Thursday, January 20, 2011
Sweet Home Alabama?
Anybody here today who has not accepted Jesus Christ as their savior, I'm telling you, you're not my brother and you're not my sister, and I want to be your brother. If the Holy Spirit lives in you that makes you my brothers and sisters. Anyone who has not accepted Jesus, I want to be your brothers and sisters, too.
Alabama Governor Robert Bentley, to a post-inaugural church crowd on Monday
Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.
Monday's remarks from the newly inaugurated governor of Alabama raise important questions about the role of religious convictions, not only for those in government leadership positions, but for all of us. "Who, then, is your brother or sister?" is a vital litmus test for the inclusiveness of spiritual tradtions.
For Bentley, and the Christian sub-tradition labeled "Evangelical" or "Fundamentalist," someone can only become a child of God if they have "accepted Jesus into their hearts" (a phrase invented by Charles Fuller in the early half of the 20th century) or have made a commitment to "follow Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior" (another phrase not specifically in the Bible). This confession and culminating practices like baptism, church attendance, Bible reading (and for many, voting Republican) make them a "Christian" and, therefore, adopt them into God's family. Anyone and everyone who rejects or is indifferent to Jesus is out of the will, with major consequences like social isolation, the complete lack of access to God and hell after they die. Evangelicals supports this kind of familial exclusion by quoting well-worn biblical passages (Romans 3:23; 6:23; 10:9; Acts 4:12; etc) that they interpret to be self-evident descriptions of the implications of "sin" and a road map to a disembodied heaven when they die.
There are several reasons why Bentley's framing of Christian faith is no longer compelling to me and I wish to address them somewhat randomly below. In my following remarks, I have no desire whatsoever to attack Evangelical Christianity per se. So many of my friends and family identify themselves with this popular version of Christianity. It is a brand of faith that has served me greatly in the past and I greatly value the friendship and rich dialogue they bring to my life.
My goal is to both prod my conservative Evangelical brothers and sisters and inform my non-Christian brothers and sisters by reflecting on my own path of studying, lamenting, praying and dialoguing about how I've experienced and observed how this particular concept of exclusion weighs down the largest Christian sub-tradition in North America. As Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann writes, it should be the goal of every Christian to journey through three stages of life: (1) pre-critical naivete (a simple faith), (2) critical study (faith expressed in questions and research) & (3) post-critical devotion (coming to convictions passionately). As Christians dare to be critical, it inevitably leads many of us into seasons of disorientation and doubt as new questions arise and old formulations are abandoned. Critical dialogue is a sign of health in any faith tradition.
1. First of all, I truly believe that Gov. Bentley has every right to say what he said at the church after the inauguration. He, of course, is accountable to voters/constituents and perhaps that's the point: he probably increased his approval rating in Alabama by saying it! However, I would like to point out that he is "speaking boldly" only because of his socio-economic, political, racial, gender and religious privilege. I'm embarrassed for him and saddened that millions of Christians in the United States support these kinds of obnoxious pronouncements under the guise of "speaking the truth" and "the great commission" (Matthew 28:18-20).
2. When Evangelicals like Gov. Bentley use language to exclude or differentiate others they focus primarily on their supposed favored status vis-a-vis people who are not Christians like them. This approach does not reflect the way of Jesus. Christian discipleship, according to the New Testament, is a vocation to join God in the redemption of the world. Jesus invites everyone--Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free--to join the enemy-loving & humble-serving Movement. But, unfortunately, Evangelicals have learned from their leaders that any rendering of Christianity as something that we do misses the mark because it is focuses on "working our way to heaven," what Protestants since Luther have called "works righteousness." The whole point of being a Christian for too many Evangelicals is that they are automatically saved from the eternal fires of hell when Jesus is conceived in their hearts (when a prayer is verbalized inviting Jesus to enter one's heart).
3. Status is vitally important to Evangelicals because of their inherent either/or thinking. This combination of certainty and dualism posits that either a person is saved or damned. Representative Evangelical (or what Marcus Borg calls "soft fundamentalists") leaders like Rick Warren usually don't like to publicly focus on the negative side of this coin (hell), but he has openly admitted that his theology he is no different than "hard fundamentalists" like James Dobson (or John Piper, Mark Driscoll, John McArthur...take your pick) and that people who don't believe in Jesus are going to hell when they die: "My belief is that people who don't accept what Jesus said will end up where Jesus said they'd go." No matter how much they sugar-coat it, this is a hard core conviction for Evangelicals.
4. Don't get me wrong, Evangelicals definitely believe in living morally and loving their neighbors. Faith for them is, by no means, all about belief. But, over and over, I've heard Evangelical leaders communicate "social justice" as primarily about providing a space to "share the gospel" which is interpreted as the message about how sinners can have a personal relationship with God and get into heaven when they die. Status first. Vocation second...in order to change someone's status. In addition, the kinds of good deeds that Evangelicals by-and-large focus on come in the form of charity. There are two key problems with this: (1) charity only deals with symptoms, not systems--the roots of our individual sins and societal epidemics are systemic, structural, whether poverty, addiction, disease, lack of education, etc; and (2) charity is paternalistic, always placing the person handing out donations & gifts above those receiving them. Charity, without addressing structural injustice, meets felt needs, but does not get people out of the ditch and it is well-meaning, but triumphalistic.
5. I have become convinced by the work of theologians like James McClendon that "hell" language in the New Testament is actually directed towards the People of God (1st century Jewish leaders and messianic Jews who followed Jesus) in regards to judgment over their peculiar vocation to be a "light to the world" through word and deed. When we Christians reject or are indifferent to our calling to be a model, conscience and servant to everyone, then we might as well be tossed into the trash heep of humanity, failing in the very vocation that is supposed to set us apart (the word "hell" in the Greek is "Gehenna," literally the smoldering trash heep outside the walls of Jerusalem in Jesus' day). After all, hell is living apart from God's will for humanity (think about life dominated by addiction, anxiety, greed, revenge, indifference to suffering, narcissism, racism, sexism, the rat race, materialism, consumerism, etc). We experience salvation or the inaugurated "reign of God" or "heaven" when we are tangibly set free from these hellish, enslaving, unfulfilling conditions. And that's the whole point of being a Christian: we are the ones who commit our lives to consistently and creatively working to end these hellish manifestations of life (everything from the womb to the tomb). Or put another way, we nonviolently extend the Reign of God to every corner of this world (subverting how Caesar used violence to extend the reign of Rome all over the known world in Jesus' day).
6. This is a major tripping point for many Evangelicals that I consistently dialogue with. "Wait a second," they lament, "if there is no such thing as hell and heaven as eternal destinations, then what's the point of being a Christian?" The point is, quite simply, that there is a God who created the world and is determined to redeem it and this God loves us so adamantly and abundantly that we don't know what to do with ourselves except to join God's Reign of compassion and love, confronting counterfeit narratives and power games and inviting everyone else to join us. Once we've been touched by this amazing grace, then we naturally want to pass it on to others. In other words, God's mission is to compel, not coerce. And, yes, God cares about eternity. It's what our Jewish brothers and sisters call "tikkun olam," God's mission to heal the world through people of conscience who lose themselves in this great therapeutic and reconciling Adventure.
7. In order to fulfill our vocation, it is vital that we boldly consider every single human being as our very own kin. Christians do not have an elevated status, but instead an enduring vocation to love the whole world with the intensity of Jesus who was so attuned to God's will that he was murdered as a threat to the status quo. And that's what happens when God's intent clashes with human greed and power. There's not enough room in this world for everyone's agenda (especially when they are selfish and violent) and, when agendas collide, someone inevitably dies as a scapegoat. But Jesus was committed to loving his enemies to the very end. And on the cross, Jesus participated in the ultimate solidarity with all those who are victimized by the world. We are called to do the same.
8. Of course, we Christians inevitably fail in their vocation and get caught up in the very hellish manifestations that they work to eradicate. This is where grace comes in. God is filled with love and mercy towards all humanity. When we stumble and hobble our way through life, we are constantly given a second chance. As Father Greg Boyle told an overflow crowd last night in Downey: "God is too busy loving you to have time to be disappointed." But grace and works go hand in hand. Christians are inspired to give their lives in sacrificial mission because they have become overwhelmed with the love of God being poured into their hearts.
9. As a student and teacher of history, I am astonished and overwhelmed over how much pain and suffering Christians have brought upon "savages" and "pagans" in the name of God and Gold. For instance, a magnified version of Bentley's exclusivist perspective on humanity led Western interests to justify their actions in The New World and Africa from the 15th to the present. This "gospel" was terrible news for indigenous peoples who died from disease and violence as European countries steamrolled over their land & livelihood in order to convert these natives and slaves to Bentley's brand of Christianity. But these Christians justified the whole project because, according to their reading of the Bible, all of these converted indigenous souls went to heaven after their vicious deaths. And the violent beat goes on: a recent Pew Survey shows that more than 60% of Evangelicals (the largest group based on religion) believe that torturing suspected terrorists is "often" or "sometimes" justified. This Evangelical dualism and ends-justify-the-means mentality go hand in hand.
10. As I explained in a recent post, the concept of "that of God in all men" (William Penn) has become more and more evident to me in the past few years. Bentley and the Evangelicals do not believe that God resides in all people because of the depravity of sin and only those whose sin-stained hearts have been cleansed by the blood of Jesus are worthy to have God dwell within them. A minority report of the Christian tradition believes that, instead, all men and women have the Divine within. Certainly, this divine possibility is darkened by evil, corruption and habits that enslave and distort our hearts and minds. When someone pledges allegiance to the way of Jesus, she commits herself to repenting and resisting these ways, beginning an intentional process of conforming her will with God's. We all have this divine treasure safely kept in jars of clay to be shared with the world.
Sure, we find biblical language about God's family and adoption through the Holy Spirit throughout the New Testament (ie, Romans 8), but we must be sensitive to counterfeit framings of the Christian narrative that give believers a superior status. Christian family members are only different from anyone else (atheist, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, humanist, etc) in their courageous-yet-imperfect vocation to re-enact the love, humility, service, forgiveness, sacrifice and determination of Jesus. But this is a no-status vocation, represented by children, lepers, prostitutes and peasant farmers. On the banks of the Jordan River, John the Baptist told the People of God that it was pointless to cling to their superior ethnic status, but instead to be defined by what they did for the poor and marginalized: whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise. Today, Christians must continue to define themselves by what they do for their brothers and sisters of all races and faith traditions, rejecting the temptation to triumphantly elevate their status or identity by creating family rivalry with others. That's good news...for everyone.