Some thoughts on flags, protest, and symbols

American_flag_at_2008_US_Open

• I always looked forward to being on the color guard in Boy Scouts. Learning the flag code and participating in ceremonies with the scouts made me aware that we were part of a bigger American story, even if we were just kids playing steal the bacon and learning how to cook over a fire.

• One of my favorite memories of South Korea was encountering an elderly man on the subway, who asked us, “American?” We said yes, and he spent the rest of the trip smiling and nodding at us. When we reached our destination, he stood up with tears in his eyes, took an American-flag handkerchief out of his pocket and waved it to us, saying, “Good-bye, friends!” It occurred to us that he had probably lived through the devastation of the Korean War, and was still grateful that he was not in a prison camp. The flag meant something to him. 

• In the present controversy over kneeling during the anthem in protest, people often claim that this behavior is disrespectful to the military and veterans. This is a red herring. The American flag is not only the flag of the military—it is the flag of the whole United States. It is the flag of women suffragists no less than the Army, and the flag of Japanese internment camp survivors no less than the Air Force. That’s the thing about the flag—nobody gets to own it, because we all own it. This country is run by its people, not a junta. The sacrifice and suffering of soldiers does not trump the sacrifice and suffering of black men lynched for having the courage to register to vote. It is not elevated to some higher or more sacred platform than the brave sacrifice of ordinary citizens whose homes were bombed for protesting injustice.

• The Armed Forces of the United States of America is not a priesthood, though it is often elevated to that position by chickenhawk civilians. While the military (and its various branches) has its own culture, codes, and customs, its purpose is to serve the nation—not the other way around. The veterans I know from every branch who have served proudly are deeply philosophical about their service. They know their colleagues and the people they command(ed) are human beings—siblings, parents, children—who all have hopes and dreams. They are from all different economic levels, races, and backgrounds, and all have their own struggles. The leaders among them think strategically and understand the value of diversity, the importance of outcome-based measurement, how to set clear goals, and how to discern leadership potential. They also understand that life is complicated. They are not politically homogenous. They are people I am proud to know.

• The flag, and the nation it represents, is far younger than slavery, which existed in this land before our nation did, and the effects of which continue to be ignored, redacted, and downplayed by many white Americans. Citizens owe nothing to the flag that they do not also owe to their ancestors. Again, without slaves, Native Americans, women suffragists, civil rights protesters, abolitionists, immigrants, and organizers, there is no American history, and the flag stands for nothing worth respecting. If one does not know something of this history, one does not know the flag, and any gestures toward this multivalent symbol are worthless.

• MLK repeatedly made the point that protest is not palatable to people in power or to those comfortable with the status quo. He pointed out that Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, and the early Christians were protesters who faced public shaming and death. The people who threw Christians and Jews to the lions also claimed that these people were trouble-makers, ungrateful to Rome (or Babylon), disrespectful, and generally individuals of low moral character. People who protest would not have to protest if everyone agreed with them!

• Nobody’s inferences of disrespect get to have more weight in the public moral universe than someone else’s clearly stated purposes for their actions. Continuing to claim that kneeling is “disrespectful” is an arbitrary judgment. Actions have many meanings: for example, according to the flag code, burning the flag is an acceptable way to dispose of a damaged flag; burning at a protest has a different meaning. If someone chooses to be offended by the proper burning of the flag, or by kneeling at its display, I suppose that is their business. Technically, you are not supposed to applaud at the end of the national anthem, but people do anyway. Nobody storms out of the stadium because people have shown disrespect by applauding. The meaning you attribute to someone else’s behavior is really more about you than about them.

• The commodification of the flag, its use as a bumper sticker, and its appropriation by white nationalists bothers me far more than professional athletes kneeling in front of it. Just as it grieves me that the language of my faith has been appropriated by people like Roy Moore to justify bigotry, it grieves me that the flag has been appropriated by people for the purpose of silencing protest and advancing white supremacy. Those who take the cross and flag as symbols for their tribalism have missed the point of each, and created a national religion that is more about the worship of Molech and Baal than of the God of Jesus Christ, and a patriotism that is more about white supremacy than about civic engagement or support for our shared values.

Why Are Fewer People in Church? It’s the Economy, Stupid

“Young Adults, Authenticity, and the Future of the Church.” This was the title of our proposal for three years of study when we applied for an ICE grant. In recent days, an article by Rachel Held Evans has created a flurry of replies about the same topic. Here are some of them, compiled by my friend Rachel Gonia:

My favorite (somewhat curmudgeonly) response is from Anthony Bradley: United Methodists Wearing A Millennial Evangelical Face. He says that really, the United Methodist Church addresses all of Rachel’s examples of millennial dissatisfaction. I, too, want to stand on the rooftops, wave my hands and say, “Hey, all you disillusioned evangelicals and spiritually-minded skeptics! We’ve got what you’re looking for right over here!”

Except that I believe all of the discussion about theology and mission is largely irrelevant to Protestant decline. It’s important stuff, certainly, and worthy of discussion. I’m just skeptical that it has much to do with the growth or decline of the church. Our churches have been beating ourselves up about our theology and mission and so on for thirty-some-odd years, and while there may be some insightful critiques in all the hand-wringing, I believe the decline of participation in both evangelical and mainline churches has more to do with two things: money and birthrates.

I know, we’d rather blame our theological and denominational bugaboos. We’re not missional enough, or evangelical enough, or socially-conscious enough, or orthodox enough, or envelope-pushing enough, or slick enough, or simple enough, or radical enough. Back in the 80’s and 90’s, when evangelical inde-bapti-costal churches were growing and mainliners were shrinking, conservatives gleefully blamed weak liberal theology (and the wrath of God) for our decline. Now that it’s hitting the conservatives, too, we (slightly more) liberal mainliners can blame their bad theology. Or whatever theology and practices we dislike. Some people like the idea of shrinkage, because it demonstrates how countercultural the gospel is—only those of us authentically Christian enough will really get it. Okay, sure, I like being in the moral minority, too.

Robert Wuthnow is one of few researchers pointing to sociological causes, and his book After the Baby Boomers completely changed the way I think about these issues. To wrap your head around the various causes of decline in church membership, remember this fact: The best predictor of church attendance is if someone a) is married and b) has children. I’m not saying that this should be the case. I’m not saying that married people with kids are the only people in church or the only people who count. I’m just describing empirically-verifiable data.

Instead of theological or worship or marketing issues, I believe a more likely explanation for the decline in attendance at mainline Protestant churches over the last several decades is simply that people tend to marry later (if at all) and have fewer babies. Although our mission is to make disciples, most denominations have grown not by converting unbelievers, but by breeding more Christians. Since the best predictor of church attendance is “settling down” and investing in a local community like your parents did, slowing marriage and reproduction rates means fewer generations in a given church. As evangelical churches began catching up with mainline Protestants in education and income patterns (which delay marriage), their growth slowed and reversed as well. Sure, Christians still make converts and baptize new believers—just not faster than they are dying off.

The trend has only been accelerating. Because of economic pressure on the middle class, marriage itself is becoming a less-attainable goal (compare and contrast with this article about urbanization and the family from 1969). When people have to work two full-time jobs to raise a family, they don’t have time to go to a worship service on the weekend. Speaking of jobs, Wuthnow pointed out that it is less likely that anyone will be employed by the same employer in the same place for more than a few years. With all that job-and-place-changing, people don’t settle down anywhere, nor do their children get habituated to church attendance. At a recent church-planter training, Jim Griffith pointed out to us that since people can’t afford to take two-week vacations anymore, they wind up taking multiple weekend trips during the year, decreasing the time they have to participate in church activities. All of these lifestyle and economic influences make it less likely that people will commit to a church.

At the same time, the number of churches per thousand people has been declining since the 60’s as well. At one time, Methodists were proud of the fact that there were more Methodist churches than post offices in the United States. All those little country churches became a drag on growth as urbanization increased, yet we stopped planting new churches in cities. And guess where young people are more likely to be? The cities. Not marrying. Not breeding. And the longer they are not in church, the less likely they are to return.

It’s not all about young people. Since a greater number older people can’t afford to retire, the pool of available retirees who provide valuable volunteer labor to churches is declining. We like to talk about the graying of our congregations, but the fact is they are increasingly absent, too.

Here’s a little comparison that illustrates what I’m talking about. Overlay these two graphs. The first is union participation and wage growth for the middle class:

This graph starts with 1967, the last year that the UMC posted a gain in church membership. Since then, we’ve mirrored all other Protestant denominations:

Of course, I’m not claiming that you can just look at two possibly correlated graphs and infer a cause. But I do think that they illustrate what Wuthnow claims about socioeconomic factors leading to fewer young adults in churches. We designed churches to be anchors in the community and shaped them around heterosexual couples who were married, had children, a stable income, and predictable life patterns. The church in the United States shaped itself around the middle class, and grew as it grew. We do not live in that world anymore.

Sure, any given individual’s story may not describe those socioeconomic pressures. I have no doubt that an 22-year-old who has left a church disillusioned might blame bad theology, religious exclusivism, or intolerance of LGBTQ persons for her leaving rather than her parents later marriage, smaller family size, and job transfers in the 80’s and 90’s. And again, I’m not suggesting theology and mission are not important. In fact, I think they are extremely important. But I am always skeptical of self-reporting, and I tend to look for material (rather than intellectual or spiritual) etiologies for church problems. I know this approach is not popular among the religious set, but I have to ask myself which is more likely: a) that an entire generational cohort is suddenly asking the critical questions I’ve always wished they would ask, or b) that growing income inequality, rising poverty, and a shrinking middle class over the last thirty years has changed the way people approach their careers and their relationships, and those factors, in turn, affect how their families (and their children) relate to church?

There are some questions, though, that do connect the socioeconomic problems with the theological ones: Why is church a place where we settle down instead of launch? Why have we idolized family, race, and class values instead of questioning them? And why aren’t we raising more of a ruckus about the economic injustice that is (directly or indirectly) decimating our churches? Why aren’t more of us pointing out that our civic religion and social structure seems to be based more on the pagan worship of the power and wealth of the 1% than the liberating God of Moses and Jesus? Maybe it’s time that we were driven out into the wilderness to learn about the kind of society God envisions.

From Daniel Erlander’s “Manna & Mercy”

The inevitable question people ask me when I talk about this stuff is, “What do we do, then?” I wish I had a better answer, because I automatically mistrust any pastor or pundit whose answer is “Think more like me.” Including me. Especially me.

I do not have an answer, but I have chosen a particular response: Make disciples and plant churches. Plant churches for people in transition. Plant churches for people who want to launch instead of settle down. Plant churches for families. Plant them for homeless runaways. Plant them in bars. Plant them in parks. Plant them in closed or dying churches. Plant them among the young. Plant them in retirement communities. Plant them on the internet. Plant them for liberals. Plant them for conservatives. Plant them among the disillusioned and the non-religious and the too-religious and the rich and the poor. Plant them for freaks and geeks and people who like church and people who don’t. Plant them and call them churches or plant them and call them something else. Just plant them, like a sower randomly casting seeds that bounce off of car hoods and passersby and fall between cracks in the sidewalk and land in vacant lots and on railroad tracks.

That’s my plan, anyway. I’ll tell you if it works.

Atonement: Christ the Victor

I’m glad to see Christus Victor gaining more traction among popular Christianity. There are even a few contemporary Christian songs that borrow some of the concepts. I’ll confess I get a bit antsy, though, because the Commercial Evangelical Juggernaut is really good at appropriating other theological ideas and using them to dress up the same tired theology of power and violence.

There is a great book on the subject, but I think the best way to illustrate it is with the following video.

The best strength of Christus Victor theology is that it takes seriously the whole story of Jesus’ life: incarnation, birth, life, ministry, death, and resurrection. His incarnation makes atonement, because by taking on our flesh and our frailty, God is with us. Even our human limitations become holy. His birth makes atonement, because he transforms what we mean by power, family, love, and mortality. His life makes atonement, because God has to learn to walk and share, just as we do, making the whole process of learning holy and pointing us toward maturity. His ministry make atonement as God shows us what real humanity looks like, spreading grace everywhere he goes. His death makes atonement, not because he dies in place of us, but in solidarity with us. And his resurrection makes atonement, because even our rejection and our failure to recognize him does not stop God’s redeeming work in Jesus Christ.

By contrast, in the story told by most Western Protestants (“penal substitutionary atonement”), the only thing that really matters about Jesus is his death. As one Christmas banner put it, he was “born to die.” This allows Christians to support, among other things, capital punishment — after all, if God believes in redemptive violence, shouldn’t we?

In the popular imagination, it isn’t even Jesus’ death that makes atonement, but his suffering. Because he bears the sin of the whole world, his suffering must be the most profound and severe in the cosmos, and we elevate the brutality of his death. Yet in the Hebrew Bible, it is simply the blood that makes atonement—not the pain. Sacrificial animals were sacrificed humanely, and the entire point of doing so was that people could enjoy a covenant meal of reconciliation with God.

I think the penal substitutionary view is bankrupt, and will become increasingly so in our lifetimes. Moral violence does not make us safer, it supports bullying, abuse, inequality, and oppression, and it stands in contrast to everything Jesus preached and taught. A theology of God that depends on redemptive violence is the best ideological ally of white straight male supremacy. I believe we are seeing it crumble before our eyes: nearly all of the news headlines these days are about it. I don’t want to sound too optimistic. Violence and the Kingdom of Death can get quite cozy with whoever happens to be in power.

In the Christus Victor story, though, we focus on the things Jesus actually said and did, not the abstract idea of his role as a sacrificial animal. This is why I think Christus Victor is gaining traction, and why it will continue to do so.

I’ve already written about understanding atonement through Jesus as a moral teacher. In my next post, I plan to write a bit about how I’m learning to reclaim and reinterpret the idea of Jesus’ sacrificial death.

Is This Message For You?

I couldn’t stay another minute at Catalyst. There are great speakers, of course, and some good, original music. In some ways it feels like the best (and worst) contemporary evangelical Christian culture has to offer, a giant pep rally and motivational time for church leaders. But after just a short while I felt God calling me elsewhere.

Part of it was that I could lip-sync to the event. I’ve heard the speakers before, and I’ve recently had training up to my eyeballs. I was very conscious of time slipping through my fingers.

But the other part was being made very aware that what they were selling isn’t for me. While I would very much like to buy into the idea that we’re all Christians and all on the same team, it’s difficult to do so when people’s language continually reinforces the idea that they are the team captains and you are the last picked.

Maybe that’s just my childhood insecurity coming out.

Anyway, Andy Stanley talked about leading as parents, and I enjoyed what he had to say about following our fear, and allowing our vulnerability and hurts to shape us for leadership in ministry. In one story, he even gave a shout out to St. Mark UMC in Atlanta, and I appreciated his recognition of the unconditional inclusiveness of St. Mark and his honesty about the problematic relationship conservative evangelicals have not just to homosexuality, but sexuality in general. It still had a “love the sinner, hate the sin” vibe, but you know, whatever. At least he’s helping conservative evangelicals wake up to their own issues.

During one part of his closing prayer, I actually held my breath. The line was something like, “God, strengthen these people who you are calling to ministry. Lord, I know there are some women here who are afraid…” This is where I nearly gasped. Was he about to say something really powerful and controversial about women in ministry? “…of what God is calling…” Oh my goodness. He’s about to do it! “…their husbands to do…”

I don’t know why I let myself expect otherwise. I guess I just got caught up in his message. He is an excellent speaker.

He was followed by a band who had a retro folk-rock, Mumford & Sons vibe going on. This is the kind of thing I *should* love, because I’m always asking “Why can’t contemporary Christian music sound like this? Or this? Or this?” But in their enthusiastic, foot-stomping lyrics I couldn’t get past one line. As they implored God to set the church on fire, and send us out to do good work, and so on, they also sang “win this nation back.”

Now, this could mean all kinds of things. Bringing a nation back to God is certainly a prophetic theme of the Hebrew Bible. It also happens to be code among the religious right for defeating Obama, repealing Roe v. Wade and putting non-straight persons back in the closet. And instantly I went from thinking, “I’d like this kind of music in my church” to thinking, “I could never have this music in my church.”

Now, it’s entirely possible that they didn’t mean anything by it. But the nature of privilege is that you don’t hear how you sound to other people. It’s also possible that I’m hyper-sensitive to coded messages.

On the break, I wandered around the exhibits and looked at the materials promoting awareness of human trafficking. While I am very glad that there are stronger voices within conservative evangelical culture calling on Christians to be involved in doing justice, I couldn’t help feeling a bit cynical after what I’d just experienced. Church leaders know that many folks are hostile to the church because of a perception that it has been hypocritical and unconcerned with justice. We want to counter this perception, but we are too politically polarized to do anything about climate change, or women’s rights / abortion, or predatory lending, or drone attacks in Pakistan, or gay rights, or militarism, so we need a “safe” cause we can all agree on. Nobody is FOR human trafficking. Like Joseph Kony’s practice of using child soldiers, it’s something we can all agree is bad.

Before anyone begins angrily composing a reply about me being dismissive of human trafficking, please hear me: I am glad we can agree. I am intensely practical about such things, and I don’t particularly care why someone is motivated to do justice. Nobody has to meet an ideological litmus test before they can do good, or be passionate about a certain social issue before it is cool to be so.

But this is yet another way that the experience felt like God telling me, “This message isn’t for you.”

I am aware that there are cool hunters who serve conservative evangelical culture trying to keep their fingers on the pulse of what’s hip. They want to be able to reach more people, and so I do not resent their appropriation of what’s cool (like DIY trends). As I said, I’m intensely practical about such things. But for me and, I suspect, the people I’m trying to reach, you can’t just take the same message and wrap it in skinny jeans and hipster glasses and expect it to work. It will come off as fake, even if you self-deprecatingly talk about how uncool you are.

Now, for some people, it isn’t fakeThis is because we’re dealing with social discourses, those ways of talking, dressing, and presenting yourself that mark you as belonging to a certain group of people. We all “pull off” being a certain kind of person. If we succeed, we are “authentic,” and if we do not succeed, we are “fake.” But Christians often seem to have this idea that they can opt out of such discourses. They profess that they follow their faith, that they are neither conservative nor liberal, that their God transcends mere politics, or bandwagons, or economic ideologies, or brand loyalties. It’s charming, in a way, like Holden Caufield complaining about “the phonies” in The Catcher in the Rye,  even while he can’t keep himself from lying.

But it made me aware of the contextual nature of the gospel. I do not think God’s “Good News” is necessarily the same news for all people. It isn’t, as many evangelists argue, a timeless truth that you wrap in a different package to reach a new generation. It’s a living truth that gets embodied, incarnated in a group of people with a particular mission. So their message wasn’t for me.

And if this blog post bothers you, or is incomprehensible, then maybe this message isn’t for you. Those with ears to hear, let them hear.