First Class Christians: Musings from Election Day, 2006, flying into Washington, DC with Charles Colson
At the airport newsstand I pick up a bottle of water and a copy ofNewsweek. There’s US flag-wrapped cross on its cover and articles on politics and Christianity inside.
I bring them to the counter for the casher to ring up.
“You sure that’s all you want?” he asks me with a playful smile.
Just what I need today—some wise-ass.
“Yeah,” I say, “You got the water, right?”
“Yeah,” he says, “But--you surethat’s all you want?”
“So you’re really ready to have me ring you up?”
“Yeah,” I smile a little, since he doesn’t seem like a creep. But I don’t get what’s going on.
“O-kay!” he pushes a button and the total, $6.66, appears on the LED screen, “You owe me six-six-six!” he says and chuckles, “The mark of the Beast!”
Glad he has a sense of humor, I think. That beats a self-proclaimed, end-times prophet by a damn sight. I hand him a twenty.
“And I owe you…..thirteen dollars and thirty-four cents,” he hands me my change.
“Great,” I say, chuckling with him.
“Hey, don’t worry,” he says, “I’m only playing around. After all, you’re only going to fly in a plane on Election Day!”
He’s a guileless goofball and I laugh with him.
“Take care!” he calls out as I head back to the gate for boarding.
My partner makes this trip often in order to take care of his elderly mother. Because of that, we got a first-class upgrade on the way down—my first time in first-class--and now again on the way home.
During my maiden voyage among the privileged I discovered the real reason to like first-class flying. It’s not the roomier seats or the pillow and blankets. It’s not even the tasty snacks, although I ate more than my share of high-end potato chips on the way down. It’s the wine. They let you have a glass before take-off. And just before that sexy/scary moment when the plane rattles down the runway so fast you think you’ll either have an orgasm or a panic attack, they come and take away your empty plastic cup so nothing will fly around and stain your business suits.
Then a few minutes later, right after you’ve finished saying your frantic prayers—please God, let us not crash on take-off—and the plane has reached cruising altitude, those angels of mercy return. Chardonnay, wasn’t it? Yes, thank you. Thanks so
much. It’s snacks and wine the whole way, which is a very fine thing for a fearful flyer like me.
Boarding begins. We file into the plane, stow our carry-ons, and glance around at the other travelers. Don’s looking for celebrities. I’m looking for terrorists.
“Look who’s right ahead of us,” he whispers to me.
“Who?” I whisper back.
“Look. You’ll recognize him.”
The man is speaking to one of the flight attendants in a resonant voice. He’s tall and she is smiling up at him. His wife is tall, too. White-haired, bulky. She wears a bright red jacket and on the lapel, a large pin of the American flag.
“I don’t know who it is,” I whisper.
“He’s a pastor. Just like you. Only not Lutheran,” Don says.
“That narrows it down a lot. Not Desmond Tutu in whiteface?"
“No, this man is very, veryAmerican--.”
“Who is it?”
It takes me a minute, but then I remember:
“Chuck Colson? Nixon’s Chuck Colson?
Don nods and peers through the crevice between the seats.
“It looks as though he’s reading over the text of some prepared remarks he’s going to be making.”
“Well, it is Election Day.” I say, “And we’re flying into Washington.”
“Right,” he says. Then he sits back and opens the New York Times. That’s my cue to shut up for a little bit. I ignore it.
“Wow!” I whisper, “You must feel really safe, traveling with two men of God--me and Mr. Colson.”
He raises his eyebrows. I wave the cover of Newsweek at him.
“And look—see? See what’s on the cover?”
He nods. He points to a newspaper article about whether or not the right to choose one’s gender would become a legal option in New York state.
“I don’t think he’d support that,” I say, pointing my finger through the paper at the seat ahead of me.
“Go ask him. Go introduce yourself to him.”
“No, I’m serious. You should do it.”
“Yeah. And maybe I could have a talk with him about Jesus. And politics.”
The flight attendant starts down the aisle with a basket of snacks.
“Do you want a glass of wine?” Don asks.
“No,” I say, then pause, “Only if you do.”
But when she offers us beverages, he orders a seltzer and I begin repeating to myself my standard airplane prayer: Please keep us safe, God, and please keep me calm. Please keep us safe, God, and please keep me calm.
Soon we’re rumbling and bumping down the runway, my heart pumping along with the speed of it all. Then the landing gear thuds into place and we’re off the ground and climbing. I don’t like the climbing part. I rifle through articles in Newsweek, but mostly focus on the pictures. At the bottom of one of the pages is a spectrum showing the relative conservatism or liberalism of American Evangelical leaders. Lo and behold, Chuck Colson’s smiling face is on the spectrum, far to the right on the right-hand page.
I’m thinking about his face in Newsweek, about his presence in the seat ahead of me. He thinks he loves Jesus. I think I love Jesus, too. Only we don’t love him in the same way. Which way is better?
Just then the plane gives a serious jolt and even Don raises his eyes from the newspaper.
“That’s okay, isn’t it?” I ask.
“Yeah, it’s always choppy getting through the clouds.”
“I thought we were through them by now.”
“There are a lot of clouds today,” he says, pointing out the window. I don’t look.
The plane keeps bumping along, even though we have leveled off. The pilot, a woman (can women fly planes?) comes over the loudspeaker giving us details about the weather here and at our destination. She tells us it will be a pretty bumpy ride for most of the flight. There are storms along the coastline all the way to Washington.
Now that I am supplied with that information I don’t hesitate when the flight attendant comes by at cruising altitude. I order some white wine. White wine midday seems less of a commitment to alcoholic degeneration than red wine does.
Don orders wine, too. He grabs a few packages of snacks, gets out his IPOD and gives me one of the earpieces. The Bach cello concertos. Too mournful. I shake my head.
Then he gets out his laptop and begins a game of hearts.
I think about Jesus. Or more correctly I think about what I think about Jesus. And his followers. I don’t like a lot of his followers. Maybe we are all laboring in the same vineyard, but it’s a vineyard of varying microclimates and we are harvesting different kinds of grapes. And that’s me being metaphorically generous.
Take Chuck Colson, for example. He had been a hawk, a staunch supporter of the Viet Nam war and of Richard Nixon. He had authorized the firebombing of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office and the theft of the Pentagon Papers. Even I had heard about all that, although I was still reading Nancy Drew when Watergate stories were flooding the media.
Shortly after he was convicted, Chuck Colson found Jesus. People made fun of him, saying he had converted because he thought he would get a lighter sentence. And sure enough, he only served seven months.
But apparently he had been serious about turning his life over to God. When he got out of prison he started an advocacy ministry for inmates and he donated all of his profits from lectures and books to the prison ministry. To his way of thinking this was loving Jesus with his whole life.
But he also endorsed the invasion of Iraq. I can’t square that with the love of God, even though I know that language of war pervades sermons and hymns. George Duffeld’s bathetic19th-century hymn is a potent example:
Stand up, stand up for Jesus, ye soldiers of the cross
Lift high his royal banner; it must not suffer loss.
From victr’y unto victr’y his army shall he leadeth,
Till ever foe is vanquished and Christ is Lord indeed.
No wonder so many people don’t like Christians. I don’t like them, either. Not that kind, anyway. So what kind of one am I? Superior? Smarter? More Christ-like?
Hubris, if I would acknowledge it, probably leads me to think so. But I also know that playing ‘us’ and ‘them’ doesn’t resolve anything.
For example, here I am, one seat behind Chuck Colson, flying over God’s country on Election Day, drinking white wine in broad daylight. No one would think I was a pastor. I’m a girl, for one thing. I’m not wearing a clerical collar or WWJD bracelets or any other such identifiable marks of the professionally religious. Instead I’m in jeans and a tank top sitting next to my boyfriend with whom, according to the expectations of unmarried Lutheran clergy, I am not supposed to be traveling in quite this fashion.
Was this loving Jesus with my whole life? Surely not, according to some.
But it wasn’t not loving Jesus.
And on we fly on into dense, bright clouds and pocket after pocket of turbulence. The plane sways back and forth; the wine sways back and forth. Things rattle in overhead compartments. Eventually Mrs. Colson signals to the flight attendant. I hear her asking about the turbulence.
“Oh, it’s going to be with us,” the flight attendant answers, “It wasn’t this bad on the way down this morning. Now the atmosphere is much more unsettled. But there’s nothing to be concerned about. I’m not worried.”
If Mrs. Colson, married to a redeemed sinner, a national man of God, is allowed to be scared, then I’m allowed to be scared, too.
“Can I get you anything?” I hear the flight attendant ask her.
She decides she will have another Diet Coke.
Then the flight attendant steps back to our row.
I need to hear it for myself, the same reassurance she gave to Mrs. Colson. Good news bears repeating.
“This turbulence—is it okay that there is so much of it?”
She smiles at me.
“It’s fine, honestly. The pilot is trying to find an altitude where it’s not so bumpy, but so far she hasn’t had any luck. But I’m not worried. Can I get you anything to drink?”
“White wine,” I whisper, lest the Colson’s think I’m bibulous.
But why? Why do I fear their judgment? Do I think Chuck Colson is a better, holier pastor than I am?
I don’t, I guess. Not really. But I know that Christians of my kind are far outnumbered by Christians of Colson’s kind. I know that traditional denominations—Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Methodist, Lutheran—have been hemorrhaging members for decades. I also know that, though there are many active social progressives within these traditional denominations, the religious right has been more organized, more activist, more compelling and more effective in calling for what it sees as correct social and moral change.
One of the scariest passages in the gospel of Matthew is the story Jesus tells about what will happen come the Day of Judgment. What he says is that when the Son of Man comes all humanity will gather before him. Like a shepherd separating sheep from goats, the Son of Man will separate those worthy of a ticket to eternal bliss from the unworthy, those who deserve nothing less than eternal damnation.
Come, you that are blessed and inherit the kingdom prepared
for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you
gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was
a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing,
I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.
Matthew 25: 34-36
Once the good-deed-doers are given the go-ahead to enter the eternal Ritz-Carlton, the ones who didn’t do good deeds are condemned to the eternal fire.
“But, Lord,” the thunderstruck condemned protest, “when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and did not take care of you?’
And he answers them: “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”
Lutherans cringe at this story. Lutheran theology is grounded in the idea that there is no way to gain God’s favor by performing good deeds.
But politically-organized, socially-activist fundamentalist Christians are motivated to live out their interpretation of this passage from Matthew. This may or may not involve clothing the naked or feeding the hungry. But apparently on par with those kinds of good deeds are abstinence education, home-schooling, creationism, gun ownership, biblical literalism and the crusade to keep one-man, one-woman marriages the only legal coupling. The religious right seems hell-bent that this is being heaven-bound.
Conservative historian Bruce Shelley’s book, Church History In Plain Language is a serviceable and readable one-volume history. But when he discusses the last few decades of Christianity, his approbation of the religious right bleeds through:
The passion of the Religious Right lay in their perception that
the United States was falling under the influence of secular humanism
and that traditional family values were under attack in the media and
the public schools…To counter the agenda of the cultural left, the Reli-
gious Right preached, promoted, and marched against abortion, the
Equal Rights Amendment, homosexuality, pornography, and the
increased government involvement in education and welfare. (p. 477)
From the Moral Majority to Promise Keepers, from the Christian Coalition to faith-based initiatives, it’s pretty clear that the religious right is at home with political activism. Organized, well-funded, well-connected, most of these efforts have had success with at least some, if not all of their goals.
On the other hand, it sometimes seems Christian progressives have trouble even identifying goals. Sure, we serve soup at the soup kitchens. We vote to be welcoming and inclusive to persons of all sexual orientations. We send student groups to New Orleans and New York. We drink shade-grown, fairly-traded coffee.
But what we don’t do a lot of is organized political lobbying for gay rights, reproductive rights, economic justice and all the other worthy concerns we end up mostly paying lip service to. We hew to the separation of church and state. And we quarrel pointlessly about whether or not homosexuality is sinful, whether or not homosexuals can marry or become ordained clergy. We quarrel. And no one outside the quarreling groups listens or even cares.
Meanwhile, the plane bumps its way along to our nation’s capital. The flight attendant sits in her seat, flipping through a Coldwater Creek catalog. Mrs. Colson reads her book. Mr. Colson checks his speech. Don has switched to the Chopin Scherzos. I am fingering my magazine, drinking my wine, anxious to get to Washington.
I know that I am in no danger of becoming a religious conservative. The only way I can remain Christian at all is by believing firmly in the unearned grace of God—even though I’m hard-pressed to spell out what that actually means.
I do know that every week I write the sermon, every week I pass out the disks of faith and sips of hope during Holy Communion. When someone is sick I visit. When someone has died, I say the time-honored words of assurance: In sure and certain hope of resurrection to eternal life we commend to almighty God, our sister/brother __________ to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
When someone says they have no faith/their faith is weak/they want more faith I assure them of all that we don’t need to comprehend in order to be faithful, all the while knowing how much I want to know about the ineffable and the maddeningly uncertain.
Is mine just brain-faith, book-learned and vague? I don’t think so.
And yet, if Charles Colson--a man whose politics I abhor and whose theology I reject—were to turn around in his seat right now and ask me what I had done to serve Jesus lately, I’m not sure I would know what to say.