Monday, August 22, 2011

Who Are You? Saint or Sinner

William Sloane Coffin, a few years before his death, wrote a wonderful book titled, Letters to a Young Doubter. At the beginning of the correspondence he asks his young friend a probing question, “Who tells you who you are?” As Chaplain at Yale for a number of years, he knew full well the power of higher education to tell students who they are. 

There are powerful forces in our culture that impact and shape who we think we are. The Christian answer that I was given as a young person is that we are all sinners. Certainly that is true. I know that I am flawed and fail regularly to live up to the best ideals of humanity, or even my own best ideals. All of us are a mass of contradictions. But is that the first and foremost thing about us? 

This is not what compassionate parents teach their children. Not at first. We tell them how special they are, how much they are loved and cared for, and what possibilities they have. 

I find it interesting in Paul’s letter to the Romans that before Paul expounds on the human problem, he identifies his readers as those who are loved by God, who belong to Jesus Christ, and who are, by divine call, saints (1:6–7). Most of us tend to think that a saint is someone particularly holy, set apart from the rest of us, someone who has achieved something very special. But in Paul’s view, we are all saints. 

One aspect to faith involves saying “yes” to our sainthood. Faith is our acceptance of God’s unconditional acceptance. We are first the daughters and sons of God before we are sinners. Toxic religion turns that around. Unhealthy religion teaches that we are first unworthy, under God’s wrath, and must be saved from our sin. Healthy religion says that we are first secure in God’s love, that we are saints already, called to live as God’s beloved children daily. 

Once we accept that we are accepted and experience being loved by the One who sustains all existence, we then find the sacred space and inner courage to face the tensions and contradictions that our sin creates. When we know we are loved by the Divine Lover, we find the confidence and inner strength to confront our false self (our little ego-driven self with its propensity to grasp, grab, and cling to that which we think will bring ego satisfaction). Knowing that we are valued and have worth for simply being alive, we no longer feel the need to deny or repress our dark side. Our freedom to name our demons is the first step in overcoming them.  

In the movie, The Stand (a classic tale of the conflict between good and evil based on Stephen King’s book), an African-American woman known as Mother Abigail functions as the Christ figure. One of her inner disciples is a deaf mute. He is a man of great compassion and integrity, but he doesn’t believe in God. 

In one scene, Mother Abigail is talking about the role that this young man will play in accomplishing God’s will. His friend speaks up, “But he doesn’t believe in God.” Not the least bit surprised or shaken, Mother Abigail turns gently and communicates directly to the young deaf man, “That’s okay child, because God believes in you.” 

It’s true. In spite of all our mishaps and foibles, all the ways we become entrapped and addicted that diminishes our lives and relationships, God still believes in us. If enough of us really believed that, our world could be transformed. We are first and foremost saints, before we are sinners.

Monday, August 8, 2011

How Can One Support the Tea Party and Be a Christian?

I had not thought much about the wave of Tea Party members that swept into Congress until the recent debate over the deficit and the debt ceiling. The one thing that became crystal clear is that they share no concern for or feel any obligation to the most vulnerable in our country—the poor and marginalized. 

Jesus, of course, defined his mission and ministry with particular focus on the most vulnerable. He said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me . . . to bring good news to the poor . . . to let the oppressed go free (Luke 4:18–19). 

So my question is: How can one support the Tea Party agenda and be a Christian? I have no way of knowing, but I suspect a great many Christians voted to elect them to office. How is that possible? 

My feeling is that many Christians have no real idea what Jesus’ mission and ministry was actually about. Jesus’ focus was on the kingdom of God (God’s new world of peace, equality, and reconciliation) coming into this world (“May your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”). The agenda of many Christians is focused on the afterlife, correct doctrinal beliefs, and personal success. 

For Christians whose faith is oriented around a heaven-and-hell framework, Christian faith is all about believing the right things or doing the right things in order to go to heaven. This is often (though not always) connected to a very rigid set of doctrinal propositions that one has to believe, such as biblical inerrancy, substitutionary atonement, or the deity of Christ. 

And then there are other Christians who equate the values of American democracy or American capitalism (it all gets thrown into the mix) with being a Christian, so that allegiance to God means allegiance to country (and vice-versa). 

Similar to the above approach are those who endorse an American gospel of success, personal fulfillment, and prosperity. In this system the poor are not only neglected, they are pronounced as cursed for their lack of faith or capacity to make money. Jesus’ way of the cross is either ignored or convoluted somehow into the way of personal advancement and riches. 

In a recent meeting, messengers (delegates) from the largest Christian denomination in the country (the Southern Baptist Convention), made it a point to affirm their belief in an eternal hell where unbelievers will dwell in conscious torment forever. They see their mission as one of rescuing people from hell by getting them to believe their version of Christian faith. 

It seems to me that a far more beneficial and transformational mission would be to get Christians to actually take seriously Jesus’ life, teachings, death, and vindication by becoming his disciples. 

I, myself, am a struggling disciple of Jesus. I fall short of embodying his life and living out his teachings in many ways. I know that I am complicit in the huge disparity between the rich and the poor that Jesus firmly judges. I often fail to love unconditionally, to give sacrificially, to serve compassionately, and to minister to others without any thought of personal reward. 

But this I do know: The Gospels that proclaim the life, teachings, and mission of Jesus make clear what the life of discipleship to Jesus entails. I know the kind of person Jesus calls me to be, even though I often fail to be that kind of person. 

The major problem with American Christianity today is that many Christians do not know what kind of persons and communities the living Christ expects them to be.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

America's Dysfunctional Government Is Indicative of Dysfunctional Christianity

Paradoxically, my shadow side found the recent debacle in Washington entertaining, but my spiritual side found it deeply disturbing. What many have called dysfunctional government, in my opinion, is indicative of dysfunctional religion, particularly dysfunctional Christianity. Let me explain.

The debate exposed a couple of extremely disconcerting realities. The wealthiest Americans pay less taxes by percentage than the rest of Americans who earn much less, and huge corporations that have made millions, even billions in profits, like oil companies, pay even less. This is not a debatable observation; it is simply the way it is.

Second, the spending cuts that will be enacted will hardly impact the wealthiest Americans at all. These cuts will, however, undoubtedly take away programs and resources that aid people who are struggling to survive. This will leave them more vulnerable to the diminishing forces of life and make the possibility for a flourishing life a wishful dream with minimal hope of attainment. This second observation is, I suppose, a more debatable point than my first, but hardly so. There are many debatable points when it comes to the ways the deficit can be reduced, but these two observations simply describe reality as it is and as it will be.

My question is: How can this “state of the union” exist, when there are so many Christian people in our country? I suspect it was a majority of Christians that elected the newcomers to Congress, who were willing to let the country drift over the edge of economic ruin if it meant compromising on their radically conservative agenda.

How can that be? It is because most American Christians adhere to a form of Christianity that is based on a heaven-and-hell framework, focusing their major attention and concern on the afterlife and on correct doctrinal beliefs, rather than the kingdom of God on earth as envisaged by Jesus. For example, the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Christian denomination in this country, recently made a big deal of and confirmed at their annual convention their insistence on the future reality of hell, where non-Christians will suffer eternal torment. This is unhealthy religion, and it represents a sizable chunk of American Christianity.

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus explained his mission not in terms of heaven-and-hell, but in terms of Isaiah 61: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18–19).

Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan is a good example of someone who, though considered to be a social outcast and religious heretic by the religious establishment, embodied the ethic taught by Jesus to love your neighbor as yourself (see Luke 10:25-37). The Samaritan gave generously and sacrificially in time and money and effort. Every disciple of Jesus is called to give generously and sacrificially for the good of those beaten-down and down-and-out.

Surely, at the very least, in a representative government known as a democracy, adherence to the gospel of Jesus means paying our fair share of taxes to help the disadvantaged, supplying them with opportunities to live a flourishing life.

One does not need to be spiritually astute to see this constant emphasis in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. In fact, Jesus was quite radical regarding the need to empower the impoverished and close the disparity between the rich and the poor. Jesus said, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled . . . But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry” (Luke 6:20–26).

Obviously, many American Christians have ignored, denied, or conveniently reinterpreted Jesus’ life and words to reflect their own obsession with the afterlife, doctrinal formulations, or personal success. (I include myself as one who is complicit in a system where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.)

According to the Gospels, Jesus proclaimed: “Repent (change the way you think and live), for the kingdom of God (God’s new world of peace and wholeness) has come near.” This message was directed to religious people—believers in God—who had become consumed with holiness codes and ritual purity. It is a message that American Christians need desperately to hear and heed.

What would happen if all the Christians who sent the Tea Party to Washington would join Jesus’ New World Party? Maybe then we would actually witness some signs and portents of God’s Dream for the world, breaking into our dysfunctional society with healing and grace.

If Christians really took Jesus’ mission and message seriously, it would be interesting to gauge how the uncommon gospel of Jesus would impact the common good of our partisan, polarized society. Would it make a difference? I don’t know, but wouldn’t it be great to find out!