We have had a lot to contemplate this week. We began by remembering the life and work of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. And, today, we witness the peaceful transition of power from one president to another. There is much to make a Christian ponder and pray.
Our culture at once thrives upon and avoids controversy. And what a season for it! What with one of the closest general elections in US history involving two of the most polarizing figures in recent memory, where the losing candidates won more votes than the winning candidate, who won more electoral votes than the other, no wonder that there is controversy!
While there is much to debate…policy approaches, legislation, history…the thing that really bothers me is that we, as a culture, have reached new lows in the coarseness of our debate. It does not seem possible for people who disagree to do so with any civility.
Blame it on the media, blame it on the internet, or whatever, but I am not sure that these mediums even with their unfailing ability to lump people together in like-minded groups while at the same walling people off from those who disagree, are entirely to blame.
In 1970, American cartoonist Walt Kelly, creator of the cartoon strip “Pogo,” drew a famous strip on the first Earth Day. Turning the famous civil war message by US Navy Commodore Perry on its ear, Kelly showed Pogo looking over their home, the Okeefenokee Swamp, covered with endless piles of trash. Seeing the pollution, the wise opossum said: “We have met the enemy – and he is us.”
The divisive and angry tone that passes for punditry these days is fueled by a market, and that market is fed by the relentless appetites of the viewers. The trash that Pogo looks over is no longer literal pollution, but the garbage of personal vitriol and the politics of personal destruction. That’s the “us.”
Just after the election, as I was in my neighborhood convenience store buying my daily iced tea, I saw a guy wearing a red hat choose to say something derogatory to another guy wearing a blue t-shirt. I thought at first they were two friends trash talking each other. But not for long! The confrontation became loud and verbally abusive. As they moved on, and all who witnessed the altercation looked away in embarrassed silence, I began to wonder if this is what we are coming to.
For the Christian, the key will be to stay focused. So much of the life in Christ is all about keeping our eye on the prize. Our sacramental worship, our life of prayer, our common life, our Bible study, keeps our focused on Jesus Christ. In responding to God’s love for us and in seeking to carry God’s love to others, we have to stay on track…on Jesus’ track.
Thinking ahead to the big march in Washington (and around the country) tomorrow, I have found myself singing and praying an old folk song, one that was popular during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s, called “Eye on the Prize”
Paul and Silas, bound in jail
Had no money for to go their bail
Refrain: Keep your eye on the prize. Hold on.
Hold on. Hold on.
Keep your eye on the prize. Hold on.
Paul and Silas began to shout
Doors popped open, and all walked out. Refrain
Well, the only chains we can stand
Are the chains between hand and hand. Refrain
I love that song for a lot of reasons but in particular because it calls up important ideas from Scripture. The song is based on the story in Acts of the imprisonment of the Apostle Paul and his companion Silas in Acts 16:19-26. Keeping our “eye on the prize” recalls Philippians 3:17 “keep your eyes on those who live as we do” and Philippians 3:14, “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” When we are called to “hold on” we are pointed to Jesus’ words in Luke 9:62: “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”
“Keep your eye on the prize. Hold on.”
The work of the Gospel does not depend on which candidate won and who lost. It is so easy to get tied up in or the other party or candidate or ideology as the key to solving all our problems. They may useful tools, a good place to start the conversation, and they can even be useful to conceptualize what’s in front of us. But the work of the Gospel goes on no matter who is legislature, the courts, and the executive.
Today’s Inauguration Day featured preachers and religious leaders who reflect the new President’s own style of faith and beliefs. So it is not surprising that we will see conservatives (theological and political), with a particular understanding of America’s role in the world. What will be new is that four of the six featured preachers and prayer leaders represent a peculiar blend of evangelical faith and prosperity preaching. You will hear that God blesses America in particularly millennialist fashion…that we are both the agents of God’s judgement and subject to it in a very basic way. When things right, God is happy with us. When they don’t, it’s God telling us something. This “gospel” tells us that blessings mainly show themselves in material wealth for the person, strong military power, and a government dominated by the wealthy.
It will be a very a different gospel preached than the one proclaimed in the last two inaugurals, which had a very different idea of our civil religion. Then we heard a call to service to the poor and the outcast; today, we we will hear about America’s power and economic blessedness, ground in a particular idea traditional moral values.
The Psalmist warns us not to get too tied up in earthly governance (Yes, even as other Psalms put all their eggs in the Davidic kingly basket…!). Psalm 33:16-19 says:
A king is not saved by his great army; a warrior is not delivered by his great strength.
The war horse is a vain hope for victory, and by its great might it cannot save.
Truly the eye of the Lord is on those who fear him, on those who hope in his steadfast love,
to deliver their soul from death, and to keep them alive in famine.
The reminder is that we must not confuse earthly power, as awesome as it might be, with the might of the Gospel. The work of the Gospel goes on no matter who won the election. We feed the hungry…no matter who is in office. We shelter the homeless…no matter who takes the oath. We stand up for and welcome the outcast…no matter what party is in power. We care for the sick and comfort those who mourn…regardless of the occupant of any office.
What will matter is how well we proclaimed out loud the love of God in Christ, as well as Jesus’ teachings. It matters greatly how we have received the hungry, the naked, the jailed and the outcast. (Matthew 25:31-41). We have never needed any government’s “permission” to do this. Ever.
There were people in Hebrew Scriptures, the New Testament, and the early church…right up to our own day…who thought that the faithful must have one of their own in the seat of government. Certainly, our own Anglican tradition grows out of the union of Church and State in Britain, but we Episcopalians learned early in our nation’s history that even a church like ours is, in a secular world, essentially an outsider.
Yes, we will pray for the President and all who bear the authority of government at every level, and by name! Everyone needs prayer, and in particular those in authority! And in every generation there have been Christians praying for a government and an office-holder they disagreed with. And in every generation there have been Christians who have dared, sometimes at great risk, to stand up to secular leaders who abuse or misdirect their power. The book of saints are filled with names of people who stood for the Gospel in the face of the power of the state.
Just as many of us worked for just and humane immigration policy even as our President (who received the votes of most of those same activists) deported more people than any President in history; just as we worked for marriage equality and the full inclusion of GLBT persons in our common civic and religious life, even as that same President dithered, we have to continue to work and fight hard for the racial, social and economic justice that we believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ calls us to.
In our congregations, there are people whose candidate won the election and who are feeling elated (congratulations!). There are those whose candidate lost, and who feel disappointment (condolences!). And there are those in-between (prayers!). To all of us, I say, that, while it may be convenient when the person(s) in government has values or policy that agree with us, that’s all it is: convenient.
The work of the Gospel is necessarily independent of those in power. The work of the Gospel, like the voice of prayer, is never silent. And so, we keep our eye on the prize. Hold on.
Photo: by Peter Sprigg