Paul, Luther, and America’s soul

Kitten videos, tasty recipes, and photos of last night’s meal no longer dominate Facebook.  Politics does.  I don’t understand the algorithms used to decide what shows up, but my pages are about 75% liberal or progressive and 25% conservative or right wing.  Righteous indignation and mutual contempt for the other abounds.  A multitude of verbal blows is exchanged every hour of each day.  I’ve heard the same thing goes on in other social media, but having never been a twitterer, I don’t intend to begin.  Taken together, it’s a sign that things are serious.  We, collectively, are fighting for the soul of America as at no other time since the Civil War.  The civil rights and anti war movements of the ’60s and ’70s were prelude for what may have been simmering all this time.  Like modern warfare elsewhere, there is no front line.  Combatants mix with noncombatants, some in public view and some camouflaged.  Some are social friends and political foes, and some the reverse.  It appears that many are semiliterate about American civics, having opinions easily manipulated by others.  Among those claiming to be Christian, it appears that many are semiliterate about their faith as well.

As an Episcopalian, a center left pragmatist once comfortable in the progressive wing of the Republican Party, and now a Democrat, I find it an uneasy place not unlike navigating between Charybdis and Scylla in the fog on one of Snoopy’s ‘dark and stormy nights.’  What keeps me more or less on course is that neither left, nor right, nor America itself has my primary loyalty.  My allegiance, regardless of civic rituals, is not pledged to the flag or the republic, but  to God whom I know and understand through the Anglican traditions of the Episcopal Church.  I pray and work for the welfare of my country, but my first loyalty will always be to God.

With that in mind, and disturbed by the violence reported as happening at several immigration protest sites, I offered the following on Facebook.

At least some of those who are resisting 45’s slide toward fascism claim to be Christians, so in the face of unwarranted violence we may need to be reminded of St. Paul’s summary of Jesus’ teachings from his letter to the Romans:
“Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
It does not mean being a spineless doormat, as some of our members of congress appear to have become.  It does mean standing firm for what is right and good without inflicting abuse or engaging in violence.  Keep in mind that though it got him beheaded, we remember Paul as someone who continues to this day to inspire the better part of us.  We remember his beheader as a psychotic ruler who destroyed his own city.

One Trump supporting friend countered with Romans 13 in which Paul exhorted the church in Rome to obey civil authority because it had been established by God to suit God’s purposes.  I found it dangerously close to the same argument used to justify the divine right to rule claimed by European monarchs well into the 17th century, and used by Nazi leadership to entice church cooperation in 20th century Germany.  Paul’s letters are flexible that way, and have been used to justify a great many positions we now find reprehensible.  The antidote, it seems to me, to the misuse of Paul is threefold.  One is to understand the context of the issues each letter attempts to address.  It helps us avoid over generalization and application to contemporary questions unrelated to the issues he faced.  The second is to always subordinate Paul to Jesus, and particularly to what he had to say about the two great commandments, the new commandment, and the guidance offered in words such as The Sermon on the Mount.  Finally, it is to be reminded that however divinely inspired Paul’s writing may have been, it is not without fault.  My fundamentalist friends are troubled by that because it challenges their understanding of the authority of scripture.  For the present, it’s an unbridgeable chasm that has sometimes stopped conversation altogether.  Not wanting to go down that path, I suggested selections from Colossians and Galatians encouraging the churches not to be seduced by the elemental powers about them.  Think of it as a scriptural snowball fight, but a serious one between faithful persons trying to work out the moral ground on which to stand that justifies each one’s politics as acceptable within the boundaries of the Christian faith.

Is it important?  I think it is.  It’s not simply the lobbing back and forth of words without meaning or impact.  This brief exchange, and others like it going on throughout the nation, are signs and symbols that we are at a crossroads in American history.  We must turn one way or the other.  We cannot avoid it.  Each in their own way, these conversations are collectively as important as was Luther’s appearance before the Diet of Worms in 1521 where, it will be recalled, both Luther and Eck appealed to scripture as the justification for their decisions.  Having done so, the road to the Reformation was irrevocably taken, and so was the road to modern Western nation states.  We are, I suspect, at a similar place in our own time, but who is right?  Who is on God’s side?  Whose side is God on?

In this 500th year of remembrance, it would be well to remember also that Luther wasn’t right about everything, and Eck wasn’t wrong about everything, but the moment changed the directions of the Church and of Europe forever.  To their condemnation, the changes were accomplished through mutual intolerance and bloody wars.  May it please God that we will be guided by a brighter light as we resolve our own struggles for the soul of our nation.

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