A sleepless night’s reflection on Psalm 44

The psalm begins with a meditation reflecting on a history of breathtaking success. And what the psalmist remembers is that all of it was achieved not by human ingenuity, but by God’s grace and power alone: “It was your right hand, your arm / and the light of your face …” He therefore goes on to write words that are astonishing coming from someone who has seen such military success: “I do not trust in my bow, / my sword does not bring me victory.”

Then, rather abruptly, the psalm takes an unexpected turn. The light of God’s favor suddenly darkens into what seems to be ominous displeasure: “But now you have rejected and humbled us; / you no longer go out with our armies.” The same God who had brought such remarkable success had suddenly brought remarkable ruin. And we ask the question with the psalmist–why?

The first (and our most instinctive) answer is addressed head-on: “All this happened to us, / though we had not forgotten you / or been false to your covenant. / Our hearts had not turned back; / our feet had not strayed from your path.” This is an astounding claim considering the history of God’s people, and yet such seems to be the case here, for the psalmist goes on to write “If we had forgotten the name of our God / or spread out our hands to a foreign god, / would not God have discovered it, / since he knows the secrets of the heart?” The reason for the change in fortune, in this particular case, is not because of Israel’s sin.

And then a solitary beam of light pierces through the darkness as the psalmist experiences a flash of insight. He writes “Yet for your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” They were suffering not for their own sake but for God’s sake. They were suffering not because God had abandoned them but because God was remaining near to them. God’s love for them shone through not despite their suffering, but by way of their suffering.

The Apostle Paul picks up on this very point as he quotes this psalm in Romans 8:35-37. He writes

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: ‘For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.

At first glance, the Psalm 44 quotation seems a bit out of place. But as Paul considers the fact that none of the trials and tribulations the early church was facing could separate them from God’s love, his mind naturally wanders to Psalm 44. For it is there that the psalmist states that in the midst of both breathtaking success and senseless suffering, the love of God remains steadfast and true and therefore we can face both abundance and death with perspective because we know that it is all for God’s sake.

When God himself is our greatest desire, then it is no longer abundance at any cost; nor is it avoiding death at any cost. It becomes, quite simply, God himself at any cost.

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Some rough thoughts on the Church and cultural renewal

How can Christians stand as witnesses to the reality that God in Christ has dethroned all rival powers for human allegiance and has thereby begun a breathtaking project of renewing the entire created order? There are two ways that the Christian is called to do that.

First, is the in-gathering call of the Church as ekklesia. The Church is an inherently socio-political body that is the sacrament of the kingdom of God.  It stands as an institutional witness to that kingdom in such a way that it relativizes, dethrones and unmasks all other earthly powers as merely human institutions. Here is how Hendrik Berkhof in his book Christ and the Powers puts it:

All resistance and every attack against the gods of this age will be unfruitful, unless the church herself is the resistance and attack, unless she demonstrates in her life and fellowship how men can live freed from the Powers. We can only preach the manifold wisdom of God to Mammon [i.e. money] if our life displays that we are joyfully freed from his clutches. To reject nationalism we must begin by no longer recognizing in our own bosoms any difference between peoples. We shall only resist social injustice and the disintegration of community if justice and mercy prevail in our own common life and social differences have lost their power to divide. Clairvoyant and warning words and deeds aimed at state or nation are meaningful only in so far as they spring from a church whose inner life is itself her proclamation of God’s manifold wisdom to the “Powers of the air.”

What he says is that the only way to see the world renewed is for the church to demonstrate in its life an alternate vision for human life together. The church does not merely advocate for resistance. The church is, in its life, resistance embodied and thus demonstrates to the world that our social life can be radically different. It demonstrates that we can live a life that is humanizingly free from the appetite of consumerism; that we can transcend national identities that violently divide the world into “us” and “them”; that we can live together with common concern, mercy for the weakest and justice for all. To the extent that the church lives as this radically counter-cultural community, it serves as witness to the power of God to renew our social life together.

What this means is that the Christian who wants to give the world hope and thereby seek its renewal, ought to work diligently and sacrificially to create a compellingly attractive community in their church that causes the watching world to look in and say “That’s what life with others can be.”

But we can’t forget that the nature of this witness is not merely influencing individuals. This witness is institutional. The community of the church is not merely a voluntary community of like minded individuals that can win over other individuals to “join the club”. The church is decidedly public and decidedly political in nature. That’s what the Greek word “ekklesia” meant.  William Cavanaugh notes that the term ekklesia referred to “the assembly of all those with citizen rights in a given city.” And in choosing that term for the Church, the early Christians refused the available language of guild or voluntary association (e.g. koinon, collegium) to assert that the Church was not a private group gathered around a special interest, but it was the public assembly of a new city within the city. The church is a political body in that those in the church see their ultimate citizenship as being in the kingdom of God, and therefore cannot pledge ultimate allegiance to any earthly political body. In fact, their identity as citizens of the kingdom is precisely the vantage point that enables them to see through the state and act as subversive agents for that ultimate kingdom. The alternative community of the church is political in its very essence because it will always threaten to subvert the established status quo of any earthly power.

But this ecclesial witness of Christians gathered together into the Church is not the only way Christians are called to seek renewal. The second way we do that is through the call of the Church as diaspora, which means “scattering” or “dispersion.” So, not only does the church exist as a gathered public institution, it also exists as individuals dispersed through all society united by a sense of divine vocation.  Thus, we challenge the Powers of this world together as the Church as a theopolitical alternate society, but we also challenge those very same Powers by refusing to work in our various vocations as though our industries were independent and sovereign unto themselves. For it is that delusional aspiration to self-sovereignty that distorts human industries and institutions in such a way that they become “earthly Powers” seeking to deny the sovereign rule of God over them. The church as diaspora, then, seeks to re-unite all industries back under the lordship of their Creator and, in so doing, return them to truly flourish according to their original created intention.

This, in fact, is another way that the Church is called to act publicly and subversively in a society. When a Christian goes into his work as one who believes that his industry will flourish not by serving a nation-state nor being obeying independent economic forces, etc. but rather by bringing it under the kingship of Christ and his creational intentions for that industry, his work itself becomes subversive in that it seeks to gather that industry into Christ’s kingdom (i.e. under the fact of Christ’s kingship).  Thus our work, far from being separate from our the work of the Church is, in fact, the very locus where we are called to be the Church.

Without a robust vision of both the Church as ekklesia (the theopolitical alternative society ruled by King Jesus) and the Church as diaspora (the gathering in of all things under the rule of King Jesus) we will always vacillate between separatism and assimilationism. But when these two visions of what it means to be the people of God are held together in tension, what emerges is a distinctly Christian vision for how we can be in the world but not of it.

A New Economy of Generosity

In what has become something of a modern classic, Lewis Hyde’s The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World argues for the importance of a “gift economy” as a sort of counterbalance to the market economy.  Maintaining a robust gift economy safeguards us against our consumerist tendency to reduce all things to priceable commodities.  In fact, Hyde would argue that a healthy gift economy preserves a sense of human dignity in our economic life together.  To understand what Hyde is getting at, it is important to recognize that the economics of gift exchange are much more rich and complex than simply getting stuff for free.  It is an economy that holds communities together by building trust, cultivating good will and shaping individual character towards generosity.

For example, Hyde points out that the primary difference between gift exchange and market exchange is that “a gift establishes a feeling-bond between two people, while the sale of a commodity leaves no necessary connection …  disconnectedness is, in fact, a virtue of the commodity mode … But a gift makes a connection.”  And then he gives a great example of a simple custom that is practiced in cheap restaurants in the South of France.  Everyone in the restaurant sits at a single communal table and before the meal begins, a man will pour the wine ]he has purchased himself into the glass of his neighbor who will, in turn, do the same for the guest sitting next to him and so on all the way around the table.  As a result of that simple custom, a table of relative strangers begins to act as a community.  “Spacial proximity becomes social life through an exchange of gifts.  Further, the pouring of the wine sanctions another exchange–conversation–and a whole series of trivial social ties unfolds.”  From a market standpoint, the exchange of wine was something of a zero-sum game.  But from the standpoint of a gift economy, there was significant giving and receiving that has established social ties between the gift-exchangers.

This example demonstrates, on a small scale, how gift-giving actually forms an alternate economy.  Hyde further develops this point by explaining the difference between reciprocal giving (giving between two people) and what he calls “circular giving” (gifts that circulate within a larger community):

Circular giving differs from reciprocal giving in several ways.  First, when the gift moves in a circle no one ever receives it from the same person he gives it to … When I give to someone from whom I do not receive (and yet I do receive elsewhere), it is as if the gift goes around a corner before it comes back.  I have to give blindly.  And I will feel a sort of blind gratitude as well.  The smaller the circle is–and particularly if it involves just two people–the more a man can keep his eye on things and the more likely it is that he will start to think like a salesman.  But so long as the gift passes out of sight it cannot be manipulated by one man … When the gift moves in a circle its motion is beyond the control of the personal ego, and so each bearer must be a part of the group and each donation is an act of social faith.”

The giving of gifts creates an intimate community marked by a new economy.  But the question this raises for us is: what will enable us in a modern, market-driven society to live more consistently in a gift economy when we can have no guarantee that our generosity will be met in kind?  How can we “give blindly” and, in so doing, step out in “an act of social faith”?

Hyde gives an answer and it is somewhat surprising.  He says that one place where this gift economy thrived was in ancient Israel, and it did so because of a key belief: that all their possessions were already gifts from God.  Therefore, possessions were not be viewed as capital to be accumulated and stored away, but instead as gifts to be passed on to others and circulated within the community.  And, if we remember that giving was not seen just as giving to ones neighbor, but as giving back to God himself, then we have the basic foundations for a radically generous community.  Hyde writes that the “inclusion of the Lord in the circle … changes the ego … in a way unlike any other addition.”  It enlarges the circle to transcend even gift economy calculations and entrusts the gift to the care of the Sovereign God whose generosity initiated the gift cascade in the first place.  “The gift leaves all … circles [and enters] into mystery”, as Hyde puts it.

If Hyde is right, then the church ought to be a place where the gift economy prevails.  If the gospel drives us to view our possessions not as means by which we secure status, power, security or comfort (only God’s love in Christ can do that), then Christians ought to be known as those who live by the humanizing logic of generosity.

The Suffering Servant: A Good Friday Reflection

1 “Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen one in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him,
and he will bring justice to the nations.
2 He will not shout or cry out,
or raise his voice in the streets.
3 A bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.
In faithfulness he will bring forth justice;
4 he will not falter or be discouraged
till he establishes justice on earth.
In his teaching the islands will put their hope.”

5 This is what God the LORD says—
the Creator of the heavens, who stretches them out,
who spreads out the earth with all that springs from it,
who gives breath to its people,
and life to those who walk on it:
6 “I, the LORD, have called you in righteousness;
I will take hold of your hand.
I will keep you and will make you
to be a covenant for the people
and a light for the Gentiles,
7 to open eyes that are blind,
to free captives from prison
and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.

8 “I am the LORD; that is my name!
I will not yield my glory to another
or my praise to idols.
9 See, the former things have taken place,
and new things I declare;
before they spring into being
I announce them to you.”

At the heart of the collection of prophecies that together make up the book of Isaiah is an enigmatic figure, enshrouded in mystery, that Isaiah calls the Suffering Servant of Yahweh.  And throughout the second half of his book, Isaiah writes a series of songs that scholars have called “Songs of the Servant.”  There we are given enticing glimpses of this elusive Servant who, the more we read about, the more we suspect will play a crucially important role in human history.

In this song in Isaiah 42, what we are shown is a quick glimpse into the mission of the Servant—what he will do.  And what we see is fascinating:

Let’s start with v.3.  The first thing Isaiah tells us is when this Servant comes, he will come for the weak and the despairing.  It says he comes for the reed that has been so deeply bruised that it is rendered useless, and rather than breaking it, he will heal it.  He comes for those who are like the wick of a candle at the very end of its rope, and rather than snuffing it out, he breathes new life into it.  He comes for the weak and the despairing.

But if we go on to v.6, it also tells us that when this Servant comes, he will come not just for Israel, not just for those who knew God and had his law and sought to obey them.  It says that when this Servant comes, he will be coming for everyone.  He would be a light to the Gentiles—and his coming would be the healing of all human divisions.  He would come for all of us because we all equally walk in darkness.  He would be the singular light, the single hope for humanity, that would bring us all together again.

And then in v.7 it says, to those who are blind, he will give sight; to those who are captives, he would bring freedom; to those under darkness, he would give release.

And the word that Isaiah uses to describe all of these things, is justice.  A new kind of justice that will not break the weak, a new kind of justice that does deepen human divisions, but instead heals them, a new kind of justice that frees prisoners and releases those who sit in darkness.  It’s what the Hebrews called “mishpat”.  It was that ultimate justice that would heal the universe and restore it to its original harmony and peace.  As Isaiah puts it in v.9, the former things have passed, and new things will begin to spring forth.  When this Suffering Servant finally comes, justice will come pouring in behind him.

One of the most mysterious and intriguing figures in the Arthurian legends is a figure who has come to be known as the Fisher King.  In the legend, this Figure is the final keeper and guard of the Holy Grail.  He is called the Fisher King because he has sustained an unhealable wound in his leg that renders him immobile, and essentially incapable of doing his duty–and all he can do is to wait helplessly and fish in the moat of the castle. And yet we get the sense that there is more to this Fisher King than meets the eye, for the story tells us that the moment he suffered his wound, the entire land became wounded with him and instantly became a barren and desolate wasteland.

What Isaiah is getting at is that at the heart human history is a figure who is just as enigmatic, just as alluring as the Wounded King of the Arthur legends. But the wounds sustained by this king will not bring death and desolation to the land, the wounds of this king will be the very thing brings life and healing to a world ruined by sin. This king’s wounds would not render him ineffective.  This king’s wounds would be utterly, decisively, finally effective for us.  They would pour forth with justice and new things will begin to spring forth all around.

This evening as we remember the events of that Friday that we dare to call Good, would you look upon your Wounded King, the Suffering Servant of Yahweh, and watch as he makes all things new.

Politics, Morality and Civility

Vaclav Havel, in his “Politics, Morality and Civility,” speaks of the crucial importance of what he calls “civility” and “public manners” in our shared life.  Havel was a playwright who quickly became a major figure in the so-called Velvet Revolution and later was elected the first president of the Czech Republic.  He wrote this essay during a time of intense transition as the Czech Republic went from Communist rule to a democratic state.  In it, he admits that while the legal, economic and political aspects of this transition were daunting, he believed that the most critical transition undergirding all of these was what he referred to as “the culture of everyday life”.  He explains it this way:

I can well imagine that, as a citizen, it would bother me more if the pub I went to were a place where the customers spat on the floor and the staff behaved boorishly towards me than it would if I could no longer afford to go there every day and order the most expensive meal on the menu … Perhaps what I am trying to say is clear: however important it may be to get our economy back on its feet, it is far from being the only task facing us.  It is no less important to do everything possible to improve the general cultural level of everyday life … And it is not true that we have to wait until we are rich to do this; we can begin at once, without a crown in our pockets.  No one can persuade me that it takes a better-paid nurse to behave more considerately to a patient, that only an expensive house can be pleasing, that only a wealthy merchant can be courteous to his customers and display a handsome sign outside, that only a prosperous farmer can treat his livestock well.  I would go even farther, and say that, in many respects, improving the civility of everyday life can accelerate economic development–from the culture of supply and demand, of trading and enterprise, right down to the culture of values and lifestyle.

For Havel, the key to the restoration of a society was not political power or economic revitalization or even a just legal code (as crucial as each of those things are).  Rather, it all depended on cultivating the character, virtue and humanity of its citizens.  The signs of life in a society are when people begin to treat others with dignity and civility and view their work with a sense of decency and pride regardless of their own personal situation.  And he goes on to say that these vitally important things simply cannot be cultivated by political, legal or economic means.  He says:

I am convinced that we will never build a democratic state based on rule of law if we do not at the same time build a state that is–regardless of how unscientific this may sound to the ears of a political scientist–humane, moral, intellectual and spiritual, and cultural.  The best laws and the best-conceived democratic mechanisms will not in themselves guarantee legality or freedom or human rights–anything, in short, for which they were intended–if they are not underpinned by certain human and social values.

So, for Havel, the institutions of society are important structures, but they cannot themselves produce the most most important contributing factor for a healthy society: a citizenry that is humane, moral, intellectual, spiritual, etc.

This is important because we too often view the political, economic, legal, etc. aspects of our shared life as though they are independent “systems” that function autonomously.  In fact, we often buy into the belief that we can engage in those activities without regard to our own so-called “private values” in a naked public square.  Havel reminds us that all of these activities are, at the end of the day, profoundly human activities and therefore cannot be extricated from the fabric of who we are as whole people and our personal (but not private!) responsibility in cultivating this civility in our social life together.

Religious tolerance and religious conversionism

A friend of mine put me on to John Locke’s famous essay A Letter Concerning Toleration which Locke wrote as a political exile from England in the 1680s.  In it he makes a case that England, as a Christian nation, ought to be the most tolerant state in the world and that the current impulses towards religious persecution, of which he was a victim as one who denied the Trinity, simply could not be justified on England’s own Christian grounds.  It is that last point that fascinates me.  He doesn’t say that the only way we can achieve a tolerant, pluralistic society is for us to set aside the Christian faith (or any faith for that matter) and enter into a naked, secular public square.  He says that a foundation for a tolerant, pluralistic society can be found in Christianity itself.  Indeed, that a genuinely Christian political theology will lead to a view of society that ensures religious pluralism.  But Locke’s arguments go even further.  Here is what he writes:

“For no Man can, if he would, conform his Faith to the Dictates of another.  All the Life and Power of true Religion consists in the inward and full perswasion of the mind; and Faith is not Faith without believing.  Whatever Profession we make, to whatever outward Worship we conform, if we are not fully satisfied in our own mind that the one is true, and the other well pleasing unto God, such Profession and such Practice, far from being any furtherance, are indeed great Obstacles to our Salvation.”

What he is saying is that the strongest possible argument for religious freedom comes from the nature of faith itself.  Genuine faith necessarily requires that the one who has come to believe has done so because she has been persuaded of the truth of that faith by a process of free inquiry rather than by coercion.  Therefore, it is in the best interest of religion that all faiths be given full freedom and protection of the law so that people can come to believe, not because of state coercion, but because they have been personally convinced of the truthfulness of a particular faith.  Essentially, Locke is arguing that religious tolerance in society is necessary if we truly want to seek genuine conversions!

This, to me, offers a much more viable vision for religious toleration than its secular version, which seems to have become: “People should be free to believe whatever they like as long as they acknowledge that their beliefs are simply that: their beliefs.   Religious tolerance needs religions to stop trying to convert others to their faith.”  The challenge with this approach, as many scholars have noted, is that it requires one of two things from those who believe.  They must either 1) cease to believe that their beliefs are actually true or 2) believe that their beliefs are not important enough to share with others.  In other words, it requires a conversion to secular, religious relativism in order to be embraced in a secular society.

But, and this brings us back to Locke’s argument, in all other realms/disciplines that claim to seek after truth, the purpose of protecting free inquiry is not so that people can believe whatever they like as long as they keep it to themselves.  It is, in fact, quite the opposite.  Free inquiry is protected so that we can get after common truth together, through honest dialogue and debate.  The goal of that process, of course, is that people might “be converted” not because they have been coerced, but because they have been personally convinced of the truthfulness of certain propositions.  In sum, the purpose of protecting free inquiry is not to secure relativism; it is to secure conversionism to that which is true.

The subversive act of hospitality

I’ve been talking with people these days about what hinders people in New York City from reaching out to their neighbors just to get to know them and start relationships.  While there are lots of reasons, one of the themes that emerged overwhelmingly was the deeply held belief in the inviolability of private/personal space, particularly in a city as densely populated as New York.  To venture beyond the social conventions of polite conversation in that wasteland called “the hallway” is to risk awkwardness and even a subtle ostracism.

While we must admit that there is much of life that is meant to happen “in the privacy of your own home”, I think we ought to question whether our homes should be viewed as impenetrable fortresses of privacy.  Here’s why.  If all that we have is given to us by God, and if we agree with what I tell my kids almost every day, that “God gives us things so that we can share,” then we must conclude that God gives us our homes so that we can share them.  There is this great verse in Eph 4:28 where Paul tells the thief that he must no longer steal and should instead work for honest gain.  And then he gives him the reason why: so that he can have something to share with others–a pretty radical rationale for why we work and for why we can rightly seek to generate wealth!  This orientation towards sharing with others is why the bible places so much emphasis on hospitality (see Heb 13:2, 1 Pet 4:9, 3 John 5-8, et.al.).  A central truth of the gospel is that we were once strangers, without hope and without God in this world, but now in Christ we have been brought near through his blood (Eph 2:11-13).  And the bible seems to say that anyone who has tasted the sweetness of that truth will inevitably (though not easily) become a person marked by radical hospitality–“a lover of strangers”.

Yet somehow the idea of home as an intensely private space has become deeply entrenched in our culture.  But this was not always so.  There was a time when the home was the center of economic, educational and social life.  In some respects, it was the aggregation of “home life” that created public life in earlier western societies.  It wasn’t until the industrial revolution where work, largely for men, could no longer be done on the homestead and instead required a commute into the factory.  Economic life was divorced from home life and the ensuing result was the home life became privatized.  Many scholars have noted that it was this revolution that began to disenfranchise women in “public life” as they found themselves increasingly relegated to the “merely private” sphere of home.

But here, I think, is where Christian hospitality can be radically subversive–because hospitality defies the public/private dichotomy that shapes and distorts so much of modern life (a dichotomy that insists that religion must remain in the private sphere in order to create a peaceful public life together).  When a Christian refuses to see his home as private space where he is entitled to escape the demands of life with others, and instead sees his home as something given to him by God to be shared with others, that person is insisting that the life we call “private” was meant to be shared with others in “public”.

Or, in other words, the only way to achieve a peaceable public life together is for us to learn how to share a peaceable private life together–a private life shared not just with those who are like us, but one shared with those who differ.  Which is to say, we ought not to forget to “show hospitality to strangers, for by doing so some have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it” (Heb 13:2).