Friday, October 12, 2012

The Rt. Rev. Rants: There He Goes Again

Rant V

Mercy and Severity God may exercise severe mercy, but man often exercises only severity. While we observe the goodness and severity of God, we often observe only man’s severity. The trouble with man is that he deceives himself into thinking his severity is good and merciful. If this kind of thing occurred only out in the world, it would not be remarkable or particularly disturbing. But what is remarkable and disturbing is when this is found within the church. Jesus does not crush the broken reed or step on the smoldering flax, but his people sometimes do, all the while confident of their own mercifulness.

Churchill and Conservatives. Churchill was in my view the great man of the 20th century. (I think he may have been the most lovable egotist is history as well.) By many he is regarded as a hero and quoted with favor. But Churchill was not the man many of my fellow-conservatives imagine. 

Two comments here: (1) Churchill was a Christian in the sense that he was christened and buried by the Church of England. But he was not a Christian in any doctrinal sense. He did refer to God, but he did not believe in the God of the Creed or Articles. Yet, no public man of the century did more to preserve Western Christian civilization. (2) Churchill was never a conservative by American conservative standards. He was not a Socialist, but he believed in and promoted a state sponsored social welfare system. Though, like most, he became “more conservative” as he got older, he did not abandon his “liberal” instincts. In Brief Lives Paul Johnson notes that as a member of a Liberal (not Labor) Party Churchill worked closely with Lloyd-George to lay the foundations of the welfare state. He quotes Lady Violet about this phase of his career: “He was never so completely absorbed in politics, so magically motivated, or so happy. His Liberal days were his best.” Toward the end of his life, he asked a young MP he did not know what the MP’s political affiliation was, and when the man replied that he was a member of the Labor Party, Churchill replied, “Well, I’m a Liberal. Always have been.” None of this diminishes Churchill for me.  People and politics are never so simple as we like to imagine. He who seeks for perfect purity of thought or policy is bound for disillusionment. Conservatives in the US need to remember that if the kingdom did arrive with Reagan, it is not likely to arrive.

Corrections and Punishments. The warden of Louisiana's Angola Prison provokes thought when he gives his opinion  that hundreds of inmates could be released today from Angola and would pose no threat to society. He adds, “Angola should be a place for predators, not dying old men who have been rehabilitated.”

I wonder if it might be more honest if we renamed our Departments of Corrections Departments of Punishments or Retributions. It seems that the majority want miscreants punished, and, once they are locked up, don’t care much what happens to them. Christians may admire Charles Colson for his faith and his conservative stands on social issues but are not much interested in his work for prison reform. We say we don’t want prisons to be country clubs, though anyone familiar with country clubs could tell you that the environment (though perhaps not the people) of the worst club is infinitely better than that of the best prison. What we seem to want is that those who are incarcerated should suffer as much as possible, as if deprivation of freedom is not itself severe. We want long sentences, rare paroles, and hard treatment.  

Here are two, among other, problems with this approach: (1) Prisoners remain creatures made in the image of God. (Yes, the image is hard to discern in many. They seem to think and act like animals.)  If they are image bearers, then it seems we, as fellow image bearers, should seek to the degree possible their reform, not just their punishment. Some are beyond reform so far as we can tell. We just don’t know how we might help them. With some we may not know anymore to do with them than to cage and medicate them, though this should be as humane as possible. But, we owe some degree of mercy and kindness even to prisoners, if they are men and women made in their Creator’s image. When, through long sentences and harsh punishments, you deprive people of hope, you deprive them of much that enables them to act like humans in this world.  (2) The majority of these people are going to get out. What then? If we have treated them like animals in prison, do we expect them to act like humans when they are released? If prisons are schools of criminal behavior, do we expect that upon release they will behave like good citizens? It is in the interests of society that what a person experiences in prison should as much as possible “humanize” that person. 

Novelty and Liturgy. One of the follies of churches that practice both prescribed and directed worship is innovation of liturgy. Prayer books should not be subjected to every generation’s tinkering. Presbyterians and others of the "directed" sort should not be fooling around with services week in and week out. The words are C.S. Lewis, though written with reference to Anglican worship, are useful for both traditions and  are perhaps even more relevant now than when he originally wrote them:

“Novelty, simply as such, can have only an entertainment value. And  (we) don’t go to church to be entertained. (We) go to use the service, or, if you prefer, to enact it. Every service is a structure of acts and words through which we receive a sacrament, or repent, or supplicate, or adore. And it enables us to do these things best — if you like, it ‘works’ best — when, through long familiarity, we don’t have to think about it. As long as you notice, and have to count, the steps, you are not yet dancing but only learning to dance. A good shoe is a shoe you don’t notice. Good reading becomes possible when you need not consciously think about eyes, or light, or print, or spelling. The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God.

“But every novelty prevents this. It fixes our attention on the service itself; and thinking about the worship is a different thing from worshipping. The important question about the Grail was ‘for what does it serve?’ ‘Tis mad idolatry that makes the service greater than the god.’’

Justification and Sanctification. The ways that some of my Reformed brethren describe saving faith sometimes make me wonder if they do not believe we actually go to heaven not because of what Christ did for us but because of what did for us plus what Christ does in us. In other words, though they may insist they believe in salvation by Christ’s righteous life and sacrificial death received by faith alone, they sometimes sound like they actually believe in salvation by the righteousness Christ obtained for us plus the righteousness Christ works in us received by a faith that is a receiving/resting plus transforming. They condemn the Roman Catholic, New Perspective on Paul, and Federal Vision, with vigor. But are they making just a doctrinal point? Or is the point both doctrinal and practical?

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