Sunday, September 10, 2017

Christianity in the World

     At first, upon hearing about the tragedy of riot, conflict and death in Charlottesville, I opened my mental file on “crappy stuff in the world” and began the process of sifting the news reports to whatever degree I felt like; then stuffing it all back into that place in my mind wherein resides the residue of dérangements from Dealey Plaza to the Ambassador Hotel1, the '72 Tet Offensive to Heaven's Gate, Helter Skelter to 9/11, Watts '65 to Rodney King '92, the murder of Martin Luther King and likewise Edwin T. Pratt2, and other notable kerfuffles I either experienced from a distance, like the assassinations of RFK3 and JFK, or next door, like Heaven's Gate and Rodney King.
     A few days later, I was researching documents from Vatican II, the famous confab which Pope John XXIII called to drag the Roman Catholic Church into the Brave New World. Almost immediately, I discovered that I was smart (or lucky) to do so—the Second Ecumenical Council, in the early 60s, identified some of the very same individual and social issues I'd been hearing complaints about since I reached adulthood4. In Gaudium et pres, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, published in 1965, Pope Paul VI5 named several specific concerns, which I summarize below:
     The modern world is a scientific and technological one, in which, ironically [my description; gaudium et pres does not admit the ironic presence] a new humanism has focused attention not on the human ability to gain phenomenological knowledge and the many new fruits of this, but on the phenomenological conditions of human life. The widespread communications provided by technology creates widespread awareness of and demand for this better and fuller life. This, in turn, creates an awareness of a condition also created by the modern world: the disparity between the haves and the have-nots, both in the world generally and within particular societies and nations. It is an eloquent document, and I quote below a portion of the close of the “Introduction:”

Nevertheless, in the face of the modern development of the world, the number constantly swells of the people who raise the most basic questions or recognize them with a new sharpness: what is man? What is this sense of sorrow, of evil, of death, which continues to exist despite so much progress? What purpose have these victories purchased at so high a cost? What can man offer to society, what can he expect from it?...[T]he council wishes to speak to all men in order to shed light on the mystery of man and to cooperate in finding the solution to the outstanding problems of our time.

     “What can man offer to society?” Committed Christians are, sadly, rare. A sizeable number of Americans consider themselves religious, according to opinion polls, but their tendency to consider religion a private and individual affair leads to both a reluctance to join themselves to participation in a wider life in the body of Christ, in which faith could be examined, celebrated, strengthened and directed, and a tendency to ignore the ways in which faith could inform their actions in the social world. “Being religious” really means paying lip service to some institutional aspects of the church, such as marital and funerary rites, while largely ignoring the rest.
     Soon after Charlottesville, the city of Houston was hit by a hurricane, with widespread flooding. Even as I write this, millions of dollars are being raised by institutions such as the Red Cross and individuals such as NFL star JJ Watt; hundreds of people are in Houston with boats and trucks to help rescue stranded residents (and pets). Those things, while laudable, are comparatively easy for Christians to do when seeking a way to respond to the world and its difficulties. But what can we offer to societies in which hate, fear, pride, brutishness and feckless violence produce a Charlottesville, or for that matter an ISIS or Central African genocide?
     Faith. It is easy to see the work of evil in our world. What to do about evil is not so simple. My dad, born and raised a Quaker, faced the issue in early 1942. He accepted the draft, went to artillery school, told the colonel of his background and said he'd prefer non-combatant work, but would serve wherever he was assigned. He was sent to assist the battalion dentist. His battalion was, however, one of the new anti-aircraft units, outfitted with fast-moving halftracks mounting four M2 .50 caliber machine guns, designed to intercept attacks on mobile artillery batteries. In other words they were, in the words of my Navy shipmates, built to “go into harm's way.” Dad did; from an emergency medical bunker dug into the bloody sands of Utah Beach, to fleeing through the narrow streets of a Belgian town ahead of Nazi tanks on the first morning of the Battle of the Bulge, to joining Patton's tanks as they turned back the Bulge offensive, he made his way to top sergeant and lived to tell the tale. After the war, he was chosen to serve on the Selective Service Board in Oregon.6
     Today, several theologians and writers who haven't worn the uniform tend to believe in pacificism as a proper response to war. In a way, I almost envy the kind of faith that can accept death rather than resist evildoers. Almost. I happen to believe that the issue is rather more complex than the simplicity of a single, absolute stand against all violence, but that is a belief that I also believe is open to dialogue (as do the Friends, by the way). That difference can also arise in the question of confronting the rioters of Charlottesville or the ruthless killers of ISIS. Must we meet evil in kind, and if so, when and where? There is certainly no shortage of evil to face. It may take the form of casual, deliberate intrusion on our property, psyche or physical selves here, or rape, murder and kidnapping in Rwanda or southern Somalia; it may be present in individuals in our neighborhoods, or rioting mobs in an inner city or suburban ville.7 However and wherever it occurs, there are some ideas that Christians should keep in mind in forming opinions or taking action.
    In Vatican II, the Roman Catholic church for the first time stepped away from its traditional Augustinian assumption that the world was an inherently sinful place and found instead that there were good things and people in the world, and that Christians should look for and support the good. Among other things, it had a strong impact on church missions, adding official support to the sort of practical solutions already present in many 'third world' missions. Vatican II also asserted that the idea of missionology was seriously skewed in that it was seen as a process of the 'Christian' part of the world reaching out to 'save' the rest. Instead, facing the decreasing primacy of Christianity in the previously Constantinian west, the church described 'mission' as an integral part of all Christians' presence in the world, not a role only assigned to specific 'missionaries' or 'evangelists'.89
     The post-Vatican II generation of Catholic leadership still has a large number of people who would rather that the church return to its last-ditch stand against modernism—something that the church at least thinks it knows how to do—rather than embrace notions smacking of the postmodern of the post-1960s, but it must be admitted that this is not an unusual stance among us Protestants, as well. So, how do Christians witness their faith in the face of evil? One 'solution' to this question is something I briefly experienced in college. In 2001, Time magazine writer David Van Biema's called it “Amway” gospel.10 Like historian Mark Noll11, I found Bill Bright's evangelology myopic and superficial, its supporters' campus meetings closely resembling the guilting and cheerleading of a used car salesmens' morning colloquy.
     A more realistic approach to the occasion of evil might well focus on a range of actions that would be both available and meaningful to the individual Christian, as well as the Christian community.

The broad Christian answer is that each follower of the Way is now commissioned as a witness, in but not of his or her world. Witnessing requires a new sociality, a revised engagement with those still fixed in the culture of origin. Pentecost has recurred; the pentecostal celebrants, sharers of the new that comes in Christ, must explicitly impart that new or be at risk of implicitly denying it.12

     There is good and bad in our world, and faith, as McLendon says above, requires seeing our entire life as a witness. The actions we take or refuse to take are either of our faith, or we deny that faith.
     One of the latterly-recognized heroes of the 18th century Friends in America, as Smithsonian magazine belatedly pointed out this month,13 was Benjamin Lay, a dwarf and former sailor14 who repeatedly confronted his fellow Quakers in their meeting houses over the issue of slavery. He wrote a powerfully worded book decrying slavery, made vociferous objections to it during meetings and even conducted personal demonstrations outside the meeting houses after he was ejected from them throughout the Philadelphia area. Buried in an unmarked grave, Lay was largely forgotten (outside the Friends) by the historians of abolition, even dismissed by them as 'crazy.' Not the first believer to suffer that fate, nor the last, but what a glorious witness!
     Hope. If faith is the foundation of the abiding witness of Christianity, then hope is the second story.15 Acting out of faith, as Lay's story demonstrates, does not always mean achieving something immediate, visible, tangible or immediate. It may mean encountering criticism or even ridicule. The price of faith is sometimes paid in bitter coin, but the purse that accepts that coin is hope.
     I was once a Chief Petty Officer in the U.S. Navy, which is a rank officially equivalent to a Gunnery Sergeant in the Marine Corps or a Sergeant First Class in the Army. In the Navy, however, its historic and traditional significance is somewhat distinctive. For starters, chief petty officers wear uniforms identical to those of commissioned officers, rather than those of lower ranking sailors, are afforded privileges such as separate berthing and mess (eating and/or socializing) facilities and are given, both formally and informally, responsibilities beyond those one would expect to accompany a single grade of rank above other enlisteds. Two chiefs, neither previously known to the other, connecting on a phone line can produce results than even admirals might envy (often heard, from a senior officer: “Chief, can ya....”).
     Serving as one of three division chiefs in the Pacific Fleet Combat Camera Group, I was ordered by the commanding officer of our parent command to conduct an investigation of an alleged violation of security regulations by a young photographer who had been sent to work temporarily with an aviation intelligence unit. This is a formal process, carried out under directives laid out in a Naval Instruction somewhat ominously called 'The Manual for Courts-Martial.' In passing on my assignment, the CO's Administrative Officer directed that I was not to interview the officers in the unit the sailor had been working for. Unfortunately, the manual ordered that as the investigating officer, I was to interview anyone who might have relevant information.
     Here were the relevant facts of my particular situation; one, it was clearly evident that the photographer had violated procedures for the handling of classified material; two, it was equally evident that my parent command's CO intended to punish the sailor pour encourager les autres; three, that there were extenuating circumstances in that the procedures used within intelligence units did not always follow the strict interpretation of security directives, and thus might have influenced the sailor's actions; finally, that only the officers for whom he had worked could address this issue in a credible manner.
     Basically, I was faced with the decision to follow the manual's procedures, which carry the authority of a direct order or follow the CO's order to ignore the manual. Complicating this was an additional fact: that ignoring a commanding officer's orders, even if it meant following orders from a higher authority (the manual), was politically unsound—it would mean, at the least, incurring his permanent dislike, and at most, facing legal action myself.
     Essentially, I saw the question as one of integrity. If I were to honor the duties and requirements of my position—Chief Petty Officer—I had no choice but to interview the officers of the intelligence unit and let the chips fall. I also saw the question as one of faith. As a servant of a higher authority I was obligated to act honestly, and that meant in the event of a conflict in orders, to obey that order given by the higher command (the manual) and to use my best analysis of the situation, as the manual required.
     Hope is what you have when everything else is out of your hands. Once I turned in my report, things in the short term were in the hands of an officer I fully expected to formally charge me with disobeying his order (he did, the next day), but in the long term, they were in the hands of someone considerably higher on the totem pole, so to speak. (In all honesty, I wasn't worried about being charged. I, like any savvy chief, had an ace in the hole. Nevertheless, it left me vulnerable to a highly upset senior officer, with considerable power to act in other ways—and he did. Shades of Mr. Roberts!)16
     Christians often face situations in which acting in accordance with faith has potential—and sometimes realized—consequences, but we are also, as Zechariah wrote, prisoners of hope,17 compelled—not simply encouraged—to act in accordance with our faith.
     Charity. Charity? The Septuagint, being in Greek, used agape (love), but later English translators sometimes chose to use charity. In the famous verse of 1 Corinthians 13:13, the Authorized Version of 1611 used charity in order to complete the noun series “faith, hope and charity.” The translators were versed in rhetorical devices, or tropes, and had learned rules for setting up such series, which made the series more mellifluous if it ended with a multi-syllabic word.18 As someone who grew up reading Shakespeare and the 1611 (KJV), I also prefer the old word, rather than the modern 'love.'
     Love is a passive word, implying a feeling, a sort of 'warm puppy,' in an old greeting card simile. Charity, on the other hand, is an active word, implying that something must be or is being done. Charity is meaningless unless accompanied with direct action. If one doesn't feed and water a warm puppy, it doesn't stay warm very long.
     Charity involves a sense of responsibility—to ourselves, to our immediate society, and, ultimately, to what postmodern thinkers call the other. The essence of the other is that the other is not us. It is the people we've not encountered who nevertheless are connected to us by common humanity, by participating in and thus co-creating the larger society of which we are a part.     Although they are to us unknown in any direct or interpersonal way, we still bear a responsibility to them as creatures of God, who is herself the great unknown other, the one unknown to us in any phenomenological way but to whom we connect through faith and hope. Our responsibility to God is total, even to what philosopher Jacques Derrida called the 'gift of death' (donner la mort)19. Death is that moment when we move beyond the limits of humanity and enter the place where God awaits and becomes directly known.
     Derrida points out how Abraham fulfilled his ultimate responsibility to God by ignoring his familial and ethical responsibilities to inform his wife and family, and especially his son Isaac, of the events to which God summoned him, instead concentrating solely on obeying God, and finally moving virtually to the point of killing his son before God halted him. It is a long moment both terrifying—remember how often the Bible refers to fear and trembling before God—and powerful as Abraham throws aside the lesser forms of love and ethicality to stand alone before God.
     Charity isn't for the timid. It is for those who recognize the need for charity to those unknown and the evil known, for the disgusting and the unlikeable, even for those who renounce our charity and disparage our efforts. It is our responsibility, even to welcome the gift of death in accomplishing it.

1The longtime L.A. landmark and home of the famous Cocoanut Grove is now (since 2005) a small green park in Koreatown (North side of the 3400 block of Wilshire Blvd.).
2Pratt, Executive Director of the Seattle Urban League, was shotgunned outside his home in January 1969—a tragic coda to the momentous year of 1968 in the Emerald City.
3I was the volunteer staff photographer at the evangelical Mt. Hermon Conference Center in Santa Cruz, CA when RFK was shot down in L.A. Knowing that I was possibly the only Democrat on staff, my boss offered me the day off. I regret not taking it, and the time to mourn properly. Big tough guy?—well.....crap.
4I was old enough to fight and die for my country early in my freshman year of college, although not to vote until my senior year. By that time, I already had high school classmates who'd died in Vietnam.
5John XXIII died during Vatican II. He was declared a saint in 2013.
6Otherwise known as “The Draft.” My draft lottery number was 17, which guaranteed selection.
7One of my best childhood friends murdered a young neighbor girl in a garage across the alley from my house, and then burned down the garage in an effort to hide the crime. He is serving a no-parole life sentence in the Washington state prison system. Writing this entry is causing me to face the fact that I've turned my back on him for most of my life, and consider what I must do about that.
9Sivalon, John C., MM. God's Mission and Postmodern Culture: The Gift of Uncertainty (Maryknoll, NY, Orbis, 2012), esp. pp 35-6.
11Noll, Mark A. The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids, MI, Eerdmans, 1994).
12McLendon, James Wm., Jr. Witness: Systematic Theology Vol. 3 (Nashville, Abingdon, 2000), p.21.
13Smithsonian, Vol. 48, No. 4 (September 2017) p. 34ff.
14Former sailors are cool.
15Yeah, I'm channeling 1 Cor, 13:13.
16In the end, the young sailor was found not guilty of the charges, thanks to the testimony of the intelligence officers.
17Zec 9:12.
18In one graduate seminar, Prof. Donald Freeman developed an excellent description of the phonetic reasons behind that old rhetorical “rule.” which I still use in my own writing. Remember that in the early 17th century, writers were far more influenced by the effects of reading aloud than today.

19The Gift of Death and Literature in Secret, trans by David Wills (Chicago, U of Chicago P, 1999, 2nd Ed.). This is a play on the French word “donner” which means “to give” (hence “donate” in English), but which also has the idiomatic sense of “to put to death.” 

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