How Will Anyone Ever Know?

There’s a hymn I really, really hate.

Actually, there are several. I hate “On Eagle’s Wings” (ELW 787 for you ELCA Lutherans out there). I mean I loathe this hymn. I has an awful melody that’s impossible to sing well, and its tawdry sentimentality unsettles my bowels. I understand the lyrics are drawn from Isaiah, and some of the images from psalms, but it’s still a piece of dreck that I do not ever want to hear again.

And there’s “Earth and All Stars” (ELW 731). While the copyright is 1968, it has the feel of 1930s socialist realism. This is a hymn for the hive society, in which the individual human being is annihilated by some great, anonymous, utilitarian, collective good. It is society as machine, united in purpose, worshiping together from the home, the factory, the office, and the school, all in unison (with some in harmony), singing as one of the great work we will all do together. “Earth and All Stars” is the kind of hymn the Borg would sing were the Borg inclined to believe in God as they disassembled and assimilated you.

It’s the kind of hymn Big Brother would instruct Party members to sing in the Oceania of 1984. It’s a melodic boot forever stomping on the face of humanity.

But the hymn I really hate is “They’ll Know We Are Christians.” I don’t think it made any Lutheran hymnals, but I have sung it — and I think I was part of a group that played it — in a Lutheran church.

I hate this hymn not because it has an awful melody — it doesn’t — or because it proclaims some horrific ideal world in which we are all interchangeable (and disposable) widgets made of meat, but rather because the song is an outright lie.

We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord
We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord
And we pray that our unity will one day be restored
And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love
Yeah they’ll know we are Christians by our love

We will work with each other, we will work side by side
We will work with each other, we will work side by side
And we’ll guard each man’s dignity and save each man’s pride
And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love
Yeah, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.

I could say why this is a lie, but Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry does a far better job in this essay over at The Week:

In Christianity, baptism, as the rite of initiation into God’s people, is a death-and-new-life rite. Water symbolizes both death and life. Baptism is supposed to drown the old self and bring a new self to life. Because Christians are supposed to recognize themselves as sinners saved by grace, they cannot talk cogently about anything without starting with introspection and recognizing their own shortcomings.

The simple fact of the matter is that people now known as “conservative Christians” used to run the world. And we did a lot of good things, but we also did a lot of very bad things. And that, ultimately, is why we’re losing.

As the Catholic theologian Karl Rahner wrote, “The number one cause of atheism is Christians. Those who proclaim Him with their mouths and deny Him with their actions is what an unbelieving world finds unbelievable.”

In short, we’ve shown very little love, largely because we’ve wielded power. And because we’ve wielded power, we’ve had no need to show love.

The world has seen the difference between what we proclaim — God’s forgiveness for sinners — and how we live, which is to condemn, marginalize, exclude, and terrorize sinners. The purpose of Christendom — the church with the power to coerce and compel both faith and action — is a society of virtue, in which some people are simply too sinful to be allowed to participate or belong. Or even live.

Which brings me to something a reader wrote recently:

Yes, I think its true that God bears sin and at least “allows” it in some way and these ways are not tidy or moral narratives and the Bible does not provide easy answers to social questions… However, if the question is about marriage or other social issues, I think there are other concerns than just Israel’s relationship with God. Social conservatives, and I would count myself among this number, think that there is such a thing as order and organization, and these things matter. It matters to a child that they have a relationship with their biological parents. It matters that mom doesn’t have twelve different boyfriends, none of whom are ever stable. It matters that men and women have some healthy way of relating to one another. It matters that sex is not a free for all. It’s confusing for Bruce Jenner to be a man for a long time, and then not one now. Are there always easy ways to enforce social norms? Certainly not in our society, but some of those “confining” roles and taboos made for human happiness, and gave a structure to peoples lives.

None of this excuses the violent ways order might be maintained, such as the utter exclusion of LGBT or domineering, entitled men (Mad Men), but disorder has its own violence, its own victims. Sometimes it seems that “the least of these days” will not have a chance for a stable family, since stable middle class norms are only able to be maintained by people who can order their own lives without help. I count myself as having grown up in a family where order and stability worked, and it made my life and the lives of my siblings much better and much more stable. I’ve worked with children and adults whose lives have been violent and unstable, and no, just promoting heterosexual marriage is not the answer, but all things are not equal. Some ways work better than others.

I am actually sympathetic with much of this. Yes, there is order and organization, and yes, those things do matter. They really do. I speak as one for whom a significant portion of my young life — both at home and in school — was subject to cruelty and violence. I can imagine what a better order might have look liked, and how it would have treated me and formed me (and my wife) better.

But what I cannot do is undo what I experienced. Or how it formed me. And I did not experience the world as disorderly, but rather, as very orderly. Order did work — it just almost always worked against me. Order was violence and cruelty and callousness aimed at me and people like me. People who, it was decided, did not matter not because of what we had done but simply because of who we are. Our lives had no value and were not worth protecting.

The problem with a culture of virtue that social and cultural conservatism creates is that it creates sanctions that claim to be objective — based on behavior — but are really very, very subjectively enforced. (Some people can just get away with nearly anything, and others are punished merely for waking up in the morning or taking up space.) The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, for all its social, political, and theological liberalism, is still very culturally conservative. It believes deeply in bourgeois virtue, in life properly lived and choices properly made, and in judging those as lacking (and treating them accordingly) who do not live that kind of life. And one of the things that the ELCA (or its leaders in Chicago and Washington, D.C.) concluded about me (among many, I think) is that I was not virtuous enough to be a pastor. I suspect Bishop Miller in Chicago was correct when he told me he could not, in good conscience, recommend me to a congregation knowing what he knew about me as a result of my book. I mean really, what good, pious ELCA congregation would want me as their pastor? I suspect that’s just a reality of a culture that demands a certain amount of virtuous sinlessness of those it expects to preach and proclaim the Gospel — the forgiveness of God.

Which makes Gobry’s point. When I tell my story, even the least religious people I have met — from ex-girlfriends to executives of world-spanning corporations — respond with some version of, “well, that’s not very Jesus-y of them.” The world knows what the Gospel looks like. It really does.

And the world knows the church, enamored of power and privilege and order, has not lived the Gospel it proclaims. Not even close.

This is why I focus on the story of Israel. Proclaim and teach things about love, marriage, good order, and proper human relationships — just don’t claim they are biblical. Frequently, the things the church teaches conflict or contradict much of what the Bible witnesses to in Israel’s encounter with God. Because the story of the Bible is the story of God calling and forming Israel as a people, that people’s complete failure to live into and follow that call, and God’s refusal to abandon His people to utter annihilation or oblivion. Again. And again. And again.

I’ll admit, I struggle with Paul’s letters in a way I do not struggle with Leviticus or the Gospels. Because Paul seems set on creating a community of virtue that condemns and shuns and excludes, and nothing in the story of Israel — nothing in the stories we have of Jesus — says God actually does that. Because I know what it is to be on the wrong side of good order, to be condemned, and shunned, and excluded, simply because I breathe. Paul seems to appreciate that he too is a sinner called by Jesus to follow and preach and proclaim the truth, that Jesus is the crucified and risen Son of God. I’m not sure yet if or how that informs or tempers Paul’s desire for good order or a virtuous assembly. (And I confess this is because I still do not know what to do with Paul. I like the Paul of Acts much better than Paul the letter writer.)

It’s this story of a sinful, failed, conquered, and exiled people called and gathered and redeemed by God to love God and our neighbors as ourselves even in the midst of occupation and exile that will sustain us and give us a faith worth suffering for and finding hope in. Not some set of rules derived in part from scripture and in part from philosophy and a very abstract notion of nature oblivious to how nature actually seems to act much of the time.

Sarah puts it best in this particular essay about her time teaching religion at a Catholic high school, which also touches on some of the point Gobry makes as well:

As I drifted from group to group listening to the conversations, what I heard surprised and saddened me. I heard stories of students who were taught to say a few words for the unborn every night at bedtime prayers but had no idea how to describe the Holy Spirit, students whose high school religion courses had covered morality backwards and forwards but had never touched on Scripture or Church history, students who had attended Catholic school since kindergarten but had no idea that Jesus was God until they had read the first chapter of our course textbook, and students who were becoming (or had already become) so disenchanted with the shallow messages they were receiving at church that they were considering leaving Christianity entirely. It became clear that my students hadn’t blown off the assignment at all. In fact, they had taken it very seriously, and many had articulated carefully all the tenets of Christianity they had ever known.

It would be nice if people knew we are Christian by our love — for God, for each other, for our neighbors, for the world. A courageous love that lives and proclaims the truth of God’s love for the world. But right now, love is more an accidental by-product of the church, rather than it’s purpose.

And the world, for all its faults, really does know this.

7 thoughts on “How Will Anyone Ever Know?

  1. For What It’s Worth: “They’ll Know We Are Christians” came out of the radical “folk mass” initiatives of the late 1960’s. I recently saw online an archived newsletter from a local Catholic parish newsletter from around that time which included a cartoon making fun of hippie liturgies. I liked the song when I first heard it in the 70’s. It was clearly to be construed as an “affirmation” in the New Age sense – something that might come true if we continue to believe it hard enough. It was intended to oppose the older message: They’ll know we are Christians by our grim asceticism, our opulent cathedrals and the vigor with which we rap the knuckles of lazy 3rd-graders; and of course by the occasional winning season at Notre Dame. By now, all that is forgotten, and I suppose that congregations really believe that the whole church is an exemplar of endearing love (suffer the little children … oops!).

    And I’ll venture another little defense of Paul. My impression is that at that early date, Paul knew there was no way in hell he was going to get orderly, much less uniformly virtuous congregations. But at least he was trying to keep new Christians from shooting themselves in the foot while the foot is in their mouth. Christians were being watched by Roman authorities. At first they tended to get a pass as a Jewish sect – Jews were respected, if not liked, for the antiquity of their traditions. Once it became clear that orthodox Jews were disowning the Christian movement, the latter had no protection. They would be pointed out as oddballs, which generally implied enemies of the Roman social order. They were slandered outrageously. Why give substance to the charges? Paul’s advice is generally directed toward making your witness count, in a world which was likely to kill you for it anyway. His rulings are not divine judgments, but the exasperated rantings of an unofficial roving proto-archbishop. Usually he takes a deep breath now and then and backs up a little from the judging and dwells on love and mercy. And even if he does suggest tossing someone out of the congregation for a while, that isn’t as severe a thing as it would be a century later, much less three centuries later in the Constantinian era. This was the really early church. This was pentecostals on LSD. In an empire run by homicidal sociopaths in which public torture was the preferred form of entertainment. This was not church as we know it.

    Jesus is really much harsher in his condemnations than Paul ever is. We don’t notice in the same way, because Jesus is speaking to the ‘righteous’ of Israel, before the church as such had come into being. But he might as well have been speaking to Corinthian elders. Both Jesus and Paul are given to hyperbole in their rants. It doesn’t counter the message of salvation by grace and faith in spite of our corrupt hearts, but underlines the need for it. When Jesus calls Peter out in advance by predicting his triple betrayal, he is in a sense knocking Peter out of his place of honor as chief of disciples, an excommunication in the hour of darkness. Peter’s bitter remorse is the point. Even he doesn’t deserve to be a disciple. But he is called back anyway, after the resurrection he is at first inclined to doubt. It has to hurt to heal, an old saying goes. Sometimes God is mean; or so it seems to us.


    1. “This was the really early church. This was pentecostals on LSD. In an empire run by homicidal sociopaths in which public torture was the preferred form of entertainment. This was not church as we know it.” I like this. I truly do.


  2. “It would be nice if people knew we are Christian by our love — for God, for each other, for our neighbors, for the world. A courageous love that lives and proclaims the truth of God’s love for the world. But right now, love is more an accidental by-product of the church, rather than it’s purpose.”

    The kind of love as exhibited by God with Israel is extraordinary and not within the capabilities of virtually any human being I know. Think about loving an addict who steals from you and continually hurts the people around you, and may possibly even be a serious physical risk. At some point it becomes counter-productive to stay in relationship with them. We do our best, but we aren’t God. That’s why I think its hard to compare Gods relationship with Israel with the social duties of human beings, and yes, maybe people should stop trying to apply “biblical principles” to human relationships, even though I think there is a certain amount of doing that which can be productive. But its just not easy and sometimes I wonder if its possible to show God’s kind of love. Bonhoeffer spoke of the one man who really had loved his enemies (us) and the man who really fulfilled the beautides as Jesus. But we confess because we don’t do those things and many of us aren’t going to anytime soon. I don’t even know how to manufacture the kind of love Jesus had for people. All I can hope for is a deepening maturity, a sense of kindness and mercy, a listening ear. Those are human things, not divine. But that’s who we are.


    1. And yet we are called to love as we are loved. Jesus is fairly clear about that. I know we don’t, and we can’t — we can no more do those things then we can follow the law. It is not easy, especially when we are not loved, or respected, or treated well, in return. But God’s relationship with Israel shows us how God loves, and gives us some idea of how we are to love each other.

      If I fear conservative social order (or anyone’s social order, for that matter), it’s for a simple reason — it has *never* included me. I’m not an abuser, or an addict, just merely inconvenient, perhaps a bit difficult to deal with, and I require a little more work. That seems to be enough. It has always seemed to be enough.


      1. Well, I think you seem like you would be a wonderful pastor. I was only trying to describe the position of people who do fear disorder, but I am not a political conservative, or a doctrinaire one. I have been on the outside of tribes and I think there must be a place for those marginalized. Mercy is a higher way than justice.


  3. I think it’s hard for us to get Paul right, partly because his letters are the bedrock of Reformation theology. Luther and Calvin rightly used them to make important doctrinal points, but these views, in some altered institutional form, were hardened into something else by the 18th century – doctrines which tell us more about early modern Europe than they do about Paul or the early church. Paul was intelligent and well-educated, and also clever in his shepherding of people and brave in facing a horrible ambient culture; but he was also a God-intoxicated Jesus freak. He could have been a charismatic cult leader of the sort we saw in the 70’s. But I believe he had too clear a conviction of his own dependence on the mercy of God to let that happen.


  4. I also fear anyone’s social order. I also fear disorder – the chaos which turns into the rule of bullies and warlords, and sometimes a Napoleon, a warlord-in-chief. But actually the only kind of social order which works is organic – that is, one that people adhere to because it feels right or just because it is based on an accumulation of habits. That doesn’t make it right – an organic order can be horribly unjust. But it is not “anyone’s” – it cannot be designed and built like a machine and imposed by force. And usually an organic order is more tolerable, because over time some of the more inhuman abstractions tend to get softened. This is partly what Confucius meant when he said that in the best states, the weapons are kept out of sight. Compulsion is seldom needed. He also required the training of a class of just administrators. (Of course, there is always force wielded by somebody for some purpose, to maintain the current order or to upend it, or just to make a profit by pushing the weak around.)

    That’s the greatest problem with conservatives today: They think they are fighting to preserve a certain kind of order, but all they have is a memory of a remnant of old shreds of order. If they try to impose what they think is right, it will not be the order of the past; it will be just another social machine (supposing they could succeed, which they can’t). Such machines may hold for a generation, but come crashing down eventually. The US was never a very orderly society anyway. People were too mobile, even in frontier times. Always new immigrants with new ideas. The archetype American is maybe Wyatt Earp, who wandered all over, sometimes an outlaw and sometimes a lawman. For a while, he was both at once – a sort of black ops private contractor to the police in California operating outside the law. That didn’t save him from arrest when he offended the wrong people.

    Anyway, the ‘organic order’ of the US today is clearly in favor of gay marriage, for example, and so it shall come to pass nationwide (as it already has in 30-some states). If conservatives don’t like, it’s because they didn’t make their case for a faith-based order a long time ago (and probably couldn’t have). If a more-or-less-conservative order returns, it will be imposed not by legislators, but by Kipling’s “Gods of the copybook headings”, who will swoop in (if God wills it) and give harsh lessons in natural consequences. Of what sort I will not venture to guess.

    When I first joined the Episcopal Church in Virginia (suburban D.C.) in 1979, the local church was led by a charismatic and volatile guy, maybe 40 years old. At first they met in a coffee house, and then moved over to share a building with the Baptists (not Southern, I think). The priest’s instructions and blessings at the end of each service included the statement, “Accept all persons!” This was supposed to mean accepting marginal and strange people, and would have had that significance in that place. But I often wondered about it. What would it mean to accept someone who breeds dogs for fighting? How would I have ‘accepted’ Eichmann? How would those mostly-affluent D.C. suburbanites have accepted the Duggars, say, even before any revelations of wrong-doing? One person’s margins are other people’s homes. I don’t think a progressive pastor these days would quite so readily urge us to “accept all persons”. Too many people are branded as unacceptable. My 15-year-old granddaughter recently was talking about some group she liked, especially because “they don’t allow haters”. It made me wonder if she hates haters. Or just doesn’t accept them? Probably to her, “hater” is equivalent to “troll” or “e-bully”. Someone who gets down on other people for whatever reason, not necessarily reasons older people would think of. No ranters allowed, whatever their affiliation or orientation.

    I used to hire a guy in the trailer park where I live to mow my lawn in the summer. I knew he had been in prison, but he was a pleasant young guy and did a good job, so I didn’t care about his past. Then a couple of years ago he wasn’t around to mow – I heard that he was back in prison, but I don’t know for what. I saw him again this past winter as I was walking the dog. He was riding past on a scooter, and stopped to talk to me. He apologized for not being able to do my mowing, but that he had been away on ‘vacation’. He knew I knew what he meant. I told him it was fine, that I let a woman across the street do the mowing now; she wasn’t as thorough, but it was a way for her to make some money. I told him I was glad to see him back (which I was). He was genuinely touched by that, more than I would have expected. I saw him again last week, riding by on the same scooter, but with a girlfriend sitting behind him. They seemed to be having a good time. He circled around and we talked again, much like the previous time. I hope he does well and stays out of prison – that’s not easy even in a good economy for marginal workers. I don’t know if he stole or sold drugs or hit his previous girlfriend or what his crime might have been. I suppose it wouldn’t be prudent to give him a key and hire him to water my plants while I’m out of town (except I never am any more). Prudence matters, especially when I have a wife in bad health to be concerned about. But accepting matters too. Or just liking people – looking to see if there’s something there to like, along with all the rest of the rusting, corrupting baggage we all carry.


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