05 January 2018

The opium of the people

. . . a challenge to American Christians.

Peace I leave with you, my friends
Peace the world cannot give
Peace I leave with you, my friends
So that your joy be ever full.

-- John 14:27, as sung by Gregory Norbet and the Monks of Weston Priory.

In context, Karl Marx's critique of religion seems right; religion can be a fantasy happiness, diverting us from the struggle for a more genuine and just happiness. Whether we're transported to fantasyland by blood-stirring sermons, gentle folk masses or the bass-driven hypnosis of contemporary stadium worship music, or the transactional relief of knowing that, we, at least, will end up in the Good Place, maybe we present less of a threat to the principalities and powers whose own priorities don't include us.

Religion can discourage us from seeking peace in the world, because we're resigned to its absence here; we'll only get it in heaven, right? But Jesus is not "religion" -- he is our Prince of Peace. His principality begins in our hearts, but doesn't end there! With him at the center, we are fully authorized to ask why the world can't give us peace. Who is in the way? Whose interests are served by perpetuating hostility and violence? What made them think they had the right to define our enemies for us?

I personally might not be asking the awkward questions, or chaining myself to the White House fence until I get an answer, or refusing to pay war taxes. I might be the person inviting you to make a heart-commitment to our Prince of Peace; or leading the prayer meeting at which the piano and guitar draw us into deeper devotion. But if, together, we are not feeding our prophets, on our knees praying for them, and collecting their bail money, our faith is little better than a narcotic.

What other opiates are out there, drugging people into abandoning their God-given critical faculties? 

These days, populist nationalism is high on my list. The USA's populist-in-chief preaches "make America great again," but greatness, like peace, is hard to define, unless by "greatness" he means great wealth for his friends and the Wall Street community he once opposed.

As public Christians, we have a stewardship role. Our identity as followers of Jesus, our relationships with each other in our diverse gifts, and the resources we gather -- our organizations, tithes, property -- all make the hope we proclaim more accessible to those who need it. Our liberals push the limits of our generosity, our conservatives keep us in touch with prior commitments, and our love for each other makes our conflicts worthwhile. Above all, we keep it real, not letting pious feelings, however sweet and helpful in building community, divert us from serving the Gospel.

As Americans, we are also stewards. Like it or not, the last hundred years have given the U.S. a central role in the global drama. Our national leaders' post-WWII idealism helped build much of the planet's political and economic infrastructure, despite being frequently undermined by the clashing demons of imperialism and isolationism. The U.S. president has every right to test whether this or that policy choice, or even the fashions and pretensions of global elites, actually serve that stewardship role. Nobody has ruled that there is one single standard of presidential dignity and decorum. But totally aside from his unprecedented level of sheer swagger, the incumbent, Donald Trump, has no discernible clue to the complex nature of America's global role, and is blatantly unwilling to learn, even for the purpose of intelligently questioning and reshaping that role.

U.S.-China relations, the subject of a remarkable New Yorker article by Evan Osnos ("Making China Great Again") are a case study of Donald Trump's disastrous failure of stewardship of the USA's relationships, identity, and resources. Theoretically, it may be quite right to ask whether the USA ought now to abdicate its central global role in favor of another country -- after all, China accounts for about 20% of the whole world's population. But who has decided this? By what process? At what cost to ourselves and others? Where do human rights and environmental protection fit in? Are there creative alternatives to the Cold War and Pax Americana models of the past?

Trump's treatment of Saudi Arabia, China, Pakistan, the Palestinians, Iranians, Muslims, refugees, North Korea, the United Nations, the environment, the media, and anyone who challenges him politically, reveals a dangerous capriciousness and superficiality, motivated or amplified by blatant appeals to populism. How do we now propose to break the hypnotic power of that daily drumbeat of boastfulness, and expose the reality that, far from making America great again, it's on the verge of making us unrecognizably brittle?

It's a worthy challenge for followers of the Prince of Peace. We are not politicians, but we are stewards. We have an identity, we have relationships -- worldwide relationships -- and we have resources. We are not drugged, but are wide awake.

Aren't we?

I'd give almost anything to write about some other topic. I had planned to go in an entirely different direction this evening, but couldn't. Please help me think about our responsibility as believers to accompany our world through the current rapid deterioration of Donald Trump's regime. It is a dangerous time.

On the other hand, what would be worse: a period of instability, as we seem to see now, or the possibility of a heavy stability anchored in apathy and a cold, permanent polarization?

The Guardian, 2018-01-04
Sign of the times: two adjoining headlines in today's Guardian. (1) Trump administration plans to allow oil and gas drilling off nearly all U.S. coast. (2) Oceans suffocating as huge dead zones quadruple since 1950, scientists warn.

Timothy Gloege: Being evangelical means never having to say you're sorry. (Does it?)

Adria Gulizia: The cross of fellowship.

On husbands' responsibility for getting their wives ready for Jesus: Scot McKnight provides a link to the original article and Sarah Lindsay's response.

For those of you in Chicago, this is Buddy Guy's residential month at his club. (As if you didn't know!) Since I'm a long way from Chicago, I'm comforting myself with something a little closer: Mark Hummel's Blues Harmonica Blowout, Shedd Institute edition.

Bob Ross fans now have full access to 31 seasons of The Joy of Painting. Our family remembers visiting Muncie, Indiana, 20 or more years ago, so that our kids could meet him in person. It's great to be able to enjoy his calm, confident personality again.

"Help Me." Shedd Institute, four years ago. Watch Little Charlie Baty laying down his guitar for the harp!

1 comment:

David H Finke said...

So wise. So perceptive. So comforting and challenging all at the same time.
May Johan continue to inspire us to be faithful stewards, and may we respond with Courage and Joy!
Blessings, -DHF