Well-Regulated

On the day we got the news
Of yet another shooting—
This one not too far from home—
I went for a walk at dusk
To ask God and the trees, “Why?”
The half moon peered through clouds
Strung behind a line of storms,
As fireflies synchronized
With streetlights at nine-o-three,
Embers in the post-rain mist.

A bat dived to swallow one,
Turning away at the last
From a bitter, poison pill.
But all the hosts of summer
Assembled here this evening
Know the steps and move as one;
Birds sing, cicadas back beat,
And the waning day cools air
Just enough to invite small
Restoration to tired lungs.

The world in all its glory
Even here on suburban streets
Speaks of dependence, rhythm,
And attention to detail.
But still my country looks down,
Away from what doesn’t fit,
Turning the dead into pawns
That move without agency
In a dance that keeps the peace
At expense of the living.

Pulling the Weeds: “Kindly Use” in Our Shared Relationships

Here in the Southeastern U.S., plants are the backdrop of everything. Kudzu is only the half of it—plenty of native species are just as eager to engulf any unsuspecting open space. Nature abhors a vacuum, and in a region as warm and humid as this one, green growing things rise with astonishing speed to the challenge.

Tending a piece of land is mostly a never-ending battle between the things you intended to grow and those you didn’t. Old-field succession is almost an olympic sport here, with poison ivy, various tree saplings, and the ghosts of escaped groundcovers from a nearby bed jockeying for position in a fresh-cut lawn almost before the mower has cooled off.

This, of course, presents a metaphor.

Relationships require tending. Our natural and forged connections with neighbors, friends, family, church, city, county, state, nation, and world are just as apt to be swamped by the vines of division, suspicion, ingratitude, and pride as an empty farm is to be swallowed by the forest. It is difficult not to sense that we are in a great period of “re-wilding” in all our allegiances. The careful work of sowing, watering, and weeding our mutual loves has not kept pace with an entropy juiced with the artificial fertilizer of the Internet.

Nowhere is this more true than in politics, or, more precisely the subsuming of all things into politics. It used to be a truism that all politics is local, but now even local politics is global. Every idea, every passion, every preference has been agglomerated into one of two opposing commercial-entertainment-culture-habit-values models that demand every human interaction conform to themselves. They function like religions, and actual church life and theological study have trouble competing.

Bonds of kinship, proximity, shared experience, and responsibility wither as these new growths take root. Like some invasive species that secrete chemicals to inhibit the growth of competing plants, these complexes then work to ensure that nothing else that grows but their own clones. These replacements’ bonds are sterile, only capable of using up the good created by the rich ecosystem they supplanted and never producing fruit.

This new field is depleted of trust. Acquaintances size each other up to decide whether this new person is a confidant or threat. Instead of cherishing their closeness and dwelling fondly on what they share, old friends quickly dive into political questioning to suss out whether the connection is still viable on that basis alone. Parents and children would rather fight about matters far removed from their actual concerns than continue the project of learning how to give and share life.

Performing Self-Assurance

This is not to say that there is no merit in social and political ideas of either the “right” or the “left”. Rather, these ideas cease to have value when uprooted from the soil of interconnectedness that makes any real political life possible. Epithets like “cancel culture” and “virtue signaling” spring up when there is a pervasive sense that reality is under assault by those on the “other side” of a given issue (as though there were always only two). When everyone you disagree with is assumed to be insincere and on the make, calculating what they say to conform to a standard language deck passed out by their dark overlords, is it any wonder we can’t have a conversation?

When it comes to policing these filters (shibboleths?), our attitudes are by turns “evangelical”—suffused with the feeling of having figured out the real story and eagerness to have others believe—and “fundamentalist”—ensuring that our perceived opponents understand that they are wrong, I am right, and that this makes me superior to them. Imperative in both these attitudes is urgency. Time spent caring for one another, listening to one another, and reflecting on what we learn from each other is a threat to the system, and so must be avoided at all costs. Far better to fling slander from a safe distance.

Perhaps, though, the adherence to views and language we demand of others is only the projected manifestation of the fear we feel. We wonder what it would be like to lose our precarious place in the world, to disappoint the circle that holds us and feeds us only so long as we stay in line, so every opportunity to take down someone else (who, notably, isn’t us) is a little hit of the fentanyl of self-assurance. One less opportunity for it to be me who falls. The ethics of the cool kids’ table have expanded to the world entire. But in direct proportion to how performative a virtue becomes, it ceases to be formative. Good things are often more in need of cultivation than defense.

Learning to Be “Kind”

Novelist, poet, essayist, and farmer Wendell Berry wrote in The Unsettling of America about the value of “kindly use” of land—that is, intimate knowledge of a place and its particulars that protects it from abuse and fits it to flourish in producing what it is designed to produce. Kindly use is knowing not to plow in ways that will cause erosion, recognizing that some slopes need to be forever forested, or recognizing that a low spot will always be a wetland instead of a crop field. This is in contrast to “general use” that seeks to apply an outside set of land management practices based on abstract principles without benefit of local knowledge. Such use is often abuse—doing more harm than good.

What’s good for land is good for people. Kindly use of relationships calls for deep knowledge of one another. Good manners and professional habits are good insofar as they provide a baseline for courtesy, but are ill-suited to expressing real love for specific people—there is no kindness without intimacy. Even less so making shared politics a prerequisite for friendship. Assumptions that have no room for correction or curiosity toward others offer no basis for lasting kinship. Restoring community among our splintered selves calls for a faithful pursuit of “re-localization,” rooting our understanding of people, places, and viewpoints in the things themselves instead of filtering all local knowledge through political blinders.

In such a re-localization of our loves, we have to re-learn how to repent and forgive. None of us can live up to what we are striving toward, even if we are all striving toward the same thing. The most vicious patterns I see now are the accusation of double standards between the two all-encompassing “teams”. The right response to such, isn’t indifference to the standards, though. Perpetrating the same excesses you’re upset about just to “own the libs” or “trigger the snowflakes” just salts the earth for everyone. The process of cultivating virtue always starts with giving and receiving grace. The good works come after. There is no other path to hope and wholeness.

Again, Berry is instructive. Though he has made a life of argument for very definite stances on conservation and a host of political and economic concerns, his art has been to winsomely persuade and hold out hope that anyone is capable, at some point, of choosing a different path. Theologian Russell Moore, writing in praise of Berry’s 87th birthday recently, shared a story:

“I am not sure I’ve ever felt more sheepish than when, sitting at his dinner table in Kentucky, my iPhone started ringing in my pocket, right there with one who is, um, not a fan of such devices. When I cringed and said, ‘sorry,’ he said ‘Well, we’re all sinners, aren’t we?'”

We are all sinners. Expecting perfection is unbiblical and unholy. Rather, in the words of the Second Helvetic Confession, “yet we must hope well of all, and not rashly judge any man to be a reprobate.”

In a world well practiced at casting down the unrighteous and taking no delight in the serious business of repentance, daring to say “we’re all sinners, aren’t we” is act of utmost courage. In it, we stand up to the dictator within. Every act of grace is cultivating the hope that others might see, take up the call, and follow. The life you save may be your own.

It’s a dangerous world out there. Be “kind.”

Salt and Light in a Political World

About 35 minutes into Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life (2019), we see Austrian dissident Franz Jägerstätter assisting a fresco painter in the small alpine church he serves as sexton. As he works, the painter muses:

I paint the tombs of the prophets. I help people look up from those pews and dream. They look up, and they imagine that if they had lived back in Christ’s time, they wouldn’t have done what the others did. 

They would have murdered those whom they now adore. I paint all this suffering, although I don’t suffer myself; make a living of it. What we do is just create sympathy. We create, we create admirers. We don’t create followers. 

Christ’s life is a demand. We don’t want to be reminded of it, so we don’t have to see what happens to the truth…I paint their comfortable Christ, with a halo over his head. How can I show what I haven’t lived? Someday I might have the courage to venture; I have not yet. Someday I’ll, I’ll paint a true Christ.

Several reviewers have seen the director himself in the Painter, with Franz’s holy suffering as his “true Christ.” Whether or not this is Malick’s intent, the scene is a turning point. From this day forward, Franz has set his face toward obedience to Christ’s hold on his conscience—he cannot, will not, swear loyalty to Hitler.

Jägerstätter resisted not simply the evils perpetrated by the Nazi regime, but the very idea that he could be compelled to swear an oath of complete loyalty to a human being in the place of God. He attacked the foundation (the führerprinzip) on which others based their trust in Hitler to bring prosperity and protect cultural “Christian” values. As a result, he endured the scorn of erstwhile friends and even family long before he faced the wrath of the state. He is today regarded as a martyr.

His life reminds us that action doesn’t always look the same as activism, but quiet, honest faithfulness in deliberate resistance to the spirit of anti-Christ is often the profoundest political act. His story, as told in Gordon Zahn’s In Solitary Witness is said to have inspired resistance to the Vietnam war in Muhammad Ali and Daniel Ellsberg among others.

A Costly Witness
Jägerstätter’s example provides a starkly drawn case, but whatever worldly system you find yourself in will eventually come into conflict with the grace-filled (chesed) system of God’s kingdom. The world, under the sway of Satan, doesn’t have a category for the covenant love of God (cf. Ex. 34:6-7) that He pours out on His people and its outworking in their community ethics (the Mosaic law, especially as exposited in the Sermon on the Mount and New Testament epistles). In this conflict, the way of life of the people of God is designed to contradict and convict the world’s systems so they could be transformed by the witness of the church.

Courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures

More often the powers that be will demand that the church bow to them. Whether the demand to bow down comes in large ways (like Nebuchadnezzar’s image and furnace), small ones (the proverbial pinch of incense to Caesar), or the trivialities of being misunderstood and questioned by your neighbors and coworkers, it will come. The world forces the issue of faith. You can never isolate enough to avoid the confrontation.

The church’s call is to stand out enough that the confrontation is clear, living together in such a way as to silence the ignorance of evil men (1 Pet 2:15), and if we are called to suffer for the name and way of Jesus, we are to suffer as He did (1 Pet. 2:20-25).

But we do not like to suffer.

The Compromise of Christian nationalism
Not only do we dislike suffering, but we dislike getting anywhere near it. Wealth is attractive because it promises to insulate us from discomfort.

The slide starts with an implicit deal—the promise of peace and prosperity in exchange for silence about the violence against God and man inherent in the system. We grow accustomed to the prosperity, and before long, the church is willing to bless the violence so long as it gets to partake of the benefits. This is the shift at the heart of Christian nationalism.

If we find membership in any political party or allegiance to any government to be a more pressing concern than our adherence to all of Jesus’ teachings, we are well on our way down a dangerous road. When we find ourselves justifying our comforts and our political positions when the Spirit, through conscience and prophets, coaxes us to see and reject our idolatries, digging in our heels, we are in grave danger indeed.

Christian nationalism is a ready temptation for all of us, as it bubbles up from conflating God’s kingdom with our comfort, wealth, and power—even Jesus’ disciples were banking on it, after spending 3 years listening to His teaching and witnessing the clarifying events of his death and resurrection! As he prepares to ascend to the Father, their burning question is “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6).

The temptation will call out to us from any political direction, from the left and the right, in moderate or extreme positions, from imperialism, monarchy, republicanism, democracy, communism, oligarchy, anarchy, etc. The church of Jesus Christ can (and has, and does, and will) exist and even thrive under each of them. It cannot, however, fully and faithfully *co-exist* with any of them. Absolutizing any political position—even in the name of justice—makes politics an idol, not a tool. And a politically empowered idol becomes a cult.

Politics is Downstream from Desire
Christian nationalism doesn’t come knocking with a tract or appear on the street corner with a poster outlining its explicit aims (well, it did not used to). It is a subtle enemy, attacking from within—more like the favoritism condemned by James or the heresy of the judaizers than the wholesale persecution endured by our brothers and sisters in many countries.

It can sneak in because our politics is downstream from our desires. Political allegiances masquerade as righteousness, but are usually just emblematic of our idols. And our idols are always outworkings of our pride and greed—we follow after that which promises power & wealth. Our economic dreams are inseparable from our political actions.

See, for example, Solomon. He was supposed to be the great king, the promised Son of David who would build God’s house and reign in the promised land with wisdom, justice, and peace under the blessing of God—a picture of the coming, perfect, glorious reign of Jesus Christ over all the earth. 

But Solomon longs for a more tangible “secure” blessing, something that has cash-value among his peers on the thrones of surrounding nations. While building the temple—which was designed to speak God’s glory to the nations (1 Kings 8:43)—he builds his own house to be even more magnificent (1 Kings 7). Against God’s commands (Deut. 17:14-20) he pursues military power (1 Kings 9), gold (1 Kings 10), and the lust of the flesh (1 Kings 11). These pursuits lead him to idolatry, and even enslavement of his fellow Israelites (1 Kings 9:15ff). 

The Lord judges Solomon, in part by having the northern tribes rebel against him and his son Rehoboam. But the lesson continues—the rebellion could have been a righteous confrontation, exposing and addressing injustice. Indeed the separation is accomplished somewhat peacefully, with Rehoboam heeding God’s instruction not to fight through the prophet Shemaiah. Instead of resolution, though, the rebel leader Jeroboam decides he would rather hang on to his newfound power, setting up idols to keep people from going to Jerusalem to worship (1 Kings 12). The people of the Northern Kingdom never look back, doubling down on Jeroboam’s idolatry, and chasing after Ba’al and all manner of wickedness. 

Lusting after wealth & power always leads us to sacrifice faithfulness. It’s a predictable progression. Lust leads to idolatry (spiritual failure) which leads to injustice (ethical failure). Injustice seeks justification, furthering idolatry, but in greater blindness. “Those who make [idols] will be like them” (Ps. 115:8). Idols demand sacrifice, but offer no blessing in return. In the same way, we demand ever-increasing sacrifices to our pride, which eventually comes out in political action to gain what we want from others and keep it.

Our Present Apocalypse
None of this repudiates legitimate petition of powers and authorities to do what they are called to do (to preserve the good and punish evil—Rom 13, etc.), but seeking to wield the worldly power of the sword under the aegis of “the people of God” is always going to go poorly. We need to cultivate a political theology of humility that recognizes that various temptations of Christian nationalism are always knocking at our door, hoping to be let in by our pride and overconfidence.

It will result, in the long run (and sometimes in an astonishingly short one) a church that looks less and less like Jesus, the embodiment of God’s mercy and provision, and more and more like the cutthroat, corrupt systems of the world. 

In America, most churches are pretty deep into this ditch. My prayer—and it is a prayer not, sadly, a hope based in any empirical evidence—is that the current crisis (of Covid-19 and its disastrous economic effects) can catch us in our tracks, and lead our churches back to being communities that demonstrate God’s love in all our social and economic arrangements. I pray it may be a moment to take stock, to repent, and to rebuild in ways that show just how distinct the church is. I pray for a spiritual revival in our country, and with it a revival of justice and mercy in our churches, and how we interact with politics. This time is an apocalypse—unveiling the depth of cultural depravity in ways that I hope will not be allowed to ignore any longer.

The church needs to re-assert its distinctiveness from the world, boldly proclaiming an alternative witness against the status quo. This, I think, is precisely what Jesus speaks of in his statements about salt and light (Matt. 5:13-16). We are to season the world, to preserve God’s image & likeness in how we live among one another. We are to illuminate the world, to reveal injustice & light the path to restoration. 

The salt without savor is a church in which the character of God has been pushed aside in favor of the characteristics of the world. The light under a bushel is a church that is not doing justly and loving mercy and so has nothing to offer to those seeking hope in the midst of oppression. If we think we’re upholding Christian values but see no conflict with worldly political power, we may already be worshipping the false god of Christian nationalism. That’s what Franz Jägerstätter was trying to teach us.

“Dear children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21)—or as another John (Prine) sang, “your flag decal won’t get you into heaven anymore.”

Image: The church of St. Valentin in Seis am Schlern, Italy, used in filming A Hidden Life. Courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Crisis

English-only version

Alexander is, I suppose, to blame
For anguish in Nogales, Laredo,
McAllen, Del Rio, and El Paso—
Towns baked crisp under an unflagging sun
Yet wobbly with unspeakable horror:
Rachel weeping, weeping for her children.
More doctrine, or gall, than guns, germs, or steel,
One stroke of Inter Cetera venting
Europe’s pride onto what you don’t own,
Discovering so many things long known.

Thousands of years of solitude crashed
By a half-millennium of conquest
Could not unmake a people tethered to
Black soil, maize, potatoes, and rainforests—
To the land that they delight to show you,
A country flowing with milk and honey.
From Aconcagua to Ixtaccíhuatl—
No less theirs in Spanish than Nahuatl,
Quechua, Itza’, or Ngäbere.
Empires egress, yet here they remain.

Cortés and Pizarro and Balboa
Gave way to filibustering yanquís,
Manifesting their destiny beyond
Borders, national or rational, yet
Scott nor Taylor, Villa nor Zapata,
United Fruit, Contras, coups, nor mosquito,
Canal zones, cartels, Marines, Chavismo,
The CIA, foil blankets, nor cages
Instead of asylum can wrest dignity.
But, if we still have our bread and onions….

We cannot go back to where we came from,
Mostly because we’ve been here all along,
Standing in faith, bad faith notwithstanding,
Standing in judgment, silent as the years—
For the desert where you leave us dying
Remains our old, our most beloved home.
It is only in your cold-tempered hearts
Where place shatters and bad weeds never die—
We are your children, prodigals returned.
Look in the eye what you’ve sown, reaped, and burned.

Original

Alexander is, I suppose, to blame
For anguish in Nogales, Laredo,
McAllen, Del Rio, and El Paso—
Pueblos horneados bajo el sol
Y frente al horror indecible,
Rosita que llora por sus hijos.
More doctrine, or gall, than guns, germs, or steel,
One stroke of Inter Cetera venting
Europe’s pride onto what you don’t own,
Discovering so many things long known.

Thousands of years of solitude crashed
By a half-millennium of conquest
Could not unmake a people tethered to
Black soil, maize, potatoes, and rainforests—
La tierra que les ha mostrado,
El país fluye leche y miel,
De Aconcagua a Ixtaccíhuatl—
No less theirs in Spanish than Nahuatl,
Quechua, Itza’, or Ngäbere.
Empires egress, yet here they remain.

Cortés and Pizarro and Balboa
Gave way to filibustering yanquís,
Manifesting their destiny beyond
Borders, national or rational, yet
Scott nor Taylor, Villa nor Zapata,
United Fruit, Contras, coups, nor mosquito,
Canal zones, cartels, Marines, Chavismo,
The CIA, foil blankets, nor cages
Instead of asylum can wrest dignity.
Si ya tenemos pan y cebollas….

We cannot go back to where we came from,
Mostly because we’ve been here all along,
Standing in faith, bad faith notwithstanding,
Standing in judgment, silent as the years—
El desierto donde morimos
Es nuestro hogar más querido.
Solo está en sus corazones
Donde yerba mala nunca muere.
We are your children, prodigals returned.
Look in the eye what you’ve sown, reaped, and burned.

Image: Palo Duro Canyon, Texas. February 2018.