Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The Times that Try Men's Souls

This article was published in the 2001 Advent/Christmas issue of Gottesdienst less than two months after the attacks of 11 September.

The people of the United States were brought into a time of great crisis after the attacks of 11 September. Crises tend to bring out the very best or the very worst in people. We can more easily observe the true character of people when their character is put to the test. In times of crisis, therefore, we are more likely to find out what people are truly made of; the behavior they exhibit during such times is less likely to be marked by the putting on of airs, and hence more likely to indicate their strength of constitution. President Bush did not suddenly become a seasoned orator after the attack on New York; it’s just that he happens to have a strong constitution, which rose to the surface when it was needed. These, as Tom Paine wrote in 1776, are the times that try men’s souls. So if we pay close attention, we can learn quite a bit about people during these times, and even, at length, about ourselves.

Heroes always arise in times of great crisis. Crises tend to bring out the best in some people, maybe because they affect the conscience more readily than placid times. To speak of it in Pauline terms, the law, written on the heart, tends to surface during crises, and the result is better behavior. A rise in civil righteousness is thus noted: People more distant from the crisis that began on 11 September soon sought ways to donate toward rescue and recovery. Firemen and other heroes in New York and Washington rushed to the rescue at ground zero, where the need was acute. While civil righteousness has nothing to do with the righteousness of faith, it is always helpful for a society to have more of it in evidence. Hence the upside of this or any disaster is always the reappearance of champions.

Champions now abound. I count as heroes the many who had the courage to aid others in peril, heedless of the peril to themselves. I count as heroes those firemen and police who died while coming to the rescue. I count as heroes others who risked life and limb to search the rubble for their lost comrades. I count as heroes those countless citizens who came to the rescue in so many ways, even while others were fleeing for their lives. I count as heroes men who anointed the rescue workers and prayed with the wounded, at least one of whom even died with them. I count as heroes that group of passengers aboard doomed United Flight 93 who determined that they would not go down without a fight. With the battle cry, “Let’s roll,” they succeeded in saving untold numbers at the cost of their own lives. I count as heroes the troops of our nation, volunteers all, who have now gone off to war, or who have yet to go. I count as heroes even the pilots willing again to take to the air, swallowing newly found fears of flying. The Apostle tells us to give honor where honor is due. It is not hard these days to see where honor is due. It is due heroes. Crises will bring out the best in people.

Crises will also bring out the worst in people. The ravings of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson are informative. When interviewed on the Christian Broadcasting Network’s The 700 Club two days after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, Falwell declared that things could get a lot worse “if, in fact, God continues to lift the curtain and allow the enemies of America to give us probably what we deserve,” to which Robertson heartily agreed: “Jerry, that’s my feeling.” Falwell then went on to lay blame on the ACLU, abortionists, feminists, gays and lesbians, People For the American Way, all of whom “have tried to secularize America. I point the finger in their face and say ‘You helped this happen,’” to which Robertson replied, “Well, I totally concur, and the problem is we have adopted that agenda at the highest levels of our government. And so we’re responsible as a free society for what the top people do. And, the top people, of course, is the court system.”

When news of this gaffe hit the fan, even the White House seemed shocked, at once calling the remarks “inappropriate.” Robertson, when questioned about this on FOX News, was quick to retreat into half-truths about not being responsible for what people on his show might say, without addressing his own initially enthusiastic support for Falwell’s words, perhaps in hope that no one would notice. In a press release the following Monday, he referred to Falwall’s words as “unexpected,” adding that the statement was, “frankly, not fully understood by the three hosts of The 700 Club who were watching Rev. Falwell on a monitor.” This makes Robertson’s own words (“Jerry, that’s my feeling,” “Well, I totally concur”) appear reckless and inappropriate. It also makes his closing remarks sound rather hollow: “Jerry, this is so encouraging, and I thank God for your stand. We just love you and praise God for you . . . my dear friend.” With friends like this, who needs enemies? No man who betrays his friends should ever be trusted.

Falwell himself released an apology the next day in which he admitted his remarks were “insensitive, uncalled for at the time, and unnecessary as part of the commentary on this destruction.” He went on to say, “I obviously did not state my theological convictions very well and I stated them at a bad time.” The observer in me is not so sure about that. It seems to me that he asserted his theological convictions quite well indeed.

Surely he believes, and rightly so, that the various groups he mentioned are godless. He clearly also believes, again rightly, that abortion has destroyed “40 million little innocent babies.” The question is whether he believes, as he suggested, that these and similar societal sins “make God mad,” with the result that jetliners are sent plunging into skyscrapers. It is doubtful that he believes that those who died in the tragedy were only abortionists, atheists, and the like, but we might legitimately wonder whether he must therefore see God’s vengeance as something which, when inflicted, results in great collateral damage. Either this, or, as he indicated, his remarks were “obviously” not reflective of his theological convictions.

In his apology, Falwell wrote, “I do not know if the horrific events of September 11 are the judgment of God, but if they are, that judgment is on all of America—including me and all fellow sinners—and not on any particular group,” adding that he blames “no one but the hijackers and terrorists.” If the former remarks were “obviously” not reflective of his convictions, it seems obvious that at least these remarks are. Yet they reflect the same convictions, to wit, still allowing the possibility that God might be visiting a judgment on all America (yes, “including me”) because of our sins.

This remark is actually more unsettling than the first, for now the truth of the matter becomes clear. Here is a god positively brimming with wrath not merely against abortionists and the like, but against all sinners. Here is a god in whose memory is no recollection of the blood of Christ. Such a god is in this respect more terrifying even than the one imagined in the minds of suicide bombers, for they must console themselves with the thought that at least he isn’t mad at them for their self-sacrifice against the “godless.” In the revealing light of his apology, Falwell’s faux pas now appears to be more than a mere blunder—it discloses a dreadful misunderstanding about the nature of God. Crises will bring out the worst in some

A generation ago conservative Lutherans tended to count conservative Calvinists as theological relatives of a type, because at least we were agreed about the infallibility of the Bible. Perhaps now it can be seen that all conservative alliance that glitters is not gold. For what good is agreement on the authorship of Scripture if we cannot agree on the nature of the Author?

Speaking of the worst, the downside of American freedom of religion is American melting of religion into a pot of mush. The military effort has been aptly renamed “Operation Enduring Freedom,” serving however unintentionally as a double entendre. Freedom is something which endures and something whose consequent backlashes must occasionally be endured. Exhibit one: the prayer service at Yankee stadium on 23 September, in which every imaginable major religion was represented, as Jews, Roman Catholics, Muslims, Hindus, Protestants, Sikhs, and Greek Orthodox stepped up to the plate to offer their prayers. How fitting that the service should be led by Oprah Winfrey, widely recognized as a leading guru of afternoon talk shows driven by the psychology of emotional release, which, of course, was what the afternoon was really all about, under the name of religion. Jesus is here seen standing, as it were, right alongside Muhammad and other false prophets. This amounts to an affirmation of Islam (which has always counted Jesus among its prophets), and a rejection of Christianity, according to the words of St. Peter, who insists that “there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12 NKJ).

I suppose that the active participation in the Yankee Stadium farce by the Reverend David Benke, president of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod’s Atlantic District, was fitting in a perverse sort of way, given that the Missouri Synod has these days become a schizophrenic blend of desires on the one hand to give at least lip service to confessional integrity and eagerness on the other to fit in with the ecumenical movement. So there in the midst of representatives of all manner of false religions stood President Benke, making a valiant (and failed) effort to provide just that blend with the prayer he offered, particularly in the portions I have here emphasized:

"O Lord our God, we’re leaning on You today. You are our Tower of Strength, and we’re leaning on You. You are our Mighty Fortress, our God who is a Rock; in You do we stand. Those of us who bear the name of Christ know that You stood so tall when You stooped down to send a Son through death and life to bring us back together, and we lean on You today. O Tower of Strength, be with those who mourn the loss of loved ones; bring them closer to us day by day. O Heavenly Father, we pray at this time that You might extend Jacob’s ladder for those who ascended the stairways to save us, as others escaped the fire and flames. O Tower of Strength,open innocent and victimized hearts to the sacrifice of the Innocent One; pour Your consolation upon the traumatized, especially our children. O Heavenly Father, un-bind, un-fear, un-scorch, un-sear our souls; renew us in Your free Spirit. We’re leaning on You, our Tower of Strength. We find our refuge in the shadow of Your shelter. Lead us from this place—strong—to bring forth the power of Your love, wherever we are. In the precious name of Jesus. Amen."

How subtle is the craft of perversity! Here is a prayer filled with profoundly comforting images of God—Tower of Strength, Mighty Fortress, Rock—and containing clear references to the work and name of Jesus. The appeal to be evangelistic has become so strong among us that urgency has overtaken confessional integrity. How easy it is to reason that it is right to take this wonderful opportunity to bear witness of Jesus, even if the witness itself is peppered with blasphemy.

Yes, blasphemy. To refer to the supplicants as “we,” of whom only some (i.e., “those of us”) “bear the name of Christ” is clearly to imply that the prayers of all here are acceptable, no matter ultimately whether they pray in His name or not, or whether they are baptized in His name or not. Not only does Benke blaspheme the name of Jesus by the prayer, but by his very participation in a festival so shamelessly pagan and universalistic. If he truly regarded Jesus’ name as “precious,” then why would he plant it on equal footing with any and all religions?

Benke may wish to hide behind the idea that this was a once-in-a-lifetime, extraordinary situation requiring great sensitivity and love, but the truth is that nothing could ever be quite so extraordinary that it calls for the endorsement of false religion. Here was an event openly designed to address all the gods who might be present, and there was Benke, knowingly and actively taking part. There is no room here for Jesus’ declaration, “No one comes to the Father except through Me” (St. John 14:6 NKJ). One might as well pray to Diana, or Apollo, or Zeus. Imagine the biting sarcasm with which Elijah might have reacted to such a festival, or the wrath of Moses on seeing it. Benke’s banalities about turning a field of dreams “into God’s house of prayer” now come into sharp focus: this may well be so, but the god who is being invoked here could not be the Father who delights only in Jesus. Benke can claim all he wants that he was given permission by other theologians or authorities; but we know that men of integrity do not hide behind the skirts of others.

Regarding those skirts, it would appear that a concerted effort to make political hay over this matter has already been mounted in the synod’s purple towers. A “pastoral” letter of commendation to “President Kieschnick and District President Benke for the strong leadership they have given at this time”—overtly a reference to “compassion and encouragement they have given to the caregivers” but subtly a consideration of Kieschnick’s public support for Benke’s participation in the Yankee Stadium fiasco—is crafted in such a way as to make anyone who might complain at all about Benke appear cold-hearted in these most sensitive of times. Notwithstanding the letter’s claim to have come from “35 District Presidents, 5 Vice Presidents, [and] the President of Synod,” I did not see any signatures, and I expect at least to see some sort of minority report generated in the coming weeks, inasmuch as there are men of integrity in that crowd who have already indicated that they are troubled over the matter, as have several district pastors’ conferences. Whether or not they do, however, false gods are still false gods, no matter who endorses them, and no matter how great an emergency is used to rationalize the worship of them.

What makes the matter worse is that it was three years ago, almost to the day, that Benke’s previous public exercise in unionism took place. On 9 September 1998 he partook in an interfaith ceremony at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, which aroused the ire of many within the Synod. On 22 October of that year he issued the following apology:

"My participation in this service was a direct violation of the Holy Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions . . . While well-intended, what I did was wrong. I therefore sincerely and publicly apologize to the Synod for my actions in this connection. I assure the Synod that I will not repeat this error in the future by participating as an officiant in ecumenical services."

Given the fact that his current error is even more egregious than the first (now he has gone beyond unionism to syncretism), we must conclude that this is not a man of his word, that he is prone to violate Scripture and the Confessions, that his assurances are meaningless, and that therefore, like Robertson, he is a man not to be trusted. Crises bring out the worst in some people.

America is an historical anomaly, being the first successful experiment in civic republican liberty, though the evolution of this system of government can be traced as far back as the days of the Magna Carta (1297), whose preamble declares certain liberties under law “to the advancement of holy Church, and amendment of our Realm . . . to be kept in our kingdom of England for ever,” the very first of which is “that the Church of England shall be free, and shall have her whole rights and liberties inviolable.” Out of the religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries arose the dictum cuius regio, eius religio, allowing that whoever rules a region, his is its religion. But inasmuch as this was intolerable for many who found themselves living in the wrong region, what soon evolved out of this was migration to the New World. The colonies there had been established by Englishmen who brought with them charters patterned after the Magna Carta, charters which guaranteed that they and their heirs would “have and enjoy all liberties and immunities of free and natural subjects.” A few generations later, when their heirs raised arms against their mother country, they were fighting not for new freedoms but to preserve liberties that dated to the thirteenth century, freedoms guaranteed by the very monarchy against whom they were now constrained to oppose, as it had by now turned tyrannical. As the Magna Carta had placed even the king beneath the law (with the king’s own consent), so now, the law—in particular, English common law as evolved from the Magna Carta—dictated that their revolution was in truth not a matter of rebellion but of loyalty.

There is a kinship in spirit between that kind of thinking and the thinking of Martin Luther and his followers against the pope and the king, although in their case the loyalty was not to common law, but to the Gospel of Christ. Martin Luther was not a disobedient radical, but ever a loyal son of the Church catholic. The tyranny of the pope had robbed the people of Christ. That tyranny was itself a long time in evolving, and can be traced over hundreds of years of the enlargement of papal power. When the time was ripe for the Reformation, that power had waxed fully perverse, and the children of the Reformation learned that it was necessary for them to disavow the tyranny if they would be faithful to Christ.

It is always dangerous to paint broad historical strokes. Yet what emerges from such strokes can be both compelling and worthy of acceptation. In this case, what emerges is the case for a certain link between the Reformation and the formation of the United States of America. The link is certainly not an identification of one with the other, as we are speaking here of two separate kingdoms, pertaining to the right hand and to the left hand of God. In both cases, however, what has emerged is opposition to tyranny. When the pope placed himself above the Gospel and oppressed the churches, the churches by recourse to the Gospel recognized new bishops; when the king placed himself above the law and oppressed the people, the people by recourse to the law established new government.

This is why America is beautiful. It is not the spacious skies and amber waves of grain that are germane to her beauty, but the fact that God shed His grace on her. Nor is the grace that God shed evident in the liberties guaranteed by the Constitution. This grace is preached only in the Gospel, which the law of the land insists must have free course, that it might be preached to the joy and edifying of Christ’s holy people. The republic’s liberty does not guarantee that the Gospel is preached; it only allows for its preaching. But since this republic does allow for it, we must thank God for the special character of this republic, just as I’m sure Luther and his Saxon friends thanked God for Elector Frederick the Wise. There is
something exceedingly good about America, in spite of all her flaws, and it is not simply her wealth or prosperity. It is the fact that she is free.

Most Americans, it is true, do not know what is most especially glorious about American freedom. Far above all other things, it is that the Gospel may sound forth here unhindered by tyranny. What the pope refused to permit, Lady Liberty insists on permitting. The Lutheran Confessors would gladly have submitted to the pope if only he would allow the Gospel. He did not, so they could not. How bitter was the struggle for their freedom only for this one thing, to have the Gospel. And here we stand, on America’s free soil, not only unhindered by tyranny, but living under a constitution which guarantees perpetual liberty from it.

Twisted results can arise from the failure rightly to understand this.

Falwell and Robertson worry that God is punishing America. I say God continues to bless her. America’s blemishes can be aggravating to us at times, but as much as she permits them to mar her face, so much does she still permit the Gospel. Even the oft-lamented “removal” of God from public school has not hindered our freedom to hear His voice at the church just down the street. Still today we are free in America to confess the blessed name of Jesus, even if it is true that so many Americans don’t.

It is a tragedy, on the other hand, to misinterpret freedom as license to assemble with pagans, as Benke has done. He, by misunderstanding the true nature of both civic and Christian liberty, has squandered the great opportunity America affords him to preach the Gospel.
He surely thought he was taking advantage of an opportunity granted by press coverage and the hype of the moment. He fails to see, then, that by grasping at that elusive opportunity, he misses out on a greater one. Hoping to confess Jesus’ name here, he denied Jesus’ name, for his witness was one of solidarity with people who expressly reject the saving power of that name. Aesop’s dog loses the meal he has in his mouth when he lunges hungrily for the one he sees reflected in the pool beneath him.

For my part, therefore, I will laud patriotism while rejecting all idolatry. I will count all patriots my compatriots, but I will not be partaker with men who deceive with vain words (Ephesians 5:6-7). I will kneel in my church as an American Christian, but I will stand up
in the public square as a Christian American. There will I gladly wave my flag with the rest of America, as I cheer her soldiers on to victory. From childhood I have pledged allegiance to that flag, and to the republic for which it stands; we must always take our vows seriously if we are to retain our integrity. But the flag does not coerce my veneration of it; most gladly do I stand with my hand on my heart when the flag marches by, for I perceive something very good, very blessed, about this nation which transcends the sum of its parts: here my government pledges to me that its purpose is to defend me in my free confession of Christ my Lord. I would, of course, have to confess Him even if the government forbad it, as tyrannical governments often have; how much better a government it is which supports my freedom to have my convictions.

But that goodness, that freedom, is not itself the freedom of the Gospel, and therefore I will not adore the flag or its republic, nor does the flag seek to exact adoration; this one nation is rightly said to be under God, since adoration, as we know, is due only to God Himself: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Therefore I must stand opposed to every infraction of His Second Commandment: You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God. My country provides me the freedom thus to stand, confessing the name of Jesus against all who would do it dishonor. For in that name alone is the salvation of the world.

We have all been tested in regard to our loyalties, our character, and our integrity. To different sorts the test is administered in different ways. For some, it is a test of courage in the face of death; for others, a test of confessional integrity in the face of crisis. To whom much is given much is required; that requirement is called up for duty during the times that try men’s souls.

© Evangelical-Lutheran Liturgical Press 2001

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