Remembering Well on Memorial Day

While browsing through Facebook this morning, I spotted a couple of posts that, well, took me by surprise once my feelings calmed down. One was from a high school friend regarding respect not given to a political leader of our country; the other was from a leader within the mission I serve within, asserting a split between preaching content and responsible concern for justice issues. And, today is in the USA, of course, Memorial Day; it’s the day in which remembering those women and men who died while in serving in the US military. It just now occurs to me, that such a day could be also be in effect for other nations. Those from the so-called West might be more familiar with Armistice Day (France; Nov 11) and with ANZAC Day (Australia and New Zealand; April 25). South Korea honors their military dead on June 6; Nigeria gives honor to theirs on January 25, to coincide with the conclusion of the civil war.

Returning to my friend, I was captivated by the kind of remembering taking place in the post. First, it was a recollection that graduating students from Notre Dame walked out when Vice President Mike Pence began his speech. My friend found this act from a year ago highly disrespectful. Much to my surprise, several other high school friends chimed in, although taking a more diplomatic resistance to the intent of the post. My initial thoughts were two-fold. One, while Pence shares a faith in Jesus Christ that most of the audience at the Notre Dame commencement holds, his enactment of his faith runs counter to Pope Francis and the historic corpus of Catholic social teaching. The refusal of the VP to welcome Syrian refugees is but one item of strong conflict with the church. The list of problems really could occupy this entire post. So, when my friend and others claim the graduates disrespected the VP, and that they hadn’t considered the consequences of their actions—and would likely do so in hindsight with remorse—I couldn’t help but wonder if my friend understood higher education and how our consciences often work. Two, I know faculty at Notre Dame. They saw the walkout coming before Pence was announced to the public; I suspect some privately rejoiced to see their former students both demonstrate independent thinking and embody their Catholic tradition with regard to the Gospel and justice.

Which brings me to the leader’s post. There was a weird split in the post, one that hearkens memory of how Pence both embraces the evangelical tradition but holds on to practices that sustain the power and privilege of whiteness. In brief, the post proposed the split between politics and preaching content. While affirming participation in efforts to confront and address injustice, the post claimed such would also ruin the testimony of Christians, merely in the taking of political sides. This kind of claim informs so much of the kind of preaching that omits anything thought of as political, so as to remain clear about “the message.”

A few of you reading this will recall that I have already conducted research on absence in preaching, and the kinds of causal efficacy these omissions in sermons exert upon a congregation. My initial study involved sermons in Southern California the Sunday immediately following the Charleston massacre at Mother Emanuel AME in 2015. What can be disclosed follows: It is as if a mass shooting in a church in North America never happened. This research is on a hiatus for now—still finishing my dissertation—but, since that horrific event, there have been other assassinations in churches, most notably the sad event in Sutherland Springs, TX.

As I mentioned above, the impulse of so much evangelical preaching involves a selective memory, so as to avoid any confusion of politics and the Gospel. This impulse has a social reflex within North American evangelicalism, and it routinely gets exercised so as to sustain whiteness. Thus, the preaching of “the message” becomes reduced to “receiving Christ”, assenting to his execution at Calvary, and, based upon an exclusive interpretation of the atonement, receiving the forgiveness of sins so as to secure entry into heaven. In large part, the preceding constitutes the bulk of evangelicalism.

Consequently, the rhetoric does not leave room for ethics, beyond “making a decision.” Which is weird, right? For example, it’s not as though Jesus ran to the front of the line, and pleaded with the centurions: “Hey, nail me up first!” Indeed, just a small moment of pause has lead more than one non-theologically trained reader to conclude: the religious authorities of the day conspired with the occupying military force colonizing the nation to execute the Nazarene for an imagined religious offense that failed to present as a capital crime. The Gospel message has always been intwined in politics: even before we have the New Testament. The real question, beyond “receiving Christ”, is: “What do you now do about this state of affairs in the world, now that you belong to Christ?” Surely, the 2017 graduating class of Notre Dame offer a partial and memorable answer to that question.

On a day in which memory is intended to renew our respect for those who died to secure our political freedoms: even Google has failed me. I cannot recall who said it, and so I paraphrase: “The Old Testament can be summarized by one word: ‘Remember’.” It occurs to me, that for those of us who place our faith in Jesus Christ, we do well to remember how Jesus and the prophets attempted to hold in tension the grace of God with allowing the logic of that same grace to penetrate our entire world. The risk of being misunderstood or confused will doggedly exist and cannot be reduced or minimized while actively living into this memory that pushes us into the future with God. Demands for respect and proposals for clarity are not inadmissible, insofar as such explicitly offer submission to the God of Israel, disclosed in Jesus, who gives us our salvation and invites us to remember that. Otherwise, these kinds of posts offer a politic that attempts to place itself in parallel to the reign of God, a politic that aims to generate a memory that is respectful and respectable. That is a version of remembering that we would all do well to reject.

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