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The “State of Confession” for Christians in the November Election

— A Review of Paul C. McGlasson’s Choose You This Day: The Gospel of Jesus Christ and the Politics of Trumpism (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2019) —

ON THE CUSP OF THE MOST IMPORTANT ELECTION in these United States since the eve of the Civil War, a sobering fact is that our own history has eerily caught up with us, just as our history caught up with the Nazis of Germany between the First and Second World Wars.

During the 1930s, four deeply dark North American realities served as “models” for Adolf Hitler’s infamous Nuremburg Laws that “forbade citizenship to Jews . . . and sexual intercourse between Jews and Germans” (McGlasson, 26–27).

The following historical actualities appeared like haunting ghosts rising from their tombs as Hitler appropriated their perennial powers to his own sinister purposes, for having studied these grave matters in detail.

(1) The horrific treatment visited upon non-white indigenous people by Euro-American settlers who drove Native Americans from their homelands “whether by broken treaties, or simple forced and violent expulsion” during the eighteenth and nineteenth century westward geographic expansion of white power.

(2) The 1924 Immigration Act that imposed restrictions “blatantly racist along the lines of white supremacy,” deliberately “designed to allow into the United States Northern Europeans, and to keep out Southern and Eastern Europeans, and certainly Asians.”

(3) The oppressive post-Civil War Jim Crow system that “rested on the perpetual threat of lynching to remain in force.”

(4) Not least, the “countless examples of laws on the books preventing ‘miscegenation’ between whites and blacks,” a vivid example being the Maryland statute declaring that “All marriages between a white person and a Negro, or between a white person and a person of Negro descent, to the third generation . . . are forever prohibited, and shall be void; and any person violating the provision of this Section shall be deemed guilty of an infamous crime and be punished by imprisonment in the penitentiary.”

And now, generations later––the twenty-first century continues to unfold with a reality show of its own that plays like a shadowy silent movie upon the screen of consciousness of the American electorate. It is as if scenes from a grim dystopian melodrama had suddenly boomeranged from the bowels of Nazi Germany: Donald Trump’s ICE squads, fortified by the Republican Party’s tacit consent, forcibly separate immigrant children from their parents and families at the border, restraining them like wild animals in wire cages.

Errant Evangelicalism on Opposite Sides of the Atlantic

It is precisely within this Machiavellian milieu of malicious Trumpism that theologian Paul McGlasson presents the compelling case for why Christians and Christian churches at this very juncture of history once again have arrived at a crossroad, summoned to be in a “state of confession”—in statu confessionis — wherein “standing by the truth in a time of desperate trial is not grounded in stubbornness, but in discipleship” (xi). Which is to say, as Jesus asserts in the Gospel of Matthew (10:32): “Whoever therefore shall confess me before others, those will I confess also before my Father who is in heaven” (McGlasson, xi).

Within the succinct and convincing scope of 128 pages of exposition, divided into two parts consisting of two chapters apiece, McGlasson instructs the mindful Christian in the important historical, political, and theological parallels between “the German Church Struggle” preceding and during World War II, and “Our Church Struggle” today as we walk toward the voting booth. Thus the title of the book, “Choose You This Day,” taken from the Hebrew text of Joshua 24:15: “Choose you this day whom you will serve . . .”

Of course, a currently self-described “evangelical” devotee of Donald Trump might swiftly cite this very passage of scripture as a call to cast a vote for Trump. Just so, the ballot would fall into the comparable, worldly-spiritualized vogue that characterized the fervor of the “German Christians” who wrested words from the books of the Torah and the mouths of the prophets, and in some instances rid themselves of them altogether, in order to repurpose scripture for service in the hallowed precincts of Herr Hitler.

The Lutheran pastor and anti-Semite, Siegfried Leffler, a founder of the German Christian Church Movement and director of the Institute for the Study and Elimination of Jewish Influence on German Church Life, fashioned his own Aryan creed. He did so in abject betrayal of the Christ of the Gospels. With theologically blind eyes he wrote: “In the person of the Führer we see the one God has sent, who sets Germany before the Lord of history. . . . [W]hoever wanted to live into the future had to align with him. One God, One People!” (12).

It was exactly such “evangelical apostacy,” comprised of a thoroughly secularized theology of domination, dedicated to German racism, nationalism, and dictatorship, which promulgated the heretical dogmas of millions of post-Weimar German evangelical Protestants who raised their arms in the “Heil Hitler” salute.

Compare such unrepentant idolatry with the analogous apostacy of those evangelicals who believe that God sent Donald Trump as a modern-day Cyrus the Persian to act as “Christian America’s” flesh-and-blood savior. McGlasson poses the piercing question: “What provides the most prominent background, which helps to explain why evangelicalism so completely and absolutely embraced Trump and his political philosophy?” (Laugh if you think Trump could articulate any philosophy.) McGlasson concludes that “the answer is not difficult. It was the election of the first black man as president of the United States, Barack Obama” (61). Trump’s philosophy? Rancid racism, not to mention nihilistic, amoral, and willfully dishonest, bullying buccaneering.

Idolatry, Trump-Style

The Trumpian triumphalism of 2020 has raw, homegrown antecedents. McGlasson elucidates: “Evangelical leaders launched a series of vicious attacks on Obama in the run-up to 2008, and predicted that if elected he would bring unmitigated disaster to — or rather upon — the United States. Boy Scouts of America would cease to exist; private Christian schools would be closed, and Christian teachers would be fired from public schools; there would be no hospital access for people over eighty; Iran would detonate a nuclear bomb in Tel Aviv; conservative radio talk shows would be shut down by the government, while Bush government officials would be imprisoned. These were among the predictions openly circulating among evangelicals, outdoing even Trump’s vivid and paranoid imagination” (62-63).

This Trump-as-savior syndrome, a collectively extremist dream-state that has become the nation’s present nightmare, is bathed in apocalyptic syrup. It is predicated upon a conjectured illusion.

In contrast to the “theology of orders” (likewise, illusory) that informed the 1930s German Protestant Evangelical churches’ embrace of Hitler, with its look “backward, behind the Bible to a creation theology given in human experience by which the Bible and indeed all reality must be interpreted,” the current American “evangelicalism looks in the opposite direction, to the endtime, ahead of the Bible. For [the Trump-ready] evangelicalism, prophetic experience of the endtime gives true insight not only into the genuine teachings of the Bible, but also into the true shape of current events, especially political events” (64). That “true shape” takes the form, convolutedly, of an untruthful, unrepentant Trump being touted — somehow, anyhow — as the (rehabilitated) “redeemer” that evangelicals long awaited, having drooled at the mouth, as it were, for the likes of him to do their hard-core political bidding. Power can always muscle its way through the putrid swamp. Hold your noses, evangelicals!

But be sufficiently displeased, if you will, reader, to nevermind the political silences and avoidances of the Trump entourage that stultify the corruption always lying (!) beneath the surface. —That is, if you have not yourself already swallowed the endtime bait along with hook, line, and sinker! For such extra-biblical whimsy of interpolation, pronounced by evangelicals as fated prediction come true (meaning now), constitutes a prostitution of scripture. Ancient texts are not vessels of soothsaying, like some genie in a bottle suddenly popped out, pointing to Donald Trump and shouting remotely from the distance of a few thousand years, “I told you so!”

McGlasson’s Rock-solid interpretation of Christian orthodoxy stands, thankfully, in stark contrast to the idolatrous gymnastics that befit the circles of ecclesiastical clowns who surround Trump with their butter-him-up brand of biblicism that flatters their proximity to the presidential seat of power about as much as flies do when squatting on an elephant’s rump. In this instance, the Republican rump: “Can we go any lower?”

Mainstream Christian orthodoxy, on the other hand, adheres to a faithful biblical witness, insisting that “the images of the apocalypse are to be understood in the light of the life, death, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus Christ, and not the reverse” (64-65).

What this comes down to is a conclusion, as McGlasson describes it. “Evangelicalism has, from its inception in the nineteenth century, reversed the inner logic of Scripture. Rather than understanding apocalyptic images and language in the light of Jesus Christ, it has sought to lay out a precise timeline of the endtime based on the books of Daniel and Revelation (and portions of other books of the Bible), to be sure, fitting Christ into the unfolding picture, but nonetheless mostly absorbed by the detailed timeline itself. Christ becomes just one more item in the evangelical version of the endtime, not the Lord of time who alone interprets all time,” as the New Testament gospels and epistles envisage him (65–66).

What possible need, then, do idol-seeking evangelicals have for Jesus Christ as Lord, especially when as Lord of all time he judges Trump’s politics (and the veneration of Trump’s politics) to be idolatrous, and the fawning spiritualisms of Trump’s evangelical “advisors” to be the antics of fulminating false prophets? Perhaps their timely need is for a radical confession of sin that leads to a radical dispossession of idols.

“Evangelicalism and the Politics of Trumpism”

 At the time, in 1934, when the Reformed church theologian Karl Barth gave birth to the Theological Declaration of Barmen as public witness of the “Confessing Church,” and Dietrich Bonhoeffer among others joined Barth in flat-out rejection of the idolatries of Nazism, “Anti-Semitism in Germany was a traditional moral value, and Hitler proudly embraced and endorsed it” (24).

Alongside Germany’s pervasive anti-Semitism there arose among the German Christians “the Galilean hypothesis.” Its argument was that Jesus was not Jewish at all, since by virtue of his being a Galilean from Nazareth he must therefore be a Gentile. This reconstruction of Jesus’s origin and identity made him instantly “relevant to the new German Christianity for one simple reason: ‘he had not a drop of real Jewish blood in his veins’” (25). Consequently, as McGlasson forthrightly observes of such obvious contortion, “Racism does not spare the learned” (26).

Case in point. The author of the “Original Guidelines for the German Christian Movement,” Joachim Hossenfelder, had sought in 1932 to justify the Aryan cause as the way forward for Hitler’s and Germany’s nationalistic aspirations. “Based on its experience,” Hossenfelder wrote, “the German Foreign Mission has long admonished the German people: ‘Keep your race pure!’” Moreover, “faith in Christ does not destroy race, but rather deepens and sanctifies it” (9).

The faithful remnant, comprising the minority Confessing Church, cried foul. They knew instinctively and on solid theological ground that the majority German Christians’ wilderness pact with the Devil, stripping the Jewish Jesus from “German Christianity,” meant one sure thing. It meant that to be faithful to the Jesus of the New Testament one must be “in a state of confession” which, as those first, second, third, and fourth generation Christians knew all too well, meant breaking ranks with the lordship of Caesar. At the heart of such inward and outward confession, McGlasson notes, “God’s Word, the gospel, is God’s free grace. We are not put right with God because we are German, or any race or nation or ethnicity. . . . Only God’s grace alone puts us right with God” (54).

So, why then, in a vein similar to the enthusiastic coalescence of German Christians with the Nazi Party of the 1930s, is it true that, in the United States of 2020, “virtually all evangelical predictions dovetail rather exactly with the politics of the Republican Party” (66)?

In the zero-sum game of those partisan evangelical apocalypticists, for whom to be against Trump is, in their minds, to be decidedly on the side of evil, why is the “strongman’s” politics idolized? Why so, in vivid contrast to the veritable weakness of the man Jesus who “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave” (Phil. 2:7), and who was crucified as he was on a Roman cross? For, without doubt, Jesus indisputably identified in both life and death with the victims of oppression, not with their oppressors. And Trump is an oppressor, to the disgrace of his Bible-toting, theologically hack, backers.

The “Confessing Church” — Yet Again in 2020

Is it that the espousers of a virulent evangelicalism possess a doctrine of sin that admits to no principle weakness, most especially when it takes the form of an idolatrous apostasy? For, as with the authoritarian, demagogic Trump, weakness is perceived as mortal sin. In a Trumpian universe, falsely projected strengths masquerade the underlying moral defects and imperfections. As for the man who proudly parades his “Make America Great Again” redcap upon his orange toupee, “He is strength, and those who agree with him are the strong. All who oppose him in any way are weak. All other defining characteristics are irrelevant” (58). Concomitantly, the Christ “whose power is made perfect in weakness” (I Cor. 12:9), according to Caesar’s playbook, remains an operational failure and political anathema.

“The secular apocalypse of evangelicalism — now no longer attached to the person of Christ in any meaningful way, but rather an open-ended political and cultural vision of world battle between good and evil — was looking for a leader to fight by its side, and Donald Trump, alone of the GOP candidates in 2016, offered battle” (70). And the religious right, sensing their moment of victory, immediately succumbed to his immoral opportunism and crass incompetency. The operative idiom for such idiocy is “might always makes Right.”

And so, a “confessional moment” is incumbent upon the rest of us. Within the context of the widespread embrace of Trump by his evangelical base, no matter how “base” its acquiescence to his racist, brutalist politics, the clarion call to us is to be “in a state of confession” which necessitates a counter-witness. A “Confessing Church,” as in Nazi Germany, willingly refuses to bow the knee to the Führer and the furor of this present darkness.

For “confessing Christians” the way of Christ is that nightmare-shattering Light by which to live. He is not the false Christ repurposed to the lies and deceptions of fuming emperors and decaying empires. Rather, he is the true Christ manifest in the face of Jesus who, calling upon the prophet Isaiah, declares to all of God’s people everywhere — including stranger, immigrant, disinherited and disenfranchised alike: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Lk. 4:18–19).

Indeed, “release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind” applies in some manner of speaking to all of us, including those evangelicals among us who frequent the pagan shrines of Trump Tower and America First, which in Trump’s world always mean Trump first.

Paul McGlasson has yet much more to say to us Confessors if we wish to wade further into the historical and contemporary theological and biblical substance of “Choose You This Day.” For the time being, we have been blessed, even sanctified, by the heart of it.

For Christians, to “choose this day whom you will serve” is to choose, not the errant and self-aggrandizing ways of Trump, but instead the loving, just, and servant ways of God-in-Christ as we walk into the voting booth. Those two ways of being and doing are anything but synonymous, and about as far apart as Caesar’s imperial sword is from being laid down upon the holy ground before Christ’s feet hanging from Christ’s cross. For there is where it becomes life-saving and life-giving to be “in a state of confession.”

Christian, remember that, cherish that, and live that, from this day forward.

 

 This essay review was published in Vox Populi on Sunday, October 25, 2020

© 2020 Charles Davidson, All Rights Reserved

Charles Davidson is a retired Presbyterian (PCUSA) pastor, psychotherapist, and professor of pastoral theology, care, and counseling. He is the editor of George Buttrick’s Guide to Preaching the Gospel (Abingdon Press) and the author of Bone, Dead and Rising: Vincent van Gogh and the Self Before God (Cascade Books).

From Blue Mountain Ridges to Desert Sand Concentration Camps

IT WAS THE SUNNY SUNDAY MORNING of June 23rd, not unlike other days when the sky is painted blue and gentle breezes waft through the cruciform-flowered dogwoods and stalwart-standing oaks of western North Carolina. Nothing was ostensibly different — not the flow of traffic into the parking lot or the flight of songbirds flitting from tree to tree — that is, except for one thing.

There was deep trouble in the land.

During her sermon on the second Lord’s Day after Pentecost at New Hope Presbyterian Church, Pastor Kim Wells strode past the milepost marking the home stretch on the long Easter road to just where, nobody could say. Where might a sermon series entitled “Peter, Paul, and Mary: Resurrection Tour 2019” eventually take us?

As she noted with a twist of humor, “Our Peter, Paul, and Mary song for the day is ‘Leavin’ on a Jet Plane.’”

Had she prompted us to sing it aloud just before the benediction, the lyrics alone would have induced sure-fire attacks of apoplexy.

All my bags are packed I’m ready to go
I’m standin’ here outside your door
I hate to wake you up to say goodbye
But the dawn is breakin’ it’s early morn
The taxi’s waitin’ he’s blowin’ his horn.

Whose bags? Packed to go where? Who’s this standin’ outside the door, hatin’ to wake us? Sayin’ goodbye? Are we leavin’ on the journey or stayin’ behind? If his taxi’s waitin’ and he’s blowin’ his horn — oh, please, for just a minute — we need to sit back down to check our pulses. Did we hear him say correctly, “the dawn is breakin’”?

The pre-announced sermon topic had already tipped us off to a dubitable aim for the next long leg of the journey: “Paul: Into the Interior Regions.” Moreover, the focal text as printed in the bulletin set forth an improbable destination:“While Apollo was in Corinth, Paul passed through the interior regions and came to Ephesus . . .”

We are not a congregation of race horses. With a gathering of worshipers composed largely of 60s- and 70s-somethings, with a Methuselah or two —sentries — waving their flags from the bushes, how might a preacher stir an army of aging turtles to move off the log and start trekking?

Paul had once written to the Ephesians: “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you . . . and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, not only in this age but also in the age to come” (Eph. 1:15-21).

What if Christ were to put his power to work in us?­­ — we who “were dead through the trespasses and sins in which” we “once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient” (2:1-2)?

Would it take a brass bell striking like flint to throw enough “spark” in all directions to get things rolling?

II

Among the myriad of solitary hours the preacher spends within the silent sanctum of her pastoral study, pondering the sacred texts of Scripture, she listens, she asks, she wonders, she waits . . . and sometimes broods . . . to hear the voice of God.

Possessing a meditative heart channeling the Spirit, she practices the contemplative life for spiritual direction. Reflective retreat is not only for refuge in the reigning darkness; it is for being broken open to the approaching light of day.

So, to what possible end might the heavenly hosts be summoning God’s people to the Lord-of-Light’s present calling this day?

To be sure, the opening sentence of the nineteenth chapter of the Lucan book of Acts is unlikely to set off a shower of fireworks for the preacher or anyone else. Yet, for a mysterious reason its words stopped Kim Wells alive in her tracks. Perhaps because Luke, their author, had something specific in mind to say. And not only Luke, but the Spirit of the Living One who can lift a text straight off the page and placard it squarely in front of your eyes.

“While Apollos was in Corinth, Paul passed through the interior regions and came to Ephesus, where he found some disciples.”

If we, the listeners, had wished to obtain the sights and sounds of that screeching, screaming city of Ephesus with its ghettoes, ghouls, goblins, and gibberish, how might we have prepared for the journey through the “interior regions” of Asia Minor?

Completing the reading of the first seven verses, Pastor Kim closed the book of Acts, paused, and spoke.

“So, my question for you this morning is — What if we just stopped after preparing? What if we just stopped after preparing without actually doing whatever it was that we were preparing for?”

Cough.

Clear the throat.

Swallow.

“Twelve years ago,” she explained, “I took a two-week backpacking course in Alaska. On the first day of the course, we prepared for our backpacking trip by learning how to pack our packs. We went to a park in Fairbanks and spread out all our stuff underneath a large pavilion. Then we learned how to distribute the weight of all that stuff in our packs not only vertically within the pack, but also from the small of your back outwards. We learned how to stuff our packs tightly and make sure that every last air pocket was used. And we learned how to pack in the order in which we would need things — our tents and sleeping bags at the very bottom, since we wouldn’t need those until the end of the day, and things like snacks and handkerchiefs and rain jackets easily accessible so that we could pull them out quickly.”

Yes, yes . . . we’re listening now . . . we’re watching . . .

“So, once we had packed our packs and then exploded our packs and repacked them again until we had gotten comfortable with the process, we were finally ready to actually go back packing. We got into a van and drove further north, further and further north, way up into the Arctic Circle, until we got to Alaska’s northernmost mountain range, called the Brooks Range.

“Eventually the van pulled over by the side of the road, and our sense of anticipation heightened. We got out of the van and put those packs on, and then we left the side of the road behind, and without any trail to guide us forward, we simply turned in — into the interior, into the Alaskan wilderness. Over the next two weeks, we backpacked through all the contours of that wilderness, through tundra that was teeming with ripe blueberries. We hiked up huge mountains and along their ridge tops, we looked down on sweeping river valleys, we slept on dry river beds in the light of the Alaskan midnight sunshine, we clambered over boulder fields, we crossed rivers in I-formation knee deep in the rushing water, we fished for Alaskan trout that we cooked over the fire and ate fresh right then and there, we saw caribou and moose and even a few bears from a distance, and we watched the flora and fauna turn from the shades of summer to the shades of fall.”

“But what if we had just stopped after preparing? What if we had just stopped after learning how to pack our packs? What if we had spent all that time in the pavilion at the park in Fairbanks and then just said, ‘Wow, that was great. See ya! Got to get back to the airport!’”

Peter, Paul, and Mary — “leavin’ on a jet plane” — are they?

“What if we spent all that time preparing but then never went on the journey we’d been preparing for? Well, I can tell you that one of the consequences would have been that I never would have had two of the most amazing weeks of my entire life.”

III

Paul had arrived in the city of Ephesus, the seat of the Great Temple of Artemis, the moon goddess and protector of women.

Finding there “a number of converts,” he asked, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” “They replied, ‘No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.’”

“Into what then were you baptized?”

“Into John’s baptism,” they said.

Must Paul explain that John’s baptism was with the water of repentance in preparation for Jesus, the one who came after him, whose sandals John deemed himself unworthy to untie? . . . and that John’s converts would now be baptized in Jesus’s name and receive the Holy Spirit in order to speak in tongues and prophesy? For Luke, to speak in tongues is to make prophetic utterances in more than one language.

There was in Israel — like a rat trap tucked behind a dog bone — a Deuteronomic “sandal strap” law that said, should a man be unwilling to fulfill the obligation to marry the widow of his deceased brother, then the man should be summoned before “the elders of the town” who were to put the question to him: Will you marry her, or will you not?

If he says, “I have no desire to marry her,” then the widow — who otherwise would remain penniless since the money followed the patriarchal line of descent — yes, the widow “shall go up to him in the presence of the elders, pull his sandal off his foot, spit in his face, and declare, ‘This is what is done to the man who does not build up his brother’s house’” (Deut. 25:8-9).

For John the Baptist — whose head was soon to be gruesomely served up on a platter to King Herod — what would it have meant to unloose the thongs of Jesus’s sandals? To disparage him? Repudiate him? Abandon him? Mock him? Spit in his face?

Instead, John baptized Jesus in the River Jordan — that same body of holy water into which Joshua and the twelve tribes of Israel had stepped in order to cross over into the Promised Land after all those tortuous years of baking and bemoaning in bondage, first as slaves kowtowing to the Pharaoh with his sleazy fleshpots in the “interior regions” of Egypt, and for forty more years of suffering cold nights and the blazing hot sun in the wilderness sands of the Sinai desert.

IV

Sunday Baptism in many a reputable churchly tradition has evolved like slow-growing moss on a stone in the forest. It has become the routine ritual-blessing of newborns as well as teenage adults and, sometimes, adult teenagers — by pouring the water, repeating the words, signing the cross, offering the blessing, saying the prayer, lifting the infant mid-air, smiling while the baby “coos,” releasing some ripples of laughter, snapping a photo of the adoring parents and frowning older siblings, and returning to our seats.

Come Monday, we go back to doing what we were doing, exactly the way we were doing it last Friday.

The apostle Paul wrote in his letter “to the saints and faithful brothers and sisters in Colossae,” saying of their baptism in the Way of the Crucified One, “when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. And when you were dead in trespasses . . . God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it” (Col. 2:12-15).

Jesus had bluntly asked his apostles James and John (another John), the sons of Zebedee, the hard question: “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized” (Mark 10:30)?

By repeating in the Gospel of Luke the words of John the Baptist, Luke reiterated what the Baptist had said to his own disciples: “I baptize you with water; but the one who is more powerful than I is coming . . . He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (3:16).

Fire?

“It seems,” said Pastor Kim, speaking of John’s converts, “that their journey had been stopped as soon as they had prepared for it.”

Prepared for what? Prepared for fire?

John had baptized with the waters of repentance. Defining “repentance” — metanoia — by its Greek New Testament meaning has the potential to become a revolutionary act. As Pastor Kim noted, it translates “to turn around.”

She added, “Turning away from the things in our lives that cause us and others harm and turning toward the God who longs to heal us from that harm and to restore us” is what the word “repentance” is all about.

Not, she concluded, “not that initial repentance, that initial turning back to God as a conversion experience, and that once that conversion has happened, that’s all there is to it. Home free! My pack is packed! Time to kick back in the pavilion!”

It is only when Christ’s people receive their “fire-power” from the Holy Spirit that the mere thought of being “fired-upon” by the principalities and powers of this world is no longer a disincentive to discipleship. Lacking fire from the Spirit, we are already dead in our tracks. For when there is no burning fire-in-the-belly there is no incentive to leave the safety and comfort of the pavilion.

V

“Pavilion” Christianity’s footprint in the world is comparable to being parked in the yellow “instrumental landing strip critical area” of an airport’s runway when we’re set to lift off in a jet plane.

How so? Because we’re sitting in the danger zone facing the approaching aircraft.

If we’re stalled there, it’s only because we’ve started down the wrong runway for having imbibed too many pre-resurrection, pre-baptism martinis consumed on the rocks of theological constipation. So, if consequently we’re about to be hit straight-on in the fog of night by a careening Boeing 737 Max 8, then the cost to human life will be astronomical. We will have gained nothing for having lost everything from a misguided, underpowered, and thereby failed post-Easter take-off. And, worse still, we will have left the passengers at the other end of our flight-path stranded in the “interior regions” without benefit of up-lift.

Risk has its reward, and risk-aversion its unrequited recompense. Sitting stalled in one of the world’s “critical areas” is not exactly what Paul had in mind when he left Jerusalem and headed out for Ephesus.

So, for those “critical areas” of life surrounding us near and far, nothing short of gospel-power will usher us more swiftly into the “interior regions” of the mission field. If the mission field happens to be in a place like the capital city of Ephesus, or even a tiny hamlet along the way, we can bet our last denarius that God is calling us to something far more important than a month’s luxury vacation stay at a thousand-year-old marble villa overlooking the banks of the River Cayster.

If as a Roman citizen in ancient Ephesus you had coveted empire, or, as a diaspora Jew miles and miles away from Mother Jerusalem you had sought refuge from ethnophobia and flagrant anti-Semitic disdain, then for now at least you might have to make-do in this seaport city on the rim of the Aegean Sea.

If after a while the wheels in Ephesus were to get rusty, and for commercial reasons you needed to travel west, you could board a ship and sail to Rome, then sail back again to Ephesus. Or if you coveted travel for more pernicious purposes, you could catch the ox cart or ass that led eastward to the whore of Babylon. Athenian brothels, too, might have tempted you.

Yet, prostitution being the world-wide industry it was, and concubinage an alternative to divorce, with slave labor in the unenviable position of keeping one knee down with the other propped up and ready to run, only to be caught again, odds are you might just as well have chosen to stay put. For if you looked for where none of these terribly fretful things could ever again surround you, then you’d probably be lying face-up and palms down in terra-cotta earthenware, or as they say, six feet beneath the ground.

Be aware, too, that in both Ephesus and Jerusalem Caesar’s armies were an ever-moving, ever-imposing colossus. They marched in lock-step and galloped through the city in formidable formation, mounted on horseback.

VI

About two generations before Paul arrived on the Ephesian scene, the Romans, having permeated all of Asia Minor, sought to do as all imperialists do: adjudicate local disputes between rival kings and rascally kingdoms.

When Mithridates, the great king of the local kingdom of Pontus, finally got sick and tired of Caesar’s messing in his porridge, he set about to accomplish the killing of all Romans within catchment distance. Some 80,000 Roman citizens simultaneously perished within six cities stretching across the entire region, including Ephesus.

The blood bath set off another hundred years of warring madness across the Aegean world. That’s when the Latin tongue began its infertile decline as a dead language, for if you were caught speaking it, no doubt, you knew exactly what would happen to you next. Historians later labeled these pogroms the “Asiatic Vespers.” When evil men do reprehensible things, they cover their dastardly deeds with the camouflage of impious euphemisms.

It’s like calling a concentration camp a child protection center where children are forced to care for other children while huddling together in wire cages on concrete floors under glaring lights for weeks on end with no water for baths and only uncooked frozen foods for snacks — because there are no “adults” in the palaces of power.

So, on any given day, including the 23rd of June, life affords plenty of reason to cry when you enter the sanctuary of New Hope Presbyterian Church in Asheville, North Carolina. You want to hear a saving word spoken by the living God.

That’s why, when the preacher lifts up the prayers of the people and opens Bible passages that proclaim the Good News of the Lord Jesus Christ as the “dwelling place of God in the Spirit,” you gather up for yourself every good thing you can set your heart upon, like angels’ wings, to provide you with what you will need for your journey till the end of your days.

VII

The same is true for those Ephesian disciples who welcomed Paul into their midst. And, if the truth be known, the pagans roaming about the crime-ridden, poverty-stricken, and power-oppressed streets of the city of Ephesus were no less desirous of the same fruits of life that Paul had declared to the newly baptized: “Each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift: Therefore it is said, ‘When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive'” (Eph. 4:7-8).

“Captivity” is a killing word. “Resurrection” and “ascension” — saving words.

Incendiary kings and flammable emperors, preoccupied with “insurrections” and “dissensions” that threaten their vested interests and cause them loss of face, don’t particularly countenance “resurrection” and “ascension” when those winds of good fortune are not directed toward their prideful pretensions.

When the Roman tetrarch Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, received reports of Jesus’s whereabouts in Galilee, Herod immediately suspected that John the Baptist, whom he had recently arrested and beheaded, had “been raised from the dead.”

Political paranoia is a form of demon possession that perennially fears its own demise. No provincial Roman ruler was spared its tentacles. In Herod Antipas’s case it was not so much the Jews or Christians he needed to fear, but rather his own reigning emperor Caligula who eventually did him in by sending him packing off to permanent exile in Gaul.

On the contrary, when some of the Pharisees came to Jesus, warning him that Herod Antipas was out to kill him, Jesus spoke with his characteristic fearlessness: “Go and tell that fox, ‘Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I finish my course’” (Luke 13:32).

It’s the Small-fries acting like Big-fries that never seem to get the message that provoking fear by exploiting the vulnerable cannot save kingdoms any more than fear as a tool of oppression can save itself from its own self-poisoning perversions.

The First Epistle of John, the Beloved Disciple, professed the only antidote to fear. “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love” (4:18).

VIII

On an excursion into the “interior regions” of ancient Ephesus we moderns do well to pass by the ruins of the great Ephesian Amphitheater just off the edge of what in Paul’s time was called Harbor Street. We might be gratified to think that we were not among the company of those citizens who in the year A.D. 52 sat inside the arena chomping on their crisp red apples. That is to say — glad not to be among the pavilion people. Though, if we had been, we might have been afforded the surprise of being “singled out” when Paul sauntered over toward us as he made his way through the crowd.

Is it not fair to say that we who are no longer pavilion people need not go around lamenting the passage of troubling events with little more than uneasy smiles on our faces? Since pessimism builds no future wherever optimism breeds naiveté, what redemptive stance must we take when entering the “interior regions” of a world increasingly reminiscent of the age of the Caesars?

What when?

What when our “liturgy,” from the Greek leitourgia denoting public service relief-work at one’s own expense, consists of rugged treks through wilderness terrain? What when our work calls us “over boulder fields” . . . sleeping in “dry river beds” . . .  stepping into our boots like “blocks of ice . . . frozen solid in the night,” during a sojourn wherein “there’s nothing like doing a face-plant in the mud when your pack is forty-five percent of your body weight and comes right down . . . on top of you”?

Thank you, Kim Wells, for the realism since we’re going to have some days like that.

Just because we stumble over roots and rocks, including some of our own stumbling blocks, not to mention the high walls that principalities and powers erect as border fencing to fend off their deepest fears of being the biggest of losers, this doesn’t mean we remain “fenced in” by their dictates or cease hiking to the sunlit heights that promise relief from their beclouded deeds of darkness.

Remember, we are “resurrection” people. We are not pavilion people.

Oh, yes, as things otherwise normally go, we might occasionally slip into the good company of those who ritually inhabit the exclusive regions of cities like Asheville, aflush with their plush green carpet-lawns such as dues-paying golf courses, with putter in hand, and thereby stay sufficiently well acquainted with the trappings of affluence so as to become trapped by them ourselves.

Many of us have done so.

We might carefreely traipse up and down the same teeming downtown “beer city” sidewalks as do the in-town hordes of fun-loving tourists. Then go blithely driving our crossover SUVs as passers-by of the cross-town trailer parks cut out of aluminum sheet metal stacked on top of cinder blocks that define the transient state of “migrant people.”

Most of us have done so.

These are among the familiar highways and byways that pavilion people grow accustomed to.

Yet there are things, happenings, that sometimes disturb — and perturb — pavilion people, let alone resurrection people — not only within geographic regions but also within the “interior regions” of heart, mind, and soul.

And when this happens, often within the off-moments of our inattention, as Pastor Kim says, “The Holy Spirit takes us beyond preparing and nudges us out of the van and helps us get our packs on and then takes us in — deep into the interior regions of both our inner landscape and God’s.”

IX

To wit —

Unlike guests at the local country club ordering Johnnie-on-the-rocks (iced) Scotch, when a Latina mother in the trailer park hears the word “ice,” she’s not dreaming of leaving for a sight-seeing expedition on a cruise ship lapping about the melting ice-caps north of Baffin Bay in the Arctic Circle. She’s having nightmares about the circular handcuffs locked around her husband’s wrists the early morning that ICE knocked on the door to freeze her heart to stone at the sight of deportation papers, as she watched her beloved whisked off in front of the children, not to be seen again.

One of Caesar’s favorite ploys is to freeze-people-out when he can’t find warmth in his heart to welcome them in. His politics crystalize as ice in his veins.

Contemptuously labeling them “illegals” is Caesar’s first measure for deep-freezing their identity.

Detaining them lengthily with or without due process is Caesar’s second measure for deep-freezing their dignity.

Casting them overboard from the ship of state is Caesar’s final measure for deep-freezing their humanity by ridding himself of them for good, but not for their own good.

Yet — to resurrection people, to Christ’s people, the persons whom Caesar’s hardened heart discards as the offscouring of the earth are to be re-claimed as brothers and sisters also bearing the loving name of Christ.

Resurrection people offer them food when they’re hungry, water when they’re thirsty, clothing when they’re naked, and visit them when they’re sick and in prison.

Resurrection people bear witness to what Jesus declared of the dispossessed: “Truly, I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Mt. 25:40).

Paul wrote to his beloved in Ephesus:

“But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two . . .” (Eph. 2:13-15).

X

The past and present threads of history are closely woven.

If city-dwellers in Ephesus could have answered the longings of the fainthearted and disinherited among them, to which temple might they have pointed them?

Artemis reigned not only as moon goddess and protector of women, but also as deity of the wilderness, the hunt, and wild animals. Her veneration extended far beyond the peripheral bounds of the metropolis. Pilgrims carried to home and hearth the smelted tokens signifying her ostensible powers. Her temple stood as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. It contained great works of art and throngs of travelers from every corner of civilized earth.

The book of Acts states that pandemonium fell upon Ephesus when “God did extraordinary miracles by the hand of Paul, so that handkerchiefs or aprons were carried away from his body to the sick, and diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them.” And, as “this became known to all residents of Ephesus, both Jews and Greeks; and fear fell upon them all; and the name of the Lord Jesus was extolled,” then suddenly pandemonium turned to ridicule which lent itself to persecutions of the followers of Jesus because great sums of money were involved.

“About that time there arose no little stir concerning the Way. For a man named Demetrius, a silver-smith, who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought no little business to the craftsmen. These he gathered together, with the workmen of like occupation, and said, ‘Men, you know that from this business we have our wealth. And you see and hear that not only at Ephesus but almost throughout all Asia this Paul has persuaded and turned away a considerable company of people, saying that gods made with hands are not gods.” So, “When they heard this they were enraged, and cried out, ‘Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!’” (Eph. 19:23ff).

What about the gods of wealth that fashion their profits from keeping concentration camps filled with children separated miles and miles from the unknown whereabouts of parents and loved ones? What shall become of those whose temples profiteer from the captivity of “innocents”?

Romans and Greeks across the empire eventually did not overlook the fact that two-hundred and thirty-some years after the life of Christ, due to the ruthless raids and attacks of eastern Germanic peoples called the Goths, the Temple of Queen Artemis was leveled to the ground, never to rise again.

Adolf Hitler was not the least or last among descendants of the Germanic Goths, and their likes, to employ storm troops to demolish sacred temples. Many of the “sanctified ones” through the centuries — whether as Romans or non-Romans, Greeks or non-Greeks, whether as the crippled or lame or blind laying wreathes and supplicant prayers at the feet of Artemis, or the hosts upon hosts of faithful Jews, Christians, and Muslims weeping while worshiping the God of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Joseph, Mary, and Jesus — were not spared any dispensation when it came to Caesar’s brandishing his credo, “Caesar is Lord.”

That credo “Caesar is Lord” is etched upon the currency and enshrined within the dirty deeds of every tin-pot dictator. It is plastered upon the legacy of every mendacious king or president who has perpetrated bald-faced lies about his fellow human beings in order to justify killing them as enemies.

But, not so for Christians for whom their earliest profession was “Christ is Lord.” And thereby also for Paul hobbling steadfastly toward Ephesus, for whom there was no such thing as ungodly godlikeness. There was only the foolish joy of walking in The Way of incarnate love that comes, as he said, “with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death.”

“Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches” (II Cor. 11:25-28).

“. . . If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness” (11:30).

We shall never hear such words of humble admission fall from the lips of many a Caesar. Yet they held true for Paul until his dying day when Caesar’s axe fell squarely upon his head.

“When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure. When slandered we speak kindly,” he said. “We have become like the rubbish of the world, the dregs of all things, to this very day” (I Cor. 4:12a-13).

“I appeal to you, then, be imitators of me” (4:16).

XI

Unlike Paul, we are “established” Presbyterians. We are aged like softened, cleanly sliced cuts of ripened Dunsyre blue cheese ready for crumbling in Caesar’s salad.

We are gathered this morning on the 23rd of June in Asheville, as the faithful sheep we seek to be, grazing for holy sustenance beneath the motherly embrace of these Blue Ridge Mountains, visible in all their majestic splendor through the clear glass window that frames the open vista beyond the cross and communion table. We can see as far as the Spirit ferries our imaginations.

Pastor Kim’s reading of the Scripture and her sermon from Acts have led us, with Paul, into the “interior regions.” We are still some miles from the clamor and travail of the city of Ephesus. We are soon to receive the benediction after singing the morning’s closing hymn:

Spirit, spirit of gentleness.
Blow through the wilderness, calling and free.
Spirit, spirit of restlessness. Stir me from placidness.
Wind, wind on the sea.

You moved on the waters, You called to the deep,
Then You coaxed up the mountains. From the valley of sheep,
And over the eons You called to each thing,
“Awake from your slumbers and rise on your wings.”

You swept through the dessert, You stung with the sand,
And You gifted your people with a law and a land,
And when they were blinded with their idols and lies,
Then You spoke through your prophets to open their eyes.

For us Presbyterians of the Protestant Reformed tradition it is a rare thing to have what Pastor Kim calls a “Quaker moment.” But on this particular occasion the “Spirit within” is calling.

Could there ever be a more propitious time for one of the retired shepherds from within the flock to be moved to speak before the congregation simply because not to speak would be to leave the Spirit churning and breathless among us?

“Friends, dear ones, fellow members of the body of Christ, beloved —

“I have not slept well all this past week. I was awakened by the nightmare of seeing myself barricaded along with these children within the walls and wired cages of that concentration camp in the desert sands of Clint, Texas. You know the story. You’ve heard and seen the news.

“I simply cannot sit silently any longer. I will not stand idly by.

“I can’t tell you when I’ve been so thoroughly outraged as when seeing what is happening to these dear children in the camp. Not enough water. Not enough food. Unsanitary conditions. Barred from medical care. Crowded next to one another in standing room only for weeks on end. Ceiling lights glaring down upon their faces twenty-four hours around the clock. Sleeping on concrete. No windows through which to see beyond their perilous plight to plead for help. No one to comfort their cries in the dead of night or dispel their fears in the fever of day.

“For heaven’s sake and for theirs, what are you and I going to do for them?

“Yesterday I contacted the offices of Governor Gregg Abbott of Texas, and Senators Cruz and Cornyn, as well as Governor Cooper of North Carolina. Tomorrow I will be calling others.

“I want to ask you. I want to ask you to do whatever you can. Write. Email. Pick up your phone. Make calls to politicians in Texas and other parts of the land. Make calls to your friends. Make calls to anyone you know who can bring influence to bear upon the situation. Aim as high as you possibly can. For until these children receive immediate relief, they remain at grave risk of dying within this concentration camp.

“Let’s get going. Let’s get going together into the ‘interior regions.’

“But before Kim offers the benediction, let’s bow our heads in silence and prayer for these children . . . God’s children, our brothers and sisters, our sons and daughters in Christ.”

In her benediction Kim charged the congregation to go forth and act boldly.

Ω

New Hope Presbyterian Church of Asheville, North Carolina, has a justice and reconciliation team of congregational members including a public defender working locally with other congregations and public entities to address the crises and needs of documented and undocumented immigrant persons and families in the community.

This essay was published in Vox Populi at Voxpopulisphere.com on Sunday, July 7, 2019

Copyright © 2019 – Charles Davidson – All Rights Reserved

Biblical quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version, Copyright 1991 by Oxford University Press

July 6, 2019 New York Times update on conditions in the Clint, Texas, facility


Charles Davidson, writer and editor, is a retired Presbyterian (PCUSA) pastor, psychotherapist, and professor of pastoral theology, care, and counseling. He is the author of Bone Dead and Rising: Vincent van Gogh and the Self Before God.