Perhaps We Have Something Better Than Power: Thoughts on the Cana sequence from The Robe (1953)

The spring of the year brings with it an observance of a great event: many Christians around the world remember the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.  Much has been written about that event.  Movies have been made, and sadly, many may seem to trivialize its gravity and importance.  Some pictures do, however, capture the miracle of Jesus.  One such film was The Robe, from 1953.   

In the film, Richard Burton plays the spiritually beleaguered Roman officer, Marcellus Gallio, who, after angering the rising emperor was all but exiled to Palestine.  When his tour was ended, he was tasked with one last mission: oversee the crucifixion of Jesus.  He complied, thinking it was only a routine execution.  He discovered it was anything but that when his Greek servant left him with Jesus’ robe, that apparently ‘bewitched” him and drove him to madness. In order to save his sanity, Gallio returns to Palestine from Rome to seek answers. 

One of his first stops is Cana of Galilee.  There, he meets Justus (played by Dean Jagger, whom you may remember as the General in White Christmas), an elder of the Jesus followers in Cana, kindly, welcoming, and humble.  Before he introduces Gallio to the Big Fisherman, Simon Peter (portrayed by Michael Rennie), he tells him something of Jesus’ actions and influence in and around Cana.  Jesus had healed his grandson of a club foot, allowing him to live a normal life.  He also touched the life of a young woman named Miriam, played beautifully by Betta St. John.

The movie is so compelling in so many ways.  It captures the essence of Christianity and juxtaposes it against the anxiety of a person who is lost and struggling to make sense of his privileged yet somehow meaningless life. In the Cana sequence, there are a couple of magnificent exchanges both about and with Miriam.  Following is a fairly accurate transcript of those scenes.   

 Marcellus Gallio – Who is she?

 Justus- Her name is Miriam.  You’ve seen my grandson. Miriam is another on whom Jesus looked.

 Marcellus Gallio – Another miracle?

 Justus – If you want to use the word. When she was 15, she was struck down by paralysis. It left her hopelessly crippled, and hopelessly bitter about life. She ate herself away with hate and consumed everyone with her envy and malice.

 Marcellus Gallio – But she’s still a cripple. She still can’t walk.

 Justus – No, she can’t.

 Marcellus Gallio – If he was such a magician, why didn’t he cure her?

 Justus – He did.

 Marcellus Gallio – I don’t understand.

 Justus – Have you had supper?

 Marcellus Gallio – No.

 Justus – Perhaps you will honor my poor house.

 Marcellus Gallio – Thank you.

 Justus – Then one day there was a wedding here in Cana. The whole village took part in it, all but Miriam. She stayed home and wept. A wedding, you see, when no man would look at her and her twisted body.  But when her parents returned to the house, they found her, as she is now, as you saw her, smiling and singing.

 Marcellus Gallio – Was Jesus at the wedding?

 Justus – Yes. But he came late.

 Marcellus Gallio – So now she spends her time singing fables about the man.

 Justus – But they’re not fables.

 Marcellus Gallio – Surely you don’t believe that he rose from the dead?

 Justus – He lives more surely than we do.

 Marcellus Gallio – He’s dead. And no moonstruck girl can sing him back to life again.

 Justus – How do you know that he’s dead?

 Marcellus Gallio – A soldier told me.  A soldier who saw the lance thrust into his side. A soldier who was… who was out there!

 Justus – What’s wrong?

 Marcellus Gallio – Were you out there?

 Justus – You’re ill. Let me help you.

 Marcellus Gallio – No. Let me alone. Since the voyage, I’ve been…I’ve been indisposed.

 —–

 Miriam – Is it that you resent what our master taught us?

 Marcellus Gallio – Why should I resent it? He means nothing to me.

 Miriam – Then why do you consider him your enemy? You see, we know why you’re here, Marcellus. It’s simple, really. No merchant, even a stupid one, would have paid those prices. And the look of you, those shoulders. We guessed at once what you were.

     Sit down, please, here in the shade. The sun’s hot.

     Why must you do this, Marcellus? Is it for Rome?

 Marcellus Gallio – Yes. And for myself, to save my reason.

 Miriam – Justus said you were ill. There’s one who can help.

 Marcellus Gallio – No. No. He was crucified and buried. That was the end of him.

 Miriam – That was the beginning. He’s with his father, but he left his word with us and taught us how to use it.

 Marcellus Gallio – Don’t confess to sorcery. You’ll make things worse.

 Miriam – He was no sorcerer, Marcellus. He cast no spells. He only asked two things of us: “love God,” he said, “and love ye one another.” And he meant not only the Jews, but Romans and Greeks, slaves and soldiers, the strong and the weak, everyone. He asked us to build our lives on this love, this charity. To build a new world.

 Marcellus Gallio – Worlds are built on force, not charity. Power is all that counts.

 Miriam – Perhaps we have something better than power. We have hope.

 Marcellus Gallio – That you of all people should say that.

 Miriam – What do you mean, Marcellus?

 Marcellus Gallio – You say he could work miracles, but he left you as he found you.

 Miriam – I used to wonder at that myself, until faith taught me the answer. He could have healed my body, and it would have been natural for me to laugh and sing. And then I came to understand that he had done something even better for me. He’d chosen me for his work. He’d left me as I am so that all others like me might know that their misfortune needn’t deprive them of happiness within his kingdom.

 Marcellus Gallio – It’s beyond reason that anybody should think as you do.

 Miriam – If you had only known him, if you had ever looked into his eyes, heard him speak…

 Marcellus Gallio – I did.

Where it is revealed that Jesus had not healed Miriam of her disability, I was reminded of the healing of the paralytic man, lowered into the house through the roof.  The story is related by Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  Jesus does a most unusual thing in Luke 5.20: “And when he saw their faith, he said, “Man, your sins are forgiven you.”  

Of course the Pharisees were up in arms, declaring that none but God could forgive sins. 

 Luk 5:22  When Jesus perceived their thoughts, he answered them, “Why do you question in your hearts?  23  Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? 24  But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the man who was paralyzed—”I say to you, rise, pick up your bed and go home.”

 25  And immediately he rose up before them and picked up what he had been lying on and went home, glorifying God.  26  And amazement seized them all, and they glorified God and were filled with awe, saying, “We have seen extraordinary things today.”

The obvious desire of the paralytic man was to walk.  Jesus did far more than heal his physical infirmity.  In The Robe, Miriam was healed not in body, but in mind and spirit.  She rose above adversity to serve and to share. 

But there are also some more beautiful points in this short segment from the movie.  Miriam explains to Marcellus the underlying foundation of how Jesus wants us to live, and that is to live by love, both love for God and love for one another.  She says Jesus wants us to build a new world.

In true Roman fashion, Gallio replied that worlds are built on force, that power is all that counts.  That is the mindset that is encountered all too often throughout the world, and has been encountered throughout history.  Force and power may subdue and even subjugate.  But neither force nor power can instill love and good will, only fear and subservience.

Miriam says Jesus’ followers have something better than power: hope Hope is perhaps one of the greatest messages of the cross, and even more directly, the empty tomb.  Paul said that after all else is dust, three things would remain: faith, hope and love.  Through faith, we experience the love of God and the love of others who love and serve him.  Through faith and love, we have the hope of becoming something more, something beyond the limitations and frailties of the human organism.  We have hope to see and experience and become part of a new order, a new world, a restored universe not cast into the entropy of despair and disarray by the tragedy of the fall and its ongoing iterations in every life, but as fresh and as vibrant as the instant God conceived it in thought.

Although The Robe is not inspired, it is indeed inspiring.  It presents the essence of Christianity virtually untainted by denominational dogma.  That essence is love

It is sad that some people only think about the Jesus twice a year, at Christmas, to mark his birth and at Easter to mark his death and resurrection.  Some would say that it is pointless to live a life directed by such “fables,” but I would counter, what do you lose?  The richest, most contented lives I have ever seen are those that are steeped in love.  That is the Jesus way. And I, for one, am glad I found it.      

On Justice, Kindness, and Walking Humbly with God

As I have revealed in previous posts, I am a fan of country music.  Well, I guess I could refine that a bit and note that I am a fan of country music that was played during my formative years.  That may seem unfair to artists performing today, but so much of their music just seems to leave me cold.  My experiences are different from theirs.  I have little in common with them.  That’s probably why I shake my head in wonder and disbelief when I see a man chasing a woman young enough to be his daughter.  But that is a topic for a different essay.

I reflect on this because I was listening to a song written by Phil Vassar and made popular by Tim McGraw, titled “My Next Thirty Years.” It really captures a feeling that I have been harboring for a long time now.  Obviously the song is written from the perspective of a man turning that landmark 30 year milestone.  While it has been a while (ahem, a long while) since I’ve seen 30, the words always speak right to my heart.  Vassar says,

“My next thirty years, I’m gonna settle all the scores.

Cry a little less, laugh a little more;

Find a world of happiness without the hate and fear;

Figure out just what I’m doin’ here in my next thirty years.”

 You would think that I would have figured that out by now.  And I guess for the most part, I have.  But the future is a moving target, and ideas and aspirations change.

When I was a younger man, I wanted to really make my mark on the world.  I wanted to be involved in making things happen.  I wanted to be next to the captain, if not at the helm.

Then, while you aren’t looking, life happens.  You make choices that change your path.  Dreams shift from visions of grandeur to finding contentment.  And contentment is a biblically commended virtue.

But there is a part of me that can never be content.  I am a man who is impatient and far from content when I see suffering and injustice.  I cannot be happy and content in my comfortable life while others are struggling to exist. 

What bothers me most at times is that choices and consequences and unforeseen eventualities have hedged me in, preventing me from being able to travel to faraway places to help people in need.  It’s hard for me to be able to do as much after hours kinds of activity related to my job.  More directly, being the father of a growing boy on the autism spectrum, I must be ready to jump at a moment’s notice to deal with any of a plethora of problems that may arise.  Any time the phone rings, I wonder if it is word that he has gotten into trouble.  Again.  While most parents look forward to being able to relax a little as their children grow, I almost think the anxiety increases for parents of ASD kids.

Now, I stress again that I am not fishing for sympathy.  Far from it.  I accept my responsibilities, and shoulder the burden as best I can.  But when people wonder why I don’t get more involved in some activities, that is why.  While those responsibilities may constrain me physically, they cannot completely cloud my mind and prevent me from all measures of action and involvement.  That is one reason I teach and more pointedly, one reason I write: I hope that my words may resonate with someone, somewhere, and spur them to action, to greater things.

I have written often about the calls to social justice throughout the Old Testament.  Poverty, oppression, and injustice must never be tolerated as a norm.  That they exist is not a cause for acceptance of some cosmic status quo.  We are not subject to the same laws of entropy as the physical universe: we are more than leaves drifting inexorably downstream.  We have the power to change things.

That is why I have tried in a small way to be a voice for those who have none.  I have deep respect for organizations whose mission is to bring life-saving water to people who desperately need it.  I admire people who leap into action to alleviate suffering when disaster strikes.  I speak out often about the need to fully engage the enemy in the war on hunger.  That any child dies for lack of food makes me sad and angry and frustrated to think that there are people who have plenty who look the other way.  We are better than that. 

One of my favorite verses in all the Old Testament is from the “minor” prophet, Micah.  In Micah 6.8, the prophet says, “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”  How can I do justice if I turn away from need?  How can love kindness if I ignore oppression?  How can I walk humbly with my God if I refuse to share my blessings with others?  There are times that I ache to see and to be involved more in actions to bring help and hope to people in need.

So I have resolved that if I cannot go where help is needed, I can support those who can.  I can call attention to opportunities to join in with others to make change happen.  I know my friends probably grow tired of my solicitations for donations to good causes.  I cannot stop in my efforts, regardless of how weary they may become of my crying in the wilderness.  I hope, however, that they will join with me in giving even a little to these initiatives. Nothing gives me a greater sense of satisfaction than to know I have helped change the world, and to give someone I may never meet from somewhere I may never visit a chance to experience a better future.

I cannot help but think about Jesus’ vision of the Judgment in Matthew 25, where he describes the separation of the sheep from the goats, the saved from the condemned. 

“34  Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.  35  For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36  I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’

37  Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?  38  And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you?  39  And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’

40  And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’

As I write this, it is March 22, 2015—World Water Day.  It is a day set aside to remind if not inform the world of how important water is to life.  Millions of people remain in need of basic necessities like clean water and life-saving sanitation.  There are many organizations that are actively working to bring clean water to those desperately in need.  Won’t you learn how you can help them?

http://water.org/

http://www.worldvision.org/

http://www.charitywater.org/

http://www.unicefusa.org/

http://www.savethechildren.org/

The Strange Dance of Politics and Religion

It has been said that there are two big topics that should be avoided in polite conversation: politics and religion. I guess I’m not very good at taking that advice, since those are two of my favorite topics, not because I delight in argumentation, but because they are so central to the dynamics of human interaction. Each topic, by itself, has the potential to be rather divisive. But together, they engender a strange attraction, yet repulsion, like magnets in constant motion, if slightly out of phase.  Together, the mix becomes volatile, i.e., when politics impinges on religion, or religion attempts to hijack politics. Each has its very important role in life. But maintaining a healthy distance between them is essential for balance. Perhaps that is why the founders of this country, soon after crafting its unique Constitution, wrote in the first great amendment to it an assurance or guarantee that the Congress would neither make a law establishing a state religion, nor would it infringe upon the right to the exercise of religion.

That right to freedom of religion is central to the American freedoms. It is the first among the near sacred rights, and first among the firsts of that first amendment. It is established before the freedom of press, assembly, or speech. It is first before the right to bear arms, or any other right in that list.

That being said, why is there conflict and controversy over the role of religion in government? One vocal segment of the population apparently would like to see what could only be described as a theocracy established, enshrining Christianity as the official guiding influence of government. One big problem with that—beyond the fact that it violates the First Amendment—is, which brand of Christianity would be embraced? With hundreds, even thousands of Christian denominations, which would rise to supremacy? Christian denominations range from ultra-conservative to quite liberal. The conflict would likely not go away, and may even intensify were religion to encroach upon government. And that doesn’t take into consideration the many citizens who practice non-Christian religions, or no religion at all.

Conversely, the greater danger in my estimation would be the imposition of the government’s will on religious bodies. The separation of church and state must go both ways. If politics is to remain unsullied by the burden of religion, then religion must be protected from the imposition of government influence. This will become more and more difficult to maintain as social norms shift in this nation.

I am a firm believer in the separation of church and state. However, I cannot embrace the position held by many of the luminaries of the Restoration Movement’s early years that held that Christians must not serve in the military, and should not participate in government. That position relegates the Christian to the same level of society as a person who, though he lived under Roman rule, was not a Roman citizen. Some say to vote for a particular candidate is to condone every position held by that candidate. These people are likely to become single issue voters, which presents its own set of dangers. I disagree with that position, because I am compelled to look at the whole candidate, i.e. his or her position on on all issues. Since I opened my eyes to the vast array of political positions and opinions, I have not been in total agreement with any candidate for any office. I have tried to consider broader impacts as I assess a candidate’s potential, not embrace or dismiss them based on a single issue.

Of course, it can be argued as to whether the United States remains a representative democracy. Indeed, it has been suggested that we are no longer that, but rather an oligarchy run by a select cadre of shadow leaders from the military industrial complex or perhaps even more insidiously, just big industry. That’s all a little too conspiracy-theory-laced for me. I choose to give the nation the benefit of the doubt, and suggest that participation in democracy is neither right nor privilege, but a solemn responsibility or obligation, in that the will of the people must truly be an expression of all people, not only those with money enough to buy an election.

When religion is forced upon a people, it does not remain the positive influence that an expression of faith out of free will provides. Rather, it becomes another weapon of power and control. When religion is forcibly denied to people, it may become a rebel’s rallying point, which ultimately strengthens the government’s resolve to stamp out its last vestiges.

The conscientious exercise of faith, however, can and should become a positive force, in that the life of the faithful is one guided by enduring principles. In this way, religion does not control, but informs and instructs. A principled life should lead to principled decision-making, involving an examination of all aspects of an issue, not merely knee-jerk responses prescribed by adherence to some collection of dogmas.

Of course, it may be argued that a principled life directed by morality and ethics need not be encumbered by the trappings of religion. There are many ethical and moral atheists. I understand that. However, I am not here arguing the validity of atheism. I hope to impress the idea that politics and religion can peacefully and productively coexist.

To that end, I assert that Christians need to be involved in government, from active participation in the electoral process to the active pursuit of elected office. Good people are needed to counter-balance the weight of the unprincipled. People of good will must rise to be the light of goodness and Godliness without forcing an overtly religious view. This in no wise compromises one’s duty or privilege to always be ready to give an answer for the hope that he or she possesses. It does mean, however, that one must be able to determine the appropriate time for each.

Too often, politicians use the mantle of religion as a stage prop, demonstrating their piety with frequent appeals to observe the exercise of their faith. I have seen many modern day Pharisees among the conservative movement’s ranks, praying loudly in the market place, ordering God to commend their righteousness, not petitioning him for his mercy. These kinds of leaders would use religion as a weapon. But the shepherd’s staff was never meant to beat the sheep: it serves to direct and to protect.

Few topics are as volatile and divisive as religion and politics. Both are deeply ingrained in the human experience. Both are rooted in deep conviction. But they can coexist as long as people are willing to maintain the appropriate balance. I know there are good people who can achieve that. Finding people willing to withstand the scrutiny and attacks on character…that may be more difficult.

Struggling to Find the Good in Adversity

I have often thought that being a parent is not easy. Being a parent of a child with special needs is even harder. Because one child needs so much more attention, the siblings may develop resentment, born of feelings of neglect. Balancing the needs of the special needs child with the needs of the other child who is equally special in a different way…that’s the challenge.  

There have been times over the past few years that I have come perilously close to the end of my fraying rope as my wife and I have dealt with the implications of raising a son on the autism spectrum. The behavioral issues can be overwhelming at times. The developmental delays are discouraging. The endless therapies are draining. The constant wrangling with insurance companies and schools—which my wife has done with amazing resolve and effectiveness—is all too often disheartening. There are so few points of light, so few glimmers of encouragement. Our days begin with anxiety and end with exhaustion. That is our constant reality.

And yet, I was thinking just this morning that there have actually been some improvements lately. It isn’t perfect, but it’s better. Our son has been acting better at school. We’ve been getting notes about having good days far more frequently than we had for a while. He seems to actually be more enthusiastic about school. Is it a change in his medications or a change in the assistant assigned to work with him? Is it a combination of the two? Is he just growing up and maturing and learning more appropriate behavior?   We may never really know. But we can be thankful for the improvements.

I was just thinking about how many people who know nothing of this kind of struggle have glib answers and responses to share. Contrary to what they may think and offer as comfort, we are not special in any way. We have no more patience or capacity to care and love than any other parents. We are playing the hand we have been dealt. It’s all we can do.

As I was reflecting on the changes I mentioned, a passage from Romans came to mind. It is one that on some days I would bristle at hearing in such context, but on this day, I understand it.

“28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”

Now, that idea is batted around any time that someone may face adversity of any sort. All things work together for good. It seems so trite and patronizing. And yet, when your heart is open to it, it is comforting and reassuring.

On this journey into the uncharted wilds of autism, there is so little to bring joy, and so much to bring anger and frustration. But one thing I can say is that I have become more compassionate as I have grown to know and understand more about mental illness and development disorders. I have learned much more than I ever would have about causes and effects of autism and treatments and accommodations for it.

So I must say that good has indeed come from this adversity.

But look at the context in which that single verse resides: Romans 8 is one of the most ennobling chapters in all of scripture. To read and internalize it, in essence to accept it and own it is to be strengthened to face what seemed a moment before to be insurmountable. In the verses preceding this often quoted line, Paul relates the function of the Holy Spirit, the promised Comforter, in interceding for us.  

“26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. 27 And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”

How many times have I felt like prayer was totally ineffective? I have prayed for relief from the stresses of this life only to find more stresses. I have prayed for strength and patience, only to feel even weaker. But the Spirit knows more of what I need. And in God’s own time, the answers seem to be appearing. And I am so thankful for those inklings of changes.

The latter part of Romans 8 makes a believer’s heart swell nearly to bursting with love and faith and hope.

“31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? 33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36 As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Now, I realize Paul may have been talking more about persecution. But life’s circumstances can be as intimidating if not more so because there is no one to blame or to fight or to flee from.

To me, one of the most important messages from Romans 8 is that we are not alone. If we love God, the Spirit is working on our behalf. If we are among those who respond to the call to love and life, Jesus intercedes. And though the world may seem to swirl out of control, nothing can separate us from the love of God.

So today, I am thankful for the grace of the remembrance of a verse that gives me strength. It strengthens my faith with a truth more immediate than hope. I need to remember that more often. When times are bad. When autism has won the day. When I am so tired I feel I can’t go another step. I am not alone. I am loved despite things present or things to come. And I am more than a conqueror.

Being a parent isn’t easy. And come to think of it, with children like me questioning motives and demanding answers all the time, it can’t be easy for God, either. But I’m glad that he hasn’t given up on me. So following his lead, I won’t give up on my son.  

It has taken a while, but I finally understand.  The “good” that comes from the “working” of “all things” is not necessarily for me, as in my desired outcome on my terms.  It’s inside me.  And I am thankful for it.     

Politics and Religion in the Age of the Sound Bite

The founding fathers of the United States were not super-human.  They were not god-like in their powers of reasoning or prescient in their grasp of the future.  They were men.  They made mistakes. They were imperfect.  They wrote or ratified that all men are created equal, but held fellow humans in slavery. Their successors subscribed to the tenets of their predecessors, and, through the misguided application of an idea that the people of the new nation were divinely appointed to rule the continent from sea to shining sea, who subscribed to the mythos of “manifest destiny,” rooted the Native Americans from their homes and took their lands, making promises that were less permanent than the paper on which they were written.

No, these men were just men with grand and noble ideas and ideals.  But even in their human imperfection, they provided guidelines and touchstones that seem as if they just may have been divinely inspired.  No, I would not add the US Constitution to the canon of scripture.  But the first ten amendments to it, the Bill of Rights, are held as sacred to many who live in this country and love the freedom they have provided for well over two centuries.

The first amendment may contain the greatest and most important of all of the guaranteed rights.  In a single sentence, James Madison, as framer of the Bill of Rights, provided citizens with extraordinary benefits and assurances:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

The freedom of speech, the freedom of the press, the freedom to peaceably assemble, and the freedom to petition the government for the redress of grievances—what a slate of liberties in one sentence.

But the first guaranteed right, even before the freedom of speech, is the assurance that no particular religion would be embraced and made official by the government, and that all people would be free to exercise their faith without the interference of the government.  This was, of course, contrary to the practice of the day.  England, from whom the fledgling country had just won its independence, has an official religion.  Many of the colonists who came to America were seeking a place where they could practice their faith without persecution.

I believe in that freedom of religion and the separation of church and state.  When the two become intertwined, freedoms will erode.  Government will force its will on religion, or religion will force its will on government.  Beyond these possibilities, there appear to be no alternatives.

And yet, it is commendable when men of faith come together to celebrate that faith, and to petition God for guidance.  Such an event happens annually, where the President of the United States presides over the National Prayer Breakfast, held the first Thursday of each February.

The latest iteration of these events sparked controversy for the remarks that President Obama made regarding the violent history of Christianity, that people had done bad things in the name of Christ, ranging from atrocities during the Crusades to the Spanish Inquisition, to state sanctioned slavery and the suppression of African Americans with discriminatory Jim Crow laws.

Many political figures of the other party gasped in disdain over the remarks.  How dare he invoke history to remind us that people who professed to be Christians could be construed as being little different from those in other religions who perpetrate acts of violence in the guise of religion?!

My mind immediately returned to the Jeremiah Wright controversy of 2008.  During his first presidential campaign, then Senator Obama was forced to distance himself from the pastor of the church he had attended in Chicago, largely based on a single snippet of a sermon.  You remember the one, where Wright uttered those inflammatory words suggesting that African Americans should not sing “God Bless America”; “No, no, no.  God Damn America!”

Here is the famous quote in context:

Governments fail. The government in this text comprised of Caesar, Cornelius, Pontus Pilot – Pontius Pilate – the Roman government failed. The British government used to rule from east to west. The British government had a Union Jack. She colonised Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria, Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad and Hong Kong. Her navies ruled the seven seas all the way down to the tip of Argentina in the Falklands, but the British failed. The Russian government failed. The Japanese government failed. The German government failed. And the United States of America government, when it came to treating her citizens of Indian descent fairly, she failed. She put them on reservations. When it came to treating her citizens of Japanese descent fairly, she failed. She put them in internment prison camps. When it came to treating her citizens of African descent fairly, America failed. She put them in chains. The government put them in slave quarters, put them on auction blocks, put them in cotton fields, put them in inferior schools, put them in substandard housing, put them in scientific experiments, put them in the lowest paying jobs, put them outside the equal protection of the law, kept them out of their racist bastions of higher education and locked them into position of hopelessness and helplessness. The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law, and then wants us to sing “God Bless America.” No, no, no. Not “God Bless America”; God Damn America! That’s in the Bible, for killing innocent people. God Damn America for treating her citizen as less than human. God Damn America as long as she keeps trying to act like she is God and she is supreme!

I heard that three-word snippet over and over and over.  And I wish I had the presence of mind to do then what I did this very morning.  I searched for the source and found a transcript of the sermon, which was titled “Confusing God and Government.”  (You can find the transcript at this forum site: http://www.sluggy.net/forum/viewtopic.php?p=315691&sid=4b3e97ace4ee8cee02bd6850e52f50b7)

Wright opened his remarks by talking about whether or not Jesus wept.  Of course, John 11.35 confirms this in the account of the death of Lazarus.  But the sermon, given on Palm Sunday of 2003, recounted Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem in the week he was to die.  In Luke 19.41-44, Jesus paused and wept for the city, as he would surely weep for America in its present condition:

“41  And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, 42  saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. 43  For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side 44  and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.”   

Wright made three points in his sermon:  1)  Governments lie, but God does not;  2)  Governments change, but God does not; and 3) Governments fail, but God does not.  He emphasized that people should not confuse the role of government with the sovereignty of God.  

Now, I cannot say I agree with all of Wright’s political positions, nor can I vouch for the factual nature of every comment he made in his impassioned message.  For example, he made assertions that cannot be proven apparently implicating the US government in schemes like engineering the 9/11 attacks, and engineering HIV as a means of genocide against Africa.  Conspiracy theories abound, and anyone is subject to falling under their seductive spells. But conspiracies aside, there were many points that were indeed thought-provoking.

But a three-word sound bite was all that many ever heard from that Palm Sunday sermon.  For the vast majority of people, Wright’s message has never been read or heard in its entirety.  Only a couple of lines later, he said, “God Damn America as long as she keeps trying to act like she is God and she is supreme!”  His message was cautionary: if our nation continues to treat groups of people as they have done, we will fall like Israel fell, struck down by divine retribution for disobeying fundamental laws of justice and mercy.

That was his message: “…as long as she keeps trying to act like she is God and she is supreme!”  His was a call not unlike the prophets of the Old Testament.  Unless the nation repents of its collective sins, we may face the same fate as Israel: conquest by a foreign power, occupation, captivity and degradation.

Obama’s speech was cautionary as well, and may have been offered in the spirit of Jesus’ admonition against judging another while we may remain blinded by our own past.  As President of a nation that guarantees freedom of religion, he could not condemn all Muslim people for the acts of the most extreme. And contrary to how it has been spun in some quarters, he did not condemn all Christians for the acts of a few in the past.

Politics and religion are perhaps the two most volatile forces in human society.  When the two clash, as inevitably they will, there will be ill will and misunderstanding leading to suspicion and division.  Those early framers of our government knew that.  Despite the controversies that will inevitably swirl any time the two come near each other, we should be thankful for the guarantees of the First Amendment, which may be as close to a divine mandate as any nation, or any community or person of faith can ever hope to receive.

Oppression and Indifference

I was reading this morning about a crackdown on religion by the Chinese Communist Party in one province, in a refreshed campaign against religion as “the opiate of the people” and a renewed emphasis on state or party sanctioned atheism.  The article noted that the Communist Party’s “…ideology is rooted in Marxist-Leninist thought, which decries religion as a delusion that distracts the oppressed masses from demanding their fair share.”

I cannot imagine how it would feel to be oppressed for the practice of my faith.  As an American, it is a foreign concept to me.  Such oppression is unthinkable.  And yet, millions worldwide are officially discouraged from worship, actively detained, and in some cases, threatened, physically injured or killed for professing faith in a Savior who is called the Prince of Peace.

I have heard people in my faith heritage talk about how they have been oppressed.  I have asked how, only to hear the response that someone said something bad about them, or called them an ugly name, or used some religious epithet like “Campbellite” in reference to them.  Maybe they felt as if they had been denied a business opportunity because they were members of the wrong church.  When I hear such pitiful complaining, I shake my head in disbelief, shame and sorrow.

To be ill-spoken of is not oppression.

To be denied a business contract is not oppression.

 

But, to have your property seized because of your faith is oppression.

To be imprisoned for your faith is oppression.

To be beaten for your faith is oppression.

To be murdered for your faith is oppression.

To be murdered for your faith in front of your children is oppression.

 There are many stories of brave Protestant ministers who took a stand against the Nazi regime of early 20th century Germany.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor who spoke against Hitler, and was said to have joined a movement to assassinate him.  The Führer himself sent down the order for Bonhoeffer’s execution.  He was executed by hanging about two weeks before American forces liberated the concentration camp where he met his fate, and one month before Germany’s defeat.  An SS doctor who witnessed the execution said Bonhoeffer prayed and accepted his sentence with dignity.  In reality, he was denied common human dignity, stripped naked and led to the gallows.  Some say he was hoisted by a meat hook to a noose made of piano wire, where it may have taken half an hour to die.  Other reports suggest that the execution may have taken hours to complete. Other writers speculate that the SS doctor who reported what he saw, who marveled at Bonhoeffer’s faith and resolve, may have lied to salve his conscience or detract from the grisly business with which he was involved: it was suggested that such SS doctors supervised the revival of political opponents at the brink of death only to prolong their agony.  This is oppression.

Martin Niemöller was another German pastor who was imprisoned for his anti-Nazi stance in the late 1930’s, sent to concentration camps, including the infamous camp at Dachau, and was finally liberated at war’s end in 1945.  Niemöller was originally a Hitler supporter, but became disillusioned with the state’s control of religion.  After the war, he regretted having not done more to help victims of Nazi atrocities.

 Niemöller gave a speech in which he laid the foundation for what would become an oft-quoted, and often varied poem, one version of which reads:

In Germany they first came for the Communists,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Catholics,
and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant.
Then they came for me
and by that time no one was left to speak up.

This idea is echoed by Elie Wiesel, himself a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust, who became a celebrated writer and peace activist.  In 1986, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.  In an interview that year, he said, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference between life and death.”

Indifference.  That was the crime of the priest and the Levite in Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan.  Those who should have been most active in helping a Jewish brother turned away.  They did not further abuse the beaten traveler.  They merely turned their backs, walked away and left him to die unaided rather than become involved. 

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”  Indifference.  It is indifference that leads to inaction, and that ultimately accompanies tragedy by failing to stop oppression.

Wiesel said in his Nobel acceptance speech in December, 1986,

“And then I explained to him how naive we were, that the world did know and remain silent. And that is why I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere….

“Yes, I have faith. Faith in God and even in His creation. Without it no action would be possible. And action is the only remedy to indifference: the most insidious danger of all….

“…As long as one dissident is in prison, our freedom will not be true. As long as one child is hungry, our lives will be filled with anguish and shame. What all these victims need above all is to know that they are not alone; that we are not forgetting them, that when their voices are stifled we shall lend them ours, that while their freedom depends on ours, the quality of our freedom depends on theirs.”

It is an age-old story.  God told Israel in Isaiah 1, “16 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, 17  learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.”  The offenses shown here can easily be the product of indifference.  By doing nothing, oppressors are free to oppress.  By doing nothing, justice can be denied to the powerless.

In the last sermon Martin Niemöller preached on June 27, 1937, before he was taken to a concentration camp to begin an eight-year imprisonment, he said, “We have no more thought of using our own powers to escape the arm of authorities than had the Apostles of old. No more are we ready to keep silent at man’s behest when God commands us to speak. For it is, and must remain, the case that we must obey God rather than man.”  I admire that.  I aspire to that depth of faith and purpose.

Although it is true that I came to faith late, I have in that time never been oppressed for its practice.  I hope and pray that I would have the courage to stand fast if real oppression should ever arise. But unless — or God forbid, until — it does, it is my duty to stand in the face of indifference and correct oppression wherever it may be.  It all begins with caring enough to speak out. 

Consider this a shout.

Of Ancient Paths and the Image of God

Isn’t it wonderful that no human owns the rights to the Bible?  Oh, sure, there are translations and versions that have copyrights.  But the thoughts and teachings contained therein are not the exclusive property of any person or group. 

Unfortunately, some people think they own it.  Or, perhaps more correctly, they think their understanding of it is the only understanding possible.  Very often, this is built on taking words out of context and applying isolated verses to meet the teachings and doctrines that have been not only accepted, but elevated to equality with scripture.

One of the favorite pleas of many who find themselves as scions of the Restoration Movement has been a verse found in Jeremiah chapter 6.  In verse 16, Jeremiah records the words of God, “Thus says the LORD: “Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls. But they said, ‘We will not walk in it.’”

To many of these people, seeking the Ancient Paths is code for the restoration of First Century church structure and worship.  There have been and still exist books, papers and articles with Old Paths in their titles. Anyone not seeking the right Old Paths are completely and irredeemably wrong. 

To be sure, I understand where they are coming from.  But their Ancient Paths lead to destinations very different from the ones that God spoke of through Jeremiah.  Obviously, the first issue that comes to mind is that Jeremiah was writing a warning to the erring children of Israel, who were about to reap a harvest of God’s wrath for their disobedience.  This means that the Ancient Paths were far older than First Century church practice.

Now, take a moment to read the verse in its context.  I am drawn to the comment in verse 13, where God says, “For from the least to the greatest of them, everyone is greedy for unjust gain; and from prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely.”

What does that sound like?  To me, it rings of Isaiah 1, where God charges Israel with vain worship.  How?  They appeared to be keeping up appearances, including sacrifices, Sabbath assemblies, appointed feasts, and convocations.  It sounds like they were keeping the letter of the law as far as one might observe.

But something was wrong.  God says in Isaiah 1.13, “I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly.”

In vv. 16-17, God gives Israel pointed instructions as to what he required of them to be right in his sight: “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil,  17  learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.” 

Back in Jeremiah 6.13, everyone was dealing falsely and seeking unjust gain.  In doing so, they were oppressing others.  They were denying justice to orphans and rendering indifference to the plight of widows.  They had left the Ancient Roads, the Good Way, wherein they would find rest for their souls.

Jesus knew the Ancient Paths, and declared it to one who tried to entrap him in his own words.  When asked what the greatest commandment was in Matthew 22, he replied with a synthesis from Deuteronomy 6.4 and Leviticus 19.18: “37 …You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

Micah 6.8 relates, “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”  Is that not loving God, to care for his creation by doing justice, living in kindness and freely offering mercy?  To serve others in this way demands humility; to serve this way is to walk with God, because these are attributes of God.

The Pharisees in Matthew 23 got the form right in their strict adherence to the letter of the ceremonial law.  But Jesus called them on something more fundamental: justice, mercy, and faithfulness.  Some writers suggest that Jesus was thinking of Micah 6.6-8 when he delivered this denunciation of the Pharisaic proclivity for performing for the praise of other Pharisees.  I would tend to agree.

Yes, the Ancient Paths are older than the First Century.  If truth were known, the principles may be as old God, which is to say, eternal.  God’s repeated call throughout the Bible and to all of humankind today is much the same:  love him, love each other.  It is in love and justice and kindness and mercy that true rest can be found for weary and burdened souls.  It is in returning to the nearly forgotten image of God that we can know the peace that surpasses our current understanding.  It is important to remember that we can choose not to follow those original Ancient Paths and easily pass the Good Way by while becoming distracted with interpretations of ancient form and practice. But it is good to know that direction to the true Ancient Paths will always be ours for the asking.

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