Friday, 23 April 2010

Allegiance and rebellion in against the tide

I've been leading morning prayers at the end of this week. Yesterday and today as well as a Bible reading I've offered the handful of folk at morning prayer a short extract from the wonderful Miroslav Volf book Against the Tide. Volf's writing is extraordinarily powerful and I could post quotes from every essay, really profound spiritual writing. Here are the passages I read for colleagues this morning, from an essay called "Allegiance and rebellion" which recounts some of his thoughts on the Good Friday he was naturalized as a citizen of the USA.

On my application form for naturaliztion I stated that I would not bear arms. To demonstrate the sincerity of my convictions, I appended a brief statement explaining that in communist Yugoslavia I had been persecuted partly because of my pacifist stance. The explanation didn't help. To be exempt from the obligation to bear arms in the United States, I had to be a member of a recognized religious body with an official pacifist position.
During the interview about my application for citizenship, my interlocutor tried to persuade me to change my mind.
"A stapler is an 'arm'", said the exasperated woman behind the counter.
"I use a stapler every day" I responded "but not to kill people."
"We don't want you to kill people!"
"So we agree?"
"But would you not defend your wife and children?"
"I will defend but I will not kill."
"There are mean people out there, ruthless autocrats you know."
"Yes I was born in the former Yugoslavia."
"Then you should know better. "
"Maybe I do," I said.
Later another official listened for about ten minutes to my dozen ways of saying I will defend but not bear arms and then suggested a compromise. At the place on the form where I had checked that I will not bear arms, she drew a line and wrote. "Will defend." I initialed, and was granted permission to become a citizen - citizen Volf, who will defend without bearing arms ... except staplers, of course.
A day or so after I was naturalised, I received a congratulatory card from my in-laws. It featured not a patriotic slogan but this quotation:
As citizens, Christians share all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers ... They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives.
The passage was from the early second century Epistle of Mathetus to Diognetus. The words put in a memorable way the dialectic of distance and belonging, of strangeness and domesticityx, of surpassing the laws and obeying them. A word of welcome appropriate to citizen Volf, who for the first time would be celebrating Independance Day as an American citizen - a citizen whose ultimate allegiance is to a polity ruled by the crucified Messiah.