April 2011


Did you know that the white, male, heterosexual conservative Protestant Christian is an endangered species? And that we should be vewy, vewy afraid of Them? Do you know why? Because Terry Jones, the Koran-burning Florida pastor, is an idiot.

If you don’t get the connection, join the club. This is the argument that Gary Laderman, the director of Religion Dispatches and religion professor at Emory University, tries to make today. See if you can make any more sense out of it than I can:

Egghead scholars and interfaith leaders, bloggers on both sides of the political aisle, and everyday Americans will surely condemn him for his outrageous actions and beliefs, and argue that Jones is an isolated, peripheral figure whose religious views are borderline paranoid delusional, if not well past that line. Are Jones’ actions motivated by authentic religion or dysfunctional psychology? Genuine fear about the threat of another religion or an idiosyncratic psychotic vision distorting religious theology in the throes of irrational hatred?

All I know is that Jones is one of the very few friends that Fred Phelps and the Westboor Baptist Church folks have. That tells me everything I need to know.

While the Wall Street Journal published a recent article that casually identifies Jones as a “Christian pastor,” and other outlets use less tame designators like “radical preacher” or “Koran-burning preacher,” the exact location of Jones within the Christian fold is difficult to pinpoint. Some place him beyond the bounds of Christian theology while others put him smack dab in the middle of engaged Christian fundamentalist activism. Yet regardless of the public disagreements over the rights and values of Preacher Jones, one thing is crystal clear: He represents a dying breed in American society and that, I think, is another if not the critical factor in understanding both his actions and his symbolic presence in the media.

If the “dying breed” is “hateful people who know nothing more of Christianity than they know of curling,” then I’d say he might represent them. And his place in the Christian continuum is “nowhere.” Jones is a cultist, like the Westboor people, and no more representative of authentic Christianity than Jim Jones.

White, male, heterosexual, conservative Christians (WMHCC from here on out) are losing their numbers in American society and could, if some projections hold true, diminish to a small minority in the next 20 years; part of a larger trend that one influential study has labeled the “vanishing Protestant majority.” In a recent analysis by the Public Religion Research Institute based on post-2010 election surveys, the number of white Protestants in America is projected to decline dramatically in the next fifty years. This is one of the most significant demographic shifts in American history.

You can take a look at the first study Laderman mentions, which in fact doesn’t have anything really to do with his conclusion–it doesn’t break data down by race or gender, and doesn’t include lots of people who don’t identify as “Protestant” but who are undoubtedly in that theological tradition; it also says nothing about “conservative” Protestants versus anything else. As for his second link, I couldn’t find what he was talking about.

One can easily see how this might lead to more individuals like Jones entering the culture wars to battle against the perceived moral and mortal threats destroying their peculiar vision of Christian America.

The real stakes in this battle are about sheer survival for these men, and their sense of vulnerability, disintegration, and impotence when facing the radical social changes taking place in 21st-century America. Fear of increasing religious diversity, shifting sexual values, and diminishing economic opportunities is transformed into and then projected out as a moral worldview that embraces bigotry, intolerance, and a commitment to violence when necessary.

Notice how easily he glides from “individuals like Jones” to “these men,” meaning the WMHCC? He doesn’t bother to establish any actual connection between them, which is not surprising, considering most WMHCCs would consider Terry Jones to be the antithesis of what they stand for. He then projects a variety of “fears” upon them, and then simply leaps a canyon and supposes that they are going to react to those “fears” with bigotry and violence. Slick.

On the one hand, this moral universe has been a driving force in US history and an all-too-familiar disposition to value hatred, as I’ve written about before. But on the other hand, and what’s so new and rife with hateful and violent possibilities, is that at this moment in US history WMHCC increasingly perceive their hold on power to be imperiled by social and demographic forces beyond their control.

The picture is indeed grim for this group, what with growing numbers of Americans preferring to identify with no religion; religious pluralism bringing more and more Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Mormons, Jews, New Agers, Muslims, and a slew of others all around them; the younger evangelical generations showing signs of greater openness to non-heterosexual orientations; myriad versions of Christianity in immigrant communities that are unfamiliar if not downright blasphemous; and a popular culture riddled with hip hop artists, filmmakers, cable comedy variety news shows, and television producers willing to openly mock and demean that moral universe.

This is the thesis: WMHCCs are losing control over society, so it’s only a matter of time before they go postal. Apparently that’s because they’re all haters who can’t deal with diversity, and who get upset at the merest hint of a slight to their faith (it was actually WMHCCs who threatened Salman Rushdie and the artists behind the Danish Muhammad cartoons, doncha know). America is simply filled with Missouri Synod Lutherans and Evangelical Presbyterians and independent Baptists ready to start a jihad over South Park and “Piss Christ.”

But even more radically distressing is the prospect of losing the cultural—dare I say hegemonic—power over American society that is as old as the republic. Is it that outrageous to claim WMHCC have generally been the primary power brokers (in government, in law, in finance, in churches) determining the course and self-definition of the nation? A few Jews here, a smattering of progressives there, and some people of color, to be sure; but if you take the long view of US history, it’s mostly WMHCC who’ve been in charge. This is certainly congruent with recent ruminations about the “triumphant decline of the WASP” most recently identified with the striking absence of white Protestants on the Supreme Court.

While it is true that a quick glance at the US Congress seems to contradict this view, the election of the first non-white president has been fraught with portentous and perilous meanings for WMHCC—to a degree that far exceeds the hysteria ignited when the first and only liberal Catholic was elected president a half century ago. What could be more telling about shifting power structures than the dynamics of the 2008 presidential elections, the selection of the symbolic head of the body politic?

The election of the first non-white president is only “fraught with portentous and perilous meanings” for leftists who are obsessed with race. The “hysteria” that Laderman asserts is solely in his own head. While there are undoubtedly some racists among those who don’t like the president, his attempt to smear an entire group with that label is as odious, and just as bigoted, as any genuine racism. Let’s all repeat so that Professor Laderman can understand it: the reason so many WMHCCs don’t like Barack Obama is not because he’s black, it’s because he’s liberal. Many of those same people are, if conservative blog comment boxes are to be believed, chomping at the bit to vote for someone like Rep. Allan West of South Carolina or Herman Cain, because they love their message and their method of delivering it. Of course, they’re black Republicans, so we all know they aren’t real black people, but you get the point.

Is Terry Jones merely on the fringes of US Protestantism or is he at the vanguard of a new cultural movement taking shape in the tattered, crumbling fragments of a once-dominant presence in the centers of power? When I look into his dull, vacant eyes I certainly see fear, but it’s not a fear of a false Abrahamic faith, or a fear of cultural differences, or a fear of growing religious diversity so much as it’s a fear of the future and an awareness of increasing powerlessness.

Personally, as an American citizen who values religious freedom and appreciates difference, I would like to ignore the reappearance of Jones on the media horizon. But as a historian of American religious cultures I’m shaking in my boots about Jones and others on the fringes who could very well creep in and radically, if not violently, alter America’s future.

Tell you what, doc. Go talk to some of the folks at First Baptist Church of Atlanta, or North Point Church, Alpharetta. They’re both full of WMHCCs who I’m sure would be glad to stand guard over your home and office and protect you from the big, bad looney preacher man and his dozen minions.

…hold on to your butts, as Samuel L. Jackson says in Jurassic Park. It means they also want to change the way we think about something. To wit, the editors of a new publication called the Journal of Animal Ethics want us to go all PETA, according to a press release issued via the Religion News Service:

A call for a new “animal language” has been made by some of the world’s leading animal ethicists who say words like “pests” and “vermin” send out the wrong message and even our most common terms such as “pets” and “wild animals” need updating.

The editors of a new Journal of Animal Ethics (JAE) published this month by the University of Illinois Press say derogatory words like “pests” and “vermin” should be dropped altogether and “pets” replaced by “companion animals”, while “wild animals” should be termed “free living or free ranging animals”.

“Despite its prevalence, “pets” is surely a derogatory term both of the animals concerned and their human carers. Again the word “owners”, whilst technically correct in law, harks back to a previous age when animals were regarded as just that: property, machines or things to use without moral constraint … In addition, we invite authors to use the words “free-living”, “free-ranging” or “free-roaming” rather than “wild animals”… For most, “wildness” is synonymous with uncivilized, unrestrained, barbarous existence. There is an obvious prejudgment here that should be avoided.”

I’m sorry, but when I hear about “free ranging animals” I think inevitably of this shtick by Bill Engvall:

One of the ways that you know people have taken up the burden of civilization is that they begin the process of giving up living in a state of nature. Another way to put that is that they leave behind what we could call, for lack of a better expression, a Darwinian struggle for survival of the fittest, and adopt ways that protect the weak. By that definition, wild animals are, indeed, uncivilized, and more power to them. Just don’t expect me to to speak in a way that pretends otherwise.

What this is about is seeking to convince human beings that they are of no more consequence, no more importance, and in fact no different, morally speaking,  from the rest of the animal kingdom. I will buy that when someone convinces me that animals are capable of thinking and acting morally, rather than simply on instinct. And I continue to call rats and cockroaches “vermin” as long as cats call mice “dinner” (assuming PETA can’t find a way to convince felines to all become vegetarians).

(Hat tip: Joseph at Methodist Thinker.)

UPDATE: Just had a thought. There’s a certain ambiguity in the name of this new periodical. Is it to be a journal of human ethical thinking about animals, or a journal of animals thinking about ethics? If the latter, the editors are going to have a hard time finding a translator, since this guy not only couldn’t, sing, he’s dead:

UPDATE: I understand Chuck Colson has linked to me at his BreakPoint commentary on this same story. Welcome to all of you who have come from his column.

One of my very favorite figures from all of church history is the 4th century Patriarch of Alexandria, Athanasius. Back when I had a column in the monthly magazine of the Moravian Church, I called it “The Annals of Athanasius.” When I took up writing a blog I called Ecumenical Insanity, I wrote under the pseudonym of Athanasius. The archbishop of the great Egyptian city is a hero to anyone who values orthodoxy and recognizes the need to fight for it when it is under attack in the church catholic.

Mark Tooley of the Institute on Religion and Democracy has a piece in Touchstone about the great saint entitled “Contra Mundum Redux,” and I recommend it for your perusal. A couple of highlights:

One of my favorite descriptions of Athanasius comes from Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,which devoted several chapters to the Arian controversy. No fan of Christianity, Gibbon nonetheless lavished his admiration on the zealous bishop of Alexandria who nearly single-handedly championed theological orthodoxy when it seemed all of Christendom was succumbing to Arius’s alternative brand of religion….

Athanasius was expelled from his throne five times and spent 20 years as an exile or a fugitive. Yet almost every province of the Roman empire was “successively witness to his merit, and his sufferings in the cause of the Homoousion [the doctrine of Christ’s co-substantiality with the Father], which he considered as the sole pleasure and business, as the duty, and as the glory, of his life.” …

Whether from his bishop’s throne or from an obscure hiding place, Athanasius never compromised on the essentials or fell silent, his writings penetrating the far reaches of the empire even when the bishop himself was elusive. Although Arianism would endure beyond the life of Athanasius, its ultimate defeat within Christendom was achieved only because of his witness and exertions, operating under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, whose full deity, along with that of the Son and of the Father, was the unfailing guidepost to the ostracized but never despairing bishop.

Tooley offers thirteen “attributes” of Athanasius for emulation in the modern-day fight against heresy and apostasy, along with a concluding lesson. It’s a needed reminder of what’s needed in church leaders today. Joe Bob says check it out.

It was not being gay but for being a jackass — [McGreevey] didn’t come out of the whole divorce looking good.

–A New York Post source in the Episcopal Diocese of Newark, commenting on why former New Jersey Governor James McGreevey–who resigned in 2004 with after making the declaration that he was a “gay American”–was denied candidacy for ordination; I haven’t been able to find “jackassery” in the canons of the Episcopal Church as an official reason for denying ordination, but I’m sure it’s in there somewhere

He was sort of looking for every angle to make a complete redo of his professional life. He ran to the church for some kind of cover, which isn’t fully appropriate [apparently it's only partially appropriate--DF]. Even if he’s a good guy, he should wait five to 10 years to get over his issues.

–Another source in the same diocese on the same subject

(Via Stand Firm.)

Have any doubts that the mainline church-supported U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation supports terrorism on the part of the Palestinians? Check out this article by national advocacy director Josh Ruebner, in which he wrotes:

Israel may be forgiven for failing to realize the current fiscal woes of the United States. After all, U.S. military aid to Israel not only sailed unscathed through last week’s passage of the 2011 budget, but reached the record level of $3 billion.

The United States additionally provided Israel $415 million for procurement, research and development of joint U.S.-Israeli missile defense projects, including $205 million to fund Israel’s newly-deployed Iron Dome system.

This anti-missile battery already has altered significantly the strategic balance in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict when Israel successfully shot down incoming rockets fired from the Gaza Strip earlier this month. With the assured diplomatic backing of the United States to prevent Israel from being held accountable by the international community for its illegal blockade, Iron Dome will embolden Israel to tighten its siege and escalate its attacks on the occupied Gaza Strip by providing its citizens with additional protection against retaliatory fire. [Emphasis added.]

U.S. military aid to Israel is certainly a debatable issue. But what Ruebner is specifically objecting to–Iron Dome–is an anti-missile system that is being used for the narrow mission of protecting civilians from being targeted by Hamas, such targeting being a war crime and terrorism by any definition. He uses the term “retaliatory fire,” and objects that the opportunity for such is being denied Hamas. He further acknowledges that such fire will fall on the “citizens” of Israel, also known as civilians, also known as those who are protected from being deliberately targeted in war. This also demonstrates that the USCEIO objects to Israel’s right to defend itself, no matter how much it says otherwise.

Ruebner is the official mouthpiece for an organization that receives support, including financial support, from several of the mainline denominations, and includes a former moderator of the PCUSA General Assembly (Fahed Abu-Akel) on its advisory board, as well as the executive secretary for human rights/racial justice at the General Board of Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church (David Wildman) on its steering committee. If these men object to Ruebner supporting the targeting of civilians by Hamas in their names, they should say so. Otherwise, we’ve got to assume that they support it as well.

I saw this last week, but decided to spare my readers the stomach upset during the Easter Triduum. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, for United Church of Christ seminary professor and president, is trying her darndest to figure out just what the crucifixion of Jesus could possibly have been about. At the Washington Post, she opines:

What could be holy about this? Christianity has interpreted the sufferings of Jesus in many ways. The role of the crucifixion is central to what is called the “atonement,” the doctrine that discusses how human beings can be reunited with God, overcome the estrangement from God caused by sin, and be restored to relationship, i.e. “at-one-ment,” with God. All Christian theologies of the atonement stem from the fact of the crucifixion. Jesus underwent this horrific death. Why?

A common view is that Jesus had to suffer the great pain of beating, scourging and crucifixion, and die a horrible death, in order to pay for the sins of humanity. Sometimes this payment is considered a “ransom” paid to the devil, sometimes as an innocent substitute paying for someone else’s crime, and sometimes as the moral example of sacrificing for others.

Actually, all of those and others (Christus Victor and Grotius’ governmental theory, in particular) are typically recognized as being valid expression of the atonement. It’s a both/and, not an either/or, though some are more important and contain a greater degree of the truth than others. But these aren’t what Thistlethwaite is looking for.

The problem is that suffering, in these views of the atonement, becomes an end in itself. Even the moral theory of the atonement, the model of self-sacrifice of Jesus, has been used through human history to justify suffering in the name of religion. This becomes even more extreme in the classical theories of the atonement, the so-called “penal” or “ransom” theories. As I wrote about Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of the Christ, in a chapter called “Mel Makes a War Movie,” the extreme focus on the violence of the crucifixion in the movie, to the almost complete exclusion of Jesus life and teaching, skews the Christian narrative toward an unhealthy focus on humanity’s overwhelming guilt for Jesus’ death. This leads to religious, cultural and political justifications of suffering for its own sake. [Emphasis added.]

She doesn’t even begin to understand The Passion of the Christ, nor, I suspect, does she understand the “classical” theories of the atonement. But leave that aside. The emphasized phrase is the really remarkable one. For one thing, who has ever said that suffering was “for its own sake?” Yes, there is popular misunderstanding of the Christian view of suffering, but I know of no “religious, cultural, and political justifications” for suffering that have anything to do with an accurate view of the crucifixion or atonement. The idea of “redemptive suffering,” on the other hand, takes what otherwise would be an evil and turns it to good. (The story of Maximilian Kolbe’s self-sacrifice through starvation in place of another at Auschwitz is one of the best examples of this I know.) One also wonders what a “healthy focus” on “humanity’s overwhelming guilt for Jesus’ death” would be, if in fact Thistlethwaite thinks that humanity bears any such guilt at all.

But despite these issues, there is a crucial truth about Good Friday that must be recognized. There is tremendous suffering in human life. That’s real.

What I think is holy about Good Friday is that as Christians we stop and remember the victims. Innocent human beings, and even the not-so-innocent, are routinely tortured and killed by the cruel and the unjust. I do not believe that God authorizes this suffering, but is God-with-us in the fact of suffering and death. I believe that really was God on that cross.

“Remembering the victims.” That’s what Good Friday is about–not Jesus’ victimization by a sinful world in particular, but victims in general. It’s not about God taking on the sin of the world, and freeing us from its guilt and bondage, it’s about Him joining us in the reality of suffering.

The sad thing is, both of those statements are true, they are just completely inadequate to express the fullness of what Godo Friday is about. It’s a shriveled vision of an event of cosmic proportions that has changed the world, changed history, changed us. It’s about what you’d expect from a faith that has become entirely political.

Is there anyone who is a devout lover of God? Let them enjoy this beautiful bright festival!  Is there anyone who is a grateful servant?  Let them rejoice and enter into the joy of their Lord!

Are there any weary with fasting?  Let them now receive their wages! If any have toiled from the first hour,  let them receive their due reward; If any have come after the third hour,  let him with gratitude join in the Feast! And he that arrived after the sixth hour,  let him not doubt; for he too shall sustain no loss. And if any delayed until the ninth hour,  let him not hesitate; but let him come too. And he who arrived only at the eleventh hour,  let him not be afraid by reason of his delay.

For the Lord is gracious and receives the last even as the first. He gives rest to him that comes at the eleventh hour,  as well as to him that toiled from the first. To this one He gives, and upon another He bestows. He accepts the works as He greets the endeavor. The deed He honors and the intention He commends.

Let us all enter into the joy of the Lord!  First and last alike receive your reward;  rich and poor, rejoice together! Sober and slothful, celebrate the day!

You that have kept the fast, and you that have not,  rejoice today for the Table is richly laden! Feast royally on it, the calf is a fatted one. Let no one go away hungry. Partake, all, of the cup of faith. Enjoy all the riches of His goodness!

Let no one grieve at his poverty,  for the universal kingdom has been revealed. Let no one mourn that he has fallen again and again;  for forgiveness has risen from the grave. Let no one fear death, for the Death of our Savior has set us free.
He has destroyed it by enduring it.

He destroyed Hades when He descended into it. He put it into an uproar even as it tasted of His flesh. Isaiah foretold this when he said, “You, O Hell, have been troubled by encountering Him below.”

Hell was in an uproar because it was done away with. It was in an uproar because it is mocked. It was in an uproar, for it is destroyed. It is in an uproar, for it is annihilated. It is in an uproar, for it is now made captive. Hell took a body, and discovered God.  It took earth, and encountered Heaven. It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see.

O death, where is thy sting? O Hades, where is thy victory?

Christ is Risen, and you, O death, are annihilated! Christ is Risen, and the evil ones are cast down! Christ is Risen, and the angels rejoice! Christ is Risen, and life is liberated! Christ is Risen, and the tomb is emptied of its dead; for Christ having risen from the dead, is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.

To Him be Glory and Power forever and ever. Amen!

–John Chrysostom, 5th century Patriarch of Constantinople

This is a chance to redefine the human purpose: Why did God put us here in the first place, and what is our purpose? Might we consider coming together with the purpose of healing the earth, so that we and the next generations may live in good health and safety?  Might that be our shared purpose?

Rev. Sally Bingham, environmentalist at the Church of Gaia Episcopal Diocese of California and director of Interfaith Power and Light, who in the same article is quoted as creating a new definition for heresy: “This is what we’re up against: they [lawmakers] have rejected climate science, calling global warming a hoax – and stood behind a well-funded misinformation campaign that is paid for by the oil, coal, and gas industry. I think that these legislators are committing crime against humanity.”

Lord Jesus Christ, who for the redemption of mankind didst ascend the cross, that thou mightest enlighten the world that lay in darkness: gather us this day with all they faithful to that same holy cross; that, gazing in penitence upon thy great sacrifice for us, we may be loosed from all our sins, and entering into the mystery of thy passion, be crucified to the vain pomp and power of this passing world; and finding our glory in the cross alone, we may attain at last thy everlasting glory, where thou, the lamb that once was slain, reignest with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever. Amen.

–Book of Common Prayer

Almighty Father, whose dear Son, on the night before he suffered, instituted the Sacrament of his Body and Blood: Mercifully grant that we may receive it thankfully in remembrance of Jesus Christ our Lord, who in these holy mysteries gives us a pledge of eternal life; and who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

–Book of Common Prayer

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