For the past several years, Faith and Action has sponsored the only Live Nativity procession seen on Capitol Hill. When actors portraying Mary, Joseph, and a cooing Baby Jesus, make their way down Constitution Avenue with a shepherd boy, three Wise Men, and a real live camel, a donkey, and a sheep in their wake, it commands attention. And when the biblical entourage pauses between the iconic facades of the United States Supreme Court and the U.S Capitol buildings, the imagery becomes forever memorable. We can predict a parade of picture-taking tourists, various other passers-by, and even a police officer or two that will ask to pet Junior the Camel! Sometimes called, “Bethlehem in Motion,” or, “The Cruising Creche,” it’s always a big hit, but the most important element is the question it provokes each year, most often asked by a reporter:
“Why are you doing this?”
The answer is at once simple and profound. The Live Nativity is full of meaning–as it always is–but especially against the backdrop of the nation’s capital city. The Christmas montage projects a message in nanoseconds:
“Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:11)
Give me an hour to preach on that verse and I won’t even get close to exhausting its meaning or its implications for all of us–and for all of “them.” “Them” being the inhabitants of the two big structures framing the scene: The Court and the Capitol. Of course, these two buildings represent just two of three branches of our American federal government. There’s a third building, the White House, just a ten-minute drive to the northwest. Together the three are a metonymy for the whole of American government–and by extension–the whole of earthly government. Before I explain more of the significance of that, though, I’ll point to just a few more “general” reasons to stage a live nativity anywhere–and everywhere.
First, humans have always been visual learners. Pictures are literally worth a thousand words. Thank God the tableau of the Holy Family is still recognizable to the majority of at least westerners, and, because of the globalization of the Internet, to many others from around the world. Christianity is the only religion embodied in a huddled mom, dad, and babe. Our own country remains a very religious one, with a sustained majority self-identifying as one form of “Christian” or another. The same is true of the men and women elected to high office, and, likewise, the ones they in turn appoint to non-elected posts. My point is, most onlookers at our annual nativity know in an instant what they are looking at and its meaning. The “CHRIST-mas” message is communicated in a nanosecond, and it’s a message for every human being in every place at every time. Still, there’s something about projecting the Bethlehem Gospel against the backdrop of federal government that makes it a unique exercise.
Since before the construction of the city of Babel, earthly government has been in tension with heavenly rule. The conflict between church and state is located primarily in the proclivity of the state to presumptuously assume the role and identity of the church; that is, for the earthly power to attempt to subsume the heavenly power. This phenomenon manifests itself routinely here in Washington when earthly potentates arrogate to themselves the role of “gods.” This is nothing new–politicians playing God–it’s been going on since Babel and before. All this to say, the people that inhabit places like Washington need reminders they are not God. The Nativity drama does just this by reminding all who see it that there is a true, eternal, and universal Savior born of royal blood who is the potentate of potentates, King of kings, and Lord of lords. And look at the place of that miraculous event: “the city of David.” David was a king–an earthly potentate–a government leader. So, it seems God wishes for this great revelation to be made in citadels of earthly power. Why? To remind those that exercise earthly power that their ability to do so ultimately comes from God who is the source of and the sovereign over all forms of power.
So, our Live Nativity on Capitol Hill is Christmas on display, a reminder to all of the true reason for the season, and a recalibration to reality. It sets the record straight on who’s in charge, who really commands the ships of state, and to whom we must all ultimately look for salvation–in temporal and eternal forms. The Live Nativity does this in a very positive, appealing, and compelling way.
Oh, and there’s one more reason we stage our Live Nativity on Capitol Hill: The production is a robust exercise of our God-given First Amendment guaranteed rights to free speech, freedom of assembly, the free exercise of religion, and, well, if you really want to stretch it, freedom of the press, since it is, after all, the Good “News!” As I’ve written and said countless times, rights are like muscles–if you don’t use them, you lose them. So, prayerfully think about staging your own Live Nativity near your local seat of earthly power–say, in front of your town or city hall, county seat, courthouse, or state capitol. You’ll be amazed at all the good it will do for you, for your community, for your nation, and for your world!
Something in common? Jesus at the Feast of Dedication and the pilgrims at Plymouth Thanksgiving have something important in common.
This week at Faith and Action we celebrate not one holiday–but two: The better-know Thanksgiving (November 28) and the lesser-known, but equally important Hanukkah (November 27-Dec 4). Interestingly, they have similar histories and meaning.
I’ll explain . . .The classic American Thanksgiving goes back to those early European settlers who survived the brutal New England winter of 1621 against unimaginable odds. God was good to them, granting them a fruitful harvest with the help of the native population, and they gave thanks in prayer, with Psalm-singing, and with feasting. Here is an account of that early American festival.
On Hanukkah, there’s a similar story of miraculous survival: In that much earlier time (second century, BC), the Jews in ancient Palestine were suffering under persecution by the Syrian-Greek tyrant Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Declaring himself to be a god, Epiphanes (meaning “revealed one”) required the Jews to subordinate their worship of the One True God to the idol of the emperor. Again, in the face of impossible odds, the Jewish Maccabees got the best of their enemies, reclaimed the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, cleansed it of pagan images and renewed biblical worship. More about this defining event can be found here. I’ve always encouraged Christians to celebrate this holiday because Jesus did in John 10:22-39.
It’s always interested me that both Thanksgiving and Hanukkah are considered a combination of religious and civil holidays. In fact, Thanksgiving is the only holiday with a distinctly religious core to be officially declared a national holiday in the United States. And, the very first official proclamations of Thanksgiving gave thanks to God for victory in the War of Independence and for sustaining the nation in the face of civil war.
So, good reason for all of us to mark this week with prayerful Thanksgiving. Having said that, please know that all of us at Faith and Action give thanks to God for you, for your friendship, and for your generosity that have allowed us to survive as your missionaries to Capitol Hill–against seemingly impossible odds!
Happy Hanukkah and Blessed Thanksgiving to you and all yours!
Rev. Rob Schenck
This Christmas season I invite you to experience the Holiday here in Washington in an unusual way. You may have heard that Faith and Action sponsors the only annual Live Nativity on Capitol Hill including actors in period costume playing Mary, Joseph, and the Baby Jesus, shepherds, and even a real camel and a real donkey! The procession, which begins at our ministry center just behind the Supreme Court and continues along Constitution Avenue to the East Lawn of the Capitol, brings alive the story of the first Christmas at Bethlehem. You are welcome to join us anywhere along our route at any time your schedule allows. Here are the details:
The Live Nativity on Capitol Hill
Tuesday, December 3, 2013
10:00 AM – 11:00 AM
Opening ceremony 10:00 – 10:15
109 2nd St, NE, Washington, DC 20002 (Just behind Supreme Court near corner of A St, NE)
Procession will make it’s way north on 2nd St, toward Constitution, turn left or west, and proceed past Hart and Dirksen, turn left or south, on First St, to front of Supreme Court and across the street to East Promenade of the Capitol, holding there from approximately 10:30 to 10:45, it will then return along the same path to 109 2nd St for 11:00 closing ceremony.
To join with us or volunteer you may call our office – chief of program, Peggy Nienaber, on her mobile phone, 202-236-0953. office 202-546-8329.
Even though it’s only the first week of November, one of Faith and Action’s favorite Capitol Hill traditions is on the way: the US Capitol Christmas tree will soon arrive to Washington D.C. This year, the State of Washington has been selected to donate the Christmas tree that will stand through the holidays on the west lawn near the Capitol building in Washington, D.C.
The 88-foot pinewill be cut from the Collville National Forest and then will travel across the country giving people the opportunity to place a small ornament or note on the tree before it arrives in our nation’s capital. The tree will be escorted by federal officials and have constant law enforcement protection along the way.
In 1964, the US Capitol Christmas tree celebration began when a Douglas fir was planted on the Capitol building grounds. Initially, only trees from Maryland were selected for the yearly celebration, but from 1970 forward, a different state has been selected each year to donate a tree to Capitol Hill.
Faith and Action encourages people across the country to contribute ornaments that center on both the theme of “shine” and the meaning of Christmas as centered on the birth of Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior. Perhaps a shining star in the East will provide an excellent ornament. Or, maybe depicting the theme of the effulgent beauty of the Incarnation will be the ornament that stands out this year.
To learn more about how to contribute ornaments and about the US Capitol Christmas tree in general, visit: http://www.capitolchristmastree2011.org/ornaments.html
As I’ve grown older I’ve come to appreciate more and more that I’m named for an uncle who gave himself generously in service to our country. In fact, my “Uncle Bobby” (Capt. Robert L. Schenck USAF), whom I never knew, had flown a record number of B17 missions over Europe during WWII, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross. After his honorable discharge, he decided he hadn’t done enough for the country he loved, so he re-upped for service in Korea where he died in an unfortunate non-combat air crash. I was born seven years later and given his name.
My father was inspired by his older brother’s patriotism and joined up with the Air Force to continue the tradition. I never served, but grew up with a reverence for our military men and women. My connection to this legacy means more to me today than ever, and for two principal reasons. First, as I’ve traveled the world, I realize just how rare–even unique–our American freedoms are, especially when it comes to religion, speech, association, the press, redress of grievances, and on and on. Our Bill of Rights, as a whole, is unmatched anywhere else on earth. These freedoms, that I believe are given to us by God, are guaranteed to us in the Constitution, and our men and women in uniform pledge to defend that constitution to the point of risking their own lives. This is an extraordinary and selfless sacrifice. Not all will pay the ultimate price, but they are all willing if called upon to do so. This makes our soldiers, sailors, and airmen rare human beings.
For me, there is even a theological principle in this. Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” (John15:13) Every veteran illustrates for us the true meaning of this kind of godly love. Their willingness to lay down their lives for the benefit of their fellow Americans if called upon to do so is an exquisite demonstration of the supreme love of God that was demonstrated by Christ Himself. They help us to make the intangible tangible.
I’ve made it a habit to thank a veteran every time I meet one. I invite you to join me in that tribute to these great Americans, especially today.
Here’s to my Dad, my Uncle Bobby, and every other rare American that has sworn the oath to protect our Constitution and the freedoms it safeguards for us all, to protect our security here and abroad, and to stop at nothing to ensure this nation continues as a place where God’s good gifts can be enjoyed by His creatures!
Thank you Veterans for your service, sacrifice, and role modeling of what it means to lay down one’s life for his friends!
A pastor at the center of Town of Greece v. Gaalloway, one of this year’s most watched Supreme Court cases, attended arguments before the justices Wednesday, November 6, 2013.
It’s one of the most common questions asked of me, especially when I’m escorting a guest to the front door of our ministry house and they see sculpture in our garden. Reporters, producers, journalists use the same words, but deliver them in a different tone, usually one of suspicion, as if to really ask, “So, what’s behind this display of the Ten Commandments? What political statement are you making here?” Both are fair questions and ones I’m happy to answer–and I do–a lot. I thought you might interested in those answers, so here they are.
“Why the Ten Commandments?”
This question can mean, “Of all the familiar biblical passages, why did you pick the Ten Commandments?” Or, it can mean, “With so many more elegant and beautiful biblical passages–say, the Sermon on the Mount, or the Lord’s Prayer–what would make you pick this inferior passage?” It could also mean, “Aren’t the Ten Commandments expired? Haven’t they been replaced by the two Great Commandments of Christ?” Or even, “What are you guys, some kind of legalists? You put up the law instead of celebrating grace. What are you, modern day Pharisees?”
These are just the questions from our friends! Our opponents ask with a different inflection that suggest other implications. They can range from, “OK, so you’re imposing your moral standards on the rest of the world,” to, “I see, a poetic way to make your statement against abortion and gay marriage,” to, “Man, you guys are really religiously narrow and bigoted.”
Of course, not everyone is critical. We have plenty of people that stop to admire the Commandments–even whole busloads of tourists–some of them from other countries–that stop to have their photos taken in front of the monument. They don’t even ask why we have the monument, they just thank us for having it! Still, I’d like them to ask why because there are good reasons to have the Commandments–and maybe some reasons they wouldn’t normally think about.
So, all this to set up my answer to why we have the Commandments, regardless of the inflection, the intention, the nuance, or the ulterior motive for asking it.
Why do we have the Ten Commandments etched on an 850-pound slab of granite and displayed in front of our ministry house on Capitol Hill–yes–opposite the VIP entrance to the Supreme Court, within easy view of the Capitol, and ten minutes drive from the White House? Well, just to be cute, I’ll give you The Top Ten Reasons Why We Display the Ten Commandments:
1) The Ten Commandments constitute the most universal of all basic ethical codes. Jews, Christians, and Muslims equally revere them, and virtually all major religious systems at least tacitly endorse them.
2) The Ten Commandments are the most enduring of all ancient law codes–3500 years old and still going strong! Similar moral / ethical / spiritual systems for living have faded with time, but the Ten Commandments remain current and in wide circulation.
3) Because they begin with a rule about God and end with a rule about neighbors, the Ten Commandments tie together our vertical and horizontal duties and obligations. How we treat our relationship to others correlates directly to how we treat our relationship to God.
4) The Ten Commandments tie together spiritual, moral, ethical, familial, and social rules into one memorable table, making a powerful statement that all these things are related to one another and cannot be compartmentalized. What we do or don’t do in one area of life directly affects all the other areas.
5) The Ten Commandments help us to understand how constant these ultimate and elementary responsibilities are for every human being–and how vigilant we must be to measure our behavior in reference to them.
6) For the Christian, the Ten Commandments defines sin and implies that we are all sinners because, undoubtedly, we can all remember at least once when we’ve violated one of their tenets. If, then, we are all sinners, it follows that we all need a savior.
7) Because the Ten Commandments are words from God, they carry a unique, transcendent force and issue from the ultimate authority. As a famous journalists once said about them, “They’re the Ten Commandments, not the ten suggestions!”
8) The Ten Commandments represent the fundamental system of divine ethics on which monotheistic religion was built, as well as western civilization, including British and American common law.
9) The Ten Commandments are woven into the history and imagery of our nation, from early colonial laws mandating their display in church meeting halls, to the legislatively authorized images of Moses the Law Giver that stares down on the podium in the chamber of the House of Representatives in the United States Capitol, to the bas relief of Moses holding the tablets of the Commandments in the Supreme Court’s interior south frieze and, even more notably, at the center of the building’s exterior East Pediment, above the entry used by the Justices and other dignitaries.
10) The particular Ten Commandments sculpture we installed in our garden is a replica of four monuments that once stood in front of public schools in rural Adams County, Ohio, right on the Kentucky border and the poorest county in that state. A federal court ordered the Commandments to be forcibly removed in 2003. A year later Faith and Action was given an exact replica of those monuments by the Adams County ministerial association and in 2006 it was erected in the front garden at an angle that makes it visible to the nine justices of the Supreme Court as they come and go from their building.
So, as you can see, we maintain the Ten Commandments at the front of our building for more than one good reason. No doubt there are countless more reasons to display these timeless words and we invite you to add them to the list!
“The law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul: the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple.” Psalm 19:7 (KJV)
The Ten Commandments monument in front of Faith and Action’s ministry center will once again be seen by the justices of the US Supreme Court every time they enter and exit their building across the street! Accountants for our ministry notified Rev. Rob Schenck, president and lead missionary, that the fundraising goal of $10,000 has been well exceeded and the repair work can get underway as soon as possible.
The iconic monument of the Ten Commandments in front of our Faith and Action ministry center was attacked by vandals this past weekend and toppled to the ground on its face. The 850-pound granite sculpture had stood for a dozen years as a silent witness to biblical truth. The angle at which the tablets sat in the front garden of the Honorable William J. Ostrowski House ensured that the justices of the United States Supreme Court would see them every day when they arrived and left their building, which is just across the street. Members of Congress, many of whom travel in front of the ministry center on their way to and from their offices at each end of the street, will often mention to our staff that they’ve seen the etched version of the Great Words of Sinai. On at least two occasions, presidential motorcades have slowed down to get a look at the Decalogue.
That view of God’s Eternal Word is no longer available. On Saturday night, September 21, Faith and Action chief of program Peggy Nienaber received a call alerting her to what appeared to be vandalism at the front part of our property. When Peggy arrived at our location, she saw that the Ten Commandments monument had been toppled forward, its face bearing the incomparable “Ten Words” pointed to the ground. The steel rod that secured the monolith to a three-foot deep cement foundation had been bent to a nearly 90′ angle.
“It took a lot of force to wrench that hardened steel,” Peggy said. “Whoever did this was avery serious and very focused on making sure the Ten Commandments could no longer be seen or read. It was obviously intentional. This was no random act. It was well planned and well done.”
Peggy also noted that someone had stuck a stolen “For Rent” sign in the garden in front of the damaged monument. Nothing else was disturbed, and a later inspections of the building indicated that no one had attempted to enter.
Since the time Rev. Rob Schenck first applied for a permit to install the monument at our location, it has been controversial. Back in 2001, shortly after Faith and Action was awarded the sculpture for being the top bidder in a fundraiser for Adams County for the Ten Commandments Committee, a group working to preserve similar stone displays in front of schools in their area, the oversized garden ornament has been the focus of numerous challenges. The original permit application was denied several times, with various federal agencies bouncing it to others in a game of bureaucratic hot potato. Eventually some 11 commissions did sign off on the proposed plans, but work came to stop after the Area Neighborhood Commission (ANC) objected due to the religious nature of monument’s message.
“We were told that the permit would not be approved because there were federal employees across the street at the Supreme Court and in the U.S. Capitol that might be offended by the Ten Commandments,” said Rev. Rob Schenck. “When I explained that there was a full-sized model of nude woman in a garden near ours, I was told people aren’t offended by nude statues, but they are offended by the Ten Commandments.”
At a final meeting of the ANC, commissioners voted to approve a highly contested liquor license for a local restaurant, but voted down permission for Faith and Action to erect the Ten Commandments monument.
“After the refusal by the commissioners, the monument sat in our walled prayer garden at the rear of our building, invisible to the public, and languished there for five years,” said Rev. Schenck. “We weren’t sure it would ever see the light of day. Then, in 2006, word reached us that a very highly placed official in Washington had said the coast was clear for a lawsuit that would favor Faith and Action if the sculpture was put in the ground. “
“When we heard that,” Rev. Schenck went on to explain, “it gave us courage to move ahead. We installed the monument over a federal holiday and had a dedication ceremony shortly after. Unveiling those tablets, man, you would have thought we had detonated a nuclear bomb. All kinds of groups came after us, and the DC government hand-delivered a letter threatening us with $300 per day fines for violation of the permit laws. We stood our ground under the First Amendment freedoms of speech and religion. In less than a month the government backed down and rescinded their notice of violation, quote, ‘in view of the First Amendment interests reflected in the installation of the Ten Commandments sculpture.’ End quote. It was a sweet victory.”
Rev. Schenck said Faith and Action has already launched a fund drive to repair and re-install the monument. A re-dedication ceremony will be held as soon as the process is complete.