What will separate us from the love of Christ?
Will anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine,
or nakedness, or peril, or the sword?....
No, in all these things we conquer overwhelmingly
through him who loved us.
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life,
nor angels, nor principalities,
nor present things, nor future things,
nor powers, nor height, nor depth,
nor any other creature will be able to separate us
from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Romans 8:35, 37-39
you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you,
how many times I yearned to gather your children together
as a hen gathers her brood under her wings,
but you were unwilling!
Behold, your house will be abandoned.
The brothers reflected on the daily readings at Eucharist in the chapel this morning. My heart was drawn to Jesus' lament over Jerusalem, soon to be destroyed by the gnarled hands of empire. He grieves that the power of faith should yield to the power of sheer might.
The words "Jerusalem, Jerusalem" echo across the centuries and resonate in my ears as "New York, New York," or "Washington, Washington," and, most commonly, as "America, America." And why should I not hear Jesus' words thus? The European Christian settlers who came to the Western Hemisphere to found a godly commonwealth; who sought in the New World a New Jerusalem, a city on a hill whose light shined for all; who consciously styled themselves as a New Israel on a New Exodus, would tragically recapitulate the history of the ancient Israelites, whose confederacy devolved into kingdom and then satellite of worldly powers. Their spiritual descendants presided over the downward evolution as the American republic degenerated into a pseudo-Christian empire whose totality Egypt and Rome could scarcely conceive. I am reminded of the refrain from Langston Hughes' poem,
America never was America to me.
What do you do when Jerusalem becomes Rome? You abandon it. If you cannot gather its citizens and rededicate them to making Jerusalem the place they were meant to live in, then you abandon it.
Jesus may have foreseen that there was no saving Jerusalem, but in obedience to God, he was committed to trying, even to the point of dying. The Pharisees warn Jesus of Herod and his murderous intentions. Maybe they sought to threaten Jesus and so wrapped themselves in the bloody mantle of Herod. Or perhaps some of the Pharisees believed in Jesus and, loving him, tried to do the right thing by cautioning him. Either way, Jesus defiantly disregards all calls to fear for himself. Indeed, he flips fear on its head. He tells the Pharisees to report to Herod of all that he promises to do in Jerusalem and on the way. Addressing Herod as "that fox," we are left no doubt about what Jesus thinks of that servant of Caesar.
Like Jesus, Paul scoffs at the notion that any earthly or even cosmic force could thwart the will of our loving God. As he piles defeated power after defeated power in his litany, from death and life to heavenly and earthly creatures to principalities and celestial movements, it becomes almost ridiculous even to suggest that anything can surpass the power of God's love.
So how come we let all of these lesser powers hold sway all of the time? We have made peace with the lesser powers because although we suffer by them, we are afraid to live without them. And we let this fear surpass our fear of life without God. Paul notes the obstacles to God's love: anguish, distress, persecution, peril, and the sword. He names the adversaries, the principalities and powers. He does not say they are presently unable to separate us from the love of Christ. Clearly they can, and clearly they do, from Paul's day down to ours. These obstacles and adversaries are, respectively, the subjective and objective manifestation of separation from God. But Paul says he is convinced that these obstacles and adversaries no longer will be able to separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ.
This is unreservedly good news. But the disturbing subtext of Paul's affirmation is Jesus' negation: what is not joined to the love of God is abandoned. That means that quite possibly the places and things we have loved with good intentions will have to be let go, if those places and things refuse to be joined to God's love. And if we hold on too tightly to those abandoned things, we too will be abadoned.
It is sometimes hard to say this, especially to my family and friends who love their country and its way of life, but I am willing to abandon New York, Washington, and America itself so that I will always remain in union with the love of God.
But, just as Jesus loved his people and God's holy city of Jerusalem to the end, I will try to love America and its people and its cities so that our land may not be an empire of despair, but a commonwealth of hope. I remember why I entered religious life -- so that I could be gathered into places of peace where charity and justice prevail; where I could learn how to increase the presence of God's mercy and love. I can sense this victory in the work being done at Neighbors Together. I get a glimpse of the economy of grace in the fellowship of the Capuchin fraternities.
Carrying the lessons from today's Scripture to the world as it is today, I think of the people of the occupation movement. I think of their challenge to America, a New Jerusalem turned into a New Rome. They don't want the power of the corporate state. It is absolutely corrupt. Liberals who want to use the power of the corporate state to reform the political economy are mistaken. The vertical, institutional power of the corporate state must be subordinated to the horizontal, charismatic power of the people.
For a Christian, all power must be subordinated to the love and justice of God, which purifies the exercise of power. Love and justice flow from the communion of persons; these can never be the gift of institutions. The power of the people is anterior to and greater than the power of the institutions people create to serve persons.
The occupation movement has put the economic powers and the government on notice. If the power of the corporate state will not be subordinated and purified, then it must be abandoned. They refuse to let anything separate them from a love of humanity surpassing all other loves -- theirs is, I would submit, a love divine.
"Let America be America again." The fearless confidence of Jesus in the reign of God and of Paul in the Church's witness to God's reign reminds me of the ultimate refrain in the Hughes poem,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath--
America will be!