Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Simple Gifts

I love the Shakers' music. Hardly a day goes by that I don't sing for myself "Simple Gifts" and one or two other Shaker songs. I was very pleased when "Simple Gifts" made it into the Episcopal hymnbook.

And so I was extremely pleased to hear it played in an arrangement by John Williams, "Air and Simple Gifts", for violin, cello, clarinet, and piano at today's inaugural ceremony. An extra pleasure was that the violinist was Itzhak Perlman and the cellist was Yo-Yo Ma, who always visibly enjoys himself and his collaboration with other musicians so much -- and the clarinetist, whom I hadn't heard of before, played with a beautiful tone as befits a principal of the Metropolitan Opera orchestra.

When George W. Bush was campaigning in 2000, he said "I think the United States must be humble" in its dealings with other nations. Right.

Now comes Barack Obama who has pledged to expand the forces and the fighting in Afghanistan. Still, in his inaugural speech, he balanced a bit of toughness with offers of friendship and cooperation, and a recommitment to high national ideals.

I pray that he does better with the theme of "Simple Gifts" than Bush did with his version of humility. For "Simple Gifts" is all about humility. Great Powers need humility, especially when the limits of power have been made painfully clear. The temptation to overcompensate with a display of armed machismo is hard to resist. To bow, to bend, to adapt -- that's such a comedown. As Arnold Schwarzenegger would say, that's for girlie men. Like Jesus.

So -- here are words to sing and to live by:

'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free,
'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be.
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
'Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

(Repeat -- almost all Shaker songs repeat each stanza)

When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend we shan't be ashamed.
To turn, turn, will be our delight,
Till in turning, turning, we come round right.


"Turning", of course, means repentance. In turning, we come round right, heading in the right direction for following the right Way. The gift is to be free of avarice, covetousness, envy, and pride. And the love and exercise of domination and power.

KISS -- Keep it simple, uh, Shakers.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Bush's Farewell: patriotic sin

President Bush's "Farewell Address" has been dismissed, I think justly, as yet another example of denial and delusion, and ridiculed as superficial and inane. But one line in the speech is seriously disturbing -- or should be -- to "people of faith". One could call it "heretical" if that word wasn't so out of favor among anti-judgmental progressives. Yet, to my knowledge, it has gone unmentioned by his friends and foes alike.

The line is in the next to last paragraph: "It has been the privilege of a lifetime to serve as your president. There have been good days and tough days. But every day I have been inspired by the greatness of our country, and uplifted by the goodness of our people. I have been blessed to represent this nation we love. And I will always be honored to carry a title that means more to me than any other — citizen of the United States of America."

That last sentence is gratifyingly humble in its lifting up of the status of "citizen" above that of "president". It's a fine and unusual declaration of democratic values. I find it odd, however, that those who proclaim that ours is a Christian Nation haven't questioned the faith and the priorities of one who ranks the title of "citizen" higher than that of "Christian" or "follower of Jesus".

The slogan "God and country" so often comes out as "Country and God" Patriotism, in the sense of a simple fondness for one's home country and culture, is a benign-enough emotion but when nationalistic fervor elevates it to supreme status, it usurps the place that the faithful are supposed to reserve for their religious commitments.

"Put not your trust in princes" is a well-known Biblical warning (Psalms 146 and 118) against faith in the power of the state and its rulers. Faith in the self-proclaimed greatness of one's country and the self-proclaimed goodness of one's people is similarly suspect. We are, after all, despite the familiarity of our country's places and routines, describable as sojourners in a strange land, a phrase rooted in the books of Genesis, Exodus, and Leviticus (with an echo in the Letter to the Hebrews}.

Sojourners have to keep a wary and critical eye on their strange and possibly dangerous surroundings. But comfortable familiarity with seemingly 'normal' ways dulls the analytical and critical capacities, thus clouding the sojourners' discernment of their true way. The acceptance of the 'normal' makes it easier to avoid the conflicts that are inherent in the relationship between Jesus and Caesar, between non-violence and violence, between justice and exploitation.

I have to conclude that there's hypocrisy and sin in a patriotism that puts country first. Loving your home is fine, but it's not the thing of ultimate value. Thinking of it as a fine mansion when it has many of the characteristics of a tenement is delusional. And destructive of faith -- and of the country, too.