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“In God We Trust” — But Which One?

It’s printed right there, on U.S. currency: “In God We Trust.” Is that true? If so, which god would that be? The one worshiped by the Sikhs who were gunned down in Wisconsin? The one worshiped at First Baptist Church of Oak Creek, just down the street from where the Sikhs were killed? Are these one and the same “God”?

In 1956, the 84th Congress of the United States passed legislation, signed by President Eisenhower, that changed the official motto of this country from e pluribus unum (“out of the many, one”) to “In God We Trust.”

This is a rich vein of material to mine for theologians, but everyone in the U.S. needs to pay attention to this, whether citizen, green-card holder, atheist, conservative Christian, cultural Jew, observant Muslim, and so many more. Much depends on how people understand this motto, and not just for internecine religious debates, but for crafting social policy, engaging with our political process, navigating cultural differences, and nurturing interpersonal relationships – everything, in other words.

I care about this for at least two interrelated reasons: 1) how to promote critical and constructive theological thinking in Christian communities about what we mean by “God”; and 2) how conceptions of “God” shape our common life in an increasingly diverse nation like the United States.

These are huge concerns, and a single blog post can’t possibly address them adequately. Here I want to make just one point and expand on it later in future posts.

Here’s the point: The God who is everywhere in general tends to be nowhere in particular.

I know that sounds woefully abstract, so let me back up a bit. That point began to gestate when I was young and saw, for the first time, Cecil B. DeMille’s wildly extravagant film The Ten Commandments. The burning bush, the pillar of flame, the boiling mountaintop – of all these rather campy film effects awakened my desire to find God somewhere and not just vaguely everywhere.

I grew up in a religious tradition (Evangelical Christian) that stressed what I like to call the “OmniGod” – this is the Creator God who is omnipresent (everywhere), omniscient (all-knowing), omnipotent (all-powerful), and omnibenevolent (all loving). I was taught this from a very early age. God was, one might say, ambient to the culture of my youth, something like the fluoride added to the water supply by the government – unseen, tasteless, but helpful in the long run.

Eventually, I found that “always-everywhere” but “nowhere-in-particular” deity rather unsatisfying, and also a bit ironic. The conservative Christianity of my youth likewise stressed the incarnation of that God in a particular person, Jesus of Nazareth.

I take that emphasis on incarnation as a clarion call to pay attention to the concrete and the particular as much as if not more than the general and the abstract. This matters in a religiously and culturally diverse nation like the United States, and for at least two reasons.

The Risk of Religious Monopoly
The God who is generally everywhere but nowhere in particular can tempt a religious community to claim exclusive access to the God in whom everyone should place one’s trust. This can lead to the particular, and therefore limited understanding of one religious tradition monopolizing all the other others. A religious monopoly invites hubris rather than humility; it invites hierarchical control rather than shared inquiry; and it invites spiritual practice that is more akin to a museum exhibition than a living tradition. A religious monopoly can also quickly spill over into a cultural monopoly, as the latest wave of anti-immigration energy in the U.S. suggests.

The Risk of Homogenous Communities
If God is generally everywhere but nowhere in particular, then diversity becomes a big problem to solve rather than a huge gift to embrace. Differences of opinion must be silenced and subsumed under one broad banner; divergent approaches are treated as threats to uniformity; faith communities become isolated silos or religious versions of a gated community.

If God really is generally present everywhere, then God will show up in all sorts of particular places we might not expect, in traditions that our not our own, and always, as the Hebrew prophet Isaiah declared, ready to do a “new thing” (Is. 43:19; 65:17).

As a Christian, I find in Jesus Christ the patterns, rhythms, sensibilities, and insights that I believe I should seek wherever and whenever I’m looking for God, whether I find God in “Christian” settings or not.  And when I do believe I’ve found something of God in non-Christian settings and people, that insight could well revise what I think about Jesus.

A religious monopoly afraid of diversity, by contrast, sits perilously poised on the brink of idolatry. Stamping a religious declaration on money suggests the same thing about a nation.

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Soul Sickness and Domestic Terror

I can’t get the words of an old African-American spiritual out of my head:

“There is a balm in Gilead, to heal the sin-sick soul.”

Those words came to me yesterday morning as I read about the mosque in Joplin, Missouri that had been burned to the ground overnight, apparently because of arson. This is the same mosque that was damaged by an arsonist earlier this summer (on the Fourth of July, no less).

That old spiritual keeps coming back to me as we learn more about the terrorizing of worshiping Sikhs outside of Milwaukee over the weekend, just two weeks after Batman movie-goers were gunned down in a Colorado theater.

It’s time we recognize all of these as just the latest symptoms of a serious societal sickness in the United States. Whether this sickness is treatable or proves to be fatal to the soul of this nation will depend in large measure on our collective willingness to diagnose it and to speak truthfully about its consequences.

Whatever we might learn about the perpetrators of these acts of violence will matter less than whether we can address what truly ails us as a society. Whoever is elected President this November needs to stand up in January during the State of the Union Address and be perfectly frank: “The state of our union is not good.” And here are just two of the reasons he could cite.

Money Buys Truth
What would you do with $6 billion? Corporations and lobbying groups will spend at least that much buying this year’s presidential election. But the real cost is truth-telling.

Politicians won’t speak the truth for fear of losing corporate money and most people don’t even want to hear the truth because it would mean changing the way we live. Most of us don’t want to hear about where our computers are made, how our food is raised, what petrocarbons do to the environment, who foots the bill for legislation, and why white supremacy still shapes nearly every one of our cultural institutions.

A project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center recently noted that the 2012 presidential campaign is on track to be the most deception-laden of all. An NPR story from a few months ago suggests that fiercely partisan divisions aren’t going away any time soon. This means in part that what we really need right now likely won’t happen: grown-up conversations about gun violence and racism.

Untreated Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
I remember vividly where I was when the twin towers fell. Even today, I tend to look up with a twinge of anxiety when I hear a low-flying plane in the San Francisco Bay Area. That is surely mild compared to the post-trauma symptoms of New Yorkers.

While I’m a big fan of “retail therapy,” I hardly think that keeping New York’s Fifth Avenue shops open for business after the 9/11 attacks suffices to address the trauma of terror.

The virulent anti-immigration rhetoric over the last ten years bears witness to our collective post-traumatic stress disorder. All “foreigners” are suspect, especially if they don’t speak English, or have dark skin, and even more especially if they wear turbans. (Read this excellent commentary about guns, white men, and madness.)

(Wade Page, the shooter in Wisconsin, sported a 9/11 tattoo and had been tracked for years by the Southern Poverty Law Center for his involvement in white supremacist groups.)

This could be an occasion to address not only post-9/11 trauma but the longer traumatic legacy of African slavery and economic stratification. Something has gone terribly awry when white people among the working poor are unable to make common cause with African-Americans among the working poor – this is the classic “wedge” that politicians have learned to exploit with corporate money.

People are traumatized. People are fearful and anxious. Way too many people can’t put food on their tables. These hard realities are mapped to race, to color, to language, to culture, and, sadly, to turbans. We must find a way to talk about this.

So how might we begin to diagnose even these two symptoms? Christian traditions (among others) have a word for it: sin.

Self-styled liberal Christians shy away from this, but I think it’s time to name it. I don’t mean the rightly caricatured “Santa Claus God” who checks his list to see who’s been naughty or nice. I mean instead how both the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Testament treat “sin” as anything that prevents the full flourishing of life and relationships, which the Creator intended for all.

Back in the 19th century a religious philosopher/theologian, Soren Kierkegaard, described the human condition as a “sickness unto death.” This sickness results from the self’s turning inward on itself instead of outward, in relation. This, Kierkegaard said, leads to a spiral of despair, and surely today we are on that brink.

Some indigenous peoples in North America referred to the same thing as “soul sickness.” That’s how they made sense of their encounter with Europeans, whose obsession with private property and their inability to share what they had with others perplexed them. The Chippewa had a cure for this soul sickness: organizing your community for the sake of the common good.

Treating the tragedies in Aurora, Oak Creek, and Joplin as isolated incidents of potentially mentally unstable individuals only perpetuates our denial. We need to name our collective illness before we can find healing.

Surely faith communities can help facilitate those conversations, and not merely for naming what ails us. Surely leaders from all of our religious traditions could stand together, put aside doctrinal bickering, and bear witness to solidarity, and thus to a vision of hope, of the possibility of healing, and of a way to live together differently. Surely now is the time.

There is a balm in Gilead, to make the wounded whole;
there is a balm in Gilead, to heal the sin-sick soul.