A good book can change your questions, even if you’re not entirely convinced by the author’s answers.
By Alan Bean
“Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world?”
This question was originally scrawled in the margin of an Alabama newspaper by an exasperated Martin Luther King Jr. The church was once a thermostat “that transformed the mores of society,” King told the white clergymen of Birmingham, but it has degenerated into a thermometer that merely reflects the “ideas and principles of public opinion.”
Organized religion takes a dreadful beating in the final section of King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail. From the earliest days of the civil rights movement, King alleges, most religious leaders have “remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.”
In the midst of “a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic justice,” white clergymen have stood on the sidelines mouthing “pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities.”
Preachers have preached the heretical notion that the gospel is unrelated to social issues. They have concocted “a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, unbiblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.”
The comes the most chilling indictment of all:
On sweltering summer summer days and crisp autumn mornings I have looked at the South’s beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward . . . Over and over I have found myself asking: “What kind of people worship here? Who is their God?”
A thermometer church speaks for a thermometer God who reflects “the ideas and principles of public opinion.” Fifty years ago, the church was, to use King’s phrase, “the arch defender of the status quo”. Now we can’t even manage that. While the larger society inches graceward, we cling to our cherished bigotries. Our thermometer God lies shattered on the floor and no power on earth can put the pieces back together.
When the Richmond Baptist Association refused to discipline Ginter Park Baptist Church for ordaining a gay man to minister to persons with disabilities and special needs, it was simply acknowledging a change in the social temperature. Ginter Park wasn’t taking a principled stand on gay rights or marriage equality; the congregation was simply recognizing the gifts of God in a particular believer. The Richmond Association was neither condoning nor condemning the congregation’s action; it merely decided, albeit by a slim margin, to sweep the matter under the ecclesiastical carpet.
Conflict avoidance worked just fine when the church served as a social thermometer, but those days are gone.
And that’s just fine. In fact, it’s great! Only a thermostat God can save us.
When was the last time you heard a Baptist minister, conservative or moderate, talk about God’s love for undocumented immigrants?
I don’t want to hear partisan politics from the pulpit anymore than you do; but the gospel of the kingdom transcends politics because the biblical God transcends borders, skin color, language, gender, nationality or any other arbitrary human distinction.
Our preaching must reckon with a thermostat God who is eternally fiddling with the social temperature. But what can a thermostat God do with a church that, having lost the power to reinforce the moral statues quo, stands on the sidelines mumbling “pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities.”
Not much of anything, it seems.
The church will leaven the social order when the gospel of the kingdom leavens the church. Light generates heat. A thermostat God can’t thaw a frozen culture without cranking up the temperature in the Body of Christ.
By Alan Bean
The Sandy Hook tragedy has sparked deep reflection nationwide. President Obama served as Pastor in Chief when he prefaced his remarks in Newtown with a quotation from 2 Corinthians 4:
. . . do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away . . . inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.
The president knew he couldn’t fix what happened last Friday, and he didn’t try. But he spoke the words of comfort that were his to speak. That is all any of us can do.
And then there are all those other guys.
If this was just about the latest outrage from the twisted souls at Westboro Baptist Church (must they call themselves Baptists?) I would let it slide. By now, we are agonizingly familiar with their shtick. “God hates fags and everybody who doesn’t hate fags as much as he does.” Yeah, we get it. The church has decided to picket the funerals in Newtown . . . a new low, I suppose, but not by much.
But it isn’t just folks on the fringe who feel honor-bound to make nasty at such a time as this.
Governor Mike Huckabee, preacher, Fox News celebrity and perennial presidential hopeful, just opined that God declined to stay the hand of Adam Lanza because “we’ve systematically removed God from our schools.”
Not to be outdone, James Dobson of Focus on the Family fame, gave us his take on “what’s going on.” America has been complicit in the murder of 54 million babies since Roe v. Wade, and “the institution of marriage is right on the verge of a complete redefinition”, “so I think we have turned our back on the scripture and on God Almighty and I think he has allowed judgment to fall upon us.”
Huckabee, Dobson et al aren’t sure exactly what pushed God’s buttons. It might have been gay marriage. It might have been abortion. Or maybe it was the 1963 Supreme Court decision making school prayer was unconstitutional. Most likely it was a combination of all three–the trifecta of evil. But at some point God decided to punish America by ordering the slaying of twenty innocent first-graders.
Really, guys! That’s the God you worship. Herod the Great slaughters innocents; the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ weeps for them. Jesus doesn’t have much to say about hell except when he’s talking about those who mess with his “little ones.”
Of course, these guys aren’t saying that God was directly responsible for the death of school children. It’s just that he could have stopped it and declined to do so. The Creator could be charged with being an accessory after the fact, but not with murder.
That’s comforting. God tells the lost soul with the assault weapon, “Normally I’d put a stop to this, but these people need a wake up call, so, do your worst.”
That is precisely what the preachers are alleging. So let’s get one thing straight: That is not God. God is not that. In the First John we learn that God is love . . . full stop. Or, if we wish to quibble, “This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.”
The God of Huckabee and Dobson would be familiar to Darth Vader and his legions. The preachers appear to have slipped over to The Dark Side.
How do we explain such strange talk from esteemed holy men? The Apostles of the Religious Right have so consistently equated gay bashing, opposition to abortion, and school prayer with holiness that God has been subsumed under these headings. For four decades, the culture war has reshaped American evangelicalism so successfully that abortion, gay bashing and school prayer have consumed all other concerns.
Don’t get me wrong. The Sandy Hook tragedy should provoke serious moral reflection. Violence works for the entertainment industry just like culture war wedge issues work for the Religious Right. In both cases, an ugly product is hawked in the market place because it sells. We have been raised on a steady diet of violence. We love the stuff. It shapes our culture, our national identity, and all too often our foreign policy. We’ve got a problem. We need help. Badly.
But God is not responsible, directly or indirectly, for the slaughter of innocents. That’s on us. God is Love. God is Light and in him there is no darkness at all. None, whatsoever!
When four year-old Abigail Evans burst into tears for no apparent reason, her mother asked what was making her so sad. “I’m tired of Bronco Bama and Mitt Romney,” Abigail wailed between sniffles. Mamma Evans didn’t switch off NPR, but she assured her daughter that the election would soon be over. And so it will. But the intense polarization generated by a particularly nasty election cycle is sure to linger on.
For strongly liberal or conservative churches, culture war politics isn’t a huge problem. Virtually every member of the congregation votes for the same party. But churches in the moderate middle have a hard time negotiating the minefield of American politics. Preachers know that the slightest hint of political partisanship could alienate a significant swath of the congregation. Sunday school etiquette places political references off limits. Sunday school is supposed to be therapeutic, not traumatic. So we make nice and stick to safe topics. (more…)
By Alan Bean
Evangelist Billy Graham has tacitly endorsed Mitt Romney’s presidential bid and his website no longer characterizes the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the Mormons) as a cult. This is just another sign that a major realignment is underway in American religion.
Evangelicals defined themselves in opposition to Roman Catholicism until the late 1970s when activist-preachers like Francis Schaeffer and Jerry Falwell built a new evangelical coalition around an unreconstructed version of Catholic pro-life theology. This informal evangelical-Catholic coalition was driven by a fear of liberalism in both its secular and religious expressions.
Throughout the 1970s few evangelicals gave much thought to the abortion issue. In fact, the Southern Baptist Convention essentially endorsed Roe v. Wade at its annual conventions as late as 1976. A decade later, a thoroughgoing pro-life position had become a litmus test among American evangelicals. (more…)
By Alan Bean
Driving through a prestigious neighborhood a few days ago, I was accosted by dozens of political yard signs. I use the word “accosted” because the signs were all for candidates I won’t be voting for. If the signs were celebrating my people, I would have felt reassured and motivated.
Surprised by my strong visceral reaction, I got to the root of the matter: the signs hurt my feelings.
I thought of the yard sign I planted on my own front lawn a couple of weeks ago. The intention was to encourage my neighbors to vote for the good guys, but how do people who don’t share my political outlook feel when they drive past my home? Am I hurting their feelings? (more…)
By Alan Bean
Richard Cohen asks why the GOP is beating up on Mitt Romney. Sure, the Republican candidate “espouses extreme positions he does not for a moment believe.” But what are his options? Republicans who hope to survive the Iowa caucuses are forced so far to the right that they surrender mainstream appeal. If they win Iowa, their feet are nailed to the floor.
Cohen thinks this explains why GOP politicians with talent and intelligence refused to enter the 2012 presidential follies–they saw the train wreck coming. Romney won, in Cohen’s view, because he was the most competent navigator on a ship of fools.
I suspect the Washington Post columnist is right, but how do we account for an electorate that forces Republican candidates to deny climate change, suggest that the US Constitution is a Christian document and kiss off the scientific community while systematically alienating Latinos, African Americans and women? How do we explain the strength of the Tea Party? Yeah, I know the Koch brothers have backed these insurgents with their megabucks, but it takes more than money to make a movement. There is some genuine outrage simmering in the heartland.
And why, despite Mitt Romney’s lackluster campaigning and embarrassing gaffes, is this race still close? Why is Barack Obama, a reputed radical socialist Muslim extremist, afraid to reference mass incarceration, mass deportation, pardons and commutations, Guantanamo, global warming, NAFTA, single payer health care, the rapid disappearance of American manufacturing, labor’s right to organize, a crumbling infrastructure, the tragedy of Iraq or the utter futility of Afghanistan? (more…)