Tag Archives: Thomas Jefferson

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.]

“Unalienable rights” should be normal but not necessary

The Declaration of Independence must be one of the most influential things ever written. It might be the “sacred literature” that influences Americans, including the Christians, the most. I think we need to do better than that, even though the Declaration has changed the world.

You may have memorized the beginning at some point:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

circle of hope, collingswood, non-denominational, rights, Jesus, church, philadelphia, churches in philadelphia, south jerseyHaving just returned from Zimbabwe, I have to say how much I enjoy those lines. My rights in Zimbabwe were subject to the searching gaze of a young soldier, often part of a team with machine guns, stopping our van (at least twenty times) over the 280 miles from Bulawayo to Livingstone. The people of Zimbabwe are so used to looking over their shoulders to see who is listening that they are reticent to say anything meaningful to their friends! It is nice to have rights.

Unfortunately, that rarity among the people of the world is seen as the apex of goodness among Americans. If you have the rights the government should honor, that’s it. After that it is up to you and you should be happy. Of course, as you have noticed, so-called minority people who are given rights don’t automatically enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. There is much more to life than the government acquiescing and allowing one to exist legally, even when that government thinks it is God’s tool for righteousness, as it seems to think in the U.S.

At least that is what I think Paul teaches. There is much more – so much more that talk of rights seems kind of like spiritual baby talk. The Apostle Paul has some extensive teaching about rights and freedom in his letters. He is talking to people who are generally denied rights under Roman autocracy, and he is talking more specifically to religious people who think following the law of Moses gives them special rights. What he teaches is that we have rights granted by God that don’t depend on anyone. But even more, we have the capacity, just like Jesus, to give up our rights for love. Our right to love is the highest privilege of all.

Listen to him in 1 Corinthians 9

     Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?Are you not the result of my work in the Lord?  Even though I may not be an apostle to others, surely I am to you! For you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.

     This is my defense to those who sit in judgment on me. Don’t we have the right to food and drink? Don’t we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas? Or is it only I and Barnabas who lack the right to not work for a living?

     Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat its grapes? Who tends a flock and does not drink the milk? Do I say this merely on human authority? Doesn’t the Law say the same thing? For it is written in the Law of Moses: “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.” Is it about oxen that God is concerned? Surely he says this for us, doesn’t he? Yes, this was written for us, because whoever plows and threshes should be able to do so in the hope of sharing in the harvest. If we have sown spiritual seed among you, is it too much if we reap a material harvest from you? If others have this right of support from you, shouldn’t we have it all the more?

This is like his declaration of independence. He declares his unalienable rights, doesn’t he? (Maybe you thought Thomas Jefferson invented these things!) But he goes way beyond clinging to his rights as he continues.

     But we did not use this right. On the contrary, we put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ.

     Don’t you know that those who serve in the temple get their food from the temple, and that those who serve at the altar share in what is offered on the altar?  In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel.

     But I have not used any of these rights. And I am not writing this in the hope that you will do such things for me, for I would rather die than allow anyone to deprive me of this boast. For when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, since I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!  If I preach voluntarily, I have a reward; if not voluntarily, I am simply discharging the trust committed to me. What then is my reward? Just this: that in preaching the gospel I may offer it free of charge, and so not make full use of my rights as a preacher of the gospel.

Perhaps we look askance at his boasting. But what he is saying is that he likes the reward he gets from not exercising his rights. He wants to be deeper than what is normal. He does not want to be tied up with begging and fighting for his rights, even though he deserves them on human and spiritual authority. Jesus did not die and rise to achieve normal. Paul likes relying on the Lord and having Jesus as the guarantor of rights that go far beyond the rights of which humans can deprive him. He explains what that means.

      Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.  I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

All the rights claimed by various tribes of people are fine with Paul. He has those too, on several counts: he is a Jew and a Roman citizen; he is under the law and a notorious lawbreaker; some see him as strong others as weak. But for Jesus’ cause and because of the love that’s been poured out on him and through him, he does not need to get stuck in any of those sub-Christian categories.

circle of hope, collingswood, non-denominational, rights, Jesus, church, philadelphia, churches in philadelphia, south jerseyWhen he writes to the Galatians about similar things, he warns them about getting stuck.

 You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love.  For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.

When we talk about the politics of the U.S. these days we can almost immediately get stuck in whatever someone’s “unalienable rights” means to them about “freedom.” Mostly, it appears to mean we are all free to bite and devour one another, and the leaders are the prime examples of that freedom! In the church, people often think that protecting the rights of minorities is the apex of morality when it is just the beginning. Whole denominations divide up over power struggles about individual identity and rights. Many unbelievers think it is characteristically Christian to bite and devour people — mainly because they fight for power all day! I don’t think the Bible writers taught them to do that. There is so much more than that! Paul is not waiting to get his rights straight in the eyes of others before he loves them and reveals Jesus to them. That former preoccupation has passed away.

I am glad I have, as an American, the basic political rights that all people should have. As a white male, I have privilege that gives me special, if unauthorized, “rights” that are backed up by the domination system for whom the Declaration of Independence was intended to begin with. I think that Zimbabweans and all people who are oppressed and denied their identity as free individuals should be liberated politically. But, even more, I am glad I know that none of us will be free until we quit fighting for our rights and start receiving them from Jesus. Jesus is the true liberator. There is more life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness available in the Kingdom of God, whether I have governmental rights or not, than any gun-toting soldier can give me or take away.

Do you agree that there is another way? It begins with seeing things with a new lens. When we look at the group in the picture at the top, do we automatically see them from the perspective of who has rights and who doesn’t? Who is up and who is down? Who is labeled this and who that? Or are we determined to serve one another in love as a people who are one in Christ?

Maybe a good way to explore another way would be to consider who you think is biting you or devouring you. Maybe it stung to hear the sexist language in the declaration. Maybe it is irritating to hear talk about rights from a so-called white man. Maybe this theology doesn’t match what you grew up with in your Pentecostal church. Maybe someone did something bad to you and now you don’t feel you can trust Circle of Hope. Maybe you will need to assert your rights. But once you win that battle, what will you do to follow Christ into what is next? Maybe you could just skip the battle and go straight to love and service (and even boasting in it), like Paul.

What about drugs? Some background for doing theology.

When we are doing theology we are mentalizing with God and his people. We are not working on the social construction of reality; we are listening for the reality behind what we think we know — the voice of God. In that process we honor the Bible as the trusted basis for hearing from God and we respect people who have done the work to understand the Bible. But we are not just parsing words, making laws, or arguing over theories. We are trying to figure out who to be and what to do. Doing theology is thinking and feeling along with God and conforming one’s thinking and feeling to his or her truest self.

drug companiesAbout a month ago we decided to do some theology about drugs. The situation in the United States is so drug-induced that it caused a government report: Epidemic: Responding to America’s Prescription Drug Abuse.  The solutions in the report did not do theology, of course, and they came up with the typical solutions of the the day: education, tracking and monitoring, proper medical disposal, and enforcement. All these solutions will be hard to implement, since drugs, legal and illegal, are a huge business in the United States.

Philadelphia is deeply connected to the drug industry, even historically.  When George Washington lived at 5th and Market he wrote to his gardener at Mt. Vernon, “Make the most of the Indian hemp seed, and sow it everywhere.” He and Thomas Jefferson traded herbal blends for their pipes. A recent Philadelphia Magazine highlighted how pot is coming. Recently the city recently decriminalized pot. There is now a $25 fine for possession of under an ounce and a $100 fine for smoking in public. And police are instructed not to arrest anyone with under an ounce.  People are lined up to help us become Colorado — let marijuana be legal and cash in.

drugs by the numbers

There is a theological framework for why this subject is important.

Continue reading What about drugs? Some background for doing theology.