Gun Packing Parishioners and The Sermon on the Mount

The recent church shooting in Texas where 2 were killed before armed parishioners shot and killed the gunman has been quite the topic of discussion on social media for the past week. As usual discussion breaks down to those on the Left saying this is not something Jesus would approve of, and those on the Right saying “turning the other cheek” would have meant many more lives lost. What Christian gun advocates fail, of course, to realize, is that voting for politicians that “owe their positions” to the NRA and the gun lobby, means that they are responsible for the continuation of an environment that breeds more gun violence. It is a circular trap. 

But, in my discussion with members of the Religious Right recently I ran into numerous comments that basically amounted to admitting the Sermon on the Mount was simply not practical in “real world” scenarios. It should not have caught me off guard, but it did.

One of the advantages of disengaging from a tribal “bubble” and deconstructing, is that you can see things from a different angle than that of the “tribe.” Things I had always been taught in my past dispensational/rapture/end-times evangelicalism suddenly began to fall in place. A “big picture” started to form.

In dispensational teaching, there are a couple of different approaches to the Sermon on the Mount. A. It was the millennial kingdom being offered to the Jews, which they rejected. That marked the end of the Age of the Jews and ushered in the Church Age. It was only meant for the Jews, hence has no bearing on present day Christianity. And, B. that it is a call to the church as well, but a sort of interim ethical code until the Kingdom of God is fully implemented. 

The average Christian in the pew is not particularly interested in Ryrie or Scofield so I won’t get into classical dispensationalism (although I remember some of my Sunday School teachers teaching straight out of the Scofield Study Bible). But I think it is generally accurate to say that most evangelical readers will see the Sermon on the Mount as having “personal” rather than general application. 

As we have seen with Pastor John MacArthur, and the many evangelicals who signed his letter condemning “social justice” as a “distraction” from the gospel, the Sermon on the Mount has no practical application for society in general. (1) Some of this comes from the modern struggle between capitalism and communism, as evangelicals are capitalists and as MacArthur points out in his blog, “social justice” has been employed as political shorthand by radical leftists as a way of calling for equal distribution of wealth, advantages, privileges, and benefits—up to and including pure Marxist socialism.” (2)

Not terribly surprising I suppose, as the specter of communism was a huge part of the preaching of evangelicals such as Billy Graham during the Cold War in the 50s and 60s. This also explains why you will never hear evangelicals clamoring for the Sermon on the Mount to be posted in American courtrooms. American evangelicals much more readily identify with Mosaic law than the Law of Love outlined in the Sermon on the Mount.

Jesus’ radical redefinition of the Law of Moses, “turn the other cheek,” “love your enemies,” “don’t judge others,” seems to have never set well with Christians, and the church has been terribly inept at following the teachings of Jesus, so this is not just an evangelical problem, but one that has dogged the church for centuries.

However, the bifurcation of Jesus’ teaching into something only Christians can strive for because the “world does not know him,” has the undesirable effect of producing a less just society. Because evangelicals have released government from attempting to achieve a more just society (for example the evangelical response to the 60s civil rights movement), they have actually been contributing to social injustice.

Which brings me back again to the parishioners packing pistols in the Texas church. When fear motivates the way Christians vote, and those fears largely revolve around “protecting oneself,” the stage is set for violence. Yes, killing the gunman prevented more victims, but the mantra, “only good guys with guns can stop bad guys with guns,” is circular. Evangelicals with their blind support of the NRA and gun proliferation, actually help create a scenario where it becomes necessary to arm parishioners. In the end, the Sermon on the Mount not only becomes impractical for secular government, but for Christians themselves.

1 https://statementonsocialjustice.com

2 https://www.gty.org/library/blog/B180907/the-injustice-of-social-justice

Deconstruction and the Culture Wars

My spirit is disquieted. I have a hard time falling asleep. I cannot turn my mind off. I have mixed feelings of anger, anguish, dread. At times deep sorrow washes over me. Other times a feeling of loss. But at times I feel a fleeting sense of peace…of feeling I am heading in the right direction. I tend to be a rather introspective person, always have been, so this is not some pathology, I have known depression enough to know that this is not simply depression. Most of my life I have been actually rather optimistic. No, this is no doubt a byproduct of spiritual deconstruction coupled with the sense of loss of my childhood beliefs.

In some ways I envy the British and Europeans, for whom Christendom died a century or more ago. The merger of religion and state was a failure, so the whole misguided experiment was simply abandoned. Here in the States, we doggedly refuse to abandon the effort to force the Kingdom of God down everyone’s throats. I am watching helplessly as fundamentalism reasserts its hold on American politics and presents society with an ugly Jesus.

As I have mentioned in the past, my wife and I grew up in the Assemblies of God denomination. We still attend one such church, largely because it was the church my wife has attended all her life, and because my 95 year old mom needs a ride to church, and that’s her church. I am not a member, I have grown apart from that denomination theologically, and have gradually come to the realization that I no longer identify as “evangelical.”

As can be expected, attending a meeting every Sunday where you no longer fit in is not very satisfying. It is not that I expect everyone to applaud my journey or my theological views, but I have found in the last half dozen years, that fundamentalism does not encourage the exchange of differing theological or spiritual understandings. I miss seminary where we were encouraged to wrestle with scripture, to debate ideas, bounce things off each other…in other words, it was a “safe” place to deconstruct and reconstruct unhindered by ecclesiastical censure.

But it is not the inability to “be myself” that I am bemoaning, but, rather the inability to “reach” lost evangelicals. It is not a pleasant experience to watch the church dying in real time, to see family members and friends succumb to self-delusion and harmful confirmation biases. Being “saved” in scripture, the concept of salvation, is not a “point” in one’s life that one can look back on and say, “that’s it, that’s when I was saved and said the sinner’s prayer.” Nor is it a destination when you die. Again and again, Jesus showed us that salvation was a continuous, lived experience.

A century and a half of individualistic, “sawdust trail” conversion experiences has numbed the conservative church to the central call of the Gospel message: love your neighbor. Conservatism has replaced the gospel in too many American churches. The gospel of unbridled capitalism and libertarianism has replaced the open generosity of Jesus’ message. The culture war that is being fiercely waged by the Religious Right is not political but spiritual. It is not, as conservatives opine, about gay marriage, feminism and transgender bathrooms. No, the struggle has always been about defining “who is my neighbor?”

So, once again, yesterday, I had the jarring experience of sitting through another service that started with everyone holding up their Bibles and in lock-step repeating the mantra…”I believe the WHOLE Bible, what it says about me, what it says about you…” as I glanced around the room and saw the frozen smiles of a couple hundred people waving their Bibles in complete obedience to their leader a chilling realization came over me, “it’s a cult.” Even though the pastor’s message was helpful for those facing hard times, the picture of everyone holding their Bibles up was so jarring, and the revelation that evangelicalism is a cult so disturbing, I was distracted for the rest of the service. It didn’t help that as we pulled out of the parking lot, the car ahead proudly displayed a Trump/Pence 2020 sticker.

The Billy Graham Rule: Sexual Segregation

A number of lawsuits have been cropping up where Baptist men claim they are victims of religious discrimination because they have refused to work closely with women. Like Billy Graham and recently, Mike Pence, there is this reticence about men being alone with women, other than their wives, that permeates the patriarchal culture of some evangelical communities.

It is very unlikely, given the history of misogyny among S Baptists, and their reluctance to allow women into leadership positions, that this is entirely about avoiding sexually charged situations. S Baptists have fought hard the last 6 or 7 decades, against the woman’s movement, against women’s rights, and against women “taking men’s jobs. Entering the 20th century was hard enough for them, let alone the 21st! So, I believe a large part of this backlash against women in the workforce has to to with animus towards women for being there in the first place.

But that is not all. There is a general tendency among evangelicals towards legalism. For example, I grew up in a culture where attending movies or dances, was considered “sinful.” I saw my first theater movie at age 20, when I attended college out of town. The tendency, therefore, is to create extra-biblical rules to avoid even the remote possibility of a “real sin,” like fornication. It is as if, they are saying humans are of such weak moral fiber that they must be baby-sat with rules in order to keep from sexual transgressions.

No doubt, a lot of this comes from our Puritan heritage, total depravity and Calvinism, but it reflects neither adult behavior or reliance on the work of the Holy Spirit to lead us rightly. I can speak from my own personal experience on the matter as I was a victim of harassment in the workplace myself. I worked alone with a woman for 6 years in a large manufacturing facility. It did not end well, unfortunately, and became increasingly uncomfortable towards the end. But I did not decline to work with a coworker because she was a woman, I made the situation work as long as I could, only raising concerns when she became abusive and possessive. I went through the proper channels, gave her chances, until, the company had no other recourse than firing her. This is the adult way to deal with situations as they arise.

I cannot help but feel the recent rash of evangelicals wishing to have odd and discriminatory exemptions in the workplace reflect their general animus towards gays, minorities and women. There is no practical way to create a “separate but equal,” workforce, where women and men are kept segregated, or where business are allowed to discriminate against others based on gender, gender preference or sexual orientations. Yet this is exactly what the Religious Right would have society embrace. Are there any adults in the room?

https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/north-carolina-police-officer-fired-following-billy-graham-rule-lawsuit-n1045706

People Are Getting Sued Over the Billy Graham Rule Now

 

White Nationalism: The Republican New Normal

“Go back to where you came from” appears to be the new rally cry for Republicans, a more honest, yet ugly slogan than the previous MAGA one. Yet the two are intrinsically linked as their meaning is clear: “America is for White people. If you don’t like that, you can leave.” Republicanism is no longer a “big tent” party, but is has increasingly allowed itself to be distracted by White Nationalism. In doing so it has become clear that Republicans under the leadership of the current occupant of the White House, have given up on appealing to a wide swath of Americans. Instead, they have realized that increasingly they are at odds with the majority of Western Democracies and the progressive gains in them, and so have decided to appeal to a smaller constituency: White Racists.

The adage “you can’t please everyone” may be part of the strategy the White House is employing here. Democrats may fail in trying to be “all things to all people,” while Republicans will, perhaps, have greater success by appealing to a smaller group: their base. It is far easier to appeal to a small group rather than a larger, disparate group. There is no concerted effort, it would seem, to appeal to people of color, women, sexual minorities, non-Christians, in short the Republican appeal seems to be directed straight at middle class Whites with 2 years or less of college education. As this is a shrinking demographic, we may be witnessing the “beginning of the end” for the Grand Old Party.

The Two Party system itself may be partially to blame here, as in other countries xenophobic populism is more confined to minority parties. Here in the US it has no choice to do so but has become the “mainstream” alternative to a broader centrist party: the Democratic.

“The difference is that in Europe, far-right populist parties are often an alternative to the mainstream. In the United States, the Republican Party is the mainstream.”

“That’s the tragedy of the American two-party system,” Mr. Greven said. In a multiparty government, white working-class populists might have been shunted into a smaller faction, and the Republicans might have continued as a “big tent” conservative party. Instead, the Republican Party has allowed its more extreme elements to dominate. “Nowhere in Europe do you have that phenomenon.” 1

Thomas Greven is a political scientist at the Free University of Berlin who has studied right-wing populism. He goes on to say that “The Democrats fall closer to mainstream left and center-left parties in other countries, like the Social Democratic Party in Germany and Britain’s Labour Party, according to their manifestos’ scores.

And the United States’ political center of gravity is to the right of other countries’, partly because of the lack of a serious left-wing party. Between 2000 and 2012, the Democratic manifestos were to the right of the median party platform. The party has moved left but is still much closer to the center than the Republicans.” 2

One of the arguments used on both sides is the “no true Scotsman” fallacy. You hear it constantly. Those women “hate America!” They are “unAmerican,” or “antiAmerican.” To be fair, the Democrats, in turn, return the jib: Trump is “unAmerican.” Let me be perfectly clear, this is not a contest to determine who is the most patriotic or nationalistic candidate to run our country, but, what kind of America do we wish to be!

You see, America was not always welcoming, inclusive and color-blind. We quickly forget our past history with our First Nation peoples, slavery and Jim Crow. We forget the arrogant assumptions of Western European imperialism. We prefer to gloat over a false narrative of American exceptionalism, and pat ourselves on the back over our Constitution, one that claimed universal “truths” yet denied those privileges to a large swath of people. So when the current White House occupant-in-Chief says, “Make America Great Again,” he is talking about returning to that America, the narrow, small minded one. Those who don’t like that can leave.

Trump is Saying What Many Christians Think

The latest racist tweet from Mr. Trump is the most overtly racist yet. It is reminiscent of America in the 1950s, when people felt emboldened or entitled enough to directly jeer, mock and criticize others based on the color of there skin. The sad part is, many Christians will still support this moral midget. In a segregated South, Christians were openly hostile towards Blacks and other people of color, and didn’t apologize for it, nor see the conflict between being Christian and being a racist. This holds true for many people of faith still today.

Telling others to “go back to where they came from,” is the cry of White Nationalism, the bedrock belief that only people of White, European descent should have a say in the governance of our country. That people of color, who have traditionally not had the same benefits or opportunity as Whites, do not have the right to criticize social injustices, and should meekly accept what ever scraps fall of the White man’s table.

Yet, those who have bought into the “Pro-Life” narrative cleverly devised by the Republican-Religious Right two-headed monster, will still support this bigot because he is “Pro-Life.” Yet, he reeks of the stench of bigotry and all that is ungodly!

But I would posit that this has less to do with his Pro-Life stance among evangelicals, than with his bigotry, which is the real reason for overwhelming White evangelical support. He is viewed as a beleaguered and much maligned outsider in the same manner as many White evangelicals view themselves. It is the same disgusting and narcissistic twisting of real social injustices—where the oppressor paints themself as the one actually wronged.

Yesterday, we sat through yet again, another awkward sermon at my mother’s evangelical church. The associate pastor admonished us to “respect” the “authority” of “those God puts in power.” The usual cherry-picked Bible verses were thrown out on “obeying the rulers,” and “rendering unto Caesar.” And, after the latest racist tweet as well. Odd, but that sermon would never have been preached during the Obama administration!

Hypocrites! I am so disgusted with all of it!

The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy of a Dying Church

One of the noticeable trends in Christendom over the last few decades has been ever decreasing church attendance. While it could be argued that the death of Christendom has been a long time coming, perhaps even already realized in Europe, American evangelicals have always pretended they never received the memo.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal discuses the possible political and social ramifications of declining church attendance in America. I think the greatest tragedy or failure of American Evangelicalism is its inability to change and its resistance to change. In short, like the words: “diversity, inclusion, social justice”—change is seen as a “bad” word. It is something the “world” does, but not the church. The perception of holding on to the Truth, once delivered to the apostles and prophets of yore, creates a powerful deterrent to improvement.

While the world steadily marches toward social justice, greater inclusion and diversity, the American church seems to be marching the other direction. The problem is further complicated by the history of racism within fundamentalism, the well-spring from which the evangelical movement sprang. As such, the evangelical movement, especially on the Southern reformed side, is solidly a movement of White privilege and superiority. The affects of “the Southern way of life,” cannot be overlooked when trying to understand why the church is in the position today of fighting against so many different attempts by society for greater social justice.

The Wall Street Journal article links the declining birth rate and decrease in church attendance as two factors that are putting tremendous pressure on conservatism:

“Together, these trend lines suggest significant changes in the shape of society in years to come. Some will be comfortable with them as simply signs of the natural evolution in ever-changing American society. On the other hand, such trends tend to alarm and motivate supporters of President Trump, who essentially promises a return to an America of yore. Either way, they are worthy of discussion in the 2020 campaign.”

This may be true, but I don’t think conservative Christians are in a position to deal with the issue in a healthy manner. Yes, they, for the most part, are aware of the decline in church attendance, but their understanding of the “why” is misplaced. Dispensationalism and a 150 years of “end times” hand wrenching has provided an answer for them: it is inevitable that before Christ returns there will be a “falling away” from the Faith. There you have it: “it’s not our problem, it’s yours.” As America becomes younger and far less White, the fear among many evangelicals will only deepen and provide further “proof” that they are right, while all others are wrong.

For someone who grew up in the evangelical faith it is a bit like watching a train wreck in slow motion. While I long to see reform come to evangelicalism in America, reformers such as Beth Moore seem like such a long shot. The powers behind the evangelical movement are too firmly entrenched in their control, too white and too male. Make no mistake, it is a control and power issue. The old hard-liners within evangelicalism represented by groups such as the Gospel Coalition have thoroughly bought into the dispensational, end times scenario, because it keeps them on top of the power curve. The influx of immigrants and undocumented aliens, the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements, feminism and even abortion rights all attack the belief that white men are in charge. The erosion of power can be seen in real time and has produced a frantic, panicky response from many of these men. The recent response of SBC men to Beth Moore’s request to allow women to fully express the gifts of the Holy Spirit within that body was immediate and almost comical. They went on full panic attack. What is it about a tiny blond Southern Baptist woman that creates so much fear among these men?

My wife who is evangelical, keeps admonishing me to see the good in evangelicalism and not concentrate so much on the faults. I do try, and find encouragement in the efforts of men like Scott McKnight, Roger E. Olson or Beth Moore, but they are fighting an uphill battle and time is not on their side. Society is changing too rapidly, I believe, for evangelicalism to catch up.

As for myself, I find the atmosphere on the other side of the fence much healthier and liberating than the evangelical side. As I have pointed out in a past post, Western society seems to be, at least for now, acting more Christlike than the conservative church in America. This is undoubtably, because conservatism is given a higher priority than Christ-likeness among many American Christians. There are a number of scenarios I can see play out here. There is a strong possibility that conservatism will win out and evangelicalism will become more insular and removed from society, which would best fit the self-fulfilling prophetic vision of dispensationalism. A slightly less likely possibility is that the church realizes it is headed in the wrong direction, and with glacial speediness, changes over the next couple decades, and actually starts practicing true Christian charity—but only after the tremendous loss of influence over society and the sad realization that much of the damage they’ve done cannot be undone. A third highly unlikely option is that evangelicals suddenly wake up, repent and once again become powerhouses for change in society.

If history is any indicator, I think the second option the most likely. What do you think?

Has Christianity Outlived its Usefulness?

Has Christianity outlived its usefulness, or more to the point, is Christianity at all relevant any more in a post-modern world? Coming from an American evangelical background and graduating from an evangelical seminary, I could never have imagined I would even think these questions, let alone say them out loud. Traditional conservative Western forms of Christianity value conformity and certainty above doubt, which is seen as a lack of faith. Cognitive dissonance is to avoided at all costs. But what has been sacrificed on the altar of certainty is honesty and in the end, truth itself.

If you have followed my blog you know that the last half dozen years of my life have been a spiritual journey marked by a gradual deconstruction of what I had been taught about God, the church, the Kingdom of God and my place within the framework of a religion called Christianity. The seeds of my discontent actually go back much further, to my time in Bible School (Vanguard University, So. California) and deepening at Fuller Seminary, Pasadena California. Coming into contact with others holding more diverse views on what it means to be a follower of Jesus, a follower of the Way, creates all sorts of dissonance and raises questions about the status quo one was raised in.

I think, what we have seen in the last couple hundred years is the unraveling of Christendom: the marriage of church and state, which began with Emperor Constantine in the early 4th century. By the end of the 19th century Christendom was dead in Europe replaced largely by secularism. The late 19th century in America saw a last attempt at reviving a Christianity that was in full cardiac arrest. The paddles of fundamentalism were applied to the heart of a church that was clogged with racism, nationalism and white exceptionalism. The trouble was and still is, the rest of the world has moved on, not caring whether the patient live or dies.

Like the writing on the wall seen by Belshazzar in the book of Daniel, the world has observed the church in action and found it wanting. The incongruity of a church that seeks to control other’s sexual desires and actions yet is plagued by sexual scandal itself, that has replaced spirituality and unconditional love with doctrinal certitude and litmus tests for inclusion, is now seen as the judgmental, bigoted and unloving organization that it really is.

This is not, on my part, a chastisement of individuals within the church, many who are wonderful people, but of the institutionalization of spirituality, the attempt to contain and control people in the name of religion. In her book, “Christianity After Religion,” Diana Butler Bass describes our post modern age as one of a spiritual quest, an awakening of spirituality. Less religious, in many ways, yes, but not necessarily less spiritual. For Bass and in others like Harvey Cox, what the world is experiencing is a new “spiritual awakening,” often devoid of historical religious trappings or taking a radical reinterpretation of what was past held to be immutable.

One of the major hurdles Christianity needs to overcome is its tribal nature. Religions sprung up as tribal deities were invoked as guardians, providers and for the fertility of crops and procreation. The Hebrew Scriptures are a good example of this phenomena. As such, tribal gods competed with each other and religions clashed, often violently. As tribes grew and became city states and eventually nations, the tribal spirit of competition and violence traveled along, largely unchanged. Religion was exclusionary by nature and was linked to “belonging” to a particular tribe or nation. Religion and state partnered in controlling the citizenry, enforcing religious laws. There often was no distinction between the secular and the religious.

Perhaps all of life is to be understood spiritually, and nothing, if done with understanding, is purely secular. But if all is spiritual then what do we make of the tribal competition of the world’s religions? What do we do with the almost immediate schisms that plagued Protestantism following the nailing of the 95 Thesis? Are we as spiritual beings, reflectors of God’s image to continue dividing ourselves into groups that have a “corner” on spiritual “truth?” Is spirituality to be defined by having that corner on religious doctrine?

And this leads into the second of what I believe to be a major shortcoming of the Church: the replacement of an encounter with the Divine with “knowing and defending the right views.” The Bible, for example, becomes a battleground, a bastion of facts and rules to be believed in, or your faith is in question. Without going down the rabbit hole of inerrancy that conservatives created a century and a half ago to combat liberalism, I will say that this particular theological framework, designed to take all the guessing out of Christianity, has pretty much nailed the lid of the coffin down on conservative evangelicalism. By forcing allegiance to this boondoggle of a belief system, severe damage has been done to the Christian faith in the West. Worse yet, it has engaged theologians in a worthless task of defending it instead of working on what manifesting the love of Christ in the world should actually look like.

The authoritarianism that comes from a literalist understanding of scripture, as I have pointed out in past posts, denies any meaningful reform within the conservative church, and puts it at odds with any progressive advancement or understanding in a postmodern society. Rather than a source of wisdom or a tome of spiritual truths, the Bible becomes a book (singular) of “facts.” Those “facts” are then marshaled to support the belief that Iron Age concepts of family life, governance and spirituality were meant to be adhered to today. This is why conservative churches practice subservience of women, why men try to control women’s bodies, why those churches obsess over sexual practices, have purity balls, support nationalism (racism in disguise) and abhor sexually non-binary people.

Finally, fundamentalism in Christianity, mirrors a broader movement of fundamentalism worldwide, both secular and religious. As progressivism gains more steam, the backlash has been immediate, and in places, severe. While evangelicalism declines in progressive societies like Europe, Canada and the US, it grows in Third World countries where totalitarian or fascist regimes give it sustenance. The recent resurgence in the US of a fearful, largely White conservative religious/political voting block represents one such example of the conservative backlash among modernist evangelicals trying to stem the tide of progressive reforms. It reflects the ancient belief that, like the Tower of Babel, races, peoples and nations are to be kept separate, humanity is not one, my nation is better than your nation, my race superior to your race. In short, it is an attempt to divide rather than unite. Because this is counter to the Kingdom of God preached by Jesus and because it is creates an unhealthy society, Christianity, as a religion, must ultimately fail for the good of humanity. A church that actually follows Jesus must rise instead. Will it?

Further reading:

Christianity After Religion, Diana Butler Bass

The Future of Faith, Harvey Cox

Post-Christendom, Stuart Murray

Jesus Untangled, Keith Giles

Reformed and Always Reforming, Roger E. Olson