Tuesday, January 15, 2013
I have a good friend who is an Orthodox Rabbi. Over the years I have learned a great deal from him and I think he has learned a thing or two from me. The Jewish community is every bit as divided theologically as the Christian. There are far right, Ultra-Orthodox Jews and there are far left Reform Jews. Their disagreements are every bit as significant as those between the most fundamentalist and most liberal of Christians. But something important happened within the Jewish community in the wake of the horrors of the Holocaust. Jewish leaders recognized that however great their differences they could not afford to repudiate any Jew. Their losses had been too great and their future was too uncertain to reject any Jew, regardless of their religious failings (whether their failings were “fundamentalist” or “liberal”). This does not mean that Jews have stopped disagreeing with one another. In my experience, far from it! But in has meant that Jews with very different views of Jewish faith and practice generally respect and support one another. They really cannot afford to do otherwise.
For 1500 years or so Christians in the west have enjoyed the privileges of majority. Among other things, this has enabled us to engage in theological feuds without any real risk to our survival. Deviance was sniffed out, denounced and, where possible, eliminated. Ecclesiastical elites maintained their power by marginalizing critical voices. Sometimes these critical voices ended up burned at the stake. Sometimes they were co-opted and called saints. In the wake of the Reformation theological conflict became a Protestant team sport. Calvinists, Lutherans and Anabaptists all sought the prize of theological domination of their opponents. The Pietists in the 17th century tried to find a way to make peace, but they were mostly ignored or scorned. Old habits die hard and the Christian church cannot shake its practices of mutual condemnation. A conservative regime in Rome seems to have no interest in a significant rapprochement with its “separated brethren.” The Mainline Church in the United States is shredding itself over issues of human sexuality. Evangelicals have lemming like rushed to affiliate with conservative politics and are headed over the cliffs of irrelevance. Each denounces the other for moral, ethical, and biblical compromise and attempts to wrest control of Jesus from the other.
I believe this has to stop. Future controversies over a variety of social and political issues and most notably over human sexuality bear the seeds of further alienation, division, and destruction. I think it is time for Christians to reject their home team mentality and receive all who seek to follow Jesus, whatever their loyalties. I am not calling for relativistic indifference. My friend is still Orthodox and still has large differences with his more liberal colleagues. But he does not reject their Jewishness and accepts them as brothers and sisters. We will all continue to have differences with Christians to the right and left of us. But as our influence and power in the society dwindles we can no longer afford to throw any Christian under the bus. As part of a movement born out of the perhaps feeble Pietist attempt to make peace between warring factions, I refuse to participate in such theological branding. I don’t expect the arguments to go away. I am sure I will participate in them. But this day I assert that the most hardboiled fundamentalist is my brother and my sister and the most wild-eyed liberal is my companion in Christ and I will not participate in the rejection of either of them.
John E. (Jay) Phelan
Monday, November 5, 2012
Over the last few weeks Christian friends, liberal and conservative, have attempted to proactively console themselves by suggesting we remember that whoever wins “Jesus is still King and God is still on the throne.” Well, OK. But excuse me if I don’t find this particularly consoling. The problem with this bit of pious rhetoric is that it implies it doesn’t matter how we vote. Whether Romney or Obama wins “God is still on the throne” and, evidently, in control of things to such an extent that nothing bad can happen. But Jesus was king and God was still on the throne when the extraordinarily foolish and ostensibly Christian rulers of Great Britain, France, German, Austria and Russia plunged the world into the bloodbath we now call World War I. Jesus was king and God was still on the throne when Lenin led a successful Communist revolution in Russia. Jesus was king and God was still on the throne when Stalin starved and butchered his own people and when Hitler’s Germany shot, gassed and starved Europe’s Jews. Jesus was king and God was still on the throne when Harry Truman made the ghastly decision to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Of course, the gruesome litany of murderous and foolish decisions made by leaders could be extended to the present day. Names like Vietnam, Cambodia, South Africa, Northern Ireland, Rwanda, Bosnia and Iraq continue to haunt our dreams.
Claiming comfort from Jesus-is-still-king-and-God-is-still-on-the-throne risks our becoming passive and indifferent in the face of difficult decisions. Standing idly or smugly by, shrugging our shoulder in the face of defeat or victory is not a sign of spiritual maturity but spiritual blindness. It does not amount to stoic acceptance but sheer irresponsibility. The fact is that God has empowered us, his creatures, his people, to work for the healing of the world or press forward in its destruction. The God of the Bible is not the unmoved mover of Aristotle or the irresistible force of the neo-Calvinists. The God of the Bible is frequently frustrated with his people’s failures to live up to his commands and follow his ways. He starts the world over with Noah and threatens to do so with Moses. He rages over Israel’s infidelity (see Hosea) and warns of impending judgment. He does not force the kings or the people to do what is right and good. He rather warns them of the outcome of disobedience. The world is not running on an auto-pilot set by God—quite the contrary. Although God will redeem and renew the world, it is now in the not always particularly capable hands of flawed human beings. It is also in the hands of the church. Our gospel, our compassion, our hope, our love are supposed to make the world a different, saner, more beautiful, more just place—tasks the church has frankly botched. But for whatever reason, God has entrusted us with his world. What we do matters. We can make the world a better or much, much worse place.
There is a saying that the first person to cite Hitler in a political argument loses. I think the comparison of either candidate for President to Hitler is frankly idiotic. But, having said that, many Germans who found Hitler distasteful, supported him for Chancellor because they thought he would improve the economy and stand up to the Communists and because they thought he would settle down when he got into power. They were, in many cases literally, dead wrong. We have the great honor and harrowing responsibility of being co-creators of the new creation, ambassadors for Christ. God, as Paul puts it, is making his appeal through us (see 2 Corinthians 5). Our involvement in this world, for good or ill, matters. Our attempts to be agents of healing and justice, matter. Our votes matter. We are partners in what the Jews call tikkun olam—the healing of the world. Let’s not fumble the task.
Sunday, October 7, 2012
Why Islam Should Value Free Speech
In the aftermath of the violence and death following the internet distribution of an execrable anti-Muslim film, Muslims around the world expressed perplexity at the West’s principle of “free speech.” How could America permit such vicious attacks on their beloved Prophet and defend them as “free speech”? Should people be free to insult the most deeply held religious convictions of others? What sort of freedom, some wondered, is that? While I understand the anguish and perplexity I would argue that Islam would be better off both in the West and in majority Muslim countries with more, rather than less, free speech. Christians, Jews, and Muslims in the West are all subject to insults, mockery, and attacks on their most cherished convictions and beloved leaders and prophets. Living in pluralistic societies means that differences of opinion are rife and the marketplace of ideas not a place for the faint of heart. Roman Catholic and Evangelical Christians are perhaps most susceptible to scornful, vicious and frequently unfair attacks. I am not surprised to see vicious attacks on my Christian faith daily on Facebook, in the newspaper, and every other media one can think of. The so-called new atheists have made good livings sneering at people of faith. Such attacks are not pleasant, but I think there are very good reasons to welcome and not resist them. First, some of the attacks are merited. Unfortunately Christians have not always lived in accordance with the teachings of Jesus. Our history is as marked by hypocrisy and violence as it is by sincerity and truth. We need our critics to help us face our most blatant and obvious failures. They hold up a mirror to us and what we see is not always pleasant. Second, opposition to our faith strengthens rather than weakens us. Sociologist Rodney Stark has argued that in countries and regions of the world where one form of Christian faith is dominant (Roman Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant) the vigor and depth of the actual faith of individuals is considerably less than it may appear. Stark suggests that in European countries where Christianity was the state religion, Christian faith collapsed quickly when threatened by secularism. But in countries like the United States where faith traditions have had to compete and defend their message, faith has remained stronger and more vital. In countries where Islam is dominant it may appear universally accepted and enduringly vital. But the experience of other Religious traditions would suggest this may be an illusion. A religious monopoly involving the silencing of any criticism from the outside may appear to strengthen Islam. But the opposite may be the case. It is not pleasant for me to hear insults to my faith, to Jesus, and to the church. But in the end, as a Christian I am forced to hear these criticisms, ponder their truth, and strengthen my resolve to communicate more clearly and live more faithfully. I would suggest that Islam would be better served to stop criticizing free speech and start welcoming the challenge it brings. In the end, however painful, Islam will be the better for it.
John E. Phelan, Jr.
Tuesday, August 28, 2012
I have been teaching the foundational course in Christian worship at my school, North Park Theological Seminary, for the last two years. Since this is a new course for me I have been doing a good deal of reading, observing and reflecting on this most important aspect of Christian faith. By far the most provocative book I have read is Gerardo Marti’s Worship Across the Racial Divide. Marti is a sociologist and did extensive research on worship in multiracial congregations. The results of his research surprised even him. He found that “successful” multiracial congregations were not characterized by a particular approach to music and worship but by a variety of musical and liturgical styles. The real key to their success was not liturgy, music or preaching, but the quality of cross racial relationships formed within the congregation. “The diversification of churches” he writes, “is not about racially accommodating distinct music styles or enacting simplistic notions of leadership intentionality, but rather about stimulating cross-racial interactions through musical worship practices.” It’s the relationships of the people that sing, not the nature of their song that determines the cohesion of the community.
The most disturbing and challenging chapter for me was entitled “African Americans as the Icon of ‘True Worship’”. He observed in his interviews that white, Asian, and African American worship leaders as well as ordinary worshippers assumed that African Americans had a special talent for worship. In fact, African American worship was considered the “gold standard” of Christian worship for many. “A white female choir member said, ‘Black people are very spiritual. They are more spiritual that we are.’ Another white female choir member said, ‘They [blacks] seem closer to God.” (54) Such opinions were expressed by both African American and white worshippers in the churches Marti visited. The clapping, swaying, and shouting characteristic of worship in many African American churches was seen as indicating a greater connection with God and a deeper capacity for worship. For Marti the problem with this is that it was often expressed in old “essentialist” terms. He cites a 19th century writer who argued that “Africans contribute positively to the mixture of races in prosperous metropolitan centers by offering Dionysian gifts such as passion, dance, music, rhythm, lightheartedness and sensuality. Whites, for their part, contribute energy, action, perseverance, rationality and technical aptitude: the Apollonian gifts.” (58) The obvious racism of such observations should give us pause. Describing African American worship in essentialist terms actually robs it of its power and integrity. African American worship is powerful, not because African Americans have an inherent talent for worship (any more than Asians are better at math or whites at organization), but because it is rooted in a particular culture. In the United States it is a culture of suffering, endurance and victory. According to Pearl Williams-Jones gospel music “performance and practice provides ongoing opportunity to incarnate ‘a clearly defined black identity growing out of black experience,’ which Williams-Jones states ‘is indicative of the indomitability of the African ethos.” (65) It actually trivializes African American worship to declare that its power is derived from an inherent black ability to worship. There is a reason “We Shall Overcome” sounds more authentic being song by a black gospel choir than a white choir—and it has nothing to do with essentialist categories. The glory of African American worship is rooted in the power of suffering, survival, grace and deliverance. It speaks of liberation for the oppressed and perhaps even the hope of liberation for the oppressors. It is the black experience, not the black “essence” that gives African American worship its obvious power and profundity. This worship is a gift to the whole church born out of the crucible of suffering. In the end, the suffering is not celebrated, but transcended by confidence in the God who delivers, judges and sets things right.
John E. Phelan, Jr.
Wednesday, June 6, 2012
The following was presented at the most recent Jewish/Evangelical Dialogue and is somewhat longer (to say the least) than a normal blog post. A number of my friends have requested the paper so I have chosen to post it here. I welcome your responses.
How Not to Criticize Israel: Guidelines for Conversations between Evangelicals and Jews
John E. Phelan, Jr.
North Park Theological Seminary
Evangelical Christians have for years been dependable supporters of the state of Israel. Dispensationalist interpreters saw the reconstitution of the state in 1948 as a fulfillment of prophecy and a clear sign that the return of Jesus was at hand. Throughout the following decades Israel could count on Evangelicals to support the state in the voting booth as well as from the pulpit. This support, of course, was not new. Zionists found support for their cause in the late 19th and early 20th century from Christian students of prophecy who were convinced the fulfillment of God’s purposes required a Jewish state in their ancient homeland. In the early decades of the 20th century pastors, theologians, and Christian politicians enthusiastically promoted the cause of a Jewish homeland. In many circles to this day it is unthinkable for an Evangelical to criticize or question the state of Israel.
In recent years things have begun to change. Many Evangelicals have been sensitized to the sufferings and struggles of the Palestinians—particularly Palestinian Christians. At the same time, Dispensationalism has fallen into disfavor in many Evangelical circles. For many the state of Israel is no longer necessary for the fulfillment of prophecy and the Jews’ return to the land is no longer seen as a reason for celebration. Evangelical Christians committed to social justice have joined their colleagues in mainline Protestant churches in criticizing Israel over the plight of the Palestinians. Its Christian critics now frequently depict Israel as just one more oppressive colonial power in the Middle East. Supporting Israel has become as unthinkable for some Evangelicals as supporting cuts in government support of the poor!
Israel is a state like any other. It has had good leaders and poor ones. It has made wise decisions and foolish ones. It is as subject to criticism as Egypt, Iraq or the United States. One of my Jewish friends says that among Jews criticizing the government of Israel is an intramural sport. No state, Israel included, is beyond criticism. Nevertheless, some Christian and specifically Evangelical criticisms of Israel are neither just nor helpful and others are simply shockingly inappropriate. Conversations between Evangelicals and Jews over the perceived failures of the state of Israel are fairly new. In what follows some principles of engagement are proposed that may enable those conversations to be helpful rather than hurtful.
Principle One: Evangelicals should not criticize the state of Israel by questioning the legitimacy of Judaism itself.
Some Evangelical criticism of Israel has come by way of a critique of so-called “Christian Zionism.” Such criticism is intended to break the hold that Dispensationalist thinkers have had on Evangelical conversations about Israel and Judaism. Unfortunately, when critics launch salvoes at the popular dispensationalist approaches to the interpretation of the Bible the Jews are caught in the crossfire. It is popular to argue against the Christian Zionists, for example, by suggesting that the Jews no longer have any right to the land of Israel in that Christians are now the sole heirs of all the promises to Abraham. Some have gone as far as to say this means the Palestinian Christians are the true heirs of the land of Israel—not the Jews (or the Muslims, for that matter).
In making their case against the Christian Zionists and for the Christian Palestinians these Evangelical critics of Israel have perhaps inadvertently launched an attack on Judaism itself. Their approach implies not only that Jews no longer have a right to the land of Israel, but also that they no longer have a right to interpret their own holy texts. Christians are now entrusted with the stewardship of the Jewish scriptures and their meaning. This amounts to a Christian colonization of Jewish texts and traditions. To many Jews this sounds like the Jews, not simply Israel, have no right to exist. This is not simply an attack on their homeland but on their core convictions about their identity and purpose as God’s people. Given the ugly history of Christian and Jewish relations such approaches sound a warning bell for even the most secular Jew!
Christian scholars have in recent years been engaged in serious discussions of “supersessionism” or “replacement” theories. In its crudest form supersessionism holds that the people of Israel have simply been superseded by the church of Jesus Christ and therefore have no claim on their own texts, traditions or future. This conversation is not a new one. The future of the people of Israel as Israel was an issue that deeply troubled the apostle Paul. Some argue that the entire book of Romans is dedicated to exploring this issue. When Paul discusses this directly in Romans 9-11 he begins by arguing “they are [note the present tense] Israelites. The adoption as God’s children, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the Law, the worship and the promises belong to them.” A bit later he insists, “God did not reject his people whom he foreknew.” He concludes his argument with the startling assertion: “All Israel will be saved.” It seems clear that Paul, at least, did not think that with the founding of the Christian church God’s promises to and love for Israel, as Israel had become passé. Paul, it seems to many of us, foresaw a future for Israel as Israel.
The upshot of all this is that Evangelicals would do well to avoid using theological arguments to criticize the state of Israel. Such theological arguments may be heard as at least indirect attacks on Jews and Judaism. This will, to say the least, not foster helpful conversations. It is certainly fair to criticize Israel where its actions are demonstrably unjust and contrary to its own laws and principles, but it is frankly anti-Jewish to criticize Israel by implying Jews, as Jews have no right to land or a future. Evangelical critics of Israel need to recognize how painfully this rings in Jewish ears. Evangelicals implying that Israel, as a Jewish state, has no right to exist will not improve the situation of the Palestinians.
Principle Two: Criticisms of the State of Israel must be grounded in an understanding of the history of the region and a fair assessment of its contemporary challenges.
The history of this region did not begin with the construction of the separation fence and wall or even with the foundation of the state in 1948. The conflicts between Israel’s Jews and their neighbors did not begin with the first Intifada. Israel’s critics need to remember that the Jews did not simply take the land in the war of independence but were promised a homeland by the Balfour Declaration of 1917. The British, anticipating the fall of the Ottoman Empire declared that they viewed “with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” The declaration became part of the peace treaty with Turkey after the war. Following the breakup of the Ottoman Empire with the help of the British, Arabs, long under the thumb of the Ottoman Empire and European colonial powers, established several large states in North Africa and the Middle East. The Jews, in spite of assurances from the British, faced a long and bitter struggle to see their promised homeland established.
Years ago the American Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, a supporter of the creation of the state of Israel, argued that justice could only be relative in the Middle East. Surely many Palestinians suffered losses of land and place with the creation of the state of Israel. Some were driven from their homes. Some fled fully expecting to return. Some, of course, stayed where they were. The Palestinians, like millions of others in the wake of the Second World War, suffered tragic displacements and bitter losses. This is well known and should be remembered. What is less well known is that hundreds of thousands of Jews were driven from their homes, lands, and businesses at the creation of the various Arab states and, in many cases, found refuge in the emerging state of Israel. Nothing justifies or makes easier the loss of land and home, but historical context matters.
Having said this, although history matters, it is fruitless to adjudicate the past. Making a tally of which party is the most oppressed or has suffered the greatest losses leads only to balkanization and bitterness. The challenge of a tragic history is to find a way out of violence, fear, and distrust. Neither Jews nor Palestinians should forget their pasts, but neither should let the tragic realities of their shared pasts prevent them from seeking a safe and healthy future for their children and grandchildren. Evangelicals, justly eager to support and encourage their Palestinian brothers and sisters should know and appreciate this painful past and the reasons the Israeli government acts as it does in the present. The separation fence and wall, for example, did not come into being because the Israelis wanted to make life miserable for the Palestinians. It came into being because Israelis were dying at the hands of suicide bombers on busses, in cafes and on the streets. As ugly and unfortunate as the wall is, it has, tragically, worked. If Israel is to remove this barrier, as I hope it one day will, it must be given an alternative means of protecting its people and their future. Nothing exists, not even the wall, in a vacuum.
Third Principle: Conversations between Evangelicals and Jews about Israel and Judaism must recognize and acknowledge foundational disagreements between and shared ignorance of one another.
Evangelicals should not assume they understand contemporary Jews and Judaism. They may know the Hebrew Scriptures well. They may be well versed on the Pharisees and Sadducees of Jesus’ day. They may imagine that because they understand Paul’s critiques of his Jewish contemporaries, that they understand and may critique their Jewish contemporaries. Such assumptions are fatal to dialogue. The key to any useful dialogue is to let the dialogue partner speak for him or herself! It is not for Evangelical Christians to tell Jews what they believe. Nor, of course, is it the place of Jews to tell Christians, evangelical or otherwise, what they believe. Dialogue always begins with listening. Evangelicals should let their Jewish partners tell their own stories and vice versa. In these conversations the differences will emerge and be acknowledged soon enough!
Careful listening will reveal that there are many religious, political, and theological differences within the respective Jewish and Evangelical communities! There are a variety of opinions within both camps regarding the politics and practices of the state of Israel. There are significant disagreements regarding how the texts and traditions of Judaism and Christianity are to be applied to living in the modern world. But whatever the differences, there is in many if not most Jews a fierce commitment to endurance the Jewish people. A bitter history of pogroms and the Holocaust has bound many Jews, both religious and secular, to the land of Israel. Here, if nowhere else, in a Jewish homeland, Jews can be safe to live as Jews and practice their traditions well, poorly, or not at all! For many Jews the state of Israel is an assurance of a Jewish future. Evangelicals cannot pretend to understand fully or appreciate what it means to the survivors of centuries of violence and hostility to find a safe home in the land of Israel.
Jews and Christians view differently the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. They view differently the role of Torah in the life of an individual and community. They regard the same texts as the authoritative word of God but read them through a very different set of lenses. Their sense of “peoplehood” is very different. Only if Evangelicals and Jews listen to one another and learn from one another over time will they begin to understand their varied convictions and commitments. Only if Evangelicals and Jews listen to one another will they come over time to understand the significance and challenges of their different perceptions of the state of Israel. Perhaps then, together, they may have a role in pointing to solutions to its many problems and challenges.
In spite of their many differences, Evangelical Christians and Jews still have a great deal in common and profound reasons to listen to and learn from one another. Evangelical Christians and Jews worship the same God—the God of the Jews—the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This is the God who calls all Jews and Christians, “to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8b). And whatever their differences with Jews over Israel, Evangelical Christians who hold authoritative the words of the Apostle Paul should be concerned that the Jewish people have a future, believing the Jews beloved of God and that “the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable.”
Principle Four: Evangelicals should criticize Israel as friends of Israel.
Criticism from those hostile to the state of Israel and critical of its very existence are certainly less well received than that of critics committed to a just a safe future for Israel and its Jews. Any criticism that is not founded on Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state may sound like an attack on the very survival of the Jews. Criticism grounded in love is more easily borne that criticism rooted in hostility. Critics of Israel would do well to listen to the anguish and longing of Israelis for stability, peace, and hope for a shared future with their Palestinian neighbors. They should also listen to the despair of a people with few friends and many enemies. Threatened people do not always behave in the most judicious manner. Israel needs friends who support its existence as a healthy and secure state. Such friends earn the right to raise questions and offer criticism. Why would the Jews of Israel listen to critics who are determined to write them not only out of their own story, but the story of the world? The best way for Evangelicals to address the challenges of the Palestinian people, both Christian and Muslim is to be a friendly critic of Israel committed to its survival and not its destruction.
Evangelicals sometimes are not aware that others may be overhearing their internal conversations. These conversations can produce pain and bewilderment among our Jewish friends and colleagues. Frequently the targets of our critiques are our theological and political opponents within the Evangelical community. But rhetoric intended to undermine positions we find unacceptable from a justice perspective or biblical point of view can inflict unintended wounds upon the Jewish community. This is especially true if our views are in the first place uninformed, unfair, and unreflective. I encourage all of us to speak thoughtfully, carefully and lovingly if we hope to address the painful realities on the ground in Israel.
Tuesday, April 24, 2012
I had reason again this week to be thankful that I am a Pietist. For reasons buried deeply within Vatican paranoia the Roman Catholic Church decided to take aim on that most dangerous group of ecclesiastical miscreants and malcontents: American nuns. The nuns were evidently spending too much time caring for the poor (which Rome acknowledged was admirable) and not enough time working against abortion and gay marriage. I will leave it to Rome and the nuns to settle their differences, but I was struck once again by breath-taking power assumed by the Imperial Church. Rome from the peak of its lofty pyramid assumed the right to reshape the ministry of the nuns by fiat. Now before anyone accuses me of Catholic bashing let me first say that, yes, I know, as they famously put it, “The church is not a democracy.” And furthermore, yes, I understand that the nuns should have known what they were signing up for. But I would say even more: the imperial church is not located only in Rome. It is found in many cities and in many denominational offices. The Imperial Church has been a plague on the people of God since almost the beginning.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once said, “Spiritual problems cannot be solved by administrative techniques.” But that has not stopped the Imperial Church from trying. The Imperial Church loves uniformity. It loves agreement and cooperation. It loves unquestioning obedience and feathers unruffled. The spirit-fired, prophetic-inspired, charismatic free lances are quickly co-opted or destroyed. This is as true of the Imperial Church today as it was in the fourth century. And this is true whether the Imperial Church is Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Methodist, or Southern Baptist. This is true whether the Imperial Church is bound by creeds and confessions or officially, at least, non-creedal. Ironically the church acting most imperially these days is a church, historically at least, non-confessional: The Southern Baptists. Not only are they squeezing the life out of their faithful critics, they are lusting after official recognition and specious power in Washington, D.C. Within the larger Evangelical sphere the Imperial Church is represented by the solemn, neo-reformed heresy hunters who sniff out the theological faults of others with a typically rigid intransigence insisting on the proper pronunciation of various theological Shibboleths, especially “penal substitutionary atonement”.
In all fairness, the Imperial Church has plenty of advocates on the left as well as the right. For some in the the left-wing of the Imperial Church taking the Bible seriously is an embarrassing faux pas; suggesting that Israel may not be completely responsible for the problems in the Middle East will get you kicked out of the Social Justice clubhouse; and believing that people need to hear the good news and respond to Jesus’ offer of grace and forgiveness will get you branded a Fundamentalist. Years ago in one of his monologues Bill Cosby suggested that most parents are not interested in justice, they want quiet. And the same is true of the Imperial Church: line up, take your medicine, and don’t make waves. The Imperial Church is well represented by Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor who was terribly annoyed that Jesus had shown up when they had just gotten things settled down. The motto of the Imperial Church seems to be, who needs the Spirit when you’ve got committees.
My people, the Pietists, saw through the Imperial Church. They saw through Rome and they saw through the high church Lutheranism that seemed intent on strangling the life out of the vital beast Luther had set loose on the continent of Europe. They saw through the self-satisfied and well-connected Anglican Church of the 18th century. They saw through the rickety state churches in Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Germany and the unofficial state churches of the United States. They sought a living faith, founded in the Scriptures, in warm-hearted worship of God, and commitment to care for the poor, homeless, helpless and hopeless. They were wary of creeds and confessions because they had seen them distorted into tools of control and considered them insufficiently rooted in the Bible. They insisted that so-called “lay people” were also priests (following Luther, of course). They had their faults. They could be legalistic. They could be simplistic. They could be anti-intellectual. They could be a pain in the neck. But at their best they sought to bypass the Imperial Church with its stranglehold on God and find their way back to the “living water.”
Pietism is messy. Organizing Pietists is like the proverbial herding of cats. So Pietist denominational leaders are always tempted to take their cues from the Imperial Church, to rein in their adventuresome or silence their irksome. In his London concert of a few years ago, Leonard Cohen gave a long list of pharmaceuticals he had taken over the years to deal with his various emotional difficulties. At the end of this litany he commented, “But cheerfulness kept breaking through.” And so it is with the Spirit. No matter what the Imperial Church attempts to do, no matter how strong the administrative soporific, the Spirit, and all the messiness that entails for the Imperial Church, will keep breaking through. Thanks be to God.
John E. Phelan, Jr.
Friday, March 23, 2012
It was during the mid-sixties. Occasionally I worked for a church member who owned a gas station in west Nashville, Tennessee where I grew up. His son was a friend of mine. We were responsible for pumping gas, washing customers’ cars, changing wiper blades and other menial tasks. One Saturday my friend and I were in the next bay changing the oil in a car while a notorious west Nashville local was regaling the mechanic with tales of what he would do to civil rights protestors if he got the chance. This was, of course, at the height of the civil rights movement. Nashville and its major African-American educational institutions, Tennessee A & I and Fisk College had been at the center of the protest. After visiting murder and mayhem on the heads of the protestors the man boasted that he had killed two black men in his time. “Of course,” he grumbled, “that was back when it was still legal to kill a black man.” He actually didn’t say “black man”. He used an enduringly offensive term of diminishment and opprobrium. I had always heard the phrase “my blood ran cold” but I did not know what it meant until that moment.
This is not an incident I willingly recall. But it came to mind when I heard of the murder of Trayvon. In the south of my youth young black men could be beaten and lynched for looking at a white woman the wrong way. They could be imprisoned for minor offenses and brutalized by prison guards. Thousands went to their deaths at the hands of shotgun wielding “bulls” at hellholes like Louisiana’s Angola Prison. We are naïve if we imagine that the fear and bile of those years has been drawn like poison out of our system. When a young man is murdered and the authorities react with reasoned indifference we are reminded of those days in the South, and not only the South, when killing a black man or woman or child was legal. And in different parts of the country it could be Mexicans or Chinese or Native Americans who were brutalized and murdered. And if a sheriff or police chief had the courage to charge a murderer, juries routinely acquitted them.
In the giddy days after the nomination and then election of President Obama there was a great deal of loose talk about a “post racial society.” But the vilification and misrepresentation of the President almost from day one should have put the lie to such optimistic posturing. The attacks on President Obama have gone far beyond ordinary political differences. To this day people doubt his religious affiliation and his citizenship—among other things. Contrary evidence has no impact on the narrative they have constructed. They see him as an alien, threatening presence, illegitimately occupying the Oval Office. I do not say this to support the President’s policies or his re-election. Those are separate matters. I say this rather to illustrate the deep-seated antipathy to the “other” occupying the highest office in the land. President Obama is like Trayvon Martin—he is in the “wrong neighborhood.” I know there are many principled opponents of the President who on proper political and ideological grounds oppose his administration. Fair enough. In a democracy this is not only to be expected, but is required. But his election, I contend, rather than signaling a post racial society, has stirred up some of the most fetid and ugly parts of our national identity. This is what needs to be addressed with repentance, tears, and frank condemnation. Too many bullets have killed too many of our children. All of us, Democrats and Republicans, citizens of the North and the South, African American, Asian, Hispanic, Native American, and white (whatever that is), need to speak truth and pursue justice. Wendell Berry called racism America’s “hidden wound.” Today that wound is festering openly for all to see. God have mercy upon the family of Trayvon Martin. God have mercy on us all.
John E. Phelan, Jr.