Strolling about our idyllic small town last Saturday, dragging an Impressionable Child, we could not help but notice a pair of dueling political signs, one for a Republican candidate and another for his Democratic opponent. Both signs were extremely large, perhaps 5x7 feet, and mounted a yard or two back from the curb. They faced each other across the street.
One of them -- the blue one -- had been defaced. Somebody had spray-painted "FJB," a blunt and crude dismissal of America's incumbent president.
Fr. Anon and Impressionable Child clucked our tongues. We wondered just how unhinged a person needed to have been to resort to trespass and vandalism of private property in order to express a political opinion that was implicit in the very large sign fifteen feet away. We also shook our heads sadly at the vulgarity, which, while a perfectly understandable result of intense passion, is also ... awfully vulgar as signage goes. All in all, we concluded, this particular vandal brought shame rather than honor to his or her cause.
Days later, the Father and Child were driving through the same small town, and found ourselves behind a black SUV decorated with a yet-more-vulgar expression of the same sentiment. It read "Fuck Joe and the Hoe [sic]," an idea so foreign to our own way of thinking that we took several seconds even to glean its import. We took several seconds longer to grasp that the verb was spelled out using guns. Just like this:
In the years 2015-206, we recall a great deal of conversation about whether America was home to an outright Fascist movement. We drew great comfort from an expert on the history of such movements who argued that although many of our compatriots had begun to express crude ethno-nationalist sentiments, with an ideology that actually scorned facts in favor of feelings, and in its worst case extended even to purposeful cruelty toward the marginalized, nonetheless they had not displayed the true hallmark of 30s-style Fascism, a belief in the redemptive power of political violence to purify a nation.
This, of course, was prior to the Epiphany Riot of 6 January 2021.
It is now pretty clear that the old vision of democracy as a respectful dialogue between Americans who disagree about policy but still regard one another as compatriots and even friends -- the relationship often claimed for President Reagan and Speaker O'Neill -- is a thing of the past. Mob-style threats are now the sort of thing we put on bumper stickers, and political violence is no longer a tool of the extreme fringe.
We could go on about this sad state of affairs, especially to note that the imagery of violence is not distributed equally among parties (the unvandalized yard sign featured a crosshairs, ostensibly because the commander once captained submarines, but still ...). But it is more pertinent to our vocation to consider the deep challenges presented to such a culture by this coming Sunday's Bible readings.
Like much of the Bible, the passages for Lectionary 25 C of the RCL (also known as Proper 20, or the 25th Sunday in Ordinary) deal with questions of public morality -- what it means (for Israel) to be a God-pleasing people, or (for Christians) to be a God-pleasing people who live as citizens of a pagan polity. Parenthetically, we may note, the past few years have taught us to see themes like this -- the question of civic righteousness, or more bluntly of the church and politics -- as the driving force of much of the Bible. Personal morality and spiritual health, while real concerns, seem distinctly secondary. This perspective, of course, challenges another well-known set of interpretive assumptions.
Anyhoo. In Sunday's lessons, Amos -- one of the prophets most concerned with the treatment of the poor as a marker of the nation's holiness -- lambastes as usual those who place their commercial goals over their religious commitments, who take advantage of the poor, and who deny them even their traditional right to freely collect the remainders of the harvest. This has many possible applications to life in our second Gilded Age, with its unspeakable accumulation of wealth in the loftiest percentiles.
The Lord's parable concerning the dishonest servant is more complex, and especially its awkward first summary -- "make friends by means of dishonest wealth." But it is possible to find here a hint that Christians cannot stand aloof from public life in order to preserve some notional purity of soul (as might be inferred from the suspiciously tacked-on sounding second summary, about not being able to serve God and Mammon). Rather, this line of thought might go, we are called to engage -- as Christians, so charitably! -- in the gritty and unpleasant business of actual public business, however that is defined.
But in the context of America's deeply divided polity, it is the Epistle for the day, from 1 Timothy, that seems most challenging.
Much of the New Testament envisions an inevitably hostile relationship between the followers of Jesus and the civil authorities in whose dominions they exist. This is certainly apparent in the Lord's warning about "those who are persecuted for my sake," and in stories like those of St. Stephen and St. Paul. It is, at least according to some schools, the entire point of the Revelation.
It is an academic commonplace that some of the lattermost documents, of which I take 1 Timothy to be an example, suggest a deliberate effort to accommodate Christian communities to the reality of life in an un-Christian world. The notorious household codes (e.g., Eph. 5:22-6:9) seem to mute, if not emasculate, the countercultural message of the older tradition. A movement that once taught followers to leave -- even "hate" -- their parents, now encourages filial piety of a perfectly conventional sort. A movement that once declared "there is neither Greek nor Jew, slave nor free, male nor female," now seems surprisingly invested in head coverings, hair styles, and obedience according to pagan social norms. And a movement that once envisioned confrontation with Empire as an apocalyptic battle now encourages its followers to avoid persecution by performing the social rituals of "good citizenship."
This often seems despicable on its face -- ersatz "Paul" selling out his echt eponym! -- but it is more than that. After fifteen centuries of hegemony in the West, Christianity and culture have so thoroughly influenced each other that their values can be distinguished only by an act of historical study. That is our context, and it is much like the one sought by the author of 1 Timothy. This writer wants Christians to be good, socially-acceptable Romans. Doing so may well have seemed a matter of life and death, individually and for their movement.
So, long story short, we are urged to "pray for kings and all in authority." And these prayers are to be "supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings." Through most of the last half-millennium, this was unexceptionable; Anglicans have contentedly prayed until recently for "our most gracious Sovereign Lady Queen Elizabeth," and have now effortlessly exchanged that formula for her less popular but equally royal son.
But for Americans living in the era of "FJB" graffiti, this may well seem to be impossible, or impossibly distasteful. In our own recent experience, we have had one assisting minister ask permission to omit the name of the then-sitting president from the weekly intercessions, on the grounds that he simply could not utter the name in prayer. From there, it is a short albeit significant jump to crude and threatening denunciations of "Joe and the Ho[e]."
It is is such a context -- in which one's own deepest values seem sharply at odds with those of the civil realm and its leadership -- that the instruction of 1 Timothy 2:1ff seems most powerful. You don't like your leaders? You think their pagan values threaten you and those you love? You may be right! And guess what? Too freaking bad, says the pseudonymous author. They are still your leaders, and if God does not bless them then you and the people around you are in even worse trouble. As Lutherans might say, it is often difficult to discern God at work in the Kingdom of the Left Hand -- but it is still God's Hand.
In our time of profound political anger and unrest, this message is worth considering seriously, not least while standing in the pulpit. Hatred for our leaders -- including some of the very bad leaders who have held office in recent years -- is still hatred, which is a questionable emotion at best. And it is still hatred for our leaders, meaning the people who -- whether we believe they are capable of doing so or not -- have been called to govern the nation of which we are citizens. While we are not called to pray for the imposition any particular policy (and thank heaven we are not!), that is separable from our call to pray even for those who promote it, if they hold legitimate civil authority.
We may well pray that God change their hearts; that God improve their moral character; that God reveal to them a new path in life leading to a period of monastic silence and seclusion. What Christians must not do is cease to pray for our leaders, with love and hope, and in pursuit of a national life marked by "quietness, peace, godliness and dignity." To abandon this practice, especially at a time when carrying it our may be emotionally challenging, is to abandon hope for better times, and to assist in driving the sword more deeply into the heart of our divided nation.