What does it mean to say “Jesus is Lord”? Paul M. van Buren on Christianity and Nationalism

I’ve been on a kick about reading theology from about 50 or 60 years ago. (Gollwitzer is likely to blame for this . . . ) One nice consequence of this is that I can get my reading materials used for a couple dollars + shipping. But I digress . . .

I’ve posted about Paul M. van Buren at DET before, so regular readers should be at least passingly familiar with him. The short version is that he was the teacher of my teacher, Ellen Charry, and his teacher was Karl Barth (whose name regular readers may perhaps also recognize).

In any case, I was reading van Buren this morning and the following jumped out at me.

Paul M. van Buren, The Secular Meaning of the Gospel (MacMillan, 1963), 141–42.
The man who says, “Jesus is Lord,” is saying that the history of Jesus and of what happened on Easter has exercised a liberating effect upon him, and that he has been so grasped by it that it has become the historical norm of his perspective upon life. His confession is a notification of this perspective and a recommendation to his listener to see Jesus, the world, and himself in this same way and to act accordingly. It is an important perspective and it can be distinguished from other points of view. We may illustrate the difference by comparing the perspective of Christian faith and the point of view of the man whose perspective upon life is founded on the life of his nation. The nationalist understands himself first of all as a patriot and he defines his freedom in the context of loyalty to his country. He can understand the Gospel only as making a relative claim at most. He may allow that there is some freedom to be found in Jesus and in loyalty to him, but it is secondary to his freedom as a citizen. For the Christian, however, the situation will be reversed. His assertion, “Jesus is Lord,” expresses the fact that Jesus has become his point of orientation, with the consequence that he is freed from acknowledging final loyalty to his nation, family, church, or any other person and is liberated for service to these other centers of relative loyalty. Because he sees not only his own history but the history of all men in the light of the one history of Jesus of Nazareth and Easter, he will not rest content when his nation, family, or church seek to live only for themselves; he will try to set them in the service of others.
Van Buren has a knack for putting his finger on the deep, festering cancers at the heart of Christianity in North America – the things that should be painfully obvious to us today (even if they are not painfully obvious to many of “us”), but which van Buren demonstrates incredible prescience in identifying 60 or so years ago . . .

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