Here’s a question to ponder with me this April, historically a violent month. Are we Christians ensconced so comfortably in Empire America that we fail to recognize captivity within what we once considered our Promised Land? The Psalmist’s lament is a sobering word.
By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” (137: 1-3)
How to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? Maybe it starts by admitting captivity within imperial comforts, by acknowledging, with tears, an erosive de-Christianizing of the West, including our cherished country and among our church families. It involves acknowledging taunting voices of academic atheists and sophisticated tugs by cultural gurus demanding from us “feel good”, ego-affirming, religious rituals. It means being alert to marketers, political and commercial, who exploit our religious commitments. How important now this Gospel message:
“. . . He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives.” (Luke 4: 18)
These words of Jesus speak to us well-fed, well-housed Americans, not just to oppressed folks longing for a Moses to lead them to Canaan. So what are our options? 1) With others who’ve already done so we can chuck the faith and join our captors in serenading imperial gods. 2) We can refuse to sing, and cluster into what we hope will become saving remnants. 3) We can sing Zion’s songs with such joyous love that Christ’s redemptive power draws our nation’s people closer to God’s kingdom. I choose this third way. Do you?
Theologian Walter Brueggemann applies insights from Israel’s captivity (587-539 BC) to the American church today. If we’re to sing the Lord’s song with convincing joy we do well to heed his counsel. “The ideology of the empire thrives on global, cosmic sin” he writes, a condition that invites a God-directed exodus to a larger freedom, even within conditions of captivity. Contemporary dominant cultural perspectives hedonistically deny grief at a faith covenant taken captive, they co-opt holiness into a pale utilitarian ethic, and they nullify memory (tradition) “in the interests of an absolute present” (Hopeful Imagination, Fortress, 1986, p. 130). Can the church learn from its Babylonian captivity that newness arises out of grief, that hope comes only from God’s holiness, that memory provides possibilities for renewal? It must.
Empires prosper initially because they do many things right, and so they bless the world through political and social order. But they’re vulnerable to the lure of superior destructive power. What destructive ways characterize our empire now? I’ll suggest a few for us to ponder.
- Political manipulation of religious expressions.
- Economic well-being gained by military might and propped up by public/private debt.
- A pervasively sensate culture that seduces covenant children.
- An educational system that negates or trivializes Christian values.
- A pluralism that accepts the aesthetics of spirituality but not its faith commitments.
I noted three ways to sing the Lord’s song. There’s a fourth: take over the empire. This Zealot option for melding Christ and Caesar been tried from Constantine on (Cromwell wouldn’t lay his crown at Jesus’ feet, as George Fox urged him to do). Ceasaro-papism doesn’t work; although neither certain Muslims seeking to regain imperial ascendancy nor certain Christians seeking to sustain theirs will accept history’s verdict. Remember the “Babylonian captivity of the papacy”? 12th century pope Innocent III said Christ left to Peter and successors not only governance of the church but of the whole world. This attempt at a religious take-over of Europe (romanticized as the Holy Roman Empire) peaked in Boniface VIII, who asserted “that it is altogether necessary to salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff” (Unum Sanctum). Gradually that vision of a godly successor to ancient Rome faded as nations fought for leadership. Germanic, Spanish, French, and British empires once flourished. Now America is a world empire, struggling to preserve internal harmony, beset by challengers, admired and resented by weaker nations, mired in external warfare, and harassed at its commercial borders by tribal insurgents– like wolves snipping at the heels of a majestic but tiring elk.
As Philip Yancey rightly observes: “Power, no matter how well-intentioned, tends to cause suffering. Love, being vulnerable, absorbs it. In a point of convergence on a hill called Calvary, God renounced the one for the sake of the other.” (The Jesus I Never Knew, Zondervan, 1995, p. 205). The church is Christ’s body; so we must and we will absorb taunts, scoffing, and patronizing by the “econo-cultural complex.” We will resist with love and truth the militarizing of America’s messianic vision. “Tho’ exiled from home, yet still may I sing: all glory to God, I’m a child of the King.” Remember that song? With Jesus as choirmaster we will sing, by loving actions and by words of truth. Easter gives us hope; the Spirit gives us power.
Kenneth Boulding’s somber poem, “Sonnet for the first Christmas of an Atomic Age”, written in 1945, bears re-reading now that the MAD truce weakens, insurgency gains force world-wide, and nuclear, chemical, and biological strikes threaten the world. Read it and weep with me. Penitently affirm God’s holiness. Let memory instruct our faith for the future. Can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? God provides the way; it’s through a manger and a cross.
On all the earth two nations now remain,
The kingdom of this world, and of the Lord.
The one, content no longer with the sword
That takes one life, now with murderous rain
Blankets whole towns with ruin, death, and pain.
The other is not seen, not yet outpoured
In visible might, yet here and now adored
By those whose hearts are bound by love’s bright chain.
And you must choose. You are no longer free
To dally with them both. The time’s too late.
Our cities all must share in Sodom’s fate,
And where’s the ark to ride a brimstone sea,
Except a manger?—what, except the blood
Of Christ can quench the fire of this last flood?
-from Sonnets for the Interior Life (Colorado Univ. Press,1975) p. 93.
Peace and Joy!