Thursday, November 27, 2014

The Command to Open Our Hands and American Exceptionalism: Marilynne Robinson on the Real Roots of American Christianity

On this American holiday centered on giving thanks, Marilynne Robinson's words in her essay entitled "Open Thy Hand Wide: Moses and the Origin of American Liberalism" spring back to mind:

There is clearly a feeling abroad that God smiled on our beginnings and that we should return to them as we can.  If we really did attempt to return to them, we would find Moses as well as Christ, Calvin and his legions of intellectual heirs. And we would find a recurrent, passionate insistence on bounty or liberality, mercy and liberality, on being kind and liberal, liberal and bountiful, and enjoying the great blessings God has promised to liberality to the poor. These phrases are all [Jonathan] Edwards's and there are many more like them.

Robinson notes that Calvin glossed his Geneva translation of Deuteronomy 15:11 — Because there shall be ever some poore in the land, therefore I command thee, saying, Thou shalt open thy hand unto thy brother, to thy nedie, and to  thy poor in thy land — with the command: "Thou shalt be liberal." 

The essay I'm citing here is in her book entitled When I Was a Child I Read Books (NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012). I blogged about the book and this essay in April 2012, linking to a significant piece of commentary by David Sirota in Salon noting that many contemporary American Christians who believe that God has smiled and showered blessings on America have a religio-political ideology that moves in a direction entirely opposite to the injunction to opening one's hand and be liberal. Polls surveying the attitudes of American citizens typically find that the more overtly religious many people are, and the stronger their belief in American exceptionalism, the less inclined they often are to give to those in need.

And as Marilynne Robinson points out, those same citizens are often the loudest in the country about the need of the United States to return to its Christian roots . . . . Roots that are steeped in the tradition of liberality running from Moses to Jesus to Calvin to the Pilgrim settlers of New England . . . . 

Happy Thanksgiving to American readers of Bilgrimage, a good day to all of you everywhere.

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