Some Recent Watering Holes

croft-shutmouthscream-detail-2016

Brenda L. Croft, ‘shut/mouth/scream’ (detail), 2016. Source

 

I haven’t posted one of these for a while. Here are a number of pages I’ve appreciated visiting this past week or so:

And this:

On not singing the national anthem

Anthem 1

A friend in Tweetland (and Zuckerland) is wondering whether his kids, who are Christians and who are about to start school, should be encouraged or discouraged to sing the Australian National Anthem – ‘Advance Australia Fair’. I couldn’t resist a quick reply.

I’ve threatened my kids with homelessness and disinheritance if I ever learn that they’ve sung the Australian national anthem, or encouraged others to do so. Even standing during such, were I to hear about it, would be met with their pocket money being docked. Put simply, you can’t sing the national anthem and celebrate the Eucharist. Not only is the theological disconnect as huge (in a Pythonesque kind of way) as one could imagine, but bread and wine are simply so much more interesting than any anthem, and one should set one’s mind, heart, and voice unreservedly upon the most interesting things. The only reasonable alternative I can think of is to deliberately sing the anthem very badly, as out of tune and as out of time as one can muster, to do with it what Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd once did with a Colt Python .357 Magnum. To do otherwise is to put your salvation in doubt.

There is also the matter of the song being an appalling and anaemic piece of writing. That a school should torment its students with such horrid literature is tantamount to nothing short of abuse (something, to be sure, that the country is getting very good at). That a Christian – a Christian for God’s sake! – would let such a situation pass as if it were neither here nor there is probably best explained by the fact that most churchgoers have been made immune to such heresy though years of being fed a liturgical diet of equally squalid and giddy songs and prayers. Mornings of the Lord’s Day might be much better kept by reading Shakespeare or Robinson or Flanagan while listening to Springsteen on the couch in one’s pyjamas than by enduring such torment; unless of course one believes that such activity might function as a kind of training ground, a kind of school perhaps, for the purgatory that awaits the saints. Indeed, this might be among the best of reasons to go to church. But that an institution set apart to teach literature (as laughable as that sounds in today’s climate) should promote the singing of such vacuity is reason enough to have the entire school’s curriculum reviewed by a state parliamentary committee. Her majesty could not possibly expect anything less of her government.

On another note, I understand that the anthem’s election was the fruit of a plebiscite. Enough said.

Stringfellow on patriotism and nationalism

A question arising from the previous post is whether Stringfellow makes any distinction between ‘patriotism’ and ‘nationalism’. I am yet to read all of Stringfellow’s writings, but my sense thus far is that any distinction made between the two typically is equally concerned to hold the two together. So he understands patriotism as one of the clearest expressions of the idolatry of nationhood. Patriotism, according to Stringfellow, is just one of the ‘legion’ of principalities, alongside which he names the Pentagon, the Ford Motor Company, Harvard University, the Diners Club, the Olympics, the Methodist Church (I’m yet to discover what he has against the Methodist Church), capitalism, Maoism, humanism, Mormonism, astrology, the Puritan work ethic, science and scientism, white supremacy, sports, sex, any profession or discipline, technology, money, and the family. (See An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land, 78).

He also avers, in Imposters of God, that ‘… no nation enjoys exemption from idolatry; no subjects of any nation can escape the claims of idolatrous patriotism, whatever aesthetic or temperamental distinctions may lodge in this or that particular scene’ (pp. 100–1). And so, in another place, he cautions the ‘biblical person’ to always be ‘wary of claims which the State makes for allegiance, obedience, and service under the rubric called patriotism’ (An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land, 113)

Nationalism, therefore, is nothing short of blasphemous, making promises that only God can deliver on, and proclaiming a bastard Gospel which announces a pagan form of (political, economic and, in some cases religious) salvation. Nationalism is, to borrow from Luther, God’s ape (!), never having an original idea in its life but only setting itself in God’s place. Nationalism is simply idol worship sanctioned and demanded by the local god, the state claiming worship that belongs to Christ alone, and a level of commitment that belongs to the body of Christ alone. Rowan Williams’ essay, ‘Being a People: Reflections on the Concept of the “Laity”’ (Religion, State & Society 27/1, 1999), is very helpful here. Reflecting on Stringfellow’s statement that ‘the church is the exemplary nation juxtaposed to all the other nations’, Williams writes:

‘In the face of the demonic presence in national social and political life of the trend towards idolatry, towards absolutising the local and tangible, and of the incapacity of worldly nations effectively to repent and be converted, the Church – a visible, institutional ground of identity, a historically tangible `people’ – represents the calling of all human beings to belong together in justice. In this sense, the Church is also, for Stringfellow, ‘the priest of nations’: while it is visibly a polity and structure among others, it has the task not only of showing to others what the true ground of human belonging is, but also of undertaking what he calls ‘advocacy’ on behalf of every victim in such a way that it becomes worship. This is a complex idea, expressed (as usual with Stringfellow) in painfully compressed form. What it seems to mean is this. The Church’s willingness to stand with the victims of the nations of this world arises out of its own experience of God’s victory over death, its own experience of the possibility of resisting the power of idolatry and so discovering what cannot be destroyed. So when it stands with the powerless and the victims, it does so in conscious and articulate gratitude for God’s ability to take us beyond death. Advocacy becomes praise; and praise itself, properly understood, is a political matter because it witnesses to a God who brings us where no power or principality of this earth can intimidate or confine us’. (p. 12)

Mythologies to live – and to die – by

‘The greatest tragedy of the church and of our people I see, at this moment in time, lies in the fact that in the powerful popular movement a purified, glowing, national feeling is linked up with a new paganism, whose unmasking and attacking is more difficult than with free-thinking religion, not only on emotional grounds, but because it goes around in Christian clothing’. So penned Dietrich Bonhoeffer in 1931 during his first trip to North America, and published in No Rusty Swords (p. 69). This temptation, so powerfully resisted in Bonhoeffer’s own person, is also identified by Joe Jones in his exciting book On Being the Church of Jesus Christ in Tumultuous Times (reviewed here). In the Introduction, Jones recalls how throughout the church’s life there has been a ‘constant temptation to Christians to regard their national cultural identity as more basic than their Christian identity’ (p. xxi). This too is my concern, a concern nicely echoed in Ben Myers’ recent post on Anzac Day and the god of war, a subject which I too posted on last year under the name Aliens in the Church: A Reflection on ANZAC Day, National Flags and the Church as an Alternative Society. This shared concern seeks to speak into the confusion about the most basic self-understanding of the people of God, about our identity in the world and about which ‘mythology’ we choose to have our minds and lives most shaped by. Jones rightly, to my mind, contends that one symptom of the disarray in the church today is that most of us are more decisively formed and informed by our national identity than by our identity as disciples of an-other kingdom.

Jones proposes that the decisive identity for the church is an identity grounded in affirming Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour. Without some clarity about the priority among our various socially-conferred and socially-constructed identities, the church will, he contests, be utterly incapacitated to think pertinently about much at all, including issues about war and peace, and about its own unique identity, as well as its own theologically-determined political and economic life. He writes: ‘In the absence of a vigorous self-understanding grounded in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the church devolves into being no more than a mirror image of the values – the discourses and practices – that shape the world in which it lives. Hence, being the church of Jesus Christ in tumultuous times at least involves understanding what it means simply in all times and places to be that community that is the Body of Christ in the world’. He continues: ‘This problem is most acute for the so-called ‘liberals’ and the so-called ‘conservatives’ among the church, for both seem determined to think about the war and terror simply according to the their liberal or conservative political dispositions. Completely lost in this is how to think and act, first and foremost, from the perspective of being a confessing and disciplined member of the Body of Christ in the world. Put another way: the discourses of the church should be the means by which Christians come to construe the world of the nation-states, with their internal and external politics, as the world over which Jesus Christ reigns’ (p. xxii).

We ought to thank God for those ministers and churches who on this recent Anzac Day refused to baptise a pagan ‘mythology’ but instead embraced the opportunity to engage creatively, graciously and prophetically with the soul of the community around them, to identify points of contact with that wider community, to encourage public discourse about the deepest realities of human being, and to hold up a new imagining of human community grounded in Jesus alone. That next year’s ANZAC Day falls on Easter Monday, only helps – one hopes – to make that conversation even more arresting, the clash of ‘mythologies’ even more striking, and the choice before us even more stark.

Richard Lischer’s Open Secrets: Part V, On Symbols and National Flags

First Church, Dunedin

‘It all begins with the symbols. They capture primal relations, like water and death, fire and purification, seeds and hope. The stories do not come before the symbols, but they emerge from them and bring them to life. The stories explain the symbols, and the symbols make the stories worth remembering and telling. The window in the Lumbee church said, “See, under this sign of suffering, we will accept one another as brothers and sisters.” A congregation lives most deeply by its symbol-bearing stories. They tell us who we are.

Any cultural anthropologist would have warned me not to rearrange the furniture in our church. Of course, there were no cultural anthropologists in New Cana. Had there been, they would have reminded me that the physical focus of worship symbolically “freezes” the community’s story into a sacred universe. Therefore, to shuffle the furniture in the chancel or to alter the ritual, say, by moving the flag or changing the music, is to offend against the stories and derange the universe itself.

Who knew?

I should have known not to try to remove the American flag from the chancel. To me, the national flag represented an intrusion into the sacred space of the congregation, an obvious symbol of civil religion. Theologically, the flag has no business beside the altar.

At one of our congregational “town meetings” I patiently explained that I had nothing against patriotism but that it was a short step from “God and country” to “God equals country”. These were the last hours of Vietnam and the early days of Watergate. How can Christians minister prophetically to the country, I asked, if we embrace the nation’s chief symbol and admit it into our sanctuary’. – Richard Lischer, Open Secrets: A Memoir of Faith and Discovery, 89–90.

I’ve blogged on this theme before too. See Aliens in the Church: A Reflection on ANZAC Day, National Flags and the Church as an Alternative Society

Aliens in the Church: A Reflection on ANZAC Day, National Flags and the Church as an Alternative Society

Hagia Sophia - Mosaic of Christ with Constantine IX and Zoe

Hagia Sophia - Mosaic of Christ with Constantine IX and Zoe

‘There is no agreement between the divine and the human sacrament, the standard of Christ and the standard of the devil, the camp of light and the camp of darkness. One soul cannot be due to two masters — God and Cæsar’. So was Tertullian’s response (in On Idolatry 19) to a question he posed of ‘whether a believer may turn himself unto military service, and whether the military may be admitted unto the faith, even the rank and file, or each inferior grade, to whom there is no necessity for taking part in sacrifices or capital punishments’.

My recent return to the Antipodes (after only 3 years) has been met with something of a shock at what I observe to be a distinct revival of patriotism in this part of the world symbolised not least in the hoisting of national flags. I can only interpret this as a public confession that the soul of the nation is distressed. Holding this thought, I remember once hearing (on tape) the great Welsh preacher Martyn Lloyd-Jones lamenting that the saddest day in ecclesiastical history was when Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity. (Of course, it may been different if Constantine had turned out to be a different kind of Emperor, but that’s not my point here). At the time, I wondered if this was a bit of an overstatement (a brilliant preacher’s rhetoric beclouding more constrained reflection on what is only one of millions of possible ‘saddest day’ candidates), but he was certainly onto something: that the Church’s jumping into bed with and baptising nationhood with its programs and events – such as Anzac Day – serves to highlight yet again that there is literally all the difference in the world between discipleship and citizenship, that with or without the third verse the Church cannot in good conscience sing the hymn ‘I vow to thee, my country’, words which were rung out at many a recent Anzac Day service. (And while I’m on Anzac Day services, let me tout that the Church can only faithfully recall the deaths that war has claimed if she does so as part of her proclamation against all war.)

The Church betrays its witness to the one Word of God when she includes a national flag among – or alongside – her emblems of worship. Nationalism and patriotism are always idolatrous enemies of a jealous Lord who tolerates no rivals. To see a national flag displayed in a place of Christian worship is to witness a message as scandalous and confusing as to see an ATM machine in a ‘church foyer’. Moreover, to witness (or to participate in) what Lesslie Newbigin described as ‘the Constantinian trap’ is to observe (and/or to participate in) the greatest of public failures – the denial of the Church’s font, table and pulpit, its raison d’être and its catholicity in the world. It is to preach that the greatest thing in the world – the Church – has become a chaplain of the State and its violent machinery. Paul Fromont recently gave voice to similar concerns by drawing upon Stanley Hauerwas’ writing as that concerned with ‘liberation’. For Hauerwas, he writes, this typically centres on a two-fold dynamic: (1) The liberation of the church from its captivity to agendas, values and practices intrinsically alien to its character and calling; and (2) liberation (in order to) restore the church to be and act as what [Hauerwas] terms a ‘free agent’ of the Kingdom appropriate to God’s agenda of the salvation of the cosmos and its re-creation (cf. Rev 21:1; Rom 8:22). I recall Hauerwas’ words from another context: to ‘worship in a church with an American flag’ means that ‘your salvation is in doubt’. Patriotism is no Christian virtue. (See Hauerwas’ Dissent from the Homeland, p. 184). The problem in Germany during the 1930s and 40s wasn’t that German Christians draped the cross with a Nazi flag; it was that they draped the cross with a flag full stop. Christian communities ought remove all national flags from their places of worship, and to do so at least as publicly as when they were first placed there. The removal should be accompanied by a public prayer of confession for despoiling the Church’s witness to its Lord, and to its own catholicity.

Flag flying in front of Cologne Cathedral, 1937

Cologne Cathedral, 1937

Against those who contend that the Church’s role is to baptise those creations of common good that the State concerns itself with, William Cavanaugh, in his brilliant essay, ‘Killing for the Telephone Company: Why the Nation-State is not the Keeper of the Common Good’ (Modern Theology 20/2, 2004), observes that Christian social ethics more often than not proceed on the false assumption that the responsibility for promoting and protecting the common good falls to the State. He avers:

The nation-state is neither community writ large nor the protector of smaller communal spaces, but rather originates and grows over against truly common forms of life. This is not necessarily to say that the nation-state cannot and does not promote and protect some goods, or that any nation-state is entirely devoid of civic virtue, or that some forms of ad hoc cooperation with the government cannot be useful. It is to suggest that the nation-state is simply not in the common good business. At its most benign, the nation-state is most realistically likened, as in MacIntyre’s apt metaphor, to the telephone company, a large bureaucratic provider of goods and services that never quite provides value for money. The problem, as MacIntyre notes, is that the nation-state presents itself as so much more; namely, as the keeper of the common good and repository of sacred values that demands sacrifice on its behalf. The longing for genuine communion that Christians recognize at the heart of any truly common life is transferred onto the nation-state. Civic virtue and the goods of common life do not simply disappear; as Augustine saw, the earthly city flourishes by producing a distorted image of the heavenly city. The nation-state is a simulacrum of common life, where false order is parasitical on true order. In a bureaucratic order whose main function is to adjudicate struggles for power between various factions, a sense of unity is produced by the only means possible: sacrifice to false gods in war. The nation-state may be understood theologically as a kind of parody of the Church, meant to save us from division. The urgent task of the Church, then, is to demystify the nation-state and to treat it like the telephone company. At its best, the nation-state may provide goods and services that contribute to a certain limited order – mail delivery is a positive good. The state is not the keeper of the common good, however, and we need to adjust our expectations accordingly. The Church must break its imagination out of captivity to the nation-state. The Church must constitute itself as an alternative social space, and not simply rely on the nation-state to be its social presence. The Church needs, at every opportunity, to “complexify” space, that is, to promote the creation of spaces in which alternative economies and authorities flourish. (pp. 266–7)

Cavanaugh contends that by regarding the nation-state as responsible for the common good, ‘the Church’s voice in such crucial moral matters as war becomes muted, pushed to the margins. Just war reasoning becomes a tool of statecraft, most commonly used by the state to justify war, rather than a moral discipline for the Church to grapple with questions of violence. The Church itself becomes one more withering “intermediate association”, whose moral reasoning and moral formation are increasingly colonized by the nation-state and the market. To resist, the Church must at the very least reclaim its authority to judge if and when Christians can kill, and not abdicate that authority to the nation-state. To do so would be to create an alternative authority and space that does not simply mediate between state and individual’ (p. 268). That is why one appropriate Christian witness might be the refusal of those who reside in States where funding goes to pay for the machinery of aggressive war to withhold a percentage of their income tax commensurate with the State’s war budget. (Here I have in mind Yoder’s essay ‘Why I Don’t Pay All My Income Tax’).

While the Church shares some cultural space with the world, it is not an institution alongside others, and it exists for the propping up of none. The Church, as Peter Leithart argues in Against Christianity, is both ‘an alternative world unto herself’, and a participant in the Spirit’s ‘subversive mission of converting whatever culture she finds herself in’. And the Church participates in the second only as she lives authentically as the first – i.e. as she embodies an alternative Societas determined by its own jealous Servant-Lord and shaped by its own unique narrative. Christendom can never undertake this mission because it can only propose ideas or offer the Church as a ‘new sort of religious association’, essentially no different to a local lawn bowls club. It does not form an alternative city, a ‘new, eschatological ordering of human life’. ‘Constantinianism … is a theological and missiological mistake’ (Rodney Clapp).

If Leithart is right that the mission of the Church involves the converting of culture then, as I intimated above, this can only happen as the congregation of Jesus lives uncompromisingly under a different economy and politic. The consequence of such living will inevitably provoke a declaration of war by the gods. History is indeed the battle for worship, as the Book of the Revelation bears witness to.

Anyway, back to the issue of the flag. Few have named the stakes as cogently and as carefully as Karl Barth, with whose words I bring this post to a close:

[The] combining of the Word of Jesus Christ with the authority and contents of other supposed revelations and truths of God has been and is the weak point, revealed already in the gnosis attacked in the New Testament, at almost every stage in the history of the Christian Church. The prophecy of Jesus Christ has never been flatly denied, but fresh attempts have continually been made to list it with other principles, ideas and forces (and their prophecy) which are also regarded and lauded as divine, restricting its authority to what it can signify in co-ordination with them, and therefore to what remains when their authority is also granted. Nor is this trend characteristic only of early and mediaeval Catholicism. It is seen in Protestantism too, from the very outset in certain circles, even in the Reformers themselves, and then with increasing vigour and weight, until the fatal little word “and” threatened to become the predominant word of theology even in this sphere where we might have hoped for better things in view of what seemed to be the strong enough doctrine of justification. It needed the rise of the strange but temporarily powerful sect of the German Christians of 1933 to call us back to reflection, and at least the beginning of a return, when the more zealous among them, in addition to their other abominations, awarded cultic honour to the portrait of the Führer. The overthrow of this whole attitude, and its provisional reversal, was accomplished in the first thesis of Barmen which is the theme of the present exposition. But there are other Christian nations in which it is customary to find a prominent place in the church for national flags as well as the pulpit and the Lord’s table, just as there are evangelical churches which substitute for the Lord’s table a meaningfully furnished apparatus for the accomplishment of baptism by immersion [or, one might add, that most holy of contemporary ecclesiastical furniture – the data projector and its accompanying screen]. These externals, of course, are trivial in themselves. But as such they may well be symptoms of the attempt which is possible in so many forms to incorporate that which is alien in other prophecies into what is proper to that of Jesus Christ. If these prophecies are prepared for this – and sooner or later they will make an open bid for sole dominion – the prophecy of Jesus Christ asks to be excused and avoids any such incorporation. If it is subjected to such combinations, the living Lord Jesus and His Word depart, and all that usually remains is the suspiciously loud but empty utterance of the familiar name of this Prophet. “No man can serve two masters” (Mt. 6:24). No man can serve both the one Word of God called Jesus Christ and other divine words’. – Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.3.1 (ed. G.W. Bromiley and T.F. Torrance; trans. G.W. Bromiley; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1999), 101–2.