Monday, April 15, 2013

Submission to authority I like

Or that looks like me or helps me ‘other’ people I don’t like

This morning's Morning Edition was full of great stuff! As I drove in I was particularly struck by a story about Evangelicals trying to soften hearts on overhauling immigration. (You can read and listen to the story here.) Hearing the reporter mention Romans as why Evangelicals have resisted comprehensive immigration reform stirred memories I’d forgotten. The argument has gone, from a religious perspective, that undocumented immigrants shouldn’t be granted amnesty or given a path to citizenship because they’ve broken the law. They should be punished and believers must submit to authorities. Since these immigrants haven’t submitted, clearly they aren’t Christians.

I wonder, however, why this convenience of submission to authority is called on — by people in then pews, not just at the higher levels — when they like the call to submit to civil authorities, but not when they like it. The passage from Romans the reporter mentions is Romans 13.1, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.” (NRSV)

Growing up, the call to render to Caesar was one that was heeded and talked about. We were taught that we had to respect our civil authorities, even if we didn’t like them — which was certainly the case in my Southern Baptist church in Alabama during the Clinton Administration. I have heard, from religious conservatives, the argument about not passing comprehensive immigration reform because it rewards law-breakers, and so they can't support it on religious grounds of the law needing to matter.

Yes, laws need to matter, but where is the law not mattering because people don’t like it, particularly the same people who are willing to speak far too publicly about how their understanding of Christianity should dictate public life. I don’t see those opposed to immigration reform calling on Alabama Governor Robert Bentley to enforce portions of the Affordable Care Act that deal with consumer protection when he’s said he won’t.

For the last few years many Alabamians have rallied behind Chief Justice Roy Moore precisely because he wouldn’t submit to authority and was removed from office for it. He has his job back and hasn’t seemed to try to create any major actions, but my recollection of 2003 was that those who identified most with Chief Justice Moore as the true Christians were the ones who supported him the most — because they saw him standing up for what he believes in.

Standing up for what one believes in is a good thing. I support civil disobedience when it’s well thought out and not just doing what whatever you want, but working for an issue of justice. My problem with the “I’m just standing up for what I believe in,” argument is when it really hurts and impinges on others. Using a perceived non-submission to authorities by undocumented immigrants while tolerating elected officials of your own faith tradition’s non-submission to authorities is inconsistent.

I’m glad that some leaders in Evangelical circles are working for immigration reform and trying to tell their stories about how and why. I guess I don’t really understand how it’s taken this long, although I find the spokesperson from the Evangelical Free Church in the NPR article telling: people want to know how to get Hispanic votes, so now it’s a good thing to support immigration reform. I don’t think this is about seeing people as people who are different. Romans 13 has been used for othering in this conversation — “It's okay for Roy Moore because I like him, but it’s not okay for immigrants because I don’t like them and they’re different than I am.”

I grew up in the midst of the Evangelical culture and mindset. I am struggling as an adult to hear how the need for submission to authority in Romans related to a fear for amnesty for undocumented immigrants when grace is something that can be preached on ad naseum in these churches, as well it should be. Sermon series on the Lord’s Prayer have to deal with “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us,” but that can’t seem to carry over to people who entered the country illegally (and there’s never any conversation about why or what might be wrong with the system).

Why is it okay to tolerate Roy Moore’s breaking the law (and even support) when Romans 13.1 is your foundation for rejecting comprehensive immigration reform from a faith perspective? If you're going to claim Biblical literalism for immigration, abortion (as related to portions of the Affordable Care Act), and LGBT (in)equality, you have to have a higher standard for your own leaders. It’s not okay to make the people you don’t like live by a standard you won’t hold people you do like to — particularly when you’re trying to force a great many of your standards on a whole lot of people not like you.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

That Open Letter to the Church from My Generation

My Facebook feed the last two days has been filled with postings of An Open Letter to the Church from My Generation. The supposed money quotes are
I’m writing this because I’m worried about the safety of the Church. The Church keeps scratching its head, wondering why 70% of 23-30 year-olds who were brought up in church leave. I’m going to offer a pretty candid answer, and it’s going to make some people upset, but I care about the Church too much to be quiet.
So, my advice to you, the Church: if you’re looking for some intelligent biblical liberal opinions on the subject, have a little coffee chat with your local Methodist or Episcopal pastor. Christians can be all about gay people, it’s possible. People do it every day with a clear biblical conscience. Find out if you think there’s truth in that view before you sweep us under the rug. 
This author self-identifies as a "A College Kid Who Misses [the Church]." I actually really don't like this letter at all and don't like how much it's been shared. I am making the assumption that it makes some big assumptions as it uses a plural pronoun to cover 23-30 year-olds. I'm in that category. In some ways I am certainly an outlier: I am a priest at 26 which is not the typical 23-30 year old, and the author makes some assumptions about me based on my age. Making assumptions about people based on similar demographics to our own and is just as dangerous as making assumptions about people based on demographics different from our own.

I am glad this author found truth in Macklemore's song, but I fear that her blog has a tone of "If the church would just get on board with the gays everyone would come back." [Edit: It's not just a tone, it's explicit, "But my generation...will not stick around to see the church fight gay marriage against our better judgment," and "We want to stay in your churches, we want to hear about your Jesus, but it’s hard to hear about love from a God who doesn’t love our gay friends (and we all have gay friends)."]

My favorite line, rather than the ones I've seen quoted is "I’m saying this: we cannot keep pitting the church against humanity, or progress." That's true. More of what I've encountered about people my age who are interested (or disaffiliated) from the church is that there isn't much about Jesus from the Right or Left but a lot of hot button political/social issues.

I am glad that this experience of truth in song rang true for her in her Midwestern town where there are churches that preach only hate or things the author doesn't like. I am from the rural south and know all too well messages of queer exclusion and feminine submission. I am frustrated as mainline protestants (many of whom are clergy) who share this letter highlight this author's encouragement to have coffee with mainline protestants. I am frustrated at this author's candid answer that we're scared of change.

Yeah, sure we are, but there are a lot of real studies about formation and discipling as followers of Jesus that affect people's attendance rates. I find these ten reasons (link) more compelling based on my own experience. As I encounter people my age who are really willing to commit to a faith tradition they are looking for authentic expressions of that faith tradition. The author says we can smell fake a mile away. A sudden shift about teh gai is going to look really fake the same way politicians' all suddenly, as Chief Justice Roberts put it, falling all over themselves to endorse marriage equality. A friend of friend said, "I almost respect Muslim and Catholics the most because at least they go big and stay nuts." I don't agree with that assessment, but this person isn't religiously affiliated and has some hints at how those religious traditions are seeing their own authenticity.

An authentic expression of Christianity is that things take time. Sometimes more than they should, but sometimes not as much. We look beyond ourselves to the larger and we look to our future. I don't fear for the Church, though. I trust in grace and the guidance of the Spirit. Mainline Protestantism has been on a journey about dealing with queer people for a while, and not every branch of it is on the same page. The remaining denominations not onboard have been struggling for decades like those who do endorse marriage equality.

I am a gay man and my faith was the biggest impediment to my coming out to myself, to my family, my friends, and my faith community. Others' interpretation of my faith was an impediment for years after many of those coming outs. The author signs the blog entry "A College Kid Who Misses You" while also encouraging talking to United Methodist and Episcopal clergy, which is exactly what I did. Rather than leaving the church though, I left the church of my past, and in so doing I learned a lot more about Jesus than I had before. I started encountering parables that I didn't remember and words of Jesus that felt fresh and new. I left the church of my past and discerned a vocation to ordained ministry in another church.

I never missed the Church. I sometimes miss the people I grew up with, but I think it's anachronistic to say that one is scared for the Church's decline while also identifying with the statistic of 23-30 year-old's who've left the Church (compared to leave the church of one's past). Being fearful for the church (which I don't think is necessary) I think necessitates a staying in it and speaking to it. I feel like a curmudgeon as I say all this, but saying you miss the church reads to me like you've left it and are armchair quarterbacking to speaking to it on your blog rather than making or maintaining relationships with church people.

So, no, this isn't a letter from my generation. It's well-written and has some good sentiments, but I think needs some more depth to it to get the kind of sharing it's gotten. I continue to pray for the church to be discerning and to be focused on the message and person of Jesus — which doesn't exclude social concerns, but must be the starting point rather than an after thought for how we engage with society.


Sunday, April 7, 2013

Church of the Locked Door: A [Mainline Protestant] Congregation

A few years ago someone preached a sermon on 2 Easter that didn't focus on doubt. I don't remember what he did preach on, maybe he did talk about doubt, but it's not the part of the sermon that's stuck with me. Rather, what stuck with me was his poking fun at his denomination in a few ways. He said that the disciples' gathering on Easter night could have been a "new" congregation in his ecclesiastical body. First, the name: [Generic Church Word Name]: A [Name of Denomination] Congregation. Second, what they're doing: hiding out for fear of authorities, not believing the Good News of Resurrection they've been told and that Jesus had foretold.

While sermons on doubt are good to hear from time to time, I think every year is too time to time enough. I'm seeing a lot on Facebook about doubt sermons. Facebook is a snippet and not representative, I know. While preaching about doubt where is the preaching about resurrection? How the preacher has experienced resurrection in the midst of doubt.

Today's sermon at the parish where I serve talked about how so many professional resources focus on crucifixion of the Church (i.e. its death) and not on resurrection. There's new life, and declines are slowly turning around certainly. Even so, there are some fearing that it won't happen and doubting that we can have new life at the parish, denominational, or religious level. The sermon continued with stories of new life from around the country and an emphasis on the power of the Spirit to stir new life.

I, however, was hung up on the first part of today's gospel text. The Church of the Locked door. I think I was stuck there because last week I went to the Episcopal Communicators conference and I had an amazing time. I had no idea that I'd be with such a group of people committed to church communication and Good News (not the right wing UMC group, either) communication. While Mary, Simon, and John have been to the tomb and Mary has spoken with the Risen Christ, the fledgling church doesn't believe the Good News.

They haven't had an experience of resurrection that they're dying to tell other people. They're scared for their lives and Jesus shows up. They believe and then Thomas doesn't until he does as well. Being with the Episcopal Communicators raised the importance for me of communicators helping others tell their stories. We, are not living in fear of authorities, and I hope that we have experiences of resurrection to tell other people.

My biggest take away from the conference was setting some goals for the Diocese of California's communications, but one of them is going to be about teaching people to tell their story — and to use language about how Jesus dying and rising again means something to them and how they experience resurrection regularly. If they don't I want to help them listen for it to live it.

What experiences do you have of resurrection? Who do you tell about it and how? Preachers from today, how did resurrection fit in to your sermons on doubt or anything else today? Christ is risen! Tell me about it.