For Memorial Day, “We Need Alternativity”

HT to this interesting post for the image.

 

At the end of Mill City Church‘s worship gathering yesterday, we sang one of my all-time favorite hymns, Be Thou My Vision. We sang something close to the version I’ve posted above. Give it a listen as you read. Here are the lyrics, which are important as they will inform the rest of this post:

“Be Thou my Vision, O Lord of my heart;
Naught be all else to me, save that Thou art.
Thou my best Thought, by day or by night,
Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light.

Be Thou my Wisdom, and Thou my true Word;
I ever with Thee and Thou with me, Lord;
Thou my great Father, I Thy true son;
Thou in me dwelling, and I with Thee one.

Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise,
Thou mine Inheritance, now and always:
Thou and Thou only, put first in my heart,
High King of Heaven, my Treasure Thou art.

Oh, God, be my everything, be my delight
Be, Jesus, my glory My soul’s satisfied
Oh, God, be my everything, be my delight
Be, Jesus, my glory My soul’s satisfied

My Jesus, You satisfy
My Jesus, You satisfy

High King of Heaven, my victory won,
May I reach Heaven’s joys, bright Heaven’s Sun
Heart of my own heart, whatever befall,
Still be my Vision, O Ruler of all.

Oh, God, be my everything, be my delight
Be, Jesus, my glory my soul’s satisfied”

There’s a reason why this is an all time classic hymn with deeply resonant lyrics still today, and writing those words reminds me why I lament so much worship music being written today. How much of it has lyrics that will still matter a few decades from now, let alone a few centuries or even millenia? Yes, millenia. Wikipedia notes what became Be Thou My Vision began as a text that was part of a monastic tradition dating back to the 6th century. Like the Biblical text itself, it existed for centuries as an oral tradition before being written down. Wikipedia says:

The original Old Irish text, “Rop tú mo Baile” is often attributed to Saint Dallán Forgaill in the 6th century.[1] The text had been a part of Irish monastic tradition for centuries before its setting to music.[3] There are two manuscripts, one at the National Library of Ireland, and a second at the Royal Irish Academy. Both manuscripts date from about the 10th or 11th century.

The oral tradition was no doubt different from what was finally written down, and what was finally written down in the 10th or 11th century was different from English versions of the text recorded in the early 1900’s, and that too from the “English Methodist Version” that was produced in 1964, which is obviously still being adapted to this day. Nonetheless, at the heart of this song is something timeless, but I’ll have more to say on that later. So as I said, we sang this toward the end of our worship gathering yesterday. Towards the beginning of the worship gathering, as likely took place in thousands of worship gatherings across the country yesterday, a prayer was offered in honor of Memorial Day, to recognize those who have served in this nation’s military (or, more accurately according to the designated purpose of the holiday, to honor and recognize those who died while serving). In some such gatherings the conflation of following Jesus with following “American” civil religion was more over-than-top than in others. Here are a few examples from a cursory web search:

 

I found this picture at the page for the “Southeast Texas Church Guide.”

The image above begs a lot of questions. For starters, is the instrument of Jesus’ execution at the hands of the occupying empire of his day, operating in collusion with the church leaders of his day, to be understood here as a patriotic “American” symbol? The U.S.A. is the closest thing to the Roman Empire the world maybe has ever seen, complete with direct comparisons which can be made between the “Pax Romana” and the “Pax Americana.”  Perhaps then this makes perfect sense. It is in the nature of empires to co-opt whatever symbols- not of their making- that are necessary to maintain and extend their control. Often this takes the form of wholesale cultural (mis-)appropriation (see Cinco de Mayo or the recent controversy surrounding the short-lived new piece of art the Walker Art Gallery here in Minneapolis tried to display). Beyond this, what is the relationship between the patriotic executioner’s tool above (the cross is so ubiquitous and has been so domesticated that it might be more helpful to replace it in your mind with an electric chair, guillotine, or hangman’s noose) and gun-toting soldier, aside from the obvious, that both are instruments of death, tools of the state to violently enforce its will?

 

That same Southeast Texas Church Guide page features this graphic.

What then, of this graphic? Clearly the folks who run the Southeast TX Church Guide want to bless folks on this “American” holiday, but then they include some Scripture for good measure. There’s probably some good hermeneutical work that should be done about that particular verse from Proverbs, but for now let’s take it at “face value” (understanding, as I do, that all reading is interpretation, especially when it comes to the Bible). Is the point that all fallen U.S. soldiers are necessarily and automatically “righteous?” In what way? Who says? For those with ears to hear, there is a litany of abuses and atrocities committed by U.S. soldiers at the behest of our government, in the name of myself and every U.S. citizen, that could be recited, right up to and especially including the present day. Is this to be ignored? Does service and especially death while serving=righteousness, always and forever, no matter what?

Similarly, on what appears to be the United Methodist Church’s official site, they offer “12 Ways to Observe Memorial Day.” Idea #5 is to “Wave a flag:”

Youth of First United Methodist Church, Koppel, Pa., raised money to buy an American flag for all 225 residences in the little town. “I’m a flag-waver,” admitted the Rev. Donald A. Anderson. Quoted in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, he expressed hope that the flags would “bring Koppel a sense of pride in participating in this great holiday honoring those who fought to protect our freedoms.”

Thankfully, “Idea #12” is to:

Glorify Jesus as the Prince of Peace and reach out to those whom others may forget. On Memorial Day – as he does throughout the year – John Alexander, a member of East Lake United Methodist Church, Birmingham, Ala., will be involved with Kairos Prison Ministries. A Christian, lay-led, ecumenical, volunteer, international prison ministry, Kairos brings Christ’s love and forgiveness to incarcerated individuals and their families.

Still, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Most of the other ideas the United Methodist Church presents on the page, with a few notable exceptions, focus again on the conflation of following Jesus with following “American” civil religion. Under such an arrangement, the U.S. flag is a welcome partner to the “Christian” one, and in too many church buildings across the country the two are displayed in tandem, as if they belong together.

Lest there be any confusion about the point here, here’s another image, this one from a church in Georgia:

 

So here we have the cross again, used along with the flag, again, as the backdrop for what appears to be a veterans’ cemetery, and again we get some Scripture, this time from the gospel of John, in which we read: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Clearly the makers of the image above think this somehow applies to those who died as U.S. soldiers. In truth, nothing could be further from said truth. Here’s that verse in context, from John 15:

 As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. 10 If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. 11 I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. 12 My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.13 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command. 15 I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. 16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. 17 This is my command: Love each other.

Do you really think what Jesus is saying here has anything to do with military belligerents dying sometimes to protect the “freedom” of U.S. citizens (lots to unpack there, but not now), but more often of late to protect U.S. “strategic interests” in the oil-rich Middle East? Take a look at the passage above again. Jesus is urging his followers to “remain in his love.” He says if they keep his commands they will do so; they will remain in his love. Then he tells them just what he wants them to do, what his command is: Love each other- as he has loved them. Then comes the misappropriated verse in the image above: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Notice what comes next, though. After talking about the love involved in laying one’s life down for one’s friends, he doubles down on just how they can remain in his love. He says: “You are my friends if you do what I command.” Remember that he’s just told them what his command is, that they would love one another as he has. Then he makes the point even more clear. He tells them that he no longer calls them servants, but instead has called them friends. They are his friends because they remain in his love by doing what he’s told them to do- by loving one another. And just how great is that love of his they are to remain in? It’s so great that he would lay down his life for them, which this passage is clearly foreshadowing. Thus Jesus is the one laying down his life for his friends- we who love as he has loved us.

A call to give the “ultimate sacrifice” on the battlefield- or to honor those who have- this is not. In fact, such sacrifices are not even “ultimate.” Responding violently to the threat of violence and thereby suffering the consequences of violence may be the way of the world, but it is not Jesus’ way. Jesus on the cross broke the cycle of the world’s violence by absorbing it without retaliating. As those who do indeed follow the Prince of Peace, we are likewise called to be peacemakers. Ironically, what comes next in John 15 is an admonition by Jesus, who tells his followers that they have been chosen out of the world, and so will likely be persecuted and hated by it, depending, I suppose, on how closely we follow him, how faithfully we love as he has loved us and remain in his love. If, as much as we possibly can, we live into this ministry of reconciliation and follow Jesus down the path of peace rather than violence, those who prefer violence (even/especially those who have subscribed to the myth of redemptive violence) may very well hate and persecute us indeed.

Going back to our part of John 15 above, in the last bit of the passage Jesus again reminds his followers that he chose them, not the other way around. He chose them so that they might “go and bear fruit,” and so that “whatever they ask” in his name, the Father will give them. Then, just to be sure they’ve gotten the message, he repeats his command that they love one another. It’s interesting that God the giver includes a reminder in this passage that he has chosen his followers not only so that they can bear fruit, but also so that they can receive from him whatever they would ask for in Jesus’ name. By so doing he reminds them of who- and whose- they are. They are children of their Father in heaven; they are the beloved of the Creator God, the one in whom “all things hold together.” Those who remember this know that they really don’t need to store up treasure on earth. They really can trust God each and every day for their daily bread, without worrying about tomorrow or the bread they’ll need then. Their Father, after all, is the keeper of the “cattle on a thousand hills,” and he knows what they need before they would even ask him. So then, if they are remaining in his love by faithfully following his command to love one another, they can ask their Father for anything, and he will give it to them. This is economic language that stands in stark contrast to the language of the world’s economies.

The “freedom” that we “Americans” of European descent enjoy most of all involves some basic human rights that ought be enjoyed by all- freedom of speech and of movement, religious freedom and the like, but a well-defended argument can be made that the most essential “freedom” “America” has been exporting for quite some time is an economic one- the freedom to consume as much as one’s hard work, credit, or inheritance will allow. It is, after all, a freedom that even the Chinese enjoy. But it does come at a literal “price,” and it’s often a violent one. There is a direct relationship between capitalism (aka our “economic freedom”) and violence. Don’t believe me? Watch this:

In contrast with “America’s” violent capitalism, Jesus tells us that we have only to ask our Father for “anything,” and he will give it to us. Why? How can this be so? Don’t those who peddle the so-called “prosperity gospel” use verses like this to justify their cheap grace? That may be. Be that as it may, if we who would follow Jesus are loving those around us like Jesus loved us (remembering that his love was so great that he laid down his life for us), isn’t it true that our heart’s desire won’t be for our own health, wellness, and prosperity, but for that of our neighbor near and far? Isn’t this what we’ll want to ask our Father for, knowing that he’s already got our own needs taken care of?

This is what I’m learning, slowly but surely, after lo these many years being so very focused on my own needs and wants. This is the vision that I find so captivating these days. It’s a vision placed in my heart by its Lord. It’s a vision so very captivating that all else is “naught” (nothing) to me.  “Be Thou My Vision” continues in the next verse:

Be Thou my Wisdom, and Thou my true Word;
I ever with Thee and Thou with me, Lord;
Thou my great Father, I Thy true son;
Thou in me dwelling, and I with Thee one.

God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is our wisdom, our true Word, and because of the Holy Spirit we know that God is ever with us, and we with him. God’s Spirit within is the animating presence that continues to give us life from one moment to the next and enables us to remain in his love as we make our feeble efforts to love those around us like we’ve been loved by him. As true sons and daughters of the Father and those in whom his Spirit dwells, we experience unity with God, the most precious gift of all.

That’s what Mill City Church is “fighting” for these days in the current sermon series- unity. We’re being reminded that unity does not equal uniformity and that it’s okay to disagree so long as we do it well. We’re being reminded though that while uniformity is not required, unity is “non-negotiable.” As we sang that line from “Be Thou My Vision” yesterday morning, the one that goes, “Thou in me dwelling, and I with Thee one,” I was reminded that if we who would follow Jesus are indeed one with the Father, we are necessarily united with one another. We can’t be united with God and be separated from others who are also united with God. If we all are indeed united with the Father, it’s impossible to be separated from one another. This is convicting, as it means that to whatever extent we are experiencing disunity with one another, our unity with God is compromised.

Just what is it, then, that all too often divides us? The next verse of “Be Thou My Vision” offers our first clue:

Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise,
Thou mine Inheritance, now and always:
Thou and Thou only, put first in my heart,
High King of Heaven, my Treasure Thou art

“Riches, I heed not,” this English version of the ancient hymn says, and shortly thereafter explains why, because “Thou” (are) mine inheritance, now and always.” This is what God has been calling I and my family to over and over an over again in 2017 (and no doubt before, if we had been paying attention). What does it mean to live in this culture as if these words were actually true? What does it mean to live as if our chief task on this earth is not to accumulate as much wealth as possible for myself and then leave it to my children as an inheritance, but rather to live as a conduit for God’s many good gifts, knowing that Jesus is our inheritance? What does it mean to live in this culture with the knowledge that our heart will be where our treasure is, and so as followers of Jesus that treasure must be in heaven, not on earth? I am convinced now more than ever that Jesus spends so much time talking about money (and that so much of that talk touches on the relationship between money and politics) because truly “the love of money is the root of all evil,” and it is that temptation- to love money and the economic and political systems that get us more of it- more than Jesus that we rich would-be “Christians” of European descent are faced with more than any other. A recent FB post I happened upon makes the point for me. It’s a video of “10 Rules You Will Never Learn in School.” It’s paired with a cartoon-ish picture of Bill Gates. There are layers upon layers of disingenuous misattribution that led to the video being produced and shared on FB (in other words, it’s “fake news”), but the bottom line is that it doesn’t come from Bill Gates, and the version I saw on FB isn’t even a thorough copy of the actual source, who definitely is NOT Bill Gates. Nonetheless, people, would be Jesus followers even, believe this stuff; so I’ll show you the last “rule:”

Bill Gates did NOT say this.

From “life isn’t fair” to (don’t expect to) “make $60,000 out of high school,” but do expect to “flip burgers” and do expect there to be “winners and losers” in life, and to have to “leave your coffee shop to go to work” (for a “nerd,” apparently), to the final coup de grace- “being born poor” is “not your mistake,” but “dying poor” is, apparently; every one of the “rules” or life lessons in the “fake” video have to do with our relationship to money, and every one of them, I would argue, encourages us to love and pursue it in place of loving and pursuing Jesus. No, life isn’t fair, but instead of investigating why and working to subvert whatever powers promote the injustice and unfairness of life, this video would have us accept this “fact” and use our good ol’ “American” ingenuity and Puritan work ethic to overcome it, perpetuating the myth that this country is the “land of opportunity” for those with the gumption to seize it. All the other “rules” play in to this narrative. The last one, though, is of course the one that really gets me. Being born “poor” is rightly understood to not be the “fault” of the one being born, but it is someone’s fault, and the makers of this video and those who would spread it around seem to have little interest in this.

Moreover, they double down on the injustice that leads to the inequality of some folks being born poor by telling the lie that it doesn’t matter, and that if they would just work hard enough they too, could get rich (by historical standards, as even the “poorest” of the U.S. “middle class” truly is). What, then, of generational poverty even here in the U.S.? What of the legacy of 4 centuries of slavery and Jim Crow era de facto slavery up to, including, and even after the Civil Rights era in the U.S.? When will rich males of European descent like myself stop pretending that there’s some other reason why people of color in this country remain disproportionately poor, uneducated, and incarcerated? And of course all of this says nothing about the rest of the world. Is it the fault of poor North Koreans that they die poor? What of the poorest child in the most desperate part of Africa, whose mother spends much of her day trudging to get dirty water for him, which may very well kill him anyway, thus greatly decreasing the time between that child’s poor birth and poor death?

Meanwhile, Jesus tells us to give to whomever asks of us, to lend without expecting repayment, and that the widow who gives her only mite gives far more than the one percent-er who gave a much greater amount, but much smaller percent- by orders of magnitude- of his available resources. I would argue again that it’s not your fault if you’re born poor, but it is someone’s. Likewise, there’s much to be said about dying poor. Remembering that you “can’t take it with you;” that there were no needy among the early church because they shared what they had; that likewise one of the chief lessons of Israel’s wilderness wanderings was that they had to trust God for their daily bread and share such that “he who gathered little did not gather too little” and “he who gathered much, not too much-” a lesson repeated and expanded on in Paul’s letters to the early church(es); remembering that Jesus challenged the “rich young ruler” to go and sell all he had and give it to the poor- in light of all of this and so much more, I would argue that as Jesus followers our goal actually should probably be to die poor. Doesn’t “every good gift come from the Lord?” If God the giver gives for our flourishing but just as much so that we too can be givers because we bear his image, then we are duty-bound to hold the resources we’re given access to lightly, even those we think we “earn” at a job, because we’re only able to “earn” them using the brain power, heart, will, and muscles- not to mention air, light, and raw materials- that God the giver gave us in the first place. If we hold those resources lightly, we will allow them to pass through our hands freely to those who need them, and if we do this well, we really ought not have any left when our first go-round on this earth is complete.

The last verse of “Be Thou My Vision” goes:

High King of Heaven, my victory won,
May I reach Heaven’s joys, bright Heaven’s Sun
Heart of my own heart, whatever befall,
Still be my Vision, O Ruler of all.

What does it mean to be subjects of the “High King of Heaven” and to acknowledge that he has won our “victory?” What victory could this be? Is it merely some “pie in the sky” triumph over “sin and death” that has nothing to do with our lives here and now? Quite the opposite, it seems to me more and more these days. Some will use the occasion of this day- “Memorial Day” here in the U.S.- to again conflate following Jesus with following “American” civil religion, and the fact that so many uncritically do so is a devastating testament to the seeming triumph of the “powers” over that very High King of Heaven. This, by the way, is as intentional as it is insidious. The Wikipedia Memorial Day page notes:

Scholars, following the lead of sociologist Robert Bellah, often make the argument that the United States has a secular “civil religion” – one with no association with any religious denomination or viewpoint – that has incorporated Memorial Day as a sacred event. With the Civil War, a new theme of death, sacrifice and rebirth enters the civil religion. Memorial Day gave ritual expression to these themes, integrating the local community into a sense of nationalism. The American civil religion, in contrast to that of France, was never anticlerical or militantly secular; in contrast to Britain, it was not tied to a specific denomination, such as the Church of England. The Americans borrowed from different religious traditions so that the average American saw no conflict between the two, and deep levels of personal motivation were aligned with attaining national goals.

Memorial Day has been called a “modern cult of the dead“. It incorporates Christian themes of sacrifice while uniting citizens of various faiths.[61]

Did you catch that? “American civil religion….was never anticlerical or militantly secular” and “was not tied to a specific denomination.” Here’s the kicker: “The Americans borrowed from different religious traditions so that the average American saw no conflict between the two.” In other words, the “average American” is blinded to the fact that there is, indeed, a conflict between following Jesus and following the president, whatever party is in power. There’s a conflict between unmitigated consumer capitalism and God’s economy. There’s a conflict between the use of violent military force by this or any other government and the peacemaking ways of Jesus. Many of us in this country sadly just don’t see it.

Being a subject of the High King of Heaven means you can swear no allegiance to any earthly king, or president, or flag. Following Jesus as your Lord, Savior, and Leader means no other leader ought hold sway over you. Participating in God’s economy marks you as being in rebellion to and only a reluctant participant in the economies of this world. What we are called to and what we must live into is alternativity. We’re supposed to be different, so different that we get persecuted and hated for it. While I’m grateful my church didn’t embrace the worst excesses of “American” civil religion in the passing allusion to Memorial Day yesterday, what I didn’t hear was anything that called me to alternativity. I didn’t feel challenged to acknowledge that the U.S.’ soldiers are probably honored best when the Church holds the government to account for its oil wars, for its military drift, for its exploitation of the poorest among us as canon fodder, and for its call not to sacrifice for the common good but to shop more. We can do better than this. Lord willing, we will.

So by all means, honor those who have died while serving as soldiers, but do so as a Christian. Maybe hug a soldier today, sure. Then call your congressperson and argue for more spending on healthcare for veterans and less spending on new guns, bombs, and missiles- tools which beg to be used. Lobby for the winding down of the many wars the U.S. is fighting right now and the ending of current deployments so no more soldiers on either side have to die, let alone the many civilians our soldiers keep killing as “collateral damage.” Then do something even more radical. Go find an enemy soldier, and hug him or her too. Honor the fallen sons and daughters in Iraq, or Vietnam, or Korea. Or, if that proves difficult, sign up for Christian Peacemaker Teams. Find a way to do your duty as a subject of the Prince of Peace and sojourner in the world’s latest empire, the U.S.A. March for peace. Write letters to the editor of your local paper. Consider engaging in war tax resistance. Don’t worry about your life, or the bread you’ll need tomorrow, or the danger of standing between two warring parties. Your Father has the cattle on a thousand hills, and the High King of Heaven has already won your victory. Live like it. I and my family are going to try to. Won’t you help us?

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