For Love’s Sake Set Us Free

“The Lord’s true love is surely not spent, nor has his compassion failed; they are new every morning . . .”[1]

I had not spent much time in the Book of Lamentations. Until now, I had not needed it. I went looking there, however, because I was lamenting. I was lamenting the sacking of the Capitol of the United States by a mob, set aflame by an embittered and delusional man.

Astonishment, horror, and anger were the appropriate reactions to the images of violence we saw as the crowd dragged Capitol police down the steps, hacked their way into the building, and triumphantly paraded Confederate flags through the Rotunda.

The next day, still absorbed in the images burned into my memory, I found myself with another reaction. This day — January 6, 2021 — I will always remember, like the day John F. Kennedy was shot, the day Martin Luther King, Jr., was shot, the day Bobby Kennedy was shot, and the day the Twin Towers fell.

It was a day that scrambled cheap declarations and shredded the buffer between the world and me. It called for more than anger and sorrow. It called for lamentation for the nation.

American civic religion reaches back for the traditions and history, the rituals and symbolism, that are the blood of religions everywhere. A man lays down a line of words, strikes one out and replaces it, broods over it, sighs, dips a quill in ink. And words are cast in bronze, a plaque is bolted to the wall and ten thousand fingertips burnish it to a high gloss: “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” Such confidence! Such faith that words can undo centuries of cruelty to inspire a gut-level dedication to a beautiful abstraction.

“We the people,” a prayer that is breathed to heal the masses, cast out demons, and calm the restless heart. It’s a phrase that topples thrones and elevates the common person. It is meant to be taken seriously. But not literally.

The mob took it literally. The ones surging into the building could be heard shouting, “This is our house!” as they flooded the hallways hunting down legislators. But they did not recognize that the temple is holy ground and those who would enter it must do so reverently. The fabric separating the sacred from the profane is easily torn. Its tensile strength is only as strong as the trust invested in those who serve in its precincts. For the mob, what trust there was had long since corroded to a permanent fury.

If losing an election is a political death, then it was a death that Trump’s followers could not accept. Elias Canetti writes in Crowds and Power of the leader whose “death is not recognized by the mourners. They want him alive again.”[2] The hunting pack sees the death of its leader as profoundly unjust: it simply should not have happened. In lamenting his death, they see themselves as the persecuted. “It is always the enemy who started it,” writes Canetti. “The wish to see death is everywhere and one does not have to go deep into men to bring it to light.”[3]

As Christians, we look first to the Scriptures to speak to us in our circumstances. Most of us are closer to the Psalms than to Lamentations. Because they have been woven into the liturgies of the Church from the beginning, we turn to them instinctively when we are in mourning. They act for us as telescopes to see back into the past and forward to where we could go in faith.

The life of the Psalms is uncovered in a plunge from a settled orientation to a chaotic disorientation, says Walter Brueggemann. It may be from changed circumstances, but it is more likely to arise from a personal awareness that our grasp on the world is slipping. Everything solid seems like ropes of sand. The dismantling of the world around us convulses us in rage, resentment, fear, guilt, shame, and hostility. The situation may be solitary in introspection or massively public. This is the context of so many of the Psalms of complaint and lament.

We’re good at denial, of course. “It is a curious fact,” Bruggemann notes, “that the church has, by and large, continued to sing songs of orientation in a world increasingly experienced as disoriented.”[4]

Maybe we feel we are letting God down if we don’t put on a happy face. Or maybe our pride will not admit to confusion and anger. “The reason for such relentless affirmations of orientation,” continues Brueggemann, “seems to come, not from faith, but from the wishful optimism of our culture.”[5]

The writers of the Psalms don’t have any such qualms. “Thou hast exposed us to the taunts of our neighbors,” says Psalms 44. “Thou hast given us up to be butchered like sheep… my disgrace confronts me all day long, and I am covered in shame.”

As a nation, we don’t always live up to the high standards we expect and demand from other countries. The storming of the Capitol before the eyes of the world calls for lamentation. The lies that have been perpetuated about a stolen election call for lamentation. The lies about the dangerous reality of COVID-19 call for lamentation. Lamentation — and the clarity of truth.

The Psalms give us the right to lament, to take our complaints or our shame directly to God. For Christians who have aligned themselves with the Trumpian juggernaut all these years, the Psalms of lament and repentance can be their way back to reality and true faith. For those who refused allegiance, the Psalms provide a path of humility. Self-righteousness is almost as dangerous as illusion.

We are close to Jesus in the Psalms, the song book through which he prayed and sang his way along his Way. Brueggemann nudges us from disorientation to a new orientation which promises a new life from the chaos, to set our feet upon solid ground after being pulled from the pit. It is not inevitable, but it is assured to those who cry out for it, who determine with heart and mind to be on the Way with Jesus.

Even Lamentations — five chapters of grisly images of rape, slaughter, and slavery — contains a middle passage that gleams like a jewel. It speaks of patience in the midst of distress because “the Lord’s true love is surely not spent, nor has his compassion failed.” The writer turns to us and, with a shrug of charming self-effacement, concludes: “The Lord, I say, is all that I have; therefore, I will wait for him patiently. The Lord is good to those who look for him…”[6]

 

Notes & References:

[1] Lamentations 3:22, New English Bible

[2] Canetti, Elias. Crowds and Power. Translated from the German by Carol Stewart. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1960, p. 144.

[6] Lamentations 3:22,24, NEB.

 

Barry Casey taught religion, philosophy, ethics, and communications for 37 years at universities in Maryland and Washington, DC. He is now retired and writing in Burtonsville, Maryland. More of the author’s writing can be found on his blog, Dante’s Woods. Email him at darmokjilad@gmail.com. His first book, Wandering, Not Lost: Essays on Faith, Doubt, and Mystery, is now available.

Photo by Darius Bashar on Unsplash

 

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/11006
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Thomas Jefferson named Capitol a spiritual name against Legislative House the functional name. Capitol which is derived from the word Capitoline Hill the seven hills of Rome, coincidents maybe but nothing happens like that in religious circle.
I realised how significant that act of shaming such a building has not only to America but to powerful religious circles of the world.

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A “juggernaut” by any other name is still a juggernaut. Are we expecting something else?

The comingling of church and state as expressed in this article is beyond disturbing, it is lamentable.

If the US Capital is considered a “temple”–as I have seen stated more than once both in this journal and elsewhere in the media–America has lost its way as there is no place in this country that should be considered more secular than the halls of governance.

Once that curtain of separation is in tatters, all manner of good and “holy” intentions are justifiable, no matter how irrational, horrifying and/or inhumane.

The United States was founded on dissent and in the time since has more than once been taken to task by protesters who perceive–rightly or wrong–injustice for some of its citizenry. And any citizen–particularly an Adventist–who doesn’t see the potential pitfalls when objections to the status quo are necessarily labeled “evil”, or if opinions are silenced for no reason other than that they are believed to be “dangerous”, should consider the historical warnings regarding how the minority can be easily scapegoated by the majority whenever religious zealotry combines with political absolutism and authority.

Further, if the analogy of a temple is applicable, it seems good to keep in mind that one of Jesus’ last publicity stunts was a frontal assault on the temple of sanctimony of day. He must have known that this act would lead directly or indirectly to his demise but according to the story, “not trying to fit in” as well as the need to not be seen as “going along to get along” were vitally important concepts to him.

Perhaps I was too subtle, but the term “civic religion” was meant to create a contrast to other forms of religion. While I do not think they are in any way equivalent, the fact is that the Capitol and the work done there is the closest to civic religion of any in this society. And while I don’t think civic religion is a substitute for the gospel of Jesus, neither do I think the storming and trashing of the Capitol is anything but a heinous act of insurrection.

At 66 and no longer affiliated with any religion, I still find some truths to be universal.

For example, one of my main take-always from SDA-ism was the principal of religious liberty and the insistence that freedom of religion involves tolerance of views other than my own.

This necessarily includes acceptance of ideas that I may find despicable but another would claim is an act of patriotism; for example, the rioting that has been going on unabated for months in Portland or such as that which happened one day in DC two weeks ago.

I don’t want to put too fine a point one this but if you find one of these activities completely acceptable and the other inherently heinous, I’m convinced you’ve created a false dichotomy and that your viewpoint—while clearly sanctioned by the left and the professional fear mongers in the media—is one with which I disagree.

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I did not raise the issue of rioting in Portland. That wasn’t the point of the essay. Nor do I think debating opposing ideas is equivalent to storming the Capitol with the intent of overthrowing an election. The point of the essay, I hoped, was to suggest that Scripture offers us some models for lamenting and repenting, both as individuals and as communities, sins that destroy our relationships with each other and with God.

If you don’t see the riots in Portland by people who as recently as this week claimed that they are “ungovernable” as an attempt to overthrow an election, again we do not see eye to eye.
However, and regarding the more basic point you’d prefer to address, even the most cursory study of history will show that trying to use scripture to bring people together is precisely the opposite of what happens whenever any one person tells another “God told me to tell you…”

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Thanks for your comments. No, we don’t see eye to eye, but that’s alright. As for your take on Scripture, I will continue to disagree. I am seeing Scripture as a place where people can come together and find comfort, healing, and yes, debate the interpretations. If you exclude yourself from that it won’t be because people like me presume to speak for God. But you’re certainly welcome to join the discussion.

By some estimates, over the past two thousand years, there have been more than 30,000 DBA’s, all collecting money and purportedly saving souls “in Jesus name”.
If this is the “coming together” and “comfort” one can expect from rehashing “holy” scripture for the next few millennia, yes. Please continue to count me out.
For my part, I remain convinced that an omnipotent god has the power to interact directly with the entirety of his creation and without the need for middle men like religions, prophets, politicians or words.

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