Generous Orthodoxy  

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Marilynne Robinson calls us to our better selves

It has been a long, long time since The New York Review of Books has published anything overtly, confessionally Christian (they used to, but that was at least 20 years ago. Well, maybe Eamon Duffy counts, but not really, since he writes as a Cambridge historian.) Anyway, all of a sudden here comes the unimpeachable literary icon Marilynne Robinson, who has written an article entitled, simply, FEAR. The first sentence is, "America is a Christian country." She is not being ironic. She is serious. "As a result, we carry a considerable responsibility for its [Christianity's] name in the world, though we seem not much inclined to consider the implications of this fact. If we did, some of us might think a little longer about associating the precious Lord with ignorance, intolerance, and belligerent nationalism."

How many A-list American intellectuals would undertake to confess our "precious Lord" in the ultra-highbrow NYRB? This article is astonishing. (It's acidly funny, too, in spots.)

She states her two basic premises: 1) "...contemporary America is full of fear"; 2) "Fear is not a Christian habit of mind." She elaborates: "Christ is a gracious, abiding presence in all reality, and in him history will finally be resolved."  Wish I'd written that.

The article is illustrated with a photo of a Glock (?) with an American flag tag attached to it, and an image of Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry with his gun. Yes, the article is certainly about our gun culture, and it is about French Protestantism, and the United Nations, and various other things, but mostly it is about Christianity in America, and the fear-filled turn it is taking in some quarters (see for instance this link):

Here is an excerpt from the closing section of Marilynne Robinson's piece:
I take very seriously Jesus' teachings, in this case his saying that those who live by the sword will also die by the sword....Death is no simple thing when Jesus speaks of it. His thoughts are not our thoughts, the limits of our perceptions are not limits he shares. We must imagine him seeing the whole of our existence, our being beyond mortality, beyond time. There is that other death he can foresee, the one that really matters. When Christians abandon Christian standards of behavior in the defense of Christianity, when Americans abandon American standards of conduct in the name of America, they inflict harm that would not be in the power of any enemy. As Christians they risk the kind of harm to themselves to which the Bible applies adjectives like "everlasting."
I think this is the first time I have ever urged my readers to read a specific essay. It's short, only two pages. You will probably have to pay to read it, but it's worth it. Here is the link:

Saturday, September 19, 2015

The migrant crisis and Christian identity

"Listen also to the immigrant who isn't from your people Israel but who comes from a distant country because of your reputation--because they hear of your great reputation, your great power, and your outstretched arm. When the immigrant comes and prays toward this temple, then listen from heaven, where you live, and do everything that the immigrant asks. Do this so that all the people of the earth may know your reputation and revere you, as your people Israel do...." (I Kings 8:41-43, CEB)
Every Christian who thinks seriously about his or her identity will acknowledge that the most serious historical charge ever to be brought against Christian civilization, insofar as there can be such a thing, was the utter failure of Christian Europe to protect the Jews. There is simply nothing to be said in defense, explanation, or excuse. The silence, the cooperation, the collaboration of the great majority of baptized and self-identified Christians as the Nazis caused millions of people--and not only Jews--to disappear into an indescribably terrible destiny is beyond excuse and beyond explanation. Moreover, serious study of the Nazi period teaches us that such a thing can happen again--and not only to Jews.

The current phenomenon of desperate migrants risking their lives to gain access to Europe--with its vaunted values--continues to be described as the greatest movement of peoples since World War II.  And yet there does not seem to be much in the way of voices from the churches. The Pope has said a few things (though his principal emphasis seems to be on the poor in general), and the Archbishop of Canterbury has issued a very strong statement, but in general, as far as I can tell, there has not been any great outpouring of voices from churches in either Europe or North America. Lech Walesa, as a lone individual, has shown his own Catholic faith by standing against the prevailing anti-migrant policies of the present government in Poland, offering to take a few migrants into his own home, and there have been a few others in Hungary and other Eastern European countries who have spoken out, but on the whole there has been a good more deal talk about "Christian Europe" defending itself against Muslim hordes.

I have been attending different churches and I don't hear many impassioned, intentional prayers asking God's guidance as to how we can help. I have gotten a grand total of one email, from Samaritan's Purse, asking me for financial help for the migrants--whereas when there are "plagues, pestilences, and famines," not to mention earthquakes, fires, and floods, I am deluged with online pleas for aid. According to yesterday's New York Times, a group of 20+ senior government officials have written a letter to the White House urging the acceptance of 100,000 Syrian refugees instead of the paltry 10,000 that Obama initially offered, and an allocation of up to $2 additional billion in aid for resettlement. Are our churches bombarding our government with such letters?

The complexity of the problem is so great that it is almost impossible to imagine how any concerted effort can be made in the EU. The nations of the former Yugoslavia are so poor and so unstable, so ill equipped to deal with the onslaught, that we cannot expect much from them. What really hurts is the voices--often from Eastern European officials--saying that "Christian" nations should not take in Muslim refugees. How does this posture recommend the faith of Jesus Christ to anyone but reactionaries and extremists?

All of us are frightened about radicalized young jihadists among us. There is no point in being starry-eyed about the risks and dangers of life in the age of globalized terror. We have learned plenty about the inadequacy of our screening methods and the weak points in our intelligence services. We should not be naïve or simplistic about the difficulties. But maintaining silence, or treating this humanitarian crisis as yet one more difficulty that will pass, is surely equivalent to pounding one more nail in the coffin of "Christian civilization."

I can't believe that Americans are not still able to embrace these words:
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

PS. The day after I wrote this, I attended a church where a member announced that she had given up her idea of going to Washington to see the Pope so that she could send the money she would have spent on the trip to the relief of the migrants. May there be more such!