It’s easy to forget that the great Christian voices of the past, whose words have given strength and courage to others, lived in times of turmoil, violence and corruption. Nevertheless they carried the light of Christ as best they could, bringing a bit of the kingdom of God with them as they went. The lights they shined, shine still. It’s a reminder that, as today’s bearers of the light of Christ, we too are ordained to bring a bit of the kingdom with us wherever we go, regardless of the conditions we encounter. It will not cure the ills of society, but it will offer an oasis in which a part of the kingdom can be experienced. The little we do today might even provide spiritual nourishment for future generations.
In an odd way, carrying the light might be easier for Christians in other countries that have not enjoyed the abundance of good things we have. Abundance easily taken for granted breeds complacent hubris, a sense of entitlement that displaces the need for God, and has little regard for redemption, salvation, and the promise of life eternal. God’s kingdom becomes an irrelevancy. It’s not the entitlement of the rich or the younger generations. It’s the entitlement of being Americans, citizens of the richest, most advanced democracy in the world – the natural model we believe all others should follow.
The idealized image of America has been fraying about the edges for decades, but these last few years have begun to shred it in earnest. Complacency has given way to collective anxiety that can’t be blamed entirely on secularization. Some fault adheres to a complacent body of Christ, and to some who believe accepting Jesus doesn’t require following him. At the turn of the 20th century, popular Christian proponents of the Social Gospel were enthusiastic about merging Christian ethics with technological developments that would erase poverty, establish peaceful harmony, and flood the nation with the goodness of God’s kingdom experienced more fully than ever before on earth. They meant well, and weren’t entirely wrong about the Christian obligation to work for a more just society, but reality intruded with wars, corruption, bigotry, and economic depression. Still, hope lingered, and there were a few post war years when it seemed like they had been successful. Life was good, churches were full, nominal Christianity was the de facto religion of the country; what could go wrong? Camelot had come to America.
Behind today’s discontented apprehension about conditions in society is a mythologized memory of the time when The United Sates of America was an oasis of prosperous tranquility in the midst of the roiling chaos affecting the rest of the world. It was a fictional time documented by popular radio and television shows in the post war years. Long gone, mostly forgotten, the images they created were seared into the American psyche. If Camelot ever existed, it was in post war America. A film retrospective of the Kennedy White House years, released not long after his death, dared to claim them to be the epitome of America’s Camelot era.
“A law was made a distant moon ago here:
In Camelot, so the story goes:
July and August cannot be too hot.
And there’s a legal limit to the snow here
The winter is forbidden till December
And exits March the second on the dot.
By order, summer lingers through September
I know it sounds a bit bizarre,
But in Camelot, Camelot
That’s how conditions are.
The rain may never fall till after sundown.
By eight, the morning fog must disappear.
In short, there’s simply not
A more congenial spot
For happily-ever-aftering than here
(Camelot, Alan Jay Lerner)
American Exceptionalism is another name for Camelot, our national birthright, but it’s eroding from under us. We collectively fear we’re experiencing the decline of American world hegemony. Even our treasured democracy appears to be teetering on the brink of libertarian authoritarianism. Has the current administration saved it, or simply delayed its eventual collapse?
The U.S. has the world’s largest, most prosperous economy, but prosperity is not equitably available to all. We’ve engineered a permanent underclass, and made the middle class more difficult to enter or stay in. We pay more and get less for health care than any other industrialized nation. We have the highest maternal mortality rate among first tier countries (Commonwealth Fund, Nov. 2020). Our kids are less well educated. Our aging infrastructure is held together with rubber bands and duct tape.
Hard core libertarians controlling the Republican Party are disinterested in the nation’s collective well being, and see government as the enemy of freedom (for selected people). They favor (democratic) autocracy of oligarchs over guaranteed universal suffrage. They label everything liberal as socialist, by which they mean Castro like communism. A few strident voices on the left provide them with adequate ammunition to manipulate a population for whom they have little genuine regard.
What are Christians supposed to do? The Book of Common Prayer’s version of Psalm 4 reads in part, “Many are saying, Oh that we might see better times.” A prayer in the Morning Office pleads with God to give peace in all the world because only in God can we live in safety (BCP, 97). Other prayers implore God to take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; and unite us in the bonds of love (BCP 815). They’re deeply heartfelt prayers that come close to implying we’ve given up, and want to shift the burden to God to do something about it.
Jesus was crucified as a threat to empire, but empire could not kill the Word of God made flesh, nor prevent him from completing his work on earth. Peter, Paul and James were executed by the empire, but the gospel spread anyway. The Body of Christ has persevered through millennia of hard times when life was “nasty, brutish and short.” In each generation there were followers of Jesus who boldly bore the light of Christ, proclaiming peace, healing, justice and reconciliation to the people and their leaders – courageously holding the powerful to account, whether civil or religious. Twentieth century proponents of the Social Gospel were fearless in confronting social evils, and influenced the liberal consensus creating the foundation for good times misunderstood as Camelot. The fight for civil rights was led by Christians following in the way of Jesus.
We follow in their footsteps. Not all are called to heroic service, but all are called to not lose heart. We are called to carry the light of Christ as we are able, doing what we can to exhibit a bit of the kingdom of God in the places and among the people where we are. Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled, believe in God, believe also in me” (John 14), he meant, trust God, trust me. Trust the Word of God and bear the light of Christ.