FearMeneutics

Wasn’t it their Jesus who didn’t care much for this life? Wasn’t it their Jesus who said to love our enemies? Wasn’t it their Jesus who said to give the tunic off your back? What the hell was the parable of the Good Samaritan all about if not endangering one’s own self to help another?

– Ruth (Out from Under the Umbrella)

My good friend Russell, of Russell & Pascal, sent me this YouTube clip last night. As some of you may know, in a previous life I occupied pulpits for a living myself. Before I realized what was required of those, not to mention what was spewing out of those, who stand in that spot.

Absolute power corrupts absolutely, Baron Lord Acton told us, and the authority ascribed to evangelical mega-church (and even mini-church) pastors is about as close to absolute power as clergy can get, short of being the Pope. It is also an extended exercise in electioneering: evangelical clergy are hired, not assigned, to fill their pulpits, which means they can also be fired. Which means they get very good at telling congregations exactly what they want to hear, to the point that it becomes difficult to distinguish between sermons and sound bites.

But even more disturbing than what the pastor himself says in this video is the wild applause in the background. My friends, I give you The Lynch Mob, otherwise known as Sunday morning worship. It is emotion running on pure instinct: this is how the same group can applaud Jesus’ admonition to “love your enemies” and their pastor’s support for killing those same enemies dead, all within six minutes’ worth of a YouTube clip.

This is not love, in any sense of the word; it is hate, fueled by fear, encouraged by clerical authority. And it is why I got out when I did–from flag waving to male chauvinism to homophobia, all disguised as God’s love and all justified by way of Scripture, I just couldn’t be That Guy anymore.

But let’s be clear–That Guy isn’t what Christianity is about, not completely. There are many Christians–including many pastors–who believe Ruth’s words, quoted above, and live according to them both in and outside of the church. Lest we forget that, and treat them as the above congregation wants to treat our Islamic brethren, here’s a few quotes that I found yesterday in posts about the Paris attacks, and our national response to them:

Before I knew it I felt the emotions move from my stomach to falling out of my eyes as I prayed for the leaders of this country, our current President, the men and women who serve in our Armed Forces, for the prejudice in my heart, and the hate in my words-the words that I have only spoken to myself.

I prayed for the children sleeping in tents and on the road to safety, I prayed for the families that were destroyed and separated, both in Paris and Syria. I opened that prayer to every family, worldwide, that has been touched by terrorism.

The emotion made me pause as I began to pray for every mother or father boarding or placing a child on a boat in an act of love, making hard decisions, trusting the life of their child to both faith and chance; my pause provoked by both empathy and reality.

— — — — —

Act Justly: when faces of weary, worn and haggard refugees stream across my Facebook feed, I am reminded again and again that these are people. They have needs and desires. They require air to breathe, the same as do I. They have families and loved ones. They have felt love- feel love. Have been loved. Have known love. In justice, I must show love as well, offering what I have. Even though what I have might be small. It might be as small as a prayer. It might be even as faint as a fleeting thought or as fragile as the whisper of an image striking my mind in quiet, speaking to my soul. But to do justice, I must seek for the best for all human beings across this globe.

Acting justly starts small. If I cannot act justly to those I know and care for, how can I act justly for others in far-flung regions? It starts here. It starts now. It starts with me.

Love Mercy: I must cleave to compassion, strive to be kind, urgently aim toward benevolence. If I have, I must give. If I can share, I must allocate. If I can offer, so I must do. In considering others better than myself, I am showing that I love mercy. In placing others needs above my own, I am showing that I love mercy. In offering my life for the betterment of another life, I am showing mercy.

Our lives are not our own. Do we not believe that we have a Father that protects us? Is He not bigger than terror? Are we not held in the hollow of His hand? Whom shall I fear?

Walk Humbly: when we refrain from extending ourselves, there can be issues of pride involved. But so can they become intertwined in our motives when we give. We must continuously contend for humility in all aspects of our life. If we have been chastened, accept and move forward. If we have been convicted, act on our convictions. If we feel strongly, question the motive that has brought about the feeling. If we do not feel strongly, we can then ask ourselves: why not? In humility, we are made more in His image. We are more of what we could be. More of what we should be.

I ask each of us—myself included—when considering what our role is in the unfolding story of world history (whether that be a story told close to home or farther abroad: what would Jesus do?

Let it be what I would do too.

— — — — —

Dare I grieve for the misguided, angry and evil young men who convinced themselves that this was for God’s glory? Dare I grieve for the mothers of these men and wonder if this was their aspiration? Dare I grieve for those who hold their faith as preciously as I hold mine and see themselves disdainfully numbered amongst the criminally insane? I dare.

— — — — —

To be Christian is not, willy-nilly, to embrace hatred and xenophobia, as some who view the above video might want you to believe. That video is one expression (albeit unpleasant) of a wonderfully kaleidoscopic faith that takes in a multiplicity of views and beliefs, many of which are built upon the very teachings of loving action that Pastor Jeffress’ words so effectively undermine. Not all Christians respond to the hermeneutics of fear.

I no longer think of myself as a Christian, but I would be remiss if I failed to defend the many men and women in my acquaintance who still are, and who would be just as horrified as I am to hear Pastor Jeffress’ message of violence and hate. In the hearts of many, God actually is love, and to be a Christian actually means living that love in a way that transcends the legalistic and the literal.

So, before you judge too harshly the whole based upon the part, remember what we’re talking about this week: if it is unfair to turn our backs on the Syrian refugees because of what the very few among them may believe or desire, then it is equally unfair to reject all Christians because of what this congregation has done to the Christian message.

Hatred is a mirror:
the only person you ever see in it is yourself.

Ground Rules

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Words, words, words.

Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2

As I embark upon this exegetical project of mine, I feel I need to explain my approach, so as to avoid confusion down the line. It may be controversial, but that is the point: as a rule, church leaders are not controversial enough (at least, not in the right way) when “rightly dividing” the word. I say this from experience: too often, preaching is intended to tickle the eardrums, to tell people what they want to hear and send them back out to endure another week in the world. The idea of challenging them to encounter that world and allow that encounter to act as a reverse hermeneutic, itself shaping one’s interaction with scripture, never really comes into play.

What I’m talking about is not the controversy of standing on principle. It is the controversy of questioning the principles upon which we stand. The sacred cows. The pet doctrines. The things we yell about come election time. It is the controversy caused by challenging people to think beyond received wisdom, to see things in a new light.

So, here goes:

1) I will set aside entirely the language of “divine inspiration.” I have no problem with the notion that biblical authors were inspired by a love of God or belief in a certain idea of God, or that as a text it is an inspired work. All texts are inspired by a love of something, from poetry to treatises on computer coding. But this is as far as I will go. Beyond this, there be monsters. Not because I am daunted by supposed divine authority, but because if all people are to benefit from the positive teachings of Jesus (from Christians to Buddhists and back again), the slightest whiff of sectarianism will throw off the whole project. And what is talk of ultimate authority but code for spiritual imperialism?

2) This is not an exercise in demythologization. Myth is not in itself a bad thing. It is the vehicle whereby we interpret our world, meaning handed down through the generations. Myth is not the problem. The problem arises from treating myth as if it were fact. So, when it comes to miracle stories, it is not enough to simply dismiss them as false, because they are not. Of course, they are also not strictly true. Somewhere, nestled between literalism and metaphor, lies meaning. And meaning is what we’re after. Homiletical approaches to miracle stories often suffer not from too much interpretation, but too little. They are either taken at face value (this happened), or rejected at face value (this didn’t happen). This project is aimed at both extremes, in the hopes that their adherents might be encouraged to meet in the middle.

3) I will seek to redefine the doctrine of salvation in terms purely physical. This is one area in which most literalists wax blithely metaphorical. Somehow, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, and preaching good news to the poor throw off the shackles of biblical literalism and don the sublime clothing of allegory. Why? Because it’s easier to preach to someone than it is to actually reach out and touch them as people. So, we need a theology that encourages us to save what we can see before moving on to what we cannot. We have no business lyricizing the life beyond while life right here and now falls apart around us. No more fiddling while Rome burns.

4) With certain rare exceptions, I will be sticking to the Gospels (and possibly even some of the extra-canonical teachings of Jesus). I will not touch Revelation with a ten-foot pole: that hobby-horse has been pretty well beaten to death. As for Paul, well, we wouldn’t have most of the problems we have today were it not for him. (The rest of them, of course, were caused by Augustine.)

5) That I am arguing for the good in the New Testament should in no way be construed as a dismissal of the elements which might be more problematic. This is an attempt to offer one interpretation, and interpretation is always an act of dissection, deciding what to keep and what to set aside. To toss out the good because of the bad is unwarranted. This is why authority must be earned rather than assumed: that which is patently unjust must never be accepted as authoritative. And that which passes such things off under the guise of authority should always be set aside.

At the end of the day, this is really about those I’ve left behind. Call it an apology for bailing out before the ship started to sink. I sometimes think that, had I been less exhausted, I might have stayed on board. To these people, I say: there are other ways to live your faith, ways that are contributory rather than retributive, ways that recognize the meaninglessness of “in but not of” as the foundation of a moral code.

Even if you do ascribe to the Bible an authority that I do not, these lessons apply. There are other modes of interpretation that deserve at least a glance, a chance to convey something much more akin to divine love than the image of a jealous God ever could. An approach that allows us to open the door to Jesus without slamming it shut on everyone else.

I am the Toad, perched on a fence post, and this is what I see.

Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up?

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…All the King’s horses and all the King’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.

So I’ve stopped reading the Bible. I no longer pray (at least, not in the traditional hands-folded, knees-bent sort of way); haven’t for going on five years. I don’t, under any circumstances, insist that my interlocutors “praise Jesus,” although I may return a polite “You, too” when someone tells me to have a “blessed day,” simply because I’m fairly certain God hasn’t cornered the market on blessing people.

Which brings me to my point: I still want desperately to bless people. Not by proxy. Not by pointing to some undefined deity in the Great Unknown, thereby relieving myself of any real involvement in the matter. I want to bless them. Through my actions, with my words–a smile here, a wave there, a handful of pocket change, if the occasion warrants, whatever. And I want all this in the absence of religious belief (institutional religious belief, that is; everybody’s religious, but that’s an argument for a different day).

Cue cognitive dissonance…

Here’s the old chestnut: How do we explain our ability to distinguish between good and evil, or our desire to help others and avoid hurting them, if there is no Absolute Example, no Ultimate Source, in which to ground them?

Heck. I don’t know. Does it matter? Really? Or is it just one more of the pointless arguments in which we entangle ourselves, thereby obviating the question? I don’t know why I want others to be warm and well-fed, and I don’t really put too much time into thinking about it.

It seems that, to some, “good works” are not legitimate unless legitimized by particular base assumptions. I’ve heard Christians, for example, claim that unless we love “because He first loved us,” then we might as well quit the clanging and chuck our cymbals out the window. On the other hand, I’ve heard atheists suggest that Christian actions are so bedecked with “ulterior motives” that they must be suspect by their very nature. And the conversation, as it does so often anymore, breaks down again…

I leave you with the words of political scientist Robert Audi, from Political Commitment and Secular Reason (2000): “an extensive agreement in moral practice is compatible with absence of agreement or even sharp disagreement in moral theory.”

To my atheist friends: Is it really the “ulterior motive” that worries you when you see a Christian doing good? Or is it that it makes you wonder if the “God-folks” might actually have a leg to stand on?

To my Christian friends: Why are you so desperate to prove that non-Christian means non-moral? Is it perhaps that loving actions performed by non-believers hint that maybe Truth extends beyond the pages of Holy Scripture?

Would the real Jesus please stand up?