Saturday Night Theologian
6 December 2009

Baruch 5:1-9

People can often be identified by the clothes they wear. Members of the army, navy, air force, or marines wear distinctive uniforms that identify both the branch of the military in which they serve and their rank. Chefs in restaurants wear readily identifiable clothing, as do waiters and busboys/girls. Police officers, firefighters, letter carriers, and professors and new graduates (during graduation ceremonies) all wear clothes that identify who they are. Sometimes the clothing people wear is involuntary. Prisoners wear clothing that signifies their status as incarcerated. Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, and Jehovah's Witnesses were all forced to wear identifying badges in Nazi Germany and their occupied territories. Some women in colonial New England were forced to wear a scarlet letter "A" to indicate that they were adultresses. And sometimes the clothes people wear, albeit ostensible voluntary, do not reflect the choices they would make if circumstances were different. Poor people, for example, often wear clothes that are readily identifiable as from second-hand stores. Homeless people in particular are often easy to spot by their appearance. They would love to have better clothes, and better circumstances, but that is often not an option for them. In a metaphorical sense, people also wear depression, substance abuse, or mental illness as garments that identify them, at least to those close to them. Today's reading from Baruch begins with this line: "Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem, and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God." This passage presents the good news of deliverance from oppression and liberty in the loving arms of God. The Christmas season is a time of loneliness and sorrow for many people who are estranged from family, friends, and society because of circumstances either partially or entirely beyond their control. The lights and decorations of the season point to the marvelous beauty that exists in the world, a beauty whose ultimate source is God. That beauty is accessible to everyone, if they will just take off the rags that they're wearing. Some people can muster the willpower to do it themselves, and these people should be encouraged and welcomed into the fellowship of our joyous company. Others need assistance to shuck off the clothing, even the chains, that bind them. When we see people in those circumstances, we should do all we can to help them transition from life in seeming exile from God and society to a life fully encompassed by the beauty of God.

Luke 1:68-79 (first published 7 December 2003)

Consider the following series of quotations from Reinhold Niebuhr's Moral Man and Immoral Society, in the chapter entitled "The Morality of Nations."

The paradox is that patriotism transmutes individual unselfishness into national egoism.

Thus the sentiment of patriotism achieves a potency in the modern soul, so unqualified, that the nation is given carte blanche to use the power, compounded of the devotion of individuals, for any purpose it desires.

Perhaps the most significant moral characteristic of a nation is its hypocrisy.

The best means of harmonising the claim to universality with the unique and relative life of the nation, as revealed in moments of crisis, is to claim general and universally valid objectives for the nation.

The nation is a corporate unity, held together much more by force and emotion, than by mind. Since there can be no ethical action without self-criticism, and no self-criticism without the rational capacity of self-transcendence, it is natural that national attitudes can hardly approximate the ethical.

With these statements I heartily agree, and I recommend that everyone read this entire chapter (and indeed the whole book!). However, I don't agree with the conclusion that Niebuhr draws from his many observations concerning the immorality of nations, namely, that "perhaps the best that can be expected of nations is that they should justify their hypocrisies by a slight measure of real international achievement, and learn how to do justice to wider interests than their own, while they pursue their own." It should be noted that this rather pessimistic view was penned in 1932, while Europe was still recovering from the shambles of World War I and Germany was on the verge of becoming the Third Reich and launching World War II. Niebuhr had a right to be pessimistic as he looked at the world around him, and perhaps we do as well. The Jews who lived during the time of Caesar Augustus had an equal reason, probably a better reason, to tend toward pessimism. Their brief flirtation with national independence had ended half a century earlier when the Roman general Pompey rode into Jerusalem and claimed it for Rome. The Jews maintained a certain degree of political autonomy, being ruled by King Herod the Great, but they were firmly under the thumb of Rome. Despite their situation, the priest Zechariah, upon hearing that his wife would bear him a son in their old age, envisioned an upheaval, a reversal of fortunes. He prophesied that the messiah, of whom his son would be the forerunner, would save his people from their enemies and bring them salvation. He described those days as follows: "By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace." In light of the uneasy political situation of his day, it is noteworthy that he looks forward to a time of peace. At the same time, he also mentions the existence of enemies. Many people would define peace as deliverance from one's enemies. I believe Jesus would define peace as the transformation of enemies into friends. Peace in the presence of one's enemies is at best an uncertain peace. And this is where I think Niebuhr makes an error in his analysis. He cannot envision a world in which nations ever do much more than look out for their own selfish interests, for "what lies beyond the nation, the community of mankind, is too vague to inspire devotion." I don't accept that. Nationalism, as Niebuhr suggests, does indeed lead to an unstable world. We need not look back in history to support this assertion; plenty of contemporary examples are at hand. Nevertheless, the possibility of peace exists, despite the current existence of "sovereign" nations, in the eventual establishment of a system of worldwide justice, human rights, and democracy that exercises authority transnationally. The elimination of warfare between nations will come about only when nations give up their "right" to maintain armies and attack their enemies. Peace is possible, as Zechariah foretold, if we follow the model of Jesus and begin by loving our enemies, transforming them into friends.

Philippians 1:3-11 (first published 7 December 2003)

If you were in jail awaiting trial on serious criminal charges, what would you wish for? Most would wish for a finding of not guilty and a quick release from custody. Some would wish for communications from friends, and perhaps even for gifts that would make imprisonment easier. When Paul found himself in prison--it is debated whether he was imprisoned in Rome, Caesarea, or even Ephesus--he wrote to the church in Philippi, a church he had founded several years earlier. Although he undoubtedly desired release from prison, and though he appreciated the gift sent by the church, his primary concern was the welfare of the church itself. In answer to a dream in which a Macedonian man asked Paul to come preach the gospel, Paul and Silas had traveled to Macedonia, stopping first in the city of Philippi. Named (or renamed) for Philip of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great, in the middle of the fourth century B.C.E., it became a Roman military colony in 42 B.C.E. When Paul established a church during his first, brief visit to the city around 49 C.E., it was perhaps the first church on European soil--certainly it was the first that Paul established. Based on reports he has received from Epaphroditus, Paul expresses confidence that the Philippian church will continue to thrive in God's grace. Paul prays specifically for the believers' love to overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight. This emphasis is important. The committed Christian life is based on love--love for God, love for others--but it should also incorporate knowledge and insight. If a distinction can be made between the two terms, the first, regularly translated as "knowledge" or "understanding," focuses on intellectual apprehension, whereas the second focuses on moral insight or knowledge attained through the physical senses. Knowledge is gained through instruction or contemplation; insight through action. While many Christians understand the value of instruction (if not contemplation), few are interested in the understanding they can obtain only through acting out their faith. One of the most important insights of the liberation theologians is their emphasis on "orthopraxy," right action, alongside orthodoxy, right belief. I would go so far as to say that orthopraxy is the more important of the two. Catholics and Protestants, Episcopalians and Baptists, Methodists and Presbyterians will disagree with one another on matters of doctrine. However, we can find a common bond in working together to share the love of Christ with others. Paul was looking for a harvest of righteousness, not doctrinal uniformity. Knowledge matters; what we do with our perception of that knowledge matters more.

Luke 3:1-6 (first published 7 December 2003)

Have you ever heard the voice of a prophet? Mahatma Gandhi was certainly a prophet. So were Martin Luther King, Clarence Jordan, and Oscar Romero. Gustavo Gutierrez, the Dalai Lama, and Tony Campolo are prophets who are alive today. There's a distinction to be made between prophets and saints (in the sense of people whose lives are so inspirational that they invite imitation). Albert Schweitzer, Pope John XXIII, and Mother Theresa were saints, saints who spoke and wrote inspirational words, to be sure, but not prophets. True prophets are rarely elected to political office, or if they are, they don't stay in office very long. They are loved by many and hated by others. They don't offer their hearers mild platitudes; rather, they often blister the ears of those who listen. That was certainly true of John the Baptist, who had a brief, fiery career preaching in the Judean desert during the reign of the Emperor Tiberius. Uniquely among the evangelists, Luke uses a standard biblical formula, taken from the Greek Septuagint, to introduce John as a prophet in the classical Jewish tradition: "The word of the Lord came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness." It was important in Luke's scheme of the gospel to group John among the prophets of the old covenant, which is why he relates the story of John's imprisonment in 3:19-20, before Jesus begins his ministry (even before his baptism is recounted!). John was the greatest of the old, but Jesus was the new. John was the ultimate prophet, both qualitatively and chronologically. He was "the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'" John was controversial because he preached on religion, morality, and politics, and he was plainspoken in his opinions. Religious leaders considered him a threat, and so did political leaders. In today's world we need people who are similarly outspoken on matters of religion, morality, and politics. We need people who are not afraid to voice opinions that are contrary to societal norms. The fact of the matter is, there are many prophets in the world today. They're just not famous. Some occupy pulpits, others stand up for workers, and others speak out on behalf of the oppressed, the poor, or the environment. We may not all be prophets, but if we're Christians, we should be prophetic Christians, speaking out when we can and following the examples set by the prophets. Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists in a similar manner can be prophets within their own religious traditions, or even transcending those traditions, as Gandhi was able to do. Like John the Baptist, prophets speak out on important subjects, taking positions on controversial issues based not on what's popular but on what they believe to be right. As we think about peace during the second week of Advent, in what ways can we speak and act prophetically to promote the peace on earth we sing about?