Tag Archives: Constantine

Alien Citizens: the church as the alternative to the madness

I was blessed to come upon a piece by William Willimon in The Plough this morning. I wanted to remember it and I hope you will remember it, too. In that hope I lifted it and reprint it below.

On MLK Day and in this final pre-inauguration week, we need to consider how to be the church in troubling times. I think Willimon tells us how to do it well; I don’t want you to miss it.

Alien Citizens: Karl Barth, Eberhard Arnold, and Why the Church Is Political

William H. Willimon

In Resident Aliens, their influential 1989 book, Will Willimon and co-author Stanley Hauerwas laid out a bracing vision of how to live Christianly in contemporary society. Where can Christians find guidance in the challenging times ahead? Plough asked the retired United Methodist bishop, now a Duke Divinity School professor, for his insights.

What did Christians have at stake in the past presidential election? The question is not primarily which candidate we should have voted for, a decision that for me was made easy by Donald Trump. Instead, we ought to be asking: Why should we vote at all and, once the 55 percent of eligible voters have voted, what are Christians to make of the outcome of the election? How then shall we live now that “the people have spoken”?

How will Trump rule, or be led by those who want to rule through him? Now that less than half of the voters have coerced the rest of us to call Trump our leader, how then should we live? How will we exorcise the demon of American-style racism and xenophobia that Trump has unleashed?

For Christians, these questions, while interesting, are not the most pressing. Jesus’ people participate uneasily in American democratic politics not because we are torn between the politics of the left and of the right, but because of the singular truth uttered by Eberhard Arnold in his 1934 sermon on the Incarnation: “Our politics is that of the kingdom of God”.

Because Arnold was a man of such deep humility, peacefulness, and nonviolence, in reading his sermons it’s easy to miss his radicality. How well Arnold knew and lived the oddness of being a Christian, a resident alien in a world where politics had become the functional equivalent of God. How challenging is Arnold’s preaching in our world, where the political programs of Washington or Moscow can seem to be the only show in town, our last, best hope for maintaining our sense of security and illusions of control.

Christians carry two passports: one for the country in which we find ourselves, and another for that baptismal nation being made by God from all the nations. This nation is a realm not made by us but by God; Arnold calls it a “completely new order” where Christ at last “truly rules over all things.”

As storm clouds gathered in Nazified Germany, and millions pinned their hopes on a political savior who would make Germany great again through messianic politics, Arnold defiantly asserted that the most important political task of the church was to join Paul in “the expectation, the assurance of a completely new order.”

“How quaint,” the world must have thought; “how irrelevant Christian preachers can be.”

Rather than offering alternative policies or programs to counter those of the Nazis, Arnold made the sweeping claim that “all political, all social, all educational, all human problems are solved in a concrete way by the rulership of Christ. This is what glory is.”

About the same time as Arnold’s sermon, Karl Barth was telling German preachers that they ought to preach “as if nothing happened.” The “nothing” that they were to ignore was Hitler. Barth urged preachers not to waste pulpit time condemning the Nazis. Demons were on the prowl which could not be exorcized except through prayerful proclamation of the Word of God. Barth’s famous Barmen Declaration (which never mentions Hitler) was a defiant statement that the church must be free to preach and that Christians listen intently to no other word than that of Jesus Christ. When the Nazis forced Barth to resign from his teaching position in Bonn, his last advice to his students bidding him a tearful farewell was to remain centered on scripture, exhorting them: “Exegesis, exegesis, exegesis!”

Were Barth and his friend Arnold ­escaping politics by not talking about politics? No. Arnold and Barth knew they were preaching God’s word in a world where politics had purloined sacred rhetoric and assumed eternal significance for itself with talk of Volk, Land, und Blut. They talked politics but not as the world talks politics.

“We must deprive the politicians of their sacred pathos,” Barth advised his fellow preachers. The flames of political zealotry must be starved by taking eternal significance off the table when we engage politics. The preacher must view the pretentious modern nation-state and its presumptive politics through a wide-angle lens. Politicians must not be allowed to assume a messianic posture, and citizens must be warned against giving politicians glory that belongs only to God. In other words, Barth and Arnold were determined to do politics in a peculiarly Christian way by talking about who God is and what God is up to before making any assessment of human alternatives to God.

God’s Politics: The Body of Christ

Asked by The Christian Century to respond to the twenty-fifth anniversary of my book with Stanley Hauerwas, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony, a dozen reviewers dismissed the book as politically irrelevant, sectarian escapism from the great issues of the day. None noticed that the book was meant to address the church, not the US Senate. Resident Aliens was a work of ecclesiology that assumed that when Christians are pressed to “say something political,” our most faithful response is church. As Hauerwas famously puts it, the church doesn’t have a social policy; the church is God’s social policy.

Constantine and the sign at the Milvian Bridge.

Many of our critics showed that they still live under the Constantinian illusion that the United States is roughly synonymous with the kingdom of God. Even though the state alleges that it practices freedom of religion, the secular state tolerates no alternatives to its sovereignty. Christians are free in American democracy to be as religious as we please as long as we keep our religion personal and private.

Contemporary secular politics decrees that people of faith must first jettison the church’s peculiar speech and practices before we can be allowed to go public and do politics. Many mainline Protestants, and an embarrassing number of American evangelicals, cling to the hope that by engagement with secular politics within the limits set by the modern democratic state, we can wrest some shred of social significance for the Christian faith. That’s how my own United Methodist Church became the Democratic Party on its knees.

Saying it better than we put it in Resident Aliens, Arnold not only sees Christ as “embodied in the church” but calls the church to go beyond words and engage in radical, urgent action that forms the church as irrefutable, concrete proof that Jesus Christ really is Lord and we are not: “Only very few people in our time are able to grasp the this-worldly realism of the early Christians.… Mere words about the future coming of God fade away in people’s ears today. That is why embodied, corporeal action is needed. Something must be set up, something must be created and formed, which no one will be able to pass by,” on the basis of our knowledge of who God is and where God is bringing the world. Our hope is not in some fuzzy, ethereal spirituality. “It takes place now, through Christ in the church. The future kingdom receives form in the church.”

In his sermon, Arnold eschews commentary on current events, as well as condemnation or commendation of this or that political leader, and instead speaks about the peculiar way Christ takes up room in the world and makes his will known through the ragtag group of losers we dare to call, with Paul, the very body of Christ. “It is not the task of this body of Christ to attain prominence in the political power structure of this world.… Our politics is that of the kingdom of God.”

Because of who God is and how God works, the congregation where I preach, for all its failures (and I can tell you, they are many) is, according to Arnold, nothing less than “an embassy of God’s kingdom”: “When the British ambassador is in the British embassy in Berlin, he is not subject to the laws of the German Reich.… In the residence of the ambassador, only the laws of the country he represents are valid.”

Arnold’s sermon is a continually fresh, relevant rebuke to those who think we can do politics without doing church. Among many pastors and church leaders, there is a rather docetic view of ministry and the church. We denigrate many of the tasks that consume pastoral ministry – administration, sermon preparation, and congregational leadership – because we long to be done with this mundane, corporeal stuff so we can soar upward to higher, more spiritual tasks. Arnold wisely asserts Incarnation and unashamedly calls upon his congregants to get their hands dirty by engaging in corporate work: to set up, create, form, and learn all those organizational skills that are appropriate for an incarnational faith where we are saved by the Eternal Word condescending to become our flesh.

Clementa Pinckney under his sign

Preachers as Politicians

In Charleston, South Carolina, the senior pastor of Emanuel AME Church, Clementa C. Pinckney, was a state senator and a powerful politician. But the night he was martyred he was in the basement hall of his church, leading a small group of laypeople in prayer and Bible study. Much of the ordinary, unspectacular work pastors do is holy if we believe that the church is the incarnate Christ’s chosen means of showing up in the world. Even the mundane body work done by pastors and lay leadership is sacred when it equips Christ’s commissioned “ambassadors” and constitutes an “embassy” of another sovereignty, a living, breathing Body, something that a young South Carolina racist recognized as a threat to his white supremacist world.

The people who got the nation’s attention by giving so bold a witness to forgiveness after the massacre at Mother Emanuel didn’t drop down out of heaven. They were produced here on earth, in lifetimes of listening to sermons by pastors like Pinckney who took seriously their responsibility “to equip God’s people for the work of serving” (Eph. 4:12).

I know a pastor who began his sermon after the Charleston massacre by asking, “How come our Bible studies in this church have not been truthful enough, intense enough, for anybody to want to kill us? Church, we need to figure out how to be so faithful in our life together that the world can look at us and see something that it is not. Our little congregation is called to be a showcase of what a living God can do!”

Christians are “political” because beliefs, including religious beliefs, have political consequences. However, Arnold’s Incarnation sermon is based upon more than that hackneyed, common­-sense observation. Arnold assumes that, when storm clouds gather and politicians strut their stuff before adoring audiences, the most world-changing, revolutionary statement we can make is that Jesus reigns; that God, not nations, rules the world; and that even the best of Caesar’s solutions fall short of the kingdom of God. God’s peculiar answer to what’s wrong with the world, God’s exemplification of creative social alternatives, is the church. These sweepingly political claims are more than personal and private. As Arnold says, because we know, through Christ, who God (i.e., reality) is, we “cannot shed blood or tolerate private property,” we “cannot lie or take an oath,” and we must uphold “the faithfulness between a man and woman in a marriage under the church,” because we believe that God, not politics, names what’s really going on.

Returning from a Moral Monday demonstration in Raleigh, North Carolina, where hundreds of us had gathered to once again castigate the state’s political buffoons, I was rather pleased with myself for my courageous (though not costly) political activism. We got them told.

Listening to the radio on the way back, we heard Governor McCrory dismiss our demonstration as “just a bunch of aging hippies from the sixties.” Ouch! Our Trump-wannabe governor bragged that polls showed close to 60 percent support for his right-wing policies.

“Preacher,” said the person I had dragged to Moral Monday with me, “sounds like we don’t need better politicians; we need a better class of voters. Maybe you should stay home and work on your Sunday sermon rather than get arrested in Raleigh.”

I have met the political enemy, and he is… me and my fellow Christians, who find it so hard to embody our convictions, and who, even in our left-wing protests, unintentionally give credence to political scoundrels. If we are going to worship a Savior who is determined to tabernacle among us, to show up and thereby disrupt our settled arrangements with Caesar, then we can’t avoid the mundane, corporeal work of having meetings, forming a congregation that becomes in its life together and its way in the world a visible, breathing, undeniable bodily presence of Christ.

That’s why maybe my most radical, ­politically significant act is to take Eberhard Arnold as my model: stand up this Sunday and preach that God’s will be done, God’s reign will come on earth as in heaven, whether we like it or not.

 

The Whitelash and This Year’s Thoughts about the Election

Van Jones said it was a whitelashVan Jones became my favorite CNN commentator during the election. I agree with his summation of what happened yesterday: “This was a rebellion against the elites, true. It was a complete reinvention of politics and polls, it’s true. But it was also something else. This was a whitelash. This was a whitelash against a changing country. It was a whitelash against a black president in part, and that’s the part where the pain comes. And Donald Trump has a responsibility tonight to come out and reassure people that he is going to be the president of all the people who he insulted and offended and brushed aside.”

It was also a whitelash against the thought of woman president. And, unfortunately for any hope I have of evangelism, it was a whitelash against the “godless people who have taken over the government and the Supreme Court that aids and abets them.”

This was my Facebook summation last night: “OK. I voted. To paraphrase Paul on both his prophetic and practical sides: In Christ there is no Republican or Democrat; Jesus is Lord. In the voting booth I voted to bring as much justice as I could with my measly vote. Now back to the everyday transformative work we do…with joy.”

Friends, let’s get back to the reality that Jesus does not need the American government to do His work.  Let’s have confidence in the kingdom that cannot be shaken. Let’s remember how Jesus told us, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.” Let’s return to the mentality Paul taught us: “The time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they do not;  those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep;  those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away.

I wrote a lot about the campaign, beginning back in May when Circle of Hope did some theology together about what elections mean to God. In retrospect, some of the basic teaching might be useful today as so many of us are trying to make sense of where we are now and what Jesus calls us to do.

Here are excerpts from seven blog posts. Hit the titles to take the link to each piece.

Oct 18 — The alternative to politics: take hold of that for which Jesus took hold of me

On the other hand, I am appalled that we are paying so much attention to two bonafide members of the one percent duking it out to be king or queen of the elite. Hillary Clinton is so cozy with the world’s domination system it would be surprising if she manages to see outside the bubble. The people at the top really think they own the world and need to take care of it. At least Donald Trump is generally despised among the elite as a brash idiot who can’t help opening the curtain and exposing all the secrets. We all tune in and suck up the illusion that we are not their slaves. Many people believe that one of them is somehow going to represent their interests.

debate vs hillary donald
Still my favorite GIF of the election.

Sep 27 — If someone puts the Geiger counter on you, stand in grace

I admit that Donald Trump made me pull my hair out last night — interrupting, bullying, talking about 400 pound people and other tabloid interests. It was kind of embarrassing.

But I also learned a bit about what people like about him. Here’s what I think: Everyone is becoming a bit sick of what I call “Geiger counter” accountability. What I mean is the feeling that some kind of powerful person or entity is holding a tester over you to pick up some tiny particle of being out of line. We’re always setting off the no-go alarm. We’re always getting the red notice that we have not filled out the inexplicable form properly (like I just experienced with a City of Philadelphia form). The Donald is just so splendidly incorrect, he gives us hope that a real person might be acceptable in reality. Hillary Clinton has somehow mastered so much material that she can actually function well in political unreality.

Sep 20 — I am sick of the campaign…but still alternative.

I get discouraged. But then the Holy Spirit revives my hope again. Sin happens every day – and will keep happening inside us and out. We’re sick. But our work in the Lord is not in vain. My wounds are not permanent. Our sins could not keep Jesus in the grave. I still know we are the alternative, and we need to be: a circle of hope wherever God takes us.

Jul 29 — About Hillary — we can do better

It is tempting to spend another four years hoping things will get better – and the government can and does makes things better, as it should. But we still don’t put our hope “in chariots and horses,” that is, in the capacity to threaten ISIS, the wealth to promise free education, or the exceptionalism of our supposed democracy. So let’s not fall into temptation. Someplace, Jesus needs a platform to speak the truth. Someplace, normal people need to struggle face to face in faith and do what they can do, not dependent on their corporate overlords to allow it. Someplace, the alternative to two years of vying to be the top dog has to be available. The church is the Lord’s people and we are, like it or not, the best hope of giving people real hope in a 46%-43% society. I think our witness has been drowned out by big money, big systems and our own complicity (in general). But Jesus is still making connections and is still using us. I’m with Him.

July 22 — About Trump — we can do better

I live among people who are not happy with Trump. But sometimes I think they are posturing, since they probably have a relative from the South or Middle Pennsylvania (or keeping quiet in Philly, at least) who thinks Trump is great. So they must have some sense of affinity with the guy. Don’t worry if you do or you don’t — It is crazy politics, people, but it is still just politics. And even if the election turns out to be a life and death matter for some people, we are still Jesus followers. Every election serves to remind us why we are glad to have a savior who triumphs over death. I don’t say that in a fatalistic way, just a realistic one. I know Americans think they can control everything so nothing bad will happen or happen again, but how many times does our control system need to be proven faulty until we give up on it?

May 9 — We have no king but Bernie?

I sent in my absentee ballot, but, I have to admit, I did not even pray about it.

That’s mainly because I remember the crowd Pilate drew to his rally during the Passover feast in Jerusalem when the powers that be infiltrated an audience that would normally have gone for Jesus (and had just a week before) and got people to use the system to get Barabbas off and Jesus crucified. When Pilate asked them, “Do you want me to crucify your king?” they shouted, “We have no other king but Caesar.” Sometimes crowds get it right; but I am not trusting the vote to fulfill my hopes. They might not recognize the Son of God if he were standing right in front of them!

We are going to do some theology about elections on May 2 because even radical Christians react to U.S. elections like they are crucial to justice and world peace. Many feel, even if they don’t act, like the president (and whoever those other elected officials are) is even important to their faith. There are a lot of good historical reasons for that attitude, which has almost no relation to anything happening in the Bible, certainly not in the life of Jesus. The feeling of importance is hard to shake off when you live in the most recent preeminent empire, which loves to call itself the wealthiest and most powerful nation on earth (see Bernie’s website, linked above). Living in it makes you think, that even if the 1% effectively own the government, your vote is going to start a revolution, you are just that special.

May 5 — Elections: Constantine, Trump, etc.

The Anabaptist’s disgust with Constantinianism is not about the sincerity with which Constantinian Christians use top-down, coercive, worldly power or about the goodness of the ends toward which they wield such power. The shift labeled “Constantinian” is the willingness of God’s people to deform their specific God-given identity by merging with worldly power structures and using top-down, coercive, worldly power to accomplish what God has given his people to do without such power.

John Howard Yoder said: “The most pertinent fact about the new state of things after Constantine and Augustine is not that Christians were no longer persecuted and began to be privileged, nor that emperors built churches and presided over ecumenical deliberations about the Trinity; what matters is that the two visible realities, church and world, were fused.” That is one reason Americans can spend two years electing the president. People think it is VERY important.

Don’t just worship Jesus, follow Him.

At the General Conference of the Brethren in Christ we were led, part of the time, by a talented team of young people fronted by Bishop Aner’s family. I think they are great. But I finally stopped singing with them. I just could not sing another rendition of the same skewed song. While it was a bit painful to come to this realization, I think I am pretty much over songs based on what I would call a triumphalistic mentality. Christian worship needs to be larger than the nation-focused worship of many psalms, and it needs to be smaller than the power-based assumptions of an empire. The King of kings is a suffering servant. Worship includes following him, not just worshiping him.

Worship the king

Their music was all about being granted the favors of a king. The songs kept repeating this, so they helped me focus on a tendency I had been noticing elsewhere. I decided to do some research, so I entered “worship the king” on Google. The first entry was for a worship team. They published a video. They had a cool backdrop, a drum screen, a word screen in the back, a lead singer in skinny pants, and even a white-haired woman doing the Pentecostal “jump” in the crowd. Corey Voss was trying to sell his new generic song on iTunes. It was the kind of music used at the conference. And yes, we were encouraged to jump there, too.

I think Voss’s song is nice. He could be alluding to Matthew 21:1-17 where Jesus presents himself as king. He could be thinking of Jesus as the kind of king he appears there, and on the cross, and not fast forwarding to the kind of king he will appear as when he comes a second time. There is a difference. Because the nature of Jesus’ kingship now is creating a season of salvation in world history during which people can still switch sides. There is still time for everyone to accept the amnesty that King Jesus holds out, and renounce allegiance to self, or country, or prosperity or whatever else rules more than Jesus. Or the emphasis on Jesus as king might be skewed from an empire viewpoint and it is all about getting power, defeating enemies, staying safe, and staying out of trouble with an overlord.

I love to worship and can generously use all sorts of music. But I have this terrible feeling that with a lot of songs Christians are using these days, Jesus has been transmuted back into the Psalms rather than the Psalms looking ahead to Him. All this king and kingdom worship makes Jesus an all-powerful emperor, in the image of Constantine (d. 337) or the latest strongman, rather than the suffering servant riding into town in a very humble, human way. You recall that his goal was not to be king of the world, even though people wanted him to be. Jesus is still washing feet through his people.

Jesus comparison

The Post-Constantine shift

I fear that we are still committed to the shift Christianity took very early on. A book I am reading (and recommending) talks about an inappropriate and unbiblical shift in the way Christians see Jesus. Here is a small summary quote: “The Christendom era has bequeathed a form of Christianity that has marginalized, spiritualized, domesticated and [diminished] Jesus. The teaching of Jesus is watered down, privatized, and explained away. Jesus is worshiped as a remote kingly figure or a romanticized personal savior. In many churches (especially those emerging from the Reformation), Paul’s writings are prioritized over the Gospel accounts of the life of Jesus. And in many Christian traditions, ethical guidelines derived from the Old Testament or pagan philosophy trump Jesus’ call to discipleship.” – The Naked Anabaptist, p. 55

I think I can can see this shift hanging on in the worship of millennials like Corey Voss. Maybe we can see the shift represented in the fact that four out of five Evangelicals say they will vote for Donald Trump, despite Hillary Clinton’s much more developed and demonstrated faith. That is not an endorsement of Hillary, since I can find a lot to doubt about her, but it is an interesting reaction. I think they may want Jesus the ruler rather than Jesus the servant. I think they may want to worship Jesus, not follow him. Perhaps they have come to like God, but they cannot tolerate the suffering, morally demanding, take-up-your-cross-and-follow-me Jesus. It seems to me that their cross is a sign of triumph, empty of Jesus and empty of themselves, a sign of victory over sin, but also over opponents, a cross jauntily held over their shoulder as a weapon like the imperial Jesus on the right above.

The life and teaching of Jesus is central to our faith. Circle of Hope has twenty years of experience in following Jesus as well as worshiping Him. Right now Daily Prayer :: WIND is exploring Jesus in the New Testament. I recommend it as a means to stay conscious in this mind-and-heart-numbing context in which we live.

 

 

The saviors I did not ask to receive

On the long ride to the Poconos, the only thing on NPR was the Prairie Home Companion. Normally I can only get so far with the redundancy of Garrison Keillor, but he hooked me with his broadcast for Memorial Day. He was at the Wolftrap in Virginia, near Manassas, the site for two great Civil War battles—and he referenced Antietam, the deadliest one-day battle in U.S. history (on the U.S. side, at least). The show was sprinkled with songs from the American war-song book, but Keillor was singing for peace. He was in sync with President Obama, who remembered Memorial Day by visiting Hiroshima and calling for a “moral revolution” to make a world free from nuclear weapons.

One of the songs the cast sang was a soulful rendition of The Battle Hymn of the Republic. Keillor led the crowd to join in. Everyone seemed to know it, since this very–religious song is still taught in school. It was, quite appropriately, sung at Ronald Reagan’s funeral, who I lately accused of misleading the public to think that the United States military power was God’s instrument of policing the world, right down to calling new missiles “peacekeepers.”

This hymn, written by a staunch abolitionist, saw the Union Army as God’s instrument of bringing about His judgment on the evil of slavery (as even Thomas Jefferson concluded was inevitable). Julia Howe’s allusions are all to Isaiah 63 and the book of Revelation, which promise that the day of the Lord will not be pretty for the disobedient. Her song assured the army that the Civil War was a foretaste of the wrath to come.

My problem is not with God’s judgment. I rely on the fact that evildoers will receive what they have been committed to achieving. My great problem is with the rest of the theology she promoted. I think if you ask a random Christian, they will, most likely (and unfortunately), still be headed in the wrong direction she was leading the troops. The problems are in every verse. For instance:

Verse 1: He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:

The leaders of armies have been telling soldiers that God is on their side for as long as I can remember. Right now, Daesh is the evil. It was added on to drugs, terror etc. The Union army was told it was God’s sword.

Verse 2: I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps,
They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damp

Very few soldiers saw their camp fire as one before an altar I am sure. But the allusion reminds us that Christians reinstituted an altar worship when Constantine installed Jesus at the center of every town in the Roman Empire, right where the altar to the false gods once stood, often in the same building. But, in truth, Jesus made the body of Christ the temple; altar worship is obsolete – not merely the Jewish altar, but the very idea of needing a place of mediation where men make sacrifices to please God.

Verse 3: I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel:
“As ye deal with my contemners, so with you my grace shall deal”;
Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel,
Since God is marching on.

I gave you the whole verse. By now, you get it. The song assumes the gospel uses violence for its ends. It teaches that violence redeems. Regardless of the Lord’s own example of nonviolence, the powers that rule the world convince noble-minded women that 13,000 men should die, be wounded or go missing in one day at the battle of Sharpsburg/Antietam and those losses should be considered holy, and even the fulfillment of the spirit of prophecy.

Verse 4 — He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment-seat;

In the song, the “sifting” is about the latest war. It is not about being in God’s kingdom or another’s; it is about being on the right side of the nation’s history. As you notice from the most recent era of polarization in the U.S., people are still sifting and are still ready to condemn those who align on another side. But unlike what Howe teaches, in truth, Jesus is not presiding over the animosities which run the United States and which threaten to loop us all into an endless cycle of judgment. Jesus died and rose to end that cycle.

Verse 5 — As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free

This is where most versions of the song stop (even though Howe included a last verse). It is an appropriate climax for the song, and it is the apex of its wrong theology. The “sacrifice” the soldiers are preparing around the “altar fires” of their encampment is supposedly like the sacrifice of Jesus. The thought is the 10,000 casualties at Manassas will be worth it because the cause is one with the Lord’s.

The problem is that Jesus died and rose so that we would no longer be sacrificing animals or one another to save the world. The old is gone, the new has come. The very thing she is exalting is exactly what He brought down. Yet in the name of Jesus, Howe is celebrating the sacrifice soldiers make to His “truth” that is marching on – they are to believe that this war is for that truth.

Every war song since has said the same thing—dying for country, dying to preserve freedom, dying to protect your brother soldiers, dying to protect American interests, making the world safe for democracy, protecting the homeland from communism, extremism, from people who would destroy our way of life. It is always justified with the most serious, even majestic tones. I have often been told that I could not do things like write this blog unless the sacrifice of brave men had made my freedom possible. Yet I am not free from their sacrifice. I honor their courage and devotion, and I don’t think every choice we need to make is as easy as writing a blog post. But I don’t worship at their altar. They are the saviors I never asked to receive. I don’t believe my true Savior asked them for their sacrifice on the altar of preserving His rivals who continue the way of sin and death—and put it to music.

[I found out that Garrison Keillor wrote the song that moved me most in the show. It is called Argonne. Here are the lyrics.]