Contemplating Faith and Practice in A Pub
Note: This is an expansion of a topic that I wrote about in the beginnings of Padre Steve’s World. At that time I had far fewer readers and the post itself was not nearly as fleshed out. I do expect that some will be really angry with what I write here. However, I write with no malice, nor condemnation of any particular belief or cause. The issue for me is how we do things and treat people. This matters as much as the content of what we say. On a side note after a dismal road trip the Tides are back in town tonight to play the Lehigh ValleyIron Pigs. The only saving grace to the Tides “June Swoon” is that their competitor the Durham Bulls who have done even worse. So the Tides remain in first palce in the IL South.
Since I am a “passionate moderate” I figure I should go ahead and continue to dig my grave with my conservative brethren who view anyone to the left of them as a wild eyed raving liberal and quite possibly a Socialist. Likewise there might be some on the Left with whom I might also dig my grave. As a passionate moderate I might be classed as a liberal conservative or conservative liberal. Thus I and people like me stand in the uncomfortable middle of a deeply polarized society. To the extreme right I might be a raving liberal, and the far left a intolerant conservative but the I choose to live in the tension between the two, although I think that being classed as a raving liberal is far more likely in today’s environment. Conservatives are now out of power for the first time in a good number of years and mad as hell determined to regain what they lost. Liberals on the other hand now have power and as any political party would do are advancing their agenda; the Democrat Party won the last couple of elections by a pretty convincing margin. When Republicans won they also claimed a “mandate” for change. It is the nature of our body politic. The fact is that winners get to implement their agenda especially when they have big majorities in the legislative branch as well have the Presidency.
As a passionate moderate who is also a Priest and Christian my goal in life is to get along, find common ground among disparate groups and care for God’s people. I do this by acknowledging and maintaining the tensions that are inherent in a pluralistic society and not simply going along what whatever is popular or expedient. This takes a lot of effort and does not exclude being prophetic. However that prophetic role comes in relationship with others where there is mutual respect, civility and care for each other even when we do not agree. It does not come from being angry, acting disrespectfully or making comments that you hope that the government or country fails so you can get back in power. The prophetic role does not come from the outside looking in railing at your opponents. That only increases your isolation, eventually to the point that you are no longer a player in the debate, simply an annoying pest with absolutely no say in anything. It takes more courage to be open and dialogue with people respectfully than it does to rail against them from the outside. Anyone can be a critic and anyone can be a wrecking ball. That’s easy. There is little personal risk in doing so, because you don’t have to open you self up to the possibility that there may be some merit in your opponent’s view and once you have a relationship with someone it is hard to demonize or dehumanize them. Unfortunately that is what is happening across the religious and political divide in our society.
Despite the rancor on the extremes I think that there are more people out there like me than not. My belief is that voices like ours are drowned out by drumbeat of competing demagogues on the far right and the far left. Since I am a priest my focus will be on the dangers that I see in the current climate and the captivity that churches have unwittingly placed themselves in making political alliances. These alliances, particularly of conservative Christians have become so incestuous and so intertwined that they are seen as one and as such these churches and Christian leaders have become the religious voice of political movements fighting a cultural war. In doing so they have compromised themselves so that only their followers give any credence to what they are saying. They are so to speak “preaching to the choir” and not reaching out to or even caring about their opponents. In fact opponents are often demonized and declared to be evil. Many in effect have become like the Taliban and if you do not agree with them on their social-religious agenda you are a heretic regardless of how orthodox you are in your actual theology. Theology and belief is no longer the test, the test is if you agree with a social-political-religious agenda which often is at odds with the Christian faith has taught. This is like the Taliban because the goal is to gain control of the government and use the government to impose a social-religious theocracy where the church uses the “police power of the government” to achieve its goals rather that the redemptive message that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting men’s sins against them.” What many churches and Christian leaders have done is to for practical purposes discard any real attempts to engage people with the message of the Gospel in favor of using political power to force non-believers into compliance. This in stark opposition to the early Church which was martyred for their faith in Christ versus their opposition to government policy or social ills, of which there were plenty that they could have protested.
Early in his “Reforming” days the young Martin Luther wrote a book entitled “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church.” It was a severe critique of abuses in the Roman Catholic Church of his era. I think churches today have become captive to various political parties, social and economic theories, movements and ideas. These are not necessarily Christian even though any churches have “baptized” them so to speak. Capitalism for instance is has many benefits, however unbridled capitalism which is not moderated with true concern for the least, the lost and the lonely, is nothing more that economic social Darwinism. It is the survival of the fittest with little concern or regard for real people. People in this kind of world are not people, but consumers and economic units. In the United States we can see this in practical terms where historically US corporations which at one time employed millions of Americans and produced actual good that were in turn exported to the world have outsourced so many jobs and industries to other nations. This was done in order to increase corporate profits by paying foreign workers almost nothing and not having to abide by US environmental laws or tax codes. This may bring cheaper goods in the marketplace but it has endangered our economic and even strategic military security. Economic power is one of the key elements of national security. In the military we call this the DIME: Diplomatic, Intelligence, Military and Economic power and unless your economy can keep up you will fail. Just ask the Soviet Union. It is interesting to see many Christian leaders and churches talk of capitalism as if came down from heaven even using the Bible to try to bolster their argument. This is just one of many areas where the church is not longer a prophetic voice, but a willing captive mouthpiece for political and economic institutions which at their heart could care less about the Christian faith and wouldn’t mind it going away.
On the left many churches have embraced social reform, the civil rights movement, women’s liberation as well as left leaning and even socialistic economic models and a demonstrated preference for the Democratic Party. On the right conservative churches beginning in the 1970s in reaction to the social revolutions of the 1960s moved almost lock, stock and barrel to the Republican Party led by men such as Jerry Falwell who founded the Moral Majority in 1979, Pat Robertson who founded the Christian Coalition and Dr D. James Kennedy who founded the now defunct “Center for Reclaiming America for Christ.” Ronald Reagan was the primary reason for this move as he enunciated a philosophy of limited government, military preparedness, an outspoken advocate of the role of America’s Judeo-Christian heritage and the sanctity of life in at least in what he said. Conservative politicians and religious leaders solidified that relationship in the 1990s during the presidency of Bill Clinton, whose sexual proclivities did nothing to help his cause with Christians despite him signing the Defense of Marriage Act. The 1994 “Republican Revolution” and “Contract for America” helped solidify Christian conservatives as a central component of the Republican Party and by that point there was a clear alliance between Christian conservatives and the Republican Party. It was also during this time that politically conservative talk radio became a force in American politics and many on the Christian Right gravitated to broadcasters such as Rush Limbaugh and later Sean Hannity.
I am not going to cast dispersion on the motives of liberal and conservative churches as they made these political alliances. Far be it, the activity of churches has been an important part of American life and has contributed to many advances in our society including the civil rights movement, which could not have succeeded without the efforts of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and many other clergymen and women, from across the denominational and racial spectrum. Other examples of where churches spoke to societal wrongs included slavery and child labor. Now this was not a unified front as many churches especially regarding slavery and civil rights opposed these measures. This included the major denominations that split into northern and southern factions over the issue of slavery prior to the Civil War. The Southern Baptist Church is a product of this split. Other churches such as the Methodists and Presbyterians eventually came back together, the Presbyterian Church USA doing so in 1982, 117 years after the Civil War…better late than never I guess. This will not happen with the Southern and American Baptist Convention’s as they are now theologically poles apart.
There has been a trend over the last 20 years or so by many clergy and laity in both liberal and conservative churches to be uncritical in their relationships with political parties. In my view this has emasculated the witness of the church. I have experienced this on both the left and the right. When I was a kid my dad, a career Navy Chief Petty Officer was serving in Vietnam. New to the area we went to a church of the denomination that my parents had grown up in and in which I had been baptized. This was a mainline Protestant church, the name I will not mention because it is irrelevant to the discussion. The minister constantly preached against the war and the military probably assuming that he had no military families in the congregation. At that church I had a Sunday School teacher tell me that my dad was a “baby killer” when I told her that my dad was serving in Vietnam. If it had not been for the Roman Catholic chaplain at the little Navy base in town who showed my family the love of God when that happened, caring for our Protestant family without trying to make us Catholic I would have probably never reconciled with the church. I trace my vocation as a priest and chaplain to that man. Since I have spent more of my life in conservative churches in the days since I have seen a growing and ever more strident move to the political right in conservative churches. I think this has less to do with the actual churches but the influence of conservative talk radio which has catered to conservatives, especially social conservative Christians. Conservative Christians are a key part of this demographic and it is not unusual to hear ministers as well as lay people simply parroting what these broadcasters are saying. I often hear my fellow Christians on the right talk more vociferously about free markets capitalism, the war on terror and justifying the other conservative causes which are general less than central to the faith in public forums like Facebook. Some of what is written is scary. People who pray for the government to fail, pray for the President to be killed, call anyone who disagrees with them pretty horrible names. I saw an active duty Army Chaplain call the President Obama “that reject.” The words of a lot of these folks are much more like Sean Hannity than the Apostle Paul. When I have challenged conservative Christian friends on what I think are inconsistencies I have in some cases been attacked and pretty nastily if I might add.
I see this in stark contrast to the witness of the early church. Pliny’s letter to the Emperor Trajan sums up how Christians responded to real, not imagined persecution for their Christian faith, not social-political cause.
“They stated that the sum of their guilt or error amounted to this, that they used to gather on a stated day before dawn and sing to Christ as if he were a god, and that they took an oath not to involve themselves in villainy, but rather to commit no theft, no fraud, no adultery; not to break faith, nor to deny money placed with them in trust. Once these things were done, it was their custom to part and return later to eat a meal together, innocently, although they stopped this after my edict, in which I, following your mandate, forbade all secret societies.”
Pliny was perplexed because although he thought their religion to be “fanatical superstitions” he could find no other fault in their lives; they even obeyed his order to stop meeting together. My view is that Christians some on the left but especially on the right lost any prophetic voice not only in society, in their respective political party alliances. They have become special interest groups who compete with other special interest groups, which politicians of both parties treat as their loyal servants. This is what I mean by captivity. I think that the church has to be able to speak her mind and be a witness of the redemption and reconciliation message of the Gospel and hold politicians, political parties and other power structures accountable for their treatment of the least, the lost and the lonely; caring for those that to those who seek to maintain political and economic control, merely numbers. The church has to maintain her independence or lose submit to slavery. There are many examples we can look to in this just a couple of relatively modern examples being William Wilberforce and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. We can find many others throughout Church history. These men were not apolitical, but they and their ministries were both prophetic and redemptive. They maintained peaceful dialogue with their opponents and helped bring about justice. Billy Graham never gave in to the temptation to endorse any political party. Instead he had a voice and relationship with every US President during his active ministry, be they Republican or Democrat.
It is incumbent on Christians and other people of faith seek to embody this witness in our divided and dangerous world. Christians especially cannot allow themselves to be ghettoized in any political party where they are just another interest group. Nor can they allow their public witness to be absorbed and consumed by the promotion of political agendas or causes, even if those causes are worthy of support. It is a matter of keeping priorities causes can never take precedence over the message of God’s love and reconciliation in Christ. Unfortunately this is too often the case. My view is that if you build relationships with people, loving them, caring for them and treating them with the same respect that you would want for yourself; even with those that you have major differences, then you will have a place at the table and your voice will be heard. If we on the other hand cauterize ourselves from relationships and dialogue we will be relegated, and rightly so to the margins of the social and political process of our nation. In effect we will ensure that people will stop listening to us not only on the social and political issues, but more importantly in our proclamation of the faith that comes to us from the Apostles. Unfortunately I believe that at least for the moment we have been marginalized and it is because we have compromised ourselves allowing extremists to be the public face of the Christian church in public debates on social, morale and political issues. I hope someday we will rebuild our credibility as people who actually care about the life of our fellow citizens and our country and not just those who agree with us. God have mercy on us all.