For over a century, the United States has wielded extraordinary economic and military power. That power has shaped the world, and us. Abroad, it has often been used in ways that reveal our most undemocratic, exploitative, racist tendencies. But that we have betrayed our principles and hoarded our liberties does not make them empty—they are still worth claiming. Just as there are elements of our national culture worth admiring and cherishing.
But why is it so hard for us to admit that as human beings and moral agents, Americans are just like everyone else? Our lives and desires do not rank higher or lower; our motives and methods are not unique. The insistence on American exceptionalism as a personal birthright is not so much childish as adolescent: the desire to be declared inherently special, regardless of one’s actions, and the nagging fear that one is not.
Perhaps the way for Americans to truly enter the world, as equals and adults, is not to take our power for granted or to renounce it, but to treat it, while we have it, as the historical contingency and the responsibility it is.
– “Innocence Abroad” by Ursula Lindsey in the Spring issue of The Point.
A fundamental problem is that it is not at all clear exactly who God is. We have not become a secular society so much as we have become a generically religious one. Undifferentiated spiritual objects, therapies, and programs are widely marketed. Popular religion in America tends to be an amalgam of whatever presents itself. Discerning observers have noted that these new forms of spirituality are typically American; highly individualistic, self-referential, and self-indulgent, they are only feebly related to the history or tradition of any of the great world faiths. There is no more important calling for the church in our time than claiming the self-identification of the God who is the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ.
– Fleming Rutledge in The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ. She’s not so much lamenting these shifts in our society as she is the inability (or unwillingness) of the churches to maintain our particularly Christ-centered distinctions.
Workers, a category that seems to subsume us all except the idlest rich, should learn what they need to learn to be competitive in the new economy. All the rest is waste and distraction.
Competitive with whom? On what terms? To what end? With anyone who has done a clever thing we did not think of first. And will these competitors of ours be left to enjoy the miserable advantage of low wages and compromised health? And is there any particular reason to debase human life in order to produce more, faster, without reference to the worth of the product or to the value of things sacrificed to its manufacture? Wouldn’t most people, given an hour or two to reflect, consider this an intolerably trivial use to be put to, for them and their children? Life is brief and fragile, after all. Then what is this new economy whose demands we must always be ready to fill? We may assume it will be driven by innovation and by what are called market forces, which can be fads or speculation or chicanery. Oh, yes, rowdy old capitalism. Let it ply its music. Then again, in the all consuming form proposed for it now, it is a little like those wars I mentioned earlier. It is equally inimical to poetry, eloquence, memory, the beauty of wit, the fires of imagination, the depth of thought. It is equally disinclined to reward gifts that cannot be turned to its uses. The urgency of war or crisis has been brought to bear on our civil institutions, which is to say, on the reserves and resources of civility we have created over many generations.
– Marilynne Robinson, in her new collection of essays, saying again what needs to be said about what we are actively forgetting in these days of efficiency and productivity.
Moore: You argue that our understanding of the judgment of God has become untethered to His love. Kindly unpack that some for us.
Rutledge: Well, I guess it’s pretty obvious that our culture despises “judgment” above all things. There is hardly any room for discernment or connoisseurship any more. If you love Bach more than you love crossover thrash, you’re an elitist and not worthy of a hearing. When you hear that a person is “judgmental” you know that’s a crushing judgment on that person (yes, the irony is deliberate). It’s not easy in today’s culture to show how the judgment that crushes is the judgment that heals and restores—not only restores, but indeed “makes all things new.” So preachers and teachers of the Christian faith must be tireless in illustrating how the necessary judgment of God upon evil is a facet of his all-embracing love and his conquest of all that is harmful to human flourishing. It’s not all that hard to illustrate if we work at looking for examples of how this works. Everyone knows, deep down, that there has to be some sort of judgment if there is to be justice.
– Interview With Fleming Rutledge on Scot McKnight’s blog.
Ms. Garner’s death means much and it’s impossible for me to distance her death from her father’s death. They were two different people and if I can find one common line between them, it is, for me, that neither of them should have died when they died. Her death, like her father’s to some extent, is another reminder of what it means to embody and to carry in the body the full experience of being Black in the United States.
There is immense pleasure in being Black and there is a corresponding shadow side that is inexplicable despite the best linguistic tools. Death comes for everyone, and it seems that death comes so soon for those whose skin is along that gorgeous spectrum from cream to vanilla bean. The hands of those who are sworn to serve and protect or the low-lying pervasive threats of asthma and “high blood and sugar” as they were known in my childhood–the line of angels of death is long.
– Michael Washington meditating on the death of Erica Garner, daughter of Eric Garner who was killed by the NYPD.
Yet if the church is an alternative polis, one of its chief characteristics is the striking failure to be a fully realized moral alternative. Because we receive the Gospel from human hands, our human selfishness and limitations—marked by sin and the pain that comes with it—constitute a significant part of our story. I have seen pinprick glimpses of unmitigated glory in the church, but I have also seen ignorance and self-satisfaction, abuse and oppression, selfishness, bullying, manipulation and all manner of viciousness. As a priest in the Anglican Communion, I’ve seen our entire denomination around the world divided over questions of biblical teaching around human sexuality and marriage. As a female priest, I’ve been publicly mocked and privately humiliated by men who not only oppose women’s ordination (a view from Scripture one could reasonably hold) but who are sexist and just plain mean.
Such examples are sometimes used to accuse the church of hypocrisy, but part of our witness as an alternative polis is that we admit we are failures but have received grace and offer forgiveness. Church is not a place where we go to profess our virtue, but one where we go to confess our lack of it. This is a fairly radical idea in our broader culture where, as theologian Martin Marty puts it, “everything is permitted and nothing is forgiven.” For Christians, our very creeds claim that we fail to live up to that which we proclaim. Every week we kneel together in confession, abandoning any hope that we are the righteous ones, the ones on the “right side of history.” The church, says ethicist Gilbert Meilaender, is “first and foremost, a community of forgiven sinners gathered under the cross. Not a community that embodies the practices of perfection or that is simply separate from the world, but a body of believers who still live ‘in the flesh,’ who are still part of the world, suffering the transformations effected by God’s grace on its pilgrim way.”
– “True Story” by Tish Harrison Warren in The Point. A beautiful apologetic for church. You should read the entire thing.
It is the devil’s own work to take the stories Jesus told (and the many other stories that provide so much of the content of our Scriptures) and distill them down to a truth or a moral that we can then use without bothering with the way we use them- unconnected from the people whose names we know or the local conditions in which we have responsibilities, apart from what we know about Jesus, who tells the story. The devil is a great intellectual. He loves getting us to discuss ideas about God. He does some of his best work when he gets us so deeply involved with ideas about God that we are hardly aware that while we are reading or talking about God, God is actually present with us, and the people whom he has placed in our lives to love are right there in front of us…
In order to respond rightly to this voice, this Word-made-flesh voice, we must listen and answer in our actual neighborhoods while eating meals of tuna casserole and spinach salad in the company of people who know us and whose names we know: our spouses and children, friends and fellow workers, just for a start. Nothing in general. Nobody anonymous. No disembodied or unvoiced words.
– “Sir, Let it Alone,” a sermon from Habakkuk 3 and Luke 13 in the wonderful collection of Peterson’s sermons, As Kingfishers Catch Fire.