Tuesday, December 01, 2009

you will loosen things unseen

“The wreckage of history—a trail of shattered beauty, defiled goodness, twisted truths, streams of tears, rivers of blood, mountains of corpses—must somehow be mended. That the past must and will be redeemed is a conviction essential to the Christian notion of redemption.” -Miroslav Volf

you will turn your ear to me.
you will hear my cry for mercy.
you will loosen things unseen.
what can man do to me?
you will be my help in trouble.
you will be my place of refuge.
you will cut these bindings free.
what can man do to me?

i'll sing for joy in your place of rest
i'll sleep in peace resting on your chest
and your voice will sound like a thousand waters
your song will rush for ten thousand centuries
(Aaron Stumpel, "Centuries")

For the past two days i've been thinking about "Christian guilt." Something inside of you might be saying, "but we aren't guilty--set free from guilt in Christ, right?" Umm, I'm not so sure. It seems as though (in general) Christians are quick to escape responsibility for things. There are a million-and-one Christian-copouts, I'm sure you know a few. Keeping redemption in view, I am beginning to see the importance and real need of Christian admittance of guilt for committed (historical) atrocities. Right now what is in the forefront of my mind is the Holocaust and the Christian failure to stand up and speak/act in response to it. There was an obvious lack of Christian civil courage to stand up in the public sphere(s) against the evils being committed (some, even, in the name of God).
Elie Wiesel does not believe in collective guilty, but he does banner memory. Why? Because without it, generations will forget and become indifferent. Memory is a duty both to the dead and to the living. Ok, so what?
Well, the Manhattan Declaration has been mentioned a few times in class. Have you read it? Here's the link: Manhattan Dec.
Christians are rallying around this one. This isn't entirely bad, but it is somewhat concerning. Take a look at it. There are portions of the preamble that are a bit disconcerting...
"While fully acknowledging the imperfections and shortcomings of Christian institutions and communities in all ages, we claim the heritage of those Christians who defended innocent life by rescuing discarded babies from trash heaps in Roman cities and publicly denouncing the Empire’s sanctioning of infanticide." We acknowledge the shortcomings and claim the heritage. The document walks through a brief history of the "great heritage" of Christianity (and please, don't get me wrong, we do have many wonderful contributions and testimonies of good in our heritage. but let's be honest, we also have some incredible tragedies and terrific atrocities).
The last paragraph of the declaration before it begins to delineate the points is potentially very alarming:
"We are Christians who have joined together across historic lines of ecclesial differences to affirm our right—and, more importantly, to embrace our obligation—to speak and act in defense of these truths. We pledge to each other, and to our fellow believers, that no power on earth, be it cultural or political, will intimidate us into silence or acquiescence. It is our duty to proclaim the
Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in its fullness, both in season and out of season. May God help us not to fail in that duty."
The part that is uncomfortable is the line "no power on earth, be it cultural or political, will intimidate us into silence or acquiescence..." What are "we" saying here? My professor for the class points out why this document is so disconcerting and, in essence, unhelpful--there is strong voice of defense with virtually no explanation of that defense; the document offers the good things done in the name of Christianity (specifically) without mentioning the burden of sin that is also on Christian history. To be honest to the world, there must be both. What would it look like for the Christian community to start remembering rightly and truthfully it's past--the good and the bad. What would it look like to begin to see collective confession and repentance? What would it mean to begin a public discourse of reconciliation...? I think it might do a lot more than documents of defense.
I am not saying that it is not good or right or necessary to defend faith and values. It most certainly is. But it seems that we often do so at the expense of admitting faults, too, and expressing true, humble, genuine remorse for things that have been done (and continue to be done) in the name of God.

This is a "beginning" line of thought so bear with me, hopefully it will develop over the next several weeks and you'll see another post or two. Right now thoughts are a little scattered...my hope is to stir some thought and prayer in you.

“To remember something incorrectly is, in an important sense, not to remember at all—we do not remember to the precise extent that what we remember is incorrect.” Miroslav Volf

“…memory is a blessing: it created bonds rather than destroys them. Bonds between present and past, between individuals and groups. It is because I remember our common beginning that I move closer to my fellow human beings. It is because I refuse to forget that their future is as important as my own. What would the future of man be if it were devoid of memory?”
-Elie Wiesel


M. Perkins said...

I don’t know. I’m wondering about the idea of “Christian guilt.” If it means “the responsibility/culpability of Christians in the past” then, yeah, I can agree. But if it means Christians everywhere and at all times feeling a burden of guilt for the failures of every Christian? I am not so comfortable with that.

And I really don’t see how that could possibly fit with Scripture. The only time you really see some sense of burden or guilt in Paul—a man with plenty of blood on his own hands, never mind his ancestors—it’s the “wretched man that I am/body of death” passage in Romans 7, which leads right into “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

I'm not going to ask Germans to apologize for the Two World Wars or the Muslims across the street to own up to 9/11. And similarly I'm not going to ask other Christians to own up to the various religious conflicts involving Christians over the centuries. Nor do I think I am complicit, though the potential for indifference or apathy or a willingness to live my own life so long as I am not directly contributing to or affected by evil is huge.

I do think memory is important, and a memory that strives to be less one-sided and less selective. I think the problem on either side is getting completely wrapped up in one thing or another—in exulting in the glories of your past (and forgetting the flaws) or wallowing in the miseries (and forgetting the good).

I absolutely agree that the Manhattan Declaration is an incredibly selective presentation of Christian history. Of course, they are claiming a heritage not a history. I’m leery about that but am not 100% against, so long as they know and are clear (which they are here, though surely not everyone who reads it is) that it is HERITAGE, not HISTORY. History is never clean and is never just what we want to claim and more often than not something like what Volf there describes.

I'm sure many who support this Declaration see it as a balancing act to what’s happened in the humanities in the last sixty-ish years—trying to find only the victims which generally makes “Christendom” the guilty party. And having recently been involved in a conversation where, essentially, everything bad that has ever happened was blamed on religion in general, I can sympathize. And, for your part, if you’re going to take on the guilt on your shoulders for the bad, you also get the credit for the good. When it comes down to it, something like Churchill’s quote about democracies might be fitting: Christian societies are and always have been clearly the worst and most despicable ones out there—except for all the others.

Andrea said...

Thoughts in response…
Wish I had more time to think on these things and process/articulate. But we’re headed up to finals so…

“the responsibility/culpability of Christians in the past” not “Christians everywhere and at all times feeling a burden of guilt for the failures of every Christian.” I am not so comfortable with that either. I believe that as a community we are responsible to recognize and feel (to what “extent”?) the burden of wrongdoing—for the sake of a hoped-for future. We must ask, “how could that have happened?” Then “what would I have done?” Then “are such things happening now?” and, finally, “what am I doing?”

I recognize that “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” At the same time, I think there is a health (and yes, it’s painful) in recognizing, as a Christian community that some things have been done wrong and we have, as His Body, failed in some of our basic obligations of obedience and ambassadors of Gospel. Does this make sense? Guilt as recognition of wrongdoing and misconduct—sorrow, even, for failures and mistakes. The losses need to be named.

“I think the problem on either side is getting completely wrapped up in one thing or another—in exulting in the glories of your past (and forgetting the flaws) or wallowing in the miseries (and forgetting the good).”
I agree. There’s a definite tension. Will I embrace the tension? Does the Church at large try to live within this tension?

Do you think the declaration is a boasting in heritage? Should we boast in heritage? Paul is very clear about where to place a boast—and he’s one to talk. Does he boast in his conversion? His change of heart? His acts of service? His own good works? (and, recognizably, he does not boast—or center in on—in wrongs remembered. But he does remember them). He proclaims again and again that we ought to boast in the Gospel. Does this seem reductionistic to us? Sometimes it seems like, as Christians, we are quick to boast in a heritage—and are hard at work preserving that heritage. Where’s the balance between living and keeping a heritage but boasting in something necessarily larger than that heritage? In preserving a heritage I fear we might lose sight of some *other* really important things.

Paul boasts in the cross—reconciliation and salvation. Shouldn’t we, as His people, be champions of reconciliation and salvation as they come to us through the Gospel, the person of Christ? What is “Gospel living”? What does it mean to “preach the faith,” as Paul so readily did?
Through Christ the possibility of relationship has been restored. So how, as the Church, do we live grace and reconciliation before a watching world? How does this involve past, present, and future? How does this involve memory? How can we be “advocates of memory” for the sake of promoting health and healing in a broken world?
Jewish history is a history of remembrance. They are a people of memory. It’s woven throughout the Old Testament. Wiesel writes, “If there is a single theme that dominates all my writings, all my obsessions, it is that of memory—because I fear forgetfulness as much as hatred and death. To forget is, for a Jew, to deny his people—and all that it symbolizes—and also to deny himself.”

To remember rightly is an act of justice—it is to condemn the evil. Volf also writes, “If no one remembers a misdeed or names it publicly, it remains invisible. To the outside observer, its victim is not a victim and its perpetrator is not a perpetrator; both are misperceived because the suffering of the one and the violence of the other go unseen. A double injustice occurs—the first when the original deed is done and the second when it disappears….Since the public remembering of wrongs is an act that acknowledges them, it is therefore also an act of justice.”

M. Perkins said...

I actually still have a lot of thoughts about this post. I started to write a response that quickly became too bulky.

So I guess I'll say this. How do we defend justice? Not, I believe, by striving to establish a perfect justice, but by reducing injustice.

The former, though it sounds high-minded, leads to endless ideological fanaticism. If the goal is perfect justice, no person or institution that exists today is acceptable, no matter how much better it may be than other alternatives. The only possible path is revolution and destruction.

The second option sounds almost cowardly. It means that we can't fix the world ourselves, and it means that we aren't guilty for every injustice. It means that you look for improvement not perfection. Certainly it's possible that this could lead to complacency ("could be worse"). But I also believe that by freeing us from insanity it allows us to do what we can to combat injustice.

I believe that this applies to truth as well. We cannot create a perfect record or remember perfectly, but we can combat untruth and reduce falsehood.

That different focus--not on being right but on fighting untruth--frees us from the tendency to assume that our memory is valid or sacred simply because it is ours, or to campaign for a particular version of memory to be enshrined as final and not open to challenge or revision.