More Ashes, Fewer Drums

Careless seems the great Avenger; history’s pages but record
One death-grapple in the darkness ‘twixt old systems and the Word;
Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on the throne,—
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and, behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.

We see dimly in the Present what is small and what is great,
Slow of faith how weak an arm may turn the iron helm of fate,
But the soul is still oracular; amid the market’s din,
List the ominous stern whisper from the Delphic cave within,—
“They enslave their children’s children who make compromise with sin.”

James Russell Lowell, “The Present Crisis”

America sometimes self-describes as a “Christian nation.” I think, to be blunt, that this is mostly nonsense. America is like every other empire throughout history – murderous, duplicitous, ruthless, and an enemy of the poor and powerless.

If America were truly a christian nation, our hearts would be broken, and we would repent. We would immerse ourselves in something resembling 10 years of lent.

If America were truly a christian nation, the conversation would be not “how do we defeat our enemies,” but “how best can we do away with enmity.”

If America were truly a christian nation, we would become less powerful through time, because we would never sacrifice justice for advantage. We would become a people that, rather than glorifying war, would instead burn for martyrdom.

If America were truly a christian nation, the situation in our ghettos would be treated as the emergency – as the scandal – that it is. A neighborhood advertising itself as “exclusive” would be considered shocking.

If America were truly a christian nation, we would recognize the intrinsic treasure that is every human person – whatever their location or circumstance, whether in our ghettos, in our soup kitchens, our wombs, or our prisons. We would deeply know that “sacred be all of life, filled with light divine.”

If America were truly a christian nation, we would transform our homes and workplaces – our nation – into altars where we offer love.

Then Jesus called the crowd to himself along with his disciples and said to them, “If anyone wants to follow me, he must deny himself, pick up his cross, and follow me.

Mark 8:34

About Matt Talbot
  • Ivan Kauffman

    Postings like this are what makes reading Vox Nova such a valuable experience. Thank you for these rich and truly Christian words.

    • http://giftofself.blogspot.com/ Joshua B

      I concur; great post Matt. Thanks

  • http://agellius.wordpress.com Agellius

    I’m not going to argue whether America is a Christian nation. But I think the distinction between what “Christian” means as applied to an individual, and as applied to a country, needs to be pointed out.

    A nation is simply incapable of being “Christian” in the same sense in which an individual is, since a nation is not a spiritual being. This is why Jesus could demand that individuals turn the other cheek, yet admit that Pilate received his authority to execute him from his Father in Heaven. This is why God, through the Church, forbids individuals to kill (except in self-defense), but not states.

    Those in charge of a state, in their role as rulers of that state, cannot turn the other cheek when attacked by another — and when demanded by another state to hand over its coat (say, its oil), hand over its cloak (say, its tax receipts) as well — since that would be to abandon their duty to their citizens.

    Thus a Christian nation is not a nation that, as a nation, believes in Christ and obeys his injunctions, since a nation, as a nation, is incapable of belief or obedience. What is meant by a “Christian nation”, rather, is one in which the majority of its citizens profess to be Christians.

    To apply the term “Christian” to a nation in the same sense in which it is applied to individuals, is to equivocate.

    • http://populisthope.blogspot.com Matt Talbot

      I’m not going to argue whether America is a Christian nation. But I think the distinction between what “Christian” means as applied to an individual, and as applied to a country, needs to be pointed out.

      To argue the specifics of your critique would be, in my judgement, a tangent to the topic, but thanks for the comment, Agellius.

    • Mark Gordon

      This is why God, through the Church, forbids individuals to kill (except in self-defense), but not states.

      So, by virtue of their authority, which is always God-ordained, states are licensed to kill at will and not merely in self-defense, which is a condition reserved for individuals in their private affairs. Individuals who exercise the authority of the state are thus free to act not as Christians, but as “rulers.”

      Behold the self-justifying ground for preemptive war, genocide, state-sponsored terrorism, and a hundred other evils, including the denial of the personal moral responsibility of soldiers.

      • http://agellius.wordpress.com agellius

        Mark writes, “So, by virtue of their authority, which is always God-ordained, states are licensed to kill at will and not merely in self-defense, which is a condition reserved for individuals in their private affairs. Individuals who exercise the authority of the state are thus free to act not as Christians, but as ‘rulers.’ Behold the self-justifying ground for preemptive war, genocide, state-sponsored terrorism, and a hundred other evils, including the denial of the personal moral responsibility of soldiers.”

        You’ve lost me. God forbids individuals to kill while authorizing states to kill — but you talk as if I’m claiming that any killing by the state whatsoever is justified in the eyes of the Church. I’m sure you know, and know that I know, that the Church teaches that God authorizes killing by states only in certain circumstances and for good cause. My point is not to say that states are never wrong to kill while individual Christians are. The point is that individuals and states are different things by nature, and therefore have different duties and privileges, and accordingly, it’s not appropriate to judge their actions by the same standards.

      • Bruce in Kansas

        I don’t see from your comment how making the distinction between nations and persons justifies all the evils you listed.

    • John in Colorado

      The “State” like the Church is a community of persons, not a religious community but a political community. Like other communities, perhaps especially because it is political, the “State” is what its members make it. If the members demand peace, the “State” will practice peace.

      • bill bannon

        Citizens could demand both peace and war when due. To demand only peace is in some cases a lack of responsibility. Japan had planned to enslave China during the second world war. It is a good event that war stopped them in general; awful that bombing of civilians was part of that as it was also elsewhere but that bombing seems to have been the work of a sincere erroneous conscience in a president as when the Church, after 1253 AD and Pope Innocent IV, burned heretics under papal and decretal mandate ( “Inquisition” Josef Blotzer/ Newadvent).

        • http://populisthope.blogspot.com Matt Talbot

          Bill – you seem, in your time as a commenter here on Vox Nova, to be a steadfast and constant defender – even advocate – of the use of violence: both in the personal realm and when committed by state or religious authorities. I find this troubling.

      • Charles

        Great point. Id like to add that, in a democracy, we are even more morally responsible for the actions of our nation. Agellius’ comments above might apply to the subjects of some 14th Century Italian despot, but not citizens of liberal democracies. I’d also like to point out that it’s not merely what the people want in a democracy, it’s what the people can force the social, political, and economic elites to do. The desires of the people are mediated through the elites before producing political action. We have to organize and collectively act to impose our desires for justice and peace on the “power elite”.

      • bill bannon

        It’s simple, Matt. Total pacifism is a delusion based on not imagining the worst happening to a loved one of yours while you’re present. I can’t imagine Christ coming upon a woman being raped on a desert road and not doing a thing about it.
        Thousands upon thousands of Chinese women were raped in Nanjing by Japanese soldiers in 1937; then many were killed and left with long sticks in their vagina. Meanwhile Chinese soldiers changed out of uniform into lay clothing and mixed in with civilians so the Japanese would not kill them too.
        Deut.20:8
        “In fine, the officials shall say to the soldiers, ‘Is there anyone who is afraid and weakhearted? Let him return home, lest he make his fellows as fainthearted as himself.”

        On the other hand, I’d like us out of Afghanistan last year as a hopeless
        country. I pray at least several times a week for the cocaine brides of Afghanistan who are 7 years olds etc. who are kidnapped by smugglers when poppy farmers don’t pay their loans. Hopeless country. I’ve been in countries where police are fearfully rare and very far away. Afghanistan is far beyond that.
        I’d like the Arab League not us to send special forces into Syria right now to protect the children of Homs etc. who are fearful of their lives. I’d like an African league not us to stop the rapes along the Mozambique border.
        Me personally, I’m fixing an inherited house to sell in a tough city and I’m under threat of being glocked for jumping a man who broke in and ripped off a lethal weapon from my house inter alia. By now I think it’s over. But I sleep with a tactical shotgun and will in this particular house until it’s sold. His ego could boil any night under crack and he could return.
        I pray for him weekly and I’d kill him in a second if he comes for me in the middle of the night….he’s an excellent man with window entry…excellent.

        • http://populisthope.blogspot.com Matt Talbot

          Your reply is not reassuring, Bill.

      • http://agellius.wordpress.com Agellius

        John writes, “Like other communities, perhaps especially because it is political, the “State” is what its members make it.”

        It may or may not be. But however that may be in a particular case, it remains true that the government of a state has rights and duties that are different from those of individuals. People who may (for example) choose to live lives of pacificism in their dealings with other people, nevertheless might not want their government to do the same in its dealings with other nations.

        Consider an example: Suppose the people of the U.S. were overwhelmingly faithful, peaceful and obedient Christians, and as a result had a government that was respectful and protective of the rights of the Church and peaceable towards other nations. But suppose the country was threatened by an outside force which was warlike and hostile to the Faith: Would the people want their government to lay down its arms in the face of this foe, in order that a different government, a government hostile to religion and not at all peaceful, might be instituted?

    • bill bannon

      Agellius,
      An awesome little essay.

      • bill bannon

        PS
        Matt…..whoa….I in no way approve what the Church did to heretics. Christ three times treated the Samaritans with repect…twice with praise.
        And they were heretics who accepted a tiny canon of the Old Testament…Pentateuch only.

      • http://agellius.wordpress.com Agellius

        Thanks, Bill!

    • Sean O

      America is made up of individuals who are mostly Christian in name, but it is a mere label. Few are Christian in deed. The ethos of our nation is Pagan. If the choice was between God & Mammon, Mammon clearly won.

  • Ryan

    “America sometimes self-describes as a “Christian nation.” I think, to be blunt, that this is mostly nonsense. America is like every other empire throughout history – murderous, duplicitous, ruthless, and an enemy of the poor and powerless.”

    Someone said this on Front Porch Republic the other day I’ll repeat it here “to compare America to the late Roman Empire is an insult to the Roman Empire”

    America in its hubris not only perpetuates these injustices at home, but it seeks through military might or most especially through culture and big business to spread its injustice around the globe.

  • Rodak

    @ Agellius — If a nation cannot be “Christian” and in fact collectively acts in many ways that are distinctly anti-Christian, although it is doing what is its very purpose and duty to do, then how can a Christian individual support and obey the dictates of that state? And, if every individual were, in fact, a Christian and acting as a Christian should, how would the state ever be able to act collectively contrary to Christianity? Who would the agents be that were carrying out the state’s non-Christian directives?

    • http://agellius.wordpress.com agellius

      Rodak:

      Your mistake, in my view, is failing to bear in mind the different duties, privileges and responsibilities of individuals and states under Christian teaching. An individual acting “like a Christian” and a state acting in ways that a state is authorized to act under Christian teaching, do not look the same. Though both may be equally acting “like a Christian [state or individual]”, nevertheless their actions would be different. Obviously, this doesn’t mean that one must act good while the other may act evil. It means that the same act might be good for the one, while evil for the other, and vice versa.

      • http://www.rrrrodak.blogspot.com Rodak

        @ Agellius —

        Your view, which I acknowledge to be mainstream, is exactly why institutional Christianity is one gargantuan edifice of cheap grace–which is to say, a fraud.
        Valid Christianity is practiced, at any given time, by a handful of legitimate saints, among whose number I, sadly, do not belong.

  • Julia Smucker

    This post reminds me of Stephen Colbert’s much-quoted quip, “If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn’t help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus is just as selfish as we are, or we’ve got to acknowledge that he commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don’t want to do it.”

    • http://agellius.wordpress.com Agellius

      Except that billions upon billions have already been spent on helping the poor — speaking only of public funds, not to mention private. Other than that, it’s a witty quip. : )

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=852965106 Sam Rodgers

        Are you recommending a limit to charity? Run that by me again. I still see people who go hungry.

    • bill bannon

      Julia
      Colbert has a net worth of 45 million dollars. That can cause a lot of guilt if his ideas require him to have catastrophically less from giving:

      http://www.celebritynetworth.com/richest-celebrities/richest-comedians/stephen-colbert-net-worth/

    • Julia Smucker

      …or we could convince ourselves that the existence of current programs and/or the wealth of certain social justice advocates somehow acquits us all. How can we get around the Christian duty to the poor? Let me count the ways…

  • http://turmarion.wordpress.com turmarion

    Excellent, beautiful post!

  • Cindy

    I was looking for something to read that would interest me more than anything on the internet this evening. Thank you Mr. Talbot, for this thought provoking post. Sometimes I think I’m losing my mind, when I see what everyone is calling “Christian” these days. This sincerely puts it into perspective.

  • http://agellius.wordpress.com Agellius

    Charles writes, “Agellius’ comments above might apply to the subjects of some 14th Century Italian despot, but not citizens of liberal democracies.”

    It applies equally to both. The fact that I can vote for or against people, does not give me control over what they do once they are elected. Besides, as often as not, the people I vote for don’t get elected, in which case I am even less responsible for what they do.

    Charles writes, “… it’s not merely what the people want in a democracy, it’s what the people can force the social, political, and economic elites to do.”

    If you’re talking about using force (as opposed to voting and persuasion), then it seems irrelevant whether we’re discussing a democracy or a monarchy.

    • Charles

      Agellius, those elected in a democracy act in the name of the people. We give them the right to do so by electing them. Thus, we are morally responsible for our leaders’ actions. This is not just my personal belief, check out Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and his “A Time to Break Silence.” Whether or not your candidate wins is immaterial. Part of our national social contract is majority rules and the person in office is legitimate regardless of whether you personally voted for them. I’ll grant you that a person could argue that they avoid such moral responsibility by not taking part in the system at all, but that is a fairly weak argument.

      Regarding my above quote: “‘Charles writes, “… it’s not merely what the people want in a democracy, it’s what the people can force the social, political, and economic elites to do.’
      If you’re talking about using force (as opposed to voting and persuasion), then it seems irrelevant whether we’re discussing a democracy or a monarchy.” You would honestly have to be trying to take my statements out of context to think I was referring to anything other than non-violent pressure and suasion. The rest of my statement: “The desires of the people are mediated through the elites before producing political action. We have to organize and collectively act to impose our desires for justice and peace on the ‘power elite’.” You have to completely ignore those sentences to reach your conclusion that I could have been referring to the use of violence. I hope that my assessment is wrong and that you meant some intellectually honest argument that I simply missed out of a lack of charity. If so, please forgive me and elaborate about what you did mean.

  • http://agellius.wordpress.com Agellius

    Sam writes, “Are you recommending a limit to charity? Run that by me again. I still see people who go hungry.”

    No. I’m rebutting Stephen Colbert’s charge that Americans are unwilling to help the poor and needy. (Was I really that unclear?)

    • http://populisthope.blogspot.com Matt Talbot

      I’m rebutting Stephen Colbert’s charge that Americans are unwilling to help the poor and needy.

      No, you’re actually missing the point of his remark.

      • http://agellius.wordpress.com Agellius

        Oh… well… thanks for clearing that up for me. : )

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=852965106 Sam Rodgers

      Agellius, I apologize. It did sound a bit like you regretted the money spent on social programs, but I jumped the gun in accusation, uncharitably.
      Many people fear a rollback in public assistance at a time when the need is greater than it has been in a long time. I think Colbert is aware of the money that is currently spent, but poverty has by no means been eradicated. Anger is justified at the fact that anyone has to go hungry or shelter-less, or be unable to earn a just wage. We may not be entirely unwilling to help the poor and needly, but we *are* insufficiently willing.

  • Ronald King

    Matt, I gave up commenting for Lent. So I cannot comment that I totally agree with you.

    • http://populisthope.blogspot.com Matt Talbot

      Thanks, Ronald. I didn’t hear a thing 😉

  • http://agellius.wordpress.com agellius

    Charles writes, “… those elected in a democracy act in the name of the people. We give them the right to do so by electing them. Thus, we are morally responsible for our leaders’ actions.”

    You seem to be saying that since 52% of my fellow citizens voted for Obama (or Bush if you’re on the other side), therefore I am morally culpable for whatever evil results from his policies. I just don’t buy that.

    Yes, in theory those who are elected do nothing but the will of the people. But no one believes that they actually do. At best, they can only do what about half the people want, and even that half is usually not satisfied that their will is being done. Look at how many Republicans were dissatisfied with the policies of Bush Jr., and how many Democrats with Obama’s. Normally you pick the lesser of two evils, and then complain that even the lesser is still no good.

    The Founding Fathers admitted that they deliberately designed the system to *dilute* the will of the people (so that no single faction could dominate the others). I would estimate that generally speaking, my will is carried out by my elected representatives less than 10% of the time. And that’s just by coincidence rather than anyone actually seeking to carry out my will.

    “Charles writes, “You would honestly have to be trying to take my statements out of context to think I was referring to anything other than non-violent pressure and suasion. … You have to completely ignore those sentences to reach your conclusion that I could have been referring to the use of violence. I hope that my assessment is wrong and that you meant some intellectually honest argument that I simply missed out of a lack of charity. If so, please forgive me and elaborate about what you did mean.”

    I think it’s intellectually dishonest of you to imply that I was implying that you were referring to violent force. ; )

    My point was, you used the words “force” and “impose”, and whether you were referring to violent force or imposition, or not, nevertheless, the imposition of force may be used against a non-democratic regime as well as against a democratic one.

    • Charles

      Thanks for explaining.

    • Rodak

      @ Agellius —

      What you are saying is that you reject the social contract. By claiming the rights of citizenship, you tacitly agree to go along with what the majority decides to do, until such time as you can change what you don’t like through the legislative process.
      If you don’t buy that concept, you really have no business discussing it: you’re out of the game. If you don’t like it–catch a boat. There must be a Catholic theocracy somewhere, right?

      • Rodak

        @ Agellius —

        Or, there is civil disobedience. But that is meaningless, so long as it is only talk. You have to put some skin in the game, if civil disobedience is your option.

      • http://agellius.wordpress.com Agellius

        Rodak writes, “What you are saying is that you reject the social contract. By claiming the rights of citizenship, you tacitly agree to go along with what the majority decides to do, until such time as you can change what you don’t like through the legislative process.”

        I do reject the idea that the social contract is the basis of civilized society. But that wasn’t my point in these last few comments.

        My point was that, notwithstanding the traditional American rhetoric about government “of the people by the people”, in reality it’s still government of the people by the government. The people do have a certain amount of influence, but since the amount of influence exercised by each individual is so miniscule, his responsibility for the actions of those in power is proportionately so miniscule as to be practically nonexistent.

  • William Kelly

    “America is like every other empire throughout history – murderous, duplicitous, ruthless, and an enemy of the poor and powerless.”

    History re-written

    • http://populisthope.blogspot.com Matt Talbot

      The firebombing of Dresden, Tokyo, Yokohama, Pyongyang…? Various CIA coups in South America, Iran, South Vietnam? The years-long carpet bombing of Laos? The installation of “friendly dictators” in every corner of the third world?

      Who’s re-writing history?

  • Rodak

    “…his responsibility for the actions of those in power is proportionately so miniscule as to be practically nonexistent.”

    @ Agellius —

    Yes, exactly. That is why if you don’t want to go along with that inevitable circumstance (which pertains under ANY system of government), the only way for you to maintain any moral integrity is to drop out of the system, stop receiving any of its benefits, and become totally autonomous–a law unto yourself.

    At bottom, Agellius, you are yourself exactly what you fault Western liberals for being. You just want to tinker with it a bit. Know thyself.

    (You could always become a monk and accept a very different, but perhaps even more stifling, discipline.)

    • http://agellius.wordpress.com agellius

      Rodak writes, “That is why if you don’t want to go along with that inevitable circumstance (which pertains under ANY system of government), the only way for you to maintain any moral integrity is to drop out of the system…”

      To be honest, I don’t have any idea what you’re talking about. I suspect you’re mistaking a simple explanation of how things are, for a critique or a condemnation of the system.

      • Rodak

        @ Agellius —

        You don’t have any power, or much personal responsibility, so long as you go along to get along. You hare just a member of the bleating herd.

        You also don’t have much of either, so long as all you do is complain.

        But you can seize power over your OWN role, and take responsibility for your OWN actions by opposing the system from outside of it. If you do that, the system will probably come down on you. That’s how you’ll know you’ve done something right.

        Is that understandable?

  • http://agellius.wordpress.com Agellius

    Rodak writes, “You don’t have any power, or much personal responsibility, so long as you go along to get along. You hare just a member of the bleating herd. You also don’t have much of either, so long as all you do is complain. But you can seize power over your OWN role, and take responsibility for your OWN actions by opposing the system from outside of it. If you do that, the system will probably come down on you. That’s how you’ll know you’ve done something right. Is that understandable?”

    I guess it’s somewhat understandable. But I’m still at a loss as to how it arose as a response to anything I said. Maybe someone else can clue me in to what I’m missing, if anyone else is still reading. : )