Living in God’s Image: Despotism or Republican Democracy?

My thoughts about the despotism that is infecting our virus-plagued lives have gained a new articulation in The Christian Citizen, an American Baptist journal stimulating reflection on the church’s involvement in public life. You can read the whole piece by CLICKING HERE.

In this brief essay I argue that Trump’s support by Evangelical Christians is not a blind contradiction of Jesus’s teachings but is actually an expression of their allegiance to an image of God they rehearse daily in prayer and weekly in worship. This is the God who creates reality out of His own words and will. It is a God of inexplicable vengeance as well as grace and pardon. It is a God of will more than reason, command rather than law, magic rather than wisdom. It is God as despot, the ancient Greek ruler of a submissive household of women, children, and slaves.

Moreover, this image is not merely an Evangelical fixation. It is found in the everyday piety of prayers for health and well-being as well as in Hallelujah choruses, creeds, and benedictions. That is, it is a problem for Christians across the boards. It creates the perennial gap between our images and accepted formulas for God, the source of all power and authority, and the republican, constitutional, and democratic convictions at the heart of the American Constitution.

Having laid out this tension and the way Evangelicals who support Trump have taken the despotic image of God to its logical political conclusion, I then point out that there are many other images in our ancient as well as recent traditions that offer other ways to imagine our source of authority and power. They include not only the radically suffering God embodied In Jesus’s self-giving, but the Trinitarian ideas of the “procession” of the “persons” of God, the visions of God in process theology, and the eco-feminist notions of the earth as God’s body. And there are others.

Thus, the scandal of Evangelical support for Trump is a theological problem for Christians across the spectrum. The perilous state in which we find ourselves is a deeply theological one that requires renewed commitment to the task of formulating an understanding of the Divine mystery in a way that revitalizes just governance. Moreover, it requires finding ways to express this fundamental conception of God in prayer, worship, and song. Let me know what you see from your vantage point. We need all the voices we can get.

Posted in Ethics, Public Life, Worship and Spirituality | 1 Comment

Gathering in (Virtual) Circles

We are now gathering for our monthly Roundtable Worship here in a virtual circle tied together by the internet. In one sense, this expands our circle to anyone who wants to sign in. But, of course, what is missing are the subtle visuals, the touches, the hugs, the shared bread, and yes, even the smells. So worship is, more than ever, an act of anticipation, a rehearsal for a more real time we long for in the future. It is so like our “real” lives.

But the words remain the same, even as our efforts to speak and sing them in response and unison create a cacophony that is at best a joyful noise. Here are some words from our recent gathering, some new, some repeated every month. They are in the order of long custom: Call, Remembrance, Thanksgiving, Hope, and Commitment. Like most anything in the ether these days, you can read them any time. We are surrounded by points of near-eternal light. Be well.

Call to the Table

When I am in an anxious place, confined, confused,

                        You spread the splendor of your cosmos out before my eyes.

When I sink beneath the raging waves of fear,

            Your breath becomes the buoy guiding me to shore.

When we huddle in the fortress of our anger and self-righteousness,

You find your way through every opening to bring aromas of your peace.

When pestilence unseen, unheard, untouched upends our lives,

            You lead us to the heart of love that brings new life.

When we hunger for your saving presence,

            You recall us to your table plentiful with harvest.

We run to your table,

            Your table of Peace.

ALL. Amen. Amin, Ameyn.

Remembrance

From your hand were offered nuts and fruits and cereals in the garden of our infancy.

With your outstretched arm we were led beyond the powers of oppression to a land abundant with the manna of your grace.

By your hand were prophets fed and sheltered in their lonely cry for justice.

From your nailed hand the blood of everlasting love streamed down upon our heads.

In your hands the bread of everlasting life was shared around the table of your peace.

With your hands the trees and all creation clapped for joy in your renewal of the earth.

Thanksgiving

O Faithful Healer of the Universe,

For the healers and the helpers who have brought us through this wilderness of suffering and death, we speak our thanks in humble gratitude. For words of hope and gentleness arising in the midst of pain we offer up our hearty thanks. For your presence in the midst of lonely death our lips are filled with thankfulness. For the life that springs up in the gardens of our hope our voices fill with song:

We give our thanks to God (4x)

          We give our hearts to you (3x)

                                    because you first loved us.

We give our feet to you (3x)

                                    because you walk with us.

The Hope Prayer

O Source of Life, You alone are holy.

Come, govern us in perfect peace.

Give us today the food that we need.

Release us from our sin as we release our enemies.

Sustain us in our times of trial.

Liberate us all from evil powers.

Guide us in your justice, wisdom, and peace. Amen, Amin, Ameyn

Words of Commitment

In God’s love, we will seek the path of reconciliation.

In God’s power, we will walk the ways of peace.

In God’s wisdom, we will struggle for God’s justice in this world.

In God’s mercy, we will seek to care for Earth, our home.

Posted in Roundtable Ministries Project, Worship and Spirituality | 1 Comment

My Father Ran

My father ran.

He ran for Peddie School

over muddy paths

along New Jersey’s streams.

He ran for Lehigh

on the tracks

in Bethlehem.

He ran alone

            in teams

            against himself

            against his fears

            his insecurities

            his father’s suffocating mantle.

His heart so big

            his legs so quick

he ran so free

            that when the yoke of later years

            descended on his shoulders

            he still could hear the song inside

I still can run

I still can feel the wind.

The pandemic has given us all what my friend John de Gruchy calls a “monastic moment” when we can take some time for the work of the soul and the memory. It comes with the additional onus on us oldsters to stay out of harm’s way by a more assiduous isolation in the household. For those of us with yards and workshops, it has meant well-tended flowers and greenery as well as workshops in greater order than they ever experienced in our busy years. It has also given me time to begin the tedious but eye-opening work of sorting out the archives of a life. And not only my life, but the lives of my parents, grandparents and even more distant ancestors. Maybe I’ll share the auto-tour diaries of my great-grandfather George Lains (1918-1935) if this goes on much longer.

Among the artifacts of family memory are my father’s high school and college yearbooks. Thanks to digital technology we can finally scan the meaningful parts and send the heavy tomes to their eternal reward. It is not news that my father was a runner in high school and college. But as I read through these distant words and looked at pictures of his teammates and his own youthful self, I also heard some other themes drawn from his later years and so I share those with you here. The race and the run as a metaphor for life is well-known to readers of the New Testament. (Read St. Paul’s verses in I Corinthians 9:24, 2 Timothy 4:7, Hebrews 12:1, Philippians 3:12-16.). They remind us of the effort and perseverance that life demands of us if we are to live it well, but they can also open us to the life-giving wind, air, and exhilaration of movement that are life itself. May we run and not be weary. Stay with it. Let’s break the ribbon together.

 

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Masks, Rights, and Covenants

Some people around us claim they have a right to refuse to wear a mask during the Covid pandemic. For some it is an appeal to a vague penumbra of rights arising from our Constitutional tradition. For others, it is “God-given,” which may amount to the same claim. Spoken in the face of overwhelming health needs, such claims bespeak the poverty of an ethic based solely on rights, yet we have been so besotted with them in our liberal tradition that we are hard pressed to lay out an alternative ethical argument, other than to mutter about the common good.

But is there another way of thinking about “rights” that might offer a broader basis for our ethical imaginations? Much has been made of our status as beings made “in the image of God.” In our recent discourse, people often see our possession of fundamental human rights as grounded in our being created in the image of God and therefore endowed with divine powers of autonomy, self-authorization, and self-expression. To my knowledge this concept only appears at two points in the Hebrew texts—Genesis 1:26-27 and, by allusion, Psalm 8:5-6. When it recurs in the New Testament it refers to the way that Christ is the image of God. All those who then enter into Christ through baptism gain this quality of the imago dei. This has always seemed to me to be a shaky religious basis for our exhaustive and near total commitment to a civil ethic of human rights. Moreover, in transferring the attributes of a certain conception of an all-powerful, immutable God to each person, it simply intensifies the individualistic ethic of our own economic order.

There is another, much wider theme in biblical thought and religious tradition that may offer a way forward to a more adequate ethic. It is that we are covenant partners with the divine source of all of life, not only in Abraham or in Christ, but in creation itself. But here, our “rights” are not flowing from some divine core in our being but from our participation in a web of relationships with all of creation. Life as a covenant partner of God is also life as covenant partners in marriage and family, community and polity, plants and animals, land, water and air. This is the basis of the “responsibility” ethic that I discovered through the thought of H. Richard Niebuhr, James Gustafson, James Luther Adams, Juergen Moltmann, and others nourished in this covenantal tradition. Even though our Constitution as a whole, especially its preamble, grew out of the soil of this covenant tradition, its first ten amendments have tended to swallow up the web of covenantal responsibilities in which they have their proper meaning. It’s time to get back to this web of covenantal partnership in order to recover from our exhausted dependence on doctrines of rights with which to construct our world.

So, the next time you hear of “the right not to wear a mask” think instead of our covenantal responsibilities as participants in a wider mysterious web of creation. In short: Wear a mask, it’s part of your covenant with all others around you.

End of sermon.

 

 

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