Sunday, January 7, 2024

Spiritual Quote of the Day (Phillips Brooks, on One Who 'Flaunts His Unscrupulousness’)

“When a man comes not merely to tolerate, but to boast of the stains that the world has flung upon him; when he wears his spots as if they were jewels; when he flaunts his unscrupulousness, and his cynicism and his disbelief and his hard-heartedness in your face as the signs and badges of his superiority; when to be innocent and unsuspicious and sensitive seems to be ridiculous and weak; when it is reputable to show that we are men of the world by exhibiting the stains that the world has left upon our reputation, our conduct, and our heart, then we understand how flagrant is the danger; then we see how hard it must be to keep ourselves unspotted from the world. And now, in view of all this, we come to our religion…. She refuses to bring down her standards. She insists that men must come up to her. No man is thoroughly religious, she declares, unless he does this, which it seems so hard to do, unless he goes through this world untainted, as the sunbeam goes through the mist….It could not sustain itself in its great claim to be from God unless it took this high and godlike ground, that whoever named the name of Christ must depart from all iniquity.”—American Episcopal preacher, bishop, and hymn writer Phillips Brooks (1835-1893), “Unspotted From the World,” in Sermons (1885)

Phillips Brooks may be best known today for writing the lyrics to the gentle Christmas hymn “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” But his ministry stretched from the Civil War to the heart of the Gilded Age—times of severe trial that left many Americans all too “spotted from the world,” as they inflicted violence on nonwhites and widened the economic chasm between themselves and those less fortunate.

The accounts of his life indicate, as Fr. Peter Kountz notes in this blog post from three years ago, that Brooks was “available, approachable, inspirational, authentic and reverent.”

But you can’t read the words above, nor the sermon in which I first encountered this great 19th-century preacher, “The Seriousness of Life,” without feeling that he also possessed a spine of steel, and a willingness to call out the worst instincts of his time.

I was stunned when I saw how aptly the quote above applied to one contemporary figure who, more than anyone I can think of, exemplifies this “cynicism,” “disbelief,” and “hard-heartedness.”

This Republican is a far cry from the first one to occupy the White House, Abraham Lincoln, whom Brooks hailed, in the post-assassination eulogy that made the young preacher famous, as one who “showed us how to love truth and yet be charitable—how to hate wrong and oppression, and yet not treasure one personal injury or insult.”

Sadly, though, the current Republican’s attitude has not merely become an infection but a plague in American life. Otherwise, how else to explain why more so-called Christian preachers haven’t criticized his Christmas message urging those who differ from him to “ROT IN HELL”?

I’m afraid this blight on the national spirit will not be eradicated until preachers with the credibility of Brooks, across the broad spectrum of American denominations, denounce what that current national figure embodies.

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