||[30 May 2011|11:43pm]
I think the Catholic habit of singing patriotic hymns on Memorial Day weekend and the first reading from Sunday (from Acts 8, the founding of the Church in Samaria, leaving out Simon Magus) form a good basis for talking about something that's been on my mind.
The Samaritans were a divergent sect from institutional Judaism which claimed to worship as the Israelites did prior to the Babylonian Exile, as handed down by people who stayed. Needless to say institutional Judaism wasn't really a fan of these people, and that rivalry is the backdrop of the story of the Good Samaritan.
It's easy to see then that going to convert Samaria is a big deal on a lot of levels: Jesus had some involvement with them, so to some extent they're continuing a project the Master started; The Jews tended to have a policy of non-intercourse, so they're violating a norm; and this is also the first mass conversion in a non-Jewish city that Acts records, so it's a big step in terms of integrating gentiles into the Church, particularly ones with gnostic wizards running about. The nascent Church becomes multicultural, a state it has been in sense, with the conversion of Samaria.
So what does that have to do with Memorial Day? I put it to you that Christians should not swear obedience to the state, nor should they celebrate it, nor should they do anything to capitulate to the modern phenomenon of nationalism, which is fundamentally contrary to the Gospel, and that the conversion of Samaria is the first concrete step toward realizing that attitude.
We hear again and again in the Fathers that Christians are by definition liminal - they are meant to be out of place in the world, because they are not citizens of the world, or any mortal power, but of the coming Kingdom of Heaven, St. Augustine's City of God. It's important to understand just how subversive a claim this was, and is: in the imagination of late antiquity, the world was ruled by supernatural powers that controlled everything, from the crops to the armies to the lives and fortunes of every person. To reject that order, the powers in the high places, was to literally reject the legitimacy of the state and the function of the cosmos. Thus Christians are not merely pilgrims, they are strangers in a hostile land - The New Israel has the world for its Babylon.
We are coming, in our own era, to understand human societies in a very similar way, without all the metaphysics. We recognize intractable, systemic poverty. We see the state as the necessary guarantor of the social order, the basis of rights, and the institution which organizes and regulates all human activity, bounded only by its own munificence. The powers of the air, the wickedness in the high places, aren't just ghosts, they're ancient names for very modern realities, and Christians are, by their baptism into the Body of Christ, no less enemies of those powers than of the demons and archons by which our fathers expressed the intractable evil at the center of mortal power. By his victory on the Cross, Jesus subjugates the oppressors of men - the first are quite literally made last, and the lowest order of creation is exalted in a direct, intimate relationship with its creator.
We know as Christians that the state is but a commonly agreed upon illusion - it exercises no authentic authority, guarantees no rights, and offers no liberty, for authentic liberty is to be free from the very power that the state embodies, and from the very evil which corrupts, and to a large extent governs, that power. We are the very pinnacle of enemies of the state, when we are truest to the Gospel, for we claim that the Emperor not only has no clothes, he has no Empire.
The only authentic unifying force, the only one which can truly claim to liberate, is Christendom, that collection of souls preparing together for the Kingdom. This is the only recourse of the poor, the only way to have the thirst for justice satisfied. To borrow from Augustine again, where there is no justice, there is no commonwealth, and mortal justice is an oxymoron.
So where does that leave Phillip and Peter as they preach in Samaria, and demonstrate the liberating power of Christ? They are doing nothing less than destroying in a few weeks one of the greatest national barriers the Jews knew, one that had stood for centuries. Samaria, then, is the world, the rest of us, waiting to be liberated and returned to our true home in the New Jerusalem. They were proving to us that Christians can accept no commonwealth but the cosmos, no reign but the Lord's. We cannot revere the nation, for the nation is a myth used to perpetuate the control of the powerful.
This is, of course, all the more startling for people who live in democracies, for it means that the power by which the Church is opposed in her mission of grace comes quite literally from ourselves. We have no king to demonize, for our sovereign, and thus our enemy, is us. It's fitting, really - the personal struggle against sin and the communal struggle of the pilgrim Church are inseparable: our repentance and our redemption and the hope for which we are called to give account, is our hope for each and for all of us.
It must be the mission of the Church to strengthen Christendom, both for its power to hold the vanity of nations in check, and for its commitment, always sought but never truly found, to authentic justice, which includes the end of poverty and war. So let no Christian grave bear any sign but the Cross, let no Christian swear to uphold the state, or the laws of our modern demons, and let no Christian forget that his allegiance is to Christ who saved him, and so to the service of all mankind. If we cannot struggle against these powers, if we cannot live as pilgrims, then what did Christ die for?