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.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The Most Political of Church Feasts

As we approach the end of the liturgical year, many churches will observe the solemnity of Christ the King.

Christ the King is, at this point in history, a reasonably ecumenical event. We are assured by our new Presbyterian neighbor that even his congregation -- so poorly catechized in matters of worship that he is required to teach them what the Epiphany is! -- recognizes it.

However, it was not ever thus.  Unlike those many ancient festivals which are the shared inheritance of the whole Church, or at least its Western portion, Christ the King is distinctively modern, and rooted in the modern experience not merely of Catholicism but of Roman Catholicism.  Those of us among the separated brethren who plan to preach upon it may do well to reflect upon the similarities and differences which condition our own communities of faith, and especially upon how our churches think of their relationship to the civil realm or, bluntly put, to politics.

In 1925, troubled by the rise of secularism and anticlericalism, Pope Pius XI issued his encyclical Quas primas, which established the feast of Christ the King.  These movements are closely connected to the liberalism inspired by the Enlightenment, as well as the nationalism which in its most destructive form gave rise to Fascism in the 20th century.

So, for example, we find that in France, Napoleon's 1801 Concordat made the Church a servant of the State, and the 1901 "Law of Associations" suppressed religious orders and confiscated their property.  The popes had opposed Italian unification, and after it was accomplished found their power quickly reduced; they lost their land holdings, civil marriage was approved, and university theological faculties were suppressed.  Parallel developments took in Germany, Spain, Mexico and Venezuela.  And these were -- excepting perhaps Germany -- "Catholic countries," in which Rome was accustomed to exercising vast influence.

To such developments, Pius responded with Quas primas.  Drafted (it seems) by a French Thomist named Edouard Hugon, this document did more than establish a feast.  It asserted the absolute supremacy of Jesus not merely in spiritual matters, but in political ones:
It has long been a common custom to give to Christ the metaphorical title of "King," because of the high degree of perfection whereby he excels all creatures. So he is said to reign "in the hearts of men" .... But if we ponder this matter more deeply, we cannot but see that the title and the power of King belongs to Christ as man in the strict and proper sense too. For it is only as man that he may be said to have received from the Father "power and glory and a kingdom," since the Word of God, as consubstantial with the Father, has all things in common with him, and therefore has necessarily supreme and absolute dominion over all things created.
This meant that no civil government had the right to interfere with the Lord's earthly community, by which Pius specifically means the Roman church.  In other words, parliaments and presidents and so forth have no right to suppress the Jesuits, or to take away ecclesiastical property.

The point was not, however, that Church and State should rightly be separated, in the American fashion.  On the contrary, Pius retained for the Church a role in civil affairs, calling it "a grave error" to say otherwise.  And then he made a curious move, saying that virtue of the absolute empire over all creatures committed to him by the Father, all things are in [Christ's] power. Nevertheless, during his life on earth he refrained from the exercise of such authority, and although he himself disdained to possess or to care for earthly goods, he did not, nor does he today, interfere with those who possess them. 
In other words, Jesus own your stuff, but chooses not to take it away -- meaning that you retain an effective right to own property, no matter what the Communists say.  This raises a red flag (as it were) for some readers, signaling a preference for one sort of modern statism over another.  And indeed, Quas primas was issued during the early years of Mussolini's reign (which had begun in 1922), when hostility to the Church was a vigorous part of the Fascist program.  By 1929, Il Duce chose to be re-baptized, and enlisted the Catholic faithful as a phalanx in his battle against Communism.

There is another red flag, although we aren't sure what to make of it.  Pius reminds us that Christ exercises a "threefold power which is essential to lordship."  He identifies this as Law-giver, Priest and King, with considerable attention to the first part.

This framing is ... unusual.  We are accustomed to the threefold office of Prophet, Priest and King, first laid out in the patristic era but made much of by Calvin and his successors, including the Lutheran Scholastics.  Now, it is not too very much of a jump to argue that the Biblical prophet was, kinda sorta, a law-giver.  Moses certainly was.  But for the most part, the roles are separate.  Prophets critique unjust rulers, but they do not generally rule.

This reframing is especially problematic for Lutherans, whose confession of faith specifically denies that Christ is a law-giver, and that to claim otherwise diminishes his work as a sacrificial propitiator of the divine law. (Apology 4:15-16, 392).  It is possible to argue that Melanchthon is denying that Christ has given a new moral law, while Pius is asserting that Christ does give a new civil law, and so the two claims refer to different categories and can be thus reconciled.  Such an argument is naturally very technical and, in our opinion, a little dubious.

None of this will keep us from observing Christ the King, nor should it keep anybody else.  But while celebrating, it may be fruitful to recall that the very existence of this most modern feast represents a strong position in several modern controversies -- and not necessarily the position to which preachers are most congenial.  To call Christ "King," in this context, is to assert his primacy not merely in personal morality, but in civil affairs; it is to resist the past three centuries of Enlightenment-driven liberalism, and claim an expansive role for the Church in the political realm.  it is to claim that the Church may judge kings, but not vice-versa.

We're okay with this ... but only if it's our Church.  Those other guys teach some weird stuff that we don't want enshrined in our laws, no-sir, no-how. And therein lies the problem, dunnit?

Friday, November 11, 2016

More Music for the End of Time

A longtime friend of the Egg, Father James of the Tonsure, responded to our post about the Dies irae.  He observes that, as the song progresses, it develops what he calls "a more evangelical tone." This is discernible in three stanzas especially:
Preces meæ non sunt dignæ;
Sed tu bonus fac benigne,
Ne perenni cremer igne.
Inter oves locum præsta.
Et ab hædis me sequestra,
Statuens in parte dextra.
Confutatis maledictis,
Flammis acribus addictis,
Voca me cum benedictis.

That is to say:
Worthless are my prayers and sighing,
Yet, good Lord, in grace complying,
Rescue me from fires undying.
With Thy sheep a place provide me,
From the goats afar divide me,
To Thy right hand do Thou guide me.
When the wicked are confounded,
Doomed to flames of woe unbounded,
Call me with Thy saints surrounded.

Another colleague points us to  Es ist gewißlich an der Zeit, AKA "The Day is Surely Drawing Near," a Lutheran hymn of the 17th century in a 19th century translation.  It works over some of the same material in a more strictly Biblical fashion.  You can read it here, and hear a MIDI of the (unimaginative and stodgy) tune. 

If your mood this week is positively apocalyptic, we recommend an album by Anonymous 4 entitled 1000: A Mass for the End of Time.  (Learn more here.) It attempts to reconstruct an Ascension Day service from the end of the first Christian millennium, and imbue it with a sense of dread.  We have owned the album since its 1999 release, and while we do not listen to it often, there are times -- notably those when we have been deliberately drinking ourselves into a stupor -- when it simply works

Or, for those with an addiction to the music written in the most recent few centuries, consider Olivier Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time.  Few pieces of music have a more compelling backstory.  Inspired by a passage from Revelation, it was written and performed in 1941, when the composer was imprisoned in Stalag VIII-A, a German POW camp in Poland. He wrote on smuggled paper with a broken pencil, and the piece premiered outdoors, in the rain, to a an audience of prisoners and guards.  Messiaen recalled later that, "Never was I listened to with such rapt attention."

Here's a YouTube presentation:

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Day of Wrath

Like just over 50% of his fellow Americans, Father Anonymous arose this morning in a bitter mood, ashes on his tongue and sulfur on his breath.  No doubt like a few of them, he also had a scrap of Latin running through his brain:
Die irae, dies illa,
Solvet saeclum in favilla;
Teste David cum Sibylla
This is, as readers will surely know, one of the most famous hymns of the medieval church.  Likely written in the 13th century by Friar Thomas of Celano, a friend of St Francis, it seems to have been used first as a hymn for Advent and then, more commonly, as the Sequence for All Souls' Day, and sometimes in Masses for the dead.

The Dies irae speaks to the eschatological dread common to the Middle Ages.  In a common English translation, it begins:
The day of wrath, that dreadful day,
Shall the whole world in ashes lay
As David and the Sibyl say.
This misses the beauty of solvet, a word with two meanings -- to end, and to break up -- and naturally the source of our words dissolve and resolve. Sir Walter Scott's "when Heaven and Earth shall pass away" is better, but our gut tells us that a superior translation is still waiting to be made.

Another quirk of the opening lines is that some people (apparently the French) didn't want the pagan Sibyl to share equal billing with King David, so they altered the verse to read Crucis expandens vexilla, "spreading out banners of the Cross," or something like that.   This leads to translations such as:
Day of wrath, o day of mourning,See once more the Cross returning -- Heav'n and earth in ashes burning!
Anyway, the song continues in the same vein.  The sinner lives in fear of his returning Judge, and asks the one who absolved the Magdalene to forgive him too, yada-yadda-yadda. Whether or not it is good poetry may be a matter of opinion (we don't think so), but it has certainly been popular through the years. The rhythm is strong, the imagery is vivid, and -- Samhain be damned -- it was work like this that helped create our beloved Halloween.

It is also, from a Lutheran perspective, theologically dubious.  This is the sort of preaching that does more to torment souls than comfort them, the sort of popular Christianity that seeks obedience through fear.  Mind you, we have a conundrum here, since there is nothing wrong with encouraging repentance -- indeed, the First Thesis is that a Christian's whole life should be one of repentance.

In any case, we are rambling now.  Suffice it to say that these last hours have been difficult ones, and it does indeed seem to us as to many Americans that the end is nigh.  It seemed that way in the 13th century, too. And indeed, those were terrible times, as these are terrible times.  But the world survived, the Church survived, and will continue to survive until God is good and ready.  We can sing about the End Times all we want, but they are ultimately a product not of our sin but of God's grace.

And here's the song, for those who really want to enter into the day's mood of depression and anxiety: