Friday, November 30, 2018

A Gospel of Exclusion

“The simple claim of our faith is that Jesus of Nazareth destabilizes the human world, makes something new happen that is human, and requires us to get on with life in a new way. So the real issue is not, how do miracles happen? The real issue is, what shall we do with Jesus? Shall we trust him like the man and obey him like the sprit and be raised? Or shall we continue in our recalcitrant disbelief that leaves the world closed and close to death?”[1]

Heresy generally has been understood as a matter of incomplete or partial, rather than erroneous, articulation or living of faith. Another approach might say that heresies usually are formulated as either/or dichotomies, while the realities of life and faith normally confront us as both/and continuums.

As an example, some churches emphasize eternal salvation to the relative exclusion of temporal ministries of compassion, while other churches tend to reverse that focus. Either approach is incomplete.

Ironically, heresy frequently aligns with secular categories: conservative and liberal. Jim Wallis, founder and Editor of Sojourners magazine, says conservatives tend to emphasize personal accountability, while liberals are more likely to emphasize social accountability. His point is confirmed by those conservative Christians who demonize his call for a balance between personal and social responsibility.

The same Bible that has John 3:16 and Acts 2:21 also has Matthew 25 and Luke 4:16-30. Conservative Christians emphasize salvation and evangelism to the relative neglect of giving the cup of cold water and feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, etc. Progressive Christians are more likely to neglect evangelism in favor of political influence to help the poor. Both approaches border on heresy, not from error, but from an incomplete proclamation of a divine Word.

My own denomination essentially abandoned evangelism in the mid-20th century, and today numbers about 15% of its 1955 membership. The churches that maintained an evangelistic emphasis have become, by default, the “voice of the church.” As a result, two generations of “spiritual-but-not-religious” North Americans are conspicuous by their absence from organized communities of faith. They have perceived (rightly or wrongly) that “the church” has become self-absorbed, judgmental and uncaring.

Part of the problem is that the evangelistic message and strategy that worked in the first half of the 20th  century became increasingly ineffective in the last half of that same century. The message was, and is, still valid; but confrontational strategies replaced the simple approach of “lifting up Christ” and drove people away, rather than attracting them. Spiritualized 19th century jargon failed to connect with a public already turned off by incongruities between that language and the behavior of their perceived stereotype of “the church.”

But the final nail in the coffin was (1) the marriage of the entire church to the language and strategies of the marketplace, and (2) the marriage of the evangelistic[2] churches to, and their consequent total absorption into, the political right. Today the loudest voices from the evangelistic church, and thus the default stereotype of all churches, is virtually indistinguishable from the political alt-right. [NOTE: some will argue, with some merit, that the political alt-right is the offspring of the Christian right. Either way, the partial gospel proclaimed is relatively oblivious to “the least of these”—the most vulnerable of society.]

The result is a broken church represented by an ineffective testimony from the so-called Mainline churches and a counterproductive counter-testimony from the default typecast of the church of the 21st century. Both messages are incomplete.

The 21st century church wallows in relative heresy.

And the “spiritual-but-not-religious” millennial generations can see it; ergo, their absence. Isn’t it ironic that a relatively secular spirituality is calling the church’s bluff?

The political/ecclesiastical right calls for the elimination of governmental participation in the care of the poor. Many progressives, including me, also favor the smallest government possible for the effective application of Constitutional mandates.; however, the political right projects no compensating strategy for dealing with poverty. Churches, non-profits and philanthropic individuals and organizations already participate, although many do so selectively, and their combined resources are inadequate to meet the need.  

The political/ecclesiastical right focuses disproportionately on welfare fraud and voter fraud, both of which represent miniscule problems in the total scheme of things. Most progressives would gladly participate in a credible strategy to eliminate any kind of fraud; however, no compensating strategy is offered to deal with valid poverty or with legitimate accessibility to the polls for all legal voters.

The list goes on: the voices that form the public image of church meld with conservative political ideologies, and their consensus principles, by default, exclude full participation of many people in the life described in both the Christian Gospel and the American Constitution.

Exclusion. The intention behind any creed, including heretical creeds, is to identify and articulate authentic faith. Nothing wrong with that; however, in the process the emphasis virtually always becomes the elimination of error, rather than the advancement of truth. While the two purposes are not mutually exclusive, neither are they identical. Ultimately, the purpose of credal formulae historically has been to exclude any who are wrong (understood as “any who disagree with me/us”).

Well, to that extent, the church has been exceedingly successful in the last half-century.

But Brueggemann offers hope:

“The key religious question among us is whether there is ground for an alternative rooted not in self-preoccupation or in deadening stability, but rooted in a more awesome reality that lives underneath empires, that comes among us as odd as a poem, as inscrutable as power, as dangerous as new life, as fragile as waiting. The poet names the name and imagines new life, like eagles flyng, running, walking.” [3]

That’s the way it looks through the flawed glass that is my world view.

Together in the Walk,

[1] Walter Brueggemann, A Gospel of Hope (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2018) Kindle edition Location 394
[2] I intentionally use “evangelistic” rather than “evangelical.” They are not the same thing.
[3] Brueggeman, op. cit. Kindle Location 384.

[1] Walter Brueggemann, A Gospel of Hope (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2018) Kindle edition Location 394
[2] I intentionally use “evangelistic” rather than “evangelical.” They are not the same thing.
[3] Brueggeman, op. cit. Kindle Location 384.

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