Saturday Night Theologian
19 October 2008

Isaiah 45:1-7

The twentieth century is sometimes referred to as "the American century," mostly by Americans. No one can deny that the country that grew most in influence, wealth, and military might during the century was the U.S. Particularly after the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union, many people (mostly Americans) began speaking of the U.S. as the world's only superpower. Now, however, many political scientists, economists, and historians contend that the U.S. is losing--or has already lost--its role as the undisputed leader of the planet. It's not that the U.S. has suddenly become powerless--far from it!--but other nations like China, India, a reinvigorated Russia, and blocks of nations like the European Union and UNASUR (South America) are showing increasing independence and confidence in bucking the U.S. lead in various fields, to a greater or lesser degree. In the current financial crisis, for example, the EU ignored U.S. suggestions for how to fix the global credit crisis and began investing directly in European banks. Shortly thereafter the U.S., rather sheepishly, followed suit. These developments may come as a shock to those who view the U.S. as God's special nation, the "shining city upon a hill" (a phrase used by Ronald Reagan, paraphrasing John Winthrop, 17th century governor of the Massachusetts Bay colony--Reagan added the word "shining"), but it shouldn't be a surprise to those familiar with today's reading from Isaiah. In this passage, the prophet to the exiles makes a startling claim: he calls Cyrus the Great, king of Persia, "God's anointed," that is, "God's messiah." The prophet reminds the people of God that no nation--not Israel, not Judah, not even Persia--is destined for unending precedence on the world stage. It is God, not any individual nation, who is in control. The same is true today, as it has been throughout history. The empires of Persia, Greece, and Rome fell, as did the Ottoman and British Empires in more recent days. The U.S. will not cling to universal hegemony any more than any other nation, ancient or modern. But that's not a bad thing, or at least it doesn't have to be. If citizens of the U.S. can get over their impending loss of superpower status (which I would argue was always ephemeral anyway) and engage with other nations to try to solve the world's problems--war, hunger, AIDS, repression--both the world and the U.S. itself will be better places.

Psalm 96:1-9, (10-13) (first published 25 December 2005)

The late eighteenth century saw two significant political upheavals that were harbingers of changes to come throughout the world. The first, the American Revolution, pitted disgruntled colonists in the New World against their British overlords. In addition to decrying taxation without representation, Americans called into question the right of European powers to rule over people who were born and now lived on a different continent, and they opposed a number of measures that they saw as repressive, such as quartering large numbers of troops in the colonies. The second upheaval was the French Revolution. Unlike events in America, the French Revolution pitted the lower and middle classes against the ruling elite. The characteristic slogan of the French Revolution was "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity." Despite the differences, both revolutions shared one important principle: opposition to an absolute monarch. Although the rise of the absolute monarch in Europe during the early modern period offered some advantages over the political systems that had preceded it (e.g., feudalism and ecclesiastical rule), the common people had come to see the monarchy as an instrument of oppression as well. The anti-authoritarian ideas of the American and French Revolutions spread throughout the world and led to dramatic changes in government, first in other parts of Europe, then in Latin America, and eventually in Africa and Asia as well. In an age when few absolute monarchs (or dictators) continue to reign, how can modern people relate to a God who is described using such language? "Say among the nations, 'The Lord is king!'" There are two keys to overcoming the negative connotations of this language. First, we have to realize that all language about God is anthropomorphic. God was described in the Hebrew Bible using terms that were also used of human rulers of the day. Second, we need to realize that the characteristics of God's reign are more important than the actual terms used to describe God. When God is in control, according to the psalmist, the world is characterized by justice and truth. A world of justice is one in which, among other things, everyone begins life with equal opportunities, where poverty and hunger are eliminated, and where laws and customs do not favor one group of people over another. A world of truth is one in which everyone has the right to pursue truth as they understand it and the responsibility to speak the truth at all times. Our current world is far from being either just or truthful in many ways, but on the other hand human society has made great strides over where we were in centuries past. If we envision a world in which God reigns, we will not envision a theocracy, in which one group's understanding of God is rammed down the throats of others, but a world of true religious liberty, commitment to basic human rights, and structures that implement justice rather than inequality. That is a world to which all believers can commit themselves to aspire.

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 (first published 16 October 2005)

William Galston and Elaine Kamarck, two leaders in the Democratic Party, recently released a report called "The Politics of Polarization," in which they offer suggestions for how Democrats can regain the reigns of political power in Washington, DC. Among other things, they propose that "seizing the center remains the key to victory." The Democratic Party, they says, needs to figure out where voters are on key issues and position the party so that it agrees with the majority of Americans. In other words, instead of advocating specific positions or policies, the Democrats need to figure out what voters think and develop their platform on that basis. This approach may result in winning elections (though Jonathan Schell disagrees, and recent electoral losses also suggest that it is a losing strategy), but it is no way to decide what to believe and how to act. Paul's letter to the church in Thessalonica is probably the earliest document in our present New Testament. He writes to a church that he founded and encourages them to continue living Christian lives. The Thessalonians did not operate on the basis of opinion polls, nor did they try to discern what the theological middle in the city believed and base their own beliefs on that. Instead, they were imitators of both Paul and of Christ himself, as they understood him. Their Christian lives were not always easy, for Paul speaks of persecutions that they have had to endure. Perhaps their Jewish members were ostracized from the synagogue, or maybe their Gentile members were ridiculed or discriminated against for abandoning the traditional pagan religious practices. This ostracism, ridicule, or discrimination was immaterial to them, however. They were Christians, and they were determined to live their lives based on the model that Paul had provided, a model that was verified in their hearts as they served God and loved one another. Christians today need to be willing to live lives based on principle rather than popularity. Once we discern what the will of God is, to the best of our abilities, we need to live in accordance with our understanding. If we have to take unpopular stands, so be it. Many Democrats in Congress apparently voted for the war in Iraq because they were afraid they would look weak on defense if they didn't. Many right-wing Christians, who march in lockstep with the Republican Party, favored the war as well. In contrast, many progressive Christians, including a good number of evangelicals, joined people of other faiths in opposing the war on principle from the beginning. As Americans are turning against the occupation of Iraq in large numbers today, it's not so difficult to take a stand, but that wasn't always the case. It wasn't long ago that people were arrested at political rallies for wearing t-shirts that sported anti-war messages. People in government were fired for daring to oppose the war. Reporters who doubted the official government reasons for going to war were silenced by the big businesses that monopolize the broadcast news in the U.S. Despite all this, people were willing to take a stand, because it was the right thing to do. There are other stands that Christians must make today, regardless of the popularity of the idea. We should oppose the manipulation of science for the benefit of big business. We should oppose imperialism in all its forms. We should oppose the use of torture by governments. We should support the efforts of many people and organizations to make peace in the world's troubled regions. We should support policies that protect the environment and oppose those that don't. In short, we should take stands based on our Christian beliefs, not public opinion.

Editor's note: Fortunately, most Democrats in 2008 have rejected the notion that policy ought to be determined by polls rather than convictions. That's bad policy for partisans of all political parties.

Matthew 22:15-22 (first published 16 October 2005)

Robert Funk, one of the leading figures in biblical scholarship in the twentieth century, died last month at the age of 79. In addition to being one of the best known scholars, he was also one of the most controversial. In 1985 he convened a group of scholars called the Jesus Seminar to investigate the life and words of the historical Jesus and report their findings to the world. The Seminar met on a regular basis and, at one stage in their study, famously took votes on whether the scholars thought that Jesus actually made each of the statements attributed to him in the gospels. They decided that Jesus either certainly or probably said only 18% of the words attributed to him in the gospels, the rest being sayings that most likely originated in the early church. One of the sayings that the Seminar almost unanimously decided came from Jesus was today's gospel reading, "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." One of the criteria by which the Seminar judged the sayings of Jesus was distinctiveness, and the present saying is undoubtedly distinct, unlike any known contemporary Jewish saying yet both memorable and fully consistent with the overall teaching of Jesus. It remains today one of Jesus' most memorable statements, familiar even to people who know little about the New Testament. It's familiar, yes, but what does it mean? One thing it means is that both God and the state are due a measure of allegiance, though of course our allegiance to God necessarily comes first. Nevertheless, Jesus says that if the state demands something that does not conflict with one's allegiance to God, his followers should fulfill the demand. Another corollary of this statement is that church and state should be kept separate so that people can more easily distinguish between the call of God and the call of the state. When the state begins either supporting or opposing a particular religion, or religion in general, it interferes with religion's task of serving God, and it potentially puts religious adherents at odds with both church and state. The tendency of the Rehnquist court to chip away at the wall of separation between church and state (Rehnquist himself would have liked to knock it down entirely) has led to confusion about legislation, about the freedom of people to worship God according to the dictates of their conscience, and about the government's support or opposition to particular religious groups. With a new chief justice and another justice awaiting confirmation (either Harriet Miers or another, as yet unknown, nominee, if Miers is rejected), Christians need to heed Jesus' clarion call to distinguish between what we owe to Caesar and what we owe to God.