Preachers, politics, and the Christian Left

“This need not be our normal.”

Love thy neighborPeople of faith have been, and ought to be involved with small-p politics, in terms of feeding the hungry, but also pointing out injustice, opposing immoral wars, and the like.

I’m fascinated that the Washington National Cathedral, the closest thing the US has to a national house of worship, issued a strong statement about the White House resident. “The racial overtones are clear, and they are building,” says Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde. “This need not be our normal.”:

The new DC Archbishop, Wilton Gregory, and the only black archbishop in the nation, said 45 is “diminishing our national life,” by attacking non-white members of Congress. “I have stressed that I am a pastor and fellow disciple of Jesus, not a political leader,” Gregory, the former archbishop of Atlanta, said in a statement to the Catholic Standard. “There are, however, sometimes, when a pastor and a disciple of Jesus is called to speak out to defend the dignity of all God’s children.

“Our faith teaches us that respect for people of every race, religion, gender, ethnicity and background are requirements of fundamental human dignity and basic decency,” Gregory said. “This include newcomers to our country, people who have differing political views and people who may be different from us. Comments which dismiss, demean or demonize any of God’s children are destructive of the common good and a denial of our national pledge of ‘liberty and justice for all.'”

You can tell these comments were made reluctantly, lest their intentions be misunderstood, their parishioners offended, their sincerity attacked.

Someone, I wish I remembered who, noted recently that Paul Tillich, one of the most important theologians of the 20th century, said c. 1960 that we should declare a 100-year moratorium on the use of the word “God.” “He’d simply grown weary of people dropping the name to support their utterly non-scriptural, usually bigoted, fundamentalist agenda, and wanted time for the air to clear, and to let real theologians set the record straight.”

I’m not crazy about the term Christian left, because it seems to suggest a primarily electoral agenda. Still, John Pavlovitz lays it out correctly. “The loudest people get to write the story that everyone hears, the one they come to believe is the only story. In this way, they get to define what is true for those looking on, who may not hear anything else.

“Right now there is a story being written about Christians in America; a story saturated with cruelty and absent of compassion, and because the authors’ volume is so great and their profile so high and their political position so unrivaled—that is becoming the singular story. It is becoming true for all of us.

“But that is not our story.” And he goes into great deal about what IS an alternative narrative. This important to me personally, because those louder, more Politically connected, but less spiritually compassionate have been a stain on my faith for WAY too long.

Finally, an old IRL friend of mine said recently, “You know, Roger, so many ‘good’ people who claim to follow Jesus Christ also support racism in this country. Do they really think they won’t burn in hell for their greed and bigotry?!” To which I can safely answer, these things are WAY above my pay grade.

Criminalizing compassion

criminalizing compassionI recently came across this Common Dreams article, ‘Criminalizing Compassion’: Trial Begins for Humanitarian Facing 20 Years in Prison for Giving Water to Migrants in Arizona Desert.

Human rights advocates accused the U.S. Justice Department of “criminalizing compassion” as a federal trial began in Arizona Wednesday for activist Scott Warren, who faces up to 20 years in prison for providing humanitarian aid to migrants in the desert.

I think the prosecution is terrible, of course. But it DOES reassure me that we’re not a Christian nation, despite protestations to the contrary. A Christian nation would follow these familiar tenets of Matthew 25:

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

Or the Good Samaritan story in Luke 10:

But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

This regime targets trans health care protections, has IRS audit poor taxpayers at the same rate as richest One Percent and other things too numerous to mention here.

Rev. Franklin Graham, among other “Christian leaders”, is asking “followers of Christ across our nation to set aside June 2 as a special day of national prayer” for the regime. He said, “In the history of our country, no president has been attacked as he has. The lies and the deceptions rage on.” The irony is striking.

I do agree with part of Graham’s call, that the regime “will know and understand the power of God in a new way.” But for me, it is different than what we’ve experienced the past 28 months.

Outrage and the “war on Christians”

“To be clear, this case had nothing to do with ‘persecution…'”

outrageEd Stetzer, Executive Director, Billy Graham Center has written a book released in the fall of 2018 called ‘Christians in an Age of Outrage’. I haven’t read it and don’t know if I will.

But he penned a piece about WHY he wrote it, and it makes some sense.

“In Fall 2017, it seemed like the world was on fire. Everywhere I looked, I saw anger — anger towards Christians, anger by Christians, anger by Christians towards Christians. People whom I respected as voices of patience and forbearance were being ignored or sucked into the hostility.

“I want to help Christians engage an outraged world with discernment and wisdom, seeing the world as the mission field to which God has called us.”

Stetzer wrote in the introduction of the book: “What do we do when the anger becomes too much? When our righteous indignation at injustice morphs into something completely different? How do we know when righteous anger has made the turn into unbridled outrage?”

I should note that, very recently, I became aware of the aftermath of a bout of Christian versus Christian outrage. One was actually more irate, the other one more wounded, both ironically coming from a place of love for each other.

The former, I’m sure, believes that there has been a war on Christians in America. I can imagine that person would applaud former Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ “religious liberty memo”. The 20 guidelines include the notion that employers are ‘entitled’ to hire only those whose ‘religious beliefs and conduct are consistent with their employers.’

The other would see the state trying the codify Christianity, creating what I too would consider a violation of church and state.

I’ve been thinking about this in part because of a story you’ve probably heard about. A guy named John Chau who “was killed by indigenous people with bows and arrows after visiting the island of North Sentinel in India to convert people to his religion,” that being evangelical Christianity.

The group International Christian Concern, “a nonprofit that aims to draw attention toward Christians suffering throughout the world,” wants the locals to be charged with murder.” Now there are places in the world, including India, where it can be dangerous to be a Christian.

But as Patheos notes: “Not only does this group call what happened ‘murder,’ ignoring the fact that they aren’t bound by our laws and were acting out of self-defense, but they go even further by suggesting they can be tried in our courts. These remote villagers have had no contact with the outside world, and it is illegal to travel there because it’s dangerous for visitors and residents.”

I believe that when an arrow pierced his waterproof Bible on an earlier trip, he truly believed God would protect him from harm. I’m suggesting ICC is engaging in unjustified outrage, beyond offering condolences to his friends and family. Chau’s action was neither heroic or admirable but potentially dangerous to those he wanted to “convert.”

“To be clear, this case had nothing to do with ‘persecution…’ It’s well known that the Sentinelese people are hostile toward all outsiders. In 2006, two Indian fishermen were also killed while illegally traveling to the island. In other words, he wasn’t killed because he was a Christian; he was killed because he traveled to a prohibited island and endangered the locals…

“What better day than Thanksgiving to threaten the lives of indigenous people. This is how genocides start.”

BTW, on that list of the 50 countries where Christians ARE most persecuted, the United States does not appear. In the USA, I’m much more concerned about the potential loss of freedom of the nonreligious and those practicing non-Christian religions.

Not incidentally, a new bill wouldn’t ‘literally’ ban Bible sales in California.

“God is a capitalist” and other heresy

‘May all Members be mindful that the institutions and structures of our great Nation guarantee the opportunities that have allowed some to achieve great success, while others continue to struggle.’

While I tend to believe in the broad diversity of expression within the Christian church, and honor it as a good thing, occasionally I find a version so utterly toxic that it irritates me greatly.

Such was the case when I read about weekly Bible studies held by members of the regime’s Cabinet.

“Ralph Drollinger’s own ministry declared him ‘not biblically qualified for spiritual leadership.’ And yet, he leads the… study group, organized by Vice President Pence and faithfully attended by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, CIA Director [now Secretary of State] Mike Pompeo, Energy Secretary Rick Perry, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, among others.”

The Message is that
Governments and leaders “must send a constant message that sin will be punished”
Entitlement programs have no “biblical authority”
Liberal Christians aren’t really Christians, they’re “simpletons”
Catholicism is “one of the primary false religions in the world”
“Radical environmentalism” is a “false religion”
“God only hears the prayers of leaders and citizens who are upright, who live righteously through faith in Jesus Christ”
“God is a capitalist” and because of excessive environmental regulations in the U.S. “the economic benefits God intends from private property ownership have been greatly diminished”
“Righteous” people with government positions should not “compromise Biblical absolutes” and should hire only other “righteous” people

I could argue against each of these, some on First Amendment grounds, others as gross distortions of Biblical scholarship, but suffice to say that the exclusivity of this mindset of the faith I find disturbing.

Oh, and Franklin Graham states that Trump stopped sinning when he became President. I was looking up the Ten Commandments. There’s one that reads: “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.” Given his propensity for prevarication, one must assume that he has sinned at LEAST once in the last 15 months.

Meanwhile, lame-duck Speaker of the House Paul Ryan forced out House chaplain Patrick Conroy, though he was soon reinstated. Daily Kos cheekily wrote, it was reportedly for being way too Christian, unprecedented in House history in the middle of a session.

“In the prayer he gave back in November on the first day of the mark-up of the tax scam bill [he] gently nudged members to think about the meek.

“‘May all Members be mindful that the institutions and structures of our great Nation guarantee the opportunities that have allowed some to achieve great success, while others continue to struggle. May their efforts these days guarantee that there are not winners and losers under new tax laws, but benefits balanced and shared by all Americans.'”

Speaking truth to power – wasn’t that part of Jesus’ message? On this day of Pentecost, which makes the church the church, it will be interesting to watch which strains of the faith are considered genuine over time. I certainly have MY theories.

Billy Graham, at peace with God

Billy Graham actively discouraged Jerry Falwell, a founder of the Moral Majority, from mixing religion and politics.

When I was nine years old, while watching a Billy Graham crusade on television, I had a “born again” experience. I don’t remember whose house I was at, but it was on Oak Street, between Winding Way and Dickinson Street, across the street and half a block from my church in Binghamton, NY.

It was a specific theology that wasn’t so different, I suppose, from what I learned from Trinity AME Zion, but it resonated so much that, somehow, I got recruited by the secretary at my school, Pat, for Friday Night Bible Club. My sister Leslie soon went as well, and we attended for several years.

I’m fairly sure it was Pat who gave me a copy of Peace with God, Graham’s 1952 classic book about salvation. This codified my budding theology so that I thought, as did others, that I would grow up to be a preacher.

I could quote Scripture pretty darn well in those days. Psalm 119:11 – “Thy word have I hid in my heart that I might not sin against Thee.” Didn’t have to look it up, even after all these years.

By 9th grade, I started carrying around my Bible to school. By 10th grade, my friend Bobby and I would walk over two miles to the Primitive Methodist Church in Johnson City every Sunday afternoon for more fundamentalist training, and then usually walk back.

I really became “holier than thou.” Even when some of my friends drank and smoked pot, in my presence, I remained resolute. Until I wasn’t.

When I understood that all those people in India and China who never accepted Jesus Christ as their personal Savior, who perhaps never really even heard of him, were supposedly going to go to a literally fiery pit called Hell – which is why why we “needed” so many missionaries – I simply couldn’t accept that.

Fairly soon thereafter, I fell away from this belief system, which I had initially learned from Billy Graham, and it took a long time to find my way back to a theology that made sense to me.

I started re-examining the preacher. His close ties with Presidents, when I had been younger, I saw as a good thing in spreading the Word.

His friendship with Richard Nixon, in particular, became problematic for me, as I believed even by my freshman year in college that Graham was co-opted by the power elite, rather than speaking truth to that power.

To his credit, Graham eventually came to that same conclusion himself. He actively discouraged Jerry Falwell, a founder of the Moral Majority, from mixing religion and politics.

“Evangelicals can’t be closely identified with any particular party or person. We have to stand in the middle, to preach to all the people, right and left,” Graham said in 1981, according to Time magazine. “I haven’t been faithful to my own advice in the past. I will in the future.”

I have a soft spot in my heart for Billy Graham, despite his significant shortcomings, as accurately laid out by Arthur. Not so for his dreadful son Franklin, whose appearance in Albany in 2016, I protested.