22 May 2008


Since Tuesday I've been in a three day faculty development workshop (in which I'm sitting right now). So I'll get back to blogging perhaps over the weekend. Yesterday's workshop session concerned cooperative learning (that is, using small groups in the class room) and was, I think, very helpful.

16 May 2008

books on biblical interpretation

Jayson Byassee of The Christian Century reviews a number of books on biblical interpretation for Books & Culture: "Reading with the Saints." The review touches upon seven different books on scripture, covering patristic hermeneutics, Anglican approaches from the Reformation to the present, and contemporary issues in and instances of biblical interpretation.

15 May 2008

the jesus storybook bible

Over the past few weeks my daughter Claire, who's five, has really been enjoying The Jesus Storybook Bible written by Sally Lloyd-Jones and illustrated by Jago.

Lloyd-Jones presents the sweep of the entire scriptures, from creation and Adam and Eve to heaven's descent into our world at the consummation, all within the overarching framework of the biblical narrative as a single Story. Moreover, Lloyd-Jones' re-telling of various biblical stories is a theological one.

This isn't to say that she skimps at all on the details of those events, yet she ably narrates them all as testimonies to God's faithfulness to his purposes in the world, flowing from his "Never Stopping, Never Giving Up, Unbreaking, Always and Forever Love." And for Lloyd-Jones God's love comes to its greatest expression in Jesus Christ, as God enters fully into his own story. Thus she allows the event of Christ as the culmination of the biblical narrative to shape her re-telling of every part of that narrative.

From the start of her book then, Lloyd-Jones weaves in hints of Jesus' work yet to come: God's promise of rescue offered in the Garden, heaven's descent in Jesus as the answer to Babel, a coming Prince like Joseph far from home and given up for dead who nonetheless saves the world, and so on. These hints build suspense as the story unflows, whether one reads the book in sequence or not.

The chapter titles are also delightful, often drawing Claire into a story she might not otherwise be quite so interested in: "The girl no one wanted," "The teeny, weenie... true king," "A little servant girl and the proud general," "Daniel and the scary sleepover," "Treasure hunt!," and the like. The illustrations help also, offering bright, engaging windows into the stories, often with a touch of humor.

Nevertheless, one drawback of the book is the selectivity of its stories. While many highlights of the biblical narrative are covered (creation, fall, flood, Babel, Abraham and Sarah, Moses, the exodus, etc.), there are just as many omissions. The judges (Ehud, Gideon, Samson, etc.) are passed over in silence as are most of the kings (Solomon, Ahab, Josiah, etc.) and many of the prophets (Elijah, Hosea, Amos, etc.). And there is no real attention to either the tabernacle or temple, which one would expect to have significant play in a book so keen on the christological dimensions of the entire scriptures.

As one blog reader points out, this selectivity has the side effect of eliminating many stories of biblical women. While, for instance, the story of Jacob is told largely through the lens of Leah, and Naaman's healing focuses upon the faithful witness of his servant girl, the wider selectivity causes us to miss out on Shiphrah and Puah, Jochabed, Rahab, Deborah, Ruth, Huldah, and Esther. And that's unfortunate.

Despite these drawback, however, I would overall highly recommend Sally Lloyd-Jones's The Jesus Storybook Bible, especially for families with children age 4 and up, and also for adults who might want to refresh their knowledge of scripture and the biblical "big picture."

14 May 2008

pure autographic texts

In comments elsewhere I offered a few thoughts regarding aspects of the doctrine of scripture as that appears in the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (CSBI; 1978) and in the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF; 1646).

The documents in question include statements concerning the text of scripture. First, in the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy we read, “Since God has nowhere promised an inerrant transmission of Scripture, it is necessary to affirm that only the autographic text of the original documents was inspired and to maintain the need of textual criticism as a means of detecting any slips that may have crept into the text in the course of its transmission” (III.E).

Second, the earlier Westminster Confession of Faith states, “The Old Testament in Hebrew (which was the native language of the people of God of old), and the New Testament in Greek (which, at the time of the writing of it, was most generally known to the nations), being immediately inspired by God, and, by His singular care and providence, kept pure in all ages, are therefore authentical” (1.8).

What are we to make of these statements? With regard to the CSBI, what is the purpose of affirming the integrity of the biblical “autographs” when, in some instances, we are unable to determine with any certainty the precise text such an autograph might have offered? And with regard to the WCF, what can it possibly mean with regard to the “purity” of the biblical text in its original languages, when it seems clear that our Hebrew and Greek texts are imperfect?

While I am open to questioning received opinions, I am nonetheless keen to make sure any questioning emerges out of some degree of charity, especially where deference is due, so that a classic text is given the best reading it can bear before it is critically scrutinized.

In that light, I find the WCF more congenial in several respects than the CSBI. But let me try to parse out what I think the respective documents are trying to say.

Regarding the CSBI, it states that “only the autographic text of the original documents was inspired,” but doesn’t hold to inerrancy in the transmission of those texts. Elsewhere the CSBI says that “inspiration, strictly speaking” only applies to the the autographic originals.

Now, I don’t have the sort of qualms about this that some might, the question of “what good does that do?” That's to say, one might ask, what good is it to assert the existence of inspired autographs when we don't actually have those autographs at hand? But I don't find this sort of objection especially troubling.

After all, as a general principle, there may be compelling reasons for asserting that an object possesses a particular characteristic, even if we don’t have any direct access to that object. Thus, in science, one often posits the existence of something and attributes qualities to it, even if there is no way at present to prove its existence, because it has some kind of explanatory value. Or one may posit something about the Sitz im Leben of a text, even though we have no direct access to that original setting because it helps explain features of the text we are attempting to interpret.

So the question here, with regard to the CSBI, would be the explanatory value of positing the existence of inspired original texts. It seems to me that the explanatory value lies in the relationship between the texts we do have and the original texts. If the original “autographic” texts are inspired, then insofar as the text we have represents continuity with the original texts, both in transmission and in translation, then (as the CSBI elsewhere says) we “have no cause for hesitating to conclude that the true Word of God is within [our] reach.”

Now, it seems to me that there are still two sorts problems with the section of the CSBI quoted above.

First, when the CSBI says that “only the autographic text of the original documents was inspired,” it would seem to suggest that what we encounter as the scriptures is not inspired, at least strictly speaking. And that seems troubling. Yet if, as the CSBI maintains, the “true Word of God is within our reach” through translations, then how can that “true Word” be anything but an inspired Word of God? And if even translations have the character of inspiration in some degree, then how much more the original language manuscripts that are the basis for translation?

Here’s where the WCF might be a help to the CSBI, with the WCF’s implicit distinction between “immediate” and “mediate” inspiration. Thus, while only the “autographic” original text (to use the terminology of the CSBI) may be “immediately inspired,” the transmitted manuscripts and even our translations are “mediately inspired.” That is to say, insofar as they accurately communicate the original, derivative texts have the character of inspiration conferred upon them by their relation to and mediated by the immediately inspired originals.

As William Lyford - a member of the Westminster Assembly - wrote:
…divine truth in English, is as truly the Word of God as the same scriptures delivered in the original Hebrew or Greek; yet with this difference, that the same is perfectly, immediately, and most absolutely in the original Hebrew and Greek, in other translations, as the vessels wherein it is presented to us, and as far forth as they agree with the originals. And every translation agreeing with the originals in the matter, is the same canonical Scripture that Hebrew or Greek is, even as it is the same water, which is in the fountain and in the stream.
If this is true of translations, then how much more so is it the case with the transmission of texts in the original languages. Thus, the WCF’s emphasis on the immediate inspiration of the original text, rather than placing a distance between us and the God-breathed text of scripture, is designed to assure us that the scriptures we hear and read partake derivatively, yet truly, of that same inspiration.

Second, when the CSBI speaks of the “autographic” text of scripture, the term could be misleading. While this use of the term “autograph” with reference to the original text of scripture goes back to at least the 17th century, it seems to imply the notion of a single, individual author, composing a text so that, at the end of the process of composition, an “autograph” has been produced. But this is overly simplistic.

The letters of Paul, for instance, are often in the name of Paul and at least one companion, whose role in the composition of the letters is unknown. Moreover, it is clear from the closing greetings that Paul made use of an amanuensis whose role in shaping the vocabulary and diction of his letters is unknown. Other parts of scripture appear to involve complex histories of compilation, editing, and redaction. And the collecting together of diverse materials into a single book such as the Psalms and Proverbs, or perhaps some of the prophets, involve layers of authorial shaping. In all these ways, using language that implies a single, individual author producing an “autograph” is problematic.

Certainly, we may use the term “autograph” in a looser, stretchier way - to refer to all stages of the inspired biblical text insofar as it was authoritative in the life of God’s people as it progressed towards a more final, canonical form, as well as that more final form itself. But when arriving at that point, it might be better to develop a clearer, richer notion of what “original text” means than “autograph” would suggest.

Enough with the CSBI. Turning to WCF 1.8, I think it’s important to take it in its original 17th century context. The nature of this context is complex concerning the entire opening chapter of the WCF and has been the subject of much discussion (particularly surrounding the “Rogers/McKim thesis”). But I'll give it my best shot.

The point of the WCF here, as far as I can discern based upon the original context, is not to maintain a doctrine of “pure” textual transmission that would exclude the kinds of textual problems we find in scripture. 17th century theologians were well aware of textual variants and the like (as were their medieval predecessors, as is clear from the biblical commentaries of figures such as Aquinas). Indeed, the 16th and 17th centuries saw the production of various early critical editions of Hebrew and Greek manuscripts, working with the best available evidence, attempting to resolve various issues of textual variation, even when working within the tradition of the so-called textus receptus.

Rather, it seems to me that the WCF is setting itself against its understanding of the Council of Trent and certain sorts of Roman Catholic claims for the uniquely “authentical” character of the Latin Vulgate. Many Roman Catholic scholars maintained, for instance, that Jerome had access to Greek and Hebrew texts that were of greater antiquity than the texts available to the 16th and 17th century church, and therefore the texts Jerome possessed were more reliable, pure, and authentic. Thus Jerome’s Vulgate translation was to be trusted over the Greek and Hebrew texts that were becoming available as an object of study during the Renaissance and thereafter, which, in the view of some Roman Catholic theologians of the time, were impure and corrupt by comparison.

Furthermore, the Fourth Session of the Council of Trent stated:
Moreover, the same sacred and holy Synod - considering that no small utility may accrue to the Church of God, if it be made known which out of all the Latin editions, now in circulation, of the sacred books, is to be held as authentic - ordains and declares, that the said old and Vulgate edition, which, by the lengthened usage of so many years, has been approved of in the Church, should be, in public lectures, disputations, sermons and expositions, held as authentic; and that no one is to dare, or presume to reject it under any pretext whatever.
Now many contemporary Roman Catholic theologians will today dispute whether or not Trent meant to declare the Vulgate the only authentic text of scripture and the only final appeal in theological controversies. Nonetheless, that is how Trent was often understood in the 17th century by both Roman Catholic and Protestant theologians and how the state of discussion was passed along (through figures such as William Whitaker) to the Westminster Assembly.

Thus, it seems to me that, rather than ignoring issues of textual transmission and variation, the WCF is affirming that we should rightly turn to the available Hebrew and Greek texts of scripture - rather than to simply the Vulgate - in order to determine matters of theological controversy, making use of the best manuscript evidence we have available to us and not just assuming that Jerome had better manuscripts available to him because he lived longer ago than we do. Through study of the manuscript evidence, we can be assured that our results will be as “pure” as anything Jerome possessed and, indeed, very likely more so.

If anything, then, WCF 1.8 is an affirmation of just the sort of close, critical textual study that we might want to embrace. Such study is justified because, we are assured by the WCF, God has preserved for us original language manuscripts that are substantially correct and, through study, provide us with the resources we need to access the original Word of God with greater purity and accuracy than even Jerome.

12 May 2008

the two word meme

I haven't done one of these in ages. So here goes. Answers are limited to two words per question.
1. Where is your cell phone? no idea
2. Where is your significant other? in kitchen
3. Your hair? wavy brown
4. Your mother? has cold
5. Your father? presumably relaxing
6. Your favorite thing? good Stilton
7. Your dream last night? humorously weird
8. Your favorite drink? gin, tonic
9. Your dream/goal? published writing
10. The room you're in? living room
11. Your hobby? cooking, art
12. Your fear? icky spiders
13. Where do you want to be in 6 years? tenure track
14. Where were you last night? Pentecost celebration
15. What you're not? mathematician, accountant
16. Muffins? chocolate banana
17. One of your wish list items? Apple iPod
18. Where you grew up? Philadelphia, PA
19. The last thing you did? prolonged yawning
20. What are you wearing? jeans, sweater
21. Your TV? plays Netflix
22. Your pets? cat, dog
23. Your computer? Compaq Presario
24. Your life? teaching, fathering
25. Your mood? unwinding, tired
26. Missing someone? Casons, DeCosimos (anticipatorily)
27. Your car? Saturn SW
28. Something you're not wearing? shoes, outerwear
29. Favorite store? used books
30. Your summer? writing, playing
31. Like someone? church friends
32. Your favorite color? blue, green
33. When is the last time you laughed? minutes ago
34. Last time you cried? about WTS
Feel free to take up and perpetuate.

11 May 2008


Today we celebrated Pentecost at church, with red paraments on the communion table and strings of paper doves among the rafters above. And we should rightly celebrate.

In one sense Pentecost is what it's all about - the biblical story in its entirety - for the sending of the Spirit from heaven is the inception of that great eschatological transformation for which the world was created. As Peter preached upon the first Pentecost, it was for the sake of the promised Spirit that Jesus came and died and rose again, in order that a way might be provided for sinful, broken humanity to enjoy the Spirit's renewing and transforming work.

The biblical story begins with the Creator Spirit sweeping to and fro above the watery deep and ends with the Spirit having prepared the Bride as the New Jerusalem, the descent of heaven to earth. This same Spirit incarnated the eternal Logos of the substance of the Virgin Mary, rested upon Jesus in his baptism and filled him beyond measure, drove him to the desert of temptation, healed the sick and drove out demons at his word, gave him the very words of the Father to speak, and raised him to transfigured life from the silence of the grave as the first fruit of a new creation. And it is this same Spirit that birthed the church upon Pentecost.

Leo the Great writes of the great feast of Pentecost, "The reverence due to it is beyond all question, because this day is consecrated by the most sublime and wonderful gift of the Holy Spirit." He continues:
...since the day of Pentecost a rain of charisms, a river of blessings, has watered every desert and dry land, for "the Spirit of God has swept over the waters to renew the face of the earth," and a blaze of new light has shone out to dispel our former darkness. In the light of those flaming tongues the word of the Lord has shone out clearly, and a fiery eloquence has been enkindled which is charged with the energy to enlighten, the ability to create understanding, and the power to burn away every sin and destroy it.
And thus we celebrate the Spirit and pray that he might fall upon us afresh.

08 May 2008

an evangelical manifesto

Yesterday marked the release of a document signed by nearly 80 prominent evangelicals: "An Evangelical Manifesto." It's subtitled, "A Declaration of Evangelical Identity and Public Commitment," drawing attention to its attempt to define what it is to be evangelical and to take a stand on how evangelicals might best engage with the public sphere. (And forgive the following if it's a bit murky - I was up until 1am last night grading!)

I have a lot of sympathies with the aims of the document and some of the positions it takes: the importance of cultivating civil discourse, refusing to politicize faith in a partisan way, rejecting "Constantinianism" as the way forward culturally in our present time, and so on. Moreover, the stress on the importance of orthopraxy hand-in-hand with orthodoxy is welcome. I can only concur with the document's confession of repentance from sin, worldliness, factionalism, materialism and consumerism, skewed priorities, and the like.

Yet, for all my sympathies, I'm not entirely comfortable with the document and couldn't see myself signing it.

Part of my worry, I suppose, stems from a strong distaste for term "manifesto." The term has such heavy political overtones to my ear, that it succeeds in undermining the intent of the document to move evangelicalism away from self-presentation in terms of a political agenda and confrontation. I can't believe that someone involved in drafting the document didn't say, "Whoa, do we really want to call this a 'manifesto'?!?"

I also wonder whether the document underestimates the complexity of the relationship of faith and theological commitments to a public witness in the areas of culture and politics. It speaks against the tendency "to politicize faith, using faith to express essentially political points that have lost touch with biblical truth." I guess I'm not entirely sure what it means to "politicize faith" or to "use faith" in this way.

Certainly, I think we can admit, some evangelicals have aligned themselves with partisan political identities and agendas in such a way that it plays into secular power games and leads to partisan loyalties that are insufficiently suspicious of temporal agendas or that place being a partisan too much on level with being a Christian. But how are we to discern when a point is an "essentially political" one that has "lost touch with biblical truth"?

I would hope that reflective Christians do enter into the public sphere, attempting prudentially to work out the implications of biblically shaped and informed ethical commitments for matters of policy. And different Christians will conscientiously come to different conclusions - they'll support different candidates, advocate different policies, discern different priorities, share different burdens, and so forth.

As Thomas Aquinas says, as we descend from general principles to particular applications, there is more room for a diversity of applications, not only due to sin or our own ethical blind spots, but also due to our finitude, lack of resources, and the variety of complex situations and callings in which we find ourselves (Summa Theologiae I-II.94.2).

Thus, it seems to me, what we rightly object to as "politicizing faith" is not bringing faith to bear on politics, but rather the tendency to make exclusive claims for one's own way of bringing faith to bear upon politics - that a particular position on a particular issue is the Christian position on that issue, somehow straightforwardly entailed by trusting Christ for salvation or by the biblical witness.

Of course, there remains a "hierarchy of truths," in ethics and politics as much as in theology or creedal confession. Some issues within the political sphere do rise to a level of clarity where it is difficult to imagine the church being faithful to Jesus Christ and not taking a stand. Thus the confessing church in Germany publicly resisted National Socialism and bishops in Chile opposed the Pinochet regime's policies of kidnapping and torture.

Some Christians, however, have difficulty in recognizing that, say, one's view of the pactum salutis doesn't rise to the level of commitment to Chalcedonian orthodoxy or that drinking alcoholic beverages doesn't rise to the level of fornicating. Likewise, some Christians have difficulty in recognizing that one's position on, say, general immigration reform doesn't rise to the level outlawing child prostitution.

Yet, in America in particular, Christians come together around certain contingent affinities in terms of theology, liturgy, and practice. Thus, there are no "mere Christians," but always particular sorts of Christians, living and believing out of particular contexts, rooted in particular histories and traditions, even if some of the further concrete expressions of faith are held relatively loosely. Likewise, there are no "mere Christians" in the political sphere, but always Christians coming together along particular traditions of discernment and prudential application.

Therefore, rejecting a "politicized faith," it seems to me, has to do in part with how particularized identities as Christian - in terms of theology, worship, and discipleship - intersect with particularized trajectories of political engagement. While the former will certainly shape the latter, faith becomes "politicized" when we insist that those who share a common expression of faith should also thereby share a common political perspective.

If there is a proper doctrine of the "spirituality of the church," it is one in which the common life of God's people - drawn together in Christ through a concrete expression of faith centered on word, sacrament, prayer, and fellowship - always takes a certain priority over political and cultural discernments, however much those discernments may flow from that common life relative to particular callings and affinities.

This isn't to say that a local parish within a time and place cannot discern a call to act publicly on behalf of those to whom it ministers or in relation to an issue of clear moral outrage. But it does mean that such a call remains subservient to our primary call to follow and trust Jesus Christ himself, as he comes to us in word, sacrament, prayer, and fellowship. Furthermore, placing our identity as baptized people prior to other identities and parties is itself a profoundly political act in the way it reorients our relation to the sphere of temporal power.

These last comments, regarding how Christian faith always takes up a particular, concrete form of expression, points to my other main area of ill-ease with regard to "An Evangelical Manifesto": the way in which the document positions evangelicalism itself. It insists upon "Evangelical" as a proper noun (note the capital "E"), which refers to a movement that has become "one of the great traditions that have developed within the Christian Church over the centuries." As such "Evangelical," it insists, "must be defined theologically and not politically; confessionally and not culturally."

Yet, it seems to me that a "great tradition" - much less a confessional one - is precisely what evangelicalism is not. With no ecclesiastical structure, no shared liturgical practices, no common confession or creed, no legacy of catechesis, and with a tendency to transform itself every few years, evangelicalism does not strike me as a "tradition" at all.

Indeed, "An Evangelical Manifesto" goes on to note how evangelicalism spans across denominational lines and is "not limited to certain churches or contained by a definable movement." Moreover, it presents evangelicalism as a movement that has remained "diverse, flexible, adaptable, non-hierarchical, and taken many forms." It goes so far as to say that "to be Evangelical is earlier and more enduring than to be Protestant."

As for it's theology and confession, "An Evangelical Manifesto" provides a summary that is both less specific (no mention of "inerrancy") and more specific (being "faithful stewards of creation") than previous evangelical faith statements. Yet, with the possible exception of its doctrine of scripture, I don't see why this confession could not be embraced by a Roman Catholic or Anglo-Catholic or other Christian who wouldn't necessarily identify as "evangelical" - though, of course, such believers would want to say more about the character of their theology (as would I).

I'm afraid for all it's attention to "Evangelical" identity, what the document actually says is very nearly nonsense. How can some "thing" - a movement or ethos or what-have-you - be at the same time one of the "great traditions" of the church alongside Roman Catholicism, Orthodoxy, Protestantism, and so forth, and yet be larger than any of those while nonetheless lacking the features that all those other traditions share in common?

Furthermore, I worry that by too easily embracing the identity of "Evangelical," we actually undermine some of the proper goals of the document, by privileging an identity that has been forged over the past century in largely political and adversarial ways. If so, then we play into the hands of the very trends that "An Evangelical Manifesto" is so keen to repudiate.

Also, let me be clear that I don't raise these questions about evangelical identity out of any kind of anti-ecumenical sentiment. Ecumenism is very important to me and should, I think, remain central to the church's mission in the world and our own commitment to Jesus Christ as the Lord of his one church (as always, Lesslie Newbigin is an indispensable resource on these matters). But an ecumenism that glosses over the specificities of various faith communities isn't going to get very far, it seems to me.

Having said all this, I still would commend reading "An Evangelical Manifesto" in its entirety (not just the summary statement), for much of what it says is good and right and profitable, providing insights and exhortations that orthodox believers within various American churches need to hear and heed.

Update: Jamie Smith voices some concerns about "An Evangelical Manifesto" that intersect helpfully with my own.

And from Alan Jacobs in the 9 April Wall Street Journal online, "Come On, You Call This a Manifesto?"

06 May 2008

disaster in burma / myanmar

I'm sure you all are aware of the horrific storm that struck Burma/Myanmar recently, with a huge loss of life and many thousands left without shelter, running water, food, or medical care. If you're wondering where you might donate money in order to help with disaster relief efforts in Burma, one organization that has been already active there for more than two decades is World Vision. You can donate by clicking on the logo below:

A donation can help provide emergency food, clean water, blankets and temporary shelter, and cooksets. Your gift will also enable World Vision to stay in disaster-affected areas for the long haul, rebuilding communities and lives.

Other possible organizations to check are the International Red Cross, Doctors without Borders, and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Update: A post at the "Network for Good" blog provides a seemingly comprehensive list of relief agencies at work in Burma.

01 May 2008

may day

In transit yesterday while running some errands, I passed a parish grammar school where students were practicing their dance around the Maypole, making sure the boy and girls were alternating rightly in order to weave the ribbons down around the pole itself. Seeing the children reminded me that today is May Day, an intriguing holiday since it marks both the beginning of summer in ancient calendars as well as celebrating the achievements of the international labor movement in securing the rights of workers.

This year it also happens to coincide, in the United States, with the "National Day of Prayer," always the first Thursday in May. And then there's the peculiar coincidence that "mayday" is a distress call, deriving from the French "m'aider," meaning roughly "help me."

While I think the convention of children dancing with ribbons only dates back a couple of centuries, Maypoles themselves - and dances around them - have a much deeper background, at least among northern European peoples. These celebrations were tied to the beginning of the summer season, as the first of May is roughly a midpoint between the vernal equinox and summer solstice. In older northern European reckonings, summer fell equally on both sides of the solstice, making May first its start and the solstice itself, on 20 or 21 June, the celebration of "Midsummer."

I've enjoyed dancing around a Maypole a few times, though I expect my English-speaking Protestant ancestors would disapprove. Maypole dances were often a Sunday afternoon recreation and, given their roots in pagan seasonal festivals and the practice of mixed-sex dancing and general carousing, the strictly sabbatarian Puritans and others sought to have such celebrations suppressed. Since Maypoles were relatively permanent fixtures in many towns - and their theft a source of rivalry between villages - such suppression involved the cutting up and burning of such symbols of social identity and celebration.

The connection of May Day to the labor movement is more an accident of history. In 1884, the North American union that eventually became the AFL had voted that 1 May 1886 would be the day by which the 8-hour work day would be achieved and called for a general strike on that day in order to secure it. Previous labor activity in North America, the UK, and Europe had forced many countries to pass laws limiting work hours in factories to 12 and 10 hours.

When 1 May 1886 arrived, there was a general strike and public demonstrations in many large cities across North America. One of the largest was in Chicago, including a March of up to 80,000 laborers. But in Chicago things quickly spiraled out of control over the next days. When striking workers tried to prevent replacement workers from crossing picket lines, the police intervened, killing several strikers. Then a gathering was called for 4 May at Haymarket.

Though the gathering had been peaceful, it devolved into a riot when, as police attempted to disperse the crowd, a bomb went off and police opened fire. When the dust settled, several officers and workers were dead and dozens injured. Eight organizers of the rally were arrested and put on trial. Of those, one was sentenced to 15 years, two to life in prison, one committed suicide in jail, and four were executed by hanging. In 1893 the Illinois governor reviewed the case, found all the men innocent, and granted pardons to those surviving.

With these martyrs for the cause of organized labor, stemming ultimately from the 1 May general strike, May Day quickly became a central day of labor action internationally, beginning in 1890 with a decision of the Second International. Since then the day has remained a memorial for all those fought for workers rights in the wake of the Industrial Revolution and, in general, to celebrate organized labor. The confluence of May Day with traditional European celebrations of summer made for a natural bent toward festivity.

This year, as I mentioned, it also coincides with the US National Day of Prayer, which was created by a resolution of Congress in 1952. Their website contains many more details. It seems to me that this year, as it coincides with May Day, several items might especially come to mind for prayer - our "mayday" to the Lord who can rescue us, no matter how dire our need.

First, insofar as May Day marks the beginning of a new time or season, we can recall that this is a time of transition for many people across the nation: college students finishing up their terms and seeking summer service, employment, travel, and internships; and families considering their summer activities and schedules once the kids finish school in June.

Second, the coming seasons of the year, going into fall, are part of an election year. The primaries are winding down, national conventions of political parties are coming up, and the race to the general election will soon be underway. Candidates need good judgment, stamina, sound advisors, and a desire for just governance. Voters need discernment, as well as a sense of hope and engagement, especially when we are in the last days of an administration that has a very large measure of disapproval by the public.

Third, as a day that celebrates labor, we can consider the current downturn in our national economy, within the shifting patterns of the wider global market, and all the ways in which that is affecting workers, home owners, consumers, and other nations and peoples.
    Almighty God,
    you have so linked our lives one with another
    that all we do affects, for good or ill, all other lives:
    So guide us in the work we do,
    that we may do it not for self alone,
    but for the common good;
    and, as we seek a proper return for our own labor,
    make us mindful of the rightful aspirations of other workers,
    and arouse our concern for those who are out of work;
    through Jesus Christ our Lord.