Meditation on Psalm 144

The faith of the Bible is a faith that admits struggle, battle and war.

In my last few posts here I have touched on the theme of spiritual warfare.  I didn’t set out to do that; I’m just following the Psalms, by number, day by day, and then writing my reactions and observations.   But that same theme is expressed in trumpet blasts in the first couple of verses in this morning’s psalm:

Blessed be the Lord my strength, which teacheth my hands to war, and my fingers to fight:

My goodness and my fortress; my high tower and my deliverer; my shield, and he in whom I trust; who subdueth my people under me.

Wow.  This ain’t Buddhism.  But before we go loading up on armor-piercing ammunition, let’s remember that the fight is different today than it was in David’s time.  Today our enemy is not the Philistines.  In fact, today’s enemy is not even “flesh and blood” but, rather, is spiritual.  I’m beginning to sound like a broken record on this point, I know, but Paul tells us, time and again, that we fight not against flesh and blood but against the “rulers, authorities, and powers” (Here is a little aside that just occurred to me:  will the rising generation, that has not grown up listening to vinyl records, even get that last, listening to a broken record allusion?)

These “rulers and authorities and powers” are spiritual; they are, as Paul puts it, “spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”  Ahem.  Wow.  This looks pretty spooky, even Stephen Kingish.  But the Bible, particularly the New Testament, is not shy at all about recognizing that there are powers out there who have earthly institutions in their thrall that are strong and determined and evil and a threat to our lives and well-being.

And because today our enemy is different from the enemy of David’s day, our weapons and strategy will, accordingly, be different also.  If you’ve spent much time in church, you will be familiar with Paul’s description of the Christian’s weaponry that immediately follows the passage about the spiritual forces of evil.  You might even remember some of them – the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith, the sword of the Spirit. . . .  The danger is that we hear these things so many times that they become cliché to us and we might not think much about what they mean – what they actually mean for us, day by day.

I have been watching the Masterpiece production “Wolfe Hall” for the past month or so.  It’s a British made television series – about five or six hours, all told – about the reign of Henry VIII, way back in the 16th century.  His reign is significant for many reasons, not the least of which is the separation of the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church.  Henry ordered this because he wanted a divorce from Anne Boleyn and the pope would not give it to him.  That is a mere political power struggle in terms of the real motives of Henry and probably in terms of many of the men of that day who opposed him. Normally, such struggles don’t outlive their contestants.   You know that story.  Remember what The Who said about such things: “Meet the new boss; same as the old boss.”  Remember what Shelley said about the great Ozymandias.

But Henry‘s personal battles – his egotistic drive for the endurance of his dynasty – happened to coincide with other things that were happening in the neighborhood at the time.  One such thing was The Reformation.  I am a Protestant Christian.  I have unfettered access to the scriptures in my own language and I am not beholden to priests, popes and councils.  I have heard the Gospel, and I know the freedom that results from His all-sufficient grace.  As Wolfe Hall presents the story – and as I have heard of it from other sources – the official church in Henry’s day fought tooth and nail against all of these spiritual blessings that I enjoy.

I know that there are many who would disagree with this; who would say that I am being too hard on the Catholic church.  Well.  Let’s look at a few cold facts.  The two men who were principally responsible for the translation of the Bible into English – Tyndale and Wycliffe – were both executed.  The defenders of the Roman Catholic Church might argue that these murders were actually carried out not by the Church itself, but by the State.  Technically true.  It was the state that had the power to execute criminals.  But the Catholic Church was the moving force behind these killings, just like the religious establishment in Judea was behind the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.  And the motives were remarkably similar.  In all three instances, the persecutors were motivated by fear – by fear that the true Gospel message would undermine their power; would undermine the privilege of the established elites and the hold they had over the lower classes.

In fact, these dynamics remind me of a story from my days as a Federal prosecutor.  I had the privilege to work alongside another AUSA who was able (a Harvard grad) and energetic.  He came to my State in Appalachia and worked tirelessly to root out the official corruption that had held sway in some of the southern counties for generations.

His work came to fruition in the long-term incarceration of the political bosses of both factions in one of the counties.  One of the established institutions of the corrupt powers in that county was the manipulation of elections.  Votes were bought and paid for.  Ballot boxes were stuffed.  Ballots marked in the “wrong way” were lost and left uncounted.  Even worse, the factions in that county had a so-called “slate” system whereby a candidate bought his or her way onto a list published by the faction and distributed to the ward healers and then to the masses instructing them on how to vote if they wanted their ten bucks or their streets cleared in the winter.

The first election held in the county after the two top political bosses were jailed resulted in an unusual conversation.  In that county, the editor of the only newspaper there had been something of an informant for the government during the long investigations of the bosses.  (He is long dead, now, so there are no worries about harm coming to him.)   On Election Day, one of the low-level ward healers – a loyal member of one of the corrupt factions – came running in to the editor’s office, breathless and beside himself.  “You’re not going to believe this [John].   I’ve never seen anything like it.  People are just out there voting for whoever they want to!”

Another mark of the mentality of corruption in the southern counties of my State came from the mayor of a small town there who, after pleading guilty, was asked why he acted corruptly to get himself elected.  “Things just run better when I’m in charge,” he said.

The notion behind the corruption in both 20th century rural America and 16th century England is the same:  those common people cannot be trusted to do the right thing.  The masses cannot think for themselves.  In there with that bit of twisted philosophy is the pure corruption of power that Lord Acton warned of:  those in power want to stay in power.  They love the status and the privilege.  They want to continue to call the shots and leave the work to others.

Here’s another thing this Wolfe Hall drama taught me.  One of the big players in the drama of Henry’s court and reign was a cat named Thomas More.  Sir Thomas More at that time.  Saint Thomas More today, according to the wisdom of the Roman Catholic Church.

This was not the first time I’d ever heard of Thomas More.  In fact, while I was practicing law, the Catholic Lawyer’s society organized a special service annually to mark the beginning of the term of court and ostensibly to ask God’s blessing on the work we engaged in.  The group went out of their way to make sure that all of us – even us Protestants – were invited to the service.  It was called the “Red Mass,” and the patron Saint of it all was Thomas More

I seriously considered attending.  It sounded kind of right and, you know, ecumenical, and the work we did certainly needed God’s blessing.  But there was a charge for attending.  That’s right.  You had to buy a ticket to get in.  My Protestant soul simply would not allow me to pay a fee to attend a church service and now, after I have watched Wolfe Hall, I’m glad I never participated.

You see, Thomas More murdered Protestants, because they were Protestants.

His defenders will argue against that proposition.   I’ve already mentioned their first defenses – it was the State and not the Church that actually beheaded people and burned them at the stake.  Oh, by the way, Wolfe Hall depicts the burning of a Protestant named John Bainbridge.  Thomas More, according to the TV drama, was up to his neck in this one.  The drama also shows More torturing Bainbridge on the rack until Bainbridge recants his Protestant professions.  (Bainbridge later recanted this recantation and persisted in his Protestant professions until More had him burned.)  I don’t know how historically accurate this scene is, but if it is not accurate, it is a terrible and gratuitous slander of More.  I tend to believe that it is true.  I don’t know why the writers would have made it up.  You can read a pretty fair account of the several tortures and murders that More presided over in this blog post.

In that post, we see a quote from Pope John Paul II:

It can be said that he [More} demonstrated in a singular way the value of a moral conscience… even if, in his actions against heretics, he reflected the limits of the culture of his time“.

Well, yes.  The culture of his time.  He tortured and burned Protestants, but hey, everybody was doing it back then.  But should this not be a standard for canonization:  That is, that “Saints” are those rare people who precisely do not reflect the limits of the culture of their time?  That Saints live and know the Gospel and the way of the cross of Christ and live that life out despite and in contradiction to the “limits of the culture of their time?”  No matter what it costs them.

Thomas More burned and tortured men (those John Paul II dismisses as “heretics”) for holding to Christian doctrines that the Catholic Church now accepts!  As the above-linked blogger asserts, today’s Catholic Church is closer in doctrine to the reformation creeds that Bainbridge and others espoused than it is to the 16th Century Catholic Church.

It is very hard for me to accept the notion that More was a man who knew Jesus Christ and walked faithfully with the one who told Peter to put away his sword.  How could anyone who intimately knew and obeyed the one who bore the cross at the hands of the government and the religious establishment think that violent coercion could be carried out in His name?

I can accept the idea that More was faithful to the established church of his day and that he believed himself righteous in holding to his conviction that Henry should not have his divorce and refusing to recognize Henry as the head of the Church.  But I cannot get away from the notion that this was all – or at least mainly –about power, about political power. About the very kind of power that the scriptures instruct is not ours to wield.  And it is hard to completely dismiss the idea that the Roman Catholic Church’s canonization on More is based at least in part on the fact that More defended the official church and its magisterial powers and not on the selfless Christlikeness of More’s life.

The instruments More employed in his so-called “saintly” life – the rack, the screw, the torch (all of which Bin Laden and his ilk would approve of)  – are not, indeed are the opposite of, those weapons that the scriptures tell us are those of the Christian.  More may have been in some sense a martyr, but it cannot be ignored that he created martyrs.  Six of them, it looks like.

More did his level best to keep the scriptures inaccessible to the masses; perhaps he should have paid more attention to them himself.

As John Paul the Second said, More was a product of the [corrupt] culture/establishment of his day.  He was a man of that season, not a Man For All Seasons.

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