Friday, November 26, 2004

Deja vu All Over Again -- Not Quite

I'm sure you've seen it by now -- the Marlboro Man of Iraq. Naomi Klein has written about it in The Nation. It's been in more than one hundred U.S. papers, and I'm sure hundreds of folks are blogging on it. I saw it first in the paper on Wednesday morning and thought, "that's a striking picture." As Klein suggests, I felt like I'd seen it before. I'm sure that my mother's The Best of Life has Vietnam and WW II pictures just like it. Of course, that book also has pictures from Normandy and the bodies on the beach, and pictures of flag-drapped caskets returning from Vietnam, and pictures of napalmed civilians running from burning villages. Those pictures seem remarkably absent from the coverage of this war -- at least in the print media. (I must confess to an aversion so strong to TV news that I never watch it, so if U.S. networks have been showing the execution of a wounded Iraqi prisoner or shots of dead civilians in the streets of Falluja I've missed it.) The tired Marine is certainly part of the story of America at war, but so are the dead. We seem to be getting only one trope this time. It's not quite deja vu.

Thursday, November 25, 2004

Giving Thanks?

Henri Nouwen once wrote that "to be grateful for the good things that happen in our lives is easy, but to be grateful for all of our lives - the good as well as the bad, the moments of joy as well as the moments of sorrow, the successes as well as the failures, the rewards as well as the rejections - that requires hard spiritual work."
That seems an appropriate thought for Thanksgiving, and for progressive Christians the election this month could easily be construed as a moment of failure and rejection. How are we to be thankful? Well, I am thankful that the elections focused more attention on progressive Christianity, even if the attention has been often negative. That, though, is too easy and facile, as the next part of Nouwen's reflection underscore: "Still, we are only truly grateful people when we can say thank you to all that has brought us to the present moment. As long as we keep dividing our lives between events and people we would like to remember and those we would rather forget, we cannot claim the fullness of our beings as a gift of God to be grateful for. Lets not be afraid to look at everything that has brought us to where we are now and trust that we will soon see in it the guiding hand of a loving God."
The simplistic division of the entire country into "red" and "blue" makes it all the easier to continue dividing our lives into events and people we charish and ones we'd just as soon forget. I'll admit it, there are times when I'd just as soon forget Nov. 2, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and most of the present administration. I am not sure yet how to be sincerely grateful for them, except in negative ways: I'm glad they are here because they help me clarify my thinking in opposition to them.
The much more difficult question remains: how to find true gratitude for those whose public lives embody so much -- homophobia, a theology of empire, theological exclusion -- that I find so deeply troubling in the present time?
Last week at a worship service at Sojourners, we were challenged to adopt a stewardship of attitude. I know that Nouwen often said that gratitude is the fundamental attitude common to all genuine religious expression, still, on this Thanksgiving Day, I cannot find it within me to express more than this negative gratitude for the Religious Right. I'll rest with that confession for now and continue the difficult discipline of finding deeper thanksgiving.
In the meanwhile, the reelection of President Bush raises for me another central theological question: at what point does opposition to an elected public official take on a status confessionis? During the runup to the election, I was quite careful never to offer a word of endorsement of John Kerry nor a word of condemnation of President Bush. Such would, of course, place my congregation's tax exempt status at risk, but, more than that, I do not feel such endorsement would be appropriate theologically. All have sinned and fall short of the household of God -- including pastors and politicians. No platform, no politician is going to bring about the reign of God. Moreover, when the church gets too cozy to any politician it compromises its ability to exercise the critically important role of prophetic critique.
Jerry Falwell's suggestions that people who did not vote for President Bush's reelection could not call themselves evangelical Christians certainly call his ministry's tax exemption into question. That is between him and the IRS. But more than tax exemption is called into question by his coziness to power. When you get into bed with power it becomes profoundly difficult to ask the questions that prophets must ask -- questions of justice, of equity, of compassion, of war and peace.
Those concerns are enough to keep this progressive pastor out of the business of offering endorsements. On the other hand, thinking back to the experience of the Confessing Church in Germany in the 1930s, I wonder what it might take for opposition to a public official to become the duty of Christians. Clearly those were the stakes of the Barman Declaration. I don't think we have reached that point in the United States. (A visit to the Holocaust Memorial Museum the Saturday after election day certainly made that abundantly clear to me.) However, the push to empire, the policy of preemtive war, the economic agenda that clearly favors the affluent at the expense of the poor -- all of these issues press us to think seriously about what it would take to require of progressive Christians our own variations on Falwell's theme.
I am thankful today that I do not yet face this decision.