I went to Church Sunday morning at the University Rockefeller Memorial Chapel. The service was excellent and I think I shall go back. It is ecumenical, which the Chapel defines as "specifically Christian, and designed to be welcoming to people of Christian denominations." Since my particular mode of worship is non-denominational Christian I felt very at home there. What was very interesting and disturbing this morning, for those of you who could care less about my church life, was the corporate prayer of confession which I shall replicate, in full, here. It is usually the sermon where the reality of sin and shame are made manifest for me. Here, a corporate prayer serves as an argument against the violence of disunity. As usual, I shall offer what I think the meaning of the prayer is.
"Merciful God, in your gracious presence we confess our sin and the sin of this world. Although Christ is among us as our peace, we are a people divided against ourselves as we cling to the values of a broken world. The profit and pleasures we pursue lay waste the land and pollute the seas. The fears and jealousies that we harbor set neighbor against neighbor and nation against nation. We abuse your good gifts of imagination and freedom, intellect and reason, and have turned them into bonds of oppression. Lord, have mercy upon us. Help us, forgive us, and set us free to serve you in the world as agents of your reconciling love in Jesus Christ. Amen."
The textual interplay of theology and description stirred my heart this morning. In my time away from church I had not only forgotten the universal nature of the gift of grace and salvation posed, but I had also forgotten the deeply pacific and united nature of Christ and His Church. The text here argues that though we have peace in Christ, and, consequently are made one through Him, "we are a people divided against ourselves." The 'we' here clearly refers to the Church universal--all Christians--who, the text argues, are divided against ourselves. The body catholic no longer is operating as one, unified in purpose and mind, the prayer argues, due to our clinging to the "values of a broken world." Rather than the mind of Christ--and I am reminded here of Paul's exhortation in Phillipians (chapter 2 I believe) to "Let the mind which is in Christ Jesus be yours as well, that He, who was the very form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but rather took the form of a servant, humbled Himself, and emptied Himself even to death, death on a cross"-- the prayer argues that we have adopted the values of a broken world.
Now before moving on I should probably take a moment to discuss this passage from Phillipians briefly. Something about the attitude of Christ caused Him to humble himself and to empty Himself. Scholars have debated precisely what it meant for Christ to empty Himself, and I shall not go into that here. It is rather that Christ was the form of God. His very nature or content, which seems to be consistent with Hellenistic usage of the term, was that of God, and yet, equality with the Divine was not something to "be grasped at" or reached out for. I digress.
The values of the broken world do not just seem to be the values that come from the world that is broken, but rather the pursuit and presence of these values break the world. What is suggested by the invocation of the image of the world being broken? The concept suggested is the oppositional concept of wholeness, or unity. Thus, the argument of the prayer is not just that the unity of the mind of Christ is shattered when the body catholic divides against itself; no, the argument has more implications than that. Embracing the values of the broken world breaks both the church and the world, shattering their pre-existing primordial unity. Internalizing the values of the broken world, then, is an act of violence.
The concept of violence is the message inchoate within this prayer. "The profit and pleasures we pursue lay waste the land and pollute the seas. The fears and jealousies that we harbor set neighbor against neighbor and nation against nation." Pursuit of profit and pleasure, and, the harboring of fears and jealousies are all acts of violence that devastate the land and the seas, and dissolve the bonds of community among neighbors and nations. The shattering of the unity of the church unleashes the decaying effects of "our sin and the sin of this world." All of creation, both natural and social, groans under the weight and blemish of sin. The world is dying and the church is divided.
My first thought was that this was the pacificity of the Gospel emerging in the prayer until I realized that the argument was not against war or jealousies as such--another prayer later was very explicit in expression our Christian concern for civilians in harms' way as well as the soldiers who die even as I write this--; rather, this corporate prayer was about the destructiveness of violence unchecked and unopposed by Christian unity. Evil prospers, so the adage goes, when good persons do nothing. The good's forbearance becomes the complicitous action that accommodates evil. Evil prospers, this prayer adds, when Christians are divided.
Let us then consider the final lines. "We abuse your good gifts of imagination and freedom, intellect and reason, and have turned them into bonds of oppression. Lord, have mercy upon us. Help us, forgive us, and set us free to serve you in the world as agents of your reconciling love in Jesus Christ." The gifts of being created in the image of God--male and female God created them, in their image God created them--rest in our mental capacities of "imagination and freedom, intellect and reason." This seems like a distinctly 20th century (philosophical) liberal tradition weaving its way into the text; but the argument holds nonetheless. Embracing division, internalizing violence into the body catholic, ravishes the land, destroys our connections to each other (in nations, as neighbors) and the tools of our basic mental facilities that cannot be materially constrained of "imagination and freedom, intellect and reason" are turned against us.
Violence is a perversion of all, to our most essential mental capacities, as well as the destruction of a primal unity of the world and the Church. In the words of Heidegger, this prayer stipulates "Only a God can save us" and leaves us at the moment where we pray for forgiveness to remove us from a cycle of violence, decay, death, destruction, and despair. This salvation doesn't immediately right the balance of wrong we have created. No, instead it liberates us from the cycle of pain whose reincarnations are simply an eternal recurrence of the same--shattered unity, broken homes, dismantled nations, devastated environments, dead mothers, missing fathers, murdered sisters, and butchered brothers--and frees us to serve "[God] in the world as agents of [God's] reconciling love in Jesus Christ."
God in Your mercy, hear our prayers.