A Very Specific Persecution

I’m not preaching this coming Sunday. It wouldn’t matter, since we’ve reached the end of the church year — Christ the King Sunday for those churches following the Revised Common Lectionary — and then the four weeks of Advent.

So, I won’t get an opportunity to preach on the rest of Mark 13.

Which is a pity, because something in the verses following last Sunday’s Mark 13 reading struck me as interesting.

9 “But be on your guard. For they will deliver you over to councils, and you will be beaten in synagogues, and you will stand before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them. 10 And the gospel must first be proclaimed to all nations. 11 And when they bring you to trial and deliver you over, do not be anxious beforehand what you are to say, but say whatever is given you in that hour, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit. 12 And brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death. 13 And you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.” (Mark 13:9–13 ESV)

Now, I spent my high school years swimming in the generic Evangelical Protestant waters that saw this as a prediction of things to come. This was a generic description of the persecution those who followed Christ would face at the hands of those who did not follow Christ. (Jesus’ words in Mark 13 are also related in Luke 21 and, in far greater detail, in Matthew 24.)

But this is a very specific, and detailed description, of coming events. And I don’t think it can be detached from how the whole conversation begins — with Jesus describing the destruction of the temple. And then outlining, as he does in verses 3–8, the signs of its coming destruction.

So, this persecution is likely part of that coming war.

And it shows, I think, how the church is a community of people caught in the middle. Between nationalist Jewish rebels and Roman military and political authority.

I’ve just begun reading Josephus’ history of the Jewish uprising, but consider — if the Jewish rebellion against Rome was a religious affair, if it saw itself fulfilling the promise and vision of God for God’s people (as Suetonius suggests), if it was led by one who considered himself “the anointed one” of God (Χριστος/Christ in Greek, משׁיה/Messiah in Hebrew), then it would be an act of treason to not follow the messiah. Or to follow a different messiah. That would damage national unity, and put the success of the struggle of God’s people at risk. (Councils and synagogues suggests Jewish authority, not Roman.)

This would be one reason why Jesus would warn his followers — and his followers would later repeat the warning — about those who would come in his name and claim to be Christ. Because the eastern Mediterranean was full of claimants. It’s a good warning to remember, but it’s also grounded in very specific historical events that no longer apply to us.

Like any desperate struggle for national independence, it will tear families apart. The followers of Jesus, if they were not fully committed to the struggle, would have had to flee family and friends, and not just the advancing Romans.

At the same time, the Romans weren’t going to politely ask the difference between followers of Jesus and followers of other — more martial — messiahs. They weren’t going to know and they weren’t going to care much, either. Survival meant getting out of the way of the war entirely, or submitting utterly to Roman authority (and maybe not even then).

I think most important about this, however, is the realization that the church is persecuted not because it believes in God or follows Christ, but because it believes in and follows the wrong Christ.

Which means that visions of Christians suffering at the hands of secularists — of non-believers — which has so haunted the biblical readings and dreams of so many conservative, evangelical, and non-denominational protestants since the late 1960s (or, depending on how you look at, since Darbysim took hostage the American Christian imagination) is plain wrong. At least as a concrete promise Jesus makes to us.

It is primarily a description Jesus gives of what will happen in a near future to those who follow him during a very specific time of trial — the Jewish War. These events happened long ago. If we focus on anything now, it should be his words of comfort — “do not be alarmed,” “do not be anxious,” and “the one who endures to the end will be saved.” Those speak both to communities and to individuals. Our salvation is secure no matter what happens — in fact, our salvation is not dependent in any way on political and historical events — and we trust in our Lord’s return.

Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again.

I’m only mulling this over right now. I could be wrong about the history. As I said, I have just started Josephus and suspect that may change my outlook on things. And I’m indebted to Andrew Perriman for helping me to read scripture this way.

SERMON — Not For Us

The following was my sermon for Sunday, 15 November 2015 (Lectionary 33 / Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost in Year B), preached at Christ Our Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Chatham, New York. The readings for the day according to the Revised Common Lectionary are:

  • Daniel 12:1–3
  • Psalm 16
  • Hebrews 10:11–14 [15–18] 19–25
  • Mark 13:1–8 (Green)

1 And as [Jesus] came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!” 2 And Jesus said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.”

3 And as he sat on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter and James and John and Andrew asked him privately, 4 “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are about to be accomplished?” 5 And Jesus began to say to them, “See that no one leads you astray. 6 Many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he! ’ and they will lead many astray. 7 And when you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. This must take place, but the end is not yet. 8 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. These are but the beginning of the birth pains.  (Mark 13:1-8 ESV)

I suspect many Christians — and even many of us — are convinced that we, of all the human beings who have ever abided on the face of God’s good Earth, are living through the most violent and least certain time ever.

The events of the last week, of the last few years, of the last two decades, and probably of our lifetimes, provide all the evidence we think we need. People who wish us ill are everywhere, taking hostages and setting off bombs and gunning people down. People who mean us ill have organized political parties, fomented revolution, taken over nation-states, massed armies, invaded, conquered, and occupied. We see what they’ve done in the last 20 years, setting off bombs, sinking warships, attacking cities, killing with no regard for their own lives and little for anyone else’s.

This leaves us uncertain and scared. We want safety, and we want peace, the peace we believe God and the modern world have promised us. We’re willing to do just about anything to secure that peace, even if it means exporting all our fear and all our violence on someone else, far away.

I don’t think it helps that in a media age, in an age of twitter and Facebook, in an age where if anything happens anywhere, an event like the attack in Paris this week, can feel immediate, can feel close. It’s a false immediacy, heightened by the very human need — and sometimes the the social demand — to publicly express sympathy, solidarity, and support with victims and survivors. To express outrage, and condemnation, and demand resolve, that something be done.

This is not new. The telegraph and the newspaper created this kind of immediacy almost 200 years ago. Suddenly, war far away could become a part of ordinary life, a thing you read about, think about, and talk about every day in ways not possible when communication was slow, when the war far away might end before we’d even heard it had started.

So while I suspect Christians have always trembled a bit when they’ve read this Gospel passage, this hearing of wars and rumors of wars, of nation rising against nation (it would be better to say people against people), and kingdom rising against kingdom, has, I think, taken on an added urgency in an age of mass communication. Sometime in the 19th century, I know that some Christians began taking all of this very, very seriously. This is our age, they said, as armies massed in Europe on the eve of the First World War, or as soldiers rampaged across the world in the second, or especially after the founding of the state of Israel, when every looming battle in the Middle East suddenly became a possible sign of the fulfillment of biblical prophesy and the second coming of Jesus.

This is our age. Jesus is speaking to us. He may be talking privately to his disciples, but it’s clear he’s speaking to us and about us.

Just look around you.

It’s easy to be this kind of conceited, to think that we live in the most important moment in human history, the end times. This isn’t just a religious problem — Karl Marx built his entire understanding of the world on the notion that the conditions were right for the final revolution that would right human relations and effectively end history. Believers in social justice tend to begin by saying, “if not now, when?” And it isn’t just a modern problem either. In the year 1000, Christians across Europe were both hopeful and terrified the end of the first millennium of the Christian era would also herald the second coming and the end of the world. Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther believed he lived in the end times, seeing both the conflict with the twin antichrists of Pope and Turk — Muslim Ottoman armies advancing into the heart of Europe — as signs the coming of Jesus was nigh.

Every time we’ve seen the end, forecast the end, predicted the end, we’ve been wrong. Every time.

In fact, let me tell you this. Today’s gospel reading is not for us. It’s not about us. We are, at best, overhearing something intended for another people entirely, something that came true, that was fulfilled, long, long ago.

Jesus begins today’s gospel reading by speaking of the destruction of the temple, and when Peter and James and John and Andrew ask him privately “what will be the sign when these things are about to be accomplished” I think we have to assume the “these things” are the throwing down of the great stones of the temple.

And Jesus has answer.

But first, a little history lesson. For the first 30 years or so following the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, the Roman empire was a relatively peaceful and stable place. Augustus Caesar, in avenging the death of his great-uncle and adopted father Julius, imposed a peace on the Roman world that would last for a century. The empire Paul traveled in, preached in, and wrote his letters in, was that peaceful and orderly empire. Yes, more often than not, it was ruled by sadists, perverts, and certifiable lunatics like Tiberius, Gaius Caligula, and Nero. But unless you were a wealthy senator in Rome who caught the emperor’s eye, it was a relatively safe and stable place to live.

All that would change in the last few years of the 60s. (It’s always the 60s, right?) Paul and Peter were put to death. The capricious, decadent, and incompetent Emperor Nero suddenly faced military revolts in France and Spain. The senate finally worked up the courage to declare the emperor a criminal, and he would die by his own hand somewhere in the Italian countryside just barely a step ahead of rebellious soldiers.

In the midst of all of this, the Jews decided to revolt, and throw off Roman rule. A general by the name of Vespasian was dispatched to deal with the Jewish revolt, and here’s how the Roman author Suetonius — writing several decades afterwards — described that war in a book now known to us as The Twelve Caesars:

An ancient superstition was current in the East, that out of Judea would come the rulers of the world. This prediction, as it later proved, referred to two Roman Emperors, Vespasian and his son Titus; but the rebellious Jews, who read it as referring to themselves, murdered their Procurator, routed the Governor-General of Syria when he came down to restore order, and captured an Eagle. To crush this uprising the Romans needed a strong army under an energetic commander, who could be trusted not to abuse his plenary powers. The choice fell on Vespasian. He had given signal proof of energy and nothing, it seemed, need be feared from a man of such modest antecedents. Two legions, with eight cavalry divisions and ten supernumerary battalions, were therefore dispatched to join the forces already in Judea; and Vespasian took his elder son, Titus, to serve on his staff. No sooner had they reached Judea than he impressed the neighbouring provinces by his prompt tightening up of discipline and his audacious conduct in battle after battle. During the assault on one enemy city he was wounded on the knee by a stone and caught several arrows on his shield.

Hear what Suetonius is saying, and compare it with what Jesus is telling his disciples. Someone clearly arose in Judea and said, “I am he! The Anointed One! Your salvation is at hand! I will lead you to your redemption!” But all he and his people did was lead the Jews to war, death, and destruction. And Suetonius was convinced that the anointed one was Vespasian himself! People did rise against people, and initially, the Jews were successful. They defeated a legion and captured its eagle — the very symbol of Roman military power. It looked good at first, like this rag-tag band of well-organized Jewish rebels were going to prevail against the mightiest military force in the world.

But it was not to be. And as the Romans surrounded and lay siege to Jerusalem, Vespasian took some soldiers, and left for Rome to seize power for himself. And he left his son Titus in command, which Suetonius describes this way:

In the final assault on Jerusalem, Titus managed to kill twelve of the garrison with successive arrows; and the city was captured on his daughter’s birthday.

It was a bloody and horrific war, the kind waged by a people desperate for their liberation and redemption against an empire brutally skilled and incredibly proficient in conquest and occupation. An empire that did so without qualm or conscience. According to another ancient writer, Josephus, more than a million people died in the war — that’s about two percent of the Roman Empire’s total then-estimated population of 55 million. Today, that’s the equivalent of 6.6 million Americans or 1.3 million Frenchmen. Or 500,000 Iraqis in 2003. Or 450,000 Syrians in 2012.

After the accidental burning of the temple, Titus reportedly gave orders to level the entire city — including the temple. And not one stone was left upon another. All that remained of Jerusalem was a wasteland. A dead and abandoned city.

THAT’S the war Jesus is talking about here. The war that will leave the City of David a wreckage and the people of God scattered to the hills hither and yon. This war came and went almost 2,000 years ago. It is done.

Jesus is speaking to his followers — the time is coming when this city will be destroyed, and just as it was when Jeremiah addressed Israel while Babylon lay siege to Jerusalem, the coming war is God’s judgement on faithless Israel. The wise, the faithful, those paying attention, those staying awake, will run. As hard and as fast and as far as they can. Because there is no saving this city. No saving this temple.

He is not speaking to us. We are just overhearing a conversation. One not meant for our ears.

And yet, it was saved. It was memorized, preserved, and written down. And so, these words Jesus speaks privately to his four closest disciples are not completely without value to us. They mean something.

“Do not be alarmed.” That, and only that, is what we need to remember. There will be wars, and rumors of wars, and peoples rising against people. There will be violence and death and destruction. And very little of it will make any sense to us. Whatever the specifics, it doesn’t matter. “Do not be alarmed.”

Remember, our redeemer — who suffered and died at the hands of the same empire that would also destroy Jerusalem — rose from the dead. He conquered death. He showed us that it has no power over us. He promised his resurrection three times. Nowhere did he promise the temple would rise again.

So when we face the alarming — and what could have been more alarming to the early church than seeing the men who destroyed Jerusalem comfortably rule the Roman world for more than two decades? — we need to remember whose we are. We need to remember what promises and assurances we have — eternal life, a call to feed and tend sheep, to baptize and teach that God has not abandoned his people to sin and death no matter what our senses seem to tell us. We need to remember that our redemption is not dependent on the political order of the world. It will not be achieved in rebellious liberation or the brutal imposition of order. Most of all, we need to remember that we have nothing to fear from the violence of the world because it accomplishes nothing permanent, nothing meaningful.

Do not be alarmed, Jesus says. No matter what happens. No matter what comes. No matter who seems to be winning.

Do.

Not.

Be.

Alarmed.

War is a Relationship

Okay, so I tweeted the following on Saturday:

Waging war is relational. Your enemy must also accept they are beaten. Since V-J Day, few combatants have accepted their defeat….

This is an important point worth considering. Because war is basically a relationship, one in which both parties to war use violence to try not only to diminish each other’s capacity to wage war, but also hopefully convince the enemy to stop fighting.

You have to change you enemy’s mind. You can’t just defeat your enemy. They have to accept that they are defeated.

For example, it is my understanding that by the time both Germany and Japan surrendered in 1945, the German and Japanese people, as well as what remained of their leadership, understood their devastated societies were past the point of effectively mobilizing men and material to continue coherent resistance. They accepted unconditional surrender, and all the uncertainties that came with it — occupation, and the powerlessness of knowing they were completely at the mercies of the victorious United Nations. They had no idea what that meant, how harsh the rule of their conquerors would be. And make no mistake, the United Nations didn’t liberate or free Japan and Germany from fascist rule. They were conquered nations (the UN Charter actually accords Germany, Japan, and Italy a different international legal status — they are not allowed to engage in collective self-defense, for example), and they were going to be treated as such.

Now, today we tell ourselves a story of relatively benign occupation and societies generously rebuilt by their conquerors, but that’s an after-the-fact telling. It was not clear in the fall and winter of 1945 just how things were going to go. Occupation soldiers in both countries had very strict rules against ANY fraternization with the locals, and the operative plan for post-war Germany — the Morganthau Plan — called for the country’s near-complete de-industrialization. What became the Marshall Plan was only kicked into motion as the Iron Curtain descended across Europe and allies were needed to deal with the Soviet Union.

Germany and Japan — and more importantly, the Germans and the Japanese — surrendered and accepted their complete defeat, their conquest, not knowing how their conquerors would treat them. It was a benign conquest, as far as conquests go, at least for those nations that weren’t “liberated” by the Soviet Army. But make no mistake — V-E Day and V-J Day were conquests.

Since V-J Day, however, it has been nearly impossible to secure the kind of military and political victory in war that WWII was for the United Nations. (In speaking of the UN this way, I’m using language current in 1945 and 1946.) I can think of no instance since 1945 in which an entire nation accepted military and political defeat, and subsequent conquest and occupation.

There are a few conflicts which adhere to something akin to the WWII pattern — the breakaway state of Biafra was methodically and bloodily brought back into Nigeria after seceding; the Pakistani armed forces in Bangladesh were routed in 1971, and their commanding general surrendered to India; the Argentine military was fairly decisively defeated in the South Atlantic in 1982; and the Tamil Tigers were crushed in a long and bloody civil war in Sri Lanka. There are a few others that are not coming to mind (the Katanga rebellion in Congo in 1964, brought to an end by UN military action). But I think you get the idea.

But even here, the wars between state actors — Britain and Argentina, Pakistan and India (and Bangladesh) — were “limited” in that Britain didn’t invade Argentina proper, and once the Pakistani armed forces were routed in what was then East Pakistan, that war was effectively over. Only the civil wars — in Nigeria and Sri Lanka — were brutal affairs ending in unconditional surrender.

Mostly we have frozen conflicts — like the Korean War, ended by an armistice agreement (and regularly violated in the late 1960s); the Chinese Civil War, which percolated in the 1950s with air battles over the Taiwan Straits and the regular shelling of Nationalist held islands; or the Arab-Israeli disputes, where the fighting was halted by temporary cease-fire and disengagement agreements.

The post-WWII gave us an interesting phenomenon, in which a nation at war could militarily prevail but still lose because the political goals sought through waging war are either too costly or are completely unachievable. I’m thinking here of the United States in Vietnam and France in Algeria. But the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia — in which the defeated Khmer Rouge government was internationally recognized and supported for another decade by sponsors as varied as the United States and China, also comes to mind.

The French had largely defeated the NLF FLN in Algeria by the late 1950s, but the Algerians refused to accept defeat — they were fighting for their national independence. And as long as they were willing to resist French rule, and make the goal of keeping Algeria as a part of Metropolitan France far too costly, then it didn’t matter how many battles the French armed forces won. In the end, France cut Algeria loose.

The United States faced a similar problem in Vietnam. Again, the Vietnamese communists were fighting for their home and their national independence. They knew the Americans would eventually pack up and leave. As spectacular and surprising as the Tet Offensive was in 1968, the NLF in South Vietnam eventually lost everything they gained and more, and was broken permanently as a fighting force. And the 1972 North Vietnamese Easter Offensive was beaten fairly handily by South Vietnamese troops backed by heavy US air power. And yet, none of it mattered, because once the North Vietnamese began their final offensive in 1975, US force was nowhere to be found, and South Vietnam’s army crumpled far faster than the even the North expected it to.

As long as the Vietnamese communists were going to fight, and believed the Americans would eventually leave (we were far less attached to South Vietnam than France was to Algeria, which had been a part of France since the 1840s), they didn’t have to accept anything remotely resembling defeat. Even when they were defeated. They could fight as long as they were willing to bear the pain the United States could inflict upon their society.

In fact, the Israel-Palestinian conflict fits this. No matter how well Palestinian forces have fought (and they have occasionally fought Israel to a draw in specific battles), they have always lost. And yet, military victory — conquest and occupation — has not secured anything remotely resembling a win for Israel. Because the Palestinians refuse to surrender. They refuse to accept defeat. They don’t believe they have to. And in the world we live in, right now, they don’t.

Which leads me to the point of my tweet. With the attacks in Paris, there are increased calls to wage harder war against Daesh — the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. I’m all for dealing with Daesh, and it seems the current bombing campaign, which has been going on for some time now, has accomplished little.

But defeating Daesh … I honestly cannot see Sunni Muslims in the area that is now Daesh accepting their defeat any more than the Palestinians have. Or the Iraqis accepted their conquest in 2003. (It didn’t help the Anglo-American invasion was called a “liberation.”) Which means, if you really want to take Daesh on, you need a large army — half-a-million men under arms, maybe — and you need to commit yourself to the rhetoric of conquest. and subjugation. We aren’t liberating anyone. The Sunnis of the region may come to see that, at some point, but that cannot be the goal. If done, it will be an occupation, far longer and costlier than anyone in the west today is willing to commit to.

But even then, as I said, I cannot see the Sunnis of Iraq and Syria accepting conquest and long-term occupation. If anything, it will become another reason for violent resistance, the West Bank and Gaza Strip writ large, with all the inhumanity and brutality that entails. It will be bloody. And the West … doesn’t have the stomach for that kind of hands-on colonial conquest and occupation anymore, not the kind needed to truly pacify the Sunni region of Iraq and Syria.

You can apply as much brutal force as you want (and we’re good it, especially if it involves expensive high technology). But as long as your enemy is willing and able to resist, as long as your enemy believes he or she is not conquered, you’ve not won. You can’t win.

I honestly haven’t any idea what to do about Daesh. What we’re doing isn’t working, what we’re going to do likely won’t work either. There will be some kind of war — even with all the pointless language of pitilessness coming out of Paris. But the West that beat Germany and Japan, that mobilized to deal with the Soviet Union, that West is gone.

World War Two was won by a confident American government, an activist government, a government willing to mobilize resources, a government that confiscated a lot in taxes (top tax rate of 94 percent in 1944) and even more in bond drives, a government that demanded sacrifice in terms of life and labor and material, a government that could be creative and innovative (Douglas MacArthur relied on former Protestant missionaries to help sell cultural changes to Japanese society because they understood and sympathized with that society as well as with the occupation efforts) and at the same time utterly and immorally ruthless (the interning of more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans merely because of their ethnicity). We don’t have that government now. Instead, we have an ideologically hollow collection of fifth-rate thinkers overseeing a kleptocratic morass of contractors who couldn’t figure out how to poke their way of a wet paper sack. All watched over by lawyers and activists willing to second-guess everything.

If we cannot trust the Federal government to oversee the delivery of health insurance (and we don’t, and given how that’s gone, we probably shouldn’t), then we cannot trust that government with the task of remaking an entire society on the other side of the world. It’s not up to it. And neither are we. At this point in our shared national existence, we probably couldn’t sacrifice for a collective or common good or goal to save ourselves if we had to.

If there’s any good news, we probably don’t have to. Daesh isn’t going to win. Unlike Germany and Japan, which were industrial powerhouses that could build and field vast and incredibly proficient industrial armies, Daesh presides over a sparse and benighted corner of the world. It possesses no industry, few resources, and little else but a fervent desire to die. If they beat us, it will only be because we will collapse under the weight of our utter decrepitness and incompetence. Or because we effectively give up. (I’m not ruling these out, but they are highly unlikely.) There may be a great deal of fervor behind the death cult that is Daesh, but it’s not mass fervor. It doesn’t take a lot of people to cause revolutionary trouble, or even wage the kind of hit-and-run terror war Daesh is proving to be exceptionally adept it.

But they cannot conquer the world.

We won’t win, but we won’t lose either. A valiant and incoherent muddle to whatever finish awaits us, interrupted by the occasional spasm of horrific violence. Which, for good or ill, sounds like most of human history.

With Gladness

I started reading the Gospel in the wrong place this morning, a little early, and began with a passage that was actually from the previous week, and I saw something I’d never noticed before:

35 And as Jesus taught in the temple, he said, “How can the scribes say that the Christ is the son of David? 36 David himself, in the Holy Spirit, declared,
“‘The Lord said to my Lord,
“Sit at my right hand,
until I put your enemies under your feet.”’
37 David himself calls him Lord. So how is he his son?” And the great throng heard him gladly. (Mark 12:35-37 ESV)

Jesus is quoting Psalm 110:

The Lord [YHWH] said to my Lord [Adoni] (נְאֻ֤ם יְהוָ֨ה לַֽאדֹנִ֗י)

At this point in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus has been called “Son of David” (υἱὸς Δαυίδ) exactly once — by Bartimaeus the blind, the last person Jesus heals in Mark. I think here, he’s responding to a general belief, that the Christ, the anointed one, will be a descendant of David, a legitimate king.

The question is actually posed in Matthew 22, where in Matthew’s recounting of this story, he has it begin this way:

41 Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them a question, 42 saying, “What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” (Matthew 22:41-42 ESV)

And all this is interesting. But it isn’t what excited me this morning.

What got to me was that last phrase:

And the great throng heard him gladly.

Gladly — ἡδέως. It’s a word that shows up again in the New Testament only in Paul’s second letter to the church at Corinth, in chapters 11 and 12, where Paul attempts to shame the Corinthians into putting up with him as they gladly put up with fools, in which he gladly boasts of his weaknesses (because the power of Christ is made perfect in weakness), and when he says he gladly spend himself and be spent for the souls of the church at Corinth. This is a gladness that does hide itself. It pokes and it prods and it even boasts. This is a gladness that cannot be kept to itself.

And this is the kind gladness this crowd has when they hear this strange news. Why would the crowd be glad of that? After all, a restored Davidic kingdom with a proper king from the line of David is allegedly what everyone has been waiting for. But that, apparently, is not what has been promised after all.

The crowd listening to this in Matthew is apparently too afraid to ask Jesus any more questions after this. But here, in Mark, they are glad — glad to hear this news that the Christ, the anointed one, is not the Son of David, but is rather David’s Lord.

It also means that all these attempts in the Gospels to link Jesus to David — the genealogies in Matthew and Luke — are akin to window dressing. True, but also completely beside the point. The Lord who is coming, who will sit at the right hand of God, who will have his enemies put underneath his feet, is not a Son of David. He’s something else entirely.

And the crowd heard this news gladly.

I’m struck by that gladness. It truly is unexpected.

SERMON — Giving From Your Poverty

Today I preached at First Reformed Church in Chatham, New York. And this is what I preached.

Lectionary 32 / Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost (Year B)

  • 1 Kings 17:8-16
  • Psalm 146
  • Hebrews 9:24-28
  • Mark 12:38-44

38 And in his teaching [Jesus] said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes and like greetings in the marketplaces 39 and have the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, 40 who devour widows ‘houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
41 And he sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box. Many rich people put in large sums. 42 And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny. 43 And he called his disciples to him and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. 44 For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” (Mark 12:38-44 ESV)

Today we have Jesus sitting in a very public place, watching people as they come and go and do something very public — make their contribution to the temple treasury. And in doing so, as Mark notes, they show to the world who they are.

“Many rich people put in large sums.” And no doubt they made quite a show of putting their contributions in the temple offering box. Think of how the wealthy in our day behave, donating money to causes and institutions, building and endowing and putting their names on things — so that everyone knows, and will know for some time to come, who is responsible. Who gave that cancer could be fought, or malaria combatted, or illiteracy and ignorance alleviated.

Or that knowledge may be spread, or God worshiped, in this place.

Who gave enough. To leave a lasting, permanent, named mark on the world.

Today we have press conferences, well managed affairs where reporters are invited and told a glorious story, that so-and-so has given such-and-such moneys — millions, or maybe even a billion or two — for some wonderful cause that will better our lives. Or make it possible to lead better lives in some far-off day.

There are some people who simply cannot give away their fortunes fast enough. I’m thinking of Microsoft found Bill Gates, though the foundations created by the 19th century robber barons — people like John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie, who both died long, long ago — are still busy funding causes and research, trying to make the world a different place.

“Many rich people put in large sums.” And Jesus watched. He watched as those rich people, some of whom I’m certain made a show or even a spectacle of their giving just as the rich do in our day, of telling all those around them — whoever could see, whoever could hear — of the great and wonderful things they were doing in giving so very much to the upkeep of God’s house and the priests who keep it.

And Jesus does this not long after condemning the scribes — the officials of the temple — for their very public demonstrations of piety and probity. He is especially critical of the scribes for “devouring” the houses of widows, for leaving the old and very vulnerable destitute in their faithfulness — in their faithful giving to the temple — while they strut around in nice clothes, seek public honors, and and pray long and ornate prayers. “They will receive the greater condemnation,” Jesus tells his disciples. And us. Though, to be honest, he is not entirely clear about the “the greater condemnation” is.

And honestly, I’m not sure I want to know.

So, is what this widow does when she pops her two copper coins into the treasury box — everything she had, Jesus tells us — is she being faithful? Or is she being exploited?

Is Jesus celebrating her contribution to the upkeep of the house of God? Or is he condemning a system that further impoverishes and exploits this woman? And her simple faith in God?

We know what the condemnation of Jesus looks like. We see it, in the very words he speaks earlier in this passage about the scribes devouring the houses of widows. We see it earlier in this chapter, when he tells the sadducees “you are quite wrong” after they ask him a very silly question about marriage in the resurrection. We’ve seen Jesus angrily teach in the temple that this house, which is supposed to be a place of prayer, has been turned into a den of thieves. We watched Jesus curse a fig tree, condemning it to permanent fruitlessness. We’ve seen him rather pointedly tell a crowd that his mother and his brothers are those who do the will of God, and not those related to him by mere blood.

So, Jesus is not condemning this widow or her giving, even as he rebuked the very system she is giving to. We’d know if he was. He is, in fact, celebrating her faithfulness.

And that’s hard. Because, if we can believe what Jesus says here — and I think we should always believe what Jesus says — she has given everything, all she had to live on, and put it in the temple offering box. She is destitute. Her house, her livelihood, has been devoured by this temple. How she will live, being a widow, with no income and probably no one to protect or care for her, is anyone’s guess.

She has sacrificed everything. Because she loves the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob so much, and she trusts that this place, this house so meticulously rebuilt, so vast and ornate, is the place where God in his glory and his fullness dwells.

Even as the fruits of her faithfulness are devoured by the scribes who squander her meager gift on their squalid lives, her faithfulness still matters. It is real, and true, and she gives not from her surplus, not from her excess, not from what she can spare. But from the very substance of her life. How she lives after this is anyone’s guess. But she clearly trusts God.

She clearly trusts God.

I want you to consider, however, the next thing Mark reports Jesus as saying, something not in this week’s passage. When his disciples remark at the beginning of chapter 13 that this temple complex is amazing, wonderful buildings made of wonderful stones, Jesus tells them:

“Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.”

In the end, no one’s gift to maintain this temple, whether two measly copper coins or a sack of gold, will matter. The Romans will come in force and great number and demolish this place, stone by stone, and almost nothing will remain. Every gift given for its upkeep will have been wasted.

I can’t tell you how sad it makes me to consider the impermanence of things. In fact, there are few thoughts that make me despair more than knowing that at some point in the far distant future, our sun will exhaust its hydrogen fuel, begin fusing helium, expand, and then eventually collapse in on itself, with nothing left but a cold, dwarf star and a few ruined planets. That this is billions of years in the future doesn’t lesson my sadness about this any. Just knowing that someday, nothing will remain of humanity and our efforts, struggles, and passions seems to me to very definition of pointless and futile. Why do we bother living at all?

And yet … her faith mattered. Her life was likely precarious and short, her wealth squandered by those she gave it to, but her faith — the faith that compelled her to share all she had — that mattered. It mattered to Jesus. It mattered then, and it matters now, and it will matter long after entropy claims the light and heat of the last star in the universe.

Because Jesus matters. Because Heaven and Earth shall pass away, but the faithfulness of Christ will be there. Always.

I have spoken of cosmic things, things that drive me to despair sometimes. But scripture, scripture is not so concerned with the cosmic. Scripture is worried about a here and now that we live in, that we can touch. In our first reading, we have another widow, out gathering wood for a fire. She meets Elijah the prophet, and he asks her for water and something to eat. There’s a drought, a drought Elijah has effectively commanded upon the world. He is fed by ravens who bring him bread and meat, but eventually the stream he drinks from dies up. So he goes looking for water.

That’s when he meets the widow. Hungry, he asks for something to eat. And she says she has nothing. She is getting to ready to eat the last of her food, at which point, she and her son will lie down and die because they have no more. No more is coming. And Elijah tells her to make him something of her flour and oil anyway, and feed him, and do not be afraid, for the jar of oil and the bag of flour will not run out until the rains return.

Trust me, and trust God, Elijah says. And give me all that you have. Trust that you have not been forgotten. You have not been abandoned.

At this point in Mark’s gospel, Jesus has, several times, predicted his own death, just as he predicts the coming destruction of the temple. In Mark, whenever Jesus tells his disciples he is going to die, he always finishes by telling them he will rise again on the third day. He does not predict the restoration of the temple. But he predicts his resurrection.

Trust me, Jesus tells his disciples, do not be afraid. Give me all that you have — not some ostentatious show of your marvelous surplus, but every pathetic copper coin you possess, all that you have to live on, all that you are — and know that you will not be abandoned. You will not be forgotten.

Though what you give may be squandered and misused by those you give it to, the lives you live not valued by those who should value them, and all you contribute given for things that will in the end burn and collapse and be forgotten by the ages, what you faithfully give to Jesus will always matter. Because Jesus matters.

Because Jesus lived and died and rose from the dead. He matters. Now, and forever. Amen.

The Failure of White Solidarity

Over at The American Conservative, Rod Dreher has a piece on the troubles besetting the white working class (I think term is inadequate, and I will explain a bit later), vamping off some recently released data which shows that white men without college degrees are killing themselves in record numbers.

Go read the Dreher piece for yourself. It’s one of his better essays of late, though I suspect given how he tends to write about African Americans and social order, this won’t help him much.

Still, someone does need to care about poor and working class whites — people who in previous generations would have been called proletarians and peasants.

Dreher notes the difference between poor whites, poor blacks and poor Latinos — blacks and Latinos, despite the poverty and violence, are not killing themselves — and concludes that the given the spiritual tools that churches give their members, “white people do not know how to suffer successfully.”

… [T]he bottom line is that the changes in the American economy over the past few decades have worked to alienate working-class whites from religious life because of the way the white working class connects its sense of self, and of justice, to the ability to be rewarded for hard work, being honest, playing by the rules, and delaying gratification. When this formula fails, they don’t know how to deal with it. Say the sociologists, “In brief, the declining economic position of white working class Americans may have made the bourgeois moral logic embodied in many churches both less attractive and attainable.”

What I think Dreher is saying here is that bourgeois aspirations for peasants and proletarians are good things when those aspirations can lead to some kind of attainable success, to something more concrete. And the rearranging of the economy in the last four decades has made life brutal and unrewarding for many white proletarians and peasants. Social change over the same period has not helped those least able to successfully navigate or even manage those changes.

Dreher uses the word dispossession, and notes that the order of the world — which up until the mid–1970s generally favored white proletarians and peasants — suddenly came undone. And it has left white proletarians and peasants without a way to measure their self-worth or social worth, or to feel like successful participants in a communal endeavor.

What is missing — at least overtly — from Dreher’s analysis is an understanding of solidarity.

White proletarians and peasants benefitted hugely from the Progressive Era and New Deal arrangements that created the very world that built a floor under their lives and provided them with some significant economic security. But that order didn’t simply come into being on its own — proletarians and peasants organized and agitated hard for that order, frequently fighting and dying in the process in order to gain some say over how their lives were viewed, valued, and protected. Labor unions were the biggest part of this, and along with fraternal organizations, created and fostered solidarity — “we are in this together, and no one succeeds unless we all succeed.”

Of course, there was the reality of America’s racial order to content with. Progressive and New Deal intellectuals and policy makers were just as committed to America’s racial order, and white solidarity rarely included Blacks Americans (though this was not always the case). It was a limited “we.” But it was a “we.”

That “we” was built on a very conservative social order. It was religious (too often in a parochial and utilitarian way, but it was religious), hierarchical, patriarchal, and it was far too comfortable with the racial order — black and brown people should be kept down and far away — but it still understood that social solidarity was important. Even with bourgeois aspirations, they understood themselves as workers and peasants, and they organized and acted accordingly (in an American context). And very successfully.

Two things undid this solidarity, I think.

The first was the economic success of the nearly three decades after the end of World War Two allowed bourgeois aspirations to become a reality for many of these proletarians and peasants. And especially for their children. They lived very well for almost 30 years, and in the process, they forgot to be a “we.” I cannot recall how many times growing up I heard relatively conservative members of that generation lecture us on self-reliance and hard work — this from the generation who created (and benefitted handsomely from) Social Security, went to university on the GI Bill, bought houses with mortgages backed by the federal government (the VA or FHA), worked for the government or for companies whose sole business was contracting with the government, and frequently drew government pensions. In short, their good and comfortable and successful lives were the result of a great deal of social investment, struggle, and solidarity.

And by the 1970s and 1980s, they’d either forgotten that, or had chosen to ignore it.

In becoming bourgeois, they became individuals. Someone’s success became utterly independent of anyone else’s. You can’t have solidarity under those conditions.

The second thing that, oddly enough, undid white proletarian and peasant solidarity was the end of the racial order. In the 50s and the 60s, the natural order of the world came undone, beginning with the Civil Rights movement, but continuing with various cultural revolutions that destroyed the family and social structures proletarians and peasants need to thrive. This was more disorienting than anything else, but by the 1970s, poor whites were having to compete with brown and black folks for a shrinking share of the economy. Things that had been guaranteed now had to be fought for, and increasingly lost. The same people who in 1948 secured Harry Truman’s surprise victory also propelled Richard Nixon into the White House in 1968.

In the process of voting their fears — which they’d always done, but in the New Deal era, those fears built an economic world they could thrive in — proletarians and peasants yoked themselves to a Republican Party intent on destroying much of the New Deal. In voting their rage, white proletarians and peasants voted, basically, to immiserate, isolate, and alienate themselves. They did so frightened of a changing world, and thinking they could put a lid on it. They voted for good order in 1968 just as much as they did in 1948. But their voting has done nothing to rescind that change and restore the social order they thrived in.

I don’t know where White solidarity comes from anymore. It is hard to be a people who are dispossessed of even what little you have and not turn that into a politics of resentment. Some whites are learning to become just more aggrieved ethnic group, thinking that’s how success is achieved in today’s squalid multiculture. Effective white solidarity will, as Dreher notes, have to learn how to suffer — to suffer in the way black folks have suffered in America, and to give that suffering meaning and purpose. To even find hope amidst the suffering. Ineffective white solidarity will seek to restore an old order, demonizing black and brown people and demanding not just their subjugation, but their happy assent to it as well.

The church can provide that structure, but it has to be a different kind of church. One not so invested in social order (which white churches always have been), but rather, in fostering successful resistance and survival in the face of difficult odds. White churches that succeed will become more like black churches, giving a story to tell that gives meaning rather than rules to live successful lives by. Because life may not be successful by any bourgeois definition. And yet, it’s still a human life Christ lived and died for. Loved and redeemed and given a purpose.

I bet some of this is already happening. I know this is something I want to do.

There is, however, on other thing to consider. In the history of Anglo-America, the lives of peasants and workers have largely been violent, brutish, and all-too-short. The arc of success of trade union and progressive movements, and all that brought with it, from the 1880s through to the 1960s, may be a historical aberration. It may be that proletarian and peasants lives — lives largely given over to chaos, squalor, and violence — are returning to historical type. Solidarity had never really paid off for white peasants and workers until the 20th century. Prior to that, in Anglo-America, attempts by the poor to organize were generally met with brutal and merciless repression. And failed nearly every time.

It would be a pity if that were true again. It doesn’t have to be. But I see very little will anywhere to change this. Any creation of a proletarian and peasant church, and of a culture of persistence, will have to begin at the bottom. One soul at a time.

Moral Injury and Moral Superiority

I’m a fan of old radio shows, and a temporary job I’ve had recently has given me the opportunity to listen to a number of them.

There’s a lot to be learned, I think, about our culture and our ideals from mass media, especially in an era as homogenous as the 1950s. This episode of the Gunsmoke radio show from 1956, “Bloody Hands,” (the television version is here, though let’s be honest, radio is better) says some important things about the nature of social order and the men — because it was men back then — who keep that order.

It is an ordinary day in Dodge City, Kansas. U.S. Marshal Matt Dillon rides into town on a buckboard, his gun in the back of a sullen man driving. Dillon has been after a gang of five thieves, robbers, and murderers, and he ambushed them somewhere outside of town, killing four of them in the process. “It was like butchering hogs,” the sullen man says as Chester locks him in jail.

All the time, the sullen man — Brand, I think — is complaining and criticizing Matt Dillon. “Do you like killing? Because you certainly are good at it!” Brand is relentless, and he makes Dillon angry. It’s not lost on the audience that this a killer talking.

But the criticism clearly hits and hurts Dillion. He has a nightmare in which we hear him say, as he sleeps, “Please, no, don’t make me kill again.” Chester has to wake him up, and groggily, Dillion resolves to quit. He writes out a telegram of resignation, and has Chester go to the train depot and send it to the War Department. Dillon then goes to breakfast.

Matt Dillon stops wearing a gun. He stops wearing his badge. When this scene takes place, we learn that several of Brand’s fellow outlaws are in town wrecking havoc while Dillon, and his “friend” (and Long Branch co-owner) Kitty Russell are sitting underneath the shade of a tree, fishing. Chester Proudfoot, Dillion’s rather hapless assistant, comes riding up.

Chester: Mr. Dillon, Joe Stanger’s in town.

Matt: Oh? Well, that doesn’t matter to me, Chester.

Chester: But you don’t understand.

Matt: I don’t understand what?

Chester: What I’ve come to tell you. Stanger’s at The Long Branch, and a while ago he had word with one of the girls there and she slapped him and he, he pulled out his gun, and he, he killed her.

Matt: He what?

Kitty: Who was the girl, Chester?

Chester: Kate Hawkins.

Kitty: Oh no…

Chester: That’s who it was, Miss Kitty. And the bartender tried to stop him and Stanger shot him too and I hear he’s gonna die. I grabbed a horse off the hitch rail and come right to tell you. You’ve gotta stop him, Mr. Dillon.

Matt: Look, Chester, I’m not the marshal here anymore. I quit, remember?

Chester: You mean you’re going to let Joe Stanger walk around Dodge and shoot everybody that gets in his way? Including women?

Matt: I’m through killing. I told you that.

Chester: Well, who’s gonna stop him, then? You’re the only man around here that will go up agin’ him and you know it.

Matt: That may be true, but I’m still not going to do it.

Chester: Wait, Mr. Dillon, wait, wait a minute. I been thinking a lot about all this lately and there’s something you’ve been overlooking.

Matt: Oh?

Chester: Men like Stanger and Brand, they gotta be stopped. I’d do it if I could, but I can’t. I just ain’t good enough. Most men ain’t. But you are. It’s kinda too bad for you that you are, but that’s the way it is, Mr. Dillon, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Not now. It’s too late. It’s way too late.

[With that, Dillon sighs. We hear the clink of spurs and the grinding of boots in the dirt.]

Matt: Hand me your gun, Chester.

It’s this very last speech that interests me.

Matt Dillon is a “good man.” He’s more than competent gunman, fast on the draw, faster than nearly everyone he comes up against (there was one young gunman who was faster than Dillon, and did manage to shoot the marshal). He’s a solid fighter with his fists, too, and he’s pummeled and beaten men much bigger than he is. So, Dillion is “good enough” in that he possess the technical skill to defeat anyone who challenges him.

But there’s another meaning here, I think, to “good enough.” Dillion is a “good man” in a world where “bad men” are constantly doing violence. Here, we have an insight into what Dillon’s being “good enough “ means: he is bothered by the violence he does. It hangs heavy on his conscience. He has nightmares about it (though, only in this episode), even when the bad guys — people who themselves kill without mercy, pity, and conscience — hound him for it.

Matt Dillon is a sheepdog, protecting the sheep of Dodge City from the wolves of the world. He does the violence needed to maintain peace and order. And he does an awful lot of violence over the course of the Gunsmoke radio series. Sometimes it is capricious violence — “Why are you throwing me in jail?” once received a response akin to “I’ll think of a reason later!” Dillon as a character is unafraid to run men out of town, beat them to a pulp, threaten to shoot them, muse about hanging them himself, and tell them their ultimate fate — after a fair trial, of course — will be at the end of a rope. He frequently interferes in family life to protect children and women, something very enlightened for a character living in the frontier wilderness of the 1870s. He never takes the side of the wealthy in disputes with the poor, and several times refuses to follow the law in order to secure “greater justice” for smallholders threatened by the rich and powerful. More than once, he tells those who complain of his methods, “I AM the law!”

But what’s clear from all of this is that Dillon almost never makes a mistake. His violence, as capricious and lawless as it frequently is, is always aimed at people who deserve it — who have it coming. Bad people. Wolves.

This, I think, is the myth of authority and violence in America. Violence is always well aimed, always hits the right target. He may be violent and sometimes even lawless in his approach, but Matt Dillon is never unjust. The ends of justice are always served in Gunsmoke. The poor and weak are always protected, the innocent are always avenged, the disorderly are always brought to heel, the guilty are always punished, and the wicked are always dealt with.

Of course, it does not work that way in the real world. Power and authority frequently visit their violence on the weak and the powerless. Power and authority are rather good at constantly victimizing the innocent. It’s just easier that way. It’s fine to pretend to be sheepdogs, protecting the weak, but honestly, most sheepdogs are just wolves with badges. It’s simpler to prey on sheep.

There is one other thing about this narrative that interests me. Dillon is a “good man” who does the violence necessary for a peaceful, ordered existence. But because he is a good man who does “bad things” to secure peace and order — who does “bad things” for “good reasons” or “the greater good” — Dillon bears a special moral injury, a moral wound. He is wounded by what he does, he sacrifices himself to the violence he must commit, and the fact that he does it makes him a better person than the rest of us. “I’d do it,” Chester tells him, “but I just ain’t good enough.” He’s not fast enough on the draw, and he can’t handle a six-shooter well enough, but Chester also doesn’t possess the soul needed to be the kind of man who can do “bad things” for “good reasons” day after day.

It’s a calling, Chester says — an unfortunate calling — when he tells Dillon “that’s the way it is.”

This makes Dillon a kind-of distorted Christ figure, one I suspect frequents popular culture and myth across Christendom. He bears the sin of the world, he defeats evil (as opposed to sin and death, a common confusion among Christians of all flavors and persuasions) by doing the works of death better than wicked and bad men do. That it bothers him is proof of his goodness — the evil sleep soundly and well at night. The good and decent toss and turn, troubled by conscience, wondering about the fate of their souls, bothered by the sheer amount of death they must deal in securing the good order of the world.

And even that troubling is vicarious. Almost no one else seems to be bothered by the violence Dillon does to maintain peace and order. He also gets hounded by the very sheep whose lives he protects.

Again, this is myth. It doesn’t work this way in the real world, not really. Just as there are no sheepdogs, there are no Christ-like bearers of sin who do righteous violence so that we can sleep well. It is, as I said, too easy to brutalize the weak and powerless and call it just and righteous. THAT is how the world works.

There’s only violence. And sin. And human beings, struggling. There’s order, barely constrained and contained by sinful men (and women), whose sin itself is only partly restrained. That we impose this narrative of virtuous violence on the real world is one thing that causes so much undue pain and so much undeserved suffering. Because we believe those on the receiving end of that violence have it coming. Deserve it. Merit it. Earned it. After all, they are bad people. Wolves. And we are good people who do difficult things so that the world can work right. Sheepdogs.

We believe deeply in one thing scripture never teaches — that good people must confront and defeat evil. There are no good people in scripture. Just Israel — sinful, miserable, wayward Israel. The is no innocence in scripture save for Christ, who goes willingly to the cross. There is no virtue in scripture, save for a God who confronts our violence by surrendering utterly and completely to it.

Because … we are not good people. There’s no such thing. And few very bad people really twirl their mustaches and confess their wickedness. So much of what we do, and who we are, has no meaning. No purpose. No telos. No virtue. No evil. It just is.

It just is.

The “Soviet” Church

Over at First ThingsSergei Chapnin describes how the hopeful revival of the Russian Orthodox Church in the 1990s has led to a “re-Sovietization” of the church, in part because the pernicious and debilitating debate between conservatives and progressives has made it way even to the vast expanses of Russia:

During the Soviet era, the persecuted Church had valued unity above all things. Church leaders maintained informal, often friendly, contacts with religious dissidents. By the mid–1990s, the situation changed. Conflict between liberals and conservatives became a defining feature of church life.

In the Communist Party, mainstream ideas were known as the “general line.” By demanding conformity with the general line, the Soviets suppressed dissent and maintained unity. Now, as the Church became a respected part of post-Soviet culture, many members turned their attention to managing and manipulating her influence. If the Church intended to set the spiritual and ideological agenda for the nation, these members thought, then she could not do without a general line. The “conservatives” were those who took it upon themselves to formulate this general line and determine who was in accord with it and who was not.

Thus the two camps solidified. The conservatives’ task, as they saw it, was to reestablish the social and political power of the Church. In liturgy and catechesis, they defended received practices. The “liberals,” by contrast, were those like Fr. Kochetkov, concerned with improving catechesis and promoting the role of liturgy in community life. To a degree that would have been unthinkable during the Soviet era, the two camps became mutually hostile. Church members who disagreed on theological or practical issues were now calling each other “enemies of the Church.” ­Designating themselves “defenders of the faith,” the conservatives ventured to criticize not only the laity and lower clergy, but the bishops themselves, charging them with “departures from Orthodoxy” and even, on occasion, heresy. Church Revival 1.0 fizzled.

According to Chapnin, the church has embraces a “Russian World” (Русский мир) which aims to unite all Orthodox Slavic people (Russians, Belursians, Ukrainians) under one great orthodox church and in one great state. In short, the church seeks a renewed Russian Empire.

In this 2.0 phase, the Church is circling back to Sovietism, promoting conformity and dreaming of imperial expansion. In one sense, these sympathies should be understood pragmatically, as a means of currying favor with state authorities. Nonetheless, there are genuine pro-Soviet sentiments within the Russian Church. Their presence is easily explained.

In its 1.0 phase, Church Revival failed to address its top priority: “churching” those who were attracted to Orthodoxy, which meant catechizing Russians and incorporating them into the Church. The mass baptisms of the 1990s left the newly baptized unprepared for life in the Church. The Church had welcomed the uncatechized, counting on a “natural” churching to take place later, as if Christian identity would come automatically. Bishop Panteleimon of Smolensk and Vyazma describes the result:

At the beginning of the 1990s, we saw a surge of people coming to the Church… . Not just coming, but swarming into it. Alas, not many stayed inside. The period of active attention to the life of the Church and so-called “churching” ended very quickly… . In my estimation, people who go to church every Sunday amount to one percent of the country’s population, or even less.

In most cases, the newly baptized Soviet people had no interest in metanoia, no desire to change. Of course, change did arrive. It was the new post-Soviet culture (which only too soon became neo-Soviet) that changed the Church, rather than the other way around. The result is a Sovietized Christianity.

It looks like the Orthodox church made an interesting mistake in relying to heavily on Russian culture — which had, at one time, been heavily Christian, but has become as secular and as modernist as any in the west — to do the work of Christianizing. Perhaps because they believed, mistakenly, that Christian is what someone would somehow automatically become if they lived in the right circumstances. It would be acquired from the air, or the water. Or somehow being a faithful Christian was merely in one’s genes, and once the restrictions of the Soviet state were removed, Christian living would simply and naturally appear.

Nothing could be farther from the truth, of course. To become Christian requires a great deal of purposeful and deliberate work, something the church in Christendom has forgotten because it could assume that a Christian culture would form Christian people. Maybe it does, but conservatives especially need to note that Christendom produced and embraced modernity and enlightenment in all its forms. So the Christian culture of Christendom was no defense against the deeply attractive heresies and idolatries of modernity.

Chaplin also describes how conservatism within orthodoxy has become, as it has in America, a hollow ideology, and not an honest expression of faith:

Over the last generation, the appeal of the Church to individuals and ­society has come down to tradition—the need to preserve it, the danger of neglecting it. These are legitimate concerns. But the newly baptized ex-Soviets of the last two decades have a rigid and impoverished understanding of “tradition,” which they understand as a set of rules and regulations: when to pray and what set of prayers to read, what not to eat and what else not to do during Lent, what to wear to church, and so on. For them, tradition is not a living tradition, and an understanding of tradition as a common and personal experience of life in Christ comes under suspicion as too “liberal.”

Beyond liturgy and piety, other traditions were revived: respect for the family, opposition to abortion, the banning of homosexual practice and propaganda. These measures are seen as asserting traditional Russian mores in opposition to the decadence of the West. They seem to add up to a healthy Christian conservatism. But this is rhetoric, not living tradition. The actual statistics in Russia are disastrous: 640,000 divorces to 1.2 million marriages in 2010; sixty-three abortions per hundred live births in 2011. The supposed revival of Russian morality is propaganda, not a genuine effort of social renewal. It is a way of elevating Russia over the allegedly more corrupt cultures of Western Europe and North ­America—a way of talking once again about East versus West, us versus them. The West is constructed as not just a political and economic enemy, but a spiritual one as well. This sort of thinking is the general line.

I see a great many similarities in this to what is happening with the church in the West, particularly the United States (Chapnin talks about liberals, but this essay suggests they are a marginal force in the Russian church). Too many conservatives in America would, I think, embrace some form of Americanized “Soviet” church (hearkening back to the glory days of 1958!) if it meant renewed social prestige and power.

That very church, however, was the cause of the current church’s problem. It did not know how to form followers of Jesus absent a culture generally supportive of a generic and nationalistic Christianity. It could form them to be good, patriotic American (or Soviet) citizens, but if our concern is the kingdom of God, if our concern is loving God, walking in his ways, and loving our neighbor as ourselves, then that good citizenship was irrelevant. In fact, good citizenship is worse than irrelevant — it is detrimental. We should take Paul seriously when he writes:

18 For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself. (Philippians 3:18-21 ESV)

If we are to be faithful followers of Christ, then, we have to look past the desire to be influential and meaningful, and instead do the hardest and most faithful work of all — teaching ourselves what it means to live as God’s people, and then living as God’s faithful called people, knowing which citizenship we hold really matters, in a world where virtually nothing will support or encourage us.

You Gotta Serve Somebody

Jennifer and I worshiped at the Payne AME Church in Chatham this morning (Sunday, 01 November). It was wonderful, two amazing and spirit-filled hours or worship, prayer, and praise!

The Bible passage on offer for this morning’s worship was Psalm 100:

1 Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth!
2 Serve the Lord with gladness!
Come into his presence with singing!
3 Know that the Lord, he is God!
It is he who made us, and we are his;
we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
4 Enter his gates with thanksgiving,
and his courts with praise!
Give thanks to him; bless his name!
5 For the Lord is good;
his steadfast love endures forever,
and his faithfulness to all generations.
(Psalms 100:1-5 ESV)

Except the translation being used was the New International Version (NIV), which rendered verse two this way:

Worship the LORD with gladness; come before him with joyful songs.

What the translators of the ESV render as “serve” and the NIV translators as “worship” is that wonderful Hebrew word עבד ebed. There is a hint on compulsion in ebed — it’s what happens to Israel in Egypt when a Pharaoh “who did not know Joseph” arose, and it’s what the God of Israel demands of his people when he ends their captivity in Egypt, swaddling the country in darkness, terror, and death before drowning Pharaoh and his army in the Red Sea. (I do not use the term “freedom” or “liberate” to describe what happens in Exodus because scripture itself does not.)

I find it interesting that slave and worshiper both arise from this simple word, עבד, with it’s hint of both compulsion and devotion. And in scripture, where God warns Israel against the worship of other gods, he speaks this word, ebed. To worship a god is to serve that god, to work for that god, to make that god your master and to put the wants and needs and commands of that god ahead of your own wants and needs.

We aren’t free, and we never will be. Freedom is not part of the promise of God. (It isn’t.) We serve someone. We serve something. We worship. We adore. We sacrifice. We praise. We labor. It is inescapable. If we are set anything remotely resembling free, it is to serve the living God, the god of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The God who came to us, wrapped in flesh, as Jesus of Nazareth, who blessed and broke bread, who gave his life so that we may live. Who served us. Who sacrificed himself for us.

More Preaching Dates!

For anyone who is interested, and is in or around the Albany area in the next two weeks, I will be preaching and leading worship at First Reformed Church in Chatham, NY, on November 8. And the following week, I will be preaching and leading worship at Christ Our Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Chatham (just across the street from First Reformed) on November 15. Worship starts at 10:00 am at both churches.

Come, if you can, and hear the Gospel preached! You might even hear me play some music! And say hello!