A New Reformation
By Rev. Elizabeth Wheeler
On January 24, 2005 the Rev. John H. Thomas, general minister and president of the United Church of Christ, welcomed SpongeBob Squarepants, the national cartoon celebrity, to his office. SpongeBob had lent himself to a children's educational video produced by We Are Family Foundation. The study guide included references to discrimination against gays and lesbians. Thomas wanted to thank SpongeBob for his embrace of diversity and extend for the United Church of Christ an “unequivocal welcome” to all marginalized and persecuted persons.
He also wanted to refute the attack on SpongeBob by Focus on the Family, the radical right organization headed by James Dobson. Dobson said SpongeBob had crossed “a moral line” by supporting a video that was tolerant of gays and lesbians. Thomas wanted reassure SpongeBob that the UCC welcomed all kinds of different people – Barney, Big Bird, Tinky-Winky, Clifford the Big Red Dog and, for that matter, any who had experienced the Christian message as excluding them.
Dobson's attack on the popular SpongeBob was still news in May. On a Monday night at the convention of religious broadcasters when Dobson and his son held in informal conversation with teams who had come to compete for the prize of playing ping-pong against the Dobson father and son, the SpongeBob question came up. Dobson, in clarifying his remarks on SpongeBob, said:
I did not say SpongeBob was gay. All I said was he was part of a video produced by a group with strong linkages to the homosexual community that's teaching things like tolerance and diversity. And you can see where they're going with that. They're teaching kids to think different about homosexuality. (Hedges 60)
In December 2004, the United Church of Christ had raised its voice against this kind of hate. It produced a 30 second paid commercial for network television. The ad was rejected in December by CBS and NBC as “too controversial” and by ABC because of its blanket policy against religious advertising. The UCC message was “Jesus didn't turn people away. Neither do we.”
This ad was again rejected by the networks in March 2005 but in May ABC accepted a Dobson ad for the finale of “Supernanny” on May 2nd. UCC's communications director Robert Chase objected. Focus on the Family was clearly a religious organization and ABC gave no assurances that follow-up study materials would be non-sectarian, respectful of all faiths, respectful of non-traditional families, respectful of parents.
(UCC news releases from UCC.org)
In the May 2005 Harpers Magazine Chris Hedges, a seminary graduate and war correspondent, wrote an article about Dobson and the Dominion movement. The name comes from the drive for Christian dominion over the nation and eventually the world. James Dobson is its most prominent voice. He is head of Focus on the Family that employs 1300 people on an 81 acre campus in Colorado Springs CO . Hedges reports that it sends 4 million pieces of mail out every month and broadcasts to 99 countries with 200 million listeners. In the United States Dobson appears daily on 100 television stations. Hedges describes the movement's program this way:
Dominionists preach that Jesus has called them to build the kingdom of God in the here and now, whereas previously it was thought that we would have to wait for it. America becomes, in this militant biblicism, an agent of God and all political and intellectual opponents of America 's Christian leaders are viewed quite simply as agents of Satan.
Under Christian dominion, America will no longer be a sinful and fallen nation but one in which the Ten Commandments form the basis of our legal system, Creationism and ‘Christian values' form the basis of our education system and the media and government proclaim the Good News to one and all. . . Some Dominionists (not all of whom accept the label, at least publicly) would further require all citizens to pay ‘tithes' to church organizations empowered by the government to run our social welfare agencies and a number of influential figures advocate the death penalty for a host of ‘moral crimes' including apostasy, blasphemy, sodomy and witchcraft. The only legitimate voices in this state will be Christian. All others will be silenced.
The traditional evangelical, those who come out of Billy Graham's mold, are not necessarily comfortable with the direction taken by the Dominionists who now control most of America's major evangelical organizations, from the NRB (National Religious Broadcasters) to the Southern Baptist Convention and may already claim dominion over the Christian media outlets. But Christians who challenge Dominionists, even if they are fundamentalists or conservative or born-again, tend to be ruthlessly thrust aside.
John Thomas' humor was a brilliant response to Dobson's bullying but Dominionst militancy is no laughing matter. The cynical pandering of the movement by elected officials endangers the republican values enshrined in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence and the singular American achievement: a Christian nation that is the most religiously diverse country in the world. But similarly, the sanctification by religious leaders of political leaders and their governments sets dangerous precedents. When Billy Graham prayed to God that “in your providence you have granted a second term of office to our president, George W. Bush” he stepped over the line between church and state and gave permission to intolerance, even fanaticism. He presumed on God's prerogatives. (Progressive Christianity 2)
Hedges warns of a “Christian fascism” hijacking our civic and religious institutions if decent Americans do not stop this viciousness now, isolate the individuals who incite hate and name that hate for what it is: evil. Fascism is the union of a technocratic order with a final solution, the one solution that solves all other problems, in alliance with nationalism, the collective self-worship that elevates the nation as the supreme organism in which human beings are fully realized. In nationalism all other units – family, business, social club, church, political party, symphony orchestra, etc. – are directed toward the maintenance of and subordinate to the purposes of this mystical collective.
By “Christian fascism” Hedges is referring to the self-neutering of the German churches in 1933 to these mystical ends. They thought they could do business with bullying politicians and save themselves by aligning the church with Hitler's nationalism. The story of the Roman Catholic and Protestant Evangelical churches during the rise of Fascism in the 1930s is a story of disgrace from which the German churches are just recovering. Hedges wants American churches to learn this story by heart because it could happen here.
World War I devastated European institutions, including the church. The brutality of war demonstrated the brutality of human beings whose passions were unrestrained by Christian love or moral code. Both sides were Christian and the churches lined up behind their side. When the United States entered the war the American churches were no different. Christianity and militarism were identical, church and state were one. President Woodrow Wilson attempted to redeem the carnage through a League of Nations that would mitigate militant nationalism. But the American public rejected the League. The world was not made safe for democracy. The dead were not redeemed. Liberal triumphalism faded into despair and liberal Christianity retreated into pacifism.
In 1933 Hitler's party won the German elections. A fatalism spread through the minority parties in Germany and anguish seized Harry Emerson Fosdick, first minister of The Riverside Church in the City of New York . In his distress he made this pledge to the Unknown Soldier:
I have an account to settle in this pulpit today between my soul and the Unknown Soldier. He is not so utterly unknown as we sometimes think. Of one thing we can be certain: he was sound of mind and body. . .Can you imagine anything madder than this, that all the nations should pick out their best, use their scientific skill to make certain that they are the best and then in one mighty holocaust offer ten million of them on the battlefields of one war?
I have an account to settle between my soul and the Unknown Soldier. I deceived him. I deceived myself first, unwittingly, and then I deceived him, assuring him that good consequences could come out of that . . If I blame anybody about this matter, it is men like myself who ought to have known better. We went out to the army and explained to these valiant men what a resplendent future they were preparing for their children by their heroic sacrifice. Oh Unknown soldier, however can I make that right with you? . .
Far from appealing to his worst, the war brought out the best (in him) – his loyalty, his courage, his venturesomeness, his care for the downtrodden, his capacity for self-sacrifice. The noblest qualities of his young manhood were aroused. He went out to France a flaming patriot. . . When the words that I would speak about war are a blistering fury on my lips and the encouragement I gave to war is a deep self-condemnation in my heart, it is of that I think.
For I watched war lay its hands on these strongest, loveliest things in men and use the noblest attributes of the human spirit for what ungodly deeds! This is the ultimate description of war – it is the prostitution of the noblest powers of the human soul to the most dastardly deed, the most abysmal cruelties of which our human nature is capable. That IS war.
Oh war, I hate you. You so bedevil the world that 15 years after the Armistice we cannot be sure who won the war, so sunk in the same disaster are victors and vanquished alike. If war were fought simply with evil things, like hate, it would be bad enough, but when one sees the deeds of war done with the loveliest faculties of the human spirit, he looks into the very pit of hell. We can have this monstrous thing or we can have Christ, but we cannot have both. I renounce war and never again, directly or indirectly, will I sanction or support another! Oh Unknown Soldier, in penitent reparation I make you that pledge.
Fosdick kept his pledge. He was a pacifist throughout World War II and left an anti-war legacy at Riverside. William Sloane Coffin, Riverside's fourth minister, rose to prominence over his protests against the Vietnam War and his active role for a SANE nuclear policy. But the extended portion of Fosdick's sermon above is here to open a window into the times and the mind of the leading liberal clergyman in 1933.
The pain is palpable. Liberals had no answers to the Fascist politics of hate and no answers to the miseries of the Depression. The Social Gospel had failed and so had democracy. Not only did the liberal church have no answers for a nation in which 24 percent of the work force were unemployed but also significant portions of the Protestant leadership voted against the New Deal. In the 1936 landslide for Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 70 percent of Protestant ministers voted Republican and among Congregational ministers the vote was closer to 80 percent. (Johnson 496)
The consequences for the American church were deferred for a generation. In Germany , however, the consequences to a faith that depended upon either a humanistic ideology or the support of the state were immediate. The Vatican had a long working assumption with the German state. The church rendered unto Caesar and Caesar allowed the social service and political action organizations of the church. The church without state protection was unthinkable. Thus, in 1933 Monsignor Kaas urged accommodation with Hitler. Even as the Fascists were dissolving the Catholic Youth League and the Catholic Bavarian People's Party and arresting hundreds of lay and religious union, social action and political advocacy leaders, the Vatican signed a concordat with Germany.
German Roman Catholics warmly supported the agreement. It preserved Catholic property, worship and parochial schools in return for shutting down 100 years of Catholic social action agencies. (Johnson 483) In 1937, the Vatican protest was easily suppressed but after that, silence. Rome never condemned the Fascist government. It was more afraid of the atheistic Bolsheviks than the Fascists and decided that if Rome retreated behind its fortress and stepped out of the way, the two evils would fight it out to exhaustion.
It was also afraid of the Lutheran Evangelicals who wanted to form a national church that might drive out the Roman Catholics. An agreement not to oppose Hitler was Rome 's buying protection from the Devil. Both the German Roman Catholics and the Protestant Evangelicals supported the war in 1939. By then the individual resistors had been killed or jailed.
The independence of the Evangelical Lutheran and Reform churches was even more compromised than the Catholics. Their clergy were on the state payroll and most congregations embraced Hitler enthusiastically. Finally, after a decade of humiliation, here was the leader of a national revival. The utlra-conservative “German Christian” faction thrilled to the Nazi doctrines of Race, Blood and Soil. And by 1933 they claimed 3000 out of the 17,000 Protestant pastors. An equal number of ministers supported the “ Confessing Church ” which opposed Hitler. But most clergy and most congregations temporized, too timid to take a stand. They eventually succumbed to the regime.
In 1933 representatives from the Protestant church gathered to write a constitution for the new Protestant “ Reich Church ”. The Confessing Church believed it could work with the Fascists and presented its own candidate for the first Reich Bishop. They were naïve. The Gestapo intimidated wavering clergy and the synod elected the “German Christian” candidate of Hitler's choice. In 1935, 700 Confessing Church pastors were arrested, in 1936, the Confessing Church funds were confiscated and two years, later Hans Kerrl, Minister for Church Affairs, could call the Fuehrer the “herald of a new revelation”. By 1938 the vast majority of Protestant clergy took a personal oath of allegiance to the Fuehrer binding themselves legally to obey his commands. (Shirer 239)
Like every other person who has reflected on this surrender of the German churches without a fight to an autocrat clearly bent upon returning the nation to pagan rites and worship, William L. Shirer, a reporter in Germany during the Thirties, asked himself: Why?
Why wouldn't religious people fight against the clearly stated intention of the German government to replace the cross with the swastika, to replace the bible with Mein Kampf and on every Christian altar place a sword to the left of this, the Nazi sacred text? Why wouldn't the church rise up against any government whose aim was to exterminate all “strange and foreign Christian faiths imported into Germany ”? (Shirer 240) Only the Jehovah's Witnesses opposed National Socialism publicly and persistently. One third of them were killed for refusing military service and nearly all were persecuted in one way or another. In his book, The Rise of the Third Reich , Shirer comes to this conclusion:
It would be misleading to give the impression that the persecution of Protestants and Catholics by the Nazi State tore the German people asunder or even greatly aroused the vast majority of them. It did not. A people who had so lightly given up their political and cultural and economic freedoms were not, except for a relatively few, going to die or even risk imprisonment to preserve freedom of worship. What really aroused the Germans in the Thirties were the glittering successes of Hitler in providing jobs, creating prosperity, restoring Germany 's military might and moving from one triumph to another in his foreign policy. Not many Germans lost much sleep over the arrest of a few thousand pastors and priests or over the quarreling of the various Protestant sects. (Shirer 240)
Church historian Paul Johnson has another explanation. The cradle of the Reformation was empty. Hitler agreed.
(Hitler) showed a justified contempt for (Christianity's) German practitioners. Shortly after assuming power, he told Hermann Rauschnig (a personal friend who later turned against him) that he intended to stamp out Christianity in Germany ‘root and branch'. ‘One is either a Christian or a German. You can't be both'. He thought the method might be to ‘leave it to rot like a gangrenous limb'. Again: ‘Do you really believe the masses will ever be Christian again? Nonsense. Never again. The tale is finished. . . but we can hasten matters. The parsons will be made to dig their own graves. They will betray their God to us. They will betray anything for the sake of their miserable little jobs and incomes'. (Johnson 485-6)
Hitler thought he could win the war and then exterminate the church. He got it half right. He lost the war but by their cravenness and cowardice toward him the churches.destroyed themselves. It was this more than modernity that has secularized Europe . And American liberals worry that American Christianity may go the way of the German churches, led into a New Babylonian Captivity by their own priests eager to sanctify the New American Empire. If liberal Christianity is increasingly divorced from its doctrinal foundations, is the decline of American mainline religion a later repeat of the German church and like it, too impotent to defend the faith against a ruthless government?
In the May 15, 2005 New York Review of Books (pg 39) Mark Lilla, professor in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago and author of the soon to be published book, The Stillborn God, asks why be Christian at all?
Theological liberalism collapsed suddenly and dramatically in early 20th century Germany , for reasons Americans would do well to ponder. The crisis was essentially spiritual but had wide political reverberations. Thinkers and ordinary believers began yearning for a more dynamic and critical faith, one that would stand in judgment over the modern world, not lend it support. They sought an authentic experience with the divine, genuine spiritual solace and a clear understanding of the one path to salvation. And what did liberal Protestantism teach? In the words of H. Richard Niebuhr, that ‘a God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministration of a Christ without a cross.' And if that was the case, why be a Christian at all?
After the last Great Awakening at the end of the 19th century liberal theology made steady gains in all the mainline American church and by the 1950s represented the consensus within Protestantism . . . and yet it, too, has now collapsed. Over the past 30 years we have seen the steady decline of mainline faiths and the upsurge of evangelical, Pentecostal, charismatic and '‘neo-orthodox'' movements. . .it appears that there are limits to the liberalization of biblical religion.
The more the Bible is treated as a historical document the more its message is interpreted in universalist terms, the more the churches sanctify the political and cultural order, the less hold liberal religion will eventually have on the hearts and minds of believers. Liberal religion imagines a pacified order in which good citizenship, good morals and rational belief coexist harmoniously. It is, therefore, unprepared when the messianic and eschatological forces of biblical faith begin to stir . . . The most disturbing manifestations are not political, at least not yet. They are cultural.
This, of course, is (and has been) the criticism of the United Church of Christ and other union churches of the ecumenical movement. Paradoxically, however, the very act of seeking union with other communions has brought new light to the UCC conviction that God is not only still speaking but has much, much more to say. The journey to union with the German Evangelical Church of Union, East and West is characteristic.
Having encountered the Congregational-Christian and the Evangelical and Reformed relief agencies after the War, the German Evangelical Church of Union (EKU) initiated conversations with the UCC's antecedent bodies. Their motives were, of course, mixed because their people were in great need and the German ethnic ties made communication easier. But the ecumenical history was there, too. And although the UCC was too preoccupied with its own organizational issues on the run up to union in 1957 and thereafter overwhelmed with the confusions of the Sixties and Seventies, it had settled enough by 1980 to respond.
After 20 years of talks, in June 1981, the Synod signed “a covenant of mission and faith” with the German Evangelical Church of Union, East and West. And the question was again asked: in a world so full of need, why spend such energy on union and the organizational and doctrinal issues it raises with every new partner? The answer has always been that reconciliation of God's whole creation IS the Christian mission and if the UCC can figure out how to achieve -- and how to live in -- reconciled relationships, we can show others. Part of the process is the step by step working out what it means to be a Christian, what is our common theological language, what is sound teaching theologically and what can we learn from the world.
For instance, The Sixties and Seventies attack upon hierarchy and patriarchy and the demands for power and voice in decision-making processes by heretofore disenfranchised groups, forced UCC bodies to deal with the religious barriers that separated all who confessed Christ, just as the German initiative forced the UCC to find ways to lower the ethnic and political barriers between God's people at home and abroad. (Gunnemann 139-40)
These pressures during the time of full communion talks with the EKU contributed greatly to the UCC's appreciation of the Augusburg and Heidleburg Confessions and Luther's Small Catechism. They now appear on the UCC website. And all of these influences helped the UCC develop the conciliar principle that offers an organizational style limber enough to allow freedom and order among an infinite number of different partners. The conciliar principle has a history going back to the Middle Ages, when several councils attempted to avoid schism within the Roman Catholic Church. It was there for contemporary explorers to recover when they needed resources for today's journey.
The idea that liberal and conservative political views, free church and liturgial worshipping styles, congregational orders and presbyterian orders, gay rights activists and school prayer activists, Anglos and Latinos can be reconciled in Christ is what targets the United Church of Christ in the fundamentalist's sights.
At the same time, however, the persistent critique of Synod gender resolutions by the Biblical Witness Fellowship affirms the strength of the conciliar principle. The Biblical Witness people have been able to remain in fellowship with the majority who do not share their views.
The UCC, however, must also resist its internal temptations. As it acquires experience and confidence as a visible church, it must avoid becoming one more denomination locked in its own way of doing things when denominations are disappearing and regrouping. If the UCC can remain true to Christ's prayer for the disciples “that they may all be one”, it will also remain true to its original self-understanding as a people called out by God into the unknown again, and again, and again.
This openness to something new encourages unexpected revelations. Because American society has always been so fluid, we have never developed a coherent conservative tradition defended by an inherited class with firmly established customs and beliefs. For 250 years, our model for the American way of life has been a liberal democracy supported by a free market economy and led by liberal evangelicals. We made adjustments for equity but basically our good news for the world was inevitable progress and goodness toward the American Way .
When liberalism collapsed, therefore, a counterrevolution on the radical right was the only place for people to go. It was not a conservative movement in the sense of building upon long established traditions in a continuous evolution. It was a revolution, an explosive and abrupt break with both political and religious tradition. 9/11 simply forced the debate and forced liberals on the defensive. For liberals had no program to restore an increasingly uncertain and fragmented world.
It has taken 40 years of debate and many blunders by the radical right for a liberal alternative to come into focus. And it will be unexpectedly new. That is because liberals, when under pressure, are the only home-grown, native-American conservatives.
For us it is back to the future to reaffirm what we believe and how these beliefs are translated into the public square. Like Harriet Beecher Stowe we return to our roots. We go back to our beginnings – to Anne Hutchinson and Jonathan Edwards, Abigail Adams and Thomas Jefferson, W. E. B. Dubois and Sojourner Truth, John Nevin and Antoinette Brown – and further to the Reformation divide, when reason confirmed faith and The Fundmentals were: In essentials, unity; in inessentials, liberty; in everything, charity.
This was the motto of the “Third Force” that believed reunion with Rome was still possible in the 1560s. The Third Force functioned in the Lutheran Germany underground during the Inquisition from 1550 to 1650 and resurfaced in the 17th century through the ideas of the Enlightenment written into the Constitution by our founding fathers and mothers. (Johnson 319)
American liberals have also functioned underground for the last 40 years of counterrevolutionary radicalism. The UCC's challenge to the religious right is a sign of new confidence in a renewed faith. It is the sign of a liberal church that is finding its voice, independent of state and culture. The church has a work of its own to do.
That work for the UCC begins with a reconsideration of doctrine. Increasingly ministerial standing committees and in-care students are discussing basic Christian beliefs. Since authorized ministers are not set apart to lead political advocacy organizations or social service and counseling centers, what is the work they do uniquely? Christianity is more than a social movement that follows the way of Jesus and corrects society by inspiring ideals and ethical actions. Lots of organizations do that.
The question for ordination candidates is: Although the only UCC profession of faith is “I believe in Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior”, shouldn't authorized leaders of the church take seriously the enduring creeds of the German churches and the common theological language of the whole church beyond the UCC? And aren't we interested in established doctrines because they are ancient treasures deposited by God in the church for the abundant life of all creation? And aren't these treasures, as we understand them, worth fighting for?
Consider, for instance, the vision of the Kingdom of God , so alluring to the American mind since the beginning of our journey in this land. Harry Emerson Fosdick believed that sin was the corruption of fundamentally good human nature by bad social influences or physical addictions. Since human nature was understood as personality, which changed through stages of development, the purpose of the church was therapeutic and artistic. These were the most powerful tools to mold the personality into the embodiment of perfect goodness, Jesus Christ. The Kingdom of God would be brought in by the profession of Jesus Christ and a refusal to acknowledge the supreme authority of the state.
In a sermon against nationalism, Fosdick applied these understandings to the persecution of early Christians. They were persecuted by the Roman Empire , not on account of their religion, but because they put Christ first and Caesar second. Charles Clayton Morrison, editor of Christian Century , argued that Fosdick was almost right. Here is Gary Dorrien's recapitulation of Morrison's rebuttal. (Dorrien pg 82-3)
“(Fosdick's) is the usual evangelical way of saying it,” said Morrison. “But an exactly accurate statement must say that their refusal to worship the emperor WAS their religion.” To recover THIS religion would require a break from Constantinianism, a new cultus, and a commitment to live in the kingdom of Christ . The Christian faith was originally and should be today embodied in a fellowship which stands over against the secular order – over against the state, and the economic order and all institutions and conventions of ‘this world,' said Morrison.
Fosdick's social Christianity was too tame and domesticated. It preached not only a Christ of culture but also a Christ of the dominant culture. The culture-transforming Christianity that the world needed would live more dangerously by renouncing its alliances with the state and the comforts of capitalism. It would trust in God and the power of the spirit to change the world.
Any reconsideration of God's Kingdom leads into a reconsideration of original sin and human nature, the divinity of Jesus and the virgin birth and all the other doctrines of the faith which together distinguish Christian religion from other religions. For liberal ministers the struggle is to reconcile Scripture and history and doctrine with reason.
If Scripture cannot be reconciled to history through scholarship, it will have proved to be untrue and really not worth fighting for. If doctrine is nothing more than the ethnographic curiosity of a vanishing tribe, its demise doesn't matter very much. But authorized ministers are authorized to keep the faith and then to show how Christian beliefs translate into our collective actions as a nation today. This isn't easy.
To stay the course in this struggle demands a deep faith generation after generation, since every generation must interpret the truth for its own times. Mouthing formulas and pieties does not work for well-educated clergy and UCC in-care students submit their convictions to the test of reason when they go to seminary. For a faith that is weak in its beliefs will produce a scholarship that easily jettisons inconvenient portions of Scripture. And that was Morrison's point.
If Morrison's critique of Fosdick's liberalism is anywhere near right, how then would today's liberals advance the Kingdom of God and what would be a vision worth fighting for? The second question for ordination candidates, therefore, is: How might authorized UCC ministers narrate the story of a Christian America that is more compelling than the apocalyptic imagery favored by Christian radicals and popularized in all sorts of star wars movies and left behind fantasies?
What is an alternative vision to the Christian radical right vision that seeks the Christian conversion of the whole society and projects an American Christendom on to the world through American political power and Dobson's national patriotism? Isn't the UCC mission transformation rather than evangelism and if so, what does that imply? Is there a republican patriotism more consistent with the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the tradition of our founding mothers and fathers who did indeed give their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor for freedom? Below is my attempt to find a more faithful language.
Nationalism is the self-assertive, self-congratulatory boosterism of my country that in action applauds the Americanization of the world. Patriotism is my love of country in the homebody way I know my country – as a New Yorker who lives on Morningside Heights among people I see daily.
Patriotism is my love of country found in my family and my friends, my neighbors and my neighborhood, all the familiars down to the smallest detail that together make up my life. I posses them all, me personally. And they possess me. Without them I am a displaced person. Exiled from them I am lost. They keep me grounded. They feed me day after day. They are who I am.
Patriotism is conservative. Its natural inclination is to husband, improve and defend these beloved things in this beloved place. Patriots are reluctant crusaders. John Adams admonished his countrymen not to go abroad seeking monsters to destroy. Stay at home, tend the earth, embellish the cities and honor thy father and thy mothers. And if you do, your days will be long in the land that the Lord has given you. For from this place and from these people come your, my, our inheritance – liberty and justice for all.
Patriotism is rooted in tangibles. Nationalism is their spiritualization. It abstracts them into the flag to which we pledge allegiance. But when we have to fight, as indeed we sometimes must, we fight for the flag that is bundled around the images on our refrigerator doors. Freedom and justice have dear faces from dear places.
Think of Norman Rockwell's Four Freedoms for which we fought in World War II. He could have painted freedom from want as endless amber waves of grain. But no. He painted thanksgiving dinner at grandma's house and all those generations mugging the camera. He could have painted freedom from fear as a fleet of destroyers on vigilant patrol of the coasts. But no. He painted two children asleep beneath the protective eyes of their parents whose evening paper headlined “BOMBING TERROR.”
He could have painted freedom of speech set in the halls of Congress where big men were debating big ideas. But no. He painted a Lincolnesque workingman speaking his piece in common assembly probably about how to pay for plowing the roads. He could have painted freedom of worship from atop the bell tower of a great cathedral to which the faithful flocked from every corner of town. But no. He painted the wrinkled faces of the old each praying according to the dictates of individual conscience and each long-lived in God's sanctified land.
Rockwell's scenes of the patriot's dream would remain the same whatever the look of the people: totally domestic and thoroughly decent. And for us Christian, paradoxical. To be a patriot requires me to love my neighbor as myself. To which I would ask Jesus to add: Love my neighbor's neighborhood as my own because patriots like me live everywhere.
Nationalism scorns such intimacy. It moves in the mystical realms of manifest destiny. It sees beyond the stars and thrills to the roll of thunder. It is exhilarating and enthralling for the patriot who unwittingly falls for the temptation to glorify some gauzy notion of a great nation instead of that little baby in a manger. That's why God came to live among us. To bring us back to earth. Heaven is here. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.
Meditations like this are pouring out of a galvanized church and circulating around the Internet. Finally outrage has stiffened the liberal will. And countless examples of bullying by the radical right have provided liberals with a clear picture against which to contrast an ethic of courage and love learned in the struggle against hate from Martin Luther King Jr. The current debates over the appointment of federal judges, gay marriage, life support for comatose patients, abuses in military prisons are not well mannered because the stakes are so high. The contest is over how Americans want to live together, how we interpret our core myths.
The shift among liberals today is back to our catholic, reform and evangelical beginnings and it is not all that far removed from The Fundamentals published in 1915. The shift among liberals is from resistance in reaction to radical initiatives to organizing around alternative narratives grounded in a Reformation faith and our Catholic heritage from the 1st century onward. Now 90 years later, Fosdick evangelicals and Billy Graham evangelicals may find in the following reaffirmations the bridge back to unity:
- The peace of God we call salvation is the blessing of an unshakable trust in God and an absolute dependence on God. By definition God's grace is unmerited mercy. It cannot be won by good works or withheld by the “true” church. For Luther no papal power or political power could gatekeep for God. Conscience and courage oppose these powers and what matters is ones right relationship with Christ and ones fast hold on to the conviction that God loves us all.
- Good works are byproducts of faith. They are gifts of gratitude and the fruits of a life devoted to God's glory. Vocation whatever one's work is the best field of service to God. Asceticism, church-going, public praying, a born-again conversion experience are not signs of salvation or sanctity. We can have some standards of spiritual growth. But no mortal knows who is among God's elect and repentance is a life long habit.
- Scripture is the final appeal, the authoritative rule and available to all. All worldly systems of authority, including the church, are fallible. But God's word is true. Every age searches the scripture with faith and reason through its own lens and all believers are priests. Jesus Christ is their sufficient friend before God and the Gospel of Jesus Christ is forgiveness of sins through faith. Faith alone transforms lives and scripture alone is the sufficient guide for the pilgrim who would conform human will to divine will day after day.
- Holy Communion activates the power of remembrance and the Holy Spirit makes present Jesus' love for us. That God should have such a passion for us, for me, fires me to follow Jesus and sacrifice myself for him as lovers do for one another. When all stand to sing the Doxology at the offering and the offering is placed upon the altar, the money in the plate is less my membership dues to the church than my life given in gratitude to God until Christ comes again
- Miracles do happen and mystery is real. God's ways are not the ways of men and women. But how to express the mysteries we cannot fathom yet deeply feel? The church explains its conviction that God is with us through stories of the virgin birth, the resurrection of the body, the trinity of God. For 2000 years Christians have lived and died the faith they witness through these stories and through these stories they learned to reverence the god-talk of other faiths that likewise seek to explain God's mysterious ways.
The great gift of history and tradition is to ground the people and nurture them day in and day out. And the United church of Christ has seen it all. We may have run to apocalyptic extremes in times of affliction and cuddled up to power when it tempted us with favors. But we have walked with God as Americans since 1630 and we have striven for faithfulness even in failure. We know what the journey is like.
In the 17th century, we felt the exhilaration of a glorious mission and the chastening of a tempered will. In the 18th century, we went to the revolutionary mountaintop of freedom but knew we had left some in our company behind. In the 19th century, we turned the world upside down and tasted a wistfulness for what was lost and what was still unfound. In the 20th century, our self-confident certainties turned to ashes and dismay. And now at the beginning of the 21st century, we rebuild. We return to reclaim our myths.
Metaphors and myths preserve their creative power by reincarnating themselves in each new age and context. They have the power of self-revelation. Americans see themselves as Americans in these metaphors and myths and how we reconstruct them is for people of faith a matter of life and death. The fight is for the soul of the people. .For the Chosen People is not just an insignia of America . It is our communal essence. The Redeemer Nation is not an arbitrary appellation. It is our living and effective quality of being. The New World Order is not just a convenient figure of speech to describe our national mission. It is our soul's destination.
We return, therefore, to where we started, there to be called out once again in to the wilderness. Guided by the Holy Spirit and the ancient wisdoms of the faith under our only leader, Jesus Christ, we shake off the dust of human fault and, God willing, walk on toward the Kingdom.
*In a video tape on Sunday April 24 th to the convention of Christian radio and television networks (“The Filbuster Against People of Faith”) Bill Frist, Senate majority leader, claimed that the Democrats were “against people of faith” because they wanted to block judicial nominees who oppose abortion on religious and moral grounds. By summer 2005 Frist, a presidential hopeful, had modified his statement somewhat and in so doing become himself the target of Dobson's attack. At the second inaugural of George W. Bush Billy Graham prayed: We believe that in your providence you have granted a second term of office to our president, George W. Bush, and our vice president, Richard Cheney.” (The Center for Progressive Christianity June 2005 newsletter pg 2)
William L. Shirer The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich New York Simon and Schuster 1960
Gordon A. Craig Germany from 1866-1945 . New York : Oxford University Press 1978
Paul Johnson A History of Christianity New York Atheneum 1985
Harry Emerson Fosdick The Unknown Soldier preached at The Riverside Church in the City of New York November 12, 1933
Gary Dorrien Soul in Society: Social Christianity . Minneapolis : Fortress Press 1995
Christopher Hedges Feeling the Hate with the National Religious Broadcasters Harpers Magazine, May 2005, pg 60
J. Bennett Guess, Editor, Twice no to UCC, ABC give yes to Focus on the Family TV spot United Church News, June/July 2005 pg A12.
Chris Ayers The Center for Progressive Christianity “Billy Graham Obstacle to Progressive Christianity “ 99 Brattle St., Cambridge MA 02138-3402 June 2005