Holy Week, politics, and the stories we live by.
It’s not just a global economy that makes us “one world.” The earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan remind us that humankind exists in one fragile and complex bond with the earth and each other.
As Americans were complaining about all the snow this winter, arguing about the value of NPR and PBS, and learning that we suffer from an “enlargement of self,” the Japanese were dying by the thousands as solid ground gave way and the sea roiled and raged, consuming whole cities.
The raw, elemental power of nature can shake us from our preoccupations like nothing else. (Though a few million of us will obsess about Division 1 basketball over the next few weeks — the men’s game, of course, never the women’s — elevating it to an importance that borders on the obscene.)
The indiscriminate destruction caused by earthquakes and tsunamis messes with our sense of cosmic justice. It shatters our romantic views of nature and of divinity — the silliness we often succumb to when we credit God with a beautiful sunset or a striking cloud formation. It silences, thankfully, if only for awhile, the bad theology of Everything Happens for a Reason. (That the Japanese are the only people to have suffered a nuclear attack and are now at grave risk for prolonged radiation contamination is a particularly cruel irony that ought to leave us in stunned silence).
This kind of “natural” devastation also reminds us of how little control we really have in this life, despite our considerable efforts to manage, contain, and forestall the unforeseeable. We know this in personal, intimate ways-a loved one stricken with cancer, say — but we seem so willing to buy into the lie that as a collective — a nation-state, say — we can preempt disaster with our cleverness and moral resolve (and a few billion dollars).
A decade of rhetoric about “homeland security” has trained us to think that we can make our country safe from outside attack, that, indeed, we must value and pursue security above all else. Politicians routinely campaign on such ideas, counting on an edgy, fearful electorate to latch on to any promise to keep us from harm — no matter how dubious or contrived.
But life is fragile, peace is always precarious, and the earth itself no respecter of persons or property. One gigantic wave and whole populations are decimated; one seismic shift and time itself is altered.
If there’s a lesson in this most recent tragedy (and it’s generally a bad idea to go looking for one), it’s that humans exist in a complex, interdependent web of relations with each other and with a planet that is sometimes inhospitable to our habitation of it. It was as instructive as it was terrifying to anticipate and track the waves that washed up on the California coast as the tsunami made its inevitable way westward. What happened in Japan didn’t stay in Japan.
Because corporations have written the dominant narrative of our time — that we exist to consume their products and that this is made possible by the easy flow of capital, goods, services, and labor across increasingly permeable borders, we might think that it is free-market capitalism which binds us together, making us “one world.” But in fact the earthquake and tsunami have revealed our common humanity and common destiny, reminding us that we have always been linked to our neighbors near and far, and that consumerism won’t save us but acknowledging our mutual dependence and shared vulerability just might.
If you’re looking for a way to help the earthquake and tsunami victims in Japan, here are a few faith-based organizations and ministry efforts that are working to provide food, supplies, and direct emergency relief. If you know of other trustworthy organizations that should be added to this list, please let us know in the comments section below or at our Facebook page.
At his massive rally in Washington, the conservative activist called his audience to restore America’s honor and “turn back to God.” But it wasn’t completely clear which god he was talking about.
The long experiment in American Christianity continues to yield interesting results.
As Duke Divinity School theologian Stanley Hauerwas has noted, “America is a synthesis of evangelical Protestantism, republican political ideology, and commonsense moral reasoning.” This odd amalgam has been possible because Americans have made faith in God “indistinguishable from their loyalty to a country that assured them that they had the right to choose which god they would or would not believe in.”
Such a view is so commonplace that it goes unquestioned by politicians, pundits, preachers, and the rest of us — whether we’re conservative, moderate, or liberal; high-church, low-church, or no-church.
It is telling that the least controversial aspect of Saturday’s “Restoring Honor” rally at the Lincoln Memorial was conservative talk-show host Glenn Beck’s insistent call that America “turn back to God.” His sympathizers welcomed it; many skeptics conceded: what’s the harm?
It’s the peculiar triumph of American Christianity that “God” names a vague, innocuous, content-less deity, one incapable of giving offense. This is why, as Hauerwas observes, America has never been able to produce interesting atheists: “The god most Americans say they believe in is just not interesting enough to deny.”
In fact, the American God — the one that Beck (who is a Mormon) and others invoked on Saturday — is a cipher that can be filled in with the kind of content that affirms any number of tenets of our civil religion: American exceptionalism, the sacredness of free markets, honor in war, the American dream.
And if each of us gets to decide who and what God is “for ourselves,” then the Church is unnecessary for the practice of this piety. But that doesn’t seem quite right, so we’ve developed the idea that churches are vital for the maintenance of the democratic institutions to which we pledge our ultimate loyalty. Insofar as church membership/involvement produces good citizens, “organized religion” has done its duty for the state it’s meant to serve.
The problem, of course, is that the American God bears no resemblance to the God revealed through the people of Israel and through the life and death of a first-century Palestinian Jew executed by the most powerful nation on earth. And the American church-as-maker-of-model-citizens looks nothing like the Pax Romana (like the Pax Americana) demanded ultimate allegiance and tolerated weird, upstart religions only so long as they made no claims on the power of the state.of early Christianity — the called-out people who understood themselves to be at odds with an Empire predicated on domination and death. The
The ease with which most Christians in America negotiate their relationship with the polis is evidence, Hauerwas says, of how Protestantism is dying of its own success. The experiment, we could say, has worked all too well. Protestant churches in America have “lost the ability to maintain the disciplines necessary to sustain a people capable of being an alternative to the world.”
I wonder how many people attending the “Restoring Honor” rally on Saturday heard the gospel reading from Luke 14 on Sunday? The kind of honor Jesus is interested in “restoring” has nothing to do with patriotic pride or the valorization of death in war and everything to with humility and charity; with serving the poor; with standing alongside those who suffer; that is, with bearing witness — with our very bodies — to an alternative way of being in the world.
In our own context we might say that to take Jesus at his word here would mean that a gathering on the grounds of the Lincoln Memorial (or any other space or place) should look less like a Tea Party for the disgruntled and more like a banquet for “the the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” (Luke 14:13).
This means, then, that Christians are those who see themselves as “alien citizens” of whatever country they live in. Which doesn’t mean that Christians must necessarily strike a hostile pose; it’s certainly possible — even desirable — to love one’s country. But Christians are those who struggle and hope to believe in a God who has confronted death and the death-dealing ways of the world and the death-dealing ways in ourselves. And so we register our inability to be at home in a polis where greed and waste and war are taken to be inescapable and necessary — where, indeed, such sins are twisted into virtues.
For all the sincerity on display at the Lincoln Memorial on Saturday, and amongst the large throngs of proud Americans, this God and these Christians were hard to spot.
Photo by Luke X. Martin from Wikipedia.
In the immigration debate, some think children are being used as instruments to gain access to this nation’s benefits, while others see them as a reminder that, in God’s kingdom, the first shall be last.