Friday, July 30, 2010

Why We Lie | Psychology Today

Why We Lie | Psychology Today

Letting Go

A sermon preached at St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Dupont Circle, Washington, DC, on Sunday, July 25, 2010, on the occasion of the leaving of The Rev. John Dwyer

Hosea 2:1-11

I am greatly honored to be here today at Nancy Lee’s invitation to preach. It is a bittersweet occasion for me as well as for St. Thomas’s Parish. There is a part of me that does not want to see John Dwyer leave here. Partly that is because I know how much he means to you and how much you mean to him. Partly that is because I have a hard time saying goodbye to anything and anybody. Even after many years of trying to learn how to let go, I feel something in me instinctively stirring to grab and clutch when a familiar part of my world breaks off and begins to float freely away.

For the last couple of years I have had the privilege of serving on a three-person team supporting and mentoring John on the first leg of his journey as an ordained person. Along with Dean Martha Horne, recently retired from Virginia Seminary, and Bishop Michael Creighton, retired from the Diocese of Central Pennsylvania, I have come to know John as a colleague in ministry. And precisely because I have seen John grow at close range, another part of me understands, approves, even cheers his leaving, because I know that growth demands it. But true as all of that is, it does not sweeten the experience of parting, does it?

Getting going with the unfamiliar seems to be the theme of life. We can make an argument that most organisms in fact flourish in familiar surroundings where the work of adaptation can go on somewhat smoothly. And yet significant leaps in evolutionary progress come about when organisms are tested by unfamiliar challenges to which they must adapt, not by a trouble-free environment which spares them the challenge of adapting. You may know, as I do, people who find a niche, get comfortable in it, and stay there all of their lives. A friend of mine lives in a community where I once lived too. We used to hang out a lot together. Every now and again I would suggest that we go to a restaurant that was out in the country, but couldn’t have been more than seven miles from his house. “Why do I want to go all the way out there?” he would say to me. “It’s outside the city limits.”

Sometimes in order to get a new compass reading of exactly who and where we are, somebody has to venture beyond the limits. Do something strange. Experiment. Stretch. Hosea, one of the prophets in ancient Israel, heard a very strange voice one day urging him to get a move on. “Go take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom,” said the voice. That, even by biblical standards, is odd. “The land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord.” Oh, so that’s it. This is one of those parables that is acted out. It is as if God is saying, “Do you want to know what it is like to be the God of Israel? Well, I’ll show you. Go marry a whore.” I feel a little embarrassed about that. It sounds crude, don’t you think? It also sounds sexist and politically incorrect and maybe even misogynistic. And imagine—if you have to imagine—what you would be experiencing if you were all a congregation of people, say, in a half-way house or a jail where a good slice of the population were or had been prostitutes. But shake that off, for the moment at least, and hear what Hosea is trying to tell us.

Hosea, of course, does what he is told. That is how he got into the Bible. He goes and marries Gomer. Immediately she has a son, then a daughter, then another son. Hosea names them the symbolic names that he hears in his head the Lord telling him to name them. And they are god-awful names. “Jezreel.” “Not-pitied.” “Not-my-people.” Little wonder with that kind of family dynamic that Gomer quickly has about all she can take of this weird man Hosea. She misses her trade. She leaves Hosea with the dishes and the children and promptly takes up, as my grandmother would say, with somebody else. From all of this Hosea is learning. This is what it is like to be God? This is what it must be like to be Yahweh, God of Israel, in a relationship with a people who have forsaken the Covenant with Yahweh and adulterated it with Canaanite Baal worship.

Then the plot thickens. “Go, woo her back,” says the Voice. Get a taste of it, Hosea. See what that’s like! So Hosea goes looking for Gomer and gets the message that this is what God is doing for Israel. God goes hunting for the lover that has swapped the true God for false gods and who has an appetite for their ritual raisin cakes. Fifteen shekels of silver pays Hosea for Gomer, together with a homer of barley and a cask of wine. In other words, Gomer is not cheap.

He brings Gomer home with him. They put their marriage back together. And that is the way Israel will do, Hosea sees. They will return and seek the Lord their God. They shall come in awe to the Lord. And God will have pity on her who was not pitied, and to the poor child who was called “Not my people,” God will say, “You are my people.”

Before dismissing this as just a bizarre biblical tour de force, think of what a reality show this is: a high-risk marriage, an untamable partner addicted to tricking, a persistent husband with a serious case of religion, a quixotic journey to locate and entice out of active prostitution someone who is probably bringing in quite a bit of income to her pimp, an unlikely bargain that buys Gomer’s freedom, a rehabilitation conducted by Hosea that includes sexual abstinence, the rebirth of a marriage against all odds. When you get past the barley and some of the other details, this all sounds fairly contemporary to my ears.

What is different about this is not plot but theology. Hosea’s learning through all of this is that his experience mirrors God’s experience. In the process he does a couple of interesting things. First, he gives us a theology of marriage. For it is here, like nowhere else in scripture, that we find the notion that marriage is a covenant. But Hosea does something even more radical. He adopts the idea from Baalism that a god has a spouse and thus gives a unique twist to Israel’s theology by seeing that God is married to Israel. They had had a wedding on Mount Sinai, when the covenant was sealed. These two ideas ultimately come to mean that marriage is a primary metaphor which captures the nature of the relationship between God and humanity: God is in love with God’s people. And nothing will stop God from pursuing every avenue to win Israel back!

All of this, of course, is about faithfulness, and that is the whole point of Hosea’s biographical essay. Faithfulness is a quality of God. We might be unfaithful, turning to this or that idol or to some god-substitute. But God is faithful in pursuing us. God is true to the God-nature, and we can carry that to the bank. But what of our faithfulness? It is not about what we believe. (We’re wrong about what we believe about half the time anyway, if not more so.) Faithfulness is about whom we give our hearts to. And whom we give our hearts to we become like. We follow. We emulate. We begin to mirror. (That is true no matter who you are or whether you are the least bit religious.) So if we, like our forefathers and foremothers of ancient Israel, give our hearts to false gods, listen to the voices that whisper promises of security or success or painlessness or unmitigated pleasure in exchange for our souls, we will begin to look and act like the gods we bow down to. If, on the other hand, like Gomer, we find ourselves bought out of slavery and we come home with the one who loves us ravishingly, we begin to take on the characteristics of the Great Lover who sets us free.

Ironically, this movement in following God continues to bring us to places where we find ourselves shedding things that keep weighing us down. For Gomer, it was a life of prostitution. For others of us it might be addiction or destructive behavior or drivenness to achieve or the desire to play it safe and not run any risks. And always it comes down to some decision, such as John’s: to search, to grow, to live; and like yours, to let go, to trust. William Blake put it in a memorable quatrain:

He who binds to himself a joy
Doth the wingèd life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in Eternity’s sunrise.

We never can tell where the Journey will take us, and that is not the point anyway. What we do know is that the Journey is led by a faithful God who never stops searching for paths and ways to bring us home. And we know that the more we follow, the more we come to embody the faithfulness of the selfsame God who loves us far too much ever to give us up.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2010

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Vintage Wine

To Paul Crego and Isaiah Poole, on the occasion of their marriage in the Church of St. Stephen and the Incarnation, Washington, DC, July 24, 2010

John 2:1-11

What you have just heard is quite possibly the most widely referenced biblical passage in all of Christianity. Scarcely a wedding takes place in any of the major Christian traditions that some reference, however slight, is not made to the wedding at Cana, where Jesus performed his first miracle (according to St. John’s Gospel). If you were to listen carefully to the opening address in the Book of Common Prayer, the model for all those other marriage rites in the English language, the one that begins with the familiar “Dearly Beloved, we have come together in the Presence of God,” you could see that the Church is footnoting its sacrament of Holy Matrimony with a reference to the Bible showing that Jesus obviously approved of marriage because he attended one. And not only did he attend one, he saved it from being a total flop by miraculous changing water into wine.

The reason that the Church got into the habit of giving a lengthy rationale for marriage at the beginning of every wedding was that, believe it or not, there was always some question as to whether marriage itself were something that the Christian community ought to be blessing and calling holy. It took something like thirteen centuries before the Church officially numbered marriage among its sacraments, so deep ran the understanding that marriage had to do with property and contracts and families and heirs—not to mention sex—and thus belonged to a part of life that did not seem to fit nicely into the Church’s business. You would never know all that listening to American debates in the last twenty years where scores of people assume that marriage itself floated straight down from the clouds with God’s signature on it as the principal plan for everybody.

But, like a lot of things, the story of the wedding at Cana started out serving one purpose and today serves a slightly—or perhaps very—different purpose. For in choosing this story to be read as the climactic lesson in their wedding today, Paul and Isaiah have given us the quintessential story about the miracle of change. It is in fact perhaps the very best story in the whole book about how the ordinary is transformed into something quite extraordinary. It is Christian alchemy at its highest: the dazzling news that there is a Power in the universe that takes the common and makes it holy. And this Power is none other than the Word made flesh, the one who looks and acts like every bit the human being that he truly is, and yet at the same time is the sublimely creative energy that brought all water and all wine into existence.

If this wedding today is about anything, it is certainly about change! Who would have believed, even a year or two ago, that in a church in the District of Columbia a group of people would gather to witness and bless the joining together of two men in marriage? And yet, water has become wine! The gloriously impossible has become real! And those of us in The Episcopal Church have been filling the water jars for the rites of purification for a long time. They have been standing, waiting, waiting, waiting for the moment to come when those who have had no taste of marriage joy could at last drink the same sweetness that all the other guests imbibe.

None of us thinks that this wedding is principally about the politics of marriage, or even about the wondrous social change that makes the marriage of two men or two women legal. It is about something far deeper. For Isaiah and Paul’s marriage is about their being transformed. Their transformation has less to do with the government of the District of Columbia than it has to do with the Holy One who soaks their life with meaning, who works quietly and mysteriously to produce growth, who opens their hearts to unexpected reconciliation, who touches common moments and makes them sparkle.

In his novel What’s Bred in the Bone,* one of my favorite writers, Robertson Davies, made the wedding of Cana the symbol of almost unimaginable power. Francis Cornish, dead before the story begins, came from a strange, mixed-up, somewhat shame-blighted family. But at an early age he knew he was different. He had a talent: painting. So off he went from his native Canada to England and then to Central Europe where he learned to paint in the style of the old masters. He became an internationally known art critic and specialist, and wound up in the center of intrigue, saving great masterpieces as the European art world was being ravished by the Nazis. In the center of all this was a mysterious painting that no one could exactly date, a stunning statement of the union of opposites that seemed to belong to the Reformation period. Was it real or was it a fake? And if the latter, who could have pulled off so marvelous a fake, and why? The painting depicted the wedding at Cana, the changing of water into wine. It turns out not to have been a forgery, but deeply authentic—though the world is never sure it can trust real authenticity. Francis Cornish himself was the artist. The genius that was bred in his bone came out on the canvas in a composition so stunning and colors so rich that people would have never believed that anyone short of a Rembrandt, say, could possibly have created something so powerful.

Isaiah and Paul, the wedding of Cana is the marriage of God and the human soul. The wedding of Cana has been going on in your lives now for some time, as you would be the first to say. Your wedding, this wedding, is the wedding of Cana, where the Power that created you and sent you forth on a journey has finally brought your marriage to the place where you can fully and freely celebrate who you are, where with all your guests you can serve and drink the very best wine of all—the wine of authenticity. No longer is your life a rich work of art that the critics can cheapen by questioning its legitimacy or its reality, let alone dare imagine that yours is a clever copy of the real thing. Yours is a marriage which is touched by the Master’s hand, the great Creator who made you the way you are and loves you as if you were the first two human beings or the last two on the planet. Yours is a marriage where ordinary stuff becomes holy, where bodies convey spirit, where the cracks in your hopes and deeds become the places the light of God shines through. You and your marriage are the authentic thing, this wedding of Cana. And through it and through you the rest of us are able to glimpse the unexpected joy of the young Lord whose hour has come and now is.

• Robertson Davies, What’s Bred in the Bone (New York: Viking Penguin, 1985).

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2010

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Good Neighbors

A sermon preached at St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church, Washington, DC, July 11, 2010

Text: Luke 10:25-37

“Something there is that doesn't love a wall,” begins one of Robert Frost’s best known most often quoted poems. “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,

…That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast. …

What it is that doesn’t love a wall is, of course, frost. The poet is punning on his name. It is frost that destroys walls. But more than that it is Mr. Frost himself that doesn’t like walls. He says as much to his neighbor:

There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, 'Good fences make good neighbors'.
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
'Why do they make good neighbors? Isn't it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down.'

The neighbor is a bit conservative, one might say, repeating his father’s proverb, savoring it, handling it like a stone from the dark stone age. Of this neighbor, the poet says,

I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me~
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father's saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, "Good fences make good neighbors."*

Many people quote Frost’s poem as they do the Bible, imagining that the proverb at the end is a chunk of common sense not to be disputed. The poet might think so, too—since he participates in this annual ritual of rebuilding the stone wall—but he is ambivalent. Something in him doesn’t love a wall.

“Who is my neighbor?” is one of two questions that dominates today’s gospel lesson. The other question is one that lies silently beneath Jesus’ story. “Why the walls?” The first century religion into which Jesus was born was as convinced as Frost’s neighbor that walls were necessary, and not only to make good neighbors, but precisely to keep some people from being neighbors. Some of those walls had to do with honest attempts to order society. Priests and Levites, temple officials, did not touch corpses without becoming ritually defiled (and quite possibly disease carriers, although that was not exactly the point). Something there is in people that does love walls. It is that part of us that wants to make sure that power and privilege are secure. Funny thing about that. As it turns out, one does not have to be a person or a member of a group that boasts of power and privilege. The powerless and the underprivileged sometimes have as big a stake in erecting, repairing, and maintaining walls as do those who demonstrably profit most from them. It seems to be, like Frost’s annual wall-mending day, something that human beings just do, whether they profit from walls or indeed like them much.

Walls keep people in and they keep people out. They make us at least feel secure, whether we are or not. And they advertise the boundaries that one dare not cross without considerable peril. The robbers who terrorized travelers on the Jericho Road had their own kind of walls, and not just the rocks they could hide behind to plan and execute their ambushes. They, like their gang descendants in Maratrucca-13 in Washington, had staked off their territory which one entered at one’s peril. The Samaritan lived behind another kind of wall. It was a wall of discrimination and hate. And when one is discriminated against, one colludes with wall-building. You hate me, then I’ll hate you. Leave me alone behind the wall you have built, and there I will nurse my pain, my un-belonging, build my bombs, get back at you.

Storyteller Jesus ingeniously sets up his hearers to expect a third traveler who would break the pattern of the first two. And since the first two are clergy, who better to break the pattern than a normal Israelite lay person, someone who might do a neighborly thing because that is what normal Israelites would do? Don’t stick your head in a book and pull your burro over to the other side of the road; go, check out the man lying in the ditch. But, surprise! It is not the average, faithful Israelite neighbor who acts in compassion and mercy or even curiosity. It is somebody from the other side of the wall. It is a Samaritan.

Remember the way the story got started. Jesus has had a conversation with a lawyer who, testing him, asked him a question about the Law: “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus returns the question with a question: “What is written in the Law. How do you read?” The lawyer answers correctly by quoting the Shema: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all you soul, and with all your strength, and with all you mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” But unable to let it go, the lawyer, seeking to justify himself, asks Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

So the story tells us that neighbors are frequently those behind walls. Neighbors are the ones who are frequently invisible, often alien. Now the interesting thing about the story is how it ostensibly answers the question, “Who is my neighbor?” but really focuses on “Who does the neighborly thing?” It really does not matter whether one sees the Samaritan or the wounded man as “the neighbor.” They are neighbors to each other. But the only way that can happen is for at least one of them—in this case the Samaritan—to come from behind the wall. He does precisely what the priest and the Levite do not do: he crosses the boundary and acts as if the wall is not even there. Not only does he dismount and get involved; he treats the wounds, carries the hurt man to an inn, stays there and takes care of him overnight. On top of all that, he gives two day’s wages to the innkeeper with instructions to take care of the man until he comes back, and makes an open-ended promise to pay whatever more the innkeeper charges (trusting, I suppose, that the innkeeper might not be inclined to rip him off just because he is a Samaritan).

Given the way we pigeonhole people, we are inclined to give the lawyer in the story little more of a break than his tribe is willing to give Samaritans. He is a lawyer, very possibly a smart-aleck lawyer, trying to trip up Jesus with his fancy schmancy questions, a member of the religious and social elite—all the things that make us want to see him cut down to size. But Jesus will have none of that. “Which of these three proved neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” he asks. And the lawyer replies, “The one who showed mercy on him.” Jesus replies, “Go and do likewise.” Don’t be too quick to imagine that the lawyer turns away, disgusted at the thought of behaving like the Samaritan. This might have been the moment when he heard the Truth, and this the story that let him in on it. For after all, that is why Luke is telling the story to you and me: to let us know what the Reign of God is like, to let us see how it is that eternal life is not something won by maintaining walls but by practicing living as if there were no walls.

None of us is likely to think that boundaries are a bad thing, or in Frost’s terms, that all fences have no use. I certainly do not think so. But boundaries do not have to be walls and walls do not have to keep us captive. The life of God—eternal life you might call it—the only life worth living––requires behaving like God. And behaving like God means finding that part of us that does not love a wall. It means coming from behind the fences and daring to believe that the man in the ditch is as really a part of us as our own arm or leg or eye. It does not take much to see in the face of the Samaritan one whom we recognize. For the Samaritan is none other than Jesus himself, healing the wounded, caring for the stranger, taking the trouble to get involved, creating a relationship that could never happen if fences were paramount, behaving like God. “Go and do likewise” is not a judgment or a sentence. It is a statement of what the lawyer, you, I, all of us, have to practice and practice and practice until we become the place where the Spirit of God makes a dwelling.

* "Mending Wall," Selected Poems of Robert Frost (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1963), p. 23.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2010

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Independent Church

A meditation for the Fourth of July

The first time I remember being conscious of the Fourth of July falling on a Sunday was 1976, when we were celebrating the Bi-centennial of the United States. The natural thing to do was to scrap the usual lessons and to make that Sunday a celebration of Independence Day. As I recall, the whole Episcopal Church did just that. Today it happens again that Independence Day collides with Proper 9 in the Book of Common Prayer, and the 234th anniversary of the nation is a less auspicious occasion begging for comment and celebration.

The very nature of our constitutional commitment to the separation of Church and State casts a strange light on what preachers make of the nation’s chief holiday. And because the relationship between faith and politics has never been thoroughly settled, maybe this July 4 gives us another crack at asking the question of what religion—specifically the gospel of Jesus Christ—has to say about and to America.

On this Independence Day the United States of America has much to celebrate and a good deal to be concerned about. Two years ago, after Joe and I had spent two weeks in Italy and Switzerland, we walked along the intersection of 14th Street, Park Road, and Kenyon St. I was stunned by the number of different colors of people, the various accents I heard, the socio-economic variety so obvious. This was the America that I loved, this great big improbable, noisy collection of all sorts and conditions of humanity. I felt as if I had eaten a heavy festive meal enjoying all the art in Florence and that I had come back to meat and potatoes in my neighborhood. Europe was good; this was comfortable. Italy was exciting; this was sustaining. Although Europe is quite multi-cultural these days, it is still nothing like the United States in most places. We truly are one out of many, and that is something to celebrate.

And there are many more things to celebrate. We can celebrate accomplishments like our technological advances, our industry, our agriculture, our musicians and writers and artists. We can celebrate our athletes and some of the world’s best educational institutions. We can celebrate qualities and characteristics like our generosity, inventiveness, and openness. We can celebrate the fact that still one can make it to the Presidency or to the top of a corporation or can remake one’s life without relying on birthright or connections. We can celebrate the fact that we can celebrate our nation not with military parades and goose-stepping soldiers and a shows of armaments but instead with hamburgers and hot dogs and watermelon and frisbee-throwing kids and flies that are surpassingly happy. And doubtless the list could go on. But nearly everything that I have just named that we can celebrate is either in jeopardy or has a shadow side that renders it unstable, negative, or even destructive.

Let’s get down to basics. We Americans have a story that we tell ourselves—actually a collection of stories—and those stories are dangerously limited and fast running out of credibility. Thomas Friedman, with whom I sometimes agree, gave one of his books the memorable title, The World is Flat. His major point is that a number of factors have come together to even out the world. We no longer are a United States that dominates world industry and technology. India, China, South Korea, Hong Kong, and other nations are claiming a bigger and bigger slice of center stage. Our myth that military might was the key to world peace and security has been savagely undermined by the emergence of terrorism as a significant and explosive force in world politics. Our engagement in longer wars than any before, with either no end in sight or no effective resolution, proves the point. Our virtual worship of capitalism as the means of securing happiness and security is beyond shaky as we see the world in the tightening vice of a recession that shows few signs of ending any time soon. Meanwhile, some of the stories we tell that have propped up our worldview are suspiciously vapid. It is not in fact true that everybody can have a job who wants one. It is not in fact true that if people are uninsured it is their own choice and fault. It is not true that corporations have our best interests at heart. It is not true that the government (whether federal, state, or local) has expertise for dealing with any crisis. It is not true that any one who tries hard and plays by the rules can make it in this society, let alone be successful. None of this is necessarily news to anyone. Yet an astonishing number of Americans, not just our politicians, believe elements of all these lies. It is not too much to say that we have built a house on delusional foundations, and we live in it at our peril.

And this is precisely the place where religion actually has something to say to the nation. It is probably true that any religious tradition can legitimately be expected to critique society. That is what religions do at their best. They call into question prevailing notions that, if left unexamined, lead to destructive policies, harmful habits, and terrible behavior. But that certainly is specifically true of the Christian tradition. The Christian Church does much better when it is not allied too closely with the State, and incomparably better when it keeps its distance from the State, just so that it can exercise a prophetic function of calling political practice into question. The single biggest problem with the Church dates back at least as far as Constantine in the fourth century. For from that time forward Christianity adopted the trappings, the rhetoric, the behavior, and the mind-set of empire, and thus lost its edge in being able to call the world to being halfway honest. We made some attempt to untangle the complicated religion-empire knot when we severed the church-state symbiosis in the infant American experiment. But hosts of people still haven’t quite caught on to that, and continue to dream of a state that caters to Christians. No, it is not protection and favor that the Church needs from the State. Rather, the Church needs to speak the truth to the State and to society.

But that is more easily said than done. There is little consensus among Christians as to what that truth is. Practically speaking, I do not see any way of forging a consensus. There are going to be Christians who believe that the Truth has essentially to do with personal morality. Others are going to believe that the Truth has to do with transforming society. Some are going to come down on the side of belief as being all-important. For others it will not be belief but behavior. And so on. But I do think that it is possible for communities of faith to be in constant conversation around the question that Pontius Pilate so eloquently put to Jesus: “What is Truth?” We might not come to complete agreement, but at least we can from time to time find ourselves aligning around certain principles drawn from the gospels and from the larger Tradition. Among those principles are such things as welcoming the stranger, having compassion on the poor, and practicing generosity. We will find ourselves, like Jesus, questioning authority, and like our forefathers and foremothers of Israel, sometimes rebelling against oppressors. We might find ourselves divided over whether or not to fund the military or whether to become conscientious objectors, but there will be no room for Christians to support cruelty nor gratuitous violence. We may vote differently, but we cannot but be committed to justice. And, when you stop to think about it, while Christians are always apparently dividing amongst ourselves, we are at the same time coming together more and more. Even this country’s opposing camps of mainline Protestants and evangelicals have begun to coalesce around facing war and social injustice. Consensus may be hard to achieve, but there are some Truths that are inescapably evident.

So we in the Church need to be in constant conversation about our own faith tradition, constantly testing our understanding, sifting the core of the tradition from popular and passing fancies, becoming articulate and reasoned critics of our society and culture, including our government. But, to be honest, I get a little nervous when I hear anyone, including myself, talking about taking a prophetic stance in society. My fear on the one hand is that we will be too timid, to prone to wait until we have a consensus before doing anything, too shy about naming injustice, too reticent to call war into question, too deferential to authority. My fear on the other hand is that we will do any of that without examining our own complicity with the forces of evil that operate largely outside our consciousness to corrupt and destroy not only human beings but the rest of creation as well. We cannot in good conscience make prophetic announcements to government and society if we—corporately and individually—practice the same sorts of arrogance, injustice, exclusivity, environmental obliviousness, degrading behavior ourselves that we would rail against in others. To be a community speaking the Truth to the nation commits us to be a community that lives under judgment ourselves. That is why it is deeply essential that we take the second of our baptismal promises as seriously as any: “to persevere in resisting evil, and whenever [we] fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord.”

St. Augustine formulated the notion of the “City of God,” believing that all human history is a struggle between two realms or two forces: the Reign of God and the Powers of this World. But by the time that Augustine wrote, the Church had already hitched its fortunes to those of the Empire. And though the Roman Empire was finally falling, it would keep a hold on Christianity like a ghost uncommonly strong. In recent years, Craig Carter, a Canadian theologian, has argued that the Church needs to be about undoing, or re-doing, our history that is largely a history of living out that story of Empire rather than that of gospel. I agree. We need not a new wedding of Church and Empire; we need a divorce of Church from Empire. Does that mean we need to be in opposition to our country, or non-conformists in society? Not necessarily. But it does mean that we need to get straight on where our loyalties lie.

One of the ways—indeed a way made possible through our Constitution itself—in which we can practice Christian virtues is through being responsible citizens. Bring every value you have into your life as a citizen. Fight for those things that you believe accord with the gospel of peace and justice by getting involved in the political process. Refuse to opt out through cynicism or hardness of heart. Work for change that mirrors the compassion, humanity, mercy, forgiveness, love of Jesus your Lord. Do your best to make your country a place that does not cater to religions but clearly and unapologetically reflects the values that all religions cherish: honesty, peace, humility, justice, compassion, temperance, wisdom, fortitude.

And let us remember what it is that causes us to rejoice on Sunday, the Fourth of July. Yes, it is that we live in the land of the free and the home of the brave. But it is even more because our names are written in heaven, in the very heart of God. A century ago, William Merrill penned a hymn, as relevant now as it was then, despite the too-masculine language:
Not alone for mighty empire, stretching far over land and sea,
Not alone for bounteous harvests, lift we up our hearts to Thee.
Standing in the living present, memory and hope between,
Lord, we would with deep thanksgiving, praise Thee more for things unseen.
Not for battleships and fortress, not for conquests of the sword,
But for conquests of the spirit give we thanks to Thee, O Lord;
For the priceless gift of freedom, for the home, the church, the school,
For the open door to manhood, in a land the people rule.

And in a land where people can be ruled by the Power that makes the common holy and a world to mirror God.

© Frank G. Dunn, 2010