Thursday, October 27, 2011

Why do we get so angry at each other?

I was recently talking about this blog with a young couple in my congregation.  The husband reported that politics tends  to get him pretty worked up and he agrees with my suggestion that he has at times allowed it to become more important to him than the church.   The wife reported that she runs away from politics in the church because the heat—or the possibility of heat –upsets her.  With a wry smile she said that one of the reasons she chose to be a missionary in Africa for a number of years is that she wanted to get away from fights in the American church.

Often the only reason churches don’t explode is that Christians of differing politics have already split from each other. Evangelical blacks (who tend to be Democrats) don’t as a rule worship with evangelical whites (who have tended to be Republicans—though that is changing). Evangelicals who are closely linked to academia and are more likely to be Democrats tend to drift from evangelicals who are closely linked to business and are more likely to be Republican.  

Why are we so divided? Why do we disagree so much?  Why is the heat in our disagreements so often indistinguishable from the heat in the broader culture?  Aren’t we supposed to be different?

One reason, well documented by sociologist James Hunter, is that many Christians have joined the broader culture in the mistaken assumption that public life is the same thing as political life.  For this reason we tend to think that the only, or best, way to change the culture is through politics. But politics is intrinsically coercive, using power (rather than persuasion) to bring about change. And forced change tends to turn up the heat in public life; it tends to polarize people, transforming ideas into slogans, discussions into shouting matches, and the opposition into demons. This is the case even when Christians are involved; perhaps more so since Christians tend to feel that they have a mandate from God in their efforts. Christians need to rediscover that “public” is much larger than “political.”

But why do we seize on solutions, political or otherwise, with such polarizing energy? There is more to the problem than too narrow a definition of public life.

The heart of the matter is the heart. Our hearts tend to drift away from their proper center in God. We are, in other words, idolaters, prone to setting our deepest hopes and identities in things other than God. And these false hopes are so fragile that we become angry and afraid when they are threatened, as they so often are by politics. For one reason or another people of differing politics threaten the leaders, strategies, or ways of life that we have come to rely upon too heavily. If, for example, we have built our lifestyles and future plans around a largely deregulated economy, we will tend to become angry (even infuriated) over a political administration that pushes hard for regulation. If on the other hand we have built our lifestyles and future plans around certain governmental social benefits, we may find ourselves growing nervous and angry—even furious—over a political administration that aims to remove or diminish entitlements.

The most immediate and perhaps the best thing any of us could do for America is to take Psalm 97:7 to heart (All who worship images are put to shame, those who boast in idols”), searching our lives and attitudes carefully and repenting of our complicity in the idolatries of our time.

Think for example of the economic woes of 2008–2009. Many Americans rejoiced to see Bernard Madoff, architect of a $50 billion Ponzi scheme that ruined the lives of many, brought to justice. But how many of us were prepared to admit to our own headlong pursuit of money? Mr. Madoff was a hero as long as he was producing money for us; he became the villain only when he didn’t. At the heart of the financial meltdown was what one of my church leaders (himself an executive in one of the firms that came near to collapse) called a “tsunami of debt.” Certainly greedy bankers and lazy regulators were key players in this, but vast numbers of us contributed to the problem. How many of us were not drawn into the worship of the “good life” that the world of easy credit offered? How many of us spent far beyond our means simply because we thought we could get away with it?

“Pick your poison” a friend of mine says regarding the idols available to us. Some of us may feel free from the worship of money. But what about other obsessions: celebrity mongering (a recent survey indicated that a distressingly high percentage of teenage girls would rather be “the personal assistant to a famous singer or movie star” than a U. S. Senator or the president of a great university), or sexual addiction (pornography seems to be as much a problem for the church as it is for the rest of the culture). We pour money and energy into sports, into body image, into professional success, and into the acquisition of power. We grow angry at anyone or anything that threatens our freedom to spend as we please or to express ourselves as we please because we have become worshipers of unbridled freedom.

More talk next post on idolatry

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Why do we disagree politically?

I recently witnessed a debate between the co-authors of a new book entitled Left, Right, and Jesus.  They are both Bible loving evangelicals.  One is a young black woman, the other an older white man.  One (I will let you guess which) comes out on the political right—the other on the other side. 

As I listened I was reminded of Abraham Lincoln’s famous words in his Second Inaugural Speech:  “Both [sides] read the same Bible, and pray to the same God…”  But recollecting Lincoln didn’t make me cynical. Lincoln was no interpretive nihilist.  He plainly believed that some readings of the bible on the slavery issue were better than others. 

Interpretational nihilism is a trendy cop out—a lazy person’s excuse for not thinking hard.  On any issue some interpretations are better than others—say Bonhoeffer’s versus Hitler’s interpretations of the value of Jews.  Nevertheless it is very important to notice that two Bible loving people can come to very different places in politics.  They can do it with a high degree of integrity.  It is happening all the time these days, and we need to respect it in each other. 

Why the differences?  Because the way we see things, including the way we read the Bible, while it may not be completely controlled by our backgrounds and experience, will nevertheless be influenced by them.    One of the reasons we get so angry with each other is that we don’t realize this, or we do realize it but refuse to admit it.  We confuse the infallibility of the Bible with the infallibility of our interpretation of the Bible.

And why do we cling so stubbornly to our interpretation of the Bible when it comes to politics?  I am sure there are many reasons.  But one of them is that politics is more important to us than the church is.  If the church had its proper place in our hearts, if it occupied the place in our hearts that it occupies in the heart of Jesus (who died to save and make us one), we would be bending over backwards to give each other the benefit of the doubt, working double time to submit our own interpretations of Scripture to the scrutiny and critique of the brothers and sisters who disagree with us, looking for common ground.

I am happy to report that the co-authors in the debate I saw were gracious towards each other.  They sparred a bit, scoring points here and there, to applause from their different constituencies in the audience, but there was good will between them. 

We need such good will.  We need more meetings of this sort.  Christians on both sides need to be sitting together in the same room listening to each other.   The church needs to be different from the world, animated by a unity that is higher and deeper than that of party.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Anger, panic, and politics

One of the reasons we get so politically angry with each other inside and outside the church is fear.  This makes no sense.  Panic does not rightly belong in any believer’s heart.
                Consider Psalm 97. Verse 1 says, “The Lord reigns, let the earth be glad; let the distant shores rejoice” (Psalm 97:1).  Notice that “reigns” is a political word. It describes a king exercising dominion over his subjects, the ancient equivalent (roughly) of saying, “President so-and-so sits in the Oval Office.” Of course verse 1 says much more. We elect American presidents for a brief time. Their “reign” is neither permanent, nor absolute, nor flawless, nor worldwide, whereas God’s is all four. His rule causes the “earth” to be “glad” and the “distant shores” to rejoice.”  Psalm 97:9 declares his absolute sovereignty over all authorities, whether seen or unseen: “For you, Lord, are the Most High over all the earth; you are exalted far above all gods.” What an encouragement!
                When we bemoan the moral and social disintegration of American culture (whether we moan from the left or the right) we are often right. But when we speak to one another or to our own hearts in such a way as to stir up fear and panic, we are wrong. Our God reigns, and therefore we need not—we must not—be afraid as we exercise our civic responsibilities, no matter what seems to be going on around us.
                Consider the damage panic can bring. First of all, panic impairs judgment. If we give in to the voice that cries “Act now, or our great country will be forever lost!” we will find ourselves demanding easy and quick solutions to our nation’s problems, when in fact there are no such solutions. Christians, more than any others, should know that no candidate, no platform, no party has all the answers. But fear makes it easy to forget this.
                Panic breeds impatience not only with political process but also with people. It easily leads to browbeating and to polarization even in the church, the very place where God expects us to model the one community that will outlast all others. How quickly and tragically we accuse and demonize one another when we are afraid.   It is easy to demonize the rich and powerful (“take back Wall Street”), neglecting to note that some of the very rich are very generous.   Our hearts break over the killing of millions of unborn children, but are we really right to label every pro-choicer an advocate for murder and every woman who submits to abortion an accomplice in murder? What of the young woman who has been persuaded that the child within is not yet a child? What of the person who votes pro-choice because she cannot see how the legal battle against abortion will succeed rather than because she is pro-abortion?
                Because panic cries “Do something right now, before it is too late!” it dehumanizes us in our dealings with each other. For me to understand my neighbor’s motives and reasoning takes time, the very thing panic cannot stand.
                Panic can be used to justify falsehood. Some people, fearful of a religious takeover, have lifted Jefferson’s “wall of separation” idea out of its historical context and used it, dishonestly, to justify the silencing of the religious voice in every public place and discussion. Promoters of creationist literature, fearful of the impact of the teaching of evolution upon their children, have sought to sneak their material into a Pennsylvania public school by doctoring the terminology of their manual without substantially altering its content. Still others, fearful of the secularization of schools, have promoted “stealth candidates” with a hidden agenda (say, school prayer). Such subterfuge usually backfires, causing the opposition to retrench even further. Worse, when employed by believers, it dishonors the God they claim to serve by using ungodly means (lying) to advance an allegedly godly end.
                The worst thing about panic is that it displeases God. Fear is a matter of the heart, and our reigning King cares deeply and especially about our hearts, since it is from them that everything else issues (see Matthew 12:33–37; Mark 7:20–23). God cares about why we do something at least as much as he cares about what we do. Psalm 97 reminds us that, deep down, the fundamental tone of our lives must be joyful confidence in God’s sovereign reign, not fear: “The Lord reigns, let the earth be glad; let the distant shores rejoice....Rejoice in the Lord, you who are righteous, and praise his holy name.” (Psalm 97:1, 12). When I choose political and social action because I am afraid, even if I can justify that action from Scripture, I am denying God at a deep level. I am acting from unbelief. I am taking his majestic name in vain.
                The next time we find ourselves driven by fear, or we hear a message that urges us to act out of fear, consider Jesus. Our Lord saw the desperate evils of life far more clearly than we ever will, and yet he never panicked. In The Waiting Father Helmut Thielicke wrote:
                What tremendous pressures there must have been within him to drive him to hectic, nervous, explosive activity! He no one else ever sees, with an infinite and awful nearness, the agony of the dying man, the prisoner’s torment, the anguish of the wounded conscience, injustice, terror, dread, and beastliness. He sees and hears and feels all this with the heart of a Savior...Must this not fill every waking hour and rob him of sleep at night? Must he not begin immediately to set the fire burning, to win people, to work out strategic work...furiously...before the night comes when no man can work? That’s what we would imagine the earthly life of the Son of God to be like, if we were to think of him in human terms....But how utterly different was the actual life of Jesus! Though the burden of the whole world lay heavy on his shoulders...he has time to stop and talk to the individual...By being obedient in his little corner of the highly provincial precincts of Nazareth and Bethlehem he allows himself to be fitted into a great mosaic whose master is God...And why peace and not unrest goes out from him. For God’s faithfulness already spans the world like a rainbow: he does not need to build it; he needs only to walk beneath it.

There is more to say about anger.  Stay tuned.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Some of the things we fight over in the church.

We are bound to disagree over politics, not just in the culture but in the church as well. I bump into this reality all the time. One such occasion occurred in early 2009 when I had two very different appointments back to back. The first was with a leader in my church who wondered why we did not talk more forcefully about abortion and homosexuality. He wondered why we were more likely to speak out on trendy New York City issues like justice and mercy than to speak out and even act on the issues he was concerned about. He wondered why, for example, if we were prepared to sponsor a march against hunger, we were not also prepared to sponsor a protest in front of an abortion clinic.

I met next with a Christian graduate student at Columbia University. She told me that she had begun to drift away from Christian community because, as she put it, “I am beginning to find that the people I agree with theologically are the people I disagree with socially.” The issues for her were, interestingly, the same as those mentioned in my first appointment—abortion and homosexuality, but especially the latter. She was in a different place on those issues. She was not gay herself, but she had a number of close friends who were, and her love for them made her feel at odds, given her prior church experience, with the Christian community. She was confused about what the Bible had to say about committed homosexual partnerships, and she was struggling over what she would do if she became convinced that the Lord forbade them. We talked about many things—about the false choice the culture often presents (one either must completely accept the gay lifestyle or one must admit to homophobia), about the tendency in the evangelical world to elevate certain sins over others (homosexual sin over heterosexual sin; or sexual sins over other types of sin, like greed or gossip), about the fact that there are different legitimate strategies for nudging our culture in the direction of sexual health (California ballot initiatives being only one of them), about the difference between struggling with sin and embracing sin, and about the difference between homosexual inclination and homosexual behavior.

I came away from the second appointment thankful and perplexed (more later on my perplexity). I was thankful that this young person had felt comfortable talking to me, for I am “the church” by virtue of my role as a pastor. I could not help but think that she approached me because our church did not, in its public face, fit the stereotype that she had begun to react to. We were committed, as she discovered, to a traditional view of marriage (heterosexual, monogamous, lifelong unions), but we were also keen to keep our “front door” open, so that people like her and her friends would feel comfortable coming in for serious and honest discussion.

We are bound to disagree, not only over issues, but over which issues to “go public” on. Committed Christians, sometimes in the same church, sometimes in the leadership of the same church, can easily find themselves at odds with one another on these sorts of issues.

Such tensions arise not only between us but within us. I mentioned that I came away from the second appointment perplexed. The graduate student’s struggles reminded me of how confused people are, especially young people, even church-raised young people like her, about God’s way of wisdom when it comes to sexual matters. I found myself asking if our church’s relative public silence on the issue was in fact the best policy. Certainly it helped keep our front door more widely open than it might otherwise be. It certainly gave rise to an important and nuanced discussion with one particular person that might otherwise not have happened. But what about all the others out there? What about those in my own church who might need a lot more guidance than they realize?

How do we sort these (and other) matters out so that the church stays together?

Stay tuned?