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Monday, May 25, 2015

On Christian Apologetics, Political Activism, and Cognitive Dissonance - A layperson's view

This post represents a departure from my usual topics, because it deals more with faith and spirituality as they concern political issues in today's world. I have touched on such topics before, just not in this blog. In the 1990's, I experienced a real epiphany when Ben and I enjoyed a tour of the Mennonite museum during a weekend getaway to Shipshewanna, Indiana. I wrote about that experience for my writer's group in an essay called "In Search of the Remnant."
Let me apologize ahead of time for this blog post and ask my readers to please bear with me because it does wander around a bit. I come from a family of geologists and paleontologists, so I tend to back away and take the long view.
I generally date the church's departure from "church-as-I-knew-it" (when I was growing up in the 50's, 60's, and early 70's) to the late 1980's and early 1990's,
a period when civil discourse and intelligent discussion  or even the pretense of it disappeared from public life. If the sixties flew in the face of conventional wisdom, and tradition, the backlash of the eighties and nineties seemed to finish the job. Let me explain: Newton's third law of motion says that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. If we apply this concept to the social realm (and perversely, it does seem to apply), we would expect an inevitable backlash against the "new order" introduced by the sixties.  But ironically, in trying to get back to "the way it was" it feels instead like we've destroyed it. Grace, character, personal honesty, humility, and civil discourse have taken a back seat to arrogance, greed, and general rudeness. The result is that both political and religious life have become almost unrecognizable, at least to this baby-boomer. Possibly more than one person of my era may feel somewhat betrayed by their early training and upbringing in how to deport ourselves as citizens.

Since the focus of this post is on the religious aspects of the backlash or "push-back," I want to shine a light on when the church became politically active on conservative issues and climbed into bed with political parties and partners whom my equally, if not even more, conservative elders of the 50's, 60's, and early 70's never would have trusted. Back then, if you were in the fundamentalist camp, neither political party was your friend - yes, back then we definitely had separation of church and state (take it from the girl from Bob Jones University). However since then, I would argue that our churches have been deliberately targeted by moneyed interests who take advantage of the faithful's sincerity, conscientiousness, and also, in their sincere effort to "get it right," occasional proneness to tunnel-vision. These moneyed interests have preyed upon the faithful with deliberately divisive issues such abortion and "family values" in order to win their vote. Not only that, these moneyed interests must have also targeted our religious schools and seminaries because many pastors simply tell people for whom they should vote, instead of reminding their flocks to apply the whole of scripture to all of their decision-making. Can I get an amen from anyone out there who recognizes that this is just not right?

For me the death knell on my life-long, open-minded relationship with the Republican party sounded with their "family values" platform of the 1990's. The hypocrisy of this politicization of the church's teachings was immediately and painfully obvious to me. Political pundits who backed it did not live it. Gullible followers who bought it hook, line, and sinker turned a blind eye to their own "failures" in the same respect, and I have to say, "folks, it just don't work that way." You can't turn your back on people you brought into this world and consider them "mistakes" (even if the Roman Catholic Church does annul your marriage)!
You can't throw away your family ties and obligations anymore than you can invade another country and force a democracy down its throat. Are these not oxymorons? You also can't on the one hand have an educated citizenry in a democracy and on the other hand, tell them you plan to overthrow another country, force it to be a democracy, and expect them to buy it. Wait, what? Didn't you think we'd notice?
In reality, the family-values platform of the 1990's felt more like the Republican party was purging itself of "undesirables," namely a broad category of people like me who didn't fit into a narrow definition of family. Today I wonder if I should have taken that so personally, but back then I did. I had been, not by choice obviously (although I did not regret the loss of abusive relationships), a child of divorce struggling against the odds to make a way for myself in the world as honorably as I could. While I may have fallen short, I eventually found and married my honey, who happened to be divorced, and we ended up in a happily-blended family of our own (for nigh on 35 years now). My aging geologist father however, who had early in my life set the example of being broad-minded, had since turned stark-raving conservative. He had a second family whom I suppose, since he was all for "family values," he now regarded as his "real" family?

Huh?

Or what about some of my conservative friends who allowed themselves the luxury of several "attempts" (legalized or otherwise) to get their family lives right? Did they then climb on the "family values" bandwagon and look down their noses at people who in all truth may have actually lived closer to a scriptural notion of only one mate for life than they had? It just seems to me that the only thing this notion of family values accomplished was forcing a lot of decent, good, moral, and otherwise intelligent people into a corner and requiring them to be hypocritical. But enough scathing commentary. I don't know why the Republican party felt it wise or necessary to shed themselves of over half of America back in nineties because of some narrow, and when you come right down to it, rather immoral definition of family values, but for some obscure reason they did.
Never-mind that those who had been cut out from the herd probably had had both liberal and conservative influences and loyalties in their lives and grew up respecting, being open to, and voting for both parties. But no more. Today, after twenty-some years of witnessing the non-stop arrogance; the rudeness; the denial, the bull-dozing; the talking over or deliberate ignoring of one's own blunders and mistakes; the disrespect; and other outrageous public conduct that characterizes (or should I say sensationalizes) our political system (as well as the conservative party's tiresome habit of continually coming up on the wrong side of every issue), I fear we are way past the point of no return to the good ol' days.
Since the 1990's my age group has moved from middle adulthood into their senior years and experienced the usual joy and sorrows this maturity brings - birth, death, health problems, moves, and financial ups and downs. While our personal lives unfolded, we (along with everyone else) lived through the attacks of 9-11 and witnessed the resurgence, for lack of a better description, of militant Islam. Once again we saw our service-men and women come home injured or in boxes. We lived through the economic debacle created by the Too-Big-To-Fails' failure to appropriately manage the economy. Just recently the issue of gay marriage has made the headlines along with the controversial religious freedom acts that various states, including mine, have tried to enact. And on and on and on. There's no question about it, if people want to "live right" in this world, they are bound to experience a fair amount of Cognitive Dissonance. For me that comes when I am confronted with events and crises that boggle my mind like the recent behavior of Islamic extremists or when I bump into Christians who call for engagement in right-wing politics.

All my life, I have been exhorted from the pulpit to be "instant in season and out of season" and to always have answer for the reason for my faith to anyone who asks. In looking up the scripture reference I realize that with the passing years, I have confused two separate passages. The in-season/out-of-season passage comes from II Timothy chapter 4, starting with verse 2 and reads: Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all long suffering and doctrine. The second passage comes from I Peter 3:15 and is probably more to the point of this blog post. It reads: But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fearIn regards to how Christians should behave not only toward one another but also toward the outside world, I think these passages mean we should be thoughtful and give a thoughtful answer, which our questioners can then appreciate. Which means we probably need to really listen to their questions! Sometimes these questions are hard. Sometimes the best answer may not be with words. Whether the questions come from fields of science; or whether the questions concern justice and fairness, e.g., women's rights versus rights of the unborn; or whether the questions pertain to all the varying phenomena of sexuality; or whether the questions bring up other weighty matters with which great minds have wrestled for centuries, I believe this scripture is calling all believers to be apologists (in the theological sense of the word) for the Christian faith to the world.
Remember, I told you this blog post would wander, and as an another aside, I do think these scriptures seem to highlight one difference between Islam and Christianity. I stand gladly corrected if I'm wrong. Christianity has the pope and the writings of the saints and many, many well-known theologians throughout the centuries - St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther, John Knox, John Calvin, Simon Mennos, Jonathan Edwards, Charles and John Wesley, Soren Kierkegaard, Karl Barth, Albert Schweitzer, and Martin Luther King, to mention only a few. Who are the great apologists of the Islamic faith who can represent and mediate their religion to the rest of the world? Are they out there and we just do not know about them, for whatever reason? Well, actually, I have recently found one individual, Imam Abdullah Polovina who appeared in the news because he obtained a master's degree in leadership from a Catholic University. I guess I should google for the rest, shouldn't I?
So here I will attempt to present my apology or reasons for why I resist using the Church as a political platform to shape public policy on issues such as gay rights, abortion, and evolution. I recognize and even sympathize that these can be problematic issues for some Christians trying to live in a secular world - but ours is a democracy with one of our freedoms being freedom of religion (or even freedom from religion). Since we no longer live in church-states and since I'm pretty sure I remember scriptural teachings about obeying our temporal authorities, then we have to discover and abide by broader commonalities and rules of fairness. Here are some other reasons I object to current Christian activism. I don't think the use of the church as a political platform to influence the outcome of elections is a good use of Christian's time and energy. The main duty of the Christian is to spread the Gospel - the good news of Jesus. We are to go into all the world and make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19); and Christians have been doing that for eons. If they hadn't, none of us would be Christians today and the church would not exist. Here's another reason I object. While I understand that sin is sin is sin in God's eyes, in my aging memory the scriptures seem give more weight to issues of social injustice. (People seem to be the ones who give more weight to supposed sexual misconduct.) Jesus Himself spoke of a great judgement day when the sheep would be separated from the goats (Matthew 25:31-46) and NONE of the issues that stir up so much outcry today are going to be on that table. On that day, the questions are going to be whether we fed "the least of these" who were hungry, tended "the least of these" who were sick, welcomed the stranger, and visited the prisoner. This passage of scripture is not some obscure, hard-to-find, infrequently-touched-upon portion of the Bible! Most people know about it.

Another example from Jesus' teaching is the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), perhaps not as frequently touched-upon, but still one I grew up hearing. The story goes thusly: Lazarus was the poor man full of sores who ate the crumbs under the rich man's table and the dogs licked his sores. When Lazarus died, angels took him to be comforted in the bosom of Abraham. When the rich man died, he went to the regions of thirst and torment called Hades.
Allow me to digress a little here. Ben and I were blessed to have a wonderful minister at the Dayton Memorial Presbyterian Church where we attended for many years. Actually Ben was an active member there for twenty years before we met. Anyway, our minister's name was Bill Beswick. Bill Beswick was such a wonderful shepherd and example. He visited Ben and me and warmly welcomed us as a couple into the church before we were married, no questions asked. Ben didn't want to get married in the Presbyterian Church because he'd already been married twice in that church - both marriages ending in divorce. So Bill Beswick married us in the Methodist Church just down the road. Anyway, I will never forget Bill's sermon on the above-mentioned passage of scripture about the rich man and Lazarus. Bill's point was that WE all are the rich man; and that the rich man wasn't really such a bad guy - except that he failed to see someone in need right under his nose, so to speak. And that was his downfall. The lesson of that sermon has stayed with me for life - not only do we need to see what's right under our nose, we need to ask how much further can we reach?
Bill preached another good sermon, this one about the feeding of the 5,000 (Matthew 14:13-21; Mark 6:30-44; Luke 9:10-17; and John 6:1-15). While Bill didn't deny that Jesus could take a few loaves and fishes and turn them in to enough food to feed a multitude, he simply asked us to think. Wouldn't it be an even greater miracle, if Jesus somehow persuaded the multitude to open up their tightly-clenched fists and share what they had, which then turned out to be enough to feed everybody? The answer is a resounding Yes! It would be a miraculous and massive inner transformation undreamed of in modern time, for even God Himself seems to find our hardness of heart a challenge at times (Matthew 19:8). I'm sure there will be people who take exception to this interpretation, and I have to admit, that as a Baptist girl (growing up), I had my guard up, but God is not just the God of the cut-and-dried, He's the God of  All Life and Creation, and of imagination, playfulness, intellect, creativity, and growth - and I'm sure He tolerates our taking these approaches to how we live and to how we work with scripture.
So these scriptures about the sheep and the goats and about the rich man and Lazarus are perhaps the main underpinnings for why I am uncomfortable with today's brand of religious activism. When Christians seek to engage me in activism in terms of abortion or evolution or gay marriage, I think "There are all kinds of needs and suffering and abuse in the world today. If I heard you first express a similar concern about stopping child abuse, or starvation, or helping to alleviate some other pressing need, I might be more inclined to listen to you about all this other stuff. But as it is, why aren't you out there putting as much of a voice into helping children who are already on this earth and in spreading the Good News of the Gospel?"

The moral to the story is that if we're going to be involved in and try to engage others in political activism, perhaps we should back candidates based on the weighty issues, not on the splinter issues. In my good Baptist upbringing, I was taught about two judgments - the final judgement (The Great White Throne) and a judgement day for Christians where their works (not their final fates or destinations) will be tried by fire (I Corinthians 3:12-14). I was taught that the fire will burn up our works of straw or chaff and refine our works of gold. I tend to think our works of gold will be the extent to which we individually and unselfishly give of ourselves and our resources to others, and especially to help the poor, the sick, and the prisoners. Our works of chaff will be all this other stuff.

Another reason I am uncomfortable with current conservative activism among Christians is that I see it as a departure from how I was taught to regard "persecution" for my faith. Let me again explain with two very small examples. In my youth and young adulthood, I have on occasion had to take a stand for some of my Christian beliefs on creation and other matters. I'm not a seven-day creationist, although that issue was a real struggle for me back then.
I'm sorry, but having one parent with a phD in geology and another with a phD in paleontology makes it difficult for me to totally ignore the geologic time-table. Growing up in Indiana University's married-student housing in the fifties while my parents earned these degrees, seeing the seismograph trace its waves on a continuous roll of paper, and admiring the beautiful rock exhibits in the Geology Building are among my fond memories of livng with my parents on the IU Campus in the mid-fifties.
But I do believe that God created and I've had to take a hit for that in my college grades at Purdue. (I know, pretty lame as persecutions go, when you think of early Christians facing the lions). But here's my point. When I got that grade, it did not occur to me at the time to hire a lawyer or to write my congressman. Being willing to take a stand and take the hit was part of my Christian witness and my testimony. Jesus Himself set the example; he went as a lamb to the slaughter (Acts 8: 26-40). Christianity was built on martyrs and people who were willing to go into all the world with the Good News no matter what the cost. We owe those people a huge debt of gratitude today.

So here's an idea for Christian business people who have a "conscientious objection" to serving same-sex-marriage customers. Look to the example of your brethren who had conscientious objections to serving in the military (if you can find an affordable copy, read Nonresistance put to test by Nicholas Stoltzfus, 1981), Or if that path seems a little too hard, and I admit, I would certainly be intimidated, how about this: If you object to same-sex marriages, then don't make money from them. Instead as a gesture of God's love, humbly offer your services for free when called upon. That seems more central to our mission of spreading the Gospel! I know, any suggestion is problematic, but perhaps still worth considering. I was once in a local production of the musical Hair, It was something I really wanted to do, and yes, something many Christians would ask, "WHY?" As it turned out, one of the scenes was simply too sacrilegious, even for me. So I sadly and apologetically approached our director (a wonderful individual named Kevin McGuire) and offered to resign from the show. Kevin didn't even bat an eye when I explained my dilemma. He said, "Just discreetly exit the stage before that number and discreetly reappear when it's over." Lol! Of course I had to explain why I was slipping off the stage to my surprised fellow cast-members:
Hey, where you goin' ? The stage is this way!

Sorry guys, this one just goes too far - Just can't do it, see you later.
They all seemed cool with it (I was one of the older cast members, anyway - one who had actually grown up in the sixties, lol, so they all kind of looked out for me). I know, for those who think I shouldn't have been in Hair at all, this concession would still be unacceptable, but my point is this: Not all moral dilemmas necessarily lead to the lion's den or to secular courts of justice; at times there may be other workable options and creative solutions. When these matters come to the Final Judgement, the Supreme Judge will weigh the details of every case before He delivers His final verdict and at that time everyone will accept, if not celebrate, His wisdom.

I'd like to close this discussion by harking back to a topic in my earlier essay In Search of The Remnant. I've come to appreciate the latter history of how the Bible came to us. I used to think of that process as a simple straight line. An Unchanging God introduces the scriptures into history over a period of years and when the final version is "etched in stone," so to speak, it survives a 2000 year trip into our hands today, with its meaning intact, unaffected by the many hands, lives, lands, languages, and cultures who did their part to pass it on. But that's kind of like saying what all those people did for God didn't matter. And if we say that about them, the same must be true of our own efforts and service today, because we are just another link in that long, long chain which extends into the unseen future. But surely God didn't call us to a demotivating and uninspiring religion, did He? I suspect the truth of how the Scriptures arrived in our hands today is slightly more complicated and a lot more interesting.
Recent world events have gotten me thinking about Islam and Christianity, in particular the differences between our two histories. My initial perception was that historically Islam seems to be a religion spread by military conquest and subjugation while in Christianity, individual choice is extremely important and must have played the primary role. But can we really claim that for certainty? Christianity sort of was spread by armies, the Roman army, in fact. Even though the Christian's faith is supposed to be a matter of personal-choice, there was no separation of church and state in the Christian realm for hundreds of years, starting with Constantine and continuing through the Protestant Reformation and even into the settling of the New World. For the early Christians who had faced persecution and death for their new faith, Constantine's embrace of Christianity was probably deemed to be very good news! But as time went on Christianity became for many, many years a religion that individuals were simply born into and by which, as the law of the land, they were governed.
In truth, Christianity's path to us today was not a straight road but more resembles a tree with many branches. The branch or tradition that captured my mind and heart for the Lord way back in 1964 when at 14 years of age I went forward at a revival meeting was the Anabaptist tradition (however other traditions had helped lay the foundation to that point - including the Christian Church, the Quakers, and the Presbyterians). Anabaptism was a branch that helped introduce the notion of separation of church and state back into Christianity around the time of the Protestant Reformation. Among modern-day incarnations of the Anabaptists are the Mennonites and the Amish and less directly, the Baptists (at least those who claim John Smyth as their founder) and the United Brethren.
Another belief carried forward by the Anabaptists was that of non-violence. In particular Mennonites comprise a significant portion of our modern-day conscientious-objectors. In support of them and of other assertions I have made throughout this post, I would call on the scriptural passage Ephesians 6:10-18, as well as various scriptures supporting the notion that Christians are not citizens of this world but of the kingdom of God. Ephesians 6:10 tells us to "be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might. Our enemy in the struggle is not flesh and blood but rather we wrestle "against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places." While the reach of these evil rulers may extend into the world's geographic boundaries and political systems, I believe this passage is talking about a spiritual domain, not a physical one. Our weapons and battle gear are not modern-day military issue but rather the whole armor of God: the girdle of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shoes of "preparation of the gospel of peace," the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the "sword of the Spirit which is the Word of God." We are to wear all these things so that we "may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil."
Ah, those wiles of the devil. What are those? I'm sure Christians can use the passage from Ephesians referenced above to justify many different decisions and directions, but what if the wiles of the devil were to subvert the church from its true purpose of spreading the gospel? How would he do that? Would one way be to cause us to forget who we are? Perhaps we should stand guard and be vigilant and once again ask ourselves if we have inadvertently allowed the money-changers back into the temple (Matthew 21:12-14). In fact I am going to end this parenthetic by quoting that entire passage (notice what Jesus did in the last verse): 
12 And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves,

13 And said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves.

14 And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple; and he healed them.
But no matter how Christianity did survive the centuries to come to us today, whether through individual choice or military conquest, or some combination thereof (if you read my parenthetics), I think it's important that we not forget our roots, especially that we not allow "popular" Christianity and secular political parties to sweep them aside as insignificant, because there is some really important "stuff" in the latter history of our Christian heritage. Vibrant Christians come from surprisingly different backgrounds, histories, cultures, and practices throughout the world today. Christianity has been around a long, long time, in fact thousands of years. It has survived and come through many different cultures and peoples, passed on to us by those who never dreamed our individual or collective existence, realities, and possibilities today. And Christianity will likely continue long after we are gone because, in some way, it has proven resilient, life-affirming, and adaptive. This is just one more reason for Christians to concentrate on their main mission of spreading the Gospel instead of becoming involved in legislating morality and getting hung up on various sins. Perhaps we should concentrate on just getting people into the Kingdom and let God finish the process of writing His law on their hearts.

In the end, and here is where I go back once more to the comparison between Christianity and Islam, I have to ask myself and others, "What does our faith impel/compel us to do?" In the case of recent actions taken by radical Islamists in the news today, the answers to that question can be shocking and brutal - except then, to be fair, we also have to acknowledge some of the horror stories that have taken place within the history of our own religion - and while some of those stories are more notorious than others, sadly there are too many to mention. Ben and I have been noticing a commercial lately on television promoting atheism, in which the person says he is not afraid of burning in hell. Sadly, some things done in the name of religion would make great commercials for atheism. But the point I want to make is this: as Christians, if all our faith impels us to do is political lobbying against abortion and gay rights and evolution and on and on and on ... the difference between us and other state-based religions is only one of degree, not of basic nature. As Christians we are called and should feel impelled to go forth and reach out and proclaim the Gospel and spread the good news of God's love not only by our words, but by our deeds.
Ben and I have had our own church history. We met through a large singles group sponsored by Covenant Presbyterian Church in West Lafayette, Indiana. Ben grew up in the Disciples of Christ, a denomination which places particular emphasis on being non-judgmental. It's fair to say that we've taken a while to get comfortable with the differences in our theological upbringings and to find a church where we are both comfortable. We owe a debt of gratitude to several wonderful churches throughout our marriage for inspiring us and helping us to grow in our Christian faith including the Dayton Memorial Presbyterian Church, the Crestview United Brethren Church, and now the Stockwell United Methodist Church. So let me emphasize here that the intent of this post is not to be critical of any of those organizations or anyone in them. In fact, I'd like to express my appreciation, to thank them for being there for us all these years and, in their case, to simply put this post "out there," so people can better come to know us and understand us.
In leaving this discussion, I must in all fairness sing one praise for the back-lash against political correctness; but only in instances where pc is applied in a top-down, heavy-handed manner that stifles individual expression (otherwise, I think pc was sadly necessary for the most part). It is now more acceptable to address religious issues in public life than it was when I was a young career-person. In a country founded on religious freedom, all "religions" (including atheism, science, and any other belief-systems that either act as or replace religions) should be allowed public acknowledgement and expression. Rather than removing nativity displays from the courthouse, why not allow displays from holidays of all religions (or at least those represented in the district)? I recognize that this is problematic for atheists, but they could conceivably come up with their own apologetics and displays and then practice tolerance in a diverse society right along with the rest of us. Rather than prohibiting displays of the ten commandments or prayerful expressions in the public schools, our laws should be formulated in such fashion to allow these institutions to include moral statements and faith expressions from all religions, in keeping with their various school populations. These statements can then serve a dual purpose: when they conflict, they can be used as an occasion to teach our children about one of our nation's great liberties and values - Freedom of Religion. Where these statements agree, we should use them as a valuable reinforcement for teaching our common values of honesty, morality, and citizenship.

Blessings to my readers, and a thanks to anyone who has undertaken the reading of this lengthy post!

JuneBug

James 1:27 Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.

1 comment:

Susan Clawson said...

Great piece, Jeanne. I agree with you whole-heartedly.