No Skyworld Passport

The church at Philippi was the Apostle Paul’s first founding in Europe during his second missionary journey.  Much earlier, in 358 BCE, King Philip II of Macedonia had taken the ancient town of Crenides, refounded and renovated it, and renamed it as Philippi.  It was to be useful to him.  The Romans had it beginning in 168 BCE; Rome unified the province of Macedonia in 146 BCE.  A century later (42 BCE) a cluster of battles pitted the forces of Brutus and Cassius against the armies of Octavian and Mark Antony.  In the end, their armies defeated, Cassius and Brutus killed themselves using their own swords.  The battles of Philippi, important as they were at that moment, only cleared the way to the sickening storm of relationships and rivalries that ended in Octavian’s triumph over Mark Antony at the naval Battle of Actium in 31 BCE. Antony, with Cleopatra, died months later in Egypt.

I have skipped over the fascinating, abundant details, but only to get to a first point: Octavian is the nephew and adopted son of Julius Caesar, and he alone is left to claim rule of Rome–Lepidus, Brutus, Cassius, Mark Antony–all are gone.  And as imperator, emperor, Octavian as Augustus Caesar holds the keys to the Sky-World, the Overworld of Roman pagan culture.  In his book The Fruit of Lips, Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy refers to the European emperors (Christians after a point in time who changed their primary allegiance!), evoking their status beginning with Augustus:

Because the emperor was the cosmocrator, he was lifted into the hub of the wheel to unite night and day, to reconcile the north where the sun never shines, with the south to which the polar stars of midnight never move.  The emperor, the Son of Heaven as he was called in China, was the prime mover of a reconciled, a non-panicky, non-chaotic heaven and earth.  His knowledge and compliance with the stars shielded the people from the panic of catastrophes.  When the people of our days hold a President of the United States responsible for a world-wide depression, they follow in the footsteps of all ancient nations who believed that the eternal cycles could be perfected by a human being lifted into the hub of the wheel.  The incense burned before the emperor’s statue was a means to enliven his nostrils so that he might smell the harmony and beauty of the universe.  He who did not burn incense, who did not say Heil Hitler, destroyed the skyworld.  He must die.  (Fruit of Lips, 59)

My second point is that the Christian apostles, the Gospel writers, and the Apostle Paul preached, wrote, and lived in opposition to the “skyworld”.  As Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy put it in reference to the Gospel of Mark (and the Gospels), “It was written by men who denied the emperor’s claim, and who, therefore, plunged those for whom they wrote the Gospel into imminent danger of death for high treason against the welfare of the empire.” (Fruit of Lips, 60)  This statement helps us to comprehend the apocalyptic passages in Mark’s Gospel: the Christians defied and denied citizenship in such a Skyworld, and its true citizens spared no effort to eliminate or disable the opposing life-power of Christianity.

I am writing here about the antithesis (the opposition of Maranatha and pagan Anathema) that drives the battle between “the domain of darkness” (Colossians 1:13): “the rulers,” “powers,” “world forces of this darkness,” the “spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places,” (Ephesians 6:12) and the “authority and power and dominion” of the Christ (Ephesians 1:21).  I want to emphasize that the same authority the Churches have invoked against the Caesars of any era, against Hitler and Stalin and Mao is the same authority that says confidently, “And He [God] put all things in subjection under His feet, and gave Him as head over all things to the church.” (Ephesians 1:22)

So, back to the main discussion:  that same Paul the Apostle writes to the church at Philippi a century or more after the Roman generals contended for the chance to take charge in the Skyworld.  Whether he or the Phillippians were thinking of this, I do not know.  But I see the contrast and must speak about it.

In the Philippian letter, Paul writes, most probably from Rome, as a prisoner for Christ.  He is among the least significant of persons.  But in his humiliating circumstances he actually is identified with his Master, the selfsame servant who suffers.  Paul shares the life of Christ–in chains.  He had shared that life in many other painful, challenging ways.  He reminds me of dozens of Baptists in England and North America during the 1600s and 1700s–Baptist “jailbirds” who were criminals, and for what?  They were prosecuted and punished, as criminals, for preaching without “license” — without permission of the government, the authorities, and the state churches who took part in that scheme of authority through statute law.  These Baptist jailbirds wrote letters, sermons, poetry, hymns, theologies, and other works, in and out of jail, and so we know about them now through their preserved works.  To read more about them, take a look at Keith Durso’s book No Armor for the Back: Baptist Prison Writings, 1600s – 1700s.

The Apostle Paul also reminds me of another Baptist letter-writer, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who also stood up to the dominant authorities of the day.  Surely Christ was with him, too, in the Birmingham jail, eloquently declaring and grieving that the churches of America had failed, and asking, “Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world?”  On the matter of racial injustice and segregation, the church was now “a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound,”  a quiet thing functionally comforting to the Jim Crow establishment and the status quo, a hollow thing to repudiate in a new generation.

For Paul, “to live is Christ” meant to live in bondage–to service, to suffering, to others, to truth, to God’s continuous calling and presence.  “To live is Christ” is to live in a bound condition, like Christ, to be bound tightly, to live within the limitations God imposes, and in that place, within those limitations, to be radically free.  Others may see that kind of freedom as the worst kind of restriction, but no!  In that kind of freedom I, and others, know who we are in relation to God, to ourselves, to others, to the world.

There are the walking prisoners, and there are those who walk free.  There are none who walk entirely on their own.  There are the prisoners who live in cells of steel and concrete, there are prisoners who dwell in dungeons of their own and others’ making–negativity, denial, dishonesty, classism, racism, violence, addictions, hatred, murder, theft, envy, demagoguery. There are those, most of the global community, who live in bondage to the dominant powers of the time and place–and of the Skyworld.

Powerful though he was, Augustus, and all others like him, were prisoners of a world system representing all that most men would pay heavily and struggle mightily to get. Please do not misunderstand.  I do not agree with Augustus that the struggle of world systems–the struggle for empire–is a “zero-sum” game.  I do believe, however, that only with the victory of “the children of light” is there the promise of any enduring, liberating future–or fulfilled present (Ephesians 5). Any other victory promises only degrees of a bondage that allows no true freedom.  In the end, the Skyworld has no friends, only subjects and victims.

Sacrifices Remade

In his big little book, Fruit of Lips or Why Four Gospels, Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy made a late-in-life-and-career statement about the four Gospels.  He spoke about Matthew’s impolite (so Official Israel took him to be) emphasis on blood sacrifice and salvation.   The sacrifice Who dared to speak spoke and died as a demonstration of the Way of the Cross for all who were to follow Him.  Most Christians miss the point, though, in practice.  So, Rosenstock-Huessy writes (p. 71):

The whole expression of a Body of Christ,

With the head in heaven,

Meant exactly this,

That we who would crucify the Lord every day,

In our rage and envy and indifference,

Now, with our eyes opened once

For what we have done and are doing,

Declare solemnly:

We, now, together with our Head,

Step on the side of the silent victims

And offer ourselves to our Maker

So that he can remake the sacrifice

As he pleases.

How else could ever a new inspiration

Befall us as a people

Unless we offer ourselves

As the body for this inspiration?

Time and again, man has to be ripped open

By the ploughshare of suffering

And open himself

Like a dry and desiccated earth

To dew and rain.

And ever since one man did this

Manifestly all alone by himself,

His congregations relieve the members

Of the total pressure of absolute loneliness.

In every generation, the group

Which may be remodeled,

May increase, until the whole of mankind

Will be allowed to fall silent

And to cleanse themselves

From the chatter and clatter of the day,

And to listen to the spirit,

Simultaneously.

Table fellowship, the sharing of a meal together, gained a new depth of meaning and purpose, far beyond what men had practiced from the beginnings of society.  E-H explains this more fully in his meditations on the Gospel according to Matthew.

 

If we do not pray with Israel . . .

Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929) continues to challenge and engage me.  So, too, his mentor, Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy (1888-1973), the steel to Rosenzweig’s flint.  They escort me roughly out of the easy seats onto the stone seats of a contentious forum; there they bid me listen until I squirm, my butt on the hard limestone, my brain on their hard arguments.

Yet this I want to do, it’s worth the effort and discomfort.  Rosenzweig was the skeptical Jew converted to his own people’s religion; Rosenstock the acculturated Jew who was baptized a Christian in his teens, and who eviscerated Rosenzweig’s sloppy thinking about reality, forcing him to dare to face God.

Right now I am working through Judaism Despite Christianity and find in Rosenstock’s letter to Cynthia Harris in 1943 many stunning comments making a unified argument that prayer is an absolute necessity–and his definition of prayer encompasses the entire life of a people.  Nineteenth-century biblical scholars did not represent Jewish history accurately or fairly.  The missed the “No” of the Jews to idols–Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and God’s three “No’s”:  the Fall, the Great Flood, and the Exodus.  “‘Revelation’ is a knowledge of God’s will, after his ‘No’ to our will has become known.” (181)  But the “No” was necessary if Israel was to recognize “herself as God’s servant, merely a man in the face of God’s majesty.”  (181)  This is not just strong stuff, it is the basic stuff.  It undergirds everything else Rosenstock wrote in the letter to Cynthia Harris in 1943.

One example will be enough:

The Germans all knew in 1918 that the World War had been lost deservedly.  Faith accepted the defeat.  But it takes faith in God to accept defeat fully.  If there be no divine will, then our will must reign supreme.  Naturally the whisperers came–those all-knowing ones who cannot be named but who are always being quoted–those who said, “It was a stab in the back,” “It was this or that,” “It was unnecessary,” etc.  The reaction was inevitable:  “We shall undo the defeat.”  Whispering is unauthorized speech.  The devil is any person who does not wish to be quoted; and so he never attains the rank of a person.  For a person accepts God’s judgement over what he has said or done.  Thus can he come to know the truth.  The devil never receives his verdict because he whispers only and never speaks truly and confidently.

. . . The people who had believed only in science, and who could not distinguish between spell-binding magic and prayer, now fell for the stump speakers.

Rosenstock summarizes the German history of persecution and repression against Lutherans (after 1825) and Catholics (certainly after 1871) and identifies Hitler as “the third attempt to free the German nation from any check on its nationalistic conscience.  This time, the triangle Luther-Rome-Israel is attacked foremost at the Jewish corner.  Also, the attack is far more violent than the two former.”  The furor Teutonicus runs a system of hatred, and there are other arguments to illustrate, but I will finish this statement with a few more of Rosenstock’s sentences:

Hitler hates everything started by the Jews, including democracy and the Freemasons.  Why?  They all know of the insertion of God’s “No” into history as a vital element.  But a spellbinder must be sure that his spell will work under all circumstances.  This prevents him from admitting God’s “No” to the fabric of history.

Hitler’s will and his god’s will are nauseatingly one.  The great art of speech has made Hitler crazy.  Since he has the privilege of speaking, of inflaming the masses, he spellbinds.  And so he hovers as a ghost from the abyss of paganism, a ghost of the days before God touched Israel’s lips with his fiery coal:  “My will, O mortal, not thine, be done.”

The specific character of biblical prayer explains the uniqueness of the Bible.  We can’t forget the Bible because the divine “No” was created, in our speech, during those thousand years of Jewish prayer.  And all the other departments of our linguistic faculty rest on this clear distinction between prayer, on the one side, and science, poetry, fiction, and law, on the other.  If we do not pray with Israel, we cannot retain our Greek mathematics or our Roman law.  This will sound arbitrary or exaggerated at first reading.  But it is simple truth. (183)

Rosenstock goes on to illustrate examples that bind ancient and modern paganisms together while they show biblical prayer (faith, religion, core of revelation) to be absolutely distinct from them.  It is the distinction and emphasis that energized the philosophical, faithful thinking and dialogue that Rosenstock and Rosenzweig conducted over many years — theirs was an astonishing interchange between Christian and Jew; it started a century ago and lasted until Rosenzweig died.  Rosenstock lived to write voluminously on themes that grew out of scholarship as — I would like to say this —  a form of prayer.

Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, letter to Cynthia Harris (in 1943 a freshman at Radcliffe College): “Hitler and Israel, or On Prayer,” first published in The Journal of Religion (University of Chicago Press, April 1945).  Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, ed., Judaism Despite Christianity:  The 1916 Wartime Correspondence between Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy and Franz Rosenzweig (with a new  foreword by Paul Mendes-Flohr, a new preface by Harold Stahmer, and a new chronology by Michael Gormann-Thelen (Chicago and London:  University of Chicago Press, 2011).