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Truths We Need to Rediscover: two, solidarity

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“Birds of a feather flock together,” people say scornfully. “A man is known by the company he keeps,” scorn echoes.

And as he [Jesus] sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
(Matthew 9:10-11 NRSV)

Those who seek to be holy risk developing a fear of contamination, just as those who enjoy high status in a society refrain from improperly friendly association with people beneath their social station lest they be toppled by class opinion from their elevated standing. Jesus obviously harbors no such fear. He neither avoids people regarded as sinful nor turns away in disgust from people suffering debasement.

Once, when he [Jesus] was in one of the cities, there was a man covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he bowed with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.” Then Jesus stretched out his hand, touched him, and said, “I do choose. Be made clean.” Immediately the leprosy left him.
(Luke 5:12-13 NRSV)

Jesus clearly does not fear social or religious impropriety, either. In his society, men did not associate with women outside their families, not even proper, upstanding women, let alone those of bad reputation. For a teacher of the Torah of Israel to allow himself to be touched in public by a woman was scandalous; he should not even be teaching women or allowing them to speak when he is teaching men. During my second pastorate, I was told by a woman who recently had begun attending our worship services and adult forums that her previous church did not allow women to teach men or, if they did attend adult classes that included men, to ask questions. In the company of men, a wife was to keep silent about her questions of faith, and when she and her husband returned home to ask him to instruct her. Yes, such were the rules of her former church even in the late 20th Century and early 21st.

Now when the Pharisee who had invited him [Jesus] saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him – that she is a sinner.”
(Luke 7:39 NRSV)

True, the story’s Pharisee lacks even rudimentary understanding of what a prophet is sent by God to do. The great prophets of Israel and Judah were not sent to predict the future, let alone to keep themselves holy by standing above and apart from the sinful people. Rather, they were sent to represent the pathos – the anger, grief, compassion, or longing – of God for the people and, at the same time and in the same body, to represent the perhaps unexpressed or even unrecognized need of the people for God. In that true sense, Jesus came as a prophet and, his followers believe, more than a prophet.

Christian theologians, teachers, and preachers have long realized and insisted that Jesus came, taught, lived, suffered, and died FOR US. That prepositional phrase, for us, became standard in theology and rightly so. It has been maintained in the Western church’s Latin: pro nobis. Jesus was sent by God “for us and for our salvation” (Nicene Creed). It is crucial to Christian faith and thought that we believe the Christ came for us and that he suffered, died, and was resurrected for us – to restore our true relationship with God and our rightful relatedness with each other and all creation.

But I am contending today that “for us” by itself is not enough of the truth. Through our skill at corrupting truth, “for us” can be made aloof and condescending, the benevolence of charity (which once upon a time meant love but no longer) and philanthropy. It can become the way of punitive authority: “I’m only doing it (to you) for you, for your own good.”

With the help of thinkers such as Abraham Heschel and Jürgen Moltmann, we have begun to realize that Jesus the Christ of God stands “with us” in our human condition with all its humiliations, corruptions, griefs, disappointments, and crying needs. He stands “with us” also in our joys, hopes, affections, and dreams. He is one of us and one with us, before his critics and before God. He is, so to speak, the bird of our feather and our many different feathers by which we distinguish among ourselves and spurn each other.

During the centuries of Christendom and throughout the waning Christian cultural establishment in the United States (despite its evangelical surges), we Christians have been much more willing to be “for” people outside our churches (or hidden in secrecy within them) than to be “with” them – to stand with them and be identified with them. We have been tempted to keep ourselves clean while reaching down to them with aid for which, like the ancient benefactors, we have expected their gratitude to us as their superiors. True, we have said often, “There but for the grace of God go I,” but that very declaration of our common human vulnerabilities and foibles confirms our sense of distance from the people who do go that way. It is as though we are praying as the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable (Luke 18:9-14), “We thank you, God, that (by your grace) we are not as they are!”

Jesus does not look at the sinners and say, “There but for the grace of God go I.” He walks with them. No, he doesn’t do all the things they do, but he associates himself with them and so gets sullied with their dirt and smeared with their shame. He doesn’t tell them to clean up their acts and make themselves presentable before God. He enters into solidarity with them, and on the cross he experiences their sense of abandonment by God: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

I believe that rethinking and re-learning Christian faith will require us to see ourselves differently in relation to our society’s people and the world’s people. Established Christianity makes non-believers outsiders. Belligerent Christianity and Christian partisanship make outsiders who refuse to accept subordinate status into enemies. To follow our Christ faithfully, we are going to have to turn our backs on Christian privilege and societal power, we are going to have to stand with people we have viewed as outsiders. It will not be enough to do bits of benevolent good “for” them; we will need, in Douglas John Hall’s terms, to immerse ourselves as Christ’s church in the world. We need to turn away from theologies that call upon us to leave the world behind and continue on as though we alone could be Christ’s redeemed without all the unbelievers and sinners left in this world. No, we must refuse to see ourselves that way, just as Moses refuses, after the golden calf idolatry, to leave the people of Israel behind in the wilderness and go on by himself with God to become the inheritor of the promised land (Exodus 32:9-14). It was the children of Israel God chose to love and not just Moses. It is the world God loves and not just the Christians. Those called out from the world are then sent by God back into the world to stand with and for it, to care and to serve. We shall need to care less about our own purity or even the church’s purity and much more about God’s love for the world and its people.

We must, surely, work out continuously the specifics of our immersion in our society and in the world as individual believers and as congregations of the church of Jesus Christ. The world itself is not our guide, neither its values nor its self-measured successes or failures, but God’s redemptive love for the world must be our guide all along the way.

Cultural establishment has hindered and sometimes corrupted our mission and service. The churches have enjoyed privilege, prestige, and power our Christ did not. Automatic, presumed Christianity has made being Christian a norm rather than a calling to mission and service, and the churches have become ends in themselves, tempted to imagine that their own prosperity and increase are the measures of their fidelity. The day of automatically self-propagating Christianity is passing, and for the traditional Protestant churches has passed already. One generation of Christians will no longer follow another in step to the old tune as though the grand march would never end. Being Christian can no longer be presumed but will require committed response and acceptance of responsibility to follow and unite with Jesus the Christ in his representation of God’s redemptive love in the world and, also, in his standing before God with the world in all its messiness and self-contradictory humanity. We shall continue to be charged by Christ to serve God’s redemptive love for this world, but we’ll no longer be in charge.

Next: humility.

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Starting to Wrap Up

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I’m ready to begin wrapping up this series, “Re-learning Christian Faith.” I think I have roughed out the changes in the situation of Christianity in America enough to suggest ways in which we, people still holding to and being held by the faith, need to be changed in our thinking, our self-perceptions, our attitudes toward this world and its people, and our ways of seeking to be united with Jesus the Christ in his representing God in, to, and for this world. I do not take a negative view of the changes I believe we are now called to make. We are not accommodating a bad situation by compromising our faith and lessening our hopes. Rather, I believe, the waning of Christendom and decline of the traditional Protestant churches opens a door for those who remain and more who will come – an opportunity to find anew the course for faith and life upon which Jesus set his followers before the Roman emperors transformed Christianity into an imperial and often imperious religion of power and glory. It is not my intention or desire to offer programs, methods, or any step-by-step procedure for being transformed. My concern is with the nature of the changes I believe need to be made in us and not only as individuals but as churches, too.

I am not looking for church growth programs or strategies. I hold neither hope nor desire for a rebirth of the popular cultural Christianity of the 1950’s and early 60’s when people, almost automatically, were born into Christian identity, too often without much deep thought or vital challenge to their prejudices and ways of life. That time has passed, and we need to leave it behind. But even worse than returning to some form of automatic Christianity would be replacing it with a belligerent Christianity of identity politics and culture that, falsely in the name of Christ, would champion the inflamed bigotries of our present political situation. It is high time to take the way of the Servant and walk humbly with our God. It is high time to come to a humbling yet strengthening knowledge of ourselves as sent with the Servant, in his way, to represent God in the world as he, the Servant Christ, makes God known to us.

What we need is a change of heart, understanding “heart” in the ancient Hebraic, biblical way as it represents, not sentiment, but desire, will, intelligence for choosing, and commitment. My remaining posts in this series will ask about the nature of this change of heart and what kind of people it would make us, not merely for our own sake or the church’s, but for the sake of this world God loves, this world into which and for which Christ calls us to walk with him.

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A Sketch of What Happened to American Christianity

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The frame for this series of blog posts is, “Re-learning Christian Faith.” I’m looking at changes in Christianity’s condition and place in the world because those who hold to the faith and are held by it have come to an intersection, a crossroads, whether or not they realize the situation has changed and choices must be made. Those choices are being made, but it would be better for people of faith to make them consciously than to follow a crowd down a wide path Jesus himself rejected.

Christendom has waned. In Europe where it began and developed, Christendom (the kingdom of an imperious Christianity) has been waning for a long time, but here in the United States a more democratic form of it continues on as a popular change-resisting movement which has now grown belligerent. Christendom, of course, was always belligerent because it imposed Christianity upon people and nations and felt itself justified in using, not only political persuasion, but war, torture, and all sorts of intimidation and cruelty.

Being a minister in a traditional Protestant denomination (Presbyterian), I have witnessed the church’s loss of power, prestige, and influence. When the Cambodian Invasion hit the presses in 1970, our General Assembly was in its annual session, and the Nixon administration sent an undersecretary of state to address the Assembly on the matter which was erupting into a crisis for the president. I doubt that any administration now or in the future would care that our General Assembly was meeting, let alone send an official to address it in a time of political crisis. Since retiring, I have been asked by several people, “Presbyterian? Is that Christian?” I live in Pennsylvania. Our first presbytery was in Philadelphia. I’ve been told that much of established Pennsylvania law was written by Presbyterians. The only clergyman (all men at the time) to sign the Declaration of Independence was John Witherspoon, a Presbyterian minister serving as a delegate from New Jersey to the Second Continental Congress. It has been told, perhaps apocryphally, that at the time of the American Revolution, King George remarked that his colonies had “skipped off after a Presbyterian preacher.” But today I am asked by evangelical Christians whether Presbyterian is a form of Christianity or some other religion. Many have never heard of us.

We don’t know our own history and, worse, don’t care. Popular thinking comes from the television and so-called social media. As American evangelicalism found itself increasingly isolated from American secular culture, it insulated and isolated itself. Christian schools protected its children from mingling with children of color and from worldly ideas. Home schooling offered further insulation so the children could be “trained up right.” There were Christian yellow pages so evangelical families could avoid doing business with non-Christians, whom they did not trust.

In this isolation, the teaching of science could be kept under the thumb of biblical literalism as it had been kept under church authority in Europe while Christendom retained its power. People, especially women, were to be kept in their (supposedly God-ordained) places. The so-called sexual revolution of the 1960’s and early 1970’s was to be condemned and withstood. Evolution in particular was to be rejected. Climate change was to be viewed as a hoax. Godly women were to be submissive, and godly men were to be gentle with their submissive wives (as long as they obeyed and stood by their men).

With the rise of the “moral majority,” Christian evangelicalism turned belligerent. One newspaper comic strip artist summed up the thrust by having one of his characters declare that, since we’re the majority, we shouldn’t ask for power but just take it. Dispensationalism (started in the 19th Century by the British cleric John Darby and popularized by the Scofield Reference Bible and then by novels – Hal Lindsey’s, The Late, Great Planet Earth, and the Left Behind series) sanctified evangelical belligerence by declaring the old dispensation of humility and tolerance over and done. We were, it proclaimed, entering the “end times” when the final conflicts would begin, the faithful would be “raptured” to safety, and Christ would return to cast non-believers into hell and establish his kingdom forever. The time for the Sermon on the Mount (Gospel of Matthew, chapters 5-7) was over; the time had come to stand up for Christ and destroy his enemies. The day of Christian humility and gentleness had passed, which was certainly unintentionally ironic in view of Christendom’s history of pomp and brutality.

Evangelical Christianity, however, is not just one thing. There are “evangelicals for social justice.” There are evangelicals who are neither belligerent nor fundamentalist, not anti-science, not isolationist. In truth, my brief sketch of the changes that have occurred just in my lifetime could be argued or nuanced at various points. Home schooling has proved very good and helpful for some and probably many children, especially as public education is dismantled or bled dry by corporate “reforms.” If Dispensationalism dismisses the Sermon on the Mount, 19th and early 20th Century Protestant Liberalism tended to make it so much the centerpiece of Christian faith that Jesus’ crucifixion was reduced to a mere demonstration of the kind of love Christians were to emulate.

There is now also a kind of anti-faith fundamentalism popular on social media sites but spreading even to some actual scientists and otherwise serious thinkers. I might call it fundamentalist popular atheism because it interprets the Bible just as literalistically as the believing fundamentalists but to mock and deride it. Accepting what fundamentalists say about the Bible as what the Bible truly says, they make the Bible an easy target for scorn, a foolish opponent quickly conquered. So, biblical faith and serious interpretation get slammed and degraded from both sides: believing fundamentalism and the unbelieving fundamentalism of popular atheism.

We stand at a crossroads. Christian faith was never meant for power, prestige, and privilege. Jesus rejected that way for himself and for us. Today, many American Christians angrily decry their loss of privilege and cultural establishment as though it were persecution. Many still want dominance over the nation and all its people. Douglas John Hall, the theologian whose work persuaded me to launch this series, believes Christians of the traditional Protestant churches now have a window of opportunity to be transformed by gospel (good news of Christ) into faith communities engaged in the movement Jesus set us out on before Christendom, before the church became imperial. But to take that path, we will have to accept our role as a minority and learn to serve without power, to persuade without coercion, and to love without returns on love’s investment in people.