Rearguard Strategy for Progressives

Trump, Putin, Stalin, and Hitler - each on the cover of Time as "Person of the Year"

Time’s Person of the Year is in familiar company.

Here’s a friendly heads-up to my progressive friends. The political clout of the progressive movement is currently, at best, at a 70-year low. 100-years is probably more like it. The KKK is literally marching in the streets. Enemies of civil rights, clean air and water, worker’s rights, and the social safety net control the Senate, the House, 2/3 of the state legislatures and governor’s mansions, and – soon – the entire Executive Branch of the government and the Supreme Court.

They have the keys to the kingdom, and we have snarky think pieces in Slate and HuffPo.

Regardless of how normative our views are among educated elites, in terms of actual political power, and likely in terms of majority sentiment, we are in the minority.

When you are in the minority, it is tactically absurd to further weaken your position, or to waste energy on soft or useless targets.

So, not to put too fine a point on it, stop attacking fellow progressives and our allies.

Did someone fail to nuance their ideas in a way that fully encompasses your position? Bummer, but unless they are threatening to force LGBT persons into shock and/or conversion therapy, they’re not the biggest threat we face.

Did someone’s efforts for advocacy seem to you to be more a product of their own guilt, or their own privilege, than the purity of your own motives? Wow, that’s annoying, but unless they’re planning to undermine the freedom of the press and use bullying tactics to silence you, they aren’t exactly our biggest problem right now.

Did someone fight too hard for a cause you think is less important, and not enough for the cause dearest to your heart? That must make them seem like they’re not a true ally. However, if they’re not trying to pump chemicals into your drinking water, they’re probably a better friend than the people we’re about to entrust with our lives.

Fringe-right theocrats and plutocrats have outmaneuvered us time and again, and we are now fighting a rearguard action to preserve what we can until we are able to fight back. Now is the time to build coalitions and shore up alliances. Now is the to strengthen our weaker comrades, not push them from the fold for their lack of ideological purity. We know what we’re going to have to fight for:

  • clean air and water
  • safe workplaces
  • living wages
  • healthcare
  • civil rights
  • freedom from religion
  • reproductive freedom

Let’s put all our energy into these issues, all of which are grievously threatened. The rest can wait until we get to the point where we’re actually in a position to influence government policy again.

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A Metaphor for Dialogue on Same-Sex Marriage

"Climb into his skin" - To Kill a Mockingbird Quote

Still from To Kill a Mockingbird (Universal Pictures – 1962)

Requests for Dialogue

In the days following the announcement of the Obergefell v. Hodges decision, I noticed that the initial, overwhelming jubilation among my social media friends was tempered slightly by a few folks – some of whom apparently opposed marriage equality – asking that folks be respectful in their celebration, and perhaps even seek dialogue with “the other side.” I suspect that in newsfeeds where the ratio of progressives to conservatives was reversed, there was a few soft voices asking the same of their conservative friends who were screaming about the end of civilization.

One of the more articulate requests for honest conversation came from the Rev. Tish Harrison Warren, a priest of the Anglican Church in North America (a religious body that opposes marriage equality). Although my own bias is to think that the Reverend Warren is far too generous toward the concerns of the opponents of marriage equality, I do think she makes a sound point in reminding us that, “‘Dialogue’ is not a code word for ‘convincing the person you’re talking to that they are wrong and you are right.’” If we are to understand each other, and ideally maintain or even deepen our connections to each other, we must listen for understanding rather than speak for persuasion.

This is good advice, and I’ve been trying to do just that. I’ve been tremendously grateful to some of my friends who, amidst their disappointment with the Court’s verdict, have been willing to patiently and clearly articulate their experiences and perspectives for me. Allow me to go on record now as saying that some of the people, whom I know personally, who oppose marriage equality are good, kind, thoughtful people, and they have wrestled with this issue in a number of intentional ways. Of course, as with all human experience, their perspectives are not homogenous, but there are some common threads.

A Proposal for a Metaphor, in Two Parts, with Caveats

With that in mind, I have been trying to come up with a metaphor that might help those of us who supported marriage equality to hear what those Christian conservatives who opposed it are saying, and vice versa. I have ruled out any metaphor that is internal to Christianity or American politics, because I think we are only going to hear that with our own biases. The best I can come up with is a hypothetical law in a hypothetical, predominantly Muslim country, and the experience of a hypothetical Muslim woman in that country. I am cognizant, and deeply apologetic, for committing the sin of appropriation in speaking of a tradition that is not my own, but in this case I think it’s necessary because drawing in the “other” appears to me to be the only way to distance ourselves from visceral responses to familiar scenarios. I suspect that Christian social conservatives might be more skeptical of uniquely Muslim piety than they are of its Christian forms, and I suspect that my progressive friends might be more inclined to sympathize with pietism from a non-Christian religious tradition.  I am not trying to speak as a Muslim, but instead trying to ask how we as outsiders might hear this hypothetical story of Muslim experience.

What I propose to do is to offer the metaphor in two parts. In the first part, I will attempt to clarify for opponents of marriage equality how those of us who support it hear their words. Obviously I am not speaking for all of us, but I think that, after nearly twenty years in this movement, I can speak from my own experience with some assurance that it represents how many of us think about the issue. Having addressed that, I will then continue the metaphor, and describe how it has been helpful to me in my goal of hearing and connecting with the hurt, anger, and confusion voiced by my friends who oppose marriage equality. In this second section, I do not intend to speak for the opponents of marriage equality. Instead, I hope to speak to my fellow supporters about my own approach to establishing a frame of reference for dialogue with those on the other side.

A Metaphor for How We Hear Our Opponents

With these caveats established, imagine that you open a newspaper from a hypothetical Muslim country, and it reads:

The High Court has ruled today that all women have the constitutional right to appear in public without wearing the hijab or even a headscarf.  In a narrow 5-4 vote, the majority opinion concluded that placing separate obligations on women because of their biological sex violated their constitutional right to equal treatment under the law, and that, “while individual conscience or religious faith might compel a woman to wear the veil, it is not the role of the government to impose religious obligations on its citizenry.”

A spokeswoman for the Family Association for Women was quick to decry the ruling, stating, “This decision represents the destruction of the very fabric of our society. It bodes calamity for our nation, a terrifying future for our women, and the inevitable ruin of the families who form the bedrock of our nation. Since time immemorial, the unchanging obligation of a civilized society has been to honor and protect the modesty of our women. This is judicial activism at its worst, fundamentally reinventing the role of women in our homes, in our workplaces, and in our families. Soon we will reap the consequences, and the real victims will be our sisters, daughters, and wives whose trust we have betrayed in our rush to redefine their role.”

 

I suspect that, if you are a conservative, evangelical, Christian who opposed marriage equality, you are already coming up with reasons why the issue of same-sex marriage is qualitatively different. Don’t! This part of the metaphor is not about how you perceive the issue, it’s how those of us who support marriage equality see it. If you want to understand our response, both to the Supreme Court decision and to your posts, please try to understand why these issues are exactly the same in our eyes.

First, and most fundamentally, both issues are about denying civil rights. When we changed our Facebook profile pictures and shared exuberant posts of celebration, we were celebrating our neighbors’ freedom to finally live as equals, after having lived for centuries in a legal system that treated them as second-class citizens simply because of an outdated distinction of biology. To us, denying two consenting, unrelated adults the right to marry because of their sex is as absurd and untenable as denying them the right to marry because of their ethnicity, or insisting that they wear a particular article of clothing because of their sex.

There is no ambiguity or grey area here for us, because it is the logical extension of extending full status to women in our culture. Amanda Marcotte explains this extremely well. Simply put, the arguments against marriage equality were predicated on assumptions about sex and gender identity that were already archaic in the twentieth century, and which have no place in the twenty-first. Some religious groups still haven’t caught up on the issue of gender equality, thus it is hardly surprising that the two largest Christian denominations advocating against marriage equality also do not allow women to serve as pastors/priests. The conflict, therefore, is not just about marriage. At the heart of the debate is our desire to push back against certain groups’ anachronistic and irrational need to categorize and limit people based on their biological sex. For us, that debate is long-settled, and opposing it in the public square sounds to us sounds like an attempt to turn back the clock to the medieval era.

In fact, we realize that there isn’t a cogent argument for doing so, other than from religious fundamentalism. I know from past experience that opponents of marriage equality often object to the “fundamentalist” label, but those who make those objections would be well-advised to read the conclusions of the Fundamentalism Project, led by Martin Marty. Fundamentalism emerged in the early twentieth century as a reaction to modernism, when certain superstitions and prejudices could not withstand the cultural consensus created by social and scientific progress. When religious “conservatives” enter into the public sphere to deny rights to women, people of color, members of minority religions, or LGBT folks, it is fundamentalism at work.

Simply put, we do not want a theocracy, and we definitely do not want fundamentalism – Christian, Jewish, or Muslim – to dictate any aspect of our governmental policy, ever. If you self-identify as a “conservative Christian” and oppose marriage equality, please understand that we hear your rhetoric in exactly the same way that you would hear the words of an imam proclaiming that the law should require that all women – regardless of their own beliefs –  wear the hijab. This is not because all supporters of marriage equality are atheists or hostile to Christianity. Many of us are Christians ourselves, and I am a theologically conservative Christian clergyman. We are not opposed to you imposing the restrictions of fundamentalism on yourself. We may not like it, but if someone believes God does not want them to marry someone of the same sex, we respect their right to choose not to do so. However, when someone acts to prevent others who do not feel the same religious obligations to nonetheless abide by them, then we feel compelled to respond.

Our response is not in opposition to personal religious belief or practice. It grows out of our strong opposition to theocracy of any kind, and our specific desire – as people who support social and scientific progress – to prevent fundamentalism from gaining any power in our government. We see the evils of fundamentalist theocracies in places like Iran and Saudi Arabia, and we recall the horrors of Calvin’s theocracy in Geneva. We do not want an America where other people’s religious beliefs are imposed on our citizens.

So, if you want to step into our shoes and hear your arguments the way we do, try to understand that it sounds to us as if you are opposing civil rights for American citizens, perpetuating a patriarchal and sexist system that defines rights and civil/family roles according to people’s biological sex, and advocating for a fundamentalist theocracy. If you want us to take your arguments seriously, you will have to address these concerns. You will have to explain how preventing same-sex couples in loving, lifelong, committed relationships from having access to the rights and protections of marriage is not denying them civil rights. You will have to explain how you are not trying to reinstate an older worldview that defines people’s social and familial roles based on their genitalia. And you will have to demonstrate that you are not trying to use your minority theological opinion to dictate U.S. law. If you can work through those concerns, if you can demonstrate that your logic is qualitatively different from those who argue that the laws of their nation should require (or continue to require) that women wear the hijab, then you will have framed it in a way that we can hear it without immediately rejecting or mocking it.

A Metaphor to Help Us Understand the Fears of Our Opponents

Now let us return to our hypothetical country.

Imagine that you are a woman named Amina who grew up in a medium-sized town in a country where the law required that women wear the hijab. You are a devout Muslim, and to you your wearing of the veil has always been a daily reminder of the comfort of your faith, as well as a public statement of your belief in the dignity and special calling of women as set apart from the coarseness of male roles and behavior.

You are well-educated, with a Master’s degree in Chemistry from a university in a nearby country. While at university, you tended to only socialize with other women who wore the hijab. In fact, you thought that, because so many women went uncovered, Muslims were a minority at your school. It never occurred to you that the women there might be equally pious Muslims, and that the hijab might not be a part of their religious practice, since going unveiled was unheard of (and in fact illegal) in your homeland. Although you encountered things in your studies that might have challenged your faith, you always resolved any contradictions you encountered by assuming that human knowledge was limited, and that God’s eternal teachings took precedence.

Now imagine that you work in a research lab at a hospital in your town. You show up for work the day of the high court’s decision, wearing your hijab as usual. You know that a couple of the staff members of the hospital are not Muslims, and you are not surprised to see that those women show up with their heads uncovered. What does surprise you is to see a significant number of your Muslim friends with their heads uncovered as well. Even more surprising is the significant number of patients who arrive throughout the day, all unveiled.

Nonetheless, the majority of the women you know well, and generally the majority of the women in your town, are still wearing the hijab. When you return home that evening to watch the news, however, you realize that the same is not true in any of the cities throughout the country. In fact, according to the television footage, the streets of the cities are packed with women laughingly marching in solidarity, their heads bare of scarf or hijab. Even more surprisingly, the reporters are only giving token attention to those who opposed allowing women to go in public unveiled, and those opponents are universally being portrayed as rural, ignorant, and superstitious. You view yourself as none of these things.

 

It is important for those of us who support marriage equality to realize that the shock and hurt felt by our fellow citizens in opposition is not unlike that of Amina in the metaphor above. Again, I am not trying to speak for them. Instead, I simply hope to describe how this illustration has helped me find some sympathy for their responses.

Just as our hypothetical chemist thinks that the hijab actually protects and helps women, so too do the opponents of marriage equality genuinely believe that preventing same-sex couples from getting married helps them, helps children, and helps society as a whole. Yes, I think this is nonsense, and surveys consistently indicate that the majority of Americans agree, but this is not about the logic of the argument, this is about how it feels. Opponents of marriage equality feel that they are losing a stable, healthy society in which gender roles are clearly defined, an orderly world in which people know to behave the “right” way. No matter how we may feel about that worldview, it is important that we recognize the grief and sense of loss they feel at seeing it disappear.

We must also recognize that this isn’t just about their views regarding a stable society. For them, the debate about marriage equality is also about their religious beliefs. Many, if not most, of the opponents of marriage equality view their stance as essential to their faith. This seems self-evident considering the language of the debate, but the obviousness of the fact may keep us from recognizing how deeply personal and foundational the issue has become to some people. Even though it is clear from the number of Christian denominations who support marriage equality that Christianity is not inextricably linked to opposition of same-sex marriage, some Christian leaders continue to speak as if it were. As a result, this means that some Christians hear the overwhelming support for marriage equality as an attack on their faith, as a critique of their deeply-held, lifelong convictions about God and human nature. From my perspective, this means that more work needs to be done to extricate Christianity from fundamentalism, but that work will never even begin if we cannot find honest sympathy for those who feel as if the very basis of faith is being threatened.

For many “social conservatives,” the Supreme Court’s decision not only seems like a challenge to their religious beliefs, it’s also a stunning blow to their long-held assumptions about their political power. Russell Moore, president of the fundamentalist Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, states that marriage equality opponents, “assumed that we would always represent a majority in American opinion.” Many of us are surprised to learn that they thought this way, but only because it is easy to stand in our own echo chamber and forget that our opponents live in one as well. Like our hypothetical friend Amina, many opponents of marriage equality genuinely thought that they were in the majority in their home country. The harsh realization that they are not carries with it the double blow of finding themselves in the minority, and of learning that their organizations do not carry the political power they thought they had.

Consequently, opponents of marriage equality have abruptly learned that they are members of a minority group, one with limited political clout, one with minimal and biased representation in the media. As a result they now fear the possibility of social stigma, ostracism, and even persecution over something that they view as fundamental to their identity. The irony of this circumstance is not lost on me, but as someone who has spent his professional ministerial career advocating for those who found themselves on the margins, I can also sympathize with their feelings of marginalization and powerlessness. Fundamentalists have always used a disingenuous persecution complex to further their agenda, and years of that rhetoric have now collided with the realization that their views are clearly in the minority, leading to tremendous anxiety about the possible loss of their freedom as a result of their marginal political and social status.

In light of the protections of the First Amendment, those fears are absurd, but I can understand how the tone of public opinion might engender that anxiety. Speaking for myself along, I have to confess that I want opponents of marriage equality on the margins, and I do not want them to have political power. Nonetheless, they do have a right to be heard, and if I want to hear their voices, the voices of humans speaking from their flawed experiences just as I speak from mine, it is essential that I recognize the fear and loss associated with their new-found minority status. Even if I find many of their hyperbolic claims ridiculous, I will never be able to have honest dialogue with them if I cannot find a way to empathize with the source of their fear.

In short, as Atticus Finch said, if we are going to understand the opponents of marriage equality, we have to “climb into [their] skin and walk around in it.” We have to consider what it feels like to genuinely believe that society is in decline, and to grieve that the beliefs we hold most dear are under attack. Even as our political power as progressives seems to be on the ascent, we must remember the disquiet and frustration of feeling politically powerless. In the end, we must, without a trace of irony or sarcasm, recognize that – regardless of how ignoble and intolerant the reason – our opponents are now entering into the experiences of marginalization and stigmatization long felt by members of the LGBT community. If the late Reverend Will Campbell, a passionate advocate for racial inclusiveness, was able to hear the pain and longing in the stories of klansmen, then we can do the same for those who oppose civil rights for LGBT persons.

Concluding Thoughts

Opponents of marriage equality will no doubt object to being compared to the racists of yore. Although I am aware of those objections, I also note their historic myopia. In previous generations, well-meaning people of faith used religious rhetoric to oppose the abolition of slavery, oppose women’s suffrage (even in the modern day), and to oppose integration and multi-ethnic marriages. The rhetoric is the same, and the outcome is the same. Society moves forward, and eventually the “conservative” religious rhetoric catches up. My point here has not been to defend opponents of marriage equality, or even to assert that their arguments deserve equal weight. I think the pattern of history is clear, and I think that future generations will simply group all of these issues together as representing our gradual rejection of the tyranny of medieval superstition and ancient prejudices.

In the here-and-now, however, we are faced with the reality of neighbors, colleagues, social media friends, and family members who sincerely and passionately disagree on this issue. Neither side is likely to persuade the other, but somehow we have to find a way to see ourselves the way our opponents see us, and to try and step into their world so that we might find common ground in empathy, if not in understanding.

When Jesus was asked whom we should consider our neighbor (after commanding that we should love our neighbors as ourselves) he responded with a parable that, were he to seek to offend us as much as he did his original audience, he would likely have titled “The Good Nazi” or “The Good Klansman” of instead of “The Good Samaritan.” The call of the gospel is to love even those who hate what we represent, and whose views we despise, as if they were our brother or sister. We cannot do that unless we recognize each other’s wounds, and actively work to heal them.

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On the Banning of Books

Nazi Book Burning

Source: http://totallyhistory.com/nazi-book-burnings/

I mock and vilify all sorts of attitudes and behaviors here. I dislike unregulated capitalism (and I’m not terribly fond of the regulated kind). I have a low tolerance for people who confuse superstitious ignorance for religious faith. I am intolerant of those who allow bigotry and intentional ignorance to perpetuate the marginalization of people who live on the margins because of their sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, or ethnicity.

But the most deserving target of my pure, undiluted wrath are those pedantic and parochial morons who – because of the narrowness of their own pathetic, underfed, and feeble intellects – withhold books from those children who wish to read them.

And yes, I am looking at you, Randolph County, North Carolina.

I am also looking at you, “Parents Action League of Annoka-Hennepin

Shame on you all.

To quote José Martí:

Asesino alevoso, enemigo del pueblo, y digno del escarnio de todos los hombres es todo aquél que, con el pretexto de guiar a las generaciones futuras, les enseña un sistema aislado de doctrinas y les musita al oído, en lugar del mensaje dulce del amor, el evangelio bárbaro del odio.

Treacherous assassins, enemies of the people, and worthy of everyone’s ridicule are those who, under the pretext of guiding future generations, teach them an isolated system of doctrines and whisper in their ear (instead of the sweet message of love) the barbarous gospel of hate.

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A Simple Question

Why does anyone listen to Fundamentalists?

Seems like a reasonable question...

I was pondering this today, and I decided to put it into a Facebook-friendly graphic.

As someone who teaches World Religions, it seems fairly obvious to me that fundamentalists – Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Zoroastrian…doesn’t matter – have a consistent history of always being wrong about everything.  So, with that said, why does anyone give them any credibility when they come out with new pronouncements about whatever it is they oppose in this generation?

In particular, why does the news media pretend like they have a valid perspective that needs to be given equal credibility or air time alongside what non-fundamentalists think?

Fundamentalism is not about faithfulness to a religious system.  The views opposed by fundamentalists of past generations invariably become so culturally normative that even future generations of fundamentalists have to accept them.  Most “creationists” for instance claim to take the Bible literally while still accepting that the Earth is not flat and that it orbits the Sun.

Fundamentalism is about the obdurate defense of ignorance in the face of logic and reason for the purpose of preserving a bigoted and imbalanced social order.  The issues may change, but the fundamentals of fundamentalism never do.

More importantly, everyone always ultimately realizes how wrong the fundamentalists of preceding generations were.  So, why haven’t we figured out yet that we should just ignore them?

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What Do Christians Believe? A Response

Orthodox Icon of Pentecost (Wikipedia)

Orthodox Icon of Pentecost (Wikipedia)


This piece ran as a letter to the editor on the Religion Dispatches site.

My friend Dr. Gary Laderman led us into the Triduum by asking “What do ‘The Christians’ Believe?”  His thoughtful essay led to the inescapable conclusion that one cannot define a common “Christian” view on any controversial social, ethical, political, or moral topic.  Whatever the issue – slavery, polygamy, homosexuality, abortion, feminism, pacifism, genocide, ethnocentrism, kosher food laws, Sabbath observance – there is no definitive Christian position on any of them.  Our Scriptures were written and edited by too many people.  Our tradition spans too many cultural sea changes.  Our constituency is simply too broad.

That is a hell of a point to make right before Maundy Thursday.  If being a Christian is not, inherently, about believing the things that the media and televangelists claim we believe, then what is it about?  Why do we bother?  What does a Christian believe?

Some might argue that we should return to the good old days, when Christians were untroubled by the moral relativism of postmodern ideas and pluralistic friendships.  Unfortunately, even if we were to turn the clock all the way back to first-century Jerusalem we find, as Acts 15 reminds us, that even the Apostles who knew Jesus personally were divided on how Christians should behave.  This diversity of opinion continued into the fourth century, when the leaders of the Church gathered together to clarify what Christians actually believed.

Those meetings ultimately produced three documents that remain the only consensus writings on Christian identity.  Two of them – the Apostles’ Creed, and the Nicene Creed – provided the theological logic that guided the selection of the writings for the third:  the Bible.  It is worth noting that, in a time of profound Christian diversity, leaders from Christian communities from around the known world did not include a single social, ethical, or moral issue in either creed.  In addition, they were comfortable including in the canon of Scripture writings that offered a wide variety of ethical perspectives.  When the early Christians got together and described the consensus of their beliefs, they did not talk about social issues.

So what, then, does it mean to be a Christian?  In the hopes of standing in the tradition of the early Church, and limiting myself to where there is actual Christian consensus, my own answer follows the logic of the Apostle’s Creed…

“I believe in God…”

Christians are people who believe in a divine reality, one beyond the material world perceived by our five senses.  We believe that there is more to life than what we can control or understand.  We believe that there is something beyond our comprehension, and that “something” is conscious, vital, wise, and loving in a way that is not limited by space or time.  While Christians might have different perspectives on the value of the experiences and content of the material world, we are united in our belief that there is more.

“I believe in Jesus Christ…”

As Christians, we do not simply believe in a distant and untouchable divine presence.  We also believe in “incarnation.”  We believe that in some inexplicable way almighty and perfect God took on human form and stepped into all of the messiness of human experience.  As Jesus, God healed us, taught us, comforted us, and fed us.  To be a Christian is to believe, not only in the unique incarnation of Jesus – but also to have faith in the possibility of incarnation itself.  Christians believe, even when all appearances are to the contrary, that God is present with us.  We believe that, no matter how different the divine reality is from the world in which we live, God is able to reach into our lives and touch us.

“…[Jesus] was crucified, died, and was buried…”

For Christians, believing in the incarnation means also confronting the reality of the cross.  God in human form, despite power and wisdom beyond our comprehension, did not wipe out disease.  God did not overthrow oppressive empires.  God did not create a new, Christian empire (although many lesser leaders attempted to make that claim).  Having lived among us and walked beside us, God surrendered to the forces of greed, selfishness, and power.  God was tortured by them, and eventually God died at their hand.

Surprisingly, Christians do not have a consensus as to why.  By privileging certain biblical passages over others, Christians have offered a variety of explanations:  Jesus was a ransom, Jesus was a sacrifice, Jesus was an example, and Jesus’ death reconnected creation to the Creator – just to name a few.  No single explanation is normative or even completely satisfactory.  Where Christians agree, however, is in the inevitability of Jesus’ murder.  For whatever reason, the incarnation of almighty God leads inexorably to God’s death – at the combined hands of a self-serving empire, a cruel bureaucracy, and an ignorant crowd.

This gives Christians a rather odd perspective on suffering, grief, loss, and failure.  If God, who created the world in the first place, can experience these things – then they are not the ultimate defeat they can sometimes appear to be.  If the collision of what is true, good and perfect with what is venal, debased and selfish can lead to a painful defeat even for Jesus, then when we experience those same things in our own lives we are not truly defeated. Christians believe that sometimes, perhaps often, choosing what is truly good and noble means utter failure in the eyes of a world which limits itself to honoring the shallow gain of material wealth.

“On the third day he rose again…”

Ultimately, those apparent failures are vindicated.  Christians believe that death itself, the fear of which looms over nearly all human endeavors, is neither an ending nor a defeat.  In the days of the early Church the first “witnesses” to Christianity were those who staked their lives on that claim, and as a consequence the Greek word for witness (/martyr/) became synonymous with choosing death over infidelity.  At the close of the Easter Vigil, Christians around the world will share in their hope by standing before the mystery of an empty tomb and we will feast together, trusting that Jesus’ encounter with death means that someday all graves will be empty.  Christians believe that death is itself defeated.

“and [Jesus] will come again to judge…”

Christians believe that the choices we make, our actions and our omissions, matter.  As Dr. Laderman has rightly pointed out, we do not agree on which choices we should make or how we should act.  We are united, however, in our common effort to work to make choices whose long-term consequences lead us closer to the person and example of Jesus.  Young seminary students are often discouraged to learn, on studying the Scriptures and Church history more closely, how little clarity there is on the specifics of what we should and should not do.  It is impossible for Christians to be defined by being completely correct about what is right and what is wrong.  Instead, we are defined by our desire to try.

“I believe…in the communion of saints…”

Christians believe that we make those efforts as part of a community.  We are accountable to each other, and to the long history of those who have gone before – from Moses to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Christianity is not a faith of or for individuals.  It is a single body formed by the concerted efforts those who (guided by God as the Holy Spirit) seek meaning in the teaching, life, and death of Jesus.  To be “Christian” is to trust that humanity is greater than the sum of our individual abilities and limitations.  Christians value and nurture community.

“Amen.”

This leaves a lot of things out, and those seeking clear guidance as to what “Christians” believe on controversial issues are likely to be disappointed.  Those who make a living off of claiming Christian consensus where there is none are likely to be livid (if they even bothered to read all the way through).  On the other hand, those who fear that – because their own views have differed from the popular Christian stereotype – they are not “real” Christians, they should take hope!

Perhaps more importantly, those from other traditions and those who claim no tradition at all, should likewise be encouraged.  There is much common ground here.  Although this specific combination of beliefs is uniquely Christian, there are many areas of commonality with widely-held views.  Most of us believe that there is more to life than what we can see and touch.  Most of us believe that what we do matters, and that fighting against evil systems and greedy desires is worthwhile even when we pay a price.  Most of us, when push comes to shove, harbor at least a suspicion that death is not final.  Through this lens, Christianity looks familiar to all who have asked these kinds of questions.

Which allows us to return to Dr. Laderman’s question original query. “What do Christians really Believe?” If we limit ourselves to widely-held stereotypes, the answer seems filled with cognitive dissonance.  On the other hand, if we allow his response to help us brush away all the detritus of easy caricatures and selfish political agendas, we can then answer honestly.  When we do, we can preserve a voice that is uniquely Christian, and we can allow that voice to speak in a way that is neither shrill nor strident.  Instead, the Christian voice becomes one that can sing in harmony with the rest of us, the rest of humanity, as we all seek to find hope in the darkness of empty tombs.

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