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Sunday, June 16, 2013

Should We Belong To An Evil Empire

I don't know if Kurt Willems is well known perhaps because we come from two different theological traditions. While I come from a Reformed Theological tradition and Willems comes from an Anabaptist one. The two were at odds during the Reformation but "tolerate" each other today. Nevertheless, he has important challenges for those of us who were raised on Romans 13 and a Christian based patriotism. In his sermon on Revelation 17, Willems implores us to first see the connection between America's  empire with the great whore from Revelation 17 and then to react by coming out from this prostitute so as to escape her coming judgment.

Regardless of whether Willems' association of America and the Empire with which this woman from Revelation 17 is biblically correct, that by building an empire, America has much in common with the past empires. And in our case, one of those similarities include how the union of civil religion with nationalism led to the massive shedding of blood and the grand theft of land and resources.

According to Willems, the Christian response to America's empire should be to separate oneself from participating in the creation and maintenance of empire less we become like those who eat meat sacrificed to idols by freely enjoying the fruits of the American empire which are the results of exploitation or the worship of idols, that is becoming united with the great whore from Revelation 17, by how we pay homage to the state. Willems' view here challenges Christians from the Reformed tradition in two ways. First, whereas Willems sees that America is founded on sins of violence and domination, many from the Reformed tradition see America as being founded on the Word of God. This does not imply to the latter group that all has been kosher. Rather, they are just saying that the foundation of America were based on the Bible and that the Bible played a key role in its development despite the sins.

Of course another challenge to Reformed Christians which Willems presents is his depiction of the character of America's empire regards the inferences Reformed Christians have drawn from Romans 13 and I Peter 2. In these scriptures, both Paul and Peter command us to submit to the authorities because all who are in authority have been ordained by God. From their teachings on submission comes an unfortunate patriotism and even reverence for one's nation which has sometimes achieved a quasi-religious significance. For many Reformed Christians, patriotism ranks at least third behind cleanliness and godliness.

But Willems presents still another challenge to the Reformed view of Romans 13. Whereas those from the Reformed Tradition look at Romans 13 as addressing personal piety, Willems directs our attention from making sure we dot every 'i' and cross every 't  to thinking about doing our small part to address the needs of those who suffer because of America's empire. And it is at this point where we see how we from the Reformed Faith define piety differently from how Willems does. Whereas those from the Reformed Traditions measure piety by what rules one follows, Willems is thinking of piety by how our actions affect others and what we can do for them. In other words, it seems that piety according to the Reformed Traditions is inner or self-directed while Willems' is outer or other directed.

Something else can be observed here. With the Reformed Traditions, there is a strict division of labor, a modularization if you are a Computer Scientist or rigidity if you are a Psychologist, where social justice is the sole concern of the government while our responsibility is to keep ourselves pure. With Willems, social justice is a concern of both the government and the individual. So that when the government fails to practice and promote social justice,  the individual is to pick up the slack and that is for the sake of the victims of injustice.

As much as I believe and value the theologies of the Godhead and soteriology (study of salvation) that come from the Reformed Traditions, what Willems says here is a breath of fresh air. That piety and our relationship with God is not just about our own worship of God, our personal purity, and our relationships with those who live in the small circle of our lives; it includes a broader and less rigid view of how we relate to the world. So that if because of the system in which we live we hurt others by what we enjoy, then it is our God given duty to resist the system by at least breaking with conventions.

The above is not an easy message to hear by some Reformed Christians for a few reasons. First it goes against the narrative some have heard their whole lives. Second, those who idolatrously revel in patriotism gain more than a fair amount of self-signficiance through their association with this country and its history. And third, some are not ready for the personal changes that are implied by admitting such a narrative.  For such changes required, especially of those who would call themselves Christians, would revolve around being more concerned about the injustice visited on others than their own personal religiosity. This showing concern for the victims of injustice can incur the high price of being at odds with those close to us as well as the prevailing view of the society in which we live.

Very few have really struck an adequate balance between the implications of the injustices practiced by one's own nation and the Biblical commands to recognize the source of the authority of those who are our elected leaders. Both Gandhi and Martin Luther King provided fallible examples of providing such a balance. And if we attempt to continue what they started, perhaps we can make the Christian faith more relevant for today without sacrificing the Gospel's message.


2 comments:

Andrew Barshinger said...

Hi Curt,
The Anabaptist tradition does have some good points. Certainly I agree that true religion is not just to keep oneself unstained from the word but also to visit the orphans and widows (James 1:18).
Wlllems may be right about the US being the whore, but my gut reaction is to think that he pushes the case too strongly. Countries and nations are complex beasts (pun intended). I recognize some of the sins and deficiencies of our nations founding, but to say that US has been the whore from the beginning doesn't seem fair. Of course to do Willems justice I'd have to read him. Elizabeth has breakfast on the table. Gotta go.

Curt Day said...

Young Andrew,
What do you mean you have to read Willems to do him justice? You went to seminary, didn't you? I thought once one goes to seminary, one needs read anything to make judgments about others.

Seriously, when we look at the two major victims of America's found and expansion, the American Indians and Blacks, I will have to disagree with you about how America was a whore from the beginning. But the point of such statements is not to tear down as to face reality about our heritage so that we would work harder to correct the mistakes we make.

BTW, thank you for responding.