This is an excerpt from a sermon given at Christ Church in Savannah in 1863. It is a pro-slavery, pro-Confederacy sermon. I’m sharing it, with my commentary, because I think it illumines contemporary rhetoric about race, history, war, international politics, and the South. I’ve added emphasis where I think the rhetoric is particularly interesting.
Preachers need to understand preaching history because we often replicate the rhetoric of pundits and politicians in sermons. Churches soothe the moral conscience of parishioners by repeating the talking points of our dominant culture. But how do you know when you are preaching the gospel, and when you are preaching Empire? How can you determine when you are preaching prophetically, and when you are accommodating the culture?
It’s important to learn from the past, to watch the dance of rhetoric and ethics that preachers have done every Sunday for centuries. It isn’t surprising that white Southern Christian preachers justified both slavery and war. Some of their talking points sound awfully familiar.
This preacher (Stephen Ellis) preaches a sermon to encourage the young Confederacy. At 24 pages, it was probably at least an hour long. It is verbose, in the way of 19th-century homileticians, who were well-educated and thought it important to speak in a way that fit their class. He quotes Greek philosophers, contemporary statesmen, and news reports. He refers to the Greek language. He comes off as smart and well-spoken.
The scripture is the story of Samson getting honey from the corpse of a lion he killed. There is no exegesis of the text. It’s simply a jumping-off point for the speech that follows. Out of a strong conflict will come something sweet.
He touches on some familiar themes: the danger of appeasement, the difference between a just peace and an unjust peace, the horrors of war, and endurance through trying times. He uses flowery language and long, image-heavy descriptions.
But delightful as is the word [peace], and attractive as are its associations, we should not be seduced by them to yield up either right or truth or justice for its attainment. It would indeed be a great burden rolled from our hearts if we could take our children to our bosoms, and feel that they indeed had a country–if we could look upon our noble sons and rejoice that they were freed with honour from any further conflict with foemen so unworthy of their steel–if we could glance around our hearthstones and be satisfied that no rude trumpet would again disturb their peace, no roar of cannon drive us from their shadow–if we could enter the temples of God and sing the angels song of peace on earth, good will towards men.
White men, that is.
The preacher has done a good job setting up the siren song of peace. He indicated early on that he is crafting this image simply to undo it. This illusion is no real peace, he says.
Missing, of course, is any reference to the lives of slaves. (Presumably, the life of a slave is all peace.)
But until we can do so with honor and with security, let us banish the idea from our thoughts. Let there be no making haste to find Peace. It will come when God sees that war has accomplished his purposes, and it ought to come no sooner. Unless we follow his guidance in this matter, we shall fall into temptation and a snare, and in grasping at a shadow, lose the substance which we have already gained at the cost of so much precious blood.
In other words, dreams of peace must be put aside, for now, or else all the troops will have died in vain. This is a common pro-war talking point in any conflict.
“Precious blood,” of course, has theological overtones—it’s Jesus’ precious blood that saves us from hell and punishment, according to penal substitutionary atonement theory.
I believe this atonement theory is especially prevalent in the South because it helped justify slavery. If you want to exterminate indigenous people and base an economy on slavery, it helps to frame sin as “rebellion,” and God’s justice as physical, painful retribution—in this life or the next. The requirement of justice is the violent death of someone—and the unjust death of an innocent man, a lynching, helps restore equilibrium. Any violence you then use to enforce social order and compliance is infinitely more merciful than social anarchy or the eternal flames of hell. For the good of the nation, the powerless must die. But their deaths are noble. Preserving social order, the Great Chain of Being ordained by God, is necessary to prevent a slide down the slippery slope into the anarchy of the savages.
The preacher also establishes that the war, a historical necessity, must be the will of God. War is a refining, purifying fire, in which the mettle of their (manly) resolve is tested.
Now the preacher turns to the political part of his sermon, justifying secession and portraying the Northern aggressors in negative terms:
We seceded from the Government of which we were once a part, because we felt that under it we no longer had a country. For what is our country? Our country is in its constitution, and its provisions were openly and shamefully violated–our country is in its religion, and its altars were desecrated by infidelity and the vilest fanaticism–our country is in its institutions, and they were threatened with total subversion –our country is in its social life, and that was covered all over with rude abuse and malignant defamation. And shall we, for peace sake, think for a moment of returning to the embrace of such an Union? God forbid! Let us learn at once the stern truth that we have no country until we make one. We can never go back to that whence we came out. We should not recognize it in its present garb of tyranny. We should not discern that once proud Republic under the mask which it now wears, with the oriental despotism that rules over it, and the oriental submission that kisses its feet. In its delirium it has lost all sense of regulated liberty–it remembers only passion and vengeance. Closing its eyes against all truth, and shutting its ears against all wisdom, it is striking at man madly in its rage, and it is cursing God who has placed the bit in its mouth, and is saying to it, “Thus far shalt thou go and no further.”
Abraham Lincoln? He’s no Christian. He’s an “oriental despot.” (Today, he might be called a Muslim tyrant.) He’s no Western statesman who believes in representative government (for white men).
The preacher describes four kinds of federal overreach—constitutional, religious, institutional (the unnamed institution being slavery), and social. In all of these ways, he says, the South was a victim. Abolitionists and the North have closed their eyes “against all truth” and shut their ears “against all wisdom.” They are examples of the “vilest fanaticism,” impugning the character of honest Southerners.
When activists recently advocated for marriage equality, they were likewise shaking their fist at God, according to Franklin Graham, and undermining the institution of marriage. They subjected their opponents to “malignant defamation” by calling them bigots, or worse.
People who support status quo inequality between white and black folks, who object to discussion of white supremacy and systemic racism, continue to complain about the “malignant defamation” that white people or police officers or America receives at the hands of activists. Advocating for justice is perceived as “vile fanaticism,” an attack upon our country and our way of life.
Yet the preacher offers patriarchal hope to his congregation:
In quietness and confidence is our strength. Manly fortitude and heroic patience will accomplish for us in due time all that we are contending for. We did not enter upon this conflict in the temper of children, who were quarrelling for some mere point of pique, but with the resolution of men who perceived that every thing which made life tolerable was trembling in the balance. Let peace come to us, and let us not forget our manhood and go in search of peace.
The preacher moves on to mourn the fact that the international community has not come to the aid of the South. He only gets around to mentioning slavery toward the end, but it forms the background of everything he says. At first, it’s only an oblique reference: “the peculiar conditions of our labor and climate.”
At the commencement of our revolution… we believed very sincerely that the cotton interest constituted so large a portion of [England and France’s] manufacturing and commercial wealth, that any serious interruption of the supply would create not only great distress in those countries, but would perhaps produce revolution. Under this delusion we continued for eighteen months after our movement began, and it is not yet entirely dissipated. It will require at least two years more of British endurance to convince us of our mistake, but we are, nevertheless, learning our lesson by degrees. We are finding out that God does not permit, under his Providential arrangements, any one nation to hold in its hand the fate, or even the destiny of other nations, but that climate, soil, labor, staples, are so distributed throughout the world, that if a supply of any necessary article is dried up in one direction, its production can be forced in some other direction.
England can replace the slave labor of the South with India. Such is the law of the marketplace.
That we hold great advantages over any other portion of the earth in the growth of our great staples, no one can deny. We can defy competition, because of the peculiar conditions of our labor and climate, but we cannot rule the world as we once conceived that we could.
This line gets me every time I read it: “The peculiar conditions of our labor and climate.” Wow.
The limits of Confederate exceptionalism have become clear to the preacher. But slavery? It’s still hunky-dory:
Until within a year after our war began, many of our own people, and almost all the nations outside of us, considered the institution of slavery as resting upon a very insecure basis. They almost universally believed that domestic insurrection would accompany foreign war, and that we should find our slaves rising “en masse,” and distracting all our efforts. Those who had studied this question most thoroughly, and looked at it in the light of philosophy, and especially of the Scriptures, did not fall into this error, and were satisfied from the beginning that the institution would come out of the war stronger than it went into it. Two years of the war have rid every one of any evil anticipations upon this head, and have satisfied the United States government that if these people are to change their condition, it must be changed for them by external force. And while this quiescence on the part of our servants vindicates us from the charges of cruelty and barbarity which have been so industriously circulated against us, it is also teaching us that we can, hereafter, with entire safety, and with most excellent results to ourselves, introduce them gradually to a higher moral and religious life. They know all that is going on. They are well informed about the proceedings of our enemies, and about their pretended philanthropy, and yet what advantage have they taken of it?
One of the favorite tropes of white-privilege apologists is that anyone who stirs up conversation of racial inequality is not really interested in racism, but simply exploiting racial tension for political gain. It is pretended philanthropy. But our black folks are happy just the way they are.
Dang, this strategy is old.
When were they ever more quiet, more civil, more useful, more contented than they now are? Ignorance is really our worst enemy amongst them, and I sincerely hope that when this war is over, we shall, in token of their fidelity and good will, render their domestic relations more permanent, and consult more closely their feelings and affections…
Wow. We’ll let them keep their families together.
Of course, you could also read “domestic relations” as perpetual servanthood. And they didn’t need slavery to do that. They had Jim Crow.
Take a look at this logic:
1. Our slaves (black folks) are fine and happy.
2. If they wanted to change their condition, they would do so themselves.
3. It’s wrong for outsiders to come in and stir them up toward rebellion
4. We’ll help them improve their condition when other conditions are met.
See, it’s all benevolent. Heritage, not hate.
It belies the fact that the Southern elite were terrified of slave revolt, and had spent a century passing more and more restrictive laws to keep poor whites and black slaves from working together or colluding to overthrow the institution of slavery. The preacher himself mentions Harpers Ferry early in the sermon.
Toward the end, the preacher swells to a crescendo praising the Confederacy:
But at the war-cry of her children, “Sic semper Tyrannis,” how her rich blood has rushed back upon her heart, and startled her into life! The sound of freedom’s cry has disenchanted her, and she has sprung full armed into the arena. Her noble sons have gathered around her from her hills and from her valleys, from all her fields of historic fame, from the blue waters of the Chesapeake to the dark rushing torrent of the Kanawha–sons worthy of such a mother. All her old energy has come back to her. All her power of self-denial and self-sacrifice has revived within her. Proud, fearless, indomitable, she looks into the very eye of tyranny, and makes it quail before her majesty of right and truth! The mother of States, she bares her bosom to receive upon it the strokes which are aimed at her children. Hurling defiance in the teeth of her oppressors, she prepares herself to conquer or to die. She hopes, she prays, she struggles for victory, but knowing that everything is in the hands of God, she presses on, uttering the noble words of DeRanville–“If the genius of evil is to prove triumphant, if legitimate government is again to fall, let it at least fall with honor; shame alone has no future.”
And thus white supremacy held onto the notion that it would be justified by God and history well after the war’s end. It wed notions of Christian destiny, feudal honor, patriarchy, slavery, and violent atonement theory.
White patriarchy continues to use this same rhetoric. It appropriates the language of oppression and justice, hoping to turn the tables on activists by pointing out their “vile fanaticism” as a cowardly mask for political or financial gain. People who advocate for equality are “tyrants” who will oppress the majority, if they ever get their hands on political power. We fear our own sin so much that we project it onto our enemies, imagining that they will be just as oppressive as we are—while denying that oppression even exists.
We are such gentle rulers. They will be such harsh ones. That is why they must be kept in their place.
Same song. Different verse. White supremacy did not need to rise again; it was never defeated. It has been hiding in plain sight (from white Christians, anyway) for a long, long time.
I like to imagine how someone in 200 years will read my sermons. I cannot imagine what my blind spots are—that’s why they are blind spots. But if we do not study preaching history, our cosmic vision of what God is up to in the world is limited to our immediate pastoral, ecclesial, political, and social concerns. We will miss the ways that God is working with the church—and in spite of the church—to bend the arc of history toward justice.
“Deceptive misrepresentation, short of lying, especially by pretentious word or deed, of somebody’s own thoughts, feelings, or attitudes.” That’s Max Black’s definition of humbug, and it provides a jumping-off point for Harry Frankfurt’s essay On Bullshit.
Of course, the essay is itself BS, an example of the kind of delightful writing that’s more poetry than philosophy. Frankfurt waxes rhapsodic about the metaphor: He says BS implies a lack of refinement: “Excrement is not designed or crafted at all; it is merely emitted, or dumped. It may have a more or less coherent shape, or it may not, but it is in any case certainly not wrought. The notion of carefully wrought bullshit involves, then, a certain strain.”
The key distinction, Frankfurt says, between BS and lying is that a lie requires the liar to know or at least be interested in the truth, and to misrepresent it. The BS artist, on the other hand, is not really interested in misrepresenting the truth. He is interested in misrepresenting himself. The truth is irrelevant.
As I said, Frankfurt’s essay is, in many ways, also BS. Like a signpost, though, it points beyond itself to something that is true. Much of our language is not about truth, but about performance: gaining the upper hand, making peace, shaming, praising, wooing, or persuading. We often do one thing while pretending to do something else: shaming while making peace, gaining political advantage while praising, and so on. It is drama, performed by actors (or hypokrites, in the Greek).
Jesus and Paul used similar scatological metaphors (see Luke 13:8, Luke 14:5, 1 Corinthians 4:13, Philippians 3:8) to describe flavorless followers or praiseworthy credentials. Our English translations tame the metaphors into “manure” and “rubbish.” First century “rubbish” did not consist of aluminum cans and take out containers. It was far more vile. Manure is… well, bullshit. I don’t think either Jesus or Paul would have a problem with the way Frankfurt uses the word.
What happens among Christians, though (and especially preachers), is that since we have these important commandments to love each other, and we want to be more Christlike in our behavior, we pretend. We wind up attempting to be bullshit artists. Honestly, we’re not very good at it. We have too much invested in creating the illusion that we are nice people. We are especially fond of smarm, the kind of BS that allows us to occupy a morally superior position because we are so nice about it.
You may have heard the famous Winston Churchill quote about diplomacy being the art of telling people to go to hell in such a way that they ask for directions. Most preachers, though, can only aspire to Churchill’s art. Instead of learning our rhetoric from schools (where it is no longer taught) we learn it from television. Our BS is not finely crafted. It is dumped.
At our Annual Conference, for example, one of my colleagues got up and made a speech, that went something like, “I am colorblind. Anyone who knows me will tell you I don’t see color. I don’t care who we elect to the delegation as long as we choose somebody who believes in the authority of the Bible.”
See, like cable news anchors, we have become practiced at using dog-whistles and code words. I actually agree with this colleague’s statement. (Well, except for the reality or even the desirability of being “colorblind.”) I, too, was eager to elect representatives who believe the authority of the Bible for faith and practice. I would say I want representatives who are orthodox (they can say the Apostle’s Creed without crossing their fingers,) evangelical (they believe in the Good News of Jesus Christ,) and Spirit-filled (they are pursuing sanctification.) But I mean very different things when I use those words. In the context of our Annual Conference, and in the context of the recent brouhaha over LGBTQ inclusion and rumors of schism in the United Methodist Church, what he said and what he meant were two entirely different things.
Of course, everyone listening knew it. There was no question that what he was really doing was making a campaign speech, asking folks to vote for someone who would not support LGBTQ inclusion. It was bullshit, a statement that had no interest in any particular truth-claim, that misrepresented the desire and intentions of the speaker. It was a performance. I could have made a similar speech by saying, “I think we should elect someone who really believes the gospel is Good News for all people.” With my voice and eyes, I could have communicated quite a bit. Of course, at that point, people would have groaned because I would have drawn attention to the BS performance in which we were all complicit. It would have been like polishing a turd.
And certainly, progressives often do the same thing. They can make pointed comments, insinuate, connote, and cast aspersions under a veil of politeness. People who claim to be neutral or moderate often bring buckets of smarm to the conversation, denigrating “both sides” as being extreme and virtuously claiming the middle. BS, all of it.
As Frankfurt concludes, insofar as we are unaware of our own selves, “sincerity itself” is BS. All language is, in some sense, a performance, and whether we find something convincing or not or even label it as true has a lot to do with how good the performance is and how much we trust the speaker. Most of us who read Catcher in the Rye resonate with Holden Caufield’s complaints about all the “phonies” in the world, even though the narrator himself is a compulsive liar. But we develop a sense that he is trustworthy. I have friends who I disagree with about a great many things, but I trust their yes to be yes and their no to be no. I trust them well enough to participate in bull sessions, in which we try out different ideas or points of view to see if we can convince ourselves of their truth value. If one can’t “pull off” the idea, another will usually point it out. So perhaps the real issue with BS is whether we trust the person with the shovel not to hit us with it.
I do not know if it is possible, or even desirable, to reduce the amount of BS in church life. Certainly, some of it is good fertilizer, well-seasoned, out of which may grow tasty fruit. But too much just stinks, and bad fertilizer can scorch roots and stunt growth. I’m not actually sure which I want more: better-quality BS, or more clergy colleagues who I can trust enough to fight fair. Honestly, I think I could go for either.
I’m excited about starting a new sermon series this Sunday.
I don’t think Christians wrestle with this issue enough, honestly. Plenty of atheists are happy to point out that although we say “God is love,” it seems that kind of love is often smiting people rather indiscriminately, slaughtering entire towns, including children. Christians—people I consider my friends, even educated clergy colleagues—will often float the argument that the genocide detailed in the book of Joshua was necessary. You know, because of the corrupting influence of the surrounding cultures.
……o-kay. That’s more or less always the reason for genocide, right? Corrupting influences and the purity of the race?
One good reason for leaving literalism-which-isn’t-really-literalism behind is that it leads us to this kind of thinking: that God is the kind of God who kills kids, giving our Lord and Savior the same moral character as school shooters.
Yet historians and archeologists cast doubt on whether this kind of large-scale invasion ever happened, which points us, I believe, toward a better way of thinking about these stories. What were the original authors of these stories trying to tell their audiences? What was their lived experience of siege warfare, cultural assimilation, and persecution?
In the Noah story, I believe the author is raising critical questions about the violence we attribute to God. I think the same is true in the story of Jonah, and Tamar, and Job, and in prophets like Isaiah.
I think Jesus expresses a Jewish tradition that is highly critical (and self critical) of violence and its users. We understand the wrath of God not in plagues, floods, or invading armies that hurt our enemies, but in the cross, where we see our complicity in the injustice and ugliness of the world.
I wrote a bit about our anniversary last month, and then decided, for a variety of reasons, not to post it. I’m posting it today:
We just celebrated our 19th wedding anniversary. As people always say on such occasions, it is hard to believe it has been that long.
We went out to eat. I told our server that it was our anniversary, and he pretended that it was the best news he had heard all day. I told both friends and strangers that it was our anniversary. They said complimentary things. Sometimes I overshared and got sentimental, but people still smiled and politely congratulated me.
This is the point where I should post a picture, along with some words about how she is an awesome, wonderful, talented, beautiful human being, that she has helped me grow in emotional and spiritual maturity, that she is an example as well as a friend. I should say that I am proud that she is the mother of our son, her love helps me understand how God loves me in spite of my flaws, and so on. All of this is true.
And, if you are my friend, you should probably say “Congratulations!” People will “like” the status on Facebook. If I were to post a wedding picture, you would notice that I have less hair and a higher BMI than I did then. We look so young in our picture, you might say.
The wedding was good, but I’m posting a travel picture instead. Part of our marriage is actively working toward God’s kingdom: planting churches, promoting justice, helping people who need help. We share a mission.
Now, before you click like or make a comment, just let me make an observation:
Nobody — not one — will tell me that I SHOULDN’T talk about it. No one will tell me that my love for her isn’t really love, that it is really sexual perversion, that my attraction for my wife is a character flaw or an addiction like alcoholism. Nobody will tell me that we are an abomination, or that I should try not to love her. Nobody will criticize me for having the audacity to be PROUD of my spouse, or for wanting to shout from the rooftops that I am the luckiest guy in the world. In fact, they will praise my devotion because, even if they secretly gag on my saccharine words, they believe that I SHOULD say these things. That is part of what healthy couples do.
(I imagine that if someone did respond with contempt, or tell me to be silent on my anniversary, I would invite them to go and do something anatomically impossible to themselves.)
Some of my traditionalist friends might accuse me of turning our anniversary into a political statement. But the fact is, EVERY anniversary, every single year, every card and restaurant date and bouquet is a political statement, because we have historically given privileges to some people that we do not give to others. Every time you participate in the anniversary ritual and say “congratulations!” you are making a social and political statement: marriage is good, and we should be proud of it. This set of people has a right to be acknowledged, affirmed, celebrated… and these do not.
I am proud that I am married to a woman who will let, even encourage me to say these things that I believe to be true. I am thankful to have such a partner in life, love, and ministry. And I hope, both for our own church and for our denomination, we will become the kind of church that says congratulations to everyone who shares news of their anniversary.
So, yeah, the headline to this post is deliberately provocative, but I think it’s important for church leaders to recognize how changing marriage and birth rates affect the churches they lead. (There are, of course, Christians who do support this philosophy).
This is a follow-up to my last post on this subject, Why Are Fewer People in Church? It’s the Economy, Stupid. I said that the economy has affected how people create and maintain families, and that because churches have strategically focused on stable families, declines in participation are probably more related to the economy rather than to theology or mission (which preachers prefer to talk about). I drew evidence for my argument from Robert Wuthnow’s book After the Baby Boomers, which far too few church leaders have read. I want to share a one particular excerpt from it on why changing marriage patterns and birthrates have affected church participation.
Growth and decline are partly affected by how many children people want and have. Growth and decline are also influenced (perhaps even more) by the timing of those decisions. If a hundred couples gave birth to an average of 2.6 children and averaged age 30 when they had these children, in 60 years there would be 338 offspring. But if those hundred couples gave birth to an average of 2.6 children and averaged age 20 when they had them, there would be 439 children in 60 years, or almost 30 percent more.
In addition, waiting until age 30 means more discontinuity of the kind that often weakens religious ties with religious traditions (geographic mobility, travel, higher education). To the extent that religious organizations perpetuate themselves by encouraging families to have children, then, the most significant influence may not be the number of children, but when they have children. (Wuthnow, 143)
Again, I want to assert that I do not think that the Great Commission (making disciples of all peoples) is primarily about breeding new Christians, nor do I think churches should actually be advocating for earlier heterosexual marriages or contraception bans. But I do think that part of the religious right’s idolatry of the family comes from a recognition and prioritization of these social realities. Churches that have built Jesus-theme-parks for families know which side of their bread is buttered.
As a culture, we have idolized a particular vision of family even as we have made that vision less attainable. We have made it economically tough for young people to marry and have babies, even as the religious right has ratcheted up their condemnation of sex outside of heterosexual marriage. If we make it hard for people to form and maintain families, we also shouldn’t be surprised when churches that depend on families begin to decline. Again, I don’t think this is the way things should be. I just think it’s a pretty accurate description of the way things are.
I’ll restate some of the important questions that I believe churches should ask: How can we be church to people who choose not to or can’t have children? To single parents? To gay and lesbian parents? To grandparents? How can we help people whose life goals do not include “settling down,” but building a life of active ministry?
In debates about homosexuality and the church, people who want to maintain that homosexuality is a sin often quote Romans 1:26-27. I do not think this scripture supports their views. In fact, I think it undermines them.
The following is a rhetorical reading of Romans 1:8 through 2:29. I have paraphrased it, updated it, and made it as scandalous as it might have been to its original hearers. It is not meant to accurately reflect all of the nuances of Paul’s original argument, but to highlight the fact that the whole first chapter is, in fact, a parody of exclusivist Christian thinking. It is a prologue. The second chapter is where he brings the hammer down.
There will be people who read the following paraphrase and won’t get it. They will accuse me of twisting Paul’s words. But maybe (I hope) they will get a taste of what it is like to be on the receiving end of Paul’s hyperbolic rhetoric. I believe this reading is far more true to his argument than their use of a handful of verses ripped out of context.
If you’d like to follow along, open Romans 1:8-2:29 in a new tab.
First, I thank God for all of you good Christian folks, because the whole world knows how faithful you are. I want nothing more than to come and be with you in person, good religious people, so that we can encourage each other. I would love to share with you the same kind of experience I’ve had among the non-religious and the pagans, who have been coming to Christ in record numbers. I’ve been helped in my work and taught by both civilized people and savages, philosophers and fools. That’s why I’m so eager to come and share the Good News with you good Christian folks in the big pagan city of San Francisco. (1:8-15)
Sure, both religious people and pagans want me to be ashamed of this Good News that I share with both the cultured pagans and the religious minority. But I’m not ashamed of the Good News, because it’s the power of God for everyone who has faith, to the religious minority and also to the pagan elites, because the Good News reveals God for who God really is. If you get it, then you really get it. (1:16-17)
Look, I know you already know this, but it bears repeating: God is furious with everyone who would suppress the truth. The kinds of hellfire and brimstone you have preached to the pagans is true: God has already shown everyone, Christian and pagan alike, who God really is: you can see who God is through the beauty and awesomeness of nature. (1:18-20a)
So these non-religious people around you have no excuse: these pagan elites, the agnostics and the culture worshipers, because although in their hearts they probably already know God, they are ungrateful and irreverent. Their brains have become clouded. Even though they believe themselves to be smart and hip and wise, they are really dolts, and they choose instead to worship idols and mascots: supermodels and superheroes, gods of sex and money and power and death. (1:20b-23)
So God lets them. God lets them turn themselves into a joke, because they worship creatures rather than the Creator. They become sexually promiscuous and perverted, believing that to be cultured means to indulge themselves in a buffet of pornographic delights. Their emperors lead the way (and some of them, like Caligula, were killed by the boy toys they kept in bondage). Their women are no better. They all swap partners as if every body were just a set of interchangeable orifices. They treat people as sexual objects to be used for personal gratification. The most important thing in their universe is their own pleasure. You’ve seen reality TV, so you know what I’m talking about. (1:24-27)
And since they chose to ignore God, God let them fill themselves with perversion: greed, petty rivalries, envy, murder, violence, lying, gossiping, racism, bigotry. They created a culture of cynical antipathy, live-and-let-die, contemptuous of family, or religion, or civic-mindedness. They know such things are wrong and lead to the death of everything good, but they not only do them, but they make heroes of people who celebrate these values of the culture of death. (1:28-32)
So, by now you’re nodding along with me, because I’m not saying anything you don’t already know. The world is going to hell in a hand basket. But here’s the kicker:
You ain’t any better than the pagans you rail against. (2:1)
You are also without excuse, because you yourselves are no better and yet you stand in judgment of them. You religious-types say “God will send them to hell.” Do you imagine that when you judge them for doing these things, and yet do them yourself, you will escape judgment? Or do you fail to appreciate what the Good News of God’s grace in Jesus Christ really means? Don’t you realize that the repentance you should be most concerned about is your own? But because you are judgmental and self-righteous, you are making your own personal judgment day that much worse. (2:1-5)
Everyone is going to get what’s coming to them: people who humbly do good will be treated well, and people who are self-righteously wicked will truly understand the hell they preach toward others. You want to talk about hell? Self-righteous sinners will indeed experience hell, but the religious hypocrites will have a front-row seat. The self-righteous pagans will follow. But the same is true of heaven and the reward of the kingdom of God: Good religious folks will lead their righteous pagan brothers and sisters into their reward. Because God shows no partiality. (2:6-11)
Sure, all who are wicked without religion will die without religion, and those who are wicked and religious will be judged by the faith they supposedly hold dear. Because it’s not those who hear or parrot their religious precepts who are judged righteous by God, but those who actually do good. When non-religious people instinctively do good, they show that they have God’s religion written on their hearts. And on the day of judgment, it’s their hearts that will matter to God. (2:12-16)
But if you call yourself a Christian and rely on your religion and your heterosexuality and the fact that you don’t rob banks, and you brag about your relationship to Jesus, and if you are sure that you are the bright spot of civilization in a world of darkness, and you’re going to bear God’s message to all of creation, will you not hear it for yourself? You already know the stereotype of religious people: They are embroiled in scandals about money and sex and pyramid schemes. They police other people’s bedrooms, but they spend more money on porn than anyone else. It’s even written in the Bible: “religion” and the name of God is practically a cussword among the non-religious because of you. (2:17-24)
For example, your heterosexuality or your straight marriage is indeed a great thing if you actually follow the Bible. But if you don’t do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God, the virtue of your heterosexual marriage in God’s eyes is a sham. So if gay and lesbian persons actually follow Jesus better than you do, won’t their marriages be virtuous in God’s eyes? For a person is not a Christian who is one outwardly, nor is true marriage something about your genitals. Rather, a person is a Christian who is one inwardly, and real marriage is a matter of the heart—it is spiritual. Such a person may not receive praise from others (or from you), but they receive it from God. (2:25-29)
It has been an amazing week. Jesus has just had a record attendance at one of his speaking gigs—multiple thousands. He has pulled off a miracle in feeding them all. Everyone is pumped. The momentum of The Way is building fast, and it even begins to get a bit out of control. People want to make Jesus king—by force (John 6:15).
But just as it begins to look like they will go from success to success, Jesus sticks his foot in it. First, he makes himself scarce at the height of his popularity (6:15). Next, he questions the motives of his fans (6:26). Finally, he starts talking about people eating his flesh, which is always a bit off-putting (6:57).
People stop following him. The crowds dwindle. The morning after a particularly disappointing attendance, Jesus sees his original twelve talking among themselves. They stop talking when he approaches. He looks at them and asks,
“Are you going to leave, too?”
I’m not used to hearing Jesus sound this despondent. In fact, it scares me a bit to hear him this dejected.
I’ve read this passage many times, but before I’ve always heard this as a rhetorical question. I’ve imagined Jesus saying it calmly, almost flippantly, even though he already knows the answer, because he’s omniscient, right?
But as a pastor starting a new church, I know how important those attendance numbers become. You begin thinking that the numbers indicate God’s approval rating. You start taking them personally. When I catch myself thinking this way, I usually try to give myself a pep talk. You may know the phrases: “Where two or more are gathered,” “It’s not quantity, it’s quality,” and so on. But I’ve always had my eyes on the numbers, whether I’ve been speaking to a handful or a thousand people. There’s energy in crowds. I like approval. When crowds shrink, I start to panic and wonder what I’ve done wrong.
But even at my lowest I’ve not felt the pain in Jesus’ words when he turns to his friends and asks, “Are you going to leave, too?” I hear this not as a rhetorical question, but as real human pain and fear. Jesus is worried.
It is comforting, in a way, to know that Jesus was not immune to the effect of numbers, that he felt disappointment when his crowds dwindled and his popularity decreased. I’m glad that he woke up with a pessimistic attitude and expected the worst, because I feel like that more days than I want to admit. I used to resist the idea that Jesus would ever get his feelings hurt, but now I understand better. I can relate. He can relate.
I’m also glad that his students become his teachers, because that’s the way real life works: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life” (6:68). It isn’t about the numbers. It’s about the message. The news is so compelling that some of us are drawn to speak it and hear it, whether it’s a group of 5000 or of 5. If you ask those of us who become his followers why we do so, we just shrug. What else can we do? He has the words of eternal life.
I can, and have, critiqued the American Dream from within the framework of the Gospel: we are too soft. We are too prosperous while too many are too poor. Our pews are too cushy, our music too out-of-touch, our priorities too scrambled. The modern institution “church” looks nothing like the simple and radical early followers of the house-builder from Galilee. Yadda-yadda-yadda.
But I’m increasingly impatient with this kind of criticism of “the institutional church” or “Christian culture.” Both of these phrases are really empty signifiers waiting to be filled with whatever negative generalizations we come up with. It’s about as difficult, insightful, and radical as bitching about reality TV. (I confess that I do this, too.)
As we’re beginning Saint Junia UMC, and as I read more and more books and authors talking about how the old way of doing things is broken, I am beginning to believe this kind of talk is a symptom of a deeper problem. We are naive, and I believe naiveté is not necessarily benign. It can be sinful.
We often believe that the early church must have been great, because the author of Acts says it was (although you can read Paul’s letters for a reality check). We seem to believe it is possible to love human beings but hate human institutions, human groups, and human ways of organizing labor. We talk about “relationships” in a warm and fuzzy way as if they existed outside the context of schedules, money, power, or leadership. I believe that by thinking in these ways we assert a particularly earnest and Christian naiveté that actually allows systems of abuse, indifference, and exploitation to flourish and reproduce.
Politically, it looks like this: Those of us with money, political power, and the freedom to pursue lives of meaningful work love talking about simplicity and criticizing the “American Dream” because it is yet another function of privilege to voluntarily choose a lifestyle rather than be forced into it.
Theologically, it looks like this: We talk about the importance of churches “getting out the pews” without actually noting that people’s butts occupy them for less than an hour each week. We diminish the importance of worship. We elevate the importance of “low overhead.” We make broad, generalized, negative assertions about church members’ volunteerism, beliefs, and generosity with absolutely no data. We repeat the claims of the harshest critics of “the institutional church” without ever asking “Which church? Who does this? Based on what evidence?” We uncritically make the connection between any given church crisis and a thought problem (theological, institutional, or otherwise) rather than demographic, social, or economic changes. “In order to reach a new generation for Christ,” we say, “we need to be more X,” where X can be missional, evangelical, biblical, liberal, conservative, organic, whatever.
Again, while I am no traditionalist, and I do not want to be an apologist for the North American Institutional Church, I am increasingly skeptical that the movers and shakers who write books about where the church needs to go in the next century have any freaking clue. Most of the stuff out there written by would-be-reformers isn’t based on good data. It isn’t even based on good Bible study. It’s based on people’s strong opinions.
I am trying to practice the discipline of non-prophecy. It is surprisingly difficult to hold my tongue about the grand evils of society or the church and look at specific problems and specific solutions, to name the sin not just of “bureaucracy” but of a particular situation with a particular remedy. I think we pastors have been trained away from such thinking because we have been taught it is not only acceptable, but “prophetic” to make broad, data-free assertions about things we don’t like. I also recognize, on reflection, that this, too, is a data-free rant.
I repent, and I will try to do better.
I managed to make it through college, seminary, and grad school with most of my prejudices intact. I won’t overstate my bigotry: “I had gay friends,” but I was the kind of person who would use that phrase when defending my prejudices.
What changed me was being a pastor. I was entrusted with the spiritual care of real live human beings. My first appointment was to a small church in rural, red-state, Bible-belt Alabama, which was the last place, in my naiveté, I would have expected to face questions of gender identity and sexuality. (Now, I realize I should have known better—but I should have known better about a lot of things.)
Nor did I expect that God was going to do heart surgery on me through the people God introduced to me. Within the span of a few months I met several persons who walked into my office and told me either that they were gay or had struggled with their gender identity. One described the way a former church had tried to exorcise him of the demons of homosexuality. He said it was terrifying. Another talked about the way he had finally just given up trying and decided to be promiscuous, which ended badly. Another, taking the Bible literally, cut off his offending member rather than have his whole body cast into hell.
In spite of the pain they brought into the room, they also brought faith of a caliber that shamed my own. I was not worthy to be pastor to these wounded faith giants. I felt both the weight of the moment and an almost giddy sensation that the Holy Spirit was coordinating this whole thing. Sometimes I felt nudged to speak, and other times I felt prompted to hush. Each story was uniquely painful and grace-filled. After describing the burdens they had carried for years and decades, I was astonished that any of these people decided to stick with church. We cried and prayed together.
After one such conversation, my visitor left. As soon as the door clicked behind him I got on my knees, not because I’m a particularly holy person who kneels to pray, but because my legs couldn’t hold me up. I remember saying, “God, I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. How am I supposed to think about this stuff? What am I supposed to say? How am I supposed to be this person’s pastor?”
Feeling compelled to read the Bible, I dragged myself to my table and sat down to look at the text I was studying. And I read these words:
“…[the Pharisees] tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them…” (Matthew 23:4)
I couldn’t catch my breath.
Several things clicked at once: These guys had burdens placed upon them by others (people like me) that had nothing to do with Jesus. Jesus said his interpretation of religious Law, his yoke, was easy and his burden light (11:38). His opponents, the religious leaders, accused him of abolishing the Law (5:17) and ignoring their pet scriptures about holiness and who was “in” and who was “out.” The fundamentalists of Jesus’ day were threatened by his message of an easy yoke, and they made his followers out to be “abolishers of the law.” In response, Jesus commanded his followers to out-love, out-pray, and out-give his detractors (5:21-7:27).
I suddenly had a new focus for my ministry. I was supposed to be a burden-lifter, one who removes the barriers that religious leaders often put in the way of folks who need Jesus. I read more.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.” (Matthew 23:13-15)
Locked out of the kingdom. An evangelical program of hate. There are no better words to describe anti-gay Christianity.
Although I’ve never preached an anti-gay sermon, I had listened to them with a sense of smug approval. Like Paul, I had held the cloaks of people who had been throwing rocks at others. This was my own Damascus-road moment, when I knew that God was not finished bringing people into the kingdom, and God wanted to change my heart and mind. I went back and devoured the story of the early church in Acts and the letters of Paul, and I read with new eyes the stories about the hot-button issues of their day: circumcision and meat sacrificed to idols.
So many things changed for me in the following weeks and months: the meaning of the word evangelize, to spread good news; the meaning of the word salvation, healing; all the words in the New Testament related to yokes and burdens and Jesus’ conflicts with religious leaders, and why they couldn’t recognize Jesus’ divine mission because of who his friends were. Like Paul, I felt that I had been blind, but that God was restoring my sight. As I think about my past, I’m still learning that God was working on me decades before I imagined writing about God’s impartiality.
I’m writing this not to be self-congratulatory. I live with white, male, heterosexual privilege in a world that is oriented toward my success, and I am a relative latecomer to this worldview. I’m writing this because it was being a servant-leader in the church that really changed me—not social pressure, not my academic education. It was being given responsibility for leading others.
Being a pastor is more about being willing to be led by God and changed by the people I meet than issuing infallible decrees from a pulpit, more about admitting I’m wrong and sharing my frailty than pretending I know God’s will on a given subject. One friend describes preaching as a “homiletical wager,” and I’ve come to believe that pastoring, presuming to be a spiritual leader, is bit like gambling with God, where the stakes are very high but I’m betting the game is rigged toward grace.
I also know that plenty of folks have turned their backs permanently on the church, on religion, on Jesus, because they have struggled with heavy yokes and been locked out of the kingdom of God. I’ve had the privilege of helping a few hear the good news in the Good News, and seen them stand up straighter when the yoke is lifted off their shoulders. The church is still a place where prisoners are released and slaves are set free.
There are other pastors out there who keep on tying up heavy burdens that they will never have to lift. They give me plenty of work to do as a burden-lifter. If any of you pastors are reading this, please hear me: the easy yoke is a lot better. Letting prisoners go is a joy. Don’t be afraid of the people who tell you you’re abolishing the law by doing so. Don’t let them make you ashamed of the gospel. Out-give, out-pray, and out-love them. That knot of fear inside you will finally relax, and you may find freedom, too.