Saturday, December 20, 2008
Christianity involves a meeting of time and eternity. That is the hook on which hangs just about everything we do. It is the key to understanding our sacraments, in which visible pieces of matter—bread, wine, water, oil—become not just the symbols but the conveyors of Spirit. It is true, too, of our worship. What you are experiencing right now is more than a meeting in time. It is deliberately and carefully designed to be a window through which we look at the divine and the divine beholds us. It is in fact what we say about ourselves, which might stretch believability beyond all reason: we say that we are “the Body of Christ,” and we mean that the Christian community is more than the sum total of the individuals who are members of it. We say that the eternal Christ dwells in us and we in him.
We Christians continue to tell the story (and in some cases believe it) that when the Eternal God breaks into time and we earth creatures open ourselves freely to encounter God, suddenly not only time is transcended but so are we. Certainly not in all the world, but in a good chunk of it that includes the society in which we live, people find that a daunting stretch to believe. True, we can suspend our rationalism long enough to read and enjoy the Hogwarts magic of Harry Potter. We can even make room in our world to dazzle little children with stories about tooth fairies. We go so far as to invest a considerable slice of the GNP in “the magic of Christmas” which is Santa Claus. But on the whole, many of us live in a world that carries with it a great sense of despair. We are easily disillusioned and quickly distrustful of anything that sounds too airy-fairy.
Luke’s telling of the Annunciation reminds us that at the very heart of our formative story sits Mystery. For him, it is a story which is a part of a larger narrative about the unqualified uniqueness of Jesus, special from his conception on. Luke’s Jesus flips the whole course of human history. As Mary’s song puts it, God has “scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.” That is the theme, Luke proclaims, of the entire life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. None of this is put to a vote, let alone decided on the basis of whether people find it credible or not. Luke presents it as truth, and challenges us to sign on to the movement which still, in his day, was turning the world upside down. If we were to raise the objection, “Wait, Luke, please; we don’t get it; why this story about an annunciation, replete with angel and virgin?” Luke would likely respond, “I’m simply telling you the truth. What is important is not what you make of the angel, or the virgin, but what you make of Jesus.”
So here we have a story, like so many others in the Bible, that stretches post-modern people’s imaginations. We can accept, or dismiss, it as either helpful or unhelpful evidence that Jesus is uniquely important. Or we can step into the story and begin to ride its ripples out to the edges of our consciousness and beyond. What might happen if we chose that second alternative? Might we begin to see that the Mystery is something far past believing, but ultimately life-changing?
The English poet of the last century, Edwin Muir, came across something one day that might give us a clue of what this transcendent thing is about. Muir tells that while he was in Rome as Director of the British Council’s office, he stopped one day to observe a plaque on a house in the Via degli Artisti. He looked for a long time at the image representing the annunciation. An angel and a young girl, their bodies inclined towards each other, their knees bent as if they were overcome by love, ‘tutto tremante,’ gazed upon each other;…and that representation of a human love so intense that it could not reach further, seemed the perfect earthly symbol of the love that passes understanding.” Muir wrote a poem, “The Annunciation,” that grew out of the image he describes. It is about the coming together of time and eternity, the heavenly and the earthly, in a moment that sums up the whole of existence, while just yards away the world keeps going on, oblivious to the sublime encounter of God and humanity. Listen to lines from the poem:
The angel and the girl are met….
See, they have come together, see,
While the destroying minutes flow,
Each reflects the others’ face
Till heaven in hers and earth in his
Shine steady there.…
Of strangest strangeness is the bliss
That from their limbs all movement takes.
Yet the increasing rapture brings
So great a wonder that it makes
Each feather tremble on his wings.
Outside the window footsteps fall
Into the ordinary day
And with the sun along the wall
Pursue their unreturning way…
But through the endless afternoon
These neither speak nor movement make,
But stare into their deepening trance
As if their gaze would never break.
This is not quite the biblical story, is it? And yet, it really is the biblical story, poured into a slightly modified image. It is the image of the human being sought out by a love powerful and strong that simply will not let go, a love that is wildly ravishing in its insistence, the love of a God who is totally fascinated with that God’s own creation. It is not incidental that Muir found his own life experience a witness to that love, his own marriage an example of it. “My soul magnifies the Lord.” It is not so far from the trembling that flesh feels for flesh in the deepening rapture in which two human beings stand unmasked to each other.
Yes. Mystery is taking us in two directions at once. It grounds us in our own human experience, in places like kitchens and bedrooms and cemeteries and hospitals, and in moments like forgiveness and love-making and burying the dead and nursing children and feeding the hungry. Simultaneously it transports us to realms that we have no words for and no pictures of, spaces we can only talk in the language of song or poetry, in phrases like “the bright immensities” and “the dayspring from on high.” Time and eternity meet like angel and girl on earth, “the only meeting place,” says Muir. And when they meet, suddenly everything is changed, as if a black-and-white world sprang at once into vibrant color.
What is the meaning of all this? It is tempting to say that we are charged, or at least invited, to be on the lookout for the divine messenger, coming in ordinary moments like birth or death or pain or happiness. And no doubt that is a good idea. We can take our cues from Mary, who through her simple acquiescence to the Spirit of God, becomes the vessel through which the whole cosmos is renewed—an image beautifully written on the icon which has been leading our Advent processions. But the message might be as well that no amount of preparation or openness either bids or forbids the holy approach of the angel to the girl, the coming of eternity into time. We cannot buy it nor rush it nor plan for it nor avoid it. It just is. It happens when it will, sometimes to the most unlikely of people at the most inconvenient of moments.
But in a larger sense there is a response we can make to the Mystery, an action we can take, even a practice in which we can engage. And that is, as one of our best loved hymns puts it, we can “bow in humble adoration,” acknowledging that the Lord of Love liberates us from being trapped in our own limited time, with its familiar but ultimately inadequate categories where everything gets neatly pigeon-holed. The God that moves towards Mary with a message of gloriously impossible news is the God that is loose in your life this very minute, with the startling idea that you are an instrument of shockingly good things.
Stranger things have happened.
© Frank G. Dunn, 2008
permission not granted to print "The Annunciation" by Edwin Muir. See D. M. Allchin, The Joy of All Creation (Cowley, 1984), p. 130. Also P. H. Butter, ed. Selected Letters of Edwin Muir (London: Hogarth, 1974), p. 154.
A sermon preached at St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church, Washington, DC, The Second Sunday of Advent, December 7, 2008
“But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day…. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief…” 2 Peter 3:8-15a
Maybe the reason that cultural Christmas has elbowed Advent right out to the sidelines of Christian consciousness is that Advent, after all is said and done, is just too hard to deal with. If you really hear the message, such as that in the Second Epistle of Peter today, Advent just seems so, so, well, inconvenient.
Advent is mostly about the end time. That made a good deal of sense to folks in the 6th century who thought there ought to be a season to ponder the coming again of Christ in power and great glory. They had a working notion of judgment, and believed that it might behoove them to get ready for the Day by that name. We, on the other hand, don’t much care for the topic of judgment. Even though we hear sermons on how judgment is a good idea once or twice a year, we are largely unmoved, preferring instead to dwell on kindlier matters, such as forgiveness, love, and peace.
I used to jump up and down about Advent, it being pretty close to my favorite of all seasons. I wanted to protect it from the encroachments of Christmas carols and Santas and reindeer and prematurely born Baby Jesuses. I insisted that our family follow the custom of putting up the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve, and not a bit sooner. Many years I even waited to do my shopping until Christmas Eve, just hours before the 4:00 pageant, which, of course, occurred on Christmas Eve where it belonged, rather than to one of the Advent Sundays in earlier December. But I have begun to rethink Advent. Maybe it is just battle fatigue, but I find it of dubious worth to continue to preach something that folks have a hard time even remembering by the time they get to coffee hour, so strange it is to their ears and lives.
Now, by no means do I intend to suggest that Advent has no message at all worth hearing or believing. I simply have a quandary on my hands, not in knowing what Advent is about, but in finding out how it connects with the lives we are living in the 21st century. So, as the queen said to Alice in Wonderland, I will begin at the beginning, there being no better place to start. And the beginning is in the Early Church, long before there was anything like a season of Advent or even a celebration of Christmas, for that matter. You can get a glimpse of what was on the minds of Christians towards the end of the first century by reading the Second Letter of Peter again, for example. “Do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.” Well said. But fudging the issue just a little. Truth to tell, Christians were perplexed, upset even, that the long awaited return of Jesus Christ had not happened. The first generation was dying out, and perhaps by the time of Second Peter, the second or third were following them. Somehow it had not happened as they had planned. If Jesus, as the gospels sometimes suggest, had predicted his coming again, then he was clearly wrong, or had a weird sense of timing. If, on the other hand, the church had invented the notion, then clearly the Church was wide of the mark. So the author of Second Peter seems to be saying that the idea is right but that the Church’s perception of God’s time is all messed up. You can’t, he says, be going around thinking of the eternal in finite, human terms. Good point. But still he argues that the great and awesome Day of the Lord will indeed come—like a thief in the night, when you wish you had left the lights on and stayed awake for your own safety’s sake.
Give him credit. This author is not inventing this stuff. The notion of the great and terrible Day of the Lord had been around for centuries. It was Israel’s idea that there would be a day when God would intervene in history, both to redeem and to judge, to liberate and to condemn. The prophets had issued stern warnings, as our collect today reminds us, for the people to forsake their sins, because, all things considered, the Day of the Lord was not in fact a day to picnic, but a Day of “clouds and thick darkness,” according to Joel, and, according to Amos, “a day of gloom with no light in it.” Christians—who of course were themselves Jewish in the beginning—had taken the old Day of the Lord idea and transferred it to the Day of Christ, associating it with the final showdown between the living, resurrected Jesus and the forces of evil. If, of course, you are opposed to evil and consider yourself something of a victim of it, you just can’t wait for the Day of the Lord. If, on the other hand, you suspect that you won’t come off all that well in the last battle, you probably begin nixing the idea as preposterous to begin with, saying, as some of Second Peter’s crowd asked, “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Our ancestors died, and life goes on the way it always has since the beginning of creation.’” In other words, let’s get serious: there is no such thing.
The author of Second Peter follows the prophetic pattern in telling his hearers to shape up, to lead lives of holiness and godliness, so as to be found at peace when the Day of the Lord dawns and Christ comes again. And that is largely what the function of the Judgment Day idea has been: whip up people’s imaginations (Second Peter does it with images of the earth burning up and the heavens going out with a bang) and put the fear of God in them so that they will behave. If you think this idea is completely out-of-service these days, I suggest you look at the way that Santa Claus is frequently the bearer of the imagery of the mysterious one who comes like a thief in the night (right down your chimney, even if you don’t have one) and for that coming you’d better watch out, you’d better not pout, better not cry, I’m telling you why… Same thing. It actually used to work for neurotically good little children like me. I wanted to be on the side of the nice rather than the naughty.
Is this an adequate basis for good behavior, this notion that Jesus will come again and judge the living and the dead? Some would say yes, and I suppose if it works, then leave it alone. But am I willing to be good only because I think it will get me a pass on Judgment Day? Hardly. And I doubt that you are. Maybe there is an alternative. Maybe the real motivation for being holy, for being Christ-like, is that it actually is liberating, fulfilling, even rewarding to do so. Looking for a moment at the whole matter from an evolutionary perspective, we can see that human beings are perfectly capable of acting like reptiles on some occasions, like furry mammals on others, and like our primate cousins quite frequently. But we are also capable of responding to a higher sense of purpose. We are able to make conscious sacrifices for the common good. We can choose to give without expecting anything in return. We can spend our energies actually doing things that don’t serve only our own interests but rather the interests of others. We can even, unlike most species, take a longer view of things and wind up exercising love and compassion for our enemies, which is totally counter-intuitive. The jury is out on the question of whether we are evolving in the direction of sharing rather than hoarding, of cooperating rather than competing. But it is fairly clear that these are the abilities that will enable us to survive rather than perish on this planet. And, when we behave in these ways, loving our neighbors as ourselves, we are in fact living out our baptismal vocation to let the Christ light shine through us. “As many as are baptized into Christ have put on Christ. Alleluia.” And if you don’t think that we can garner much encouragement from the evolutionary process, then perhaps the prophecy of Isaiah suggests that something more drastic can happen: every valley will be exalted and every mountain and hill be made low in a great and radical shift from oppressive behavior to liberating action.
Is there any use, then, in retaining an idea of the Day of the Lord, if its usefulness is not primarily to make us behave? What might happen, for example, if we were to take the Day of the Lord to mean not a showdown but a thorough healing of the world’s pain and sickness? What if we were to see that our efforts to promote peace were altogether about a refashioning of the way people relate to each other? What if we went to work during these next four years trying to make health care a reality for everyone because we were motivated by the vision of a future that Christ the Healer was opening up, a future more nearly free of disease and fear? What if our motivation for stamping out poverty and hunger through meeting the Millennium Development Goals was the picture of what life on earth could be were we to live as children of one family? You can call it by lots of names. But if you happen to be in the biblical tradition, the name you could call that future is “The Day of the Lord.” It has to do with justice and truth, and as today’s psalm imagines it, with righteousness and peace kissing each other.
I think we’re on our way. I read it between the headlines of doom and underneath the dismal reports of the stock market. I see it in the distance, coming as surely as the winter snows and as clearly as the return of the light of spring. Sometimes our poets and songwriters grab it out of the air, or our children express it in their art, as in the quilt that hangs in our chapel. Nowhere is it more eloquently expressed than in the finale to Les Miserables:
Do you hear the people sing,
Lost in the valley of the night?
It is the music of a people
Who are climbing to the light.
For the wretched of the earth
There is a flame that never dies,
Even the darkest night will end
And the sun will rise.
They will live again in freedom
In the garden of the Lord,
They will walk behind the plough-share,
They will put away the sword,
The chain will be broken
And all men shall have their reward!
Will you join in our crusade?
Who will be strong and stand with me?
Somewhere beyond the barricade
Is there a world you long to see?
Do you hear the people sing?
Say, do you hear the distant drums?
It is the future that they bring
When tomorrow comes!
Tomorrow, or the Day of the Lord, may not come like a thief in the night; but neither will it come on January 20 when Barack Obama is President of the United States. Because the Day of the Lord is not about Barack Obama, and he knows it. It is about how we roll up our sleeves (Obama is calling us to that!) and dig in to make this a more just society, indeed a more holy society taking on the character of the Just and Holy One. It is about making change more than a slogan and a leader more than a fixer. Getting that right and doing that truth will make Advent the reality we’ve all been waiting for.
© Frank G. Dunn, 2008
Monday, November 03, 2008
If You Were Fully Alive What Would You Be?
A sermon preached at St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church, Washington, DC, November 2, 2008
Many people don’t want to be saints. And many saints never much wanted to be human beings. So thought George Orwell, British novelist and essayist of the last century. That doesn’t square with the lore of Episcopal All Saints celebrations and their accompanying theology. We sing with great gusto, “They were all of them saints of God, and I mean, God helping, to be one, too.”
So what is going on here? There are several differing, if not conflicting, meanings of sainthood. First, there is that basic definition that comes straight out of the New Testament: the saints, “the holy ones” are all the People of God, without distinction. Then, there is the use of saint to denote a exemplar of Christian life. And finally, there is the sense in which a saint is one who has passed even beyond the level of model or example to become a miracle-worker. Clearly in that sense, or even in the second, not all of us are saints. Furthermore, one does not get to be a saint by “intending” to be one. Sainthood is a gift, not an achievement.
I would like to propose a different way of thinking about sainthood—not necessarily original, mind you, but different from any of those ways. I propose that we entertain the possibility that sainthood, or saintliness, is something that is indeed a gift but one which cannot be fully realized unless and until it is practiced. What would happen, for example, if we thought of sanctity or saintliness as a gift such as playing a musical instrument, or sewing, or designing, or playing basketball, or dancing? We might see, first, that there are all kinds of forms of saintliness—not just one kind. And we might come to understand that while saintliness starts off and ends up being a gift, still it is a gift which gets better and better the more we put effort into it, much as the gift of sewing or of dancing or of playing the flute improves—and becomes recognizably a talent—the more we practice.
Those of you who have followed my preaching since July (don’t break my heart and tell me you haven’t noticed!) will recognize the theme song: Christian practices. We have now looked up close at discernment, proclamation, creating community, repentance, stewardship, love of God and neighbor as practices that Christians do in living the Christian life. It is by no means an exhaustive list. Each of these practices involves specific actions that we take in order to cultivate one or more specific virtues. Today is the climax of the series, although hardly the end of the exploration of Christian practices. Sainthood—being a saint—and its chief identifying mark, saintliness or sanctity—is exactly what the Christian life is about. It is about that gift of God’s life, eternal life, that is given to each of us in our baptism, which we take and practice and practice and practice so that we may become artists of the holy. To say the same thing another way, sanctity is the key virtue that we are perfecting through living the Christian life.
Now if I were a seeker, as some of you are, who was by no means certain about all this Christian life stuff, I would start fidgeting about now. I would not be too sure that this sanctity business was for me. Like Billy Joel, I might be singing, “They say there's a heaven for those who will wait. Some say it's better, but I say it ain't. I'd rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints. Sinners are much more fun...” Sanctity has an appeal, as Orwell suggested, to those who really aren’t much interested in being human. But how many of you would fall into that category? Am I marketing something here for which there is no real market? Sanctity? Saintliness?
Then there is a further objection that will be lobbed my way from those who are theologically astute. “Works, works, works!” they will shout. “He’s selling salvation by works. We know better. It only comes by faith.” All right, both of you have me. So let me deal with both of you, one at a time.
Second objection first. The whole process of being a saint is in fact about living out our faith. But, as much as Luther despised the Epistle of James as “right strawy,” still I think James had it right when he said faith without works is dead. So we’re not talking here about “winning salvation” or “going to heaven when we die” or any of that. We are talking about living out our faith, living out our relationship with Jesus Christ. And the way we do that is in concrete actions. Hold your horses while I answer the seekers.
Seekers, don’t be afraid of the concept of saintliness or sanctity. Because much to perhaps your surprise, it is not opposed to your being fully human. Irenaeus of Lyons, one of the Early Church’s prominent theologians, wrote, “The Glory of God is the human person fully alive.” Bingo. That is a great definition of sainthood: a fully alive human being. The heart of holiness, the center of saintliness, is being authentic. How do we know that? Well, that brings us to the heart of the practice at hand.
And the practice is what I call the imitation of Christ. In the book by that title, Thomas a Kempis laid out some ideas, one of which was to distrust the human intellect. In all due respect, that is not what I am talking about. I am rather speaking of following the pattern of Jesus’ life as it is set forth in the gospels. His is at once the quintessential spirit-filled life and also the prime example of an authentic life. There is nothing phony or hokey about Jesus’ life. Thus, to “imitate” him means that we cannot be phony or hokey either. To follow what the Prayer Book calls “his example in all virtuous and godly living” is not to be cheap plastic imitations of Jesus but lives styled on the model of his.
Let me pause to say both a good word and a word of caution about the recently popular notion of WWJD, “What Would Jesus Do?” On the one hand, it is not a bad idea for Christians to ask, “What would Jesus do?” It might well expose much of what we are up to as quite hostile to Jesus’ way of life. War, environmental damage, and investing money quickly come to mind as things that seem quite foreign to Jesus’ life. And that is the word of caution. Trying to live as a first century Jew in the Roman Empire is not an option for many people on the planet today. WWJD? is a question that sometimes must honestly be answered, “I haven’t the slightest idea.”
But there is in fact a series of actions in which the practice of the imitation of Christ consists. One could comprise lots of lists, some short and some long. I can’t think of a better one than the beatitudes from Matthew’s gospel which we hear today. They describe a series of steps that progressively lead to a practice of the kind of life that we see Jesus living on the pages of the gospels. Being “poor in spirit” describes that fundamental receptivity and openness to growth that is the opposite of pride and hunger for power. Being able to mourn may not sound like a gift, but in fact it is the capacity to feel genuine sorrow that is integral to being human. Showing mercy, hungering and thirsting after justice, the meekness exhibited in showing kindness and consideration, humility, purity and singleness of heart, making peace where there is discord: all of these are actions that accord with Jesus’ life. What is more they are possible for any human being. Not that they come naturally—that is the point: they have to be practiced!
Notice that the beatitudes end with a teaching about being persecuted. In Matthew’s day, as in our own, it is not infrequent that practicing the Christian life is a guaranteed way to make one quite unpopular with the surrounding crowd. Saints tend to irritate people, who generally experience them as cranky. That is why so few people get genuinely excited about being one. It is counter-cultural and counter-intuitive. And, in some circumstances—running for public office comes to mind—there are occasions when one is apt to be thoroughly trashed, if not killed outright, for speaking unpopular truth. All Saints Day never lets us forget that a great many of our models and exemplars are those who have had their white robes washed in blood, so threatening was their witness to and against the established order. If you are not willing to run that kind of risk, then it is fair to ask if the Christian life is something you are very much interested in after all.
One of my favorite stories by one of my favorite authors is “The Great Stone Face,” by Nathaniel Hawthorne. The young boy Ernest learns from his mother the legend of the great stone face, cut by the elements into the side of a mountain that overlooks their valley. Some day a person will come to resemble the great stone face. Various ones apparently do, but disappointingly fail to portray some quality of the great face—its warmth, its smile, its honor. Ernest grows up and grows old, spending his life meditating on the great stone face until finally his fellow townspeople see that Ernest himself reflects the great face. In becoming himself, he has become the long-sought likeness of the face. Even then, Ernest continues to watch for someone greater still who would by and by appear, bearing a better resemblance to the Great Stone Face. That is a parable of what the practice of sainthood is like. We mediate and emulate and gaze upon Christ the model to such an extent that we begin, quite unconsciously, exhibiting the qualities of the one who is our model. Ironically, the better we do it, the less preoccupied we are with ourselves. It really is not about us, after all. It is about the Great God, the fountain of all being, whose life and love are what the saints practice and practice and practice till they are lost in wonder, love, and praise. In a sense, nothing is left but God alone. But in another sense, the glory of God is finally realized when, one by one, human persons become fully themselves, fully alive.
© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2008
Sunday, October 26, 2008
If Jesus Were a Candidate,
What Would His Vision of the Future Be?
A Sermon Preached at St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church, Washington, DC, October 26, 2008
If Jesus had been running for President, the Pharisees and the Sadducees would have been blogging away like crazy. It is not hard to imagine them hunkered down over their computers, fingers flying, trading ideas of trick questions to ask Candidate Jesus at his next campaign stop, his upcoming appearance on Face the Nation, or his third and final debate. One wonders who might have been on Jesus’ side during the heated campaign for the hearts and minds of Israel. Depending upon which gospel one reads, it would appear that his disciples certainly were not masters of the latest public relations techniques, nor adept at internet fundraising. Instead, they seem to have been somewhere between floundering and clueless as to what sort of election this was, befuddled as to how to respond to the perennial question, “Who is Jesus of Nazareth and do you really know him?” They seem not to have measured what was at stake in the way the people answered this question. Pharisees and Sadducees, on the other hand, although mortal political and religious enemies, the conservatives and liberals of their day, arrayed themselves in an unholy alliance against Candidate Jesus, who threatened both groups, their backers, and their chances at controlling the opinion machinery of their beleaguered colonial nation.
Sadducees thought they had him right where they wanted him when they concocted a story that would quickly illustrate the silliness of the doctrine of resurrection from the dead, which the Pharisees supported and which Jesus seemed to court. And Pharisees, seeing a window of opportunity to entrap Jesus, wanted to test and see what he thought was the greatest commandment, since he had this habit, at least in the Matthew report, of saying things like, “You have heard it said that thus and such is the law, but I say to you so and so,” enough to make a Pharisee jittery, but more than enough to make a conservative Sadducee develop hives.
Neither Sadducee nor Pharisee cared a fig for what Jesus really thought, let alone for what the Truth might be, were it other than what they already had decided it to be. What they wanted was to justify their own narratives, their versions of what was what. And the reason they were aligned against Jesus was that he was calling people to a new narrative, one that was full of surprises like “The Sabbath was made for humans, not humans for the Sabbath” and “Love your enemies” and “Judge not that you be not judged; forgive and you shall be forgiven.” Both liberal and conservative wanted, naturally, to cling to their own stories. How best to deal with Jesus? Trap him. Expose him. Maybe even smear him as anti-Israel, anti-Law. Possibly—who knows?—brand him a Zealot, a terrorist, an enemy of the state, a clear and present danger to the national security, such as it was.
So the Pharisees recruited their brightest and best, a lawyer, who the Matthew report says, had an agenda not just of testing, but scrutinizing, accusing, or even disciplining Jesus. (Mark, reporting the same story, relates that the lawyer was a seeker, considerably more sympathetic.) “Teacher—” one wonders if he gritted his teeth when using the title—“Teacher, what is the greatest commandment?” We will never know what the lawyer was primed to say after he got what he must have known would be the answer to the question. He could easily anticipate that Jesus would give the answer that he himself would give: the shema, of course. “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength.” But Jesus does one better. Notice that he does not only answer the question, he goes further and answers another one that he has not been asked. “Not only is there a first commandment, but there is a second one which is like it.” Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, with all your strength, and love your neighbor as your self. On these two commandments hang the Torah and the Prophets.
In our continuing effort to figure out what it is to practice the Christian faith, Jesus’ answer gives us the hinge on which swings the door of abundant life. The whole kit and caboodle hangs on the love of God and the love of neighbor. The love of God involves the entire human being—heart, mind, soul, strength—and the love of neighbor is calibrated to match one’s own love of self, family, flesh and blood. It is tempting to see Jesus’ answer as providing a two-piece foundation. But on closer examination, we see that there is scarcely any way in which we can obey the first commandment and not the second. If Jesus’ ministry demonstrated anything, it was that the Reign of God was about relationships with people, right relationships. The one prayer that Jesus taught his disciples to pray was a simple one that brings things down from heaven to earth by the third petition. Then it gets into daily bread, forgiveness, temptation, deliverance. The love of God expresses itself in the love of neighbor, and the love of neighbor presupposes the proper love of self. It is all one continuous love, not to be divvied up into competing or discrete “vertical” and “horizontal” dimensions.
How do we practice the love of God, neighbor, and self? The baptismal covenant, which we shall be renewing next week on the Feast of All Saints, gives us a handle. “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons loving your neighbor as your self?” is one of the key questions. Notice how loving our neighbor is the connecting link between love of God (seeking Christ) and love of self. Our covenant is to seek Christ in all persons. We do not promise to find Christ in all persons, but we do promise to look for him in all persons.
We do that, first, by acting kindly towards other people. We do that before we analyze them or even before we theorize about why. “Love is patient, love is kind,” says St. Paul. We treat people on the Metro or in traffic jams in the supermarket check-out line with the courtesy that we would extend to Christ, and with the deference that Christ shows to us. In his directions as to how we go about loving God and neighbor, Richard Baxter, the great Puritan divine of the 17th century, put it this way:
Love God truly, and you will easily love your neighbour; for you will see God's image of him, or interest in him, and feel all his precepts and mercies obliging you hereunto.
To this end let Christ be your continual study. He is the full revelation of the love of God; the lively pattern of love, and the best teacher of it that ever was in the world: his incarnation, life, and sufferings, his gospel and covenant, his intercession and preparations for our heavenly felicity, all are the great demonstrations of condescending, matchless love. Mark both: God's love to us in him, and his love to man, and you will have the best directive and incentive of your love.
All of this is pretty obvious, isn’t it? Is this not what you expect to hear in church? So why does it seem so hard? What gets in the way? Let’s take another look at the Sadducees and Pharisees. They were not bad people. At least they didn’t intend to be. They were captives of their own world views, I would argue. So cocksure that they were right, they couldn’t see anything beyond the boundaries of their own opinions. And to that extent they function as negative models for us. Sadducees and Pharisees are those who assume that theirs is the only way, the right way to think, to act, and to appropriate other people. What is more, they have themselves convinced that God agrees with them. I don’t know that they engaged in scurrilous political attacks on each other, but I do know that they could easily have justified doing so, because each thought they were acting on behalf of God.
What happens when we stop acting as if we own God and start loving God and the world God has made? What happens when we open ourselves to the possibility that not only our friends but also our enemies deserve respect? Above all what happens when we begin to follow Jesus in his project of developing a new story that does not see humanity divided into camps of believers and non-believers, saved and damned, nation and adversary, friend and enemy? Might it be possible to construct a new framework that views humanity as one?
Frankly, it is risky. There are always those who are ready to take advantage of kindness and forbearance, and to crush gentleness with overbearing force. In this world where destructive individuals are real menaces, dangerous, operating by standards that are themselves hostile to the gospel of peace that Jesus embodies, it is suicidal to believe that love of neighbor entails blindly trusting everyone and assuming the best of the worst. Yet, the risk is that, if we capitulate to the old stories that encourage distrust, rivalry, and self-justification, what virtue, if any, will we be nurturing? Valor? Prudence? Justice? At the end of the day, we might have to face the stark truth that only by loving God and our neighbor are we able to cultivate the virtue of hope. Hope is the dynamic that drives us forward to a future more rewarding than the prospect of a permanently factious, squabbling, or even murderously violent, and thus degraded, humanity.
There is nothing simple or easy about seeking Christ in all persons, nothing naïve or elementary about loving one’s neighbor as oneself. All our acts of courtesy and kindness, of mercy and generosity, of consideration and caring we perform in a world that is in the grip of partisans committed to narrowness, like Sadducees and Pharisees, and you name the other parties. It is a world that is perilously fragile, jerked around as it is by the forces of evil. But if that world is ever to become a different place, where the poor have a crack at a better life and even the rich have a chance to heal their souls, is there any alternative to starting to hope, to believe, to act in a way that envisions a life-giving, healing story? And if we are going ever to have a different, peaceful, and just society, is there any better place to start than by loving the God of peace and justice with every fiber of heart, mind, soul, strength, and, hard as it may be, loving our neighbors as ourselves?
© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2008
Thursday, October 16, 2008
My parents had come of age in the 1930’s. They were half-way through Conway High School when the economy tanked in 1929, and lived through the early years of the Great Depression as they were graduated from high school, married, and started a family. Both of them, Daddy in particular, revered Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He had been their hero. And since they were Southerners and therefore Democrats, they were pleased to have been able to vote for a Democrat who not only represented economic salvation for them but one who was allied with the only party whom most white people in the South would even think of supporting. The taste of Reconstruction had by no means left the mouths of my parents; and certainly it had not left those of my grandparents, three of whom were born within a decade of the end of Republican-run Reconstruction in 1876. All that and the fact that Daddy had served in the Navy for his President and Country during World War II made him intensely loyal to the Democratic Party and fiercely inimical to anything that bore the name “Republican.” Some things he did not doubt, among them that Herbert Hoover had been responsible for the Depression. Other things he probably doubted but would not talk about, such as the fact that the National Democratic Party had cast in its lot with the oncoming struggle for Civil Rights for the Negro, which of course is what had occasioned Strom Thurmond’s Dixiecrat candidacy in 1948.
Somehow or other I came to see that it was the Republicans who truly were on the side of states’ rights, and who had the interests of the South at heart. I had already come to learn how despicable the word “liberal” was. Those of my teachers who talked politics quickly taught me that what one wanted to be in order to be respected and respectable was “conservative.” I put all this together in a fairly succinct creed. As a Southern white boy, I believed that the Republicans stood for states rights and against a dictatorial federal government that wanted to dismantle the structures of segregation; that the Republicans were the champions of limited government against the “creeping socialism” of the Democrats that would soon land us into the column of the communists; that the Republicans were on the side of right (after all, weren’t they called “the right wing” as opposed to the sinister, liberal left?); and that the Republicans were the only way to unlock South Carolina and the rest of the South from the grip of one-party government which even then seemed to me to be grossly unhealthy.
Daddy and I argued. I pushed his every button. The fact that I was for Nixon drove him crazy. And the fact that he would “argue” with me by putting me down only increased my distrust and anger at everything labeled “Democratic.” So there was something that got into the mix that had more to do with the perennial struggle of sons with fathers than it had to do with politics per se.
By the time I finished high school, Kennedy had been president for two years. There was a part of me that loved Kennedy, but it was a part that loved to imitate his Boston accent and make my peers roll in the floor laughing. He was never my hero. Rather, I chose as my mentor and idol a Republican: Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was the homespun humorist, deeply spiritual, intellectually astute, courageous misfit that I myself wanted to be. I would sit and look at photographs of him for what seemed like hours. And I read everything I could about Lincoln. I was to pursue that interest when I went to Randolph-Macon, writing a major paper my freshman year on Lincoln’s religious beliefs, which I presumptuously and pretentiously entitled, “Through a Glass Darkly.” Meanwhile, my political mentor became Barry Goldwater.
But something else was stirring in me. Let’s call it a religious sensibility. Ever the earnest kid, I devoured much of what I could get my hands on that The Methodist Church said and was doing. I found myself passionately excited about being a Methodist, yet troubled by what seemed to me to be the liberal positions that The Methodist Church was taking. I remember going to a great assembly one summer at Lake Junaluska, that gigantic Methodist watering hole in the Southeast. Sitting through a sermon in the great auditorium, I found myself enchanted by the preacher. Then, when he fully had my attention, he stung me with the revelation that what he was driving at was “this whole matter of race relations.” I had never heard such a thing from a preacher or a pulpit. I squirmed, puzzled and vexed.
Such incidents and the uncomfortable thoughts they churned up sent me scurrying to my pastor, Mr. Shumaker, to whom I confessed that I had problems reconciling my political views with some of the teachings of the Church. I don’t remember anything that he said, but somehow I left him about as troubled as I came. Something was shaking loose in me. I was beginning to be aware that folks who had thought much about issues sometimes came out with positions very different from mine. Then something else jarred me. I took a job at the Ocean Forest Hotel, then the only convention facility at Myrtle Beach. Though only about twenty miles away from home, it was in some sense my first experience out from under my parents’ roof. I lived all summer in a dormitory which housed most of the hotel employees, many of whom were college students. One resident there was the wife of the sous-chef. From Savannah, Anastasia de Guillou was a devout Roman Catholic and an equally committed Democrat. She loved Pope John XXIII and John F. Kennedy, perhaps the latter a bit more than the former, really. I spent hours with her listening to her explanations of the Rosary, the mass, devotions to the Blessed Virgin Mary. “Darling,” she would say to me, “If you are planning to be a Methodist minister, you can’t afford to be narrow-minded.” She had me take her to the Roman Catholic church for Sunday mass, then still in Latin. And to demonstrate her broad-mindedness, she went with me to the Methodist church one Sunday. Suddenly, I was conversant with something that had lain outside my frame of reference. And I saw that someone of deep faith and intelligence could in fact be a Democrat.
In college I roomed with an ardent Democrat, a fervent Methodist, an adorer of John F. Kennedy. George Marshall and I would stay up all hours of the night talking about everything, including politics and religion. One day he told me that his espousal of liberal politics he traced to his dawning awareness of the dictates of the gospel. I blew up. I pulled out every curse, every epithet, every obscenity that I had ever heard and let fly at him with an unspeakable vitriol. Worse, I had little idea of where all my anger was coming from or even an inkling that my behavior was downright bizarre. I mocked his adulation of JFK. I lampooned his political philosophy as stupid and bigoted. And I carried on for days, bringing to my side and defense a person whose name you probably have heard: Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, the conservative sometime Chair of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, still, as I understand it, under investigation for the misappropriation of federal funds. Ken was our dorm counselor, or residence advisor, and a convinced conservative, which he has remained to this day. I would get out of the way and let him rank on George, whom he would chide mercilessly in a Galax, Virginia, accent, all the while puffing on a cigar.
My sub-sophomoric tantrum at George was, as is transparently obvious, a classic case of projection. I had begun to see the cracks in my political philosophy. I had begun to be aware that the values promulgated in the Christian faith somehow did not square with racial segregation. That the love of Jesus had nothing to do with states’ rights more and more seemed frighteningly plausible. Meanwhile, I found myself continually pushed at Randolph-Macon to think, to test my suppositions, to investigate, to question. I could hardly wait to join the debate team, which I imagined would be all about public speaking, for which I had some aptitude. Instead, I found that collegiate debating was about investigating a proposition (my first year it was “Resolved that the federal government should guarantee the opportunity for higher education to all qualified high school graduates”) and debating both the affirmative and negative positions. More than any other single thing, inter-scholastic debating totally ruined my naïve belief that any one position could be valid beyond question.
Then a strange thing happened. Daddy was running for re-election to the magistrate’s office in the summer of 1964. I came home from college to find that the whole family was astir in the toughest battle he had ever faced. A critical precinct which he had always carried was “The Hill,” in Conway, practically 100% black. Totally outside the regular Democratic party stump speaking circuit, the leaders of the black community would invite the candidates for political office to come and address them. It was crucially important for Daddy to do so. On the night he would have gone, he had a conflict of some major proportions. He asked me if I would go and speak on his behalf. I enthusiastically agreed. I made a speech that invoked Abraham Lincoln, talked about freedom and liberation, and the importance of participating in the democratic process. I came down off the dais. A fellow congratulated me and introduced himself. “Sunday, June the 21st, is Father’s Day. At Salem African Methodist Episcopal Church in Bucksport, South Carolina, we’re having a service in the afternoon in honor of all fathers. We’d like for you to come and give us such a sermon as you gave here tonight.” Well, I’d be happy to come, and honored as well, I told him.
Word got around. Daddy’s political enemies somehow found out within days of my going to Bucksport that I had gone and preached in a “damn nigger church.” My family and I got threatening phone calls. I began to taste what it was like to be disparaged for even so mild a thing as associating with blacks. One of the most obstreperous voices was that of Harry Martin, a fellow member of First Methodist Church. He was later to get up and stride out of church when I was delivering a sermon on youth Sunday. Such happens, I discovered, when a southern white boy crosses the line drawn by southern white racists. To their credit, Mama and Daddy were supportive, affirming the value of sticking up for what I believed. That virtue—if it is a virtue—I now heard differently from what I had previous taken it mean (being committed to one’s opinions at all costs). Daddy won the election by two votes, a margin that after a fiercely contested recount rose to something like eight or ten.
I finished Randolph-Macon, by which time I had ceased thinking of myself as a Republican. Debating combined with a deepening understanding of biblical faith called into question my facile adolescent assumptions. I had begun to see that there was strong strand of social justice that ran through the Hebrew scriptures and a non-negotiable communal imperative in The New Testament. In my sophomore biblical literature class I had been stunned to learn that the theology of the Old Testament, adumbrated by the pre-exilic prophets as well as the Torah, made unmistakably clear that God championed the cause of the poor, the dispossessed, the marginalized, the stranger.
By the time 1968 rolled around I was 23 years old and ready to vote. My seminary roommate at Princeton was a conservative from California, as devout a Republican as George Marshall had been a Democrat. He admired Ronald Reagan. We argued theology. We argued politics. When he pressed me as to why I would vote “for the man with three first names—Hubert—Horatio—Humphrey” I told him that we absolutely had to care about the decaying hovels that people lived in in neighborhoods a few miles down the road in Trenton. When he asked what made me believe that, I replied that my understanding of the gospel led me to believe that it was a moral obligation to care about the poor. He laughed and voted for Nixon.
That was the year that the Republicans launched their “Southern Strategy,” somewhat undercut by George C. Wallace’s candidacy. Lyndon Johnson had presciently told Bill Moyers, his press secretary, that in signing the Civil Rights Act he had given the South to the Republican Party for the next hundred years. That is exactly why, I am convinced, the map of Dixie is to this day a stretch of red states. At bottom, the old arguments have changed little. People talk about small government and fiscal responsibility and strong national defense. But the issue that reddens the South still is race.
The end of the 1960’s heightened the fever of anti-war sentiment on campuses. Princeton was rife with sit-ins and takeovers. Students, their futures threatened by the draft and a war that increasingly sent bagged bodies home, took on “the establishment” in ways strange to their American elders. It all got mixed up with various liberation movements. Woodstock. Stonewall. Gloria Steinem. Angela Davis. Black Panthers. A generation of young people, certainly not without exception, came to accuse American society of harboring murderous intent. Reports on the evening news from places like Da Nang and Mi Lai corroborated their accusations. Seminary friends and university students often demonstrated at places like Fort Dix. Some were arrested. I sat it out. I could never bring myself to become an activist. The old debate still went on inside me. There were two sides to every question. One day I would answer a question affirmatively. The next I would debate on the negative side. But like many of my peers, I had a growing sense of the untenability of official United States policy. The war was clearly a moral catastrophe. Nixon, Agnew, and all its other rationalizers spouted stuff that was every bit as dubious as anything Lyndon Johnson ever said. Viet Nam did not make a radical student out of me. Viet Nam taught me that the society I lived in was capable of justifying anything it found expedient.
Why had I even gone to Princeton Theological Seminary? I graduated from college in June, 1967 and struck out for Colorado where a job awaited me with A Christian Ministry in the National Parks. In addition to offering services twice on Sunday at an amphitheatre in the park, I worked for the Mesa Verde Company, the park concessioners, running a recreation hall for the park company employees, a good majority of whom were Navajos, the first Native Americans I had ever known. Warren Ost, the director of the National Council of Churches' program, came through Mesa Verde on two separate occasions, met me on the first of those, and on the second trip took up and accelerated his argument that I ought to go to seminary. Vulnerable to my local draft board, with whom I had been haggling all summer in an effort to get a deferment to go to graduate school, I heard myself in response to one of Warren's insistent questions blurting out, "OK, dammit, I'll go!" When I spoke that, I felt a piece of me fall into place which had for some time lodged in a space of resistance and denial. Off to Princeton, Warren's seminary, I went, stunning my girl friend, my parents, and a handful of friends who thought that I had been on a trajectory of becoming a college professor.
I had no idea of ever being ordained. All I wanted to do was to avoid the draft long enough to plug a few holes in my academic résumé, so that with luck I could get into a classy graduate school after seminary. By then, I reasoned, the war would be over or at least the draft would not be breathing down my back. Consequently, my first year I opted not to do any field education in a local parish, there being nothing compelling me to do so. I spent Sundays jockeying around from church to church, or at least that was my plan. The second week I landed in the Episcopal church across the street from campus. That stopped my peregrination. Somewhat later it would launch me on another journey, one towards ordination. Meanwhile, I fell in love with Anglican liturgy and began to notice that there existed a strange compatibility between ancient Tudor language and social conscience. The sermons at Trinity Church made that much clear.
I could not avoid field education more than one year, however, if I wanted a degree. So I began to shop for possible placements at the end of my first year. The Reverend William H. Gray III, a masters degree student at the seminary, was barely older than I. He had recently assumed the pastorate of a black Baptist congregation in Montclair, New Jersey, where he would serve for several years before returning to his native Philadelphia to assume the leadership of the congregation his father and grandfather had pastored. For reasons best known to himself, Bill Gray hired me to be his seminarian, despite the fact that I was very white, very southern, and this was the fall of 1968, just a few months after Martin Luther King, Jr., was killed and all hell had broken loose in the black communities of the nation's cities. For an academic year, I trekked up to Montclair on Friday nights and returned to Princeton on Sunday nights. I spent weekends in the homes of parishioners. I learned a few things. I learned how very white the world was in the day before black faces turned up on cereal boxes or in magazines in the homes of people whose walls displayed photos of people conspicuously non-white. I learned how generous and open black people could be, inviting me into their lives not caring who I was or where I came from. I learned what it was like to be honored and loved, and above all, fed.
Hardly any of this surprised me. But one thing that clearly did stun me was experiencing what it felt like to be a minority. As I bonded more and more strongly with the kids in the youth group, with adults who welcomed and mentored me, with Bill Gray whose intellect and leadership I came to respect, I marveled at how little I had known in my native South about people who lived less than a mile from my front door. Shame rose in my throat when I thought of how I had underestimated the plight of Lunelle Hunt, the maid who had kept house and children for Mama while she worked. After I had been at Union Baptist Church for a couple of weeks, I was with Jimmy, one of the guys in the youth group, chatting one Friday night during an after-game party at the Soul Sanction, the dance hall housed in a storefront to which Bill Gray had assigned me to chaperone. "So what was the reaction in the youth group when Reverend Gray hired a white guy to work with you?" I asked.
"You're kidding." Jimmy's face furrowed. "When did he do that?"
"A couple of weeks ago," I responded, puzzled.
His eyes widened. "You are white?"
"Well, yes, what did you think I was?"
"I thought you were just light skinned." He patted my frizzy hair. "Wait till I tell the kids about this."
I came back to campus unable to wait to tell this to Louis Favors, a fellow student who was black.
"You see, Frank," Louis said, shaking his head. "That's what I've been telling you. All this race stuff is a bunch of bullshit."
I left Union Baptist in the spring of that year, forever changed by the weekends I had spent there. I cherish memories of hanging out with the youth group at Lelia Fant's house on Sunday afternoons. The Sunday dinners which Bill Gray and I enjoyed at the invitation of cooks like Fannie Julius and Mrs. Rice, the wife of the Pastor Emeritus, are to this day my standards for elegant hospitality. I carry somewhere in my body the memory of a youth retreat when some kids I did not know very well took me to task for not understanding anything at all about them because I was white and therefore never could understand, or be trusted for that matter. I recall being comforted and affirmed by kids I did know well, gathering around to let me know that I was OK, and that my complexion mattered not a whit to them. I have never since Union Baptist stopped believing that the quintessential American political issue is and always has been the matter of race. Which was and is and ever shall be, in Calvin Louis Favors' words, bullshit.
By 1972 and the candidacy of George McGovern, we had lived through the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, Malcolm X. The country was badly divided, drawn and quartered down age and race lines. We woke up one day to find that something else had been the victim of an assassination attempt: the American political system, and with it the illusion that we actually operated according to rules of fairness and honesty. From that time on, with the possible exception of 1976, I have seen every single Presidential election sullied by the forces of dishonesty and deception. It is interesting to ponder what might have happened had the Watergate burglary not been discovered. But in fact it was. And everybody acted surprised. Before it was over with, the nation had the opportunity to see just what a paranoid gang ran the government. Riding to a clergy meeting with a number of colleagues during the Watergate crisis, someone made the comment that the trouble with Richard Nixon is that he had no doctrine of original sin. That set me back on my heels. I thought about it. What is "original sin" but a way of stating the truth about the corruptibility of human nature, even when its ostensible desires are noblest?
Nixon and his buddies, appealing to Americans who were mad at hippies, mad at communists, furious that Viet Nam had proven such a disaster, angry with their own children who defied them by growing long hair (in the case of boys), wearing granny gowns (in the case of girls), and living with their lovers outside of marriage (in the case of both) found the phrase that worked like a charm: "Silent Majority." The majority were neither silent nor a majority, in all probability. But at least at that point, conservatives took a giant leap forward. They invented a narrative that was to become highly successful and as stubbornly vibrant as kudzu. That was the notion that they were, even when a majority, nonetheless persecuted. Spiro Agnew nearly forty years ago quipped about the "liberal elite" that they were the "nattering nabobs of negativism." Conservatives, specifically Republicans, began to spin a tale that the media was a liberal hegemony, mocking the values and beliefs of Middle America. Women, blacks, and other minorities had somehow gained ascendancy at the expense of good, law-abiding white people, who took it lying down. In other words, the Silent Majority were the really oppressed ones.
A few years later, the evangelical movement having burgeoned into a political phalanx, Jerry Falwell spun "Silent Majority" into "Moral Majority." By that time, Anita Bryant and others had begun to single out homosexuals to bear a particularly virulent strain of contempt, and people in droves decided to join sides in what would soon become known as the "culture wars." Ronald Reagan rode the wave of increasing dissatisfaction with the attacks of left-wing radicals against the "Majority's" social structure. I saw taking place a marriage of conservative politics (which I had espoused in high school) and evangelical Christianity (with which I was certainly familiar). Suddenly to be "liberal" was not to be a true Christian. In religious matters, the old liberal establishment (which was not, by the way, a fantasy, but indeed a reality) was sidelined by upcoming conservatives.
One important strand in the cultural rope of the early '80's was a heightened awareness of the charismatic movement. To look backwards momentarily, I can recall a benchmark moment for me that dates the rise of the charismatics. I had become acquainted with the term and the movement in the summer of 1965 when working in Altavista, Virginia. When I returned to the Randolph-Macon campus the following fall, I mentioned the phenomenon of charismatic renewal to a Bible professor of mine who registered a complete blank. He knew nothing about it. In fewer than six years, TIME magazine carried a cover story about the charismatic movement, a branch of which was the "Jesus Movement," popular among youth. By the early eighties, charismatic Christianity had become a force to be reckoned with in all mainline churches.
The charismatic revival in the churches might have been incidental to American politics for the most part had not it stressed a new earnestness about the Bible. Those of us who had grown up in mainline Protestantism, and certainly we who had gone to mainline seminaries, had largely espoused a religious viewpoint strongly colored by modern biblical scholarship. Folks in the pews, such as my parents and their friends, were hardly conversant with the giants of twentieth century theology--Nieburh, Bonhoeffer, Tillich, Barth, Bultmann--but continued to read the Bible more or less under the tutelage of ministers who were. Charismatics stressed not only the necessity of taking the Bible quite seriously, but a particular interpretation of scripture emphasizing the activity of God in the present moment. That idea gave me no indigestion, since I had grown up believing in, indeed seeing, the activity of God in the workaday world. What drove me nuts was the fact that no questions I ever asked charismatics led to any kind of reflection and probing, only to answers that were doctrinaire. Charismatics always had something to teach me, and usually, it seemed, it was some deficiency I had. But what I learned eventually from my contacts with "born-again" Christians was that they, with few exceptions, experienced God as having a set of definite ideas about how the world ought to be run and furthermore would be quite irate if somehow human beings got it wrong. A bumper sticker summed it up: "Jesus is coming back, and boy is he pissed!" Biblical literalism, often confusingly conflated with "fundamentalism," came to be the default position of many people who through the various renewal movements in the Church came to a fresh appreciation of the Bible as a living book. If you talked with such people about plural interpretations of texts, or about the relative merits of context of passages? Nothing doing. There was a "plain sense" of the text, which they saw and understood even if you didn't, and that was that.
This way of understanding the Bible has driven and still drives the quarrels about cultural issues. The sexuality issues illustrate it well. Give the literalists the point: the Bible is "against homosexuality." Don't argue about the meaning of the word, just concede the point. But then ask, "So what?" What if the Bible prohibits all homosexual activity? Why should we, churches or society, be concerned about that? Then comes the answer: "The Bible is the Word of God. That is how we know God's will." Then ask, "So what happens if we misread the Bible, or otherwise mess up and get God's will wrong? What then?" I have yet to hear a biblical literalist say, "Well, if you mess up, God will forgive you." Instead, I hear about hell and how those who don't get it are going there. So why should society actually care about, say, the unrepentant homosexual who gets it wrong and goes to hell? The only answer I can detect from the literalists is that God would be equally irate with those who provided the homosexual with the opportunity to get it wrong and go to hell. In other words, everybody who colluded in making it possible for a person to sin and go to hell would be equally guilty.
Otherwise, it seems to me, the tremendous steam that literalist Christians emit over such issues is impossible to understand, short of some facile quip such as "homophobic." If you push the apparatus behind the phobia only a bit, you come to the point of seeing that it really is a terrible fear of what God is going to do to anyone who gets it wrong or who complies with a system that allows anybody else to get it wrong. I think that that fear is far more basic than, say, the fear of "the other" or the fear on the part of men that the might be perceived as feminine, or God forbid, an actual woman. Why are those things in our unconscious anyway? In large part, I think, it is because a religious system of inculcating those fears has been terribly effective. And it rests on a simplistic, uncritical way of reading sacred texts.
A scarier example of the way all this works is the conservative Christian view of foreign policy in the Middle East. Reading--I would say seriously misreading--Old Testament prophecies and the Book of Revelation, conservative Christians avidly support Israel, not because they care a fig for the Jews, even arguing that no Jew is "going to heaven" because only believing in the Lord Jesus Christ can possibly land you there. But to them Israel is a key fulfillment of a biblical prophecy that is absolutely integral to their apocalyptic view of the end time. Thus, when during the run-up to the Iraq war I contacted a number of people encouraging them to sign a petition to the government to back off, to give the inspections (for weapons of mass destruction) a chance to work, a conservative Christian friend of mine wrote back and said that he was not the least bit interested in doing anything to forestall war, since the sooner the Middle East became embroiled in war, the sooner the chances that Armaggeddon would come about, an event necessary for the Second Coming of Christ. People like that are not only advocating in our departments of State and Defense; in some cases they are in power. That fact does not bother the right wing. Far from it! It is just other evidence that muddle-headed liberals who stick up for peace and forbearance are ignorantly getting in the way of God's will.
The more energy that the Reagan-led conservative movement generated, the harder set the cement bonding conservative ideology and religious--specifically Christian--more specifically right-wing Christian--views. In people like Lee Atwater and Karl Rove, Republicans found operatives who would do and justify the meanest and dirtiest of political tricks. The people that raved on about personal conscience had no pangs of conscience whatever when it came to smearing a Michael Dukakis or a Max Cleland. No, the end (keeping the Republicans in power) justified the means (lying, smearing, distorting, and above all fear-mongering). I am not naively suggesting that Democrats have not done some, many, or all of those same things. But there has been at least one principle difference. And that is, to my knowledge, there has been no wedding of Democratic Party political philosophy and religious ideology that has even once justified political chicanery on theological grounds. The reverse has been true of Republicans. Smearing John Kerry by the infamous "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" was justified, as was mocking his war record by handing out purple heart band aids at the Republican National Convention in 2004, because a vote for Bush (and against Kerry) was a vote for God.
If the Civil Rights Act redrew the political map for years to come, surely the redrawn map solidified with the decision of the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade. When religious groups, notably the Roman Catholic Church, threw their weight on the side of opposing abortion rights, enormous numbers of people signed on to the conservative cause. Or, to put it another way, espousing the "pro-life" position made the Republicans the party for great numbers of people who opposed abortion rights. In the 1970's, The Episcopal Church passed a resolution in General Convention which said, among other things, that abortion was not an acceptable form of birth control. It also held that there were situations when abortion was an acceptable choice. Nothing, the resolution held, should be a reason to abridge the right of a woman to choose, under the pastoral guidance of the Church. This position accorded with my own belief. But conservatives would not even recognize this position as valid, let alone as a defensible Christian one, so convinced are they that there is only one biblically congruent position on "pro-life" matters. As dubious as I am about the wisdom of abortions generally--certainly as a form of post facto birth control, I find deeply troubling the notion that the Bible is a two-dimensional book that provides clear-cut, self-authenticating answers and solutions to a range of questions.
Anyone who has studied the Bible even superficially will notice that it is full of contradictions, which, more often than not, reflect the multiple traditions, texts, and theologies of its authors. The Bible itself is full of revisionism. The Book of Job, for example, debates the prevailing theology of the Deuteronomist. No better example of revisionism exists than Jesus. One can make an argument that the reason he was condemned and crucified was precisely that he was perceived as a dangerous revisionist, teaching a hermeneutic and an ethic that ran afoul of the governing interpretations of his day. Plucking grain and healing on the sabbath are acts far more radical than the modern conservative Christian would be able to stomach. By the same token, his call to a stricter morality in the case of divorce (which also departed from current orthodoxy) denotes Jesus' seriousness of ethical purpose that undercuts any attempt to make him the darling of permissiveness.
Well before I had reached the age of 30, I was on the same trajectory that I still follow. I have changed my mind about many things over the years. At one point, for example, I argued vehemently against the proposal to ordain women. A short year or so later, I was solidly in the camp of those who saw women's ordination as being just and right. In the early 1980's, I argued on the basis of scripture, tradition, and reason that there was no ground for sanctioning homosexual behavior. Two decades later I struggled to articulate what had been clear from my adolescence: that I was myself a gay man who had chosen to tackle my own sexuality by doing all the things, including marriage, confession, and remaining closeted, that any right-winger would have prescribed, only to see my life kneaded into a more and more unpalatable loaf of neurosis. What remains constant for me is the measure of all things by what I perceive the Truth to be. I find that Truth best approached by two things. One is my commitment to a philosophy of dispassionate inquiry which holds unabashedly to the awareness that I could be wrong and often am. The other is a religious tradition which holds lightly the non-essentials of its faith while pursuing firmly the core of that faith, namely the belief that the entire project of salvation is a matter of reconciling humans with other humans, humans with all creation, and all creation with the Creator. To that end my whole life has been moving, and if I have to bet on it, that is the way it will keep moving till the end.
© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2008
Sunday, October 12, 2008
Suppose There Were a Financial Meltdown
and Nobody Cared
Leo Bebb is his name, and he is a character. A guy by the name of Frederick Buechner invented him and gave him not one but four novels in which to star. The third one of them is called Love Feast. Bebb is a southern, overweight white preacher whom we come to know because another character, much more like you and me, by the name of Antonio Parr, decides one day in New York City to follow Bebb in order to expose him as the charlatan that he had to be. Parr goes after him to Florida, to Connecticut, and then to Princeton, New Jersey. It is the 1970’s, just about the time that I myself was living in Princeton. The university is chock-a-block with hippies. It is to them that Bebb offers his message of salvation. He persuades the rather stodgy Princeton University to let him hold love feasts in Alexander Hall in the middle of campus. The students by and large love attending Bebb’s services, not the least reason for which is that he serves tropicanas, a tasty orange drink which he has imported from Florida.
By the time he reaches Princeton in the wake of Bebb, Antonio has discovered that Bebb is anything but a phony. His brand of Christianity, while unpolished and blunt, captivates Antonio with its courage and imagination. Bebb manages to attract a well-heeled supporter whose name is Gertrude Conover. Gertrude lives in a big house on Library Place in Princeton, which is truly the high rent district. His faithful patron, she offers to give a Thanksgiving dinner, expecting a crowd of university students stranded on campus during the holiday weekend. Her grand house, Revenoc, is immaculate, ready for the occasion. Wreaths decorate the big lions at the end of the driveway, whose gravel is carefully raked. Caterers deliver the makings of the feast to the house, all decked with chrysanthemums throughout. And when nobody comes, Bebb gives a little homily about how much there is to eat and how few there are to enjoy it, just as it was in Jesus’ story. So Antonio gets into a friend’s rusty Chevy. They go hunting through the nearly deserted streets of Princeton, rounding up unsuspecting people to come for Thanksgiving. Gertrude gets on the phone and calls some of her pearls-and-blue rinse friends. A miscellany of people, like “ants and anteaters, cats and dogs, lambs and lions…were stabled together there in uproarious harmony while outside the chilly sky darkened.” And there followed an amazing love feast where differences melted faster than the stock market last week.
Matthew’s story is not quite as nice as Buechner’s, let’s admit. Matthew got his story from Q, another author, and rang some changes on it to make some of Matthew’s own favorite points. Luke had a version that was closer to Bebb’s and Buechner’s, and the Gospel of Thomas told one, too. But Matthew wanted to let folks know that this was not just anyone behaving like Gertrude Conover with her slip showing innocently, but the God and father of Our Lord Jesus Christ who had given a banquet for his Messianic Son. Prophets of old, like servants of a king, had given out the invitations. They had been shabbily treated to say the least. So God, fed up with the combination of ungrateful guests and murderous villains, fell into a rage and up and burned the place down, presumably his own town, while dinner had to wait. Not a pretty sight! Then he gave the order to go into the main streets and invite everyone they could find to the wedding banquet. And just as at Revenoc, the wedding hall filled with guests. But Matthew wants us to know that the real messianic banquet, much more serious than even the parable would have it, was not a come-as-you-are affair. It involved complete conversion, symbolized by a new suit of clothes. All of that is the way that Matthew read history and understood it as a narrative of a gracious and just God who extended a generous invitation but was definitely not to be trifled with.
Ah, there is so much here if we want to mine this parable for some cues as to how to practice our Christian faith! There is a message about carelessness and one about carefulness. There is a message about generosity and one about profligacy. There is a lesson about welcoming, balanced by another about presuming on the graces of the host. Where to dig in?
If it is all right for Matthew to take a story and use it to convey an urgent message about getting ready for the coming Reign of God, then might we not take the bones of the story and flesh them out with a slightly different point, one that serves the cause of the same Reign of God, but addresses the particular concerns of this week in this place?
This week I opened several statements that have come at the end of the third quarter to find what many of you have likely discovered. What I have socked away for my future has rapidly dwindled. I don’t even want to ask how bad it is. It is that bad. And while I received a reassuring letter from the Church Pension Fund, my first instinct is to be angry, which is the mask my fear usually wears. When threatened, we frequently resort to the default position, which is to hold on tighter rather than to let go, to grasp rather than to trust. It is precisely at this point that I am learning the Christian practice of stewardship. Sometimes that is described as “holding something in trust,” as stewards typically do. But I am beginning to think of it as “letting go of something in trust,” which is counter-intuitive.
I read something a few months ago by a person who encouraged living more generously than necessary. Tip generously, he said. Never let it be less than 20% unless the service is just abysmal, and let it be more if the service is really good. Frankly, I had always been a 15% man, even though I remember quite well the days of my own life as a waiter. Now I am hearing another voice when it comes time to pay the bill. That is the way one gets ever closer to giving a great banquet, like the one in the gospel or the one in Princeton. You give a little here and a little there, not counting the cost and soon you find that the universe is humming in harmony with you, or you with it. The occasions multiply. The amounts grow. And the worries lessen.
Suppose there were a financial meltdown and nobody cared. Suppose we were all as drunk on the joy of giving as the proverbial “Wall Street gang” is reputed to have been during the sub-prime mortgage spree. Suppose we honestly didn’t care because we knew that if God clothes the birds of the air and the lilies of the field how much more will he clothe us? I don’t know that I can do that. But I don’t know that I will in fact have much choice. Might as well make the most of it. Hoarding has never been known to do much besides harden a heart, like that of Moliere’s Misanthrope counting out the contents of his pathetic strong box.
Suppose there were a financial meltdown and nobody feared. What might happen if we said, in effect, as long as I have resources and others have fewer; as long as I have food, and there is someone who is hungry; as long as I have a hand to give, I’ll give? The funny thing is that it has never been prudent to wait until you have abundance, let alone security, before you give anything, because in all probability you’ll never cross that line. Abundance only comes after you have learned to give it away. Those who have not yet learned that have not yet learned one of the open secrets of the universe.
Years ago when I was a young pastor in Charlotte, I learned the lesson from someone who modeled for me what it means to live like a king throwing a wedding banquet. His name was Holt, and his titled was Elder. I think he was the pastor of an off—shoot of the AME Zion Church, maybe. Elder Holt called one day and wanted to come see me. He sat and told me about his project. He drove from Charlotte to Morganton each week to visit the patients at the large state mental hospital there. He had no agenda but to build relationships with the patients, many of whom had been abandoned by family and what friends they might have ever had. Elder Holt would invest in trinkets, candy, little favors, plastic flowers, maybe, anything that he could use to strike up a conversation or to meet some small need. I had a paltry discretionary fund, but I gave him what I could. One time I bought a putter from him when he was selling some golf clubs that someone had given him. Over several years I got to know him. One day he came asking if I could help him get his car fixed. “Elder,” I asked, “what will you ever do if you get out of debt, when you are free and clear, when your wife no longer fusses at you because you spend all this money on mental patients?”
He looked at me without hesitation and said, “I’d go right back in.” Elder Holt is one of that company that includes Saint Xenia of St. Petersburg and St. Francis of Assisi that are known as “fools for Christ.” Most of them are anything but fools, except by the world’s standards. They simply have learned how to give without counting the cost, until it becomes first a joy and then an all-consuming passion. None of them would be the least bit bothered by a financial meltdown. They have a gold not of this world, which strangely enough knows precisely what to do with the gold of this world, and that is to keep it moving, giving it away.
Everything follows that. Hospitality follows, because it is simply another form that generosity takes. Openness, too, grows, because money is incidental to the more basic work of the soul, which is its own opening to embrace the other. Forgiveness, patience, thanksgiving: they all grow from a common seed as fruit sharing a stalk.
Every virtue, like generosity, has its counterweight in the form of a vice. It would be easy enough to say, quite reasonably, that the vice opposing generosity is profligacy. And that might well be. But I think there is another vice more dangerous than being a spendthrift. And that is ingratitude. Grace is the essence of generosity, and charity is the essence of grace. Grace finds its expression in a sustained attitude of thanksgiving. And so its opposite is ingratitude, pictured like the wedding guests who made light of the king’s invitation, oblivious, no doubt, to the hurt that rode on the arrowshaft of bad manners.
Suppose there were a financial meltdown and nobody stopped giving. Sharing simply increased. People laughed instead of wringing their hands. And got into theirs and their friends’ beat-up old cars and pick-up trucks, and combed the city streets and alleyways looking for people to invite to dinner, where “ants and anteaters, cats and dogs, lambs and lions, were all stabled together in uproarious harmony, while outside the chilly sky darkened.”
© Frank G. Dunn, 2008
Monday, October 06, 2008
October 13, 2008
Never in living memory has an election been more critical than the one fast approaching—that’s the quadrennial cliché, as expected as the balloons and the bombast. And yet when has it ever felt so urgently true? When have so many Americans had so clear a sense that a Presidency has—at the levels of competence, vision, and integrity—undermined the country and its ideals?
The incumbent Administration has distinguished itself for the ages. The Presidency of George W. Bush is the worst since Reconstruction, so there is no mystery about why the Republican Party—which has held dominion over the executive branch of the federal government for the past eight years and the legislative branch for most of that time—has little desire to defend its record, domestic or foreign. The only speaker at the Convention in St. Paul who uttered more than a sentence or two in support of the President was his wife, Laura. Meanwhile, the nominee, John McCain, played the part of a vaudeville illusionist, asking to be regarded as an apostle of change after years of embracing the essentials of the Bush agenda with ever-increasing ardor.
The Republican disaster begins at home. Even before taking into account whatever fantastically expensive plan eventually emerges to help rescue the financial system from Wall Street’s long-running pyramid schemes, the economic and fiscal picture is bleak. During the Bush Administration, the national debt, now approaching ten trillion dollars, has nearly doubled. Next year’s federal budget is projected to run a half-trillion-dollar deficit, a precipitous fall from the seven-hundred-billion-dollar surplus that was projected when Bill Clinton left office. Private-sector job creation has been a sixth of what it was under President Clinton. Five million people have fallen into poverty. The number of Americans without health insurance has grown by seven million, while average premiums have nearly doubled. Meanwhile, the principal domestic achievement of the Bush Administration has been to shift the relative burden of taxation from the rich to the rest. For the top one per cent of us, the Bush tax cuts are worth, on average, about a thousand dollars a week; for the bottom fifth, about a dollar and a half. The unfairness will only increase if the painful, yet necessary, effort to rescue the credit markets ends up preventing the rescue of our health-care system, our environment, and our physical, educational, and industrial infrastructure.
At the same time, a hundred and fifty thousand American troops are in Iraq and thirty-three thousand are in Afghanistan. There is still disagreement about the wisdom of overthrowing Saddam Hussein and his horrific regime, but there is no longer the slightest doubt that the Bush Administration manipulated, bullied, and lied the American public into this war and then mismanaged its prosecution in nearly every aspect. The direct costs, besides an expenditure of more than six hundred billion dollars, have included the loss of more than four thousand Americans, the wounding of thirty thousand, the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqis, and the displacement of four and a half million men, women, and children. Only now, after American forces have been fighting for a year longer than they did in the Second World War, is there a glimmer of hope that the conflict in Iraq has entered a stage of fragile stability.
The indirect costs, both of the war in particular and of the Administration’s unilateralist approach to foreign policy in general, have also been immense. The torture of prisoners, authorized at the highest level, has been an ethical and a public-diplomacy catastrophe. At a moment when the global environment, the global economy, and global stability all demand a transition to new sources of energy, the United States has been a global retrograde, wasteful in its consumption and heedless in its policy. Strategically and morally, the Bush Administration has squandered the American capacity to counter the example and the swagger of its rivals. China, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and other illiberal states have concluded, each in its own way, that democratic principles and human rights need not be components of a stable, prosperous future. At recent meetings of the United Nations, emboldened despots like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran came to town sneering at our predicament and hailing the “end of the American era.”
The election of 2008 is the first in more than half a century in which no incumbent President or Vice-President is on the ballot. There is, however, an incumbent party, and that party has been lucky enough to find itself, apparently against the wishes of its “base,” with a nominee who evidently disliked George W. Bush before it became fashionable to do so. In South Carolina in 2000, Bush crushed John McCain with a sub-rosa primary campaign of such viciousness that McCain lashed out memorably against Bush’s Christian-right allies. So profound was McCain’s anger that in 2004 he flirted with the possibility of joining the Democratic ticket under John Kerry. Bush, who took office as a “compassionate conservative,” governed immediately as a rightist ideologue. During that first term, McCain bolstered his reputation, sometimes deserved, as a “maverick” willing to work with Democrats on such issues as normalizing relations with Vietnam, campaign-finance reform, and immigration reform. He co-sponsored, with John Edwards and Edward Kennedy, a patients’ bill of rights. In 2001 and 2003, he voted against the Bush tax cuts. With John Kerry, he co-sponsored a bill raising auto-fuel efficiency standards and, with Joseph Lieberman, a cap-and-trade regime on carbon emissions. He was one of a minority of Republicans opposed to unlimited drilling for oil and gas off America’s shores.
Since the 2004 election, however, McCain has moved remorselessly rightward in his quest for the Republican nomination. He paid obeisance to Jerry Falwell and preachers of his ilk. He abandoned immigration reform, eventually coming out against his own bill. Most shocking, McCain, who had repeatedly denounced torture under all circumstances, voted in February against a ban on the very techniques of “enhanced interrogation” that he himself once endured in Vietnam—as long as the torturers were civilians employed by the C.I.A.
On almost every issue, McCain and the Democratic Party’s nominee, Barack Obama, speak the generalized language of “reform,” but only Obama has provided a convincing, rational, and fully developed vision. McCain has abandoned his opposition to the Bush-era tax cuts and has taken up the demagogic call—in the midst of recession and Wall Street calamity, with looming crises in Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid—for more tax cuts. Bush’s expire in 2011. If McCain, as he has proposed, cuts taxes for corporations and estates, the benefits once more would go disproportionately to the wealthy.
In Washington, the craze for pure market triumphalism is over. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson arrived in town (via Goldman Sachs) a Republican, but it seems that he will leave a Democrat. In other words, he has come to see that the abuses that led to the current financial crisis––not least, excessive speculation on borrowed capital––can be fixed only with government regulation and oversight. McCain, who has never evinced much interest in, or knowledge of, economic questions, has had little of substance to say about the crisis. His most notable gesture of concern—a melodramatic call last month to suspend his campaign and postpone the first Presidential debate until the government bailout plan was ready—soon revealed itself as an empty diversionary tactic.
By contrast, Obama has made a serious study of the mechanics and the history of this economic disaster and of the possibilities of stimulating a recovery. Last March, in New York, in a speech notable for its depth, balance, and foresight, he said, “A complete disdain for pay-as-you-go budgeting, coupled with a generally scornful attitude towards oversight and enforcement, allowed far too many to put short-term gain ahead of long-term consequences.” Obama is committed to reforms that value not only the restoration of stability but also the protection of the vast majority of the population, which did not partake of the fruits of the binge years. He has called for greater and more programmatic regulation of the financial system; the creation of a National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank, which would help reverse the decay of our roads, bridges, and mass-transit systems, and create millions of jobs; and a major investment in the green-energy sector.
On energy and global warming, Obama offers a set of forceful proposals. He supports a cap-and-trade program to reduce America’s carbon emissions by eighty per cent by 2050—an enormously ambitious goal, but one that many climate scientists say must be met if atmospheric carbon dioxide is to be kept below disastrous levels. Large emitters, like utilities, would acquire carbon allowances, and those which emit less carbon dioxide than their allotment could sell the resulting credits to those which emit more; over time, the available allowances would decline. Significantly, Obama wants to auction off the allowances; this would provide fifteen billion dollars a year for developing alternative-energy sources and creating job-training programs in green technologies. He also wants to raise federal fuel-economy standards and to require that ten per cent of America’s electricity be generated from renewable sources by 2012. Taken together, his proposals represent the most coherent and far-sighted strategy ever offered by a Presidential candidate for reducing the nation’s reliance on fossil fuels.
There was once reason to hope that McCain and Obama would have a sensible debate about energy and climate policy. McCain was one of the first Republicans in the Senate to support federal limits on carbon dioxide, and he has touted his own support for a less ambitious cap-and-trade program as evidence of his independence from the White House. But, as polls showed Americans growing jittery about gasoline prices, McCain apparently found it expedient in this area, too, to shift course. He took a dubious idea—lifting the federal moratorium on offshore oil drilling—and placed it at the very center of his campaign. Opening up America’s coastal waters to drilling would have no impact on gasoline prices in the short term, and, even over the long term, the effect, according to a recent analysis by the Department of Energy, would be “insignificant.” Such inconvenient facts, however, are waved away by a campaign that finally found its voice with the slogan “Drill, baby, drill!”
The contrast between the candidates is even sharper with respect to the third branch of government. A tense equipoise currently prevails among the Justices of the Supreme Court, where four hard-core conservatives face off against four moderate liberals. Anthony M. Kennedy is the swing vote, determining the outcome of case after case.
McCain cites Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, two reliable conservatives, as models for his own prospective appointments. If he means what he says, and if he replaces even one moderate on the current Supreme Court, then Roe v. Wade will be reversed, and states will again be allowed to impose absolute bans on abortion. McCain’s views have hardened on this issue. In 1999, he said he opposed overturning Roe; by 2006, he was saying that its demise “wouldn’t bother me any”; by 2008, he no longer supported adding rape and incest as exceptions to his party’s platform opposing abortion.
But scrapping Roe—which, after all, would leave states as free to permit abortion as to criminalize it—would be just the beginning. Given the ideological agenda that the existing conservative bloc has pursued, it’s safe to predict that affirmative action of all kinds would likely be outlawed by a McCain Court. Efforts to expand executive power, which, in recent years, certain Justices have nobly tried to resist, would likely increase. Barriers between church and state would fall; executions would soar; legal checks on corporate power would wither—all with just one new conservative nominee on the Court. And the next President is likely to make three appointments.
Obama, who taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago, voted against confirming not only Roberts and Alito but also several unqualified lower-court nominees. As an Illinois state senator, he won the support of prosecutors and police organizations for new protections against convicting the innocent in capital cases. While McCain voted to continue to deny habeas-corpus rights to detainees, perpetuating the Bush Administration’s regime of state-sponsored extra-legal detention, Obama took the opposite side, pushing to restore the right of all U.S.-held prisoners to a hearing. The judicial future would be safe in his care.
In the shorthand of political commentary, the Iraq war seems to leave McCain and Obama roughly even. Opposing it before the invasion, Obama had the prescience to warn of a costly and indefinite occupation and rising anti-American radicalism around the world; supporting it, McCain foresaw none of this. More recently, in early 2007 McCain risked his Presidential prospects on the proposition that five additional combat brigades could salvage a war that by then appeared hopeless. Obama, along with most of the country, had decided that it was time to cut American losses. Neither candidate’s calculations on Iraq have been as cheaply political as McCain’s repeated assertion that Obama values his career over his country; both men based their positions, right or wrong, on judgment and principle.
President Bush’s successor will inherit two wars and the realities of limited resources, flagging popular will, and the dwindling possibilities of what can be achieved by American power. McCain’s views on these subjects range from the simplistic to the unknown. In Iraq, he seeks “victory”—a word that General David Petraeus refuses to use, and one that fundamentally misrepresents the messy, open-ended nature of the conflict. As for Afghanistan, on the rare occasions when McCain mentions it he implies that the surge can be transferred directly from Iraq, which suggests that his grasp of counterinsurgency is not as firm as he insisted it was during the first Presidential debate. McCain always displays more faith in force than interest in its strategic consequences. Unlike Obama, McCain has no political strategy for either war, only the dubious hope that greater security will allow things to work out. Obama has long warned of deterioration along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, and has a considered grasp of its vital importance. His strategy for both Afghanistan and Iraq shows an understanding of the role that internal politics, economics, corruption, and regional diplomacy play in wars where there is no battlefield victory.
Unimaginably painful personal experience taught McCain that war is above all a test of honor: maintain the will to fight on, be prepared to risk everything, and you will prevail. Asked during the first debate to outline “the lessons of Iraq,” McCain said, “I think the lessons of Iraq are very clear: that you cannot have a failed strategy that will then cause you to nearly lose a conflict.” A soldier’s answer––but a statesman must have a broader view of war and peace. The years ahead will demand not only determination but also diplomacy, flexibility, patience, judiciousness, and intellectual engagement. These are no more McCain’s strong suit than the current President’s. Obama, for his part, seems to know that more will be required than willpower and force to extract some advantage from the wreckage of the Bush years.
Obama is also better suited for the task of renewing the bedrock foundations of American influence. An American restoration in foreign affairs will require a commitment not only to international coöperation but also to international institutions that can address global warming, the dislocations of what will likely be a deepening global economic crisis, disease epidemics, nuclear proliferation, terrorism, and other, more traditional security challenges. Many of the Cold War-era vehicles for engagement and negotiation—the United Nations, the World Bank, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty regime, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization—are moribund, tattered, or outdated. Obama has the generational outlook that will be required to revive or reinvent these compacts. He would be the first postwar American President unencumbered by the legacies of either Munich or Vietnam.
The next President must also restore American moral credibility. Closing Guantánamo, banning all torture, and ending the Iraq war as responsibly as possible will provide a start, but only that. The modern Presidency is as much a vehicle for communication as for decision-making, and the relevant audiences are global. Obama has inspired many Americans in part because he holds up a mirror to their own idealism. His election would do no less—and likely more—overseas.
What most distinguishes the candidates, however, is character—and here, contrary to conventional wisdom, Obama is clearly the stronger of the two. Not long ago, Rick Davis, McCain’s campaign manager, said, “This election is not about issues. This election is about a composite view of what people take away from these candidates.” The view that this election is about personalities leaves out policy, complexity, and accountability. Even so, there’s some truth in what Davis said––but it hardly points to the conclusion that he intended.
Echoing Obama, McCain has made “change” one of his campaign mantras. But the change he has actually provided has been in himself, and it is not just a matter of altering his positions. A willingness to pander and even lie has come to define his Presidential campaign and its televised advertisements. A contemptuous duplicity, a meanness, has entered his talk on the stump—so much so that it seems obvious that, in the drive for victory, he is willing to replicate some of the same underhanded methods that defeated him eight years ago in South Carolina.
Perhaps nothing revealed McCain’s cynicism more than his choice of Sarah Palin, the former mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, who had been governor of that state for twenty-one months, as the Republican nominee for Vice-President. In the interviews she has given since her nomination, she has had difficulty uttering coherent unscripted responses about the most basic issues of the day. We are watching a candidate for Vice-President cram for her ongoing exam in elementary domestic and foreign policy. This is funny as a Tina Fey routine on “Saturday Night Live,” but as a vision of the political future it’s deeply unsettling. Palin has no business being the backup to a President of any age, much less to one who is seventy-two and in imperfect health. In choosing her, McCain committed an act of breathtaking heedlessness and irresponsibility. Obama’s choice, Joe Biden, is not without imperfections. His tongue sometimes runs in advance of his mind, providing his own fodder for late-night comedians, but there is no comparison with Palin. His deep experience in foreign affairs, the judiciary, and social policy makes him an assuring and complementary partner for Obama.
The longer the campaign goes on, the more the issues of personality and character have reflected badly on McCain. Unless appearances are very deceiving, he is impulsive, impatient, self-dramatizing, erratic, and a compulsive risk-taker. These qualities may have contributed to his usefulness as a “maverick” senator. But in a President they would be a menace.
By contrast, Obama’s transformative message is accompanied by a sense of pragmatic calm. A tropism for unity is an essential part of his character and of his campaign. It is part of what allowed him to overcome a Democratic opponent who entered the race with tremendous advantages. It is what helped him forge a political career relying both on the liberals of Hyde Park and on the political regulars of downtown Chicago. His policy preferences are distinctly liberal, but he is determined to speak to a broad range of Americans who do not necessarily share his every value or opinion. For some who oppose him, his equanimity even under the ugliest attack seems like hauteur; for some who support him, his reluctance to counterattack in the same vein seems like self-defeating detachment. Yet it is Obama’s temperament—and not McCain’s—that seems appropriate for the office both men seek and for the volatile and dangerous era in which we live. Those who dismiss his centeredness as self-centeredness or his composure as indifference are as wrong as those who mistook Eisenhower’s stolidity for denseness or Lincoln’s humor for lack of seriousness.
Nowadays, almost every politician who thinks about running for President arranges to become an author. Obama’s books are different: he wrote them. “The Audacity of Hope” (2006) is a set of policy disquisitions loosely structured around an account of his freshman year in the United States Senate. Though a campaign manifesto of sorts, it is superior to that genre’s usual blowsy pastiche of ghostwritten speeches. But it is Obama’s first book, “Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance” (1995), that offers an unprecedented glimpse into the mind and heart of a potential President. Obama began writing it in his early thirties, before he was a candidate for anything. Not since Theodore Roosevelt has an American politician this close to the pinnacle of power produced such a sustained, highly personal work of literary merit before being definitively swept up by the tides of political ambition.
A Presidential election is not the awarding of a Pulitzer Prize: we elect a politician and, we hope, a statesman, not an author. But Obama’s first book is valuable in the way that it reveals his fundamental attitudes of mind and spirit. “Dreams from My Father” is an illuminating memoir not only in the substance of Obama’s own peculiarly American story but also in the qualities he brings to the telling: a formidable intelligence, emotional empathy, self-reflection, balance, and a remarkable ability to see life and the world through the eyes of people very different from himself. In common with nearly all other senators and governors of his generation, Obama does not count military service as part of his biography. But his life has been full of tests—personal, spiritual, racial, political—that bear on his preparation for great responsibility.
It is perfectly legitimate to call attention, as McCain has done, to Obama’s lack of conventional national and international policymaking experience. We, too, wish he had more of it. But office-holding is not the only kind of experience relevant to the task of leading a wildly variegated nation. Obama’s immersion in diverse human environments (Hawaii’s racial rainbow, Chicago’s racial cauldron, countercultural New York, middle-class Kansas, predominantly Muslim Indonesia), his years of organizing among the poor, his taste of corporate law and his grounding in public-interest and constitutional law—these, too, are experiences. And his books show that he has wrung from them every drop of insight and breadth of perspective they contained.
The exhaustingly, sometimes infuriatingly long campaign of 2008 (and 2007) has had at least one virtue: it has demonstrated that Obama’s intelligence and steady temperament are not just figments of the writer’s craft. He has made mistakes, to be sure. (His failure to accept McCain’s imaginative proposal for a series of unmediated joint appearances was among them.) But, on the whole, his campaign has been marked by patience, planning, discipline, organization, technological proficiency, and strategic astuteness. Obama has often looked two or three moves ahead, relatively impervious to the permanent hysteria of the hourly news cycle and the cable-news shouters. And when crisis has struck, as it did when the divisive antics of his ex-pastor threatened to bring down his campaign, he has proved equal to the moment, rescuing himself with a speech that not only drew the poison but also demonstrated a profound respect for the electorate. Although his opponents have tried to attack him as a man of “mere” words, Obama has returned eloquence to its essential place in American politics. The choice between experience and eloquence is a false one––something that Lincoln, out of office after a single term in Congress, proved in his own campaign of political and national renewal. Obama’s “mere” speeches on everything from the economy and foreign affairs to race have been at the center of his campaign and its success; if he wins, his eloquence will be central to his ability to govern.
We cannot expect one man to heal every wound, to solve every major crisis of policy. So much of the Presidency, as they say, is a matter of waking up in the morning and trying to drink from a fire hydrant. In the quiet of the Oval Office, the noise of immediate demands can be deafening. And yet Obama has precisely the temperament to shut out the noise when necessary and concentrate on the essential. The election of Obama—a man of mixed ethnicity, at once comfortable in the world and utterly representative of twenty-first-century America—would, at a stroke, reverse our country’s image abroad and refresh its spirit at home. His ascendance to the Presidency would be a symbolic culmination of the civil- and voting-rights acts of the nineteen-sixties and the century-long struggles for equality that preceded them. It could not help but say something encouraging, even exhilarating, about the country, about its dedication to tolerance and inclusiveness, about its fidelity, after all, to the values it proclaims in its textbooks. At a moment of economic calamity, international perplexity, political failure, and battered morale, America needs both uplift and realism, both change and steadiness. It needs a leader temperamentally, intellectually, and emotionally attuned to the complexities of our troubled globe. That leader’s name is Barack Obama.