Lazarus Saturday: Joy between Repentance and Mourning

It’s Lazarus Saturday today (Mar 31), which means Great Lent is over and Holy Week will begin in two days. Once again, here’s a quick overview of the differences between Orthodox and Western Lent and Easter/Pascha. First, the Orthodox will celebrate Pascha on April 8. (You can’t have Pascha until after Passover, which is Mar 30 – Apr 7 this year, so that puts Pascha on Apr 8.) Second, the Orthodox count all the days of the week in Lent while the Western Churches don’t include Sundays, so we get to 40 days in two different manners. Orthodox Lent begins on a Monday and then ends on a Friday (7 days x 5 weeks = 35 + 7 more days = 40). So Great Lent ended yesterday. The Holy Week fast begins on Monday. That leaves two days in between: Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday.

This interim time between the two fasts is an opportunity to reflect on what I have come to think of the three proper states of being for Christians. (This is my own thought; I haven’t seen it anywhere else, so consider the source and take it for what it’s worth.). Those three states are repentance, mourning, and joy. The Lenten fast is a season of repentance. Lazarus Saturday, Palm Sunday, and Pascha are seasons of joy. The Holy Week fast is a season of mourning.

This distinction was lost to me as a Protestant because Lent—that period from Ash Wednesday to the day before Easter—was an amorphous whole. As a result there was no specific season of mourning, except for Good Friday and maybe on that Sunday once every three years where that verse, “Jesus wept,” came up in the lectionary. I therefore want to consider the role of each in our Christian lives.

Mourning is a recognition and response to the fact that things are not right in the world. Geo Pallikunnel, a Syro Malabar (that is, the quite ancient Orthodox communion on the Indian subcontinent, also called the St Thomas church) theologian describes it this way. “Human nature is basically good, even though sin disintegrated it.” The world was created very good and humans were created in the image of God (thus we are basically good) but sin has marred and disrupted it. I especially like Pallikunnel’s use of the term “disintegration” in this context. In his monograph he describes our life of salvation in terms of our disintegration because of sin and Jesus Christ’s integration of our beings.

In this metaphor sin is more process than act. Things are coming apart at the seams and we know that this is not right, that things once were better (“very good” in fact) and should be better. But they’re not. We too often beat ourselves up for this state of affairs. We too often rage against our own frailties, our fellow Christians’ hypocrisy, and the evil that the world spawns. But such regrets and recriminations are not a proper Christian state of being. “Blessed are those who mourn …” says Jesus, not, “blessed are the angry.”

Rather than regrets and recrimination, our proper response (the second state of being) is Repentance. Repentance is not being sorry that I sinned; that’s, just … well, sort of sorry. Repentance isn’t an attitude, it’s an action; it’s turning around; it’s changing our direction. This is embodied in three specific actions: fasting, prayer, and alms. Said another way, repentance focuses on ourselves by denying (and thus, to a certain extent, taking control of) our out-of-control desires that are causing the disintegration of our being in the first place. Repentance is also focusing on others by truly looking at them in their life situation and helping to meet their needs which grow out of their own and the world’s disintegration. Repentance also focuses on God. The disintegration that I keep going on about is a symptom of a deeper problem. Cut off from God, who is life itself, all creation is dead (in the same way cut flower is dead—still beautiful and fragrant, but severed from its life-giving source). Repentance is specifically a turning toward God-who-is-Life-itself in order to re-establish the flow of life through prayer and the Eucharist.

Lent is a season set aside to focus on this second state of being: repentance. Holy Week, in contrast, is not about repentance; it’s about mourning. It is looking at the incarnation (that is, the whole earthly life of Jesus Christ) as a prolonged death, a seeming disintegration of God. “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me!” And ironically, just as Jesus said would happen, as we mourn, we are comforted. As we mourn we see clearly the current state of affairs and that it is not the true or intended state of affairs. Furthermore we see that God hasn’t left us to our own devices, but walks besides us, suffers beside us, and is “disintegrated” (if we dare use that term!) on our behalf.

But mourning does not occur in a vacuum. We can dwell in this state of being because we know there is another state of being: Joy. Lazarus Saturday is a truly special day on the Orthodox calendar. Saturday morning there is a Eucharistic Divine Liturgy that is a foretaste of Pascha. Everything is light instead of dark. The talk is of victory rather than death. It is a foretaste of Christ’s victory over death. It is an absolute proclamation that what looked like divine disintegration turns out to be the re-integration of all creation with its Creator.

We Christians have no need to rage. (The nations rage and the Psalmist asks, “Why?”) Instead we can mourn for a season because there is a state of joy. For the most part we exist in these three distinct states of being (repentance, mourning, and joy) simultaneously. But the Church helpfully breaks them apart as three distinct seasons to help us understand this admittedly odd state of affairs. And these three seasons come together in a mysterious and wonderful manner on these two days (Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday) between the two very different fasts of repentance and mourning that precede the greatest of Feasts of Rejoicing: Pascha.

Jesus wept … Lazarus come forth … But surely he stinks and smells of decay! That is life in a nutshell. Amen.

 

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Finding Nobility rather than Tragedy

There are two old men who smoke cigars every other week, early afternoon, at the Dublin House, where I am a member and go to smoke my pipe. When they come one wears various bits of northern Civil War garb while the other wears southern bits. There they sit, blue and grey, smoking cigars, and talking just a bit too loudly about the nobility of that War and, in particular, the nobility of the southern stand against the northern aggressors.

Racism is an overused word and I certainly resist the temptation to call them racist (they’re more likely merely ignorant, having never been to the south!), but my experience is different. Having lived a couple of blocks from Prospect Ave., the great divide between black and white, in Kansas City, having gone to seminary in Louisville, KY, my first experience with huge, fancy, white private schools built to get around the busing rules, and having spent a year teaching school in Port Gibson, MS, where boycotting white businesses was first experimented with during the 1960s civil rights struggle in the American south, I have a rather different perspective on the war, its causes, and its aftermath.

A few weeks ago, because no one was paying attention to their conversation, in spite of the fact that it was getting louder and louder, the two brothers finally engaged me about my thoughts on that noble chapter in our glorious American history. I had had enough and gave them my frank opinion about the tragedy of the event, the tragedy that has continued to fester ever since, the evil that spawned it (and continues), and their own denial about that particular ongoing chapter in our history, and thus their unwitting participation in that evil.

No doubt they had heard it all be for and even said, “God bless you,” on my way out the door. I found I was disgusted by their righteousness and nobility that whitewashed the tomb of racism that still stinks to high heaven down south of the Mason Dixon line and across the country as well.

I don’t claim to be innocent. I grew up in Montana with Indian reservations all around me, so the racism I am blind to tends to be toward the Native Americans and not the African Americans.

One of the momentous events in the version of Native American history I was taught practically passed by the house where I spent most of my young life. The story I learned in school was one of grit and glory, the Nez Perce helping various groups of western bound white settlers along the way even as they outwitted the five armies chasing them. General George Custer supposedly called Chief Joseph, “the greatest living Indian” at one point. Most of the Nez Perce considered him a coward, an opportunist, and merely the last man standing.

Yep, it’s a complicated history, so I just started reading Kent Nerburn’s book, “Chief Joseph & the Flight of the Nez Perce.” In the introduction he says, “A fine story, full of pathos and nobility and all the poignancy of the American Indian struggle.

A fine story, but false. Or, to be more accurate, only half true. The real story, the true story, is every bit as poignant and every bit as dramatic. But it is obscured by the myth because the myth is so powerful and so perfectly suited to our American need to find nobility rather than tragedy in our past.

Seeking nobility rather than tragedy … I was immediately reminded of the cigar-smoking brothers. Not all tragedies are noble. And in the case of both the American Indians and the African Americans, not all tragedies are in the past.

Forgetting to Look Up

The world has lost its bearings. Not that ideologies are lacking, to give directions: only that they lead nowhere. People are going round in circles in the cage of their planet, because they have forgotten that they can look up to the sky

and

Because all we want is to live, it has become impossible for us to live.

Eugene Ionesco, Romanian/French playwright, speaking at the 1972 Salzburg Festival.

That last bit would have been more appropriate to post on Mardi Gras, given what has become of the beginning of Lent in our culture. But I posted it now because Ionesco rather misses the point.

Lot’s of us look up, but there’s nothing to see and nowhere to go except the vast emptiness with the occasional star in between. Because of the blindness of sin, we not only fail to see, we are incapable of seeing—truly seeing—the Creator in creation.

No, Ionesco is mistaken, we need not bother looking all the way to the sky. We should rather humbly limit our upward gaze only as high as the cross.  From it we learn that death to self is more blessed than living to live, for in this particular path of death lies the possibility of truly living and the fullness of life.

Have a blessed Holy Week.

The Daughter of a Voice

In John 12:28f, Jesus says, “‘Father, glorify thy name.’ Then came there a voice from heaven, saying, ‘I have both glorified it, and will glorify it again.’ The people therefore, that stood by, and heard it, said that it thundered: others said, An angel spake to him.” A.T. Robertson (in Word Pictures) observed the Rabbis called the audible voice of God bath-qol, or “the daughter of a voice.” Now that’s a weird bit of trivia to throw into the commentary that I want to explore.

Consider the question of talking. When I talk to another person there is physical distance between us and that physical distance can be considered a metaphor for the distance between what I mean and what you think I mean. I can never fully say precisely what I mean. As a result, the person hearing my words may hear something rather different than what I mean. There is no direct connection between what I intend to say and what the other person hears. My meaning gets interpreted into words which go from me to you. Those words then get interpreted back into your meaning (or understanding). Hopefully my meaning and your understanding are pretty much the same thing.

We can describe this as a mediated process. Between my meaning and your understanding are several steps that mediate the two. My meaning can never directly touch your understanding; it must be mediated by something. Now this sounds very similar to something else. Moses wanted a direct apprehension of God, but God said, nope, won’t happen. “No one can see my face and live” (Ex. 33:20). God’s presence (that is, his face) had to be mediated by something else in order for us to apprehend God. Thus the Rabbis tended to view the shining glory of God (expressed in Moses’ burning bush, the cloud of the Exodus and the glory that dwelt in the temple), not as God in and of himself but rather as a created container that veiled the true presence. These were all mediated and not direct experiences.

Evidently (if I’m reading Robertson’s quotation of the Rabbis correctly) the Rabbis considered the voice of God a mediated experience also. It wasn’t actually God’s voice, it was “the daughter of a voice.” (That sounds a lot like the distance between my meaning and your understanding that I tried to describe above.) With all of this context in mind, something quite ironic happens in John 12. We have Jesus Christ, the one John calls both “the Word of God” and “the Son of God,” physically present with the people. In the midst of this scene the disembodied “daughter of the voice” of God comes booming out of heaven (v. 28). The irony is while they were curious about Jesus and wanted to see him, they thought the voice from heaven sounded down right angelic! God was right there but what caught their attention was the thing that pointed toward the sky, where they assumed God was supposed to be.

We take for granted that we have a sense of where God is and what God is supposed to do. The longer we’re Christians and part of a congregation, the more comfortable we become with how it all works, and by extension, where God is and what God is supposed to do. As a result, the longer we’ve been doing this, the greater the danger that we will settle for the daughter of the voice of God rather than the living God.

We need to learn to seek for God without mediation. The living God … and by definition, if God is living, God will exist beyond our expectations and even beyond our desires … The living God is a bit tricky to commune with. Compare this relationship with that of a close friend or spouse. Just about the time you have the relationship figured out and start taking it for granted, the other does something unexpected and you end up responding all wrong. It is the same with God but even more so. If we are truly communing with God that relationship is growing and changing day by day. If we get too comfortable, we end up “communing” with a mediated God, the God of last year, God, but mediated by our expectations from an experience in the past. The result is we are attracted to the booming sound, the mere daughter of a voice, when we could be communing with the Son of God himself.

At the end of this passage Jesus says he will draw all people to himself (v. 32). And indeed, at the beginning of this passage we find foreigners asking to see Jesus (v. 21) no doubt because they are drawn to him. That might seem straightforward, but it turns out to be more slippery than we imagine. On our way to see the Son of God we get distracted by the daughter of a voice. It’s beautiful and awesome; the text even tells us it’s angelic (v.29). But it’s not Jesus. And that’s the trick. We have to be discerning enough to recognize the difference and we have to be picky enough not to settle for the mediated experience.

 

The Gospel of Joshua

It’s been a long time since I read Joshua. Given it’s horrific violence, it doesn’t show up in many devotional reading lists, so it may be a while since you’ve read it too. The story line centers on the genocide of the local residents so God’s people can have the land. (Not a story that matches our modern sensibilities.) And yet Joshua, the leader of this merry band of pirates, has long been considered a type of Christ.

For this to make sense we must remember that the ancient church didn’t venerate the book because it was history. This is not to say that they didn’t believe the book to be true. The fact that we tend to equate truth and history says a lot more about our distorted and reductionist modern sensibilities than it says about the ancient church. They no doubt would have found our tendency to reduce “truth” to these tiny little boxes (scientific method, historical method, textual criticism, empirical evidence, etc.) bewildering. So it is indeed the case that for most of history the church has considered Joshua to be primarily a foreshadowing of Jesus Christ. (They even share a name, Joshua being a Semitic form and Jesus being a Greek form of the same name.) Just as Joshua cleansed the Land of evil, so Christ cleanses us of evil. Just as Joshua led the people from wandering into the promised rest, so Christ does the same thing.

Joshua not only foreshadows Christ, the book shows us something of what the church should be. We need to have a “take no prisoners” attitude toward our corrupted nature and thinking, our mixed loyalties, and our fondness for our culture. Every time Joshua and the army compromised on the “take no prisoners” policy, things started going bad. This, according to the tradition, is the picture of our Christian life. Any sort of compromise will eventually lead to some sort of failure or downfall.

Aside from these two traditional themes, there is something else to be learned from Joshua: God seems quite comfortable being the God of really nasty and not nice people. And I’ll go one step farther. God is far more comfortable with really nasty and not nice people than we are. My perspective might be shaped by the congregations I served, which were mostly aging, midwestern, and quite proper socially, but I think it is true of American Christianity in general that we tend to conflate manners, niceness, and social acceptance with Christian maturity. We tend to confuse business acumen with wisdom. In the language of Joshua, we’re less interested in taking the Promised Land of our soul and more interested in letting Christ move in next door … as long as he’s a nice and polite neighbor.

One of the dangers of our sensibility is that it tends to blind us to our own nasty-and-not-niceness. As long as everyone stays polite and fits in with the religious culture, we tend not to be self-critical. This is one of the few “blessings” of radical Islam. They can see our failures to which we are blind. They look at the Western churches that reside fairly comfortably in Western consumer culture, and what they see is the corruption. They are horrified and are pretty sure that a real god would have no interest in being the god of infidels like us.

But it is precisely at this point that the divine grace of God’s eternal covenant reveals itself. It turns out that we have more in common with Joshua and his merry band of pirates than we’re comfortable admitting. Amazingly, in spite of the denial of our own predicament, God remains faithful to his covenant people “to the thousandth generation” (see previous post). This overwhelming reality of divine grace then gives us the space to safely admit that we have failed spectacularly. And this is the first step to true repentance and the process of rooting out all that is evil in the Promised Land of our souls.

I think I’ll call it “The Gospel of Joshua.”

 

To the Thousandth Generation

To prove that I actually was paying attention at worship on Sunday (see previous post) I heard something that had never quite registered in the Ten Commandments when the Old Testament lesson (Ex. 20:1-17) was read. “You shall not bow down to [other gods or idols] or worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments” (vv 5f).

That phrase “to the third and the fourth generation” has been part of my consciousness for as long as I remember. Of course I’ve heard preachers talk about it, but I’ve also heard psychologists and crime experts use the phrase when talking about a whole host of societal troubles being generational. But on Sunday it was the following phrase that jumped out at me: “But showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.”

I wish I was still in an academic community, or at the very least still had access to a good theological library because I have a hunch. When that sentence is viewed as a whole, the first half has the feel of folk wisdom. I wonder if that’s not how the people viewed their world apart from any divine revelation. The sort of troubles that were self-inflicted not only affected you, but also your children and grand-children to the third and even fourth generation. I’m wondering if that’s not just how people viewed (and still view) the world. I want to be very clear that I’m not offering an interpretation; I’m speculating. I’m speculating that the explanation of this first commandment begins with a bit of popular wisdom: things you cause have consequences “to the third and the fourth generation.”

Let’s assume I’m correct for a moment and the explanation for this commandment begins with how people think about the world. God then starts with that assumption and expands (or explodes) it beyond all recognition. Let me rephrase it as follows: “You tend to think in the negative. You think that if you break the covenant it will have consequences not only for yourself but for your offspring for several generations. But your perception of me (that is, God) is backward. The covenant is everlasting, and if you worship me instead of other gods, I will show you unwavering covenant love for a thousand generations (ie, for as long as you can imagine).

We tend to think, “What are all the ways that this can go wrong?” It’s human nature. But I suspect that God is rejecting that sort of thinking and telling us to replace it with a different question: “What are all the ways this can go right beyond our imagination?” We can imagine a lot of bad things. In contrast to our imagination, God is offering us unwavering covenant love beyond what we can even imagine.

So, if there’s any actual Old Testament scholars out there who have the tools to research this stuff, I ask you if I’m on to something. Is the whole “third and fourth generation” thing actually a bit of folk wisdom, or am I completely off base? Whether it is or not, this first commandment is a remarkable statement of divine mercy. Thanks be to God.

 

Have You Ever Seen a Picture of Jesus Cleansing the Temple?

The sermon I heard on Sunday, based on the Gospel lesson about Jesus cleansing the Temple (Jn 2:13-22), caught me completely off guard. We were reminded that we see copies of the Ten Commandments for sale everywhere, even the grocery store (the Old Testament lesson) and images of the cross are ubiquitous (the epistle), but, according to Fr. Jay, you’ve probably never seen a picture of Jesus with a whip in his hand cleansing the temple. At this point I don’t know where the sermon went because I found the statement completely at odds with my experience.

Actually, this image was one of the more common in my childhood. It wasn’t in our home—being fairly hard-core iconoclasts, we didn’t have pictures of Jesus in our home—but it was common throughout the education wing of the church building. Our denomination was quite horrified by all that stuff we thought was idolatrous and for the most part, the only images that were acceptable—pictures for the kids in the education wing—tended toward the dramatic and led to a good story: Adam, Eve, and the snake, Moses with his staff over his head, the Ark with the Animals streaming in, Jesus with the sheep (actually, that one was in the sanctuary, so go figure), and of course, Jesus at the temple, driving out the animals, money changers, etc.

While I don’t know about denominational policies and practices as a whole (I was just a kid, after all), I know that even in college this image (by this time, not a picture on the wall, but a mental image—we were iconoclasts after all) of Jesus, with whip in hand, driving the money changers from the temple was a big deal. For the rest of the sermon (which after this was sort of like Charlie Brown’s school teacher going “Wah, wah, wah” in the Christmas special) I pondered why this image was so central to the tradition of my childhood.

The answer was actually rather obvious. The Bible Church was a weird confluence of the Reformed and Holiness traditions. I call it weird because on theological grounds we rejected holiness doctrine in favor of a Reformed view of salvation (salvation by grace alone through faith and not of works) but at the same time, on practical, everday grounds, being holy was a very big deal. (“We don’t drink, and we don’t chew, and we don’t go with girls that do,” to quote the popular doggeral.) Drinking and smoking (illegal drugs like heroin and legal drugs like opiods weren’t much of a thing yet, so those weren’t on the list) weren’t allowed because the body was the Temple of the Holy Spirit. That image of Jesus, whip overhead, cleansing the Temple, was the icon par excellence of our Christian life.

This whole question of whether I’d ever seen an image of Jesus with a whip above his head cleansing the temple was so arresting to me because I’ve been pondering the book of Joshua. (Speaking of weird, that’s a weird turn for this essay to take, but stay with me. Oh, and I suspect there’s an essay on Joshua coming up eventually.) I recently read Joshua and this trip through the book I was taken by how violent the story is, what with all the genocide, etc. But the church of my youth didn’t treat Joshua primarily as a history. I know that’s odd. The denomination completely missed the point of the early chapters of Genesis, treating them as history, but tended to focus on Joshua and Judges as stories that were types of Christ. We didn’t revel in the violence, we saw in the violence the profound difficulty in living a holy life. If you don’t stamp evil out completely in your life as in the Promised Land, that evil will come back to haunt you.

Similarly, the image of Jesus snapping the whip and driving the money changers from the temple was the image of the danger of allowing the secular world to impinge on the sacred. It was the summation of the tragedy described in Joshua and Judges. It was the single picture of the whole Old Testament story of promises to God undercut by our failure to root out the evil in our lives.

I wonder if anyone else remembers that Sunday School picture in the same way I do.

It’s not so much a picture of violence as it is of purity. As Mt. 11:12 says, “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.” (Caveat: I’m no longer sure this is the correct interpretation of this verse, but this was certainly how we viewed these words of Jesus at Bible College. It was a description of the difficulty of living the pure life that John the Baptist embodied.) As a result, after I became a Presbyterian and started doing those things that so horrified the Bible Church of my childhood, finding this text at the midpoint of Lent seemed not only natural, but inevitable. It’s at this point, when all of our good intentions have been revealed for what they are, that we are faced with this icon of purity, of Jesus in our hearts driving out the impurities that we have come to accept with thoughtless ease.

So that’s what I got out of church this week. … I still sort of wonder what Fr. Jay was talking about after the part about the picture of Jesus and the whip in the temple. 🙂

Rights, Responsibility, Freedom, and Self-Control

In the previous two essays about political Liberty and Rights, I emphasized that one of the assumptions about rights built into the Enlightenment was that they were necessarily connected to responsibility. One of the early critiques of the Enlightenment that has become increasingly obvious over the decades is that many of those Enlightenment assumptions were not a result of Enlightenment ideas, but were rather leftovers from the Christian worldview out of which the Enlightenment grew. Responsibility is one of those leftover ideas. The logical conclusion of Enlightenment political theory is Libertarianism, a political philosophy in which there is very little room, if any, for responsibility for others.

While the Liberty and Rights pairing is not a specifically Christian pairing (Liberty, in Christian theology has a different set of implications, especially as Paul uses it in contrast to the Mosaic Law) there is a close analog in Christian theology: The pairing of Freedom and Self-control.

Fr Thomas Hopko, in vol 4 of a slender set of theology books designed for lay readers and church Bible Studies called The Orthodox Faith, contrasts freedom and self-control. “According to the saints, self-control is one of the main elements of the divine image in man, coextensive with the gift of freedom which is often explained as the essential and basic element of man’s likeness to his Creator.”

Just as rights and responsibility are two sides of the same reality, so self-control and freedom are two sides of the same reality. True freedom is achieved in the ability not to exercise it. Similarly, in political philosophy, true rights can only be exercised to the degree that we recognize our responsibility to others, to order, and to the polis in general.

 

Liberty and Freedom and Gun Rights

In the previous essay I argued that rights are not “endowed by the Creator.” Rather, liberty is “endowed by the Creator,” and in turn, there are a pair of dependent principles that grow out of liberty: rights and responsibilities. The consequence of liberty is that I have rights for myself and responsibilities for others.

The second thing that I emphasized in the previous essay is that while liberty is a natural endowment, in the context of civic life and the political systems that organize and protect civic life, rights are granted by the government (in contrast to liberty, which is endowed by the Creator). This might seem harsh and authoritarian, given the libertarian sensibilities that have permeated our society in the last twenty years, but the logic is inescapable. There must be some arbiter when rights and desires come in conflict. According to the American founding documents, the arbiters are the local governments or the Federal government.

It is within this broad context of human liberty and the dependent principles of rights and responsibilities that gun rights must be considered. No right is absolute including the right to life. To clarify this claim, the governments (both federal and state) have the authority of capital punishment in the case of heinous crimes. When chaos breaks out (murder, for instance) governments have the authority to revoke certain rights (such as the life of the murderer) in order to restore the peace.

For reasons not related to guns, our society has become more chaotic. Furthermore, public violence planned as spectacle is rising dramatically. Statistics indicate mass killings are always premeditated, but there are also a complex set of causes. Often mental illness is involved. On occasion these are crimes of passion that affected bystanders get caught up in. At times they are simply cold blooded. In other words, guns are typically the proximate cause rather than the direct cause of mass murders or mass attempted murders. On this point defenders of gun rights are correct.

No matter the direct or proximate causes, it remains the task of government to keep order, and given the trend and the societal effects of gun violence as spectacle, there is a great deal of logic for the government to more heavily regulate firearms. Furthermore, if this is indeed a situation where the chaos that results from the misuse of the freedom is growing out of control, the citizens have responsibilities (in counter-balance to their rights) to cooperate.

Finally, I want to address Christians specifically in this matter because we have something to offer that is mostly missing from the Enlightenment and, in turn, the American founding documents. The Enlightenment was weak on the idea that part of that which defines us as persons is our interrelationships. Consequently, the Founding Fathers were weak on the idea of our responsibility for others. (Remember the Declaration and Constitution are both compromise documents. Deists, who strongly preferred Locke’s original language of life and liberty endowed by nature ended up having to compromise with the Christians and change that classic Enlightenment language to life and liberty endowed by nature to life and liberty endowed by the Creator. In turn, the Christians had to compromise on the doctrine of the person and settle for the idea of the isolated but self-sustaining individual (“I think, therefore I am”). By downplaying the Christian doctrine of personhood and emphasizing the Enlightenment idea of individuality, the foundations for responsibility were undermined.

Christians who have only a rudimentary knowledge of the Christian faith should understand that to be human is to be in relationship. But given the constant emphasis on our individuality, it is easy to forget (even for Christians) that individuality stands in contradiction to the Christian doctrine of relationship. Christian teaching is not that we are individuals in the Enlightenment sense, but persons—entities that are both distinct from others while being unavoidably connected to them. It is therefore a task of Christians to highlight our internectedness and the manner in which responsibilities and rights are restored as the two sides of liberty.

It’s high time that we Christians reject the anti-Christian mantra of “Rights! Rights! Give me my Rights!” and with repentance and humility take up the burden of responsibilities of citizenship. Given the extensive infrastructure of checks and balances constitutionally built into the American government, giving up one right because it is the responsible thing to do will not inevitably lead to a spiral into authoritarianism. There are several areas where authoritarianism is growing that have nothing to do with gun rights. As Christians we need to stand up against authoritarianism where it actually exists and abandon the straw man (dare I say “idol”?) of gun rights as the supposed inevitable precursor to authoritarianism.

 

Liberty and Freedom

In Enlightenment political theory (this is the political theory that is foundational to the American Declaration of Independence and Constitution) the two primary natural “endowments” are life and liberty (and yes, the Declaration adds Happiness, but that’s another story). Given the history of American jurisprudence, the most appropriate definition of liberty is “the right to speak and act without constraint.” Freedom is the application of this natural liberty in various facets of civic life.

It has been generations since we’ve experience true chaos in America, so now one might think that the purpose of government is to do stuff for us. But in the context of the above natural endowments, the purpose of government is to maintain order and keep chaos at bay. The endowment of liberty can only be expressed through freedom in an orderly society relatively free of threats. It’s this orderly society that government seeks to maintain. In the decade of the 1770s the threat to freedom was not the misdeeds of the citizenry but rather the influence of England. It is not surprising then that the Founding Fathers spoke little of the internal conditions that made freedom possible and spoke a lot about external threats to freedom. But according to their practice it seems they believed freedom was only possible if the citizens were educated, civically responsible and involved.

Because the responsibilities of the citizenry was not a primary topic, I want to get at that subject through a far more mundane avenue: children. On various occasions I have heard parents with more than one child talk about the difference between kids. The one is responsible and the parents can let the responsible child borrow the car and stay out until midnight without many worries. The other is far less responsible and as a result far more restrictions about the use of the car or going to a friend’s house for the evening are required. The parents’ attitudes about freedom remain consistent, but differing levels of responsibility lead to differing levels of freedom. Lack of freedom is not the parents’ fault, it’s the irresponsible child’s fault.

Freedom may also need to be curtailed because of the company we keep. As a grade schooler my son was very responsible and we allowed him a great deal of freedom to roam and come and go as he pleased. Then we moved and our son made a new friend who turned out to be a great kid, but who initially appeared to be a wild child. Until we understood the friendship better, our son’s freedom was severely curtailed, not because of his character or actions, but because of the friends he had.

Civic life is similar. Liberty is the naturally endowed right and freedom is granted to the extent that the populace embodies liberty or, to say it another way, is responsible enough to handle freedom without creating chaos. Furthermore, this is not only a matter of individual character. Freedom is the fruit of all (or the majority) of the citizenry having the character and being responsible in a manner that allows a measure of freedom to be granted without it leading to chaos. Just because I am capable of handling freedom responsibly, it does not necessarily follow that the society in which I live can do this. To a large extent my freedom is determined by “the company I keep.”

As I said above, in the United States we have had a remarkable measure of freedom with few ill effects for so many generations that we forget freedom is not a right. We have been relatively free throughout our history, not only because of the Constitution, but primarily because the country was not in chaos…well, except for the wild west. Although the the so-called Indian Wars are a terrible blot on our history, they are instructive at this point. Both the west-bound settlers and the federal government believed that the west was too chaotic to be governed. For the sake of argument we will accept the government’s conclusion that the problem was not the national policies about settlement of the west and was instead the Native Americans themselves. Because of this, the government practiced a policy of imprisonment, forced relocation, and killing. The Native Americans lost their freedom because they and their situation was deemed too chaotic to be governable. Even though they were endowed with natural liberty, the government was not able to grant them the consequent freedom because of their actions. (And yes, there are more facets to this tragedy, including the question of whether they were human, but for this essay I am limiting myself specifically to the question of naturally endowed liberty.) Even though this chapter in history was horrendous from my contemporary perspective, it was acceptable to the citizenry because they understood at a deep level the proper relationship between liberty, which is naturally endowed, and freedom, which is granted by the government to the degree that chaos does not ensue.

The above example reminds us that as compelling as the ideas expressed in the founding documents are, the execution of these ideas is always messy and far from perfect. Legal slavery, North America’s relation to the native population (in both the U.S. and Canada), the U.S. policy toward Japanese, and to a lesser extent, German citizens during WWII are all historic examples where the proper understanding of liberty and freedom and the identification of the core problem were handled badly. There are many contemporary examples, but because of differing beliefs and sensibilities it’s far harder to nail down either the truth or the proper direction forward without the benefit of historical clarity. (This would include ideas as disparate as immigrant rights, LGBT issues, and internet freedom.) Because I am a political conservative and because on the issue of gun rights I fundamentally differ from many, if not most, other conservatives, I will explore gun rights in the context of liberty and freedom further in the next essay.