Tag Archives: imperial church

American Church Greed: By Their Budgets Ye Shall Know Them

 

mega-business-share

Back on October 31st 1517 a little known Monk and Professor of Theology and Bible at the University of Wittenberg proposed a theological debate regarding a practice called “Indulgences” where preachers from Rome came up to Germany and basically shook down the population for donations to help built the now majestic Saint Peters Basilica in Rome. Promises of spiritual blessings, to include time out of Purgatory for those that donated had an affect on German churches and the local political leaders.

What happened that day in Wittenberg was one of the most monumental events in Christian and Western History. Luther charged church leaders in his 95 Theses:

“Lastly, works of piety and charity are infinitely better than indulgences, and yet they do not preach these with such display or so much zeal; nay, they keep silence about them for the sake of preaching pardons. And yet it is the first and sole duty of all bishops, that the people should learn the Gospel and Christian charity: for Christ nowhere commands that indulgences should be preached. What a dreadful thing it is then, what peril to a bishop, if, while the Gospel is passed over in silence, he permits nothing but the noisy outcry of indulgences to be spread among his people, and bestows more care on these than on the Gospel!”

However, it seems that Christians and especially ministers of all times and traditions often forget the lessons of history.

The church in the United States is at a critical point in history, but for the most part its leaders don’t understand this. The American church is fast losing its credibility due to the arrogance and excess of many church leaders in matters related to personal behavior, financial accountability, and accountability before the law concerning clergy sexual abuse cases. The common view of many inside and outside the church is that American ministers practice a “do as I say, not as I do” lifestyle holding others, especially non-Christians to a higher standard than they practice themselves.

Likewise there is the nearly incestuous relationship between many ministers and those holding political and or economic power in which quite often one cannot tell where the “gospel” ends and the politics begin.  This spans the denominational spectrum.

The practical fallout is stunning: The Barna Group, a highly respected polling organization surveyed people 18-29 years old asked what phrases best described Christians: The top five answers “Anti-homosexual, judgmental, hypocritical and too involved in politics.” This view was held by 91% of non-Christians and a staggering 80% of young churchgoers. But the vast bulk of conservative American clergy and their devoted followers don’t seem to care, probably because the facts do not fit their narrative.

The point I am making is that many clergy in the United States, especially those in influential pulpits and ministries have forgotten the dangers of “clericalism” and the abuses of clerics who use their office as clergy to gain political, financial and personal power.  Jesus told his disciples that they wanted  to be great in God’s kingdom they had to be servants of all.  Jesus, as well as the apostles, other new Testament writers and the Ante-Nicene Fathers warned about the dangers of seeking wealth, status or position. Of course that changed after Constantine when the church became the Imperial Church, something that despite the attempts of some that it has found a way to do throughout history, our American experience included.

Money is a big part of this, and one way to tell what a church, a denomination or a ministry values is to look at their budgets. As my Church History Professor at Southwestern Baptist Seminary said “By their budgets ye shall know them.

By their budgets ye shall know them….Reverend Robert Schuler’s “Crystal Cathedral” megachurch declared bankruptcy in 2012. It was $43 Million dollars in debt and embroiled in an internal power struggle and losing money.  Schuler asked “tithers to double tithe” and those that do not tithe to “start tithing.” He talked about what the church has given to them and why it earned their support.

It was a rather pompous plea from a man who had the ear of Presidents and other political and business leaders. Southern California had been terribly hard hit by the economic downturn and recession of 2007-2011. This affected many parishioners that worshipped at the Cathedral as well as those who watched Schuler’s “Hour of Power” show.

The Chrystal Cathedral tried to live “month to month on $2 Million dollars a month.” It cut back staff, curtailed programs and sold property to try to make ends meet. The efforts failed. The church collapsed and the Church Campus was sold to the local Roman Catholic Diocese. I wonder how many more megachurches built on piles of debt are facing what happened at the Chrystal Cathedral. Of course since their books are well guarded we won’t know until they collapse.

I’m sorry but those that live off of other people’s money should never be presumptuous and assume that  faithful givers should have to bail them out.

By their budgets ye shall know them….Other churches at denominational and local levels have often become embroiled in financial scandals that tarnished the reputation of those churches, their leaders and disillusioned their membership.  The Roman Catholic Church had to deal with a major scandal involving the Vatican Bank in the 1970s and 1980s and Pope Francis has been having to unscrew the latest mess that occurred during Pope Benedict’s watch.

hagee cornerstone

By their budgets ye shall know them: If a ministry spends the bulk of its time and money working as surrogates for a political candidate or party it is highly likely that it has forgotten the basic mission of the Church. I cannot remember anything in the New Testament even remotely suggests we do this nor can a single time in Church history that it turned out well for the church, or for regular people in general.

By their budgets ye shall know them….I worked for a fairly reputable Television ministry while I was a seminary student. The common plea of these types of ministries is that they “are on a mission from God” and need the money.

Most of these ministries not part of any denominational structure and have little oversight.  Most are presumptuous and assume that they entitled to the financial support provided by the often poor people who give them their last dime.

These ministries  do not ask their audience for actual input into their “mission” strategy.  Their leaders make the call, say that is “God’s will” and use shame and guilt to squeeze the money out of their viewers. This happens in churches as well and if someone questions the church or its financial accountability they are accused of “being unfaithful,” “not hearing God,” or being “disobedient to God’s will or to the church.”

Many churches and ministries suffer a terrible lack of accountability and oversight, so be assured these abuses are more widespread than we would want to believe.  In regard to television ministries in particular the amount of money required to keep their programs on the air is beyond exorbitant.

The bulk of the money used by such ministries comes often from those that are barely surviving financially even in “good times.” Often it comes most vulnerable and desperate people. The elderly, the sick, the poor, and the lonely.  Such people are “believing in God for a miracle” and trust that the smiling preacher will help get them their miracle. Such vulnerable people respond to these ministries by obediently shelling out of their meager incomes to ministries in response to persuasive pleas by ministers that should know better.

The motivation, love and obedience of these often wonderful people is exploited by unscrupulous ministers in order to support air programs that have little impact on the world.  However, those funds have a great deal of influence in the political aspirations of these preachers. Money equals influence and influence equals power.

By their budgets ye shall know them….If money was the only thing it would be a manageable problem. But money and power is the root of the problem and problem extends to lifestyles of ministers and other church leaders which are hardly supported by the demands of the Gospel. The shear opulence of the lifestyle of many clergy is not just off-putting but obscene. When times get tough for their churches or ministries these charlatans demand more money from their flocks rather than amending their lives and budgets. If members of flock object they are the ones that are vilified.

In my old church those clergy who could not meet their tithe for whatever reason were told that they were being “disobedient to their vows.” For some of our bishops and clergy vows to the Church were less concerned with doctrinal orthodoxy, or even being good Christians, but were narrowed down to if you paid your tithe on time.

I remember one Bishop who left the church to go elsewhere who told the assembled priests in his diocese that the tithe was the “essential test of obedience, and what bound us together.” Families and parishioners were described by another Bishop as “tithing units” and not people. When I was in the Army Reserve and contemplating a mission parish start up I was told by the bishop that in order to be “successful” the church needed at least “x-number of tithing units.” I was offended and decided not to do a  mission as I was recalled to active duty soon after.

In such churches people and families are reduced to an economic resource to keep the ministry afloat and support the lifestyle of the minister. Doctrine or even other forms of public witness are secondary to paying the tithe.

By their budgets ye shall know them…. If churches spend more money on the salaries of their pastors than they do on outreach to the poor or missions something is severely out of order. I am a historian and I know that the Apostles of those Ante-Nicene Fathers who suffered poverty and persecution never advanced such ideas. Even those that advocated a firm hierarchy in regard to matters of faith and doctrine never advocated for policies that benefited them financially. When leaders of a church, get together and dine in luxury on the monies donated by their often impoverished flocks it is denial of the Gospel and lack of respect and care for the people of God.

By their budgets ye shall know them….When church building programs and plant maintenance are extravagant and require massive amounts of money to sustain without demanding more from their parishioners than something is out of kilter.  When chandeliers, or massive high definition video monitors cost more than the mission budget, or benevolence ministry something is wrong.

My Church History professor, Dr. Doyle Young from who I appropriated the “by their budgets ye shall know them” line used to say that “God is going to get us for our stained glass windows when we neglect the poor.”  Now I appreciate good church architecture including stained glass windows. However it is  highly presumptive and arrogant for churches, ministries and ministers to demand monies when they have failed to be good stewards of what they have been entrusted. When ministries unwisely spend the money given them like drunken sailors and then expect others to pick up the tab while they cry crocodile tears about how “God’s plans will be thwarted” if their ministry fails, it is plain and simple fraud.

By their budgets ye shall know them….Back prior to the Protestant Reformation in Europe there was a large amount of discontent which focused on the arrogance, opulence and financial demands of the Catholic Church.  In fact much of Dr. Martin Luther’s protest in the 95 Thesis dealt with the manner in which Church finances.

Back then the Roman Church used a practice called indulgences and the selling of “relics” to fund the construction of St Peters Basilica in Rome.  People gave because they believed men like John Tetzel who preached in regard to indulgences “a penny into the coffer rings a soul from purgatory springs.”  That is incredibly similar to the collection methods of the big evangelists who prey upon the most vulnerable to fund their ministries. Likewise the Church attempted to use its power to reward or punish rulers of these regions, much as political preachers today attempt to use their influence to push candidates to support their agenda.

However, the chief complaint of many reformers was related to the Churche financial as well as political abuses of its members and nations to buttress its position in Europe.  Unfortunately we have not learned this lesson, American churches are so consumed with power and money that people are fleeing them, much as happened to the Roman church during the Reformation.

By their budgets ye shall know them….Finally there are honest and hard working ministers and churches that emphasize ministry and care for people as part of the Gospel message.  Many eke out support while working full time in “tentmaker” professions in order to fund their missions without unduly burdening those that support them. In my denomination, all of our clergy are “worker priests” including our bishop, who does not take a salary from the church. Likewise, I know many good ministers who give not only their lives but their livelihoods to care for those in their charge. They seek not fame, wealth or power. Some are conservative, others progressive, but they have caring and compassionate hearts and their budgets reflect their priorities.

Until tomorrow.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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By Their Budgets Ye Shall Know Them: A Reformation Day Reflection

“Lastly, works of piety and charity are infinitely better than indulgences, and yet they do not preach these with such display or so much zeal; nay, they keep silence about them for the sake of preaching pardons. And yet it is the first and sole duty of all bishops, that the people should learn the Gospel and Christian charity: for Christ nowhere commands that indulgences should be preached. What a dreadful thing it is then, what peril to a bishop, if, while the Gospel is passed over in silence, he permits nothing but the noisy outcry of indulgences to be spread among his people, and bestows more care on these than on the Gospel!” Martin Luther (Introductory Letter To The 95 Theses)

Back on October 31st 1517 a little known Monk and Professor of Theology and Bible at the University of Wittenberg proposed a theological debate regarding a practice called “Indulgences” where preachers from Rome came up to Germany and basically shook down the population for donations to help built the now majestic Saint Peters Basilica in Rome. Promises of spiritual blessings, to include time out of Purgatory for those that donated had an affect on German churches and the local political leaders.

What happened that day in Wittenberg was one of the most monumental events in Christian and Western History.

However, It seems that Christians and especially ministers of all traditions forget the lessons of history.  The church in the United States is at a critical point in history and is fast losing its credibility due to the arrogance and excess of many churches as well as individual clergy in matters related to personal behavior, financial accountability as well as accountability before the law concerning clergy that who have committed grievous crimes against children and others.  Likewise there is the nearly incestuous relationship between many ministers and those holding political and or economic power in which quite often one cannot tell where the “gospel” ends and the politics begin.  This exists in many churches large and small and spans the denominational spectrum not being the sole property of any particular body.  There is also the matter of accountability in which it seems that many churches, ministries and ministers practice a “do as I say, not as I do” lifestyle holding their subordinate clergy as well as parishioners to a higher standard than they practice themselves.

The United States has always had a strong Christian heritage that has impacted its faith as well as its national life.  This is not of itself a bad thing as one looks at how churches and Christian leaders have made an impact that goes beyond them and is beneficial to the nation as a whole.  Some of these achievements include the pressure put on James Madison by Virginia Baptists to ensure a guarantee of religious freedom in the Bill of Rights, the abolition of slavery the ending of child labor, the Civil Rights movement as well as numerous charitable and public interest oriented ministries to care for society’s most disadvantaged citizens as well as the aliens that have lived among us.  At the same time there were many Christians, churches and ministers that supported slavery, an established state religion, segregation and many other issues.  That being said churches and individual ministers have made a huge contribution to American life and community that cannot be easily dismissed despite the many problems, controversies, and scandals that have surrounded churches of almost all denominations since the founding of the United States.  Religious liberty as well as Christian churches and religion in general has traditionally been seen as a positive rather than a negative aspect of the United States going back to Alexis de Tocqueville in his comments on American democracy.

Clergy have enjoyed a special status in American life that exists in large part due the Bill of Rights and the Jeffersonian understanding of an “eternal wall of separation” between church and state.   This is because clergy were seen as fair arbiters because they were not an appendage of the state as were the clergy of most European states that had established state religion.  Thus the “clericalism” of Europe which was seen as a danger by our Founding Fathers was not a major issue. Yes some of the founders recognized a potential danger but that did not stop Congress from treating clergy and churches favorably in the early years of the republic and worked to ensure that no church became a “State church.”  Over the years since the founding of the United States clergy of many denominations have made many positive contributions to our Nation in both their pastoral and prophetic roles.  At the same time over the years some clergy have attempted to use their status and privileges as an entry into the elite parts of society, especially in the political, government policy and financial realms.

The point to be short is that many clergy in the United States, especially those in influential pulpits and ministries have forgotten the dangers of “clericalism” and the abuses of clerics who use their office as clergy to gain political, financial and personal power.  Jesus told his disciples that they had to be servants and not seek wealth, status or position something that was echoed by the New Testament writers as well as many of the Ante-Nicene Fathers.

By their budgets ye shall know them….I saw the report of the Reverend Robert Schuler of the “Crystal Cathedral” megachurch which declared bankruptcy last week being $43 Million dollars in debt and embroiled in struggles about Schuler’s successor call for his parishioners to give more money.  He asked “tithers to double tithe” and those that do not tithe to “start tithing.” He talked about what the church has given to them and earned their support. I found this to be a rather pompous plea from a man who has had the ear of Presidents and leaders in the political and business world.  The fact is that Southern California has been terribly hard hit by the economic downturn and recession and that obviously includes many of his parishioners both those that worship at the Cathedral as well as those who what Schuler’s “Hour of Power” show.  The Chrystal Cathedral tried to live “month to month on $2 Million dollars a month” cut back staff, curtailed programs and sold property to try to make ends meet. I’m sorry but when you live off of other people’s money you should never build a ministry requiring millions of dollars on the presumption that if you get it wrong that the faithful givers should have to bail you out.  I saw this at a local level a few years back and it all but destroyed the local church and the denomination that church belonged.  I wonder how many more megachurches built on piles of debt are facing what happened at the Chrystal Cathedral. The Church Campus was sold to the local Roman Catholic Diocese.

By their budgets ye shall know them….Other churches at denominational and local levels have often become embroiled in banking scandals that tarnished the reputation of those churches, their leaders and disillusioned their membership often causing mass defections to other churches or leave the organized church all together.  The Roman Catholic Church had to deal with a major scandal involving the Vatican Bank in the 1970s and 1980s and have recently had other allegations of another potential banking scandal involving the Vatican have surfaced.

By their budgets ye shall know them: If a ministry spends the bulk of its time and money working as surrogates for a political candidate or party it is highly likely that it has forgotten the basic mission of the Church as I can’t remember anything in the New Testament even remotely suggests we do this nor can a single time in Church history that it turned out well for the church, or for regular people in general.

By their budgets ye shall know them….I worked for a fairly reputable Television ministry while I was a seminary student. The common plea of these types of ministries is that they “are on a mission from God” well, maybe that is a Blues Brother’s paraphrase but you get my drift. Most are not part of any denominational structure and have little oversight and presume that since someone might watch them that they are entitled to financial support. They do not ask their audience for actual input into their “mission” strategy, they just ask for their audience’s money to do with as they “and as the Lord would have them to do” with it. This of course is not the sole property of television ministries but it occurs in many churches as well.  If someone questions the church and its financial accountability they are accused of “being unfaithful,” “not hearing God,” or being “disobedient to God’s will or to the church.”  Since many churches and ministries suffer a terrible lack of accountability and oversight these abuses are more widespread than we would want to believe. Sometimes it takes personal experience to see this but when one sees it up close and in person the blinders can be removed. In regard to television ministries in particular the amount of money required to keep their programs on the air is beyond exorbitant. It comes often from those that are barely surviving financially even in “good times” and the most desperate of people “believing in God for a miracle” in response to obediently shelling out of their meager incomes to ministries in response to persuasive pleas by ministers that should know better. The motivation, love and obedience of these often wonderful people is exploited in order to support air programs that have little impact on the world despite the boastings of these ministers that they are “fulfilling the great commission.” One has to ask if this is the case why there is so little to be seen in our society as a result of all the money poured into these pricy ministries.

By their budgets ye shall know them….If money was the only thing it would be a manageable problem…. Oh but wait money and power is the root of the problem as the problem extends to lifestyles of ministers and other church leaders which are hardly supported by the demands of the Gospel. It is not uncommon at all to see clergy living off of the offerings of their parishioners live opulent lifestyles and when times get tough demand more money from their flocks rather than amending their own behaviors.  Instead of accountability, repentance and a change in behavior there is a demand for obedience from their flock and if the flock objects they are the ones that are vilified.  This again cuts across denominational lines and includes Protestants and Catholics, those in parish as well as those in parachurch, television and radio ministries. In my old church those clergy who could not meet their tithe for whatever reason were told that they were being “disobedient to their vows” which instead of vows to the Church in regard to orthodoxy as well as orthopraxy were narrowed down to if you were paying your tithe on time. I remember one Bishop who left the church to go elsewhere told the assembled priests in his diocese that the tithe was the “essential test of obedience, and what bound us together.” Families and parishioners of parishes were described by another Bishop as “tithing units” not people and when I was in the reserves contemplating a mission parish start up was told that in order to be “successful” the church needed at least “x-number of tithing units.” Doctrine or even other forms of public witness were secondary to paying the tithe.  That church had many major financial scandals that are well documented elsewhere so I won’t go into detail about them.

By their budgets ye shall know them…. If churches spend more money on the salaries of their pastors than they do on outreach to the poor or missions something is severely out of order, one cannot imagine the Apostles of those Ante-Nicene Fathers who suffered poverty and persecution advocating for what amounts to be an “Imperial” church even those that advocated a firm hierarchy in regard to faith and belief.  When leaders of a church, especially a small church get together and dine in luxury on the monies donated by their often impoverished flocks it shows a tacit denial of the Gospel and lack of respect or care for the people of God.

By their budgets ye shall know them….When church building programs and plant maintenance are extravagant and require massive amounts of money to sustain without demanding more from their parishioners than something is out of kilter.  When chandeliers cost more than a mission budget for the poor something is wrong.  My Church History professor from who I appropriated the “by their budgets ye shall know them” line used to say that “God is going to get us for our stained glass windows when we neglect the poor.”  I love good church architecture including stained glass windows but it is presumptive on God the people of God for churches, ministries and ministers to demand monies when they have failed to play and manage effective especially when in spite of economic indicators they spend like drunken sailors and expect others to pick up the tab while crying crocodile tears about how “God’s plans will be thwarted” if their ministry fails.

By their budgets ye shall know them….Back prior to the Protestant Reformation in Europe there was a large amount of discontent which focused on the arrogance, opulence and financial demands of the Catholic Church.  In fact much of Dr. Martin Luther’s protest in the 95 Thesis dealt with the manner in which the Church used a practice called indulgences and the selling of “relics” to fund the construction of St Peters Basilica in Rome.  In people gave because they believed men like John Tetzel who preached in regard to indulgences “a penny into the coffer rings a soul from purgatory springs.”  Of course there was the manner that the Church also used its power to reward or punish rulers which was also part of the problem but the complaint of many reformers was often directly related to the Churches’ financial as well as political abuses of its members and nations to buttress its position in Europe.  Unfortunately I do not think that we have learned this lesson and that Churches and ministries in the United States are losing membership and the trend is that people are opting for individual expressions of faith rather than become a part of institutions that they feel are out of touch with real people.  I believe that if things do not change there will be a mass exodus from many churches and religious institutions because of the odious nature of the financial dealings and pressure put on people to support questionable programs and lavish lifestyles.

By their budgets ye shall know them….There are honest and hard working ministers and churches that emphasize ministry and care for people as part of the Gospel message.  Many are foreign missionaries that eke out support while working full time in “tentmaker” professions in order to fund their missions without unduly burdening those that support them.  I know many people like this and for them whether they be working in foreign missions or caring for the poor at home live the Gospel in word and deed and nothing in this essay should be construed to be against such people or their missions.  I may disagree with someone’s theology but when I see them demonstrate humility and the love of God in all that they do I can only commend them.

You see my friends and readers my experience leads me to believe that people are still searching for authentic faith and spirituality and have not necessarily given up on orthodox Christian beliefs.  The problem is they are finding little of substance in many churches and other religious institutions. Novelist and write Anne Rice recently did this, leaving “Christianity” but not Christ and I fully understand her reasoning for doing so.

 

Martin Luther and the 95 Thesis: What if the Church had listened to him rather than branding him as a heretic and criminal?

Some will say that by writing this that I am “causing division in the Church” or the more pious “causing division in the body of Christ.”  However that is a red herring argument that attempts to divert attention from the real problem. If the Church and I mean across denominations not any particular body fails to reform itself it will fall on its own and fall hard and in the process harm the faith of many people. Churches which have to defend the indefensible to “retain unity” are those that are in schism from Christ, not those that raise issues that the society at large recognizes but church and religious leaders seem incapable of admitting. The Church must reform and a big part of that in the United States involves how we deal with wealth. By their budgets ye shall know them.

This essay will be continued as I move to the next segment which will be about the incestuous relationship between many ministers and those of the political and financial elites.  I’m sure that I will come up with a catch title for that essay but need to ruminate some more.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Totality of Easter

“Easter is rightly understood only if the burden and strain of Good Friday are not forgotten.”  Hans Kung

The disciples of Jesus had abandoned him. It was a Roman Centurion that recognized at Jesus’ death It took a distant disciple, a man named Joseph of Arimathea to take responsibility for the body of Jesus as his close disciples fled the scene of his arrest, trial and crucifixion. It was women who first discovered his body missing and women who Jesus first revealed himself.

The disciples were traumatized. They had spent three years with Jesus and his death on Good Friday had to be shattering. They had lost their leader, teacher and friend. They were not exactly believing in the resurrection that first Easter and they met the initial reports with doubt. That is why Easter and the resurrection can only be rightly understood if we really appreciate the depths of despair felt by the disciples on that terrible Friday.

I think that is hard for most of us in the United States and Western Europe to comprehend. We are the product of 2000 years of Christendom.  We are the products of Imperial and triumphalist Christianity. Our understanding of persecution is minimal for the most part and we cannot comprehend the totality of the loss experienced by the disciples until we endure our own Good Friday experience of suffering, pain, loss and abandonment or as it is correctly understood as being Godforsaken.

Yet the disciples came to believe and proclaimed a message that put them at risk among their own people. That message would shake the world within a few generations. But the disciples really had no idea just how much things would change in such a short period of time. I’m sure that they could not imagine the Church being used as an instrument of partisan politics or for that matter dominating the politics of the Ancient Rome or the modern United States.  I’m sure that they could not imagine being political sycophants who gladly support those that oppress their brothers and sisters in less desirable nations or neighborhoods.

They understood the Gospel from the point of view of the downtrodden and powerless. The did not run multi-million dollar corporations or attempt to influence the affairs of the leaders of nations. That didn’t happen until after the persecution was over after Constantine.

The simplicity of the message of Jesus who so wonderfully summed up the Law into two commandments, love God and love your neighbor seems to be a quaint idea to our Western Imperial Church.  The message proclaimed by Jesus when he opened his public ministry (Luke 4:18-19) “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  seems hopelessly out of date for the Imperial Church, its pampered leaders and their rich and powerful benefactors.  It seems lost in the milieu of the cult of “Christian” celebrity, riches and political power which surrounds us.

German Pastor and Martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer who saw the Church of his day fall into the cult of Hitler worship said:

“Christianity stands or falls with its revolutionary protest against violence, arbitrariness and pride of power and with its plea for the weak. Christians are doing too little to make these points clear rather than too much. Christendom adjusts itself far too easily to the worship of power. Christians should give more offense, shock the world far more, than they are doing now. Christian should take a stronger stand in favor of the weak rather than considering first the possible right of the strong.”

You see the message of Easter is not understood without Good Friday or the hopelessness experienced by the disciples that day, nor is it understood apart from the words and teaching of Jesus himself.

The Lord is Risen…

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Unchristian Christianity of Modern America

I cannot and will not recant

We live in an era where religion and politics especially in conservative circles have become one just as they were in the days following Constantine’s granting of religious freedom to all in the Empire while making the Catholic Church the State religion which went from a persecuted Church to an Imperial Church overnight. The Church in the coming centuries became an arm of the State something that until the enlightenment it remained in many nations. Most of the English Colonies that became the United States had State Religions even after the Bill of Rights the last to disestablish its state religion being the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in 1833.  Most European State Churches remained until the fall of the Empires after the First World War but many countries in Europe still have State Churches which are not very vibrant now days.

The curious thing is that until the 18th and 19th Centuries the powers of State Churches were great and heavily benefited greatly through their allegiance to the State.  To disobey the Church was to disobey the State and to disobey the State was often tantamount to disobeying God since the State and the rulers thereof were not simply ordained by God but in fact God’s instruments. Unfortunately this led to many abuses of power by those in the Church as well as the State and thankfully we in the United States were able to for the most part break with that tradition which was and is repugnant to the Gospel as well as human freedom.

In fact the United States has been the foremost proponent of religious freedom and tolerance of any nation in history. It was something that we enshrined, the right of all people to worship according to their faith. Now we haven’t been perfect practitioners of our ideal as there have been plenty of religious based prejudice and persecution in this country dating to colonial times, especially of religions outside the mainstream of Protestant Christianity, it took nearly 150 years for Catholics to become part of mainstream America and longer for others especially religions outside of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Despite those instances our experiment of religious liberty has been an amazing success in which many denominations have prospered.

All that being said I fear we are entering a stage where authoritarian religious groups closely allied with the rich and the powerful are on the ascendant in the United States just as radicals in other religions, particularly Islam but not limited to Islam are on the rise. Frankly I expect that people who are either living in a culture that still believes that the world is like it was back in the 13th Century and those that have become fantastically rich and enamored with the technology of the West to be that way. Let us face facts most of the counties in the Middle East lack the centuries of related social, political, philosophic or religious development that is part of Western culture and we still screw things up. The Islamic World has not experienced anything like the Renaissance, Reformation or Enlightenment. There is a chance that it might amid the pro-democracy and freedom protests that are occurring throughout the Middle East even as radical Islamists dream of a new Caliphate, something that seems to be anathema to many of the young protestors in Egypt and other Arab Nations.

In the United States the movement to religious authoritarian systems closely allied with politicians and the State to do their bidding comes from conservative circles, particularly conservative and fundamental Evangelical Christian churches and the Roman Catholic Church which since the reforms of Vatican Two has retreated into its old Ultramontanistic self.

That being said 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.  I am a moderate and 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 where most to our left or right despise us for actually deviating from the established dogmas of the left or the right.

To the extreme right I might be a raving liberal, and the far left an intolerant conservative but the I choose to live in the tension between the two, although I think that in today’s Tea Party charged environment I would be called a liberal.  But I am a moderate and I will not give up the middle ground simply because others have adopted a scorched earth policy in faith and politics where “if you ain’t for us you’re against us” is the norm. In fact I think that Jesus stood against that kind of thought process, if you don’t believe me look at Mark 9:38-40 where Jesus says something different when the disciples confront him about others casting out demons in his name “he who is not against us is for us.”

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 or acting disrespectfully just because I can.  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.  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 those of conservative Christians have become so incestuous and so intertwined that they are seen as one with supposed political conservatives. As such these churches and Christian leaders have become the religious voice of political movements fighting a cultural war in which only one side can win and in which there is no room for compromise or dialogue.

In doing so these religious leaders 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 the welfare of their opponents, they are in a sense like the Taliban. They frequently demonize their opponents or for that matter anyone, even other Christians that might disagree with their understanding of the Christian faith.

That is why I say that many have become like the Taliban. 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 proclaimed by Jesus.  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.  Such a message is anathema to the Gospel and its 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 coerce non-believers into compliance through the police power of the government.  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 the world of baptized unbridled capitalism 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.  While none of these goals of themselves are anti-Christian the linkage to the causes often over the Gospel has hurt progressive Christianity.

On the right conservative churches beginning in the 1970s in reaction to the social revolutions of the 1960s moved lock, stock and barrel to the Republican Party. They were 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 political spokesman and was an outspoken advocate of the role of America’s Judeo-Christian heritage. Conservative 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.  Conservative Christians now stand at the center of the Tea Party movement and are a force that no Republican politician can ignore if he or she wants to keep their job.

Despite what I have said I am not saying that people’s faith should not play an important part of their political viewpoint.  Churches and influential pastors have 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 or prays the “imprecatory Psalms” against their opponents.  I saw an active duty Army Chaplain call the President “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, or political faction where they are just another interest group even an important one. 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 by 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 in the Kingdom of God which was proclaimed by Jesus which that comes to us from the Apostles.

Unfortunately I believe that Christians thinking that they are more influential than they are have marginalized themselves.  This is because many have compromised the faith by 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.

Peace, Steve+

 

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