The Fourth Child

Every so often I remember this thing.  It happens rarely enough that it comes as a shock.  It happened a few weeks ago as I talking with a very beautiful lady who jolted me by describing several veterans of the Civil War who were alive and active in Lowell during her youth.

It happened again when I read about Bill Upham, Jr., who recently passed away in Wisconsin.  Mr. Upham was nearly killed by a German shell during WWII, met General Patton and shook hands with President Eisenhower.  More impressive, Bill’s own father was nearly killed by a Confederate rifle in the Civil War, met Abraham Lincoln (who asked to see his scar) and guarded Jefferson Davis after the war.

And this is the thing I keep forgetting.  We are a young nation, just 240 years old.  Some children born before the United States lived to see the Civil War.  Some Americans born before the Civil War lived to see WWI and WWII.  Many veterans of WWII are alive today. 

You could say that we, as a nation, have spanned the lifespan of three children.  It is now the age of the Fourth Child.  And who will he be, this symbolic representative of those shaping America today, in just the fourth 80-year lifespan of the United States?

It is safe the say that the generation of the First Child thought much about freedom, about how — as our Declaration of Independence states — “to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them”.  They claimed certain “truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.”

The Second Child was confronted by the terrible cost of our failure to respect that truth.  The clearest voice of that period, standing over thousands of fresh graves, said “[W]e here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

The Third Child endured a withering economic depression, horrible wars.  In his statement to Congress after the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt said “Rapid and united effort by all the peoples of the world who are determined to remain free will insure a world victory of the forces of justice and of righteousness over the forces of savagery and of barbarism”.

We see, in the generation of the First, Second and Third Child, frequent references to “Justice”, “Righteousness”, to “Freedom” and a nation “under God”.  We see moral certainty which makes us flinch, religious language which makes us cringe, dreadful violations of the spirit of our own age.

I was in a meeting the other day and, during a discussion of ethics, I had the impertinence to mention God.  I was commanded, with a loud voice and wagging finger, “Don’t bring God in here”, to which I even more impertinently replied “Do you know of a way to keep him out?”. 

But this is the question of the day; the civil war that is emerging during our own moment in the brief history of these United States.  We have entered the age of the Fourth Child, who is intent upon learning as little as possible about those who came before and even less about the faith and conviction that inspired them and informed their laws and culture.  He claims, modestly, to know nothing certain about God, and vehemently claims – quite immodestly – that no one else does either. 

He has inherited his fathers’ land, but not their soul.  He thinks, to use words from Abraham Lincoln, “that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us”.

Satan at the Grammys

A lot of people were upset by the inclusion of Satanic imagery at this year’s Grammy Awards presentation but I was kind of relieved. For over two hundred years the Satanic brand has been hiding in the shadows in this country, mumbling their curses and befouling their bodies and souls in strict privacy. Before they step into the light to evangelize, they put on clean clothes and act as if other people matter. It does not do, you see, to behave like a Satanist at the local grocery store or elementary school.

Like most political animals, their primary marketing technique has been to spread rumors about their leader’s adversary and, well, who can blame them? It’s not like Satan has an engaging campaign platform. Vote for me!: A disgruntled employee who was fired for insubordination then physically (well, spiritually) picked up and booted out by – you know, that other guy who actually made everything. Vote for me!: Who corrupted other employees (thus inventing politics), resulting in harsher workplace conditions and the loss of incredible employee benefits that – you know, that other guy – had already given us. Vote for me!: Who has stewed in resentment for thousands of years and consumes everything in my bitter rage, including – you know, everyone who votes for me.

Yes, the Prince of Darkness slipped out of the shadows on national TV, toasted one female and showed some pretty cool dance moves. Perhaps his time has come. We seem to have grown tired of his adversary – you know, the guy who actually cares about our happiness. He’s a lot like those tiresome elementary school teachers, who actually love kids and encourage them to do the work required to grow up wise and strong and kind. Well, if that’s not your cup of tea, then consider Satan, who regards children as lunch meat and has been proving it all over the world for thousands of years, though never as successfully as he has done right here and right now.
It’s true, of course, that if you really prefer darkness – the total freedom to do anything your little heart desires to anyone you like, without even having to feel shabby about doing it – then Satan is your man. But don’t forget that he intends to take the same liberties with you.

It that gives you pause, then consider Jesus. (There are but two candidates in this election.) I have never seen him dance, but under his loving authority, every human has freedom and reason to dance. In fact, all of our freedoms – including the freedom to reject him – arise from the fact that he created us in his own image and wants us to be free. Some, including many of our own nation’s leaders, want us to forget that, want us to forget that all true leaders lead as Jesus did, by laying down his own life for those he serves.

Personally, I hope that Satan is encouraged by good press from the TV appearance and shows himself more often. That old serpent fools far more people by pretending to be an angel of light.

The Guilt of Belief

The anger always surprised me.  There he stood, helpless and in misery, unresisting, bloody.  Like a trampled rose, he had no beauty left but still, that strange and penetrating odor that you loved or hated.  There was no middle ground because he was not a symbol of something else, subject to interpretation.  He was the thing itself, and so, I suppose, not so helpless after all.  He was the thing itself, a simple solid presence which, even while silent and bleeding, commanded the scene and defined the terms.  It was not enough to kill him; we had to hate him, to gather up our powers to curse like you gather up a mouthful of saliva, and spit with the full art of our malice, to baptize him in our hatred.

I know, this sounds so harsh, so out-of-touch with the veneer of niceness that overlays much of our public discourse.  Jesus’ horrifying torment has, over the years, accumulated a layer of dust which preserves the general shape but insulates us from the barbarity.  It would be comforting to regard this whole episode as an isolated governmental excess or a religious drama, rather than a predictable and repeatable expression of resentment toward God.   But I have a reason for thinking that we should dust off that horrible memory…

Remember how God intrudes:  He knows the secrets we try to keep secret even from ourselves.  He is responsible for this shame which we dare not confront yet cannot escape.  We want dignity but he does not allow it; he exposes us in the most devastating way and in our least protected place: through our own knowledge, that is, in the quiet sanctuary of our own hearts.

Yes, he was kind, though in a huge and lonely sort of way that is hard to understand.  True, he did fix all sorts of broken people;  humble people who knew they were broken.  But there was always the ultimatum, implicit in everything he did; “Come to me as one broken or remain outside.”  Inflexible, authoritative, self-assured; he did, in fact, act like god and treated us as possessions; we who – above all else – insist that we own, at very least, our own self.

And for this, we killed and hated him.  It did not matter, really, that he was good or even that he was correct.  Pity even the god who thinks he is god; hell hath no fury as self-determination denied…or maybe that is the object of all hell’s fury.

I mention this because the tide has turned.  The American culture of my youth, in which Christ was publicly respected if not personally revered, is passing rapidly away.  His enemies in this nation have never been so numerous or bold and, perhaps better than his followers, they understand the scandal of Jesus.

The scandal always begins with an intrusion, with God butting into some carefully constructed system from which he had been, we thought, successfully evicted.  But we cannot evict him from our hearts, even those who love him least, and his presence is that bit of sand, rubbing in a tender place, that produces rage.

It grates most upon the hearts of those who intrude furthest.  The thief does not hate God; he thinks creation is good and takes what he can of it.  It is the social engineer who hates God, who resents God’s authority to name and define, who longs to be preeminent.  The social engineer is a fundamentally religious figure for whom God is not so much a threat as a hated rival.  He is, in fact, a child of the first creature who thought it better “to reign in hell than serve in heaven”.  He proves his lineage by what he loves.

Note that those most anxious to evict God from public discourse in America are not thieves.  They are high-minded; they do not want more of creation, they want a new creation.  They are never more fierce than on questions of intimacy and innocence:  they run straight to the heart of things, dagger in hand.  If God’s heart is tender toward children, they will target children.  If God designed us to be male and female, they must warp the design.  If God wants man to be free, they must stop man’s tongue, dictate his thoughts and confiscate the assets that allow him to remain independent.  It does not matter that their reign should make a hell of earth, for their father loves these things, loves all that is unnatural and painful to our father’s heart.

And so, the rage that crucified Jesus lives on, steps further from the shadows.  The battle to throw off God’s authority and designs grows more fierce.  The number of people caught in the middle, with God’s clues in their heart and his enemy’s arguments in their heads, reaches critical mass and Christians become a suspicious, if not hated, minority.

As members of the early church were prosecuted, not for the religious ideas that they affirmed, but for those they rejected, so the pressure will build on Christian churches to affirm the new religious rites of our day.  Do not speak or act against those who target children.  Do not speak or act against those who target marriage.  Do not speak or act against those who reign.  Keep and enjoy your religious forms and worship what you will, but it is our father whom you will serve.

If the world hates you, remember that it hated me first.

John 15:18