Sep 18, 2011
My granddaughter Elsie was dedicated this weekend. Since I was not able to attend – partly because she is in Northern Ireland and I am not – Emily and Norman did the next best thing these days: hooked up a Skype connection. The ceremony “streamed live,” and when I was asked to pray, a microphone was held to my spectral, flickering image. I am not sure the people in the church could hear (in fact I heard only every fifth word or so of theirs), but we all know that God did. I got to wondering: would the 120 have gathered in the Upper Room if there had been Skype 2000 years ago?
The screen has become a part of our lives now. Tekkies tell us that, soon, smart-phone screens will substitute for computer screens, and soon will projected onto walls, even to handle touch-screen capabilities once projected. (In the meantime, of course, it took me 20 minutes to remember how to charge the laptop’s batteries…)
In recent history, much of my supposed field, popular culture, essentially has been related to the small screen. Even our political history. Richard Nixon might have been kicked off Dwight Eisenhower’s presidential ticket in 1952, but for the “Checkers Speech” he made on TV (decades later my mother still grew misty-eyed, recalling that piece of political theater). Eight years later, radio listeners to the Nixon-Kennedy debates rated Nixon the winner; but on TV he came across as sweaty, shifty-eyed, and dark (here merely was ill, warm, and had a five-o’clock shadow)… and such was the power of TV that Kennedy narrowly won that election. It has always been my opinion that much of the American public and even a lot of Ronald Reagan’s supporters viewed him as an overly amiable “aw, shucks” guy, until one night in the 1980 primaries, a moderator tried to shut off Reagan’s microphone in a hall he had rented. The Gipper angrily shouted, “I’m PAYING for this microphone, Mr Breen!” Even Reagan’s political rivals broke out in applause; and I remember thinking, “THAT’s how he’ll face down the Soviets.” I think America saw him differently too, because of a TV moment.
Last week a similar moment happened. I doubt whether history will turn on the exchange… but for one moment the crux of the Great Debate of the 20th century, and the American government’s fate in the 21st, was in the headlights. Then things moved on, maybe never to be raised again. It was a moment in the Republican debate when moderator Wolf Blitzer asked a hypothetical health-care question of the only doctor on stage, Ron Paul. If a healthy man who chose not to buy insurance got very sick, “are you saying that society should just let him die?”
I am not making a brief for a candidate, believe me: The response was mechanistic, not theological. However, Rep. Paul spoke some common sense when he recalled that he began his medical practice before the days of Medicare and Medicaid. He never turned a patient away, and never knew a hospital to do so. “What about family, friends, and churches?” he asked rhetorically. Is that a heartless attitude… or is it biblical?
Statistics indicate that Americans bestow more charity than do citizens of most other nations; that Christians donate more than people of other faiths; that conservatives are far more generous than liberals, along these lines. This is instructive, especially in the face of concerted campaigns to the contrary. That is, there are serious political efforts to end tax deductions for charitable contributions, and since the New Deal, we are confronted with philosophies that attempt to have government substitute for private charity.
The dilemma is not, of course, whether to render assistance. It is co-opting the impulse behind it, making war on our freedoms of conscience and action. When government “takes care of the poor,” we don’t have to, is the general proposition: that is the mindset of the modern state. Whether the poor, or sick, or homeless, are measurably assisted, is actually an open question (poverty rates have changed little since the Great Society) – but many people’s consciences are deadened “because the government will take care of the needy.” And this is apart from the question of whether it is moral to coerce one person here to support the children of another person there; or a woman from, say, Arizona to have to pay for the surgery of a man from, say, Maine. Eventually, citizens will be unable on their own to assist folks when they hear about children needing assistance, or surgical procedures requiring help. Already 1.75 citizens supports one Social Security beneficiary, and then we start adding Medicare, Medicaid, welfare, disaster relief, foreign aid…
Years ago I was impressed, when reading St Augustine’s Confessions, how he regarded charity. He quoted Christ’s words, “the poor ye shall always have with you,” and explained this otherwise enigmatic verse. Augustine identified with the poor, in part because Christ did, and he was extraordinarily active on their behalf. Augustine had a vision of corrupt man as someone who, despite our best intentions, keeps returning to self. He warned in the same vein against a circular form of love where even acts of charity were futile if divorced from the love and will of God.
“Anonymous” charity – that is, actions devoid of love; empty – is self-absorbing at best, and an offense to God at worst. For Augustine came to realize, through the humility to which the Cross inevitably brings us, that an act of charity (that word is also translated as “love”) is a godly construct. The poor, who we will always have with us, inspire us to imitate Christ in their care… and that pleases God.
That the humility, even the shame, of the Cross, takes us (drags us?) to more of an outwardly focused life, is the essence of the fulfilled believer’s life on earth. We evolve from awareness to compassion to identification to brokenness with the hurting, needy, and dependent. Which is, of course, our state too. Even when we are in Christ – I say, even MORE so, when we are in Christ – we must practice sacrificial love, tender mercy, and authentic assistance.
“That TV moment” I mentioned above is when political types, and TV watchers, had a chance to think about the drift – more like a tsunami – of the past several generations. It is mighty hard to maintain the impulse of individual response, when the “world system” keeps saying it is not our job, but theirs. St Augustine seemed to be looking 1600 years into the future when he wrote, “Woe to the soul which supposes it will find something better if it forsakes You!”
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Casting Crowns and the Beanscot Channel combine for a simple but powerful lesson drawn from true “Christian Charity” – with Christ in our hearts we trust Him more; and with Christ in our hearts we do His will more willingly.
(Last week’s music was from an ancient opera, Dido and Aeneas by Henry Purcell, which prompted a few questions about a “pagan” theme. First, I offered it with a Christian application, but [“full circle”] St Augustine himself is thought to have patterned the structure, not the contents, of his Confessions after The Aeneid. And Virgil, of course, patterned his epic after Homer’s Odyssey. And my point was that the nation of America, like the character Dido, is appropriate for a Lament to be sung.)