The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries
Not That Kind of Christian
The Christian church is a huge, global community, with a mind-boggling diversity of beliefs and practices. With over two billion followers worldwide, Christianity is the world's largest religious group.
Those billions of souls are divided up among a wide range of denominations and communions. They worship in ways that are rigidly liturgical and wildly spontaneous. Some are in denominations that have clear and strong lines of authority, others are in loosely structured networks, and some congregations are off doing their own thing.
It just doesn't do justice to the kaleidoscope of theological perspectives if we use a simple spectrum of conservative - traditional - liberal - progressive. Scanning my own bookshelves, I see writings that might be labeled feminist and womanist, liberationist, process, indigenous, evangelical, orthodox, conservative, creation spirituality, mainline, and prophetic. Even among those kinds of headings, I'm not quite sure how to categorize the encyclical from Pope Francis (published just five years ago), which both expresses the diversity within the Roman Catholic tradition, and has stirred up controversy within that church.
I celebrate the wild variety within the Christian church -- even as I have my own very strong opinions about the qualities that should be found in any faithful and relevant church!
And yet, in far too many people's minds and in way too much current journalism, "a Christian church" is staunchly conservative in both theology and politics. I know of many faithful and committed church members who won't speak of themselves as Christian in a public conversation, because they don't want to be written off as part of the "religious right."
As long as that stereotype persists, the majority of Christians will be invisible and ineffective. The vast majority of churches and Christians -- with at least some commitment to the common good, environmental stewardship and social justice -- will not be heard.
After a bit of a rant, I'll offer two specific suggestions for churches to restore some balance -- or even to tip the balance toward a more progressive reputation.
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I've long been irked by the narrow, distorted and inaccurate stereotype of Christianity that skews toward fundamentalism. But things have come to a head within the last couple of months, in relation to the pandemic.
All around the world, as we've sought to flatten the curve of infections and illness, public gatherings of all kinds have shut down. Businesses, schools, sports, restaurants, concerts and religious congregations have closed their doors. It has been hard, and it is an ongoing discipline, but "stay at home" efforts have been effective. For the most part, the public has supported these measures to keep us all healthy.
But in the United States, there has been a vocal and visible exception. A quite small scattering of Christian churches has objected, demanding that "religious freedom" means that they can gather without restriction for worship and fellowship. Some have filed lawsuits to gain exemptions from health regulations. Those few churches have been the ones in the headlines.
An opinion piece from NBC News this week makes some interesting observations about the extreme polarization of US society, and the overlap between faith and politics. In it, the author makes what strikes me as a remarkable statement:
And since a simple face covering has become the focus of the new political culture war -- going without a mask is standing for freedom, according to those who don't want to wear one because they are following the president -- it's not surprising then that churches, especially conservative ones, are hotbeds for unmasked worship, limited social distancing and, thus, the spread of the coronavirus.
What's the reality?
A recent poll by Religious News Service tells us that 90% of congregations in the US have suspended their in-person gatherings. Most major denominations have provided clear guidance and strong encouragement to their congregations about how to have on-line worship and fellowship, how to safely and slowly re-gather, and some are even encouraging that parishes hold off on meeting again in-person until 2021.
A lack of legal action makes for boring news, so it hasn't been widely reported that no major Christian denomination has filed a lawsuit against a state or local government during the shutdown.
Even as we read about the few pastors who are insisting that their flocks be allowed to meet, 68% of Christians have said that their states were opening up too quickly. Even among evangelicals, less than half said that their states needed to hurry up. The Christian groups who were the most wary of reopening were black Protestants and Hispanic Catholics, with nearly 80% and 70%, respectively, saying so. I find it hard to see that "churches are hotbeds for unmasked worship."
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For 20 years, Eco-Justice Ministries has concentrated our witness on Christian churches. We've tried to work with congregations and denominations -- not primarily with the individuals who happen to be members of those organizations.
Our mission statement speaks of helping churches "develop ministries that are faithful, relevant and effective in working toward social justice and environmental sustainability." But it virtually impossible to be effective when core elements of our beliefs and values are invisible or misunderstood. We can't be good advocates for public health if we're all lumped in with those who fight social distancing. We can't be effective witnesses for social justice if we're written off as bigots. We can't do good work on the climate crisis or species extinction if it is assumed that all Christians believe in humanity's dominion over all creation, and that we're all anti-scientific climate deniers.
So I have two brief suggestions.
1) We need to make it very clear that the fundamentalist (or perhaps "evangelical", but that's a confusing label) churches are not the only ones out there. We can celebrate that Christianity, in the US and globally, is a marvelously diverse community of faith.
When some pastor rails about the gov'ment shutting down the churches, we need to make a lot of noise about how so many churches are still being the church even when our buildings are closed. We need to lift up solar panels and community gardens and financial divestments as faithful actions for God's creation. We can self-identify as Christians when we're calling members of Congress or writing letters to the editor on matters of public policy. You get the general idea. We need to do a much better job of making ourselves and our beliefs known.
2) There are occasions when we need to go beyond affirming our diversity. Those of us who aren't in the stereotypical conservative/fundamentalist traditions need to ask some hard questions about the theology that is getting all the press. What has emerged as the religious right in the United States is a strange outlier in global Christianity. We might even call it out as a heresy.
The Christian church is theologically diverse, but that doesn't mean that anything goes. Why is it that this individualistic, freedom-loving, politically aligned expression of the church is found primarily in the US? Other theological strands in Christianity are found all around the planet, but this distinctive conflation of conservative theology and politics is so visible only in the US of A. ("Religious freedom" shows up in very different ways in Canada, for example.)
Just as we need to make ourselves known for what we do believe, there are occasions when it is necessary to distance ourselves from what we do not believe. When we hear of genuinely bad theology and ethics, it is important to reject it actively and specifically, not just offer an alternative. As liberal Christians, many of us have been hesitant to condemn, but when we hear prominent "Christians" say that God doesn't care about species going extinct, or that climate change isn't real, then we have to say no.
A little over a year ago, the editor of the Baptist Standard adamantly rejected what he was hearing from some in his community. During the 2019 State of the Union address, President Trump had said, "We must keep America first in our hearts" and some Baptists were affirming that sentiment. He began his editorial with a blunt statement, "Christians, we must keep Christ first in our hearts." He closed by saying,
Rather than diminishing our contribution to our country, Christ as our first allegiance enlivens us to take more seriously the dignity of all people and the stewardship of creation, two values under which roam questions of national security and economic and foreign policy.
A Christianity which give first allegiance to personal freedoms, or to a political alliance, or to an economic system is not authentic Christianity. We need to have the courage to call out the theological flaws of those who go far beyond the bounds of theological diversity, and who proclaim lies.
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For two decades, Eco-Justice Ministries has called churches "to be faithful, relevant and effective in working toward social justice and environmental sustainability." Beyond a to-do list of environmentally-responsible behaviors and political advocacy, that means that we need to be serious about being the church.
We need to be up-front about proclaiming an eco-justice faith and ethic. We need to be assertive in making our witness visible and credible. We need to rejecting beliefs that fall far outside acceptable Christian thought.
I pray that the Church -- and especially the progressive church -- will be bold in rising to the challenges of this time.
Eco-Justice Ministries * 400 S Williams St, Denver, CO 80209 * 303.715.3873
Home Page: www.eco-justice.org * E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org