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Monday, March 13, 2017

Ben Carson is right: Slaves were immigrants

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So the Internet went up in flames last week over Ben Carson's insertion of slaves into the American immigrant narrative in his first speech as Secretary of Housing and Human Development. Apparently, after speaking of the work ethic of immigrants in general, Carson said, "There were other immigrants who came in the bottom of slave ships, who worked even longer, even harder, for less, but they too had a dream that one day their sons, daughters, grandsons, granddaughters, great grandsons, great granddaughters might pursue prosperity and happiness in this land."

As it turns out, President Obama made basically the same comparison, if in a somewhat more nuanced way. But, of course, Obama might be wrong as well. Indeed, I think that both Obama and (more blatantly) Carson are wrong. But not because they refer to slaves as "immigrants." Clearly slaves were among the many people who came to what is now the United States from some other part of the world. So why the outrage over Dr. Carson's claim?

In context, Carson seems to have been praising the work ethic of immigrants, and of course that is a grotesque context in which to mention slavery, as if slaves were simply an extreme example of people who were willing to undergo great hardship and work hard in order to make a better life for themselves and their families. But obscene as such a suggestion is, focusing on Carson's poor choice of wording misses the bigger point made (unintentionally) by his remark. 

People are reacting so strongly to Carson's use of the word "immigrants" because the term is not, for most Americans, a neutral description of "people who move from one place to another." It is a sacred word, a ritual evocation of one of the key pillars of the secular religion called American nationalism.

The orthodox American narrative holds that this country was built by people who came here seeking a better life--tough, independent, resourceful pioneers who "beat a thoroughfare for freedom" (across the bodies of native people, of course) and created a society that values initiative, self-sufficiency, and hard work. There are conservative and liberal versions of this narrative. The conservative version emphasizes the virtue of the "good" immigrants and judge both immigrants and native-born Americans when they fail to reach the standard. The liberal version emphasizes the generosity of American society in giving immigrants a chance, and expects contemporary native-born Americans to live up to that standard. The "slaves as immigrants" remarks of Carson and Obama, respectively, represent these two different versions of the immigration narrative.

But the narrative as a whole founders on the fact that slaves were immigrants. Both Carson and Obama try to weave slaves into the orthodox immigration narrative. Carson does it more clumsily, and Obama more subtly. But neither attempt works. Slaves did not come here looking for a better life. They were forced to come here by people seeking to exploit them. Yes, of course they sought a better life for themselves once they were here. Yes, many African-Americans came to believe in American ideals of liberty and democracy, and held white Americans accountable for the flagrant way in which they violated their own professed ideals. (Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" is the most obvious example, and Frederick Douglass' "What to a slave is the Fourth of July" speech is even more striking in the way it combines endorsement of American ideals with scathing condemnation of the way white Americans failed to live up to those ideals.) But they can't be shoehorned into a story about immigrants "seeking a better life for themselves" in a "land of opportunity. For African slaves, America was a land of horror and exile, not a land of opportunity. Any immigration narrative that doesn't acknowledge this is a lie.

The flip side of "slaves were immigrants" is "many immigrants were slaves."  If we take that sentence seriously, then the entire American narrative about immigration will have to be rewritten, or even discarded. Rewriting the immigration narrative to include slaves doesn't jam together two quite different things. Rather, it reveals what a pious fraud the orthodox narrative always was. After all, slaves are only the most obvious exception to that narrative.  Immigrants came to North America for all kinds of reasons. Some were seeking economic opportunity. Some were seeking religious freedom. Some were seeking simple survival--the Irish refugees fleeing the potato famine, for instance. Some were seeking a laboratory to explore radical political or religious ideas. Some were murderers or rapists or other criminals fleeing justice or seeking a new start in a country where their past was unknown. And yes, many of them came in chains, on slave ships, not seeking anything but hoping desperately, somehow, to survive.

A true narrative about American immigration must take all of these categories into account, as well as the who came thousands of years ago and whose prior claim was violently set aside by later waves of immigrants. The "orthodox" narrative is not just historically native--it is actively pernicious in the way it affects Americans' attitudes to immigrants today. Current waves of immigrants, such as Latin American "illegals" or Syrian or Somali refugees, are judged against an ideal standard and found wanting. "Real" immigrants are resourceful would-be entrepreneurs who seek a better life for themselves rather than desperate people forced to come here by war or famine in their homelands. "Real" immigrants are ideologically committed to American principles before they set foot here. "Real" immigrants assimilate. And so on. Over and over again I've seen people recite piously the narrative of American generosity to immigrants as an excuse for being less than generous to the immigrants actually under consideration. Simply repeating the "nation of immigrants" cliche, while true, is futile in countering this narrative, because it leaves untouched the assumption that the heirs of former immigrants have the right to stand in judgment on later immigrants, only urging them to do so generously. Since conservatives are convinced that they are already unbelievably generous, this appeal is in vain.

The fact that slaves were immigrants blows this assumption sky high.

Since slaves were immigrants, the heirs of the enslavers have no moral standing to judge later immigrants.

Since slaves were immigrants, appeals to the sacredness of immigration law are grotesquely hypocritical.

Since slaves were immigrants, torn from pagan or Muslim cultures, sold to Christian masters, and eventually tossed the Gospel as a pacifier, white Christian Americans have no business fretting about the supposed danger of Muslim immigration.

When we hear reports of families torn apart, of "illegals" being rounded up and shackled and penned in holding facilities, we have no right to say smugly, "well, that's what they get for breaking the law." We should rather hear the terrible echoes of what our ancestors once did to black "immigrants," and we should tremble and repent.

Recognizing the moral burden placed on us, as white residents of North America, by the misdeeds of white Americans in the past does not mean that we walk around oppressed with guilt. It does not mean that we deny the parts of the orthodox narrative that are true. There is much that is noble and inspiring in the story of immigrants coming to America. There is much that is beautiful and heroic in American history as a whole. By all means tell those stories and live in the light of those ideals. But don't construct a triumphalist narrative denying the horror and injustice that are also part of the story.  And don't approach contemporary issues as if that narrative gave you the moral high ground. We are much more likely to act justly if we start from a position of honesty and humility.

Dr. Carson's remarks were indeed obscene. Not because he said that slaves were immigrants, but because he refused to acknowledge how devastating that fact is to the narrative of immigration he was trying to promote.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Nazism and Christianity: a reply to Danusha Goska

John Guzlowski kindly invited me to respond to Danusha Goska's essay on the relationship of Nazism and Christianity on his blog. You can read my response here. It's overly long and a bit laborious due to my desire not to leave any point unanswered. Here's the last paragraph:

I don't actually think that Danusha and I fundamentally disagree about the nature of Nazism. I think we disagree much more about how we should speak, as Christian scholars, about the role of Christianity in history. Danusha ends by saying that the Christians who ended the slave trade, led the movement for women's suffrage, blew the whistle on the sexual abuse crisis, and rescued Jews from Nazis deserve "nothing less than the truth." I agree. But similarly, the many people who have suffered in body, mind, and spirit from Christians' failure to live up to the truths of our holy faith deserve nothing less than a rigorous admission of these failures on our part, without excuses. Christians as a whole have, over a period of centuries, failed miserably in loving our Jewish neighbors. Perhaps exactly the same things would have happened if Europe had been pagan or Islamic or Buddhist for a thousand years. But it wasn't. It was Christian. And we must take responsibility for that.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

John McCain is right

when he warns that calling the media the "enemy" is "how dictators get started."

I hear so many people following President Trump's lead in labeling the "mainstream media" as "fake news." Mistrust of the media has built for a while, and Trump has fed on it and nourished it in turn.

And there are good reasons to mistrust the media. They are made up of human beings as prone to error and bias as anyone else, though hopefully with training that will help them detect and control their bias and avoid glaring errors. Sometimes they make errors anyway. Sometimes reporters are deliberately dishonest.

But the role of the media in a free society is to be a counterbalance to political power. The "mainstream" media were certainly open to criticism under Obama, because they did cut him far too much slack. But on principle, no matter the relative positions of the President and the media, one should be slow to dismiss media stories critical of any U.S. President. And if they go against one's own bias, one should take them particularly seriously.

These are just basic, non-political rules for how to avoid being any more deluded than we have to be. Truth is hard. We make it unnecessarily hard for ourselves if we dismiss stories that don't suit our bias or have negative implications for someone we admire. And maintaining a just and free society is hard. We make it unnecessarily hard for ourselves if we try to silence or render irrelevant dissenting voices that pose a challenge to the most powerful person in the world, no matter who happens to be playing that role at the moment.

This is also why I am suspicious of "pro-business" government policies. It's not that I think the government is necessarily purer than business. It's that business and government are _both_ extremely powerful. I don't want them working together. I want them checking each other.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

The Wrath of the Lamb: Why the NT is not necessarily "non-violent"

In comparative discussions of violence in Christianity and Islam, one often hears the argument that the New Testament specifically is non-violent, whereas the Qur'an contains many injunctions to violence. This of course has the benefit of side-stepping the difficult question of how we compare the undoubtedly violent parts of the Old Testament to the Qur'an. On the negative side, it seems to imply that the OT is irrelevant for Christians, which obviously is not the case in orthodox Christianity. (Denial of the divine inspiration and relevance of the Old Testament is called "Marcionism," and is one of the oldest heresies.) Of course people who make this appeal don't generally mean that the OT doesn't matter at all, and of course there are all kinds of debates within historic, orthodox Christianity about just how authoritative the OT is and how it should be interpreted. But for now, let's accept the challenge and leave the Old Testament out of the picture.

Comparing the New Testament to the Qur'an, the obvious difference is that the later sections of the Qur'an are addressed to a community of people possessing political power and engaged in warfare, while the entire NT was written long before Christians had the capacity to wage war. We shouldn't assume too quickly that this was simply a matter of necessity. The Gospel of John describes Jesus refusing efforts by the crowd to crown him as a king. Whether or not that account is historically accurate, I think it's fair to say that Jesus could have taken the path of so many other would-be Messiahs in seeking to bring in God's kingdom by military means, but chose not to. That being said, the early Christians who wrote the NT in the form we have it were hardly in the same position as the Islamic community at Medina. And the fact that the NT was written by people who did not have political power has always made it a tricky guide for Christians who did have such power. Unless Christians are willing to renounce political and military power altogether (i.e., a strict Anabaptist position) we need to be wary of claiming spiritual superiority based on the nonviolent nature of the New Testament's injunctions.

The New Testament does, however, repeatedly use apocalyptic language--colorful descriptions of a final, world-shaking confrontation between good and evil in which God's kingdom would be established. There's a lot of debate, of course, about what first-century Jews would have thought this language meant. N. T. Wright argues for a highly metaphorical meaning of the language, but this doesn't necessarily mean "spiritualized." In fact, he and many other scholars would point out that Jewish contemporaries of the first Christians routinely used metaphorical "cosmic" language to refer to very this-worldly events they expected to take place--a literal war against the wicked in which a literal kingdom would be established on earth. (And other scholars think that Wright has overstated the metaphorical nature of the cosmic language, arguing that writers and readers of apocalyptic really did expect the stars to fall from the sky and so on.) Even today, many Christians interpret apocalyptic language as describing quite literally events that will happen in our future (see the Left Behind books, for instance). One of Wright's mistakes in his criticisms of American dispensationalism, in fact, is his claim that this is a spiritualizing of the faith, when in certain respects it's a very concrete, this-worldly vision of the End.

All of this is to say that the apocalyptic language we find in the NT can be applied in a diversity of ways to the "this-worldly" situations Christians find themselves in. And that's relevant, because this language is vividly, brutally violent. Here are some examples:

In Matthew 3: 11-12, John the Baptist says that Jesus will "burn up the chaff [the wicked] with unquenchable fire."

Similarly, Matthew 13:40-42 interprets the parable of the weeds in the field to mean that the "Son of Man" will send out his messengers ("angeloi"--yes, this presumably refers to supernatural heavenly beings, but to grasp the force of the passage in Greek the more generic meaning should be heard as well) who will weed the wicked out of the world and burn them in a fiery furnace. 49-50 repeat this language in the context of the parable of the net.

Matt. 22:7 describes the king (clearly representing God) sending out an army to destroy "those murderers" (who had mistreated his servants) and to "burn their city." This most likely refers, in its immediate context, to the very this-worldly event of the destruction of Jerusalem.

Matt. 24, of course, uses apocalyptic language to describe the destruction of Jerusalem and the "coming of the Son of Man." And in that context, the parable of the sheep and the goats in 25:31-64 once again uses language of fiery punishment to describe the judgment of the wicked.

Luke 19:27, in the "parable of the pounds" (Luke's version of Matthew's "parable of the talents") has the king say of his enemies who had opposed his kingship, "bring them here and slay them before me."

Romans 1-2 describe God's judgment on the wicked. 1:32 got a lot of attention a few months ago when the NYT ran an article interpreting it as saying that homosexuals should be killed. Of course, the verse does not simply refer back to the "shameful lusts" passage in 26-27, and the "death" in question might be "spiritual death." But the passage could quite easily be taken as a justification for the imposition of the death penalty on those whom Christians see as wrongdoers, including (but not limited to) those described in 26-27.

2 Thess. 1:8 speaks of Jesus coming "with blazing fire" to "take vengeance" on those who "do not know God" or obey the Gospel.

2 Peter 2:4-9 (mirrored by Jude) again speaks of God's vengeance, connecting the punishment of the fallen angels, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the punishment awaiting the wicked on the day of judgment. 10-12 goes on to speak of those who "despise authority," describing them as being like animals made to be caught and destroyed. (Imagine how much fun Christians would have with a passage like this if it were in the Qur'an. We'd see claims like, "The Qur'an says that anyone who doesn't submit to Muhammad is an animal and should be killed!")

And this is all before we even get to the book of Revelation, with death and destruction on every page, Jesus as a conqueror on a white horse slaughtering his enemies until blood comes up to the bridles of the horses (chap. 19), and the final torture in the lake of fire of all those not "written in the book of life."

Of course none of these passages were commands to first-century Christians to go out and kill their enemies. But too often Christians are content to say this without thinking through the implications of what the NT does say. Here are some things that we might expect Christians shaped by these passages would believe, and which many Christians throughout history have in fact believed:

1. God's character is expressed, at least in part, through taking vengeance on his enemies in the same way that an earthly king would do--slaughtering them in war, executing them, torturing them, burning their cities, and so on.

2. God uses messengers and agents to carry out this vengeance. These may be supernatural beings ("angels") or earthly armies (as in the Roman destruction of Jerusalem). In the broader context of the Biblical narrative, it's clear that some of God's instruments may be evil. Nonetheless, one would not gather from these passages that being an instrument of God's vengeance on his enemies is incompatible with being a righteous and holy servant of God.

3. The nonviolence enjoined on Christians in the "present age" is therefore shot through with the eager expectation of the "blessed hope" of God's coming judgment. Romans 12:19 urges Christians not to avenge themselves, in order to "leave room for God's wrath" (at least according to most modern translations--the Greek simply says "wrath," so it could be read as "give way to the unrighteous wrath of the wicked and don't fight back"). For God has said, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay." This is in fact the attitude that Christians in the first three centuries took over and over, gloating about the future punishment of the wicked while practicing nonviolence here and now. And I think it's no concidence that Paul goes on, in the beginning of Romans 13, to speak of earthly powers "bearing the sword" by God's authority to punish the wicked. The "vengeance" which belongs to God has been, according to Scripture, entrusted to earthly authorities--not to Christians as such, but to the rulers entrusted with maintaining justice by punishing evildoers on God's behalf.

In light of these considerations, what would we expect Christians to do once they did have power? Would they not be quite likely to conclude that God's kingdom had come and that the time for vengeance on the wicked was here? And in fact at least some of them did conclude this. Eusebius referred to Constantine's reign as an image of God's kingdom, and praised Constantine's war-making as a means by which God was establishing peace and order in the earth. And the long history of Christians justifying and even sometimes encouraging violence in God's name went on from there.

Yes, this story has always been qualified. Yes, there are many passages in the NT that speak of love and mercy and forgiveness, and these cannot simply be swept aside by saying that early Christians were just tactically practicing nonviolence in the expectation of God's vengeance. I am emphasizing the passages that can be read to support violence, because Christians so often speak as if no such passages exist in the NT.

Of course Eusebius' eschatology was not universal and was perhaps not even typical. Quite quickly Christians realized that the Christianized Empire was not God's Kingdom. In the West, Augustine's City of God heavily qualified Christian acceptance of Empire. In the East, bishops and (more often) monks often held up the ideals of God's peaceable kingdom against the worldly kingdom of the Empire.

But the case I'm making here is a deliberately one-sided one: not that the NT, read overall in a theologically thoughtful way, supports violence, but that historic Christian violence cannot simply be swept aside as an obvious rejection or misunderstanding of the New Testament. When the Crusaders slaughtered the inhabitants of Jerusalem in 1099, they saw themselves as purifying God's city from defilement in an apocalyptic act of judgment. They were not simply medieval soldiers who got out of control (though they were that too)--they thought that in this particular case their violent behavior was righteous, in part because of the resonance of what they were doing with New Testament (not just Old Testament) language. Similarly with the Crusaders who sacked Beziers in 1209, the Catholic authorities who burned Protestants at the stake in the sixteenth century, the Calvinist mobs who sacked convents, the English Protestant government that ripped out the intestines of Catholics for the crime of going to Mass, and so on.

These passages of Scripture continue to be used to justify violent words and actions today. Jeff Sharlet claimed in 2009 that American soldiers in Iraq sprayed "Jesus killed Mohammed" on a Bradley Fighting Vehicle and had an interpret shout the slogan as they drove through the streets of Samarra during the Islamic call to prayer. Better known are the remarks of General William G. ("Jerry") Boykin that "my God was bigger than his" (referring to a Muslim warlord in Somalia). More recently, working for the Family Research Council, Boykin has said that Jesus is coming back with an assault rifle (since that's the modern equivalent of a sword) and therefore Christians should buy assault rifles. (To be fair, Boykin clarifies that Christians are not to "build the kingdom" with guns, but that fighting will be incidentally necessary as part of the work necessary to build the kingdom.)

The combination of apocalyptic violence and belief in the divinely ordained authority of earthly governments means that Christians have persistently, over the centuries, seen political power as an invitation to use violence against the perceived enemies of God. This has been construed and nuanced in many sophisticated ways, and it has always stood in tension with the non-violent elements of the Christian tradition that we would all rather talk about. But we must talk about all of it. We must be honest about the whole of our tradition and the multiple ways in which the many voices of Scripture can be harmonized with each other.

We should try living out Jesus' command to love our enemies instead of using it as a badge of superiority to other religions. Instead of arguing that Christians are more nonviolent than Muslims, we should be nonviolent. And above all, we should not play the game of "our violence is not as bad as their violence" in order to justify our violence.

If my reading of Scripture is correct, then when we as Christians fall into this trap, using Jesus as a badge of superiority instead of following his choice to renounce superiority, we become those enemies of God on whom God's judgment falls. The violent parts of the New Testament should not be renounced or treated with embarrassment. They should be read humbly and with godly fear, for our God is a consuming fire, taking vengeance on those who take his name in vain.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

The Man in the High Castle: some thoughts from a reader of the book who hasn't seen the series

This article about the Amazon series The Man in the High Castle makes me want to watch the series, but also provokes some reflections on ways in which the series appears to differ from the book (which is one of my favorite sci-fi novels, indeed one of my favorite modern novels period).
1. In the book, the metaphysical speculations about alternative reality are front and center. The book does not feel, to me at least, primarily about "what would the world be like if the Nazis had won" but more about living in a tragic world with faith and hope. I found it striking that the article says that Tagomi's sections are "slow." I think I may have reacted that way on the first reading too, but I now find Tagomi to be the real heart of the book. Similarly, it sounds as if the I Ching, which is a central device in the novel, is absent from the series. High Castle is Dick's greatest book precisely because it balances incisive alternate-history sci-fie with the metaphysical and religious themes that would come to dominate his later books.
2. At least one of the worlds envisioned by Tagomi, as well as the world described by Amundsen, does not actually appear to be our world. The book is not so much about imagining a dystopian world in contrast to our (presumably better) world, but rather about parallels between the nightmare "primary world" of the novel and our own somewhat less nightmarish but still quite awful world. The capacity to imagine a better world than the one we live in is, in the novel, a key part of being a virtuous person capable of resisting the evil in which we live. It's not so much "how wonderful it is that we live in a world in which the Nazis didn't win" but "whatever evil exists in our world is not inevitable and should be opposed with imagination and compassion." Fundamentally, it's a novel about contingency and free will.
3. In the book, Amundsen is a novelist. I see why one might turn the novel into film footage for a TV series, but I'm not sure it works as well. Again, in the book the messages from the "other world" come through visions and imagination, mediated in many cases by the Chinese divination manual the I Ching. The big reveal about Amundsen at the end of the novel is that he actually wrote his alternate-history novel (depicting an Allied victory) by consulting the I Ching for every plot point. Thus, the novel is a kind of divine revelation. It looks as if the series turns this into a more conventional kind of alternate history.
4. The article says that the Japanese characters are WWII tropes. In the novel, they are somewhat culturally stereotypical, but they read much more like Japanese people as Westerners encounter or imagine them in the modern, post-WWII world. That is to say, there is actually little trace of imperialistic arrogance in them and they behave in conquered America essentially as Japanese tourists do in our world. This is very funny (and, in fact, quite stereotyping), but actually lets the historical WWII Japanese off the hook, I think. The Japanese in High Castle are fairly clearly the "good guys," mostly because the Japanese person we see most of is Tagomi, who is the most virtuous and compassionate character in the novel. So I'd fault the novel for its white-washing of the Japanese record. But, again, in the novel this is partly about challenging our assumptions about good guys and bad guys. Characters in the novel casually refer to the terrible atrocities committed by the Allies, especially the British. In a world in which the Axis won, it is conceivable that the Japanese might have developed into a relatively benign civilization and might have sought to cover over their past atrocities, while of course the atrocities committed by the Allies would not have been excused or covered over as they often have been in our world. If we take the point-of-view characters in Dick's novel to be entirely reliable, then the book gives a very naive picture of the Japanese. But the novel uses a limited third-person point of view (from the perspective of multiple characters) precisely, I think, in order to force us to think through the differences between their perception of the world they live in and the reality, and then to apply that same critical thinking to our own perceptions of our own world.
In summary, I hope to see this series at some point, but I would strongly urge people to read the book, which is one of the greatest sci-fi novels (and probably the single greatest alternate history novel) ever written.

Sunday, January 08, 2017

Uncircumcised in heart and ears: St. Stephen's Practical Guide to Making Yourself Obnoxious and Disliked

The 1979 Episcopal BCP's lectionary reading for today excerpts St. Stephen's long sermon in Acts 7 so as to read: "Then the high priest asked him, 'Are these things so?' And Stephen replied, 'Brothers and fathers, listen to me. You are forever resisting the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do."

This misses out the long historical summary in which Stephen details all the ways in which the ancient Israelites had resisted the Holy Spirit, culminating in the denunciation: "You stiffnecked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears." But the lectionary, by cutting as it does, makes crystal clear just how the first Christian martyr got himself killed.

When I used to teach Religions of the World at Huntington University, I took my students to a Conservative Jewish synagogue, where (on one occasion) one of the members gave us a lecture about Judaism including a summary of the Exodus and the wandering in the wilderness. One of the students commented to me afterward that this lecture differed from the standard Christian narrative in that it didn't highlight the sins and failures of the Israelites.

Thanks to Stephen's sermon and other early Christian texts, we have a tradition of reading the OT primarily as a story of God's people messing up. Unfortunately, Christians have often read this as "the Jews messing up." The only way to redeem our narrative from the implications of anti-Judaism (and the only way to read it that is healthy for our own souls) is to read it as a narrative about our messing up.

One of the healthiest impulses in Christianity is the impulse toward self-criticism, which comes out of the basic structure of the Biblical narrative. Unfortunately, when Christianity is turned into an ideology, the basis for "Western Civilization," an instrument to make our ethnic or political group feel good, then we begin rewriting the narrative to be about a holy remnant under pressure from external enemies. And we can get that narrative from the Bible too. Stephen's persecutors thought they were the holy remnant. They thought he was a traitor.

They killed Stephen because he subverted a narrative that they thought was supposed to be about triumphalism and turned it into a narrative about the failure of God's people to be God's people. And it is our duty as Christians to walk in Stephen's footsteps, challenging the self-serving narratives that "our" group (whatever that may be) comes up with--and resisting the demonic temptation to turn Stephen's sermon into a narrative about some other group's failures.

Of course there is a huge spiritual danger here. Our "prophetic witness" against "our" group's misdeeds may easily turn into a self-righteous rant in which we imagine ourselves to be standing over and above the group. But there is no avoiding spiritual dangers.

Furthermore, at some point the group will decide that we aren't really part of it any more. And this may be reasonable given our actions. That is a difficulty that I face, myself, with regard to evangelicalism--but I'll write more about that another time.

Monday, December 26, 2016

No place for sadness

Rince Priebus got himself in trouble today by sending out a message referring to "the good news of a new King," which many people thought was a comparison of Trump to Jesus. The RNC denies this, and perhaps the people who got upset really were reading too much into a simple Christmas message.

What matters is that when we celebrate the birth of Jesus we are, in fact, celebrating the "good news of a new King"--a king whose kingdom remains perpetually  new, perpetually different from all the "kings" who vie for our allegiance, whatever their political orientation.

I've been extremely upset since Nov. 8 and extremely focused on politics. I intend to go on thinking and writing and speaking out about what I believe is a very troubling turn in the public life of the country in which I live. But Christmas reminds me that politics is not ultimate. The rulers of this world are not the powers that really matter.

Pope Leo the Great, in his famous Christmas homily, put it this way:

Our Saviour, dearly-beloved, was born today: let us be glad. For there is no proper place for sadness, when we keep the birthday of the Life, which destroys the fear of mortality and brings to us the joy of promised eternity. No one is kept from sharing in this happiness. There is for all one common measure of joy, because as our Lord the destroyer of sin and death finds none free from charge, so is He come to free us all. Let the saint exult in that he draws near to victory. Let the sinner be glad in that he is invited to pardon. Let the gentile take courage in that he is called to life. For the Son of God in the fullness of time which the inscrutable depth of the Divine counsel has determined, has taken on him the nature of man, thereby to reconcile it to its Author: in order that the inventor of death, the devil, might be conquered through that (nature) which he had conquered.

There is, of course, a place for sadness at Christmas. People who have lost loved ones or who suffer from depression shouldn't be made to feel that they are somehow offending against the holiday. It's important to affirm that many people experience a "blue Christmas."

But barring some such deeply personal reason, I think Pope Leo's words should be taken to heart.

Nothing that we fear in our own lives or in the public life of our society can trump (yes, bad joke) the Incarnation. God has become human. God has placed at the heart of our broken world an endless fountain of life and joy. Let us drink deeply of that fountain in the days to come and share it with our thirsty world. Let us fight evil joyfully and merrily, not angrily or in despair. And above all, let us love our enemies and remember that, in Leo's words, "No one is kept from sharing in this happiness."

One of my favorite "eucatastrophe" moments at the end of It's a Wonderful Life comes when George Bailey runs past Mr. Potter's office, looks in the window, and shouts, "Merry Christmas, Mr. Potter!" It is at that moment that you know that, whether he goes to jail or not, George Bailey has won.

So Merry Christmas to all! God bless us every one.