I was all set to write a post about Christian Identity, and how I believe moderate and liberal Christians have allowed our identity to be co-opted by a fundamentalist right. I believe that to be true, I believe it is a tremendous problem in the Christian community that has led to the decrease in church membership, and it is something I need to write about.
It was going to be so clever – with images of Progressive Christian Activists juxtaposed with more socially toxic fundamentalists and a tagline “Think this, not that,” my own spin on the common “Eat This, not That” organization.
But, as they say, a funny thing happened on the way.
I had a problem in getting the whole thing on paper: I was busy screaming at God.
And when I was done with that (and some days, I’m never really done with that), I realized that inside my head I was screaming at my fellow Christians. And I had to ask myself: is the bad wrap Christianity gotten exactly what it deserves?
The ugly truth and the seeds of an awakening:
For those who read me regularly (and the three of us should get together one day for lunch), you know I’ve been through hell. In a fit of social conscience I stupidly reported professional negligence and misconduct in what looks like a corrupt organization. Thirteen months later I was accused of all sorts of monstrous things, lost my beloved family, etc. The Lifetime Movie of the Week ensued.
If you think it’s bad on television, you can’t imagine how terrible it is in Real Life.
Thus was my Kafka-esque little existence when someone dropped the Real Bomb: there are more out there like me. More out there without my money, my education, my stamina (a polite term for stubbornness), my resources. For these people, as my associate put it, this is nothing astonishing, shocking or even terribly new. For these people, this is life dealing with that organization, that branch of government.
I was, in fact, gaining entry into a world that most middle-class, middle-aged professional, educated white women never see and never believe even exists. But it is, in fact, a well established world.
How the fuck did this all happen? Yes, I said it. The f-word. When talking about God. I do it alot. I even say it to God. How about that?
But that’s all beside the point.
My question is how did some of my Christian brothers and sisters let this happen? I don’t mean how they let this happen to me (that’s in Part II). I mean, how did we let the world get this way? The problems I experienced aren’t secret, by any means.
The personal suddenly became the political. Like an ideological Transformer.
For all the true help and concern some people offered, there were more that offered gestures of short-term pity that terminated in a palpable sense of impatience with my heartbreak, trauma and outrage. And while a few people did offer genuine assistance, most offered, at best prayer.
I didn’t need prayer. I needed help.
In my frustration and outrage, I looked around me. As I looked around me, the 2016 Presidential election began in earnest, and my frustration grew to encompass not just the benign sense of “nothing can be done” in my own world, but also what I saw happening in the Christian community – particularly the white, affluent, liberal Christian community – around me.
Where were we? There were pockets here and there, but rarely covered. And if we weren’t out there in force sufficient to capture the media’s attention, to capture the attention of policy-makers, what good were we doing?
Maybe some are there. Maybe I don’t see them – that in and of itself, however, is a problem. I believe, however, that there are many out there who are held back from the passionate, outspoken action that the Christian community so desperately needs.
My situation, I believe, crystalizes a general problem in the mainstream Christian community. My own personal experiences seem to reflect a general hesitancy on the part of mainstream, mostly Anglo Christians (and I say this as a pasty-white, Wonder Bread little suburbanite myself) to, well, get down and dirty.
The ultra-right, who mask their oppressive or power-driven agendas as Christianity aren’t so squeamish. This, the willingness to march onto the battlefield of principle where others forfeit the fight, is what wins for them the banner of public policy.
In refusing to fight the battle, we lose the war of our country’s soul. I worry that in trying to separate ourselves publicly from their message, we’ve made the decision to divorce ourselves from their passion.
Al Franken said something in his book The Truth that rocked my world. He was talking about people who “internalize the message of the attacker … [and] try to be nicer.” He said:
“Sometimes you can gain your soul by fighting for what you believe in.”
~ Al Franken, The Truth
He was talking about a disappointing political campaign for which he worked, where the conservative opponents got really nasty, but the candidate wanted to maintain a certain sense of decorum, under the banner of waging a dignified campaign. The candidate took that banner home with him, but lost the campaign.
Millions of people suffered a worse society and didn’t get the improved government they needed. People suffered. I believe that the political climate that arose led even to the deaths of many who were unjustly treated, denied medical care, denied services, denied justice. But hey, the candidate kept his dignity, right?
Is that what Christ wants from us at the personal or at the political level?
Have we, as mainstream Christians, diluted our mission with the need to be socially acceptable? Have we confused kindness with compliance, peace with passivity? Are we so integrated with the mainstream that anything that hints of “stirring up trouble” frightens us into hiding?
Part I: The Political
Political activism, some would argue, is at the very heart of Christian living. The activism they, and I, mean is not the unobtrusive “changing the system from within” that is often results in little change for the people who must wait the lifetimes it takes for such change to take root – if ever.
The activism I’m talking about is a bold, present, unavoidable confrontation of the way things are with the way things ought to be. It is not just some people’s choice, but I believe every Christian’s mandate.
It’s a frightening prospect, because such passion evokes images of angry, militant, almost violent mobs and groups demanding policies we, in walking with the Christ of love and peace, find very objectionable.
Let’s not confuse those principles, however, with the passion we should adopt in fighting for Christ’s true message.
The Civil Rights Movement, for many, was founded on Christian beliefs. For Martin Luther King, Jr., the church had a sacred responsibility to improve the lives of the down-trodden, the oppressed and the poor whom he called the “broken-hearted”:
Secondly, when the church is true to its guidelines, it sets out to preach deliverance … to them that are captive. … This is the role of the church: to free people. (Martin Luther King, Jr., “Guidelines for a Constructive Church”, June 5, 1966)[i]
King was not alone. Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was imprisoned and executed by the Nazis for his ideas and activism.[ii] So, yes, the price is high – frighteningly high. I’ve paid this price – not with my life, but with my love and potentially my reputation.
Objection to injustice isn’t an exclusively Christian principle, but a profound value we inherited from our Judaic foundations.
Every man should view himself as equally balanced: half good and half evil. Likewise, he should see the entire world as half good and half evil…. With a single good deed he will tip the scales for himself, and for the entire world, to the side of good.
Some believe feminism itself is rooted in Christ’s ministry: the first evangelical, the first to receive instructions to go and spread the word of Christ’s resurrection[iv] was not Peter, but Mary of Magdalene. In teaching a woman who – at that time – was of substantial inferior social standing, in bringing a woman into the society of men for spiritual instruction, Christ was embarking on a controversial path. According to some documentaries and reviews, texts point to the fact that the disciples themselves were not 100% on board with Christ’s own Women’s Lib program.
In all of these examples, positive change was not won by a subtle cooperation with long-standing institutions and organizations and efforts to politely suggest reform that is either diluted or revoked in the end.
Instead, people protested, marched, plotted, wrote, yelled, complained, whined, stood up and were over all generally impolite, inconvenient and unpleasant. They took the path that led to change, however unseemly or even risky it may have been.
It’s the twenty-first century now, and today’s visible, activist Christianity advocates a set of values that seems to be based on oppression, hate and bigotry – the very values King, Bonhoeffer and the feminists opposed. Christian activism has taken a very visible turn that we’d ague is entirely inconsistent with Christ’s message that was founded on inclusion, equality and love:
There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
~ Galatians 3:28
Meanwhile, the Westboro Baptist Church publicly spews its hateful and oppressive message any chance it gets, and in as cruel and barbaric a fashion as it can dream up.
Political candidates driven more by ambition than service prey on the hatred and fears of the public, spurring violence and division, hoping to leverage the misguided impulses of a right-wing, conservative movement and hopefully sweep up other Christians in their wake.
Many groups work both the legal and political channels to restrict the freedoms and autonomy of citizens, without any regard for the individual moral or spiritual beliefs of the women in their employment or jurisdiction.
Children become legal pawns or cash cows for agencies and governments, the importance of health and welfare subjugated to the need to acquire authority without accountability, funds without function.
For those of us who want to walk with Christ and follow his message of love, mercy and compassion, this headlines-grabbing, meme-inducing business is disheartening at best and disgusting at worst.
So, even if many Christians can overcome the fear of consequences, there’s the problem of seeming too much like the aggressive mob whose agenda we find so contrary to Christ’s message.
However, is agreeing only to oppose by the most agreeable, compliant means possible what Christ asked us to do? Is that what he did? Did Christ sentence himself and his disciples to what Leonard Cohen called “twenty years of boredom for trying to change the system from within?”
Does that even work?
Or did Christ fight?
Fight? Fight did I say? Have I forgotten about peace, about love, about mercy that Christ taught? Christ didn’t fight, of course not. Christ allowed himself to be crucified. Christ taught peace, forgiveness, mercy.
No, I haven’t forgotten any of that, but I’ve tried to put it into context. Christ did not want a war over ideaology. That’s not what I’m talking about. For Moses, for Ghandi, even Moses, war and violence were not the answer. I believe very much in Christ’s message of peace.
However, non-violence doesn’t mean compliance. I believe that Christ’s vision of peace is the very thing we need to fight for: with protest as Christ did in the temple, with public gatherings as Christ did, with direct and open debate with authorities as Christ did.
As King did.
Only when we do this, can we win true peace.
To use a quote attributed to Marie Curie: “peace at any price is no peace at all.” Peace, at the price of justice and freedom, I would argue, is no peace at all – it is compliance at best and slavery at worst.
If we set the standard to our fight for our fellow man, our children, to a fight that shies from controversy, that demurs to illegitimate authority and yields to our varying fears of reprisal, then we have given the enemies of peace and justice the perfect weapons to ensure a world that does not hold much, if any, of the peace, justice and mercy Christ wanted.
When Christ cracked his whip at the vendors blaspheming the temple, there was nothing pretty about it. There was nothing typically peaceful about it.
There is nothing pretty or seemly or polite about building the world Christ has called upon us to build. It will be a hard fight, because the forces that oppose us – and I do believe in a Devil and an Evil as I have never believed before – will fight us to the end.
For all of the examples I’ve drawn, the price has been high for fighting greed, injustice, corruption, exploitation.
So, yes, there is something to be afraid of. That does not change the fact that Christ – and the Judaic God he worshiped – call us to do this. He calls us to act out, be obnoxious, be vocal, be seen, be heard, be there.
From what I can tell, that’s the Christian thing to do: bitch, moan, complain, march, wave signs and be a general pain in the ass until the wrong gets righted.
[iv] Let’s set aside the debate on whether the resurrection is a historical fact, a spiritual metaphor, or literary addition to the Biblical record to fulfill earlier Old Testament prophecies. That’s not the point here.