Saturday, July 23, 2011

Hospitality and The Response

I read Judges chapters 19 and 20 tonight as a follow-up to a conversation with a friend and colleague about the conventions of hospitality in the middle east. Reflecting on the passage, I’m struck first by the emphasis at the start of chapter 19 and again at the end of chapter 20 about the lack of a king. Recalling what I can about the way Saul, the first king of Israel came to that position, I think that the intent of the king of Israel is--at least on some level--to provide spiritual leadership. This is reinforced throughout the history that unfolds in the old testament where the kings of Israel are described with respect to how they did or did not uphold and/or establish the worship of God.

Within this story are two other salient storylines, the Levite’s reception in Bethlehem and Gibeah, and the treatment of his concubine. I read in the extended and manipulated hospitality of the concubines father in Bethlehem a curious parallel to Jacob’s experience with Laban when courting Rachel (Genesis 29). The hospitality the Levite received in Bethlehem sets up a foil to the experience he has in Gibeah where just one man offered hospitality, after which the men of the city lay siege to the house (offering a different parallel to the story of the angels with Lot in Sodom - Genesis 19). The man offering hospitality offers up his daughter and the Levite’s concubine in the hope of distracting the men from their purpose of raping the Levite. The scripture does not relate the fate of the man’s daughter, but the Levite’s concubine endures abuse all night and then falls dead at the door of the house the next morning. The Levite collects the body of his concubine and returns to his home, where he cuts her body into twelve pieces and sends one to each of the tribes of Judah as a witness to the incredible breach of hospitality he endured. This sets up the action in chapter twenty; Gibeah--and by extension, all the tribe of Benjamin--is identified as the perpetrators of this evil. The Benjaminites take umbrage and a battle is fought in which the Benjaminites are eventually slaughtered and the other tribes vow against allowing their daughters to marry a Benjaminite. The language of chapter twenty is curious in that it seems to pit the tribes of Judah against God when they take pity on their kin and--without recanting their oath--try to find a way to keep the tribe of Benjamin from disappearing by finding wives for the men of Benjamin elsewhere. The author of Judges, by ending the book with another comment about the lack of spiritual leadership in Israel, seems to be saying that their actions aren’t perfect, they are doing the best they can.

While this conversation started about hospitality, I wanted to tie the issue of spiritual leadership to The Response planned for August in Houston. This event (which from a cynical perspective seems to be a springboard for a Perry presidential bid) is unabashedly addressing itself to the issue of spiritual leadership. I am no stranger to the way that this trope operates in fundamental protestant thinking, having grown up in an Independent Fundamental Baptist Church. Dr. Barber’s favorite verse had to be II Chronicles 7:14; I heard it often enough from the pulpit that I can still recite it by heart (I can also repeat his story about peanut butter and jelly sandwiches as loving-kindness, but that is another story). This perspective has its roots in the Puritan experiment of a “city on a hill” and the concept of Manifest Destiny. Its progeny is the prosperity gospel that is so prevalent in our time, which end seems the logical outcome of attaching divine guidance to the pursuit of material wealth.

But, like we see in the Israelites misapprehension of the purpose of a king and the price they paid for demanding Saul (I Samuel 8), I think that comparing the actual gospel to what is being preached by The Response suggests a dark and dangerous path for America. The mission of The Response, as stated on their website, is to “pray for a historic breakthrough for our country and a renewed sense of moral purpose.” The website refers to scripture (Joel 2:12) that they see addressing a parallel moral crisis. The “fasting, weeping and mourning” referenced in Joel echoes the passage in II Chronicles that I remember so well: “If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sins and heal their land.”

In and of itself, this is excellent guidance. We often speak of Scripture as a history of salvation and, not surprisingly, the method that God proclaims for reconciliation does not change in that history. The Commandments of Blessedness (aka the Beatitudes), sometimes referred to as the Gospel in a nutshell, echo the same traits of humility, mourning, hunger for righteousness taught in Old Testament scriptures. But what is the “historic crisis” that The Response hopes to address? They cite economic, social, and moral peril. This is simply the culture wars of the 1980’s rehashed. Frank Schaeffer, a self-described founder of the Religious Right gives some insight to the phenomenon in his memoir Crazy for God:

The leaders of the new religious right were different from the older secular right in another way. They were gleefully betting on American failure. If secular, democratic, diverse, and pluralistic America survived, then wouldn’t that prove that we evangelicals were wrong about God only wanting to bless a "Christian America?" If, for instance, crime went down dramatically in New York City, for any other reason than a reformation and revival, wouldn’t that make the prophets of doom look silly when they said that only Jesus was the answer to our social problems? And likewise, if the economy was booming without anyone repenting, what did that mean?
p. 298-299

Schaeffer goes on to lament about how power- and money-hungry the leadership of the Christian Right became. It is this same impetus that I read in a new attempt to put a varnish of “faith” on neoconservative tendencies such as cultural imperialism, disdain for pluralism, reliance on militarism--both literally and figuratively, and emphasis on individual prosperity.

In describing themselves as an apolitical non-denominational group, The Response’s website helpfully lists seven tenets of faith. The first insists that the Bible (which version? -- the church of my youth is adamant that no one got it right until the Elizabethans) is the “inspired, the only infallible, authoritative Word of God.” In the Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition, the title “Word of God” refers exclusively (to my knowledge) to Christ, the second person of the Trinity. Curiously, the closest analogue I know of to this position of deifying scripture is the Muslim reverence for the Koran. The second tenet, professing belief in an “eternally existent” Trinity is orthodox in its formulation as is the third tenet enumerating Christ’s deity, virgin birth, sinless nature, miracles, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension and expectation of Parousia; they get fancy in inserting a Campbellite emphasis on vicarious atonement, but that is only incorrect if emphasized at the expense of a complete understanding of Christ’s salvific work. Tenets four through seven--expressing positions on the work of the Holy Spirit, universal resurrection, and brotherhood of all believers--are similarly not objectionable from an orthodox christian perspective except perhaps in emphasis. While The Response might not claim affiliation to a particular denomination, their theology is fairly narrowly defined in their emphasis.

Because the public recognizes this event as political in spite of claims to the contrary, persons of all faiths and similar cultural concerns might have interest in attending and having a seat at the table and a voice in decision-making. But the statement of faith is exclusionary; an equivalent of the question asked of the Levite in the Judges chapter 19 “Where do you come from and where are you going?” My issues with this event come down to a question of hospitality. Another “Gospel in a nutshell,” Christ’s new commandment--“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your mind, and all your strength and your neighbor as yourself.” (Matt. 22:40) is an instruction in properly aligning oneself vertically and horizontally. Proper alignment is not fear and an attitude of taking care of myself first. The culture wars, our modern version of the dehumanizing racism that has been a part of our American social genetic for the last four centuries, is simply an apologia for enculturated selfishness. American culture as expressed by the Christian Right is not compatible with the Gospel of Christ.

If we were truly to see a Christian revolution in America, it would entail prayer, repentance and fasting (and these under the guidance of spiritual fathers grounded in these practices as part of the life of the church). The economic prosperity and political freedoms we enjoy would be vehicles for erasing hunger and violence, easing poverty and disease. Radical Islam would have little reason to refer to America as the “Great Satan” because we would not be throwing our power, money and freedom after morally repugnant ends. Unfortunately, if we were truly to see a Christian revolution in America, it would probably be castigated as a socialist movement. (Might I suggest Georgism instead?)