Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Deliver Us from True Believers

Maybe you can help me think something through. It's about True Believers in politics and religion, and the need to be delivered from them in both.

First, politics...

Eugene Robinson in this morning's Washington Post quoted Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal on the GOP:

We’ve got to stop insulting the intelligence of voters. We need to trust the smarts of the American people.

Makes sense. Robinson, now:

If they want to attract minority support, Republicans will have to take into account what these voters believe on a range of issues, from the proper relationship between government and the individual to the proper role of the United States in a rapidly changing world.

That's a great insight. But it's going to take a special effort "to take into account what these voters believe," because voters are people, and people are more complex than politics allows.

That's why Democrats have won a majority of votes in five out of the last six Presidential elections. It's not tactics, messaging, or race, and it's not any single issue. Democrats are marginally better than Republicans, at least in our current climate, at acknowledging the pluralism and ambiguity we experience. Oh, they still polarize. But their leadership pays just a little bit more attention to the complexity of what we believe.

This is not the same as paying attention to True Believers. Parties, be warned! True Believers are those ideologues who hold onto their policy proposals so tightly they believe they are first principles. It makes them quotable on cable. But it's only in the minds of True Believers that things like lower taxes and less government are the answer to every question, and not simply tools, like hammers, that are best used when what you really want to do is drive a nail.

Most people aren't True Believers. We carry more tools in our bag. We expect our leaders to, as well. Try cutting wood with a hammer. You can do it, but it makes a mess.

To pay attention to what voters truly believe, the parties each have to recognize voters live in a world of complex celebrations and struggles, aspirations and relationships, not some oversimplified fantasyland where everything is black or white, either/or, true or false, hammer or nail.

You see why I think we have to turn to religion...

There are True Believers in religion, too. Fundamentalists come to mind. "The Bible says it, I believe it," is enough to make it true. But there are also those who agree religion is exactly what the fundamentalists say it is, but because it doesn't pass muster intellectually or morally, it all has to go. True Disbelievers. Hi ho.

Pace Jindal: We've got to stop insulting the intelligence of Christians and pay attention to how the people in our churches truly believe.

Here's the thing. We who call ourselves pastors and teachers have done the church no favors by doing all our theological heavy lifting in the privacy of our studies. Or worse, only in seminary. By taking the deeply spiritual, intellectual, and emotional work of deconstructing and reconstructing faith, and then hiding it, we've been faithless. We have not trusted the people we love, people who live and serve, suffer and thrive, and get sick and die in our congregations, to wrestle with meaning. We delude ourselves thinking that if we do it for them they won't have to. Or that they aren't already doing it. Of course they are. And they find it strange that their pastor or teacher doesn't talk about it.

Why? Maybe we want to look like True Believers. Or, more likely, we remember the crucible of our own faith crises and would spare others the searing flames of the day we learned the creation stories in Genesis won't reconcile on a time-line. We remember the day we noticed the fingerprints on the Pentateuch don't all belong to Moses. The day it dawned the gospels give us more than one Jesus. The day we realized Paul's letters don't fit the chronology of three journeys in Acts. What's more, they're not all by Paul. And the ground began to rumble!

We remember when our naïveté exploded, and we blindly pulled the Philistine walls of our earlier faith down upon our heads. Yes, it hurt. In our defense, we would spare you that.

But at what cost? A little condescension on our part, certainly. It takes arrogance to believe you can protect the faithful from ambiguity, mystery and spiritual pain. But it costs even more. In trying to save people from faith's trial and crucifixion, we deny them not only the truth of their experience but the joy of a new faith resurrected and shared. Save us, Lord, from becoming pastors who would protect the church like that!

I believe it's actually a good and helpful thing, to accept the call with Jeremiah, "to dig up and pull down, to destroy and demolish, to build and plant.” Note the ratio of deconstruction to reconstruction. It's 2:1. That fits. For True Believers it's 0:0. When you don't dig up the soil, you also don't plant.

How much better to wrestle with beliefs articulated in the beautiful simplicity of a creed or lifted up in the moving lilt of a familiar hymn, by taking seriously what was at stake when the words were written! By taking seriously what's at stake now.

Scripture itself formed out of the refining fire of political, social, economic, and yes, spiritual unrest. To read it sanitized, cleansed of its messy origins, is like trying to make bread rise without the violent biochemistry of yeast. It remains flat and bakes up hard. You can stay alive on it, but you'll never flourish or thrive.

Here's the theological point. There's good reason Gnosticism was considered heresy in the early church. It denied Incarnation, not because God couldn't do it but because God wouldn't stoop so low. The dualistic either/or God of True Believers could not imagine both remaining God and also becoming one with this ambiguous, convoluted, silly-good, messy riot of a world. How sad.

Incarnation means at its very least that God is here not in spite of the messy, riotous violence, the raucous ecstasy, and the occasional, dull throb of being human, but gladly, lovingly, redeemingly, in the midst of it all. Thankfully, that's where we live. Pastors and congregations together not as rigid True Believers but as communities learning to trust that God is here with us, and it is good.

So... my prayer for the church today:

Deliver us, Lord, from True Believers in politics, yes, but also and especially in the church; from leaders who mistake the naive for the profound, the simplistic for the simple, and the neat and tidy for the good, and who in the name of protecting us from the evil of spiritual tear-downs prevent us also from building a living faith flexible and fit for today. Help us see you in the messiness of human needs and ecstasies alike, that we may meet the world with eyes open, resolve strengthened, and hearts and minds renewed. Amen.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Hanging off the fiscal cliff

I've had a few days to think about the fiscal cliff. If I were an economist, I'd probably be quoting Paul Krugman http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/ and be more concerned about the debt ceiling than the fiasco of the New Year's midnight votes in Congress. If I were a political scientist, I'd be concerned about the effect of the fiscal cliff negotiations on John Boehner and the tea party-led wing of the Republican Party in future legislation.

These things are important. But as a pastor, I'm concerned also about who we are letting ourselves become. What sort of character are we developing for ourselves as a people? Are we looking out for the people God calls us to look out for, or are we just looking out for ourselves?

You and I both know that our political system by design assumes collective self-interest will serve the common good. That's a base principle of representative democracy, and it's a philosophical underpinning of Adam Smith-style capitalism. I won't argue that there's a better system out there, because I don't think a better one has shown its head in the world of real politics. But that doesn't mean it's good enough.

If self interest is all we guide our ship of state by, then those who shout the loudest, shine the brightest, and pay the most will always be well-served. The rest, not. Our current system, good as it is, leaves out the very people the fiscal cliff negotiations failed to help in any meaningful way. Yes, unemployment benefits were temporarily extended, and yes, child tax credits were as well. But nothing was done to lift a single person out of poverty. Health care is still not available to everyone (although we're getting closer, it's still not universal). Just ask a soldier returning from combat about treatment for PTSD, or a homeless person who used to have mental health benefits but now does not have access.

In short, the people Jesus called us specifically to care most about - the poor, the sick, the disabled, the marginalized, the abused and powerless - are still hanging from a thin branch jutting out of the fiscal cliff of a culture that has pushed them over the edge. And some have already fallen, not just metaphorically, to their deaths. As a culture we have their blood on our hands.

All claims that we are a "Christian nation" are not just lies but downright blasphemy if we fail to pay attention first to the people Jesus cared most deeply about. Then we'll enact policy and law on behalf of those living in poverty or sickness or under the backbreaking load of marginalization and injustice. Pass legislation that does that and we can make some claim to be Christian, and Jewish, and Muslim, and all the other religions of this land that value compassion not only in word but in deed.

I'm no economist, but I participate in this economy. I'm no politician, but I participate in the political process and I vote. But I am a Christian who understands that the one I know as Savior reveals a God who cares first about love and justice for the ones who experience them least.

There's more to be said, and more importantly, much more to be done. I hope as people of faith we who say we follow Jesus will unite our voices and urge our representatives to act not out of collective self-interest but (and I know this is so much harder, but it's what Jesus called us to do and be) out of other-regard.

Seeking the common good, I wish you blessings and peace.