The lectionary gives us three amazing readings today. The text from Isaiah comes from the time that the Jews exiled in Babylon were being sent back to rebuild Jerusalem and its temple. Its song of hope stirs our hearts even today: a new heaven and a new earth. Remember last week’s prophetic text from Haggai said that God will shake the heavens and the earth. For Isaiah, the new Jerusalem will be a joy, no weeping will be there, no children will die in infancy, death at a hundred years will be considered premature, people will build and plant, and enjoy the fruit of their labor. God will answer prayers as they are prayed, the wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox, the evil serpent will eat dirt, and “They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.”
Don’t we need to hear such a word of hope in our time? Instead of peace we have war, instead of prosperity we have unbridled greed that besotts the rich and beggars the poor, instead of glorying in nature’s harmony, we destroy it for gain, instead of an harmonious world order the civilization of the West is set against the civilization of Islam. The world’s most powerful nation has made itself a loadstone for terrorists where no one is secure, and has so mortgaged its future that others will reap what it plants. We need to hear that there will be a new heaven and a new earth, and that our temple will be restored.
The Jerusalem of which Isaiah spoke was indeed restored and a new temple built grander than the old one. That new temple was precisely the one Jesus predicted would be destroyed, with not one stone left on another. Jerusalem, and Israel as a nation would be destroyed too. All that happened in fact between Jesus’ time and the time Luke wrote his gospel. Isaiah’s new heaven and new earth lasted only about 550 years, and even during much of that time Israel was an occupied country.
Jesus also said that his followers were in for a hard time. If they were to remain true in their witness to his gospel, they would be arrested and persecuted, betrayed even by their family and friends. Moreover, they would be called to testify to their neighbors and in public life before high governmental figures. They would be put in prison and subjected to the authority of religion hostile to Jesus’ true gospel. All these things did indeed happen between the time of Jesus and the time Luke wrote his gospel—many of them are recorded in Luke’s second volume, the Acts of the Apostles.
Our situation is more like the one Jesus was talking about than Isaiah’s. Because it is so difficult, and Jesus’ followers would be roundly hated and some put to death, he said that they would save their souls by their endurance. He did not say they would escape persecution and death, but through endurance while they lived, they would escape the loss of their souls, a theme he talked about quite a lot. Paul put the point even more directly: to endure in a time of perilous Christian witness people have to work hard. If anyone in the community of witnesses will not work, let them not eat!
Now how does all this apply to us? I need to begin with a little personal testimony. I came to adolescent political consciousness after the Second World War, which I thought on the whole was a just war, won by the right side. I took pride in the United Nations as a positive if imperfect step toward democracy and the containment of violence. The Cold War was scary but it turned out that no one really wanted war and Communism’s totalitarianism was simply not viable. I grew up in the civil rights movement, which recognized a great and longstanding evil and actually made significant progress to rectify it. Of course the brutal effects of slavery have not been erased, but they are tractable to progress, I thought. The Vietnam War, and the counter-cultural revolution it spawned, seemed to me the painful ending of the era of Western imperialism. I hoped that the Hippie movement would mature into a humbler conception of the role of America in the world and an economic worldview that would set stringent controls on the evil excesses of capitalism, while acknowledging its obvious benefits as an economic system. Although the culture of consumerism had long been recognized as a demonic parody of the culture of freedom, the very fact that this had long been recognized and criticized meant to me that it was not out of control. In sum, as I matured as a Christian I thought that the Christian critique of American culture was in place, and that I could participate in applying its pressures to the social, cultural, and political scenes of my time. In fact, I thought that the Christian critique of American culture was itself a powerful part of that very culture.
The recent election, however, has disabused me of that view, which I think was shared by many. I believe now that the choices made in the election render a serious Christian witness dangerous, as it has been at so many points in history, and for that very reason all the more necessary. I believe the Christian witness will divide families as it has rarely done in recent history. It will be punished by a government that treats disagreement as unpatriotic and unsupportive of our soldiers who occupy foreign countries. The religious culture that has recently achieved establishment status by its contribution to the election will condemn Christian witness as heretical to its alternate vision of what that witness is. Because there is such disagreement as to what that witness is, permit me to say what I think its basic tenets are.
First, in the arena of international politics the Christian witness is primarily to peacemaking. After 9/11 it was of course imperative for the American people and government to support a vigorous international police action to apprehend the murderous terrorists and break up the terrorist rings around the world that threaten everyone’s security. But even more imperative for Christian witness, the American people and government should have taken pre-emptive action to make sure there were no warlike responses and to investigate the reasons and conditions for the 9/11 attack. When people are so aggrieved as to resort to widely-supported terrorism, their grievances need to be addressed at the front of our agenda. Christian liberals are called weak because they want to eliminate the anger that fuels terrorism, yet that is the Christian witness to peace-making. Because our nation has consistently chosen war over peace-making on this issue, our witness needs continually to criticize that choice and devise steps toward peace-making now.
Second, although justice is always important, a dimension of every Christian critical endeavor, the Christian witness is that judgment should be left to God and that Christian effort should be to help the poor and relatively powerless. While our nation has vaunted its strength and wealth, it has also let the poor get poorer at home on many fronts, for instance in jobs education, welfare, taxation, and community participation. The Christian witness should always be in solidarity with the poor, and if that looks like weakness to the rich and powerful, so be it.
Third, Christian witness needs always to lead from a position of humility rather than arrogance and self-righteousness. The very idea that America should insist that its own righteousness justifies masking motives for war with lies so easily found out, disregarding the interests and advice of allies, and claiming that anyone who criticizes the government is unpatriotic and helpful to the “enemy,” is abhorrent to Christian witness. If Jesus could say, in reference to himself, that no one is good except God, how can the government claim such goodness and represent itself as religious?
Fourth, the Christian witness should be to a generous acceptance of all peoples and their religions, with the same critical tools brought to Christian theology as should be brought to the theologies of others. Jesus represented this in his inclusive table fellowship and in his courteous treatment of people from other religions (Samaritans, Canaanites, and pagan Romans). Jesus said he had sheep of other folds than that of his own disciples. His God would create no people who are not loved and filled with grace in spiritual as well as other matters. Christian witness needs to be sounded loud and clear against bigotry and exclusivism, even when that seems to be a liberal pampering of enemies. Christians should tolerate no one to remain their enemy if it is at all possible to change that.
Fifth, the Christian witness should always be to love. “Love your enemies,” said Jesus. Love is perhaps too personal a trait to be a political virtue. Yet love or its lack is the inner formation of the attitudes that shape public policies. Christian witness needs to expose the hate that demonizes gays and lesbians, African-Americans and women who seem too uppity, Jews who insist on not being Christians, Muslims who think Americans are greedy, and liberals who put principle above pre-fix patriotism. The other side of exposing hate is reaching out to the haters in love.
Sixth, the Christian witness should always be to courage over fear. Christians are confident of the salvation that comes from God and have no need to fear what the world brings, however canny and prudent we should be. People with no real God strike out in fear against real, imagined, and demonized enemies. They let fear keep them from peacemaking, helping the poor, taking the humble place, the acceptance of people who are different from themselves, and the risks of love. Fear makes them warmongers, greedy for themselves, arrogant as a form of whistling in the dark, bigots, and haters. Such fear is incompatible with the Christian faith, which says that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Most of all, courage is the Christian witness against the fear of ambiguity and confusion. Christian faith accepts life’s ambiguities and witnesses to the power of God’s grace to get us through.
Seventh, and most important for people whose religious connection is with a university church, the Christian witness is to the complexity of life before God. To understand the complexities of life, including its ambiguities, requires dedicated, sophisticated, complex thinking, which is a primary way of worshipping the divine Word. The Christian witness to this is both negative and positive. Negatively, the Christian witness needs to expose and ridicule simplistic religion and simplistic politics. The worst kind of theology is that which reduces itself to a simple story with winners and losers, God’s people and the enemy. Theology of that sort sells a lot of books these days, and it should be exposed for the satanic simplification that it is. Positively, Christian witness needs to enter into the kind of complex inquiry that can sort through complicated issues and deal with ambiguities. Political and economic issues are difficult enough, and Christian witness should support scholars inquiring about them. Theological issues are even more complicated, and Christian witness should demand preaching and teaching equal to the task. Set aside the desire for a simple take-home message and demand to be shown the complex insides of issues. Christian thinking needs to respect the witness of peacemaking, solidarity with the poor, humility, neighborliness, love, and courage. Yet that respect should never lead it to simplifications that lie.
Peacemaking, solidarity with the poor, humility, neighborliness across cultures, love, and courageous confidence in God’s grace, are not the exclusive preserve of the Christian witness. Change the rhetoric only slightly and those points can be the witnesses of Jews and Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus, Daoists and Confucians. They all point to a counter-culture against the recent majority. The unanimity of that ecumenical religious witness gives great hope in a time when all need to go into opposition to the majority culture, however slim the majority is. The most important power of witness is that it can bring light to those who had mistaken martial strength, wealth, arrogance, prideful bigotry, self-righteous hatred, and defensive fear, for wisdom. The people who have made those mistakes are our fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, children, and friends. Not for winning the next election, but for the sake of their souls, and ours, let us endure together to touch the Spirit and voice the witness of the crucified and risen One.