Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Pericope of the Week: Senator Mark Hatfield

Former United States Senator from Oregon, Mark Hatfield, died on August 7 at the age of 89. Senator Hatfield has been one of my "heroes," ever since I met him when I was a seventh-grader at Leslie Junior High School in Salem, Oregon. The senator, who had also attended Leslie and had later graduated from my high school, South Salem, had been invited to speak to my fellow students and me about his vocation as a public servant. I don't remember what he said that day, but I do remember meeting him afterwards. In the course of our brief conversation he asked me my name and, when I told him, he then asked if my grandfather was a Lutheran minister. I told that indeed he was. He then said, "Your Grandfather and I go back a long time. When I was in the Oregon legislature I invited him to open a few of our sessions with prayer. He and I had some good discussions about God and the Bible and Christian discipleship. Please give him my greetings." I thought it was pretty cool at the time that my Grandfather was a friend of a U. S. senator.

I didn't know until later how difficult the senator's public service had been, how he had opposed the war in Vietnam, how he had been critical of President Nixon's policies (despite the fact that they both were members of the same Republican Party), how he had been attacked by some of his constituents for "mixing his personal faith and politics" and thereby undermining each (in their view), how he found himself caught between the "rock" of Christian conscience and "the hard place" that is the U. S. Senate.

When I returned to Oregon to teach at Concordia University, Portland, I was given the task of occasionally teaching a course entitled, "Religion and Public Life." My teacher and friend, Dr. John Scheck, had developed the course, which he handed on to me, and then I changed it to suit my own interests in "public theology." One change that I introduced was adding a segment to the course that allowed guest speakers to visit the class and to share with the students their understandings of the relation of their religious faith (or lack thereof) to their work/calling in public life. So I invited a newspaper editor to talk with the students. The head of a public university addressed them on one day. On another, the head of a large corporation spoke about the challenges of relating Christian faith to the dynamics of capitalism. There were others from business, social service agencies, and the media.

Senator Hatfield in 2004
And then there was Senator Hatfield, who was by then retired. He had also graciously accepted my invitation to speak with the students. On that great day he and I met first in my office for an hour or so and reminisced about individuals common to both of our lives (e.g., my uncle had been one of the senator's law students at Willamette University). After a private lunch with a few other faculty members, he spoke to the class of 30. Unlike the talk I had heard twenty years earlier, this one I remembered. I still have the notes I took that day, also the written summary I made of our post-class conversation as we strolled around Concordia's campus. He essentially hit many of the same themes that he developed in his post-Watergate book, Between a Rock and a Hard Place (Waco: Word, 1976). So much of that book and his earlier reflections in Conflict and Conscience (Word, 1971) seem apropos to our current divisiveness in American political life. I doubt that the senator could get elected today, if he were alive and running, given the rightward tilt of the Republican Party, a tilt that is even more pronounced today than when I last spoke with him more than a decade ago.

This week's pericope comes from the epilogue to his 1976 book:

 [In a time of frustration] it helped [to focus] my attention once again on the basic vision and values to which I have committed my life. I knew I had to persevere.

The central issue is whether I believe that the shape of God in Jesus Christ, taking human form in history, is politically axiomatic for me today. Am I truly to stake my life on the conviction that the character of life and quality of love I see in Christ is to be reproduced in me, fundamentally shaping the style of my political activity?

Christ emptied himself. He took the form of a servant. Though rich, Paul tells us, for our sake he became poor. He was counted among the outcast. He forsook the temptations of earthly power out of fidelity to the Kingdom he came to establish. He gave of himself to deliver the poor and the oppressed out of their bondage. He prayed that not his will, but God's be done. He delivered himself into the hands of sinful men, rather than retaliate to their evil.

He loved without conditions. He spoke God's prophetic truth without fear. And he was crucified as a common criminal, dying so that we might have Life.

He proclaimed the emergence of God's kingdom--the rule of true justice and righteousness. He called those who followed him to build that Kingdom by living as a new community of God's people. To those who followed him, he said that the first shall be last, and the last first; that we must lose our lives in order to find them; and that greatness consists of the most humble acts of servanthood.

If we are called to Christ, then our lives are to take on his own shape. Whether teachers, doctors, businessmen, politicians, lawyers, laborers, or ministers, our first task is to embody the quality of Christ's life. Faithfulness to this call totally transcends any requirements of 'success' posed by our vocations or the conformist opinions of society.

Identified truly with Christ, we will find ourselves serving the oppressed of the world--the victims of injustice and sin. We will begin to look at the structures of society from the vantage point of the poor... Our call is to faithfulness, not to efficacy; it is to servanthood rather than power. We know that the most decisive action that we can take to shape history is to follow the way of Christ, to give ourselves to the building of the Body, and to pour out ourselves as he did in love.

 [Additional Pericope: A few months ago, Visko Hatfield, the senator's son, sat down with his father, whose health had become even more fragile. At the time, Visko had asked what he could do for his father. "You need to save a life." "Whose life should I save?" Visko asked. Hatfield's answer: "The first one you can."]

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