Warren Gets the Left’s Knickers in a Twist

Fellow leftists, please, step back for a moment.  It’s not that horrible.  Really.

Don’t be one of those easily offended right-wing freaks.   Warren’s selection to give the invocation does not mean Obama’s going to force women to have babies and gay people to live in sin.  That’s not what Warren represents to Obama, and that’s not what he should represent to us.

We – progressive Christians – should take his selection as a message.  Or several messages.

One is that we’d better get our act together.

Mainline churches are dying, burdened by expensive buildings, unable to build community in communities that need it, and too committed to our own personal liturgical preferences.  We might love gay people, have sanctuary churches, and feed the poor, but we’re not particularly welcoming in plenty of other ways.   Secular Progressives generally aren’t impressed by us.  And our churches are just getting smaller.  So there is no reason why Obama should listen to us.  We’re becoming irrelevant.

Warren, on the other hand, walks the walk:  he builds community.  He offers people meaning.  He teaches people to connect with other people.  He is much like Obama in that he is a community organizer.  If we want to be able to represent the way we love Christ, then progressive churches better rediscover what it means to be embedded in our communities.  If we want the sort of authority that Warren has, worldwide, then perhaps we might build relationships also.  Because that is what Warren does.  We have to learn from him.  We don’t have to like his theology, but his actions say more than his words.

Remember, also, the relationship between any pastor and politician has plenty of dangerous pitfalls – especially for the pastor.  Usually in the battle between the bishop and king, the king wins.  For this reason, this is much more of a danger for Warren than it is for Obama.  The religious right should have learned this:  after eight years of supporting Bush, they didn’t get very far.   Of course, the traditional NCC based Christians fared worse – in part because they expect kings to listen to them.  In spite of every mainline denomination, except the Southern Baptists, opposing the war in Iraq, Bush went anyway.

Obama and Warren can talk all they want, but Obama doesn’t need to change his views about anything.  He won’t.  Conservative evangelicals didn’t vote for him, so he’s not losing anything.  He’s not changed his personal views about abortion or sexuality.  He’s not suddenly become an evangelical.  He does understand, however, that Warren is one of the few pastors that makes the church relevant.

Even for me, a leftist priest, Warren’s suggestions and work are useful.  Not his theology, which has no appeal to me or my congregation, but his understanding of what communities need.  Warren cares about lively, thriving communities, and thriving persons.  A number of people have entered my progressive church after reading his book, The Purpose Driven Life. They want to contribute to their communities and make people’s lives better.

I suspect that Obama knows that Christian progressives are weak.  Because progressive churches generally don’t have anyone in them, the broad church “left” has no political power.  Until progressives generally see churches as opportunities, rather than as enemies, and until mainline churches start truly listening to their communities, Obama is doing a wise thing.  He has made formal obesiance to the most important evangelical in the country.  And by doing this he is simultaneously diminishing Warren’s credibility with the freeper, moonbat wing of the party.

He is further dividing the evangelical base.

Second, just because Warren opposes abortion and homosexual rights doesn’t mean he will have the political capital, or use his political capital, to promote sorts of policies along these lines.  Warren’s energy  around poverty and AIDS, however, is what Obama will listen to.  Unlike other evangelicals, Warren may just decide that he can deal with Obama because he shares concerns around global poverty, which is of little interest to the those Christians who have sold their faith to the far better organized religion of tax cuts.   And although he might not change his church’s views about sexuality, it might be enough that he just stands out of the way.

This is a low-cost alliance for Obama.   There is no way in hell Obama will become anti-abortion.  The cultural trend is toward liberalization regarding sexuality.  For no matter what gay-rights activists or fundamentalists say, people just don’t give a rats ass about who other people are screwing.   They want their daughters to have access to birth control.  Most people do not want big government to criminalize the consequences of sex.  Obama’s made the calculus.  He gains through building a relationship with Warren.  Warren loses credibility among his base for building a relationship with Obama.

Progressives might pay attention:  Warren is currently on a spiritual journey in a direction that should please those who care about poverty, AIDS, and climate change.   Unlike other Prosperity Gospel Christian leaders, he is not a hypocrite.  And unlike many leftists, he is organized enough that he can actually change the world rather than complain about it.

We have little to worry about.  Although I would have loved to see Obama choose a mainline pastor give the invocation, (he chose Pastor Joseph Lowery to give the benediction) but most of them do a better job of talking rather than doing.  And they can’t offer him anything.   The liberal, mainline church is dying because its killing itself.  Secular progressives don’t care, and our own congregations don’t want to change.  Obama sees who has power within church.  And it isn’t us.

He is wise to connect with Warren.  He has, in my view, defanged him.  And there will be another powerful evangelical who will become unable to stand in his way.

Obama has Warren’s number.

Update:  Bishop Chane Speaks!  He does make a good point about Warren’s foray into discussing assassinaton.  On the other hand, all politics is local.  Remember that Obama has another strategy for the Muslim world.  It is a delicate balancing act.

Another update:  Gary Stern does a good job of listing what people love and hate.

Vampire Christians?

Sometimes you can hear the desperation of the church crying out into the wilderness.

Where are all the people?

How will we pay the bills?

Why is our roof leaking?

It’s not a pretty sight.  I’ve seen churches where parishioners trounce upon new members like vampires, sucking out life from these unsuspecting innocents.

“Will you serve on this committee?  Will you do the work?  Will you give us money?  Blood or your first child is also OK.”

It is discouraging for those of us vampires.  I mean, discouraging for us in the church who truly want to serve, and require resources to do this.

We are caught pleading and begging.   It’s the season for us not-for-profits to beg and plead.  Blah blah blah.  I need your hard earned cash.  Now.

Many visitors know that they will be seen as prey and have the sense that they will be valued mainly for their financial contribution.  I know because sometimes I, myself, have felt like a predator, wanting desperately to be liked, begging for people to come again.  And then making newcomers do the work other congregants burnt themselves out on.

It’s the way many churches work.

I want us to do something different.  Before getting on this treadwheel, let me offer a new way of thinking about what we are about to do.

I believe that if the only thing the church cares about is its own institutional survival, then just let it die.  In fact, let’s kill it.  People don’t need clergy as personal chaplains.  They should develop better friendships (although I’ll always be a friendly sounding board). They don’t need to fund a building that’s falling apart, when they’ve got more pressing needs of their own.    People are not here to serve the church.  Visitors don’t exist for the sake of the church’s survival.

As long as the institutional church thinks of the outside community as potential recruits into their cult, it will either become a cult that revolves around a charismatic personality, or die.

What we need is a completely different model.

A few people, of course, are skeptical.  In the old days, the priest was the caregiver.  The congregation got served.  The priest becomes the one who is responsible for explaining the faith, making the rules, and calling the shots.  I do long for those days, but people don’t buy it much anymore.  Nor should they.

In a new model, the role of the priest is to communicate the gospel, help people collaborate to live out their ministry, and create entrepreneurial programs that build the community.

In the new model, the church exists for the sake of building up other people –  that is what Jesus Christ did.  Not just Episcopalians.  Not just Christians or Catholics.  But everyone who needs support.  Skeptics and Jews and Muslims.

Just not Methodists.  And Red Sox fans.  I draw the line there.

Just kidding aobut that, actually.  Of course Methodists. Shintoists, however, must go to the outer darkness.  Although I have nothing but respect for those who practice the cult of Amaterasu Omikami.

I digress.

The shift means that we live into the idea of the priesthood of all believers.  Instead of being priest centered – or even church centered – each one of us has the responsibility of encouraging, challenging and participating in our communities.  In this time of chaos and distress, we are called to get out and gather the people.   Every individual in the parish has a calling, a purpose, a potentiality that they can live out and share.

We may have to think hard about how we connect with people.  Do we even know our neighbors?   Can we discover their passions, their needs, their hopes and fears, their motivations?  Then, when we gather, we can share these hopes and find ways to advocate and enact them.

These friends and connections may never darken our door.  But we would be there.

This requires a long term view.  It’s hard to change our perspective because churches see their leaking roofs, their heating bills, wondering how they are going to be fixed, frustrated that our kids don’t value the faith that we have.   Perhaps we should ask them about what they need.

I think we’ve been telling people what we need so often we’ve simply forgotten how to listen.  In many churches we’ve told them who they should be, what they should do, and what they should do better.   Some people want those churches and need them badly.  They’ll find them.  But it’s not how mainline churches will survive.

Our call, however, may simply be – at this time – to listen carefully to what the culture is saying, and where it is hearing the gospel.  For the gospel isn’t just holed up in church.  It’s in the movies, the music, on the internet.  In people’s lives.

Maybe once we have heard, we’ll become the gathering that was intended for us all along.