Category Archives: Politics and the Church

Bye Bye Christendom

I have tried to avoid much commentary on the presidential election. Quite frankly a lot is being said, and some of it quite good. There is, however, one thing hanging on the tip of my tongue after a week.

I hope this is the last nail in the coffin for American Christendom.

I believe that religious leaders who openly supported a candidate finally drove that nail home. Neither candidate presented a campaign that aligned with any tradition I know of. Trump’s obvious disdain for immigrants, women, the disabled, and blacks, let alone his serial philandering should have been enough. But Clinton had her own problems. I didn’t once hear my progressive peace church friends call out her hawkish approach to international affairs nor her neo-liberal economic policies that created much of the income disparity we see today. (To be fair, I have rarely heard those critiques of Obama who has deported more immigrants than any other president and has turned drone warfare into the newest tool in American Imperialism.) Instead, our religious leaders stepped up behind the nominee of both parties ignoring such glaring inconsistencies. In a way, American Christianity has finally become more identified with the Democratic and Republican parties than it has with the teachings of Jesus. And in so doing, the church has fallen lock step in line with the vision of the American Experiment. It has given up its social vision for humanity to the political mechanisms set in place over two hundred years ago.

After the great wars in Europe, sparked by the fissures of the Reformation, the Founding Fathers sought a path for the new nation that would shift the church from its once significant place in social unity. Having witnessed horrific violence in the name of religion, the early American leadership turned to the new theories of social contract, put forth by Enlightenment philosophers, to design a government that would mediate between the differences naturally a part of every human community. Before the Constitution, religion was literally the binding practices for any society. And in Christendom Europe this was even more the case, such that as new forms of Christianity began to slip the singular bond of the Roman church, violence erupted. Princes and clergy aligned, later in what was called the Peace of Westphalia, to secure local sovereignty. So when the Founding Fathers set to form a new experiment, they did so intentionally breaking the link between Church and governance.

Fast forward two hundred years and the mediating role of the Church in society was nearly replaced by the government. Instead of presenting a holistic social vision based on the teachings of Jesus, the church gave over much of the binding work of a mediating institution to the government. However, in the late twentieth century, particularly with the Eisenhower presidency, politicians began to court religious leaders to legitimize the usurping
role of the government. By the start of the twenty-first century blocks of Christianity were solidly within the camps of one political party or another. Pollsters and politicians alike began categorizing voting blocks, like the evangelical parts of the church, as solely beholden to one party.

Now, in this election these voting blocks followed through with their quest to find their views legitimized by the only mediating institution left in the country. And they did so proclaiming the betrayal of their values by their deafening silence about the inconsistencies in their own candidate.

It is my hope and prayer that in the postmortem review of the 2016 election that Christian leaders will finally see their own duplicity in the quest to keep their party in power. And in so doing, we all will see that the politicians who count on us to vote in particular blocks do so only feigning moral clarity, and are just as interested in political power over others.

When we finally see that, we will come to terms with the glaring contradiction to the example of Christ himself, who sought not power over others but a kind of power that willingly took the servants towel.

It is my prayer, then, that the American Church will finally stop seeking legitimacy from the political process, cease trying to enforce a moral vision for the country through political power, and return to being the church. We will reach out to the marginalized, refusing the racist and classist hierarchy of American culture. We will care for the immigrants as scripture commands regarding the stranger in the land, rejecting the fear mongering of politicians and pundits. We will care for our neighbors, even those most different from us, contrary to the elitism of our capitalist economy that teaches us to see them as people to be out done or threats to our economic security. We will open our homes, share our wealth, and protect the most vulnerbale in the compassionate spirit of Christ, contrary to the divisive nature of our political structures. And we will do all of this, not because we want to enforce a kind of moral vision on the country, but because it is simply our civic duty not as Americans, but as citizens of heaven.

So if you are relieved by outcome of the election, or if you are disheartened, take a moment to consider how your own values were compromised in the casting of your vote. Consider how politicians have co-opted the church for their own gain. And consider how the church has increasingly become irrelevant to an entire generation of young people who see right through the power games and recognize that the church has become just as obsessed with power over others as the worst of politicians. And then, consider how we might all return to the valuable mission of God in the world, where all peoples are made one again in the only true mediating presence of Jesus. And finally, may we let go of Christendom and return to being the church.

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Filed under Ecclesiology, Politics and the Church

Our Moral Calculus

I have been thinking a lot about privilege, race, economics, and our culture. Some of my thoughts emerge when I catch up on the news, and others come as I read the important work by others more intelligent that I.

However, the news of the recent sentencing of a young white man for the sexual assault of a young woman was the final straw. The conviction carried the minimum sentence of 2-3 years, but the judge gave him six months in the county jail. While I am sure that any time in jail is enough for any person to see the violence of their actions, in this case the rape of a woman, it is all too plain that as a young white college man he was given the benefit of the doubt. And as has been all too plain, that same benefit is not awarded women, blacks, latinos, or sexual minorities.

The struggle for equality in our time is one that in some ways builds on the advances for minorities in the last century while at the same time eclipsing those achievments. For instance, it is all too common to hear a white man say plainly “I am not racist.” Such a statement is probably true (though even saying as much is a recognition that racism is implied), but that very self-perception is based on the idea that racists are easy to identify– or that they participate in explicit and personal actions of hate based on race. Today, however, we are confronted by the myriad of ways racism, misogyny, and fear of sexual minorities is shaped in us by cultural practices that work below our subconscious.

Compare one of the young black men shot on the street by police. Their communities try to rehumanize these young men, saying just what the dad of the young white rapist did– namely that they are good kids, who made a poor decision. White pundits often discredit such stories by saying that the young men were on drugs, but in the case of the white man who was intoxicated it was just a youthful indiscretion. Just because the rapist is a white college student, he looks like he has so much potential. And even the minimum sentence took into account his lack of a criminal record, but still treated the severity of the crime. Because he was white and looked to have potential, he was granted a dramatically lenient six months.

For all of us white men, who are “not racist” or not prone to misogyny, or “not homophobic” we finally have to realize just how much leeway we are granted simply because of our skin color and gender. Not only are we innocent until proven guilty (a luxury many blacks, latinos, LGBT persons are granted in name only), but we are even given the future benefit of the doubt when we are indeed guilty.

We must come to terms, as a society, that we in fact do make a moral calculus that is based on race, gender, and sexual identity. And that calculus, as Drew Hart has named it, is a hierarchical one. White men on top, and the rest fall out somewhere below.

When we employ this calculus, we overlook that sexual predators are more likely to be white straight men preying on children in church than they are transgendered persons lurking in bathrooms. We conveniently omit the fact that the so-called black-on-black crime rates are statistically the same as white-on-white crime. And because white men have such potential in our culture, the accounts of women who have been sexually assaulted are attempts to falsely discredit men until a jury finds enough proof to the contrary. And even then, as we have seen this week, even the testimony of the victim, bravely read in court at the sentencing, is not enough to actually enforce the law.

This hierarchical moral calculus, despite our overt assertions to the contrary, instills in us a subconscious story that allows these things to continue. And while we may not be racists, we allow these cultural factors to cloud our judgment, and the same is true in regards to women and many others.

This, to me, seems the heart of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 7. Many today latch onto Jesus’ words about judging others, but the remainder of the passage are striking. If we are ready to point out the sins of another, the speck of dust in their eye, we must first remove the plank in our own. For those of us who have significant cultural privilege, that plank in our eye is huge. And we have grown so accustomed to seeing the world in those terms, adjusting our perceptions to account for our skewed and fallen vision of the world, we barely notice just how privileged we are. And truthfully, it may not be out of our own doing. As the classical tradition regarding the Fall says so plainly, when humanity sinned against God it did not just affect individuals, it was cosmological. The ramifications of our separation from God are not our personal doing, but are true nonetheless. Sanctification, becoming like Jesus, is the one remedy and it takes work. And at times, like the camel passing through the eye of a needle, is a painful struggle. But just because it is painful does not mean we should cower in the face of significant transformations.

We must change.

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Praying to be like the Samaritan: A white guy on Zimmerman

I am a white guy. I like trucks. rock and roll, and I even shoot a gun from time to time. I go to tractor pulls and county fairs. In certain parts of town I double check that the car door is locked. And though I do my best and repent, I know there are times my first judgements get the best of me.

I am a white guy. And I have no problem saying that Zimmerman was wrong. I am Christian, and I say that what he did was a sin– from the moment he started following Martin, to the beginning of the fight, and ultimately in the final act of killing another man. Killing is a sin. We can justify it all we want, but there is no getting around that simple fact.

And, racism in every form and from every perspective is also a sin. And protecting racism and killing by any justification is the ultimate sin of pride. In protecting our racist tendencies we think we know just who a person is and what they are up to by the car they drive, by the color of their skin, and by the clothes they wear. Last time I read the scriptures, only one knows the heart, and for us to decide that we know a person’s intentions is to put ourselves in the place of God. By saying that “self defense is a right” we also think somehow we are above even Jesus who rejected that premise, refusing to protect himself all the way to the cross. How is it that we think we know more than God? How is that we think we are somehow more capable than Jesus?

Racism hit home for me early in college. We were down town Chicago for a day trip to the art museum. My friend, an African American from the south side of Fort Wayne, and I went to a record store down the block to check out the CDs. We talked together, showing each other the jazz albums we wished we had the money to buy. He picked up a CD and we walked to the top floor together. Somewhere up there he decided he shouldn’t get it. And like we all do, he put it up on the rack a floor above where he found it. And we left.

Not 20 feet from the door, someone came running out to stop my friend. We were clearly walking together, but I could have easily kept walking. The guy was an undercover cop and the store clerk had told him that my friend had probably stolen the CD. They went back into the store, and my friend took him to the rack where he had left it.  I don’t think I could have remembered where I left the silly thing if it were me. But my friend did– probably a familiar habit for him for just this reason. It struck me that neither the clerk nor the cop thought to implicate me in the questions. We could have just as easily passed the disc upstairs and I could have walked away unchallenged. There was one difference– the color of my skin. To be clear, I am not saying that either the cop or the clerk were bad, evil people. They simply acted from their prejudices.

Though I knew racism was real, especially in the north, I never really understood how it worked. There, on the streets of Chicago outside a record store, I realized just how much privilege I had simply because I am white. I learned, in just a few seconds, how people make snap judgements– thinking they know what is happening with just a glance at someone. And I came to know there were clearly two sets of standards, two different stories people constructed about the two of us just because I am white and he is black.

Those that try to narrow the Martin and Zimmerman conflict to just the few seconds when the fight broke out do not acknowledge the judgements both men made– Zimmerman assuming a black guy in the neighborhood is up to no good and Martin that a white guy following him was just as menacing. Just a little bit of empathy can put us into each man’s shoes– the frustration of another white guy assuming I am trouble at night; another unknown black man, looking suspicious in a gated community. Both reacted to their prejudice. Both fought from their fear. Neither was justified. Neither stopped long enough to ask questions. One man died. One man committed a mortal sin. No one won.

Just the other day I stopped to help a guy standing by his car waving his hands frantically. To be honest, for a few seconds my thoughts were to keep going. Can I trust him? What if he does something once I am out of the truck? He’s black, I am white. I stopped, about a 100 yards away and had to back all the way up. Do I think I am somehow heroic for pushing his car to the gas station? Not in a million years. But in thinking back, I realized just how much I had to fight against the stories in my head. I had to consciously put aside fear and prejudice for the greater good of helping someone I couldn’t know what would happen, and had no reason to trust him. I was vulnerable. And that is just how it should be.

Jesus once told a lawyer a similar story. A man lay beaten and bloody on the side of a mountain road. Those who were supposed to know right from wrong, from compassion and judgement, walked on by. The outsider, the one no self-respecting Hebrew of the day would even talk to, was the one that stopped to care for the man. Those that passed probably had every justification in the world for ignoring the man– some cultural, maybe even some based in fact, and some religious. But only one, the Samaritan, stepped outside the tapes playing in his mind to do the right thing.

I have no illusions that our society will some how become more just by the laws we pass. I am not naive enough to think that racism is a disease that can be cured. I do think, however, that we as followers of Jesus are constantly asked to act in spite of our prejudices, in spite of the stories we tell ourselves when we walk the streets alone. To stand up on these events to champion a political cause- whether it be systemic racism or gun laws- is simply to capitalize on hurting people. Yet, if we as disciples do not take this occasion to ask how we act from our prejudices rather than grace, we have missed the opportunity live into our salvation.

I am white. I am racist- sometimes. I make snap judgements about whites and blacks. And I repent. I am trying to live like the Kingdom of God has come. I fail at times and receive grace at others. But as Thomas Merton prayed- I believe that the desire to please God does in fact please God, and I pray- daily- that I have that desire in all that I do. I pray that I may be more like the Samaritan.

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Deconstructing Violence, Embodying the Kingdom

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“Non-Violence” image courtesy of Flickr.com

In a recent workshop on faith and politics the standard trope about Anabaptism quickly emerged. “We have a moral responsibility within society, and to vote would be to abdicate that responsibility.” The implication was clear- the Anabaptist impulse to withdraw (itself a narrowly defined understanding of the tradition) is a dismissal of that social moral imperative. This presenter then followed it up with the typical casuistry exemplar. With the rise of gun violence in Chicago, a well documented trend, what is the Christian to do? Wouldn’t lobbying for gun reform be the wisest, expedient, and most moral action to take?

Now in the most recent issue of The Christian Century Scott Paeth, associate professor of religion at DePaul University asks in a brief editorial: “What culture of violence?” The subtitle of the article makes his case clear- “Why we shouldn’t blame video games and movies.” If that was not enough to reveal his partisan stripes, his opening summary of the National Rifle Association and concluding remarks about the need for limiting firearms placed him within the political debate. “A more effective approach, I suspect, would be to contain the potential damage done by the confluences of violent media and violent intentions by depriving the fire of its power to burn. This would entail imposing tighter restrictions on the availability of certain kinds of firearms and ammunition” (pg, 12).

The argument leading to this conclusion follows typical modern assumptions about society and progress. As he states plainly, “the data do not support the idea that the consumption of violent media leads to a greater propensity toward violence.” Even more starkly, he says that the evidence “points in the opposite direction” (pg. 11). In support he states rather plainly, “overall violence has declined in the United States over the past five years” (pg. 11).

To be fair, Paeth’s overall caution is worth keeping in mind. The causes of violence are intricate and complicated. Addressing violent games and movies is not sufficient. Issues such as poverty, drugs, and access to weapons play a role in societal violence. What is more, the brief theological observation later in the editorial is equally a part of the conversation for the church: “At the heart of Christian teaching is the realization that we are in some sense fundamentally broken creatures, sinners in need of redemption from a transcendent source” (pg. 12).

However, the leap to advocate for public policy does not necessarily follow. As was evidenced by the presenter who asked what an Anabaptist was to do in the face of rising gun violence in Chicago, the modern imagination is hostage to the politics of the society. Meaningful, and “efficient” engagement with society- the redemption from a transcendent source- is to be found in the legislative debates of partisan politics. Underlying this limited thinking is a kind of exceptionalism, of the progressive kind. Despite mass killings in the 20th and 21st century, and the stunning efficiency (even dehumanizing of) killing, progressives continue to champion the progress of modern society. Not only have the last five years seen drop in violent crime, but the very political system itself is  presented as a sign of humanity’s rising, its capacity to effect societal change. In a moment of Pelagian optimism, Paeth demonstrates this plainly when he says that “as a society, we seem to be getting less violent even as the depiction of violence in media becomes more graphic and realistic” (pgs 11-12).

Indeed, as Paeth says, the causes of such horrific violence- whether in mass shootings or on the part of nations- the causes of violence are legion. To name one facet, whether violent video games or access to firearms or poverty induced crime, is to over simplify. Unfortunately, by taking the legislative position he does, Paeth engages in the same fallacy as the NRA.

In truth, the lobbying option is too easy. Asking a senator to vote one way on a particular piece of legislation requires nothing of us. In terms of discipleship to Christ, such advocacy does nothing for the incarnational witness in the places that need the change the most. In other words, the lobbyist can live in the comfort of affluent K St northwest in Washington DC but never have to confront the actual violence just a few miles away in the northeast quadrant of the city. To legislate weapons of any kind does nothing to address the statistically confirmed indicators of violence- poverty, isolation, and drugs.

To the presenter in the faith and politics workshop- the answer is clear, but not easy. Changing the culture of violence asks us to embody Christ in the places where the violence is happening. Move into the neighborhood. Build relationships. Mentor young people. Invest in local businesses. In other words, live the same self-emptying posture of Jesus himself (Philippians 2). Step down from our affluent isolation, beholden to societal expectations of upward mobility, and live with the people in most need of love and grace. It isn’t new laws that stop the violence. It is real people, in real relationships, that work in Christ-like ways, telling new stories of non-violent redemption and resurrection, sharing food around real tables, and caring for one another that bring to life a new way of Christ-centered peace into our world.

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It’s the guns and our imagination

We are all stunned, spinning in a state shock after the events in Connecticut last Friday. Today, I dropped my own first grader off at school, saying a short prayer as he closed the door and strangely comforted by the police cruiser parked at the corner.

In our dizzying state of disbelief a number of responses have emerged. Some have rallied to stem the tide of firearms, both through legislation and in gun buy back programs. Others, have stood up for increasing the number of weapons in our public spaces through concealed carry permits and even armed teachers in our classrooms. One thing is for certain, each of these and all the responses in-between grow out of the same grief, terror, and unknowing.

I’m not a card carrying member of the NRA, and even long for some tighter restrictions on the number and availability of firearms. As is often said at graduations around the country- there has to be some understanding of the responsibilities that come with rights. So, as I read through the many news stories about the Sandy Hook shooting, I can’t see how new gun legislation would have prevented it. Sure, very few people need a military style, semi-automatic rifle and magazines that carry more than 10 rounds. Yet, if it wasn’t the Bushmaster .223, it could have just as easily been the Glock and Sig which are both as fast and have 10 round clips or even any other rifle that can fire multiple rounds per second.

There seems to be a deeper concern- which some public figures have tried to put their finger on, but have only made matters worse. The question that hovers above the politics of gun control and ownership seems to be more cultural. “What is happening that persons week after week enter our public spaces to kill mass numbers of innocent people?” A week ago, a man entered a mall with a similar weapon and was only slowed down by a jammed round in the gun. The week before that another man went on a similar rampage, this time with a bow and arrow. It doesn’t appear to be the guns, but a culture of violence that shapes our imaginations to find some solace for despair in killing unknown and countless innocent people.

Some pastors have tried to say that it is because America has rejected God. Mike Huckabee and others have tried to say this was the result of taking prayer out of schools. What if, however, it isn’t a matter of what has been taken away, but what has been ever present in our culture for over 10 years- war and war games.

As I have argued in many other posts, we pay very little attention to the things that shape and form us. James K.A. Smith has made this abundantly clear in his book Desiring the Kingdom. There are liturgies in our society, both religious and secular, that shape what we desire and imagine. News cast after news cast show us the costs of war- death tolls, anonymous bombings and unmanned drone strikes, fear and the clouds of war. What is more, an entire generation has grown up on special ops video games that place the person in the first person perspective watching the “enemy” spray blood and die with the pull of a virtual trigger. Even more alarming is the rate at which these games have grown in simulating the reality of gun battles and war.

It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that the company which produced the Bushmaster .223 used on Friday has publicly stated that these military style weapons are the weapons of choice for young adults. In these video games, the AR-15, the Sig Sauer, and the Glock are all depicted with stunning realism and can be selected for the game. The rise in these shootings with these weapons is a direct product of imaginations shaped by the war games and television shows that depict them as cool and fun.

Certainly, the availability and open access to such firearms should be questioned. At the same time we should be asking just what things within our culture actively shape our hearts and minds to imagine such radical forms of violence. Our kids no longer play “Cowboys” with finger pistols but sit in front of true to life images of guns and violence. The jump, then, from game to reality increasingly narrows so that pushing a game control button and pulling a real trigger are not dissimilar.

In full disclosure, no news of this particular shooter playing such games has been reported. I am rather pointing to the things within our culture which make imagining a mass shooting possible. We should be actively questioning such realism as entertainment. And we should be finding ways to breakdown the isolation, social abuse, and fear that create a matrix with our violently shaped imaginations and make possible such acts.

As a people, we are no longer desensitized to acts of violence. We are shaped to imagine them with shocking realism.

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What just happened?

Votes have been cast. I am sure tears have been shed just as there have been shouts of victory. Yet, we all woke up today- the world did not end either in the coming of a savior or in the first days of the anti-christ. So we really have to ask- What just happened?

Unfortunately, the politi-tainment machines are still in gear. Now the media will move into the post-mortem of an electoral season that their viewers were first hand observers of for over 18 months. While a retrospective is outside the norm for our 24 hour news cycle, it is an important move. Although I would go about it completely differently. Instead of looking to polls to interpret the meaning of the outcome, I think we should be asking ourselves a different question- “What just happened to us?”

From my experience, I can only say that we have been object of a systematic effort to co-opt our imagination.

In the late weeks of October a number of bloggers, from Catholic to Anabaptist, explored the ideas of “not voting.” In reading both the posts and the comments, it was evident that to even ask the question was enough to draw anxiety and out right anger. It used to be that the question of voting was framed as  “civic responsibility.” Even those who would object to war were voting as a way of participating in the range of American democracy. In using the goods of the civic system, the responsible thing to do was vote. Now, the logic of the Religious Right of the 1980’s, has taken significant hold across the religious spectrum. If one has convictions about the public good, whether related to abortion, poverty, or war, there is a spiritual mandate to contribute one’s voice through a  vote. In many ways, the cast vote is now a prophetic witness. Unfortunately, those who chose not to vote cast their abstinence in the same light- to not vote is to offer a public witness to the debacle of American governance. Both groups then, take the moral high road, invoking a long tradition of prophetic witness while conflating it with the act of voting and its negation.

The reality is that this very divide is a direct product of the political system. We can’t seem to think in shades or in nuance. It is either black or white, red or blue, conservative or liberal, Democrat or Republican. The American experiment in democracy is precisely the outgrowth of the modern binary of either/or. To even think there is a range of reasons to not vote, or that one’s conscience to cast a ballot is based on a number of concerns or issues just passes by unnoticed. Either one votes, and is an upstanding Christian and true prophet or one is apostate and in danger of losing one’s soul for not. Never mind the equally judgmental rhetoric that is leveled at those who cast votes, albeit for a different party. Somehow we have arrived to the point where one’s faith and Christian walk is dependent not just on voting, but voting for one candidate or the other.

So what has happened to Christians in the midst of this polarized, binary culture? We fight amongst ourselves. We accuse one of not being for justice and another for not caring about the poor. We base our judgments of people’s faith based on their candidate signs in their yard. We look down the pew with disdain knowing our fellow worshiper has “that guy’s sticker”  on his or her car.” Meanwhile, we expend all our energy on the name calling and excommunicating as more people lose their homes, grow hungry and are killed by nation-state aggression.

What has happened to us in this electoral cycle? Easy. We have become more divided and easily conquered. The ways of the system have effectively neutralized any prophetic witness from the church for decades because we have conflated our faith, our vote, and our voice.

So now what? As I said recently- vote, don’t go vote. Discern your conscience. Then once the high holy day of American Democracy has passed, lets meet in the streets and sit with the poor, wash their feet, give them a meal. Let’s go to the VA and cry with the vets while we bandage their physical and emotional wounds. Let’s all take a single mother into our lives, helping to raise the child and let’s cry with the one who found no other option but to have an abortion. Then, once our whispered voices of votes and non-votes have faded we can embody a true prophetic shout together.

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Help, I am Being Repressed!

That classic line from Monty Python’s Holy Grail should be the new mantra for much of American Christianity. Progressives shout it at the screens of TVs and computers full of televangelists and pundits promoting another reading of the Gospel, while conservatives shout it at messages of tolerance from secular liberals.

No where has this been more evident than in the two recent debates regarding religious freedom and free speech. First, the US Catholic bishops played the repression trump card in the wake of the Health and Human Services decision to mandate insurance converge for birth control. Second, and most recently, conservative Christians flocked to a certain chicken vending establishment to stand up for the CEO whose statements about same-sex marriage ignited a media (and social media) firestorm.

Without comment on either of these specific instances, I have to wonder when American Christians became the most persecuted faith on the planet. Most recent studies of faith in the United States show that Christians are still the majority with just over 60% of the population. In addition, Christian leaders still exercise a great deal of influence in our cultural debates. In comparison to many countries around the world, where the practice of Christianity is often met with death either by militias or governments, we in the US have it easy. So when a company might lose a million in profits, or if I am offended at some media personality challenging Christian thought or practice, it is simply beyond reason to assume someone is being persecuted.

Aside from the social and cultural realities, Christians before the conversion of Constantine, or even later the coronation of Charlemagne by the Pope, assumed that confessing Jesus was equal to significant persecution. Each of the martyr stories exemplify a radical posture of acceptance of, even submission to, a culture other than the Church. Each one knew the possibilities and yet faith in Christ was more compelling than the gladiators and lions.

In Luke 14 Jesus speaks to his followers about the cost of discipleship. “For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost.” (Luke 14:28, RSV) In a context where faith is unfathomable or is outright rejected, our question should not be; “How can I change the culture, what kind of political stand can I make;” but “What will this cost me, and am I ready to pay whatever loss might come?”

The American experiment has created a context in which we have not had to weigh the cost of following Jesus. We have long been able to be both Christian and American without any threat or possibility of persecution. In the conservative and progressive camps of modern Christianity the knee jerk reaction is often the same. Take a stand, rally likeminded voters, or picket the latest monster to sway public and legal opinion in our favor. Both of these groups still assume a kind of Christendom mentality in which the state and the faith are similar enough to prevent any kind of challenge. All that is needed is a good publicity campaign and a solid reference to the First Amendment in order to avoid true persecution.

So which mantra will it be? “Help, I am being repressed!” or “Count well the cost.”

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Whose conscience, Which community

There is a little catch phrase within the vocabulary of the Church of the Brethren. In any theological or ethical conversation it is only a matter of minutes before someone in the conversation invokes the Brethren tradition of “respect for conscience.” It is the ultimate trump card, protecting positions on anything from ordination of women to human sexuality, and most of all congregational autonomy.

Unfortunately for our current state of the church, this was not the origination of the concept. A quick read of the writings of Alexander Mack reveals that the concept was framed as a posture to the governments of the world, not to matters of church practice and faith. This is especially clear in Mack’s letter to a German Count in which he defends the practice of Believers’ Baptism. Here, the scripture texts are arranged so as to make clear that there is no injunction of the government which can prevent the conscious practice of Christian ordinances.

However, over time the ideas of “no force in religion” and non-creedalism have infused our understanding of conscience. It has come to imply that the church cannot infringe upon the individual’s conscience- even when that conscience contradicts the essential values and ethics of the community. As I argued in a discussion of the Brethren synthesis of Anabaptism and Radical Pietism, contemporary Brethren have assumed that the individual and the community are constantly in tension. That is to say we assume the community slips into a kind of tyranny over the individual and that each one must guard their conscience against giving over too much to the community. Respect for individual conscience, then, is a kind of buffer to the power of a collective.

As I have argued regarding the cliche of being “spiritual but not religious,” this antagonistic view of the communal and individual dynamic is simply naive. It is not as if the individual person is closed system. Each one participates in a number of communities whose practices give shape to the ideas and desires of each person involved. This means that the so called autonomous individual is never free from the influences of some community. Following the title of one of Alistair MacIntrye’s works, it is more a matter of whose rationality and which community is shaping our thoughts.

In his work on Social Imaginaries, social theorist Charles Taylor has helpfully shown how this buffered image of the individual is a product of Enlightenment thinking. In rebuking the mystical world-view of the Middle Ages, the modern thinkers began to draw an ever thickening line of protection around the individual. At first, this line refuted the magical incursion of spirits infecting persons but gradually included a rejection of communal authority. The individual in this way became what Taylor calls a “buffered self.” As such, we now have a building block understanding of community which assumes, following the political philosophers, that community is formed by the assent of individual. That is to say that individuals endow a community with authority thus leaving communities to ultimately become affinity groups. When the group exercises too much sway on the individual, that person removes their assent to participate in other communities more like their own current perspective.

For contemporary Brethren, regardless of partisan color, the unfortunate reality is that we are more shaped by the American political landscape. Even the ways we read the scripture together are more defined by the political party of those reading. In essence, when individual conscience is invoked it is a sign that stereotypically conservative or progressive views are perceived to be under attack. In that moment we as the church are thrust into partisan politics rather than engaging in true discernment.

Brethren, in a true synthetic and not antagonistic understanding of our Anabaptism and Radical Pietism, have argued that no one individual holds the whole truth. First, our pietistic understanding of the Priesthood of All speaks of each individual’s access to the Holy Spirit. There is no elite spiritual class that solely encounters the speaking of the spirit. Yet, this access to the Spirit is not for the sole benefit of the individual, but a gift for the whole church. Thus, Brethren treated the gathered church community as the most appropriate place to discern truth- not the conventions of Democrats or Republicans or even affinity groups. Here, individuals speak into the community from their experiences of God and the scripture, but each one’s perspective is tested against the other voices of the church. This gathered wisdom, then, is the teaching of the church. Each individual then, must discern their conscience to decide if this is their community of faith.

Much damage has been done in the name of Church unity throughout time. Yet, a more church oriented vision of individual conscience to me values deeply the voices of those who have covenanted to the community. When the community’s discernment runs against our conscience we must discern if this is a disagreement about the essentials of our beliefs. Respecting one’s conscience in this light, then, is about blessing an individual who discerns that the contradictions are so great that a new community of faith must be sought. If, however, the individual continues to covenant with the church community, the church does not ban them but continues to seek their understanding of the Spirit in the processes of shared discernment. In traditional terms, this means that that the act of excommunication is not something for the church to impose on another, but for the individual to discern for themselves. Respecting their conscience is to be an act of blessing to find the community in which the individual and corporate voice are more in harmony with each other.

There must be then, a kind of submission to the community, freely offered on the part of the individual in the covenant to participate within this particular body. While we modern Americans do not like the idea of submission, there is an integrity in this act not often articulated today. In essence, the covenant makes explicit that this community is the one that I want to shape my desires, beliefs, and actions. As we currently practice “respect for individual conscience” there is no proclamation of which community it is that we have staked our claim in. So, we assume that persons are submitting and contributing to the discernment of the church when in fact it is some other tradition that is influencing their ideas and values. In our case today, the poles of our tradition are more in line with American conservatism or liberalism than they are with any theology and practice of the church. So we continue to fight one another, bringing the partisanship of the democratic system into our discernment- in effect making them debates about the alternate communities in which we participate.

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Diagnosis: Modernity

“The answer to poverty is community”- Jurgen Moltman

It is no longer easy to avoid the ravages of poverty.  A drive through any city today reveals the extent to which wealth and the lack of viable income can coexist within a single city block.  Even a quick glance at the news in any medium reveals that homelessness is closer to all of us than we care to imagine.

The response is generally the same for any political group, regardless of culture war colors.  Each party and interest group assumes that the answer lies in some sort of political solution, some act of government.  Justice, they shout, comes through legislative decision.  For these groups, it is the elected community which will solve the issues of wealth disparity and poverty is the American political and economic community, whether federal or local, free-market or government funded entitlements.

This assumption is rooted within the modern project.  Modernity, through the likes of John Locke and Thomas Jefferson, has sought to erase contentious religious systems from the public square to be replaced by a reasoned political system.  The modern vision, then, is for all communities to be related and subsumed under a public politic, relegating religion to private belief.  The over arching system of government is then, the one legitimate community.  In short, the answer to any social struggle is the political/economic system. So whether Tea Party or Green, Democrat or Republican, even Libertarian or Socialist the Modernist assumes some degree of governmental response to the questions of the day. (Note)

The Church today, even those most rooted in a Post-Christendom model of Church and State, continues to follow this Modern assumption.  It’s the one facet of Christendom that we cannot seem to shake off.  But really, it’s not much of a surprise.  In the Tercentennial study of the Church of the Brethren membership it became clear that we are more identifiable by our political party affiliation than by shaped by Brethren values.  We are more Red and Blue than we are “Continuing the Work of Jesus.”  Well, more accurately, and more respectfully, our senses of what it means to follow Jesus look more like our party affiliations than anything else.

Within the history of radical Christianity, from Acts through the desert ascetics all the way through to the Radical Reformers, the emphasis has fallen on the Christian community as the treatment for social ills.  Poverty, disproportionate gaps in wealth, health care, even natural disasters all received the same response- The Church, not the State, came to the aid of believers and non-believers alike.  For example, the great story of the Middle Ages is that more priests and monks died of the Black Death than any other vocation because they were the ones out tending to the sick and dying.  Kings and Lords did not enter their streets to save the citizenry.

The effects of this Modernist infection are two fold. First, we assume that the proper expression of doctrine occurs within the secular political process. We simply translate our systems of belief and values into the agnostic realm of government. Second, and probably less obvious, is the translation of secular modes of politics and decision making into the life of the Church. Here we assume that votes and position platforms, uniformity of belief within camps, and even debates and sound bites are the norm for discernment and decision making. The irony is that as we look back on Church History and condemn the presence of armies at ecumenical councils such as Nicea and Constantinople, while at the same time we adopt the swordless system of Modern politics as our own.

It was recently asked why the Church of the Brethren today is so divided.  The answer is simple- We are more defined by political affiliations and the idea that political processes will restore the Church.  We expect the political systems of governments to resolve the needs and struggles of everyday life and unite the Church.  We think that discernment is a 51% game, and that those in leadership or power have agendas to fulfill.  We think our Church is the holy image of American representative democracy.  The problem is that progressive and traditionalist alike have sold out to the wider political narrative and practices of Modernity, only to forget that we as the gathered Body of Christ are set apart, and must find ways of being together that are more reflective of God’s narrative of reconciliation.

Our diagnosis is simple we have an acute case of Modernity. The cure, not so simple: We cannot wait for the State to save us. Nor can we expect the practices of public politic to redeem the Church.

Note The nature of each of the these groups is really one of degree: To what extent need the government be involved for the well-being of the most number of people? Even here the assumption is that the government’s own self-limiting is a response to the problem. I also am aware that I assume the economic system is a form of the political, whether a laisssez faire or interventionist capitalism.

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