Friday, February 24, 2017

Centered on Jesus III: Jerome the Ciceronian

St. Jerome

St Jerome (347-420) was one of the great saints of the Church (and one of the crankier ones). He was a great Bible commentator and translated the Bible into Latin, the common tongue of the western Roman Empire. In a letter, Jerome recounted a vision he had in which he was revealed to be kidding himself about his true loyalties:

"Suddenly I was caught up in the spirit and dragged before the judgment seat of the Judge; and here the light was so bright, and those who stood around were so radiant, that I cast myself upon the ground and did not dare to look up. Asked who and what I was I replied: 'I am a Christian.' But He who presided said: 'You lie; you are a follower of Cicero and not of Christ. For 'where your treasure is, there will thy heart be also.'"

Jerome was convicted of believing himself to be a Christian although his thinking and living were much
more shaped by his loyalty to the Stoic philosophy of Cicero. As a result he was trying to make Jesus look more like Cicero. In the vision, Jesus called him out.

I wonder, What might Jesus say about our truest loyalties? Few Christians in America are likely to be accused of being followers “of Cicero and not of Christ.” But, are there other persons, entities, or philosophies that shape our identities more than Christ? Where do we find our deepest values and sense of belonging?

There are multiple possible answers. But, in our current polarized political and social context, it does seem that many get their identity more from belonging to “Conservatism” or “Progressivism” than following Jesus or belonging to the body of Christ, the Church. In fact, these two identities have much of the character of religious conviction and communal identity. And the opposition between the two has the character of religious sectarian conflict. Some studies suggest that people are more likely to marry someone of another religious faith who shares their social/political beliefs and identity than the other way around. For more on this, see HERE and HERE.

For much of my priestly career, I regularly took issue with the seeming inability of many in the Episcopal Church to distinguish a Liberal/Progressive prejudice from a Gospel imperative (see HERE). But, it is clear that Christian Conservatives are just as unable to disentangle their social and political prejudices from the Gospel and quite prepared to “put Christian values on pause to get the work done” as Ben Carson said during last year's presidential campaign. Christian Conservatives are just as accommodated to culture as are Christian Progressives. They just accommodate different parts of the culture.

This is a problem because Jesus was not a first century manifestation of 21st century American Conservatism or Progressivism. Christianity is not seamlessly compatible with either. To try to make it so is a kind of idolatry. We who are Christians need to ask ourselves if we are followers of Conservatism or Progressivism and not of Christ. And we need to wean ourselves of our emotional attachment to those and other identities that compromise our identity in Jesus.

What would the verdict be if we were “caught up in the spirit and dragged before the judgment seat of the Judge”? Are we followers of Christ? Or are we followers of someone or something else? Conservatism? Progressivism? America? Is our allegiance to Jesus Christ or do we pledge allegiance to something else? As Jerome learned in his vision getting this straight is no small matter.

When we give our allegiance is to something other than Jesus Christ – Conservatism, Progressivism, this or that political party, a nation, or anything else  we can find ourselves endorsing things that followers of Jesus ought not endorse and excusing behaviors followers of Jesus ought not excuse. And our charity will be cramped as we limit our reverence and gentleness to those with whom we identify and who follow whatever idols we follow. And that is sin.

See also: St. Ambrose and the Emperor

Monday, February 20, 2017

Centered on Jesus II: Not a Mid-point on a Spectrum

II. What it is Not, Part 2: Not a Mid-point on a Spectrum

To be a radical centrist as I mean it does not mean trying to locate oneself at some mid-point of an imagined right-left spectrum. The idea of such a spectrum along which everything must be placed as more or less Conservative or more or less Progressive (Liberal) is itself an idol that creates a sort of "conceptual trap"  a way of seeing things that so shapes the imagination that it is hard to imagine other ways of seeing.

To ask if Jesus (and Christianity in general) is more compatible with American Conservatism or American Progressivism (often called Liberalism) is like asking in China if Christianity is more compatible with Confucianism or Taoism.

The truth is there are ad hoc similarities between Christianity and both Taoism and Confucianism. A Christian who converts from either of those might look back and say; “Now I know what that means in the light of Christ” or “Oh, I need to change my mind and behavior if I want to conform to Jesus.” In the end, Taoism and Confucianism have a lot more in common with one another as varieties of the Chinese heritage than either of them has with Christianity which operates under a different logic.

The same is true for the socio-political ideologies of Conservatism and Progressivism which shape the way their adherents engage the world in ways analogous to religious faith. Both are rooted in Classical Western Liberalism (which is why I am using "Progressive" rather than the more common "Liberal" to identify one of its sub-traditions). In this sense, what we usually call “Conservative” is part of this Liberal Tradition as much as what we usually call “Liberal” or “Progressive.” As part of this Liberal Tradition, both Conservatives and Progressives share these tendencies:

* Fetishizing the individual as autonomous and independent

* Fetishizing the modern nation-state as the fundamental and ultimate socio-political reality to which final allegiance is given.

* Making faith primarily a private, personal matter rather than a matter of allegiance to the body of the Church.

* Infatuation with the notion of abstractions, e.g., love, justice, freedom, reason etc, as universally accessible and independent of traditions or particular communal histories and practices.

Given these similarities, from a Christ-centered perspective, ideological Conservatism and ideological Progressivism do not so much occupy opposite poles of a spectrum as they are more like points on contiguous sections of a dart board  like sections 16 and 7 – more or less removed from the center if the center is Jesus Christ.

To be clear, the point here is not that the heritage of Classical Western Liberalism is altogether bad, whether in its conservative or progressive manifestations. Doubtless there is good in that heritage, e.g., the breaking down of a fixed class system, moving toward the social equality of women, the acceptance of ideological and religious diversity, and things like the freedom of the press. Just as there are things about Taoism and Confucianism a Christian can embrace, there are things about the Liberal Tradition in both its more Conservative and it more Progressive forms Christians can embrace. Several of the things just mentioned actually have roots or antecedents in Christianity. And, all things considered, the Liberal Tradition is preferable to illiberal approaches to politics, e.g., Authoritarianism, Fascism, Marxism, ethno-nationalism.

Being a Centrist does not mean trying to be neutral or unengaged with the world around us. Jesus was neither. And centered Christians will have sympathies one way or another. But, we need to be wary of investing too much emotional energy or loyalty in political parties, movements, and ideologies lest our allegiance to them compromise our allegiance to Christ and inhibit our ability to love our neighbor.

If Christians are not suspicious of these loyalties, we will again and again fall into the trap of trying to fit Jesus and Christianity into those loyalties. The result is a fractured and compromised Church with no witness. The religious right seeks to make God, Jesus, and Christianity safe for conservative values. The religious left seeks to make God, Jesus, and Christianity safe for progressive values. The one ends up playing servile chaplain to the red states while the other plays servile chaplain to the blue states. And both end up more or less the chaplains of American Civil Religion. In their utter conformity, neither has a truly prophetic witness centered in what God has done and is doing through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. Because both are content to repeat the prejudices of this world, neither is able to bear witness to the New Creation.

Wary of being drawn off Christ the center, radical Christian centrists will engage Conservatism and Progressivism both critically and sympathetically  seeking such ad hoc congruities as might be found. But it will not accept a view of the world in which they are poles on a spectrum along which Christians must place themselves.

Previous: Centered on Jesus I: Introduction/Not Moderate

Next: Centered on Jesus III: Jerome the Ciceronian

Friday, February 10, 2017

Centered on Jesus I: Introduction. Not Moderate


Once, while sitting in the back of a class in seminary, I turned to a friend and said, “I’m a radical centrist.” At the time, I was mostly just amused by the oxymoronic irony of the phrase. But, upon reflection, I have come to appreciate the term. To be a Christian is to place the life and teaching of Jesus at the center of one’s life. This is the first is a series of posts in which I will explain what I think that means – and doesn’t mean.

I. What it is Not, Part 1: Not Moderate

Radical Centrist is not the same as “moderate.” I confess that I am congenitally cautious. Thus, I find moderation in and of itself an attractive idea. It can be a short-coming for sure. But I am also convinced that there is nothing moderate about following one who said things like:

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
– Mark 8:34

But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,
– Matthew 5:44

For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.
– Matthew 7:14

He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it.”
– Matthew 10:39

To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from him who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.
– Luke 6:29

It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.
– Mark 10:25

So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.
– Luke 14:33

But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
– Matthew 5:28

But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.
– Matthew 5:22

If you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.
– Matthew 6:14-15

Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.
– Mark 10:11-12

If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.
– Luke 14:26

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practised without neglecting the others.
– Matthew 23:23

You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.
– Matthew 25:41-46

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.
– John 13:34-35

Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you;
– John 6:53

He who believes in the Son has eternal life; he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God rests upon him.”
– John 3:36

I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.
– John 14:6

If you love me, you will keep my commandments.
– John 14:15

For more, see What Jesus Commanded

To be a radical centrist means being centered on Jesus Christ and taking seriously the radical challenge of his whole life and teaching. It also means being suspicious of attempts to rationalize or interpret away that challenge in any of the particulars in order to make Jesus ‘safe’. And it means being honest about one’s own failure to live into his radical challenge. There’s nothing very moderate about any of that.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The mind of the Spirit is life and peace

Last week I posted on this blog a letter Regarding Terrorism and Refugees that I wrote over a year ago to the Diocese of Fond du Lac: Regarding Terrorism and Refugees.

In my 20’s, I was on the board of a pro-life organization in Bloomington, IN – not because I was a conservative, but because I was convinced it was faithful to Jesus. Even so I was not an absolutist on the issue (and have come to learn that the Church has not always been). Ironically, the chair of the board was a woman who was also the chair of the local Democratic Party and when I was invited to speak on the topic with a class at Indiana U., my counterpart defending the pro-choice position was a Republican woman. Things were different in the 80’s.

In my 30’s, at the height of the AIDS crisis, I was a Hand to Hand volunteer for the San Joaquin County AIDS Foundation in CA. That was about assisting gay men mostly and their lovers. Again, I did this not because I was a Liberal (I was actually more conservative on questions of sexuality then than I am now), but because I was convinced it was faithful to Jesus.

In my 40’s, I spoke out, preached, and marched against the invasion of Iraq – not because I was a Liberal, but because I because I was convinced faithfulness to Jesus demanded opposition. By the standards of the Church’s understanding of Just War it did not pass muster. That view was shared by the then Pope, John Paul II, and his eventual successor, Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI, neither of whom was considered liberal. I also opposed the invasion for purely prudential reasons – I did not think it would make us safer and would in fact create a mess making us less safe. The last 14 years have only confirmed that conviction.

Now, in my 50’s, I find myself needing to defend the welcome of refugees and oppose President Trump’s Executive Order on refugees – not because I am a Liberal, but because I am convinced it is faithful to Jesus. I share this view with the current Pope (and other RC bishops – Archbishop Charles Chaput of Chicago is a good example), the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Ed Stetzer, Senior Fellow of Wheaton College's Billy Graham Center, and Mark Galli, editor of Christianity Today, along with multiple Conservatives. Aside from Jesus, on purely prudential grounds, I believe that just as with the invasion of Iraq, Presidents Trump's Executive Order is based on misinformation and will not make us more safe, but less so as it alienates folk who we need as allies. The struggle against terrorism is as much a battle for hearts and minds as it is a military battle.

I could be wrong on any of these and people will disagree with me, but for me none of this is about Conservative vs Liberal. Jesus is neither. As a bishop of the Church I am obliged to “boldly proclaim and interpret the Gospel of Christ, enlightening the minds and stirring up the conscience of [my] people.” (The Ordination of a Bishop, Book of Common Prayer, p. 518)

“To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.”
(Romans 8:6)