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Sunday, June 30, 2013

Competing covenants

Somebody has to bring this up every once in while. These thoughts arise when I see our Sunday bulletin with a flag on it, or some other national symbol, rather than a cross, or some Christian artwork. I don't make too much of it, because it's just a couple of times a year. People of immense good will and courage will disagree with me, but somebody's got to attempt to articulate the dissenting point of view. Here goes. It's about the separation of church and state, the part that the church hasn't learned yet.

On July 4, this is the first reading used at Mass. As I recall, there may be others from which to choose, but this is the one we have been using at St. Anne. It's from Deuteronomy, chapter 8.
The LORD, your God, is bringing you into a good country, a land with streams of water, with springs and fountains welling up in the hills and valleys, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, of olive trees and of honey, a land where you can eat bread without stint and where you will lack nothing, a land whose stones contain iron and in whose hills you can mine copper. But when you have eaten your fill, you must bless the LORD, your God, for the good country he has given you. Be careful not to forget the LORD, your God, by neglecting his commandments and decrees and statutes which I enjoin on you today: lest, when you have eaten your fill, and have built fine houses and lived in them, and have increased your herds and flocks, your silver and gold, and all your property, you then become haughty of heart and unmindful of the LORD, your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that place of slavery; who guided you through the vast and terrible desert with its saraph serpents and scorpions, its parched and waterless ground; who brought forth water for you from the flinty rock and fed you in the desert with manna, a food unknown to your fathers, that he might afflict you and test you, but also make you prosperous in the end. Otherwise, you might say to yourselves, 'It is my own power and the strength of my own hand that has obtained for me this wealth. Remember then, it is the LORD, your God, who gives you the power to acquire wealth, by fulfilling, as he has now done, the covenant which he swore to your fathers. But if you forget the LORD, your God, and follow other gods, serving and worshiping them, I forewarn you this day that you will perish utterly. Like the nations which the LORD destroys before you, so shall you too perish for not heeding the voice of the LORD, your God.
Of course, those emphases are mine, to highlight passages that call on us "not to forget" or to "remember."

In the cosmology of the Torah, it is God's remembering that makes life possible and keeps the world going. As long as God remembers Israel and its faithfulness, things go well. When God remembers the sins of Israel, Israel is punished. When thing are going really badly for Israel, God has forgotten them, or fallen asleep, so that you hear things like "Awake, Lord! Save me, my God" (Ps 3:8); "Remember your mercies," (Psalm 25); "Remember the people you rescued long ago," (Psalm 74); "Remember your enemies"; "Remember your covenant" (Psalm 74). "Rouse your power, Lord, and come!" 

When God remembers, things happen. Similarly, God tells Israel and us to remember the covenant. Remembering in scripture and therefore in the liturgy (anamnesis, literally, "not not-remembering") is the kind of bringing-to-mind that creates change, makes covenant possible, and provokes solidarity. The way I think about it is this: once, a week before the Oscars, I was invited by Charlize Theron to be her escort to the Big Event, apparently, her usual goon was not available, or they weren't on speaking terms. I had to rent a tux, get airline tickets and all that, but knowing how Charley (I call her Charley) feels about me, I knew that it would be a Big Night. As the limo came to the house and the driver opened the door for me, I was about to climb into the car when I heard my wife say, "Hey!" I turned around, she gave me a kiss, and said, "Remember that I love you."

Unlike what we sometimes think when we use the word "remember," she isn't really asking me merely to do a mental exercise. Her request that I "remember" was a call to action, involving more than just my thoughts. Scriptural and liturgical remembering is like that: it's a call back to covenant, it's the "Hey!" and a kiss that make us stop and take a different way, call us back to a way that we promised a long time ago. When Deuteronomy calls us, believers in the USA or in any land, to "remember it is the LORD your God who gives you power", the Word of God is not asking us to do a mental recollection, or say a prayer. It means "act according to your memory." When it says "be careful not to forget the Lord your God," it means to remember who the God is whom we are remembering, a God of liberation, a God who delivers the weak from the mighty, a God in whose power it is to give and take away nations, and to act accordingly.

We've all heard the competing rhetoric of the American way, it doesn't really matter
which President, or senator, or court. The idea is that "freedom isn't free," that every generation has to fight for it. Rockets' red glare, martial music, displays of weaponry, these kinds of things exhort us on July 4 to "remember" a different covenant. This covenant also expects us to act a specific way. It has its own rhetoric of "evildoers being brought to justice," "prosperity," and the necessity of war. It makes statements like, "On this day when we give thanks for our freedom, we also give thanks to the men and women who make our freedom possible," (President Bush to U.S. troops at an outdoor speech at Fort Bragg, home of the 82nd Airborne Division, on July 4, 2006). 
Well, it can't be both ways. Either God makes freedom possible, or armies do. We've seen the failure of armies. If "freedom isn't free" and every generation has to fight for it, then we must be using the wrong ammunition.

I'm not making a Democratic vs. Republican statement here, I think. I am trying more and more to understand the truth in one of Michael Joncas's paradigms of the New Testament church, that is, that in the community of the twelve, the political spectrum was as wide as it was possible to be within Judaism. You have, in the twelve who surrounded Jesus, on the one hand Levi/Matthew, the tax collector, who was a Roman collaborator and made his living by adding on to Roman tolls and collecting tariffs for the hated occupation force, and on the other hand you have Simon, the Zealot party member, and Judas Iskarioth, "the dagger," the former being committed to a long-term guerilla war against the Romans, and the latter possibly an assassin, named for the weapon, a small concealable blade, that was used to murder the enemy. So we have, from the earliest times, very divergent political views within the Jesus community, William F. Buckley and Che Guevara breaking bread together. And since there's no evidence that any of their minds were changed politically, maybe all that is required is commitment to Christ, an allegiance that makes people of all political stripes "resident aliens" in any country, to use Stanley Hauerwas's memorable term.

What can be done? I don't really know, but we could start by telling the truth. We could start by acknowledging that the use of force in Iraq and Afghanistan and Palestine hasn't accomplished anything except the murder of a number of civilians that makes the 9/11 tragedy begin to shrink in comparison. That it was revenge on the wrong people. We could stop using God's name in vain as the source of our violence, and start asking for mercy from God in our national rhetoric for every soul killed in that conflict. We could acknowledge the evil of the war, at least, while we wage it, and be committed to ending it quickly with clearly defined goals. We could stop making it sound like we're doing God's work with our murderous weapons, our collateral damage, and lawless incarcerations.

As the de profundis groans heavenward from the suffering populace of the Middle East, let a miserere sound from the Christians of America. May the liturgy somehow enable us to remember, to stop ignoring and forgetting, and move onto a path of conciliation and peacemaking. May our hearts be turned from this unsustainable violence and counterfeit of justice, and turned toward the God who brings freedom to the slave and deliverance to the oppressed. Only by remembering that God, the one God of many names whose true image is Jesus Christ, is there any hope for lasting peace in this or any nation.