Now, how has Smith made this epistemological leap whereas others of us have not? Is it because of his theological education? Gosh… I have a theological education, too. I attended Perkins School of Theology. And can theological education transcend the limitations of social location? If that is the case, why did his education have this effect while ours did not? Is it because he is a better reasoner than we are? If reason can trump social location in his case, why does he not extend the same assumption to us? Is it because certain life experiences have affected his perspective, even beyond the limitations of his social location? If so, then why does he seem to feel that social location is an epistemological trump card? There is a name for this kind of argumentation: self-referential incoherence. But who needs coherence when you have rhetoric? – Rev. Dr. David Watson
There are few things more amusing than people who get their feelings hurt by something someone else wrote about them on the internet. Folks removed from the situation can sit back and enjoy the unreflective, barely-contained anger expressed by someone like Watson facing someone who had the temerity to write a post saying that the idea of closing General Conference in 2016 comes from the fear our current power structure – rooted in straight, white men – has confronting the demands of an ever-expanding, rarely-quiet pluralistic church that will not remain quiet or polite or in its place.
Watson’s post is amusing, to say the least, if only because he begins by extolling his own, virtuous, approach to intellectual dialogue on the internet.
How we argue matters. I can’t emphasize this enough. The way in which we engage one another, the motives we attribute to one another, and the rigor with which we engage one another’s arguments–these all matter. We cannot make intellectual or moral progress simply by arguing with one another. Rather, such progress requires that we argue with one another in the right way.
I often disagree with posts I come across in the blogosphere, but I generally refrain from engaging with them unless I have the time to take their arguments seriously and provide a well-reasoned and fair response. I appreciate when others engage my arguments in the same way. Disagreement does not bother me.
By the end, however, reading between the lines, one sees the flecks of spittle as Watson, whose entire post could be summed up by the hashtag #NotAllStraightWhiteMen, pushes Smith’s meta-critique further and further from the bounds of what he, Watson, serving now as tone police chief, considers proper. He calls Smith’s post “incoherent” and “rhetoric”. The former I’ve heard myself, in reference to a discussion about what someone labeled “Progressive Christianity”. Apparently, disagreement with some people isn’t possible; thus, what claims to be a counter-argument (or in Jeremy Smith’s case, a meta-criticism) is actually incoherent. As for “rhetoric”, that’s bad because it unlike argument, which only uses “intellectual” information (such as the fact that protesters at the 2012 General Conference were bad because they had the temerity to demand the leadership allow them to speak after having been silenced; somehow this bit of “intellectual” information should arouse no emotional response in anyone), rhetoric appeals to people’s emotions. So Watson is only using reasoned argument when he proposes that all those fussy, silly groups with their agendas and their demands to be heard not be allowed a protest voice at General Conference in 2016. Jeremy Smith, however, when pointing out that those proposing to close the floor in Portland are a bunch of the aging old-guard in the church, afraid of losing their power, their influence, and refusing to listen to the plurality of voices that is now the United Methodist Church, is only using “rhetoric”.
It’s so much fun when people get their feelings hurt because someone has pointed out a basic truth about something they’ve said. Between pretending superiority, acting the tone police, and dismissing actual criticisms because they are “rhetorical” and “incoherent”, well, like all such games in internet discussions, it has happened before and will happen again. David Watson, however, does it with a kind of flair that only an academic, challenged by a non-academic, can demonstrate. As for the paragraph that serves as the epigraph to this post, I can answer Watson’s “rhetorical” questions easily enough: Smith has been able to make the leap from his own life and experiences, his own social position that provides comfort and privilege, because (and here I’m guessing but I bet I’m right) before he told people about rhetoric and intellectual virtues, he listened to those angry voices from beyond the margins and realized the Holy Spirit was there in the midst of them. Hearing the still small voice in the midst of the raging storms and earthquakes of social protest, Smith came to understand how he occupies a place of privilege and power, a place he neither chose nor accepted but was granted him by his social status. He rejected the power and privilege that social status provided him as a straight white man because it is only in powerlessness, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer observed over and over again, that we encounter the raised Christ who rejected power to die on the cross. Sitting behind Smith’s meta-criticism is a deep theological, especially Christological, reality that Watson, in pursuit of other goals, cannot even recognize despite having been educated at Perkins School of Theology and being on faculty at United Theological Seminary. This final paragraph, which can be summed up with the phrase most heard by petty celebrities when confronted by authority, “Do you know who I am?!?”, is evidence enough that Watson’s tone policing, like all such efforts, becomes a kind of parody of the very thing the tone police officer is protesting.
Imagine, someone on the internet wrote something that doesn’t meet a certain individual’s rigorous standards of discourse and argument! The only thing to be done is to make clear just how incoherent and rhetorical they are, having the temerity to write something in opposition! Again, a very old game, and one Watson has lost just by writing his post.
Last spring, it was schism talk in the run-up to Annual Conference season. The threat, of course, was simple enough: Elect delegates to General Conference who will maintain the status quo or churches will leave. I’m honestly not sure how successful the campaign was; we shall have to see how the Connectional Table’s recommendations are received prior to the actual meeting in Portland. Still, it was a good scare tactic, and provided fodder for a great deal of Sturm und Drang on the internet, a media that has become little more than a place for people, like the monkeys above, to fling poo.
Now, it’s a proposal from United Theological Seminary Dean David Watson that the floor of General Conference in Portland be closed. My only thought is, “Really?” Is there a real reason to close the meeting? Dr. Watson gives several that boil down to “protesters took over the proceedings!” which, of course, was not true. One commenter manages to set the record straight on what happened in Tampa in 2012, and why many, including myself, consider that event such a total disaster. That same commenter is also correct on the larger point.
This idea of closing the General Conference to “outsiders” flies in the face of “holy” conferencing and the representational identity of the General Conference. It belies sensing shame for the actions that caused protests in the past because you know the shameful actions and positions remain standing. Therefore, protest will come again. If you cannot do your church business in the open and stand for it in the light of protest, then the business you are doing is a business of darkness. You are suggesting that the lamp be put back under the basket, only to be seen by some means of closed circuitry.
Personally, I would prefer a different view of the whole matter: Why keep tossing out proposals and ideas that are divisive? Why keep United Methodists, clergy and lay, local pastors and members of the hierarchy, General Conference Committee members preparing for Portland and elected delegates, stirred up? Quite apart from the idea of General Conference being closed being terrible, I think it is important to wonder what possible good comes from proposing it in the first place.
As someone who follows both church news and secular, world news, I am more than familiar with the mechanics of controversy. Consider, for just a moment, how many people are up in arms over Pres. Obama saluting his Marine Guard while holding a cup of coffee in his hand. In a normal universe, this “event” wouldn’t even be mentioned. Yet, some profit from it; others profit from the on-going attempts to portray the President in a bad light; the whole point is to keep up a constant flow of negative, or potentially negative, images and words in order to prevent focusing on real tasks at hand.
While not nearly as constant, I believe the same thing is happening to the United Methodist Church. Whether it’s schism talk or proposals to close the floor of General Conference, the idea is to keep enough people talking about matters of procedure, to ensure that individuals and groups are divided in to “us” and “them”. Rather than talk about what we need to talk about – how to go about changing the Book of Discipline so that we become wholly inclusive of all God’s children in our ministry and the life of the church – we get bogged down in nonsense like this.
It would be far better to look Dr. Watson square in the eye, quote Karl Barth and say, “Nein!”, and go on with the real work of holy conferencing: allowing the Holy Spirit, sometimes in the form of protesters, to speak to us about how to be the Body of Christ for all Creation. That’s the real work about which we should expend energy. Wiping poo from those who believe it their job to fling it is time-consuming and distracting, which is precisely the point. Better to pretend the poo isn’t there, and keep working on being the church.
Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you. – Friedrich Nietzsche
I spent the past hour reading through this post and the comment section and two pieces that are linked in the first comment. It has occurred to me over the past several months as I’ve tried to fight my way back to something resembling healthy, and spent the past three or four weeks struggling just to maintain something a bit better than full-fledged recurrence of the depression with which I lived through the winter, that there are so many confessionals about depression and the emotional content – and the two from Hyperbole And A Half capture exactly how I lived in the months up to my decision to seek help – but very little detailing what it is like to work through the the decision to end one’s life. I’ve heard a few, including one from a man who jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge and survived, talking about how once he was off the ledge he instantly regretted it; that kind of thing isn’t really informative or helpful. It is, in fact, yet another desire to seek a happy ending to a story that may or may not have one.
What follows is deeply personal. It is also difficult, if for no other reason than in revisiting a part of my very recent past in which I lived in near-constant interior agony that is impossible to communicate to others, it is much like battling Nietzsche’s monsters: I do not wish to do so because those monsters can take over your life way too easily. It is also difficult to do because I have family members who might read this. Finally, it is difficult because it is deeply shaming. Ours is a society that does not tolerate sadness, let alone an illness like depression that makes sadness look like a small cloud briefly in front of the sun. To advertise that one spent several weeks trying to work out the logistics of self-caused death is to exclude oneself from American society in a way that violates so many unspoken, unanalyzed taboos, it is frightening. Yet, it is a reality with which I lived, and about which I have not spoken except in generalities – “I’ve been contemplating suicide” – but should be talked about. I’m not doing it in the hope or desire for sympathy; I’m not even doing it for understanding. I’m doing this to help someone, even just one person, who may well be standing at the edge, looking in to that darkness below, thinking how wonderful that darkness will be, especially considering the hellish pain that is each living moment, and let them know (if it is possible; it isn’t always possible) they are not alone.
As February passed to March, I found myself more than once staring at Facebook, contemplating what to put as my status, and wanting to just shout out my pain. Other times, I just wanted to type, “FUCKFUCKFUCKFUCKFUCK!!!”, and would start to giggle, thinking, “That’ll shock ‘em.” I backed away from doing either only because I wondered about the reaction I’d get: “He’s sick.”; “Something’s wrong with him.” The last thing I wanted, at that point, was anyone to know just how lost I was. Locked inside myself, reaching out even in some extreme way, was not what I wanted.
Once the word “suicide” entered my head and I stripped it of any and all negative connotations, it almost immediately became a matter of logistics. As the father of two children, I only really has one rule: I did not want my children either to find me, or to see me in death. Even in the midst of my depression, my love for my children was so profound I wanted to make sure they never had the experience far too many children of suicides have. That ruled out a death at home, or at least a death at home that would be discovered by them rather than my wife*. Since we do now own any firearms, I think I was fortunate, because a quick trip up Perryville Rd. to Rock Cut State Park, a walk off the path, and the whole thing would have ended quickly, messily, and far enough from home that in all likelihood a member of law enforcement would have found what was left. At the same time, not owning a firearm forced me to be creative both in doing what I desperately wanted to do – end the pain that was my life without causing additional pain to those closest to me. Such creativity led to experimenting.
My commute to work included a roughly 10 mile drive down one particular stretch of country road that is little used. This past winter, much of that road was ice-covered, or pack-snow-covered, making it slick in a variety of places. It would be easy enough, I thought, to make it look like I hit a patch of ice going a bit too fast, and that would be that. All it would take is unbuckling my seat belt before doing so. Sure, the car had an airbag. An airbag without a seatbelt, however, wouldn’t be much help, especially if the car rolled, which I learned how to do by thinking about things like angular momentum. With the front wheels turned in to a skid at, say, 65 or 70 miles an hour, hitting a large, packed snow embankment – or even better, a ditch full of snow – almost completely sideways, the car would probably have rolled several times, bounding me around inside quite nicely enough to do severe damage. Being on a seldom-used country road would mean not being found right away. In the deep cold of this past winter. With help in the form of an ambulance crew, with a fire crew to help get me out of the tangled up mess of my car even further away. Time, in cases like this, is always of the essence. It would look like an accident. Even if I survived, I was guaranteed weeks if not months of recovery time, during which I would have medications at my disposal that, if taken in large enough doses, would finish the job with the simple expedient of falling asleep.
It seemed like a clean enough plan. I am a thorough person, however, so, about a week before I confessed to my wife and started seeking help, I did what I called “a trial run”. I didn’t unbuckle my seat belt, I drove much more slowly, and on a spot on the road that was clear enough of ice that, if I wanted, I could regain control of my car. Off to work I went, down the road I drove, I started to drift ever-so-slightly to the right. Almost immediately, driving instinct took over and I forced the car back on the road. Damn it, I thought. A few miles further up the road, I tried again, and sure enough, driving instinct took over and I yet again regained control of my car. I pulled over to the side of the road and started crying. I couldn’t even do something as simple as this right, without my instinct to save myself taking over from my far deeper need just to end my pain, the misery of each moment of my life. It served as an occasion to berate myself even more: I was a failure at all else in my life; I was now a failure at ending it, even though I had reached the point where death seemed so welcoming.
I spent a few days running through new options in my head. I realized all I had left would violate the one rule I had set for myself. Then came the moment when I decided to tell my wife what was going on. One of the things I said was, “I do not want to hurt myself or anyone else.” The first part of that sentence was a lie. Not only did I want to hurt myself; I wanted to die. The second part, however, was true. Not in the sense that I would have killed the rest of my family along with myself. No, I realized that the only suicide options open to me were to do so at home, always risking discovery by my daughters. I did not want to do that. In a very real sense, my love for my children saved my life, although at the time it felt far more like my existence as a failed human being – I couldn’t even do suicide right, for Christ’s sake! – was the reason I had that talk with my wife and ended up seeking help.
In the months since then, I have replayed those last couple weeks over and over in my head. When I told my wife and my doctor I was “no more than a week or two away from a suicide attempt”, it was the thought that suicide had become my goal and I might just say, “Fuck it,” to my rule about my kids finding me and do something at home that explained that phrase. I had been contemplating suicide, in a practical way, for weeks. It was the reality that I couldn’t do so without my kids probably being the ones to find me that made me realize I had to do something. Not some desire to live. Not a desire to get better. Not some inkling that I had something for which to live. It would be weeks before I thought I wanted, or could, get better. It would be weeks before I had any desire to live. No, my seeking help was not from some spark of hope in some part of my psyche. It was a sense of utter failure, even at killing myself, that prompted me to confess in general terms, about my condition.
I am on the far side of the worst of all this. I no longer think about killing myself, at least not much. The past month or so has taught me that recovery is neither linear nor, despite what both my physician and therapist have told me, within a reasonable time frame. Depression, like cancer, can go in to remission only to emerge again, insidious and violent as ever. The difference now is I want to live. There is still a lot of pain. I am fighting it now, though, because even though I’m not sure what the word “hope” refers to, I do want to continue living, even with the pain, to watch my daughter graduate from high school next spring; to go to Disney World again next spring; maybe – just maybe – to see something I’ve written get published by someone else. I want to wake up next to my wife, feel her warmth, the softness of her skin. And of course there’s music; for me there is always music.
Which reminds me. I was going to post a video for Metallica’s “Fade To Black”, but that’s really more a piece of juvenalia. Then I considered Lunatic Soul’s “Summerland”, a song about that supposed twilight zone between life and what comes next. Then, I realized, no – that’s not where I’m at. Instead, here’s Felix Medelssohn-Bartoldy’s setting for Psalm 100, which begins: “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth. /Worship the Lord with gladness;/ come into his presence with singing.”
*Yes, I know, allowing my wife to find my dead body would have been horrible. I rationalized that by insisting that, as an adult, she would recover from the experience in a way my children would not. Being depressed is not rational.
Fear-mongering on terrorism? Not exactly new. We’re all gonna die from Ebola-poisoned radicals streaming over the Mexican border? Of course we are. The President hates the troops because he salutes with a coffee cup in his hand, even though he’s a civilian and shouldn’t be saluting at all? Makes sense to me.
The world is a messy complicated place. It’s also a wonderful place. Did you know that violent crime rates continue to drop to levels we haven’t seen in decades? That our streets, our homes, our parks, our schools are safer than they have been since before I was born? No? It’s true. Did you know that we now have so many robotic explorers in all parts of near-outer-space, and are learning more about nearby planets, asteroids, moons, even comets, in just a few hours than we have in all human history up to this moment? No? It’s true. Did you know scientists working on teleportation have managed to teleport a photon 25 kilometers; have created a shape-shifting metal; have discovered that bouncing microwaves inside a box provides propulsion in space. These are all things that make living right now exciting. These are things that make the world wonderful, that make the future bright, that give me hope that my children and grandchildren will experience wonders about which I can’t even imagine.
On the other hand, as I wrote at the top, our politicians think we’re stupid. We have a 24-hour news channel dedicated to making American even more stupid, even more inept at foreign and domestic policy, and even more divided on matters of race, gender, and class. There are whole websites that vomit out lies about everything from where Barack Obama was born to his secret Muslim Brotherhood agenda to toss Christians in to concentration camps. I realize this all sounds ludicrous, but there are thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of people who really and truly believe this. Scott Brown, running for United States Senate in New Hampshire against incumbent Jeanne Shaheen, has a television ad accusing the President of the United States of allowing the US to become so vulnerable that Islamic terrorists are about to pour over the border from Mexico. Here in Illinois, perpetual Republican candidate Jim Oberweis is running against incumbent Dick Durbin. Recently, the Rockford Register Star ran a story in which Oberweis spoke about meeting with African-American religious leaders on the southside and westside of Chicago. Now, that is wonderful that a Republican met with church leaders, particularly in troubled areas of one of our major cities. It’s great that he got to hear ideas, plans, programs, needs, and offered his vision of his role as United States Senator from Illinois to these religious leaders. But more than seven seconds of thought should convince anyone that even if Oberweis is sincere in his desire to create partnerships between the federal government and local religious leaders to help poverty-stricken and crime-stricken areas, it doesn’t matter one bit because not a single Republican at the national level has expressed a willingness to do any such thing. Why these religious leaders would lend support to someone, with whom they might even agree on many issues, who will deliver exactly zero promises, while the current incumbent continues to work with these same local leaders to get money and programs to help them, is quite beyond my capacity to understand.
So, I got nothing. I see a glass overflowing with wonderful things, with possibilities and promise and hope and a world that is slowly learning to cooperate in dealing with everything from internal national conflicts to international terrorism to eradicating deadly diseases. These are real things I’m seeing. But it’s impossible to get anyone else to see them. I don’t know why. It isn’t like I’m hopeless; just the opposite. Today, this morning, I see all the wonderful news yet all I read and hear is how awful things are and it just doesn’t gel with my experience. So, fear-monger away. Tell us all how we’re all going to die. Despair for the future. Shoot, support a candidate for public office who will achieve the exact opposite of what is being promised. What difference does it make to me? At some point reality will kick in and while some will always listen to the chicken little’s of this world, most folks will shake their heads and realize they just got conked on the head by an acorn, laugh at themselves for being silly, and continue walking through the park.
With all this speculation flying around as to why our generation is abandoning church in larger numbers than our parents’, no one’s bothered to ask us why we’re leaving the church. – Kayla Rush, “Please Stop Telling Us Why We’re Leaving The Church”, Swinging From Grapevines
Someone on Facebook linked to the piece excerpted above, and it contained links to two other pieces that are the source of the frustration that produced the wonderful original post. I mean, nothing will get young people’s attention like telling them they aren’t really converted. Is it any wonder the author basically does this?
Is it any wonder that many, including me, picture Jesus looking like this after reading the two pieces that are the source of the frustration?
As I read Ms. Rush’s piece, I thought how similar her criticisms of the church are to mine. Not that I’m trying to steal her thunder, or somehow make this about me instead of her. It is less the specifics, which stem from a generational and denominational and theological set of experiences I cannot share, than the Spirit of the piece – a deep love for the church, a desire for the church to be the church, and the frustration that comes not only from not being heard, but from the fact that the churches refuse to place the reason for the Millennial’s exit squarely where it belongs: on the churches and their many faults and failures.
Yesterday, I spent a great deal of time on a particularly favorite theme of mine: fearful Christians (and others, too; fear in America is not only a religious matter). While I understand the roots of so much of our culture of fear, I cannot and will not sit idly by while the church not only succumbs to it, but stokes and spreads fear.
Last week, I responded to this piece by Rev. Drew McIntyre at United Methodist Insight, and had that response published as well. If you skip down to the comment section – which is yet another example of why I do not allow comments here – you will see that, rather than respond to the substantive criticisms I offered, he called what I wrote “nonsensical rantings”, insisted I had confused doctrine and theology, and engaged in, “I know you are but what am I?” What astounds me about the Drew McIntyre’s of the world (a point he simply refused to address, by the way; posting the same tired criticism of an invented “Other” then acting shocked when called out for lack of originality is such a tired game) is their ignorance masked by a constant demand to adhere to their ignorance. Specifically, his claim that I had somehow confused doctrine and theology because doctrine, the teachings of the church, do not change, while theology is what the church does to come to an understanding of our doctrines, is so grossly and unbelievably false on so many levels, it is almost a thing of beauty. Yet, this, too, is neither new nor exactly shocking. As far as doctrine never changing, I will just mention something called “The Protestant Reformation”. More specifically, while doctrines are indeed the teachings of the church, they are neither static nor universal. Even those that cross confessional and denominational lines are understood very differently; to believe for one moment that spanning two thousand years has not brought about changed understanding of what constitutes doctrine, and what those doctrines mean is an embarrassing claim to make for a person with a Master of Divinity degree. Somehow, however, the demand remains that the Church return to an adherence to doctrine, this thing that never changes, as a canon for proper Christian identity. Funny enough, it is usually liberals who understand how wrong this is, yet are accused of refusing to adhere to doctrine! While not surprising, the level of hubris – as well as a lack of any introspection at all – still astounds me. Like Christians who insist that neither proper science nor history be taught in schools, then wonder why so many of our young people are ignorant of science and history, there is a profound disconnect here that is obvious to everyone except those who have it.
Finally, there has always been and will continue to be an attitude as expressed in the title of this post. All churches have to do is build a building, create a program, offer a class or Bible Study, provide age-appropriate materials to children and youth, and like magic the people will flock to the churches and stay forever. What never seems to get addressed is the failure to be the church: to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ, to offer the sacrament to build up the community of believers, to send the congregation forth to serve the world. We are so busy trying to figure things out, we have forgotten how simple it all really is. It is sad that we will lose so many for so many reasons. It is sad that the reasons, as Ms. Rush articulates them, are so clear even to a middle-aged observer like me. I still have hope, however, that the Holy Spirit will breathe life in to the churches so that we can continue to be about the work to which we are called. I wouldn’t continue being a Christian if I didn’t have that hope.
Faith is fearful and defensive when it begins to decline inwardly, struggling to maintain itself and reaching out for security and guarantees. In so doing, it removes itself from the hand of the one who has promised to maintain it, and its own manipulations bring it to ruin. This pusillanimous faith usually occurs in the form of an orthodoxy which feels threatened and is therefore more rigid than ever…. Such a faith tries to protect its ‘most sacred things’, God, Christ, doctrine and morality, because it clearly no longer believes that these are sufficiently powerful to maintain themselves. When the ‘religion of fear’ finds its way into the Christian church, those who regard themselves as the most vigilant guardians of the faith do violence to the faith and smother it. – Jurgen Moltmann, The Crucified God
Putting a bunch of things together in my head, trying to figure out if they connect at all, is an interesting thing. One thought leads to another, then something I read in one place connects to something I read in another place, which reminds me of something I read or saw a long time ago, and pretty soon I’m off and running, or in this case typing.
Yesterday, I was asked what is my favorite passage of Scripture. The answer to that question is simple: Romans 8:31-39
What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,
‘For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
The reason this is my favorite passage is simple enough: Paul is reminding the Church in Rome, and us today, that ours is not a faith rooted in death or fear, but life and hope. Where there is hope, no matter the cost of living in hope (“for your sake we are being killed all day long”), there is no fear. We do not fear because in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ we have Divine Testimony to Eternal Love and Care for us. God is willing to do, as the saying goes, in to the far country for this lost and broken creation. We should not fear because there is no reason to fear because even in the depths of the terrors imposed upon us, God is there with us.
Of all the things we western Christians have forgotten as we move through an age in which we are neither the default faith nor the default vocabulary of social and cultural intercourse is that these are not things to fear. They are, in fact, reasons for rejoicing. We have an opportunity now to present the Gospel of Divine Grace, that God is even now bringing about the Heavenly Kingdom and we get to be a part of that work. The long age of assumed Christianity, however, has left a strain of fear and confusion in its wake, particularly among the powerful for whom these assumptions helped form their worldview. Incapable of understanding the changes around us, they react instead of act, with the results usually horrifying for everybody.
The little cartoon above is from an article in Raw Story which got me laughing. Not because I think Satanism is a good thing (of course I don’t think it’s a bad thing, either; as a matter of fact, I tend not to think of it much at all except when I’m writing blog posts), but because what Moltmann calls pusillanimous faith has created a situation that while certainly predicted is the exact opposite of those who originally advocated it. In a secular nation, freedom of religion most certainly includes freedom for Satanists to proselytize. If that makes some folks unhappy, they should perhaps think before demanding public schools include religious instruction; you either let ‘em all in or you don’t let any in.
This is an example of pusillanimous faith, too. When we begin to look for people to blame; when we demand doctrinal rigidity without even understanding what it is we’re talking about; when we use words and phrases without thinking, without understanding, and refuse to learn – we are showing just how fearful we are. We fear the terror of the night and the arrow that flies by day (Psalm 91:5). We seek to exclude instead of invite. We demand action to expel those who do not live and believe as we insist they should. This is a cowardly, fearful thing that is not the faith that knows nothing in all creation can separate us from the love we have from God in Jesus Christ.
I’m old enough to remember the hysteria over Satanism in the late 1980’s. It culminated in the video, embedded above, of a special Geraldo Rivera program on “America’s Satanic Underground”, as empty as Al Capone’s vault. The fear itself was groundless, rooted in changing patterns of adolescent behavior, changing tastes in youth musical styles, and a few well-publicized cases of violence committed by self-proclaimed Satanists. The period was analyzed in a marvelous book, Satanic Panic, a must-read for anyone interested in the phenomena not only of mass panic events but the promulgation of fear-based lies and urban legends that deepen fear.
Recent events in the Middle East, particularly the rise of The Islamic State Of Iraq And The Levant (ISIL) and their proclamation of war against the United States, along with publicized beheadings of several foreign journalists now has Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC) insisting ISIL forces are preparing to mass along the Mexican border. This, in turn, has prompted a sheriff from Texas to go on national television and insist we arm our southern borders to protect ourselves from imminent invasion (the video is above). This combination of fears – of terrorism and immigrants entering the country illegally along our southern border – has created among some near-panic at the thought of what might be happening. That this fear, while certainly technically not irrational (as a scientist once said, everything is possible, even Santa Claus; the trick is figuring out if there’s evidence to support it), is as ridiculous as the rumor-panics surrounding Satanic mass killings. It takes so much time and effort to make clear how ridiculous it all is, however, and the lies and fear is spread so rapidly, playing on already-existing fears, it becomes nearly impossible to rid ourselves of them.
How does it become possible to proclaim the Gospel of freedom, including freedom from fear, precisely because the revelation of Divine Love and Grace in and through Jesus Christ demonstrates God’s eternal presence, when so many voices around us insist we must always and only fear? All we can do, I believe, is continue to bring the Good News that God is with us because God has always been with us; that fear is part of the brokenness Christ redeemed when he rose from the grave; that all that is meant to terrorize us, or is offered as something to terrorize us, cannot stand when the Person of Jesus Christ , for the sake of the Father, in the Power of the Holy Spirit, is invoked. Not only should we live without fear; we can and even must live without fear. It is one of the gifts offered us through faith. Live free and know that no matter what horrors you encounter, God is there.