This Is Who We Are

“This Is Who We Are” Mark 1:4-13 Baptism of Our Lord January 10, 2021 First Christian Church Mahtomedi, MN Preached at First Christian Church on January 10, 2021. “This isn’t who we are.” President-elect Joe Biden said these words in the aftermath of Wednesday’s assault on the US Capitol. Politicians like to say this during events like this.  I know more often than not the people who say this mean well.  They want to say that as Americans we aspire to higher goals and that what happened is something that is uncharacteristic of who we are as Americans. This phrase comes from a good place. It’s also incredibly wrong.  This is who we are.  This is who we are as a nation. Because if you are African American like I am or Native American or Japanese American, you know that our nation has a dark side and far too many times that dark side has shown up to harm persons of color, LGBTQ Americans, and others.  For some of these people seeing the images of a mostly white crowd running amok within the walls of the US Capitol, a place where I once worked, nod their heads and say “This IS Who we are.” This is not all of what the United States is all about.  If it was, then we as a nation are without hope.  The words found in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution matter to us as Americans. As a nation, we strive to live up to better ideas and many times we do. But let’s not kid ourselves.  A century ago, three African American men were lynched in Duluth under trumped-up charges of rape.  Later this year, we will commemorate a century since the Tulsa Massacre which killed an untold number of African Americans in what was called Black Wall Street. This is who we are. We are sinners.  We fall short. We commit evil. We are not okay. In Mark, John the Baptist comes around preaching a baptism that led to repentance, to change their lives. One day, Jesus comes.  That had to come as a shock to John because Jesus had nothing to repent of.  But he baptizes his cousin anyway.  When he comes up from the water, the sky splits and the Holy Spirit comes into him.  It is then a voice that claims Jesus as the Son of God.  It is there that he is given an identity as our savior. This is who Jesus is. When we are baptized, we are claimed by God. This is who we are.  You and I are Daughters and sons of God. But we still sin.  We fall short.  We are claimed by God, but let’s not forget that we are sinners saved by the grace of God. Because we are claimed by God in spite of our sin, we are called to act. After Jesus was baptized, he went into the wilderness where he was tempted by the devil and then went into his ministry, because he knew who he was. Our theme for Epiphany is “For the Sake of the World.” It’s a phrase that comes from our Lutheran sisters and brothers and it says the church exists for the sake of the world.  Churches exist as people who are baptized and claimed by God to go out to proclaim justice and preach reconciliation.  This is who we are. In light of the storming of the capital our baptism matters. We are called into a ministry of reconciliation and Lord knows we need it.  As a congregation, we need to find ways to give space to where people can listen to one another. Our baptism compels us to move from the sidelines and join in God’s work of justice and reconciliation. What happened this week is a wake-up call for the nation and the church. What we saw is a reminder that this is part of who we are as a nation.  We saw rioters, bullies and a President out that want to spread fear, to use the words of God, but worship an idol. That is who they are. But we at First Christian have another identity. Claimed by God, we have a role in preaching God’s love and justice to our nation and our world. We will be talking about this more because we must.  It is time for us to live out our baptisms. It doesn’t matter how small we are in number or how much money we have in the bank. It is time for you and I to live up to who we are in the eyes of God. We are the children of God. This is who we are.  Let’s start acting like it. Thanks be to God. Amen. Listen to the sermon podcast.

With Malice Towards None

The following is my reflection for the Midweek Vespers service. You can watch the video below.

“Be tolerant with each other and, if someone has a complaint against anyone, forgive each other. As the Lord forgave you, so also forgive each other. 14 And over all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity.”

Colossians 3:13-14

It’s almost over.  We have still have a few states that are still yet to be called, but hopefully, in the next 24 hours or so, we should know for certain who is going to be the next President of the United States.  

Even though I’m a pastor, I’m not going to pretend that I didn’t have a favorite in this race.  I did.  But I don’t want to talk as much about the election than about what happens afterward.  How do we live together as a nation?  How can the church be a Christ-like example to our nation and world?

We are a nation that is bitterly divided ideologically.  Liberals and conservatives look at each other with open contempt and as a nation, we seem to have less and less in common with each other.  We don’t understand each other.  I have to be honest, I’ve had my moments where I wondered if I should bother to reach out to those that planned to vote for the other candidate. It’s not any better in the church.  Churches tend to line up around politics.  More often than not, we tend to mirror the world instead of providing an example.

I’ve seen a number of people, including pastors that tend to downplay the calls for unity believing them to be a way of ignoring injustice. 

God of course, calls us to do justice.  The issues we have talked about including the separation of immigrant children from parents demand that we speak out.  But God also calls us to love our enemies. Paul’s letter to the Colossians calls us to be tolerant and forgiving.  Even after a hard-fought campaign, we who are followers of Jesus are called to tolerate and forgive others and at the end of the day be united in Christ.

As Christians, we have to be agents not just of justice, but of reconciliation.  We have to find ways to heal the bonds that have been broken by politicians and even by ourselves.  Sometimes that means going beyond who is in the White House and figuring our what is God calling us to do.  Yuval Levin, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, notes that some of what needs to be done rest on what we are being called to do at a local level. He writes in the New York Times:

“It can begin with a simple question, asked in little moments of decision: “Given my role here, what should I be doing?” As a parent or a neighbor, a pastor or a congregant, an employer or an employee, a teacher or a student, a legislator or a citizen, how should I act in this situation? We ask that question to recover relational responsibility.”

We live in a time where we are so divided that we want the other guy to be responsible.  But we are responsible for each other.  We are our sister and brother’s keeper.  

I’ll end today with the last paragraph from President Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, given a month before the end of the Civil War and his assassination because it seems so fitting at this moment.

With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the

right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we

are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the

battle, and for his widow, and his orphan – to do all which may achieve and

cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”

May it be so.

Who Was That Masked Stranger?

Like a lot of people around the world, I’ve been wearing a mask for a few months.  I used to always wonder why people from Asian nations wore masks and now I know.  Most people are wearing them to protect other people from catching the coronavirus.  The masks most of us wear aren’t going to protect us from the virus, but it can prevent the other person from you if you happen to have the virus and since you can be asymptomatic, it makes sense to wear a mask in public places.  It’s weird for all of us to have to wear these masks covering our mouths, but if it can slow the spread of the virus it kind of makes sense.

Well, it makes sense to most people. Some like this gentleman in Florida, seem to think putting on a mask is some kind of conspiracy.

There is a movement taking place where wearing a mask is not something you do out of safety, but out of weakness. R.R. Reno, the editor of First Things magazine caused a stir in May as he shared his thoughts on the issue.  In one of his widely shared tweets he said the following:

Just to reinforce. Talked to my son in Seattle. The mask culture if fear driven. Masks+cowardice. It’s a regime dominate by fear of infection and fear of causing of infection. Both are species of cowardice.

Just to make sure people got the point he added the following tweet:

By the way, the WWII vets did not wear masks. They’re men, not cowards. Masks=enforced cowardice.

To say that all of this caused a stir is an understatement. Many, many people responded to the series of tweets with a lot of righteous anger. That response must have rattled Reno because he not only deleted the tweets, he deleted his entire Twitter account. So much for being manly.

Wearing of masks is not unheard of in America. During the 1918 Flu Pandemic, there were people who wore masks and those that didn’t. Cities such as San Francisco and Seattle had ordinances requiring people to wear masks. Just as there were recommendations and laws were in place back then, there were people that opposed such a requirement. San Francisco had something called an Anti-Mask League.

Reno is a Christian, and he is presenting a view about what our faith says about wearing masks.  In his view, Christianity is supposed to be strong and not weak.  It isn’t cowardly and fearful, but it should be daring and bold.

But is that a Christian view? In the second chapter of Philippians, Paul lifts up Christ as an example of what it means to be a Christian.  Paul says:

Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was[a] in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
    he humbled himself
    and became obedient to the point of death—
    even death on a cross.

 

To live as a follower of Jesus, means being willing to be humble and to live for other people.  We aren’t wearing masks because we are scared, we wear them to protect others.  Since someone can be asymptomatic, wearing a mask stops the virus from spreading to others. If we are follower of Jesus, we aren’t being cowards, but caring for the other.  Wearing a mask protects my 86 year-old mother from getting the virus.  Wearing a mask protects the person at the check out at the grocery store.  Being a Christian is as much about living the faith than it is talking about faith.

One day, we won’t have to wear these masks and I will be happy.  But for now, I’m going to wear the mask because when we wonder if Jesus would wear a mask, all I need to do is look to Philippians to know the answer.

The Politics of Jesus

partisanpolitical.jpgOn Wednesday morning, Southern Baptist missiologist Ed Setzer tweeted the following:

This bothered a number of folk. Among them was theologian James K.A. Smith who replied with the following tweet:

I’m thinking that Setzer and those responding were talking past each other.  My take is that he was responding to a certain situation. He was at the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in Dallas, where, Vice President Mike Pence was coming to make a speech.  Setzer had his own opinion of the speech and the ideology behind it:

So, is politics and religion a bad mix or not?

I think Setzer is 70 percent correct and thirty percent wrong.

Setzer could have phrased this better. Of course, at a basic level, the church is political. It can’t be apolitical in the face of racism or sexism or name any other social sin. When liberation theologians say that God has an option for the poor, it is saying that God chooses sides. God is not sitting on the sidelines.

The church has been political, especially when people are being oppressed for who they are. In the book God’s Politics, Jim Wallis shares a story about former Archbishop Desmond Tutu and what he faced when he and religious leaders involved in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa:

“The former South African archbishop Desmond Tutu used to famously say, “We are prisoners of hope.” Such a statement might be taken as merely rhetorical or even eccentric if you hadn’t seen Bishop Tutu stare down the notorious South African Security Police when they broke into the Cathedral of St. George’s during his sermon at an ecumenical service. I was there and have preached about the dramatic story of his response more times than I can count. The incident taught me more about the power of hope than any other moment of my life. Desmond Tutu stopped preaching and just looked at the intruders as they lined the walls of his cathedral, wielding writing pads and tape recorders to record whatever he said and thereby threatening him with consequences for any bold prophetic utterances. They had already arrested Tutu and other church leaders just a few weeks before and kept them in jail for several days to make both a statement and a point: Religious leaders who take on leadership roles in the struggle against apartheid will be treated like any other opponents of the Pretoria regime. After meeting their eyes with his in a steely gaze, the church leader acknowledged their power (“You are powerful, very powerful”) but reminded them that he served a higher power greater than their political authority (“But I serve a God who cannot be mocked!”). Then, in the most extraordinary challenge to political tyranny I have ever witnessed, Archbishop Desmond Tutu told the representatives of South African apartheid, “Since you have already lost, I invite you today to come and join the winning side!” He said it with a smile on his face and enticing warmth in his invitation, but with a clarity and a boldness that took everyone’s breath away. The congregation’s response was electric. The crowd was literally transformed by the bishop’s challenge to power. From a cowering fear of the heavily armed security forces that surrounded the cathedral and greatly outnumbered the band of worshipers, we literally leaped to our feet, shouted the praises of God and began…dancing. (What is it about dancing that enacts and embodies the spirit of hope?) We danced out of the cathedral to meet the awaiting police and military forces of apartheid who hardly expected a confrontation with dancing worshipers. Not knowing what else to do, they backed up to provide the space for the people of faith to dance for freedom in the streets of South Africa.”

So, yeah the church gets political and it has to. But I don’t think that was what Setzer was getting at. He was more concerned with how the church bows down to Ceasar, meaning how conservative and progressive Christians bow down to the current makeup of American politics.

We often tend to look at the mixing of partisan politics and religion as something that occurs on the right, but progressive politics and religion are also in bed together.

The thing is, the church in America doesn’t really know how to be political without being partisan. What churches in America tend to is ape what happens in Washington or name your state capital. From Sojourner’s on the left to Focus on the Family on the right, we tend are politcally engaged not as the church being the conscience of the society, but as another interest group a political party must deal with.

This is what Setzer is getting at when he says mixing religion and politics means you get politics.  It means that what happens is that you become the spiritual wing of the political parties.  Instead of transforming politics, we allow politics to transform the church.

This is what Episcopal priest Frederick Schmidt gets at in his latest post observing the different plans being put forth ahead of the 2019 General Conference of the United Methodist Church.  The denomination is trying to find a way to both open up ordination to LGBT Methodists and keep traditionalists in the church. Schmidt thinks that the individualism of the culture, the lack of any kind of ecclesiology or theology of the church is destroying the modern “body of Christ:”

The language of ecclesiology (a theology of the church) has slipped to the margins. Instead, Methodists draw comparisons with Starbucks[3] and talk about the church’s “constitutional” polity, and everyone assumes that whatever needs to be done, it should take the form of national legislation.[4]

This behavior and this way of navigating decisions in the church is now the standard. There is little room for theological deliberation. There is even less room for theological struggle, and there is no room for pastoral care and attention to the individual or community.

That is, in large part, because both by design and by inattention the politics of the culture have invaded and overrun the life of the church as the body of Christ.

That loss of talking about the body of Christ has been evident in the discussion on homosexuality. I can remember back in the mid-90s when churches were really dealing with this issue. When a church was deciding to more publically welcome gays, there was usually a vote and after that hard vote, it was not uncommon to hear a pastor say that they now must attend to healing. They knew there were good God-fearing people on both sides of the issue and that for the body to move forward, attention had to be paid to the losing side.

When the state of Minnesota approved same-sex marriage five years ago, I commented to friends that we must think of the other side who lost. They looked at me as if I had come from Mars. The church is no longer was interested in dealing with those who were on the losing end. We have sucumbed to the politics of the now.

Maybe one of the most important things that can happen in these times is for the church to recover its ecclesiology. It is only then we can really recover what it means to be the church political and not the church partisan.

Who’s In Charge?

“I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

-Abraham Lincoln, First Inaugural Address 1861.

So, Tuesday night happened.  Donald Trump will be our nation’s 45th president.

I didn’t vote for either Trump or Clinton, but I was as shocked as anyone else. Sleep was not easy to come by Tuesday night. Part of the tension is the how President-elect stirred up both racial and ethnic resentment. Does that make me, an African American-Puerto Rican, less safe in America? Will racism or xenophobia affect me in someway?

 

While I’m concerned, I’m not freaking out.  I’m not in mourning.  I’m not breaking relationships with those that I know who voted for Trump.  I’m not freaking out because I truly believe that my ultimate allegiance is in Christ and not who lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.   I believe God is in control.

Now, I know that phrase is sending a lot of my progressive Christian friends into orbit. Their response is similar to what Progressive Christian blogger John Pavlovitz said in his most recent blog entry regarding the election:

At times like these, Christians like to smile sweetly and say, “God is in control.”
No. God is not in control.
God didn’t vote for Donald Trump, you did.
Stop passing the buck to God.
God isn’t defacing prayer rooms.
God isn’t taunting gay teenagers.
God is not bullying kids on buses.
God isn’t threatening Muslim families.
White Christians are.
You are in control of this. You have pulpits and pews and a voice and influence and social media, so get to work. 

Saying God is in control doesn’t mean everything is okay. It doesn’t mean we ignore real problems. It doesn’t mean that God is controlling our every move. But I can say God is in control because God is the person I give ultimately allegiance to. To put it in more political wording, “Jesus is Lord and Ceasar is not.”

This evening I went to see Doctor Strange.  For those who don’t know the origin story, Steven Strange was a famous and vain neurosugeon who is severely injured in a car crash.  His hands, the one that made his living possible suffer extensive nerve damage and he is no longer able to do the one thing he excelled at.  This is where Strange makes the journey from normal man to socerer supreme, but together he has to be willing to believe that there is more than what he sees.  He has to be able to see into various dimensions to go beyond what he knows to be true and what is beyond reason.

Long story short, he had to have faith.

In reading and listen to the anger and grief coming from some progressive Christians I have to wonder at times if they have lost their faith.  We scoff at the notion of God being in control and instead believe it is all on us, or at least on having the right ideology.  During this election season white evangelicals were rightly criticized for placing so much on the notion of politics to trade in the faith for a few pieces of silver that they thought Trump would give them.  But Progressive Christians are no better.  We know longer believe that God is the ultimate and so we make leftist ideology our god.  We trade in the belief that there is a God that rules all of creation and is greater than any king, prime minister or president for the world of politics.  We wrap our politicians in a religious blanket, giving their words a tinge of God even though God seems to be somewhat diminished.  After a while, we become no better than religious conservatives in trading the politics of Jesus for the politics of Washington.

 

What Does It Mean to Be Prophetic, Part Three

JayWhiteMoralMondayNC

It was two years ago, that I wondered aloud what it meant to be prophetic.  I’ve heard that phrase a lot in many of the progressive circles I’ve been in, but I’ve always wondered if what is called prophetic is nothing more than espousing your ideology and wrapping it up in God-language.

What does it mean to be prophetic?  The reason I ask is that I think a lot of folks have an idea what it means to be prophetic that I think is a bit wrong.  I will see a pastor who will get up and talk about some of the major issues facing our world and it is billed as “prophetic.”  But more often than not, what I hear is more of a political agenda than it is calling the church to present the Kingdom of God.  Since I move around mainline/progressive Christian circles, I tend to hear what sounds like a churchified version of the Democratic party platform, but I’m pretty sure that a lot of what might pass as prophetic in evangelical circles just mirrors the GOP agenda.

So, what does it mean to be prophetic?  What does a prophetic church look like?  I have to think that it’s more than a party platform sprinkled with lots of Jesus.  I’d like to know, because what I see passing as prophetic kind of falls short.

Methodist pastor Drew McIntyre is asking the same question.  He comes up with an answer that is shocking (at least to me,) but true.  Quoting Henri Nouwen, he remarks that there is very little theological reflection in the church today:

In his wonderful little book In the Name of Jesus, Henri Nouwen names temptations common to leadership and offers particular disciplines as solutions.  He concludes this brief treatise by discussing the temptation “to be powerful.”  In different ways, both the right-wing and left-wing perversions of the prophetic are temptations to power.  Fundamentalists manipulate Scripture to show forth their own insight and giftedness, unlocking “secrets” of the end times heretofore unknown.  In so doing they often amass large followings (and bank accounts).  Progressives too quickly make use of the prophetic role to mask their own ideological agendas with a veneer of Biblical authority, and claim God’s voice for whatever the cause happens to be that week.

For Nouwen, the solution is “theological reflection.”  He concludes,

“Few ministers and priests think theologically. most of them have been educated in a climate in which the behavioral sciences, such as psychology and sociology, so dominated the educational milieu that little true theology was being learned. Most Christian leaders today raise psychological or sociological questions even though they frame them in scriptural terms.  Real theological thinking, which is thinking with the mind of Christ, is hard to find in the practice of ministry.  Without solid theological reflection, future leaders will be little more than pseudo-psychologists, pseudo-sociologists, psuedo-social workers.” (65-66)

Theological reflection is critical because without it, we will too quickly mistake our words for God’s, and so make fools of ourselves when speaking on His behalf (as a pastor, I’ve done this more than once).  This discipline is sorely lacking in every corner of the church, Mainline or Evangelical, Catholic or Charismatic.  Such a poverty of theological insight is all the more problematic because we (all of us, including the author) are quick to forget that we are not brilliant by virtue of living in the 21st century or having masses of education.  The great missionary and ecumenist Lesslie Newbigin points out that we may come to different conclusions than Paul, but that doesn’t  make us Paul’s moral superiors; we are apt to be as blind to some things in our day as Paul may have been to certain obvious evils in his.

McIntyre briefly talks about the Moral Mondays campaign in North Carolina.  The movement happens to be led by a Disciples of Christ pastor.  Mother Jones magazine has a pretty good profile of Barber, but in reading you have to wonder: is this about following God or following a party platform (and protesting the other party)?  Would there be Moral Mondays if instead of a conservative legislature and governor passing conservative legislation, there were liberals in power. The answer of course is no and that’s the problem. If you are willing to protest Republicans who you are against and not Democrats that you agree with, then what you are doing isn’t prophetic and you need to quit fooling yourselves.

I tend to think that a true prophet is not going to be liked by either liberals or conservatives.  Another Methodist pastor, Alan Bevere had this to say in 2012 about prophets:

I have spent some time this week in the Old Testament prophetic books. I do not find it surprising that most prophets are not accepted in their own time. Their cutting words of truth at best fall on stopped ears. Then, in order to reinforce their words, they resort to symbolic acts which, if committed in the 21st century West, would be more than sufficient cause for them to be put away in special places reserved for people who walk naked in public (Isaiah) and who eat paper (Ezekiel), and walk around with an oxen yoke on their neck (Jeremiah). The people of God today have no more clue on how to recognize a prophet than the ancient folk. Every time I hear someone referred to as prophetic, it’s only because they are speaking words that the hearers who so designate them agree with. But that’s precisely the problem.

When God used Amos or Micah, it wasn’t because God wanted to raise the minimum wage or ban gay marriage.  God had a covenant with the Israelites and from time to time, God would tell the people when they were off track or when their worship wasn’t matching with their lives.  The closest parallel to this is God talking to the church today.  The prophets were speaking for God, calling the people back to righteous living.  The prophets were not setting policy.  They weren’t talking about voting rights, or same sex marriage or abortion, or the minimum wage.  It’s okay for Christians to work on these issues, but don’t use the prophetic writings for your own agenda.

This brings me back to Nouwen.  I think he’s correct that the church is sorely lacking in thinking theologically.  In a lot of cases evangelicals and progressives have basically adopted the ideologies of the main political parties and sprinkled God talk around them.  I’m starting to think that thinking theologically would mean spending time discerning issues and reflecting on what scripture and tradition have to say about an issue.  That isn’t attractive to a smashmouth church culture, but slowing down to find out how to listen to God and to each other might present a real third way to how the church responds to the outside world.

None of this means that churches should withdraw from the world.  But we need to be able to standback from an issue and see what God is saying.  Maybe in that time of listening we will learn what truly is prophetic.

* I know there have to be a few folks wondering why I didn’t take conservatives to task for doing the same thing.  I didn’t do that because that observation has been used ad nauseum for years.  We all know that the Religious Right jumped into bed with the GOP.  There’s no sense in repeating what we already know.  What a lot of people don’t know is how liberal Christians have basically done the same thing.  I condemn both, but the latter is a story that is not always told.

On the Babylonian Captivity of the Mainline Protestant Church

“Be in the world, but not of the world.”

partisanshipThat was a phrase I heard a lot when I was growing up.  In my evangelical upbringing, there was a stress about living where we are, but not follow the ways of the world.  According to the phrase, we are to follow Jesus and not gods of this world.

Around the time of seminary in the late 1990s, I started hearing talk about”empire.”  The empire was something that challenged the authority of God.  In mainline/progressive churches, talking about empire was their version “not of this world.”  The thinking is based on the depiction of the Roman Empire during Jesus’ time.  It was an all encompassing entity that demanded loyalty and worship.  The empire tends to be used also to describe a modern Rome; namely the United States. In this view, Christians are to resist the power of empire which are rather great.

There is a lot of talk about how we should not fall for the lies of the world/empire and follow Jesus.  But most our talk is just that, talk.  While we denounce the world/empire, we have basically got in bed with the Ceasars of this world.  It’s been well recorded about how evangelicals had a Vegas-style wedding with the GOP.  What is less well-known- especially to those on the inside is how progressive Christians have swallowed whole left-wing politics.  It’s dressed up in churchy language of course, but it’s still a melding of Ceasar and the church.  Many progressive Christians are engaged in politics that is basically left-liberal politics and what I think is very disturbing is that they seem to be unaware that they are just as captive as their conservative sisters and brothers.

None of this is to say that conservatives are any better- they aren’t.  But progressives are not innocent.  Both sides have bought into the conservative/liberal mentality that has become a hallmark of our polarized American society.  Methodist pastor Allan Bevere shares how the church has become captive to the political system:

I immediately think of the (United Methodist) General Board of Church and Society that belongs to the first group, while United Methodist Action (affiliated with the Institute on Religion and Democracy) is an expression of the second group. The former group sounds less Christian and more like the Democratic Party, while the latter group sounds less Christian and more like the Republican Party. Indeed, when I read the anything from either group, I often struggle to see the decisively Christian theological presence in their arguments.

The problem is that both groups that Bishop Carter identifies suffer from their own version of civil religion. James Hunter defines civil religion as “a diffuse amalgamation of religious values that is synthesized with the civic creeds of the nation; in which the life and mission of the church is conflated with the life and mission of the country. American values are, in substance, biblical prophetic values; American identity is, thus, vaguely Christian identity” (Hunter, To Change the World, p. 145). As Hunter rightly notes, the religious right wants to keep America Christian (as they understand it) and the religious left wants to make America Christian (as they understand it). And since both sides are more decisively Democratic or Republican than decisively Christian, the former is unable to apply their concerns for life and hospitality to the unborn, while the latter cannot apply them to immigrants and gays and lesbians. But a consistent ethic of life and hospitality “represents a continuum from conception to death, from the individual to the creation, from interventions in and support of the lives of unborn children and their pregnant mothers, trafficked and enslaved young people, endangered coal miners, incarcerated young men on death row, tortured prisoners of war, the dignity of the aged, and the fragile ecosystems upon which we all depend” (Carter).

As long our UM boards and agencies and organizations (official and otherwise) and we individual United Methodists are nothing more than extensions of the Democratic and Republican Parties, we will not only continue to be selective as to who receives the hospitality of Christ through us, we will also fail to be the alternative to the world that the church is designed to be. One can’t be an alternative when one simply parrots the prevailing political polarities. Until we embrace a consistent ethic of life, our ethic of hospitality will be inconsistent. We will continue to be inconsistent as long as we sound more like the politicians in Washington D.C. than the carpenter from Nazareth.

 

The problem in mainline/progressive circles is that we can’t really tell the difference between liberal politics and prophetic witness. We tend to think that if someone speaks out against a conservative policy, they are somehow in the same league of Old Testament prophets like Amos. Frankly, if we are nodding in agreement with what the “prophet” says all the time, that person is probably not a prophet.

But as I said before, this captivity is very subtle. I don’t think people are deliberately trying to neutralize the church, but that is what is happening here. We might tell ourselves that the work for a higher minimum wage is part of God’s plans of salvation, but is out work for God or the Democratic party?

I don’t think the answer here is for Christians to withdraw from politics. We have to be able to engage the world around us. But the answer that has elluded me all these years is how can church leaders raise Christians who understand the political landscape and seek to help Christians make choices based on their faith. It’s too easy for churches to just capitualte to the wider culture. What I think is needed is some room for the pastor to help people discern what it means to believe and act in this culture. It’s going to mean thinking long and hard about issues seeking a way that will help the least of these. It might also mean having to deal with someone that has a different ideology. It means working together to work for healing and wholeness with someone you might not agree with. It would mean really asking God to lead us instead of using God a political cheerleader.

I don’t have all the answers, let alone the vision of this change in the church’s public witness.

Theocrats to the Right of Me, Theocrats to the Left of Me

Southern Baptist blogger Jonathan Merritt has a pretty good article about his denomination as it deals with a decline that is not unfamiliar to mainline Protestants.  He offers a few ideas on how to stem the decline and the one that gets the most attention is where the he faults the SBC for mixing religion and politics or more specifically, conservative politics:

Tony Campolo once said that mixing the church with government is “like mixing ice cream with horse manure: You will not ruin the horse manure, but it will ruin the ice cream.” I’ll let you determine which one is the ice cream in his analogy.

During the last 25 years, the Southern Baptist Convention has rushed headlong into conservative politics, often parroting Republican talking points and baptizing the GOP’s agenda. Just last year, Richard Land, former head of the SBC’s political arm, broke tradition and publicly endorsed Mitt Romney for President.

Of the 117 resolutions passed by the denomination at their annual meeting since 2000, a breathtaking 70 of them have been political. This includes a 2003 resolution endorsing President Bush’s war in Iraq, a 2008 resolution taking a position in the so-called “War on Christmas,” and a 2009 resolution titled “On President Barack Hussein Obama.” I keep waiting for a resolution naming Sean Hannity as an honorary fourth member of the Trinity.

American evangelicalism is becoming more politically diverse and nuanced than it once was, particularly among young people. If the denomination continues to operate like a Republican lapdog, it can expect to be seen as a polarizing political institution. If they can learn to speak truth to power on both sides of the aisle, the SBC stands a chance of restoring its image. Americans want a Church that is prophetic, not partisan.

Having been raised in an evangelical background, I can agree with Merritt that there conservative Christianity has basically gotten in bed with conservative politics.  That was part of the reason that I left the evangelicalism of my youth and joined mainline Protestantism.  I was leaving the partisan in favor of a church that wasn’t in the thrall of the Republicans.

And the mainline church isn’t carrying the water for the Republicans, no sir.

They are carrying water for the Democrats.

Merritt is probably right that the SBC’s willingness to align itself with the GOP has turned off potential members.  They seem to waste a lot of time passing resolutions on whatever conservative cause du jour.  But having been a part of mainline/progressive Christianity for two decades, I would posit that the left-wing agenda of mainline churches has also turned off potential members.  I’ve heard enough “sermons” from pastors that are basically Democratic speeches with “God” tossed in a few times to know that the mainline is playing the same game conservatives churches are doing.

Back in 2010, Walter Russell Mead, who is Episcopalian, wrote a modern-day jeremiad against the mainline churches for their willingness to basically be petty prophets for what he calls the “Blue social model,” the operating model of governing starting at the middle of the 20th century.  He accuses mainline churches of confusing the Kingdom of God with the Blue Social Model:

The problem is that the contemporary mainline churches have confused the Blue social model with the Kingdom of God.  I’ve written about this model before — what the Blue model is and why it is breaking down, why the breakdown has impaled contemporary liberal politics on the horns of an impossible dilemma, and how the Blue Beast is sucking the life out of the mainline churches today. Historically this is not surprising; the blue social model was in large part formed by thinkers from the mainline churches in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Somehow the mainline churches came through the violence and the upheavals of the twentieth century with their faith in liberal progress largely intact.  Neither Stalin nor Hitler nor Reinhold Niebuhr could convince us of the power of original sin; neither Hiroshima nor the Holocaust shook our faith in the ability of good government programs to remake mankind.

To mistake an ideology or a social model for the transcendent and always surprising (and irritating!) Kingdom of God is, technically speaking, the sin of idolatry.  It is to worship the work of our own hands.  What makes it worse is that to some degree in the mainline churches we have replaced faith in the scripturally based and historically rooted doctrines and values of the Christian heritage with faith in progressive social thought.

Instead of proclaiming a gospel of salvation that still brings lost sinners streaming through the doors (ask the Pentecostals and evangelicals who have continued to grow even as we shrink) we issue statements urging the federal government to fulfill its contributions to the Millennium Development Goals and to raise the minimum wage.  They preach and plant churches; we have professional development workshops for diocesan employees.

It’s hard for me to not to look at Merritt’s suggestion with a bit of suspicion.  It’s not that he’s wrong; I think he’s spot on.  What makes me skeptical is that I fear he is asking people to give up one idol and fall for another one.

I wasn’t expecting him to also call out the mainline church.  But I do wish that those who look at the sin of conservatives in walking too close to the ways of the world, are willing to look at their own heart and actions .

I end this with a quote from Methodist blogger Alan Bevere:

I must confess as a mainline Protestant who has come out of evangelicalism, I find it almost tragically humorous when the religious left accuses the religious right of wanting to institute a theocracy in America when they have their own theocratic vision they are working to bring to fruition. It reveals the truth of the statement that when you point your finger at someone there are three pointing back at you. The way around the errors of both, of course, is for the church to recover its primary work of embodying the gospel in its corporate life and bearing witness to the ways of God in the world. That is the central way the church is to be political in the world. As I continue to say, the church is where the politics of the kingdom resides and comes to fruition, not in the halls of nation state power.

Are Republicans Real Christians?

I saw this article on Facebook.  The long and the short of it is that the author believes Republicans aren’t Christians:

I always encourage people to stop saying Republicans represent Christianity, and call them out on what they really worship.

I call it “Republicanity” and I consider it a cult.  It’s a perversion of Christianity mixed with a political set of gop elephantman-made beliefs.  These people view their devotion to the GOP on the same level they do their belief in God.  To them, the Republican Party is the party of “real Christians.”  They don’t need facts or reality to support their political beliefs, they have “faith.”

Except, your political beliefs are supposed to be based on facts — not faith.

I’m a Christian, and these people damn sure don’t represent my faith.  What they follow is some mix of Ayn Rand economic ideologies and a couple of select passages from the Bible.

Which I always find hilarious considering Ayn Rand thought religious people were stupid and insane.  So people like Paul Ryan, who built his economic ideology on her teachings while claiming to be a devout “Christian,” just show their ignorance by claiming to believe in both.  How exactly can someone build an economic platform based on a woman who completely contradicted Christianity, while claiming to be a follower of Christianity?

It makes absolutely no damn sense.

You have to read the whole thing.  It’s basically a “strawman” opinion piece- the kind that draws an opponent in the worst possible light in order to trash them and make you look good.  Granted there are issues with the mixing of politics and conservative politics over the years, but does this author really believe that Republicans are all fake Christians?

In a 2012 post I wrote about a post written by fellow Disciple Christian Piatt that basically did the same thing:

As a Republican who is gay and is also African American, I can say that while there are problems that need to be addressed, I’ve met Republicans who are gay, women, black, female and Latino.  They aren’t all “bubbas” who drive around with Confederate Flags bumper stickers.  (and even the “bubbas” aren’t such a stereotype.)

But this kind of trash talk is troublesome not simply because it disses Republicans.  I have a bigger problem in that Piatt’s post is a sign something that is happening more and more in society: Christians engaging in the same kind of smashmouth politics so popular in the wider culture. Christians on the left and the right mimic what is going on in the society; the only difference is that we flavor our ideological snarkiness with God-talk.

It’s not a shock that as American society sorts itself out ideologically, that the church would also take part in this sorting.  But while it’s not shocking, it is sad.  The church should be one place where partisan politics isn’t allowed.

Silence of the Drones

Michael Kruse has a good post that deals with my long quest to find out what is truly prophetic and what is just a poser.  Here’s a taste:

The Christian Left (or progressives) hold themselves up as the antidote to this unholy alliance between the church and state. They are prophetic. Unlike conservatives who were in the tank for Bush and the Republican Party, they stand unflinchingly for justice. Addressing the issue of torture is a good example.

The Bush administration used “enhanced interrogation techniques” like waterboarding. This was torture and torture is never justified, we were told. No amount of oversight, no amount of justification can EVER justify torture. Not only is torture not Christian but it violates commonly agreed upon ethics in the community of nations. There are no exceptions. Add to this Guantanamo Bay and holding prisoners without due process. Bush is not a Christian because no Christian would engage in torture. Bush and his administration are war criminals. Bush should have been impeached but even today he should be brought up on charges of war crimes. The church must take a prophetic stand against injustice. Five and six years ago I can remember a relentless stream of social media posts and conversations by my progressive sisters and brothers in the faith along these lines.

Now fast forward a few years and see where we are now. President Obama’s team has not been using “enhanced interrogation techniques” (as far as we know). They simply send in drones to, not torture, but kill anyone they suspect might be a threat, apparently while occasionally killing innocent bystanders. We are learning now that apparently these clandestine acts could be targeting Americans abroad who are suspected of terrorist activity. And, oh yes, last I checked, we are now in Obama’s second administration and Guantanamo Bay is still open with no foreseeable end. Where are the prophetic voices today? Cue the soundtrack with crickets chirping.

Read the whole thing. It’s a good take on what is prophetic and what is social hostility wrapped in prophetic clothes.