Generous Orthodoxy  

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Plenary Address, Barth Pastors' Conference 2018

The Living One Who Makes Alive

Fleming Rutledge at Princeton Theological Seminary, June 2018

(all quotes are from CD I/2 unless otherwise noted)

Almighty God, the giver of all good things, without whose help all labour is ineffectual and without whose grace all wisdom is folly: grant, I beseech thee, that in this my undertaking thy Holy Spirit may not be withheld from me, but that I may promote thy glory, and the salvation both of myself and the Name of Jesus Christ our Lord.
—A prayer of Samuel Johnson, cherished by my father

In the year 1962, Karl Barth came to the United States, the country he regarded suspiciously as a place where they believed in the freedom of the will. It was the year that he was on the cover of Time magazine (those were the days). He delivered a lecture at Union Theological Seminary in Richmond and I, age 24, a bride living in Richmond, was among hundreds who turned out to hear him. Not only could I not understand his Swiss German accent, I was not equipped to understand what he was talking about either. The only thing I remember about the great occasion is that on the way out, I overheard an Episcopal clergyman whom I knew grumbling to another clergyman, “He has no theology of the church.” I’ve been pondering that ever since.

Last month, before the present crisis about the immigrant children held hostage to a political cause, the New York Times published a report about the support for Donald Trump and his policies among so-called evangelicals. Indignant letters to the editor appeared in the paper a couple of days later. Two or three of them were from self-identified Christians expressing dismay in terms that I imagine most of us would agree with. However, there was a predictable problem. One of the well-meaning letters begins this way: “If Jesus were alive today…” Someone on Twitter responded that Jesus would be rolling over in his grave.

Will Willimon has said that the foundational problem with the Jesus seminar was that its members conducted all their deliberations out of the basic assumption that Jesus is dead. But the Jesus seminar is not the only place that we meet this assumption. We find it in the church all the time. I assume that most of you preach on a regular basis so you don’t get around the church and hear as many sermons as I do. I have heard many hundreds of sermons in the mainline churches in the past couple of decades and a great many of them seem to assume that Jesus is alive only insofar as we follow a particular version of his commandments. This leads to a fatal homiletical outcome: the congregation is reminded of the correct attitude concerning the presenting issues of the day and is then exhorted to get busy addressing them. Therein, it is implied, lies salvation. Therefore the living presence of the Lord is not felt in these sermons. I have come to believe over the years that the power of the living Christ is so little known in many of our congregations that they might not know it if they beheld it…which might indicate to the preacher that she should shake the dust of that church off her feet. That thought has occurred to me quite a few times in my travels around the churches.

You can see the Time magazine cover of Barth in the display in the library. His portrait is very stern and off-putting, but in the background there is a depiction of the empty tomb. Today, more than 55 years later, seeing that old-fashioned cover design still made an impact on me. The Lord whom Barth served is risen from the dead and powerfully at work among us. You’ll see also in the display cases several recent volumes (mostly edited by the prodigiously productive George Hunsinger) about Barth and radical politics—one of the areas of his thought that interests me most, though I know it mostly at second hand. Along the lines of radical politics I’d like to salute the fondly remembered journal called Katallagete, long defunct but, I’ve recently learned, not altogether dead. Phil Ziegler of the University of Aberdeen discovered a pile of old issues in a seminary library and read them cover to cover. The editors of Kat were the great Will Campbell and his cohort Jim Holloway. They took Barth very seriously in the realm of radical politics. The thing to note about Kat in the 60s and 70s, I now realize, was (and is) that it espoused radical politics but not identity politics. If you believe in the justification of the ungodly, you can’t hold on to identity politics. That was a difficult lesson to learn in the maelstrom of the early 70s. The year 1968 was not even five years passed when I entered Union Seminary in New York. There was intense pressure on students to line up for identity politics. Classrooms were in the process of becoming like university campuses today, with various groups claiming the high ground for themselves—like the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable, trusting in themselves that they were righteous and despising others (Luke 18:9).

It was in the process of negotiating my way among these claims that I met Barth for real, not in person but in print. A doctoral student whose name I don’t remember told me to read “The Strange New World of the Bible.” It was like the nameless little servant girl telling Naaman the leper to go to the prophet Elisha. Whoever it was saw me floundering about and directed me into the current that carried me into the river of life. That short early essay was the first thing of Barth’s that I actually read. If anyone here wants to introduce someone to Barth, “The Strange New World of the Bible” is a good place to start.

I discovered a long time ago that once you get to know the way Barth thinks, you can pick up his work just about anywhere and find something you can build upon. This is one of the remarkable aspects of living with Barth all of your life. Christopher Morse taught me this in my first year at Union—that because the Word of God is a unity, systematic theology is also a unity. Everything in the Church Dogmatics, followed through its convolutions, eventually doubles back on itself, defining and illuminating everything else.

Of course there are some difficulties reading Barth in today’s climate. For one thing, speaking of identity politics, you have to get used to the constant use of the word “man” used in a generic sense—and it’s not so easy to solve this in translation. Accustoming oneself to his terms, however, is well worth the effort. For instance, further along in the same early essay collection, The Word of God and the Word of Man, I found a sentence that breaks several rules of contemporary communication, not only in form but in substance. Here it is in all its offensiveness: “Man condemns himself to death by the question about the good, because the only certain answer [to the question about the good] is that he, the human being, is not good, and from the viewpoint of the good, is powerless” (167). How does that sound to the average reader? Wouldn’t you think that this line of reasoning would sever the nerve of action for once and for all? On the contrary, I’ve found, when you’ve met God, this gospel message frees you from the tyranny of the thought that everything depends on you. As Pascal wrote, “Be comforted: it is not from yourself that you must expect it, but on the contrary you must expect it by expecting nothing from yourself.”

Expecting by not expecting! This is very much like the paradox that Barth loved from II Peter 3:12—“waiting and hastening.” I’ve just finished putting together a new sermon collection for Advent, and I’ve noticed once again that the paradoxical themes of Advent are everywhere in the Church Dogmatics—the Now and the Not-Yet, the Whence and the Whither, the once and the future. None of it makes any sense if Jesus is dead. The radical gospel depends on the truth of the liturgical confession: “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” Otherwise we are thrown back on ourselves with only the memory of a dead Jesus and delusions of human grandeur to keep us going. I don’t always remember where I read stuff but just the other day I found something right on target—the writer complained that the church was always talking about building the kingdom, but it seemed to be a kingdom without a King.

If Jesus isn’t alive and coming again, then who is going to be the king of the kingdom? Ah, yes, that’s the nasty little secret. We harbor the notion that we ourselves are going to be the kings and queens of the kingdom through our own efforts. Here’s what Barth says about that: If the promise of Jesus that he will be with us always even to the end of the aeon is only a pleasing religious memory, there will be nothing left of the church but “a human community which is puffed up with the illusion” that it has inherited the kingdom task all to itself—an illusion that “works its own revenge” upon the church (CD I/2, 544-5).

This illusion is dramatized with considerable effect at the conclusion of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Many readers of the saga miss this point, because it comes after the great climax in the action, and it’s entirely absent from the movie. (By the way, if you’re thinking of buying just one of my books, I recommend my Lord of the Rings book.) In Tolkien’s private letters, he explains that, to the end, Frodo was profoundly affected by the allure of the Ring. Long after the victory over the demonic power of Sauron, Frodo continued to suffer from “a last flicker of pride…[he was] not content with being a mere instrument of good.” He was not content to be solely God’s servant, with all that implies of his own diminishment.[1] He needed to undergo a cleansing, a “truer understanding of his position in littleness and greatness.” [2] He was not able to accept himself as a “mere” agent or vessel of Providence. From another point of view, C. S. Lewis elucidates this predicament splendidly at the end of Perelandra. The principal character, Ransom, is overwhelmed by the magnitude of what has been accomplished in the victory won over the Devil. The archangel speaks to Ransom in these words:

“Be comforted…It is no doing of yours. You are not great...Be comforted, small one, in your smallness. He lays no merit on you. Receive and be glad.”[3]

“God lays no merit on you.” I first read that forty-five years ago and it has been a  great comfort to me ever since. I think Barth in his own person sometimes exemplified this; he was of course famously irascible about those who disagreed with him, and he fully understood the magnitude of the task he had set for himself, but in his letters and late writings his humorous self-deprecation has the ring of authenticity. The angels laugh, he says, at old Karl with his wheelbarrows full of Church Dogmatics. There is so much freedom in that! Barth’s humor and joy are among the greatest benefits of reading his letters and conversations.

So. All these thoughts arise out of the revelation that Jesus Christ is not dead, but alive. It is not for nothing that the central thing remembered in the Christian community about Martin Luther King is the “kitchen epiphany” when, close to total despair, he sensed Jesus promising him that he would always be with him, that he would never be alone, “no never alone.” There are many areas of theology that Dr. King left unexplored, but whatever doctrinal deficiencies there may have been, in the story of his life we see the presence of a Lord who is not dead, but living—the Lord who guarantees his own promises. The African-American church is presently experiencing some of the same attrition as the mainline white churches, but it still preserves its traditional emphasis on the God who “makes a way out of no way” and redeems the unredeemable. That is what undergirds black people’s astonishing offers of forgiveness for the unforgiveable, redemption for the unredeemable. All of our churches could use a lot more of what Robert Farrar Capon wrote, “God did not come to love the loveable and improve the improveable, but to raise the dead.”[4]

How curious to reflect upon the idea of a dead Jesus raising the dead! When I was a young preacher I learned a lesson. I was invited to preach to a congregation in a very liberal church. I was relatively innocent of such contexts in those days and I preached on the text about Jesus raising the daughter of Jairus. It was reported to me afterwards that people were scandalized that the preacher appeared to believe what she was preaching. I made up my mind that day that I would always preach a Lord who raises the dead and call into existence the things that do not exist (Romans 4) and that I would trust him to do the same in my preaching even when what I was saying seemed impossible. Living with Barth for decades enables us to believe and to trust that the Holy Spirit has not gone missing from the living Word of the living Lord.

Speaking of Barth’s doctrine of the church or lack thereof, I brought Volume I Part 2 with me to Princeton and searched out some passages about the church to help us in this crisis our country is in. Actually, I suppose we are always in a crisis of one sort or another. I remember Paul Lehmann vociferously insisting that the church was in a status confessionis in the Reagan years. How comparatively innocent those years now seem! In any case, I did find much comfort and strength in Barth’s pages on “the Holy Spirit the Subjective Reality of Revelation.” Here, Barth is at pains to show that there is no gospel without the church. In the small print (211-13) he shows how the apostle Paul, for instance, does “not exist except in his function in the life of the church” (212). “Existence in Christ and existence in the Church are seen and understood as an actual unity.” He then offers significant quotations from six of the Fathers to illustrate the same point, before moving on to Luther, whom he quotes approvingly: “Whoever would find Christ must first find the churches. How would we know where Christ and his faith were, if we did not know where his faithful are? For without the Christian Church there is no truth, no Christ, no blessedness.” and “Christ will not exist except as his function in the life of the church.” But then, as we are beginning to wonder where Christ and his truth might be hidden in the Scripture-quoting of our Attorney General, at Liberty University, or in the preaching of Franklin Graham, Barth reminds us that “Apart from the work of the Holy Spirit the [Word written] not only does not minister life but ministers death.” (I/2, 515) Barth elaborates:

where the church is, there also we have always this church which is not the church, that is, in the church the work of sin and apostasy is always going on as well…There is no time at which to a greater or less degree the church does not also have the appearance [of] such a church…but although there is in it no lack of man’s upstart arbitrariness, it exists in dependence on Jesus Christ. And [it is] because it lives by Jesus Christ, not because it is constantly involved in upstart and arbitrary action, that it is the true church.” (214).

At this point I hear the voice of Will Campbell speaking to me many years ago when I was a young convert to socio-political causes. After listening to me complaining about racists, he said, “Fleming. We’re all racists.” I have heard him saying that every day of my life since then. We who are so proud of our enlightened attitudes need to be on our knees repenting of our self-satisfaction and self-righteousness every single day for the rest of our lives.

I remember also the words of P. T. Forsyth: “Many preach Christ but get in front of him by the multiplicity of their own works.”[5] I wonder how your church describes itself. I’ve been collecting church self-descriptions: “We are a warm, welcoming, nurturing, diverse, non-discriminating, inclusive, embracing, affirming….(etc) congregation.” Talk about multiplicity of works! “We feed the poor, we march for justice, fly rainbow flags, recycle plastic, oppose oppression, practice radical hospitality…”  You would think the Second Coming had already occurred. How about this for your church letterhead: “We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts…and there is no health in us.” Here’s Barth’s voice again: “Man condemns himself to death by the question about the good, because the only certain answer [to the question about the good] is that he, the human being, is not good, and from the viewpoint of the good, is powerless.” The paradox is that this truth sets us free. It is the difference between “if/then” and “because/therefore.”[6] Because in Christ we have been delivered from the world of merit and demerit, therefore we are new men and women. In the strange new world of the Bible there is a new creation. Because/ therefore! This is the source of the Christian’s “works,” which means that we can sit light to their importance in God’s cosmic, apocalyptic enterprise. In the end it is God’s work, not ours. That gospel truth is the is the subject and the object of our praise.

I want to leave you with the epistolary, conversational voice of Barth. Years ago I read a volume of Barth’s letters and found one in particular that has accompanied me ever since, particularly as I am now growing old. This is a letter that Barth wrote to John Godsey during a bout of the illness that eventually caused his death.

When you visited me in the year 1965, I still did not have the slightest idea that the most difficult part of my ordeals still lay before me. A few days afterward I had to re-enter the hospital and then remain there for four months, undergo a second operation, and take many, many kinds of medicine. Somewhere within me there lives a bacillus with the name proteus mirabilis which has an inclination to enter my kidneys—which would then mean my finish. I am certain that this monstrosity does not belong to God’s good creation, but rather has come in as a result of the Fall. It has in common with sin and with the demons also that it cannot simply be done away with but can be only just despised, combated, and suppressed. That was and is still the task of the doctors, beside whom also good nurses have worked on me night and day....apart from this, however, I am getting along better, often extraordinarily well...the main thing is the knowledge that God makes no mistakes and that proteus mirabilis has no chance against him.

Letter to John D. Godsey, January 25, 1966
(I think this is in the collection called How I Changed My Mind. )
Barth died in his home in Basel on December 10, 1968.


[1] Contrast John the Baptist, who said of Christ, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” (John 3:30)
[2] Letters, p. 328.
[3] C. S. Lewis, Perelandra, p. 197.
[4]  Robert Farrar Capon, The Foolishness of Preaching (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000).
[5] P. T. Forsyth, quoted in Willimon, The Last Word, 62.
[6] I got this from Philip Ziegler who wrote a sermon or essay on this crucial distinction.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Romans 13 and Revelation 13 in a national crisis

I am posting this sermon, preached at the Harvard Memorial Church 18 years ago, because in the week of June 17, 2018, the Attorney General of the United States and the President' press secretary coldly referred to Romans 13 in support of immigration laws purportedly requiring the separation of immigrant children from their parents. It is the responsibility of church leaders to teach the historic interpretive discussion of the biblical witness in regard to the observance of civil laws.
This sermon was published as part of my sermon collection on Romans, The original context was the contested election of George W. Bush, which after several days of suspense was just beginning to be resolved by November 12, 2000.  

Between the Two Thirteens

The Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Commemoration of Benefactors and of the War Dead

Harvard Memorial Church

Sunday, November 12, 2000

Do this, understanding the present time. (Romans 13:11, NIV)


            The present crisis in the Electoral College has called forth many reflections on what it means to be the United States of America. No one last week, to my knowledge, approached the hubris of Madeleine Albright when she called America “the indispensable nation,” but there have been many sober reminders that, in the words of one editorialist, “the world looks to the United States as a model of political stability.”[1] And another wrote, “For everyone’s sake, American democracy must be seen as being beyond manipulation. The stability of the world rests on that.”[2]

            Today we remember those whose names are engraved on the wall in the Memorial Room. These Harvard men and women who died for their country have, whether they knew it consciously or not, died for more than their country. Those of us who were young in the late 60s remember what it was like to be bitterly disenchanted with America’s role in the world, but nevertheless America, through something much more like the grace of God than the superior virtue of her citizens, continues to embody the best hopes of the whole world. Thomas L. Friedman wrote a few days ago about “what makes America unique in the world;” the more he travels abroad, he says, the more he appreciates the United States. Even something as mundane as our Washington bureaucracy is cause for thanksgiving, he reflected; people in countries like Indonesia and Nigeria know what it means to be at the mercy of government that is truly venal and corrupt and soul-killing.[3] Virtually every commentator on television has reminded us to be thankful that “the tanks are not in the streets.” A foreign-born friend said to me the other day that although America has all sorts of faults, nevertheless it continues to radiate “a sense of generosity and possibility.” Today, in this service of commemoration, we pause to reflect that this priceless legacy and solemn responsibility has been bequeathed to us by those who have gone before us.

            A list of benefactors—those who have given particular service to this University church—will be read today as part of our worship. The list touches me more deeply than I, being a non-Harvard person, would have expected. On that list are both parents of a close friend, and also a former rector of the Episcopal church that I served for fourteen years in New York City—as well as Dr. Ferris of Trinity Church, Copley Square, who has meant so much to me as a preacher. We give thanks today for such people, for as Dr. Gomes said in his sermon on this commemoration day four years ago, we are reminded that “we are not on our own, nor did we get here on our own, nor is that which we have ours alone, or ours forever. To give thanks, then, is [to acknowledge] that we are beholden to someone else.”[4]

            It is not always so easy, however, to figure out who should be honored in this way. The soldier who rescues a comrade from enemy gunfire may not be any more courageous than the paraplegic who is struggling to make a life for himself, or the medical missionary who knows she will be exposed over and over to tropical diseases, or the teacher in the inner-city school who fights for her students’ minds and hearts day after day, year after year. There are many kinds of wars, and there are many kinds of war dead. There are many kinds of battles to be fought, and many decisions to be made about when and whether one should enlist. We’ve all heard the common expression that something is “to die for.” This is generally said with regard to some consumer article—the latest in fusion cooking or personal electronics or Manolo Blahnik shoes—they’re “to die for.” But what really is to die for? This week’s issue of The New York Review of Books has an article by Timothy Garton Ash about the Serbian revolution. He describes his visit to one Serbian town as the mayor and various local citizens were preparing for the trip to Belgrade. Garton Ash asked one of them what the object of his journey was. The “burly former paratrooper” replied that the object was to put Vojislav Kostunica on state television that very night. This day, said the mayor, “We will be free or die.”[5]

            Another journalist, Misha Glenny, was in Belgrade that day, October 5. As the demonstrators and protesters and freedom fighters poured into the city from the surrounding countryside, he went to Kostunica’s headquarters. He was taking notes; realizing that he had forgotten the date, he asked one of the young receptionists what it was. “Sudnji dan,” she replied: Judgment Day.[6] The next morning the whole world saw the images of the smoke going up from the Parliament building. My mind went immediately to the 19th chapter of the book of Revelation where the wicked city is destroyed and the multitude in heaven exults, Hallelujah! The smoke from her goes up for ever and ever (19:3).

            This morning we have before us two Biblical texts, Romans 13 and Revelation 13. These two passages have quite a history of being brought together and allowed to speak to one another. I would be surprised if many of you didn’t flinch when you heard the Romans passage read a few minutes ago. Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. This text has been used over the centuries to justify every conceivable kind of oppression and tyranny. It has also been used to stifle criticism of “the powers that be” and to resist any effort at reform. This passage has been quoted at Sojourner Truth and Martin Luther King and the liberation theologians of Latin America. To most people who hang around places like Harvard, the passage sounds repressive. That was not always so, however. Until the Nazi era, most citizens were perfectly happy to acquiesce in this assessment. As Hitler rose to power, however, the German Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer found himself forced to rethink all that he had previously taken for granted. Sometimes it was necessary, he mused, “not just to bandage the victims under the wheel, but to put a spoke in the wheel itself. Such action would be direct political action.”[7] Pastor Bonhoeffer himself became the spoke; he was hanged by the Nazis in April 1945. Exercising the spiritual gift called discernment, he had chosen direct political action against the Beast of Revelation 13.[8]

            Discernment, wrote the Christian lay theologian William Stringfellow, “is basic to the genius of the Biblical life style.”

This gift enables the people of God to distinguish and recognize, identify and expose, report and rebuke the power of death in nations and institutions...while they also affirm the Word of God incarnate in all of life, exemplified preeminently in Jesus Christ...This [discernment] is the gift which exposes and rebukes idolatry. This is the gift which confounds and undoes blasphemy.[9]

            The juxtaposition of Romans 13 and Revelation 13 calls for discernment. At this time of remembrance, at this time of suspense in our national life, at this season of the church calendar when one liturgical year comes to an end and the great season of Advent approaches, the community that gathers around the Word of God reflects on the next portion of Romans 13: You know what hour it is, how it is full time now for you to wake from sleep (Romans 13:11), or as the Revised English Bible translates, Always remember that this is the hour of crisis. The word for “hour” in New Testament Greek is kairos, which is distinguished from chronos, ordinary time. To discern the kairos is to see through the events of the day to perceive the activity of God in and through those events.

            But what is meant by the “hour of crisis,” or kairos? There was a full-page advertisement in the Friday New York Times, paid for by media figures like Rosie O’Donnell and Robert de Niro, writers like Toni Morrison and E. L. Doctorow, academic stars like Peter Gay and Ronald Dworkin; it states that we are in an “election crisis” which threatens to become a “constitutional crisis.” Leaving aside the question about whether the present situation really is a crisis or not, is this the kind of kairos that St. Paul has in mind?[10] What exactly does he mean by these words in Romans 13 (and by the way, this is the passage always associated with the first Sunday of Advent, now only three weeks away): know what hour it is, how it is full time now for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed; the night is far gone, the day is at hand. Let us then cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light...put on the Lord Jesus Christ...(Romans 13:11-13)

What does this mean, and what does it have to do with the earlier part of the chapter about honoring the government?

            What Paul means is that the coming of Christ into the world, his crucifixion by the powers and principalities, his Resurrection from the dead and his coming in the future have overturned all previous perspectives upon human life in this world.[11] The section in Romans 13 about the government sounds like ordinary conservative rhetoric about bowing down before the powers that be until you see it in its context. Our text is bracketed by, on the front end, Paul’s radical world-displacing call, Do not be conformed to this age (New American Bible) and on the back end by you know what hour it is...the night is far gone, the day is at hand. For most of the twentieth century, these dramatic texts have been the companions of Christians who have struggled against tyranny and oppression. Romans 13 in its context and Revelation 13 matched with it have created an extraordinary dialectic for reading the signs of the times.

            William Stringfellow wrote a commentary on the book of Revelation. I once heard him say that “We have been sold a bill of goods on Revelation. I don’t think it is such a difficult book.” Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza of the Harvard Divinity School doesn’t think so either. Much of her life’s work has been focused on Revelation. Here is something she wrote:

The present time [and by that she means any present time that we might find ourselves in] is of critical importance because a cosmic-political struggle has ensued with the death and exaltation of Christ. Revelation seeks to encourage Christians to participate actively in this struggle, the outcome of which is already known....a qualitatively new earth will be the outcome of this struggle, a world that is free from all dehumanizing oppressive powers.[12]

            In our own day and in my own denomination, the person whose life is most closely associated with this perspective from Revelation is Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, one of the heroes of the struggle against apartheid. In the dark days of that evil system, Bishop Tutu, with a large band of demonstrators and activists, was attempting to meet with government officials. This was not permitted, so they proceeded to the cathedral where they had a worship service. Standing ranks of police lined the walls, keeping a wary eye on the congregation. An eyewitness reported that, as his sermon gathered steam, Bishop Tutu suddenly looked out directly at the police. “You have already lost!” he cried. “We are inviting you to come and join the winning side!”[13] I don’t need to tell you who was free and who was in chains that day. It was said also of Bob Moses, the charismatic leader of Freedom Summer in Mississippi, 1963, that he drove the white segregationists absolutely crazy because he persisted in behaving as though he were already free—even though he could have been shot at any time. Similarly, Adam Michnik, the intellectual leader of the Solidarity movement, wrote these words from prison during the struggle against Communism: “How has our nation been able to transcend the dilemma so typical of defeated societies, the hopeless choice between servility and despair? It seems that the Polish nation does not think it has been defeated.”[14] This is the courage of those who have seen through the phenomena of the present age into the new world that the letters of Paul and the book of Revelation bring before us.

            It is common to contrast Romans 13 with Revelation 13 as though they were total opposites. According to this understanding, if the governing authority is benign, then it is from God and Christians should obey it (Romans 13). If the governing authority turns oppressive, then it is Satanic and we should resist it (Revelation 13). This is the most familiar interpretation of the two texts. No better formulation of it exists than that of Bishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, shot in the back at his own altar. In a sermon he said, “Let it be quite clear that if we are being asked to collaborate with a pseudo-peace, a false order, based on repression and fear, we must recall that the only order God wants is one based on truth and justice.”[15]

            As certain other commentators have pointed out, however, the relation between the two passages is even more subtle and more radical than the familiar interpretation allows.[16] Both of the passages call government into question because both of them make clear that government is only provisional. Neither Paul nor Revelation give ultimate legitimacy to any human institution. Once we know this, it keeps us from taking any present arrangement with anything more than temporary seriousness. So what Paul is saying is that we should take the government seriously, and we should not take it seriously. It’s like that passage in I Corinthians 7 where Paul says as though not several times:

I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time (kairos) has grown very short; from now on, let those...who mourn live as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the form of this age is passing away.
                                                                        (1 Corinthians 7:29-31)

            That may sound like the ultimate ethic of disengagement, but it isn’t. It is the opposite. It means that we can enter into the challenges of the day with a kind of joyful confidence, knowing that the future belongs to the Lord. It is not our part to bring that future about. God is doing that. Our part is to discern the signs of what God is already doing and to take up our positions there, knowing that God’s future of human liberty and human wholeness is, truly, to live for and, if necessary, “to die for”. Wherever God is on the move, that is where we want to be.

            As the whole world knows, Mr. Kostunica did appear on state television in Belgrade that night, and he called out, “Good evening, dear liberated Serbia!” It was a moment for the history books, as Garton Ash observed; the kairos had been seized. The beast from the sea had been overthrown. How shall America now respond? What we can do for the Balkans now, and for the Middle East, and for the developing nations, is to be the very best America that we can be—now more than ever. You and I most likely are not going to be called upon to die for what American democracy means for the world, but we may surely live for it. A few days ago, there was an obituary in the Times for a Harvard Law graduate, a man named Joseph F. Haas. He was a prominent leader of the Voter Education Project, which gave powerful support to the voter registration movement in Mississippi and made the Civil Rights Act of 1965 possible. Vernon Jordan was quoted in the obituary: “In the South in those days, you knew who the stand-up men and women were in the white community, and he was one of them.”[17] Joseph Haas is one of a host of witnesses who discerned the kairos and went to take their positions on the front lines where God was—and is—at work to create a new reality for America. May the God of justice and mercy grant each of us the courage and faith to do the same in our own time.


[1]The New York Times, 11/10/00.
[2]Thomas L. Friedman, “Original Sin,” The New York Times, 11/10/00.
[3]Thomas L. Friedman, ”I Love D.C.” (Foreign Affairs column), The New York Times, 11/8/00.
[4]Peter J Gomes, “What the Dead Have to Say,” November 10, 1996.
[5]Timothy Garton Ash, “The Last Revolution,” The New York Review of Books, 11/16/00.
[6]Misha Glenny, “The Redeemers,” The New Yorker, 10/30/00.
[7]No Rusty Swords (New York: Harper & Row, 1965)
[8]aisthesis (Philippians 1:9, Hebrews 4:14), “the power of moral discrimination and ethical judgment” (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. I, 188)
[9]An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1973), 139.
[10]It is no accident that the New Testament Greek word krisis refers to a distinction, as between time and eternity or death and life, which calls for judgment and decision, and is thus related to kairos.
[11]Paul Louis Lehmann, The Transfiguration of Politics (New York: Harper & Row, 1975), 37 and passim..
[12]Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Revelation: Vision of a Just World (Minneapolis: Proclamation Commentaries, Fortress Press, 1991).
[13]Told by Jim Wallis in his new book Faith Works (New York: Random House, 2000).
[14]Adam Michnik, ”Letter From the Gdansk Prison,” The New York Review of Books, July 18, 1985.
[15]Sermon, July 1, 1979.
[16]E.g., John Howard Yoder (The Politics of Jesus), Vernard Eller (Christian Anarchy: Christ’s Victory Over the Powers), Will D. Campbell and James Y. Holloway (Up To Our Steeples in Politics), William Stringfellow (op. cit.), Hendrick Berkhof (Christ and the Powers) and Jacques Ellul (The Ethics of Freedom, various other works).
[17]Obituary, The New York Times, 11/8/00.