The GOP is Not the Conservative Party

Oath of the Horatii - Jacque-Louis David (1784) (Wikimedia)

Oath of the Horatii – Jacque-Louis David (1784) (Wikimedia)

As Donald Trump’s campaign of racism, ignorance, and misogyny collapses around him, some members of the Republican Party are now, finally, trying to distance themselves from his candidacy. Their ongoing argument, especially after Trump’s spectacular defeat in November, will be that the Trump candidacy was an aberration, and that his views did not reflect the actual, “conservative,” values of the Grand Old Party. This will only be partially true. The fact is, Trump’s vainglorious lies and pleas to radical bigotry are not “conservative” values, but they are completely in line with the longstanding Republican practice of selling self-serving rhetoric to the American people under the guise of “conservatism.” In so doing, Republicans have shifted the debate away from meaningful discussions based on both facts and civic virtues, and toward a false dichotomy between their self-interest and the hypothetical liberalism that opposes it.

Defining Real Conservatism

Real conservatism is about preserving the hard-won, received wisdom of our ancestors rather than simply embracing something because it is novel. To be conservative is to value tradition, and to care more about the substance of an idea rather than whether or not it is au courant. To be conservative is to tread lightly in the presence of elders, or others deserving respect, because their struggles have earned them that courtesy. To be conservative is to cherish, preserve, and pass on the concepts, behaviors, and rituals that elevate us above our baser instincts and bring out what is best in ourselves: as individuals, as a community, and as a nation.

I have lived and worked in a number of settings that value actual, conservative values like honor and tradition. I graduated from the U.S. Army Airborne School in 1992, and in 1994 was the top graduate from my PLDC class, making Sergeant in under three years. Although it is not how I earn my income, I am a seminary graduate and a member of the clergy, and my post-seminary, graduate work focused on preserving the historic liturgies of the Church. I am currently a police firearms instructor whose work focuses on counter-terrorism and public safety. I am, by many definitions of the word, a “conservative,” but I vote straight down-ballot Democratic because the modern Republican Party shares none of my conservative values.

Republican Misappropriation of the Term

Instead, the GOP has come to shield two completely unacceptable behaviors behind the conveniently benign label of “conservative.” The first is defending bigotry and oppression under the guise of “religious” values, in other words equating “fundamentalist” with “conservative.” The second is lying – about science, about the Constitution, about the consequences and motivations of legislation – in the interest of protecting either wealth or power. There is nothing “conservative” about either category of action, and disingenuously labeling those actions as such does a great disservice to the spectrum of political discourse in this country, a conversation that is almost always framed as a dichotomy between “conservative” and “liberal.”

As a result of that framing, and of the misappropriation of the “conservative” label, actual conservative and liberal views get lumped together in the convenient binaries of political journalism as “liberal,” because the “conservative” position is already staked out. This means that there is no viable debate between conservative and liberal arguments, but rather simply between the Republican position and “everything else.” These Republican positions, as noted above, fall into one of two distinctly non-conservative categories: fundamentalism or self-service.

Equating Fundamentalism with Conservatism

Let’s begin with the issue of Christian fundamentalism. Fundamentalism is a modern movement that grew out of the resistance of some early twentieth-century Christian groups to the ways in which science undermined their superstitious understanding of faith. By the end of the twentieth century, whether in Christianity, Judaism, or Islam, fundamentalism had become primarily a tool by which those whose personal or political power is threatened by the modern world – generally men with little or no education – clung to that power by hiding their racism, bigotry, and misogyny behind religious rhetoric. Two clear examples of this are: the fundamentalist Christian opposition to the American Civil Rights Movement (until it became politically untenable); and, the oppression of women and suppression of free speech that resulted in Iran after the takeover of their government by fundamentalist theocrats, something many modern Iranians continue to oppose.

It makes sense to tie American and Iranian fundamentalism together because fundamentalism in a monotheistic religion typically has more in common with other forms of monotheistic fundamentalism than it does with ideas from its own religious tradition. This is to say, fundamentalist Christianity has more in common with fundamentalist Islam or fundamentalist Judaism than it does with traditional Christianity. The reason for this is that fundamentalism doesn’t grow organically out of the historic beliefs of the tradition, it grows out of a desire to gain or retain power, and to justify that power with religious rhetoric.

Conservative Christianity

Actual, conservative Christianity is concerned with preserving the teachings of Jesus as recorded in Scripture and as practiced in the early Church. This should be self-evident, since – to be “conservative” – the goal should be to conserve the full breadth of the earliest records we have of what it means to be a Christian. In practice, though, this leads to such radically difficult and counter-cultural behaviors that anyone who truly seeks to live this way stands out for how bizarre they are. A conservative Christian:

That’s what conservative Christianity looks like. Anything less is just culturally-conformist Christianity. Personally, I’m so far removed from that it seems like hubris to even call myself a Christian, but my one saving grace is knowing how far removed most of us are from such a high standard. Additionally, not all of the practices of the Early Church (most notably, slavery) are ones I would endorse. Others are so difficult that the few who manage to implement them consistently are called “saints.” Nonetheless, what the media and the GOP consider “conservative” Christianity ignores this theological reality and replaces it with a cobbled-together collection of ideas that reinforce a white, straight, male narrative that the world was better when they were in charge.

Republican Christianity

The GOP form of “conservative” Christianity claims to be counter-cultural because it counters certain social values of cosmopolitan, urban, American culture, but actual, conservative Christianity is genuinely counter-cultural – not just in New York City, but in Kansas City as well. The priorities of real, conservative Christianity are so radically different from everyone else’s that those who practice them lead lives of extreme poverty and asceticism in their desire to fully live out the clear mandates of Scripture. They fit in nowhere, because they are not of this world.

In those instances where Republicans concede that the biblical writers genuinely meant what they said on these issues, they make the disingenuous claim that Christians aren’t expected to use the tools of the state to compel the redistribution of wealth that defines Christian piety. Yet, on the very small number of issues that define “conservative” Christianity for fundamentalists and for the Republican Party – limiting women’s reproductive freedom (while ignoring the needs of those women and their existing children), LGBT rights, teaching an unscholarly approach to Scripture and myth alongside science, insisting on sexual abstinence, and controlling, in particular, female sexuality and appearance – the GOP has built its modern brand demanding that the government compel compliance with their extremely limited understanding of “conservative” Christianity. This is not because of any theological conviction on their part. Requiring political action and authority is essential to their message, because the goal is to use religious rhetoric to acquire political power.

Consequently, those who claim that fundamentalists and Republicans are preserving “conservative,” “Christian” values are committing blatant hypocrisy, both in ignoring the vast majority of Christian teachings and in building a political platform based on the government compelling compliance with their limited, sophomoric pietism. They are not “conserving” anything but a desire to impose their will, in a biblically and theologically inconsistent way, for a limited range of issues. Calling these views “conservative” does a disservice to actual conservatives, and gives these bigotries far more credibility than they deserve.

Protecting Self-Interest and Calling it “Conservatism”

This is even more blatantly true for the second category of shameful behavior that Republicans now cloak under the “conservative” label: telling lies to protect a vested interest of money, power, or both. In every instance where this happens, Republicans betray an actual conservative value while pushing forward an agenda that – while hiding behind the language of conservatism – is really just shameless egocentrism and self-preservation. Here are a few examples.

Traditionally, as Americans we believe in honoring and protecting the people who work the land, through their own sweat and muscle. Farmers built the backbone of our nation, and carved out the frontier that made our unprecedented growth and prosperity possible. Defending big corporations like Monsanto when they try to crush small farmers, especially when they try to destroy established farming practices that go back thousands of years, is not “conservative.”

Traditionally, as Americans, we value those who’ve worked their whole lives in hard jobs, not just the bosses who made millions off of them. We recognize the dignity of hard, back-breaking work, and we honor the debt we owe to those who do the jobs we cannot or will not do. Denying healthcare and pensions to coal miners is not “conservative,” especially if you shill to those same miners as a defender of the jobs created by the coal mining industry.

Traditionally, as Americans, we cherish the lush abundance of our natural resources. Poisoning the air and water, through processes like fracking, for short-term gain is not “conservative,” especially when you trample the rights of local communities to protect those resources. Denying the rights of our citizens to act through local government to protect the land that is our birthright is not a “conservative” act. Likewise, choosing profit over protecting our citizens’ health and the viability of our ecosystem conserves nothing, and destroys what we hold most dear.

Traditionally, as Americans, we privilege innovation and problem solving. The freedom that defines our nation has allowed our scientists to pursue truth, unfettered by political expediency or consequences. Silencing those scientists because their overwhelming consensus – that industrialization without strong environmental regulation is destroying the planet – hurts the bottom line of the wealthy is not “conservative.” There is also nothing “conservative” about the intentional, politicized scientific ignorance consistently displayed by the GOP, especially its members of Congress. Protecting the truth is a conservative value, no matter how high the price.

Traditionally, as Americans, we hold the right to vote as a sacred trust. Denying citizens that right through plainly partisan voter ID laws, limiting early voting, and inhibiting the votes of college students, all despite virtually no evidence of voter fraud in this country, is not “conservative” behavior. In fact, anything short of ensuring that every citizen has an easy and unimpeded access to voting, is hostile to the conservative, American value of preserving the constitutional rights of our citizens.

Traditionally, as Americans, we honor those who serve and sacrifice in the uniforms of the armed forces and of public safety. Refusing to: meet their needs, fund their physical and mental healthcare, assist them in re-entering the civilian work force, and protect them from the brutal health consequences of their heroism – that’s not “conservative.” In fact, it betrays every conservative value that defines us as a nation.

Choosing the wealth of the few over the freedom of all of our citizens whose work makes this country great, choosing short-term wealth over the long-term good of the country, ignoring facts and telling lies because they’re bad for business, denying civil rights because they are politically inconvenient, and refusing to care for our warfighters and first responders – these are the “values” that the GOP consistently defends and promulgates. Not a single one of them is “conservative,” yet the media’s acquiescence to the Republican insistence on that vocabulary and narrative creates a dichotomy where anyone who opposes this shameful agenda is, implicitly, a “liberal,” thus allowing the Republican agenda to proceed unhindered.

Concluding Thoughts

This pattern neither began nor ends with Donald Trump, but his campaign has taken full advantage of it. Decades of meaningless misappropriation of the “conservative” moniker has allowed countless Republicans to push an agenda that has consistently undermined the foundations of our country, while gleefully claiming that they are actually championing “conservative” causes. Trump is no different, he’s just more transparently fatuous than most Republicans, so his hypocrisy and doublespeak is easier to spot.

Once Trump disappears from the national stage, and the Republicans attempt to rebuild their party from the wreckage he leaves behind, it is important that the media and the general public refuse to allow the GOP to reclaim the “conservative” label that they and their party have hijacked and brutally abused. When Republican politicians argue for a fundamentalist position, it should be labelled as such: “Fundamentalist Christians assert that homosexuality is incompatible with Christianity, while the majority of mainline Protestant denominations in the US disagree, although conservatives and liberals within those denominations continue to differ on what constitutes a Christian sexual ethic.” When Republican politicians argue for a position that is patently self-serving and not rooted in fact, the narrative should be: “On climate change, those who profit from or are funded by the fossil fuel industry deny its reality, whereas conservatives are looking for ways to create new jobs through the industries supporting environmental protection, and liberal activists want to stop the destruction of the environment, regardless of the cost.”

We need to hear conservative and liberal voices in our political dialogue. The modern Republican Party has consistently demonstrated that it is neither, but is instead a curious blend of the desperate bigotries of fundamentalism with the self-serving deceptions of the wealthy and powerful. Their use of the “conservative” label for their destructive agenda is an outright lie, one that threatens the freedoms, resources, and values that make the United States of America uniquely great. And the truth is, America has been and remains, great.

We don’t need to reclaim the nation’s greatness, we need to reclaim “conservative” ideology and language, and make them great again. It is imperative that we find a more precise vocabulary for discussing the implications of political decisions. In addition, we have to eschew the lazy habit of speaking in ill-informed generalizations about the attitudes of various demographic groups, especially diverse constituencies like “people of faith.” Finally, as an informed electorate, we need to insist on dialogue that ignores media or party-imposed labels and focuses instead on issues, values, and outcomes. Otherwise we cede far too much power to those who benefit from obfuscating the consequences of their agendas behind empty bombast.

Share This:Print this pageEmail this to someoneShare on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditPin on PinterestShare on TumblrShare on Google+Share on LinkedIn

The GOP and the Destruction of Christianity

The Baptism of Constantine - Gianfrancesco Penni (Wikimedia)

The Baptism of Constantine – Gianfrancesco Penni (Wikimedia)

I’ve been fascinated by the critiques of my recent essay on how abundantly clear the obligatory, Christian response to the Syrian refugee crisis is. Some critics noted that they were glad Jesus didn’t determine our governmental policies. Others noted that “times were different” in Jesus’ era, and we can’t take his words out of context in an attempt to apply them to a modern circumstance.

So, in other words, despite the plain teachings of Jesus (and of the Hebrew Bible, c.f. Exodus 22:21-27; Leviticus 19:33-34, and countless other texts about “widows and orphans”), we should ignore the consistent voice of the biblical writers and the tradition because: times are different now, it wouldn’t be safe/practical, and personal religious belief shouldn’t determine public policy. The hypocrisy here surely needs no clarification, but, just to be safe, here goes.

Let’s begin with the idea that times are different now. When the topic is homosexuality, prominent figures within the Republican Party are quick to point out that God’s Word and will are unchanging. Mike Huckabee explains that we have not been given permission to change “God’s standard.” Ben Carson writes that he is not willing, in the interest of “political correctness” to disagree with God’s description of homosexuality as an “abomination.” Marco Rubio, in agreement with the teachings of his Roman Catholic faith, answers directly that homosexuality is a sin. Ted Cruz, strident in his opposition to same-sex marriage, believes its legalization is a threat to religious liberty. Apparently, when it comes to homosexuality, the GOP leadership sees no room whatsoever for considering the possibility that changes in historical context require interpreting biblical texts with nuance.

These same candidates are equally clear when it comes to their view of the relationship between Christianity and the United States government. Mike Huckabee believes that it is essential that the United States function as a “God-centered nation that understands that our laws do not come from man, they come from God.” He also believes that the Supreme Court “cannot overrule God.” Ben Carson talks of a “war” against those trying to turn America away from what he believes is its heritage as a Christian nation. Marco Rubio actually makes the bizarre claim that – unlike other nations where rights come from government and laws – part of America’s uniqueness is that we believe “your rights come from your creator.” Ted Cruz launched his political campaign at a prominent, fundamentalist Christian university with language that makes his run for president sound like a crusade to reclaim the Holy Land. The leaders of the Republican party are not shy in their rhetoric about America as a Christian nation that is obligated to follow Christian principles.

They stay steadfast in their support of “Christian” political principles, right up to the point where those principles conflict with their right-wing ideology. Mike Huckabee, in what one hopes in not a demonstration of his pastoral understanding of Christian compassion, compares Syrian refugees to “tainted meat.” Ben Carson believes that our “big frontal lobes” should inform us that accepting Syrian refugees is not a good idea. Marco Rubio, demonstrating a significant lack of understanding of the refugee process, said simply that we can’t take more refugees. Ted Cruz actually wants to establish a religious test for potential refugees, accepting the Christians and sending the Muslims elsewhere.

Cruz might want to re-read his Bible. The biblical witness is abundantly and overwhelmingly clear that Christians have a moral obligation – even if it means personal risk – to help those who come to us in time of need, even if they do not share our faith. Yet, without irony, the political leaders who shout the loudest that “Christian values” should determine our government’s laws and policies are the same ones who are most eager to slam the door on the refugees hoping to find a safe haven on our shores. Apparently, the GOP leadership believes that we are a Christian nation, whose rights are derived from God’s will and benevolence; and, that we are expected to adhere completely to God’s stated laws as clearly expressed in the Bible; but, none of that applies when it comes to providing shelter for the weak and wounded who have been ravaged by war. How is it possible that the blatant and explicit hypocrisy of that set of beliefs is going unchallenged within the Republican party and among their political base?

The simple answer is that the GOP, along with their public relations arm Fox News, has so fully conscripted, prostituted, and re-invented “Christianity” that – in public perception, even among self-identified Christians – it is inseparable from the fringe-right ideology of the Republican political machine. Far too many people have come to assume, without critical reflection on the actual words of Scripture or the history of biblical interpretation, that whatever the right wing of American politics recommends must be the “Christian” approach. If there was ever any doubt that the “family values” movement was not about families, and that “Christian nation” policies are not about making sure our government acts in a Christian manner, the response of far-right politicians to the Syrian refugee crisis is the unequivocal proof.

Co-opting the Christian banner in this way is hardly surprising when political leaders do it, but the willingness of religious leaders and rank-and-file Christians to follow blindly along is deeply disturbing. The problem is not just that granting fringe-right politicians free reign with the label “Christian” allows them to advance their xenophobic and reactive agenda without scrutiny or critique, although that is certainly a grave threat. Of equal concern for those of us who love the Church is the possibility that the unique and transcendent identity of the gospel will be lost, as Christianity simply becomes a synonym for fundamentalism and right-wing ideology.

If Republican politicians have their way, that is the dark and terrible future of faith in America, one that is – ironically – not unlike the ways in which the Taliban and Daesh use religious rhetoric to gain support for their own regressive policies. The only way to prevent it is for individual citizens to refuse to accept the cognitive dissonance and blatant hypocrisy of politicians’ haphazard use of Scripture to justify whatever agenda serves their purposes. Simply put, when politicians claim they are advocating for “biblical truths” and a “Christian nation,” they are lying, and the responses to the Syrian refugee crisis is the inarguable evidence to that effect. As citizens concerned with the integrity of our political process, and as Christians concerned with the integrity of our faith, we cannot allow that to stand.

Share This:Print this pageEmail this to someoneShare on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditPin on PinterestShare on TumblrShare on Google+Share on LinkedIn

Bryan Fischer Does Not Speak for Christianity

 

Bryan Fischer makes an idiot of himself

Screenshot from YouTube video (links to the video itself)

I haven’t written anything about yesterday’s horrendous events in Newtown, Connecticut because a number of writers with far more skill and wisdom than I continue to produce outstanding, thoughtful, compassionate commentary that I think will be invaluable in guiding our citizens as we grieve.  As a general rule, I try not to write an opinion piece unless I think I have something original to add to the dialogue.  Sometimes, however, when someone says something egregiously stupid, dangerous, or damaging, I feel compelled to respond.

Thanks to Bryan Fischer, Director of Issues Analysis for the despicable American Family Association (the public policy arm of the notorious hate group Focus on the Family), I now have something to say.

Fischer used a little of his broadcast time after the massacre in Connecticut to address the fundamental theological question of theodicy – how do we reconcile the presence of evil with the power of a benevolent God?  There’s nothing wrong with that.  Religious leaders all over the country will be doing the same.  As evidenced by the number of possible answers theologians and philosophers have offered to this question, any honest Christian approach to the topic must begin and end with the limits of human knowledge and experience.  We don’t know why there is evil in the world.

We don’t know why there is evil in the world.  Anyone who offers any other answer as final and absolute is, quite simply, a liar and a charlatan.  Christianity is not about explaining the existence of evil, it is about proclaiming the gracious good news that God is present with us despite the horrifying and sometimes-overwhelming presence of malice, selfishness, violence, and destruction in the world.  Any member of the clergy who answers the question “Why did this child die?” with any answer besides, “I don’t know” should find a new line of work, preferably one where they are never again allowed to talk to people.

Which brings us to Bryan Fischer.  In offering his answer to the question “Where was God when all this went down?” Fischer offered the following:

“Here’s the bottom line.  God is not going to go where He is not wanted.  Now we have spent since 1962, we’re fifty years into this now, we have spent fifty years telling God to get lost, telling God we do not want You in our schools, we don’t want to pray to you in our schools…in 1962 we kicked prayer out of the schools, in 1963 we kicked the Word of God out of the schools…we’ve kicked God out of our public school system.  And I think God would say to us, ‘Hey, I’ll be glad to protect your children but you gotta invite me into your world first.  I am not going to go where I am not wanted.  I am a gentleman.‘”

So where to begin?  Let’s start here – any god who needs a request before he or she will intervene to prevent the massacre of children is not worth worshiping.  If that is genuinely the way the world works, I would rather be damned to Hell along with all those who believe in compassion and empathy than fawn in Heaven alongside those comfortable bowing before an egomaniacal sociopath, no matter how “divine.”  I don’t know for which god Fischer presumes to speak, but it is not the Christian one.  Jesus, when asked about a massacre, clearly says in Luke 13 that death by violence or disaster is not a consequence of sin or rebellion.

Fischer has apparently confused God with the vampires of movies and television, who cannot enter a home unless invited.  (I like Vampire Diaries a lot, but Fischer of all people should look elsewhere for his theological guidance.)  For just a moment, though, let us assume that this absurd claim makes sense.  God – like Dracula or Caroline Forbes – needs an invitation.

With that bizarre rule in mind, I am willing to bet that when the deranged mass-murderer opened fire, someone in that school said a prayer to God for help.  What an opportunity for Fischer’s “gentlemanly” God.  A school full of young, impressionable “atheists” have finally invited Him in – at their time of dire need.  What a great opportunity for an act of divine intervention, one that would almost certainly convert all of those pitiable “atheists” into true believers.  One tiny answer to a whispered invitation, and God suddenly wins over hundreds of previously-unreachable “non-believers” and “heretics” who had previously denied Him access.  If Fischer is right, God was just waiting for a word that almost certainly came.  In Fischer’s bizarre scheme of arbitrary restrictions on God, this was the perfect time for a miracle.

As we know, whatever miracles took place that day, dozens of young lives were still lost, and God (the real one, not Fischer’s) stood weeping alongside the grieving parents and teachers.

Perhaps, though, what Fischer wanted to imply was that – by taking prayer and Christian Bible readings out of public schools – we have removed the influence that would have kept a troubled man from turning into a homicidal maniac.  This claim is almost as stupid as the one Fischer explicitly stated.  If you need state-sponsored, institutional prayers to be told not to shoot a child – your problem is not a lack of religious influence, your problem is that you are a sociopath in need of mental health care.

This is painfully obvious to anyone who has stopped to think about this tragedy, yet common sense and common decency have never been barriers to the AFA, Fischer, and those of their ilk pushing their anti-social agenda.  The things they believe are so ridiculous that the only way they can persuade impressionable people to agree with them is to convince the general public that groups like the AFA are speaking for God.  This means they have to use every opportunity to impose a kind of mindless, irrational pseudo-piety on the general public when people are at their most vulnerable.  Fischer’s comments are one more pathetic attempt to reach out from the outer darkness of irrelevance where his hate speech belongs and grasp at any opportunity to sway a few people to his agenda.

Mr. Fischer, since you felt so comfortable speaking for God, I feel compelled to do the same.  For fifteen years now I have been entrusted with the Scriptures and Tradition of the Church and the obligation to proclaim the gospel.  With all the authority of that call and ordination, let me say very clearly, “You, Bryan Fischer, are a fucking idiot!  You do not speak for God.  You do not speak for the Church.  You do not speak for Christianity or Christians.  You have proclaimed a false gospel of ignorance and hate.  If you wish to continue to teach in the name of this cruel, capricious god – please have the integrity to admit that it is not the God who – incarnate in Jesus – “died for us while we were yet sinners.”

For those of you who came here for more than an excoriation of Bryan Fischer’s heinous heresy – perhaps looking for something to make sense of the tragedy in Connecticut – I hope I provided ample warning early on that I do not have that to offer.  Christianity does not have all the answers, we are just an extended and diverse family of people united in seeking meaning in the ancient teachings of Judaism and the Early Church.  We have come up with many possible explanations for the presence of evil, but on some level they all eventually fall apart.

Where they all collapse is at the foot of the cross, a place that is simultaneously the triumphant cornerstone and the greatest shame of our faith.  Ours is not a religion of a thundering god crashing through the world magically repairing all the brokenness of our lives.  Ours is a faith built on a God who – seeing the pain, fear, and grief inherent in the human condition – joined us on our journey, even though it ultimately meant torture and murder at the hands of the forces of greed and selfishness.

The message of the cross is that the miracle of God is not in saving our lives, the miracle of God is in the purity of a Creator’s love that is so powerful that God is willing to step down from the luxuries of Heaven and take on our suffering.  God did not save the lives of those children because – for whatever reason – the Universe does not work that way.  According to our Scriptures, Jesus begged God, his Father, to save him from being murdered – and God did not do that either.

It sucks.  It makes no sense.  And it causes us all to question why we should bother worshiping such a God in the first place.  If you are looking for a God like Fischer’s, one who can be propitiated to intervene violently in mortal affairs, I recommend Durga.  For better or for worse, the God of Christianity does not consistently act in such a fashion.

Unlike Fischer, I do believe God was present at Sandy Hook Elementary, and that God acted.  I believe that the presence of a God who understands heroism in the face of suffering inspired teachers to risk their lives for their pupils.  I believe that a God who was vulnerable and broken at the hands of vicious killers was there for every excruciating second of that horrible time, and that each one of those children entered into eternity gently cradled in the arms of a loving God who understood what they had endured.

Perhaps that’s not enough.  In the days to come, some of us in our grief and anger will turn away from a God who would not or could not intervene to save the lives of those children.   Others will turn to other faiths or philosophies for answers.  I don’t think God will begrudge us that, after all God knows what it’s like to be forsaken.

And so, for those of you hoping that I could replace an insipid and shameful answer to the “Why?” question with a useful and theologically sound one, I cannot.  I cannot even promise you that if you pray and study and give every second of your life to God you will be spared the grief of another tragedy like this one.  I can only offer you what I have been given, what I believe, that there is more to this world than what we can see and touch, and that beyond the boundaries of our senses is a loving Creator who connects us to each other and to that world of greater meaning in ways that ultimately inspire more questions than answers.

When we seek that Creator, we are seeking to be more than we can be as individuals.  We are seeking to be greater than our limitations, stronger than our brokenness, and more powerful than our flaws and vulnerabilities.  We are seeking to stand in the face of evil, not in the hopes of easy victory, but in the certain confidence that – even in our most shocking  defeats – love, compassion, and grace will ultimately triumph.

We have seen some of that in the aftermath of Newtown, and more examples will certainly be forthcoming as people respond to the acts of one man at his worst by showing what humanity can be at our best.  Even as we join our tears to God’s in memory of those we have lost too soon and too horribly, perhaps we can also see some glimpse of the miracle of a God who knows our struggle and draws us into a people who refuse to be overcome by evil, but who instead will – every time – overcome evil with good.

Share This:Print this pageEmail this to someoneShare on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditPin on PinterestShare on TumblrShare on Google+Share on LinkedIn

First Sunday in Advent

Evangelist Matthew Inspired by an Angel - Rembrandt

Evangelist Matthew Inspired by an Angel – Rembrandt

It was the First Sunday in Advent and the last in November. We were in the shadow of the end of a millennium, and – unbeknownst to me – the beginning of a seismic change in the direction of my life.  In the Lectionary readings, Isaiah reminded us that – flawed though we are – we are clay in the hands of a loving Potter.  Jesus, speaking in the Gospel of Mark, cried, “Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.” And the Apostle Paul reminded us that we lack for nothing because our Savior strengthens us and God is faithful.

I let their voices roll around in my head as I made my way to Madison, Georgia. I had time to review my sermon, as it was more than an hour drive from our house in the city to the small, country church where I was the pastor. I often made that drive alone or in the company of our infant son. My wife Brigit worked most Sundays. Our son John-Francis heard his first homilies snuggled comfortably in the arms of any number of kind, older Southern ladies more than happy to sit with him on the back pew while I preached.

This Sunday, however, our whole family was together, and we made our way along the highway in the companionable silence of the early morning. The air had a hint of chill to it, but the sky was a cloudless blue against cleared fields and baled hay that shone a bright gold in the Georgia sun. If we looked closely, there were signs that winter was on its way, but for the moment we were happy to enjoy the last, gilded days of the South’s mildest season.

Advent, which begins the liturgical year for Christians around the world, is a season of hope. Often this hope is tied to the memory of the incarnation of Jesus, because the Christmas season is right around the corner, but the hope of Advent is even larger. In the four weeks before Christmas we remember that everyone and everything we know or value will someday pass away, and at the end of time our hope lies not in our accomplishments, but in the grace of God.

That is a more complex and subtle flavor of hope than the simple message of holiday greeting cards and Christmas carols. I had struggled with how to convey the texts’ messages of challenge and warning to my congregation, while also making certain to offer the hope that was at the center of the season and the gospel itself. I was not overly concerned. They were good sports.  Matriarchs, dairy farmers, mechanics, veterans, professionals – they had helped me grow into my calling while patiently teaching me to do the job for which seminary had given me the tools but not the workshop.

Normally I was the first to arrive, although the wife of one of our deacons would have come a couple hours earlier to turn on the heat. Today, however, I turned down the gravel drive to see that our aged white steeple presided over a parking lot full of cars. The congregation was over two hundred years old, and had once overseen a legendary revival that had prompted the citizens of a nearby town to rename their city “Newborn.” I wondered if a similarly great awakening was about to take place.

Brigit and John-Francis entered with me and found their usual spots for Sunday School while I went to my office to look over my sermon. I did not have much time to ponder the mystery of our increased church attendance, since the hour for Worship arrived swiftly. Our lector that day was the Chair of the Deacons, and his rumbling baritone proclaimed, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down…”

“At least this Sunday,” I thought acerbically, “if you came down you’d find the pews filled.  I wish I knew why.” Still contemplating the sheer number of freshly-soaped faces staring at me intently, I launched into a lackluster but adequate sermon to begin the new Church Year.

I quickly realized something was very wrong. Anyone who has had the privilege to preach in a rural, evangelical congregation knows that we are well-trained. We can tell by the preacher’s inflections and facial expressions when we are supposed to laugh, and so we do – even if the joke is a familiar one or more than a little lame (and further hobbled by the preacher’s delivery). Church is a place where we remember not to take the world too seriously, and our shared laughter creates its own liturgy, honoring the joy that is at the heart of the gospel.

There was no laughter in the congregation that day.  For twenty minutes I tossed the crumbs of my sermon onto a sea of blank stares, and all that came back was a sense that something was coming and everyone knew it but me.  For the first time I felt the fear that is also a part of the season of Advent.  The axe was at the root of the tree, and I suspected the fire was yet to come.

When it did, it was during the announcements and in the whispered words of the same Deacon who had read from Isaiah, “Pastor, the Deacons would like a word with you if you have the time.”

We met in the Sunday School room that also served as the space for business meetings. The Chair stood and read a prepared statement which began, “Pastor, this is nothing personal…”

As with “This is not about you, it’s about me,” an introit like this invariably leads to a blow that is both deeply personal and carelessly brutal. This conversation would prove to be no exception. I was given the opportunity to tender my resignation (pastors are almost never fired), presented with a minimal severance check, and asked to leave and never return.

The church had called a meeting in the wee hours of the morning prior to my arrival that day. I was not invited. There was only one agenda item: my sermon from the previous Sunday.

On that day, the 21st of November – Reign of Christ Sunday – I had deviated from the Lectionary and preached from a selection of texts I had chosen to address an event on the minds of all our members. The previous week our state ecclesiastical body had expelled two congregations for the first time in the nearly 200-year-long history of their existence. The two Atlanta churches – both served by friends of mine – were clear and public in their advocacy for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons. The rhetoric against those two communities of faith, especially in rural parishes like mine, had grown passionate and vitriolic.

I had entered the pulpit that previous Sunday terrified. I even brought two sermons with me, one from the lectionary that proclaimed the hope of unity in the reign of Christ, and the other from a collection of epistles and gospel fragments addressing pastorally the issue of homosexuality. My professional and prayerful opinion – then as now – was that any consistent, faithful approach to Scripture does not allow for the condemnation of homosexuality.

I didn’t want to say that to my congregation. I told myself that my reluctance was because they would not be able to hear the why of such a sermon because they would not be able to get past the what of it. Over the course of a sleepless night I realized that my real fear was losing a job I loved, a career path I was quickly ascending, and a paycheck that we desperately needed to pay our mortgage.

The writers in Proverbs remind us that “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom,” and ultimately that persuaded me which sermon to preach on the 21st. To this day, I recall the image that I could not shake – of me, standing before Almighty God, and God asking me why I refused to speak the truth from the pulpit. If even a single word I had ever proclaimed were true, how could I face my Creator and admit that the one time it really mattered I was more concerned with protecting myself than speaking for those on whom the Church had turned its back?

And so I had ended the previous liturgical year with the proclamation that the gospel included our gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender brothers and sisters just as they were. A week later, I started the season of Advent unemployed and unlikely to find a new congregation. My church, to its credit, had not been unanimous in their response to my sermon. Many had argued to keep me, but had ultimately agreed that the loss of an idealistic, big-city pastor was better for the church than the inevitable congregational split.

My colleagues were quick to offer their support. One – who had prayed during my ordination that God would take me, bless me, break me, and give me away – told me, “You were taken out for offering your very best stuff.  Don’t ever forget that.” I haven’t. Another simply told me, “They were wrong.  You were right.” Less helpfully, a number of them called to tell me “I wish I could have said what you said, but…” The pastors of both congregations that had been removed from our communion called to tell me I was part of their story too. I will always be honored that they counted me among their courageous number.

I also heard from a number of people whom I did not know. They told me how the Church had wounded them. They told me how painful it was to be told that they had to choose between the God to whom they had given their soul and the person who was their soulmate. I came to realize what a small price I had paid for the privilege of speaking on their behalf.

A part of me had known that a moment like that would come at some point in my ministry, but my ego had assumed that the stage would be larger and the consequences more far-reaching. A small, inconsequential church in a distant farming community hardly seemed worth the permanent sacrifice of my professional career.

But the gospel does not work that way. The riddle of Advent is that we are called to hope for a kingdom yet to come, while understanding that it will only arrive if we live as if it were already here. If we spend our lives waiting for that big chance to live out that hope, the opportunity for us to make a “real” difference, we miss the thousands of moments where we could have taken just a tiny bit of hate, anger, bigotry, or ignorance out of the world and replaced it with a little kindness, grace, or wisdom. Sometimes, the price we pay for that little bit of faithfulness or courage seems exorbitant, but – as anyone who has faced despair will tell you – that is nonsense. Hope is priceless.

Share This:Print this pageEmail this to someoneShare on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditPin on PinterestShare on TumblrShare on Google+Share on LinkedIn

There Is No “War on Christmas”

 

John Denver and the Muppets

John Denver and the Muppets (photo by djwudi – Flickr)

I don’t know if you believe in Christmas
Or if you have presents underneath the Christmas tree,
But if you believe in love,
That will be more than enough
For you to come and celebrate with me.

– Noted theologian Kermit the Frog
(using the words of Dan Wheetman)

In order to have something to complain about during a season that most people use for generosity and love, some of my fellow Christians are perpetuating the idea that the month before Christmas Day has historically been a sacred, holy time dedicated to celebrating  the birth of Jesus.  This claim has no basis in Christian tradition or history, but the minor inconveniences of facts and historical perspective has not stopped them from fabricating a myth about the Christian origins of this season.

The establishment of this myth is essential to their goal of perpetuating a tale of victimization.  In the tragic story as some Christians tell it, evil forces of secularism are persecuting faithful believers in a “War on Christmas” designed to draw our attention away from the stable-born child who, we are told, is the “reason for the season.”  These claims of religious persecution are all-the-more bizarre considering the fact that seventy-six percent of Americans self-identify as Christians.  It takes a real talent for delusional rhetoric to portray a group that makes up three-fourths of the country as a threatened minority.

Their real complaint, however, is not about holiday observances.  As Ross Douthat recently noted in The New York Times, this is a “Tough Season for Believers.”  While Christianity may continue to enjoy a majority in the U.S., the attitudes and prejudices that some consider inseparable from the tradition are on the wane.  Social conservatives and far-right evangelicals are struggling with their increasing irrelevance in twenty-first century America, and the prominence of both pluralistic observances and secular traditions this time of year draw particular attention to that reality.

Unfortunately for those on the losing side of this culture war, the history of the “Christmas Season” does not make a strong case for their complaints.  The argument from the conservative evangelicals is simple: all of the positive things we associate with this time of year have their origins in traditional, Christian observances of the birth of Christ held during the month leading up to December 25.  This claims has several flaws, most notably the fact that Christians do not celebrate the birth of Jesus at this time of year, and that our “Christmas” traditions far predate Christianity.

The first of these points is perhaps the most important.  The time between Thanksgiving and Christmas day is not, in fact, the “Christmas Season.”  It has become the Christmas Shopping Season, but that is a very different animal.  Identifying this time of year with Christmas has nothing to do with Christianity, Jesus, the Nativity or anything theological.  Instead, advertisers and shopkeepers refer to this time of year as “Christmas” to use the theme as an emotional lure to persuade people to buy more things they do not need.  Even Christian fundamentalists realize this.  Their main complaints in “defense of Christmas” are about the failure of companies to refer to Jesus’ birth in their advertising.  Apparently these defenders of Christmas do not see the irony in pushing for more commercial uses of the image of the man who told a wealthy questioner that the way to salvation is giving away all your  possessions to the poor.

Irony is not all they are ignoring.  In creating this myth that this time of year is intended to commemorate Jesus’ birth, radical conservatives are choosing to draw attention away from the actual theological theme for this time of year.  For Christians, this is the season of Advent – a time when anticipating the celebration of Jesus’ first arrival causes us to focus on the doctrine of his Second Coming.  On the night of December 24 we will focus on the Nativity; but we use the time in the four weeks prior to look toward the distant future and the end of time.  For this reason, the texts read in Christian churches this time of year are about judgment and divine anger.  They mention separating wheat from chaff, and talk about the axe that rests at the root of the tree.  In all of these passages, those who are found wanting perish – usually quite painfully.  A hungover teenager afraid their parents will come home early understands more about the Christian meaning of this season than an indignant suburbanite chewing out a retail clerk for a well-intended wish of “Happy Holidays.”

For Christians, Advent is a time of expectation, of hope tinged with fear and self-evaluation.  The misguided campaign to relocate the Nativity into the retail Christmas shopping season completely ignores this traditional, Christian understanding of the season.

Of course, long before those Christian traditions developed, this was already a special time of year.  People have always gathered together at the time when the nights were at their longest and the weather its most bitter.  Feasting, small gifts of affection, fires and candles, evergreen trees, and all the other hallmarks of “Christmas” find their origins in much older traditions around observance of the winter solstice.  If we want to dig back for the “reason” for this season of decorations, celebration, and goodwill, we find that Jesus has nothing to do with it.  When Christianity rose to prominence in Western Europe, people took their existing festal activities and whitewashed them with a veneer of the gospel.  The origins of those traditions, however, are no more Christian than those of Easter eggs or the Easter Bunny.  This was a time of goodwill and generosity long before anyone heard of a baby born in a stable.

In fact, the most familiar and heartwarming stories we associate with this time of year often have a negligible theological component to them.  Dickens’ A Christmas Carol – which almost singlehandedly brought about the modern observance of the holiday – has nothing to do with Jesus.  Scrooge is not redeemed by the gospel; he is redeemed by his realization that his greed has cost him more than he could ever measure in gold.  Likewise, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life is not the story of divine incarnation.  It is a celebration of the quiet heroism of those who choose love of their neighbor over love for themselves.  As with the Christmas traditions themselves, these and other stories of this holiday season – from Miracle on 34th Street to Polar Express – are reminders that this is the time of year when we open our homes and our wallets to care for friends, family, and strangers alike – whether or not we (or they) are Christians.

This seems obvious, but apparently it bears repeating: a season of welcome and sharing, regardless of the religious beliefs of those who observe it, is a good thing.  This is why it seems nonsensical that some pugnacious conservatives want to insist that those around them ignore the long history of this season and portray it as explicitly and exclusively Christian.  It is not, and should not be.  Just as Christians need the imperatives of Advent and the joy of Christmastide, all of us need a season of goodwill.  Long before the time of Christ, friends and families gathered to ward off the cold with food, fire, and fellowship.

We need those gifts even more today.  We should commend any attempt that others make to express those positive family values in the most inclusive way possible.  If “Happy Holidays” helps draw more people into the beautiful,  secular meaning of this season – wonderful!  It never was a Christian season in the first place.  Belligerently claiming that we are in “Christmas time” distracts from Advent and undercuts the meaning of the actual Christmas season.  Besides, Christians have enough opportunities to separate ourselves and be exclusive.  We should let this season be what it has been since our ancestors first erected Stonehenge – a time when everyone was invited in from the chill of winter for the warm gifts of hospitality and kindness.

 

Share This:Print this pageEmail this to someoneShare on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditPin on PinterestShare on TumblrShare on Google+Share on LinkedIn