Faith Meets Works: And the Winner Is . . .

Duccio di Buoninsegna, Jesus open eyes of a man born blind (1311)

Without faith, no good work is ever begun, or completed.

–– Caesarius of Arles

 

A homily for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

One of the longest running debates in Christianity is the one about faith and works.
Which is primary? Which is more necessary?
Are we saved by faith alone, or do our works matter as well?
Is our salvation due entirely to God, or do we ourselves play any part in it?

This argument goes all the way back to the New Testament. As James asks in today’s epistle, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?” (James 2:14)

James is responding to the notion that we are saved sola fide––by faith alone–– and not by anything we ourselves are able to do. He seems to be dissenting from St. Paul’s emphasis on “justification by faith,” worrying that it could weaken our ethical motivation.

If the good works that we do make no difference in whether we’re saved––because God is as gracious to sinners as s/he is to saints–– then what’s the point of working hard to do the right thing?

Like the workers in the vineyard, can’t we just show up at the last minute and receive the same wages as those suckers who spend the whole day sweating in the hot sun? (As if our own reward is the heart of the matter!)

Such a caricature, of course, does little justice to the nuanced reflections on faith and works by great thinkers like Paul, Augustine, Luther and Calvin. But still, in the end, it is fair to ask whether the whole debate is more a matter of language than substance. What do we mean by “faith,” or “justification,” or “salvation?” Without getting too far into the theological weeds, I’ll just say that such words, whatever their particular meanings, all signify a state of being tuned in to the divine way–– a condition shaped by and conformed to what James calls “the royal law”: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

In other words, the life of faith is the life of love, mirroring the eternal self-offering of the Holy Trinity in our own manner of living each and every day. When we no longer live for ourselves but for God, anxiety about whether we’re good enough is the last thing on our minds. When we surrender our lives to the Way, the Truth, and the Life, good works are simply who we are and what we do as Love’s chosen instruments.

Good works are not a means to an end, a way to glorify ourselves or earn heavenly rewards. They are simply what happens when God is in us and we are in God.
If you are a blazing fire, you give off heat and light.
If you are “Christ’s own for ever,” your actions are radiant with love and justice.

As Jesus put it, “Let your light so shine before others,
that they may see your good works and give the glory to God” (Mt. 5:16).

Jesus was speaking from experience. As St. Peter said in one of his sermons, “because God was with him, Jesus went about doing good and curing all who were oppressed by the devil” (Acts 10:38). Today’s gospel, cramming multiple healings into two paragraphs, fits Peter’s concise description of Jesus as a man who went around doing good, a man in a hurry to repair the world.

Good works have been called the fruits of faith, because they make the inwardness of faith visiblein a way that others can see, and nourishingin a way that others can taste. “Good works are witnesses to the Christian faith,” said a fifth-century priest named Salvian, “because otherwise a Christian cannot demonstrate that he has that faith. If he cannot show it, it may as well becompletely nonexistent.” [i]

Where would the world be if we were all faith and no works? The hungry can’t eat our ideas. The vulnerable won’t get much protection from our “thoughts and prayers.” Intention without implementation is pretty useless, as James reminds us in his Epistle:

“If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” (James 2:15-17).

There was once a man whose heart was so broken by all the pain and injustice in the world that he cried out in anger and despair, “O God, see how much your people suffer! See how much anguish and misery there is in the world! Why won’t you send some help?”

And God answered, “I did send help. I sent you.” [ii]

So where do we start? There’s a world of hurt out there. Can we make a difference? Scripture gives high priority to serving the poor, feeding the hungry, welcoming the immigrant, including the outcast, protecting the defenseless, tending the sick, visiting the prisoner, and guarding Creation. At a time when the exact opposite of all these things is being carried out by the highest levels of our government––with the enthusiastic approval of a shockingly high number of white Christians––we can become exhausted, if not despairing, just thinking about the immense labor of resisting evil and preserving the common good.

That’s when works need faith as much as faith needs works––faith that another power is at work here; faith that we aren’t doing it by ourselves. In fact, repairing the world is not a humanproject at all. God started that work, and God will finish it. Meanwhile, as God’s hands and feet in the world, we chip in as best we can for our brief span. Be not afraid. God is always out there ahead of us, hard at work.

God is out there in the attorneys fighting to protect and reunite the children and parents being separated and abused at our southern border. God is there in the faith communities offering protection and sanctuary to the victims of bigotry and racism. God is there in the striking prison inmates who refuse to be treated like animals. God is there marching in the streets against gun violence and environmental suicide.

Oh wait. Is this mixing religion and politics? Of course it is, because religion and politics have always been inseparable, if what you mean by politics is that people actually matter, and the common good actually matters. In a 1979 manifesto, activists Corinne McLaughlin and Gordon Davidson defined politics in what I would call religious terms:

“Politics is the way we live our lives. . . It is the way we treat each other, as individuals, as groups, as government. It is the way we treat our environment. It is the way we treat ourselves. Politics has to do with where we shop, what we eat, how we maintain our health. It has to do with the kinds of schools we create, the energy we use, the neighborhood organizations we build, the work we do. Politics involves our way of seeing the world, of developing our consciousness, of awakening our whole selves. It has to do with our attitudes, our values, our innermost dimensions.” [iii]

Of course, for many of us the work of repairing the world is relatively quiet and local most of the time. Random acts of kindness and so forth. As Wendell Berry says, “The real work of planet-saving will be small, humble and humbling . . .” [iv]

A writer named Bob Libby gives a lovely example of this. He liked to go running at the beach, and whenever the tide was low he saw an old woman “walking along the shore in her white tennis shoes, floppy straw hat, and oversized print dress. She always carried a crumpled brown paper bag that matched the texture and color of her skin.”

Her name was Maggie, and she’d walk along with her head down, pausing occasionally to stoop over, pick something up, and examine it. Then she’d either toss it away or put it in her bag. Libby assumed she was collecting shells, but when he asked her about it one day, she said, “Not shells at all. Glass. Sharp glass. Cuts the feet. Surfers land on it. It sure ruins their summer.” [v]

It doesn’t take much to make the world better, does it? As John Wesley said,

Do all the good you can
by all the means you can,
in all the ways you can,
in all the places you can,
at all the times you can,
to all the people you can,
as long as ever you can. [vi]

I’ll leave you with one more story, a parable by Megan McKenna:

There was a woman who knew the world was falling apart. Every day the news made her more depressed. But one day, as she wandered sadly through her town, she had the impulse to step into a little shop she had never noticed before. To her surprise, standing behind the counter was Jesus! At least he looked like all the pictures she’d ever seen of him.

 So she went over and asked him, “Excuse me, are you Jesus?” “I am.” “Do you work here?” “No,” Jesus said, “I own the store.” “Oh. What do you sell in here?” “Just about anything!” “Anything?” “Yep, anything you want.” Jesus leaned forward. “What do you want?” “Um, I’m not really sure.” “Well,” Jesus said, “feel free, walk up and down the aisles, make a list, see what it is you want, and then come back and we’ll see what we can do for you.”

 So she did just that, walked up and down the aisles. There was peace on earth, no more war, no hunger or poverty, peace in families, no more drugs, harmony, clean air, careful use of resources. She wrote furiously. When she returned to the counter with her very long list, Jesus looked it over. Then he glanced at her with a smile and said, “No problem.”

 Then he bent down behind the counter, picked out a bunch of different small packets, and laid them out in front of her. “What are these?” she asked. “Seed packets,” Jesus said. “You take them home to plant, then you nurture them and help them to grow, and one day in the future there will be others to come and reap the harvest.”

“Oh,” she said. [vii]

 

 

 

[i] Thomas C. Oden, The Good Works Reader (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s, 2007), 336.

[ii] David Wolpe, Teaching Your Children About God, q. in Frederic & Mary Ann Brussat, Spiritual Literacy: Reading the Sacred in Everyday Life (New York: Scribner, 1996), 317.

[iii] Ibid., 330. McLaughlin and Davidson were part of the New World Alliance, an idealistic project to create a “transformational politics.”

[iv] Wendell Berry, q. in Brussat, 341.

[v]Bob Libby, Grace Happens, q. in Brussat, 341-2.

[vi] q. in Brussat, 360-61.

[vii] Adapted from a story in Megan McKenna, Parables, q. in Brussat, 359. McKenna has the woman walk out without buying anything, like the rich young man who decided following Jesus was too hard. My wife, also a preacher, thought the congregation should be left with the woman’s final response still undecided. So I ended it with “Oh.” But I can’t help hearing the disappointment in her voice.

 

The Rich Man and Lazarus

Medieval illumination, The Rich Man and Lazarus

Medieval illumination, The Rich Man and Lazarus

For when we first believed in Christ we did not immediately acquire an exact understanding of what we should be doing, nor was it clear to us what we should stop doing and what we should continue doing.

— Diodore, Bishop of Tarsus (d. 394) [i]

You see, God who lives in heaven kept quiet about the rich man’s name, because he did not find it written in heaven. He spoke the poor man’s name, because he found it written there… [ii]

— St. Augustine

This Sunday’s gospel tells the parable of the nameless rich man, living the high life in his mansion, and Lazarus the poor man, who is starving just outside his gate. When they both die about the same time, their situations are reversed. The poor man, suffering the torments of Hades, gets a distant glimpse of Lazarus enjoying the blessings of heaven “in the bosom of Abraham.” (Luke 16:19-31)

Where do we find ourselves in this gospel parable? At the gate, or at the rich man’s table? When Jesus tells this story, he doesn’t seem to allow us the option of remaining a spectator, detached and uninvolved.

Jesus is calling us to make a decision.
What would you do in the circumstances of the story?

There’s a 19th century song based on this gospel. I learned to sing it 50 years ago from the legendary Ramblin’ Jack Elliott:

 Only a tramp was Lazarus’ sad fate
When he 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…

 If Jesus should come and knock at your door
Would you let him come in and take from your store
Or would you turn him away with nothing to eat
Would you leave him to die like a tramp on the street?

What would you do?
In our world of extreme economic inequality, it’s not a hypothetical question.

That’s the thing about the lectionary. We come to church to be illumined, fed, inspired, and renewed; to praise our Maker and Redeemer in the company of God’s friends. But sometimes we’re slammed with a question that’s really hard to answer.

In this case, what’s hard isn’t mustering the good will to do the right thing. If you’re a friend of Jesus, you know what is right. What’s hard is figuring out exactly how to implement our good will in complicated long-term situations.

We could empty our wallets for the homeless on a walk through downtown, but homelessness would remain. We could vote for candidates who put the needs of the poor ahead of the billionaires. But we would still remain entwined in a system driven more by greed and consumption than by the nurture of human flourishing and the health of God’s creation.

So where do we start? Does the parable itself provide any clues? It’s not really a story, but more of a snapshot. On one side there is Lazarus the beggar lying outside the rich man’s gate, covered with sores, dreaming of the scraps of food that fall from the rich man’s table. On the other is the rich man, behind locked doors, dressed in purple and fine linen, eating to his heart’s content – with a clear conscience as far as we know.

And the story seems to imply that he is unaware of Lazarus’ very existence. He doesn’t send his servants out to drive the poor man away. He doesn’t callously pass him by, pretending not to see him.

In the story, the rich man remains inside, Lazarus remains outside, and the two worlds are completely sealed off from each other—until a catastrophe shakes the rich man out of his complacency, and opens his eyes to the suffering he has ignored for so long.

The catastrophe is his own death. This not only plunges him into the fires of Hades but also—even more painful!—it opens his eyes to his lifelong indifference to the suffering of Lazarus, a suffering he could have alleviated, had he been more aware.

So now he must gaze up at Lazarus, safe in the bosom of Abraham, tormented by the knowledge of things done and left undone. It turns out that his blindness to suffering was not the same thing as innocence. The words of the prophet Amos could have been addressed to him:

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)

It’s not that the rich man didn’t care about Lazarus. He didn’t even see him. Lazarus did not exist for him, until he was compelled to see reality through God’s eyes:

And what the rich man is shown by God in the end is this: Lazarus, rocking his soul in the bosom of Abraham, turns out to be very precious to God. But he (the rich man) is a prisoner of his own self-regard, the loveless and isolating condition otherwise known as hell.

And then this parable, as parables often do, turns to us expectantly. So, it wonders, is there anything you are not seeing in the places where you live and move and have your being?

Last week I attended a meeting of the Interfaith Economic Justice Coalition in Seattle. The subject was the situation of the workers at the airport, the ones who clean and load the passenger cabins, who push the wheelchairs and guide the planes to their gates, who prepare and serve the food in the facility’s many restaurants and coffee shops, who rent the cars and staff the parking lots.

When we pass through the airport as travelers, we are served by many of these workers. But how often do we really see them as people or understand their situation?

Are we aware that the Seattle airport, the third largest economic producer in the state, has been a notoriously low-wage pocket within the greater urban area? Other West Coast airports, such as LAX, are way ahead of our own in addressing wage and justice issues.

The employment structure at Sea-Tac Airport is complicated. A variety of corporate contractors apply to the Port Commission and the airlines for the right to provide specific services. Individual airlines can choose to work with their own preferred contractors, so there is a bewildering variety of arrangements in which individual workers may fall through the cracks, as their employers play musical chairs in the bidding and renewal process. Without a guarantee that you will keep your job regardless of which corporation wins the next contract for the service you provide, you could be out of a job with little warning.

The process of bidding and contract renewals has sometimes been used, by both airlines and the Port Commission, to shut out union workers and reduce the job security and benefits of airport employees in general.

When Seattle passed the nation’s first $15 minimum wage law in 2014, some contractors complied, some chose to fight the law in the courts, and some simply ignored the law and continued to pay only $9.45 an hour, until lawsuits forced them to comply.

Some of the contractors are still in court, but this month several of them agreed to pay retroactively the full minimum wage, which amounts to about $10,000 per worker for each of the two years in which they were underpaid. This will make a huge difference for those workers, their families, and the communities in which they live.

This ongoing struggle for a living wage is about the workers’ dignity and well-being as equal participants in an interdependent society. And, as people of faith would insist, it is about their inestimable value as the beloved children of God. But until my eyes were opened by what I learned at that meeting last week, they were almost as invisible to me as Lazarus at the gate.

And now that I see them a little more clearly, what shall I do? When I take a flight next Saturday, I will certainly be asking myself this question. I can pray for the workers, I can thank them for their service. This Tuesday I’ll be joining with workers and faith leaders at a Port Commission meeting to exert continuing pressure for economic justice. But what else?

I may not have a lot of answers yet, but the question is not going away as long as we keep replaying the unsustainable story of the rich man and Lazarus in our economics, our politics, and our social order. It will not go away, in fact, until that promised day when we will all sit together at one table, sharing our essential communion as grateful brothers and sisters in the feast of God.

Holy One, Lover of Justice, bring that day closer.

 

Related Post: Why Do We Work?

 

[i] q. in Thomas C. Oden, The Good Works Reader (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmann’s Publishing, 2007), 333

[ii] Sermon 33a.4, q. in Oden, 54

Daniel Berrigan: Sword of Wisdom, Maker of Peace

Berrigan in cuffs

There is no peace because there are no peacemakers. There are no makers of peace because the making of peace is at least as costly as the making of war— at least as exigent, at least as disruptive, at least as liable to bring disgrace and prison and death in its wake. — Daniel Berrigan[i]

On May 17, 1968, nine Roman Catholic activists broke into a draft board office in Catonsville, Maryland, transferring 378 files to the parking lot to be incinerated with home-made napalm. As the fire burned, the “Catonsville Nine” prayed for peace. They were arrested, tried and sentenced to prison, but four of them, including two priests— Daniel and Philip Berrigan— went underground, eluding capture for a number of months, occasionally surfacing to speak at antiwar rallies.

At one of these public appearances, following a dramatic tableau of the Last Supper with giant puppets, Dan Berrigan made his escape inside one of the Apostles. “I was hoping it wasn’t the puppet of Judas,” he said later. His comical getaway affirmed irrepressible life even as it mocked the powers of death. Berrigan, a puckish and playful spirit, knew that laughter could be a serious form of subversion.

After being sheltered by 37 different families, Dan Berrigan, S.J., was finally captured August 11, 1970, in the house of Episcopal lawyer and theologian William Stringfellow. He was reading Plato’s The Trial and Death of Socrates when F.B.I. agents showed up at the door.

On Palm Sunday of the following year, I designed a liturgy where two carpenters constructed a large cross near the altar during the course of the ritual. At various points, dialogue between the carpenters would interrupt the liturgical texts. The two workers expressed curiosity about the intended victim and the nature of his crime. They wondered about the morality of their own complicity in the official machinery of death. What if they just stopped making crosses? Would it make any difference? Or would they just find themselves without a job? In the end, they suppressed their doubts and finished the cross, hammering it together loudly during the eucharistic prayer: This is my body, given for you … This is my blood, shed for you …

It was no coincidence that I had just been reading No Bars to Manhood, Dan Berrigan’s compelling account of the influences and experiences underlying his Christian activism. Its conclusions were clear: as witnesses to the Resurrection, the friends of God must say no to death. No more cross-building. No more remaining passive spectators at the world’s crucifixions. “There are times so evil,” he wrote, “that the first and indeed the only genuinely prophetic function is to cast down the images of injustice and death that claim [the human being] as victim.”[ii]

A Newsweek blurb on my well-worn 95-cent paperback from 1971 reads, “Daniel Berrigan is the sort of priest who causes the lights of the Vatican to burn through the night.” The actions he took and the company he kept often strained the patience and understanding of his clerical superiors. One of his friends in the Society of Jesus told him, “Do you want to know why you’re in trouble so frequently? It’s because you and some others show us what Jesuits can be. And that’s why we can’t stand you.”[iii]

Today, when so many horrors are cloaked in euphemisms like “collateral damage,” Dan Berrigan’s truthful language still delivers a shock. His response to the charge of incinerating draft board records is justly famous:

Our apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children, the angering of the orderlies in the front parlor of the charnel house. We could not, so help us God, do otherwise. For we are sick at heart, our hearts give us no rest from thinking of the Land of Burning Children … We have chosen to say with the gift of our liberty, if necessary our lives: the violence stops here. The death stops here. The suppression of the truth stops here. This war stops here.[iv]

Even in his contentious moments with the Church, Berrigan understood his priesthood to be deeply rooted in the ethos of his religious community, where, he wrote, one’s life might “be purified of the inhuman drives of egoism, acculturation, professional pride and dread of life.”[v] In the trial of the Catonsville Nine, when asked whether such radical protest was in harmony with Catholic teaching, he replied, “May I say that if that is not accepted as a substantial part of my action, then the action is eviscerated of all meaning and I should be committed for insanity.”[vi]

For those of us who tend to play it safe in conforming our own choices to the gospel, Berrigan’s life of witness poses hard questions about discipleship and the imperatives of conscience. “He was dangerous, as holiness should be; he was a sword of wisdom.”[vii] A college student, after hearing Berrigan speak at Stanford in the late Sixties, put it this way: “Father Berrigan has raised the ante for all of us.”[viii]

That student’s religion professor, Robert McAfee Brown (one of my own most admired teachers), considered the question of whether the Berrigan brothers were signs or models. Their words and actions clearly signified the world’s sin and brokenness in parabolic gestures difficult to ignore. But were we obligated to model our lives after theirs, or might we find other ways to be faithful, according to our own distinctive calling? This question has troubled the conscience of many, including my own.

“We must continually ask ourselves why we are so attracted to them.” Brown wrote, “when we hear what they say and yet do not do the things they do … [T]heir actions provide a disturbing sign that we must take seriously, particularly if those actions are not yet the model most of us are prepared to imitate.”[ix] Brown himself had the courage to live into those questions for the rest of his life, becoming one of the most eloquent theological voices for justice and peace.

As “the man who hears handcuffs close upon him,”[x] Berrigan felt a deep kinship with biblical prisoners for God like the prophet Jeremiah. “There is a meaning to things, however dark and damaging … Jeremiah wrestles with the meaning; his wrestling is the meaning; it defines the moral substance and limits of his activity in the world. At the same time, his struggle with the unknown One interiorizes, draws to a fine point and gravity his moral life.”[xi]

Like Jeremiah, Berrigan knew a God who contends with human injustice, who plucks up and breaks down our tainted and presumptuous projects.

We are so used to an acculturated and childish religion, whose ethos has joined forces with the society— with its militarism and racism and fear of life, that we are almost illiterate before a document such as Jeremiah’s. Can it be true that God is not a Niagara of pablum, spilling His childish comfort upon the morally and humanly neutral, whose faces are raised blankly to partake of that infantile nourishment?[xii]

Not every Christian received his rhetoric gladly. And the radical priest’s liturgical fusion of sacrament and protest also drew fire. After baptizing a baby in the chapel at Cornell, he kissed the new Christian’s forehead and invited him “out of the world of war and destruction.” While presiding at an “Electric Mass for Peace” on the same campus, he made explicit connections in the eucharistic prayer between Christ’s blood and the blood shed on both sides in Vietnam. Some saw these things as careless, even blasphemous. Others found them prophetic and profoundly faithful.

Berrigan’s words and actions had a deep and lasting influence on many in the antiwar and anti-nuclear movements, as well as progressive Christians. His dramatic forms of witness also drew immense media attention, for which he took some criticism as a “media freak.” But his vocation was stronger than the temptations of celebrity. As Paul Elie, chronicler of the great twentieth century Catholic writers, noted in a New Yorker blog:

He created no foundation, nonprofit, or N.G.O.; headed no pacifist think tank or Jesuit school of advanced study; gave no TED talk; engaged in no stagey dialogues offering equal time to the military point of view; and never reframed the ideals of nonviolence in any pocket-size manual for personal growth.[xiii]

Berrigan had no neutral gear. Even when the public spotlight moved on to other subjects, his writing lost nothing of its urgency and fire. In The Discipline of the Mountain, his poetic reflection on “Dante’s Purgatorio in a Nuclear World,” he wrote, “There is a hell for those who go too far, and there is a hell, or at least an anteroom of hell, for those who refuse to go far enough.”[xiv] Going far enough for the sake of the gospel was the driving force of his life. But as he once confessed to Robert Coles, “We are groping. We shouldn’t be sure of ourselves, because we can’t be, not now— not ever.”[xv]

Only death is sure, and that finally came last week, on Orthodox Holy Saturday, to Daniel Berrigan, S.J., in his 95th year. I barely knew him, hearing him preach twice and breaking bread with him once in a Los Angeles rectory. But this loss feels personal. He was both sign and model for many priests of my generation, and there are things he said which haunt me still.

In 1964, midway in his life’s journey, Berrigan imagined the moment of his own death:

As I walk patiently through life
poems follow close …

The poem called death
is unwritten yet. Some day will show
the violent last line,
the shadow rise,
a bird of omen

snatch me for its ghost.
And a hand somewhere, purposeful as God’s
close like two eyes, this book.[xvi]

And then what? Only faith can say, that Easter faith which alone can contain and complete the fullness of human life. At the end of his meditation on Dante’s Purgatorio, the poet/priest peers beyond death’s horizon to see a resurrected humanity being gathered into God.

Leading the way are “the intractable ones” who have suffered prison, torture and martyrdom for their faithful witness. In them we see at last “the human venture vindicated.” Their faces and Christ’s face become as one, in an upward gaze that “breaks the glacial will of God.”[xvii]

They embrace         one after another
Tears    laughter     two weathers
contending in one sky

 

 

[i] Daniel Berrigan. S.J., No Bars to Manhood (New York: Bantam Books, 1971), 49

[ii] ibid., 97

[iii] ibid., 19

[iv] q. in Robert McAfee Brown, “The Berrigans: Signs or Models?”, in The Berrigans, ed. William Van Etten Casey, S.J. & Philip Nobile (New York: Praeger Publisher, 1971), 62

[v] q. in Edward Duff, S.J., “The Burden of the Berrigans,” in The Berrigans, 19

[vi] ibid., 15

[vii] Daniel Berrigan, The Discipline of the Mountain: Dante’s Purgatorio in a Nuclear World (New York: The Seabury Press, 1979), 99. The quote is by Berrigan, describing “an Indian holy man” with whom he once led a retreat. But it also seems aptly applied to Berrigan himself.

[viii] R.M. Brown, 61

[ix] ibid., 66, 69

[x] No Bars, 99

[xi] ibid., 96

[xii] ibid., 97

[xiii] Paul Elie, “Postscript: Daniel Berrigan, 1921-2016” (New Yorker online, May 2, 2016)

[xiv] Discipline, 39

[xv] Robert Coles, “Thinking About Those Priests,” in The Berrigans, 219

[xvi] Daniel Berrigan, “A Dark Word,” Poetry Magazine, April 1964, online at http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/browse?contentId=29700

[xvii] Discipline, 119-120

Keeping the faith in a time of terror

The Deposition (early Gothic; Leon cathedral on the Camino de Santiago)

The Deposition (early Gothic; Leon cathedral on the Camino de Santiago)

Keep your mind in hell, and despair not.

— Staretz Silouan[i]

Ah, children, ah, dear friends, do not be afraid of life!

— Fyodor Dostoevsky[ii]

How do we sing the Lord’s song in the shadow of terror? In solidarity with all the victims of Brussels and the whole human family this week, I protest, I rage, I grieve, I pray. But I must also try to think.

Indiscriminate terror has long been a scourge on this earth, but its globalization through television and social media has now made it emotionally inescapable. Were I to dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, I could not flee from its presence.[iii]

So as we try to absorb the terrible news from Brussels, how do we “despair not” even in the face of monstrous evil? No simple task, and easy answers seem disrespectful in the time of weeping. But I do believe the antidote to despair is to keep the faith. We must never forget the sacred story we belong to. Even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.[iv]

The terrorist, on the other hand, belongs to a story which for most of us in inconceivable. Terror is “the language of being noticed,”[v] a kind of performative rhetoric designed to bring a neglected or disregarded worldview into the open by subjecting others to the violent norms of its alternate reality. They see themselves as global victims, in search of a global audience for their cruel narrative. Mark Juergensmeyer, in his study of religious violence, explains this terrorist rationale:

If the world is perceived as peaceful, violent acts appear as terrorism. If the world is thought to be at war, violent acts may be regarded as legitimate. They may be seen as preemptive strikes, as defensive tactics in an ongoing battle, or as symbols indicating to the world that it is indeed in a state of grave and ultimate conflict.[vi]

In the minds of many terrorists, the war they are so eager to wage is apocalyptic, a cosmic conflict of good and evil in which there is no compromise or bridging of differences. They are, in Don DeLillo’s term, “lethal believers.” And the very worst thing we could do in response would be to play the part they have written for us: satanic enemies in a cosmic struggle. The proposals of certain American presidential candidates to “bomb the hell out of them,” or bring back the good old days of torture, would play perfectly into the terrorists’ hands, conceding the primacy of their deadly story.

However, I choose to belong to a better story, the one enacted and embodied in the powerful liturgies of Christ’s Passion. Step by step on the Way of the Cross this Holy Week, Christians will bring to mind and heart the saving journey which Jesus made, without weapons, into the abyss of suffering and death.

Renouncing all violence and hatred, Jesus remained faithful to the end. After pouring his whole life into a ministry of healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation, he continued to show us the face of love even as he was tortured on the cross. “Father, forgive,” he said with his dying breath. To the last moment, in his most bitter hour, he remained the human who shows us God by doing what God does.

Which story do we choose to live in? The story of terror and violence, or the story of self-diffusive love? Both are costly in the end, but only one leads to new and unconquerable life. Even after Brussels, the word remains: Be not afraid! Love makes the abyss into a Way.

The cross shows us how it is possible to absorb evil and neutralize its effects, rather than pass on the anger and live in bitterness. Turning the other cheek, going the extra mile, giving away your coat to the robber who steals your shirt, loving enemies, doing good to those who hate, blessing those who curse us – all this turns out to be an intelligent and intelligible Christian way of living.[vii]

When medieval women mystics contemplated the cross in prayer and vision, they saw not death’s triumph but a kind of birth. The crucified Jesus was like a woman in labor, enduring pain and travail in order to bring us all to birth: Ah! Sweet Lord Jesus Christ, who ever saw a mother suffer such a birth! For when the hour of your delivery came you were placed on the hard bed of the cross and … in one day you gave birth to the whole world.[viii]

To see such a death and call it birth is the central act of Christian imagination. It is why we declare victory at the cross. We don’t wait for Easter Sunday. We declare victory at the cross, because the Passion isn’t just a story about violent powers that always trample the weak and kill the prophets. It’s also a story about the Realm of God, where dry bones breathe and lost hopes dance, where the prodigal is welcomed home and the tears are wiped from every eye. The Love that makes such a realm was nailed to a cross, but was not consumed by it. Death did what death does, and God did what God does.

And on the outcome of that story, I stake everything.

 

 

Related posts

We are the singers of life, not of death

After Paris and Beirut, what story shall we tell?

Beyond Punch and Judy: The art of nonviolent resistance

 

 

[i] Staretz Silouan (1866-1938) was a Russian monk on Mt. Athos in Greece. Appearing as an epigraph to Gillian Rose’s book, Love’s Work, I found this provocative saying in Andrew Shanks’ Against Innocence: Gillian Rose’s Reception and Gift of Faith (London: SCM Press, 2008), 9. Rose herself added this typically intense comment: “What Staretz Silouan is talking about is the subjective experience of God-forsakenness,” and even there finding God. “I want to sob and sob and sob,” she says, “until the prolonged shrieking becomes a shout of joy.”

[ii] From Alyosha Karamazov’s final speech in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York: Vintage Classics, 1991), 776

[iii] cf. Psalm 139:6, 8

[iv] Burial of the Dead, Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, 499

[v] Don DeLillo, quoted in Mark Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000 ), 139

[vi] Juergensmeyer, 10

[vii] David Wood, in Consuming Passion: Why the Killing of Jesus Really Matters, eds. Simon Barrow & Jonathan Bartley (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2007), 118

[viii] Marguerite d’Oingt (d. 1310)

Beyond Punch and Judy: The art of nonviolent resistance

image

In Faith and Violence, a book published amid the political turbulence of 1968, Thomas Merton told an old Hasidic story about two men, one drunk and one sober, who were beaten and robbed as they traveled through the forest. Asked later about what had happened, the sober one described the violent encounter in vivid detail, but the drunken one seemed quite placid. “We’re all right,” he said. “Everything is fine.” Merton went on to observe that for some, faith “seems to be a kind of drunkenness, an anesthetic, that keeps you from realizing and believing that anything can ever go wrong.” But, he asked, is faith a “narcotic dream” or is it “an awakening”? Then he delivered his punch line: “What if we were to awaken to discover that we were the robbers, and our destruction comes from the root of hate in ourselves.”[i]

At a time when a brutal war was raging in the jungles of Vietnam, police and protestors were clashing in the American street, and leaders who spoke out for justice and peace were being assassinated, a monk dedicated to contemplative retreat from the world felt compelled to explore the theology of love in an age of violence, one which would “deal realistically with the evil and injustice of the world.”[ii] How do we resist the violence in our society without adding our own anger and demons into the mix? How do we resist systemic and social sin while harboring no illusions about our own capacities to do harm?

In recent days there have been numerous conversations about the escalating political violence surrounding the Trump campaign. My own post (March 12) on the topic has generated heartfelt responses of shared concern. Many of us are wondering what we can do about the situation without defaulting to our own versions of anger or fear. We need experienced guides through such tricky terrain, and Thomas Merton is one of the best.

“We no longer communicate,” Merton said. “We abandon communication in order to celebrate our own favorite group-myths in a ritual pseudo-event.”[iii] He wrote that in the Sixties, but he could have been describing a Trump rally, which, in the absence of substantive content, is mostly a ritual acting out of a group-myth, reaching its crescendo in the anticipated expulsion of protesters. As Rachel Maddow showed in a recent montage of those expulsions, Trump repeatedly asks the crowd, “Isn’t this exciting?” Roughing up protesters may express anything from personal rage to fascist methodology, but it is also entertainment. As Neil Postman has noted, Americans like “amusing ourselves to death.”[iv] When the anti-Trump signs come out, the crowd gets happy, knowing the real fun is about to begin.

This is all contemptible and sad. But I wonder: how do protestors avoid becoming unwitting collaborators in Trump’s entertainments? Even if they don’t hit back or give the crowd the finger, how do they escape complicity in a political Punch and Judy show? How do they avoid getting their own group-myths stuck in the futility of an endless ritualized dualism of “us versus them”?

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God. The peacemaker is committed to communion as the nature and destiny of humankind. As Martin Luther King said in a speech I remember from my college days, we must see the face of Christ even in the police who are attacking us with dogs and fire hoses. Or as Jesus himself taught, we must love our enemies. That does not mean capitulating to evil, or abstaining from the tainted ambiguities of political conflict. But it does mean that we ultimately belong to a much better story, where one day the tears will be wiped from every eye, the lion will lie down with the lamb, and the prodigal will be welcomed home. It means that our highest commitment is not to defeat our enemies but to make the divine love story of amazing grace come true for everyone.

As Merton wrote, “Christian nonviolence is not built on a presupposed division, but on the basic unity of [humankind]. It is not out for the conversion of the wicked to the ideas of the good, but for the healing and reconciliation of … the human family.”[v] This isn’t sentimental benevolence or passive submission. It’s a very tough form of love, as Jesus, Gandhi, King and many others have demonstrated in their costly commitment to a wider, more generous perspective than the self-righteous justifications of partisan interests. Our struggles must always reject the ultimacy of division in favor of communion. “The key to nonviolence,” Merton reminds us, “is the willingness of the nonviolent resister to suffer a certain amount of accidental evil in order to bring about a change of mind in the oppressor.”[vi]

But how do we apply this wisdom to the specific challenges of our own day? How can we respond creatively to the upwelling of anger, fear, racism and nativism poisoning our public life? In 1968, Merton compiled a list of principles for nonviolent resisters which is worth considering. While he admitted that the complexity and fluidity of events in that turbulent year could make any opinion lose its value in a matter of weeks, I believe his prescriptions retain an enduring value:

1) “be free from unconscious connivance with an unjust and established abuse of power”

2) “be not for [oneself[ but for others, that is for the poor and underprivileged”

3) “dread a facile and fanatical self-righteousness and refrain from being satisfied with dramatic self-justifying gestures”

4) demonstrate “a desirable alternative” to violence and injustice

5) use means which embody and manifest the emergent way of being which Christians call the Kingdom of God

6) be “willing to learn something from the adversary”

7) be grounded in hope and humility – what we strive for is a gift from God’s future: not of our own making, and not yet fully here [vii]

I particularly like Number 4 (demonstrate a desirable alternative) and Number 6 (embody and manifest the Kingdom of God). It is what we do in the eucharist, where everyone is welcome, everyone practices reconciliation, and everyone shares the bread of heaven. But can we take such countercultural vision into the street?

Yes we can. There are various ways (many of which have yet to be invented!). Even into her nineties, my mother joined the “women in black” every Friday in silent vigil against the Iraq war on the streets of Santa Barbara. Their faithful witness was impossible to ignore, while at the same time it perfectly embodied the peace for which they stood.

A very different display of visionary resistance occurred at the World Trade Organization (WTO) protests in Advent of 1999. Those who watched the news only saw the Punch and Judy show of untrained police and young provocateurs turning a shoving match into a tear-gassed conflict. But the most important things that happened were not on television. This is what I myself witnessed on the day of the big rally and march[viii]:

There was a large banner which read, AN INJURY TO ONE IS AN INJURY TO ALL. It seemed a perfect summary of the gospel: “If you do it to one of the least of my brothers and sisters, you do it to me.” All in Christ, Christ in all. Solidarity forever. We were there to speak for all those whom the WTO would rather silence or forget – voices crying in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord.”

At 12:30 pm, we took to the streets, marching up Fourth Avenue. to join the thousands more who were already downtown. It was a wonderfully diverse procession: there were people dressed as Santa Claus, sea turtles, trees, and even death. But it was not some crazy fringe out there. As one writer put it, “These were the kids at UW, the ladies from church, the guys at Boeing. It was Seattle that was marching this week.”

As in all street rituals, there was a playful, carnival atmosphere. As Richard Shechner observes in his book, The Future of Ritual:

“When people go into the streets en masse, they are celebrating life’s fertile possibilities…They put on masks and costumes, erect and wave banners, and construct effigies not only to disguise or embellish their ordinary selves, or to flaunt the outrageous, but also to act out the multiplicity each human life is…They protest, often by means of farce and parody, against what is oppressive, ridiculous and outrageous…Such playing challenges official culture’s claims to authority, stability, sobriety, immutability and immortality.”[ix]

In other words, we were exhibiting the same spirit – dare I say “holy spirit”? – of playfulness, camaraderie, irony and subversion that was seen ten years ago at Tiananmen Square and the Berlin Wall and, during biblical times, at the Red Sea and the Triumphal Entry on Palm Sunday. And as faith tells us, the powers don’t stand a chance against the foolishness of God.

There were people on stilts, people carrying giant puppets, babies in carriages and elders with canes and walkers. I stuck close to the Anti-Fascist Marching Band, which played soulful New Orleans versions of “America the Beautiful”, “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War.” We all just danced up Fourth Avenue …

So, my friends, how shall we do the Kingdom dance in the year of grace 2016?

 

 

 

[i] Thomas Merton, Faith and Violence: Christian Teaching and Christian Practice (Notre Dame, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1968) ix-x (All quotes from Faith and Violence are in The Thomas Merton Encyclopedia (New York: Orbis Books, 2002) under the entry on Merton’s book, but I have listed the original volume’s page numbers in the footnotes.)

[ii] ibid., 9

[iii] ibid., 159

[iv] Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Penguin, 2005)

[v] Merton, 15

[vi] ibid., 27-28

[vii] ibid., 21-25

[viii] From a sermon I preached the following Sunday at St. Augustine’s-in-the-Woods Episcopal Church, Whidbey Island, WA (Advent II, 1999))

[ix] Richard Schechner, The Future of Ritual: Writings on Culture and Performance (London & New York: Routledge, 1993), 46

How far can we sink? – Donald Trump and the vortex of rage

Rashad Alakbarov, "Do Not Fear," installation at Venice Biennale 2015

Rashad Alakbarov, “Do Not Fear,” installation at Venice Biennale 2015

We must love one another or die.

— W. H. Auden, “September 1, 1939”

In the early 1930s, about a hundred communists crashed a Nazi meeting in Bremen, Germany, determined to break it up. One of them, Richard Krebs, rose to interrupt a speech by Herman Göring, head of the notorious SA stormtroopers, a paramilitary group dedicated to political intimidation and violence. Krebs only got out a few words before the “brownshirts” rushed toward him. As Krebs later wrote,

“A terrifying mêlée followed. Blackjacks, brass knuckles, clubs, heavy buckled belts, glasses and bottles were the weapons used. Pieces of glass and chairs hurtled over the heads of the audience. Men from both sides broke off chair legs and used them as bludgeons. Women fainted in the crash and scream of battle. Already, dozens of heads and faces were bleeding, clothes were torn as the fighters dodged about amid masses of terrified but helpless spectators. The troopers fought like lions. Systematically they pressed us on towards the main exit. The band struck up a martial tune. Hermann Göring stood calmly on the stage, his fists on his hips.”[i]

A political life fraught with such violent thuggery once seemed unimaginable in contemporary America. What happened in Germany could never happen here, we tell ourselves. Physical violence as a routine form of political expression is not something we expect our leaders to tolerate, much less encourage. What, then, are we to make of the violent anger which has become a common feature of Donald Trump rallies?

At one such gathering, a man held up a sign, “Make America hate again!” The crowd happily obliged, ripping up the sign and roughing up the protester. At another rally, on March 10, a 78-year-old man in the crowd sucker-punched a young activist as he was being escorted out of the arena by Trump’s security guards. “He deserved it,” the man told a reporter. “Next time, we might have to kill him.”[ii]

In Ashley Parker’s excellent New York Times piece on this phenomenon, she sees the crowd’s violent reaction as “almost biological”:

“Trump supporters typically begin shouting, pointing, jeering — and sometimes kicking or spitting — at the protester, surrounding the offender in a tight circle, like antibodies trying to isolate and expel an unwanted invader from the bloodstream.”[iii]

Is Trump to blame for the passions of his followers? He has made some cursory disclaimers after the fact, but when the anger erupts he does little to discourage it.

On February 1, he told an Iowa crowd to be on the lookout for protesters with tomatoes. “If you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of ‘em, would you? Seriously. Okay? Just knock the hell – I promise you, I will pay for the legal fees, I promise, I promise.” Later that month, as a protester was being ejected from another rally, Trump said, “I’d like to punch him in the face.”[iv] It is hard to listen to this stuff without thinking of Göring in Bremen, standing “calmly on the stage, his fists on his hips.”

When asked by reporters about the violence, Trump talks about “the good old days” when America wasn’t “weak,” and you were able to dish out a well-deserved pummeling. “This country has to toughen up,” he says. “These people are bringing us down.”[v]

Such scapegoating is one of the hallmarks of fascism. Instead of the hard work of developing concrete policies and building support for them, the leader simply invokes fear and hatred of “the other” to unite his followers. Trump repeatedly demonizes protesters as “nasty people” and blames them for initiating the violence, even though no reporter or camera has seen anything to support his claim, except for one thrown tomato that is said to have missed the mark.[vi] This one-sidedness may change, of course, for violence can be highly contagious.

Trump has argued that his supporters are not really angry people, but that they “do get angry when we see the stupidity with which our country is run and how it’s being destroyed.”[vii] His rhetoric bears a chilling resemblance to the Nazi justifications for Kristallnacht: “an expression of the people’s rage” …. “ “a just measure of indignation”… “our patience is exhausted.”[viii]

A few days ago, Trump described an incident at an earlier rally. “He was a rough guy and he was punching. And we had some people – some rough guys like we have right in here – and they started punching back. It was a beautiful thing.”[ix]

In this week’s Republican presidential debate, the three other candidates were given the opportunity to condemn the political violence of Trump’s mob, but they kept silent. Maybe they were hoping it would all just go away, without their having to risk the loss of any votes from “the base.” But silence in the face of evil is just endorsement by default.

We hear God invoked repeatedly in presidential campaigns by candidates who claim to be good Christians. But a “Christianity” so enamored of what theologian John Milbank calls the “ontology of violence” feels unrecognizable to me. Whether it is the manipulation of anger at a rally or policies of aggression against everyone who is “other,” such a politics is anathema to the transformative project of conforming the social body to the divine desire for justice, forgiveness, and peace.

Last October I had a conversation about American politics with a few British shape note singers in a London pub. They wanted to know what on earth the Trump spectacle was all about. I muttered the common wisdom of the moment about a clownish celebrity who would soon fade away. “Watch out,” warned one of the Brits, the daughter of an Anglican priest. “A single dumb candidate can make the whole process dumber, and drag everyone down to his level. That happened here when we elected our mayor. It could happen in America.”

She was right, as we now know, although “dumb” is the least of it. How far can we still sink? In Richard Evans’ acclaimed trilogy on the Third Reich, he describes Germany on the eve of the Nazi takeover in one disturbing sentence: “Years of beatings and killings and clashes on the streets had inured people to political violence and blunted their sensibilities.”[x]

The blunting of our own sensibilities should be worrying us. But how can we resist the downward pull of fear, hatred and violence without ourselves being corrupted by it, or sucked into its vortex of rage? How may we give concrete political form to the better angels of our nature?

The day after Martin Luther King was assassinated, Senator Robert Kennedy spoke against the violence permeating American culture in the 1960s:

“Some look for scapegoats, others look for conspiracies, but this much is clear: violence breeds violence, repression brings retaliation, and only a cleansing of our whole society can remove this sickness from our soul.”[xi]

Two months later, Bobby Kennedy himself would be cut down by the political violence he had so earnestly lamented. As for the rest of us, the day of our collective cleansing still remains sadly distant.

 

 

 

[i] Richard J. Evans, The Coming of the Third Reich (New York: Penguin Books, 2003), 270

[ii] Ashley Parker, “Riskiest Political Act: Protesting at Rallies for Donald Trump” (New York Times, March 10, 2016)

[iii] ibid.

[iv] Philip Bump, The Fix, Washington Post online, March 10, 2016

[v] Jim Salter & Jill Colvin, Associated Press, March 11, 2016

[vi] Daniel White, “Donald Trump Tells Crowd”, Time online, February 1, 2016

[vii] Salter & Colvin

[viii] Walter Laqueur & Judith Tydor Baumel, eds., The Holocaust Encyclopedia (New Haven: Yale UP 2001). 390

[ix] Jill Colvin & Michael Tarm, Associated Press, March 11, 2016

[x] Evans, 348

[xi] Robert F. Kennedy, Remarks to the Cleveland City Club, April 5, 1968

“God isn’t fixing this”

Advent installation by Jim Friedrich at St. John's Episcopal Church, Los Angeles (1977)

Advent installation by Jim Friedrich at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Los Angeles (1977)

O come, O come Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel.

Once upon a time, worshippers entered their church on the Second Sunday of Advent to find a great wall between themselves and the sanctuary. The beautiful mosaics, the richly colored marble walls, and the magnificent carved Christ above the high altar were all hidden from view by this strange iconostasis, made from front pages of the Los Angeles Times. Instead of the images of holy men and women that adorn a traditional altar screen, there were banner headlines screaming catastrophe and mayhem.

When the assembly was seated, a mime came up the aisle to stand before the wall, searching for some way through it. His movements and gestures indicated perplexity, frustration, and finally discouragement. Then a voice from beyond the wall cried out,

Jerusalem, turn your eyes to the east,
see the joy that is coming to you from God. (Baruch 4:36).

Responding to the voice, the mime tore a small hole in the wall, and peeked through. He seemed entranced by what he saw.

The voice continued:

Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem,
and put on forever the beauty of God’s glory. (Baruch 5:1)

The mime began to tear down the wall, encouraging others to join him. One by one, people rose from their pews to rip down the veil “of sorrow and affliction,” until the beauty of God’s sanctuary was finally revealed.

This simple but powerful ritual, the prelude to a eucharist I curated forty years ago at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Los Angeles, comes to mind whenever I hear that passage from Baruch in the December lectionary. It’s what we pray for each Advent from our place on this side of the wall: Good Lord, deliver us. Stir up your power. Tear down the wall between us. Show us your glory.

That wall of headlines reflected my ongoing interest in connecting Advent themes with the news of the world. The WTO protests in Seattle (1999) and the Occupy Movement (2011) both coincided nicely with Advent, mirroring its prophetic themes of judging the present order with the hope and vision of something better.[i] And just last week, the front page of the New York Daily News supplied a marvelous Advent provocation. By noon, it had 11 million Facebook views, and 74,000 shares.

New York Daily News, 12/3/15

New York Daily News, 12/3/15

The headline was a sharp rebuke to the shameless politicians who promise prayers for the victims of gun violence while refusing to do anything about the guns. Calling them “cowards who could truly end gun scourge” but instead “hide behind pious platitudes,” the newspaper offered a blunt theological assertion: “God isn’t fixing this.”[ii]

The daily office Old Testament readings for early Advent, calling the world to account for its evils, say much the same thing. To those who refuse to “renounce the dictates of our own wicked hearts,”[iii] the prophets imagine God declaring, “You made your own bed. Now lie in it.” (Thankfully, the prophets always redeem their rants in the end with comforting decrees of mercy and salvation).

However, the Lieutenant Governor of Texas was not comfortable with the Daily News’ riff on the old biblical idea that God sometimes gets fed up with human folly. His photoshopped revision was posted on Facebook and Twitter.

God hears our prayers

Of course this clueless retort (note the unfortunate juxtaposition of the headline with the red banner above it) did not actually answer the question of whether – or how – God acts in the world to “fix” things. It was just a clumsy attempt by a presumed gun lover to change the subject. Platitudes about prayer in the abstract are safe because they have no consequences, unlike real prayer, which always implicates the petitioner in a process of change and action. If we pray for an end to gun violence, we obligate ourselves to do all in our power to reduce it. Prayer is a call for action; it politicizes what we pray for. Prayer is not simply leaving things up to God. It is an act of volunteering to be part of God’s solution.

But is there such a thing as God’s solution? Does God – can God – fix things? It is not a question with a clear and simple answer. Human freedom has thrown a monkey wrench into the story of the world, while God has surrendered absolute control of the narrative. If we make a mess of things, God is not an indulgent parent rushing in to cover for us. We don’t get to multiply our weapons and then wonder why God allows so much violence.

So where does that leave us? In the Advent section of his Christmas Oratorio,[iv] W. H. Auden describes a closed-in, godless world where hope is absent.

Alone, alone about a dreadful wood
Of conscious evil runs a lost mankind …
The Pilgrim Way has led to the abyss.

But what if we are not alone? What if there is a God who can make the abyss into a way? What if an unexpected future is breaking through the walls of our self-made prison? The Advent message is to embrace this hope, as we take off the garments of sorrow and affliction to welcome the God of joy into our midst.

Whatever the “solution” (salvation) may be in the tangled histories of the world and the soul, it is a long-term, sometimes excruciating, process, requiring honest engagement with the consequences of human sin in acts of confession, repentance, reconciliation, justice, healing, sacrifice, and transformation. And I submit that these are not simply things we do with God, as though God were only a helper from the outside. They are things we do in God, or God does in us, as our own intentions and actions become the embodiment – the incarnation – of divine purpose.

So yes, I believe that God is fixing the world, but not in the short run. And not without us.

 

 

 

 

 

[i] I preached on both these events at the time, with mixed results. Some were not so ready to find traces of God in social movements which trouble the powers-that-be. One church subsequently banned me from its pulpit for being too “partisan.” Guilty as charged.

[ii] New York Daily News, December 3, 2015.

[iii] Baruch 2:8

[iv] W. H. Auden, For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio, in Collected Poems, ed. Edward Mendelson (New York: Random House, 1976), 273