Thursday, April 7, 2016

He always

Civilized Man
You were keeper to me
Now your animal is free
And you're free to die
You're old and your hands are gray
Your old go home and
We've all heard you dirty stories
Two thousand years
Two thousand years
Two thousand years
Of your
God damn

This is the lyric of the song ‘Sunrise’ by the group Jefferson Starship, off their 1970 album Blows Against the Empire which was and always has been one of my favorites, even though my personal vocabulary doesn’t include expletives like the ‘God damn’ in this song, or even worse ones heard in some of the other songs. There is a stark, stringent, defiant energy here, the essence of pure rebellion. The makers of this album knew it. They were proud of it. They were caught up in the net of such subtle deception that they could feel themselves entirely justified in their hatred and rejection of ‘Dick Nixon’ and his ‘empire.’ At the age of nineteen, I too was caught up in the same net, parroting the slogans and bywords of the lost generation whose motto was ‘turn on, tune in, drop out’ even though inside I knew myself to be outside their league.

Face it, I was the good son, the obedient son in the parable of the Prodigal Sonno, actually there were two of us, two brothers who were both that good son, who both obeyed and honored their parents as was expected. In that family, it was the daughters who were the prodigals, at least in the first part of the story. But the fact is, I was a dutiful and respectful son, not openly questioning or challenging my elders. I never smoked (though they did and ordered me not to), I never drank (on the sly as teens often do), I didn’t do dope (my brother and I promised our Mom we wouldn’t, I wonder if he remembers). But in our case, the parable that became our story morphed, a little at first, then a lot. I gradually turned into the bad son, first by going away to college and leaving my younger brother to cope with our disintegrating family all alone.

I’d better stop, because this isn’t supposed to be an autobiographical sketch. Suffice it to say that my absence from the family locale turned me into the prodigal son, regardless of my behavior, good or bad. What I am thinking of is the value of rebellion. Yes, you heard me right. The value of rebellion, even of, no, especially of defiance. I am a Christian, in fact, an Orthodox Christian, you know, the ones who never change anything, never argue or disagree, are always submissive to one another as we live out our lives as an ikon of the life of the Holy Trinity on earth. What used to be said of the Chinese race could equally be said of us, ‘of all peoples the least revolutionary, but the most rebellious’—uh oh, maybe I have it backwards. We do make a habit of speaking of the past of our Church and Faith as if it were a golden age, and the late Roman and Byzantine empires which percolated our traditions as heroic and glorious.

But you know, I have a hunch that there never was a time in the history of the world or the history of the Church that could really be called a golden age, one where virtue predominated over vice in numbers or in intensity. We think that our holy and divine ancestors must have been holy indeed to be able to devote their lives and livelihoods to building the great churches of Hagia Sophia, the great Gothic masterpieces of western Europe, and to have had such a uniform mastery over society that everyone in sight was a church-going Christian (except for that mysterious race, the Jews). We obviously don’t build such things, or dominate society so completely, today, so they must’ve been better than us, and more of them. Something like those days of Christian imperial glory actually survived into modern times. The Orthodox know it as ‘Holy Russia’ and because it is still very close to us in time, we can’t idealize it as much as we do the earlier Christian empires. Well, there's that painting

Being the ‘obedient son’ sort of person I am, made me idolize the Christian empire and emperors in much the same way as I saw others around me doing, and in Orthodox literature. I am both a historian and a romantic by nature, a natural candidate for this kind of cultural attitude. Going to college during the late sixties, early seventies, knocked me off that trajectory, however. Without really understanding much of the political and social thought that was stirring up the students and radicalizing them, I was just swept along in tacit agreement that everything old was simply wrong and had to be replaced, by us. Huh! and here we are, in an America, maybe in a world, where we did it! but things haven’t really turned out quite as we expected. Looking back and glad to admit I was mistaken even without knowing it, I can see that my rebellion and defiance of the ‘empire’ was substanceless.

It wasn’t until I came to know and experience the living God, and His Son Jesus Christ, that I came to see the universal conflict into which we are all born, and how we are conditioned, how we can’t help but be conditioned, by living in that environment. There always is and always will be an ‘empire’ and it will always be trying to push us around, control us, milk us of our livelihood, even use us as cannon-fodder in its ‘just wars’. Christ never wastes our time with speculative theology. He is the most practical and pragmatic of men. Asked if it is right to pay taxes to Caesar, He holds up a denarius, a day-laborer’s one-day wage, and asks us, ‘Whose picture is this?’ We all know whose. It’s Caesar’s. It’s the world ruler’s. Yes, it’s the empire’s. We work to live, and yet what we earn is still the property of the ‘empire.’ It’s got the empire’s names and faces all over it, like the pennies we pass without plucking off the pavement.

Back to that rebellious song lyric, we knew back when we first heard it who they were talking about, with their ‘two thousand years of your g*dd*mn glory.’ They were reviling and defying the Christian civilization that had brought them to the point where they found themselves, unhappy, unable to control their own destinies (so they thought), because of the iron-clad, corrupt control that the ‘empire’ imposed on them. So, in their minds, at least, and with their songs, they fantasized an escape, they would hijack a starship, and go to a planet where they could be free. A sad, pathetic fantasy, to be sure, but if that is what it takes to keep oneself from going absolutely bonkers, then that’s what they must have. I went along for the ride, ignorantly before I met Christ on my own road to Emmaus, and now I still sometimes join in, knowing that with Him I can, and sometimes, must go anywhere.

You see, Jesus is no rebel. He is the Lord of all, He is the King of kings. Notice, in scripture there is never a place where Christ, or even God the Father, is hailed as ‘emperor.’ In some translations they may use ‘empire’ when referring to God’s absolute sovereignty over creation, but that is a bad choice of words. A man that history calls a ‘rebel emperor,’ 洪秀全 Hóng Xiùquán, who was the 天王Tiānwáng, ‘heavenly king’ of the ‘rebel’ state 太平天国 Tàipíng Tiānguó, ‘heavenly kingdom of great peace’ did not accept the title of ‘emperor’ nor call his regime an ‘empire’ because, he declared, no one can be called 皇帝 Huángdì, ‘emperor’ but the Lord on high, and all the Chinese emperors in history were nothing more than usurpers. This man and his movement were self-evangelized Christians, having none to teach them, missing even the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, yet he knew the place of man in creation.

There is no emperor but God on high, to the Chinese Christian mind, but ‘emperor’ to them is what western languages call ‘King of kings,’ starting with the most easterly of the Western peoples, the Persians, who entrenched this nomenclature in us. And it works out well, theologically and even practically. Christ is King of kings. Who are the kings? Well, to put it bluntly, we are. That’s what we are called in scripture, and called to be as followers of, not just believers in, Jesus Christ. The apostle says we are ‘a holy race of priests and kings.’ This is not just a nicety, a bit of bragging up to encourage us to be good boys and girls. Scripture doesn’t taunt or tantalize us, so let’s give the Word of God our fullest attention. Back to the Chinese ‘rebel’ I mentioned, the天王 Tiānwáng always ended his decrees with ‘Respect this!’ In other words, don’t just be hearers of the Word, be doers also.

So what does this all have to do with rebelliousness and defiance? Why do I still like the music of the youth movement of the sixties and seventies? Like the writer of Ecclesiastes says, ‘unto everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.’ Rebellion may be a defining characteristic of the evil one, yet rebellion is not itself an evil. There is a time for it ‘under heaven.’ Jesus was not a rebel, nor should His followers be. What is Jesus, then? He is the King, yes, and that makes us, His earthly younger siblings, at least princes. At least, that’s what we start out as, in fact, as crown princes. We don’t have to wait for the King to die, though, before we can become kings. He has died, and He has risen, trampling down death by death. He has inaugurated a Kingdom greater than any empire, peopled by kings, all of the lineage of David. We no more rebel than He did. We defy, and not by violence, but by the Truth.

At least that is my hope, for me, for you, that we defy by our lives, by our lifestyle, by our refusal to bow down, any and all authorities, principalities and powers that pretend to rule us, both inside of ourselves, and in the world. Yes, the world, the flesh, and the devil, we defy. And when I sing and chant my favorite songs of defiance, I do so now with the certainty that the cause is just, because it is the Cross of Christ, His tool of ultimate defiance, which closes the eye of the sun, shakes the earth, splits open the tombs, raises the dead, and waters the whole earth and every man with the red rain of His sacred Blood. All fantasies, like all the ills they were summoned to banish, themselves vanish, leaving behind no trace, only good memories of what really ever was, is, and will be. What we always wanted, always searched for, even in our darkest days, we find to be, once more, not what but Who, and are inundated by the joy of knowing that it was us He always wanted, He always searched for, and He always found.

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