Monday, July 3, 2017

Patriotism II: My Country, RIGHT or Wrong.

George Elliot Clarke is Canada’s poet Laureate.

I do not think that I would want to be a poet laureate. Poet laureates get no respect. The pay is bad, too. Only 20,000 dollars per annum.

Worse, our parliamentarians who choose the poet laureate do not really care either. They didn’t even ask George Clarke for a poem to commemorate Canada’s 150th birthday, though telling him what to write about is part of an MP’s job.
George Elliot Clarke
It is also hard to be a poet laureate because you have to write nice about silly events. There is not much artistic gravitas in that. For example, Andrew Motion, a recent British poet Laureate, was asked to write a poem about Lady Camilla Bowles’ and Prince Charles’ wedding. Well, you tell me. What rhymes with Camilla? Vanilla, flotilla, gorilla, Godzilla? This is difficult, silly stuff. So, a bit of doggerel was once written about poet laureate’s that went like this:

In merry old England, it once was a rule
The King had his Poet, and also his fool
But now we’re so frugal, I’d have you know it
That the laureate can serve both for Poet and for Fool.

Still, some distinguished poets gave it a try. For example, one of the greatest English poets of the last century was Ted Hughes. Still, Hughes didn’t really shine. As poet laureate, he was asked to write about Prince Andrew’s wedding to Lady Sarah Ferguson. Here is what he came up with.

A helicopter snatched you up.
The pilot, it was me.

The marriage, as you know, ended in divorce.

As a preacher, I have learned that having to make nice is also the enemy of a good sermon. There isn’t much drama in “nice.” So, this morning, I’m faced with a conundrum. I set myself the goal of writing a patriotic sermon about Canada, my nation—not right or wrong—but Canada, my nation, right! A “make nice” sermon! For this Sunday, just before Canada’s 150th anniversary, I chose to write a sermon that dimly echoes the language of Psalm 96, a sermon about the roaring Pacific Ocean, about how the aurora borealis is glad, about how the trees in our woods sing for joy on account of Canada’s righteousness and truth, blessings and beauty. This Sunday, no thundering Jeremiads. No demand that the congregation repent. No prophetic warnings about war in Syria or Iraq. No stern lectures about racism or fidelity. No, this Sunday, I want to preach a sermon about Canada the good. I want to be a Preacher Laureate. And yet, I don’t want, like most Poet Laureates, to be silly or ignored.

What can I say?

I suppose a great poet, an Irving Layton or Margaret Atwood—like a Group of Seven Artist—a really great poet could briefly pry our attention away from the regular stuff poets plumb, like the despicable and immoral, away from cataclysm, impossible love, or disaster long enough to focus our attention, however briefly, on the wonder of the everyday blessings we Canadians usually take for granted.

Blessings like the safe neighbourhoods to walk in, blessings like being able to find an emergency dentist even on a long weekend, or the trails along Lake Ontario. Perhaps the best Canadian poet could pry our attention away from everything about Canada that has to be fixed or rightly condemned and could instead help us see Canada for what it really is, but is also too often ignored.

We have street lights that work. I’ve visited many places where they never do, like Haiti or Honduras. We have roads that are repaired, even while the inconvenience of construction irritates us. I’ve driven roads in Nigeria that can swallow cars whole. We have food on grocery store shelves. I’ve seen people lined up all the way around the block to get into a butcher shop that had only chicken neck bones and sinew for sale because I bought all the chicken thighs and breasts.

A masterful Canadian poet would be one who really could help us see black and white and First Nations people working together in a bank office as a historically significant and precious development, even if also only a beginning, and even if that seems, well, sort of boring. Such a poet would help us see the luxury, by world standards at least, of being able to afford mosquito repellant or coffee that comes a cup at a time from a brew machine.

Well, and just forget poets. What if, when we woke up, and faced all the regular struggles people in Toronto face: too long a commute, or lake levels so high that we can’t get our yacht safely moored at the dock; regular struggles like the occasional slightly-below-average teacher for our kids; what if we woke up and faced all the regular struggles people in Toronto face but we also saw with a divine second sight the wonder of ruling authorities that we generally don’t mind being subject to, the confidence we have in banking and sewage systems, enough natural resources to keep the world’s industries humming. What we could see with our spiritual eyes the leisure we have to read a good book, never mind the money to buy one; to see the wonder of hospitals that see you after just six or eight hours of waiting. I’ve visited hospitals where people camp for three or four days in the hallway to merely to book an appointment with the doctor the next day.

I’m no poet. I’m barely an aspiring novelist. But I’m a Canadian, and what I love about the old Israelite Psalms, such as Psalm 96, is the unabashed and fulsome ways in which those ancient Israelites came back, time and again, in their worship, to the blessings that they had and how they thanked God for them while also being called to keep working for right. Such Psalms are full of gratitude, and so should we be full of gratitude on this day and every Sunday. Gratitude for our land of promise whose hills flow, if not with milk and honey, well at least with oil and gold, whose rivers—if you choose carefully—are full of salmon and beavers; gratitude for a nation whose poor have a safety net, whose First Nations are slowly but surely getting a hearing; gratitude for universities and courts and police and Timmies that are the envy of the world.

Are blessings the whole story? Of course not. Canada, like ancient Israel, has never fully lived up to its potential. But consider what the Apostle Paul said in Romans 13. He called Christians to be subject to the ruling authorities. So, when things are not to your liking in Canada, and even when they mostly are, engage our rules democratically. Vote. Volunteer. Do civic good. That’s what “being subject,” means in a democracy.

Besides the Apostle Paul, I can’t think of a better encouragement to do so than I found in a poem by our poet Laureate and patriot. George Elliott Clarke is a black man with First Nation blood whose family came here as refugees from slavery during the war of 1812. Clarke is a Duke, Harvard, McGill and UofT professor. He is one of Canada’s most celebrated and prolific writers. And with this Psalm about Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, he’s made the office of Poet Laureate relevant again. Listen.

On the 35th Anniversary of the Promulgation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms

Because we believe in a supreme Being
And Language’s power that makes Law our king,
Canadians may explore Freedoms plural
To draft a Just Society—moral
In its decisions, charitable
In its deeds, so that everyone’s able
To flesh out a dream, live for a Vision
In “freedom of conscience and religion,”
To worship and think as one judges wise,
To invent new techniques, or improvise
New ways of doing, or earning a wage,
New ways of living well in each language
Official, new ways of sharing problems
And solutions, thanks to our shared Freedoms....

You are free to believe and express what
You know as Right; to justify or rebut;
Free to assemble with whomever else
Seconds your perspectives; free to repulse
Contrary thought peacefully; free to vote;
Free to live in Canada, or go out
To gird the globe and return; free to roam
From province to province; keep a home
Anywhere and work anywhere: To be
Mobile is the essence of being free.

You are free to disagree with police
(So long as you don’t contradict Justice
Elemental), and not face billy clubs
Or handcuffs or fired shots or Taser stubs,
Unreasonable searches, seizures, stops:
Only suspects need be eyed by Cyclops.
You are free, if arrested, to retain
A lawyer and seek bail, and not remain
In jail, and to deserve a speedy trial
So that Innocence attains acquittal.
You are right, upon arrest, to expect
Your body’s Dignity merits Respect,
And not be threatened with Harm or Woe,
Or suffer rank, uncivilized Sorrow....

You are right to expect Equality
Impartial non-prejudice, Civility,
No matter how you look or what you speak:
Equality Rights for all lets one be unique.
Not every group has always forever been
Free of governmental Persecution;
And so Affirmative Action’s declared
The right way past wrongs may now be repaired.

English and French are the authorized speech
In Canada—and through New Brunswick’s reach;
And English or French, where minorities,
May ask for schools in their communities.

To be Indigenous is a status
Treaties endorse, and so Indigenous
Peoples may explore privileges granted
By accords, Crown-and-First-Nations-planted,
When Canada was colonies, a realm
Of settlements upon which settlements
Were made, twixt First Peoples and governments
Monarchical. These original rights
Are guaranteed in The Charter of Rights
And Freedoms, and cannot be extinguished
Nor cancelled, nor naysaid, nor relinquished.

Happily, the Charter does recognize
This multicultural mosaic we prize,
And the absolute, pure Equality
Between male and female and every Body,
And also the power of the Parliament
To grant services to each resident,
Regardless of region, so that income
Or locale, do not determine the sum
Of Health Care, or Welfare, or Equity
Available to every polity.

What came into force, April 17, 1982,
was the People’s keen
Desire to continue to imagine
A Native-Land democracy, akin
To popular sovereignty, where all
Are equal, and Rights and Freedoms enthrall—
So long as they enable possible
Utopia and/or dreams plausible,
Notwithstanding the “Reasonable” clause
That sanctions liberties that scoff at laws.

George Elliot Clarke
Parliamentary Poet Laureate (2016-17)

Patriotism 1: My Country, Right or WRONG.

From the fall of the Roman Empire, right through to the early 1800s, Berber residents of North Africa made a living as pirates on the Mediterranean Sea. History calls them the Barbary Pirates. They were notorious slave traders. They pillaged coastal villages on the European side of the Sea so frequently that Europeans abandoned their coastal towns for hundreds of years.

The United States, France, and many other nations either paid bribes to keep the pirates at bay, or paid ransoms to release captured ships. In fact, at that time, the United States was paying up to 20 percent of its annual budget to the pirates, if you can imagine that.
Burning of the Philadelphia

In 1803 these pirates captured an American ship, the Philadelphia, that was caught on a reef near Algiers. A few months later, Captain Stephen Decatur captured a local boat. The pirates, not expecting an attack from a local boat, were surprised when it docked it beside the Philadelphia, and Decatur stormed aboard with 60 American soldiers, captured the ship and burned it to the water line. Decatur escaped without loss of life, and came back to the States as a huge hero.

Years later, after a treaty was finally signed with Algeria to end the Barbary Wars, Stephen Decatur offered this toast at a banquet honoring him for his heroics. Decatur said, “Our country! In her intercourse with foreign nations, may she always be in the right; but our country right or wrong.”

Very patriotic. But Decatur’s toast was soon simplified in the public mind to just the words, “my country, right or wrong.” And that phrase has often been taken to mean that it doesn’t matter what your country does, how it does it, for what ends it does it . . . if you’re a patriot, you approve and celebrate your country, no matter what.

Is that really patriotism, though? Giving your country a moral blank cheque, right or wrong? Can we be critical of Canada and still be patriots?

In a backhand sort of way, I ran into this problem in a very personal way. Some years ago, while I was living in Cobourg, I had a weekly column in the Cobourg paper. In one of my columns, I noted that Israeli and Palestinian peace activists were meeting in Jerusalem, and that they had together condemned some aspects of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. I listed those Israeli injustices. The very next week, a response to my column came from an Israeli lobby group that argued, basically, that any criticism of Israeli policy was anti-Semitic. That group, at least, believed that any criticism of their country, right or wrong, was very, very bad—racist, in fact.

            Now, I wasn’t an Israeli citizen, but you can see the problem. Can we, as Canadians, both love our country and criticize it when it is wrong?

            Well, there is Biblical precedent for doing so. Ironically, in view of my own critical column about Israel, ancient Israel’s sternest critic—at least according to the stories we read in the Bible, was God himself--or herself.

            Take the story found in Exodus 33, for example. Israel is in the Sinai desert. This is soon after—again, according to the scriptural legends—God personally turned the world upside down to free the Israelite slaves from Egypt. God chose Moses to liberate them. Moses performed great magical signs. God rained down the ten plagues on Egypt in order to get Pharaoh to see things his way. When the Israelites escaped to the Red Sea, God split the sea in two to let the Israelites pass through on dry ground, and then flooded it again when the Egyptians tried the same trick. In the desert, God led the Israelites to freedom with a pillar of fire by night and a pillar of cloud by day. In the desert God provided the Israelites with mana and birds to eat, and provided water from a dry rock to drink. Amazing stuff.

So finally, free from slavery, the Israelites end up at Mt. Sinai. God calls Moses up the mountain to give him the ten commandments. There is more thunder and lightning, say the stories, because the glory of the Lord descended on the mountain. Moses was up there for a long time.

And the Israelites? Well, in spite of all the miracles I’ve just told you about, they become impatient and decide that Moses had been up the mountain for too long. They feel alone and abandoned, so they build themselves two large golden calves to worship instead of the God of Israel.

God is not impressed. God is so upset that God decides to abandon the Israelites. In our scripture God says, okay, you can still, “Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey; but I will not go up among you, or I would consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people.” God sends an angel to go with the Israelites instead.

            But the other amazing thing is that in spite of their stupidity and stiff-necks, in spite of their faithlessness and idolatry, God still loves these people. They rejected God, but God still offers an angel and the Promised Land. It seems that, when it comes to Israel, God knows both how to be divinely patriotic, but fiercely critical, too.

And that is pretty much how it was for the rest of Israel’s history. The walls of Jericho fall, but the people loot the ruins rather than leave them alone, as God had instructed them to do. Samson defeats the Philistines, but falls for Delilah instead of governing wisely. David defeats Goliath . . . but kills Bathsheba’s husband Uriah and generally lives as depraved a life as Henry VIII did. Israel conquers territory but worships the idols of the conquered, turning its back on God, over and over again. Israel is blessed with wealth, but ignores the poor, the displaced, the widow, the homeless, the alien.

Time and again, the ancient Israelite legends tell of the same repeated historical patterns. Israel is blessed and thrives. But Israel turns away from the just laws of God. God punishes. Israel repents. God restores Israel, so she is blessed and thrives once more. But Israel again turns away from the just laws of God. And so, the cycle repeats, over and over again, until finally, totally fed up, God sends the people he liberated from Egypt back into exile and slavery in Babylon. Which should have been the end of the story, but because God loves these people, he liberates them from slavery a second time, and tries again to get them to be a just nation.

And all along the way, on every occasion that Israel failed to do justice, love mercy, or pay attention to the greater matters of the law, God sent patriotic but honest prophets to condemn Israel’s behavior. Prophets like Amos. So, in Amos 5, ironically, for once, the Israelites are actually doing all the little things right—the sacrifices, the rules and regulations, the singing, the worship and all that. But they are condemned by the prophet Amos because they do not let “justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Which is the whole point of being a nation, as far as God is concerned.

The legends of Israel are all about a nation that is constantly doing wrong, and as a result is constantly visited by prophets who condemn the nation and call it back to being all that it should be. Samuel, Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos . . . it is always the same, prophetic patriots criticizing their country because it refuses to do right.

And, thinking about modern patriotism—I’d say, whether in modern Israel, or modern Canada (or modern USA, my other nationality)—there is still plenty of room for prophetic patriots.  There is plenty of room for straight talk about moral values, about the least and the last, about the environment, about the deficit, about transparency, about universal health care, about racism—there is plenty of room for straight talk in this country as it approaches its 150th birthday. Not because we, like the ancient Israelites, worry that God will ring us up if we do wrong. No, we need straight talk because as followers of Jesus we still believe in justice, and mercy, and kindness for all, just like the Old Testament prophets did. We need straight talk because while our country is often right, it is often wrong, too—especially wrong when it comes to the most vulnerable, to those on the bottom rungs of the ladder.

Not “my country right or wrong,” but “my country, so I’m going to help her right the wrongs.” Not always fun. Not always the most popular stance. Not always the easiest path. Prophets, whether they are prophets over the watercooler at work, or over the fence at home, or in the election campaign—prophets are not always the most popular people in the room. But then, rather than follow a pillar of fire by night or cloud by day, we follow Jesus.

It’s the right, and patriotic, thing to do.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

A Unitarian Take on the Trinity

            Perhaps no doctrine has so confused me as the Doctrine of the Trinity.
A stained-glass portrayal of the Trinity from Notre Dame.
Don’t get me wrong. I like reading about it. I like adding up the arguments for and against. I know the history of the doctrine—both its highpoints and its very sad low points. But in the end I don’t know. And I wish we could just let the coercion go and have a good discussion. Theology, at least when it comes to debateable matters (and Trinitarian doctrine has always been debated) ought to be a playground. What follows is a sermon on my take on the Trinity. I offer it as a “maybe.” It is trying to follow Jesus that seems much more important. Though wondering about the Trinity is fun.

Words Are Slippery

I usually stay home on Thursdays and Fridays in order to write a sermon. It’s quiet at home. Irene tip-toes around me a little bit, to make sure I don’t start complaining about how noisy she is. There are few interruptions. I can usually concentrate.

But this past Thursday it didn’t work out that way for me. You see, James Comey was testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee about Trump’s contacts with the Russians.

This might seem very boring. But I’m a dual US-American citizen, and so Trump is my president too, so I’m interested. You understand. Anyway, as I wrote my sermon, a small browser window kept beckoning me to pay attention to Comey’s testimony, instead.

What struck me about the hearing was how slippery words are. Comey, for example, used the word “liar” of Trump, several times. Trump’s son immediately tweeted back that his dad wasn’t a liar. Trump himself tweeted that Comey’s testimony absolutely exonerated him. Commentators argued about what would count as a lie and what wouldn’t.

The word “hope,” came up too. At some point in a private dinner with Comey, speaking of the FBI’s investigation into General Flynn, Trump said to Comey, “I hope you can let that go.” Some Senators said that Trump’s statement was merely a polite suggestion. Others, including Comey, took Trump’s statement as an order. This would mean that Trump could be charged with judicial interference, an impeachable offense. So, what does “I hope,” mean? Words are slippery, difficult, troublesome things.

Homoousios – One Substance

Which is true of the key word in today’s sermon too. You see, few words are as slippery, difficult, and troublesome in the history of Christianity as the word “Trinity”—and one other word, a Greek word which, in our ancient creeds, describes how the Trinity works, homoousios.

This is the brief background. The Israelites believed that there was only one God, Yahweh. Saying so was revolutionary in a world where nearly everyone else believed there were many gods, one behind every bush and under every stone. Monotheism was a great Jewish insight.

Christians wanted to hold onto that insight. But they also had very high—divine, some would say—opinions of Jesus and the Holy Spirit. This was a problem. Christians, in fact, wanted it both ways. They wanted to say that there was one God, but one God who was three persons—the Trinity. Listen to the creed. "Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Spirit. The Father uncreate, the Son uncreate, the Holy Spirit uncreate. The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, the Holy Spirit incomprehensible." And, Jesus is “of one substance (homousios) with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his humanity.”

Well, remember how I said the meaning of words is slippery and difficult? So, the more the church fathers—they were all men—tried to insist on particular, narrow definitions of one God who was three unique persons, the more they fought with each other. They fought each other about the Greek word, homoousios, which we translate, “one substance.” Jesus and God and the Spirit share on substance, but were three persons.

Homoiousios – Similar Substances

Some theologians, however, preferred the word “homoiousios” in the creed. Just one letter different. Homoousios: one substance; homoiousios: similar substances. The orthodox homoousios party feared that by suggesting that God was three persons of similar substance, you ended up with three Gods. That would be the end of monotheism.

We can, today, hardly imagine how intense these disagreements were. The fights about whether Jesus was God or not, and whether there was one God or three or some other alternative, rocked the Roman Empire to its core. Over hundreds of years, between the writing of the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds, people sometimes rioted in the streets. Emperors fired and hired bishops who fled for their lives from one end of the Empire to the other. Each side wrote popular songs in favor of their view, and singing the wrong song in the wrong crowd could get you killed. Bishops and theologians were beaten and burned to death in places like Alexandria.

And even after the debate was settled, through the whole history of the church, Christians who wanted to explore other than orthodox one-substance homoousios opinions on this matter—Michael Servetus during the Reformation, Donatists, Socinians, and Unitarians—were regularly burned at the stake, sent to prison, exiled, beaten, or shunned. Often. It did no credit to church or to the political regimes that used the church.

Why fight about one word? Well, originally it mostly had to do with Constantine’s desire to unify his empire by unifying the church. He did so by insisting on “homoousios” at the Nicene Synod in 325 AD. The church, which had lived with multiple opinions before that, was forced into a straight-jacket by the Empire—and an emperor who was recently converted and only dimly really understood the Biblical and theological issues.

Scripture Never Attempts to Define the Trinity

What do we make of this history? Well, two things, briefly.

First, although you can see how the Bible’s many contradictory texts make the whole matter of the Trinity a potential landmine, the Trinity itself is not an issue in scripture. No one argues for or against it. For the first three hundred years of the church’s history, most people who were not theologians shrugged when it came to trying to understand who God was to God.

Jesus’ Prayer for Church Unity

The most meaningful commentary on the issue, from my perspective, is the last prayer Jesus prayed with his disciples, according to John 17. Jesus prayed, “"May they”—Jesus meant the disciples and the church—“be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me" (John 17:21).

It seems that for Jesus, his mysterious relationship to God was a metaphor for how all Christians should relate to each other. Jesus hoped that just as he was one and in the father, so Christians would be one and into God and each other.

This key Trinitarian text, in other words, is hardly exact doctrine. There is no homoousios or homoiousios in it. There is no attempt to explain how the Trinity—a word that does not even appear in the Bible—works. There is just the hope that we folks here at our church  could be as “into” each other, as loving to each other, as Jesus was into God and us both.

What Does the Trinitarian Struggle Mean for Us?

One final thing.

It took 350 years for the doctrine of the Trinity to find its way into the ancient creeds. And since then, it has remained controversial. People have struggled to make sense of the creeds, to explain the creeds in ways that don’t seem silly. Very few theologians and philosophers, after all, even believe that there even is such a thing as “divine substance” that God is made of. That notion is a holdover from Greek philosophy that today’s philosophers and scientists don’t hold to anymore. So, the language of the creeds is itself very dated—like the notion that the world was created in six days. Some people—we usually call them Unitarians—have struggled to explain who Jesus was without resorting to the creeds and parsing every potential Biblical text to fit the creedal template. Me for example.

I think this long struggle of arguing for and against the Trinity, or some other description of who God is, mirrors the personal struggle we all have to figure out who God is. If the church has struggled why shouldn’t we, too?

And if the church’s struggle teaches us anything, it is that the use of sanctions and violence, political pressure and slippery words to pin something down that can’t be pinned down is very counter-productive. It flies in the face of Jesus’ prayer for love and unity. Why should the church split and fight and kill over words not even found in scripture, over concepts that no writer of scripture thought important enough or pressing enough to even give us a fulsome and satisfactory explanation of? The very paucity of commentary on the Trinity, in scripture, is our best guide for how seriously to take the Trinity today, at least as an article of faith.

No, individual Christians should be allowed wide latitude here, and the church should avoid conflict. The whole notion of a Trinity is interesting. It, or something like it, is a wonderful metaphor, as in Jesus’ prayer. But the healthy church does not have to try to pin it down beyond that. When it comes to the Trinity, the healthy church is a curious, big-tent church rather than a coercive church. We should focus on loving each other rather than on insisting everyone agree on a single systematic explanation.

We Adore the Mysteries of the Godhead

Words, whether political or theological, are slippery things. And, at least when it comes to Trinitarian theology, rather than try to pin them down, better to follow the advice of Philip Melanchthon, an early and esteemed Protestant reformer, who said: "We adore the mysteries of the Godhead. That is better than to investigate them."