Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Compatriots in the District

The cool slang for Washington, D.C., is "the District."

This morning, before my last session at the conference, I finally made it down to the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial. With very full days of listening to academic papers (my new friend Dan Greeson has a good list of them), I've not had as much time to see "the District" as I would on a more leisurely trip. That said, I have wanted to visit these sites ever since reading about them in an article in a 1960's era National Geographic that I read as a kid. {Digression: In my parents' house we had hundreds of these old magazines, going back to the 40s - a wall of yellow. Every night, before bed, I would pick one at random and carefully page through it, reading whatever interested me. I always liked the old car adds in the front, and the black and white military school classified in the back.} I'm pretty sure this is how I picked up a lot of my trivia. In any case, this particular article was written by a young Sikh man {strangely he was from Burma and knew then U.N. Secretary General, U Thant.} This guy travelled around the States in a little campervan, recording his journey in photos as he went. As a ten-year-old, I greatly admired his spontaneity.

I called Krista and we got to visit through digital particles and soundwaves floating through the late November brightness here this morning. As I approached the Lincoln Memorial, I thought of this great man that I know mainly through Elton Trueblood's book Abraham Lincoln: Theologian of American Anguish. I also thought of how much it resembles a classical pagan temple, right down to the statue of Lincoln seated inside. Then I saw the sign above his head, which reads:

"IN THIS TEMPLE /
AS IN THE HEARTS OF THE PEOPLE /
FOR WHOM HE SAVED THE UNION /
THE MEMORY OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN /
IS ENSHRINED FOREVER."

Several of the papers this weekend dealt with theology's relationship to the political.

I have always been struck by the religious nature of public life in the United States. Is it in spite of or because of "the separation of Church and State" that this country is so religious? When Karl Barth came to the States in the early 1960s, it was precisely the nation's deeply religious character that stood out to him. "I can see that in every way you are very religious," (Acts 17.22).

We talked as I walked up to the temple precinct. 1 Corinthians 8-11 flashed into my mind. Thankfully, there were no hot-dog carts in site, so I didn't have to worry about meat being offered to the idol; I did, however, accidentally kick over a travel mug of coffee that someone had left unattended. I'm hoping that this doesn't count as latreia? Krista asked, "Do Americans worship their Presidents, or something?" Touring these monuments you might get that impression. I felt as though I might as well have been in Delphi or Ephesos or somehting. Of course, there is a historical tradition of a quasi-imperial cult in the American republic. It was also in National Geographic that I first saw the painting "The Apotheosis of George Washington" by Constantino Brumidi. It is not surprising that this fresco was painted in 1865, at the conclusion of the Civil War and the year of the death of America's 'Messiah'-president, Lincoln. We should also be aware, as the Apostle was, as Barth was, that it is in the most religious societies that there exists the greatest tendancy and temptation towards idolatry. True worship of the true God is the only antidote.

Don't get me wrong. In good ole' Methodist fashion, my heart was 'strangely warmed' at these monuments this morning. As I entered into the naos of the Lincoln Memorial, I suddenly remembered that today is the the Feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple. But this was not all. I discovered that I was truly on hallowed ground. I soon found the spot where Dr. King gave uttered the words, "I have a dream..." Just down the steps, on the same day, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez sang "With God on Our Side".

In a many dark hour
I've been thinkin' about this
That Jesus Christ
Was betrayed by a kiss
But I can't think for you
You'll have to decide
Whether Judas Iscariot
Had God on his side.

So now as I'm leavin'
I'm weary as Hell
The confusion I'm feelin'
Ain't no tongue can tell
The words fill my head
And fall to the floor
If God's on our side
He'll stop the next war.


Most of us have many idolatries. In the precincts of national memory, I was challenged to wrestle with some of my own. I hope that the theological reflection on the political will bear good fruit.

In any case, I was also pleased to meet some fellow Canadians at the monuments.

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5 Comments:

Blogger Mimi said...

Bwahahahahaha, didn't expect the geese!

Very wonderful reflections. May you have a blessed rest of the trip.

10:40 AM  
Blogger Eric said...

Matt,

I appreciate your reflections. I'm especially glad that your heart was strangely warmed.

I am fond of America and deeply appreciate the heights of American culture.

I wonder, if I was an American, if I could be seduced by the National Idol. It strikes me that the overtly religious character of the monuments, the state, the presidency, and the washed history mitigates against its seducing power. No one really believes that Washington is a god, for example.

Another temple that I found more dangerous was Westminster Abbey. Here, again, a line needed to be drawn between patriotism and idolatry. When I saw an abbey hidden under the weight of so many corpses, my heart was strangely constricted. And afterwards I seemed to see St. Georges standard the moment I walked into an Anglican Church. The will of the state made that church; and you cannot separate the head from the body.

But, again, not my idol, not my problem.

So, what is my idol?

I think i'll go to bed now, take an antidote of true worship, and go to sleep.

10:31 PM  
Blogger Simply Victoria said...

in part of Fr. Lawrence's homily last sunday he talked about the false idol of nationalistic pride. I do catch myself, sometimes, rearing a little too much "I am Canadian" hubris, especially after reports of more US blunders in Iraq, but it was good to be remined that all nations will fall, and every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess, that Jesus Christ is Lord.

1:48 PM  
Blogger jaime said...

I went to Washington, D.C. as a high schooler and loved all the national monuments. I think for me it was the physical connection to the past that I loved, especially having grown up in the home of a history buff and reading all his books. Also, the East Coast has a much more palpable connection the American history than the West Coast.

4:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice to meet you too. I appreciate your reflections that I've read here and will stop by again. All the best!

8:19 AM  

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