I’ve known him for years. He is a somewhat irritating, impatient curmudgeon whom I will not name in order to protect him and me.
He has some decided opinions about politics and religion which challenge me and often leave me in search of a response.
In the political arena he insists that the United States Constitution is a covenantal document, an agreement between the government and the people, and that the government has no authority to unilaterally change the covenant.
“It was agreed among the founders of this federal government and the people,” he says, “that all power is originally vested in and consequently derived from the people, and that government is instituted by them for their common interest, protection and security.”
He was quoting the ratification document composed by the Convention of the State of New York. And he quickly added, “The other states ratified the Constitution on the same grounds after months of debate. No president, congress or court can willy-nilly change the pact. Any change requires the assent of the people!”
“And,” he continued, “I shudder when I recall Benjamin Franklin’s agreeing ‘to this Constitution, with all its Faults, if there are such’ and his belief that ‘this is likely to be well administered for a Course of Years, and can only end in Despotism as other Forms have done before it, when the People shall become so corrupted as to need Despotic Government, being in capable of any other.’”
I had never thought of the Constitution as a covenant, and I too shudder when I I have to wonder if we are nearing the point of despotism. I search for a response.
In the arena of religion, and he insists that the Gospel (the teaching of Jesus) is a covenantal document, an agreement ratified between Christ and Christian through Baptism, and that no believer, let alone the Church, has the authority to unilaterally change the covenant.
“Most followers of Christ are Christian in name only,” he says, “picking and choosing which teachings they will take seriously and which they will discreetly discard.”
He quotes the teaching of St. Paul, “I am amazed that you are so quickly forsaking the one who called you by the grace of Christ for a different gospel (not that there is another)…Even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel other than the one that we preached to you, let that one be accursed” (cf. Galatians 1:6-8).
“And,” he continued, “I remind you of what the Italians say, 'Traduttore e traditore' (A translator is a traitor). Just look at the Beatitudes in Matthew’s Gospel. One of them is traditionally translated, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers,’ but it could just as correctly be translated, ‘Blessed are the pacifists!’ Even you have to admit that the differing connotations of peacemaker and pacifist are obvious!
I had never thought of that Beatitude as a declaration of Christian pacifism, but I suspect that Jesus was as much a pacifist as a peacemaker. I search for a response.
Human history includes a litany of curmudgeons. I think of Thomas Paine, Friedrich Nietzsche, Mark Twain, Henry David Thoreau, George Patton.
Christian history has its share of curmudgeons as well, some of whom we call saints. (I’ll be discreet and not presume to name any of them in order to protect me.)
They are not bad people. American writer and editor Jon Winokur explains, “ A curmudgeon's reputation for malevolnce is undeserved. They're neither warped nor evil at heart. They don't hate mankind, just mankind's absurdities. They're just as sensitive and soft-hearted as the next guy, but they hide their vulnerability beneath a crust of misanthropy… Curmudgeons are mockers and debunkers whose bitterness is a symptom rather than a disease. They can't compromise their standards and can't manage the suspension of disbelief necessary for feigned cheerfulness. Their awareness is a curse.”
Curmudgeons, then, are valuable persons in the course of history. They challenge our long-held assumptions and irritate us if we become too comfortable.
The trick for those of us who do not think of ourselves in curmudgeonly terms is to be patient enough to listen to what they say and assess wherein lies the truth.
We may not like to think that our nation is so corrupt that we need a despotic government, or that Jesus’ beatitude was a call to a pacifist mentality.
I can easily argue that as a people we are not corrupt (our nation’s selfless service and humanitarian aid test the indictment).
I can argue that Jesus became so angry that even he became violent in the Temple, overturning tables and driving out animals.
And yet, having acknowledged all that, I still have to wrestle with the challenges of the curmudgeons and continue to search for a response.