Guess Who’s Coming to Repent and be Baptized…

Jennifer and I were worshiping this morning as what we have taken to calling The Church of St. John-in-the-Wilderness, a good Anglican name attached to a number of churches, though the first one that comes up online is somewhere in India.

Right now, it’s just Jennifer and me, using the 1979 version of the Book of Common Prayer, a slowly expanding of form two of Holy Communion, which we celebrate at home (though honestly, I lobbied for worshippers at Starbucks this morning). We call ourselves Anglicans on purpose. The Lutherans have wounded us too much to go back, we’re not Catholic, and we have yet to find a church here in Moses Lake that takes worship — liturgy — seriously.

Four praise songs and a long, meandering sermon that is more conservative political piety do not a proper worship service make. Nor does the formless, shapeless and very unserious semi-liturgy we’ve experienced in far too many churches in the last few years.

Honestly, the only places where I’ve felt liturgy is taken seriously are Orthodox churches and the Latin Mass. And several of my friends’ ELCA parishes.

At any rate, we’re self-proclaimed Anglicans right now (and not Episcopalians, for reasons I will keep to myself for the time being), until some bishop somewhere decides to follow the lead of two ELCA bishops and toss our asses out as well.

At any rate, I was reading the texts for the Second Sunday of Advent this morning, and noticed two things.

First, in the Gospel reading.

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? …” (Matthew 3:7 ESV)

So okay, John the Baptist is in the midst of the wilderness, hanging out on the banks of the River Jordan baptizing the rabble when who shows up but “many of the Pharisees and Sadducess?” The religious establishment, following the people out to this wilderness, to take a dip in the water and repent of their sins.

They were coming to be baptized. To repent. I’d never noticed that before.

We don’t know what John the bug-eating, rambunctious holy mess tells the ordinary folks coming to him from Jerusalem and Judea and all around the Jordan, when they show up. But in Matthew’s account, he has special words for the religious leaders. “Who invited you?” he demands, as if somehow they hadn’t been told about to this repentance party at the river on purpose.

Ouch.

He then makes a special demand of them, these uninvited religious leaders. “It isn’t enough merely to speak words as you get ready to go under the water, or live in the confidence that merely being descended from Abraham is enough. Bear fruit.”

To the religious leaders, he tells them — repent, and then live like you mean it. He doesn’t deliver this same warning to the ordinary folks who come the repent, at least not in Matthew’s account. He may very well be the kind of stern, crazy man you cross to the other side of the street to avoid (he always come across that way to me), but from this, it seems he baptized all who came without much question.

And even here, after he warns the religious leaders of his age to take their repentance seriously, and live like they really are penitent, John appears to baptize them.

“I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Matthew 3:11 ESV)

When we talked about this at worship, Jennifer looked at me and said, “Even religious leaders. We need to remember that.” Because right now, she and I have almost no patience for religious leaders — bishops and pastors and the like — and I’d just as soon as consign them outer darkness or the fires of Gehenna or some deep, dark part of Sheol as think of them twice.

God’s grace is also for the powerful, for those who have wronged as much as those they have wronged. I think John is right to demand of these religious leaders that their repentance manifest itself tangibly in their lives in ways it may not have to in anyone not given the responsibility of religious leadership.

Which leads me to the second thing I noticed, in the epistle reading, which wasn’t technically part of the reading for the week, but I read it anyway.

1 We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. 2 Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. 3 For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.” (Romans 15:1-3 ESV)

I love this, this talk of obligation and self-surrender. I love this because it’s hard and I hate it. I don’t like bearing with the failings of the weak, and there are times when I’m not terribly patient for the failing of those around me. (My poor wife bears far too much of the brunt of this…) I’d rather yell at people to keep up with me, rather than have to slow down and walk with them only as fast as they can.

And the thing that makes this especially tough is that all too often it feels like no one bears with my failings. No one slows down to walk with me, no one builds me up. Certainly not all those rotten bishops and pastors who have glared at me in uncomprehending judgment at who and what I am and sent me away without so much as a “can we be with you and at least listen to you?”.

In fact, I wouldn’t be a self-proclaimed Anglican, leader of the smallest denomination (two) in North America, if the Pharisees and Sadducees I had encountered had somehow actually lived out their repentance in a meaningful way.

I want to live in a world of reciprocity — do unto others as they do unto me. But that’s not what Jesus says, and that’s not what Paul is writing to the church at Rome here. There is no reciprocity in this relationship we have with God — we bring nothing to God and can do nothing for God — and so we model that lack of reciprocity. We listen to those who will not listen to us. (Try this with an abused, autistic 13-year-old girl sometime… ) We walk with those who will not walk with us. We comfort those who cannot and will not comfort us. We love those who will not love us back.

I can no more live in a loveless world than you can, and I know that if I give of myself like this, there will soon be nothing left of me. Our very humanity needs and demands reciprocity, and I need to remember the times when I took and did not give, talked and did not listen, received comfort but did not return it.

But at the heart of this relationship God has with us is self-surrender, in which power and privilege and position are given up, in which the strong use their strength to bolster rather than brutalize the weak. It’s hard, and most days I really hate it.

It’s what God does for us, though.

The Brutality That Was Rome

Keith Hopkins over at History Today tells us why Christians who try to frame the limits of ethical acts (particularly nonviolence) through the question, “But what about Hitler?”, really need to remember how essential and foundational were cruelty, brutality, and violence to the Greco-Roman world and Roman civic and social order:

Why did Romans popularise fights to the death between armed gladiators? Why did they encourage the public slaughter of unarmed criminals? What was it which transformed men who were timid and peaceable enough in private, as Tertullian put it, and made them shout gleefully for the merciless destruction of their fellow men? Part of the answer may lie in the simple development of a tradition, which fed on itself and its own success. Men liked blood and cried out for more. Part of the answer may also lie in the social psychology of the crowd, which relieved individuals of responsibility for their actions, and in the psychological mechanisms by which some spectators identified more easily with the victory of the aggressor than with the sufferings of the vanquished. Slavery and the steep stratification of society must also have contributed. Slaves were at the mercy of their owners. Those who were destroyed for public edification and entertainment were considered worthless, as non-persons; or, like Christian martyrs, they were considered social outcasts, and tortured as one Christian martyr put it ‘as if we no longer existed’. The brutalisation of the spectators fed on the dehumanisation of the victims.

Rome was a cruel society. Brutality was built into its culture in private life, as well as in public shows. The tone was set by military discipline and by slavery. [Emphasis mine] The state had no legal monopoly of capital punishment until the second century AD. Before then, a master could crucify his slaves publicly if he wished. Seneca recorded from his own observations the various ways in which crucifixions were carried out, in order to increase pain. At private dinner-parties, rich Romans regularly presented two or three pairs of gladiators: ‘when they have finished dining and are filled with drink’, wrote a critic in the time of Augustus, ‘they call in the gladiators. As soon as one has his throat cut, the diners applaud with delight’. It is worth stressing that we are dealing here not with individual sadistic psycho-pathology, but with a deep cultural difference. Roman commitment to cruelty presents us with a cultural gap which it is difficult to cross.

Popular gladiatorial shows were a by-product of war, discipline and death. For centuries, Rome had been devoted to war and to the mass participation of citizens in battle. They won their huge empire by discipline and control. Public executions were a gruesome reminder to non-combatants, citizens, subjects and slaves, that vengeance would be exacted if they rebelled or betrayed their country. The arena provided a living enactment of the hell portrayed by Christian preachers. Public punishment ritually re-established the moral and political order. The power of the state was dramatically reconfirmed.

When long-term peace came to the heartlands of the empire, after 31 BC, militaristic traditions were preserved at Rome in the domesticated battlefield of the amphitheatre. War had been converted into a game, a drama repeatedly replayed, of cruelty, violence, blood and death. But order still needed to be preserved. The fear of death still had to be assuaged by ritual. In a city as large as Rome, with a population of close on a million by the end of the last century BC, without an adequate police force, disorder always threatened.

Slavery and military disciplines. Hopkins notes that decimation — the choosing by lots to kill one of every ten soldiers in a disobedient or cowardly military unit — was a punishment the Romans inflicted upon themselves. (Specifically, the soldiers left unselected did the killing of their former mates.) “When Romans were so unmerciful to each other, what mercy could prisoners of war expect?” he asks. And he’s correct.

commodus01

The Nazi Final Solution may have been the logical outcome of party ideology, but it was primarily the product of total war, the brutal and bloody fighting in the east, where lawlessness and desperation made possible (and maybe even necessary) the methodical extermination of human beings on an industrial scale. But the Final Solution lasted only a few years; the Romans managed their brutality and killing for centuries.

They were very, very, very good at it.

So when we consider the Beatitudes, Jesus isn’t just talking about rude and obnoxious and impolite people, or mere sinners — he’s also talking about conquerors and occupiers who don’t even hold the lives of their fellow Romans and soldiers in high regard. Beating and enslaving and killing is easy for them. It’s sport, politics, and public devotion all wrapped into one. And these are the people we are commanded to “turn the other cheek” to and go a second mile when compelled to walk one.

These are the enemies and the persecutors Jesus calls us to love.

The Golden Rule Still Applies

Well … THIS wasn’t supposed to happen.

And yet it did.

I confess, I thought the election of Donald J. Trump as president of the United States nigh near impossible. I didn’t believe Americans — particularly so many white Midwesterners — would make that choice. Turns out, I was wrong.

There will be many things to say over the next few years, about race and class and elite failure, but I’m not going to worry about any of them today, except to note a tweet from a Trump fan who follows me:

Turns out that “you’re a racist/sexist/bigot” STILL isn’t an argument.

No, it isn’t. Progressive talk on race and gender not only failed to convince, it angered and alienated what is, right now, a majority.

I don’t know how Americans who stand on different sides of this talk to each other — frankly, I doubt we will, and the slow-motion civil war we’ve been living through gets a little faster and a little warmer. The time of talking is likely done.

I won’t expect much from a Trump regime, being as it will be staffed with the most amazing collection of third- and fourth-rate intellects the modern world has seen, save for a kind-of official or legal lawlessness, a desire to expand power and use it as capriciously as possible and as viciously as what decency remains will allow. But the GOP (such as it is) controls Congress, the presidency, and soon the Supreme Court. They will get their way. According to our rules, they have earned it.

Neoliberalism has failed us. Utterly and completely. And with it, much of liberalism — the governing creed of the mass, democratic, industrial West — stands discredited. Liberalism has discredited itself. We wouldn’t be here otherwise.

My reasons for thinking this belong to another day.

To the matter at hand. At some point in any seminary class on ethical actions, particularly the effectiveness and morality of violence, the discussion will usually get around to someone asking, “But what about Hitler?” Because it can be assumed that no amount of linking arms and singing “We Shall Overcome” will defeat the Wehrmacht. And no doubt, if life in Trumpestan becomes as bad as many fear, that question will come to be asked about our world as well.

“What if love is not enough?”

Assumed in the question, “What about Hitler?” is the idea that while Jesus spoke nice words, he didn’t have to face modern evil. Mechanized, industrialized, mass evil justified by ideology. This is nonsense, of course, and his death proves otherwise. The Romans knew how to kill, and how to dominate, and how to enslave, and they knew how to justify it all too. They were good at it. They conquered the Mediterranean and maintained their dominance for more than four centuries that way.

But it also ignores where the command, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” comes from.

Karen Armstrong, in her book The Great Transformation (I think), speaks of The Axial Age, that five century period from 800 BC to roughly 300 BC when nearly all of antiquity’s major civilizations discovered some form of the Golden Rule — love as you want to be loved.

If I remember correctly, Armstrong points out that the Golden Rule became the preferred response to violence, unrest, instability, and uncertainty in by people who were at risk, suffering, and facing death. It was not the response of a comfortable people who felt safe and secure. And it was one of that age’s great discernments.

Israel is given the command to love God and love neighbor in Sinai, when it is a scattered collection of people still lead and fed by God as it wanders aimlessly through the wilderness. Israel is told to find a home in exile and work and pray for the welfare of the place and people they have been hauled off to. Jesus reiterates this invitation — this command — to a conquered people who live under occupation, an occupation that for Israel will not end (and, in fact, will only be intensified following two failed revolts).

We are not commanded to love because it feels good, or because life is easy and comfortable, but because love is the right response — God’s response — to our violence. It may convince oppressors and win them over, one soul at a time, but that is a secondary (and only potential) benefit. The real reason we love is because we are called to. Because God loves even as he surrenders to our violence.

Because the violence of the world is not all there is, and is not all there will be.

Conservative Christians have opted to conquer. They have opted for violence. They have opted for Satan’s bundle of temptations in the wilderness. Despite this, they will find themselves unfed, powerless, and unprotected. The rest of us have to love in the face of what will likely be many difficulties. It will not be easy or pleasant. There is much at risk, lives and wellbeing at stake. And often, love will not seem to be anywhere near enough.

We are still called to love.

This is How it Works (Continued…)

This is shaping up to be that kind of day.

Catholic writer David Mills, over at the blog aleteia.org, has some very interesting things to say about the ability of partisan politics to destroy even basic sympathy and empathy within us, all in the name of whatever greater good or cause we are supporting.

One of the worst effects of political passion is that it destroys sympathy. Feeling sympathy has no political use. The partisans train themselves to fight for their man without care for the other side and all the people in the middle. They train themselves not to see and not to listen. I know this because I’ve been the partisan.

Vexing for me has been the way so many conservative religious men excuse or ignore Donald Trump’s hot mic comments, and others of the same sort. Some are real friends and some internet friends, and many of the rest allies. I’m also vexed with the way Hillary Clinton’s supporters so blithely reject the unborn child, but don’t have the same personal connections.

Mills continues:

These men gave up, because their politics requires they give it up, the sympathy to see how such remarks affect others. The men I’m thinking of aren’t normally so callous. But politics.

They know rape is bad, but that’s as much as they’ll admit. Every form of sexual abuse, even being “handsy” and making suggestive remarks, has a place on the spectrum with rape at the other end. Each violates the woman’s integrity and dignity and each includes the threat of further violations. Each objectifies the victim, de-humanizes her, and thereby makes her vulnerable.

Many men would be surprised at how many women they know have such stories and how angry they are about it. Christian men might be surprised at how often these stories involve Christian men.

I want to tell such men: If you can’t understand how this experience affects women in general, try to imagine a man talking like that about your wife or your daughters. How would you feel if you walked into a room and found an older man being “handsy” with your 22-year-old daughter or making flirtatious remarks to your wife about her body?

What would you say or do then? That’s what you’re not saying or doing when you say the hot mic remarks are just the way guys talk, or declare “He who is without sin, cast the first stone,” or demand Christians forgive the speaker though he hasn’t repented, or change the subject to the political issue you think is at stake, or try to divert attention by pointing to the other side’s problems, or in one of several other ways rationalize away such talk. You are not caring for the least of these as Jesus tells you to.

Listen, Mills says, to the stories women tell. I may not like so much of the talk about wives and sisters and daughters that has come out of conservative politicians since it was revealed that Donald J. Trump, billionaire presidential candidate (who owns a mansion and a yacht), is also an admitted abuser, assaulter, and molester of women, but that talk at least least gets them to understand what’s at stake here.

The whole point of listening to stories is to hear pain, suffering, sorrow, endurance, and strength — what it takes, sometimes, for some people to get up and live. In the face of our partisan political projects, in which we use ideology as both brick and mortar to build and fortify our tribal ideas, stories are supposed chip holes in those walls, let a little light and breeze through, so that in it all, we can encounter someone as a human being.

Ideology blinds us. It hardens our hearts, and makes it hard — perhaps impossible — to see or encounter our shared humanity. It turns compassion and kindness into weakness. It sees nothing but evil in enemies and nothing but virtue in allies no matter how bad they are.

And this leads me to a tweet from that moral reprobate Dinesh D’Souza, who had this to say about President Barack Hussein Obama:

I grant that D’Souza, a washed-up liar and a fraud who has fallen to such intellectual depths he can no longer think straight or honestly anymore, is probably not worth dealing with here. But I couldn’t simply pass the sheer spiteful awfulness of this tweet by. He doesn’t even hint or suggest at his horrible conclusion, he just comes out with it — Obama’s father abandoned him not because the father was a careless or even bad man, but because there was just something in this tiny child worth abandoning.

Obama’s mother didn’t leave him to be raised by her parents because she was self-involved and preoccupied with other kinds of work, but because a ten-year-old child was not worth raising.

And that the child’s abandonment should tell us something, something we should have known about this man when he ran for president. The child Obama was responsible, at fault, for his own abandonment. And we should have known — should have known — when he ran for president. This is man worth abandoning, not worth caring for. Not worth loving, encouraging, admiring, or respecting.

Not worth electing.

Goddamit, who are these people claiming the moral high ground (remember, they are all defending something they keep referring to as Christian civilization) who cruelly blame a child for his own abandonment, and refuse to see any accomplishment or character in the ability to overcome that abandonment, to find some kind of meaning and purpose in life in it or because of it?

I’ve long thought one of the unspoken presumptions enfolding our whole approach to foster care is that if God really loved these kids, if they were really valued by the cosmos, they would just have families, they wouldn’t have been left to be raised by the state. And that this deeply unspoken assumption about the world means we really don’t care what happens to kids in foster care. Not really. They don’t matter.

We can do whatever we want to them. We can abuse them and break them and use them and throw them away.

After all, if they’ve been abandoned — for whatever reason — that should tell us something about these kids. They aren’t worth wanting. They aren’t worth loving.

I have no idea if D’Souza believes any of this or not. It sure seems like it, though, at least based on this tweet. Obama’s is a life he’d of thrown away, and I have to ask — who else would D’Souza consign to the scrapheap of history because they had the tremendous misfortune of having parents die or go to prison or simply disappear? Or parents so self-absorbed they cannot be bothered to meaningfully parent?

Maybe listening to D’Souza’s story would tell me something, would help me understand why he has become this man, and see something human in him.

Maybe.

But if this is civilization-saving, moral, Christian conservatism, then Lord, let godless, pagan, Molech-sacrificing, hedonistic secularism bash down our walls and lay waste to our city. And bring it down upon us quickly.

Because it can’t possibly be any worse than this.

“I Want A Family.”

I have another blog, one I try not to update much, and one I try to keep things short at. It’s for the ministry that has sprung up over the last few years, Psalm 10 Ministries, an outreach of mercy and presence for abused and neglected foster kids. The fatherless. The unprotected. I wrote this, and … well, I will let you all decide for yourselves.

“I Want A Family”

I was working on a much longer piece for my other blog when one of my kids — yeah, I call them that, these orphaned and fatherless children who have been finding their way to me over the course of the last 16 months, my kids — sent me a text message.

“I need help with my homework. Can you help me? I’m supposed to write an essay.”

This might not be a big deal for many, but this young woman who is 16 — I’ll call her Lana — hasn’t been in school since she was six. When her mother died and her father would leave her home alone, locked in a cage, for hours at time while he worked.

A teacher noticed she wasn’t in school, called child protective services, and Lana made her way … into foster care, where she was kept out of the school system for the next ten years. (The irony in that is … well, what do you with that?) Lana managed to teach herself how to read and write, but she said she doesn’t know much else.

She is a delight, this young woman. She has a fiery spirit, she is charming and funny, and she’s whip smart. She has survived years of abuse. This kind of abuse. The kind of abuse I first encountered when I met “Bethany” last year.

(Yes, Bethany was held by Tim and Sandra McManis, in a foster home that was a brothel, and texting with me gave her the courage to run away.)

I’m not sure how a child in foster care could be kept out of school for ten whole years. I know Bethany, who entered foster care at the age of four, was kept out of school until she was ten years old. So it does happen.

And Lana … hopes. Still. After years of being used as thing, after being violated, wounded, and broken. She still wants to be human, to belong, to be loved, to be valued.

Here’s the essay she wrote.

14555711_136226700172135_1465962058_n

This is beautiful. Simple. It breaks my heart. She is a seedling, sprouting, rooted in poisoned soil, on a brick wall, out of sheer rock, turning what little she can find into nutrients, catching what little sunlight there is, what little water falls or dew condenses, and taking it all, and making just enough sugar to grow.

To bloom. Maybe even to thrive.

I wish … I could be her dad. To have her become part of my family. I am honored just to be her friend. To be here to listen. To be part of her life.

A worthy life. A wanted life.

(NOTE: I not only published this with Lana’s permission, she encouraged me to do so.)

It’s Okay to Serve Nebuchadnezzar

Christendom left Christians, particularly European and American Christians, with a sense that they were empowered and entitled to organize the world. And with that came an obligation to do good and confront evil.

It makes sense that, in a Christian world, the teaching of the church would be far more prescriptive — telling people how to act and how to live in accordance with God’s wishes for humanity and the good order of creation — than descriptive — merely stating the what, how, and sometimes even why of puzzles humanity finds itself dealing with. The church, after all, has an order to uphold and protect, an understanding of what it means to be human.

In the millenia-and-a-half of functional Christendom, the church came to understand God primarily as creator rather than redeemer. Redemption could be taken for granted (in the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ), and so the creation needed to be explained.

The problem with this is that it doesn’t really reflect Israel’s experience and understanding of its encounter with God in scripture. In the Bible, God is met primarily as a redeemer rather than creator. The creation could be taken for granted (it was always there, and it wasn’t going anywhere, and so it didn’t really need explaining), so what needed to be understood was redemption.

Because God was met not in the phrase “let there be light” but in the words “Do not be afraid.”

The creation-centeredness of our theologies has forced us to focus on the right order of the world. Coupled with power, Christians have come to believe the world was ours to organize the way God wants it organized, either because we are imposing order on the world or simply helping the order inherent in God’s good creation realize itself. Creation-centered theology is a theology that wants and needs power — it needs to shape and form the world and all those in it.

But the Bible is not the story of a powerful people. It is the story of one man and his (rather sizable) family told to leave him home for a place he will only be shown when he gets there. It is the story of promises given to that man, to his descendants, to a kingdom that rises and falls, is conquered and occupied and carried into exile. Throughout this story, this people — Israel — are constantly subject to the whim of others, mostly enemies, and what they have, they have solely because this God of the promise has given it to them.

They have earned nothing. They have conquered nothing. They have not even fought for much of anything. God did the fighting. Most of what they have been given is taken from them, and they are left weak, defeated, and scattered, with nothing more than the promises that old man was given long, long before.

This story — promise, rise, defeat, exile — is our story as the church. We have forgotten it is our story because we think we have transcended it. Because we have taught ourselves for so long that we must confront evil and defeat it, that we have a duty to order the world, that we must remain pure and upright and always do good in order to save our souls, we forget that our story is one of sin and consequence, of conquest and subjugation and exile.

And serving those who conquered and exiled us.

This is especially important as Christians — mostly conservatives — wonder what to do with modernity, with a secular politics in the West (especially America) that no longer treats their faith with much respect or privileges their truth claims or institutional structures. The desire to protect themselves, to find a champion (Damon Linker’s interpretation of Donald J. Trump’s appeal to evangelical Christians) who will subdue enemies, seems to have guided much Christian thinking in the West for the last century.

But how should Christians deal with enemies?

The gospel is clear: love them. I constantly focus on the fact that the Beatitudes is a guide for faithful living while occupied and oppressed. Israel was not free, and was not going to be free through its own efforts. Freedom came another way — in love, a love that would not flinch in its encounter with the enemy oppressor, but would also not meet violence with violence. It was a love grounded in solidarity, in generosity, that met inhumanity and violence with forgiveness and “follow me.”

But even before Jesus meets his people in the midst of violent Roman occupation (and predicts far worse), the Hebrew Bible tells us of what it means when Israel is beaten, broken, and carried away into exile.

1 In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it. 2 And the Lord gave Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, with some of the vessels of the house of God. And he brought them to the land of Shinar, to the house of his god, and placed the vessels in the treasury of his god. 3 Then the king commanded Ashpenaz, his chief eunuch, to bring some of the people of Israel, both of the royal family and of the nobility, 4 youths without blemish, of good appearance and skillful in all wisdom, endowed with knowledge, understanding learning, and competent to stand in the king’s palace, and to teach them the literature and language of the Chaldeans. 5 The king assigned them a daily portion of the food that the king ate, and of the wine that he drank. They were to be educated for three years, and at the end of that time they were to stand before the king. 6 Among these were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah of the tribe of Judah. 7 And the chief of the eunuchs gave them names: Daniel he called Belteshazzar, Hananiah he called Shadrach, Mishael he called Meshach, and Azariah he called Abednego. (Daniel 1:1–7 ESV)

Nebuchadnezzar laid waste to Jerusalem. He killed its leaders, destroyed the temple — the house David promised and Solomon built for God to live in — and carried off the best and brightest of Israel as well as what remained of its wealth and its ceremonial objects. Because of what he did, it would be impossible to worship, and the people of Israel must have wondered — on that long trail of tears from Judah to northern Iraq — what would become of them now that the one thing that held them together — worship — was no longer possible.

If there was ever a reason for non-cooperation with any kind of government, it would be now. It would have been more than appropriate for Israel to tell the Babylonian king to go screw himself sideways and let them weep by the banks of that distant and foreign river by themselves.

Instead, the best and brightest go to serve Nebuchadnezzar, the king who destroyed their temple, conquered their people, and carried them off into exile.

How do you deal with your enemies? You love them. You serve them. This isn’t gospel squishiness … this is hard-headed Hebrew Bible history.

Oh, you speak truth to your enemies. You bear witness to the God who redeems. You refuse to bow down to their idols. You don’t eat the king’s food. You worship even when it is outlawed. You remember and confess who you are and whose you are. But you do this still serving, still loving, and trusting in God.

The church, with its rules and laws and teaching, has forgotten how to trust God. It has forgotten how to be church when the world isn’t organized in its favor. It has forgotten how to be church when it doesn’t have social and political power. Because to be Christian in Christendom is to live with a sense of agency and power, something Israel possessed only sporadically. The church has forgotten that our calling as God’s people is to be faithful, and not successful. The promises we have been given do not include success. Or power.

It will be tough to be faithful in modernity, to eat only vegetables rather than meals cooked in the king’s kitchen, to pray with the windows open so everyone may see. Modernity is all about reducing human beings to mere things to be used, consumed, discarded, and abandoned. It is about forming a standardized and commoditized humanity that conforms easily so individual human beings can be used easily. While we should not be about that, the church in modernity has easily surrendered itself to this objectification of humanity, embracing all the various ways human “things” can best be managed and put to use. It is because of this surrender to modernity, I think, that we have been defeated, and have been carried off into exile, into Babylon, where we are beginning to gather by the river’s edge and weep for what we have lost.

But we can, in good conscience, serve Nebuchadnezzar. We can, in good conscience, serve state and society in modernity, even given all modernity is and does. So long as we remember that the king of Babylon was only a man. That modernity is a transitory thing. It has come, and it will go. And that we have a promise of deliverance, a promise real in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, who lived and died and rose under occupation. Who showed us what it meant to love and even serve our enemies.

Enemies who ruled us without pity.

We can still serve them, our enemies. We can still bear witness to the truth of God’s redeeming love. We know will be delivered because we have already been delivered. We do not need a protector or an avenger like Donald J. Trump. His promise of power and protection is akin to that of King Zedekiah, who started a pointless war with Babylon he could not win. We have Christ, who has overcome the world and defeated death. We have the promises of God. And they are true. They have not failed us.

They will never fail us.

No Mercy

Mark Tooley, over at the Juicy Ecumenism blog, writing in response to something that transpired on a segment of Dr. Laura Schleisinger’s radio show, has this to say about the nature of mercy, justice, and the state:

Government’s divinely ordained vocation for justice and order prioritizes public order, safety, and protection for the innocent. The sexual abusers of minors, along with violent thieves, drug dealers, robbers, and rapists, with other dangerous miscreants, are to be vigorously prosecuted and incarcerated. Murderers are to face the possibility of execution. These punishments are firstly for the common good, and secondly for the correction of the offender.

It is not the state’s prerogative to offer forgiveness per se. Victims of crime may offer it, and the church can point malefactors to a God who forgives the truly penitent. Government, as it administers its punitive responsibilities, can only defer to and stay out of the way, to the extent possible, of actors in civil society, like prison ministries, that seek the moral and spiritual reform of criminal inmates.

Tooley’s basically correct about this in so far as this is the historic teaching of the church about the state and about state justice. He even quotes the Catechism of the Catholic Church to support what is essential and formal church teaching both for the Roman confession as well as nearly every liturgical church that arose from the Reformation:

The efforts of the state to curb the spread of behavior harmful to people’s rights and to the basic rules of civil society correspond to the requirement of safeguarding the common good. (¶2266)

Tooley is a great deal more interested in order than I am, and it shows. I get that this is the historic teaching of the church (some low-church protestants call this biblical), but it’s one of those teachings I find grounded far more in speculative philosophy and buttressed by scripture passages than any fundamental understanding of the state that can be derived from scripture. The Bible isn’t anywhere near this systematic about government, or order, or the common good.

What bothers me most with what Tooley writes here about mercy — that it not the state’s place to forgive or to be merciful.

One of the things modernity has attempted to do is turn governance into an impersonal mechanism in which all are treated equally and which is indifferent to personality. “A government of laws, and not men!” I believe this is because modernity seeks perfect justice, and therefore the creation of a world in which mercy is absolutely unnecessary. This is an impossibility, of course, since even in a law and order based world, person and personality — who is judged, and who does the judging — matter.

This church teaching Tooley cites doesn’t really ameliorate this fraudulent promise of modernity. in fact, I think it contributes to the merciless nature of governing and government, since an abstract order and common good become more important than any concrete good delivered to a specific person or people.

But it also misses something that was true of government before modernity — that person and position could not easily be separated. The king, the prince, the duke, the magistrate, wasn’t just an office defined and bounded by rules and laws, but was also a man who was accountable to custom and culture. There were times when the king was expected, in the pursuit of justice, to be merciful. As king. As ruler. As the sovereign who governed.

Personal government can bear the catechism’s understanding of “the state” because it is also understood that the ruler himself was a Christian with obligations not only to grand abstractions — public order, common good — but to real flesh-and-bone people who came before him. Government may not have an obligation to be merciful, but the king does.

To speak of government’s “divinely ordained vocation for justice and order” that has little or no room for forgiveness or mercy without acknowledging that governing is done through and by human agents who do have a calling to mercy and forgiveness is to turn government into something inhuman. Which, of course, is exactly what modernity aims at.

in fact, part of the crisis of modernity is its very inhumanity, demanding human beings become widgets and cogs in the mighty machines that are state and society. Human beings are adaptable, and many can bend themselves to form and function, but many cannot, and are broken and discarded, or bent beyond their ability to bear it. Their humanity bent and warped too.

I have sympathy with the position Tooley takes in his essay. I do ministry with abused and exploited young people, I’ve seen the damage done by those who molest and rape. Personally, I don’t believe in mercy for those who hurt kids. But I can’t translate that into a general faith in government mercilessness.

The problem is, modernity cannot bear the specific, cannot bear the common law, cannot bear custom or culture. Modernity demands the universal, confesses it confidently, and then seeks to bend the world to that universal. All become the same under one law, ruled by one ecumenical, impersonal apparatus that shows no mercy because none is needed.

Tooley, who has a problem with where the culture has carried the law — gay marriage, for example — needs to appreciate that this government which cannot forgive, this deeply impersonal state which can account for nothing save the words of the law itself, is part of the problem he laments. There is no fixing this problem now — we are too far along and law itself has been too mercilessly applied and enforced.

Because the law — and the state — are all we really share anymore.

On Repentance and Penance

Eve Tushnet, who is becoming one of my favorite public theologians, reviews a book over at The American Conservative that I would like to read — Mary Mansfield’s 1995 tome The Humiliation of Sinners: Public Penance in Thirteenth Century France. Penance and repentance, and the re-integration of penitent sinners back into the the community of the faithful, is a big deal for me, and it’s something I don’t think Christians (at least in America) know how to take seriously anymore.

Tushnet has this to say about Mansfield’s book:

Mansfield makes vivid the jury-rigged, experimental, even madcap religious world of the 1200s, which brought me comfort here in 2016. She draws out some of the aspects of medieval French religion we have lost: the intense focus on the sins of the rich and middle-class, for example. Confessors quizzed their better-off parishioners closely about usury or abuse of power; one man had to do public penance because the money he gave to the poor on his wedding day was counterfeit, which is three separate things that wouldn’t happen today.

Mansfield depicts many tensions we still struggle to resolve: the sinner’s hunger for anonymity, for example, which conflicts with his longing for reconciliation with the community. Nobody wants to be exposed—but we long to be known, forgiven, accepted as the sinners we are rather than the facades we display in public. There’s a great relief in no longer having to hide.

This longing for exposure and even for humiliation isn’t on Mansfield’s radar. One of the few disappointments of her book is how thoroughly she frames public penance in terms of the longing of others—the righteous, the self-righteous—to see sinners humiliated. She notes that the practices she describes coexisted with entirely voluntary public penances, things you’d do only because you wanted to do them, but she has chosen not to focus on those.

This is a big deal for me because of what happened after my first pastoral internship was ended early — I hugged a parishioner who did not want to be hugged, did not discern that, was not told that, and so when the situation became untenable for both the parishioner and the supervisor, the hammer came down hard and with no warning — did not include any talk of sin, of repentance and penance, and none of forgiveness and redemption (except in a very abstact sense). What followed, from both the church and seminary, was grounded solely and entirely in the language of therapy, health, and well-being.

It pretended not to judge me, as all therapeutic processes pretend, but judge me it did (my candidacy process in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America never recovered), and punish me it did. As C.S. Lewis notes in his essay “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment”, those who have adopted this approach to sin…

… are not punishing, not inflicting, only healing. But do not let us be deceived by a name. To be taken without consent from my home and friends; to lose my liberty; to undergo all those assaults on my personality which modern psychotherapy knows how to deliver; to be re-made after some pattern of ‘normality’ hatched in a Vienese laboratory to which I never professed allegiance; to know that this process will never end until either my captors have succeeded or I grown wise enough to cheat them with apparent success—who cares whether this is called Punishment or not? That it includes most of the elements for which any punishment is feared—shame, exile, bondage, and years eaten by the locust—is obvious. Only enormous ill-desert could justify it; but ill-desert is the very conception which the Humanitarian theory has thrown overboard.

What I wanted, and yearned for in the process, was something public, a way that would show I have understood the gravity of my sin and that I broke faith not just with the parishioner I hurt, but also with the Church overseeing my formation and with the God that had called me to ministry. I also wanted to know that there was a way for the church to publicly proclaim that I had been reconciled, welcomed back into the communion of saints, that I had properly acknowledged the gravity of my sin, and had repented fully and faithfully.

Even then, I wanted what Tushnet described as an essential part of Christian community in the 13th century France.

When I wrote earlier this year that the Church has a problem with sin, and thus a problem with forgiveness, I am referring largely to this process that I (and some others I know) went through. I would have preferred public shame and humiliation and a formal church process to what began to happen more than seven years ago — a lengthy process that has left my wife and I unemployed, nearly destitute, and effectively homeless since I graduated from seminary in 2012.

The church couldn’t have punished me better if it had actually set out to.

Protestant confessions have a serious problem with sin and forgiveness. In part, protestantism begins with the confession that God’s forgiveness is unearned — which shattered the medieval system Mansfield describes in her book. This very public reconciliation of repentance and penance was not simply about restoring the sinner to the community of the faithful, it was also about restoring the sinner to communion with God — something specifically rejected by the Protestant reformers. In fact, I’ve met protestants (specifically Lutherans) who get very uneasy with that word penance.

As pietism took hold in the 17th century — a reaction to protestant legalism and an effort to show who really followed Jesus in a Christendom where everyone, or nearly everyone, was Christian simply by birth — this public confession of sin became the entry into the religious community where the striving for perfection (or sinlessness) was the goal. There was no longer an effective or even functional system for repentance, penance, reconciliation, and restoration of penitent sinners because the whole point of pietism was to distinguish real Christians who knew how to behave themselves from the careless, sinful majority of nominal Christians who don’t know their left hands from their right.

In fact, the pietistic response to sinners in the church is to shun them, to exclude them or banish them from the community of the faithful. (Lutherans are very good at shunning.) This may have roots in earlier Christian processes and customs — for example, denying Christian soldiers who killed in war the eucharist for three years so they could do penance and reconcile themselves to God — and it may come with some rules for reconciliation, among protestants those ru les are a lot less formalized and a lot less accountable. Especially to the sinner. And the shunned sinner may never be fully restored, since sinlessness is the precondition for inclusion in the community to begin with.

I never really was.

This practice of shunning sinners, of excluding them from the community of the faithful, also got wound up in notions of of class, and of bourgeois piety and propriety — this is how good citizens live and act too. Shunning had social consequences, and it meant those who were excluded from the community of the faithful were also excluded from the political community and from economic opportunity. Those who were shunned deserved the consequences of shunning — poverty, marginalization, violence at the hands of authority. In this protestant world, deprived of public rituals of repentance and penance (though dissenting and non-conformist churches also arose to allow for those “born again” to claim a place in some kind of society), once a sinner was judged, condemned, and excluded, there could be no restoration.

The Civil Rights Movement, however, confused and muddled how protestants — at least liberal protestants — dealt with shunning and exclusion. Because they began to grasp that people could be shunned, excluded, and marginalized through no fault of their own. They could suffer social death (at least from the standpoint of a good, bourgeois citizen) for no legitimate reason. (Liberalism and Progressivism has always believed in forced or compelled inclusion and participation in the national community.) And so, liberal protestantism embraced inclusion — for political and theological reasons, for both church and the greater society — for those liberal protestants came to judge as unfortunately excluded or marginalized. It was couched in a language of forgiveness, but it wasn’t really forgiving anything. (You cannot “forgive” black people for being black.) Jesus does include those formerly excluded, and we see in Acts in particular an expansion of who is called to be in God’s people (though a careful reading of the Old Testament gives us that as well). This approach at least understands that those excluded have been wounded by their shunning, and frequently come to see themselves as sinners. But it ignores the reality that this kind of liberal inclusion is really about saying to people:

“We were mistaken, and our ancestors were mistaken; you are not sinners, you are beloved children of God. Welcome, please, and join us.”

It means that even as liberal protestant churches speak of welcoming and inclusion, they still do not know what to do with real, live sinners, with people who actually earn their shunning. Because for all its progressivism, liberal protestantism still does not know how to get past that desire and demand for sinlessness that joining (or being born into) the community brings. Liberal protestant churches still expect, on some level, to be the arbiters of bourgeois social norms, what makes someone a good citizen and a worthy participant in community life, and to be a community of visible saints. Sure, there is social work to help the unfortunate (especially victims of their own sin), but such people can never really be restored to the community and never be anything except recipients of its charity and compassion.

Because if they were truly good people who God really loved, they wouldn’t need help.

What I want to see is an acceptance that Christians sin, that sin can and should be confessed (individually, and not just in some generic corporate confession), and then rituals that allow for a public repentance, penance, and acceptance that the sinner has been redeemed and restored. These rituals need not be quick — no tearful “I’m sorry!” followed by a quick “all is forgiven!” Nor do they demand a guaranteed return to one’s previous status or position. They should be rigorous and thorough and above all public. I yearned for such a process, not so much to make amends to the person I hurt (though I have not done that, in part because I was not allowed), but to let everyone know that no one, especially the sinner, has been abandoned.

Whatever humiliations the ELCA and my seminary could have heaped upon me following my misdeeds on my first internship, nothing could have been as awful, as isolating, or as humiliating as the life Jennifer and I have lived for the last four years as mendicant wanderers, utterly dependent on handouts and grace.

Or being told by an ELCA bishop: “We’re done with you.”

My hope is, in the collapse of American Christendom, the church can rediscover these older ways that Tushnet describes in Mansfield’s book, this long process of repentance and penance that can show not just sinner and community, but the world as well, that God is in our midst and has not abandoned us. Not even in our sin. Especially not in our sin. We are loved and wanted and accepted and included and wanted even when we have behaved badly, hurt others, and separated ourselves from love and grace of God and God’s people.

That repentance is work. Restoration is work. Community is work. Living as the people of God is work. That love is work.

Hard work. Grueling work. Neverending work. Essential and necessary work. Holy work.

The work that matters.

Vote Against Jesus

For those of you who have complained in the past about the quality of my faith (you know who you are), and that I don’t love Jesus enough, don’t blame me for my headline — blame Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas:

“You know, I was debating an evangelical professor on NPR, and this professor said, ‘Pastor, don’t you want a candidate who embodies the teaching of Jesus and would govern this country according to the principles found in the Sermon on the Mount?’” Jeffress said. “I said, ‘Heck no.’ I would run from that candidate as far as possible, because the Sermon on the Mount was not given as a governing principle for this nation.”

Because what matters, apparently, is power and order.

“Nowhere is government told to forgive those who wrong it, nowhere is government told to turn the other cheek,” Jeffress said.

The conservative pastor said earlier this week that police officers are “ministers of God sent by God to punish evil doers” — which is what he said the Bible calls for in a president.

“Government is to be a strongman to protect its citizens against evildoers. When I’m looking for somebody who’s going to deal with ISIS and exterminate ISIS, I don’t care about that candidate’s tone or vocabulary, I want the meanest, toughest, son of a you-know-what I can find — and I believe that’s biblical.”

This is, actually, solid and fairly straightforward Protestant theology, and dovetails well with the historic teaching of the church. Martin Luther said very similar things about the state and its rulers, whether they faced domestic rebellion or external threat.

But like a good Protestant, he mistakes church teaching for biblical teaching. The Bible is much more mixed and nuanced on the moral nature of government — our teaching is distilled from scripture and the need of Christians through history to be morally right, to be sinless, to be justified, in their thoughts and deeds. Government appears, biblically, to be little more than an inescapable necessity, and is not dealt with in the Bible in any systematic fashion. There is no recipe for government in scripture (just as there isn’t in the Qur’an, despite the belief on many Muslims to the contrary), just a set of rules on how a community people should live and the story of that people’s failure to live by those rules.

Some have taken Samuel’s description of a king in 1 Samuel 8 to be a recipe for government — Martin Luther did, as did James VI/II — but that appears to be a warning to Israel of what they are bringing upon themselves by failing to trust God and demanding regular government rather than a recipe for how a king should act.

What scripture doesn’t appear to believe in is democracy. Or representative government. Certainly not popular sovereignty. If anything, scripture tells the story of a people who are frequently subject to government that is not their own, in which they have no say, far more than they govern themselves. That’s the forgotten context of Jeremiah 29 (“seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile”), the restoration at the end of Chronicles (“Thus says Cyrus king of Persia, The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth…”), and Romans 13 (“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.”) — a community of people conquered, occupied, scattered, and ruled not just by foreigners but by enemies.

The Sermon on the Mount which Jeffress says has no governing value (and to be fair, Martin Luther said it had no governing value either), is actually a set of instructions on how to trust God, have hope, and live under brutal exile — to know that your enemies have not won even as they appear to have all the power in the world — and not merely a guide to good behavior. Whether government should forgive or not is only important when Christians govern, and that does not appear to be a New Testament expectation.

Christians are expected to love and forgive their enemies. Because there is no New Testament expectation (or even an Old Testament one, for that matter) that Christians will defeat, conquer, and kill those enemies. They are God’s alone to deal with.

We do know that, in the Old Testament, when faced with a rapacious enemy (Syria), the Prophet Elisha not only forgave, blessed, and healed that enemy — again and again — he also once sent their army home unharmed after giving them a meal. An army that would, in a later vision given to Elijah, do much evil to the people of Israel:

You will set on fire their fortresses, and you will kill their young men with the sword and dash in pieces their little ones and rip open their pregnant women. (2 Kings 8:12b)

Israel is governed. But God does the governing, through agents God chooses in God’s way. Time and again, God tells Israel “I am your king,” and appoints vice-regents in the form of Moses and Joshua and the Judges and even Cyrus, the king of Persia. But God does the appointing, and not the people. The Judges are emergency rulers, raised to redeem Israel from Canaanite and Philistine occupation — occupation and rule Israel has come to deserve because of its idolatry, its faith in the false gods of its neighbors.

I could see some Christians, like Jeffress, seeing Trump in this way, as a Judge raised up to redeem Christian America. I have a theological problem with this — the work of redeeming God’s people has already been done by the final king and judge, Jesus, on the Cross and from that empty tomb — but it could work as metaphor. However, even that metaphor also misses that this kind of salvation and redemption is always temporary because of Israel’s own inclination toward idolatry:

16 Then the Lord raised up judges, who saved them out of the hand of those who plundered them. 17 Yet they did not listen to their judges, for they whored after other gods and bowed down to them. They soon turned aside from the way in which their fathers had walked, who had obeyed the commandments of the Lord, and they did not do so. (Judges 2:16–17 ESV)

Some of the judges were of sparkling character and solid pedigree, like Othniel (nephew of Caleb, the fearless Israelite spy), and some were not (like Jephthah, a protitute’s son banished from his family). Trump could be a Samson-type, skilled at waging war — killing Philistines with the jawbone of an ass — but easily beguiled by pretty girls of all kinds, including Philistine prostitutes.

And Samson said, [w]ith the jawbone of a donkey, heaps upon heaps, with the jawbone of a donkey, have I struck down a thousand men. (Judges 15:16)

Samson was a mighty warrior, and he judged Israel for 20 years. No mean feat for a people surrounded and tempted and oppressed by enemies on all sides. Yeah, maybe not a bad way to think of Donal J. Trump, if you are a Christian inclined to yearn for such things.

I think it should be remembered, however, that Samson came to a very bad end. At the hands of the Philistines, yes, but one he clearly brought down upon himself. Because even God-given government is tragic by its very nature.

A God of Fire and Death

So, the last week has been on of suffering and death. Across the world — because it almost always is the case someone’s at war somewhere — and nationally — with black men dying pointless at the hands of police officers, and police officers dying pointlessly at the hands of a black army veteran — and then in my own life, where another young person with an almost indescribable tale of violence and abuse has come to me.

I was reminded of this passage of scripture in the face of it all:

1 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 2 “Say to the people of Israel, Any one of the people of Israel or of the strangers who sojourn in Israel who gives any of his children to Molech shall surely be put to death. The people of the land shall stone him with stones. 3 I myself will set my face against that man and will cut him off from among his people, because he has given one of his children to Molech, to make my sanctuary unclean and to profane my holy name. 4 And if the people of the land do at all close their eyes to that man when he gives one of his children to Molech, and do not put him to death, 5 then I will set my face against that man and against his clan and will cut them off from among their people, him and all who follow him in whoring after Molech. (Leviticus 20:1–5 ESV)

In the last year, as I have done a ministry of presence with abused, neglected, unwanted, and trafficked foster kids, I have come to see our foster care system as Molech, an altar we have built on a high hill and upon which we sacrifice — we slit throats and we toss into fire — children we do not care about. Because make no mistake, there are children — lots and lots of children — we do not care about. Children who have lost their parents to death, addiction, prison, children who have come to exist only to be bought and sold and traded for sex and/or profit. If they mattered, they would be with family. They would have family to begin with.

They are things, these children, mere objects.

Not human beings.

Children who have no protectors, no one who cares for them, who can be abused with impunity, because no law protects them. They the Bible’s fatherless who have no one to stand up for them, no one to requite or redeem them, no one to fight for them when they are beaten and stolen and raped, but the Lord God of Israel himself.

We have sacrificed them to our violent, angry god. I do not know what we get in return, or what we think we are getting, when we offer their broken bodies up. But sacrifice them we do. Willingly, eagerly, happily, to our god who takes and takes and takes but never gives.

But our children are not the only people we willing sacrifice to Molech. We are an angry, violent people, and we have come to worship our angry, violent god.

We are Americans, torn between our universal proclamation that “All men are created equal” and the fact the only men whose equality and liberty really mattered were Protestant Englishmen. From that, we have crafted a more inclusive whiteness, but our proud confession of liberty and equality has never really included Black men and women. They are, at best, a subject people granted a very partial and conditional place in our grand, American experiment. Mostly, they are a captive and subject people, terror-inducing bodies that must be subdued, an other in our midst who must never rule. Who can never be Englishmen. Never be equals.

Never be human.

We sacrifice them to our violent, angry God. We hang them on trees and impale them on sticks and have compelled their labor, making them hewers of wood and carriers of water. I do not know what we get from their sacrifice, what we earn from our angry, violent God with the spilling of their blood and the breaking of their bodies. But sacrifice we do. Willingly, eagerly, happily, to our god who takes and takes and takes but never, ever, gives.

We seek order. We want peace. But we arm ourselves, we fear our neighbors, we demand all the unruly and unseemly and all the others in our midst be beaten into submission. There is some truth in the adage, “if you want peace, prepare for war,” but not as much as those who speak it think. Because in the end, you are always armed, always ready for war, always seeing threats where none exist.

Always willing to respond with violence.

There is no peace in that.

I am a fatalist. This gets worse before it gets better. We have knives and torches and all we can see is blood and fire, in the hopes that enough blood and burning will give us the peace and security we crave. And so, the streets will run red. The altars will drip with blood. The furnace will reek of burning flesh. We cannot stop the sacrifice. We cannot turn away from our angry, violent god.

He is us. We are his. We are captive to him and cannot free ourselves.

I want to call down fire from heaven and have all the priests of Baal swallowed up in flame. I want to crush their altars and their poles into a thousand pieces. Because there aren’t enough stones in all the world to put to death all those who sacrifice children, Black men, police officers, refugees, migrants, poor whites… I don’t know where to stop.

But I also know … I am not without sin. I cannot cast the first stone. Ask me, and eventually, I will confess there is someone’s life I do not care about. I might not slice their throat and spill their blood myself, but I might — under the right conditions — demand it. I won’t look away, or care, when they are fed into the furnace.

I too could easily feed someone to Molech. If I haven’t already.

And so I weep. For the dead. The broken. The beaten. The cast off. The unwanted. The frightened. The lost, lonely, and defeated. For myself. For the world. For my children. For my countrymen.

We are cut off. From each other. From our creator. Because we continue to sacrifice, to spill blood, to devote souls and bodies to destruction on behalf of a god who offers us nothing in return. Our shattered, alienated, angry society is the inevitable consequence of all this idolatrous sacrifice.

And of our failure to stop it.

Which leads me to a question, one that puzzles me.

What do we expect to achieve by sacrificing those we neither want nor value to our angry, violent, blood-thirsty god? If we do not value them, we do not want them in our midst, do not love or care for them, why do we expect their spilled blood and broken bodies to accomplish anything of value? To do us any good?

Or have we been afraid for so long, been so self-righteously angry, and sacrificed to Molech for so long we no longer know why we do it?