Two Types of Rebellion, Part One: Unwitting Servants

Reading Kester Brewin’s Mutiny and reflecting on rebels I have known in my life,  I’ve come to believe that there are two types of rebels, at least in recent American society: 

  • Those whose rebellion supports the social structure
  • Those whose rebellion actually threatens the established order 

We’ll talk about the first group,  the rebels whose actions prop up the culture they’re rebelling against, today.  The second group will have to wait. 

The first group of rebels skips class, drinks,  has lots of sex in high school, drives too fast, plays a little dirty in business deals, keeps a “woman on the side, ” etc.

They may be reckless, selfish, irreverent, even criminal,  but they do it in normal, understandable ways. 

They uphold the power structure, even as they outwardly flout it. 

Occasionally one of them has to be punished to keep up the illusion that their rebellion is unacceptable, but it’s usually a woman (Martha Stewart or the girl who gets pregnant in high school), or the punishment is usually nominal (most white collar criminals,  Brock Turner). 

They typically “sow their wild oats” and then “grow out of it,” or else “bend the rules” or “play the system.”

They’re a necessary part of the system, though few of them would admit it.

Their rebellions serve as a pressure valve in the social system, just as their occasional scapegoating punishment serves to pacify and sanctify the self-righteous anger of the common people who live by the rules and are upset to see the cheaters prosper. 

Their rebellious acts are safely within the respectable, heteronormative, generally white male dominated traditional culture. 

Some of these acts are so common they’re not even rebellious any more, but almost expected. An “out and proud virgin” is more transgressive than the typical “having sex and hiding the fact from their parents” high schooler. 

Of course,  neither is nearly as transgressive (or likely to receive abuse) as an out LGBT+ teen, but we’ll talk about actual challenges to the social order later. 

I think Rush sum up the frustrations of a nerdy, studious kid watching the almost Huxleyan acceptable deviations of high school perfectly in one music video:

All Things Right and Good

You’re going to reach a point (We all do)

Where you must decide whether you will be right or good.

I know, Jesus never found Himself in such a spot

But he was God made flesh. You and I are not.

And when I reach that point, I want to say:

“I don’t know if this is right.

I don’t know how it fits in with systematic theology

With moral law, with moral codes

But I know how to be good.”

I’ve learned the hard way that right, like rights,

Can be abused, can be abusive:

  • Right and wrong (who decides?)
  • Legal and illegal (who makes the laws?)
  • Winning the argument
  • Contempt for the loser
  • Insiders and outsiders
  • orthodox and heretics
  • Moral panics
  • “They deserve it.”
  • “They would do the same to us.”

These are tools of domination. These are acts of violence

They’re labels and weapons the powerful use to maintain their supremacy

Be it white or male or hetero/cis.

It’s all the same. Power. Money. Control.

The rich men who wield it

The rough men who enforce it

The abuse and domination of women

And the blood of dark-skinned people

And anyone different in religion, sexuality, or creed

The enslavement of millions in for-profit prisons

And the torture of the few with neither trial nor hope

We can be right.

We can be in control.

We can hold the moral high ground

Or we can be good.

Or we can love as Jesus loved.

But we cannot serve both God and mammon.

America: New Jerusalem or Nova Roma?

624px-Flag-of-USA

Which one is America? The shining city on the hill, or the iron-fisted empire?

From a secular perspective, it’s clear that America is an exceptional nation. In technology, medicine, and research of all kinds, we’re world-class. In military might, we are the clear world leader.

We’re wealthy, strong, dominant. Our culture and language penetrates far beyond our borders, and people want to live here so strongly they’re willing to sneak in and live as fugitives.

But what does that mean to those of us who are both Americans and Christians?

What does it mean for the genuine desire among so many American Christians to get back to when America was a Christian nation, a godly nation? What does it mean for the equally genuine belief that America was never a godly nation?

What does it mean for us as citizens of a democracy? What path do we choose? Where do our allegiances lie?

If you see America as a city on a hill, even one that is somewhat fallen, then you see it as a special nation. A nation favored by God and destined to bring the world closer to Christ. In this mindset, it is vital to fight to preserve traditional American values (because they are closer to that original city on the hill) and to fight to enshrine Christian values in the laws of America.

On the other hand, if you see America as more like Rome, a powerful empire that is both good and bad, prosperous and brutal, you feel a separation. It’s not that America isn’t a great nation. It’s that great nations serve the powerful, and sometimes leave destruction in their wake. Jesus didn’t call us to dominate, but to serve.

America was built on African slavery and the destruction and conquest of the Native Americans. But without America, Hitler may have conquered the world. Without America, democracy may never have spread to Europe and beyond.

Evil is wrapped around good, like wheat and chaff. It’s like this in every nation, but the powerful ones especially.

Those of us who are skeptical of the culture wars, the attempts to force America’s laws to conform to our ideas of Christianity, aren’t just lukewarm or wishy-washy. We aren’t all sellouts to popular culture.

We have serious problems hitching our wagons to an Empire as bloody as Rome ever was. We have serious problems fighting to restore America’s morality, because American morality isn’t Christian morality.

We know that people get hurt, our witness gets clouded, and our hearts grow harder when we speak in language of disgust, of enmity, of power.

And we know that power brokers and politicians lap it up. Dollar-sign men who never feared God will speak with the tongues of angels, praying down brimstone, to get our votes.

Worse, perhaps, are the politicians who believe it – uncritically, unquestioningly – that we are right, that God is on our side, that we are justified.  And that those who doubt, or defer, or question are weak and contemptible. And anyone who stands against us deserves whatever they get.

So, America, who are you?

The great empire?

The beast?

The city on the hill?

 

American Gods (Imposters of God, Chapter 1: The Mystery of Idolatry, Part One)

Photo by Stefan Frerichs, Creative Commons

Photo by Stefan Frerichs, Creative Commons

[This is my second post on William Stringfellow’s 1965 book, Imposters of God. For my first post, click here.]

When most people think of idolatry, they think of ancient Rome or today’s hunter-gatherers. But this is a mistake, according to William Stringfellow. “After all, is there any essential difference between middle-class people idolizing their children, as they do in America, an heathen venerating their ancestors?”

Today, as in 1965, idolatry is alive and well in America. We have made our new gods, but even the old gods find adherents. “Recalling Hiroshima, or beholding the war in Vietnam, can any of us really believe that Mars has abdicated his throne, or that the cult in which war is the deity, is any less militant here and now than in former times?”

In 48 years, what has changed? Recalling Baghdad  or beholding the war in Afghanistan and the constant drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan, is Ares not still worshiped? Do we not pour out blood offerings to him every day?

America has always been polytheistic. We’ve always worshiped liberty, war, money, independence, family, rugged individualism, tradition, and religion.

In the Evangelical Churches especially, we’ve made an idol of marriage and family. What are singles Sunday School classes? Meat markets. What message do students get at Christian colleges? Get a ring by spring.

What do we teach about the call to celibacy, which the apostle Paul holds up as being more useful for the kingdom than marriage? Nothing, or perhaps, that it’s a Catholic thing that turns their priests into perverts.

What are the names of our great political organizations? American Family, Family Research Council, Focus on the Family … think about it, and think about what Jesus said about family (Luke 14:26).

Back to Stringfellow. What is an idol? It is anything, no matter how inherently noble, that a person uses to justify his or her own existence. An idol is “…that which renders the existence of the idolater morally significant, ultimately worthwhile.”

The Christian is justified by God’s faithfulness, especially as show by his incarnation, death, and resurrection. If we lose sight of that and base our worth on anything else:

  • Family
  • Accomplishments
  • Children
  • Physical fitness
  • Political party
  • Reputation
  • Our own moral strength
  • Wealth
  • Patriotism,
  • Our Church and place in it

…. then we have fallen into idolatry.

When we use these idols to justify our existence, we become invested in them, even evangelize them. Stringfellow summed up the generational conflict of the 1960’s in one sentence:

“Americans who have devoutly served the idols of respectability and status all their lives feel threatened in their very being when their children refuse to offer these idols the same worship.”

Next time, I’ll talk about how letting something become an idol damages not only the inadvertent idolater, but also the idol.

But for now, let me offer up this prayer. Father in Heaven, give me eyes to see the idols that I have hidden in my life. Show me all those things I worship that are not you. Give me the wisdom to understand them. Give me the strength to cast them down, like Gideon.

Amen.

Our Feet on the Necks of “The Least of These”

We Christians should be standing shoulder to shoulder with the freaks, geeks, and outcasts of society. Not out of some source of nobless oblige or charity, as if we’re above them, but because really following our Savior should make us outcasts, too.

Why? Because the way of the world is seeking power, seeking status, and seeking to secure that power and status against all threats. Thomas Hobbes explored this in depth in Leviathan.

Bruce Springsteen summed it up neatly in Badlands: “Poor man wanna be rich, rich man wanna be king, and the king ain’t satisfied ’til he rules everything.”

America has democratized status-seeking. There is no subset of scheming aristocracy as opposed to hardy commoners that ‘know their place.’ You can call this good or bad, but it’s hard to deny it. We all now have the freedom and resources to seek our own power and security.

Even the common American has a luxury only noblemen had for centuries: the ability to claw his or her way up the social ladder, climbing over the broken hearts and souls of the weak, the slow, the “sinners,” and the outcasts.

We as Christians should be above this primal urge to claw and climb our way up. But too often, we are the chief participants. We keep up appearances and never admit weakness, not to our church “family.” We pretend our lives are fine, and our souls are spotless (aside from a vague spattering of socially acceptable sins).

We oppose anti-bullying measures because they partially focus on protecting gay kids. And we spend a lot of money making sure gay people don’t have the same legal rights we do.

We sometimes actively discriminate against people of other religions (try getting a teaching job in Mississippi is you’re openly atheist or Wiccan. The good Christian administrators will hire someone else, anyone else, faster than you can say “Christopher Hitchens”).

We rage against “welfare queens,” while asserting a rugged independence we manifestly do not possess. We lift our “self-made” wealth up like a bronze serpent on a pole, and look to it for our earthly salvation.

Jesus walked among the poor, the socially unacceptable (those the Pharisees called sinners, as if that brood of vipers weren’t worse sinners themselves), the sick, the outcast. He loved and healed them, including lepers (unclean), tax collectors (traitorous collaborators), a Roman Centurion (an occupying soldier, and worse, an unclean gentile), a Samaritan woman, the possessed, the insane.

But we too often stand with the vipers, the social climbers, with our feet on the necks of the least of these.

And that is unquestionably wrong.

No matter how many Bible verses we produce to prove a particular point, we can never justify turning the Gospel into a weapon, or a mere tool of social or political power.

And We Drown in the Wake of Our Power (Musical Monday)

I first heard this song in 1988, at age 13, and it fired my imagination like few songs had ever done.  The first verse talks of a people defeated and enslaved, but not broken.  Even as they suffer “for someone else’s selfish gain” they sing songs to their God.  The second is darker, more metaphorical, with its talk of “chambers made for sleeping forever.”  It was not until I was somewhat older than I understood what that meant (“waiting for the train labeled with the golden star” should have clued me in, but I was thirteen).

Though I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t get the historical references (the Jews’ enslavement by the Pharoahs of Egypt and the Holocaust, respectively) at first, the sentiment and imagery struck me to my heart.  This was the universal cry of outrage at human cruelty: “Man hurts man, time and time again, and we drown in the wake of our power. Somebody tell me why?”  But more than that, it was the hope that comes from faith.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that the album, and especially the song, “Lead Me On” jump-started my dream of writing.  Though at thirteen, I was hardly writing prose, I began to compose narratives, imagine characters, and inhabit the themes.  I suppose I would be writing if I had never heard “Lead Me On,” but I think I would be a very different writer, a very different person.

I know that when I say “Amy Grant,” most people don’t think “imagery-rich brief musical histories of the persecution of the Jewish people, framed in hope and faith, crying out in outrage and empathy for their suffering, and those of others who have suffered persecution.”  But 1988’s Lead Me On was a unique album from Grant, far different than any that has come before or since.  She talks about loneliness (“If You Have to Go Away”), temptation to infidelity (“Faithless Heart,” “Shadows”), and outrage at hypocrisy and judgment, including her own (“What About the Love?”).

The album’s center is a sweet, melancholy cover of Jimmy Webb’s “If these Walls Could Speak,” a song that is as intimate as a solitary return to a childhood home. Grant returns to the subject of violence and oppression with “Wait for the Healing,” which is not as striking as “Lead Me On,” but still far more complex and raw than her other work.  She ends with “Say Once More,” a ballad that carries the listener out of the wilderness of doubt and pain into a place of rest in love.  But even that rest is not perfectly certain.  “Tell me that time won’t erase,” she sings, “the way that my heart sees your face.”