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Sermon Madison

Chalet Mon Abri
CH - 1882 Gryon, Switzerland
(**41 24) 498 1656 UDDEBCH@AOL.COM

Dear Reader of Footnotes:

On the heels of the long letter you received a month ago comes this, the next issue of FOOTNOTES. At the outset I introduce you to Christianity versus Fatalistic Religions in the War against Poverty (Paternoster Press 2008). Next, I report on a discussion with Bernard Henry Levy on the occasion of his latest book, Left in Dark Times. I continue with a few comments about the recent election in the US. The fourth part consists of a sermon preached recently at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York. We attend there when in the city. It is a great benefit to us. The carefully studied sermons, the liturgical culture, the weekly Communion and the careful selection of the music and hymns make us eager to get there. We also like its work among the poor in the city as well as involvement with churches in three countries of Southern Africa.

As they say: Enjoy! Cordially yours,    Udo


Christianity versus Fatalistic Religions in the War against Poverty compares alternative worldviews and their effect on the way people around the world cope with life. I invite you to get a copy. I wrote it to compile what I discovered when teaching on the subject during my work with Food for the Hungry, a Christian relief agency. I suggest that the real poverty is frequently not so much in material goods, but in mindsets, religions and social customs that impoverish people and their lives. While compassion, love and mercy are to be real in our character, they are not the only requirements to help the poor around us. The flaw in a painful world is not only present in poor distribution, but also in poor ideas.

When I taught about what is actually Christian about Christian relief and development, I discovered that for the most part people talked about unfairness of consumption. The goal was to reach a common quantity. However it seems to me that the Bible is not promoting mathematical equality as a goal, but the correction of false ideas about life, work and society under God.

You will find the content of the new book easy to read and useful for discussions in small groups, Bible studies and with friends and neighbors. It helps us understand how faulty views result in bad habits and thus quite often in poverty of spirit, mind and resources. My basic proposition is that religions tie people to what has always been, something bigger, longer lasting and controlling. Religions demand a merger of the person into a higher idea, substance, or practice. The individual is told to flow along with traditions, to disappear in history, to bow to nature’s impersonal dictates and to repeat what the authority says.

Contrast that with the invitation in the Bible to know a God Who loves us, sets us free from undue burdens and gives us the mandates to work and to create, to argue and discover what a good life is in areas of morality, purpose and imagination. Where this has been taught and believed from the Scripture it has led to relative freedom from the soil, from the Fall and from earthly powers. That mindset has put food on the table, fixed damaged bodies and cleaned immoral governments.

The Western world did not become itself until after generations had been under Biblical teaching and saw life differently from the general fatalism that is common to all religions. God is mindful of Man (Ps. 8), whereas in other perspectives, both religious and secular, Man forgets his uniqueness and merges with whatever is.

I shall happily send you a copy of the book when you use the enclosed envelope and mail it with a donation to the work of the Francis Schaeffer Foundation.


While in New York Debby and I had the great privilege of attending two presentations by the French Philosopher Bernard Henri Levy. He spoke at Barnes and Noble one night and at the famous 92nd Street Y the next. Both times his new book, Left in Dark Times, was the subject of his talk.

That title has a double meaning. We live, are all left, in dark times. They surround us with unfriendly powers, a more totalitarian Russia, the threat of nuclear irresponsibility, and the failure of the West to address deep moral, social, intellectual and economic challenges in our countries. Libertarian ideals and expanding personal rights have not included responsible stewardship of the social reality of neighborhoods, cities and states, or of education and moral training towards adult behavior. Too many practice permanent adolescence. We depend on foreign goodwill -- primarily on energy for which we pay cash (which of course they also want and need). But then we borrow that cash from them against our government’s papers (or future repayments). These we have to trade in eventually against goods or cash. All that to maintain our life style, which we count on future generations to repay, when we are dead and they sit in the dark!

But Levy also says that because ideologies have brought about these dark times, all ideologies have to be reviewed, the liberal left and conservative right. We have to dare to think against ourselves, to permit a measure of disloyalty to our own family of values, on the right and on the left. For one should also speak for the truth from inside one’s own camp, even if it involves taking a lonely position.

Opposition to the other camp will motivate us, but it is no indication of a clear understanding of what is moral. For morality has nothing to do with only one side or the other. Morality relates to love for God and neighbor, as laid out in the sermon below. Accepting preconceived ideas of one side or the other shows only an affiliation and a socio/political identity. It is a form of repetition, not a moral decision.

When we see ourselves only in relation to the right or left, we embrace the notion that we have a generous, appropriate and open solution. But those characteristics are also claimed and often found on the other side. Why then do we encounter such paradoxes? Because the Right and Left have become political, with ideas that are often removed from moral concerns, they serve political ends; they draw their value from being against something the others hold; they may have nothing to do with God, neighbor or the world of reality. 

The Left in recent history was simultaneously for an intervention in Serbia and against it, for Sarajevo and for Milosovitch. A false loyalty, a failure to see an occasional duty to unfaithfulness towards one’s political family is the mark of a political and not a moral interest.

Perhaps you can see the impure nature of so many political orientations. It leads to open contradictions. Consider that from the Left Marxism propagated upset and revolution against any previous order. It promised change and justice; seen from the outside and from the political Right, it consistently practiced an imposed order and massive enslavement, a denial of dissent, wherever it came to power, starting with its own people.

At present, when so many Marxists would like to turn their back on these memories, the cruelty of its system in the past (and in North Korea and China still in the present), must be exposed and accused. A religious and philosophical equivalent of Marxism today is Islam, which requires similar exposure and accusation from us against its culture. For the sakes of today’s women and the whole of tomorrow’s generation of a failing society, we should be advancing an open civil society characterized by inquiry.

Instead, the Left does not recognize (again!) the real problem. Although Islamic Fundamentalism is in character a form of fascism, few socialists work for change there.. The Left chooses to align itself against Israel, where just such an open, civil society exists. Because the Left has this idea that Israel is evil, Palestinians must be regarded as victims, despite sixty years of being victims by choice and at the imposition of their own government.

Levy maintains a similarly critical and moral position about the Right. We proclaim to be interested in human rights, equality of people and opportunities for all. Yet we do not practice that very well when we withdraw into gated communities, either with real gates closing us off literally or with economic gates confining others to the education influenced by the tax base of a community. We believe people can change, but have taken away the change agents, including the Bible out of public schools, where it was taught as literature rather than in a religious context.

Christians are to bear witness. But how can they when they have adopted their own vocabulary and a life that is separated in cultural terms, not just morally. How can there be a public square, when each side excludes the other from what used to be considered public, the Right withdrawing to private squares and the Left hindering truly public life?

Levy sees the Right as enamored from within with an ideology of freedom and human rights, private property and economic liberalism. Viewed from the Left, i.e. the outside, it creates enormous wealth and deep poverty, enslaves people in factories, neglects the poor and stands for human rights only when the political gains are desirable and propitious. Just as the Left does, the Right presents a case of advocating one thing and doing another.

Levy had already rebuked both Left and Right in 1968. Since he does not really fit into either group, both revile him now. He spares no words to accuse the Left of horrendous inhumanities, blasting Lenin for distorting Marx to satisfy his own lust for power. He points out the poison of an ideology that dreamt of revolution, yet turned out to be more nightmarish than any previous dream. But then he also takes on the ideology of the Right that neglects the details of people being violated, forgotten and employed only as means of production.

When only the results on the bottom line count, the lot of the human employees matters little. Community is undervalued, responsibilities for the welfare of all are abandoned. One freely walks off the job, and the other is free to let him go without any wider consideration. The sharing of ups and downs among all is rarely considered. The element of shame is largely absent. Neither side knows a restraint to greed, all the while complaining about the other.

Where is the Right’s expression of care for individuals when ideas about them are more important than the individual employee or neighbor? Is global trade seen only from the advantage of cheaper goods and services without any concern about such things as the sexual trade and their services? Are these humans without rights? Is the emphasis on individuality only a protective ring around my own individualism?

Little wonder, then, that Levy is attacked by the Left and written off by the Right. But then Levy argues not from a political or ideological perspective, but from a moral one. Anyone who finds that objectionable prefers a political vision and neglects what ought to be a moral vision: Is a wrong only present when the other side commits it? Is there not also a wrong done when neither side objects to it? Should there not be one law for all, on the Right and on the Left?

That is a viewpoint easily overlooked in these days of political opposites amidst moral relativism. Our moral compass should direct our political one, not the other way around. Neither Left nor Right has been careful about that. It is always easy to see the splinter in the eye of others. It is equally dangerous to rule society by laws from their “god” and from their ideology. Both also need the contribution of sense, rationality and respect for the real world.

Levy defends Israel’s right to exist from a moral orientation. Israel is a state with a foundation document, a self-critiquing democracy and an open and productive society. Denying its right to exist would be parallel to denying America’s right on the basis of its Declaration of Iindependence. Levy accuses the political Left in our countries of an unjustified support of Palestinian claims to the land. The UN acceptance of Israel and the many wars lost by Arab states should silence their claims. But because there is retaliation against Islamic violence, Muslims are seen as victims rather than perpetrators.

On both the Right and the Left the problem lies in an ideology about the world.  But our concern should be morality, justice and rationality; and also compassion for the fact that human history since Adam and Eve has made life such a messy, unfair and ‘unresolvable’ experience. With that being the real situation, we should deal with each problem at hand, adequately analyze its context and do what is morally right. We hand back the bonus, reduce costs and wages, and row together in a loaded boat to the next shore. An individual must make the decisions; the market merely carries them out.


Now that the election in the US is over and the new president has been elected allow me to make a few comments. I know that many were disappointed and now fear the worst. Disappointments with human beings are frequent and give ample reason for fear at any time. Yet, faith that another outcome would have been better is only that: faith. I would have preferred it, but it contained no guarantees. 

My hope is that the system of government and a civil society will make it quite difficult to fulfill the more extreme promises of the campaign rhetoric. The quasi-Messianic expectations will be pared down by the reality of people, both good and not so good, both here and abroad. Many around the world will give the new government a bonus of expectations. Whether they shall become real depends on many factors beyond our control. The reality on the ground of friends and foes will hopefully transform beautiful words into workable, effective and beneficial initiatives. And the pressure may transform our society into one more civil than before.  

Our side did not sufficiently address the real and present problems in our society. We did not do well in addressing social, moral and philosophical questions. We did not lay out the reasons for the views we hold. At times elections appear to be more like boxing matches than intelligent presentations of viewpoints. More than enthusiasm is required. I like mavericks, but they must express and be restrained by more than ‘causes’ or cynical positions.

We live in a very dangerous world. History has not ended, there is no new world order as announced a decade ago. We must pray and work to strengthen our character. Any election is a judgment on what went before, not always justified, nor necessarily moral, but a judgment it is. The enthusiasm demonstrated for the winner and the youthful participation can be a signal of hope and cynicism, of coming real change and naiveté. It is also a judgment over failure to address issues and problems.

Many rightly fear a weakness towards the advances of Islam and the appeal to people of other forms of totalitarianism around the world. Should we not recognize here a possible weakness in our explanations of a free society? Do we not see a poverty of living it out, when increasing selfishness, fragmentation and moral decay give evidence of license rather than freedom, of greed rather than community? I am not saying that we have an obligation to be liked by or to get along with everyone. There will always be envy and lust. Some will seek to destroy. But the life we now live, and the picture we present to outsiders need their foundation in moral choices for greater civility within the family, in public and in workplace relationships.    

The increasing cynicism here and around the world is also a response to a failure to improve the human situation. Any totalitarianism promises one size-fits-all solutions, rules of behavior, a hope for reality. Sadly, it always remains only a promise. Now it is up to us to show that we can in fact put the alternative of a free and civil society into practice. The hope for change may yet be realized when it is not based on enforced equality, but a change in moral character.

The next election in two years will review our progress or our failure.

   ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^   “THE END OF THE LAW”

(preached on September 7, 2008 on the text of Romans 13:8-14. I reprint it here with J.C. Austin’s permission.)

“After we bought our apartment seven years ago, we received a copy of “the house rules” from the co-op board.  Essentially, it told us all the things we couldn’t do and all the things we had to do while living in the building, and it contained a lot more than just ten commandments.  Thou shalt not play a musical instrument before 8 am or after 11 pm.  Thou shalt cover at least 80% of thy floors with rugs.  Thou shalt keep thy windows clean.  Neither thy children nor thy children’s children shall play in the public halls.  Thou shalt not hang plants, nor satellite dishes, nor laundry, nor anything else from thy fire escape.  Thou shalt seek the written approval of the board before renovating thy bathroom or kitchen.   Honor thy Superintendent and thy Board of Directors, so that thy days may be long in the building.  Elizabethan English aside, that’s pretty much the way the whole thing reads.  The point, of course, is simple: to lay down the law clearly and fairly so that people will keep from disturbing or intruding upon one another’s privacy.  The house rules are the urban equivalent of fences in the suburbs or country:  you can do pretty much whatever you want to do in your own property as long as you stay inside those boundaries.  But if you step beyond them, you are intruding on your neighbor’s property or privacy or privileges, and that is unacceptable.  The key to good neighborly relations is honoring those boundaries. 

In other words, “good fences make good neighbors.”  It’s an old Yankee proverb that summarizes this basic conviction.  In a well-known poem called “Mending Wall,” Robert Frost considers that sentiment in light of a wall between his own farm and his neighbor’s.  It is a stone masonry wall, and the winter cold splits the wall in places and opens up gaps.  So, when spring comes, it is time to mend the wall. “And on a day we meet to walk the line / And set the wall between us once again,” he says. “We keep the wall between us as we go. To each the boulders that have fallen to each.”  As they work, he points out to his neighbor that they don’t really even need this wall; they each only have trees, which certainly won’t get through to eat up the other’s property.  But the neighbor only says, “Good fences make good neighbors.” 

Frost thinks to himself: Why do they make good neighbors?  Isn’t it where there are cows?  But here there are no cows. Before I built a wall I’d ask to know What I was walling in or walling out,And to whom I was like to give offense.Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,That wants it down….I see him there,Bring a stone grasped firmly by the topIn each hand, like an old-stone savage armed….He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

That impression of his neighbor raising the broken pieces of wall as a Stone Age warrior lifting weapons over his head, of course, is why walls make good neighbors.  Neighbors can be dangerous; all of us have that ancient drive to protect our territory, our property, our resources, lurking somewhere in the dark corners of our hearts.  That is why we keep the wall between us as we go.  We are walling in ourselves, walling out the other, to protect ourselves from each other, to ensure there is no reason to take the law into our own hands.

That’s the definition of “the rule of law,” after all.  The law, essentially, is a neutral third party to which everyone defers rather than seeking their own retribution for perceived wrongs.  It establishes the boundaries between individual rights and personal responsibility; I have the right to practice my guitar in my own apartment, but I have the responsibility not to do so in a way that infringes on my neighbor’s right to a good night’s sleep.  And if I decide that I need to work on some screaming blues solo at 2 a.m., my neighbor has an alternative to coming upstairs to bash me over the head with my own guitar: he has the law to which he can appeal.  The law holds everyone to the same standards and, if those standards are violated, it punishes and corrects the violator with objectively prescribed responses rather than leaving it up to the aggrieved party to decide what is appropriate and then to act upon that.  It clearly lays out the responsibilities that we owe to one another, and in that way it contains vengeance and establishes justice.

And yet, something there is that doesn’t love a wall.  In this case, it appears to be love itself, at least according to Paul:  “Owe no one anything, except to love one another, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law,” he says.  Love should be our only debt to one another; it sounds like Paul is shooting to enter the pop culture pantheon of cheap odes to love with that one: owe no one anything, except to love one another; love conquers all; love means never having to say you’re sorry; love lifts us up where we belong; all you need is love!  Actually that last one is pretty much Paul’s statement said differently; perhaps John Lennon was working with this Paul when he wrote that song for the Beatles!  But that’s how we often read this passage and other ones like it: if all you need is love, then love is the end of the law. 

But if love is all you need, then what, exactly, is it?  We usually talk about love as an overwhelming emotion in our culture: love is what we feel for our children, our spouses, our partners, our closest friends; it is a deep appreciation, admiration, and affection for who they are.  More generally, it describes our appreciation, admiration, or affection for anything that makes us feel good: we love chocolate, we love music, we love the Yankees (though that hasn’t really made us feel good this year!).  And since love is a feeling, it is not something you work at or work for; real love is something that happens, naturally and unconsciously.  We fall in love, we don’t exercise a controlled descent.   

Paul would have no idea what we were talking about if we defined love that way to him.  For Paul, emotion has nothing whatsoever to do with love.  How you feel about someone is irrelevant when it comes to love; what matters is how you treat them.  Given that outlook, Paul’s words should give us pause.  Paul says, “The commandments, ‘you shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not covet,’ and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’  Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.”  That challenges our basic understanding of love as unconscious, uncontrollable, and lawless; and so it should be no surprise that our concept of love allows us to do all kinds of wrong to a neighbor.  How many adulterous relationships have been justified by saying, “I didn’t mean for it to happen; we just fell in love”?  But according to Paul, there can be no love at work in the midst of adultery; adultery, clearly, is doing wrong to a neighbor, whether that neighbor is your own spouse or someone else’s.  More seriously, all kinds of murders have been carried out in the name of love, from the aristocratic intrigues that inspired Shakespeare and his like to the trailer park love triangles that fill up the schedules of daytime talk shows.  And stealing and especially coveting are often justified with the language of love: I would love to have my neighbor’s apartment, or jewelry, or job, or family.  

You see, love needs the law to keep itself honest.  Love may be all that we need, but the love we need has a very specific object and criteria for judging its quality.  In summarizing the law, Jesus and Paul agree that it says we must love our neighbor as ourselves. The law reminds us that our neighbors have specific needs and rights that are every bit as valid as our own, and which we must recognize and respond to just as we do to our own.  So who are our neighbors?  On the most basic level, the word “neighbor” simply and literally means “the one who is nearby,”1 and that seems significant here.  It is not just those within the Christian community, but it is also not simply “others.”  We must love our neighbors, the people who are nearby that we spend most of our lives around: the mother across the hall who wants to play “competitive child development” between your child and hers every time she sees you in the elevator; the kids above you who sound like they hold close-order marches every day from how loud they stomp around on your ceiling; the guy around the corner who’s always glaring at you while complaining about how much the building has changed since he first moved in.  Loving our neighbors is much more demanding than simply loving others; we can love others simply by attending to their needs from a distance and being done with them.  But we have to live with our neighbors.The first neighbors I really remember in my life were the Wests.  They were an older couple that lived next door to us in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where I lived from age 3 to age 5.  While I wasn’t quite Dennis the Menace, I inserted myself into their lives much more than they probably would have chosen.  For some reason, when Mr. West came home from work, I would run through the little plants that separated our yard from theirs and greet him as he drove up his driveway, chatting for a while about our respective days.  But I remember another time when I went looking for Mr. West.  It was the middle of the night, and my father had just woken me up.  He scooped me out of bed and lifted me up to his shoulder.  “Come on,” he said, “we have to get to the Wests’ basement.”  That part of Alabama is a sort of tornado alley, and my father had awakened me because one was bearing down on us that night.  The Wests’ house, unlike ours, had a real basement, and so when a tornado warning was declared for our area, we had a standing invitation to join them underground in case the worst happened.   

We went outside; my father moved quickly as my mother followed.  He stepped over those small plants that I loved to run through and lost one of his sandals in the process.  And maybe that’s why I remember this night in particular: he stutter-stepped a bit as his foot slipped out of it, glanced down, and kept going.  He didn’t stop to put it back on; he just left it there in the mud, which meant the tornado must be pretty close.  And yet, as we came around the corner of the back of the house, there was Mr. West, in the middle of the night with a tornado bearing down, the wind and rain whipping his hair as he stood holding the door to his basement open, waiting for us.   Now, I suspect if you asked him about it, he would have shrugged and said, “I was just being a good neighbor.”  And he was; but nobody would have suggested he was a bad neighbor if he hadn’t told us that he had a basement, or hadn’t offered to take us in whenever a tornado threatened, or hadn’t stood out in the approaching storm until we arrived on his doorstep.  He was, quite simply, loving his neighbors as himself, considering not what his obligations were, but what our needs were. 

That is how love fulfills the law.  You see, love is not the end of the law in terms of replacing it or canceling it out; love is the end of the law by completing it, perfecting it, fulfilling its end purpose.2  The end, the purpose of God’s law was never to carve out separate areas to enable us to live next to each other in relative peace; the end and purpose of the law was and is to help God’s people live together with God in a way the glorifies God and gives witness to God’s reconciling love.  The law can’t do that on its own, but neither can love.  If the law is summed up as “love your neighbor as yourself,” then the law is not a simple question of, “What can’t I do because this person is my neighbor?”  Rather, it is a question of, “What would I need or want if I was my neighbor, and how can I respond to that?”  And we must not only ask the question; we must answer it. 

Obviously, there is no pat answer; the answer that we give is the way we live our lives as we follow Christ.  For it is in Christ that we find God’s answer, that we see the end of the law, the whole reconciling purpose of God summed up in human form.  If ever there was something that doesn’t love a wall, it was Jesus Christ; Jesus broke down every wall dividing us from each other and God, including sin and death.  But he did not break down the law; on the contrary, he fulfilled it himself and enables us to fulfill it as he transforms us more and more into reflections of him.  As Christ’s disciples, we owe no one anything, except to love one another, to love our neighbor as ourselves.  But that is enough; in fact, that is all there is; that is the end itself.

1 The Greek word is plesion, which is an adverb meaning “near” or “close by.”  Used substantively to describe a person, then, makes it “the one who is nearby.”  See Bauer, et al, Greek-English Lexicon, 672.  The English word has this notion in its etymology, as well, coming from the words “nigh” (near) and “boor,” the latter derived from the Dutch word “boer,” meaning peasant or farmer.  Your neighbor, then, is literally the peasant who lives near you.  See

2 The Greek word in v. 8 for “fulfilled” is plerao, while v. 10 for “fulfillment” is pleroma.  They come from the same root, which has the connotation of something “filling up” or being “filled full” rather than simply ending.


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