Friday, August 22, 2014

The Death of Optimism

The first of Douglas John Hall's books that I read was Lighten Our Darkness. It began with a very sobering paragraph.
The Subject of this book is the failure of a people and the courage that can come to those who contemplate this failure in the perspective of the cross. The people are the North Americans. (page 15)
Hall, as anyone who has read or heard him knows, is a steadfast critic of the official optimism of both his native Canada and the United States, an optimism which has infected the churches of those two countries as well. In the nearly forty years since Lighten Our Darkness was published it has become harder and harder to hang on to this official optimism. Too many things are going wrong, sometimes with deadly results, as in Ferguson, Missouri this past few weeks. Too many of those who were only recently optimistic about the future have become discouraged even cynical. Even leaders and members of the once optimistic mainstream (or oldstream) Christian denominations are having a hard time remaining optimistic about their denominations' futures.
 
Like the death of Christendom, the death of optimism can be a good thing for the disciples of the Crucified One, as well, perhaps, for all of those who live in North America. There is great wisdom in knowing that our best efforts at achieving something good will, in some measure, fail. There will be unintended consequences, and for the Christian there will always be what T.S. Eliot called the last treason, doing the right thing for the wrong reason. Especially in crafting political solutions to society's problems, Christians need to follow the advice of Jacques Ellul and be ready to part company with a movement or a party when it move in the wrong direction. Christian realism and humility can lead us to two important conclusions. First, humility leads us to admit that our convictions and opinions might be wrong and that those with whom we disagree might be right. Second, realism leads us to an awareness of our fallibility, of how our best laid plans will fall way short of perfection.
 
Our awareness of our fallibility should not lead us to inaction. We are called to discipleship by One who knows our frailty, who asks us, not for perfection, but for faithful following. Discerning where God is at work in the world and how we can share in that work is no easy matter, but in the world where optimism has died, we are called to hope, not in our own efforts, but in God's love and providential care of creation. 
 

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Uncivil Disobedience

One evening when I was an undergraduate some friends teased me when I chose not to take a shortcut by driving in the exit to a dorm driveway. After all I was willing and publicly disobeying the law in protest of the war in Viet Nam. Why would I go out of my by choosing not to disobey the Do Not Enter sign? The reason was obvious, at least to me. That minor act of disobedience would not have been at all civil, but simply selfish, showing disrespect for a law that inconvenienced me.
 
I thought of that night today as I watched a man jaywalking with his young son. We live in a town with many downtown crosswalks paved with bricks, so jaywalking seems to me to be a fairly insignificant act performed for one's own convenience. When I see an adult doing it with his or her children I wonder what lesson is being learned by the children. Are rules meant to be obeyed only when it is convenient? I once mailed to a man a piece of litter he had thrown from his car. After calling mu office a few times when I wasn't there he left a simple message: he would refrain from littering when I was around.
 
When I was struggling with my commitment to pacifism I recall someone observing that we learn nonviolence not by refusing to kill someone but by refusing to respond violently to the small aggressions we experience on an almost daily basis. As Jesus said faithfulness in small things prepares us to be faithful in greater matters. (Luke 16:10)
 
It seems that uncivil disobedience is becoming more common in this country. When I ignore posed speed limits or fail to stop at stop signs, I am participating in uncivil disobedience. Unlike the civil disobedience in which I have participated, these actions are not done in obedience to a higher law or in protest of injustice, but simply for my convenience. Unlike the acts for which I was arrested more than forty years ago, these acts are preformed with the hope that I won't be arrested.
 
I'm not sure that these fairly minor crimes are eroding a commitment to the laws that keep order in our country. There have always been those who disobey laws that they find inconvenient and there are those, as in the case of Cliven Bundy, who are seen as heroes for their acts of disobedience. I might have been more amenable to seeing Bundy's actions as civil disobedience if he hadn't been protected from the consequences by armed supporters. When I refused an improper order from my draft board I was protected from the consequences only by a determined attorney and a wide circle of friends.
 
 

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Peter on the Water

I struggled a bit with the Gospel story for yesterday (Matthew 14:22-33). My problem wasn't with walking on water but with how Peter seemed to have ordered Jesus to order him to walk on water: "Lord. if it is you, command me to come to you on the water." It struck me that Peter had decided what he wanted to do and was looking for Jesus to bless that. How often in my own life have I decided what I wanted to do and asked God to bless that decision? I can't even begin to count the times I have done that and how often I ignored the ways in which God was telling me not to go ahead.
 
I do remember vividly one time in my late teens when I was sure that I should do something a bit risky to protest the war in Viet Nam. My mother, speaking I think for God, told me that burning my draft card was not a very good idea. I didn't burn it and found other, less risky and more effective, ways to protest.
 
My other problem with Peter was that his desire to walk on water meant that he would have to get out of the boat, leaving the community of the disciples behind. Peter clearly wanted to be with Jesus, but was not willing to wait until Jesus was in the boat with all the disciples. Over the past twenty of thirty years I have come to a deep appreciation for and dependence on the communities of friends that God has given me. Even though I have often been tempted to walk away from some of those communities, I have discovered that when I honored a commitment to stability in community God has been able to work in wonderful ways in my life. It has been in those communities that I have heard most clearly God's voice and have been given the strength to obey. It has been in those communities that God has worked to convert me, to transform me more fully into the person God created me to become, the person who is a beloved disciple of Jesus. 


Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Risky Discipleship

I have been influenced, as many of my friends know, by the work of the Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall. The first book of his that came into my hands was Lighten Our Darkness, which dealt forthrightly with the failure of the North American myth of progress. Although I owned copies of his three volume work on Christian theology in a North American context, I didn’t begin to read it with any seriousness until I came across a distillation of it, The Cross in our Context. I still have about one hundred pages to read in the final volume, Confessing the Faith, but, as often happens, a section of the book prompts me to think a bit about the context in which we find ourselves now, a context which is not entirely the same as Hall’s when he wrote the trilogy in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The threat of nuclear annihilation seems less real than it did thirty years ago, although we now are more concerned about the possibility of nuclear weapons being used by terrorists. Certainly environmental degradation has continued and we are now very much aware of the threat posed by climate change. The list of ethical challenges that we face seems endless and it is not surprising that we at times feel overwhelmed and would much rather avoid dealing with any of them. We might be tempted to provide a negative answer to the question posed by the title of a Milton Mayer book, What Can a Man Do?

That is, however, not a response that I am willing to make. As Hall asserts, “fatalism…is not a Christian option.” (Confessing the Faith, p. 418) Christians are, after all, disciples of the Crucified One, and walking in the way of the Cross is not simply an option. Ethics that are worthy of the label Christian must be grounded in our Christology, in our understanding of what it means to belong to Christ. The work of the Holy Spirit is not to comfort us in the popular understanding of that word but to strengthen us for discipleship in the world, discipleship that leads us to share in God’s transforming work in the world.       

I understand that in responding to the call to this kind of costly and risky discipleship we will often be out of our comfort zone. This will not only be true for us personally but also for the congregations to which we belong. Far too often we have seen those congregations as refuges from the world and not as training schools for discipleship in the world. This has to change. “However improbable it may seem that middle-class Christianity in North America might renounce well-practiced craft of providing insulation against the cold winds of the future, responsible Christians are committed to think and act as if change were actually possible.” (Confessing the Faith, p. 418)

It will require both discernment and courage for us to respond faithfully to the question posed by Milton Mayer’s book title. God is already at work in the world and our task is to discern what God is doing and what God is calling us to do to share that work. Courage because, as I have already said, we will often be very far out of our comfort zones. But that is the nature of faith, not a matter of accepting certain propositions about God or knowing all the answers, but trusting the Answerer. “The faith will be confessed in our ethical praxis only by those who have the courage to subject themselves unguardedly to the peculiar darkness of our time and place and to trust that light enough will be given.” (Confessing the Faith, p. 419)

Moving Away From Diversity

The news from Iraq this morning was discouraging. People fled from a Shiite village near Mosul as Sunni militants approached. They found refuge in a nearby Christian village but they will not be able to stay there forever and will probably end up fleeing to southern Iraq where Shias are in the majority. While the official position of the Iraqi government is to oppose partition of the country along ethnic and sectarian lines, is it possible for Iraq to remain a united and diverse country? 
 
One can lay some of the blame for the situation in Iraq on the failure of the government to live up to its commitment to include Sunnis. But wasn't that failure also a symptom of a more widespread trend in the world? The sectarian cleansing of northern Iraq by the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq (ISIS) looks a lot like the ethnic cleansing a generation ago in what was once Yugoslavia and the genocide in Rwanda. The quest for purity, whether ethnic or sectarian or ideological, often ends in blood.
 
The news here in the United States is also discouraging. Here in Massachusetts we appear to be evenly divided between those who support and those who oppose Governor Patrick's plan to house in he Commonwealth some of the refugee children from Central America. While legitimate questions can be raised about the plan, there is something very disturbing about the argument of some Baystaters that the children  don't share our culture. And it's not just around this particular crisis that we see responses like this. A recent Facebook comment about the situation in Gaza asserted that all Israelis are scum and should be killed. A performer, some of whose concerts have been cancelled recently, referred to his critics as "unclean vermin" and once referred to President Obama as "a subhuman mongrel." (He did apologize for that remark.) Even if we were to disregard such crude and racist comments we could still see examples of the tribal tendency in our country. Ideologues on both the right and the left see themselves as the real Americans. Liberal Christians and conservative ones often see other Christians as not really Christians at all.
 
I am reminded of a comment that Tom Clancy made after the September 11 attacks. Until then, he said, he hadn't thought of New Yorkers as living in the same country that he did. I am also reminded of one line from Janis Ian's Society's Child - "stick to your own kind." We do have a tendency to do that, to flock together with people like us, to be a bit uncertain about whether people in other parts of the country are so unlike us that we really have nothing in common with them. There is probably nothing terribly wrong about that, but when we begin to let those tendencies and those questions become dominant we add to the world's trouble. It's not that saying that the President is not a real American is tantamount to sectarian cleansing. Far from it, but there is a danger that our tendency to make such judgments makes the move towards the partition of Iraq, though not the sectarian cleansing, acceptable.  
 
I don't know if Iraq can remain a nation of diverse people. We don't seem to be doing all that well with the challenge here. What I do know is that the more divided we become the less ability we will have to help other nations to live peaceably with diversity.