samedi, avril 15, 2006


It is dawn already in the streets of Jerusalem. Just as they did two millenia ago, those who follow a crucified Messiah gather in houses, on street corners, in the desert and outside the city walls and whisper to one another: "He is risen"! And from the lips of strangers, loved ones, clergy, believers and doubters comes the exuberant response"He is risen indeed!" Even in the stillness of the night, one may hear the distant pealing of bells as the "Glorias" of congregations all over the world ascend to the starry skies. May the resurrection life of the crucified and risen One be a blessing to you tonight, tomorrow and always. And may you who follow Jesus be given the grace to be a sign of that life to those who need it and have not experienced it yet. Be a bold, laughing, serving and faithful fool for Love. Love those who have everything and think they don't need more. Love those who have nothing and know they need everything. Love those who despise you. Love those who welcome you. Unbar the doors and greet the glittering morning. He calls you to venture into the street, you clowns of God, carrying nothing but the words with which his followers greeted that strange and awesome morning: "He is Risen! The Lord is Risen indeed! Allelulia"

vendredi, avril 14, 2006

A Christ-like leader?

In my last post, two days ago, I blew off some steam about the fact that this country is not a Christian nation, and that those who expect a Christ figure for President need to repent of idolatry. Yet the fact is that America has had some great leaders who showed Christ-like qualities. What are we to make, for example, of a man like Abraham Lincoln?

What makes someone holy is an enduring mystery known only to God himself. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, holy men and women have been former murderers, young maidens, tax-collectors, the sons of wealthy merchants and the daughters of kings. Sometimes the supernatural graces which make someone an example of godly life are revealed to others during their lifetimes, and sometimes they are only known after death. Some of our saints are recognized across cultures and centuries, some die in obscurity, known only to the people who loved them.

President Abraham Lincoln was not a man who abstained from all worldly pleasures. Apparently it troubled some Americans that he was attending Ford's Theater on Good Friday in April 14, 1865, when John Wilkes Booth fatally shot him. Yet Richard Wrightman Fox comments in his essay "The President Who Died for Us" that many Americans interpreted Lincoln's death on that day as a sign that God had chosen him for supernatural service to his country.

Black and white Protestants, Catholics and Jews found common cause in celebrating Lincoln's uncommon virtues, wrote Fox: "forgiveness, mercy, defense of the poor and the oppressed." Although some were unhappy that he had spent the day on which Christ was crucified at the theater, many Americans loved Lincoln. He was, said Fox, almost like a member of the family.

Elevating a leader because she or he makes a public display of piety is as dangerous as it is wrong-headed. But looking back at the life of a complex, passionate, and idealistic man like Abraham Lincoln, one cannot but wonder about the mystery of what makes someone great and what makes someone holy. Certainly he was not a conventionally religious man, but then, so few of our saints are. Did Lincoln grow spiritually as he was forced to take on greater spiritual burdens? Did God give him the grace to become the leader America needed for those difficult times? Why did he succeed when, in their own times, so many of our Presidents have failed?

These are questions that touch at the ineffable mystery of the human soul. We can only be grateful for the leadership of a man who inspired such respect, love and devotion in the hearts of those who followed him. I'm sure that many Southerners, looking at their devastated cities and charred fields, did not see Lincoln as saint. Yet his vision of a union knit together in our differences, the hope of a lasting peace and the possibility of national renewal, turned out to be a lasting one. When we acknowledge our love for this country and it that it still can become, we honor the man who gave it such a selfless measure of devotion, and finally, his life.

mercredi, avril 12, 2006

The "Messianic" President

If it seems like Seymour Hersh has been around for quite a while, he has. Hersh, who exposed evidence of Vietnam's My Lai massacre and domestic spying by the CIA, won a Pulitzer prize for his reporting back in 1970. Now slightly over 70, he's still turning out investigations of corrupted power with scathing vigor. In a recent New Yorker magazine article, he examined the possibility that the Bush administration is planning a bombing campaign of Iranian nuclear facilities. Listen to him as he is interviewed, and you realize that the man has quite an edge to him. When one of his interlocutors signed off recently with a breezy "good to talk to you" Hersh snapped: "what is good about this?". Asked his opinion about our President, George W. Bush, he referred to him as "messianic." Whether President Bush sees himself as a Messiah figure is highly debatable. It is not his fault that the conservative Christian community has often tried to make him into one. I recall a local evangelical prayer breakfast at which the speaker prayed for President Bush, the man of God's choosing. I almost choked on my bagel. But perhaps it is understandable. After all, they had been in the political wilderness for a long time and he championed so many of their causes. How could he be anything but a stand in for the Messiah? If I had my druthers, we would fast from religious rhetoric until we had repented of our historic tendency to think of ourselves as somehow specially blessed with godly leaders by a peculiarly Christian God. That is idolatry, pure and simple. America is not a Christian state. We don't even have to have a Christian president. We surely do not need a Messianic President. For better or for worse, we do not believe that our leaders have a divine right to do what they wish. What would George Bush have been like if his admirers had held him accountable, had mentored and admonished him instead of giving him blind obedience? In this pluralistic culture, we instead need leaders who respect the Constitution, the law, and human rights. That is not to say that faith has no voice in the public square. But the overblown and triumphalist rhetoric of some on the far right has been damaging to the cause of public dialogue on faith and values. Which is not to excuse the Democrats tendency to either scramble for cover when religion comes up or avoid the hard work of thinking through a nuanced position on the many places where religion and politics intersect. The only thing saving the Democrats from making fools of themselves when trying to pick up the Republican mantle in this regard is that they can't agree on anything, let alone the role of religion in our national life. Thank God for that! The Messiah Christians profess to worship didn't come to reform the state. He was scorned, hated and finally crucified by the authorities, not venerated as a man of God. A true Messiah, he had no Messianic pretensions. It would be good for Christians of all political points of view to ponder why, as believers who profess to follow the man from Galilee, we are so easily drawn to raise up false Messiahs, to their detriment, and to our shame.

mardi, avril 11, 2006

Healing Our Fractures

Scattered on the faded wall to wall carpet around my desk are the galleys of a book I am reviewing. Since we review books anonymously (perhaps so we will be protected from angry authors or agents) I cannot tell you more about the book than that it touches on matters theological and historical.In delineating the highways and byways of Christian history, the writer lingers lovingly in the medieval period. Underneath his scholarly air of objectivity, he seems to admire its respect for order and authority. Popes were Popes (even when there was more than one), kings stuck to ruling the country and didn't mess around too much with the church (unless you were Henry II and Thomas a Becket), and serfs knew their place. Much of the art of the eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth centuries is crafted on the belief that there was order to the world, because it was made by an orderly Creator. Disciplined by faith in the divine purpose of the "love that moves the sun and other stars," as Dante put it in the Paradiso, painters and architects and sculptors could create in wood and stone and marble a witness to belief in a universe that was subject to reason.

There's a lot I don't envy about daily life in medieval Europe-the plagues, the wars, the lack of good sanitation. But as I was renewing my friendship with the medieval church after years of ignoring it (I majored in Medieval and Renaissance Studies) I felt a creeping sense of wistfulness. Wouldn't it be wonderful to have the sense that everything in the universe had a reason and a purpose? Wouldn't it be fabulous to see the hand of God in everything around you and to plumb the levels of meanings revealed by a flower, or a tree, a spouse or a constellation?

We "know" so much more than they do. We know, of course, that the earth does indeed rotate around the sun. We know that we are a minute but blessed tribe in a galaxy that nestles among other galaxies. We have spanned the world with our technology.

In doing so, we have lost that sense of organic unity, of the timelessness of a world under God's care and sustaining Providence. We are afflicted by the sense that everything cries out for our immediate and urgent attention. Many medieval men and women didn't know how to read. Many of them probably didn't even understand the Latin words of the mass. Yet rich or poor, knight or dairymaid, they were surrounded by symbols of divine order to remind them that the past, the present and the future were one in God's eye and equally precious.

We cannot go back to that sense of integrity, of hierarchy, of inner logic. Yet we haven't abandoned the desire to find it, either. As we push the boundaries of space, as we dissect the atom, we are still seeking traces of a world in which God has written his purpose clearly for all to perceive-whether they know their place or not.

dimanche, avril 09, 2006

Idol Thinking in Holy Week

On February 14, I was finishing dinner grace when my daughter, still dressed in a dark red shirt and plaid skirt, her school uniform, murmured "St. Valentine, pray for us." After doing a double-take, I bit back a smile, and let the moment pass without serious discussion. She attends a parochial school, where prayers to the saints are a daily fact of life. Why not ask St. Valentine, or the saints named Valentine (apparently there may have been at least three martyrs named Valentine) to remember us before God? In our family, we'll take every bit of prayer we can get. But when do our cultural habits, our rituals and observances become idolatrous? When do we stop welcoming outsiders and insist that they meet a certain set of criteria if they are to fellowship with godly people like us? When do we abandon faithfulness to the God of mystery for the safety of our congregation's good opinion, or so we can avoid picking a fight, or so that we "fit in?"
People of faith can be so prissy and prone to cattiness on matters that, at least to me, are outside the scope of the essential. You don't have to be squishy on the doctrine of the Trinity, for example, to believe that Christians of good will can disagree on (and here I'm going to get myself into big trouble) such matters as to whether it's ok to pray to the saints, or whether you believe in salvation by faith alone.

Centuries of blood have been spilled on such matters, which are generally outside the scope of our earthly knowledge, and where has it gotten us?

We tend to forget that at the heart of the Judeo-Christian faith is profound mystery. God reaches out to His creation, but does not stop being God, in his inescapable Otherness. Those who tried to domesticate God, both in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, often came to sad ends.

What a joy to read the words of retired Northwestern history professor Garry Wills as he warns the Democrats not to do what the Republicans have done with such misplaced audacity. In an article in the Sunday New York Times entitled "Christ Among the Partisans", Wills minces no words.

"There is no such thing as a 'Christian politics.' If it is a politics, it cannot be Christian."

As Christians, we may act on the basis of our beliefs, argues Wills. But we cannot expect to remake the state in the image of those beliefs. Jesus had no political aspirations. Nor did he preach a conventional morality. To make Jesus a humanitarian figure who teaches us how to behave is to fundamentally misunderstand Him.

"The Gospels are scary, dark and demanding" writes Wills. "It is not surprising that people want to tame them, dilute them, make them into generic encouragements to be loving and peaceful and fair. If that is all they are, then we may as well make Socrates our redeemer."

As we walk through Holy Week, it might be well to remember how the crowds greeted Jesus. They treated his entrance as though it was an edition of "Jerusalem Idol," Roman era. Perhaps it seemed as though He was going to meet their expectations, that of a Messiah come to challenge the Roman authorities. Jesus suffered horribly at the hands of those who had their expectations thwarted.

Human nature hasn't changed that much in 2000 years. We too have the same need for order and predictability and battlements to keep out the barbarians. In Western countries we tend not to martyr others for contradicting our notions of orthodox belief. I suppose that may be progress.

No, God is not a Republican or a Democrat, a Catholic or Lutheran, a champion of personal responsibility or an advocate for more state funding for the poor. God calls us to worship Him in the mystery of His choices, not ours. He is the one who said to Moses "I will be who I will be." We cannot predict His actions or box him in with our ideologies.

We need all the grace He can give us to follow such a God. And what is grace, after all, but the gift of new vision, new life? May this Holy Week become a little more dangerous, and a little more grace-filled for those who seek to turn their back on idols, and worship the living God.