Venite and Progress

Posted November 20, 2015 @ 9:09am | by Tripp

Come, let us sing unto the Lord. It’s an ancient sentiment predating the Temple worship in Jerusalem. One of my favorite little bits of textual archaeology is to look through the old hymns from Babylon and Sumeria that exist and see how the Psalmists borrowed or used the same kind of language of praise. 
 
Come, let us sing to the Lord;
 let us shout for joy to the rock of our salvation.
Let us come before God's presence with thanksgiving
 and raise a loud shout to God with psalms.
 
The language expands. We hear more about the Psalmist’s understanding of the nature of God and the worshiper’s realtionship with God. 
 
Just as the texts were borrowed or framed similar notions of praise, so too were the concepts of the divine. The Psalmist’s understanding of God and how one responds to such a Being does not emerge out of a vacuum. They are culturally situated and interpreted. Traditions are at work. Architecture, soundscapes, instrumentation, and competing theologies all have their part in the composition of every line in the Psalter. 
 
When I was in college, there was a temptation to present a historical through line that suggests progress. Humanity improves and thus their religious expressions improve along with them. Their theology improves. We can track this in scripture and history, I was told. 
 
Yes, and no. I see improvements from my perspective, but I think that it is more helpful to simply think of these changes as simply that, changes. Yes, I know that human sacrifice is something we want to leave behind us, and I would agree that moving from a human sacrificial model to animal sacrifice to no sacrifice in our overt religious life is a good thing, I still want to challenge even my own thinking on this. Change. Not progress. Why? Because I think there is a kind of arrogance at work. 
 
It is true that we no longer hold ritual sacrifices in the center of the city. We do, however, sacrifice ourselves and one another for other purposes every day. 
 
For example, our military rhetoric still includes language of sacrifice. As such, we still have human sacrifice in our culture. Individuals sacrifice their own lives for the sake of their nation. The temple is the battlefield and the soldier is the priest according to the rhetoric. We do not say “the higher ranking officer sacrifices his soldiers for the greater good.” That’s impolitic no matter how accurate. Our rhetoric and practice of sacrifice has moved from the gathering for worship to the gathering for war. 
 
Change, not progress. It would be arrogant to think that we have progressed. Instead, we have moved things around, changed them up a bit. 
 
Again, I’m grateful we’re not sacrificing virgins on altars on Sunday mornings or Friday nights. I’m glad we’re not lining up slaves to be beheaded to satisfy the divine wrath of the whatsit high atop the thing every time we gather. But the rhetoric of sacrifice and bloodshed to satisfy something has simply shifted. Activists in the #BlackLivesMatter movement call the ongoing violence against black men a kind of sacrificial violence. American slavery as well. Anti-abortion activists use the same critique. 
 
Thus, progress is not something mapped from 5000 BCE onward. It was just 150 years ago. It was just last week. It was just yesterday. Progress? No. Change. We still sacrifice, we just don't do it at First United Methodist Church.
 
We call one another barbarians. We call one another terrorists. We call one another supremecists. We call one another any number of things. Sometimes we call one another what we call ourselves.
 
But more often we call "them" the enemy. We sublimate their humanity and then we sacrifice one another to the cause of their erradication. We sacrifice them to their own ideology and ours. We sacrifice day in and day out in the attempts to hold the center. 
 
No longer is the Temple the center of this universal equilibrium. No longer does Marduk slug it out with Tiamat. No longer do our rites and rituals serve this purpose. There are no grain offerings. Instead, it is the political realm with all of its various loci of action. It is the beach on Lesbos. It is the avenue in Bagdad. It is the alleyway in Paris. It is the suburban cul-de-saq in Dallas, Detroit, or Danville. It is the virtual flight deck of the drone operator. 
 
Come, let us sing to the Lord;
 let us shout for joy to the rock of our salvation.
Let us come before God’s presence with thanksgiving
 and raise a loud shout to God with psalms.
For the Lord is a great God,
 and a great king above all gods.
In God’s hand are the depths of the earth,
 and the heights of the hills are God’s also.
The sea is God’s, for God made it,
 and God’s hands have molded the dry land.
Come, let us bow down and bend the knee,
 and kneel before the Lord our Maker.
For God is our God,
   and we are the people of God’s pasture
   and the sheep of God's hand.
 O that today you would hearken to God's voice!
 
Where is your Temple? Where do you hold your sacrifices? Where do you bend your knee and why? More and more I see that we have not escaped anything. We have not progressed. We have merely swept our violence out the doors of the sanctuary and erected new monuments to human sacrifice. 
 
This morning as I sang the Venite I was reminded of how tenuous it all is. We stand on the edge of the abyss at all times. There is no progressing beyond that. 
 
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