Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Progressive Church: Love, Hatred and Tolerance

I think it's an interesting phenomenon that as the Republican party grows increasingly fringe in its appeals, it loses its ability to cast a large umbrella under which to accommodate several, sometimes disparate views. Increasingly, moderates will find themselves falling toward the Democratic. For others, progressivism seems to be a natural bent their faith would take them. While no man needs a religion to establish morality, the religious faithful obviously have slants their morality will take as they reconcile internal impulses with the commands of their religious texts. Without getting into the details of why Christians distinguish the commands of Old and New Testament, which is derived from the forms of covenant established in the Old Testament versus New Testament as well as distinctions made in hygiene versus moral commands, my hope is to illustrate the spirit of the commands of Jesus Christ and the church he established. Today I want to deal with the issues of hatred, love and tolerance, and the appropriate Christian response to a diverse world.

The issues of poverty and social programs that were previously covered seemed to lend themselves easily to the views of progressives, religious or not. However, not all opinions are shared equally among all progressives, and especially as one moves toward social issues of abortion, homosexuality and the like, it can be harder to find consensus. This is especially true of those who consider themselves socially conservative while fiscally liberal.

There's middle ground to be shared, and such issues can be tackled, but it's first best to address how the church approaches issues that it disagrees with, regardless of the subject matter. Disagreement is an inevitable part of life, regardless of the nobility of those involved. The founding fathers certainly disagreed with each other, loud and often. It is argument and debate that helped create the sturdy Constitution that forms the foundation of the country. The ancient church fathers had their debates and discussions, debates whose stakes were, spiritually speaking, far more critical than matters of politics.

America is a country of debate and argument. The church is, inherently, a place of exclusion. Its own, central holy text asks of its followers to be intolerant of certain behaviors among the body of its believers. Christ himself showed himself to be intolerant of a number of behaviors, and certainly those who came afterward continued to argue against infinite intolerance within the body of believers.

However, the church's struggle in the American theater stems not so much from its disagreements, but how it frames its arguments. Let us look at the extremes in order to analyze this. Among all Christian groups, it is perhaps the Westboro Baptist Church that gains the most ire, most likely to their vocal denigration of individuals. This is a 'church' that protests at veterans' funerals, loudly says homosexuals are going to hell, and insults other religions.

America is the land of the free, and free speech, even what others term 'vile' free speech, should be permitted. Three questions arise from a pattern of vile speech, however. First, how effective is vile, aggressive speech at winning the unbelieving to their cause? Second, is such speech in step with the pattern Christ set in his preaching? Third, what does it matter to attempt to legislate behavior in the eyes of God?

The first question is more quickly addressed than the next two, perhaps because anyone can relate that has found themselves insulted or cast as outsiders. To tell someone they are going to hell, to say they are less than human, to tell them they should die, to say they aren't 'true' Americans, or to tell them they are deserving of less rights than others, all casts them as outsiders. In a debate, any man would be on a fool's errand to insult his opponent, and then argue for his opponent to come to his side. Yet this happens weekly in America, as 'religious' politicians and various pastors man their positions and announce to their followers what is wrong with 'others'. This is followed up with calls about how to curb the behavior of these others. Finally, they somehow, bizarrely, feel they can then win over others to their cause. It is sheer insanity.

To pause a moment, the point here is not that the church does not have a right to disagree against types of behavior. The question is how these behaviors are addressed. Does it imitate the pattern of Christ?

First off, the most blatant example of a behavior Christ set to curb took place when the adulteress was about to be stoned by religious leaders, the Pharisees. From John 7-8, Jesus and the Adulteress. 2 At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. 3 The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group 4 and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. 5 In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” 6 They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.
But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. 7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.
9 At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. 10 Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
11 “No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”

There are three parties involved here. One, a religious group condemning a person, threatening them with their lives. The second, the sinner in question. Third, a person setting an example, forgiving, and then firmly, but gently, telling the sinner the course of action to take. Of these three, what does the modern church's behavior most often mimic? Pertaining to question one, which of these approaches, Christ's or the Pharisees, would be most effective?

Because Christ did not hold himself above others, or think himself too highly to share time with those he disagreed with. In fact, only by conversing with them could he get his point across. This is addressed when he has dinner with a tax collector. It should be understood that tax collectors represented government repression and corruption in this era, and were reviled by almost all Jews. Yet Christ had this to say in Luke 5, Jesus Calls Levi and Eats With Sinners.
27 After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth. “Follow me,” Jesus said to him, 28 and Levi got up, left everything and followed him.
29 Then Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them. 30 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to his disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”
31 Jesus answered them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 32 I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”

Christ never held himself better than others, but went to where they were. He considered the people that were sinning to be in need, not people that needed denouncing and shouting down. If Christ were ministering today, would he stand on the side of the Westboro Church? Or would he argue against the Westboro Church in the same way that he did against the Pharisees? Further, it's important to note that it is not only the Westboro Church that has behaved reprehensibly or spoken vilely. One only has to look through the pages of of Daily Kos or Think Progress to identify pastors and congregations that have acted and spoken shamefully.

Christ never stopped arguing his point, that sin was wrong, and what sin was. However, he never treated sinners as anything less than human beings. He sat down with them, dined with them, befriended them. He didn't shout them down, condemn them to hell or wish for them to die or burn. In truth, Christ was most likely heartbroken by everything he was surrounded by. Agree with all of what he considered sin or not, Christ was foremost motivated by love, not hate. It was why he could be intolerant enough to discuss sin and the need for change, but tolerant enough to share dinner with them and respect them as human beings. That is the delicate line that the church has begun to snap week after week.

Which brings us to a final point, and a short one considering all that has been written. What good does it do to legislate a person's behavior? This is a question specific to those who believe in Christ, because it pertains specifically to how they address those around them. Christ treated others with love, dignity and respect. He argued against behavior he felt was wrong, but not by treating others as less than human. How then can the church claim to be doing this, while simultaneously asking others to play by morality rules that are not their own?

The decision to abort is a woman's, personal and sometimes very painful. However, it's her choice. Two homosexuals that love each other, unable to have visiting rights or to share medical coverage, are forced into painful decisions. The church, by imposing its view of morality on others, thus intrudes onto critical choices that are not its own to make. The very act of doing so dehumanizes the subjects, because it reduces them to political objects, rather than human beings making very human decisions. In truth, if God's command is for people to avoid homosexuality, then legislating that homosexuals not marry does nothing to actually address the issue. It doesn't mean there are less homosexuals, and it doesn't mean that somehow there is less sin. If abortions are illegalized, women will still get them. Erasing something from the public face does not erase the thing. Worse, it dehumanizes those involved, and forces even more awful consequences for them. It reduces humans to less than humans.

The question for the church, then, becomes this: If you were shouted at, denigrated, and forced to comply to a morality that is not your own via political action, would you be willing to come to the side of those who had insulted and oppressed you?

In truth, the only sensible answer is no. If the church's utmost responsibility is caring for the souls of the people, then it does itself the most harm by enforcing its view points on those who disagree, or denigrating them with insults. Even more than a matter of strategy in its attempts to share its views with the world, the church is called by the very pattern of its founder, Christ, to be loving and kind in its dealings with the people it interacts with. If its member can't share its views with others in a way that demonstrates love, then it shouldn't share them at all. A pastor's role isn't to tell his congregation just how bad the world outside the church is, but to tell his congregation to show love to those outside those walls in order to show the merits of the church. Of course there are times when correction of church members needs to take place, but, speaking Biblically, this was most typically handled privately between the individuals the matter concerned. This was done specifically to avoid demonizing and ostracizing people. More rare was the church wide admonishment that needed to occur. Yet in all of its dealings with non-believers, the church was given an example by Christ to show its merits by examples of love first, and then by words and tenets. Simply speaking, there is no other way to show others of your merit.

Perhaps for all these reasons, the church's involvement in politics has done most to get it off track. Politics is war, when following Christ should be about love. The church shouldn't agree with everyone on every point, or it no longer is what it claims to follow. Likewise, it no longer is what it claims to follow when it becomes involved in hate mongering. It is a delicate line that the church has to learn to walk.

My purpose in these writings is, of course, NOT to attempt to reconcile all views on all things. People will forever find things about the Bible they do not like, and Christians will always find things about other societies or customs they can't agree to. However, I think it's important to find the common threads between these views, because I can't imagine Christ wanted to establish a church whose reputation was one of greed or hatred. It is likewise unfortunate that the loudest are the most visible, and the loudest are often the most angry or dissatisfied. This does not mean there are not, likewise, a large number of Christians who are uncomfortable with exploitative and discriminating policies. At any rate, this was written with a positive outlook and a hope to bridge some gaps. Thanks.

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