Friday, January 27, 2017

Darkness Revisited

Most people who know me (even if only through this blog) know what a huge Bruce Springsteen fan I am. And not just a fan of Bruce as a very talented musician; I read very good theology in Springsteen's poetry. When I listen to "My City of Ruins" I feel like I'm in church on Easter morning. The lyrics are so simple, but the music is so powerful. Even at the grave we dare to make our song. And we know that we are not spectators of Easter; we are called to become an Easter people, to enter into the story with our bodies. And so Springsteen sings:
With these hands. With these hands. With these hands. (And with God's help.)... Come on, rise up. Rise up. Rise up. (Alleluia. Alleluia. Alleluia.)
But it doesn't feel like Easter to me right now. It's been a crazy, disconcerting first week of the Trump Presidency. Perhaps the most confusing thing to me (even more than the President himself and those around him and Republican leaders in Congress...) are evangelical (so-called) Christian leaders who seem to have lost their minds, and more importantly, have clearly lost their way. I used to think we belonged to different branches of the same faith. But a faith that does not care for the heavens and the earth that God asked us to tend, a faith that does not honor the full humanity of women, a faith that does not care for the stranger and the refugee, a faith that is willing to torture other human beings, a faith more focused on building walls than bridges, is not Christian faith. To claim it as such is taking the Lord's name in vain. It's heresy. 

It's Day 8 and this country is already different and we have every reason to be afraid. This brings me back to Bruce. I've been listening this week not to The Rising, but Darkness on the Edge of Town, Springsteen's fourth album, released in 1978. And I've been thinking about Original Sin, and power, and how power corrupts. Happy thoughts! But it helps me to return to the roots of Christian theology as I try to make some sense of the world we are living in now. We are all getting more familiar with terms like gaslighting and Narcissistic Personality Disorder, and I find that all very helpful. There is even a Jungian reading of Trump as "America's own shadow" that I find compelling, and challenging.

But underneath these and other attempts to understand what is happening is the old Christian understanding of Sin. Or as Springsteen famously puts it in another song, on another album, "Sir, I guess there's just a meanness in this world." (See Nebraska.)

Progressive Christians don't tend to talk about sin very much. And whenever we do so we need to remember what St. Paul said, that while sin abounds, grace abounds all the more. (See Romans 5:20.) But Springsteen's exploration of this very concept in "Adam Raised a Cain" is worth another listen. Here is how the song begins:
In the summer that I was baptized / My father held me to his side / As they put me to the water / He said how on that day I cried / We were prisoners of love, a love in chains / He was standin' in the door I was standin' in the rain / With the same hot blood burning in our veins / Adam raised a Cain
What is so incredible to me about this song is that Springsteen's language is so explicitly Biblical, even as he is reflecting on his own difficult relationship with his father. He isn't blaming his father; he's fully aware that they have the "same hot blood burning in [their] veins. Springsteen moves toward empathy, recognizing that his father is not only Adam but also Cain: "Daddy worked his whole life for nothing but the pain," he sings. "And now he walks these empty rooms, looking for something to blame..." Often, in Springsteen's own life, that something was his son. And so we are all born into this life paying for the sins of someone else's past. That's how Bruce puts it. But it's pretty close to how St. Augustine put it too.

How sad! How awful! And yet, maybe also true. Sin abounds. The idea that things are getting progressively better, that it's a straight line toward justice is naive. As King put it, the moral arc of the universe is long. Yes, it bends toward justice! That's the prize on which we must keep our eyes. But it is a long journey, in a fallen world. Sin abounds. The walls that separate us are real. Thankfully, grace abounds all the more but that requires hope, and a lot of work.

The line I am most haunted by on Darkness, however, comes from the first track, "Badlands." There Bruce sings the best definition of sin that I know:
Poor man wanna be rich,
Rich man wanna be king,
And a king ain't satisfied,
'til he rules everything.
We forget this truth at our peril. Recently a friend of mine from Liberia told a group of Episcopal clergy of which I was a part (and I'm paraphrasing) "this is not a new thing, it happens every day, around the world...and Christians have been responding to it for a long time too!" Indeed. We don't need to speak only of Hitler and Mussolini; to do so shows a lack of historical imagination. There are others, in our lifetimes, in other parts of the world: Idi Amin. Ferdinand Marcos. Josip Tito. Anastasia Somoza. Juan Peron. Vladimir Putin. I'm sure I'm missing a dozen or more...

You don't try to understand what motivates those who try to silence the media and hear only their own lies. You resist them. You speak the truth, in love. You light a candle. You find allies. And yes, you also pace yourself. 

It's the Season after Epiphany for Christians, a season of light. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. Not yet. Not now. Not ever. With Bruce, and the saints through the ages, I still believe in the faith that can save us. And I still believe in a Promised Land. But the journey ahead will be an arduous one.

Pray for our nation, and for the world. Pray for our leaders. Pray for those most vulnerable to the dismantling of the Affordable Health Care Act and those being turned away from a nation that once asked the world to send us their tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Grant us wisdom and grant us courage, for the living of these days. 

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