Vide Bellum: A Vietnam Reflection

Earlier this month, Rachel and I carved out ten evenings to watch The Vietnam War, the new film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, as it aired on PBS. Burns is the master documentarian, but this is a new high even for him—a peripatetic funeral march for the death of America’s virtue, such as it ever was. I hope every American invests the 17+ hours to watch this, particularly those of us who did not live through the period.

We were born less than nine years after the fall of Saigon, but it’s only been in recent years that we’ve even begun to hear people talk about the war. Growing up, no one I knew well had served, except for a distant cousin—the cousin who thought it was a good idea to bring a loaded service sidearm (Colt .45) to a family reunion and let 9-year-old me and another 10-year-old cousin shoot it into the creek behind the family homeplace.

Vietnam always felt like a shameful family secret; a box buried in the attic we knew existed but had been trained never to open. What remembrance and restoration there has been has been muted and not publicly embraced. It’s a sore spot we still don’t like touched. The war left us nothing to celebrate. No Yorktown. No Gettysburg. No Armistice. No D-Day. Only the dead, wounded, and a million might-have-beens.

None of this American angst begins to touch the devastation the war brought to Vietnam and her people, for whom every victory was also a defeat, and whose land bears scars still. This aspect comes through well in Burns and Novick’s work, with Vietnamese veterans (from both north and south) speaking their piece and helping fill this complex story with rich context. The war did not come about or escalate in a vacuum, and the pains that flowed into and out of it (from colonialism to civil rights) are given their fair shake.

Moreover, the personal tragedy of young lives snuffed out and veterans wracked with physical or emotional disabilities is brought front and center, with a wide cast of interviewees from every corner of the country and every branch of the military. The same young men who were sent off to die under the aegis of patriotism and honor impressed on them by their families and communities returned home as outcasts. The cause they served no longer seen as just, their sacrifice was turned into a stain on their conscience. No forgiveness. No lament. Only forgetting.

The full film is an impressive study in human nature, hubris, and groupthink, and none of the parties involved (on any side) come away unscathed. Yet I can’t help but notice that the United States has learned so little from that experience in how we conduct ourselves in the world. We persist in meddling beyond our expertise, using ethnic tensions or economic attachments as pawns in geopolitical chess. The specter of another Vietnam is always lurking in every pot we stir, every airstrike casually called in for political show. Now, as then, it is the young, the poor, the minority, and the “enemy” who pay the price for such games.

A movie, however good (and Burns & Novick have put everything they could into this one), is no truth & reconciliation commission, but my prayer is that it can be a spark to remind us of what lies at the end of the way of ignorance, callousness, and unconfessed pride.

Watch the movie. Talk to a veteran. Talk to someone who didn’t fight. Never vote for military force on a whim or to make a point.

Of course, the larger, unspoken target for this movie at this moment in time may be the political discord currently animating our national mood. We may not be at the gates of 1968 again quite yet, but The Vietnam War is a not-so-subtle reminder that it only takes a few well-placed sparks in a room full of gasoline to do a lot of damage.

As Walker Percy put it, describing his comic dystopia Love in the Ruins (which he wrote during 1968-1970), “What I really wanted to do, I guess, was call a bluff. For it has seemed to me that much of the violence and alienation of today can be traced to a secret and paradoxical conviction that America is immovable and indestructible.” During the latter stages of the war, that conviction was stretched to breaking. It’s hardly seemed as shaky since, but I fear we’re getting close.

Image: Movie poster, courtesy of PBS

Advertisements

But He Died!: The Cross and God’s Sovereignty

Originally published in Disciple Magazine, April 25, 2011.

My dad has often said that the older he got, the more convinced he was of God’s absolute sovereignty and the less sure he was of his own free choice in the developments of his life and faith. A younger me was less inclined to see things that way–something about our human nature always chafes against any notion that we aren’t in control of our daily lives—but now I couldn’t agree more.

We are born into this world thinking ourselves the masters of our domain, seeking every opportunity to manipulate our situation to our advantage. Paradoxically, we learn to expect that our demands will be met whenever we make them precisely because we are utterly helpless. A parent doesn’t meet the needs of a child because the child’s cries obligate action; rather they do it out of love and concern for their child. A parent, not their child, creates and sustains the proper environment necessary for growth. From this, we grow up predisposed to believe that our parents exist to serve us, and we drag that image into our understanding of God.

Immature prayer often sounds like a more polished and polite version of a young child’s begging: “Lord, please give me (insert desire here);” “Lord, please take away (insert bad situation, illness, or difficulty here).” Is there anything wrong with that? Certainly not, as we are exhorted to ask God for His good gifts—even self-centered prayer acknowledges God as the source of the blessing. When the content of all our prayers is centered on such supplication, however, we are clearly missing something. A God powerful enough to give us these blessings and good enough to answer when we ask is deserving of so much more in our relationship to Him. Just as we (hopefully) grow to see our parents as so much more than providers, we should mature in our understanding of God.

Theologically, this teases itself out in debates about the nature of salvation, righteousness, and responsibility. Who is the actor when we pass from death to life? How can we do right and cease from sin? Why do bad things happen in the world if God could stop them? Most of us, at least at some point, struggle with the interplay between personal autonomy and God’s absolute authority. The Scriptures, which reveal both God’s eternal power and the drama of human choice, give precious little on which to build a sound case for the unilateral triumph of either position.

To put it too simplistically, we can look at it this way. Those who see God’s authority rigidly, to the point of not allowing man responsibility for anything, view God’s sovereignty correctly—He is either sovereign over all or not at all—but they impute to Him man’s motives and attitudes in the application of that authority in such a way that misses the vastness of His love and mercy. Those who see man’s autonomy rigidly, to the point of diminishing God’s power, correctly see that we are responsible for our choices, but they impute God-like motives to us that undercut the depth, darkness, and totality of our sinfulness.

I’ve known people who grew into belief in God’s sovereignty and then have had that confidence shattered by personal experiences or simply an overwhelming awareness of the trauma of life in a fallen world. When we witness a horrific crime or natural disaster, we can’t help but wonder how and why God would allow such things. To some, the assurance that “God is in control” is no comfort and seems a hollow brush-off of visceral suffering.

God is in control, though, just as He was in control the day His beloved, holy, innocent Son, Jesus Christ, was brutally beaten and crucified in Jerusalem. The cross of Christ (vís-a-vís God’s sovereignty) is not simply a lesson in how God’s plan through what appears to be abject evil is in reality an unimaginable good (a la Gen. 50:20), though it is the ultimate example of that. The crossEcce Homo is not just a lesson in the ways in which God’s plan is beyond our understanding, though it is that too. Though a display of His grace and power and authority to erase our sins, it is still more. Perhaps the way the cross most boldly proclaims God’s sovereignty is through showcasing His willingness to suffer.

Christ was God, the Word made flesh (John 1:14), not another created being. Christ, “who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself…humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death…” (Phil. 2:6-8). He came from a position of equality with God and yet became a man, “so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God to make propitiation for the sins of the people” (Heb. 2:17). He came down to know the full measure of temptation (Heb. 4:15), pain, and separation from the Father: “In the days of His flesh, He offered up both prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears to the One able to save Him from death, and He was heard because of His piety. Although He was a Son, He learned obedience from the things which He suffered” (Heb. 5:7-8).

The suffering which culminated at the cross included 33 years of life in this broken place. Christ lived with the poor sanitation, poor health, and poor food and water quality common to all in the first century world. He lived through three decades of human strife, quarrelling, brutality, political tension, sickness, sorrow, and death. Even more than that, He was born into poverty, a member of an oppressed people group, living in a town and region of low reputation as far from the power centers of the Roman world as one could get. He was probably maligned all His life by those who knew that His birthday and Joseph & Mary’s wedding day didn’t add up. He was probably envied and maneuvered against by His siblings and neighbors. Perhaps His carpentry shop was robbed or vandalized. In his years among us, He took into Himself the fullness of human misery so as to be unassailable in His compassion for us.

When Satan tempts us to believe that God is somehow out of touch or incapacitated by the scope of natural and moral evil in the world, we have to cling to the cross. When he tells us that God could not know our pain, could not feel our inner turmoil, and is not interested in the details of life in this world, we have to throw the battered, bloody body of Jesus in his face and shout, “But He died!”

When we are tempted to doubt God’s goodness and compassion, when we read of divinely-ordered genocide (as in 1 Sam. 15) in the same book as we discover His everlasting lovingkindness (and are told to see this as a contradiction that undermines our faith) we have to fall on the cross. The justice and love of God are both predicated on the finished work of Christ: He knows “everyone whose name has…been written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who has been slain” (Rev. 13:8). Everything about our understanding of and relationship with God has to hold up under the power of the cross; otherwise, it is incomplete and is “no gospel at all” (Gal. 1:7).

The longer I follow Christ, the more I embrace my dad’s statement. The driving factor in this shift hasn’t been so much that I’ve learned more about God’s sovereignty from growing in His Word (though I have), but that I am daily confronted with the magnitude of my sin and the ways mine and others’ sins are reflected in the systems of the world. The more I recognize my own rottenness, the more I recognize that any standing I have before God is His doing alone. The less sound my case seems in the face of God’s holy justice, the more His love breaks through in all its glory. If I thought I deserved even a snippet of it, it would be cheapened to me beyond recognition. I’ve got no right whatsoever to live with God, but He died!

Charles Wesley’s words ring true: “And can it be, that I should gain an interest in my Savior’s blood? Died He for me, who caused His pain, for me, who Him to death pursued? Amazing love, how can it be, that Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?”  Amen.

Photo: Ecce Homo by Antonio Ciseri, Public Domain.

A Jurist’s Prudence

Born an only child, staking a fresh claim,
New life far from his father’s native land.
Freedom’s song echoed deep in him, a flame
Lighting the road appointed beforehand.

Justice called his name, from schoolyard to bench.
He turned his mind to law, memorizing
Line upon line, with thirst he could not quench;
In due time, kings and nations advising.

Anguished by cruel and raw philosophy,
Words that stand written wadded up, thrown down;
He spoke hard truth, quite nearly prophecy—
“Ad fontes!”—and was called out as a clown.

“Words truly live when documents are dead;
Meaning’s fixed mark is study’s only aim,
The woven past an ever-present thread.”
Classroom to courtroom, his refrain the same.

Truth and order drove his faith in the law,
Great leveler of heroes, villains, all
Ordinances grounded on rock not straw,
Flow from One Judge. He answered to that call.

Dissent became his firebrand, though not
For its own sake. Foolishness earned his wrath
Wherever righteousness was left unsought.
Few dared draw his ire on the warpath.

Even so, those he fought admired him,
Those flaming arrows a badge of honor,
His depth, wit, and gusto inspired them
To lose well when their case was a goner.

He has left today, old and full of years.
A republic mourns, a people fret, for
He was too often alone in his fears
That this great land had been struck to its core.

 

Time out of Mind

When Jesus had finished these words, the crowds were amazed at His teaching; for He was teaching them as one having authority, and not as their scribes” (Matt. 7:28-29).

Although there are many, many instances of Christ’s teaching to which this description applies, a striking example is this retort to the crowds (specifically the Pharisees) seeking a “sign” that he was indeed the Messiah. All the miracles he had performed (healings, feedings, raising the dead, etc.) were not enough, apparently, to convince them. Jesus, knowing their hearts, answered:

This generation is a wicked generation; it seeks for a sign, and yet no sign will be given to it but the sign of Jonah. For just as Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites, so will the Son of Man be to this generation. The Queen of the South will rise up with the men of this generation at the judgment and condemn them, because she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and behold something greater that Solomon is here. The men of Nineveh will stand up with this generation at the judgment and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold something greater than Jonah is here” (Luke 11:29-32).

What audacity! To us who know Christ as the risen Lord, this reads as a bold and powerful statement of truth. Those present, however, would have heard the Nazarene’s statement as a colossal affront, and smacking more than a little of insanity. “How could this carpenter’s son possibly know how God will judge us? Where does he come off thinking he is greater than our kings and prophets?”

Though Jesus’ reference to Jonah is far more than rhetoric (the prophet from Galilee, etc.), the real power of His words here is that they come from a place unbounded by time. There are no conditions, no subjunctive verbs; only blunt indicatives. He speaks not as though He merely envisions these things, but as though He is there (with the Queen of Sheba in Solomon’s court, in Nineveh, at God’s judgment seat) at the same instant He is with them in first-century Judea. That is authority. Jesus talks as if he were, in fact, the author of the story—the one who declares “the end from the beginning” (Isa. 46:10), the one without whom “was not any thing made that was made” (John 1:3).

For the Lord, time is clearly different than what we know of it. Reading Laurus (a novel which plays with our understanding of time) refreshed an idea I’ve often wrestled with—that time itself is an often-overlooked aspect of man’s fall into sin. As it happens, this seems to be a concept borne out through the whole Bible.

Though not enumerated among the curses issued by God in Genesis 3, awareness of the passage of time in their finite lives must have hit Adam and Eve, as the reality of death began to set in. We all now live under that curse, and our remaining hours on earth tick from the moment of conception.

Whereas Christ sees all and knows all, “now we see through a glass, darkly” (1 Cor. 13:12). To be separated from Him is to be cast into time. Even so, we are made to yearn for the restoration of God’s design: “He has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end” (Ecc. 3:11). We instinctively know that this life is not to be the sum total of our days, but in God’s wisdom, He has also shielded us from seeing it fully in our sin.

Because the Lord is faithful, it was never His plan to allow us to run our our days and stay apart from Him. Christ stepped into this world, into space and time, to accept the curse and take the punishment—yet without sin—”that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death” (Heb. 2:14).IMG_4715

Death, a hard and fast end to our sin, through Christ becomes as much a means of grace as a curse. With it comes a promise of resurrection, whether to life or punishment (Matt. 25:46); an outcome tied to these fleeting years on earth. Because of the curse of time and the reality of eternity, we can pray with Moses, “teach us to number our days, that we may present to You a heart of wisdom” (Ps. 90:12). The curse motivates diligence, for our days are too few to waste; the reality tells us what to strive for; God’s grace gives us the wisdom to see and obey.

Thinking about time in this way gives a new dimension to faith. It is, in essence, acting on God’s Lordship over time, submitting our fear of death to the reality of eternal life in Him. In this, we say with Job, “I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God” (Job 19:25-26). Because Christ “is before all things, and in Him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17), our trust in Him is nothing less than grasping the hand He extends from beyond the realm of time, allowing Him to hold us fast as the world gives way.

Thus anchored to eternity, Christians are able to endure whatever comes and to serve faithfully in our sojourn here. He never leaves or forsakes those whom He calls, at whatever point in the grand story their life falls. In His grace, our experience of time is enriched by this history and shored up by tradition, so that we have all the more reason to trust Him. Psalm 90 concludes with the refrain “confirm the work of our hands“; a plea that God allow us to build well upon what the godly before us started and support that which comes after.

With the eyes of faith we see the Day of the Lord; clothed in the righteousness of Christ, we even long for His appearing without fear. In fact, the Eschaton is not an event in time (though it looks like it from here), but the literal end of time, as the curse is reversed. Christ has declared: “Behold, I am making all things new…. It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end” (Rev. 21:5-6).

It has often been observed that the biblical idea of hope is not wishful thinking, but resting in certainty. The brokenness of time can cause us to despair, but the eternal Christ bids us hope in Him. Nothing is beyond His concern, for the past is present to Him. Nothing can surprise Him, for nothing is future.

These are deep things. Paul wrote (in the same passage quoted above) “Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Cor. 13:12). It is only with the eyes of faith (themselves gifts of God) that we discern these things at all.

A scene from Laurus (which I’ve seen quoted in several reviews) captures this beautifully. Arseny prays in a monastery and receives an unexpected reply:

“And so, O Savior, give me at least some sign that I may know my path has not veered into madness, so I may, with that knowledge, walk the most difficult road, walk as long as need be and no longer feel weariness.

What sign do you want and what knowledge? asked an elder…Do you not know that any journey harbors danger within itself? Any journey—and if you do not acknowledge this, then why move? So you say faith is not enough for you and you want knowledge, too. But knowledge does not involve spiritual effort; knowledge is obvious. Faith assumes effort. Knowledge is repose and faith is motion.

But were the venerable [that is, the saints of old] not aspiring for the harmony of repose? asked Arseny.

They took the route of faith, answered the elder. And their faith was so strong it turned into knowledge.”