Sunday, September 27, 2015

American Evangelicals: Strategic Withdrawal?

I appreciated Laura Ortberg Turner’s recent article in The Atlantic (“What Happens When the ‘Moral Majority’ Becomes a Minority?”). She identifies a suggestion by some American evangelical leaders that Christians withdraw from the political scene, emulate the Benedictines by engaging for a season in the contemplative life, and then prepare to reemerge in order to change the culture.

It is interesting to me that, after thirty-five years of presence in American culture—a culture that identifies itself as 70% Christian and 25% evangelical—those who are associated with the Moral Majority would think that withdrawal and reengagement would result in changing the people of the United States. I wonder what they might think would be different once evangelical Christians returned to the political scene after a time of isolation. Would God allow the rest of the USA to suffer consequences in the meantime that might parallel the disasters that befell ancient Israel?

A time of rest and contemplation might actually be good for American evangelicals, if that time of contemplation is less of a strategic withdrawal in preparation for a new attack on culture, and more of a humble time of reflection about what it means to follow Jesus into the world that God loves. We could all probably use a time out in order to give thought to our identity.

I am also interested in the way that the term “American evangelical” often suggests a unified body of religious people. There are a number of prominent voices that do not speak for all evangelicals. There are seminaries that consider themselves to be evangelical, and yet differ with one another about certain areas of theology, ethics, and social justice. There is probably a lot less uniformity among evangelicals than many people think.

Roman Catholics are sometimes described as though they are similarly uniform. In reality, the Roman Catholic Church is made up of a number of orders that are expanded by many sub-orders. There are orders that focus on attending to the inward life (like the Benedictines), and those that attend to the active life (like the Franciscans). They would all say that they are Roman Catholics and share a common life of prayer, but that they also express their vocations in a variety of ways.

I once heard Dr. Richard Mouw, former president of Fuller Theological Seminary, wish out loud that we Protestants could see our various denominations in the way that Roman Catholics see their orders. I wish that for evangelicals. I wish that some would, indeed, withdraw from the divisive drama of American political life and seek a fresh identity as the people of God. I wish that others would see their evangelical vocation as humble service to the poor and suffering of the world. I’d like to see others give themselves over to the enrichment of the church, calling people prophetically to live their lives in the way of Jesus.

Maybe that’s already going on. If so, then it might be good for some of the more dominant evangelical voices to withdraw for awhile so that the caricatures attributed to evangelicals would wither and die and people might see our good works and give glory to our Father in heaven. Just maybe.

And maybe we could, indeed, redefine “evangelical” so that the term, rather than attributed to a particular block of American voters, would describe a people who continuously proclaim and demonstrate the present reality of the kingdom of God, a kingdom that Jesus said is now upon us. As such, we could become comfortable with that identification being expressed in ways as diverse as the orders of the Roman Catholic Church.

I wonder if that’s what Jesus meant when used the metaphors of “salt” and “light.”

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Manners at the Table

I wrote this chapter (from my book, Shadow Meal: Reflections on Eucharist) in 2009. I thought it might be good to revisit, since we are approaching another election season in the USA.

Manners at the Table

We were fairly informal at the dinner table when I was a kid, yet there were basic manners that were expected when we gathered to eat. My grandmother, however, was of the ancient school that believed a certain level of decorum was mandatory and certain violations were punishable by death or worse.

My grandparents were not rich people. My grandfather had been a poor preacher and then a struggling businessman his entire life. When he died, they were living in a nice, tidy but small mobile home in southern California. While my grandmother had to learn to make do with very little, she saw to it that the little she had was clean, set out properly, and not taken lightly. Maybe the family would have to eat porridge for dinner, but at least the bowls would sit on a lace tablecloth.

My grandmother and her sisters, my aunts, could cook a glorious dinner out of tree branches and moon beams if pressed to the task. On holidays they would join together in someone’s kitchen, gabbing and arguing, flour and baking soda floating through the air, aromas unspeak¬ably rich and savory finding their ways to sniffing noses and hungry bel¬lies. They were the food wizards of a bygone era and I love the memory of those kitchen extravaganzas, although I was always kicked out when caught on one of my early raiding attempts.

When Grandma made a pie, all of time stopped, the moon and stars gaped in wonder and the earth went silent. I should have gone silent, on that summer afternoon in 1962, when I said too much and received too little for my trouble.
My numerous and rambunctious cousins were up from San Diego, and we played in Grandma’s front yard while she prepared her amazing cherry pie, my eternal favorite. When it was time to dish out the portions, I catapulted myself inside the house, leaving my unworthy cousins in my wake. As Grandma dished out the pieces, I recklessly and foolishly uttered words that I have wished for years that I could take back:

“I want the BIGGEST piece.”

Grandma, who I knew loved me dearly, would not put up for a moment with any such selfish demands. There was not a weak bone in her body and her principles were shored up with rebar and steel beams. She did not waver nor did I consider for a moment the possibility of a tantrum or efforts at renegotiation when she replied,

“Then you get the SMALLEST piece.”

And so I did. I wanted to cut my throat and then slaughter my cousins (especially the girl cousins) who would surely mock me when they discovered the insidious consequences of my crime. Violating man-ners anywhere near the table was, for Grandma, an offense not to go unpunished.

Are there manners at the table of Jesus? I suspect that Jesus is fine with a little sloppiness and an occasional belch. I wonder, however, how he feels about our bad mouths when we pull up our chairs and hold out our hands for more? What is his response when we trash talk people down the row or speak against those who are absent altogether? Do our portions change? Do we even notice?

I have this image in my mind of we who return often to the table of Jesus pulling up our chairs, smiling sweetly, and asking for things to be passed our way. Our conversation is normally civil, but suddenly things become different. It is election season, and new permissions seem to be given to the ones calling themselves followers of Jesus. We might be citi¬zens of the kingdom of God, but we’re also Americans, and as Americans we embrace our right to hate and bear false witness as long as it is during an election year and our venom is reserved for the candidates and party we do not prefer.

This is actually more than an image for me, because election years come around often enough for this to be a recurring theme. With the invention of the Internet, I receive scores of messages from my Christian brothers and sisters who tell me why I must fear and hate the candidate they don’t like, a candidate who is very likely the Anti-Christ and/or Satan (depending on what bent eschatology you want to embrace) or just plain evil and stupid. With transmittable videos, I can now receive obviously doctored films of candidates seeming to say things that they aren’t really saying, providing apparent evidence of their dark, evil hearts.

In the last election, I received so many of these kinds of things that I finally snapped, wrote a response to the propaganda I had received, and hit REPLY TOALL. I never heard back from even one of the forty million recipients, but at least the emails quit coming for a while.

It isn’t that I object to their preference for a particular candidate. I object to speaking, writing and forwarding things that foster hatred, slan¬der and the bearing of false witness. While I support the debates about important issues, I am hurt when I see and hear remarks (and video clips) that show how we Christians don’t mind playing by the rules of negative ad-speak when it suits us.

I wonder why, during these election years, I never receive any mes¬sages encouraging us to pray for our future leaders. Never got one. Not a one.

I seem to recall that Israel got in some pretty deep trouble by playing politics by the rules of the world. Everyone else in the neighborhood had a king, so the Israelites wanted a king. Other nations had big armies, so Israel built an army. The surrounding culture had more interesting and sexually active gods, so Israel co-opted a few just for good measure. In the end, they lost at that game because that wasn’t what they were made for. They were made to be God’s people and, as such, to bring blessing to all the families of the earth through their worship, devotion, and unique way of living under the shadow of Yahweh’s wings.

What are we Christians made for? Is it to hate, slander and bear false witness in the name of Jesus? Election year or not, I sure hope we’re made for something better than that. In fact, I’m pretty confident that we are.

I know that this kind of bad behavior comes at other times also, but election years are like Mardi Gras: Normally sane and sober people take advantage of the opportunity to run around like drunken, crazy people (actually, many of them are drunk and crazy) and then pretend to return to business as usual the next day. I just wonder why we Christians don’t question our own behavior during these times. It is interesting that in the United States, our presidential election season ends just prior to Advent. We should think about the irony of that. Welcoming Jesus into the world right after we spew election year sewage should bother us just a bit.

Could the worst manners at the table of Jesus be despising someone that Jesus loves rather than putting our elbows on the table?