The scriptures tell us that we have been set free from the laws of sin and death because there is no condemnation in Christ Jesus. Think about it: no condemnation.
Go, live as free people, free to love and offer light to others because that we what we want for ourselves. – Rev. Christy Thomas, “Bodily Constrictions And The Nature Of Freedom”, The Thoughtful Pastor, July 4, 2015
Pastors are expected , from the earliest days, to be exemplary Christians. A pastor’s exemplary moral life is an aspect of of the pastor’s service to the people of God. . . .
It is not that the pastor is expected to be a morally more exemplary Christian than other Christians, but rather that pastors are expected to behave in a way that befits their public and communal, that is, churchly, obligations. . . . Clearly pastors are to be role models for the church, without the troublesome modern separation between public and private, social and personal, behavior. – William Willimon, Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry
For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. – Galatians 5:1
Our family has fallen in love with the show Sons of Anarchy. If you don’t know about it, the Sons are a motorcycle club that runs the small northern California town of Charming. Filled with violence, sex, foul language, and offering us villains as heroes, it is drama in a direct line from A Streetcar Named Desire. Stanley Kowalski was more than an anti-hero; he was a small-minded, greedy, lust-filled wife-beating low life who destroyed whatever he touched. In much the same way, the men in SOA are also greedy, lust-filled, gluttonous, violent low-lifes who destroy what they try to protect. Except, like Stanley, we come not just to understand, but like these big, burly, brutal bikers. During the first season, some ATF agents were trying to get information that could put the club members behind bars. My older daughter got all huffy. “Why are they doing that? Why can’t they leave the Sons alone?” My answer – “Because they’re murderous gun-runners who help international terrorists” – made her stop and say, “Yeah, OK.”
Fifteen years ago, the wife of the Congregational minister in the town Lisa was serving as UM pastor held an open community forum on the moral dangers represented by the Harry Potter books. Leaving aside everything such a sentence brings up in most people, it’s easy for me to say that I am – and by extension our family is – a very different kind of clergy spouse and family than this gentle lady. Not only do I like a television program that celebrates pretty much everything we Christians are supposed to reject, I declare that support in public.
When our girls were in elementary school, someone asked what I would do if one of them decided to become Goth, with the appearance change and dress. My answer was simple: I couldn’t care less. What if one of them became pregnant, I was asked. My wife and I would make sure she found a doctor, received the proper nutrition, and love her and the baby no matter what. The questions were an attempt to pigeon-hole me as someone who would raise a moral ruckus in the face of some act of adolescent defiance. Except, of course, I’m not that kind of person. No matter this person’s insistence that I would, say, insist my children ditch the black clothes and makeup and stop being Goth, I just couldn’t imagine doing such a thing.
Truth is, folks who live outside the margins of social acceptability are folks toward whom I try to gravitate. One reason I like SOA is that I like bikers. Not just the weekenders, but folks in clubs, outlaw and legit. Deadheads, too, are a group I think is awesome. Artists, bohemians, Marxists, folks in non-traditional relationships, hard-scrabble working class salt-of-the-earth folks – these, too, get my admiration. Rastas and others with their long dreds? Beautiful.
The inevitable question is: Do I approve of the lives they lead? Well, it’s because of the life they lead that I find them worthy of admiration. That doesn’t mean I approve of all the things they do. What I admire is the sense of shared commitment to a life that refuses to bow to the social and cultural pressure to conform to our rather boring and morally childish “American Mainstream”. These are people who, either through choice or the vicissitudes of our social and racial class system could be considered failures, society’s rejects. They don’t look clean and pressed. They aren’t ambitious, at least not in the traditional sense. They may barely scrape by week-to-week. They engage in what many consider self-destructive behaviors. They know the inside of the county jail.
Usually, it is that final list upon which people focus their attention. After all, being a Christian, aren’t I supposed to live according to a higher moral standard? As part of a clergy family, aren’t we supposed to model a particularly exemplary moral life together? With that moral life, shouldn’t it follow that I wouldn’t dare allow my daughter to watch a program like SOA? Shouldn’t I be denouncing both the show as well as those who enjoy it? How is it possible that I can claim to admire criminals, atheists, drug users and others who are precisely those whose moral life is so abysmal?
The answer to that question is simple: I can make that claim because these folks and others like them live without the pretense too many of us are forced to wear. Look, let’s be upfront. Who reading this has lived a crime-free life? Smoked a little weed, maybe each day or perhaps just when you were younger? You ever have sex before or outside marriage? You ever look around at our too-fast, success-demanding American life and think, “Wow, this is crap”? If so, then the folks to whom I ascribe admiration have, at the very least, the honesty not to pretend to be anything other than who they are. They don’t make excuses, apologies, or laud their lives over others.
We in the Church are supposed to be honest about one simple thing: That we are sinners. Not just individually, but together our lives are broken, separated from God, a constant struggle against all the things that would keep us from the One who creates us, loves us, redeems us, and one day will raise us. What unites us is our self-identity as those who are more than just failures at being Christians. We’re failures at the very things that people think Christians ought to be: moral exemplars for the rest of society. Rather than upholding an ever-changing set of restrictive moral behaviors as identifiers, shouldn’t we be those who uphold ourselves as failures, drunkards, sexually lax, greedy, gluttonous layabouts? The insistence that we should also be those who are trying to be better misses another important feature of being a Christian. It’s our constant insistence that it is we who are doing this trying that always lands us back in the hole from which we keep trying to crawl.
The Christian life isn’t about being morally upright. It’s about being disciples of the crucified and risen Christ. Ours should be a life of love and devotion and service, bringing the love God embodied in the life and ministry of that same Jesus of Nazareth – to the drunkards and prostitutes, the lepers and Samaritans, all those who were ignored and even despised by the good morally upright religious folks of ancient Judea. Jesus spent so much time with these folks that he was widely derided as a drunkard, a glutton, and a whore-monger. When was the last time anyone in the church received such a compliment?
Ours should be a life lived on those same margins where these misfits, outcasts, and criminals live. I would so much rather churches be places known for their sinners rather than their community leaders. For far too long, the Christian churches in America have allowed themselves to be captured by our social betters, leaving our mission little more than noblesse oblige, our sermons moral lessons for those who already know what those moral lessons are, and our members more worried about whether they’ve worn their proper suit and tie than inviting that homeless guy on the corner to join them for worship. To be a Christian for me is to live an alternative lifestyle, one that reflects our self-identity as those who believe themselves separated from God; those who live not to succeed but to serve; those who are more concerned with those who have no clothes than what are our proper Sunday clothes.