Monday, April 28, 2014

Why America is Addicted to Violence

The myth of redemptive violence that undergirds--and undermines--Americanism

Walter Wink’s gift to the world is found in the pages of his trilogy—“Naming the Powers,” “Unmasking the Powers,” and “Engaging the Power.” Used for considerable dialogue in seminaries and schools of theology, Wink’s trilogy is largely overlooked (or intentionally ignored) in the marketplace and halls of government, where it might have its most profound impact. I think of what has occurred in Afghanistan and Iraq (wars I vociferously opposed) and reflect anew on what Wink wrote in “Engaging the Powers” in 1992:

FORM OF RELIGIOUS PIETY. “Violence is the ethos of our times. It is the spirituality of the modern world. It has been accorded the status of religion, demanding from it devotees an absolute obedience to death. Its followers are not aware, however, that the devotion they pay to violence is a form of religious piety.”

AN ACCEPTED ABSOLUTE NORM. “Violence is so successful as a myth precisely because it does not seem to be mythic in the least. Violence simply appears to be the nature of things. It is what works. It is inevitable, the last and, often, the first resort in conflicts. It is embraced with equal alacrity by people on the left and on the right, by religious liberals as well as religious conservatives. The threat of violence, it is believed, is alone able to deter aggressors. It secured us forty-five years of a balance of terror [the Cold War]. We learned to trust the Bomb to grant us peace.”

AMERICA’S REAL RELIGION. “The roots of this devotion to violence are deep…When we trace them to their source, we will discover that the religion of Babylon—one of the world’s oldest, continuously surviving religions—is thriving as never before in every sector of contemporary American life, even in our synagogues and churches. It, and not Christianity, is the real religion of America.”

VIOLENCE UNDERGIRDS SOCIETY. “The myth of redemptive violence [that sanctioned or sacred violence is necessary to hold back anarchic, criminal, or profane violence] undergirds American popular culture, civil religion, nationalism, and foreign policy, and that it lies coiled like an ancient serpent at the root of the system of domination that has characterized human existence since well before Babylon [geographically present-day Iraq] ruled supreme.”

USING GOD’S NAME. “The myth of redemptive violence is nationalism become absolute. This myth speaks FOR God; it does not listen for God to speak. It invokes the sovereignty of God as its own; it does not entertain the prophetic possibility of radical denunciation and negation by God. It misappropriates the language, symbols, and scriptures of Christianity. It does not seek God in order to change; it claims God in order to prevent change.”

IN VIOLENCE WE TRUST. “Its God is not the impartial ruler of all nations but a biased and partial tribal god worshipped as an idol. Its metaphor is not the journey but a fortress. Its symbol is not the cross but a rod of iron. Its offer is not forgiveness but victory. Its good news is not the unconditional love of enemies but their final liquidation. Its salvation is not a new heart but a successful foreign policy. It usurps the revelation of God’s purposes for humanity in Jesus. It is blasphemous. It is idolatrous. And it is immensely popular.”

GOD ABOVE COUNTRY. “I love my country passionately; that is why I want to see it do right. There is a valid place for sensible patriotism. But from a Christian point of view, true patriotism acknowledges God’s sovereignty over all nations, and holds a healthy respect for God’s judgments on the pretensions of any power that seeks to impose its will on others.”

SEPARATING OURSELVES. “There is a place for a sense of destiny as a nation. But it can be authentically embraced and pursued only if we separate ourselves from the legacy of the combat myth and ‘enter a long twilight struggle against what is dark within ourselves.’ There is a divine vocation for the United States (and every other nation) to perform in human affairs. But it can perform that task, paradoxically, only by abandoning its messianic zeal and accepting a more limited role within the family of nations.”

John Franklin Hay
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Washing Feet

"AS I HAVE DONE FOR YOU."  Off and on over the years, I have participated in the Maundy Thursday liturgy at St. John the Baptist Episcopal Church in Breckenridge, Colorado.  Typically, the little church is half-full and it is likely a quarter of us are out-of-towners.  No matter.  Not used to the turnings, citings and readings of formal liturgy, we may fumble our way through the service.  The part in which I feel particularly connected is the foot washing. The liturgy invites us to do for another what Jesus did for his disciples that night of their last meal together.  After the pastoral team, we are invited to wash each other's feet at the front of the sanctuary.  During the foot washing, the congregation sings:

Brother, sister, let me serve you,
Let me be as Christ to you;
Pray that I might have the grace to
Let you be my servant, too.

HOMELESS NEIGHBORS' FEET.  The radical humiliation of washing another's feet first struck me in 1989, when a nurse asked me to help with the foot soaks and foot massages she weekly offered the homeless men who visited Horizon House.  I initially volunteered to assist, but when the hour came, I found myself strangely resistant and made excuses not to be available to wash their feet.  The next week, Nurse Anne wouldn't let me off the hook.  I found myself kneeling before the dirty, gnarly, swollen, smelly feet of a homeless man.  Still resistant but yielded, I gave myself to the task, pushing inner protests aside.  One after another, I washed and massaged feet until there were no more feet to wash.  I felt relieved and released and somehow strangely at peace.  From that point on, I have always viewed people without homes as neighbors, recognizing and accepting my connection, complicity, and challenge in their condition.

LEADING PARADIGM.  During my 2,000-mile bicycle ride through India in 2007, we were honored in Bangalore by foot washing.  The Free Methodist Bishops of India knelt down and washed each cyclist's feet in front of all their pastors, parishioners, and non-christian friends and community members who gathered to welcome us to that city (we, in turn, washed their feet).  Knowing the strong sense of caste and social role that pervade the various Indian cultures, I can only begin to imagine the radical--even offensive--action of a leader washing anyone's feet.  But this is likely close to the context of Jesus' action on what we now call Maundy Thursday.  He is the servant leader and this is the primary image for Christian leadership.  The towel and basin stands alongside the cross.  Those who dismiss or stray from this central paradigm mislead.

IT'S NOT ABOUT FEET.  I have not fully identified the points of my resistance to wash either the feet of homeless neighbors in homeless center or the feet of a friend in a Holy Week foot-washing liturgy. I'm not nearly as interested in analyzing my resistance as in simply recognizing it and overcoming it. It's really not about foot washing, anyway.  It's about doing the necessary, menial, and helpful things for one another without reference to "who's who," social role, or fear. I want to continue to move in that direction in my life, breaking resistances and hesitancies and excuses with helpful actions for whomever they are needed.

John Franklin Hay
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA