The following has been adapted, with permission, from the blog of Sigve Tonstad (originally posted October 12, 2012). Churches of all kinds across the nation are currently engaged in a month-long "journey of prayer" for America, and Dr. Tonstad has chosen to participate in this way. We will be sharing a handful of his prayer blog posts throughout the month of October.
Me: Dear God, today I am praying for a blessing on the leaders and the people of Massachusetts.
GOD: You don’t need to pray for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. It has Harvard University and the MIT. What more do they need?
Me: You’re just kidding!
GOD: I am.
Me: Hmm. How do I know when you are kidding and when you are serious?
GOD: You know it the same way you know it with anybody. You have to know them well, listen to the tone of voice, look at the facial expression, and consider the context. Some people seem to think that I speak in monotone, and lots of people are convinced that I don’t have a sense of humor. I don’t know which is worse – the people who see no point in talking to me or the people who believe that I don’t have a sense of humor. Just think about the way Joseph set up his brothers when they met again after many years in Egypt. Remember how the brothers did not recognize him at all, and then Joseph arranged to have the brothers seated at the table according to their age. It was my idea, or, if you are reluctant to give me the credit, I thought it was great. I loved it.
GOD: I love this subject. Just think about all the irony in the Gospel of John, the non sequiturs and double meanings. Irony is great as long as it isn’t mean. It makes people think, or, if it doesn’t make them think at least it shows whether they are awake.
Me: And what about Massachusetts? You are changing the subject again.
GOD: I apologize; I almost forgot. I don’t often get to talk to people about irony and humor. Don’t take it to mean that I don’t love Massachusetts. I’ll never forget the Pilgrims in 1620 – why they came.
Me: I like the way you remember things. You have an amazing memory.
GOD: It is not my memory. It is love. I love people. I love people more than I love ideas or events. What you think is memory is just love. All these amazing people – I never forget them. Even when dead they are all alive to me, just as my son said in the Gospel of Luke. The Pilgrims, Separatists actually, came to America on a journey of hope. They had left England for Holland, but Holland did not work out so they decided to try the New World.
GOD: Exactly. They were looking for a place where they could worship me according to their conscience. They did not find that freedom in the Old World. Faced with the choice of conformity or leaving, they choose leaving. You can imagine it wasn’t easy – leaving for the unknown with the prospect never to return. Their venture was a journey of hope in this world and also a journey of hope for the world to come.
Me: It is hard to understand for someone like me, so driven by the need for security.
GOD: Yes, it is hard to understand at a time so ignorant of the beauty of hope. Beacon Hill in Boston is a reminder of those days of hope. And Mount Hope Bay further to the south in Massachusetts.
Me: Does Beacon Hill have anything to do about the phrase “a shining city upon a hill”?
GOD: It might. That phrase is from a sermon John Winthrop preached as he was leaving England for Massachusetts in 1630. Someone has said that it is the most influential sermon preached in four hundred years of American history. I sometimes wonder whether people who rave about this sermon actually understand it or know what Winthrop said.
Me: In what way?
GOD: John Winthrop and many of the Puritans were certainly seeking freedom, but they understood freedom narrowly. They wanted to be free to practice religion a certain way, and they were extremely and recklessly sure they knew what the right way was. They saw themselves as the new Israel and their city as the New Jerusalem. Their theology was black and white: Do right, and you will prosper. Do wrong, and God will curse you. I never meant people to read the Book of Deuteronomy with such lack of appreciation for rhetoric, but that is how they read it. And they did not understand the Book of Job. The Pilgrims in Massachusetts would have banished Job even faster than they banished Roger Williams.
Me: You are talking too fast, especially since you are talking about a subject that I don’t know as well as you do.
GOD: I’m sorry. I’ll slow down. Once John Winthrop and preachers like John Cotton came to Massachusetts they set out to implement a pious society by mixing church and state. They made it the state’s job to enforce religion. In the name of freedom, their deepest belief was conformity. I’ll give you an example: “If any man, after legal conviction, shall have or worship any other god, but the Lord God, he shall be put to death.” And here is another: “If any person shall blaspheme the Name of God, the Father, Son, or Holy Ghost, with direct, express, presumptuous, or high-handed blasphemy, or shall curse God in like manner, he shall be put to death.”
Me: They said that?
GOD: They said exactly that, in 1638.
GOD: They did not understand their own fallibility. Protestant notions of infallibility are even more extreme than Catholic notions because many Protestants are even more confident than the Catholics that they are right. There is a close link between notions of infallibility and persecution, whether in Rome, Geneva, or Boston.
Me: What about the link between prosperity and doing what is right – isn’t that true?
GOD: They thought it was, but it isn’t.
Me: What happened to Roger Williams?
GOD: The freedom-loving Pilgrims in Boston excommunicated him from the church, and then they banished him from society. If he had not escaped, they would have killed him. Winthrop agreed to banish him, but he did not want Williams to be killed. He survived a very harsh winter thanks to the Indians. The two most contentious issues were Williams’ insistence that the state has no business interfering in matters relating to the first tablet of the Ten Commandments – what or whether to believe – and he argued that the immigrants had to pay compensation to the Indians for the land they occupied. The English Crown, he said, had high-handedly given away land over which it had no jurisdiction.
Me: Williams must have been disappointed to be banished.
GOD: You’re understating it. I don’t think he ever got over it. He could understand excommunication from the church, but he could not understand banishment – the cruelty of it. He could not understand how people who preached so eloquently about love and charity could be so cruel to a fellow human being. If you remember to pray for Rhode Island, I will tell you more.
Me: Ronald Reagan was fond of referring to America as ‘the shining city upon a hill.’ Did he understand what Winthrop was up to in his sermon?
GOD: It would not be true for me to say that I don’t know, but it is not my disposition to say everything I know. It is more important to find out what a shining city upon a hill might look like than to wonder whether Reagan understood Winthrop’s sermon.
Me: All right. But I am dying to know what you think about the Kennedys, especially Edward Kennedy.
GOD: I liked what he wrote in his last letter to the Pope. He said, “I want you to know, Your Holiness, that in my nearly fifty years of elective office, I have done my best to champion the rights of the poor and open doors of economic opportunity. I have worked to welcome the immigrant, to fight discrimination and expand access to health care and education. I have opposed the death penalty and fought to end war. Those are the issues that have motivated me and have been the focus of my work as a United States senator.” I liked that.
Sigve Tonstad is Assistant Professor in the School of Medicine and Associate Professor in the School of Religion at Loma Linda University.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/4836