Generous Orthodoxy  

Monday, March 21, 2005

Terri Schiavo and the Politics of Mercy

When President Bush rushed dramatically back from Texas to sign Congressional legislation permitting the federal court to intervene in the now-celebrated case of Terry Schiavo, he spoke of "those whose lives depend on the mercy of others." This is exactly the issue that the Crucifixion of Christ puts before us front and center, this Holy Week. For several years now, preaching, teaching and writing about the meaning of the Cross has led me more and more deeply into the ethical heart of cruciform faith: namely, the way that we treat those who are in our power—those who, as the President precisely put it, depend for their lives on the mercy of others.

The act of God in Christ, who emptied himself of his divine power (Philippians 2:7) and gave himself up to be betrayed into the hands of sinners (Matthew 26:45) is described numerous times in the Gospels, in Acts, and in Paul's Epistles by the word paradidõmi, meaning "hand over, deliver up, give over." To give just one example, Jesus says "You know that...the Son of man will be delivered up (paradidõmi) to be crucified" (Matthew 26:2). This word appears so frequently that we conclude it was a vital part of the very earliest testimony about the Lord's death. The emphasis placed upon the word is significant. The suffering (passion) of Christ was at the hands of others to whom he had been delivered up. In other words, he was "given over" to the mercy of others, which of course turned out to be no mercy at all, but the very opposite of mercy.

This is our emblematic Story that gives shape to all Christian ethics. The Son of God, whose power to determine the destiny of others was undiminished even on the Cross ("today thou shalt be with me in Paradise"), could have not only saved himself but also could have brought his torturers to a speedy end. Instead, he yielded up that power and, instead, prayed for the redemption of the torturers ("Father, forgive them"). Therefore, a sign of the true disciple of Christ is the willingness to rethink all relationships having to do with power over others. God in Christ used his power over others, even the worst of the "others," entirely for their salvation, not for their condemnation.

Therefore the question of power over others lies at the very center of Christian ethics. This striking use of words, "those whose lives depend upon the mercy of others," puts the point exactly. Whenever another person is in our power, our identity as Christian disciples is put to its most important test. What seems missing from the concerns of the "pro-life" protesters are the policies of our nation with regard to such issues as capital punishment and the torture of prisoners held without access to civil liberties.

Karla Faye Tucker, the repentant murderer whose execution was carried out in Texas under then-Governor Bush in spite of a world-wide campaign for her life to be spared, said something striking in an interview. She said that she was not afraid to die, since she knew she was in the Lord's care, but the thought of the last ride in a car with law enforcers oppressed her. She said, "You are in their power." It is in that situation—when others are in our power—that our Christian faith is tested most clearly.

With regard to Terry Schiavo, two somewhat contradictory thoughts:

1. I wonder why her husband, who seems so hell-bent on letting Terry die, cannot just turn her over to her family members who want to continue caring for her. Maybe it's the life insurance.
2. Allowing a loved one to go quietly into the nearer presence of the Lord when earthly hope is gone is the right decision for many Christian families.

To sum up this Rumination:
Many voices besides mine (but mostly not Christian voices, unfortunately) are saying that there is a disproportionate amount of attention being given to the issue of one life while other lives— prisoners by the hundreds held without trial or charges in Guantánamo and Iraq and Afghanistan, Iraqi civilians dead by the unnumbered thousands, Congolese now in their tens of thousands—are ignored. If American Christians were to raise a great stir about these things in the halls of Congress, what a difference it would make!

NOTE: If anyone wants to "plagiarize" any of my Ruminations, please go right ahead.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, March 14, 2005

A recent review (by a secular reviewer) of Gilead hits the bullseye, stating that no one can understand the book unless he/she is a Christian. Reviewers are raving (with justification) about the exquisite poetic language, the perfectly poised emotional temperature, the mastery of atmosphere and so on, but the fact is that the book will not yield its real secrets to anyone who does not grasp the essential nature of Christian faith.

We have waited a whole generation (since the deaths of Walker Percy, Flannery O'Connor, and Graham Greene) for the appearance of another world-class writer of literary fiction with Christian themes. God be praised.

Since the book is in a sense a series of meditations, it would lend itself, I should think, to an extended small-group study.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

The justification-sanctification segue?

At a stimulating conference this week held at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary, the traditional Reformation proclamation of justification by grace through faith took some hits. Several of the speakers at the conference, sponsored by Evangelicals for Social Action, charged that this emphasis had dulled the nerve of action and produced self-centered Christians focussed on their own spiritual deliverance to the detriment of the larger world community of God's beloved poor.

This is a weighty accusation that requires a response. It is manifestly the case that much American "evangelicalism" is individualistic in the extreme, so that it reflects American cultural peculiarities more than any discernible Christian characteristics. Holiness of life, counter-cultural witness, and communal concerns for the transformation of oppressive systems seem to be missing from the scene. There was a good deal of genuine pain among the conference participants about this, and many suggestions about how it might be changed.

In the course of the discussion, a common misunderstanding was frequently articulated, This prevalent view was identified by one speaker as "the justification-sanctification segue." This is a widespread, but misguided, description of Paul's epistles as two-thirds proclamation and one-third exhortation. This is such a familiar way of understanding the letters that it often goes unchallenged; however, it does not do justice to the apostle's radical thought. Three generations of radical Pauline interpretation (living members of generations 2 and 3 would include J. Louis Martyn and Douglas Harink) have agreed that this popular way of characterizing Paul's gospel message not only undercuts its radicality but also nullifies its message of "the freedom we have in Christ Jesus."

To explain further: Justification and sanctification are not two stages in a process. They are essentially simultaneous (see I Corinthians 6:11). The way to cut through all the obfuscation is to understand the whole thing from the perspective of the sovereignty of God (Romans 6:19-23). The "righteousness" that characterizes the Christian life (when it is recognizable as such) is always Christ's righteousness, not our own. The Christian (the born-again Christian, if you will) is created precisely "for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them" (Ephesians 2:10). Can we see how this preserves the sense of God as the active agent throughout, yet clearly expects that the Christian will "step up to the plate" in the familiar expression? Paul puts it another way in this familiar passage, often cited without its crucial second part:

"Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure" (Philippians 2:12-13)

The Rehabilitation of Martha Stewart

As of early March, Ms. Stewart appears to be ready to make a triumphal re-entry into society, with "no regrets and no remorse" and her company apparently on the rebound. At the same time, large numbers of obscure malefactors are released from American prisons with no one to care about them or offer them a hand up. Even more important, there is almost no sentiment in America to support a thorough overhaul of the prison system with an emphasis on rehabilitation of felons. Discrepancies such as this can remind us of the injustices that the Lord so clearly cares about and that Jesus so clearly condemns.

The widespread enthusiasm for Martha Stewart's "return" can be interpreted in terms of Christian forgiveness provided that it is combined with equally positive, pro-active support of the restoration of non-celebrity prisoners to society. At the same time it is questionable whether a non-remorseful ex-con should be given the same sort of party as the father gave the deeply repentant prodigal son. As with so much else, it is a matter of proportion.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

The BFK Killer and the Gospel

Very few clergy will be called upon to appear (on 24 hours' notice) before millions of viewers on Larry King Live, as the serial killer's Lutheran pastor did on Monday. Surely, however, we should always be prepared to give an account of the faith of the Church to a representative of the media who may call us to ask questions about everything from the Shroud of Turin to crêches on public property to the meaning of tsunamis. Does anyone agree that, generally speaking, Roman Catholic clergy are better at this than Protestants? (Possibly that is because the Pope has set an example through his frequent, outspoken public pronouncements over the years.)

"Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?" as the old radio program unforgettably put it. "The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually" (Genesis 6:5). "The hearts of men are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead" (Ecclesiastes 9:3). There is a sense in which nothing should surprise us. Murderers can be very mild-mannered. In an extensive New York Times feature this week about the failures of the prison system, a prison official tells a reporter that mentally disturbed, formerly drug-abusing prisoners are very hard to handle. If you want a model prisoner, he said, "Give me a murderer. Give me a nice murderer any day."

Larry King gave the Wichita pastor plenty of time to say something penetrating about the darkness that lurks unsuspected in the human heart, as well as the death of Christ as the ultimate victim of such darkness, but he did not. It was a disappointing contrast to the appearance of the hatchet-murderer Karla Faye Tucker on the broadcast shortly before her execution. Not only did she speak forthrightly and without evasion about the criminal mind, but also she bore witness openly to her faith in Jesus Christ. What a pity that BTK's pastor could not have done something similar.

In my own very small home town in Virginia, there have been two sensational murders within the last fifteen years. Neither was satisfactorily resolved, though time was served by persons who may or may not have been the principal perpetrators. People still living in town are thought to know the truth, yet it remains untold. Much whispering and suspicion lingers. If any of the local pastors have dealt directly with this sickness from the pulpit, I have not heard of it. Granted the difficulty of such a task, is it not the burden of the Christian preacher to say something about sin, violence, judgment, confession, justice and bringing deeds of darkness into the light, as well as the usual messages of forgiveness and redemption?