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American Gods: On Mawmaw’s Faith in Hillbilly Elegy

In Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance’s powerful memoir, we meet an amazing character: Mamaw.  Vance’s grandmother, Mamaw is simultaneously the fiercest and most supportive person in his young life. She’s equal parts endearing and terrifying.  Mamaw read her Bible every night, but wasn’t afraid to grab a gun and aim it at the center mass of anyone who threatened her family.  She’s fascinating, to put it mildly.  Vance, in naming her deepest commitments, describes her thus: “Mamaw always had two gods: Jesus Christ and the United States of America. I was no different, and neither was anyone else I knew.”

Throughout history, Christians have had a variety of different relationships with governing authorities. In many times and places (including today), Christians find themselves oppressed by state power. On occasion, the church has been formally tied to governmental authority (think early Medieval Europe, or the late Roman Empire).  Even when not in power directly, at times Christians find that they can and do support the state, while in other contexts Christians must oppose the state.  This diversity of approach is represented in Scripture; government, when it is serving  its God-given purpose, is something like the portrayal in Romans 13.  The emperor “does not bear the sword in vain” but is an agent of justice.

On the other hand, when government is in full rebellion against God, when Caesar is truly evil and the state is failing in its purpose, it is under judgment like the Beast of Revelation 13.  This is why, in some circumstances, Christian fidelity might look like (relative) support of the state or (relative) opposition to the state.  Amid the complexities of actual history, this is clearly a scale, not a binary – and in most situations there are some things the church can support and others she must resist in various ways.

The description of Mawmaw’s priorities reminds me of the important distinction between nationalism and patriotism.  A Christian can be a patriot, and locate themselves anywhere on that scale.  Nationalism is a different animal, though, and one that really is not a Christian option.  Here is the best definition I’ve seen of the difference:

Patriotism is fundamental to liberty because pride in one’s nation-state, and a willingness to defend it if necessary, is the basis of national independence. Patriotism is the courage of national self-determination.

By contrast, nationalism is patriotism transformed into a sentiment of superiority and aggression toward other countries. Nationalism is the poisonous idea that one’s country is superior to somebody else’s. Nationalism is intrinsically a cause of war and imperialism.

The first option is open to, but not required, of Christians.  Augustine describes persuasively in City of God how bonds of affection naturally develop between an individual and the geography and culture in which they live, no matter how secondary such bonds are to a Christian’s identification with the Heavenly CIty.

Nationalism, however, is antithetical to the gospel because it fails to locate pride of place in a proper order of loyalties.  To put it simply, insofar as the nationalist’s love of country rivals or is greater than their love of God, it becomes a form of idolatry.  The patriot, on the other hand, might be able to recognize the kind of failure of vocation described in Revelation 13, having properly sifted their love of country through the sieve of the gospel.  Nationalism can only ever be blind.

I learned the phrase “chastened patriot” from one of my intellectual heroes, the late University of Chicago public intellectual Jean Bethke Elsthain.  It was her way of expressing an Augustinian conviction which holds together both the need for the good order provided by government and the finitude found in even the best organizational scheme that humans can concoct.

I’m not sure if Vance’s Mawmaw was a chastened patriot or not, but she is described like many Christians I’ve known, particularly in the US South: their religiosity and their love of country are almost one in the same.  They might tell you that God is first in their life, but in truth, July 4 might be, for their family, an equally important holiday to Easter.  In terms of identity, they will tear up for Lee Greenwood before they will Isaac Watts.  Of course, Mawmaw’s faith, like that of so many other adherents to civil religion, is classic American Protestantism: it has almost nothing to do with the Christian community.

As a response to the sort of undiluted nationalism of the Mawmaws out there, many Christians (especially since last year’s election) have rediscovered their Anabaptist streak, looking for any chance to oppose the powers that be.  This – while necessary, as examples like Barmen, Romero, Bonhoeffer, and King make clear – can become another form of idolatry, if taken too far.  All governments stand under God’s judgment.  Our job as Christians is not, first, to make history turn out right.  Let us be known, first, for whose we are, not what we stand against.

To wrap up our Christian identity in either supporting or opposing Caesar gives him far too much credit.  Stick to Jesus. Let him, not your love for or hatred of any Caesar, be your guide.

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God’s Kingdom & Our Hands

by Drew 3 Comments

What role, if any, do our hands play in God’s Kingdom? In his collected essays and lectures titled Signs Amid the Rubble (edited by my former professor, Geoffrey Wainwright), bishop and missiologist Lesslie Newbigin describes the Kingdom of God as the realm of God’s rule in human society and all creation – a rule that will not be fully realized until the last things, the eschaton.  He elaborates on why God’s Reign cannot yet be fully realized:

The perfect society cannot lie this side of death. And moreover it cannot be the direct result of our efforts. We all rightly shrink from the phrase “building the Kingdom of God” not because the Kingdom does not call for our labor, but because we know that the best work of our hands and brains is too much marred by egotism and pride and impure ambition to be itself fit for the Kingdom. All our social institutions, even the very best that have been produced under Christian influence, have still the taint of sin about them. By their own horizontal development they cannot, as it were, become the Kingdom of God. There is no straight line of development from here to the Kingdom.

But if we, with all our our wisdom and sweat and blood, cannot help but fail in any effort to bring God’s Kingdom “on earth as it is in heaven,” does our effort still matter? Do we need to work towards the Kingdom in some capacity, or can we simply sit with legs folded and enjoy a latte while all creation languishes?

Newbigin describes how good ministry is reliant upon the resurrection for its meaning and purpose, and how in Christ even death does not completely swallow up our effort.  John Ortberg may be right that it all goes “back in the box” when the game is over, but as Easter people we also know that death does not get the last word. The work of our hands, directed towards God’s purposes, is not work done in vain:

Our faith as Christians is that just as God raised up Jesus from the dead, so will He raise up us from the dead. And that just as all that Jesus had done in the days of his flesh seemed on Easter Saturday to be buried in final failure and oblivion, yet was by God’s power raised to new life and power again, so all the faithful labor of God’s servants which time seems to bury in the dust o failure, will be raised up, will be found to be there, transfigured, in the new Kingdom.  Every faithful act of service, every honest labor to make the world a better place, which seemed to have been forever lost and forgotten in the rubble of history, will be seen on that day to have contributed to the perfect fellowship of God’s Kingdom. (46-47)

No act of faithfulness to God’s Kingdom is ultimately lost, just as no person who has turned to God will be lost, for God will raise us up and make us participants in the fullness of His Kingdom – a Kingdom which we have not built, but a Kingdom to which our work has pointed, longed for, and honored.

Rightly understood, Newbigin’s point undermines the regnant eschatologies (ideas re: the last things) of many conservative and liberal Christians.  This view of the Kingdom as God’s realm coming to earth mitigates against any view that our eternal life is some individualistic experience of pure spiritual being, which is really a sort of gnostic existence; the Reign of God is communal, embodied, glorious, and yet physical.  The Kingdom is not, as many conservative Christians name it, “going to heaven when we die.”

Newbigin’s insights also remind us that the Kingdom is not ours to build, contra the social gospel of the early 20th century and many liberal Protestants since then.  The most perfect society humans can build cannot and will never be God’s Kingdom.  Having the right people in power or the right system in place does not equal God’s perfect society.  And yet, with our hands we can move the needle here and there towards a better reflection of God’s purposes.  We participate in that perfect Reign that is inbreaking when we insist that the way things are is not the way things shall be or should be.

I’ll close with a prayer purportedly from Archbishop Oscar Romero, the Catholic martyr gunned down at the mass for his Kingdom stance on the widespread corruption at that time in El Salvador.  I believe this prayer strikes the balance that Newbigin names in the essay quoted above.  I hope, also, that you might find it meaningful for your life and ministry:

It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.

The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent
enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of
saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said.

No prayer fully expresses our faith.

No confession brings perfection.

No pastoral visit brings wholeness.

No program accomplishes the Church’s mission.

No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about.

We plant the seeds that one day will grow.

We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.

We lay foundations that will need further development.

We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.

This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.

It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an
opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master
builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.

We are prophets of a future not our own.

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6 Times Worshipping Jesus Was Deadly (A Rejoinder to Rohr)

 

richard-rohr-quote

In one of his popular meditations, Fr. Richard Rohr observes, “Worship of Jesus is rather harmless and risk-free; following Jesus changes everything.” We’ve noted some of Rohr’s problematic false dichotomies before.  This one is also worth a bit of reflection because it turns out, whether one is in the 1st century or the 21st century, worship of Jesus might get you killed.

Here are six times (in no particular order) that worshipping Jesus cost Christians their lives:

1) Polycarp murdered while praying (155)

Polycarp, the Bishop of Smyrna, was a 2nd century martyr and the subject of one of the most memorable martyrologies ever written.  As described by Catholic Online:

When he was tied up to be burned, Polycarp prayed, “Lord God Almighty, Father of your beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, through whom we have received knowledge of you, God of angels and powers, of the whole creation and of the whole race of the righteous who live in your sight, I bless you, for having made me worthy of this day and hour, I bless you, because I may have a part, along with the martyrs, in the chalice of your Christ, to resurrection in eternal life, resurrection both of soul and body in the incorruptibility of the Holy Spirit. May I be received today, as a rich and acceptable sacrifice, among those who are in you presence, as you have prepared and foretold and fulfilled, God who is faithful and true. For this and for all benefits I praise you, I bless you, I glorify you, through the eternal and heavenly High Priest, Jesus Christ, your beloved Son, through whom be to you with him and the Holy Spirit glory, now and for all the ages to come. Amen.”

The fire was lit as Polycarp said Amen and then the eyewitnesses who reported said they saw a miracle. The fire burst up in an arch around Polycarp, the flames surrounding him like sails, and instead of being burned he seemed to glow like bread baking, or gold being melted in a furnace. When the captors saw he wasn’t being burned, they stabbed him. The blood that flowed put the fire out.

2) 19 Nigerian worshippers shot dead by Boko Haram (2012)

Christians in Nigeria have been brutally attacked for years.  This report came from the Christian News Wire on August 7, 2012:

Gunmen armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles surrounded a church in central Nigeria and opened fire during a Monday night worship service. According to the Associated Press report, the attackers killed 19 of the worshippers at Deeper Life Bible Church in the town of Otite in Kogi state, located 155 miles southwest of Nigeria’s capital Abuja.

3) Iraqi Catholic church attack  (2010)

The Iraqi Christian population has been decimated in recent years.  Just one example of the violence Christian worshippers face came on October 31, 2010.  Terrorists entered a church during mass and eventually murdered dozens of Christians and others.  As described at Wikipedia,

Six suicide jihadis of a group formerly called Islamic State of Iraq attacked a Syrian Catholic church in Baghdad during Sunday evening Mass, on 31 October 2010, and started killing the worshipers, saying they were sending the Christians to hell and themselves to heaven.

Hours later Iraqi commandos stormed the church, inducing the suicide jihadis to detonate their suicide vests. 58 worshipers, priests, policemen and bystanders were killed and 78 were wounded or maimed. World leaders and some Iraqi Sunni and Shi’ite imams condemned the massacre.

4) 21st Coptic martyr beheaded (2015)

In 2015, ISIL publicly martyred 20 Coptic Christians in Libya.  A twenty-first martyr was made on the spot coptic-martyrswhen, moved by the faith of the 20, he declared Jesus to be his God:

After the beheadings, the Coptic Orthodox church released their names, but there were only 20 names. It was later learned that the 21st martyr was named Mathew Ayairga and that he was from Chad. He was originally a non-Christian, but he saw the immense faith of the others, and when the terrorists asked him if he rejected Jesus, he reportedly said, “Their God is my God”, knowing that he would be killed.

5) Becket slain while kneeling inside Canterbury (1170)

In one of the most significant events in the history of church-state relationships, the Archbishop of Canterbury was murdered while praying at the altar.  You can still visit this site today in the famous cathedral.  Accounts vary, but what follows is a basic account of what transpired:

The king’s exact words have been lost to history but his outrage inspired four knights to sail to England to rid the realm of this annoying prelate. They arrived at Canterbury during the afternoon of December 29 and immediately searched for the Archbishop. Becket fled to the Cathedral where a service was in progress. The knights found him at the altar, drew their swords and began hacking at their victim finally splitting his skull.

6) Romero shot at the altar (1980)

Archbishop Romero, courtesy J. Puig Reixach via Wikimedia Commons.

Archbishop Romero, courtesy J. Puig Reixach via Wikimedia Commons.

Archbishop Oscar Romero spoke out against state violence in San Salvador and paid the ultimate price for it.  He was martyred at the altar preparing to celebrate the Eucharist, as described by Wikipedia:

Romero spent the day of 24 March 1980, the last day of his life, in a recollection organized by Opus Dei, a monthly gathering of priest friends led by Msgr. Fernando Sáenz Lacalle. On that day they reflected on the priesthood. That evening, Romero was fatally shot while celebrating Mass at a small chapel located in a hospital called “La Divina Providencia”, one day after a sermon in which he had called on Salvadoran soldiers, as Christians, to obey God’s higher order and to stop carrying out the government’s repression and violations of basic human rights. As soon as he finished his sermon, Romero proceeded to the middle of the altar and was shot there.

Conclusion

These six examples are just the tip of the iceberg, of course.  Tertullian famously noted, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”  Rohr is in many ways a gifted spiritual guide, but that does not make him infallible.  Claiming that worshipping Jesus is “harmless” might have a rhetorical punch, but it does not hold up to scrutiny and, even worse, dishonors the memory of scores of Christians who died simply because they were worshipping their Lord.

There has never been anything safe about worshipping the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Until the Christ’s Kingdom is fully “on earth as it is in heaven,” we should not expect this situation to change. We’ll let Hebrews 11:32-38 (NRSV) have the last word:

And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two,they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented— of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.

P.S. Should a rejoinder to Rohr be known as a Rohrjoinder? Let me know what you think.

What are other times people died for worshipping Jesus? Which martyrs especially speak to your journey with Christ? Leave a comment below!

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Even Superman Has Limits: On Being Servants, Not Saviors

prayforpastors

Are pastors servants or saviors? Lately the quote on the left has been floating around, and it has irked me to no end.

Of course the sentiment is sweet, and God knows (literally) how much pastors and other caregivers need prayer, support, and a kind word on occasion.  The intent is beautiful.  But something about this particular quote has stuck in my craw ever since I first saw it posted.

I couldn’t name it until Batman v. Superman came out.

As you might have heard, BvS received mixed reviews. Fans sort of liked it, critics largely did not.  In its third week at the box office, it was beaten by a Melissa McCarthy movie that had little hype behind it and received even worse reviews!

[Warning: big spoilers follow!]

In lieu of this, BvS director Zack Snyder has already started to talk up the R-rated Director’s Cut that will be released, arguing that scenes cut for time and content will flesh out the characters and fill in some of the narrative gaps, both of which were complaints by many critics and fans alike.  In response to a specific question, about why Superman doesn’t save Martha himself at the end, he details one of those deleted scenes:

We had a scene that we cut from the movie where he tries to look for her when he finds out that Lex has got her…It was a slightly dark scene that we cut out because it sort of represented this dark side. Because when he was looking for his mom he heard all the cries of all the potential crimes going on in the city, you know when you look.

I kind of like the idea that he’s taught himself not to look because if he looks it’s just neverending, right? You have to know when, as Superman, when to intervene and when not to. Or not when not to, you can’t be everywhere at once, literally you can’t be everywhere at once, so he has to be really selective in a weird way about where he chooses to interfere.

Even Superman can’t be everywhere at once. Even Superman can’t be on duty all the time.  Even Superman needs a nap every now and then.

This pervasive mythology about pastors and other caring professions – that we are “on” all the time, that wenot how any of this works never get to take time off, that we are “never off duty” – is not only wrong, it is sinful.

Sabbath is not a command for all of those who are not professional religious types.

We do not cease to be creatures dependent on the Creator because part our vocation includes caring for others.

This lie has much to do with issues see related to clergy (and let’s also add counselors, nurses, and other caregivers).  It is a recipe for burnout and frustration.  Moreover, it is functionally agnostic, because it tells us we don’t really need time with God if we are doing stuff for God.

“Never” get to be off duty? “Never” get to have a normal schedule or punch out at 5?

This is evil.  And it is evil for us to live into these inhumane expectations and not challenge them among those we serve.  We are not Superman. Even Superman has a Fortress of Solitude where he is “off duty” and takes time away.

We are servants, not saviors.  Or, as a prayer attributed to the martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero says, we are ministers and not messiahs:

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results,
but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.

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