Magic of Circe

“That exceptional and outstanding blessedness which once the first community—the primitive plebs—had enjoyed has passed away. . . . How different the Christian people are now from what they had been! . . . In a new and hitherto unheard of manner . . . the Church wanes as it reaches its fullness, slipping back as it advances.”

-Salvian, Ad Ecclesiam 1.1.2

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News now long forgotten considering the punishment of Maddi Runkles by the Heritage Academy (small private Christian school) does trigger complicated concerns (rightly noted by the New York Times) between Christian-based standards of abstinence before marriage and disciplinary measures for those who fail to comply.

The short story of what happened is this: the Academy refused to allow Maddi to walk the stage during her graduation because she got pregnant thus violating the school’s abstinence policy. In a largely shortsighted response from the school, they explained that they took disciplinary measures against Maddi “not because she’s pregnant, but because she was immoral.” How this distinction matters is beyond me since the pregnancy is inextricable connected to the “immoral” act without which no evidence of the act is available. School seems oblivious as to how their reaction will bring ammunition against the pro-life movement that has largely lauded Maddi’s choice to keep the child. I also applaud her decision without condoning her underlying act plus remaining mindful of the concerns expressed by the Academy—especially in light of the looming threat of legal decisions that seek to strip Christian education of its moral character (see Richardson v Northwest Christian University in Oregon District Court).

However, I am also deeply concerned about the rigid system of orthopraxy continuing among Christian academies, whose formalism leaves little room to escape the consequential optics of legalism. Perhaps the solution is not rigid moralism, but a reformation in Christian shrewdness? In Luke 16, Christ tells a parable of the shrewd manager embodied in this verse: “people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light.” In the area of abortion rights fraught with perils of moral complicity, another story offers an example of how the people of this world are shrewder that we can learn from.

The Greek historian Plutarch tells of Lycurgus, the lawgiver of Sparta, who when reckoned to be the next king of Sparta, discovered that the former king’s widow (the former king also happened to be his brother) was pregnant. When she came to Lycurgus and offered to abort the child so long as he would take her as his wife, he, while loathing her morals, did not offer an objection to getting rid of the child. However, instead of inducing a miscarriage, he told her that she should go forward with plans to give birth and that he would dispose of the baby once delivered. Lycurgus did not keep his promise. After the boy was born, instead of turning his fate into an early death, the story is told that Lycurgus took up the boy and announced him to be the new king. While Lycurgus went on to develop a system consumed with militaristic aims rumored to deliver newborns deemed “puny and deformed” to die, he serves as an example in lighting a torch for creative thinking that I assume many will consider a deception beyond the pale of Christian liberty.

Nevertheless, the story is emblematic of propriety and decency trumping self-interest. The Christian community must learn to value the touch of sinners above legalism. It is in the purpose of sound Christian public policy to retain a foundation of distinct living while speaking truth in a culture darkened by impulsivity. The Church has no business being a torch bearer of impulsivity marked by exclusionary devices developed from fear of “pagan pollution.” See Peter Brown, Authority and the Sacred 17 (1997). My fear today is that the visible church remains implicated in its past failures to stand with communities facing oppression out of bred fears and instrumental designs enjoying none of the elasticity the Gospels would allow. Fears of aligning oneself with “unsavory characters” or creating the appearance of condoning sin. Martin Luther King Jr mentions the type in his “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” maybe the most poignant indictment of the Church I’ve read:

The contemporary church is so often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch supporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s often vocal sanction of things as they are. But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If the church of today does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. I meet young people every day whose disappointment with the church has risen to outright disgust.

We are in a great need for a new founding of Christian shrewdness: for truly, “the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light.”


[Painting by Anselm Kiefer]

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