Saturday Night Theologian
20 April 2008

Acts 7:55-60

In the debate between presidential candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton that was held in Philadelphia this week, the moderators (one can hardly call them newscasters) asked several questions of Sen. Obama concerning his former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, including this one by George Stephanopoulos: "Do you think Reverend Wright loves America as much as you do?" Obama's answer should probably have begun something like this: "George, that's a pretty stupid question, so let me just ignore it and move on to something important like the economy or the war in Iraq." Obama, however, was more diplomatic than I would have been (maybe that's why he's running for president and I'm not!), and answered in a somewhat different vein. The rightwing media's fascination with Jeremiah Wright is not surprising, since he opposes almost everything the right side of the political spectrum stands for, but I have to say that I'm disconcerted when supposedly more moderate media types continue to harp on Wright's statements and assassinate his character. Wright has made a career of speaking his mind, regardless of the fallout and without regard to political correctness or conventional wisdom. One can certainly disagree with the content of some of Wright's more provocative statements (though I have yet to see one that I think was unsupportable), but no honest person can deny that Wright's overall message, expressed in over thirty years of sermons, are quite similar in tenor to that of prophets like Amos, Hosea, and Micah. Wright, of course, is not the first person whose unpopular words landed him in trouble. Several prophets in the Hebrew Bible were killed for their words, as was Jesus himself. In today's reading from Acts, we see another Christian witness (witness is the original meaning of the Greek word from which we get martyr) who is killed because his words inflamed the multitudes. Stephen had preached a bold sermon concerning Jesus, and at the end the crowd, which he had criticized, was incensed. What right did this man have speaking to them in such a manner? So they picked up rocks and stoned him. Fortunately, not too many people today are literally killed for their prophetic words, at least in the U.S., but they are certainly susceptible to character assassination, slander, libel, and willful distortion of their message. The amazing thing is not that many people are upset with the words of people like Wright--as they were similarly upset by the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.--but that they aren't upset at the words of more people. Maybe the problem is that there aren't enough of us out in the real world speaking up with a prophetic voice. We get so caught up in the trap of patriotism (another question to Obama in the debate had to do with why he didn't wear a flag lapel pin) that we're afraid to speak out against the very real mistakes of our country--of every country, not just the U.S. Our greatest president, Abraham Lincoln, was not afraid to point out the injustice and failures of the country, particularly with regard to slavery. How much less should committed Christians be afraid to speak up. Stephen provides us with a shining example of an individual with the courage to speak the truth, regardless of the consequences. Can progressive Christians today do any less?

Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16 (first published 24 April 2005)

Medieval Japanese society, like many other traditional cultures, placed a great deal of importance on the concept of shame. The group of people who put the most emphasis on the concept were the samurai. Shame was of such importance to the samurai that they would rather die than wear the shame of a public failure, for example, the failure to serve their master properly. Hagakure, the Book of the Samurai, says of samurai who failed their masters, "If one felt that such a failure were a mortification, it would be the least he could do to cut open his stomach, rather than live on in shame with a burning in his breast and the feeling that he had no place to go." Shame was such a powerful influence that it could make itself felt even after this life is over: "Since a warrior's daily frame of mind is manifested even after death, it is something that can bring shame to him." The word haji, "shame," can be written in Japanese by using a Chinese ideogram that combines the figures for "ear" and "mind." Shame serves as a bridge between social (ear) and personal (mind) expectations, and it shapes behavior with these two audiences in mind. "In you, O Lord, I seek refuge; do not let me ever be put to shame; in your righteousness deliver me," says the psalmist. The psalmist wants to avoid the shame that comes from succumbing to the torments of the enemies, whether physical (loss in battle) or psychical (illness). Any Christian perspective on shame must include consideration of the words of Paul from Romans 1:16--"I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes"--and 2 Timothy 2:15--"Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth." We often equate shame with embarrassment, for example, when we trip over our own feet or commit a verbal faux pas, or even when someone else beats us out of a job that we felt sure we would get. However, we need to think of shame on a higher level. Like the samurai, we should have a commitment to our master that causes us to prefer death to dishonoring the name of our master. How might we dishonor our Lord? In many ways, but the citations from Romans and 2 Timothy suggest that failure to speak the truth as we understand it can be the cause of shame, because by not speaking out, we are suppressing the gospel of Christ. There are plenty of people in the world who are more than willing to share their perverse views on life with all who will listen, and we certainly need to avoid presenting our version of the gospel in an obnoxious or unnecessarily confrontational way. On the other hand, we shouldn't be afraid to stand firm in our convictions, regardless of the opposition of many around us. Standing up for what's right will not always make you popular at work, in your neighborhood, at school, or even at church. You may be ostracized for your views. You may even be verbally assaulted (or worse). But if a samurai warrior was willing to give even his own life to protect the honor of his master, can we do any less to protect the gospel of Christ?

1 Peter 2:2-10 (first published 24 April 2005)

Shortly after Augustine, bishop of Hippo, got word in 410 that the city of Rome had been sacked by Alaric the Goth, he began work on his magnum opus, The City of God. Augustine was confronted with the difficult question: how could God allow the Roman Empire to be destroyed by barbarians, when it had been instrumental in promoting Christianity for almost the past hundred years, since the time of Constantine and the Edict of Milan (313)? Pagan Rome had endured as a republic for 500 years, and under the emperors it had persecuted the church off and on over a period of 300 years. Now that Rome's heart was finally right and it was being used as God's instrument, why would God allow it to fall? Augustine answered that there are two great cities: the Earthly City and the City of God. The Earthly City is characterized by love of self, but the City of God is characterized by love of God. The Earthly City is held together by bonds of nationality, language, or custom, but the City of God is held together by commitment to God. Like Rome, which Augustine considered the greatest city in the world, the Earthly City would someday fall. Only the City of God would remain. Therefore, he argues, Christians should place their allegiance in the City of God rather than the Earthly City. 1 Peter makes the same demand on believers: "But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, in order that you might proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light." Like many Roman Christians in Augustine's day, many Christians today take their citizenship in the Earthly City far more seriously than their citizenship in the City of God. Early in its history, nationalism might have been a liberating influence from the medieval feudal system, but today nationalism is an idol that entraps Christians (and people of other faiths) in worship of a false god. When two nations that claim to worship the same God go to war with one another, it is because they value their citizenship in the Earthly City more than their citizenship in the City of God. When we spend more money as a nation on military adventures than we do on meeting basic human needs, we are favoring the Earthly City over the City of God. When we refuse to provide low-cost or free medicine to the neediest people in the world because of pressure from big pharmaceutical companies, we are favoring the Earthly City over the City of God. When the austerity measures we impose on foreign countries like Ecuador or Haiti cause so much pain that the people overthrow their elected governments (whose rulers we didn't really like anyway), we are favoring the Earthly City over the City of God. When we ignore the calls from other countries and from the world's religious leaders to proclaim a year of jubilee and forgive the debts of the world's poorest nations, we are proclaiming loudly and clearly that the Earthly City, our particular manifestation of it, is more important to us than the City of God. It's time to re-read Augustine and understand what he understood. The Christian's citizenship is in heaven, and our loyalty to our brother and sister in Christ should outweigh our loyalty to any nation. Extending the analogy even further, our loyalty to any brother or sister of any faith--or of no faith--should outweigh our loyalty to any nation. We are "God's own people," and it is high time we remembered it.

John 14:1-14

(first published 24 April 2005)

Taoism is a religion whose name is based on a root that means "the Way." The most famous book of Taoism, the Tao Te Ching,, contains numerous sayings that discuss the meaning of the Way, many of which have enlightening parallels in Christianity. In the earliest days of the church, what later came to be called Christianity was called "the Way." Jesus calls himself "the Way" to God. A way is not a set of doctrines of memorize or a set of propositions to assent to. It is a path, a roadmap to a lifelong journey toward God, and at the same time with God. Jesus is the Way to God inasmuch as he shows us the way to God through his words and deeds. When Thomas asks about "the way you are going," Jesus responds simply, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me." Only by observing Jesus, particularly by observing the way in which he lived his life, can we discover what it means to live in the Way. The following quotations are from the Taoist book Tao Te Ching and speak of the Way (tao) of Taoism, but they could be equally applied to the Way of Christianity. The Way of Taoism and the Way of Christianity are not the same, but Christians can learn about their own path by listening carefully to the path that others have taken. Brief comments from a Christian perspective are appended to each of the sayings listed here.

The Way alone is good at beginning and good at completing. The path that leads to God, exemplified most perfectly in Jesus, is a journey that is meant for all: young and old, rich and poor, male and female. Only by following this path can we find happiness at any stage of our lives.
Reversal is the movement of the Way; weakness is the usage of the Way. In the Magnificat, Mary speaks of the reversal of fortune that occurs when the kingdom of God is manifest on earth. Paul reminds us that not many of the early Christians were wise, powerful, or of noble birth. Modern Christians should remember that Jesus compared the greatest in the kingdom to little children.
The myriad creatures respect the Way and esteem integrity (Te). The Christian theology of creation teaches that when God created the world, it was good. God entrusted people to care for the natural order, not to exploit it to its harm, and ours. We must learn to respect the environment, because it is God's good creation, not a collection of natural resources intended exclusively for human consumption.
The great Way is quite level, but the people are much enamored of mountain trails. Jesus spoke of the narrow Way that leads to life, but he knew that people in general prefer the broad way that leads to destruction. Our eyes tend to stray from the trail that Jesus has blazed for us, wandering instead to the allures of the world: power, money, and pleasure.
When the superior man hears the Way, he is scarcely able to put it into practice. When the middling man hears the Way, he appears now to preserve it, now to lose it. When the inferior man hears the Way, he laughs at it loudly. If he did not laugh, it would not be fit to be the Way. Those who claim most loudly to understand the Way of God are often those whose actions betray the most abysmal misconception of the Way. The Way that leads to God is not characterized by prejudice, hatred, or arrogance, but by respect, love, and humility.
For Christians, Jesus' contention that he is the Way lays paramount claim to the manner in which we live our lives, surpassing any transient loyalties to country, race, culture, class, or religious tradition. May we continually strive to follow that Way more carefully, with greater understanding, and with total conviction.