Sunday, November 30, 2008

A Thousand Years in a Day (11/30/08)

A Thousand Years in a Day
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

November 30th, 2008
First Sunday of Advent

But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.

Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of people ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire? But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.

Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.
2 Peter 3:8-15a

“One of my least favorite liturgical seasons is Advent.”

Thus writes Peter Gomes in his book The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus: What’s So Good About the Good News?

Why is Gomes so grumpy about Advent? Isn’t it the season of hope, peace, joy, and love as the banners around our sanctuary attest? Gomes gripes not about hope, but cheap hope. He writes:

“The conventional wisdom is that Advent is the season of hope, and we light our Advent candles, one more on each Sunday, not simply anticipating the light but increasing it. Although Advent is, like Lent, meant to be a season of penitence,…it has become a month-long dress rehearsal for Christmas and a commercial phenomenon that is beyond the power of mere Christmas to defeat. Years ago, when in October I saw the first Santa Claus in a store window and heard tinny carols in a department store elevator, I knew that Thanksgiving could not be far away and that the battle for Advent had been lost. What I find difficult to take seriously about Advent is the note of false rather than authentic hope that is imposed upon people.” P. 214
I will get back to Peter Gomes in a minute. Here is my story that resonates with his.

In my first congregation, for several years I had a bit of a kerfluffle with my choir director, and the choir, and frankly the whole congregation. Fresh out of seminary, convinced of the correct way to do church, I insisted upon no Christmas carols during Advent. Instead we need to sing those dirge-like, minor key, Advent hymns. After Christmas we can sing Christmas songs all the way into February! But, of course by then, after the present exchanging frenzy and after the city has taken away the wrappers and boxes we have left at the curb, no one is in the mood for Christmas songs.

I had a good argument. During Lent, we don’t sing Jesus Christ is Risen Today. We don’t hear all the joyous Easter anthems. We let Lent be Lent. It is a season of personal discipline, repentance, and spiritual reflection. On Easter and after, we celebrate the mystery of Resurrection. Then and only then, do we sing out the Allelulias.

I continued my argument. The reason there is no pressure to sing Easter songs during Lent is because Easter has not yet been bought by the corporations to the extent that Christmas has. If Easter was a major shopping holiday that needed two months of build up, and if Easter hymns were played non-stop in the Wal-Mart during Lent, you can bet we would be singing Easter hymns in church during Lent as well.

They were intrigued by my argument, but not motivated. They said, “So, can we sing just a few Christmas songs during Advent?”

I gave in. Like grumpy Gomes, I conceded that Advent was a lost cause. I knew that if I didn’t compromise a mutiny would result and I would have a stake of holly driven through my heart.  I did hold out for one Sunday, this first one. After that, Christmas indulgence was too overwhelming a force to curb.

What is Advent? Advent is the light of a single candle at the far end of a dark cave. That is its message. It is survival hope. You need that candle or you don’t get out.

But when we are in a shopping mall flooded by manufactured incandescent bulbs, holding up an Advent candle for light is preposterous.

“We don’t need your candle, bub, we have ten million megawatts of Christmas joy.”

America is not ready for Advent. It may be some day. Not now. Not when we still have the resources to spend 450 billion dollars each year at Christmas to indulge ourselves. To proclaim Advent hope in our context is either nonsensical or blasphemous. It either cannot be processed or it becomes a cheery optimism. Worse yet, it becomes a divine blessing for our materialism.

Gomes writes:
“Dietrich Bonhoeffer once warned against cheap grace, and I warn now against cheap hope. Hope is not merely the optimistic view that somehow everything will turn out all right in the end if everyone just does as we do. Hope is the more rugged, the more muscular view that even if things don’t turn out all right and aren’t all right, we endure through and beyond the times that disappoint or threaten to destroy us….This kind of hope requires work, effort, and expenditure without the assurance of an easy or ready return.” P. 220.
The texts that we have for Advent, like this one from Second Peter, sound out of place. In our context, these ancient words of hope are like a candle in the middle of a huge Target store the week before Christmas. Too much artificial light keeps us from seeing the real light.

Let’s try anyway:

But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.
The context of this scripture, as is the context for much of scripture, is necessity. It comes from the dark cave of hunger, injustice, oppression, loneliness, grief, longing, and suffering. It looks with desperation for the light of the candle. It is this cry from the psalmist:

Restore us again, O God of our salvation,
and put away your indignation towards us.
Will you be angry with us for ever?
Will you prolong your anger to all generations?
Will you not revive us again,
so that your people may rejoice in you?
Show us your steadfast love, O Lord,
and grant us your salvation. Psalm 85:4-7
I wonder if those who are in a position to hear the message of Advent hope are too depressed to be in church in the first place. Please don’t misunderstand. I am not suggesting we need to feel guilty for not suffering or for not feeling hopeless. Nor am I assuming that you are not feeling hopeless. I don’t know to what degree of suffering any of you are experiencing.

What I am suggesting is that the season of Advent assumes darkness and hopelessness. It starts there.

Again, quoting Gomes:

“Hope works where nothing else does. If we want to know how and where hope works, we should look at the most desperate places and among people who suffer, for that is where hope is both necessary and evident. Hope, let us remember, is not the opposite of suffering; suffering is the necessary antecedent of hope.” P. 223
The obliterating artificial light of materialism doesn’t even give us an opportunity to be aware of our own suffering. Our culture doesn’t give permission to be sad. We are unable to acknowledge that we have any dis-ease. Certainly nothing that Christmas carols, toys, and technology can’t fix. What do we hear?

What a wonderful time of the year.
What a wonderful time of the year.
What a wonderful time of the year.

In the midst of this glaring brightness, any attempt to point to the candle light of Advent makes one look like a curmudgeon—a sourpuss at the office Christmas party.

“Everybody is happy, don’t depress us.”


However, for those who are aware of the darkness and who are in it, there is a candle.

• For those who can step out of the artificial light, because they know it is not a true light, and risk stepping into the darkness, Advent is for you.

• For those who are not convinced that the global economy and our technological prowess will move us onward and upward into the post-petroleum age without any significant change to our way of life, Advent is for you.

• For those who have lost a loved one and for whom this season is especially heavy, Advent is for you.

• For those who are doubtful that we are going to halt climate change and who are suspicious of political messiahs, Advent is for you.

• For those who feel the pain of a broken relationship, the angst of aging, a lingering illness, or an uncertain future, Advent is for you.

• For those who worry and wonder how we are going to sustain a hungry and thirsty planet of people, and are sick at heart at the extinction of our non-human relations, Advent is for you.

• For those who lay awake at night worrying about your job, your home, or your finances, Advent is for you.

• For those who cannot bear to watch another violent news story, Advent is for you.

• For those who look at our children in our church, in our schools, in our neighborhoods, and wonder what their lives will be like when they are our age, Advent is for you.

• For those who just don’t feel as happy as you think you are supposed to feel, Advent is for you.

• For those who are sick and tired of being sick and tired and no longer can pretend to bury the darkness under the artificial light of cheap hope, there is a candle. Advent is for you.

Advent is for those who would dare the darkness. It is for those who are acquainted with the night. Advent is for the author of this poem:

I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain -- and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.

I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.

I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,

But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
O luminary clock against the sky

Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.

Robert Frost’s “Acquainted with the Night” is an appropriate Advent poem.

I titled this sermon “A Thousand Years in a Day” from that sentence in 2 Peter:

with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.

This text and this image provide encouragement in the midst of desperate longing and disappointment. When that dark cave is long and deep and damp, and it doesn’t seem like we will ever get out, this is the message:

The Universe and whatever is beyond it is a lot bigger than we are. A day is but a thousand years and a thousand years are but a day in Divine time. Divine hope is not on our timetable.  It is a reminder that our hope is from a place yet untapped, yet unimagined. It is something not calculable. It is a source of strength not yet discovered and yet it is discovered as we need it.

It is a hope that is stronger than suffering, but it comes from suffering. This hope is not cheap or easy. It is formed from our character as we honestly engage our suffering and the suffering of all living things.

Peter Gomes tells us that if we remember
“…that genuine hope, a hope worth having, is forged upon the anvil of adversity, and that hope and suffering are related through the formation of character, then we will realize that hope is much more than mere optimism. Hope is the stuff that gets us through and beyond when the worst that can happen happens. P. 220-1
Genuine hope comes from our experience of adversity as it relies on a place yet untapped and deep within. It invites us to be honest with the darkness. In the words of Robert Frost, to be “acquainted with the night.”

Whether we admit it or not, we are amidst a darkness that cannot be obliterated by the light of ten thousand Wal-Marts. This darkness can only be lit by a candle. Advent points to that candle. This candle shows us just enough light so that we can take one step. It is an honest step taken in honest hope about our real condition.

Even as we step with this muscular hope, in the words of 2 Peter:

“…we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.”


Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Divine Reflection (11/23/08 Reign of Christ)

The Divine Reflection
John Shuck
First Presbyterian Church

Elizabethton, Tennessee

November 23rd, 2008
Thanksgiving/Reign of Christ

I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love towards all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.
--Ephesians 1:15-23

Today marks the intersection of two holidays of importance to us. One is Thanksgiving, a cultural holiday. Many things are connected with Thanksgiving Day. Some of these are healthier for us in mind, body, and spirit than others. Yet, the practice and truth of thanksgiving is critical for our lives. Show me a person who is happy, productive and peaceful and you will find a person who is grateful.

The other holiday or Holy Day is specifically Christian. Today is Reign of Christ Sunday, traditionally called Christ the King. It is the final Sunday of the church’s liturgical year.

On Reign of Christ Sunday, we consider the fullness of the Universe in order, in place, in perfect peace. As we read this beautiful poetry of Ephesians:
God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.
Christ is at the right hand of the Father in the heavenly places. This is heavy duty Christian mythology. Mythology is the language we use to speak about value and meaning. All religions have myths, symbols, and metaphors. One of the unfortunate things about Christian mythology is not the mythology itself, it is that we have insisted on it. When you take a metaphor and turn it into a descriptor, you are going to have problems. I will mention three. We have to mention them and then move on so we can appreciate the truth to which the text points.

First, we have made an idol of the “maleness” of our main character, the Son at the right hand of the Father. One piece of evidence is enough to make my point: The first woman to be ordained to the ministry in our denomination, Margaret Towner, is still living. Christianity has been around for 2000 years and Presbyterians ordained the first woman in 1956. And we are the liberals. We weren’t the first. The Society of Friends or the Quakers were the first in the early 1800s.

The vast majority of Christian organizations around the world do not ordain women. In the Roman Catholic tradition priests are male specifically because of the maleness of Jesus. That is the theological rational for denying ordination to women.

Of course the historical person of Jesus was a male. The church saw something more in him and used mythological language to describe that something more. As the myths were created, rather than transcending maleness, they divinized maleness. They could have said Jesus Christ is fully male and fully female. Why not? We said Christ was fully God and fully human, which is much more of a stretch in logic.

The church did not, so far. Males were too interested in maintaining unbalanced power relations. This is not simply a matter of politically correct language. This is about power and access. It is also about the location of the sacred. As feminist theologian, Mary Daly pointed out nearly forty years ago, “When God becomes male, the male becomes God.”

There is nothing wrong with Father and Son language as one metaphor for the Sacred. The problem is our history. We have used this language at the expense of other metaphors, particularly feminine images. This is why I think it is important, at the very least, to engage in holy mischief and change the pronouns.

Second, Christian exclusivism has tainted this metaphor. Rather than seeing this metaphor as an expression of universal truth, Christians all too often have made Christ “our god” who is better than “their god.” Language such as “put all things under his feet” is not liberating language for those who have been put under the feet of those who think they are the vicars of Christ. This language has fostered Christian dominionism.

Rather than see Jesus Christ as one of many names for the Holy (which we could have done and still can do), we divinized exclusivism. Rather than emphasize the connection of Christ with the figures of other mythologies, Christianity put its figure at the top of the pole and denied the validity of other figures.

In the Gospels Jesus preached an important message. Move beyond your tribalism. So what did we do? We turned him into the god of our tribe. This is again about power and access. When Christians claim exclusivism for Jesus Christ, we do not honor Christ. We honor ourselves. When God exclusively becomes Christ, Christians become God.

Third, where is heaven and where is the throne upon which Christ sits? When our cosmology knew that Earth was in the center of creation surrounded by the heavenly bodies, the planets and the stars, with the topmost outermost sphere being heaven, this image worked. We all had our place in the cosmos.

Our modern conception of the universe has no place for heaven if we insist that heaven is beyond us. By insisting that the sacred, the holy, God, or Christ, transcends the universe, we have stripped the universe of its sacred dimension. Rather than Christ on the throne in heaven as metaphor for the sacred order of the universe, it has resulted in the absence of God. This coupled with human greed has turned the universe into something profane. It is material to be used rather than holy ground to be honored. The living things of earth are objects for exploitation rather than subjects inherently and innately divine.

The problem is not with the author of Ephesians. The problem is our 2000 year history of interpretation.

We can deal with that. We can let those idols go.
• We can substitute a feminine image. Christ is fully female and fully male.
• We can celebrate Christ as our name for the universal presence of the holy that has many names.
• We can imagine that heaven is within, among, and through all that is.

If we can navigate around the stumbling blocks, then we can wrestle with the real scandal that this text presents to us.

On this Holy Day, we are invited to affirm that all is well with the world. At the core of Reality, at the heart of the Universe both visible and invisible, there is order and peace. Because Christ is in her proper place, granting peace and strength, we can breathe more easily. That is the claim.

Martin Luther King Jr. said the arc of the Universe bends toward justice.

I cannot find the source for this but Albert Einstein is reported to have said that the most important puzzle is whether or not the Universe is friendly. Is it just up to us to find meaning in this indifferent world or is there something friendly about the whole thing?

The writer of Ephesians would say the universe is friendly because our divine friend, Jesus Christ, is on his throne ruling with love and justice. Other religious traditions say similar things in many different ways.

Last night at the United Religions Initiative we sang a song that contained the phrase, “that love may reign.”

Maybe we should just call this Holy Day, Reign of Love Sunday.

That is the point the author of Ephesians wants to make. That is the claim of faith. Divine Love holds us and all will be well.

Our thoughts and our feelings tell us that all is not well with the world. We look around and we do not see order, peace, or fullness. We see a lot of chaos, violence, and emptiness in our own lives and in the lives of the beings of Earth.

We are in an anxious time. I know that many of you are concerned about your jobs, your pensions, and your homes. You are concerned about the planet. You are concerned about our future. Are we going to be OK? Can we turn this?

I don’t think it was any easier when Ephesians was written than now. They struggled as we do. Near the end of the letter, the author offers this advice:

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Eph. 6:10-12
These are the powers that in the first chapter of Ephesians, Christ has under his feet. They are ultimately under his feet while at the same time we have to put on the armor of Christ and deal with them.

Last Sunday I quoted Reinhold Niebuhr from his book Moral Man, Immoral Society. Niebuhr concluded that work by saying:

“…justice cannot be approximated if the hope of its perfect realization does not generate a sublime madness in the soul. Nothing but such madness will do battle with malignant power and “spiritual wickedness in high places.” p. 277
I think Niebuhr is right. And I think what the author of Ephesians is promoting is a sublime madness in the soul.

That madness tells us that all is well with the world and all will be well. 

Now get out there and make it so.

Theologian Sallie McFague, in her latest book, A New Climate for Theology: God, the World and Global Warming, concludes her work appropriately, with words of hope. She writes:

Hope is trust, trust in God—not in things, events, or people. To trust in God means God can be counted on to hold one’s life and all life in trust, safekeeping. It means that one can rest one’s life—and the life of the whole planet—in God, knowing that this trust will somehow be honored.
She goes on to say:
This, then, is an odd kind of hope. It does not mean that things will necessarily turn out “as we hope,” nor does it mean that we will be successful in our attempts to “save” the planet, but it does mean that God will “make all things well….”

This is not sentimental or romantic hope that things will turn out okay, but rather the faith that however they turn out, the world and all its creatures are held, kept, within God. Pp. 170-1.
We cannot see how it will work out. We cannot calculate it. Trying to calculate it can lead us to despair. That is no good for anyone. The great wisdom, the deep wisdom of our spiritual traditions reminds us that through our trust, a way is shown. We don’t know what that way is now. We cannot see it. We will find the way in time. It may not be us. It may be our descendants who find the way.

At the center of Reality, to use Christian language, Christ is where she needs to be. She is at the center within, among, and through all living things. She is in us. We are the divine reflection as is all creation. She has been with us for this universe’s 14 billion year history. She has made all things and all things are holy.

It could be that this shaking of the foundations, to use a phrase from theologian Paul Tillich, may open us to a deeper sense of who we are. It could be a time to discover what we value. This could be a time in which Christ is inviting us to turn toward one another.

Even as I am a snarky skeptic, I know from my own experience that I am able to get things done, and get good things done, when I operate from a sublime madness in the soul. When I put my trust in the hope that all will be well, that the friendly universe bends toward justice, that love reigns, and that I am in the loving care of Christ, I tend to be more creative and less despairing.

I am going to close with a poem by Christine Fry. I found this on Joanna Macy’s webpage. She included it under poems that she loves.

We read this last night at the United Religions Initiative dinner.


You've asked me to tell you of The Great Turning, of how we saved the world from disaster.
The answer is both simple and complex.
We turned.

For hundreds of years we had turned away as life on earth grew more precarious.
We turned away from the homeless men on the streets, the stench from the river, the children orphaned in Iraq, the mothers dying of AIDS in Africa.

We turned away because that is what we had been taught.
To turn away, from our pain, from the hurt in another's eyes, from the drunken father or the friend betrayed.

Always we were told, in actions louder than words, to turn away, turn away. And so we became a lonely people caught up in a world moving too quickly, too mindlessly towards its own demise.

Until it seemed as if there was no safe place to turn. No place, inside or out, that did not remind us of fear or terror, despair and loss, anger and grief.

Yet on one of those days someone did turn.

Turned to face the pain. Turned to face the stranger. Turned to look at the smoldering world and the hatred seething in too many eyes. Turned to face himself, herself.

And then another turned. And another. And another. And as they wept, they took each other's hands.

Until whole groups of people were turning. Young and old, gay and straight. People of all colors, all nations, all religions. Turning not only to the pain and hurt but to beauty, gratitude and love, Turning to one another with forgiveness and a longing for peace in their hearts...

Sunday, November 16, 2008

We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For (11/16/08)

Here is today's sermon. In relation to it, you might be interested in this thirty minute television interview between Mike Wallace and Reinhold Niebuhr from 1958.

We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For
John Shuck
First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee
November 16th, 2008

President-elect Barack Obama has been getting a lot of advice. Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple, wrote an open letter to Obama and advised him above all to care for his soul. She told him that he didn’t create this mess and he alone won’t be the one to get us out of it. His primary responsibility is to cultivate happiness in his own life. She writes:

A good model of how to "work with the enemy" internally is presented by the Dalai Lama, in his endless caretaking of his soul as he confronts the Chinese government that invaded Tibet. Because, finally, it is the soul that must be preserved, if one is to remain a credible leader. All else might be lost; but when the soul dies, the connection to earth, to peoples, to animals, to rivers, to mountain ranges, purple and majestic, also dies.
She closed her letter with this interesting sentence. “We are the ones we have been waiting for.” That is wisdom.

Reinhold Niebuhr wrote the following 56 years ago in his book, The Irony of American History. This is also good wisdom for our new president-elect.
  • "Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope.
  • Nothing which is true, or beautiful, or good, makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we must be saved by faith.
  • Nothing we do, however virtuous, could be accomplished alone; therefore, we must be saved by love.
  • No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our own standpoint; therefore, we must be saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness."
If we are curious as to how President-elect Barack Obama might see himself as president, it would be good to read Reinhold Niebuhr. Obama called Niebuhr his favorite philosopher. Obama was interviewed by New York Times columnist, David Brooks a couple of years ago.    Brooks wrote about this recently. According to Brooks, the interview wasn’t going anywhere. Brooks asked him if he had ever heard of Reinhold Niebuhr. Obama talked for twenty minutes summarizing Niebuhr’s thought.

I have to say how refreshing it is to have a President who has a favorite philosopher. Not just a philosopher, but a philosopher of the intellectual caliber of Reinhold Niebuhr. Not only can he just name a favorite, but he can offer a cogent summary of his thought. That made my day.

Reinhold Niebuhr is no easy read. He was a complex person. He changed his views throughout his career. He was a minister and activist in Detroit in the 1920s speaking out against working conditions in Henry Ford’s assembly lines. He was a socialist and a pacifist.  Then he rejected the pacifist social gospel and the liberal ideology of progress during the Depression and the rise of Hitler. From the magazine he edited, Christianity and Crisis, he advocated for the U.S. involvement against the Nazis when the U.S. was still in an isolationist mode.

Niebuhr understood power and that the way to deal with abuses of power was with power in return. It needed to be self-critical power, not self-righteous power. He understood what he called “the brutal character of all human collectives and the power of self-interest” in all inter-group relations.

In 1932, Niebuhr wrote Moral Man, Immoral Society. In this book he argued that while individuals may operate from altruism and self-sacrifice, the state is incapable of doing so. Not only can the state not do so, it deludes itself by thinking it can. It does horrendous, evil things in the name of ideals it perceives as good. In its most evil form, it calls itself good.

Niebuhr criticized the notion that we could educate ourselves to the point that reason and goodwill would solve our conflicts. He understood that reason serves all too easily prejudice and passion and that social conflict is inevitable and will likely remain so throughout human history.

The mythical religious ideal of ultimate peace and brotherhood is not likely in history even as we can keep it as an ideal to approach. What we can hope to do is to limit brutality. Quoting Niebuhr:

“…collective man, operating in the historic and mundane scene, must content himself with a more modest goal. His concern for some centuries to come is not the creation of an ideal society in which there will be uncoerced and perfect peace and justice, but a society in which there will be enough justice, and in which coercion will be sufficiently non-violent to prevent his common enterprise from issuing into complete disaster.” P. 22.
Niebuhr’s goal perhaps sounds too modest for the romantics among us, but as we look through history with open eyes, we are fortunate when this modest goal is achieved.

These past years have been marked by a dangerous and destructive illusion that American society is moral. If only we good guys were in control then the world would be good. The neocons of the Project for the New American Century sought to capitalize on the mythology of the divine selection of America as the moral leader of the world. Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfield, Jeb Bush, Paul Wolfowitz were all part of this club. This is their mission statement:
“The Project for the New American Century is a non-profit educational organization dedicated to a few fundamental propositions: that American leadership is good both for America and for the world; and that such leadership requires military strength, diplomatic energy and commitment to moral principle.”
In the name of an ideology that America is moral and as such should be leader of the world, we have been engaged in war. This war has been justified in the name of democracy or against terror or to rid the world of evil. There is little self-criticism and much self-righteousness.

Former Tennessee Senator, Howard Baker was quoted a couple of years ago in the Johnson City Press:
“’We’re the strongest nation on Earth militarily.’ He said, ‘We’re the most moral nation on Earth. We are an example to the rest of the world, even that part of the world that doesn’t like us much. …You realize that even our most vocal adversaries really in a way are expressing an envy for America, for our ability to create wealth and distribute it as equitably as has ever been known in history….We are the greatest nation on Earth, but we have the greatest obligations of Earth.”
Self-righteous but not self-critical. I wonder if Reinhold Niebuhr is turning over in his grave at the hubris of statements like those of former senator Howard Baker and of course, the neocons. I think he might say, “That is the very thing I was writing about when I wrote against the Capitalists in the 1920s and the Nazis in the 1930s and the Communists in the 1950s and the Americans in Vietnam in the 1960s.”

In the name of being the most moral nation on Earth, we have selected ourselves to bring democracy and freedom by starting an endless war on terror which is a tactic not an enemy. In this battle of good vs. evil, we have justified evil actions against real people, not the least of these actions is torture.

How is it that we individual Americans would allow something to be done on behalf of our society that we would never do as individuals?

Niebuhr explained this dilemma in the opening page of Moral Man, Immoral Society:

Individual men may be moral in the sense that they are able to consider interests other than their own in determining problems of conduct, and are capable, on occasion, of preferring the advantages of others to their own. They are endowed by nature with a measure of sympathy and consideration for their kind, the breadth of which may be extended by an astute social pedagogy. Their rational faculty prompts them to a sense of justice which educational discipline may refine and purge of egoistic elements until they are able to view a social situation, in which their own interests are involved, with a fair measure of objectivity. But all these achievements are more difficult, if not impossible, for human societies and social groups. In every human group there is less reason to guide and to check impulse, less capacity for self-transcendence, less ability to comprehend the needs of others and therefore more unrestrained egoism than the individuals, who compose the group, reveal in their personal relationships. Xi
In other words: People make decisions and act in groups in ways that they would not decide or act as individuals. I have said to members of various church sessions I have moderated to be sensitive to that when they make decisions. Would you make this decision as an individual face to face with the person or persons this decision will affect?

Our group identity, like a uniform, protects us from the need to take ownership of and be responsible for our decisions. The larger and more complex the social groups the greater the protection. No American, except a sociopath that we lock away, would torture someone. And yet our country does it.

For Niebuhr, the role of ethics is to puncture that protective uniform. We can only have our individual consciences raised when we feel a little of the pain, accept some of that responsibility, and question our justifications and rationalizations as to why this happens. As Alice Walker wrote, we need to preserve our souls.

This is the text I chose for today from Hebrews: Hebrews 13:1-3:

Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.
I never noticed that last line before this week. It popped out at me as though it were in bold print.

Let mutual love continue. Show hospitality to strangers. Because we think of love and hospitality as sentimental, we expect the next line to be “Oh, by the way, be nice to your grandmother.” But instead it is: “Oh, by the way, remember those being tortured as if you yourself were being tortured.”

How do you do that? How do you put yourself in that frame of mind? Remember those being waterboarded as if that was happening to you. The text calls us to personal responsibility. It won’t allow us to accept abstraction. It won’t allow us to accept the rationalization that says we need to do everything we can to protect our country. This text is designed to puncture that protective layer that regards those who are being tortured as not my responsibility. It becomes personal.

What do you do after you have remembered them as if you were in their place? You might do what these folks did this past Wednesday in Washington.

The National Religious Campaign Against Torture held an event to urge Barack Obama to sign an executive order banning torture as one his first official actions. These religious leaders also urged congress to form a committee to investigate the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” used by U.S. personnel since September 11th 2001.

Did these religious leaders pressure Obama to create world peace? No. The goal is more modest: stop the most inhumane forms of brutality. Preserve our soul. Our current outgoing administration has suffered from the illusion that America as a nation is good and moral and so it can outmaneuver, outthink, and outshoot evil. It should be able to do all of these things without criticism. Mission accomplished. Reinhold Niebuhr knew that while individuals may be moral on occasion, society itself is not. According to Niebuhr, America, like every other society, is immoral and capable of the most horrendous evil. However, moral individuals can move America to be more honest with itself and more just.

How do we do that? Those who hope for the transformation of our societies need to keep some illusions. We need to throw out the illusion that we are good but we need to keep the illusion that we can be good. According to Niebuhr we need “a sublime madness in the soul.” This is where the romantics and the visionaries have a role. This is how he ends his book, Moral Man, Immoral Society:

The most important of these illusions is that the collective life of mankind can achieve perfect justice. It is a very valuable illusion for the moment; for justice cannot be approximated if the hope of its perfect realization does not generate a sublime madness in the soul. Nothing but such madness will do battle with malignant power and “spiritual wickedness in high places.” The illusion is dangerous because it encourages terrible fanaticisms. It must therefore be brought under the control of reason. One can only hope that reason will not destroy it before its work is done. P. 277
Reinhold Niebuhr was a complex person. I am glad that Obama has some Niebuhr in him. This is what Obama said in regards to Niebuhr in that interview with the New York Times columnist, David Brooks:

"There's serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. I take away [from Niebuhr]... the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naïve idealism to bitter realism."
That may be good wisdom for us as a church, as Americans, and as citizens of Earth. May we preserve our souls and keep our faith as we chart that middle path between idealism and realism. I will close with a prayer attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr. Let us pray:

"God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed,
courage to change the things that should be changed,
and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other."