Kings, Despots, and the Children

It’s Advent again, overlaid with the sediments of Christmas, and so I return again to familiar themes—Jesus, Mary, Joseph the builder, Herod, and yes, the slaughtered children. But as evil as he was, Herod was a king and not a despot. Before King Herod made his annual appearance on my calendar, I had been thinking a lot about despots in the past few months (maybe you have too). In spite of our present confusions and controversies, there really are differences between kings and despots, both then and now. Centuries before Herod, Aristotle gave us the classical Greek understanding of a despot. The despot was the master of a household. All the members of the household—women, boys, and slaves—were subordinate to his absolute control. His mind, his will, and his desires controlled them like a mind controls a body. Despots are the natural form of rule for people who, by nature, as the Greeks believed, are servile, especially the children.

Therefore, despotism in government is rule by one who treats the whole community as his household and his citizens as ignorant children. Despotism does not recognize any distinction between the private and public spheres. They are collapsed together under the unlimited rule of the despot. This differs from kingship, our usual image of monarchy, because kingship is rule within traditional constraints, including legal ones. The king is “kin” to his subjects but they have a degree of independent dignity apart from the king. The despot, however, absorbs everyone’s life and welfare into his own.

Over against despotism, a republic, as it emerged in Greco-Roman thought, sets aside a certain sphere of life as a public in which people engage as equals, as free persons, to govern themselves according to mutually agreed understandings of order and the common good. Because of their equality, they have to govern through persuasion according to common reason rather than through fear and force. This is the tradition in which our own American republic was founded. The founders recognized that the passions of a mob would always want to throw up a despot who would seek to obliterate the constitution of the public in order to rule the people as his private household, turning them into slaves to his wishes, whether through fear or abject dependence. This is what informed their elaborate covenant of public order, our Constitution.

Our republic has now found its despot and we are wondering whether our public officials and public-spirited citizens will defend the integrity of the republic or, like frightened children or slaves, submit to its dissolution into the despot’s household. What wars have not been able to extinguish can be snuffed out through the people’s loss of the virtue necessary to sustain public life and republican governance within a constitutional order.

And the children? Even as we are all tempted to act like infantile servants of the despot’s will, so are real children caged at our borders, deprived of adequate health care, and thrown before the fury of our impending climate cataclysm. But in their midst, the Gretas of the world begin to stand up and create a free space of love for this earth, for its people, and for the public life through which we can come to our senses in service of the common good. When we are reduced to the whimpering fear of the little child we become the people who “by nature” must be ruled by a despot. But when we recover the awe of the child, the longing for the mother’s face, the readiness to touch one another in goodness, then perhaps we may be able to recover our dignity as citizens engaged in the great work of restoring our wounded earth. That is what I hope is coming even as our current despots seek to swallow up our public love in his private rage. Let’s anchor in Advent, leaning into the dawn of Christmas. For the sake of the children.

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Imagining the Way of Peace

Our Interfaith Peace Conference on “The Arts of Peace: Imagining the Way” has come to pass, moving from anticipation into memory. Sylvia and I now live “APC” (After the Peace Conference) savoring its many vivid personalities and events as we move into America’s time of Thanksgiving. I cannot recount these many inspiring moments here (you can get DVDs of some of them at www.LakeJunaluska.com/shop), but I do want to track one thread that remains at the core of these memories.

We began with a presentation by Mariela Shaker, who recounted to us her story of exile from her native Syria, her message of peace in music, and, only a week ago, her gaining United States  citizenship. What haunted us all were photos of her native Aleppo, one of the world’s oldest cities, once a showcase of beauty and culture now lying in tortured ruin. These images, reinforced by the piercing anguish of the women in the subsequent drama, Women and War, drove home the horror and senseless brutality of war. The remorseless devastation of war erupts continuously from our fear that we do not have enough, that others are poised to take what is ours, and our egoistic belief that we can overcome death through monuments of our victory over others. The despots driving people to war in Syria are no different from those that threaten peace around the world, including in our own country. The Conference reminded us to cherish and nurture the love that overcomes fear—love of neighbor, of this beautiful earth, and of the Creator of us all.

Mariela’s assumption of American citizenship was not an easy task in this time of enmity toward the new blood that will enrich us all. Her faith in the American project, in spite of our current struggles, evoked in us a renewed commitment to the fundamental values of a republic that embraces all in the arguments about how to pursue our common good. At the core of these common values lie the much-disputed texts of the Constitution and of the documents flowing from it and those that continually lift us to wider visions, whether from Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King, Jr.

Texts revitalized by embellishment and illumination lay before us throughout the conference. Texts can kill as well as heal. What they continually require is argument over their meaning. Arguments that appeal to reason, to ever-wider shared meanings, and to the higher purposes that guided their construction can indeed construct the framework of peace. Violence destroys argument, even as it destroys the places in which we might come together for the conversations of common life. This capacity for reasonable persuasion around texts venerated by the wisdom of many generations stands at the heart of peace.

Throughout the conference the texts of our faith traditions lay before us—the magnificently illuminated Saint John’s Bible, a Torah scroll, a gilded copy of the Qur’an. The texts before us were not just the ancient scriptures of our faith traditions. Every participant received a beautifully prepared journal book compiled by our friend Roger Dowdy, each page with a work of visual art next to which they could write their own reflections, making these images their own. We also had the brand new text that we sang throughout the conference, one that I wrote for that purpose and which was set to music by Scott Taylor, Director of Music and the Worship Arts at our church. Here are the words:

Imagine the Way

Antiphon:

  1. Peace, Peace, Peace, Peace. Peace, Peace, Peace, Peace.
  2. Shalom, Shalom. Shalom, Shalom.
  3. Salaam, Salaam. Salaam, Salaam.

Verses:

  1. Peace in all colors, Peace in all music, Peace in all hearts.

            Peace in all colors, Peace in all music, Peace in all hearts.

  1. Peace in all letters, Peace in all dances, Peace in all hands.

            Peace in all letters, Peace in all dances, Peace in all hands.

  1. Peace in all patterns, Peace in all paintings, Peace in all lands.

           Peace in all patterns, Peace in all paintings, Peace in all lands.

Refrain:

Peace, Peace, Catch the vision. Dance to the rhythm. Imagine the way.

Thanks to Scott’s engaging melody, participants were humming the song and remembering the words as they left the hall to return to their daily lives. (Contact me if you would like a copy.) And that’s the point, isn’t it? The music enables the words to take up lodging in our minds, emotions, and habits. They make the words live in a way they don’t when they are left flat on the page.

While the Peace Conference has now run its envisioned decade, we can only hope that it has planted seeds and songs that others can take up. We cannot have peace without building up the possibility for conversation and argument among citizens longing for an ever- more perfect republic of beauty, of harmony with God’s purposes. Peace is the dynamic confirmation we receive in that courage to participate in wider relations, to listen to others, to seek common ground on this common earth. It resides in the call to live for more than the simply existence of our bodies, to live into the love that drives out all fear. That’s the big story we’ve been trying to tell. Let me know how you might be trying to tell it.

Above all, give thanks. Sing the song. Join in the dance.

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God’s Federal Republic — In Print Again!

I am happy to announce that Wipf and Stock Publishers have brought out a handsome reprint of my 1987 book God’s Federal Republic: Reconstructing our Governing Symbol. It is doubly attractive because they chose, without any suggestion from us(!), to use a detail from Sylvia’s wonderful textile hanging, “Bright Morning Star,” on the cover.

The cover description states: “Biblical religion is driven by a longing for God’s ultimate order of justice and peace. Most of this longing is steeped in the patriarchal symbols of kingship, monarchs, lords, fathers, and princes. This symbolism came to bind European churches to the legitimation of monarchies and empires for over a millennium. The American and now global experiment separated the churches, with their kingdom language, from government dedicated to democratic, republican, and federal constitutional order. Religious efforts to guide and critique government have subsequently suffered from political irrelevance or theocratic nationalism. Everett lifts up the biblical and classical origins of our present republican experiment to construct a theological position and religious symbolism that can imaginatively engage our present public life with a contemporary language permeated with a transcendent vision.”

The gist of the matter is that Christian worship and ethical practice need to speak in the language of democratic, federal, republican governance in order to be faithful to the ancient struggle for justice and planetary well-being. This book was my effort to enunciate a theological project that has permeated my work ever since. I am grateful to Wipf and Stock for bringing it before the public once again.

A reprint, however, is not merely a work of memory and nostalgia. It needs to speak to a continuing question. Amidst the ongoing questions of how American “Evangelical” Christians could support a US President who thinks and acts like a despot or unhinged monarch, I think this book offers some guidance. The support of so many Bible-based Christians for a despot is mirrored every Sunday in the worship language of monarchical and often arbitrary rule rooted in most of our traditional images of God. While we profess to be committed to democracy and republican governance, we are, as I said in a Christian Century article in 1990, “Sunday Monarchists.” The problem we face is theological at its core and requires the long, slow cultural change in worship that underlies lasting social change.

I will not live to see how this long effort unfolds, but I hope that this question and this preliminary argument will remain in the public conversation a little longer, inviting others to take up the work. You can find it at Wipf and Stock’s website or your other usual sources.

 

 

 

 

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Our Upcoming Interfaith Peace Conference

As some of you know, Sylvia and I have been working for the past eighteen months as co-chairs of the Tenth Lake Junaluska Interfaith Peace Conference, which will take place at Lake Junaluska, NC, November 21-24. The theme of this year’s Conference is “The Arts of Peace: Imagining the Way.” For the past ten years this Interfaith Peace Conference has explored many aspects of the work of peace-building at the intersection of the great Abrahamic religious traditions. In all of them the arts have played a crucial role in focusing our understanding, inspiring our imaginations, and moving our hearts. These conferences were originally intended as a ten-year effort to lift up the work of peace. In this capstone conference we will celebrate the role of the arts in peace-building as an inspiration to each of us to continue the work of peace in many other ways.

We are deeply moved by the depth and breadth of the offerings being brought by our presenters. You can see more about the Conference at www.LakeJunaluska.com/peace, but here I just want to lift up some of the highlights and why I think they are significant.

The first involves the art of calligraphy and the illumination of texts. At the heart of our ancient religious family of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam lie sacred texts. As mere words they have sometimes been twisted and used to support terrible destruction and enmity. But they also can inspire us to the depths of God’s grace and the heights of God’s peace. In all these traditions these sacred words have been artfully re-presented, illuminated and embellished to bring out the deeper meanings that may be hidden from the casual eye. Two full-size “Heritage” volumes of The Saint John’s Bible will be on loan to us from Carson-Newman University, with interpretations by their university care-takers as well as by Jonathan Homrighausen, author of Illuminating Justice: The Ethical Imagination of the Saint John’s Bible. The astonishing beauty and complexity of this extraordinary Bible, the first handwritten Bible since the Middle Ages, will be present throughout the conference.

To complement this Bible, Bahman Panahi, foremost present-day calligrapher in the Islamic tradition, will exhibit and interpret samples of his artistry and open up the importance of calligraphy and illumination in Islamic tradition. A nearby Jewish temple has graciously agreed to loan us a Torah scroll to complete our calligraphy explorations.

Our ancient texts are the ground not only for these marvelous flights of vision, but for the sounds of speech, chant, and song. Ilyas Kashani, a practitioner of Chinese and traditional Islamic healing, will open us up to the way the sounding of words shapes our inner dispositions and our relationships with the world, forming yet another possible pathway to peace.

And we will hear music that lifts us beyond the written word to the sounds beneath and around them. Mariela Shaker, a young classical violinist in exile from her native Syria, will perform and speak about the call to bind up the wounds of our fellow human beings torn apart by the conflicts of our day. The voices of African-American Gospel tradition as well as a song especially composed for the conference by Scott Taylor will stir our deepest yearnings for peace. We will also have the opportunity to feel the pace and dance of a meditative labyrinth. Gloria Hage, the North American Director of the Institute for the Healing of Memories, will lead us into the way artistic expression can help us deal with the traumas that keep us from a more peaceful life. Fiber artist Laurie Wohl will exhibit and reflect on her work as it weaves new connections in a post 9/11 era among our traditions as well as our aspirations. And, with a performance of Women and War, we will enter the dramatic world of women struggling with the ravages of war and the haunting hope for peace. Through the power of dance, we will be drawn into the meditative circling of God’s peace in the ancient Sufi practice of the Sema, led and interpreted by Kabir and Camille Helminski, foremost interpreters of Rumi’s poetry.

This does not even exhaust the opportunities at the conference. It has been a great privilege to be in contact with these creative people and to explore the ways the arts can inform our efforts at peace-building in a time of great ugliness, distorted vision, and tragic deceptions. We wish everyone could be there at this marvelous feast. I can’t end without a pitch for anyone who might still be able to free up time and resources to be with us.

Yes, you are invited here to a feast of artistry that we hope will illuminate our understanding, excite our imaginations, and inspire us to the ongoing work of peace in a world torn by conflict and burdened with environmental destruction. I hope the conference will lift up our hearts, our voices, our eyes, and our hands. Maybe it will help us live more deeply into the beauty of our Creator’s call to peace.

 

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