When Love is the Way

Magnus Zeller, The Orator, Germany c. 1920 (Los Angeles County Museum of Art)

The Episcopal “Daily Office” provides prayers and Scripture for various times of day. Derived from medieval monastic liturgies, the practice of hallowing the beginning, middle and end of our days with both corporate and private prayer can offer refuge and refreshment, lifting us out of the relentless rush of time to remember what it’s all about and deepen our connection with the holy One, who is our Source, our Companion, and our End.

This venerable prayer practice is not an escape from the world, but a way of attending to it with clearer vision. Thus the Daily Office offers challenge as well as comfort. The God of history will not let us ingore the calamity and suffering wrought by what the original Book of Common Prayer called “the devices and desires of our own hearts.”

Sometimes the biblical readings seem ripped from the headlines, like this week’s Wednesday reading from Proverbs:

There are six things that the Lord hates,
seven that are an abomination to him:
haughty eyes,
a lying tongue,
and hands that shed innocent blood,
a heart that devises wicked plans,
feet that hurry to run to evil,
a lying witness who testifies falsely,
and one who sows discord in a family.[i]

I have to confess that in the midst of my prayer time I succumbed to uncharitable amusement when I read these words. They describe the American president––and his corrupt and cruel minions––so perfectly! But neither righteous outrage nor satirical jesting––and certainly not any presumption of our own goodness––will deliver us from the menace of these times.

Of course we must take sides against the malicious designs of evil tyrants in order to defend the vulnerable and preserve the common good. As Reinhold Niebuhr reminded my generation of theology students, trying to keep one’s own hands clean in a dirty conflict can be a form of capitulation. Sometimes our innocence must be sacrificed in the historical struggle for a better world. Dietrich Bonhoeffer knew this when he joined the plot against Hitler.

But engaging the powers of darkness solely on their own terms is toxic, perhaps fatal, in the long run. If our goal is community and communion, we cannot make division and opposition our primary weapons. On the day following the assassination of Martin Luther King (and two months before his own violent end), Bobby Kennedy made this point boldly to an audience afflicted by passions of grief, fear and rage.

“We must recognize that this short life can neither be ennobled or enriched by hatred or revenge. . . . violence breeds violence, repression brings retaliation, and only a cleansing of our whole society can remove this sickness from our soul.”[ii]

The United States has weathered dark and dangerous times before. But with the exception of the Civil War, has there been another time when our nation’s very survival has been in such doubt? Institutional and legal norms are under daily assault by the White House and Congress; Republicans turn a blind eye to corruption and the clear threat to democracy; racism, hatred and fear are fostered and encouraged by “the most powerful man on earth,” and a third of this country lives in a fact-free bubble, impervious to reason and morality. A recent headline called us “The Banana States of America.”[iii]

Bells of warning should ring out Danger! in every city and town. Prophets should shout The end is near! on every street. Pundits may worry, dissenters object, and activists resist, but where is the widespread public cry of peril and alarm? Imagine such passivity after Pearl Harbor or 9/11. Are most of us still taking for granted our national stability? Do we simply assume everything will return to normal after the next two elections?

In a recent Washington Post column, “Watch What Happens in Rome,” Anne Applebaum examines current Italian politics as a disturbing cautionary tale for the United States. After finally ousting a corrupt authoritarian leader, Italy failed to revert to a more benign and centrist public order.

“Reeling from the flood of broken promises, electorates did not turn back to honest realists who told them hard truths or laid out the hard choices. On the contrary: In Italy, as in so many Latin American countries in the past, the failure of populism has led to greater dislike of “elites,” both real and imaginary; a greater demand for radical and impossible change; and a greater sense of alienation from politics and politicians than ever before.”

Applebaum then wonders what we all should be wondering:

“In President Trump’s wake, we too are not necessarily going to return to the status quo ante, to a tame trade-off between centrist conservatives and centrist liberals, all of whom respect the Constitution, believe in the old definitions of patriotism and get elected based on their experience and political views. It is just as likely that national politics becomes a patchwork of competing, incompatible single-issue groups and causes; that otherwise disparate groups meet one another online and form temporary alliances. It is just as likely that irresponsibility and irrationality become something that people vote for, not something that they reject. Watch what happens in Rome, because it could be America’s future.”[iv]

Whether this or some other equally destabilizing scenario should come to pass, what are the friends of God called to do? Sadly, many of my Christian brothers and sisters are only making things worse. As another columnist, Leonard Pitts, lamented last week:

“Having seen putative Christians excuse the liar, rationalize the alleged pedophile, justify the sexual assaulter and cheer as walls are raised against the most vulnerable, it’s obvious that many of those who claim that name embody a niggardly, cowardly, selfish and situational “faith” that has little to do with Jesus.”[v]

In encouraging contrast to such shameless apostasy, an ecumenical group of Christian leaders has issued a timely manifesto, “Reclaiming Jesus: A Confession of Faith in a Time of Crisis.” Click the link to read the whole text, and share widely. It’s a good theoretical foundation for a gospel-based resistance.

The Confession is structured in six sections, pairing what we believe as disciples of Jesus and what we reject. Yes to imago Dei, no to racism; yes to compassion and kindness, no to neglect or abuse of the vulnerable; yes to servanthood, no to domination; yes to communion, no to division and oppression; yes to truth, no to lies; yes to global community, no to “America first.”

The last of these may be the most challenging for those who subscribe to the great American heresy of exalting nation over God. As Clarence Jordan observed many years ago, the biggest lie told in America is, “Jesus is Lord.” But “Reclaiming Jesus” aims higher: “Our churches and our nations are part of an international community whose interests always surpass national boundaries. We in turn should love and serve the world and all its inhabitants rather than to seek first narrow nationalistic purposes.”

Tonight the framers of this Confession are processing to the White House gates for a candlelight vigil. As they have written,

“We are living through perilous and polarizing times as a nation, with a dangerous crisis of moral and political leadership at the highest levels of our government and in our churches. We believe the soul of the nation and the integrity of faith are now at stake.”[vi]

Among the many church leaders marching in that procession will be the Most Rev. Michael Curry, the Episcopal Presiding Bishop whose sermon on love’s redemptive power, at last week’s royal wedding, invited a global audience to imagine the world as God made it to be:

Imagine our homes and families when love is the way.
Imagine neighborhoods and communities when love is the way.
Imagine our governments and nations when love is the way.
Imagine business and commerce when love is the way.
Imagine this tired old world when love is the way.[vii]

Let all the people say: Amen!

 

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7 Spiritual Practices: A To-do List for the Time of Trial

Dante and Lewis Carroll Walk into a Dark Wood

 

[i] Proverbs 6:16-19.

[ii] Remarks to the Cleveland City Club, April 5, 1968: https://www.jfklibrary.org/Research/Research-Aids/Ready-Reference/RFK-Speeches/Remarks-of-Senator-Robert-F-Kennedy-to-the-Cleveland-City-Club-Cleveland-Ohio-April-5-1968.aspx

[iii] Patrick T. Fallon, “The Banana States of America,” Washington Post, May 22, 2018.

[iv] Anne Applebaum, “Watch what happens in Rome. It could be our post-Trump future,” Washington Post, May 18, 2018.

[v] Leonard Pitts, “Oregon school district forced LGBTQ students to read the Bible––how Christian,” Miami Herald, May 17, 2018 (http://www.miamiherald.com/opinion/opn-columns-blogs/leonard-pitts-jr/article211384374.html).

[vi] “Reclaiming Jesus: A Confession of Faith in a Time of Crisis” (http://www.reclaimingjesus.org)

[vii] https://www.episcopalchurch.org/posts/publicaffairs/presiding-bishop-currys-sermon-royal-wedding

Whose world is it?

GTU Jesus icon face

I teach a course on “Jesus and the Movies,” examining nineteen features made on the life of Jesus between 1912 and 2014. And one of my favorites is a South African production, Son of Man (2006), which sets the gospel story in a fictional twenty-first century African country.

It begins in the desert, with Jesus and Satan sitting side by side atop a tall sand dune. There Satan offers Jesus the familiar temptations: use your power, dazzle the world, bow down to me and I will give you everything you desire.

Jesus listens for a while in silence. Suddenly he turns to Satan and shoves him off the ridge. As Satan tumbles downward – Milton’s fall of Lucifer comes to mind – Jesus shouts after him: “This is my world!”

Satan comes to a stop at the foot of the dune. He picks himself up and looks back defiantly at Jesus. “No,” he cries. “It’s my world!”

The film cuts abruptly to a village caught in the crossfire of a civil war. Terrible atrocities are taking place, making Satan’s point perfectly. It’s his world after all.

Tomorrow is the Feast of Christ the King, created by Pope Pius XI in 1925. Originally observed at the end of October as a prelude to All Saints Day, it was later moved to the last Sunday of the liturgical year, where it provides both a grand finale to the calendrical Christ narrative and a dramatic overture to Advent. In 1970 it was adopted by other churches using the Common Lectionary, including Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, and Presbyterians.

The pope was responding to the apocalyptic violence of World War I, where evil and madness seemed to have seized control of the world. He wanted to establish a clear reminder that it is Christ to whom the future belongs; it is Christ whom we must follow and serve.

Or in the words of Bob Dylan, “It may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you gotta serve somebody.”

While the imagery of Christ as Lord of all may require some unpacking for interfaith dialogue, the pope’s original encyclical was clearly focused on Christian practice. If we profess Christ as our way, our truth, our life, then, in the pope’s words, “none of our faculties is exempt from his empire.”

But what do we do when Christ’s “empire” is in conflict with our other allegiances? How much do we give to Jesus, and how much do we hold back? Jesus gets Sunday mornings; does he get the working week? He gets our spiritual life; does he get our worldly affairs? Does he get our relationships, or our stewardship of time? Does Jesus get our politics, our economics?

Clarence Jordan was a Baptist preacher, New Testament teacher, and farmer in rural Georgia. In his celebrated Cotton Patch Gospels, he translated the Jesus story into a southern idiom, explaining that “the Scriptures should be taken out of the classroom and stained-glass sanctuary and put out under God’s skies where people are toiling and crying and wondering; where the mighty events of the good news first happened and where they alone feel at home.” [i]

In the 1940’s, in the middle of “the Good War,” in the heart of the segregated South, Jordan founded Koinonia, an interracial, pacifist farming collective using a communitarian model more like early Christianity than late capitalism. For his faithfulness to the dominion of Christ, he and his community were harassed, shot at, and bombed. The local church expelled him.

He was often invited to speak to groups around the country, and he would ask them, “What’s the biggest lie told in America today?” He’d let the question sink in for a bit, and then he’d say, “The biggest lie told in America today is: Jesus is Lord.”

I first heard this story when I visited Koinonia in 1980 and had a long conversation with his widow Florence (Clarence died in 1969). And in these latter days his words ring truer than ever.

Last year the Ohio legislature, hoping to derail the Affordable Care Act, blocked an expansion of Medicaid that would provide health care to 275,000 people who had no coverage. But the governor, John Kasich, made an end run around the legislature and got it done anyway.

As he said at the time: “For those who live in the shadows of life, for those who are the least among us, I will not accept the fact that the most vulnerable in our state should be ignored.”

The lawmakers howled. How dare he put the needs of the poor above our political agenda! So this is how the governor explained it to one those legislators, whom he knew to be a fellow Christian:

“Now when you die and get to the meeting with St. Peter, he’s probably not going to ask you much about what you did to keep government small; but he is going to ask you what you did for the poor. Better have a good answer.”

Governor Kasich, himself a Republican, was denounced by many in his party for appealing to a power higher than their ideology. The Wall Street Journal, wanting to make it clear that Jesus, lover of the poor, was not in fact Lord in America, offered a tart response: “Republicans get a vote before St. Peter.”

In Matthew’s gospel, the last parable Jesus tells before his arrest and crucifixion pictures all of humanity gathered before the glorified ‘Son of Man’ – the Lord of history – who reveals that he has always been among them in the bodies of the poor and needy: “I was starving … I was naked … I was an undocumented alien … I had AIDS … I was a convict …”

Everyone is of course quite surprised. But they all take his point. When you kneel before Christ the King, it won’t be at the foot of a mighty throne, but before the holy icons of “the least of these” – the vulnerable, the marginalized, the broken, the forgotten.

Well you kneel to the Lord and you will bless yourself…
Ain’t no need to kneel to no one else. [ii]

[i] G. McCleod Bryan, “Theology in Overalls: The Imprint of Clarence Jordan”, Sojourners (Dec. 1979, vol. 8, no. 12)

[ii] Bob Franke, “Trouble in This World (It’ll Be All Right),” on Heart of the Flower (Daring DR3016), © Telephone Pole Music, 1995