The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 19: Moral Panics and the Divine Self

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United Press International photo, August 1966. Students in Waycross, GA burn Beatles albums. From Wikimedia Commons.

After telling Arjuna that Krishna is one of many incarnations of the Divine, Krishna continues:

Those who know me as their own divine Self break through the belief that they are the body and are not reborn as separate creatures. Such a one, Arjuna, is united with me. Delivered from selfish attachment, fear, and anger, filled with me, surrendering themselves to me, purified in the fire of my being, many have reached the state of unity with me. (BG, 4:9-10)

There is so much here that we will pause on these lines for a few days.

1) One thing I’m illustrating in this devotional series is a critical concept called intertextuality. That’s simply a fancy academic word that means we cannot hear a text “purely,” without hearing it in dialogue with lots of other texts. For example, whenever I read Amos 5:24, I hear it in Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s voice: “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” This was part of his famous “I have a dream speech” he delivered in 1963. Whenever I read Amos, I think of the struggle for Civil Rights in the country. I cannot bracket or close off those associations—nor do I want to. The words of Amos and Dr. King, 2500 years apart, present an intertext, a space where words meet, overlap, expand each other, and sometimes wrestle. This is a valuable space.

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When I read the Bhagavad Gita, I automatically hear it in dialogue with the Bible. That’s the obvious intertext. But for me, there is another an implicit intertext. I’ve alluded to it already, but I want to make it explicit as I delve into these verses.

2) Growing up in the 1980’s, I remember a lot of moral panics. Ouija boards, Satanism, New Age beliefs, Eastern philosophy, Dungeons & Dragons, comic books, tattoos, heavy metal music, healing crystals, all were threats to Good American Christianity™. One of the most dangerous beliefs, I was told, was the New Age belief promoted by people like Shirley MacLaine (among others) that you are God. “We are that God force, we are perfect,” she said (in this linked article from 1987). “I most certainly am not God,” came the evangelical retort. In evangelicalism, salvation depends on admitting one’s sinful imperfection and need for Jesus’s forgiveness. We are in a state of original sin, of separation from God. New Age beliefs that emphasize our unity with God, from a conservative evangelical perspective, undercut the gospel. “If we are already in unity with God, why do we need Jesus?” goes the reasoning.

Moral panic is why, in the 1990’s, Alabama even made it part of state policy to forbid the teaching of yoga and meditation in school. This law was only recently rescinded.

Today, those moral panics continue about both beliefs and practices. Recently, a debate about the practice of burning sage erupted on social media, with one popular pastor calling it “satanic aromatherapy.” He connected it to the New Age belief that people can “become their own gods.”

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A screenshot of an evangelicalist website ginning up moral panic. I will not link it, but you can certainly Google it if you like. Pretty sure that I qualify as hell-bound in their framework. 

3) I share all of this about intertext and moral panics because in order to address the first line of the above verse—Those who know me as their own divine Selfwe have to acknowledge the intertext of moral panics in American Christianity, of a decades-long culture war waged on multiple fronts. Moral panics have been a weapon in that fight. There is an intellectual front: Are people basically good or basically sinful? And a political front: How should we structure policy in light of it, and who gets to decide?

Though I’ve spoken dismissively of moral panics, I do recognize that there were and are beliefs and practices that are dangerous, that do harm to bodies, souls, communities, and the planet. You can make a convincing case that institutional Christianity is one of them! Capitalism is another. There are plenty of people who keep trying to gin up a moral panic about Christianity, who refer to religious teaching as “indoctrination” and claim raising children to be religious is child abuse.  

But if we are to understand the line Those who know me as their own divine Self, we have to acknowledge and name that a) there is a fundamental misunderstanding between Christian Evangelicalism and Eastern religions, and b) that there are social and political forces who benefit from maintaining that misunderstanding. We see it so clearly today, in disinformation campaigns and political rhetoric. There is a concerted effort to gin up moral panic, to advance a worldview that people are fundamentally evil, lazy, selfish, and out to steal souls from Jesus.

This worldview is not biblical. And it isn’t true. It harms people.

More tomorrow.

Prayer:
God of Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, deliver us from false religion and oppressive power. Bring about your kin-dom where all people can thrive, and no one has to live in fear.

Social Justice isn’t as Dangerous for Evangelicalism as White Guys

Maybe you’ve seen that there is a conference scheduled for Birmingham. A bunch of white guys are going to talk about “Dangers of Social Justice for Evangelicalism.”

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detail of panel from event page

Maybe you remember Mormon white guy Glenn Beck saying that social justice was a perversion of the gospel, and that you should leave your church if they used that phrase.

Maybe you remember white guy Supreme Court Justice Powell, before he was a Supreme Court Justice, writing a memo in 1971 to prominent white guys in business. Among other things, he told them that they needed to wise up to the threat posed by social justice preached from pulpits.

Maybe you are aware that for fifty years, coalitions of mostly white guys have been trying to root out social justice from mainline denominations, or destroy them from within if they cannot.

All of these white guys are right. Social justice IS a threat to evangelicalism.

Of course,  #Not all white evangelicals. Some, I assume, are good people.*

The danger of social justice to evangelicalism is that people might begin to see clearly that white evangelicals do not speak for Jesus. Or Christianity. Or God.

That people might begin to see the connection between a violent atonement theology and violent systems of oppression.

That people might see that the doctrine of hell, and the notion that we all deserve it, gives those in power an excuse to inflict hell on others, either personally or through policy.

That people might begin to realize that a great theological starting point to subjugating a continent, enslaving people, and committing genocide, is defining sin as rebellion.

That white guys might lose something.

Yes, unless white evangelicalism can reckon honestly with its past and define itself as something other than a tool of white supremacy, social justice is a danger to evangelicalism.

Or perhaps the real danger to evangelicalism is white guys. 


*The defensiveness around these statistics is interesting. Several evangelical authors try to spin these numbers in a positive direction. Christianity Today says that white evangelicals saved the day in Alabama’s senate election by not showing up, effectively giving credit to white evangelicals that should go to black women. The authors at CT and The Gospel Coalition object to the framing that 80% of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump. It isn’t true, all of these authors argue, that 80% of white evangelicals voted for these candidates, only that 80% of voters who identified as white evangelicals and showed up at the polls did. Yet nearly-identical percentages voted for both Moore and Trump, and in surveys, 70% continue to view Trump favorably. So while it may be true to say “not all white evangelicals,” it misses the point that there is something specifically about being white and evangelical in this historical moment that only white evangelicals can deal with.

I’m the Problem

Conservative churches grow. Liberal churches fail. That’s been conventional wisdom for thirty years. In the 1980’s, as the religious right was beginning to flex its political muscle, people said this kind of thing all the time. This is why the mainline Protestant churches were declining, and Southern Baptist churches and “nondenominational” churches were growing.

Only it turns out that neither their theology nor their politics had much to do with it. According to exhaustive research by Robert Wuthnow, a Princeton sociologist, it was mostly due to marriage and birth rates. The best predictor of whether someone is in church or not is if they are married and have kids, and the engine of church institutional life for the last century has been married families. As much as churches of all varieties liked to think that they were bringing the lost to Christ, the fact is that most of their numbers came from simply breeding new Christians. The mainline Protestants, who tended to be slightly higher on the economic ladder, expected their kids to go to college and delay marriage until they had a sufficiently high-paying middle-class job. Their pastors, likewise, were supposed to be well-educated (and thus slightly older) than their “evangelical” counterparts. This meant fewer generations in a given church, and therefore fewer people. Of course, once the non-denominational evangelical churches eventually caught up with the economic prosperity of the mainliners in the 1990’s, they started seeing the same downward trend. (In the second decade of the 2000’s, there’s another disturbing trend: marriage is increasingly the privilege of a shrinking middle class. A majority of households below median income are now unmarried. What will that mean for the church of the future?)

I do wish it were otherwise. I wish that most of our growth was from changed lives, new believers, people who were committing their lives to following Jesus. That’s what “evangelism” originally meant, before the related word “Evangelical” took on such conservative political connotations. I consider myself evangelical: I believe all people—sinners, saints, and skeptics—need Jesus. They do not need a doctrine about Jesus. They do not need a particular prayer or a set of words. They need the person, Jesus, even if they aren’t to the point of “accepting” him. As a fellow church-planter says, the gospel isn’t about us accepting Jesus into our hearts anyway. It’s about Jesus accepting us.

Unfortunately, the discredited idea that conservative churches grow and liberal churches decline has not yet died. It was trotted out again by Bishop Lawrence, an Episcopalian who is distressed about that denomination’s decision to bless same-sex unions and ordain transgender people. “Sexual and gender anarchy,” he claims, will lead the denomination into decline.

There are two things (besides the prejudice) that bother me about this kind of argument.

The first is that there is little evidence that the political or theological alignment of a denomination actually affects church participation. On the other hand, there is plenty of data that point to socioeconomic factors (class, marriage, kids) influencing church involvement

Church people are notoriously bad about making fact-free assertions. Lawrence claims it’s their liberal ideas that hurt mainline churches, but I could use his same set of facts to claim that it’s the weather: Churches in the Southeast are doing better than churches in other parts of the United States. Clearly, it’s hot, humid weather that makes people more religious! So all we need to do is get more people to move to the Southeast! Or make the entire planet hotter!

At our General Conference back in April, one delegate had the audacity to stand and proclaim the same conventional wisdom as Bishop Lawrence. He said that we Methodists needed to learn from successful churches like WillowCreek, megachurches that were more conservative. Adam Hamilton, pastor of the 10,000-member United Methodist Church of the Resurrection, sat maybe two tables away. I wish I could have heard his thoughts at that moment.

Clearly, churches across the theo-political spectrum are able to do well. Glide Memorial UMC in San Francisco is radically inclusive and very liberal, yet people line up around the block to get in. At the same time, there are plenty of dying conservative churches all over the country. Quality ministry does not depend on the orientation of one’s theology or politics. People who use the tired rhetoric that liberal churches are dying while conservative ones are thriving are simply spouting their own prejudices wrapped up in religious language.

The second thing that bothers me about Lawrence’s argument is this: I believe that if more churches gave a rip about about marriage and childbirth patterns, about the disappearance of the middle class, about the economic factors that make people poor and why that makes marriage less likely for them, they might do better ministry AND address a demographic problem of decline. But my saying that probably makes me a liberal. So according to Lawrence, I’m the problem.

You know what? I’m fine with that. I’m fine with being a problem. I dearly hope that we manage to grow a big Birmingham church of a gazillion people who are also problems, who also believe that God shows no partiality. I believe we problem people need Jesus, too, and I hope that we finally bury once and for all the idea that God only works with people who don’t cause such problems.