Like many Americans, I have always found squabbling punditry off-putting, especially in our American context known for a moralized politics and politicized religion. But the recent brouhaha over a particular candidate’s pastor’s words that call down divine damnation upon a nation has gotten me thinking.
Some of us in more theologically conservative circles have taken the good pastor to task by gasping over the stark language and rendering a sort of romper room indictment for having “taken the Lord’s Name is vain.” That certainly may be. But I have always thought it not a little sophomoric and a lot more moralistic to understand the long and short of third commandment to be pedestrian profanities. It seems to me that just as idolatry is more than bowing to a piece of wood, taking the Lord’s Name in vain is something that more importantly manifests itself in world views that one more often than not is unawares. In other words, Pastor Wright’s invectives are more than being a potty-mouth. What his indulgent public speech reveals is the fact that some western religionists of Christian persuasion can be said to have a fairly cynical view of the Western tradition generally and the American project specifically. Assuming that it should, it just doesn’t work well for some people, thus the Lord is to be invoked to reign down curses.
By contrast, some others have a fairly sanguine view of that same tradition and project. I recall having a conversation with a member of our church, a retired professor and author. It was the relatively expected back and forth between one of a Reformed, neo-Kuyperian and transformationalist persuasion and one from a more Reformed, Klinean and two-kingdom point of view. There was really nothing new here to see. As expected, where a Christian religionist like Jeremiah Wright sees it as a foe, this Anglo-Saxon saw Western Christendom as a friend that has made the world an immeasurably better place. With a vested interest in believing that something resident within Christianity implies our very particular slice in the broader kingdom of man, and further implying that the latter teeters on being sacrosanct, this genial believer could take it no longer and finally asked me a question: “Are you seriously telling me that you would not rather the here and now than Jesus’ own time and place?”
Rhetorical questions are designed for obvious answers, and it was no less true here: Our time and place is quite simply superior. After all, we have light bulbs, democracy, paved roadways and no sign of polio. It seemed we both agreed that our shared time and place was preferable—but our reasons were quite different: I prefer my time and place not because it is better but because it is mine; it is the one given to me by God. I don’t want the future any more than I don’t want the past. I don’t want Africa any more than I don’t want Malaysia. I want late twentieth-early twenty-first America, with all its flaws and benefits, vices and virtues, because it belongs to me.
While Reverend Wright may want the Most High to damn America, and while my friend may want to see it as eternally blessed, I must admit that I, once again, have no seat in this conversation. What seems tragically overlooked by those who would claim a Christian perspective on things is not only how either of these views are a mixed bag of violations against the second and third commandments, but also how it reveals tremendous discontentment with time and place being what the Sovereign has graciously bestowed. Where my friend’s view would have a believer in another time and/or place rue his being a citizen of anything other than modern America, the pastor’s would actually compel one to harbor disdain for such a status, ostensible protestations notwithstanding.
“Being content in all things” is what is superior because it is profoundly more difficult than either championing or disparaging any particular time and/or place. To my lights, however dim, it seems vastly more Christian to understand oneself as being a servant of the Most High first and always wherever one is placed than it is to assign either divine contempt or heavenly virtue to greater or lesser degrees, here or there. It certainly isn’t that he who is a citizen of both heaven and earth mayn’t find contempt or virtue within his latter citizenry; that would be absurd. But it is most assuredly to say that if the same one claims to be an heir of a better country, one wrought by God alone, he should stop well short of taking the Lord’s Name in vain—with a scowl or a smile—and see to it that he put his mind, mouth and body toward a better service.