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Insurrection as Epiphany

This is a strange day, for more than one reason. For the western Christians, we celebrate the Epiphany, the manifestation of the Christ-child to the Gentile world. That world is represented by the Magi, astrologers from the far East who presented extravagant gifts to the infant Jesus.

Today is also the first anniversary of an armed insurrection against the government of the United States, which took place in this nation’s capital.

Reflecting on that national horror might deepen our appreciation for why Epiphany is a major feast of the Church, one that deserves attention, observance, and celebration. It also deserves our whole-hearted devotion—a devotion that relativizes and displaces all of the other loyalties we might otherwise harbor and even cherish.

It seems important to note first that I grew up in the heart of the Midwest, in the suburbs of Chicago, steeped equally in Evangelical Christianity and American patriotism. I loved this country back then, and I still do. What was revealed about this country a year ago is heartbreaking.

In addition to that word revealed we could say “appeared,” or “manifested,” or “shown forth.” These are all synonyms for “epiphany.”

There was an epiphany about this country a year ago: our deep divisions were revealed dramatically; a festering violence appeared and erupted; some of our fellow citizens manifested a profound disregard for the very lives of some of our elected officials, including the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the Vice-President of the United States; the fragility of democracy itself was shown forth to the world.

What do Christians want to say (if anything) about an epiphany like that, especially given the epiphany Matthew portrays in the second chapter of his account of the Gospel? Do these two epiphanies have anything at all to do with each other?

There are likely multiple responses to that question, but I think we begin by pausing for longer than we usually do and puzzling over my phrase above the Magi representing the “Gentile world.” That distinction between “Jew” and “Gentile” certainly mattered for biblical writers, but most of us don’t talk that way today. No one in my little Midwestern parish wonders whether someone might secretly be a Gentile.

So that first-century language can quickly obscure why Matthew’s story should qualify as an epiphany—and not just any epiphany. Christians refer to this encounter with the Magi as The Epiphany.

Needless to say, religion can sometimes divide and fragment communities in much the same way as race and ethnicity can, or as sexuality and gender can, and certainly as partisan politics can. The Christian Church itself has been a source of division over the centuries, even violently so.

But let us notice on this day that embedded in one of the Church’s own ancient stories from Matthew are the seeds for a very different kind of world, one in which God is not the source of what tears us apart but is rather the energy that draws us together and the balm that heals us.

Matthew—ostensibly the most “Jewish” of the four accounts of the Gospel—Matthew puts this story about the Magi right at the very beginning of his account of the Good News. Matthew is the only one of those four gospel writers to give us this story of the Magi, and with it, he would seem to be urging us to let go of any sense of ownership of this story—it belongs to no one and to everyone—and he would urge us to resist any tribal triumphalism, to surrender any privileged status we imagine ourselves to have in relation to God’s love and grace or, for that matter, because of any national origin!

“Adoration of the Magi,” He Qi

The Magi declare with their gifts an astonishing and enduring beacon of hope: God is the one who presented a gift, the gift of God’s own self to us. And the “us” leaves absolutely no one out. The offering of God’s own self is for the whole world, for all people, indeed for all of God’s creation—no exceptions.

It’s time to revise how we describe the Magi; rather than saying the Magi represent the “Gentiles,” we need to say more clearly that the Magi represent all those we never imagined would be included, or those we thought would never belong with us or we with them, and the ones who never seem quite deserving of God’s love as they turn out to be the very first ones to witness that love in the flesh.

For quite some time over the last year, I thought it rather unfortunate and quite shameful, frankly, that a violent insurrection occurred on Epiphany, spoiling the feast, tainting it, and marring its brightness.

And honestly, how terribly parochial of me! As if my own distress, my own wounded patriotism, or my own country’s bruises are the full measure of whether a religious festival can still inspire us!

Beyond any doubt, plenty of other wounds and bruises and catastrophes have landed squarely on January 6th over the centuries, whether they were personal and familial heartaches or national blunders or global disasters.

What now seems so much more plain is how perfectly appropriate for all those wounds to land on this day. And for Americans on this day, the conjunction of Epiphany and insurrection seems nearly ordained.

Because now, our need for healing has appeared more clearly, and the source of our healing has been more wonderfully revealed.

“Epiphany,” James Janknegt
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The Nation State of Idolatry

“You are a city set upon a hill.”

Many American Christians heard that from Matthew’s Jesus two weeks ago, as they sat in church (Mt. 5:14). That image of a shining city on a hill has populated the speeches of American politicians for a long time and it stretches all the way back to John Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay colony.

I freely confess to loving that bright, sparkling image of America – I love it, that is, when I agree with the policies of the political party in power.shining_city

And that’s the dolorous blow to Gospel witness that Christians must resist on this Presidents’ Day and every day. Christians have always faced a grave risk, ever since the fourth century when the Emperor Constantine apparently embraced Christian faith. American Christians seem especially vulnerable to the danger – I mean the risk of conflating triumphant nationalism with the Kingdom of God and mistaking patriotism for faithfulness to the Gospel.

America first?

No, that’s called idolatry.

I do believe Christians should be involved in the political process because we are Christians; I do believe faith communities have a stake in public policies because of our faith; and I do believe that this country’s guiding principles of liberty, equality, and justice for all express something vital about the Gospel; America might even come close to being “great” if we actually put those principles into effective practice.

And yet, I remain haunted – as every Jew, Christian, and Muslim ought to be – by the specter of idolatry lurking around every patriotic corner. William T. Cavanaugh, in his book Migrations of the Holy, presents a compelling case for why the modern nation-state generally (and not just the American version in particular) functions as a religion and is treated by many as a savior. It’s totalizing effects and demands for unqualified loyalty more than fit the bill for an idol.

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“The church must be wary of nostalgia for Constantinianism,” Cavanaugh writes. “A Christian should feel politically homeless in the current context, and should not regard the dreary choice between Democrats and Republicans, left and right, as the sum total of our political witness.” He further encourages a range of church practices to help resist the “colonization of the Christian imagination by a nation-state that wants to subordinate all other attachments to itself” (p. 5).

Practices, that is, to help us avoid falling so easily, carelessly, and deeply into idolatry.

My friend and colleague Tripp Hudgins recently posted on Facebook what he called a “lament” for this Presidents’ Day and offered a searing reminder of what our peculiar faith as Christians demands from us in relation to empires, regimes, realms, and yes, nation-states.

Tripp affirms the need and necessity for Christians to stand against “Empire” in all its guises, including the democratic vestments this country currently wears. He cautions us, though, against supposing that resistance means a peaceful transfer of power or a bloodless revolution. More pointedly, “the truth about resistance and where it has historically…led Christians is to martyrdom.”

That path swerves decidedly away, as Tripp notes, from what many American Christians would consider laudable “revolution.” Too many understand heroic duty as the overthrow of tyranny with violence and far too few in the vulnerable witness of an Oscar Romero.

Tripp concludes with a reality check, the kind that can dispel my own romanticism about living as a Christian martyr and what such a witness actually entails. “Though Empires all share the same ending,” he writes, “they do not give up their power and position without taking the innocent down with them. And the Christian standing in solidarity with the poor, the weak, the downtrodden, and the innocent will find their end in the martyrdom of solidarity.”

I cannot love this country as I once did in my enthusiastically patriotic childhood. But I can love the land, and its people, and even some of its presidents when they inspire us to welcome the stranger, the refugee, the tired, the poor, the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

I can love even the enemy, as Tripp says, “who cannot help but break your heart. Such love is the most profound Christian expression of solidarity with all creation.”

Wherever such love and solidarity are found, it seems to me, the shining city has once again been set upon a hill.