My high school history and humanities teacher, Alan Amend, awakened in me a love of history. My interest in it has its crests and troughs, but it has endured. One of the peaks was toward the end of my (first) seminary years when I had visions of becoming a Church history professor. I began a graduate program in history at UCLA that did not last long. Although I concluded that such an intense academic focus was not for me, my gratitude for those extra years in history had endured. History gives us a sense of perspective that spans continents and millennia.
The awareness of prior generations with their various challenges, triumphs, and defeats can liberate us from assuming that we are the first or last or best to wrestle with anything. or that ours is the definitive frame of reference. So it has come to pass that I view the current parade of events both grateful to be living when I do and aware that we are but one of history's many chapters. Even in my teens and twenties I was drawn to the sobering reminders of poets.
“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
—Percy Bysshe Shelley
We are the greatest city,
the greatest nation:
nothing like us ever was.
—Carl Sandburg, “Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind” (1922)
Taken out of context the quotations above suggest grandeur, but the poems in their entirety are sobering challenges to hubris, the pride that is the seed of downfall in the ancient Greek tragedies. Shelley’s Ozymandias speaks of the shattered remains of this great king’s statue and concludes as follows:
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Sandburg, writing a century after Shelley’s death, speaks of crows and rats in deserted ruins, concluding thus:
And the wind shifts
and the dust on a door sill shifts
and even the writing of the rat footprints
tells us nothing, nothing at all
greatest city, the greatest nation
where the strong men listened
and the women warbled: Nothing like us ever was.
What, then, endures if great civilizations fall to dust and ruin, or are swallowed up by vegetation and forgotten? What will our legacy be?
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume
and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in
heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in
and steal.” (Matthew 6:19-20)
It would seem that Caesar’s standards are not those of Jesus. Enduring riches or fame are stored up “in heaven” or in God. In ordinary terms we think of grass withering but gold enduring, yet St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians reminds us that it is faith, hope, and love that endure.
I find it both amusing and deeply chilling to read the words of Gary Schmitt in a memorandum from January 2001: “…[T]he preservation of a decent world order depends chiefly on the exercise of American leadership.” This is part of a discussion about the International Criminal Court and its rejection by participants in the Project for a New American Century (PNAC). What troubles me about the sentence is the idea that American leadership, no matter how important in globally politics, would be a chief element in the preservation of a decent world order. It implies that without one particular nation there would be little hope of decent order in the world, as though one nation either controlled or guaranteed decency or order! “Nothing like us ever was,” I hear in the background, as rats and lizards listen (but they do not applaud and cheer).
Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the LORD of hosts. (Zechariah 4:6)
That which gives value to our lives and is of lasting value is not the monuments we erect but the love we share, the justice we do, and the mercy we show.
In spite my own political biases, this is not a partisan rant. It does not matter which political party is ascendant, what the affiliation of any current President, which factions control Congress, what ideologies appeal to those whose wealth and influence shape the fate of millions. My concern here is with human choices, human actions, and their consequences for the average denizen of the earth. As an American, my concern is with the behavior of the United States as it embodies the dreams and the principles of our Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights. As a Christian, my concern is with how those of us who seek to follow Christ, or claim that we do, actually make decisions, take actions, cast votes, speak up, or remain passive when the collective reality of our government—a government designed to be “of the people, by the people, and for the people—shapes the lives and fates of our citizens and of the rest of the world’s inhabitants.
Do we choose Jesus or Caesar? The way of love or the way of power? The way of reconciliation or the way of vengeance? The way of justice or the way of personal aggrandizement? Grasping or sharing? Judging or understanding? Advantage or mutuality? Greed or generosity? Hospitality or hostility? Peace or war? Sustainability or exploitation? Liberation or oppression? Hope or fear? Hearts that are open or closed? Truth or deceit? Integrity or corruption?
To say “Jesus is Lord” is to relativize all other claims to our allegiance. Caesar cannot be Lord if Jesus is, and neither can anyone else, including corporate entities. Not a governmental figure nor a company. Those who have been “sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever” cannot owe their soul to the “company store.” Those delivered from bondage in Egypt do not return to Pharaoh. Those set free by Christ do not belong to anyone less than God. Do we then act as God’s people?
Do we speak out? Do we stand up? Or do we sit back and wait for God to sort it all out, when God is waiting for us to join in God’s work and be the Body of Christ in our time? Do remember that Jesus does not call us that we may be comforted but that we may be transformed and become agents of God’s love, healing, and grace?
We remember Jesus’ sense of mission:
When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." (Luke 4:16-21)
Do we accept our own?
Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so
I send you." (John 20:21)
There is work to be done. The average American worker earns less in constant dollars than several years ago. A huge segment of our population has no health insurance. The gap between rich and poor is swelling. Huge breaks are given to industries making immense profits while budget cuts penalize the already marginalized. The laws of the land are being flouted by those charged specifically with enforcing them. Basic human rights are being treated as optional. There are ethical and spiritual principles at stake in how we behave as a society, and I am not speaking here of individual morality but of the demonstrable fate of the many. A vision of the commonweal, the collective good, is something that has been diminishing over the decades, and that is something that flies in the face of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
To do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8) is NOT to be doormats for Jesus. Note that we walk humbly with God, we do not let others ride over us roughshod. Those who do justice and love mercy are not wimps who watch in silence while injustice takes place.
I issue no call here to establish a theocracy in our land. That would be an abomination. But we have a responsibility to help shape the direction of our cities, our states, our nation.
My sisters and brothers, we decide every day of our lives. Which shall it be?