Friday, January 20, 2017

A River of Joy and Peace


In one of his letters (Epist. 2:1-2,4-5,7: PL edit. [845,] 879, 881), St. Ambrose of Milan writes:
There is a stream which flows down on God's saints like a torrent. There is a rushing river giving joy to the heart that is at peace and makes for peace. Whoever has received from the fullness of this river, like John the Evangelist, like Peter and Paul, lifts up his voice. Just as the apostles lifted up their voices and preached the Gospel throughout the world, so those who drink these waters begin to preach the good news of the Lord Jesus.
May this dreary winter day (at least here in northern Virginia) be one in which you drink from the river and lift up your own voice to preach.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

"Intelligence" Briefings

Our president-elect does not fail to disappoint.  The weeks preceding his inauguration have been, thus far, a multi-media sideshow worthy of the best reality TV.

And "sideshow" is the word.  Despite seeming like the random thoughts of a man with ADD and a Twitter account, the truth seems to be that Trump's strategy is to keep up a maddening stream of inane remarks designed to distract people from his team's more serious mischief.

Exhibit A is Trump's seeming war with the intelligence community.  He sits in his gaudy tower, tossing insults at the people he may most need to rely upon when he is called to make actual executive decisions, and makes a great show of ignoring the information they offer him already.  It is no surprise, then, that they have taken a swipe at the guy, releasing some information which suggests (surprise!) that the Russians have been manipulating him all along.  The problem seems to be that this information has long been in the hands of the press, which found it unverifiable and therefore useless.

But who cares, really?  Once Trump is in office, they will work for him. His chosen deputies will be in charge, and they will bring him the information he feels he can use. The relationship is off to a bad start, but it will work itself out.

Meanwhile, however, the guy is wreaking havoc with the traditions of American government. He has already taken steps to alienate China, which is -- lest we forget -- the world's other economic superpower, and with which the performance of our own economy is unalterably entwined. His proposed Cabinet is strangely heavy with generals and billionaires.  The nominees have an almost universal lack of experience with the mechanics of government, and a general contempt for the particular departments thy have been asked to administer.  Among the few people with actual governing experience is Senator Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, a man who apparently does not believe secular thinkers have access to the truth.

His team has stage-managed confirmation process for Cabinet members intended to be so fast that no serious vetting can take place. Part of this has been allowing nominees to omit large portions of the usual vetting process, notably including ethical review.

And "ethical review" is a phrase we will hear a lot more in the days, months and years to come.  From the very beginning, Trump has made it clear that he intends to continue running his private businesses while also running the country.  On the campaign trail, he talked about a "blind trust" so glibly that reporters came to doubt that he understood the meaning of the words.  Already, foreign diplomats have been encouraged to book rooms at a Trump-owned property when they are in DC.

On top of which, earlier in the month,, Team Trump sent a shock through the Department of Energy, by asking for the names of individual scientists working on climate change -- hinting at a purge.

A spat with some spooks is serious, in its own way.  From some other president-elect, it would be a strange move that raised serious questions.  For Trump, it is a just a bit of smoke and mirrors, some showbiz puffery meant to distract us from what is really going on.  Our soon-to-be-president is putting together an administration run by ethically-challenged amateurs. He is already creating legal and diplomatic problems that will no doubt dog him, and our nation, throughout his time in office.

Friday, December 09, 2016

Rejoice ... and Repent

 Although Father Anonymous does not say much about public affairs from the pulpit, he knows that some of you may, and it seems very much to us as though St. James is having words with our president-elect.  Consider, if you like, the Epistle for Advent 3 A (Gaudete).

First, let us observe that several of Sunday's lessons offer images of a dramatic (and beautiful) change in the world.  In Isaiah 35:1-10, as a result of God's "coming," the desert blossoms, the weak are strong, the blind can see, and the wilderness becomes a safe lion-free travel zone.  A similar note is struck by Psalm 146 and the Magnificat, both of which are offered by the RCL:  the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down, casts down the mighty from their thrones, and so forth.

Most of these images are what anthropologists classify as "the reversible world," a cross-cultural trope in which all our natural expectations are defied.  Think of the Roman Saturnalia, or those medieval celebrations of the Holy Innocents when a boy was chosen to serve as bishop-for-a-day.

But the particular changes envisioned by the Biblical texts are not played for comedy.  The weak, the damaged and the poor are made special objects of God's blessing.  These texts are more than a mere folkloric device; they are expressions of what liberal theology likes to call "social justice," or even "a preferential option for the poor."

Which brings us to James 5:7-10.  The passage at hand was no doubt chosen because it speaks twice of "the Coming of the Lord," parousia tou Kuriou or adventus Domini.  It also declares that the Judge is at the door.  The passage encourages Christians to wait with patience and good behavior until that Coming, a very useful message -- but also one which can be the cause of considerable mischief.  How many beaten wives have been told to stick with their abusers, to be humble and faithful and let Christ do the judging?  How many slaves have been given similar messages?  And how often have verses like these been recruited to that evil task?

The problem is that the lectionary gives us these verses in isolation. The passage just before them is quite different in tone:
1Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. 2Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. 3Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. 4Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty.5You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. [or "as in a day of feasting"] 6You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you. [NIV]
It is, in rather bald terms, a prophetic oracle against the rich. In the face of the Lord's Advent, it is they who have not waited patiently and graciously, but who have hoarded their money and defrauded their workers.  (And lived luxurious lives, which -- by the way -- Jesus seems to suggest was what Herod did, in contrast to the faithful rigor of John the Baptist, in our Gospel for the week.)  James goes so far as to accuse the wealthy of murder -- quite possibly even the murder of Jesus, if we read v. 6 as "the Innocent One."

It is a striking passage, and deserves to be held up for our congregations to hear.  The Lord's Advent is not an excuse for tolerating injustice, but a call to lives of justice and charity.

A preacher seeking examples of the rich and powerful who oppress the poor and powerless never has far to go. But we are struck by the image of "the wages you have failed to pay your workers," a phrase the NRSV, following the KJV, translates more accurately as "the wages ... which you kept back by fraud [apostereo]."  Because although cheating workers is an old custom ("I owe my soul to the company store"), there is one particular figure in our public consciousness who is notorious for this practice.

Years ago, when we consorted with artists rather more than we do now, a friend-of-a-friend was asked to apply a vast quantity of gold leaf to the entrance of a rich New Yorker's office.  This is a time-consuming and laborious process, which involves working with tremendous delicacy and uses terribly expensive materials.  Our friend himself used gold leaf often, and we watched him many nights, hunched over a small picture frame, using tweezers and feathers and whatever other exotic tools it required, to move shreds of precious metal far thinner than a piece of paper and stick them to a bit of wood.  We were both stunned by the cost and sheer labor required to gild an entire doorway.

The artist worked for months, going out of pocket for the materials.  And at the end, once the doorway was gilded, the wealthy New Yorker looked at it and said, in effect, "Nah.  Not what I wanted.  So I'm not going to pay you." The artist was not just upset; he was ruined.

Not having been there, we cannot vouch for the details of that particular story.  We do not even know the artist's name.  But the names of many other workers who have sued Donald Trump for breach of contract are matters of public record.  From drapiers and chandelier-makers to real-estate-consultant -and-reality-TV-personality Barbara Corcoran, Trump seems to have stiffed a vast range of artisans, employees, contractors and partners. Here is a Wall Street Journal article on it.  Here's one from Fox News.  And USA Today.

It seems to us that the message in our Epistle for the week only makes sense if it is read alongside the preceding verses -- and that those verses are in direct conversation with modern society, and Time's Man of the Year.  The Advent of the Lord means, specifically, that we cannot tolerate shady business dealings, especially those by which the wealthy defraud their workers.  If we are serious about Advent, we will call out this sort of behavior wherever we see it -- and if not, we should remember that the Judge is at the door.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Team Adultery Goes Big

So the president-elect, having been scared away from TV dad Mitt Romney by a public tongue-lashing from his loose-cannon campaign manager, is now considering David Petraeus for Secretary of State.

Petraeus isn't an absurd choice. Generals, even disgraced former ones, do a lot of work that is or approaches diplomacy. And to be honest, we are always a little worried by the way Secretaries of State seem hawkish by comparison to their peers at Defense; a military professional might bring a better sense of why the big stick is a dangerous negotiating tool.

But let's get back to those key words "former" and "disgraced," because they are highly relevant. Lest anyone forget, Bloomberg News reminds us that Petraeus
... left government under a cloud for sharing classified documents during an extramarital affair....
These are grave offenses, and they are not in dispute. Although Trump the campaigner made it sound as though Petraeus had done little by comparison to the putative security breaches of Secretary Clinton, a more objective conclusion is just the reverse. FBI Director James Comey, no friend to Clinton, described Petraeus as prosecutable where Clinton was not:
 Comey, who oversaw both the Petraeus and Clinton investigations [said in] a July 7 hearing, he told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that Petraeus’s behavior was worse than Clinton’s, saying that he deliberately “lied” when first questioned by investigators.
“So you have obstruction of justice, you have intentional misconduct and a vast quantity of information” that was highly classified, Comey said. “He admitted he knew that was the wrong thing to do. That is a perfect illustration of the kind of cases that get prosecuted.”
Well. That says a great deal. "No reasonable prosecutor" would bring a case against Clinton, where Petraeus committed precisely the sort of crimes that should have been prosecuted. (Petraeus copped a plea and, as Bloomberg notes, would be the rare Cabinet member to serve the President while still on probation.)

Moreover, there is the adultery question. Like Trump and his cronies Giuliani and Gingrich, Petraeus has betrayed his marriage vows. As we pointed out at the time, this alone is a prosecutable crime under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and not without good reason. An adulterer makes himself (or herself) susceptible to influence and blackmail. Had the general's paramour been a foreign agent, agent, the classified information he revealed to her might well have led directly to the death of American soldiers, or a compromise of American interests.

This is not, to say the least, a stirring recommendation for a top diplomat.

Now, here is the thing. People inclined to dismiss adultery as Giuliani has -- "everybody does it," and to privatize it by saying "I confess that to my priest" -- don't see the Petraeus case as anything especially grave. That is because they fail to grasp the central point of Christian moral philosophy, which is that we do not exist merely as individuals, but as a community. One person's sin does not merely harm himself and his relationship to God, but harms all of society.  This is true even of occult sins, but more demonstrably so of gross public ones.
The early penitential tradition was far more concerned with the latter than with the former; our earliest records indicate a very public process of confession before, dismissal from, and restoration to, the Christian community.  Well into the Middle Ages (and beyond), Church leaders distinguished themselves for holding political figures accountable to the community for their moral lapses.  Think of Ambrose demanding penance from Theodosius or, with a bit more moral ambiguity but no less drama, the German king standing prayerfully in the snow at Canossa.

Let's not push the moral point too far.  Petraeus is not asking to be admitted to Holy Communion; he is asking for another government job.  The question before Mr. Trump, and the rest of us, is not whether Petraeus is repentant, but whether he is competent.  We have little doubt that Petraeus is intellectually competent -- he is by most reports brilliant.  But competence extends to more than mere intellect.  A figure who, when trusted with enormously high office, has criminally abused the public trust in ways that have exposed himself to potential blackmail and those under his command to far worse is not, by our old-fashioned way of thinking, a great candidate for still-higher office.

But that line of reasoning only makes sense if you understand just why adultery is bad, and we are not convinced that Mr. Trump, or many of those around him, do understand this.

Friday, November 18, 2016

An Uncertain Collect for Christ the King

For Christ the King, at least in Year C, the collect of the day prescribed by Evangelical Lutheran Worship reads:

O God, our true life, to serve you is freedom, and to know you is unending joy. We worship you, we glorify you, we give thanks to you for your great glory. Abide with us, reign in us, and make this world into a fit habitation for your divine majesty, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

It is a lovely prayer.  What interests us is its origin.

Gail Ramshaw, in a very helpful index to ELW, identifies it as the work of St. Augustine, as found in The Westminster Collection of Christian Prayers, edited by Dorothy M. Stewart.  She adds two asterisks, her shorthand for prayers that have been altered significantly for republication, as well as the warning that all the prayers have a long textual history.

A bit of detective work -- okay, googling -- suggests that the attribution to Augustine, while centuries old, is likely mistaken.

The prayer in question appears in a devotional book by George Stanhope, entitled Pious Beathings:  Being the Meditations of St. Augustine, His Treatise of the Love of God, Soliloquies and Manual (London, 1728).  Chapter 31 of the Meditations includes this passage:
O God, the true Life, of, and by, and in whom all things live, the common Source of all Good! Our Faith in thee excites, our Hope exalts, our Love unites us. Thou commandest us to seek thee, and art ready to be found; thou biddest us knock, and openest when we do so. To turn from thee, is to fall into Ruin and Death. To turn to thee, is to rise to Life and Glory. To abide in thee, is to stand fast and secure from Danger. No Man loses thee, who does not suffer himself to be deceived; no Man seeks thee, who does not submit to Instruction and Reproof; no Man finds thee, who docs not seek after thee with a clean Heart and purifyd Affections. To know thee is Life, to serve thee is Freedom, to enjoy thee is a Kingdom, to praise thee is the Joy and Happiness of the Soul. I praise, and bless, and adore thee, with Heart, and Voice, and every Faculty. I worship thee, I glorify thee, I give Thanks to thee for thy great Glory, for thy great Goodness, for thy innumerable and inestimable Mercies, Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty.
That is certainly our prayer, in a rich, full form.  But it is not by any means certain to be Augustine's work.  The interpolation of lines form the Gloria in excelsis should raise a red flag at once:  in Augustine's time, this canticle would have been used in the Greek church, but not (as widely, at least) the Latin one.

In fact, the so-called Meditations of St. Augustine are mostly taken from another work, the Libellus, of Jean de Fecamp, an 11th-century abbot.  Here's the Latin text of the Meditations (Chapter 32, in Migne).

It appears that Stanhope took at least one modest liberty with his text.  The single phrase, cui servire regnare est, literally "to serve whom is to rule," he has divided into two thoughts:  "to serve thee is freedom, to enjoy thee is a kingdom." Our modern version "to serve you is freedom," seems unfairly democratized by the replacement of rule with freedom, which is a rather different idea, both in politics and in personal spirituality.  To rule, even if one rules only oneself, may indeed be a kind of freedom; but it is not the kind suggested by the word freedom in post-Enlightenment discourse.  Not to mention that the loss of "kingdom" is ironic in a prayer designated for Christ the King.

But we digress.  Again.  Here's the point:  We're not sure who wrote this prayer, but -- however much we like it -- it does seem unlikely to have been the Doctor of Grace.