Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Stick to religion, Jeremiah

The Reverend Jeremiah Wright, according to some people like Bob Herbert in today’s New York Times, is sinking Barack Obama. He’s blowing it with all this talk about the injustices done to blacks by whites historically. The current version of American truth is that we need not to talk about those things but instead accentuate the positive.

In a perfect world, this would be a debate issue, and some people would persuade those who see the glass as half empty to see it as half full, maybe. Or we would take away a few more scales from our eyes and look at racism in America a bit more honestly. Either way, we’d come out on top. Instead, we find ourselves begging people to shut up and not say things that are on the minds of lots and lots of people.

I’m sticking by Jeremiah Wright. I can’t for the life of me understand why Obama can’t say, “The Reverend Wright chooses to focus on the many things America has done wrong. He doesn’t believe in ‘America, right or wrong’ and neither should you or I. We should instead be working harder than ever to right the wrongs our country has done when it has fallen away from its ideals. Remember, it’s America in its ideal form that draws the world to it, not in the form it has shown the world the past eight years. We’ve done things wrong, and with your help we can put them right. In any case, don’t blame me for what this guy Wright says. I don’t agree with him, but I’ll defend to the death his right to say it!” Have we all forgotten how American that is? To say you’ll defend to the death the right of your opponents and even your enemies to speak out, even though you wouldn’t, really?

One blogger I read this morning suggested that Wright should stay away from politics and stop talking about the problems of black people. He should stick to religion.

I love that. Let’s imagine what that would look like. Wright belongs to a church that owes its existence in part to Jacobus Arminius. It is an Arminian Church, in other words.

Don’t get that mixed up with Armenians with an “e” now. They are known chiefly in America for producing William Saroyan and for being massacred by the Turks and the famous Hitler remark, “Who remembers Armenia!?”

The other kind, the kind who spell their name with two i’s as well as two a’s, are the spiritual ancestors of Methodists and other folk like the original Baptists, who traditionally argued that salvation, in the Christian sense of getting to live after death, comes not from good works, as Catholics and Muslims believe (as well as most Protestants who really didn’t do much homework in their Protestant Sunday schools), but from this thing called “grace.” Favor, actually. God favors everybody, say the Arminians. No, just some people, say the Calvinists.

We have forgotten that Christians used to beat up other Christians over whether they thought they should be baptized as kids, or whether authority should come from a priest or by consensus of the congregation, or whether God chooses to save some people and doesn’t tell anybody who it is.

Followers of Arminius, not wanting to be like the Lutherans who called themselves after their religious leader, called themselves Remonstrants. A mouthful, but not as bad as Melanchthonists, which Lutherans really ought to be called, since Melanchthon was arguably the major author of much of Lutheran theology.

But that’s only because Philipp Melanchthon changed his real name, Schwarzerd (“Black Earth”) into Greek because he thought it was cool. We could actually even be Schwarzerdists or Black Earthists. Fortunately, they still had the custom of women taking their husband’s name when they married and not the other way around. Philipp Melanchthon né Schwarzerd married Katharina Krapp. I learned that in Lutheran Sunday School, I think.

But I digress, and I know you’re dying to hear more about the Arminians. While the Lutherans were off bashing about over their doctrinal differences, the Calvinists and Arminians were going at it full steam further west. Like in Holland and America, where the Baptists and Congregationalists couldn’t agree on whether God chose you because he knew you were going to believe in Jesus the moment you were born, or whether God chose you for heaven on some other basis, and it therefore didn’t matter whether you kicked your neighbor’s ass now and then and stole his chickens.

The Pelagians, of course, thought that Adam and Eve's depravity in wanting to know things didn’t condemn people, like the Catholics and Calvinists believe – they merely set a bad example. Believing that could get you killed after the 6th Century, of course, although the idea became popular among some folk in the American Colonies. Like the Arminians, kind of, but not really.

If soteriology (the study of salvation) is not one of your favorite hobbies, you may possibly be dozing off by this point, but it’s the most important issue you’ll ever contend with, so don’t give me any mouth here.

If you’re not a Pelagian, and sincerely believe deep down in your heart that God got pissed off bigtime at the whole human race because Adam ate the apple, you’ll want to fight over whether Christ’s sacrifice on the cross was enough to satisfy this angry man in the sky. Christians, of course, believe it was. But then comes the question of whether God could break his own laws this way. The answer, say the Arminians, is best explained by Hugo Grotius, an expert in international justice whose work led to the three-mile limit around countries (the distance cannons could fire to protect them), and who left Holland in a box for Paris and later became Sweden’s ambassador to France and died, washed up on shore in Rostock after uttering the last words, "By understanding many things, I have accomplished nothing."

Anyway, what you need to take away from Grotius is the explanation that God, via the government theory of atonement, was able to excuse Adam and still keep his legal system in tact. Christ’s resurrection was impressive, no doubt, but even God, apparently, needed a good lawyer.

If Jeremiah Wright would limit his sermons to whether atonement is better explained by Grotius’ governmental theory of justice and stop demanding Americans take a more honest look at themselves and their history of injustice, we might still get Barack Obama to be our president.

I’d like that, wouldn't you?

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