I write this on Sunday morning. I’m sitting in my office at the church considering how many of my friends and colleagues are preparing to stand before their own congregations and preach their sermons, and how many of those preachers have felt compelled to drastically change the sermons they have already crafted, and the anxiety they feel when this broken world of ours is beset by sudden and shocking events that inevitably tip their hand – when they know they must say something even when it feels like nothing we could ever say will take away the pain and outrage and confusion.
This weekend, a large group of American citizens gathered for a march in Charlottesville, Virginia. They lit torches, created signs, and stuck a handful of catchy chants into the back pocket of their blue jeans and camouflage pants. As darkness fell, they advanced upon a city square like some ultra-racist variation of pitchfork-toting villagers come to kill Frankenstein’s monster. Numerous confrontations ensued. Passersby became entangled in the violence. Counter-protestors shouted back. Eventually, mere rhetoric gave way to fists, feet, clubs, and pepper spray. One person turned his car into a weapon and plowed into a crowd of pedestrians, killing a young woman. In the process of patrolling the madness, two law enforcement officials died in a helicopter crash.
Social media has been awash with pictures of angry faces, provocative signs, human walls, and the professionally issued statements from civic leaders and politicians, most of whom have denounced the violence. The president is one of these (though his statements have been a little too ambiguous for a lot of people’s liking). Personally, I am shocked by everything I have seen and everything I have read.
Not to be callous, but I spent my more reflective moments last week considering how I might answer the question, Would God allow a nuclear war? I figured this was the big concern on most people’s minds, at least at present. As such, when I first learned of the events in Charlottesville on Saturday morning, my equilibrium was rocked. Despite the state of race relations in our country, I still wasn’t expecting this.
Unfortunately, a discouragingly large number of people with access to torches and a plethora of hate-filled rhetoric vehemently disagreed with what I had thought was the biggest problem of our day. They disagreed so sharply that they organized a march. So, here we are once again, fighting amongst ourselves, engaging in a vitriolic blame-game about individual rights and societal influence despite a looming shadow of much more dire issues aimed directly at our collective humanity.
I turned my attention, though, to the events in Charlottesville, and it was not long before an image shook me to my core. It was that of a human wall populated by men and women in clerical robes, priest collars, and prayer shawls. They stand shoulder to shoulder. Some clutch Bibles against their hips, while a few feet away the blue-jeaned and camouflaged-adorned “alt-right” scream about the need to return America to “its Christian roots.”
And I realize that whether I like it or not, we must not only adjust our sermons and Bible studies this morning because of an astonishing outbreak of insolence and rage in our country; we have to change them because tangled up in the back-and-forth arguments of both sides is the Kingdom of God. Both sides believe they are standing up for its principles, and to the millions of outside observers it is almost impossible to distinguish if one side is completely right and the other completely wrong, or if the Christian faith is just another malleable philosophical system that can be manipulated into bearing all manner of social views, however alternative or fringe.
A Prayer for Clarity
This past week, I sent an e-mail welcoming a recent visitor to the church, but it turned out I had the wrong address. I received a snarky response from an obvious atheist who attributed the Christian faith to nothing more than 2000-years worth of mass hysteria. I’m not the kind of person who can leave such a parting shot alone, so in addition to apologizing for confusing his address, I added a short plea for civility rather than rudeness. He responded curtly, “Get off your high horse, Bo. Your religion is responsible for more intolerance and injustice than rude assholes like myself could ever aspire to.”
Now, I probably shouldn’t have written back in the first place. I probably should have allowed this apparently militant atheist to insult my beliefs without response. However, what bothered me most was not the insult. It was that this man had learned a completely false concept of God’s Kingdom. When he thinks of Christianity, what he sees is the catalyst for suffering, not the remedy for it. When he encounters a Christian, he doesn’t see someone who’s life has been radically redefined by a relationship with God’s son, but rather someone who has applied for membership in an oppressive, power-hungry regime of moralistic bigotry. And that’s as much the fault of actual Christians not denouncing such behavior as it is his for accepting such fraudulent expressions of faith.
So, this morning, what I pray for from my fellow preachers and teachers regarding the events in Charlottesville is clarity. I hope that we will denounce what is clearly not Christianity – in this particular instance the hate-filled, violent tantrums of the “alt-right” – because avoidance or ambiguity of this situation will only muddle society’s comprehension of Christianity. In this case, the truth is that a Christian who steps into the fray can do so only with those who stand against the cries for subjugation, exclusion, and regressive entitlement. If he steps in on the other side, he has effectively stepped out of God’s Kingdom.
Jesus often spoke of the Kingdom of God as if it were a real place – a true reality that was slowly unfolding, day-by-day, beneath the surface of our worldly events, however mundane or chaotic. He did not shy away from pinpointing where certain people – or, at least, certain behaviors – were located in proximity to this coming Kingdom. To a lawyer who agreed with him that the greatest commandments were not ceremonial directives but rather wholehearted love of God and neighbors, Jesus responded, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.” When his disciples tried to prevent children from crawling onto his lap, Jesus rebuked them, saying that the Kingdom is populated with people who do just that. And he taught that the poor, the peacemakers, and the persecuted were the ones who would “inherit the Kingdom of God.”
But Jesus also told a story about a man who missed out on God’s Kingdom when, after receiving unexpected forgiveness for an astonishing amount of debt, threw one of his own debtors into prison, having failed to let that forgiveness permeate and transform his life. Then there was the time Jesus watched a wealthy man walk away from his counsel and remarked, “It is exceedingly difficult for a rich person to enter God’s Kingdom.” In contrast to the poor, the peacemakers, and the persecuted, he also lamented the self-centered perspectives of the rich, the prideful, and the self-actualized, which would inevitably lead only to ruin.
The Folk Religion of the Alt-Right
The main reason white supremacists have historically been able to claim Christianity as a banner is that society long ago replaced a life lived according to the radical truths of Christianity with cultural concepts like decency, propriety, and “know-your-role/know-your-place” classism. For many people, the Kingdom of God became intertwined with the idolatrous City of Man, where conduct, appearance, and status reign supreme.
I do not doubt that many of those who support views espoused by the alt-right, and perhaps even some who marched on Charlottesville, believe they are on the side of a good, fair, and moral citizenry. I accept their earnestness and their passion. I recognize that they truly believe they are stemming the tide of a great injustice. In their minds, they are heroes, not villains. However, what they are actually standing up for is not Christianity but the ideology of a particular brand of folk religion.
In his book, Questions to All Your Answers, Roger Olson provides a helpful description of what exactly folk religion is. He writes, “[it] is practiced mostly by individuals although they may network with each other. A folk religion spawns little or no research or focused thought. Theology is anathema to folk religion; it lives by word of mouth and internet circulation. It cares only about feelings and experiences and hardly at all about doctrine or critical reflection.”
Indeed, so much of the Christianity we have encountered over last year’s election season, as well as the way some particular evangelical leaders have contorted Scripture to support our current administration’s policies (including this one), is not Christianity at all. It is folk religion. It is molding and shaping a faith system that fits neatly into our particular opinions, ambitions, and carefully curated prejudices. Sadly, some of the most successful pastors in our country are mere folk Christians, not true citizens of God Kingdom. Of course, we must remember that the same can be said for some individuals on the opposite side of the present issues, who can become so focused on “progress” that they speed right past the Kingdom in search of a utopia of their own design.
So, I pray for clarity, because folk religion dupes a lot of people. Contrary to what my short-lived e-mail pen-pal believes, the actual culprit behind all the intolerance and injustice in the world is folk religion – a ghastly legacy of ruthless selfishness perpetrated by person after person donning a Jesus mask utterly stripped of its true colors and features, like the unnatural Shatner mask from Halloween. And in whatever venue we have at our disposals – pulpits, classrooms, blogs – we need to call it what it is. We need to re-establish exactly how far such people are from the Kingdom of God, if only to clarify what the Kingdom of God really is.
Giving an Answer
Just a few minutes ago I heard a church member remark how much wiser it would have been for those who oppose alt-right ideologies to have simply turned their backs on this group’s torch-lit march through Charlottesville. No counter-protesters. No news agencies. No photographers. I have to admit, I started chuckling at the thought of a bunch of indignant white nationalists assembling on an empty university lawn, their only audience the summer crickets chirping indifferently. They look around curiously, holding signs that no one will read. They shrug their shoulders impotently. “Should we just go home?”
The truth is that our society will not – cannot – ignore such people. It’s going to give them its attention, and its going to comment on them and react to them and formulate ideas in response to them. And because of this, those who unequivocally offer their allegiance to the eternal Kingdom of God cannot ignore them either. We cannot turn our backs on the issues at stake. We must not pretend like everything will eventually settle down and revert to life as usual.
“In your hearts revere Christ,” writes the Apostle Peter to the churches of the first century. “Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls your beliefs into account. Only do so with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who slander your good deeds in Christ end up ashamed” (1 Pet. 3:15-17).
Whether it knows it or not, this world is calling us to account. Let’s not be afraid to give a clear answer.