On Knowing, And Being Known

Yesterday, Memorial Day, I took a trip out to the family homestead, to see what has become of the little house where my grandparents lived, where my mother grew up, and where I spent many happy days as a child and a teenager.

It’s been almost ten years since anyone lived in that house. And it is slowly decaying, slowly being reclaimed by the earth it sits upon, by the moss covering much of its roof, by the grass sprouting high in the yard, by the critters moving in where the holes have appeared. It was even quite a trek to get there, the mile-long dirt road is no longer properly maintained, and the weeds in the middle have sprouted high.

We’d have done well to go in an old Ford pickup truck.

A back door was unlocked, and Jennifer and I went in. It still smelled, a bit, of the old house I remembered, a smell I cannot describe, but one that says “home” so very powerfully to me. There is no furniture, nothing of value in the house itself anymore, nothing to hide its utter smallness — American homes were much smaller a century ago, and someone used to today’s houses might be shocked to realize four people — my mother, her brother, and their parents — lived in this house. And that was before Grampie built the new kitchen and dining room (complete with a basement below).

There is the smell of death and decay in this little house. And no wonder. The carcasses of a few dead starlings littered the insides. Strange piles showing something at some point made its residence in this place dot each room

Nothing is left but an old television set, a giant cabinet model from the late 1960s, back when — on a very good day — you might get three channels this far away from town.

The windows are all shuttered and intact. The house has not been vandalized, or used as a drug den, or by teenagers for illicit hookups (ask me later about the young couple in the park bathroom in Colville), but I chalk that up to the fact it is so far away from the county gravel road that if you didn’t know it’s there, you couldn’t possibly know it’s there.

But it is dying. It is slowly mouldering away.

Don’t get any ideas about Jennifer and me living there. Because yes, I know, we need a place to live. But that little house would take too much work and too much money to repair — it’s almost in Green Acres condition — but even worse, the septic drank no longer drains and the well has gone bad.

It still smells a little like “home” to me, both inside and out. But these smells, and this idea of home, they belong to the past, to my memories. There’s no future in this place. Not for me and Jen. Not for anyone.

As we wandered the yard, looking around, seeing the evidence of cattle there recently, likely that very morning, Jennifer asked me:

“Does this make you sad?”

No, I told her. I mourned for the loss of this place — of the life I spent in this place — 20 years ago, the last time we visited my grandfather. I have learned now that the past remains just that — a memory, a feeling, an idea, something that can comfort if you let it. I learned this as I sat alone one afternoon in my Grandmother Featherstone’s house in Roswell, New Mexico, the day after her funeral, trying to remember the times I spent there, smell the smells of that place, hold those memories tight just one more time.

But because she’d been ill for six weeks, the house no longer smelled like my grandparents’ house. It smelled of piss and disinfectant, like the nursing home it became as she quickly succumbed to pancreatic cancer.

And there was little remember in that smell.

Columnist Maggie Gallagher recently read my book, The Love That Matters, and noted something very interesting in an e-mail exchange with me that set me to thinking. Gallagher noted that none of my experiences of acceptance and belonging — and I had many, and related many of them in the book — seemed to affect my self-understanding as someone who didn’t belong and wasn’t accepted. Gallagher’s observation hurt a bit, until I realized just how right she is.

Because I think I was — am — looking for something more than mere acceptance and belonging. I want to be known. And I want to know.

Alan Jacobs, who blogs at The American Conservative, wrote an essay for The New Atlantis about identity and what it means to know people, and how modernity — particularly the invention of the passport and the need for the modern, mass, bureaucratic and administrative state to make people legible — has affected how we know ourselves and know others. Riffing off one of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple stories, Jacobs writes:

And Miss Marple’s conclusion: “[…] Every village and small country place is full of people who’ve just come and settled there without any ties to bring them. The big houses have been sold, and the cottages have been converted and changed. And people just come — and all you know about them is what they say of themselves.” All you know about them is what they say of themselves — this is, in a nutshell, one of the core problems of modernity.

Much of the essay is devoted to the “mechanics” of identity, how we can go from people who, as recently as the late middle ages, could have more than one name over the course of our lives to people in modernity with fixed and proper surnames attached to numbers attached to all sorts of documents that purport to describe and explain who we are.

Yet that way of knowing, and defining us, false short because it lacks the knowledge of character and personality. It is knowledge unembedded from the deeply intertwined relationships of family, community, and church that formed us and defined us, that came to know who we are.

Jacobs point out Miss Marple’s knowledge is the kind of knowledge that cannot be held in a file. It is a knowledge of habits and personality gained over years of living with people, of forming them and being formed by them. Marple puts her knowledge, and her ability to know, in service of this increasingly abstract mass order, but it is a knowledge that science and rationality increasingly don’t know what to do with.

I’ve complained a lot on this page about what has happened to me, not just with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, but to a lesser extent, being an outsider seemingly everywhere I go. But I think what I am truly lamenting is less being an outsider, but rather not being known and not being able to know others the way I ache to.

By knowing, I mean the way Jesus seems to know the Samaritan woman at the well in John’s Gospel. Jesus doesn’t mince words with her — “You worship what you do not know, we worship what we know” — but he also knows who she is, what she wants, and what she is called to be. Jesus seems to accept her despite it all. He told her the truth about herself, about her life. “He told me all that I ever did,” she told those in her village, bearing witness and compelling many to believe in Jesus.

I want to be more than who and what I say I am. To have something bigger than a self to point to. To know that, in love, others have considered me, and seen something in me, that I could not see without them. And help me become something I could not be — without them.

That I am part of a people who are part of me. Who shape me and are shaped by me. This is what I mean by knowing.

The first thing I need to acknowledge here is this is something for which there is not, and cannot be, any resolution. God made some souls a little more bent than others, and I believe I am one of those souls. Some of us, perhaps many of us, will ache for things we cannot ever have. Not because the world is cruel, but because God creates in us a desire to strive.

Also, I suspect most people don’t ache or desire to be known the way I do. For whatever reason, it does seem that I feel more intensely than a lot of people, though I accept I could very well be wrong about that. I remember how difficult saying goodbye was in the Midwest. At first, I found saying goodbye difficult because I want, up until the last possible moment, as intense a connection as possible with someone, to savor and remember that intensity later. But most folks didn’t seem to want that. I came to accept this reality, but I’ve never really liked it. I need the intensity, and I suspect a lot of people — most, probably — don’t.

Being mobile, as Jennifer and I have been, flitting from place to place and prospect to prospect, has also mitigated against knowing — and being known. We’ve not been anyplace long enough to truly be known. I am, supposedly, the ultimate modern, someone defined by accomplishments. But boiled down to a piece of paper, it turns out … they aren’t all that.

And yet, I am known. By my wife, Jennifer. By a whole host of people at seminary and beyond (you all know who you are, Andrew and Francisco and Karen and Bridget and Bridget and Joy and Aaron and Vince and Jessica and Kurt and Linda and Cheryl and Emilie and Christine and… the names, I never imagined so many names), which became the first place where people really knew me. Knew me the way Jesus knows us, knows this woman.

So, as I sit in a strange place, rationing out my coffee, applying for every job it makes sense to apply for, and wondering what will happen next because nothing is clear (and golly, hasn’t it been that way to one extent or another since 2012?), I do so confident that I am known. And with that comes all the belonging and all the acceptance I could have ever imagined wanting or having.

Seven Letters to Seven Churches- Some Final Thoughts

I think it’s easy to forget, even for those of us with red letter Bibles, that Jesus does a lot of speaking in Revelation. This is one of the reasons I undertook these devotionals, to consider the short letters Christ orders John to write:

“Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicean.” (Revelation 1:11 ESV)

I came to love these little letters as Christ’s gift to the church — a gift of hope, mostly, telling us who we are and what it means to be church.

So, a few things I noticed as I wrote these. This short essay is hardly exhaustive, but I think it would be interesting to write a short book about being church based on these letters, since each of these seven churches represents a “type” of church we’ve all seen, or been in. Which means these letters are still, in many ways, dictated to us. Because, as Christ himself says,

He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.

  1. Each Church Has An Angel Watching Over It. The letters aren’t actually dictated to the churches themselves, but to the angels — the seven stars in Christ’s right hand — that belong to and watch over the churches. I say watch over, but we aren’t really told what the seven stars do, aside from “belonging” to each church. Whatever this might mean, we aren’t alone — God is watching us, protecting us, guiding us, disciplining us and keeping us safe while se do the work of and live as church. We are not alone — we have the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit in our midst, and an angel with us, giving us guidance. We are powerful, even — perhaps especially — when we think we’re not.
  2. We Can Fail to Get It “Right” And Still Be Church This is the most important thing I believe we can learn from these letters. Christ reproaches each of these churches for something, and four of them he specifically calls to repent. The other three, he commands them to courage and faith in the face of tribulation and suffering, or he admonishes them for tolerating heretical teaching. We don’t know if any of these churches “gets it right,” but we do know that they are still church despite not getting it right. This stands in opposition to a lot of Christian thinking, that if we don’t get church absolutely right, we aren’t church. Christ warns and calls each of these churches to some kind of repentance, but he also reminds each of them — even the feckless church at Laodicea that cannot seem to get anything right — that each of them has something going for them (even if it is only their suffering because Christ is disciplining them). Because for all the issues these churches have, they know whose they are. They belong to Jesus.
  3. Consequences Are For Christ Alone For their sins, their falling short, Christ tells each of these churches that something will happen (or, at Laodicia, is already happening). But Jesus is emphatic — he and he alone will impose these consequences, whether it is removing a lamp stand or coming like a thief in the night, bringing enemies to grovel at one’s feet, or inflicting sickness and death upon Jezebel and her children. This is actually a good corrective to the shunning and exclusion that Paul seems to advocate as part of church life. We’re not the authors of the consequences, we don’t impose penalties or punishments for sin. We leave that to God, who promises a kind of “what goes around comes around” when it comes to faithlessness and sin in the church. Our calling is only to be faithful and true to the one who is faithful and true.
  4. To The One Who Conquers… Each of these letters concludes with a promise from Jesus “to the one who conquers” (ὁ νικῶν), a fascinating way to describe those who die in the faith. Because each of these letters are calls by Christ to be faithful unto death just as he was faithful unto death. Though because Christ himself also rises, in this “conquest” in the promise of resurrection with him, to rule with him. God uses this phrase, “the one who conquers,” in Revelation 21 to describe who will share in the new heaven and new earth, who will have living water, and who will be “my son” (which means this could be a reference to Christ, and/or a reference to those who have died in Christ and been risen again). Death is not to be feared here, because we belong to one who died and lives forever. Christ rose from the dead and promises to share that rising, that conquest, with us.

It is a great and eternal hope that we have, this calling to be God’s people in the world. It is not easy, and we are not always very good at it, but that doesn’t necessarily matter. Because even when we cannot be faithful and true, we belong to Crucified and Risen Lord who is faithful and true, to the very end.

Having Protectors Matters

Jacobin Magazine, the online Marxist publication (and fantastically unapologetic about it!) has a fascinating and heartbreaking piece on the misery inflicted on women, children, and poor families by the Irish state’s close cooperation with the Catholic Church:

By 1924, there were more children in industrial schools in the Irish Free State than there were in all of the industrial schools in England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland combined. The system was abolished in England in 1933, but in Ireland, particularly following the suppression of the 1935 Carrigan Report, the reformatory system continued for decades.

The Carrigan committee was tasked with investigating the “moral state” of the country, but on viewing the committee’s findings the Department of Justice decided to conceal the report. According to an internal memo, the report “was unbalanced to be too severe on men, while overlooking the shortcomings of women in these matters, and the, at times, highly coloured imaginations of children.”

But as the Carrigan committee revealed, abuse was rampant in Irish institutions, and was strongly determined by class and status. Jim Beresford, a former resident of the Daingean Industrial School, put it this way: “What eventually stopped them abusing me was that I had parents, and I was articulate. Most of the other children were inarticulate and illiterate because they had spent their whole life in the institution.” [Emphasis mine — CHF] Beresford managed to escape and his sister immediately put him on the boat to England where he remained, a fugitive at fifteen years old.

Many others were less fortunate. In 1939, twin girls born to a single mother in Cork were placed in Clonakility Industrial School. One of the girls, Annie, remembers beatings, bed-wetting, and humiliation. With regard to her education she states: “The classroom was a place of punishment. It was where we watched people being sadistically beaten. If we were ambitious to study, they did not like that.”

No doubt the desire of the church to control and moralize about all human behavior, from that of single women to poor families, contributed to this, though Jacobin makes no case whatsoever in this piece for the contributions of Catholic Social Teaching to the miserable and inhuman conditions that Ireland’s poorest and most vulnerable people found themselves subject to in the six or seven decades following Irish independence.

Nor do I share Jacobin’s faith in the secular state (whether rightly guided by revolutionary socialist theory and ideals or not) to do any of this right either. The quote I highlighted is a reality, sadly, of what it means to be subject to institutions. (And socialism of any flavor will only make that worse.) Many of the kids I do ministry with are foster kids, have been in and through the system (which is definitely not church run in this country), and foster kids by definition have no one to fight for them, no one to advocate or agitate for them. It’s why they have contacted me. Because there is no one else to listen.

They are the perfect victims. And they remain perfect victims whether they face and impersonal church or an impersonal state.

The Torah is harsh in its teaching to Israel on how those who have no protectors, no one to fight back if they are wronged — strangers, wanderers, widows, and orphans — should be treated. And what will happen to Israel if they fail to heed the words of their Lord:

21 “You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. 22 You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child. 23 If you do mistreat them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry, 24 and my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless.” (Exodus 22:21–24 ESV)

And if this wasn’t enough, Moses commanded Israel to remember the teaching as they prepared to cross the Jordan and take possession of the promised land:

“‘Cursed be anyone who perverts the justice due to the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. ’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.” (Deuteronomy 27:19 ESV)

I won’t call down curses upon Ireland, but the Irish church, that’s another matter. A church that would cooperate so closely to immiserate and abuse so many deserves to fall by the sword, burnt to the ground, left fatherless itself, cast into exile, its good and pleasant land left empty and desolate.

SERMON Second Sunday After Pentecost

I didn’t preach today, but if I had, it would have gone something like this.

Second Sunday After Pentecost (Year C)

  • 1 Kings 8:22–23, 41–43
  • Psalm 96:1–9
  • Galatians 1:1–12
  • Luke 7:1–10

22 Then Solomon stood before the altar of the Lord in the presence of all the assembly of Israel and spread out his hands toward heaven, 23 and said, “O Lord, God of Israel, there is no God like you, in heaven above or on earth beneath, keeping covenant and showing steadfast love to your servants who walk before you with all their heart…

41 “Likewise, when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a far country for your name’s sake 42 (for they shall hear of your great name and your mighty hand, and of your outstretched arm), when he comes and prays toward this house, 43 hear in heaven your dwelling place and do according to all for which the foreigner calls to you, in order that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel, and that they may know that this house that I have built is called by your name.” (1 Kings 8:22–23, 41–43 ESV)

This prayer is just one petition in a long prayer Solomon, the Son of David, gives as he dedicates the temple. This house of God that David wanted to build, promised God he would build not long after he become king of all Israel. David thought it was wrong that he should live in a house of cedar and stone while God — present to Israel in the ark it had carried around since being given the teaching at Sinai in the wilderness — “dwelt” only in a tent.

God seemed miffed at David for this promise. “I’ve lived in a tent, wandering with my people, since the day I brought you out of slavery in Egypt. Did I ask you, or anyone else, to build me house? I have been with you, Israel, with you, David, wherever you have gone. I have no need for a house.”

And God promises David — “I will make you a house, and a king from your line, of your descent, shall sit on your throne forever.”

Your descendant shall build me a house, God tells David, but don’t imagine that what you hew and fashion with you own hands (or, an army of conscripted laborers) can hold me. I, the Lord, am the one who really builds. “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever,” God tells David.

So maybe this is why Solomon, who has spent so much building this house of God upon the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite (Araunah in the Kings account), seems to only hope that God will maybe dwell in this house.

12 Then Solomon said, “The Lord has said that he would dwell in thick darkness. 13 I have indeed built you an exalted house, a place for you to dwell in forever.” (1 Kings 8:12–13 ESV)

Note, at this dedication to the temple, Solomon, in his prayer of intercession here, asks the Lord, the God of Israel, to “hear in heaven” (תִּשְׁמַע הַשָׁמַיִם) in each of his petitions.

Today, Solomon prays for the mercy of God upon Israel. He prays for right judgment, forgiveness of sins, abundant rains, relief from famine, and victory in battle when Israel is at war. He prays for the restoration of Israel in defeat, for the return of captives from exile, and for God’s mercy on his people when they sin.

“For there is no one who does not sin,” Solomon prays.

Solomon confesses that even as he has built this great and wonderful house of cedar and stone and bronze and gold where the presence of the Lord shall dwell among God’s people, that God is bigger than this house. That God truly dwells in the heavens, listening from heaven, to prayers from this house, to Israel when it prays toward this house.

And so Solomon also prays for the foreigner who comes to pray to this house as well. He prays that the Lord, the God of Israel, will listen to “all for which the foreigner calls to you.”

That everyone on earth shall know the Lord as Israel knows the Lord — as protector and redeemer, as the one who delivers and blesses.

And so begins the long and strange encounter of the Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, with those who are not of or from the people God has called out.

Such it is with our gospel reading. Jesus, the God who has condescended from heaven to dwell temporarily with us as one of us, has been invited by a group of Jewish leaders to heal the slave of a Centurion, a senior Roman soldier or even the commander of a Roman garrison. He may be a good guy — the Jewish leaders are rather obsequious in their declarations — but he is still a slave owner and the leader of a military garrison that, if it came to it, would use violence to maintain order.

Roman order. Foreign order.

When we think of foreigners in this context, I suspect we think of curious people who rather meekly and rather quietly pray to God, curious less about God than becoming one of us. After all, they are praying to the same God, are they not? Why wouldn’t they become like us?

But as scripture makes clear, again and again, foreigners often times means enemies. People at war with us, who have no desire to become us or even become like us. Who will not stop fighting us even as they have met and encountered and been healed and redeemed by our God. Who may conquer, and occupy us, and oppress us, and yet … meet redemption and salvation in our God.

When Elisha meets and heals Naaman, the commander of the Syrian Army — Israel has been at war with Syria for many years at that point — he doesn’t demand Naaman convert, or defect, or stop fighting. Naaman does convert, does confess “there is no God in all the earth but in Israel,” and asks God’s forgiveness from Elisha, not for waging war against Israel, but for the future idolatry he will have to commit as a faithful servant of king of Syria. But Naaman never stops being a general in the Syrian Army, never stops serving his king, and likely, never stops waging war on Israel — the very people whose God he confessed.

Whose prophet healed him.

What an ingrate, right?

This is where we are today. Jesus encounters, entirely by proxy (a similarity this story shares with Naaman’s healing), a man who has embraced the God of Israel, has done great things for the faithful people of his community, built a place of meeting and worship and appears to want the best for these people he … occupies and rules over. “Such faith I have not found even in Israel,” Jesus says of this man who is used commanding, who knows and understands authority.

He has faith, this centurion. He trusts Jesus, apparently because he understands — unlike many of Israel — the authority Jesus is under, the authority by which he teaches and heals and casts out demons.

But he never stops being, not even for a minute, a commander in an enemy army, an occupying army. An army Israel seeks to shake off, an army that will later capriciously execute Jesus at the request of the Jerusalem mob. The centurion isn’t just a foreigner — he’s an occupier, an enemy, an oppressor.

We like to think when someone meets Jesus, meets our God, they are changed, converted, they become people like us. They become one of us. This centurion believed in the Lord, the God of Israel, used his power and his position to do what he could for God’s people in the city of Capernaum. But he very likely never stopped being a Roman, a soldier, committed to the order Rome brought and its fearsome price in blood and suffering. He may have become one of God’s people, praying and worshiping and giving thanks, but he never became one of us.

That doesn’t matter. To love enemies, as Jesus commands all who listen just a chapter earlier in Luke’s gospel, is to love flesh and blood human beings who may want and intend for us nothing but harm, to pray for them and do good for them. They may live in our midst and wield great power over us — and use it arbitrarily and often with great cruelty. And yet … they may meet our God, maybe because of our love and our kindness, and come to have great faith and trust in our God, but they may never stop being our enemies even after that. They may never really mean us well, even if they know and fear God, even if they do some good for us.

I know that doesn’t sound right. But this is about the love of God, the love of God shown in, and to, a violent, cruel, deeply unfair and unjust world. If it strikes us as wrong, that God would love our enemies, would heal them and bless them and leave them unchastised to do their horrible work, we should remember — we too are unworthy. We too have sinned.

And we too have been forgiven.

To the Church at Laodicea

14 “And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write:‘The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God’s creation.

15 “‘I know your works:you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! 16 So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. 17 For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. 18 I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see. 19 Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent. 20 Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. 21 The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. 22 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” (Revelation 3:14–22 ESV)

And so we come to the last letter. To a church that is neither hot nor cold, to a church that is so uncommitted Jesus is threatening to have no part of it.

But more than that, this a self-satisfied church, a convinced of its own wealth, its own position, its own works. A church that says it needs nothing because it has provided for itself. It is in this very self-satisfaction and self-reliance that Christ says this church is most destitute, most “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.”

And so Christ, being every bit the salesman Bruce Barton said he was here, tells his followers at Leodicia to buy gold, clothes, and ointment for their eyes from him. I’m reminded, as I would be, of the frequent command by God in the Qur’an to

Who is he that will lend to God a goodly loan so that He may multiply it to him many times? And it is God that decreases or increases, and unto Him you shall return. (2:245)

Jesus isn’t just the capstone of best multi-level marketing network in creation, he wants the Laodiceans to really be rich, to cover their shame and nakedness, and to see — really see. So, he asks them to “buy” from him, to actually do something with their wealth, to sacrifice what they have earned themselves to have real the real riches Christ provides.

To lend it to God, as the Qur’an says, knowing they will “get it all back.”

Because right now, as wealthy and as comfortable as this church is, they have nothing of value. Give it to Christ, for real wealth, real clothes, and real sight.

Then comes a hard line — “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent” — happily used by abusers throughout time. But as with all of threatened consequences here, Jesus is saying he does this. Not his representatives. Not someone in a hierarchy or in authority claiming the merits of suffering while inflicting that suffering.

And never have suffered themselves.

It is we who suffer, who are being removed and disciplined, who must understand this and confess it ourselves. And not those who claim to act on God’s behalf. This is also a suffering, a disciplining, that leads to the riches Christ promises this church — promises us all.

At the end, he gives us a hint of what this means when he delivers his concluding promise to the church — “to the one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on the throne” (I once knew a good Lutheran who did not want to sing a hymn that involved ruling and wearing a crown with Jesus because she was not sure how truly biblical it was) by telling us “I also conquered and sat down with my father on his throne.”

We are rich, we who have been called to follow Jesus, but we are called to actually follow, to invite Jesus in as the unwanted stranger and guest who would eat with us, to spend of our wealth in the way of Christ (there’s an Arabic phrase on the edge of my tongue here), and to accept that what the world tells us is wealth and comfort is nothing of the sort.

Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and War

President Barack Obama has made the first official visit by a US President to the Japanese city of Hiroshima, to lay a wreath at a memorial to those killed in the US nuclear attack of August 6, 1945, and to call for a world free of nuclear weapons.

It is the old liberal dream — that diplomacy and negotiation should replace war forever.

We must change our mind-set about war itself. To prevent conflict through diplomacy and strive to end conflicts after they’ve begun. To see our growing interdependence as a cause for peaceful cooperation and not violent competition. To define our nations not by our capacity to destroy but by what we build. And perhaps, above all, we must reimagine our connection to one another as members of one human race.

Perhaps diplomats can gather around a great big table somewhere and outlaw war itself. Perhaps that will make this kind of change possible, allow for the realization of dreams so long dreamt.

Oh, wait, it was tried once. How’d that go again?

Lots of passive voice in Obama’s speech, as if some unnamed generic group of human beings, with no real purpose in mind, concocted the atomic bomb, and then it just happened to fall from the skies over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, in early August 1945. He wasn’t going to apologize — the belief that somehow Obama has been wandering the world apologizing for the United States has always been pure crap — but he wasn’t going to take any direct credit for the attacks either.

“The world war that reached its brutal end in Hiroshima and Nagasaki was fought among the wealthiest and most powerful of nations,” unnamed of course until the war is rhetorically over in Obama’s speech, until the United States and Japan are allies, united in purpose and outlook.

It’s an anodyne way of talking about war, careful and, I suppose, thoughtful. Except that it isn’t.

Because it’s hard to talk about war. Hard, in a society like ours where we are constantly morally judging and justifying, reviewing and condemning, acts of the past, to say much sensible about something as horrific as the American decision to destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki with these newly made instruments of terror and death.

But I’m going to try.

One of the terrible truths of war is that when you begin, when you unleash it, you take a terrible risk, make a terrible gamble — that you will unleash events over which you will no longer have any meaningful control.

And that you could lose. And lose very badly.

The Japanese took that risk as they attacked the United States in Hawaii and the Philippines, took that risk when it set war with the United States into motion. Americans committed to war with Japan, and waged that war methodically, systematically, and very, very brutally. No one envisioned a working atomic bomb on December 7, 1941, but the governments of every major belligerent in the Second World War had some idea of what split atoms could do, and were working to one extent or another on a just such a bomb.

Someone would have built it. And someone would have used it.


True enough, Japan was incapable of laying waste to American cities — something the United States was proving exceptionally skilled at by mid–1944. Hundreds of thousands of Japanese died in those air raids, and many more from starvation because of the slow collapse of the country’s infrastructure in the last year of the war.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki are not irrelevant. These were new kinds of weapons that inflicted a never-before-seen kind of suffering and death. They may or may not have been needed to end the war, depending upon who you believe about the state of mind of Japan’s rulers (or the need to impress Stalin, or simply the desire to see how they worked) in early August, 1945. But they are a piece with the whole war.

Japan dropped the first bomb in anger against the United States. Hoping to win, of course, and defeat the United States. But when the Japanese dropped that first bomb, Japan took the risk that from that point, nothing would go as planned.

I’m not saying Japan deserved to be attacked with atomic bombs. Only that, once the shooting started, each side was going to whatever it took to defeat the other. The first side with these new and terrifying weapons was going to use them. Because they were built to be used. To destroy the enemy, to end resistance, and to secure victory.

I think about the terrible episode of Judges 19–21, Israel’s brutal and most pointless war against Benjamin. I’ve dealt with it in detail elsewhere, so I won’t even rehash it here.

What has always struck me is how this war — and all war, really — is simply reported in scripture. It is not condemned, and not even really praised either. This terrible war against Benjamin is a war instigated to achieve both vengeance and justice (for they are the same thing), but it spirals wildly out of control into genocide and regret and more mass murder, kidnapping, and rape in an attempt to fix the original genocide. It is us at our human worst — lying, self-righteous, violent, faithless, sentimental, regretful, convinced of our own wisdom and our own abilities.

In scripture, war appears to exist simply as an inescapable part of the human condition. What matters is not are we right or are we wrong, are we justified or condemned for waging war — but where is God, and is this war a judgment upon us as the people of God? Because the categories we contrive to morally justify ourselves and our violence — primarily defense, especially of those who cannot defend themselves — don’t fly in scripture. The conquest of Canaan is as aggressive and brutal a war as we can envision (“…[A]nd when the Lord your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them, then you must devote them to complete destruction. You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them.” Deuteronomy 7:2) and it is perfectly moral, set into motion by God. (Israel is also incapable of waging that war for any sustained period of time.) And during the most defensive and morally justifiable of wars, the siege of Jerusalem, the Prophet Jeremiah encourages the people of Judah to surrender, to defect, to flee to the enemy, because the war is lost.

4 Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Behold, I will turn back the weapons of war that are in your hands and with which you are fighting against the king of Babylon and against the Chaldeans who are besieging you outside the walls. And I will bring them together into the midst of this city. 5 I myself will fight against you with outstretched hand and strong arm, in anger and in fury and in great wrath. 6 And I will strike down the inhabitants of this city, both man and beast. (Jeremiah 21:4–6 ESV)

God, “incarnate” in the army of Babylon, at war with Israel.

I’m not saying that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were God’s judgement upon Japan, anymore than the attacks of September 11, 2001, were God’s judgement upon the United States of America. I do not believe, on this side of the Cross, that a meaningful or purposeful presence of God is to be found in the violence we inflict upon each other. God is no longer present in the enemy army, or marching with ours. God no longer judges his people, or the nations, this way.

Violent judgement came to end on the Cross, when we judged and tortured and then murdered our God. When God surrendered to us.

At the Cross, our violence ceases to have meaning. It ceases to judge. We still do it, but now … it really, truly means nothing.

Oh, God is present in war. But as those who suffer. As those who cower in terror, run for cover. As those who perish. As those who struggle to make sense of the horror they find themselves dealing with, living in, surviving, and inflicting. Obama, in his own way, understood this in his speech:

We stand here in the middle of this city and force ourselves to imagine the moment the bomb fell. We force ourselves to feel the dread of children confused by what they see. We listen to a silent cry. We remember all the innocents killed across the arc of that terrible war and the wars that came before and the wars that would follow.

We can apologize, or not, for an act that possesses its own horrific logic. The 20th century was a horrible century, in which we fed ourselves fed into Moloch’s fiery hot furnace, shoveled ourselves like so much human coal — and not just in the trenches of France, or the death camps of Poland, or the grassy steppes of Western Russia, or an ancient port city in Japan, or the muddily fields and dusty cities of China, but all across Asia and Africa and Latin America, wherever the Gatling gun and finance capital (or national pride, or revolutionary ideology) imposed an order that saw people as things to be consumed, as mere resources to be dominated and exploited. I’m not even sure we are capable of apologizing for what we’ve done, or how we’d even start.

I do know this — there will be more violence, more horrors, more death, and more destruction. I hope not on the scale and magnitude of the Second World War, but we’ve shown just what kind of devastation we are capable of inflicting when we really set our minds to it, so that is always a possibility. Bombs far worse than those dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki sit, silently waiting, built to be used.

There will be more violence and more war because we are still human. Because we still want justice. Because we still want vengeance. Because we still believe in the work of our own minds and our own hands to make the world right. Because we are frightened it will never be right.

Because we still believe we can silence death … with death.

To the Church in Philadelphia

7 “And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write:‘The words of the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens.

8 “‘I know your works. Behold, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut. I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name. 9 Behold, I will make those of the synagogue of Satan who say that they are Jews and are not, but lie—behold, I will make them come and bow down before your feet, and they will learn that I have loved you. 10 Because you have kept my word about patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell on the earth. 11 I am coming soon. Hold fast what you have, so that no one may seize your crown. 12 The one who conquers, I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God. Never shall he go out of it, and I will write on him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down from my God out of heaven, and my own new name. 13 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” (Revelation 3:7–13 ESV)

Power. Δυναμις. The ability to act. To be strong. To do anything. But especially anything good, or virtuous, or meaningful, or wonderful. This church has none. It is powerless. It does little good in the world. What works Christ knows, and remembers, are probably few.

The church today worries about power. Conservatives lament the end of a social order they built and that made sense to them. Having had power, they taste their powerlessness all that more intensely, and they fear the end — they fear death and irrelevance. The world has turned its back on established and eternal truth.

The progressive church laments a world still governed by prejudice and structures of discrimination, a world that seems almost impervious to change and reform and abolition despite our best human efforts and many years of good intentions. They taste powerlessness too, even as they pick up that power which seems to be slipping from the hands of others. Because so many still suffer, so much remains to be done, and we are so far from the goal.

“You have but little power.” This is a church that cannot do much, cannot change much, cannot accomplish much.

And yet, Jesus says, “You have kept my word and not denied my name.” In the face of utter powerlessness, in the face of that “Synagogue of Satan,” those who say they are Jews, those who say they are God’s people, but are not — difficult words for us to hear given how Jews have fared in Christendom and at the hands of Westerners — Jesus is reminding this church that he, and not their works, have opened whatever doors, accomplished whatever works, done whatever good, they are called to do.

… [S]eek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. (Matthew 6:33 ESV)

This powerless church, however, is promised something — it will be spared the coming tribulation. Hold fast, be faithful, remember the promise of our Lord.

Because no matter how powerless we are, how little we can do, we can still trust God. We can still be faithful. We can still love as we are loved.

Another Understanding of Incarnational

Sam Kriss, over at his brilliant blog Idiot Joy Showland, has this to say about the need for personal insults and invective in writing:

The world we live in is not populated by ideas, it’s populated by people, and people die – millions of them, constantly, for no good reason other than the avarice and cruelty of other people. This is a central Marxist insight: ideas do not exist in their own glittering sphere; they emerge from concrete relations of production and power. Henry Kissinger is not a collection of texts and concepts, but a profoundly evil man. It’s important to rebut his ideas, because they are dangerous. But if you also attack him in the face – or, preferably, in his dick and balls – it’s harder for these ideas to escape into their weightless world where any concept is as good as any other. Kissinger as a set of abstract notions is incommensurable with anything in material reality; a sad, naked, doughy Kissinger with a pale and shrivelled penis is a human body, far harder to divorce from the millions of human bodies he destroyed in south-east Asia. Gratuitous personal insults are essential. A grotesque satirical fantasy, Kissinger cranking off in a Phnom Penh hotel room to napalm videos, whatever, belongs to reality; the vision of him as a big fleshy book does not.

Debate club rules are not universally applicable. When people demand that discourse only take place on the level of ideas, rather than ugly reality, it’s often because there is something in reality that they’d rather not face. The people who really object on principle to being mocked or insulted, the ones who decry it as violence, tend to be far less critical of actual, physical, deadly violence. Blood is fine. Dick jokes are not.

Read the rest. Really. He presents a solid case for personal insults in philosophical debate.

There are no abstractions that aren’t embodied, or felt and lived, in the lives of real people. That aren’t, when it comes down to it, flesh and blood. This sits in an unresolvable tension with the fact that there is no power (or aspiration to power) that doesn’t think and plan and act on the basis of abstractions, whether it seeks revolution or eternal status quo. Still, this is why I bristle at someone who, defending some kind of revolutionary change in a polity and the suffering it imposes, says that “you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.” Except that omelets aren’t being made, and those eggs being broken are actually human beings. You might not have much or any sympathy with who they are or what they may be suffering — after all, those human beings are standing in the way of a bright, shiny new tomorrow — but at least consider that they are human beings.

(I realize that using this notion against revolutionary politics is probably not what Kriss had in mind.)

To the Church at Sardis

1 “And to the angel of the church in Sardis write:‘The words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars.

“‘I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. 2 Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God. 3 Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you. 4 Yet you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy. 5 The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels. 6 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” (Revelation 3:1–6 ESV)

You have the reputation of being alive… This letter is to a well thought of, highly respected, probably even envied church. One that, at least to those who hear of it, is vibrant and alive and bustling with work and energy and faith. And maybe they were, once.

But not any more. I worshiped at such a church for a while, a community of people I loved, but who were living off the tale they told themselves of another era, a time when they had lots going and were the center of attention.

Virtually every old and established church in America is that way. Breathing the vapors of another era, wishing desperately that the 1958 or 1963 or even 1971 they designed and built their church for — a time when the place was full, the money was abundant, and the programs easy to run — would come back. Some churches do this better than others, and that wonderful church I attended was coasting far on its heritage and its memories of who, as a community, they once were.

Note what Jesus tells Sardis here after he declares them dead. He does not tell them to go back to what they were, those glory days that were the truth behind their reputation. “Wake up, and strengthen what is about to die…” Not “grow and multiply and become wildly successful and deeply purpose driven,” but simply: repent and be faithful. And if they continue to sleep, if they continue to stumble toward death thinking only their reputation will save them, Jesus will come as a thief in the night and take from them even the little they have left.

Hold fast to what we have received from Jesus — the good news, our baptisms, the supper — for even if we are few, even if we are dying, we can still be faithful. We can still do and be what we have been called to.

In the face of death, Jesus calls us to live.

To the Church at Thyatira

18 “And to the angel of the church in Thyatira write:‘The words of the Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire, and whose feet are like burnished bronze.

19 “‘I know your works, your love and faith and service and patient endurance, and that your latter works exceed the first. 20 But I have this against you, that you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols. 21 I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her sexual immorality. 22 Behold, I will throw her onto a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her I will throw into great tribulation, unless they repent of her works, 23 and I will strike her children dead. And all the churches will know that I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you according to your works. 24 But to the rest of you in Thyatira, who do not hold this teaching, who have not learned what some call the deep things of Satan, to you I say, I do not lay on you any other burden. 25 Only hold fast what you have until I come. 26 The one who conquers and who keeps my works until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations, 27 and he will rule them with a rod of iron, as when earthen pots are broken in pieces, even as I myself have received authority from my Father. 28 And I will give him the morning star. 29 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” (Revelation 2:18–29 ESV)

Love. And faith. And service. And patient endurance.

This is a church that gets it right … even gets it better as time goes on! What a church!

But, they have a problem. “You tolerate that woman Jezebel,” Jesus tells them. Jezebel, wife of King Ahab the son of Omri, queen of the northern kingdom of Israel.

30 And Ahab the son of Omri did evil in the sight of the Lord, more than all who were before him. 31 And as if it had been a light thing for him to walk in the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, he took for his wife Jezebel the daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and went and served Baal and worshiped him. (1 Kings 16:30–31 ESV)

A foreign queen, with her foreign gods, bringing even more idols to an already idol polluted land (Jereboam erected calves of gold at Dan and Bethel and commanded Israel, “Behold your gods, O’ Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!”) — Baal and Asheroth. Elijah confronted Ahab and Jezebel — putting the 450 priests of Baal to death on Mt. Carmel. Eventually, long after Ahab dies in battle, Jezebel is tossed out a window and prophesy is fulfilled when dogs eat most of her body.

It is a constant theme in scripture, the intertwining of idolatry with sexual immorality. In Revelation, Jesus adds to that association the eating of food sacrificed to idols. The false teachings of this self-styled “prophetess” are leading some of the followers of Jesus astray, to practice sexual immorality (πορνευω). This Jezebel is the only named individual in these letters commanded to repent, and Jesus makes clear — she hasn’t and she won’t. She and those who cavort with her and even her children (are they small or grown?) will pay for their sins. Each will reap “as your works [εργα] deserve,” Jesus tell them.

And Jesus makes it clear — he will do this. Not us.

Because those who cavort and have even learned “the deep things of Satan” have time — they can repent. We can repent.

Repentance is a huge deal in these letters — five of the seven churches Jesus dictates these letters to are called to repent, with the other two basically being told to have faith and fear not in the face of their coming tribulation. I will say more about this when I am done with these reflections.

So, Jesus tells Thyatira, hold fast to the good things, to the love, faith, service, and patient endurance. He promises no extra burden to those who are faithful — which may mean he will inflict nothing else upon them, or that whatever comes will not seem a burden because of their patience endurance and faithfulness. (How about both/and?)

In return, those who conquer — those who are faithful unto death — will receive power and authority over the nations. And evoking Jeremiah 18, Isaiah 64, Romans 9 and 2 Corinthians 4, Jesus speaks of iron rods that can break clay pots. Pots formed and shaped by God, pots containing the great treasure of God, pots made and remade and broken. The dead in Christ are given the authority over the nations, and over the church, to judge. To break. To shatter.

But only the martyred dead. We the living are called … to love, to faith, to service, and to patient endurance. And that is all we are called to do.