Editor’s (admin’s) Note. Second of ___ Lenten meditations based on lectionary readings on the covenants of Noah, Abraham and Moses. This one takes off from the covenant of Abraham, makes a quick stop in Puritan New England and deplanes in today’s central Illinois.
Mark 8 (NRSV) 34 [Jesus] called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel,[a] will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?
This week’s pericopes for the 2d Sunday in Lent — or, by my count in this time of pandemic, the 54th Sunday of a Lenten season that never went away last year — came at me from all directions at once, and I wanted to swat them away. The gospel is from the later chapters in Mark, at Caesarea Philippi just after St. Peter has proclaimed Jesus to be the messiah and shortly before the Transfiguration and the journey to Jerusalem, the cross and the resurrection. Take up thy cross and follow Jesus, it says. (I’m paraphrasing here and probably slipping back into the language of the King James Version I grew up with.) The Old Testament reading is from Genesis, Yahweh’s promise “an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.”
Another covenant, oh boy.
And the epistle is from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, “For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith.” And this, speaking of Abraham, “He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb.” Well, that I can relate to! If I remember correctly, Abraham and Sarah laughed out loud.
Then, a couple of days later when I was deleting old files from my hard drive, I came across a picture from the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. And things started to come into focus.
Last week I shared one of the pictures from Bethlehem, as we were discussing God’s covenant with Noah and the rainbow God showed forth as a sign of that covenant. The picture I shared last week showed a rainbow, and this week’s shows blue skies and scattering clouds over the basilica as the weather cleared.
Clearing skies? Maybe another sign.
In last week’s picture, the sky was still mostly overcast, although you could see the sun trying to peek through in the distance. In this week’s — shot from a different angle, looking back toward the basilica — the clouds have mostly scudded away.
So I’m not going to claim I’m in the habit of receiving personal coded messages from the Almighty, but I will take the clearing skies in those pictures as a sign of better days to come. That’s my covenant with myself, and I’m sticking to it.
The Old Testament covenant in this week’s pericope from Genesis is God’s covenant with Abraham, traditionally the wellspring of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim religions. Unlike Noah’s covenant, which was for all creation, this one is for the offspring of Abraham and Sarah, and its sign is male circumcision. The great ethical commandments will come later, and Yahweh’s admonition that “every male among you shall be circumcised when he is eight days old, including the slave born in your house and the one bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring” is a reminder we’re dealing with stories here that were handed down in a society very different from ours.
But this whole question of covenants keeps nagging at me, and I think it has relevance today.
For one thing, I’ve been reading a bevy of scholars and popular historians who argue our sense of what it means to be an American can be traced back to Roger Williams, John Winthrop and the Puritans of 17th-century New England. Last week, when I first realized we were going to be hearing about covenants the first three weeks of Lent, I was blogging snarkily on Winthrop’s idea that the Puritans could establish, with God’s help, a “citty on a hill” that would be a light unto the nations. But only if they didn’t screw up. That idea of covenant, and with it the trope that America is specially chosen by God, has stayed with us to the present.
I wasn’t being entirely fair to Winthrop, though. The first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, he wrote “A Modell of Christian Charity,” in which the “citty on a hill” quote appears. It struck me as dour and, well, puritanical. But there’s another side to Winthrop: He meant what he said about charity. New England was to be guided by a covenant, he said, and charity was to be a sign of the covenant. Without charity, he implied (mixing metaphors as he did it), the ship would wreck:
Now the onely way to avoyde this shipwracke, and to provide for our posterity, is to followe the counsell of Micah, to doe justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God. For this end, wee must be knitt together, in this worke, as one man. Wee must entertaine each other in brotherly affection. Wee must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of other’s necessities. Wee must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekeness, gentlenes, patience and liberality. Wee must delight in eache other; make other’s conditions our oune; rejoice together, mourne together, labour and suffer together, allwayes haueving before our eyes our commission and community in the worke, as members of the same body. Soe shall wee keepe the unitie of the spirit in the bond of peace. The Lord will be our God, and delight to dwell among us, as his oune people, and will command a blessing upon us in all our wayes.
Roger Williams also believed in the Puritan covenant, which is essentially Calvinist, but he tempered it with an absolute belief in individual “soul libertie,” as he called it, and what we now call freedom of religion. The same charity that Winthrop would extend to right-thinking Puritans who subscribed to the covenant, Williams would — and did — extend to Catholics, Jews, the Narragansett Indians who sold him the land where he established Rhode Island colony after he was banished in 1635 from Massachusetts — even to Quakers.
And he didn’t stop there. Williams wrote:
It is the will and command of God that, since the coming of his Sonne the Lord Jesus, a permission of the most Paganish, Jewish, Turkish, or Antichristian consciences and worships, bee granted to all men in all Nations and Countries.”
It amounted to a complete separation of church and state, and Williams was the first to propose it.
Williams’ and Winthrop’s ideas have reverberated down to the present. And public intellectuals as diverse as Garry Wills of Northwestern and sociologist Philip Gorski of Yale have suggested our 21st-century “culture wars” — right down to the violent assault Jan. 6 on the U.S. Capitol, and beyond — stem at least in part from an inability to balance the conflicting impulses from our Puritan heritage with the Enlightenment values — life, liberty, property, encouragement of science and useful arts — of our Founders.
I’ve been reading up on Roger Williams and Gov. Winthrop lately because I think they provide a context — what social scientists sometimes call a conceptual framework — for the research I’ve been doing on the relations between Swedish Lutheran pastors and their Congregationalist funders in the upper Midwest before the American Civil War. I feel like I’ve got pretty good handle on the historical part, the narrative. I presented a paper on it at the Illinois History Conference hosted by the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in October.
At issue was whether Swedes who wanted to join the church would first have to stand up and testify about when they had been “saved,” like at the camp meetings and noisy revivals that were so much a part of the American Protestant scene in the mid-19th century. To the Congregationalists, who were still fairly orthodox Calvinists in the 1850s, that testimony was a sign of their admission to the covenanted community of the congregation. To the Swedes, it looked like frontier Yankee bluster and foolishness.
So after a little back-and-forth, the Swedes hit on a compromise that worked out differences between their parishioners, who probably would rather have been hog-tied than stand up and testify in public, and the Congregationalists of the American Home Missionary Society, who funded the earliest Swedish congregations. Such is the American way.
But, other than that, where does the Swedish experience fit into the larger scheme of things?
As I read up more on the Puritans, the Lutherans, the separation of church and state and current trends like Christian nationalism (which I’d scarcely heard of before Jan. 6), I feel like I’m starting to get a hunch. It goes something like this: The Swedes were able to negotiate their differences with the AHMS by going back to basic Lutheran principles — specifically Luther’s idea that we are “saved” (the word he used was “justified”) at baptism. With that in mind, they could work out a hybrid policy.
Other ethnic groups negotiated similar accommodations, and I think it’s a good argument for the kind of religious diversity Roger Williams envisioned. But sociologist Andrew Whitehead, who was written widely on Christian nationalism, says that kind of accommodation and compromise is under threat today by right-wingers who believe American’s covenant has been broken by Blacks, Latinos, Democrats, non-gender conforming people and others who don’t adhere to white Christian norms.
“Christian nationalism, we find over and over again, doesn’t encourage an ability to compromise or to work together across differences or to find a common way that we can all agree on,” Whitehead said during a January interview in Salon.com. For them it’s more and more about trying to defend a particular version of religion in the public sphere. So it’s really difficult to have a pluralistic democracy, which should be founded on compromise, when increasingly Christian nationalists desire their way or nothing. So that has deep implications for our democracy.”
I think that gives legs to my research. It’s just a hunch now, not a hypothesis. (For one thing, the Congregationalists of the AHMS were anything but Christians nationalists, and were in fact ahead of their time in agreeing to fund Lutheran congregations.) But I think the way the way immigrants from Sweden adapted to an American milieu very much like our own might be instructive today. The 1850s had it all! Political polarization. Hatred of immigrants, Catholics and anyone who didn’t fit the Anglo-American Protestant norms of the day. Violent assaults in the US Capitol. Strife over moral and cultural issues like slavery. Even an epidemic, as cholera swept through Chicago and the upper Midwest in 1849, 1854, and 1866.
And as we go into the 54th week of my Lenten season, I feel like I’m starting — just starting — get a handle on it. The sudden attention to Christian nationalism since Jan. 6, which seems to me so far out of step with Roger Williams’ vision, makes it even more timely
All of which brings me back to covenants.
Abraham was 99 years old when God Almighty told him he and Sarah would have children, and their first reaction was to laugh. Ain’t gonna happen. That’s been pretty much my reaction, too, when I think about undertaking what may well turn out to be a book-length project. I’m 78 and, as my friend John Knoepfle the poet used to say, when you get as old as we are, you don’t even buy green bananas anymore. Of course John finished a series of books translating classic Chinese poetry at 95 and, as his obituary notes, “Up until the day he died he was continuing his work on a book of reminisces of Ohio and Mississippi River Boatmen, whom he interviewed many years earlier.”
And that, in turn, brings me back around to St. Paul.
In Romans, he says the covenant of Abraham isn’t a quid-pro-quo, it’s a promise. And Abraham, he adds, believed in that promise. “Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become ‘the father of many nations’.” And that, of course, is pretty much what happened.
So now, after mulling over the lectionary readings for the 2d Sunday in Lent, I’ve got a new understanding of covenant — I’m gonna put up a Post-It note in my home office like those in Bill Clinton’s campaign headquarters — “It’s the promise, stupid!” — and I’ve got a new Lenten discipline. Just thinking about plowing ahead with a massive writing project in this time of green bananas, I’ve been going through my hard drive and deleting old drafts of old manuscripts and getting ready for more writing.
So that’s my covenant, like I said, and I’m sticking to it.