Musings of an Anglican/Episcopal Priest

Tag: Religion and Spirituality

In Praise of Freedom and Loving One’s Neighbors

Lord God Almighty, in whose Name the founders of this country won liberty for themselves and for us, and lit the torch of freedom for nations then unborn: Grant that we and all the people of this land may have grace to maintain our liberties in righteousness and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen. (Collect for Independence Day, The Book of Common Prayer p. 242)

The Flag of the United States

We are fast approaching another birthday.  Not my birthday or your birthday (though perhaps yours is close as well), but the birthday of the United States, the anniversary of the adoption of Declaration of Independence, appropriately called Independence Day.  This Fourth of July will mark the two hundred and thirty fourth year since the declaration was adopted by the Continental Congress.  Two hundred and thirty four years is a respectable amount of time.  It may only be a drop in the bucket in terms of length of existence compared to some nations, but it’s definitely a good amount of time for a people to live under a democratic form of government.  Our cultural roots in North America may not extend so far into history as some other nations, for instance, in Europe, but our stability as a republic is unmatched.  Not only that, but we have many accomplishments and freedoms to celebrate.  The honoring of individual liberty is part of the DNA of the United States, and through its influence, this trait has been shared with or expanded in many other nations.

In recent years some Christians in attempting to shine a light on some of the unhelpful ways the Church has accommodated itself to the culture, have pointed out an unhealthy link between certain patterns of thought masquerading as Christianity, which serve to prop up negative versions of nationalism or to blur the distinction between the Kingdom of God and the United States of America.  In an attempt to combat this “Constantinian” turn, these folks have called attention to the ways in which Americans, like the English, Germans, Russians, Holy Romans and Byzantines (pick a country) before us–and contemporary with us–have sometimes justified wrongful national ambitions and actions in religiously steeped language.  Since all of these have been culturally Christian nations, that language has often taken the guise of Christian speech.  This is a helpful critique, and one that we should always be mindful of–all nations (indeed, all human institutions and every one of us individually) have a drive to self-justify.  And yet we should not let a drive to prevent the baptism of national vices stop us from appreciating the fruits of a hard won and costlily preserved Godly liberty.  And I would argue that one of the positive things we Americans have inherited and expanded from our English forebears is a conviction that freedom is a gift of God, and that freedom rightly exercised is a virtue both private and civil.

The line that all Christians must walk is the one that recognizes our status as resident aliens, citizens of another country first and foremost.  The Lordship and claims of Christ subvert and overcome all earthly claims and yet, I would argue they are not necessarily opposed to all earthly claims, helping us to prioritize and–at our best–become loyal citizens, patriots and ardent critics of our nation.  This is the line that Christians have had to walk since Constantine made the faith a licit or legal religion–I might repurpose the term and call this the “Constantinian line” that Christians have to walk.  You see, it’s rather easy to determine one’s relationship to a state that is hostile to your beliefs, and the New Testament is clear: be good citizens and follow the law unless it conflicts with your faith, then be willing to die for Jesus.  It’s a much more difficult situation to define one’s relationship to a state that doesn’t persecute, but even protects you and your right to worship.  This is the tension that our Christian forebears had to deal with, as they went from a position of being persecuted, and therefore withdrawing from public life, to one of being a legal–even an official–religion and then called upon to take up roles in civil affairs that they had never participated in before.

The way that Christian communities have chosen to walk this Constantinian line is one that has helped define them throughout history.  There have always been more sectarian groups that looked with greater or lesser degrees of skepticism on the claims of the state; the Anabaptist tradition is one example (think of the Amish or Mennonites), as are some forms of revivalism and holiness traditions.  Anyone who has seen the old movie “Sergeant York” will have seen an example of a revivalism committed to Christian non-violence come up against the claims of the state (and, we can tell from the title, how things played out).  Movements, like individuals, have changed their stances over time–the Assemblies of God, for example, were officially pacifistic until the 1960’s.  Our own tradition, as Anglicans, has been less skeptical of the authority of the state, and, sometimes to our detriment, more willing to work with the nation (England, and later the United States among others).  On the positive side though, our refusal to absent ourselves from public life has meant that we have attempted to fulfill a calling to act as a conscience to the nation, calling it back to its own best principals, celebrating triumphs and mourning failures.

It is this role as public conscience that I would argue we as a body of Christians are called to exercise, and in large measure this is most helpfully and fruitfully realized when we as individual Christians take up our roles in civic life as Christians, guided by the moral compass of our faith and calling our leaders–and ourselves–to account to the “better angels of our nature.”  This is where the true heart of Christian patriotism resides, not in justification of every act of the state, but in the love of neighbor that extends out to the love of home and nation.

The great philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre once compared being called to sacrifice for the modern bureaucratic state as something akin to being asked to die for the phone company (Ethics and Politics: Selected Essays Vol. 2, p 163).  If that were all our nation consisted of, he would be right.  But as any veteran will tell you, no soldier fights for a bureaucracy–at least not for very long–instead, people sacrifice for their neighbors, their loved ones, the people right next to them, the fellow members of their units, and those virtues of their homelands that they believe make life worth living, and which they believe are worth dieing for.  The heart of Christian patriotism is the love of neighbor, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends (John 15:3).”  The best way to honor these sacrifices, I believe, is to honor the virtues that have made this country worth sacrificing for.  Senator Carl Schurz said the following in 1872:

The Senator from Wisconsin cannot frighten me by exclaiming, “My country, right or wrong.” In one sense I say so too. My country; and my country is the great American Republic. My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.

These words echo very well the call of the Collect for Independence Day, which asks that we be granted the grace to “maintain our liberties in righteousness and peace.”  On this two hundred and thirty fourth birth day of our nation, let us give thanks to Almighty God for the many gifts and blessings he has bestowed upon our homeland, lets take this day and celebrate, enjoying the freedoms that have been won and held at so dear a cost.  And let us also, as faithful followers of Christ, exercise our calling to be in the world, not to retreat, and to work to make certain that this great and virtuous nation has not yet seen its greatest or most virtuous day, and that it remains one nation, under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.

Linkage: Interesting reads from around the net

Below are just a few of the things I’ve been reading over the past few days.  Check them out:

The Message of Palm Sunday: The Sunday of the Passion

The Triumphal Entry
The Triumphal Entry by Pietro Lorenzetti

It strikes me every year that the liturgists who authored the Prayer Book Liturgy for Palm Sunday wanted to discourage long sermons.  More than any other service, the message is communicated at the level of the gut, viscerally.  Very little interpretation or explanation is required beyond simple participation in the service.  A service which leaves us, intentionally, at a moment of great despair, there to linger for a week reflecting on our role in the events that transpired.

And I don’t simply mean our role in the liturgy, obviously, but our role in the events that the liturgy and the readings recount.  In the Liturgy of the Palms, we stand with those who welcomed Jesus‘ entry into Jerusalem with loud “Hosannas” and cheers and rejoicing.  Standing with them, crying out with them, we’re reminded what it feels like to finally have that log awaited desire fulfilled.  To see our most hoped for reality come to pass.  The Messiah has come!  The King who will restore the land to its rightful people.  The one who will settle accounts, restore good fortune, put to right injustices and bring people into line with the sword.  Hosanna! we cry, connecting with the joy they felt, believing that the day of the Lord they had always envisioned was coming to pass, that the Kingdom they assumed God would establish was being called into being.  Finally.  after all these years.  It’s time to celebrate.  To lay palm fronds at the feet of the one who comes, of the Messiah we’ve been waiting for.

But then, something happens, and the Liturgy forces us to confront a sad reality about the great throngs that greeted Jesus at the gates of Jerusalem, and about the great throngs of people who have lived and died on this earth in all the years since.  We transition, with the crowd, from shouts of praise and Hossana, to the Passion Gospel where we cry out “Crucify him!”  We learn, through participation, that the people who cheered so mightily at Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, cheered just as mightily for his crucifixion when they realized that this was not the Messiah that they wanted or expected.  This Jesus.  He was not the Messiah that they expected and this kingdom he announced… it was not a kingdom they wanted any part of.  And so they turned on him to protect what little they had, to guard the things they loved, the things they loved which they thought were dedicated to God, but for which they would crucify God.

And we’re there with them.

We’re put there with them by the liturgy, because we’re there with them in spirit so often in our day to day lives.  Today and throughout Holy Week we’re called to examine our relationship with God.  To examine what exactly it is we’re hoping for, why exactly it is we claim to follow this carpenter from Nazareth.  We’re called to seek within ourselves any evidence that we have, like the crowd, decided to shout “Hosanna,” because we have created a Messiah, a God, in our own image, because we have looked forward to the establishment of a kingdom governed by a law of our making.

We’re called to look with fresh eyes at Jesus and the message of his Gospel, and decide again whether it is a message we can handle, whether we’re willing to continue the hard work of changing our expectations and casting off our selfishness and prejudices in order to truly welcome the Kingdom that even now is coming more and more into reality.

We’re here today, as well, to be reminded of the times when we have said “Crucify him,” by our actions.  To be reminded of the times we have rejected the truth and message of the Gospel by rejecting what it means for us and for all people.  We may never have gone so far as to consciously reject or renounce Christ.  We may never have participated in a “de-baptism” ritual, such as have become popular among atheists in England these days.  Be that as it may, I would go so far as to say that all of us have at some point done something so out of conformity with what Jesus would have us do that we might as well have shouted those words while he stood in front of that crowd.

Our service today invites us to remember that, at least as much as any of the actions of those actually present in Jerusalem at that time, our sin, our need for redemption, placed Jesus on the cross.

In the words of the old Lutheran Hymn:

Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon Thee?
Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone Thee.
’Twas I, Lord, Jesus, I it was denied Thee!
I crucified Thee

Or as a priest friend of mine put it in one of his sermons:

We may well ask ourselves which role we play in this human drama. Do we test God, Jesus, the Spirit in terms of “What is in it for me?” The crowd did. Do we resent the way the Faith accuses us and wish we could silence Jesus, as Judas hoped? Do we run from Jesus and hide behind self-preservation? How ironic it is that the religious leaders and most of the disciples acted from self-interest. The Chief Priests convinced themselves that an unholy murder was justified to safeguard the institution. The disciples perhaps convinced themselves that if the work was to continue, they should protect themselves from arrest and punishment.

Over and over again in the long story of the church, Christian people have acted the roles we encounter today, not just on Palm Sunday… (Fr. Tony Clavier)

The reality is that as humans we are all of us, mixed bags.  Traditional Christian Theology has explained this by juxtaposing the reality that we are all made in the image and likeness of God, with the idea of Original Sin, which, though it can been articulated in different ways, basically means that, if God were to become incarnate today, if Jesus were to return, people today would react the same way they did over two thousand years ago.  The great philosopher Aristotle famously said that humanity “when perfected is the best of animals; but if […] isolated from law and justice […] worst of all.”

What Aristotle believed could only come by law and justice, as Christians, we know can come only through Grace.  Living well means saying yes to grace.

Rowan Williams makes the observation in his book Tokens of Trust:

“Only three human individuals are mentioned in the Creed, Jesus, Mary and Pontius Pilate: that is, Jesus; the one who says ‘yes’ to him; and the one who says ‘no’ to him. You could say that those three names map out the territory in which we all live. Through our lives, we swing towards one pole or the other, towards a deeper ‘yes’ or towards a deeper ‘no’. And in the middle of it all stands the one who makes sense of it all. Jesus—the one into whose life we must all try to grow, who can work with our ‘yes’ and can even overcome our ‘no’.” (p 76)

Palm Sunday with it’s liturgy is here to remind us that we all move back and forth on that continuum, that we all say no and we all say yes.  The challenge of the Christian life is to say the yes more and more and the no less and less.

Entombment of Christ by Fra Angelico

As Williams puts it in his book Resurrection: interpreting the Easter Gospel:

The condemning court, the murderous ‘city’, [i.e. Jerusalem, or more generally the world as opposed to God’s will] is indeed judged as resisting the saving will of God; but that does not mean that the will of God ceases to be saving. The rulers and the people are in rebellion; yet they act ‘in ignorance’ (Acts 3:17; cf. Luke 23:34), and God still waits to be graciously present in ‘times of refreshing’ (Acts 3:19). And grace is released when the judges turn to their victim and recognize him as their hope and their savior.” (p3)

If we are looking for hope in today’s bleak retelling of the Passion and death of Christ, it is that when we recognize our complicity in evil, we do not have to stay there.  We are not finally condemned.  Just because we may find ourselves resisting the saving will of God, that does not mean it is not saving.  And that is good news to hang onto as we mark the way of the cross this Holy Week.

Books referenced:

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Throwing Jesus off a Cliff

Trying to throw Jesus off a cliff

Luke 4:21-30 provides us with a glimpse of the ramifications of Jesus’ homecoming to Nazareth.  It all begins rather well earlier in the chapter, when Jesus–being filled with the Holy Spirit after his temptations in the wilderness–returns to Galilee and to his hometown of Nazareth.  Once there he goes to the Synagogue on the Sabbath day (which, as Luke reminds us, was his custom).  While there he exercises the right of every Jewish man to take part in the reading and interpretation of scripture (as an aside, the account given here of Synagogue worship is among the earliest accounts we have).  He reads the following passage from Isaiah, saying:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”

In his essay Salvation even in Sin: Learning to speak Truthfully about Ourselves,” Stanley Hauerwas makes in interesting observation under the heading “The Trouble with Sin:”

Just as Milton struggled not to let the devil become the hero of Paradise Lost, so any theologian who takes up the subject of sin must wrestle with the temptation of making sin more interesting than God. This is particularly a problem in our time, given the widespread habit of using the word ‘God’ as a generalized concept to name all that which remains inexplicable.  Not surprisingly, in such a time many people are often more ready to believe themselves sinners than creatures of a gracious God.  At least they are more ready to believe they are sinners than they are to believe in a God who not only is the beginning and the end of all that is but who has refused to abandon us to our sins. (61)

In the return of Christ to Nazareth where he had grown up, we see an example of what it can mean for God to get specific.  In terms of his identity, Jesus is the incarnation of the Word, the second person of the Trinity and thereby conveys the character of God (2 Corinthians 4:6).  One of the things that Jesus does continually throughout his ministry is to challenge those who believe themselves to be faithful, calling them to examine the content of their faith and make an honest assessment of whether they have truly been following the spirit of the law as well as the letter.  The challenge presented by the character of God revealed in Christ is a bit more than a critique of the pious loosing their way, it is a challenge to one of the fundamental ideas that many of Jesus’ listeners had held onto their whole lives, i.e. the idea that God’s grace and mercy is extended first and primarily–if not solely–to the people of Israel, and specifically, for some folks, only the religiously fastidious among the people of Israel.  In this situation in Nazareth, the people are appreciative of Jesus’ interpretation of the text from Isaiah, until he gets to the point of revealing two separate but related points.  First, He is going to do no miracles in Nazareth, his home town, because he does not expect that they would be received by the people there, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown” (Luke 4:23).  Secondly, expanding from the particular to the more general, he emphasizes the times in Israel’s history when the grace of God has been extended beyond the bounds of the people of Israel, even as some among the chosen people suffered.  It is at this point that the people become angry, run him out of town and decide to throw him off the cliff.  The people aren’t so much angered by any implication that they are sinners (though there are plenty of occasions in the Gospels when that becomes a sticking point), as they are angered by the idea that the grace of God might be active outside the boundaries they recognize or impose.

So how does this relate to the tendency Hauerwas points out?  The people of Nazareth may have been prepared to hear of their failures and sins–the ways in which they could have been more faithful in keeping the Law–but what they were fundamentally not prepared for was to be challenged in their perception of God’s grace and care.  They were angered not only because Jesus illustrated his point by talking about people from the history of Israel who had not been healed or saved from their circumstances, but because of the fact that foreigners sometimes experienced God’s aid when Israel did not–it was a challenge not simply because of the seeming randomness of divine intervention, but because God’s grace was not as limited as they believed it to be.  In the end it was not a pronouncement of judgment, but a pronouncement of grace that caused the people to want to throw Jesus off a cliff.  This is often still the case.

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