05 July 2015

This Lively Experiment

2 Corinthians 12: 1-10

6th Sunday after Pentecost
5th July 2015

“If I must boast,” wrote Paul, “I will boast of the things that show my weakness" (2 Cor. 11:30).  This was Paul’s response to those in the Corinthian church that questioned some of his theological claims and, therefore, questioned his authority. He didn’t respond to them by reasserting his position, authority, or experience. Instead, being faithful to his conscience he offered a counter-intuitive argument. If charged with having a boastful spirit, let the judge declare him guilty; guilty, not for boasting of his strengths, but of his weaknesses.

That’s not the kind of argument we’re used to hearing. It’s not what we expect. It’s irrational, even counter-cultural, boasting of weakness instead of strength. Boasting of strength, we know what that means. Heck, we’ve done it ourselves.

But boasting in weakness? Where are the bombastic displays celebrating weakness?  Or, what about glorifying, worshipping weakness? Where are we freely exposing our weaknesses, being grateful for them? 

Yet, this is precisely the way Paul responds to his accusers. He didn’t want to puff himself up. We know that Paul was given a “thorn in the flesh” precisely to keep him from being too elated. We’re not sure what this “thorn” actually was; it was probably an eye condition. Something.  Three times he asked the Lord to remove it. Each time he heard back, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9).

There it is again, this counter-intuitive, irrational response. It’s not the way the world works.  Instead, we hear that God’s grace is sufficient, which means that everything else can be insufficient and still be okay. Power is made perfect in weakness, which means that God’s display of power is known most profoundly not in times or expressions of brute force or strength but in those moments when we acknowledge our weakness, our frailty, our fragility. Paul takes this approach, not because strength is inherently bad (it’s not), but because he knows that when we think our strength and individual resources are sufficient, there’s no perceived need for God’s grace. If we rely upon our strength, we effectively move God out of the picture. When we are counting on our own resources and wisdom, then we push God to the side. Why does Paul boast in his weakness? “So that the power of Christ [that is, not his power] may dwell in me” (2 Cor. 12:9).

There it is again, this counter-intuitive move, this irrational, paradoxical, counter-cultural maneuver: we are strongest, with the power of Christ at work within us, when we are at our weakest. When we are weak and acknowledge that we are weak, fragile, frail, insufficient, then we can open up to the sufficiency of God’s grace; when we confess our need, our lack, then we can be open to what God will provide, what God will give.

Paul can even make this profound claim, “I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities.” And he experienced them all. Why does he say this?  Not to be a martyr, but for the sake of Christ. Because, he says, “…whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10).  Paul’s statement here reflects the insights of an extremely mature person of faith. You don’t come to this kind of wisdom easily, and it’s not found in books. You can’t teach this to someone; you can’t learn it in church school or discover it from listening to a sermon. It’s the kind of personal knowledge one comes to know through experience—through suffering, pain, hardship.

Needless to say, this understanding of weakness and strength has never been well received by Christians or the Church, particularly when the Church gets enticed by political, economic, and cultural power. The Church wants to be “strong,” we want to have influence, power, authority, we want to be big and influential, we want to be liked, and in our long history we’ve had plenty of low moments when the Church sold its soul for the sake of being “popular”.

And, yet, weakness exuding strength remains at the heart of the Christian confession.  There’s no way around this. It’s a weakness we don’t eagerly embrace because we would rather replace weakness with strength; or hide our weakness behind a persona or mask of strength. Never let anyone see you weak, we often hear.  Always be strong. But that’s not the Christian way; despising weakness can actually be anti-Christ.

In 1888, the philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) wrote a scathing polemic against Christianity, entitled The Anti-Christ. This son of a Lutheran pastor, Nietzsche saw the nineteenth century expression of Christianity as the source of all that was wrong in the world. He asked, “What is good?­­­–All that heightens the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself in man. What is bad?­­­­–All that proceeds from weakness. What is happiness? –The feeling that power increases…Not contentment, but more power; not peace at all, but war; not virtue, but proficiency, … The weak and ill-constituted shall perish: first principle of our philosophy….  What is more harmful than any vice? Active sympathy for the ill-constituted and weak—Christianity.[1] All this from a man who saw actively caring for the weak in society as a weakness, a weakness that had to be overcome, with the weak removed from society. Is it any wonder that Nietzsche was suspicious of democracies and the poster-child of Hitler’s Germany?

I share this to form a sharp contrast with the vision our founders aspired to realize for this nation, this “lively experiment” in democracy that we celebrate this weekend. This experiment has to do with freedom, of course, and the degree to which a government will allow its people freedom to draft its Constitution, elect its leaders, acknowledge unalienable rights, equal rights for the strong and the weak, the rich and the poor, those with influence and authority and those without, provide freedom of the individual to pursue happiness as one so chooses happiness, providing it does not incur harm on others, freedom to believe or not. (These rights, however, did not extend to all people at that time, as we sadly know.)

“Lively experiment” was the way King Charles II (1630-1685) described his charter to the Rhode Island colony in 1663: “…that it is much on their hearts (if they may be permitted), to hold forth a livlie experiment…with a full libertie in religious concernement….” Is it possible for people to live with free expression and religious freedom? Since then, these two items have been inseparable. There was no freedom of religion and therefore no freedom of expression anywhere in the colonies (or the Christian world, for that matter) at that time. Rhode Island was the first place in history where no established faith and full freedom to practice any faith or no faith at all was put into practice.[2]

Roger Williams (1603-1683) considered the Massachusetts Bay colony “corrupt” because it mixed church and state. Williams demanded a “wall of separation” between the state and the church”—as Williams first said it, later quoted by Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)— in order to guard the “garden of the church” from the “wilderness of the world.”  During his trial Williams ensured his condemnation by affirming religious freedom, “soul liberty,” as Williams put it, for every person. He wanted Rhode Island to be “a haven for the cause of conscience.”[3]

While we join Americans across this nation celebrating our liberties and freedoms, as Christians we also need to celebrate and give thanks to God—not because the founders were Christian, many were, but not all and some were even antagonistic to orthodox Christianity, such as Jefferson—for religious freedom, because religious freedom, separation of church and state, is intricately connected to the larger concept of political freedom that we celebrate this weekend. Religious liberty led the way to liberty for all. How we make space for those who believe or don’t believe informs the way we come to make space for our fellow citizens in this republic on a variety of issues.  However, this is always a precious, fragile undertaking. It’s a delicate dance.

Even after signing the Declaration of Independence, and well after the formation of the Constitution, the question of religious freedom was still in question. Religious freedom wasn’t granted here because it was a noble, radical, or progressive idea (which it was and still is) but because no religious group was strong enough to establish and enforce religion in America. The Anglicans were the majority in Virginia and just barely tolerated Presbyterians. (If you go to Colonial Williamsburg, there’s only one parish church, Bruton Parish, which is Episcopal. The Presbyterians worshipped in a meetinghouse and were not allowed to call their gathering space a church. In Alexandria, VA, the Presbyterian church is still known as the Old Presbyterian Meeting House.)  Presbyterians were a majority in New Jersey (yay, New Jersey).  The Congregationalists held sway in New England. Because religious traditions were equally weak they had to make space for everyone. The only way to ensure religious freedom for all the groups in America (and there were many) was to guarantee it for all the other groups.[4]  Later, Thomas Jefferson, in his famous Letter to the Virginia Baptists in 1808, wrote, “We have solved by fair experiment the great and interesting question whether freedom of religion is compatible with order in government and obedience to laws.” Jefferson wanted a wall to protect the state from the church; Roger Williams wanted a wall to protect the church from the state.

But have we really “solved” it? This “lively experiment,” this uniquely American experiment, cannot be taken for granted. The Constitution might guarantee religious freedom, but there are always forces at work that want to take it away, to chip it away. The experiment continues and it’s very fragile, very weak.  We need to be wary of those who claim the strength and authority to assert one religious view in American society at the expense of the weak. We need to be wary of traditionalist/conservative forces that want to form a theocracy here and progressive/liberal forces that want to take away religious rights. A government of the people cannot make the minority suffer at the hands of the majority.

Now, you might be wondering where I’m going with all of this. There’s not a direct correlation between what Paul is talking about and what I’m trying to say. John Witherspoon (1723-1794), a Presbyterian minister and signer of the Declaration of Independence from New Jersey, said, “Never rise to speak till you have something to say; and when you have said it, cease.” So, I will say this, and then cease.

The Christian way that honors weakness allows us to be weak, and thereby calls us to protect the weak because of what God might be saying and doing through them. This Christian idea, eventually leads to the democratic idea. And this idea, this experiment is, itself, fragile—and needs to be preserved.

This lively, uniquely American experiment elevates “individual conscience,” which is what Paul was staking his claim on, speaking with conviction about his experience and being faithful to his conscience.  One of the things I most cherish about being Presbyterian is that our polity is designed to preserve the liberty of the conscience, to ensure that nothing binds the conscience of another, for “God alone is Lord of the conscience.”[5]  It also means that we need to make space for the minority voice within the body of Christ. The individual, whenever compared with the power and influence of the collective, or “the crowd,” as Kierkegaard (1813-1855) warned, or “the herd,” as Nietzsche termed it, is extraordinarily weak indeed. That’s why we need to preserve the rights of the individual and make space for the minority.

The U. S. Supreme Court’s decision last Friday concerning marriage equality is a case in point.  Their decision affects a very small minority in our society. While there are those who want to reject that decision on religious grounds, and there are plenty who support this decision on religious grounds, the decision was not about religion or faith.  The ruling made space for the minority, ensuring equal rights under the law.  

In order to preserve the liberty of the individual conscience, which is a Reformed idea that goes back to John Calvin’s (1509-1564) Geneva, (which was not a theocracy but a city for religious refugees from across Europe persecuted for their beliefs), we need a government that celebrates and, at its best, “protects the autonomy and liberty of the individual. Here the state limits itself. [And the] state protects the rights of the minority from the convictions of the majority, even though the majority doesn’t like it.”[6]

John Buchanan, former moderator of the General Assembly, one of the great preachers and leaders of our denomination makes this point, “At our best we have understood that individual rights are at the heart of this experiment and that individuals are protected, nurtured, cared for, that because God is sovereign and all people are children of God, there are no unimportant people, no throw away people.”[7]

Every generation has to work hard to ensure the rights and freedom of all people within American society. We are truly “strong,” in a biblical sense of the term, when the weak are cared for and respected, and when minorities are protected and given a voice. This is, perhaps, America’s greatest strength and the greatest gift, of many, which we give to the world.  Maybe, just maybe, Paul had something to do with all of this and maybe even Calvin.

[1] Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols/The Anti-Christ, R. J. Hollingdale, trans. (New York: Penguin Books, 1944), 114-115.
[2] The Maryland colony (Terra Maria, as it was known) was charted with religious toleration for Catholics and Protestants in 1632. The 1649 religious toleration act was limited to Trinitarian Christians in Maryland but did not grant the freedom not to believe. In 1650, Reformed Christians outlawed Catholicism and Anglicanism in Maryland.
 [3] See Barbara Vowell’s editorial, “A Plantation to be Proud Of,” New York Times, July 5, 2009, www.nytimes.com/2009/07/05/opinion/05vowell.html?scp=2&sq=rhode%20island&st=cse.
[4] See Sidney E. Mead, The Lively Experiment: The Shaping of Christianity in America (New York: Harper & Row, 1963), 16ff.
[5]The Westminster Confession of Faith states, “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in anything contrary to his Word, or beside it, in matters of faith or worship.” “Therefore we consider the rights of private judgment, in all matters that respect religion, as universal and unalienable: We do not even wish to see any religious constitution aided by the civil power, further than may be necessary for protection and security, and at the same time, be equal and common to all others.” (F-3.0101). Historic Principles of Church Order, Book of Order, Presbyterian Church (USA).
[6] John Buchanan, “Knowing Whom to Obey,” Sermon preached at Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago, IL, July 2, 2000.
[7] John Buchanan.

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