Faith Thinking Aloud

Going Forward (final post in this series)

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When misconceived, faith hardens into rigid formulations held to be eternal and immutable truths. Then Christians live “by the book,” but without the Spirit who brings to life the book’s witness to the redemptive truth of God. Biblically, faith is a living relational matter of growing trust inspired and renewed by hope. Truly, faith and hope sustain each other back and forth, and both are living, relational matters. Our trust is not in having the right answers or the perfect commandments but in the living God who has committed to being our God, God with us. So, faith and certainty are opposites, not synonyms. Doubt can draw us closer to Christ and strengthen our faith more than certainty can. Doubt questions God’s promises and struggles with the difficulties of continuing to trust; certainty (or, as I like to say, certitude) takes possession of truths as principles and holds them as a shield against all questions, especially the believer’s own. But I need to question both the content of my beliefs and the integrity of my own faith. The prophet Jeremiah tries valiantly but in vain to break through his people’s religious certitude so they can learn to trust God and seek God’s ways, loving justice and mercy rather than their own security and self-assurance.

Trust needs a source and a living mainstay, and hope needs felt reasons to continue hoping for what is not yet seen or attained and cannot be verified empirically. Both faith and hope need a teacher who is also a guide, and it certainly helps to have companions along the way.

All my life I have studied the Bible, reading it both devotionally and critically. It is familiar territory for me but ever new, often correcting or expanding what I had thought I understood. But the book is not itself the truth of God I can hold in my hand, for God’s truth is always and forever God’s, not mine or the church’s to possess or master. For this reason, our Presbyterian (PCUSA) ordination vow that speaks of our relation to the Bible contains a crucial phrase without which it would become false and idolatrous:

Do you accept the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be, by the Holy Spirit, the unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ in the church universal, and God’s word to you?

Actually, there are two crucial phrases in the question. The first is, “by the Holy Spirit.” Without the Spirit, the Bible is easily weaponized to foment quarrels within and among the churches, to suppress the vulnerable and victimized, and to “lay down the law” not only in a church but in a society or nation. Whenever the Bible is used as a weapon against the vulnerable, it has been snatched away from the Spirit of God and has no truth in it, except its denied truth which seeks to rise up to correct those so misusing it do evil in its name.

The second phrase without which the question’s call to be guided, led, and corrected by the Bible would be falsified is, “witness to Jesus Christ.” He is for us the truth of God, the Word made flesh. Some Christians are quick to claim they “have Jesus.” No, not if “have” implies possession. We cannot possess any other person and certainly not that person. He is always “Thou” confronting my “I,” as Martin Buber insists. Faith in him is always relational, and so it is my trust in another I cannot control and to whom I am accountable. If I grab a Bible verse, perhaps a commandment from Leviticus or an admonition from a New Testament epistle, to use as a weapon against someone I wish to condemn, repress, or exclude, I am misrepresenting Jesus Christ and tearing the Bible away from the Spirit of God.

Christendom (imperial Christianity) demanded that the Bible and the doctrines of the church support its authorities and powers. So the faith was made imperious, and for that reason the people it long suppressed now speak out against Christianity and sometimes call for its demise. I agree that it is high time for imperious Christianity to pass away, for Christendom in all its forms (including its unofficial but culturally powerful establishment in the United States, the “Christian nation”) to be cast off so the followers of Jesus Christ can respond to his call to follow him on the way of redemptive love, the way of the cross.

As I look again, I see that this ordination vow about the Bible has a third phrase that matters greatly, “in the church universal.” I cannot go forward alone. We need the whole church, the people who trust and hope in Jesus Christ, to find our way forward. Yes, that church will be smaller than we have thought, as cultural Christians depart and our children are no longer automatically and often carelessly initiated into the identity of Christian. Beyond Christendom, following the way will become costly to Jesus’ disciples because being Christian will no longer grant power, prestige, privilege or even acceptance; it will not be the norm. It was never meant to be the norm. Neither was it ever to hold the power to dictate norms to societies. So, the individualized and almost privatized Christianity popular among Americans will not provide what we need if we are to be more than vaguely “spiritual,” whatever that word means for people who want convenience and good feelings about themselves. As the word “universal” suggests, we need people of other cultures, experiences, and histories to help us find our way together.

The Bible is not always pleasant reading, and I’m not talking about its bloody and brutal stories of warfare in the ancient world, but about its continuing challenges to my way of thinking and living. I do know that if I find that Bible affirms all my opinions, practices, and prejudices, I’m doing something wrong in the way I read it. If what I get from the Bible is a whole matched set of authoritative declarations about the way everybody ought to live and think, I have made of the Bible an authoritative witness, without the Spirit of God, to my ego and will to dominance.

Humility must rise above our desire for authority. Compassion must outstrip our wish for correctness. Wonder at the grace of God must overcome our pretenses to being in the know about God and other people. Service must outrun the churches’ thirst for success and prosperity. For love does not conquer all; it conquers us, and then we can go forward without power but with the quiet strength that comes from faith and hope.

Truths We Need to Rediscover, three: Humility

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How can humility be a truth? Is it not closer to being a falsehood, the pretense to being less than one is, so as to appear unimpressed by one’s own superiority? When I was a teenager, my parents and I were watching a Miss America pageant, and for the section in which finalists gave short extemporaneous speeches, the overall theme that year was personal qualities. The contestant selected to speak first looked over the list of qualities and wisely chose humility as her topic. As soon as she made her choice, I remarked to my parents that she would win at least that section of the competition. If I remember correctly, she won the title of Miss America, “the Queen of femininity,” “your ideal,” as Bert Parks sang while she took her victory walk. We admire in the great (or merely famous for a moment) the appealing virtue of understating their superiority and seeming unimpressed with themselves.

The word humble itself, however, is related in its origins to humus, earth or ground, telling of that which is “low, lowly, small, slight, mean, insignificant, base.” (Oxford English Dictionary). Like the word modest, humble can identify a lowly condition, rank, or estate rather than the virtue of non-arrogance. With tongue in cheek, we may say it is no virtue for the humble to be humble. From my childhood, I recall the cartoon character Yogi Bear blurting out, “I have a lot to be humble about!” then looking nonplussed as he tried to figure out the meaning of his words.

We admire humility when distinction shines through it, but we insist upon humility from the lowly, especially in the presence of their superiors. Shows of pride from the poor annoy people who regard themselves as the poor’s superiors, just as assertiveness from women arouses hostility, not only from men, but from other women.

So, what am I talking about when I say that humility is a truth Christians and Christian churches need to rediscover? These days, as Christendom continues to disappear from Europe and the cultural establishment of Christianity wanes in the United States, we find ourselves, like Yogi Bear, with a lot to be humble about. Along with our loss of prestige and the questioning of our assumptions of privilege for our religion, come revelations of greed, corruption, and sexual predation. So, at one level, Christian humility would be merely acceptance of our real standing in society as our churches close up and we realize we are becoming a minority in a society increasingly secularized and religiously diverse.

Acceptance of our reality would be a good thing but not good enough. Such acceptance would be good for us because we Christians would then stop acting as though our religion should be in charge of the society, stop supporting politicians who promise to force the nation to accept our authority and our rules, and stop demonizing and trying to suppress other religions and non-religious ways of life. Mere acceptance, however, would not go far enough because it would give us nothing positive to inspire and enable ministry and service, nothing to share with a world in need of redemptive hope.

“Blessed are you poor,” says Jesus in the Gospel of Luke. God’s reducing the great and powerful while elevating the poor and lowly is a dominant biblical theme throughout both testaments. The Magnificat attributed to Jesus’ mother echoes Hannah’s prayer in I Samuel 2:1-10:

He [God] has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1:51-53 NRSV)

Humility may be society’s falsehood, a refinement for the noble but a demand upon the lowly, but it can be for us a relational truth of our shared humanity and our call from Jesus to follow him in his way. As long as we Christians and our churches confront people with our presumed authority (ecclesiastical, doctrinal, biblical, or moral) and our power (political or economic), we cannot unite with Jesus in his way of the servant. We Christians are not called to be in charge. Now that we are, increasingly, in fact not in charge, maybe we can find our way back to the humility that accepts our own humanity and respects the humanity of others.

This kind of humility shows in respect for other people. It is not timid about confronting injustices done to others. It is not submissive to tyranny. It does not retreat from the world’s needs for redemptive love. But this humility does put the needs of others before the desires of self, and it does not seek to conquer. Only when Christianity was made imperial did it become a conquering religion rather than a serving, ministering faith.

The churches are called into being because God loves the world, and their calling is to serve, not to prosper. The faithful concern of a church is not what is good for that church in terms of its own growth and prosperity as an organization but what is good, on Christ’s terms, for the community and the world. Humility as a relational truth for human beings is the antagonist of arrogance and a sense of entitlement to superiority, honor, and privilege. Humility leads us away from power and glory.

For the individual Christian, this truth of humility means giving prominence to Christ’s call to service rather than to religious self-gratification. It means respecting the image of God in the other person, even when that person does not respect it in herself or himself. It does not mean giving people whatever they want; respect may well require that we do not give in to people’s wishes or demands. Humility is not self-hate or self-denigration. It does not make us toadies.

Humility is for us a truth to take to ourselves, not for us to demand from others in submission to us. The churches ought not be telling the already suppressed to be submissive to those suppressing them. Wives and girlfriends should not be told to take their beatings and try to be better, more submissive Christian women. Black people should not be told to be patient with white supremacy and humble in accepting what they are “given” by white-dominated society. Workers should not be told to be grateful for whatever management and ownership choose to give them in return for their time and labor. It is not the already humbled who need to humble themselves.

The relational truth of humility separates service from charitable donating, ministry with people from authoritarian control over them, worship from showmanship, witness to the grace of God from bragging about how awful one once was and how wonderful that one is now (by the grace of God, of course). It distinguishes sharing hope from telling people what they had better believe or else, standing with people in distress from looming above them, being honest with self and others from imagining and so projecting self-superiority, devotion to God from sanctimony, and compassion from contempt. We will not find it easy, as churches or Christians, to accept for ourselves the form of a servant and take the way of our Servant Christ, but such is the way we must go, not only for Christianity to survive, but for it to be authentic.

He [Jesus] called a child, whom he put among them, and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
(Matthew 18:2-4 NRSV)

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.

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.

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.

Hate Rampant

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I’m interrupting my blog series with something from a book I’ve just read: Howard Thurman’s, Jesus and the Disinherited. At the start of his chapter, “Hate,” Thurman suddenly takes me from World War II right into the present day in our nation. The book was published in 1949, so “the last war” was for Thurman then WWII.

To even the casual observer during the last war it was obvious that the Pearl Harbor attack by the Japanese gave many persons in our country an apparent justification for indulging all of their anticolored feelings. In a Chicago cab, enroute to the University from Englewood, this fact was dramatized for me. The cab had stopped for a red light. Apropos of no conversation the driver turned to me, saying, “Who do they think they are? Those little yellow dogs think they can do that to white men and get away with it!” (64)

During the early days of the war I noticed a definite rise in rudeness and overt expressions of color prejudice, especially in trains and other public conveyances. It was very simple; hatred could be brought out into the open, given a formal dignity and a place of respectability. (74)

Are we not in that moment again: that moment when hatred can be brought out into the open and given a supposedly formal dignity and place of respectability? For many people, Donald Trump has validated hatred, giving it free expression and the appearance of a respectability it can never truly have. How can such license to express hatred and inflict it upon strangers be rationalized by the people so doing? Thurman explains.

If a man’s attitude is life-negating in his relationships with those to whom he recognizes no moral responsibility, his conduct is without condemnation in his own mind.

God, help us.

Truths We Need to Rediscover, one: Human Dignity

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Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness . . . .”So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.  (Genesis 1:26a,27 NRSV)

Human dignity is a gift to us, not an achievement. True, some of us speak and live with that dignity much of the time, others not often, and some hardly ever. True also, our human dignity can be hidden, corrupted, and even degraded beyond recognition, but it cannot be removed or destroyed utterly because it has been conferred upon our humanity and so persists in all and each of us as God’s gift.

I suspect many people would recoil at what I have just said because we have been trained to view dignity as something we must earn and then may possess with pride as though it were our very own attainment, even if we inherited a head start at birth. We have preferred to regard dignity as something comparative belonging to the superior people but lacking in those we regard as inferior. As deeply entrenched and widely accepted as this notion of comparative human dignity may be, it is a lie. Yes, the way we live may display the gift or hide it, even contradict it, but we cannot lose it entirely because it is not our own to lose or surrender. Our basic dignity comes not from superiority, achievement or supposedly high birth, but from God as an endowment in our creation.

Comparative dignity imposes shame upon society’s lesser people, while tempting the supposedly greater people to a presumption of proper pride. Insidiously, the comparisons persuade both groups to internalize the false hierarchy of shame and pride and so to understand themselves as inherently lesser or greater. Think of how many evils in our world are rationalized and perpetuated by the false belief that some people are more valuable than others and that some people’s lives matter more than others. The insistence that “black lives matter” opposes this life-destroying falsehood precisely at a point where the truth is rejected, not saying that black lives matter more than other lives, but declaring what has been denied with brutal and murderous consequences. The counter claim which piously declares, “all lives matter,” is false, not because all lives do not matter (they do), but because it seeks to cover up the ongoing reality that the lives of black people are disregarded in much of our society.

We judge and are judged according to biological factors: gender, so-called race (a phony distinction among us), sexual orientation, physical size and strength, beauty, etc. Add the biographical factors of family wealth, education, position in society, and list of achievements, and you set the powerful standards for shame and pride used by long tradition to degrade some people while elevating others to prestige and privilege. To hide the unfairness of such comparisons, toss in the remarkable success stories of certain outstanding individuals who have overcome severe disadvantages through extraordinary effort (and often luck), the stories used to justify scorn for the rest of the people against whom our systems are rigged. “See, he did it; what’s wrong with you?” So do we justify our contempt and cruelty while maintaining privilege for the favored.

Biblically it is true that human dignity is not merely a status but a commission to represent the Creator’s love and care for the creation. It is dignity for the sake of responsibility and service. Individually and collectively, humanity is charged with caring for God’s world as well as for each other. It is this stewardship responsibility that lies at the heart of the Bible’s saying we are made in the image and likeness of God. Biblically, it is not our opposing thumbs, complex languages, comparatively large brains, or reasoning powers that most set us apart from the other animals, but our capacity for knowing God and caring about the things God cares about – for the sake of the whole human community and all God’s creatures. As God’s appointed representatives, we are called out from the rest in order to bear responsibility for service to God for the sake of the rest.

Here we come upon a major task in rethinking and re-learning Christian faith. To join with Jesus the Christ in his mission of representing God in and for this world, we must address human dignity as a reality, however tarnished or hidden it may be in someone’s life. We must meet people with respect for the image of God, and so we must respect both their dignity and their freedom. Triumphalist Christianity, enamored of power and glory, cannot represent Christ faithfully to the world’s people. Know-it-all Christianity bears false witness to Christ. As Christendom continues to fade from the earth and as Christian becomes less and less the thing to be even in the United States, we have a chance – a window of opportunity – to hear and rediscover Christ’s call and to become the kind of movement in the world that Jesus launched.

In Jesus’ parable of the father and his two sons (traditionally called the parable of the prodigal son), the younger son degrades himself utterly, but when he returns to what had been his home and family, begging to be taken back as a slave, his father instead restores to him the dignity his son has renounced and tarnished beyond recognition. Who the son is to his father overrides any judgment upon him including his own judgment upon himself, but at the same time his father’s love becomes in a restorative way the greatest possible judgment upon him. No longer will he be the man he has made of himself. That man, the non-son he made himself by disowning his father, is to be no more. His shame is countermanded. True, psychologically, it would not be quick and easy for a living person; he would have to grow out of his shame and into his true place within the family. He would need to become forgiving of others and patient with his older brother’s resentment of his return, but the way his father welcomes him home serves as a major analogy for the redemptive desire of God. The father recognizes and restores the dignity his son has spurned but could not lose completely because his father still loves him.

So, here I believe is one imperative for Christian faith: respect human dignity. We are not compelled to respect all behavior; God’s demand for justice sometimes requires that we do not. But, we are to respect the person because of her or his relation to God, a relation created from God’s side. It’s not difficult to understand. We find ourselves caring more about someone in a degraded condition if we learn the person is the daughter or son of a friend. That’s rather the same idea..

Next, another truth of human life we need to rediscover: solidarity.

Corruptions of Christian Virtue

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In human life, there is no idea, principle, or calling that cannot be corrupted. In my previous post, I set empathy, compassion, and justice in opposition to power, prestige, and privilege. Justice is important within that trio of God-forms in which Christians are called to live, important for many reasons one of which is that it helps keep empathy and compassion from slipping down into sentimentality, pity, and self-satisfying benevolence.

How is justice corrupted? It is often corrupted by authoritarian judgments we make “by the book.” Jesus tells his disciples not to live by the book, not to become judgmental. He refuses to adopt the principle that people should get what they deserve; indeed, his teaching, life, and death all nullify that principle from God’s point of view. He speaks out against the religious tradition of seeing justice and righteousness in terms of reward and punishment. God is not the supreme and ultimate dispenser of rewards and punishments.  God is not in the business of giving people what they deserve. What Christians call “grace” is the very opposite of judgment according to what each person deserves.

Justice also corrects empathy and compassion when they take satisfaction in helping the poor and downtrodden without challenging the systems that keep them poor and downtrodden. What we now call charity, giving to the needy, can bring pride and self-gratification to the well-off while enabling them to avoid confronting the systems in society that maintain those inequalities and by which they themselves benefit. I have seen it trumpeted that conservatives give more in charity than liberals. Whether that charge is factual I neither know nor care. Because charity makes a self-satisfying but very easy substitute for justice, it enables the well-off to feel quite good about keeping people in their places and things the way they are.  The charitable are empowered to feel good about themselves and contemptuous toward the needy who fail to show them proper gratitude.

How else are empathy and compassion corrupted? Ask a woman who has gone to her pastor seeking help because she is being abused by her husband, only to be told she must endure her beatings more patiently, try to understand the pressures under which her husband lives, and strive to be a better Christian wife who doesn’t drive him to such rage and violence. Her pastor is thereby telling her the fault is hers and she deserves the beatings she receives from him. She, not he, needs to be fixed. She must forgive, endure, and try to do better. Such false counseling is unfair, unfaithful to Christ, and horrifically cruel.

In many contexts of personal life and the life of human societies, Christianity has corrupted its call to empathy and compassion, to forgiveness, and to humble service. Certainly that calling is corrupted whenever its admonition is imposed upon the weak and vulnerable, the already shamed and degraded, and so is put forward in support for the more powerful oppressor. Before the American Civil War, churches wrote slave catechisms to proclaim as God’s own will the institution of slavery and to push upon the slaves a sacred duty to accept and even embrace their enslavement and obey their masters even when they were not being watched by any overseer. God was presented as their great overseer, their divine slave master. Jesus was to be their field boss.

Christ’s call to humble service is NOT a summons to become servile and live as doormats for anyone wishing to walk all over us. In my next post, I’ll endeavor to clarify why it is not.

Where Now?

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We shall have to exchange Athanasius’s “He became human in order that we might become divine” for the yet more incarnationally oriented summarization of soteriology: “He became human in order that we might become truly human.” (Douglas John Hall, Professing the Faith, pp. 337-338)

Huh? To satisfy my spell checker, I had to add three new words to its dictionary from that one sentence. Let me try to translate English into English.

Athanasius was the bishop who in the Fourth Century became the leading speaker for what emerged as the correct (orthodox) position concerning the nature of God’s being with us, God’s coming to us. We call that correct position the doctrine of the Trinity.

So what?

The biblical understanding is that all our human problems come from our rejection of relationship, first with God and then with each other as with ourselves. In short, we reject our being creatures of flesh and blood. We want to “be as gods” – gods to ourselves and gods over each other. Not content to receive life as a gift and accept our vocation as humans, we demand life for ourselves on our own terms. This denial of relatedness and rejection of relationship is sin.

Christian faith goes wrong when it tries to force belief in Jesus as the Christ into the mold of our desire to leave behind our creaturehood and become divine. Our lust for power, prestige, and privilege, however, demands that we reject our own creaturehood – not only our mortality (the fact that we shall all die), but our grateful receiving, day by day, of the gift of life that relates us to each other and all other creatures.

What are the relational desires that contrast with our lust for power, prestige, and privilege? They are empathy, compassion, and justice. Empathy seeks to understand and be with the other person and even with the frightened or hungry animal. Empathy represents our capacity to feel with and stand in solidarity with another person. As a friend has reminded me, the more correct word might be sympathy, but that word has become too much connected with pity for the pitiful: “Poor thing!” No one wants to be pitied. So, the psychology with which I am most familiar uses the word empathy to speak of a tenderness that drops its defenses enough to care for and become somewhat vulnerable to and with another.

Compassion derives from the idea of suffering with another whose suffering is not our own until we let ourselves care. Compassion is empathy in action for the sake of the other with whom we stand in solidarity.

Justice sets limits upon empathy and gives spine to compassion. It is not the enemy of compassion but keeps it from sliding downward into self-indulgent weepiness and hand-wringing. Here I find it helpful to keep in mind the insistence of Abraham Heschel that the world does not need more people who speak highly of justice as a concept but more who cannot abide the specific injustices done to others even when those injustices do not harm them directly.

So, the goal of our salvation is to restore our rejected relationship with God and our denied relatedness to other people and groups of people and on to the nonhuman creatures. It is to heal and restore our damaged humanity, our creaturehood. It is to make us human as the Christ became human for us and the world.

The rest of relearning Christian faith follows from this. Hall continues:

Will we say “Yes!” to being creatures? That is the question. Until we are ready to repeat our own “amen!” to the Creator’s gift of life, we have not made good our own peculiar creaturehood. (338)

A Crucial Question

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In my post of January 5, 2019, I wrote:

The great worth of a person comes from love, and only love (in all its variety that includes friendship and true neighborliness) makes the individual irreplaceable. No talent, skill, or accomplishment can make a person irreplaceable. Even the best in the world at something is soon replaced by another who is better. Aging takes away such greatness, and it is soon forgotten. Only love values the person as the person. Love holds dear the particular person, who that person is rather than what that person has or can do.

No sooner had I written those words than I saw a problem and not a trivial one. So, my next paragraph raised a troubling question.

Fine. That all sounds beautiful, but what of the person who is unloved? And what of the one who was loved by people who have died and now is left alone? What of the person who has been hurt, perhaps shamed, too deeply to be able to accept love or the need for it? Are the lonely, the lost, and the embittered no longer human?

Here is my crucial question. What happens when people cannot hear the gospel as gospel? As Douglas John Hall points out, we speak mostly in the church of “the gospel,” meaning the Christian message of Jesus Christ as we have received it and continued to expound it. But gospel means good news, and to be accepted and trusted as gospel, it must be heard by people as good news for them and for the world. There are barriers to their hearing our message that way.

First of all, for most people today, it’s not news. They’ve heard or misheard it before. At the outset of the Christian movement, the message was news. It was something new and radically different in the Greco-Roman world. Now, twenty centuries later, it is not new at all but encrusted with many layers of barnacles, and that’s putting the situation nicely.

Christianity has associated itself with all sorts of prejudices, corruptions, cruelties, abuses, scandals, deceits, and con games. Ever since the Fourth Century CE, it has cozied up to power, gloried in prestige, asserted authority over the lives of people and nations, and demanded privilege. The victims of an imperious Christianity have been many and continue to be many. We may think first of the Inquisition and the Crusades, but consider also the atrocities committed by the conquistadors (in the name of Christ) against the pre-Columbian peoples of the American continents, the widespread and long-term sexual abuse of children now coming to light, the horrors inflicted upon homosexually oriented people with hormone treatments and so-called “conversion therapy,” the blaming of women who were the victims of violence and other abuse in their own homes and the terrible pastoral admonitions to endure the abuse and try to be “better Christian wives,” the slave catechisms written by churches and used to indoctrinate black slaves into being good Christians by obeying their masters, the pious pressuring of girls into accepting second-class status as human beings, and the list could go on. How many situations crying out for salvation have left people unsaved because their misery was passed off as God’s will?

As long as people longed for heaven and feared hell, the churches were able to control them. When fear of hell wasn’t enough, physical and mental punishments could be added and often were.

The Enlightenment and the rise of scientific thinking brought new questionings of the churches and the faith. In reaction against free thinking and scientific method, Christian Fundamentalism arose, evangelicalism simplified the gospel and kept it focused on heaven, and end-time movements warned people to get onto the right side of a coming apocalyptic nightmare. In simplistic reactions against fundamentalism, pseudo-scientific arguments set up a straw man to be easily mocked and defeated. Accepting fundamentalist literalism as the real Christian faith and the only way to read the Bible, then launching attacks upon that straw man created what I call unbelieving fundamentalism, which continues to be quite popular on social media as a smug way of taking cheap shots at faith.

The situation is even more complex. Here in the United States, Christianity became so closely identified with conservative Americanism that much of my generation (baby boomers) simply left it behind. There are also less dramatic but no less real reasons why many people cannot hear “the gospel” as gospel, as good news for them and for the world. In the face of popular fundamentalism, preaching often became timid, safe, repetitious, non-challenging, unimaginative, and boring. Exploiting the boredom and the hunger for optimism in a society growing more depressed and cynical, mega-churches and TV preachers pushed entertainments and resort style features to make faith easy and fun for all ages, stressing positive thinking and showers of blessings attainable for a price.

There is also our human tendency to hear what we expect (or fear) to hear. A minor incident in my own ministry may illustrate what I mean.

Our ministerial association had its annual pulpit rotation, and I preached in a large Protestant church where the concept of grace was certainly stressed: God’s unmerited favor and undeserved love. The pastor asked me before the service to remind the kids in his confirmation class to write their own summaries of my sermon on index cards to be collected with the offering. Every student in the class wrote the opposite of what I had said about grace, all insisting they had to earn and deserve God’s love just as they had to earn and deserve their parents’ love. This way of hearing what we want to hear or are resigned to hearing is not unique to children. Many times I have heard people express to me their appreciation of my having preached what they had heard but not what I had said. I have also had the problem work in reverse, where someone has misread something I have written as something else the person regarded bitterly as typical of a Christian minister.

All of these factors and, no doubt, more contribute to the profound difficulty of representing the gospel of Jesus Christ to people in our time. What we represent to them is not gospel if they cannot hear it as good news of life, healing, and hope. We could blame them for not having ears that hear and hearts that believe, but that would be foolish, false, and self-defeating. What can we do? I have some thoughts if not nicely worked answers. Next time.