The moral mission of the church: Christmas Reflections (2018)

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior… He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly….” (Luke 1:46, 32)

One of my favorite sayings comes from an improbable source, the Freudian philosophical critic of the 1960’s, Norman O. Brown: “Doing nothing is the supreme action.” This is the perfect thought for Christmas 2018 in the United States of America, I believe. Let me explain.

The irony of American history today is this. The swamp in Washington, D.C. must be drained: but it must be drained of the very people who gave that expression its currency. In a time of global climate crisis, we are now stalled in a national political quagmire that seems to be worsening every day, due to a know-nothing corruption of the American political mind. Item: to champion the use of more coal, as the powers that be are doing these days, is to champion the way of Death. How are people of faith to respond to this situation?

From a deeply rooted traditionalist Christian perspective, I say: reclaim the song of Mother Mary, the Magnificat, which celebrates the promise of the One who is to be the Christ Child: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior… He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly….” (Luke 1:46-47, 52)

I hear these words as mandating an important revision of three popular understandings of Christian discipleship, each of which still has a certain kind of validity: 1) the moral mission of the Church is to train individuals to go out into the world to be responsible citizens (this is what I was taught in my earliest years); 2) the moral mission of the Church is for its members to go out into the world as a change-agents (this is how I tended to think in the era of the sixties); 3) the moral mission of the Church is to be a community of “resident aliens,” who “keep faith alive,” especially through liturgical and spiritual practices, in a world that appears to be going to hell in every direction (this theme, championed by contemporary theologian Stanley Hauerwas, has been a siren song that I’ve been listening to in recent years).

I believe that these times require fresh insights. This is what I have in mind: 4) the moral mission of the Church first of all is to do nothing, for that is the supreme action. For Christmas, this will mean, concretely: do nothing but march in place and sing. This, I believe, is the first thing that Mother Mary’s song tells those of us who are struggling to be Christians today. For this season, never mind what appears to be happening in Washington, D.C., know this. God is in charge! So magnify the Lord!

Why not believe something like that that’s so overwhelmingly implausible? Why not march in place, for a time, doing what in the eyes of this world is nothing? Why not just stand there and celebrate the birth of the Suffering Non-Violent Liberator, in particular (see Luke 4:18-19)? For this Suffering Non-Violent Liberator is at work, according to the witness of the Bible, invisibly but powerfully, everywhere, especially among the poor and downtrodden creatures of this world.

What the Gospel of Luke identifies as Mother Mary’s song might well have been familiar to Luke as a hymn that was sung in a number of Jewish-Christian communities in the Holy Land by the “Poor Ones,” the Anawim – a word that was used “originally to denote the physically poor, but in time came to be applied to people in Israel who were unfortunate, lowly, sick, downtrodden. Their opposites were not simply the rich, but included the proud, the arrogant, those who felt no need of God.” (Joseph Fitzmeyer)
This Christmas, then, do nothing, except march in place and sing, because the Bible tells us so. God has entered the world in this Child as the world’s Suffering Non-Violent Liberator. Never mind how things appear to be playing out on the stage of human history today, the Suffering Non-Violent Liberator is at work everywhere, especially amidst the anguished hovels and the trembling hearts of the Anawim of this world. Therefore march in place and cheer.

Note well, however, that the Christmas season isn’t forever. Before too long, Epiphany and Lent will be upon us, when we’ll be reaffirming the second thing in our moral mission as people who are trying to be Christians: what it means for us to invoke the Zulu tonalities of Siyahamba, “We Are Marching in the Light of God.” This Christmas, as we stomp our feet to celebrate the arrival of the Suffering Non-Violent Liberator and his primal ministry to the Anawim, we will also be readying ourselves to stand with them wherever He and they might be found, not just inside, but also beyond the household of faith, perhaps even as far away as that caravan of refugees just outside the southern border of the United States of America. Call this dual vision of the Church’s moral mission (vision no. 4) – first marching in place, second marching on – the Anawim option. That’s what the song of Mother Mary inspires me to ponder and to celebrate this year.

NOTE: A few days after I had finished these reflections, I picked up the January 4, 2019 issue of Commonweal. That not-to-be-missed Catholic review of religion, politics, and culture sometimes reruns articles from its own archives. This one, published September 20, 1968, was an essay by the Catholic theologian and social critic, Herbert McCabe (d. 2001), whom I used to follow closely, beginning back in the sixties: “Priesthood & Revolution: Where Christianity and Marxism Part Ways.” I may have read that essay back then; I’m not sure.

Be that as it may, I have just discovered that McCabe referenced the Anawim in that essay. I thought that I had first learned about that group of first century Jewish Christians, who were “of low estate,” when I was working with the commentary on the Magnificat in Luke by the Catholic biblical scholar, Joseph Fitzmeyer. Perhaps, then, the popular half-truth, “There are no coincidences in history,” might be more than a half-truth. Could it be that my own pedestrian Christmas reflections in 2018 are, in truth, dependent, in some sense, on McCabe’s eloquent insights in 1968? I would like to think so.

For as I read – re-read? – McCabe’s reflections about the Church as a movement for truth and justice for the Anawim within the global human community (I would want to specify, in addition, that that movement is underway within the global community of all earth-creatures), my mind and heart resonated with McCabe’s voice and I was inspired by his vision, all over again. Needless to say, I hope that anyone who is reading my 2018 Christmas reflectcions will also find time to search and find and read McCabe’s inspiring essay, as well.




Jeremy Denk, Charles Ives, and Jesus

Pianist Jeremy Denk came to Boston recently to play Charles Ives. My wife and I have been following Jeremy for years. Never mind his international stature, his MacArthur Genius Award and the Avery Fisher Prize and many other professional achievements, he happens to be the uncle of two of our grandchildren. But apart from a few family gatherings, we know him best as an eminent musician and spectacular performer.

In Boston, this time around, Jeremy was at the top of his game. His performances are rarely, if ever, just performances. They are events. Jeremy engages his audiences with his wit, his charm, and his own passionate love for the music he is presenting. That’s it – presenting. Not just performing. He is present, powerfully. And he carries his music, like a server at some elegant restaurant arriving at your table with your entrée on a tray. He carries the music to you personally, as if you are the only one in the audience.

Apparently there has been some discussion recently in musicological circles about such matters. I have lately been laboring through the magisterial study, Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven, by John Eliot Gardiner. Some students of Bach, Gardiner observes, maintain that the study of Bach should just be the study of Bach’s music, not also the study of Bach’s self-conscious, ingenious, and pervasive intention for his music to touch and even to overpower his audiences. Gardiner himself believes that no one can grasp Bach’s music fully and deeply, without some awareness, conscious or unconscious, of Bach’s inclusion of his audiences in his compositional creativity. In a like manner, as a presenter, Jeremy’s intention, from start to finish, is to allow the music to take hold of the audience, indeed he always wants to foster that encounter.

Nowhere was that musical intentionality more apparent, in my experience, than in Jeremy’s Boston presentation of four violin sonatas by Charles Ives, aided seamlessly by the young violinist, Stefan Jackiw. This is how those sonatas were described, in part, in the program notes by Zoe Kemmerling. Ives, she says, “didn’t rely on complex tonal systems or extended instrumental techniques to push boundaries. The music embedded in small-town American life at the end of the 19th century, church hymns and the strains of municipal bands, surrounded Ives throughout his youth and formed his compositional building blocks…. A love of simple tunes met an appetite for polytonality and dissonance to create one of the most recognizable compositional voices of the early 20th century…. All four sonatas evoke aspects of a particular scene: the religious ‘camp meetings’ that took place during the summer at Danbury’s Brookside Park. Sultry New England summer weather and the freedom of the outdoors, as well as the fervor of religious exultation amplified by a group consciousness, are the context for these volatile, rejoicing, impulsive works.”

Consider the audience of which I was a part in Boston that night. Secular Boston, indeed. Aesthetic Boston (Kierkegaard), for sure. I wager that few, if any, in that gathering were familiar with most of those old-time hymn tunes. No, if I may say so, this was not the Tory party at prayer, as Churchill once described the Church of England, this was, for the most part, a gathering of the “cultured despisers of religion” (Friedrich Schleiermacher) meeting to further enhance their post-modern sensibilities. As cultural remnants of a bygone era, my wife and I nudged each other every time we heard one of those old-time melodies. Who else heard those tunes?

Jeremy, of course, was well aware of such dynamics. This is why he imported an excellent barbershop quartet to give voice to that old-time music before each sonata. Words like these: “I need Thee, O I need Thee, every hour I need Thee! O bless me now, my Savior – I come to Thee!” Or these: “What a friend we have in Jesus, All our sins and griefs to bear! What a privilege to carry Everything to God in prayer! Oh, what peace we often forfeit; Oh, what needless pain we bear – All because we do not carry Everything to God in prayer!”

Then we listened to each sonata, each of which fractured, tore apart, and trampled on those old-time tunes, with powerful dissonances, like blows of a sledge hammer slamming into granite. Ives introduced some moments of existential repose and peace, to be sure, and Jeremy and his partner gave voice to such feelings, tenderly and softly. I imagined at such moments that a worker in a rock quarry had put down his sledge hammer, wiped his brow, and was listening, O so briefly, to the music of the wind or to the songs of the birds. But Ives’ dissonance in those sonatas, as I heard it, was relentless from start to finish. Yet so were the harmonies of those old-time tunes, which kept emerging, as if in the midst of a thunderstorm you came upon and old house on whose porch a violinist was playing an old time tune. Was there any resolution? Which had the final word, the resilient, powerful hymnody or the overpowering, inescapable dissonance? I think that Jeremy left us breathless with that question at the end, echoing Ives himself, or so it sounded to me.

Which brings me to Jesus. And not any old Jesus, but Jesus as we know him in the Gospel of Mark, in particular. This is a Gospel of profound brokenness. The voice of the Savior can be heard, but it’s only in the midst of the storms of this life, ultimately crying from the Cross. Some of us are now living in the year after numerous Christian communions around the world marked the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Luther predicated that profoundly disturbing – so it was then – spiritual movement on what he called “the theology of the Cross.” His signature hymn, A Mighty Fortress is Our God, ends this way: “God’s Word forever shall abide, No thanks to foes, who fear it; For God himself fights by our side With weapons of the Spirit. Were they to take our house, Goods, honor, child, or spouse, Though life be wrenched away, They cannot win the day. The Kingdom’s ours forever!”

Which Jesus is the Church proclaiming and following in these our apocalyptic times? The peace-of-mind Jesus of post World War II America? The personal Savior, whom I am supposed to take into my heart, of the last several decades? The prosperity Savior, announced in our own day, who helps all his followers to get rich? Or is it Mark’s Jesus? Or Luther’s Jesus? Jesus, the Crucified.

Give me Charles Ives’ Jesus any day. And give me Jeremy Denk’s interpretation of Ives, for sure, which rightfully, in my view, leaves the tension between the old-time tunes and our modern and postmodern dissonances dramatically unresolved.

Trump and Christmas: Seasonal Reflections (2017)

“A shoot shall come forth from the stump of Jesse…” (Is. 11:1)

In front of our old farmhouse in southwestern Maine, I witnessed a sign from heaven this past summer. Several years ago, we called in a tree-man to cut down – sadly – a grand old maple, which we’d treasured for decades. One of its three huge trunks appeared then to be threatening our kitchen. It could have come crashing down on us during some ferocious mountain windstorm. So we had the whole tree removed. That was then.

Sometime this past spring, a single gold and brown gallardia took root in the middle of that large maple’s stump. That gorgeous flower, maybe two feet tall, flourished all by itself from July through the first fall frosts. This wasn’t exactly a shoot from the stump of Jesse. But, for me, it was something like that. I contemplated that astounding flower every time I could. It stood there bright and resilient and beautiful through the wildest of storms and the driest of hot summer days.

A Letter About Hillary

I’m writing to friends and family and other contacts to share one side of the story about one of our presidential candidates, which may not be familiar to many, at least in the terms that I know them.  A hundred years ago, I worked closely with a bright young Methodist student at Wellesley College, where I was serving as a teacher and Chaplain, one Hillary Rodham.  She was then, and, I believe, still is a person of deep moral passion, notwithstanding press caricatures of her that have appeared in recent years with predictable regularity.

Hillary came to Wellesley as an enthusiastic “Goldwater Girl.”  Hers was a dedicated voice of the Midwestern Right.  Then she took the (at that time) required sophomore Bible course, and it changed her life.  She was especially fond of Amos, texts such as 5:24, “Let justice roll down like waters.”  And she did not just talk the talk.

One example.  As president of the student government, she and a group of young women like her (I was a kind of back-row advisor to all this), wanted to address the mostly lily-white complexion of the student body.  At that time there were, as I recall, 12 African-Americans in a student body of some 2000.  The College’s administration wanted nothing to do with all this.  Hillary took the lead with her group to raise money independently to pay for those African-American students to make recruiting trips to predominantly black high schools across the country.  Not only had those schools never been visited by Wellesley College recruiters before, they were unknown to the Admissions Office.  That project turned out to be a minor success.  But my point here is not minor successes, but Hillary’s impressive moral passion and her eagerness to act on that passion.

I have kept close tabs on her personal and political trajectories ever since.  Notwithstanding her being the object of sometimes vicious attacks (tell me that sexism is not alive and well in this country) and notwithstanding mistakes of her own along the way, I believe that the faith that she discovered in Amos and the moral passion she exemplified at Wellesley College have not left her.  If anything, given the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, that faith and that moral passion have deepened and become the driving force of all she does.  I believe that she has added the wisdom of spiritual depth, too, which sometimes comes with maturity.  Did you notice that when asked, during one of the New Hampshire debates, about spiritual influences on her life she spoke at length and with some conviction about how much she has learned from that great Catholic spiritual teacher of our time, Henri Nouwen?

I, of course, am not an unbiased witness.  I affirm what I once saw, and I affirm what I now see.  I have walked the streets of New Hampshire in her behalf and I support her current campaign financially.

I write only with this hope, that, as you continue to reflect about the current campaign, you will take into account her moral passion and her spiritual depth.  She is much more than her popular detractors, even on the liberal side, make her out to be.  I also believe that she has even more to offer.  Her much vaunted “experience” is not something to shake a stick at, for example, not to speak of a certain wisdom she brings with her as a knowledgeable student of history.  But those are themes for another day.

This link will take you to Hillary Rodham’s commencement speech, in which she mentions The Rev. Dr. H. Paul Santmire, then Chaplain at Wellesley College.

Race, Activism, and Hillary Clinton at Wellesley, The New Yorker

Faith Intertwines with Political Life for Clinton, The New York Times