if I but call your name? Will you go where you don’t know and never be the same? Will you let my love be shown? Will you let my Name be known? Will you let my life be grown in you and you in me? [i]
We can always say no, of course. Many people have; many people do. Or we may profess our unreadiness or our inadequacy. “Are you kidding me?” said Moses at the Burning Bush. “Who am I to go and talk to Pharoah? I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” In the same way, the prophet Jeremiah also resisted his call: “No way, Lord! Don’t ask me to be a prophet. I don’t know how to speak. I’m only a child.” God has heard all the excuses, but the Divine Intention is not easily dissuaded. “Just do it,” God says.
When Jesus tries to recruit a few followers in Luke 9:51-62, he hears plenty of excuses. “Lord, let me first go home and bury my father,” says one. This sounds reasonable enough, if he’s talking about a corpse back at the house that needs some prompt attention. But this line can also be understood to mean, “I can’t go anywhere as long as my parents are still living. Family obligations come first.”
Another makes a similar excuse: “I will follow you, Lord, but first I must go home to take my leave. I need to get permission from my family before I can come with you. And that may take some time.”
I don’t think Luke’s gospel is telling us to walk out of important relationships. Rather, it is prompting us to ask ourselves: What is so important in my life that I need its permission before I can follow Jesus? My true master might be something as big as the security of having somewhere comfortable to lay my head at night, or as trivial as my habitual routines. I’d love to follow you, Jesus, but let me check my calendar first.
The excuses in Luke’s passage suggest a world of expectations, obligations, and best-laid plans that prevent us from running away to join the Jesus circus. Today we may enjoy far more social mobility than a first-century Middle-Easterner, but we each have our own version of situations and circumstances that delay and distract us. Some things just won’t let us go. It might be something lingering from our past, like unhealed anger or grief. Or it might be a present concern, like a steady income, emotional needs, or personal ambition.
Jesus says: If you want to follow me, nothing can have more authority over you than the will of God. As for the things that hold you back, just let them go. Let the dead bury the dead. It’s time to move on, deeper and deeper into God. Seek ye first the kingdom of God. And once you’ve put your hand to the gospel plow, don’t look back. Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on!
The call to be a follower of Jesus may arrive unexpectedly. It may seem inconvenient, or even impossible. But as the saints all tell us, it’s what we are made for. To borrow a line from songwriter Bob Franke,
I can’t really say it’s the thing I do best, but it’s the best thing that I do. [ii]
True vocation is not so much surrender to an outside force as it is the recognition of an internal capacity. In his book, Let Your Life Speak, Parker Palmer makes this point beautifully. “Vocation does not come from a voice ‘out there’ calling me to be something I am not,” he writes. “It comes from a voice ‘in here’ calling me to be the person I was born to be, to fulfill the original selfhood given me at birth by God.”
“Vocation does not come from willfulness. It comes from listening. I must listen to my life and try to understand what it is truly about—quite apart from what I would like it to be about.… The word vocation … is rooted in the Latin for “voice.” Vocation does not mean a goal that I pursue. It means a calling that I hear. Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am.” [iii]
When Jesus calls me, it is, as it were, “my life telling me who I am.” And Jesus has many voices. You may hear him in the Scriptures or the liturgy, or when you enter the prayerful state of “absolute unmixed attention.”[iv] He will speak through the need of your neighbor, or in your deepest longing. His voice may come as dissatisfaction with the old, or as the intuition of fresh possibility. It may proceed from the mouth of friend and stranger. It may thunder like the transcendent Other, or whisper like the intimate inward presence who has known you all your life.
However Jesus may call us, what happens if we say yes? How do we put our hands to the plow, keep our eyes on the prize, and not look back?When we decide to follow Jesus, when we consent to lose our old lives in the Paschal Mystery of dying and rising, we are born again into a new way of being. No turning back, no turning back. But what will that new being look like? How will we be different? How will we make a difference?
St. Paul gives us a good list to start with in his letter to the Galatians (5:1, 13-25). Everything that binds, enslaves, and weighs you down, forget it. Instead of indulging yourselves, start loving one another. Say goodbye to enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy and licentiousness. Practice love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Let the Spirit dance in you.
Paul’s advice seems radically countercultural in an America so sickened by hatred, division, malice, and fear—a contagion which has spread to a degree unimaginable just five years ago. As Judge Michael Luttig recently lamented in his testimony before the January 6th Select Committee, “In the moral, catatonic stupor America finds itself in today, it is only disagreement we seek, and the more virulent that disagreement, the better.” [v]
In such a country, such a world, such a time, what is a disciple to do? Well, there’s no easy answer, no single method or path. We must figure it out as we go, the way the saints of old did amid crumbling empires, or as Dietrich Bonhoeffer did in 1930s Germany, or as Martin Luther King did in a Birmingham jail. It will certainly require steadfast faith and boundless love, but perhaps it is courageous hope we will need most of all.
In the worst of times, hope is the engine of persistence and the antidote for despair. Never forget: God makes a way where there is no way, and as God’s friends we are called to shine with that truth every day, “planting the seeds of resurrection amid the blind sufferings of history.” [vi]
[i] “The Summons,” a song from the Iona Community in Scotland (GIA Publications, 1987).
[ii] Bob Franke, “Boomerang Pancakes” (Telephone Pole Music, 1986).
[iii] Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000), 10, 4.