Racism and the Church

I was at the Cincinnati Art Museum and saw their exhibit Women Breaking Boundaries.  In the exhibit I saw a sculpture of Phillis Wheatley  (1753-1784) who was the first Black poet published in America.  She was captured as a young girl in Africa and brought to America as a slave.  She eventually attained her manumission.   I do not remember ever learning about her, so decided to read her poetry.  It amazes me that someone can master a foreign language so well as to become a poet in that language  – and she really did excel in the King’s English.  More amazing she was able to do this despite spending much of her life as a slave and then dying at age 31.  She must have had great language skills.   She does not excessively focus on her experience as a slave, but did become a fierce defender of Christian Trinitarian theology, even though it was Christian people who enslaved her.  She had to remind her white Christian fellow believers that Blacks are humans, that Christ died for them as well because Black lives matter to the Savior.  In Christ God became human so that humans might become god – that is a Christian truth for every human being.


Here is a poem she wrote at about age 16:

“On Being Brought from Africa to America”

‘Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,

Taught my benighted soul to understand

That there’s a God, that there’s a Savior too:

Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.

Some view our sable race with scornful eye,

“Their color is a diabolic die.”

Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,

May be refin’d, and join the angelic train.


A good reminder to all of us to see beyond the color of the skin to see the image of God in each person.

I was struck in her poetry how little she identified herself as a slave or African and how she did identify herself as a member of His Majesty’s colonies – she was a loyalist who became an American as our country was born and she embraced the ideals of freedom.  She lived through 1776 and the American revolution.

Some might feel that she somehow fails to take up the Black cause.  But I think what is true of her is that she saw herself first and foremost as a human being, not as an African or African American or Negro or Black or slave or former slave.  She was human forcibly brought to an English colony which became the United States of America.  Her identity was not the color of her skin or place of origin but her humanity.  She  was African, British or American – it was of no matter because it was her humanity which she shared with those around her which was her self understanding.   That is how she was able to so readily identify with her fellow humans and was not separated from them by slavery, by race or nationality.

Each of us is created in God’s image and likeness.  She was able to see beyond the externals right to the heart of the matter.  One needs eyes to see what was obvious to her, despite how other treated her.

Enslaved to the Tyranny of Sin

Sometimes we reduce sin to a notion of breaking a few commandments.  And as serious as believers might consider that, St Paul takes sin to an entirely different level.  For he portrays sin as horrific, brutal and inhumane – enslaving us, and thus forcefully dehumanizing us.  He writes:

But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once yielded your members to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity, so now yield your members to righteousness for sanctification. When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. But then what return did you get from the things of which you are now ashamed? The end of those things is death. But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the return you get is sanctification and its end, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.  (Romans 6:17-23)

St Gregory of Nyssa comments:

For each of our impulses, when it takes control, becomes the master and we the slave. Like a tyrant it seizes the citadel of the soul, and by means of its underlings plays havoc with its subjects, using our own thoughts as the servants of its good pleasure. There they are: anger, fear, cowardice, arrogance, pleasure, grief, hatred, spite, heartless cruelty, jealousy, flattery, bearing grudges and resentment, and all the other hostile drives within us – there is your array of the masters and tyrants that try to enslave the soul, their prisoner of war, and bring it under their control. (From Glory to Glory, p. 89)

Abraham Lincoln’s Rise to Greatness

Rise to GreatnessEach year around the American Independence Day holiday I read a book on American history just to remind myself of the great effort it has taken to create “America.”    This year while on vacation I read David Von Drehle’s Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year.  A good summary of the book is found in the book’s epilogue where Drehle writes:

“The twelve tumultuous months of 1862 were the hinge of American history, the decisive moment at which the unsustainable compromises of the founding generations were ripped up in favor of a blueprint for a much stronger nation. In the process, millions of lives were transformed: the lives of the slaves who were to be freed, and of the slave owners who would be impoverished; the lives of the soldiers and their families who bore the suffering of the first all-out war of the Industrial Age; the lives of those who would profit from new inventions, longer railroads, and modern finance; the lives of students who would be educated in great public universities. The road taken in 1862 ultimately led to greater prosperity than anyone had ever imagined.”  (Kindle Loc. 6866-71)

Abraham Lincoln was a great man, and so a good book on a great man is a winning combination!   I really liked the book which traces the development in Abe Lincoln’s thinking during the course of 1862 on the issue of slavery, how to carry out the civil war militarily, and what it meant to preserve the union.  I felt while I was reading the book that I was inside Lincoln’s heart and head, listening to the opposing voices feuding, feeling the pressure rising as the decisions loomed ahead, and agonizing over how to hold the union together while at the same time resolving the very issue that made union impossible.  The varying, 0ppositional viewpoints and the building pressures on Lincoln were unrelenting.  Really, one wonders how he survived it all – the reports of his acquaintances were that it took a tremendous toll on him physically and emotionally.   How he worked to hold it altogether was amazing; somehow Lincoln guided the nation through very treacherous and tumultuous waters.  Lincoln who frequently offered pithy wisdom said:

“To steer a true course through violent seas, one must understand the wind and tides, despite being powerless to change them. So it was with Providence.”   (Kindle Loc. 4834-35)

Lincoln wrestled with issues of the divine will, the will of the people, idealism about what “America” meant and is.  There were countless forces over which he had no influence let alone control, and he mused over the nature of life frequently.

“Lincoln now tried to discern a divine purpose behind the string of failures and betrayals that made the summer of 1862 so miserable. At his desk one day in September, “his mind … burdened with the weightiest question of his life”—of slavery, the survival of the Union, and the role of each in the war—Lincoln took out a fresh sheet of lightly ruled paper and began writing down his thoughts. “The will of God prevails,” he started, slowly and carefully. This was true by definition: if God exists, and God wills a result, then the result must come to pass. That is the nature of infinite power. Lincoln added a second proposition: “In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God.” From these two ideas, Lincoln began methodically building his analysis, brick by brick, writing more quickly and fluidly as he went. “Both sides may be, and one must be wrong. God can not be for, and against the same thing at the same time,” he noted. “In the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party.” The Almighty might favor the North or the South—or neither side: Providence chooses its own goals. But the players in this great drama—the generals, whether effective or incompetent; the soldiers, brave or cowardly; the politicians and opinion makers, wise or foolish; indeed, all the “human instrumentalities” of the struggle, as Lincoln put it—must somehow perform the roles they had been given by the directing spirit of God. When John Pope met mutiny rather than triumph on the road to Richmond, it must be because God had something other than immediate Union victory in mind. All this flowed logically from the first proposition: that the will of God prevails. Now Lincoln inserted a hedge. “I am almost ready to say that this is probably true”—almost, probably—“that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet.” If one believed in a divinity shaping history, then it followed that God could have saved or destroyed the Union short of war, or ended the war already, without this painful seesaw struggle. “Yet the contest proceeds.” He put down his pen. Perhaps he was interrupted, or ran out of time, because he seems to have stopped abruptly. The final period at the end of his meditation was jabbed with such velocity that it looked more like a dash. Clearly, he wasn’t finished, because the last sentence led so obviously, so irresistibly, to the next question: Why? Toward what end was this uncontrollable force moving? Nicolay and Hay, who discovered this unfinished rumination long after the president had folded it in half, and half again, observed that it had not been intended for others; it was Lincoln’s way of ordering his own thoughts. Yet these few lines suggest a first draft of what would become Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. In that magnificent speech, delivered two and a half years later, he completed the chain of his logic. The contest proceeds, the president declared then, because “American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove.” And because the offense was too large and too grave to be removed without suffering, God “gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came.” Slavery, Lincoln believed, was like a tumor on the neck of the American nation. Cutting it out might be fatal, but the patient would surely die if the cancer grew unchecked. Thus the president was led to conclude that God was prolonging and inflaming the war so that slavery could not survive the inferno. Providence had chosen to remove the cancer; Lincoln had no choice but to act accordingly.”   (Kindle Loc. 4839-67)

Such was the nature of the thinking of the man who held the presidency during this period of great trial for the United States.  Lincoln took diverse and irreconcilable  ideas and weighed them in his mind ever searching for what the right path was for the country.  He made choices in the most difficult of circumstances.  He was not always right but he labored hard and carefully through all of the issues put before him while also dealing with a number of personal failures in those around him.

An example of Lincoln wrestling with what is right and with the will of God:

The president had already told the delegates that he was accustomed to hearing from religious leaders on the topic of slavery, and he found it strange that while clergymen held every variety of opinion, all of them claimed to know “the Divine will.” Why, Lincoln now wondered, didn’t God take the forthright approach and reveal his intentions “directly to me, for, unless I am more deceived in myself than I often am, it is my earnest desire to know the will of Providence in this matter. And if I can learn what it is I will do it!” The attending stenographer did not record that a pause followed, but it is reasonable to assume that there was one. Then Lincoln continued on a less declarative note: “These are not, however, the days of miracles, and I suppose it will be granted that I am not to expect a direct revelation. I must study the plain physical facts of the case, ascertain what is possible and learn what appears to be wise and right.”   (Kindle Loc. 5134-41)

Lincoln had an awareness of the historical significance of the decisions he faced and the profound impact his decisions would have on the future of the country.  Facing the issue of the curse of slavery of the slaves, Lincoln weighed the issues for a long time and only very slowly and deliberately came to the conclusion that there was no choice but to emancipate the slaves as the only way forward to save the union.  Drehle writes that Lincoln

“… understood, more than many of his contemporaries, that his actions on the first day of 1863 would be far more significant than any earlier promise he had pledged and kept. As he would put it later, the Emancipation Proclamation was “the central act of my administration and the great event of the nineteenth century,” for it “knocked the bottom out of slavery.” Here was the “new birth of freedom” he would speak of so brilliantly at Gettysburg.”   (Kindle Loc. 6692-95)

It is rare to find a man with Lincoln’s depth of thought and power to weigh and analyze diverse opinions and to discern a path forward for the entire nation.   Today’s presidents face just as complicated issues and challenges, and are in need of the same powers to analyze and form decisions.  Lincoln was a giant among men.   Few other men have Lincoln’s gifts of deliberation and analysis, and few have the knack for bringing together rivals as advisors that he had.

Our presidents need Lincoln’s wisdom and understanding.   That is why they each also need our prayers.

A Prayer for our Nation’s Leaders

O our God, whose mercy is inscrutable:  Grant unto Your servants, our country’s rulers, the prosperity of Moses, the courage of David, and the wisdom of Solomon, so that they make give glory to Your Holy Name.

The Effects of the Expulsion from Paradise in Patristic Thinking

This is the 31st blog in this series which began with Adam & Sin, Paradise and Fasting.  The previous blog is Adam’s Expulsion in the Writings of St. John Chrysostom.

The story of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise inspired the Patristic theologians to apply the story to a wide diversity of topics from theology, to ethics, to explaining the world as it is. They also sometimes saw the story of the Fall as having practical moral applications.  For example from the desert fathers we have this wisdom attributed to Hyperechius (d. ca 420AD):

“He also said, ‘It was through whispering that the serpent drove Eve out of Paradise, so he who speaks against his neighbor will be like the serpent, for he corrupts the soul of him who listens to him and he does not save his own soul.’” (in THE SAYINGS OF THE DESERT FATHERS, p 238)

Hyperechius finds in the story of the Fall a lesson against gossiping, spreading rumors and speaking against one’s neighbor.  Every community has felt the destructive power of those who whisper secrets against one another.

The Fall was also, according to the Fathers, the explanation for all manners of evil in the world including slavery and other forms of inequality.

“At the fall came hatred and strife and the deceits of the serpent. . . I would have you look back to our primary equality of rights … not to the later division . . . Reverence the ancient freedom … Reverence yourself.”  (St. Gregory Nazianzen (d. 391AD), THE HUNGRY ARE DYING, p 150)

St. Gregory Nazianzen blames the Fall for unleashing on the world hatred and strife as well as the inequalities one can observe everywhere – between the rich and poor, between men and women, between races and nationalities.  He believed all humans had an innate, ancient freedom which had been lost as a result of the Fall.  The divisions between humankind which limit the freedoms of some and increase the powers of others are all a result of the Fall, not part of how God intended the world to be.

Interesting, for me at least, is did St. Gregory apply his thinking to all social hierarchy?   For example did it cause him to see the imperial form of government not as natural for humans but purely the result of the Fall – a necessary evil?  I also wonder how he would have applied his thinking to the emerging and becoming rigid notions of hierarchy in the church, especially in the light of Christ’s own condemnation of Christians trying to lord it over one another (Matthew 20:25-28; Matthew 23:8-12; Luke 22:25-27).   It is note worthy that despite the emphasis in more recent times that the Church is hierarchical, in the 4th Century when adopting the Creedal formula regarding the Church, our Fathers in the faith did not include the world hierarchical, but expressed a faith in a one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, excluding hierarchical as the canon for the church.

“Thus in Adam’s case, too, since he had not used his dwelling in paradise to his advantage, he brought him to his senses by expulsion; and his wife, who had enjoyed equal status but proved the worse for it, he made better by slavery and subjection.”  (St. John Chrysostom, COMMENTARY ON THE PSALMS  Vol 2, p 155)

Chrysostom sees the subjection of women to men as a direct result of the Fall, not part of God’s original plan for humanity.   However, he seems to accept this subjection as not only normal to this Fallen world, but perhaps even a corrective for women as a whole since apparently all women share collectively in the sin of Eve.   He apparently doesn’t think that Christians living in the light of Christ who overcomes the effects of the Fall should try to undo the inequalities of this world regarding gender.  Was he simply the product of his own time and patriarchal society?  Several Fathers mention slavery and inequality as resulting from the Fall, but almost none advocated abolishing such inequalities.

Next:  Adam’s Expulsion in Later Patristic Writings

American Pride and Freedom in the Light of Christ

The Jews said to Jesus: “We are descendants of Abraham, and have never been in bondage to any one. How is it that you say, ‘You will be made free’?” (John 8:33)

Each Sunday, Christians celebrate the Day of the Lord – the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.  It is a day on which we joyously celebrate being liberated from bondage and slavery to sin and death.  In this celebration we also acknowledge that we were slaves – not just our ancestors, but we ourselves were slaves to our own passions, to sin, to death itself.   God freed us from this bondage through Jesus Christ just as He led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt.

American Christians no doubt feel like the Jews in John 8 – we have never been in bondage to anyone, how can Jesus say he makes us free?

Jesus then said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples,  and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham, and have never been in bondage to any one. How is it that you say, ‘You will be made free’?”  Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, every one who commits sin is a slave to sin.  The slave does not continue in the house for ever; the son continues for ever.  So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.   (John8:31-36) 

Fundamental to being a Christian is the realistic assessment of ourselves that we are in fact slaves to passion, sin and death, and that we need the intervention from God to be liberated from this slavery.  Jesus Christ has in fact already liberated us from enslavement. This is what we celebrate in the Eucharistic (Thanksgiving) Liturgy of the Church. It is the celebration of our willingness to be slaves of God rather than of ourselves.

For Americans, we should be able to relate to the connection between Christ and freedom.  And not just because of our historical fight for independence, but because slavery was a huge part of our own history.   Here is a story from the life of former slave and abolitionist Harriet Tubman, who truly understood what deliverance from slavery meant.  (Taken from the NY TIMES “Mose’s Last Exit” by Adam Goodheart):

“Tubman was back in Auburn by Christmas Day, 1860, having conveyed the Ennals family safely to Canada. (Abolitionists often noted the irony of Americans fleeing the “land of liberty” to seek freedom under Queen Victoria’s sheltering scepter.) Her secret missions ended with the approach of war.

But one night in the midst of the secession crisis, while staying at the house of another black leader, a vision came to Tubman in a dream that all of America’s slaves were soon to be liberated – a vision so powerful that she rose from bed singing. Her host tried in vain to quiet her; perhaps their grandchildren would live to see the day of jubilee, he said, but they themselves surely would not. “I tell you, sir, you’ll see it, and you’ll see it soon,” she retorted, and sang again: ‘My people are free! My people are free.’”

The Israelites moved from slavery in Egypt to the promised land, which in turn is the prototype for the Christian understanding of Christ leading us from death to life and earth to heaven.  American slaves had to escape “the land of the free” to get to Canada which was under the Queen of England’s rule in order to be free of slavery!

Christmas is a great celebration for us because on this day we celebrate the birth of the great liberator of humankind.  We now can live as free men and women – exercising self control, self denial, fasting, asceticism, and love for others.  No longer do we have to live in subjugation to our passions and cravings and self centeredness.  We are free to be full human beings capable of loving, forgiving, sharing,  practicing altruism rather than merely being products of or controlled by passions, reactions, genes, emotions, instincts, survival, self preservation or evolution.

At Christmas we celebrate the Nativity of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ – so it should be a day of rejoicing and celebration.  And we should use the day to help lift others from enslavement to poverty, suffering and need, just as Christ in His love freed us from our own impoverishment and slavery.

Servant of God or Slave to Self & Sin?

Romans 6:20-22

For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. What fruit did you have then in the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. But now having been set free from sin, and having become slaves of God, you have your fruit to holiness, and the end, everlasting life.

St. Paul speaks about us being slaves to sin  – we act at times as though we cannot do otherwise but obey our sinful nature.  However, he sees us being able to choose a different way – we can choose to make ourselves obedient to God, and thus servants/slaves of God.  Sin and righteousness are not the only things to which we can become enslaved.  Certainly people can become slaves to themselves – so totally trapped in self-centeredness and the demands of their own mind and bodies that they behave as slaves to their own desires. 

“Do you not know that if you yield yourselves to any one as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?”  (Romans 6:16)

In the desert fathers we find this story about enslavement – we can become enslaved to anything that we value more than God or more than neighbor.  It is love ultimately which frees us from all such enslavement:

There are times when a person will ignore large sums of money; nevertheless when it comes to a small needle, one’s attachment to it may cause one much trouble. Then, the small needle replaces the large amount of money. Therefore, one becomes a slave of the needle, or the monastic cap, or the handkerchief, or the book,  instead of being a servant of God. (Amma Dionysia, In the Heart of the Desert, pg. 130)

God Questions His Creation: Genesis 9:24-29 (b)

See:  God Questions His Creation: Genesis 9:24-29 (a) 

Noah & Family in the Ark

Genesis 9:24   When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him, 25 he said, “Cursed be Canaan; a slave of slaves shall he be to his brothers.” 26 He also said, “Blessed by the LORD my God be Shem; and let Canaan be his slave.” 27 God enlarge Japheth, and let him dwell in the tents of Shem; and let Canaan be his slave.” 28 After the flood Noah lived three hundred and fifty years. 29 All the days of Noah were nine hundred and fifty years; and he died. 

 “Cursed be Canaan; a slave of slaves shall he be…”   Though Noah curses his grandson, Canaan, to be a slave to his brothers, in Psalm 105:27, Egypt is referred to as the land of Ham where ironically it will not be Canaan who will be enslaved, but where the descendents of the blessed Shem will be enslaved by the descendents of Ham.

St. Paul


Genesis connects slavery to sin, a theme picked up by St. Paul:   “Do you not know that if you yield yourselves to any one as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. …But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the return you get is sanctification and its end, eternal life.  For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:16-18,22-23). 

Chrysostom did not believe that the original sin doomed us all to sin.  “If, however, we are on the alert, these evils that came into life as a result of the sins of our forbearers will in no way be able to harm us, going no further than the level of terminology.”  We are not somehow predetermined to be sinners by what Adam or any of our ancestors have done.   Humans can resist sin, but it requires great vigilance and determination.   We are not predestined to sin.   In his thinking St. John follows the wisdom of Sirach:   “It was he who created man in the beginning, and he left him in the power of his own inclination.  If you will, you can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice.  He has placed before you fire and water: stretch out your hand for whichever you wish.  Before a man are life and death, and whichever he chooses will be given to him” (Sirach 15:14-17). 

“Blessed by the LORD my God be Shem…”  Noah’s second sentence is not so much a blessing on his two other sons, but an acknowledgement that God has blessed them (9:1).   Canaan, Ham’s son is cursed to become slave to his uncles.  He is not to be treated as kin but as chattel.  He is disinherited from the family tree.  What did Ham feel when he realized what effect his sin had on his son’s life and fate?  No reaction is recorded of how the sons responded to their father’s blessings and curse. 

Old Testament Patriarchs


When Noah dies, Abram the next major hero of Genesis is already born.  Noah is the 10th generation from Adam, and Abram is the 10th generation from Noah.  Noah’s was the first birth recorded after Adam’s death.  So Noah’s life stretches virtually from the time of Adam’s death until the time of Abram’s birth.   He is thus a key figure in the genealogy connecting the father of mankind Adam who was a man of great promise to the father of the people of God’s promise Abraham.   Adam, Noah and Abraham thus each in their own way become the father of us all.   

Next: God Questions His Creation: The Conclusion of the Flood (a) 

God Questions His Creation: Genesis 9:24-29 (a)

See:  God Questions His Creation: Genesis 9:18-23 (c)

Genesis 9:24 When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him, 25 he said, “Cursed be Canaan; a slave of slaves shall he be to his brothers.” 26 He also said, “Blessed by the LORD my God be Shem; and let Canaan be his slave.” 27 God enlarge Japheth, and let him dwell in the tents of Shem; and let Canaan be his slave.” 28 After the flood Noah lived three hundred and fifty years. 29 All the days of Noah were nine hundred and fifty years; and he died.

“When Noah awoke from his wine…”  Many a drunk and alcoholic awakens from his alcohol induced stupor to discover to his/her shame and horror all manners of sin, evil, destruction and loss that he/she has caused or suffered.  “Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler; and whoever is led astray by it is not wise” (Proverbs 20:1). The effects of drunkenness are well attested in the ancient world and in the Bible:  “Who has woe? Who has sorrow? Who has strife? Who has complaining? Who has wounds without cause? Who has redness of eyes? Those who tarry long over wine, those who go to try mixed wine.  Do not look at wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup and goes down smoothly. At the last it bites like a serpent, and stings like an adder. Your eyes will see strange things, and your mind utter perverse things. You will be like one who lies down in the midst of the sea, like one who lies on the top of a mast. ‘They struck me,’ you will say, ‘but I was not hurt; they beat me, but I did not feel it. When shall I awake? I will seek another drink’” (Proverbs 23:29-35). 

“…knew what his youngest son had done to him…”   Noah has been violated in an awful way.  He knows it – can feel it.  No one tells him about it.  He knew immediately upon waking from his drunken stupor that he had been violated not just viewed.   Noah may have been drunk, but Ham was sober when he violated his father.   While drunkenness is not an acceptable excuse for sinning, sin intentionally committed by a person in their right mind is a much more offensive fault.   Additionally he commits the heinous act upon a person who is unconscious.  Can it get worse than that?   Yes, the person was his own father.  

“Cursed be Canaan…”    Ancient curses were never understood as mere words, but are always active and have a powerful (negative) effect on the cursed. 

For the first time in Genesis, Noah, God’s righteous one, speaks, and his first words are a curse!  He curses his grandson, in what seems to be an egregiously unfair act.  It is possible the Noah’s curse on his grandson stems from the fact that when Noah sobers up and can feel what his son Ham did to him, he curses Ham’s son, Canaan, so that Ham can know what Noah feels – what it is like to have a son who is wicked and cursed.  Even the Patristic writers recognized Noah’s curse as being patently unjust.  As mentioned in the comments on Genesis 9:1, Noah perhaps felt he could not curse Ham because Ham had been blessed by God.  But so outraged was Noah that he strikes angrily at Ham by cursing Ham’s son.    Many a parent would rather be the one blamed and cursed for a fault than to let that curse/punishment fall on their child.  Ham listens to his own son being cursed for what he himself had done.   Would this not have sickened and crushed him?  He may have thought it clever and funny to “expose” his father’s failure and drunkenness; now, the table is suddenly turned and his own failure as son is exposed to the detriment of his own child.  He must have felt severely punished by such a curse so unfairly falling on his own son.  Canaan is unfairly cursed and handicapped due to no fault of his own. Canaan truly suffers for the sin of his father. Chrysostom thinks Ham would have felt more punished by having the curse fall on his son rather than falling on himself.   Ham is given no opportunity to repent or seek forgiveness.  What horror he must have felt when he realized his child was doomed to servility and slavery. 

"Freedman" J.Q.A. Ward (1863, Cincinnati Art Museum)

Chrysostom writes, “…consider the grave evil sin is… behold the man sharing the same birth pangs as his brothers, born of the same womb, yet made their slave by the onset of sin, robbed of his freedom and brought into subjection—hence the origin of his subsequent condition of servitude.  Before this, you see, there was not such indulgence, people being pampered in this way and needing others to minister to their needs; rather, each one looked to his own needs, there being great equality of esteem and complete absence of discrimination.  When sin entered the scene, on the contrary, it impaired freedom, destroyed the worth inherent in nature and introduced servitude so as to provide constant instruction and reminder to the human race to shun the servitude of sin while returning to the freedom of virtue.”   Slavery and discrimination are not part of the natural order of God’s world.  Humans were not created to be servants of other humans but all were created equal – to be helpers to one another not servants and slaves to others.   It is interesting that Chrysostom even mentions equality and that he declares servitude is the result of sin and not what God intended for those created in His image and likeness.  Social class would thus also be a result of sin and belongs to the fallen world, not to the natural order.   One might conjecture: did Chrysostom also did not think women were originally created to be servants of men either?  The Fall has corrupted every human relationship.  

Power and control over others is a result of sin, not a normal part of God’s order for humanity.  Still, God will not allow the humans to suffer something that He is not willing to take on Himself.  God’s Son also takes on the role of servant when He comes into the world.  “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,  who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,  but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:5).  The incarnate God, Jesus Christ, becomes a servant in order to save us.  He also models for us the way of life which is the way of God’s love.  “When (Jesus) had washed their feet, and taken his garments, and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you?  You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am.  If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.  For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (John 13:12-15).   “For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).  Human slavery and servitude is the result of the Fall.  God however, will use servitude to accomplish the salvation of the human race just as He uses death, another result of the Fall.

 Next:   God Questions His Creation: Genesis 9:24-29 (b)

God Questions His Creation: Genesis 9:18-23 (b)

 See:   God Questions His Creation: Genesis 9:18-23 (a)

Genesis 9:18 The sons of Noah who went forth from the ark were Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Ham was the father of Canaan. 19 These three were the sons of Noah; and from these the whole earth was peopled. 20 Noah was the first tiller of the soil. He planted a vineyard; 21 and he drank of the wine, and became drunk, and lay uncovered in his tent. 22 And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside. 23 Then Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it upon both their shoulders, and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father; their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father’s nakedness.

St. John Chrysostom

Chrysostom says wine is not in itself evil, but intemperance always leads to sin.  He also notes that since Noah was the first to get drunk, drunkenness is reported only after the flood occurred and therefore must not have been one of the sins that led to God destroying the world through the flood.   “I mean, voluntary intoxication is really a demon, clouding the intellect more severely than any demon, and robbing its victim of any sense of values…. The drunk, on the other hand, does not deserve excuse, no matter what he does.”  Chrysostom has no pity for the drunk who he believes chooses his evil ways.   Chrysostom does not have our modern sense of uncontrollable alcoholism but only the person who willingly “surrendered himself to the tyranny of drunkenness.”   He does see drunkenness as a tyrant, but drunkenness is still chosen sin.  “The fact of sinning is not so harmful as persisting in sin.”   Chrysostom was a firm believer in free will and did not hold to ideas of predestination to sin, nor of genetic predetermination toward an illness.  He sees humans as making their choices, some of which lead to slavery to sin, but that is the end result of an unwillingness to resist temptation or evil.

“became drunk…”    Though Noah is considered righteous by God, this does not mean sinless.  Noah commits sin in his drunkenness.  Christ alone is said in scripture to be without sin (Hebrews 4:5), and later Christian thinking also attributes sinlessness to the Theotokos.  In the Orthodox funeral service the priest says, “there is no one who lives and does not sin, for You (Christ) only are without sin and Your righteousness is to all eternity.”   God sees the hearts of each of us and judges our hearts.  He works with those who love and fear Him, even if they do on occasion sin against Him.   Noah’s moral lapse does not cancel God’s seeing him as righteous.   God is realistic in dealing with humans – He knows their hearts are inclined to evil, but He also is able to distinguish between a moral lapse and defiant evil.

“Ham… saw the nakedness of his father.”   Ham reveals his true nature – shamelessness.   Genesis traces the history of humanity through the relationship of father to son, but it makes comment neither about the role and responsibility of a father nor that of the son.  Be that as it may, whatever human wisdom or tradition exists is being handed down through these relationships.  Suddenly in the story of Ham, we are confronted with another reality.   Cain committed fratricide against Abel.   But for the first time since Adam and Eve rebelled against God in Paradise, a son is reported to commit an offense against his father.  And the depraved and base offense appears to involve something incestuous and lewd.   And whatever it is, Ham is shameless, for he does not try to hide his offense but rather calls his brothers to see as well.  And now the brothers for the first time witness their father having been humiliated.  The story shows the collapse of natural relationships, the collapse of respect, and the existence of shamelessness, lewdness, as well as wicked sexual abuse.  A new kind of evil has been unleashed within humanity.   And Shem and Japheth in shock can do nothing more than cover the nakedness of their father.  They are shamed and embarrassed for their father’s humiliation.  They do not even want to look upon what has happened.   And yet they do nothing to their younger brother, but await their father’s sobering up from his drunken stupor to discover what has been done to him.   Either in respect for their father’s authority, or lacking the will to deal with the offense, they leave it up to their father to deal with the evil which has occurred.  Is it possible that they were in such shock to realize that though God had saved them from the wickedness of the world by means of the ark and the flood, that they witness and realize Ham has now committed the same old sins in the newly purified world?  The darkest abuse and violation in a family has occurred.  Natural relationships have been destroyed.  Two brothers are called in to be voyeuristic witnesses to the indignation and they are so shamed that they will not even look but want to cover it up – and then let their father deal with it.  

 Next:   God Questions His Creation: Genesis 9:18-23 (c)

Abe Lincoln: The Genius of the People’s President

TeamRivalsI had time this weekend to finish reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s TEAM OF RIVALS: THE POLITICAL GENIUS OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN.    A truly excellent read which because I knew how the story ends I also found the last chapter totally heartbreaking.   Lincoln never got to enjoy for one whole day the victory that he had achieved for humanity.

It is not overstating the case to argue that Lincoln, by his personality and wisdom was the person who held together the Republican Party as well as the tremendously fragile coalition which was the United States of America during the Civil War which had torn the U. S. apart.  The person of Abe Lincoln is what made the difference – not only his ideas but how he dealt with the various factions he was constantly juggling, balancing as well as holding together. 

Lincoln was criticized from every side and from every extreme, blamed for all that went wrong, and yet in the end many of these factions came to see how right he was.   He was a determined and ambitious fellow to rise to the presidency as he did, but he knew how to spread credit around for what was going right and how to accept blame even when it was others who failed.  He was forced to deal with the most divisive issue which all American politicians before him had avoided – that of slavery which also in America was founded in racism.   And even for those who opposed slavery as an evil, the issue of the Black man’s role in America was far from secure as many who opposed slavery did not want to give citizenship to blacks for they were still at the point of only granting basic human rights to a people they previously did not consider fully human.    It was not just slavery that had enslaved America, it was racial prejudice which had blinded the citizens of the country to their hard fought claim that “all men are created equal.”   lincolnLincoln came to understand that this was the real issue that America itself had neither resolved nor embraced.

Compared to modern politicians, I think Lincoln’s greatness lay in his ability to see his rivals and opponents as having different points of view rather than as being enemies of himself, the government or the nation.  The American political divide today is so caustic because political factions do not see each other as Americans with different points of view but rather only as enemies, traitors, treacherous who must be destroyed.   Lincoln on the other hand was always trying to figure out how to hold it all together.   He wanted to preserve the Union and understood he had to preserve the unity of those who called themselves Republicans to do it.

He believed the government of the United States was of, by and for the people.  What he felt had never happened before in history was whether such a government could hold itself together at a time of deep political crisis and division.  Do humans need a king, emperor or dictator to force themselves to live and work together?    Nobody knew until the American Civil War, and Lincoln showed that in fact democracy – even democracy deeply divided by civil war – can resolve its differences.  No king or tyrant is needed, people can resolve to deal with evil in their midst without making each other evil.

Washington then as today was greatly influenced by rumor.  Of course in Lincoln’s day getting the true story or picture of what was happening somewhere in the country was not always easy.  News filtered in slowly and incompletely and people acted on rumor and misinformation constantly.  Unlike today where CNN or 100 cell phone cameras and video cameras constantly record and instantly report to the world every little thing that goes on, in the mid-19th Century it took days for stories to be reported – even events that everyone knew were going to happen such as battles.   People knew that it took time for news to be reported and digested and they expected their leaders to act in a timely fashion – which as Lincoln wisely showed does not always mean instantly.   He understood the difference between the imminent and the important. 

 LincolnMemLincoln came to recognize that any little thing he said became part of the public record and so he learned caution in speech.  He had by nature a wisdom which told him do not speak or act in public when you are angry.  Think before you commit yourself to anything and differentiate between that which provokes anger in you and that which really matters for one’s true goals.  In Lincoln’s words:

“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds … to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”