upper room daily devotions

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

What happened to love and grace?

Recently, a few people have asked me for advice about how to speak with conservative Christian (fill in the blank - friends, family, students, co-workers...). This can be difficult as religious and political differences can tug at the bonds that hold friends, family, and co-workers together. It can be an awkward position to sit around the Thanksgiving table and hear ad hominem attacks on politicians, other public figures, or even ideas that one supports. At what point should someone speak up? How? Should we just sit quietly and hope for the horror to end? Sometime, sadly, those critiques can turn racist or fanciful in a way that demands a hearing on the facts.

As Christendom dies (well, it's already dead, but many refuse to believe it), it's very difficult for people to acknowledge and accept that Christianity is no longer the de facto ordering of American life. Blue laws are gone, Christmas holiday is now winter break, and yes, some Christmas trees are called holiday trees. It's how thing are. They are not going back. And, if people would awaken to the reality of times gone by, by and large folks might choose to live now anyway. Would we want to live during a time when antibiotics didn't exist? As much as people decry the nation's social net, talk to any senior citizen and ask if he or she would voluntarily give up Social Security. Do women want to lose the vote? Be less educated? Have no protections against rape? What about African Americans? Anyone want to return to Jim Crow laws? People have concocted a past that never happened. "Leave it to Beaver" was a TV show, not a real family. Ask those TV pundits who cry their crocodile tears over the demise of Christianity how often they attend worship, teach Sunday school, or serve on a church committee. Ask them if they give to a church, much less tithe. The loss of Christendom has left the country as a whole in chaos; that part is true. As one hegemony gives way, it leaves us all wondering what will take its place. Something will, but what? A natural response is for people to become more tribal, reactionary, nostalgic, and ideological. This is what we hear in the harsh words of people who call President Obama a Muslim, a Kenyan, a threat to American values. These are the attacks of scared people. What do those of us do who are not scared? How do we respond? What should our posture be?

For those who are Christian or who were raised Christian, it is important to become clear on what Christianity means to him or her. In answering the questions asked of me, I have had to get clear on what being Christian means to me, even more than usual. Fundamentally, what it means. And, how it is that two people who both claim this moniker - "Christian" - can mean such different things.

It seems to me that at the bottom of the many and varied debates about Christianity and culture today, there exists a fundamental (yes, that word again) discrepancy regarding core values. Yes, I say "core values" and not beliefs. I use core values because I think they color the language used to describe one's beliefs. We'll get to that in a minute.

To generalize (hopefully in a more rather than less helpful way): It seems that liberal mainliners focus on two teachings of Jesus: 1) Love God and love neighbor and 2) Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It is through these two teachings that they view the other activities of Jesus and, thus, what it means to be a Christian. For example, when Jesus heals people he is demonstrating love of neighbor by restoring them to community. He is loving them. Or, another example, when one of his followers cuts off the ear of one coming to arrest him, Jesus restores the ear and goes peacefully with the soldiers to his accusers. He does to that man as he would have preferred to have been treated; Jesus does not respond to violence with violence. Not once. Not ever. This strain of Christianity tends to focus more on how communal life is ordered in the here and now. It relies upon these two teachings for guidance in public policy and in liturgy. This Christian was once called a social gospel Christian, although many would not claim that label today. Moreover, more and more different "brands" of Christians are falling into this category. You have Evangelicals like the folks at Sojourners, Roman Catholics, and Baptists joining the old mainline Protestants in this pool of Christianity. This kind of Christianity is not limited to one denomination, one seminary, or one leader (Martin Luther, John Wesley). This Christian cares about Jesus' teachings more than anything else. They tend to view the Old Testament as the natural history of Jesus and the Resurrection as a teaching about God's ability to overcome the powers and principalities of this world, even the power of death. The Resurrection is not unlike the virgin birth or the story of Abraham and Sarah. The virgin should not yet be able to bring forth life. The aged Sarah should no longer be able to bring forth life. God is a bringer of life. This is not, as some conservatives would have us believe, a weak myth; it is a strong one. It is a core value that colors how one sees, understands, and interacts with the world. In a way, these folks could claim the title of "pro-life" if it weren't already staked out by another party. This kind of Christianity focuses on the life to come...after this age of injustice is beaten by the God of life, but this coming age takes place on this earth.

A particular strain of conservative Christians would never say that they jettison the teachings of love and neighbor, or do unto others, however, they show preference to other core values. These folks show preference for pleasing God in order to get into heaven. This world is but a dress rehearsal for another world after we die. Pleasing God become paramount. Even those traditions that emphasize that God and only God saves, pleasing God in order to get to heaven becomes a focus. It's an internal conflict that is never challenged...at least not very much. Yes, Christians should do good works here and now. They should feed the poor, tend the sick, and welcome the stranger, but the focus is on the life to come...after this life. These folks tend to favor the teachings of Paul. Through Paul they read the New Testament. Many would argue this is how it should be as Paul wrote before the gospel writers. In the 1800s, a new strain of this type of Christian emerged; it is called "premillenialism." Premillenialists are those who expect Jesus to physically return and reign for 1000 years. Not all conservative Christians are premillenialists. Not all disbelieve evolution, but many do. Very conservative Christianity is a very large and diverse tent. It contains conservative mainline Protestants and pre-millenialists. Many in this group tie their faith to the provability of the Bible - that is, what happened in the Bible is literally true, not true in any other way. Truth = fact. Period. Again, denominationalism has broken down in such a way that one can't point to an Assembly of God person can say, "That's a conservative Christian" in any meaningful way. To find this kind of conservative Christian (note I say "this kind"), one can look to any mainline denomination, to Roman Catholicism (increasingly in positions of extreme power), the Anglican Communion, and so on. Some of these folks think that religious traditions like Advent and liturgical colors and the lectionary are "born of man" and are thus corrupt and should be discarded. Others love liturgy. It is important, despite my generalizations, not to lump everyone in together in the same way that "liberal Christians" are not all of on stripe.

In short, core values that are in conflict with each are concerned with different and competing purposes of Christianity. Is it to "save souls for the afterlife" or is it to "live as Jesus lived"? This fundamental disagreement, I believe, pushes all of the other conflicts in the church universal. It drives what love means. For a conservative, it is more loving to correct, even harshly judge, someone if it will save them from burning eternally in hell. Therefore, "right belief" or orthodoxy becomes more important, more loving, than for a liberal, who tends to be more interested in right action ("orthopraxy") or in the value of belonging. For a liberal, it is more loving to accept and embrace difference, welcome questions, and tend wounds. Both would say they are acting out of a loving stance. One for eternity. One in the here and now.

What is not loving, regardless of these values, is ad hominem attacks. What is not loving is the creeping role of a bastardized karma that has infiltrated Christianity (note the word "bastardized"). The idea that one gets what one deserves is antithetical to Christianity. Oddly, it is the most orthodox and conservative of views to believe that by God's grace we do not receive what we deserve. Within this form of Christianity, which usually preferences "substitutionary atonement," Jesus died in my stead. Or, he is the sacrifice needed to save my soul. Or, he is the scapegoat for humankind's sin. In any of these most conservative theologies (rarely found in liberal Christianity), human beings DO NOT receive what they deserve. Quite the opposite. So, when conservative Christians start talking about payback or retributive justice (giving people what's coming to them), they have left behind (pun intended) one of their core beliefs - atonement theology. Veiled threats and not so veiled wishes for hardship or even death to fall upon one's enemy is not Christian, despite the cherry picking of scripture people use to support their uncharitable remarks and actions. The division within Christianity regarding core values should not be an excuse for hate or violence or their tolerance. There is no grace in the bastardized karma, which says that people receive their just deserts. Sick? You probably deserve it (and I won't pay for your treatment). Hurricane? Gays. Killed in war? Gays (again). People on both the left and the right are guilty of this thinking.

This thinking is most especially clear in this kind of "logic" - the economy is bad, Obama is president, Obama is Muslim (factual error), Obama hates God, you voted for Obama, the country gets what it deserves. Is there such a thing as cause and effect in the world? Yes. If we pollute, then life on this planet changes for the worse. If we elect a person who makes poor decisions on policy, we get bad returns from said policy. But, these are not religious claims. This is simple cause and effect. We needn't call Obama a Muslim if he isn't (he isn't) or a Kenyan (born in Hawaii) or a hater of American values. He may simply see a different path to a better tomorrow that you do. He may be wrong. His policies may be bad. I happen to agree with him more often than I disagree, although I disagree strongly on certain things. It is unnecessary to depict him with a bone in his nose (explicit racism) to vehemently disagree with his policies. It is, frankly, unChristian to do so.

In addition to "logic," people turn to religion to support their non-religious views. Disagree with marriage equality? Why? Because the Bible says so. No. The Bible supports polygamy much more than it supports monogamy. Why? Get to the why of the argument. Because the idea of you having sex with someone of the same sex is icky? Most likely that's the answer. I have found that once people are forced to leave behind weak religious argumentation about marriage the only argument left is the "ick" argument. I actually have a great deal of empathy for this response. Let's deal with it. Not flippantly. Not by saying, "Then don't have sex with someone of the same sex." That's not helpful, either. Let's unpack all of the misogyny, sexism, and ingrained self-loathing embedded in the reaction against marriage equality, but let's discuss the real issue. The objection isn't religion. It isn't. Don't argue with me. I know. It isn't.

In dealing with difference, there are two core Christian values (not just Christian, by the way) that should always take precedence over all others: grace and love. We can vociferously disagree and not strain our relationships if we favor grace and love above all else. Generous love, that is, not corrective love. So, I suppose I have some direction on what love is. Grace and love. Where are they in our discourse? In our religious discourse? In our political discourse?

When family members start saying things that we might consider nonsense, simply ask, "Does this require a response?" If it is devoid of grace and love, the answer is probably "yes." If they are simply espousing things you disagree with, probably "no." But always respond in grace and love. Maybe with humor. Always believing in their better character. If you find that you don't believe in their better character, then it might be time to ask about the health of that relationship. I'm not always the most tactful person; I've been accused many times in my life of being quite the opposite. Yet, I recognize that grace and love can take us a long way. Right and wrong rarely get us very far at all. At the dinner table, over the beer with a friend, at the water cooler with a co-worker, when the uncomfortable moment arises, try to find out their core value, and then respond in grace and love.

*One perfect example of two Christians whose core values in conflict can be found in this exchange:
The President of conservative seminary Asbury wrote this article on marriage equality.
Liberal UMC pastor Sandy Brown wrote this rebuttal.

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