Friday, September 25, 2009

We have met the Romans and They Is Us (apologies to Pogo)

It's interesting to read a year of EfM for the second time. There's a chance to look at nuances and concepts that somehow swept by the first time.

Chapter 2 of Year 3 (church history) deals with the early days of the church in Rome and its empire. At first the Romans seemed to see Jewish and Christian as one and the same, not surprising since Christianity was evolving from its Jewish roots. Eventually, however, Christians were accused of mischief, superstition and eventually crimes including that of cannibalism, incest, superstition and even atheism (Christians denied the divinity of the Roman Emperor which made them athiests in the Roman eyes). As a result Christians were put through all sorts of torture including being put to death in the arena where their struggles were considered amusements for the Roman spectators or being hung on stakes and used as human torches.

The strength of the early Christians is a source of amazement to me. I know how I feel when people disagree with my religious beliefs and practices but how would I react if I were truly persecuted in the way the early Christians were? Could I have held the faith as surely as they did? Can I now, in a modern Western culture where persecution often means "You simply don't believe the right things and you should be excluded from the community of the true believers."

I posted this as my impression of the chapter on our discussion board and sure enough, one of the students gave me something to think about, namely, when looking at the position of the early church, perhaps we should also consider the Romans. The Romans were the majority in Rome (obviously -- otherwise we'd be talking about the Hittites, the Greeks or some other group) and were the ruling class in a good part of the rest of the Mediterranean world. The argument was made that perhaps the Romans were doing the best they could for the masses while dealing with a group that they felt were dangerous.

To me, that's a dangerous argument. It could be said that the Germans used the Holocaust as a way of dealing with a group they felt were dangerous and in a way that they felt were best for the masses. An older friend who lived in Germany for some years finally went to visit Auschwitz on a trip back to Europe years after having left to return to the States. She said that one room of exhibits particularly upset her, a room full of eyeglasses, and while describing it she still could not bring herself to say that the people whose glasses were there were exterminated. Her term for them was "had to leave their glasses behind." Well, that's true but coupled with the disappointment she stated she felt with herself for actually visiting Auschwitz and the statement that she didn't want to think the German people she was so fond of could have known about places like this, it points to the fact that even when faced with the truth of what happened she still could not accept the enormity of it.

I believe that we in the US are also guilty of being the modern equivalents of the Romans in the coliseum. There have been atrocities committed, often with the implied reason being the best interests of the masses, and we just sit in our place in the crowd and watch passively. Mention names like Cambodia, Argentina, Chile, Croatia, Darfur and we express our horror and empathy with the victims but what did we do to alleviate their suffering. These were the people in the arena, facing gladiators and wild animals with few if any defenses and we watched as they suffered and died. We tried sending aid in some cases but that aid was diverted by the powers that be in those countries to benefit their supporters while the exterminations, the starvation, the rape and murder, the kidnapping and torture, the forcible impression of young children into bands of soldiers went on, often without our saying a word.

The church was no better. Where was the voice of the church when all these things were going on? Seldom did a group that calls itself Christian speak out in a way that commanded attention to and assisted in the reversal of the horror and death. While one Roman may not have been able to stop the carnage in the coliseums but a number of them could have done and possibly did, quietly and at risk to themselves, try to rescue as many as possible.

While thinking of the Romans I have one thought: He may have had only one, but Cassius certainly had a point.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

So they called them and charged them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.” And when they had further threatened them, they let them go, finding no way to punish them, because of the people, for all were praising God for what had happened. For the man on whom this sign of healing was performed was more than forty years old. (Acts 4:18-22, ESV)

Peter and John are facing what would probably be considered the Supreme Court of Jerusalem in their time -- "...rulers, elders, and scribes assembled in Jerusalem, with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family" (vs. 5-6). The disciples had been encouraging the people to follow Jesus and the religious hierarchy was nervous. What was at stake was no less than their position of power because these two who had no standing or position within the priestly class were preaching and teaching about an executed criminal who wanted to change things dramatically. And furthermore they had actually healed a man in the name of this executed criminal, a man who was actually standing in the court in mute testimony of what had happened to him! The court could not make charges stick so they told the disciples to just keep quiet and go home. Peter and John couldn't do that, they explained. They were charged to spread the Word. The court again found itself powerless so with another warning they released the two.

The part that struck me this morning was " ' ...Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.' " The disciples simply stated the truth -- they had to do what they were charged to do by an authority higher than the priestly court who had tried to bring them up on charges and silence them.

I wonder what would have happened if Peter and John had given in. They could have slunk off, promising never to be bad again and returning to their little villages and fishing boats but instead they stood up for what they knew God wanted of them --- to continue to spread the word of the good news and the kingdom. At the time of the arrest people were listening to that message and were believing. Scripture reports that just on the one occasion at which Peter and John were apprehended, 5,000 believed enough to accept the message these two Galileans brought. The Jerusalem council didn't, but they had too much to lose and their own conviction that they had the truth about what God wanted. Peter and John could have authored the slogan used by the kosher hot-dog people, "We answer to a higher authority" and it would have been no lie. They had a job to do and only God could turn them away from it, even at the risk of their lives. They had a message all the people needed to hear and, with God’s help, they were going to pass that message as far and as wide as they could.

It reminds me a little of the verbal donnybrook going on in the Anglican Communion these days. There is the demand that all Anglicans/Episcopalians follow the "faith once delivered to the saints" and accept traditional thinking as orthodoxy with no truck being taken for progressive or contemporary scholarship models. Funny, but a lot of this centers around basically two groups of people, two traditional sacraments and three (or maybe three million) ways of looking at things #1 and 2. The people, of course, are (a) GLBTI and (b)anybody who sees them as children of God with no distinction made as to their status as baptized members of the Body of Christ with the rights and responsibilities of any other baptized member of the Body. The sacraments are (a) marriage and (b) ordination/consecration. The ways of looking at things run the gamut from ultra-ultra orthodox through to the far opposite pole, the ultra-progressive liberal. In the vast middle are those in between, many of whom simply see Christianity as their way of belief, they may have answers but aren't particularly worried whether theirs are the only possible ones, and who generally feel that if the church baptizes people and God calls'em, then let'em minister as God calls. If they're in a committed relationship and intend to continue this relationship until death do them part, let'em get married with all the rights and responsibilities of heterosexual married people. Of course there are some of the more conservative who don't particularly get upset at the thought of GLBTI priests or married couples and some progressives who just can't make that step from what they were taught growing up. Still, Anglican/Episcopal thought is all over the place on some issues and that's one of the strengths of the Anglican/Episcopal tradition.

I see Peter and John in this quagmire, standing before accusers, stating firmly that they answer to God rather than that of the humans sitting in judgment of them and that they can't stop what they're doing because this is what God has given them to do. It may not be a popular stance with many, and there are always those who feel called upon to judge what is and what isn't God's will that applies to everybody, no exceptions, but it's their calling, their vocation, their job.

I see The Episcopal Church, and others who see the same inclusiveness of all the baptized, standing with Peter and John, proclaiming what they feel is assuredly from God through the Spirit and in accordance with Jesus' teachings. If others wish a stricter discipline of what they feel is God's will for them, so be it and God's blessings be upon them but prophets and prophetic messages aren't always popular with the leadership or even the rank-and-file. The prophets of the Old Testament were ample witness of that. Still, they held firm to the message God gave them to deliver, come hell, high water or anything else. They stood their ground and answered to a higher authority. They could do no differently. The apostles and disciples of Jesus, including the guy Paul who certainly did a 180° turn, certainly didn't give messages that were popular in all corners, especially among the hierarchy in power. After all, Jesus' message wasn't about any power except God's and about loving God and the neighbors, even the ones who disagreed on how best to accomplish that.

TEC stands accused, just as the prophets and later Peter and John were, in the courts of the powerful, the hierarchy and those who are convinced that only they have all the right answers as to what it is God wants. TEC would do well to take the words of Peter and John to heart, " 'Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.' ” In this age of soundbyte theology, TEC might do well to appropriate the slogan of the kosher hot-dog maker, "We answer to a higher authority." I think that's a pretty good line in the sand to draw and a statement to defend. I hope we have the courage to do it.