Walter Brueggemann on Politics

A few weeks ago I linked an interview by Pete Enns with prominent Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann.  Today I want to come back to some comments Brueggemann made with respect to how we as Christians ought to engage with the political issues of the day.  Some money quotes:

So if you love neighbor, you have to ask, “Who is our neighbor?”  And obviously the Bible thinks immigrants are our neighbors, the Bible thinks that our neighbors are people who need some kind of healthcare, the Bible thinks that our neighbors are entitled to good schools and good houses, and so on, and so on…, and love of God means, critically, to critique the worship of idols.  We won’t have agreement on what the idols are, but I think American exceptionalism has become an idol.  So “Make America Great Again” is an idol, the way it’s being parsed.

…I think the place to begin is that the God of the Bible…has commanded us to love God and love neighbor, and we have to ask what now does it mean to love God and what now does it mean to love neighbor….  I think it’s easy to make a case that our society is increasingly treating the neighbor as a threat and not a neighbor, and is increasingly distorting God for the worship of idols.  I don’t think that’s a progressive or a liberal judgment, I think that’s an evangelical judgment, and I believe that’s the conversation we ought to be having.

Regarding the tendency to make an idol of political parties and the political process:

…I think we’ve got to get beneath the slogans and the mantras and talk about human reality on the ground.  So, for example, we shouldn’t be talking ideologically about immigrants, we should be talking about the breaking up of families, that these are real mothers and real fathers and real children and what do you think it feels like to break up a family.  I think we should be not talking ideologically about healthcare delivery, but what we should be talking about is why is it that a guy like I am can count on seeing a good doctor and I got good insurance and I’m not worried about anything, and what it would be like to have my old age ailments and have no coverage and not be able to see a doctor because I can’t afford a doctor.  That is, we’ve got to bring the discussion down to the level of human pain and human suffering and human reality, because what we’re dealing with are real people and not slogans.

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Franklin Graham and Donald Trump

Today I direct your attention to this thinkpiece over at The Atlantic on Franklin Graham and Donald Trump.

ICYMI:  We had a presidential election last fall.  Donald Trump won, thanks to the support of over 80 percent of American evangelicals.  Franklin Graham, son of noted evangelist Billy Graham and chief executive of the charity Samaritan’s Purse, is one of Donald Trump’s most vociferous supporters and he played no small part in helping get this vote out.

A money quote:

As for those Christians who worry about Trump, those of color, those who wish their leaders would be more welcoming toward Muslims and LGBT people even if they disagree with the way they live: “I don’t think there’s a divide,” Graham said. If they have problems with Trump, and with role white evangelicals are playing in this era of politics, “talk to God about it,” Graham advised. “If they’re hurt, sorry. … I believe Donald Trump’s there because God put him there.”

In other words:  If you’re a Christian and you’re concerned about Donald Trump:  Fuck you.  Donald Trump is God’s man.  Talk to God about it.

In watching over 80 percent of my fellow evangelicals put Donald Trump in the White House, I watched my faith sell its very soul out from under my feet.  Seven months removed, and I still don’t know what I am going to do with that.  Seven months removed, and the view is almost as unrelentingly bleak as it was the morning after the election.  A piece like this is all I need to see.

A Defense of the Liberal Mainlines

Today’s post is going to be something of an unexpected departure for those of you who know me well enough to know my theological/political commitments.  Today I am going to speak in defense of the so-called godless liberal mainlines.

Now before I begin, let me lay all my cards out on the table.  If you’ve been tracking with me for awhile, my political/theological commitments are no secret:  I am a conservative megachurch evangelical.  Thus everything I say today will be from the vantage point of a bemused outsider with absolutely zero skin in the game.  But then, I am a blogger and as such it is part and parcel of my vocation to offer my unsolicited opinion on things where I know nothing and have zero skin in the game.

Today’s post is directed toward those of you intellectual liberals who sit at home drinking fair-trade, ethically sourced coffee and reading the New York Times and watching all the Sunday morning political commentary talk shows on CNN while I am off at church singing/dancing my fool heart out under the strobe lights and listening to my celebrity pastor hold forth on whatever strikes his fancy for just a little south of an hour.  My aim is simple:  I want you to come back to church.

Don’t worry, I am not asking you to come to my church.  My celebrity pastor talks routinely about “invest and invite” (it’s pretty much what it sounds like:  “invest” in intentional relationships with your friends/neighbors/coworkers and others with whom you interact on a day-to-day basis and then leverage said relationships to “invite” these people to church) and I am sure he would very much appreciate it if I would “invest and invite” some of you to my church.  But I am not going to do that.  My church does an awful lot to be a place that “unchurched” people (our terminology for people who for whatever reason do not regularly attend church) love to attend, much to the chagrin of some prominent voices in evangelicalism.  But even so I recognize that for many of you, coming to my church (or any other church over here in conservative evangelical megachurch-dom, for that matter) would simply be a bridge too far.  So instead I am going to ask you to make a much smaller and more manageable leap of faith:  I want you to go back to the mainline churches of your youth.

Contemporary liberalism has a problem.  Much of liberal Protestantism is now post-Protestant, as the well-educated intellectual liberals who in prior generations used to pack out all the big Episcopal/Lutheran/Presbyterian/Methodist/Congregational/UCC churches that fill the downtown areas of almost every major city here in America now sit at home on Sunday morning with CNN and the New York Times and, yes, their fair-trade, ethically sourced coffee.  Those churches nowadays are among the oldest and grayest and emptiest on the planet, with a retention rate ever-so-slightly north of zero.  It is a wonder that any of them are still in existence.

As a conservative evangelical, I have my own opinions about this.  Conservative evangelical pundits have opined for years, decades even, about how the mainlines’ decline reveals that political/theological liberalism in Christianity is not to be trusted, that the open, social gospel preached in these churches is a hopelessly pathetic, watered-down thing with zero power to save.  But I am not going to sit here and crow like a Gator fan in Atlanta the first week of November.  Because the decline of mainline Protestantism comes at a cost, one which we all have to bear in some form or fashion, regardless of which side of the issue we are on.

You see, a funny thing happened on the way to the co-op:  As liberal Protestantism became less Protestant, it also became decidedly less liberal.  What I am hearing about the collegiate experience nowadays testifies to this:  It is a routine occurrence for conservative speakers to be un-invited from speaking engagements at liberal campuses and/or vociferously protested if they do speak there.  Just this past year Tim Keller, a conservative Presbyterian pastor, was to have been honored with a major award from Princeton Theological Seminary, a mainstay of the liberal wing of American Presbyterianism.  But many of you liberals rose up in howling protest.  Princeton heard you, and rescinded the honor.  A few years ago, Louie Giglio was to have given the invocation at Obama’s inauguration.  But then some of you went snooping through the sermon archive and found some things he said about homosexuality–well over a decade ago, I feel compelled to note–that you did not like and just like that Giglio was off the program.

What’s more, liberal Protestantism sans the Protestantism has struggled to find any sort of compelling organizing principle, any sort of persuasive, overarching language of the common good.  The result is that contemporary liberalism has morphed into a fractious melange of victimologies:  the gays, the immigrants, the labor unions, the feminists (the “feminazis” as Rush Limbaugh used to call them back in the day), the global warming crowd, the Black Lives Matter crowd, and many more.  All of these have their own orthodoxies which are not to be questioned, and persecute dissident voices in their ranks with a zeal that would make John Piper, Mark Dever, Al Mohler, Mark Driscoll, Kevin DeYoung, Justin Taylor, etc. very proud.  And all of these look with uneasy suspicion on the other groups that share their space under the banner of contemporary liberalism.

All this to say:  Contemporary liberalism is not very liberal.

That’s a problem, don’t you think?

Okay, I get that most of what the liberal mainlines have to offer is already embedded in the culture at large nowadays (much to the chagrin of many of my fellow conservative evangelicals, especially those who voted for Donald Trump).  The things they have been pushing for for ages–ecumenical spirituality, a progressive social Gospel–are now all over the place in academia, the media, pop culture, and the Democratic Party.  So what’s the point of going to church when you can just stay at home and watch CNN and get the same thing?  you ask.  Well, as noted above, liberal Protestantism sans the Protestantism has become an awful lot less liberal.  So the present state of affairs, in which the mainline churches are withering on the vine but the things they have fought for are dominating the culture, probably won’t last (especially if the rise of Donald Trump and his jacked-up alt-right Neo-Nazi thug supporters is any indication) and probably doesn’t deserve to.

So please, my intellectual liberal friends (I’m sure there are at least a few of you running around out there reading this):  Go to church.  DVR the Sunday morning CNN and watch it later.  Leave the New York Times–it’ll still be there for you when you get back home.  Go find a mainline congregation that is convenient to you and start going.  Get plugged in and start attending/giving/serving regularly.  They’ll have coffee for you.  Some of the more progressive congregations might even have fair-trade, ethically sourced coffee.  If you’re feeling really brave, perhaps you can even “invest and invite” some of your friends/neighbors/coworkers to whichever church you wind up going to.

Do it for the sake of first principles.  So many of the great progressive movements of the modern era–abolitionism, civil rights, women’s suffrage, and many more–all emanated from a decidedly Christian ethos, from people who wrestled with what a truly just society organized along Christian principles would look like and sought to make this happen in our world.  By going back to church, you would place yourself squarely in line with your movement’s noble history.  You would help your movement gain a greater level of intellectual coherence (the word “created” in the phrase “created equal” is there for a reason).  Furthermore, you would help your movement regain an overarching vision and language of the common good, a robust framework to hold all those factions together.

Do it for the sake of your movement’s internal consistency.  You cry out against Caesar and against Christians taking up and using the power of the state when it suits your social justice impulses, yet you are oh-so-quick to turn to the state when there is an injustice needing to be addressed, such as lack of adequate access to healthcare for many of our nation’s poor.  That is really not a good look for you liberals.  By staying home from church on Sunday morning, you leave the state as the only player capable of addressing oppression and injustice in our world.  Go back to church and help build a counter-cultural polis that is truly capable of addressing oppression and injustice in a manner consistent with your anti-empire, anti-Caesar political critiques.

Do it for the sake of your communities.  Thriving churches and congregations have spillover effects that even anti-Trump protests can’t top.

Do it for the sake of your families.  My church has one of the finest singles ministries on the planet, but even if your church doesn’t have anything like that, any church beats the hell out of Tinder as a place to meet a prospective mate.  Even in its most modernized form (my church looks exactly like an office building and our service is basically a rock concert followed by a TED talk), church is still a thing which connects us with those who have gone before us and points us toward ultimate and transcendent realities.

Do it for the sake of your eternal soul.  Oh don’t worry, I’m not talking about hellfire and damnation.  I get that you aren’t concerned about anything like that.  But surely you are concerned about…uh, you know…death?  None of us is getting out of this world alive.  Don’t you think a little bit of once-a-week preparation might stand you in good stead?

Okay, there is the matter of actual belief.  That may be a problem.  Or so you think.  But I really don’t think you’re quite the hardcore atheists you make yourselves out to be.  Many of you are already on board with the open, social gospel that a lot of mainline churches preach.  You pursue spiritual experiences in some form or fashion, and you are even sympathetic to orthodox Christianity when it comes to you in the form of a Marilynne Robinson novel or an MLK speech or a U2 song.  You say you’re “spiritual but not religious” because you associate “religion” with dogma and hierarchies and strict rules about sex.  But the mainline churches are bending over backwards to accommodate you on all these points and more.  Of course, by staying home on Sunday morning you are vindicating me in my conservative evangelical distrust of said accommodation, and I appreciate that.  But perhaps you are being a tad ungrateful, a tad selfish by staying home when these churches are trying oh-so-hard to be the change you say you wish to see in Christianity?

Finally, for the really hardcore atheists, because I know there are at least a couple of you running around out there:  Uh…yeah.  Free will and consciousness are all an illusion but human rights and gender identity are completely real.

Just go to church, people.  That’s all there is to it.

Jonathan Merritt on Why We Need Jen Hatmaker

Jen Hatmaker is an evangelical author who has taken a tremendous amount of heat from the powers-that-be in evangelicalism because she actually has kind words for gays.  Of course she did not deny any historical doctrine of the Christian faith or promote any historical heresy, she merely stated that her honest reading of Scripture has led her to a different place with respect to same-sex relationships.  But this is where we are in evangelicalism:  Neo-Reformed Calvinism is the new black and one of its worst tendencies is to seize upon some minor point of belief and make it suddenly the linchpin on which all of Christianity stands or falls.  Today that issue is homosexuality.  (God knows what it will be tomorrow.)  Hatmaker ran afoul of the evangelical establishment on that issue so now she is persona non grata.

But guess what?  There are a surprising amount of evangelicals and even evangelical leaders running around out there who actually agree with her.  They won’t say so, not publicly at least, because their standing within evangelicalism and thus their livelihood is at stake.  So they just avoid the issue altogether in most cases, or in some cases lie about what they believe.

It took courage for Hatmaker to speak out knowing what the outcome would be.  We desperately need her, and others like her, to speak out for the sake of those who cannot and/or will not because the price they would pay is too great, and to make evangelicalism a safe place for those whose opinions on less-than-essential issues is at variance with the ruling elite.

Read: Jonathan Merritt, Why I’ll take courageous Jen Hatmaker over her cowardly critics any day

The Handmaid’s Tale: Echoes of Genesis

ICYMI:  Hulu just released The Handmaid’s Tale, a made-for-TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 classic.  The story is set in a dystopian near-future America, in which right-wing religious fanatics have overthrown the existing government and established the Republic of Gilead.  The environment has gone to shit, and as a result fertility rates have dropped dramatically.  Those women who are still fertile have been enslaved and now serve as “handmaids”, or surrogate mothers for high-ranking officials and their infertile wives.

While The Handmaid’s Tale does serve as a warning of the dangers of religious fundamentalism and misogyny run amok, it also serves as a window into the patriarchal world of Genesis, in which all of this was real.  Jeffrey Salkin at Religion News Service writes about the dark parallels between the story and the dysfunction that lies just beneath the surface in the patriarchal stories of Genesis:  The view of fertility as a blessing from God and barrenness as a curse, the routine use of servants/concubines as surrogate mothers when the wife is infertile, and more.

Read:  ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ re-spins Genesis.  And that’s scary

Fr. Stephen Freeman: The Soul Is a Mirror

Today I direct your attention to a post from Fr. Stephen Freeman.  Freeman is one of the largest and most influential Eastern Orthodox bloggers, and he blogs at Glory to God for All Things.

In this post Freeman looks at shame.  Shame lies at the very core of our souls and, in the Scriptures, was the first recorded human experience.  It has been called the “master emotion” by some.  Though we as humans were made to live in community, shame is a rupture of community in which the object of shame is isolated and (so it is indicated) deserves to be so.  Shame is often disguised by other words: humility, envy, jealousy, guilt, awe, wonder, worship, and more.  The exposure typical of the state of shame is such that it demands to be covered before we can enter into social settings, and there are many ways in which we do this.

All of this is the world we live in, and the world into which Christ was born. There is nothing we see that was not seen then. We have invented nothing new in our shame. Our creativity is largely confined to how we hide from our own shame and how we harness the shame of others to control and manage them.

But my thoughts say to me that we can only find Christ within our shame (both the toxic and the good). We find Him within the toxic because Christ has descended into hell and purposed to meet us there. That purposeful meeting is for our healing, our liberation and re-creation whenever we dare to go there. But He is also within the good shame as we behold His wonder and His glory and accept our own emptiness in their presence. And in that moment and place, what is empty is filled – what is naked is clothed upon. The soul becomes a mirror for His glory.

Read:  The Soul Is a Mirror by Fr. Stephen Freeman