Welcome to the longest blogpost that I have ever written… Also, I am going to go ahead and state that I’m writing this as a well-educated, white, Protestant male who has a lot of privilege. I use a lot of “we language” to talk about the overwhelmingly white church. I own it and am trying to learn new ways of being.
Yesterday I share a quote from Walter Brueggemann on Facebook. I adore Walter Brueggemann and I really loved the quote. Here’s what it said: (original quote is from Walter Brueggemann’s Lenten devotional “A Way Other than Our Own”, pgs. 2-3)
“I believe the crisis in the U.S. church has almost nothing to do with being liberal or conservative; it has everything to do with giving up on the faith and discipline of our Christian baptism and settling for a common, generic U.S. identity that is part patriotism, part consumerism, part violence, and part affluence.”
I received a bit of pushback for sharing this concept by a few people that come from a different place in life than I am. In particular, a colleague and friend of mine said that there was no context for the quote. I normally wouldn’t mind letting Walter Brueggemann stand up for himself as he’s a world famous theologian who has more street credit with people in almost every corner of the church. I normally would leave it alone, but my colleague was just the most openly vocal person. I respect him for his openness and boldness. Such boldness is a gift in this profession.
I have private messages questioning my patriotism, my theology, and in one case my integrity for daring to share such divisive words. I decided to respond on my blog so that I could create lots of links to sources.
I do not mind people questioning my patriotism. I stood in the rain for over an hour waiting to pray for God to bring comfort into the lives of people mourning soldiers who passed in the service of this nation. I stood glumly and thought of my friends in the armed forces who have lost friends. I listened to people complain about the rain. To be fair, it was really cold and wet. I have learned to have thick skin due to the circumstances of my ministry.
I do not mind people questioning my theology. Theology is necessarily limited by the person who is approaching the divine. I stood in the rain and prayed at the beginning of the service. The Baptist minister who believes different things than me about God prayed at the end of the service. We don’t need to agree to show love and respect to each other. Theology is always a matter of perspective unless you know all things, in which case you’re navel gazing because only God knows everything.
I do get a little irked when people question my integrity. I stood in the rain to pray for others so that they might have comfort today. While standing there I realized that I have no place to rest my bones. Following Jesus has meant that I no longer have a home like many of the people that I serve. I find home in my loved ones, my community, and even in my relationship with God, but there is no grave for me to rest within at the end of my days. My responding to God has led me to forego that blessing. That takes commitment and is more than a little disconcerting.
I am a servant of the Most High and I do my best to live out my service well. My quest is to live out that service with integrity. I have decided that I am going to respond to these criticisms in the best way that I can. I am going to respond with a defense of this statement and encourage others to engage in the conversation. I mean no disrespect to those who disagree with me, but there comes a point where one must be clear, concise, and accurate when talking about challenging issues. I might not be concise, but I pray this is both clear and accurate.
So, what does Brueggemann say:
- There’s a crisis in the US church that has nothing to do with the theology wars that people love to engage in between liberal and conservative camps.
- The crisis has to do with an abandonment of the identity found in our Christian identity which is best expressed in the faith and discipline connected with our baptism into Christ.
- We settle for an identity that is partially patriotic, consumeristic, violent, and affluent. I think it is safe to say that Brueggemann has a negative view of this approach.
So, let’s get into this. Is there a crisis in the US church? Well, the Pew Research Center might be indicating that there is a problem. Attendance is dropping and the mission of the church according to Matthew 28:18-20 the purpose of the church is to: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”
There’s a numerical issue that might show a problem, but why is that issue taking place? Is this the problem or a symptom? Are we the victims of a cultural shift or is it more insidious? Matthew 28:20 says that Jesus will be with us when we do what we’re supposed to be doing. So, what is going on?
Do you remember that point where Walter Brueggemann talks about violence? We were called to make disciples of all nations. We were called to teach them, love them like Jesus loved them, and to embody what Jesus commanded. Jesus taught that we should treat others like we would like to be treated. Jesus taught that whatever we do to the least of God’s children we do to Jesus.
When I was a teenager I read Dee Brown’s “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.” We were called to embody and teach love. We broke promises. We killed women and children. We believed in a manifest destiny that destroyed cultures, families, and bordered at times on cultural and physical genocide. If it makes you feel sick to your stomach you aren’t alone. The General Conference of the UMC engaged in a sincere attempt to draw the church into repentance in 2012 and voices in our church have been asking us to continue that work ever since, but we continue to bring violence to our sisters, brothers, and neighbors over subjects like pipelines and corporate rights. We should be sick to our stomachs. This isn’t the way that Jesus taught us to live. We were called to teach people to live as Jesus’ commanded us. If we have trouble seeing where Jesus is at work it may be our own fault.
In seminary trusted friends invited me to consider reading further. I was invited to read books like “A People’s History of the United States” by Howard Zinn. I was invited go on trips to places like Window Rock, Arizona where I stood by the graves of soldiers who died for our nation. I talked with widows whose loved ones made it home safely and could only find work in uranium mines. I stood in the middle of a tribe of proud people and saw how the culture that I had been taught to love and honored had crippled a noble community, tribe, and nation. I shook my head when I realized there were no trees in the town of Sawmill because they’d been shipped away to build the impressive towns populated by people who looked like me. I wept openly by the statue erected in honor of the Windtalkers who served so proudly. My heart broke in pieces because the Jesus I know would not have done these things.
It goes further. I’ve married a woman who has stood in the towns where my nation dropped nuclear weapons on women and children. I’ve read about the 200,000 people who died in the name of expediency. Most of them died from burns, but some of them died when the pieces of the place they called home flew through the air and killed them. I have stood by sights where Confederate soldiers stood up for their rights to own other people and thought about how their blood was shed into the very water which once carried people as property from one nation to another.
As a lay person I have served food to hungry people on the streets of Rochester and done my best to give dignity to folks who are in need of food in the communities I have served as a pastor. I have seen people die when basic needs like health-care have not been met. For the want of an antibiotic I have seen people sicken and rest on their deathbeds. I have seen that our nation is not perfect. I have seen it with my own eyes and my eyes have wept with pain for what they have seen.
On January 27, 1838, Abraham Lincoln gave a speech to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois. It was a challenging time and the beginnings of division were starting to tear apart the connections of the young nation. Lincoln said the following:
“At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”
I truly believe Lincoln’s fear is our reality. We have become a people who believes that we have a manifest destiny which can and should control the lives of people around us. Some people feared the other. Mob violence was tearing apart our nation as people oppressed and fought against people that they saw as property. Their fear was that the other would ruin the future, much like we are afraid of the terror that others can bring into our lives. Lincoln pointed out to the people that the true danger was coming from within. His fears would prove true. The way of being the early American nation was headed was leading to soldiers, neighbors, and families slaughtering each other all across this nation.
We are a people who it seems honestly believes that we have a right to control the lives of people around us. Jesus taught that we should treat others like we would like to be treated. We preach our doctrines on television and demand that we bring prayer back into schools because we honestly believe that the people praying in the school will pray in ways that will agree with our beliefs! We would cry bloody murder if someone called for Islamic prayer every morning before school, but we are okay with it if we are the ones leading the prayers. We do the very things that Jesus told us not to do and it is killing us. This idolatry is killing us very quickly. We need to repent.
Brueggemann questions the connections between patriotism and our baptismal identity, but he isn’t the first. Consider the works of the prophets who came to the people of God cajoling, pleading, begging, and trying to convince them to remember whose they were. Consider the judges who asked the people not to seek an earthly king and how their decision caused grief, destruction, death, and exile. Consider Jesus who refused to be an earthly ruler and was crucified for His trouble.
How many books of the Bible are filled with these stories? How many times does God call on the people to repent of their earthly addictions to power and greed? How many times does God call on people to live lives marked my love, kindness, and humility? How often can we read these words and not understand the most basic of messages? Do we need to live out Lamentations in addition to Jeremiah?
I am a child of this nation. I have to live a life which honestly reflects on who we have become as a people. We were a nation of immigrants and we murdered the people who lived here before us. We were a nation of refugees from the struggles of an old world and we imported people as slaves from another part of the world. We were a nation that stood up to Hitler’s terrible acts. I do not doubt the importance of those actions and honor those who died to put an end to the Holocaust. That bravery does not change the fact that we are also the nation who nuked civilians (including women and children). Knowledge, history, and experience have taught me that my identity cannot rest in my place in this nation. If my identity as an American is all that defines me, then history teaches me that a prophet is needed, because this is not good.
Violence like the violence that we have brought into the world is like the violence that is described before the flood in Genesis. Arrogance like the arrogance we have shown through depopulating a nation, enslaving others, and mistreating our own neighbors is absolutely horrendous. This arrogance is like the arrogance that led to the Tower of Babel. This is not good.
I truly believe that Walter Brueggemann is right. If there is any hope for the church in the United States then we need to remember the red letter words of the New Testament brought through Jesus. If there is any hope for the church in the United States then we need to remember the call of the prophets. If there is any hope for the church in the United States then we need to define ourselves less by where we happened to be born and more by who we have chosen to become in the life.
I am a Christian who happens to be a United Methodist. When I share in the body and blood of Christ at the Lord’s table it is with the understanding that you cannot share in the body and blood of Christ if you’re not ready to partner with Christ in the ministry of undergoing suffering. I am a minister in the United Methodist church. When I baptize a child it is with the honest expectation that the child must come to a place where they believe in their own faith and identify with their own baptism into the life and death of a man who suffered.
In my own personal theology these beliefs are not optional. I have already said that I do not need people to agree with me, but on my end they are a part of our identity as Christians. If we cannot find our identity in Christ then we have lost our way and need to pray for forgiveness. As the foundational documents of the Methodist movement say all that is truly required to enter into the society of believers is ““a desire to flee from the wrath to come, and to be saved from their sins.”
If it makes people feel better, the New York Conference of the United Church of Christ just affirmed their belief that God’s vision for the church is to be “United in Christ’s love, a just world for all.” They connect this to their mission which is to be “United in Spirit and inspired by God’s grace, we move forward boldly to welcome all, love all, and seek justice for all.” Seeking justice requires repenting of the things we do that cause pain.
For that matter, during the benediction at the American Legion’s service in the rain this morning, the Baptist minister around the corner lifted up Jesus Christ as the soldier who laid down his life so that people of every nation would enter the Kingdom of God and find salvation. By the way, Pastor Jim prayed a really powerful prayer. I’m looking forward to hearing more as time goes on.
For that matter, here’s a pretty good work of theology by a Roman Catholic scholar written on the subject of patriotism and our Christian duty is a pretty good bit of research too. By the way, it was written only a few months after 9/11. I still find it to be very relevant 15 years later. Too old for you? Here’s Pope Francis calling people to move towards justice and mercy earlier this year.
Baptists, Roman Catholics, members of the United Church of Christ, and even United Methodists like me. If you’re keeping track, that’s every denomination that has a congregation in the hamlet of Maine. We may worship different, but we all seem to be united in understanding that salvation rests in Jesus and that Jesus calls us to repent of our sins. We might not agree with what that looks like, but we all seem united in understanding that God is calling us.
As for Brueggemann’s words on affluence and consumerism, I realize that I have probably annoyed enough people already. I can go into that another day if people desire. The long and short of it is that I personally believe that John Wesley got it right. He did earn all he could and save all he could. He also gave all he could and died with less than 30 pounds to give away despite having an annual income of 1,400 pounds. It is said that he never had more than 100 pounds on him, which is pretty impressive given how easy it must have been to hoard his wealth instead of using it to bless others.