Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The Welcome Could-Not-Happen-Sooner Demise of the Religious Right

In an election season that has seen Donald Trump take credit for many things he certifiably hasn’t done, and deny many things he most likely has done, one outcome is becoming increasingly obvious, however unintended it may be.  Trump’s candidacy is becoming the cause of the final breakup of the Religious Right as a force in American politics.  For decades, the Religious Right, known among other things as the Moral Majority (the late Rev. Jerry Falwell) and the Christian Coalition (Rev. Pat Robertson and Ralph Reed) has been a force among the large number of conservative Christians looking for a voice in the hostile swamp of American politics.  These groups sought to translate conservative Christian positions into viable political agendas, and to mobilise Christians to support those politicians who indicated their support for their policies.

In past elections, politicians have indicated their Christian commitment and thrown their support behind  conservative Christian policies, for example, concerning abortion.  Politicians passing such 'litmus tests' were deemed worthy of support.  In such cases, the local manifestation of the Religious Right organization would then mobilize conservative Christian support for that candidate.  Oftentimes the candidate would be duly elected and would then go on to serve in whatever local, state or national office he/she won.  And then, for a variety of proffered reasons, nothing is actually done with respect to changing anything having to do with abortion laws, despite all the promises and all the efforts made to get said politician in office.

In our current election cycle, we have seen traditional religious conservatives convulsed because of the choice they are presented with - Trump or Clinton.  In Clinton, conservative Christians see someone who has been duplicitous, or at least coy with the truth when political advantage is at stake.  There is also her connection with the other Clinton, whom conservative Christians really did not like (even though he left office with a 66% approval rating - higher than Reagan and in spite of the Lewinsky affair!).  But for most, the real problem with a Clinton presidency would be her full-throated support of abortion rights for women, equal opportunity rights for LBGTQ people and also the threatened erosion of religious liberty rights that would likely continue to occur where religious scruples would increasingly not be allowed when they conflict with gay and transgender rights.

The religious liberty issue is a legitimate concern, in that the constitution does not give a road map for how to navigate a way through when two guaranteed rights are in conflict.  Ironically a majority of Americans disagree with conservative Christians on this issue.  And there are likely at least a majority of judges that do so as well, judges who will be appointed to decision-making levels under a Clinton administration.  We may well be seeing the end of Christian hegemony and privilege in American policy and society.  For the sake of the Church in America, this may not be such a bad thing, as I have written about in other places.  But it will mean difficult times ahead for those who claim to be serious about following Christ in this world.

With respect to abortion, I have become totally disgusted and cynical at how the Religious Right has used this issue to drum up support for it’s fundraising and its candidates.  The reason for my cynicism is simply that the movement of conservative Christians in American politics over the past 40 years can show nothing for its efforts on this issue.  Even when presidents have been elected vowing to stop abortion, and when majorities of the more conservative party have been elected to congress, nothing has been done about abortion.  And when opportunities to appoint judges who might be in a position to do something have arisen, nothing more than maintain the status quo has been done.  The Religious Right has taken conservative Christians (like myself) for a ride on this their marquee issue, and there is nothing to show for it.  I gave up my blanket support for the Republican party eight years ago and have not have a single moment’s regret in doing so.  Despite the bombast, their record is no better than the Democrats on this one.

And then came Trump.  I watched all through the primary season as different candidates jockeyed for the support of different interest groups, including conservative Christians.  And then I watched as conservative Christians tried to find a way to support Mr. Trump once it became obvious that he would be the Republican standard-bearer.  I have watched repeated episodes of Evangelical shock at things Mr. Trump says, only to see them rally around the hoped-for judges a President Trump would appoint to the Supreme Court to turn around the abortion thing.  Then comes Trump's non-stop stream of outright lies about people, events and issues.  Evangelical Christians and religious conservatives feign shock and distance themselves from Trump, but continue to support him.  Then comes Trump in his own words bragging about sexually assaulting women.  More conservative Christian shock.  More distance.  Even some defections.  But most continue to support Trump's candidacy.  Then I hear with astonishment as so-called Evangelical leaders dismiss the idea that Trump’s behaviour or words have anything to do with the political leadership they are hoping he will provide.  I’ve heard variations of this position from four different sources.  Does anyone else who remembers the 'Moral Majority' find nonsensical the assertions by today's Evangelical Christian leaders that Trump's morality is irrelevant to their support of him as a candidate for president?

So there we have it.  Trump isn’t a Christian (at least by the way any conservative Christians would measure what a Christian is).  He demeans more than half of the nation’s population (his own words are on the public record).  He is a serial liar.  He implies that his supporters should use their guns to deal with his political opponent.  Plus his campaign rallies regularly  regularly play on the lesser angels of those present.  I could continue for quite some time.  And this is this man that the conservative Christian political movement is left with, or rather, has thrown its support behind.  The charges against these Christian leaders of moral bankruptcy are entirely justified.  The Religious Right has exposed itself as fundamentally no different than any other political movement in the country.  Craven political calculation has evidently replaced genuine morality.  ‘Christian’ has become meaningless.  Watching so-called Christian leaders justify Trump’s behaviour and justify their continued support of his candidacy leaves all of us wide open to the charge of hypocrisy.  This is not something we Christians want to be guilty of - Jesus showed mercy to all kinds of sinners, but hypocrites always made him really angry.

Political action will never bring about the kingdom of heaven.  Instead, if we are serious about making changes in people’s lives and in their behavior, we will start right where we are, in the circle of our own relationships.  And concerning abortion,  if half the people who claim vexation over this tragedy were willing to get involved in the lives of the women who find themselves with an unwanted pregnancy and adopt a rescued baby (rather than just shout at them at abortion clinics), then we might begin to see the turn around that none of our politics has been able to effect thus far.  Maybe instead of giving all this money to the Religious Right, we should pay mothers of unwanted babies to take them to term.  And then help them get out of the situation that led to such an unwanted outcome.  At least it would be a better use of our money than the current political nonsense that passes for a pro-life movement.

Simply to say, Christianity, the gospel and the church have never prospered when combined with politics - not in our country, not in any country, not at any point in Christian history.  Short term political gain has always come at a cost, usually the soul of the Christians involved who get seduced by the ways of the world and then become indistinguishable from the world from which they are called.  ‘Christian’ political movements start out sounding noble, but somehow they all end up in the same place.  It’s because politics is about compromise.  But compromise is something that followers of Jesus simply cannot do, otherwise we become something else.  And compromise is precisely what we Christians are doing by tying ourselves to the words, actions and character of Mr. Trump as if we had a religious duty (on the basis of the abortion issue - but see above!) to do so.  Overlooking sexual harassment and sexual assault for the sake of a Trump promise to appoint a pro-life judge is a calculus I want nothing to do with.  The fact that other Christians seem to have no qualms with this 'New Math' of American politics speaks for itself.

The latest today is that Mr. Trump is threatening that a takeover by his opponent will lead to World War III.  We have left the world of reality and entered the world of Marvel Comics.  Words cease to mean anything.  Nor does it matter how one behaves, especially if one is rich enough.  This sort of behaviour has been seen throughout history on the part of all-powerful despots where the law is a flexible concept that revolves around the will of the king/emperor/tyrant.  We see this sort of thing all across the continent of Africa, for example, where it doesn't matter what the leader says or does - he is always right, and he will crush you if you choose to disagree.  And now we Americans are having our dangerous flirt with the same sort of leader, and with supporters whose politics seem detached from any recognizable morality (except 'he is better than she is').  No society ever remains static, and American society is undergoing seismic shifts that are leaving some people feeling isolated and threatened.  Conservative Christians, for one, are bearing the brunt of many of these changes.  And we have issues that need to be addressed.  But surely we can do better when it comes to making our voice heard - not in the reactionary ways that we are best (and scandalously) known for.  The liberals are quiet happy for the Westboro Baptist Church people to continue to do the ridiculously offensive things they do, because liberals can then tar the entire conservative Christian movement with their brush.  The same with Christian support of Trump in light of the horrific things he says about women and what he has claimed to have done to women.  When will we learn that we don't advance the kingdom of God when we give the rather strong impression that we turn a blind eye to this kind of behavior. 

The silver lining may be that business as usual Christian politics in America is finished.  I can only hope that the powerful people in the Religious Right movements will do some soul searching and change their operating algorithms to something that better approximates the reality in which we as 21st century American Christians find ourselves.  But the present situation may leave the movement discredited beyond remedy.  In which case we Christians may have to come up with new ways to engage our society with the Gospel, new ways to reach out to the disadvantaged, new ways to influence government policy for the sake of the poor.  None of which would be such a bad thing.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Our Demons and Jesus

I preached this morning at Sts. Anargyroi Cathedral in Nairobi.  What follows is the Gospel text for the day and what I said about it.

Luke 8:26-39
26Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee.  27As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him.  For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs.  28When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?  I beg you, do not torment me” - 29for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man.  (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.)  30Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?’  He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. 31They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss. 

32Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these.  So he gave them permission.  33Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.  

34When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country.  35Then  people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind.  And they were afraid.  36Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed.  37Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear.  So he got into the boat and returned.  38The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, 39 “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.”  So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city him much Jesus had done for him.

Wherever Jesus goes, he disturbs everything.  When we let him into the Temple, he overturns the moneychangers’ tables and chases the traders out.  When we bring to him the adulteress and ask him to judge her the way we think she should be judged, he writes our sins in the dust at our feet and sends the scarlet woman away uncondemned.  When the religious folk are aghast that Jesus is eating without washing his hands, he reminds them that it isn’t what goes into your stomach that makes a person unclean, rather it’s what comes out of their hearts that makes a person a sinner in the eyes of God.  Jesus asks his critics, which is harder?  To forgive a paralysed young man his sins, or to say to him, get up and walk, and take your mat home while you’re at it?  His disciples want Jesus to lead a revolution against Rome, but Jesus wants them to follow his example and to love one another and to do what slaves do and wash one another’s feet.  The people want to make Jesus their king, but Jesus says ‘When I am lifted up [on the cross], I will draw all people to me.’  Jesus goes to parties with tax collectors and sinners, but the religious people, he exposes the shallowness of their religion by shining a light on their hypocrisy.  Wherever Jesus goes, he disturbs everyone and everything.

And the same is true in the Gospel passage we heard read a few moments ago.  Jesus visits the land of the Gerasenes on the other side of the Lake of Galilee.  It’s the same boat ride during which Jesus calmed the storm, during which the disciples were terrified and said to each other, ‘Who is this, that he commands even the winds and the water and they obey him?’ (Luke 7:25)  And as soon as he sets foot on the shore, a naked, dirty man runs up to him and shouts at Jesus at the top of his voice, ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?  I beg you, do not torment me!’ (8:28)  Luke spends many verses describing the man, describing his symptoms, describing how he’s been treated.  But the actual story happens very quickly.  Jesus asks the man his name, but the demons answer and say ‘Legion’, because there are a lot of them in this man’s life.  The demons beg Jesus not to send them back to the abyss, but into the big herd of pigs grazing nearby.  Jesus agrees and they go into the pigs, and the pigs rather understandably go mad and stampede down the hill into the lake and drown.  The pig herders run away in terror and tell everyone they can find what happened.  A crowd rushes out to see for themselves, and they find the man who had all those demons sitting with Jesus, with clothes on, and in his right mind.  And they see a lot of dead pigs floating in the lake.  And they are terrified.  Jesus has just upended their world and they don’t know what to do, so they tell Jesus to go away.  So Jesus leaves.  But the man he saved begs him to let him go with him.  But you know what Jesus says?  He tells the man to go back into the town, the town that just told Jesus to go away, and to tell them all the wonderful things that God has done for him.  And that is where our story ends, with the man telling his family and his friends and everyone who will listen what Jesus did for him.

Let’s bring this very ancient story home.  Are there any demon possessed people here this morning?  I think I can say there probably are.  We have them in our midst.  What about thieves and robbers?  Are there any in our midst here this morning?  The answer is most likely yes there are.  What about people engaging in corruption and stealing money that doesn’t belong to them.  Again yes, right here among us.  And adulterers and adulteresses?  They are here with us, too.  And people whose marriages are just empty shells.  Yes, in our midst.  So are people addicted to alcohol.  So are gossips, and others who are bullies who are using their words to get what they want and to tear others down.  Right here.  And there are people who are homosexuals who are part of us, as well as others who are pursuing sexual relationships outside of marriage.  There are probably people who have had abortions, right here with us this morning, and others who are beating their wives and their children.  And there are others who pretend they are better than others and pass judgment on others.  

I mention this list because we as a church are not that different from the good citizens of Gerasa. You’ll notice how they dealt with the poor demonized man, who was actually their neighbor.  They tried to control him, they kept him chained up and hidden away, and when that didn’t work that expelled him from their midst.

We don’t deal with sinners very well, either.  We try to keep those people out of sight, and then when the outcry becomes too great, we expose them and shame them and send them away.  And we console ourselves that we aren’t as bad as that man.  And the result is, those of us who really are sinners, and that would be the rest of us - we go under ground.  We never let anybody else here know what is really going on in our hearts, what our real struggles and temptations and sins really are.  Because we are afraid of being found out and judged and cast out.  And so we struggle with our damaged hearts, with our pain, with our sin in silence.  It’s like we are sick unto death and we drag ourselves to this hospital waiting room week after week, but when the doctor calls us by name and prescribes his medicine for us, we refuse to come.  We sit here in sight, within reach of the one who would heal us.  We are going blind and deaf and hastening towards death, but we are too proud or too afraid to admit that we might need anything, that we might need help, that we might need a Savior.

Orthodox theology has a nice way of explaining what salvation is.  We say that in Christ we have been saved. By the work of the Holy Spirit, we are in the process of being saved.  And on the last day, we will be saved.  But it’s this middle one where most of us are today, ‘In the process of being saved.’  It’s a very nice statement, but it hides the fact that for all of us, we are in a war.  And this ‘process’ is very messy, and protracted, and difficult, and overwhelming. War is always terrible. The devil and the demons are not rolling over and giving up, and they are throwing everything they possibly can at us.  And for the people on that list of sinners that I mentioned a moment ago, the fight is more than we can imagine.  And I say ‘we’ because I am one of them, just like you.  Sometimes we feel trapped, locked in an addiction, like St. Paul’s, wanting with everything we have to do the right thing, but doing the wrong thing instead, again and again.  And it’s a war that’s going on in here, in our hearts, and we can’t share it with anybody else because we are afraid of being judged.  And that is because some of us have been judged - by our fellow Christians.  Imagine, Christians afraid that other Christians, who have presumably been forgiven by Jesus, might judge us!  (In this case hard experience, not grace, has taught our hearts to fear!) Christians, who should know a thing or two about what it is and means to be forgiven but who for whatever reason refuse to forgive the one with whom they are estranged and refuse to pursue reconciliation.  Christians who pretend everything is cool and run around asking God's blessing for this or that in their lives, or even worse, asking people to 'support their ministry', while all the time their heart is blighted by their unwillingness to forgive.  Isn't there a parable about this somewhere?  Is it any wonder that our lives, our ministries, our churches are so pathetically impotent?  The way we treat the sinners among us scandalizes heaven.  But I guess that’s where we are.

But those of us who are sinners, who cry out daily from our desperate need for a Saviour - Jesus will not leave you or me to carry on alone.  He himself will come.  I don’t know what his salvation will look like for you, or even for me.  But I take profound comfort from our passage this morning.  The whole purpose Jesus had in going to the other side of the lake was not to undertake some evangelistic tour of the region, nor was he on some fundraising drive; instead it was to meet this one man imprisoned by his demons.  Jesus whole purpose was to set him free.  And such is his great love for you, Jesus will do the same for you.  This is why he has come.  It doesn’t matter if you have made terrible mistakes, it doesn’t matter if you have treated people terribly, it doesn’t matter if you are struggling with sexual identity or mired in addiction, it doesn't matter if your inability to be wrong, your self-absorption and pride have blinded you to reality.  Jesus loves you and will save you. And he will win the war you are in.

But notice that what Jesus did for this man was a crisis for his community.  Jesus didn’t just cast out demons into a herd of pigs and threaten their livelihood.  His presence disturbed their whole way of life.  If Jesus stayed, more than just the demonised man would need to change, they would need to change as well.  And they didn’t want to.  And so they told Jesus to go away.

Jesus has come to our shore this morning.  And those of us who run to him will walk away delivered, forgiven, healed, restored and empowered to know him and follow him.  But Jesus’ presence here is something that others of us are going to find very threatening.  We don’t want to change.  We don’t want to give up control of our lives, or of our community, or of our church.  We’re happy to keep Jesus up there in an icon where he’s safe and religious and can’t do anything.  We don’t want Jesus to be changing people, changing our church, changing us.  So you can see how it happens.  The good people of Gerasa are terrified of Jesus and what it might mean if he stays around.  So they tell him to go.  And he does.

What about you?  Are you a sinner needing a Saviour this morning?  Are you broken and needing mended?  Are you imprisoned in your sin and need to be set free?  Have you treated someone terribly and need to be forgiven?  Are you grieving your brokenness and in need of hope?  Or are you disturbed that Jesus has come ashore and you wish he would leave us alone and just go away?