Torture and Christians

I am one of those Christians who believe that torture is outside the realm of Christian behavior. It distinguishes the legitimate actions of the state and the church, and the church must have no part in it.

So I was initially surprised when reading about a poll that indicates that Christians, overall, supported torture in greater numbers than the unreligious. But on the other hand it makes sense.

For those of us who see secularity, as a logical outgrowth of the Christian tradition, this should be seen as a success. This view holds that Christianity has pervaded the culture so thoroughly that we expect the state to uphold the integrity of the body. Our expectations of the behavior of the state are now different than how a pagan state had viewed torture. I do worry that this hold is shaky – more of the elites in this country are now formed by The Fountainhead rather than the Sermon on the Mount. But that non-religious people do not support torture should be comforting. There is no intrinsic reason why they should have inculcated such views.

But over the last 40 years, as liberal protestantism has diminished, Christians by and large have become captivated by the Republican party. They are its foot soldiers. So it might be that what is really happening is a defense of the Bush-Cheney years, a way of reconfirming one’s previous position. It takes too much psychic energy to admit one is wrong and change one’s mind. In short, Christians who support torture do so because their political allegiances form how they are religious.  They are politically captive.

The benefit of knowing Christ means that we realize we can afford to be wrong, to be transformed, to change, while also remembering we are still worthy of love and respect even though, and perhaps because of, the mistakes we make. A faithful Christian must be able to take the risk of being willing to change one’s mind and conform with Christ, not with the needs of the imperial state.

The purpose of torture has always been, primarily, to silence dissent, invoke fear, and force conformity. After 9/11 the administration instructed the CIA to conduct these exercises, creating conflict within the organization. Those responsible for ordering these practices should be held for war crimes.

Fred Phelps RIP

Fred Phelps died.

And now words are getting spilled. I will add a few letters to the end of this era.

Like all responsible mainline Protestants, he outraged me. He said what? How dare he! He was giving Christians a bad reputation.

On the other hand, Christians were already doing that.

I would get angry, imagine my own counter protest, invent signs in my mind.

Once I grew tired of my own outrage, it became clear Westboro Baptist Church was barely a church. It was a family business. Nor were they in any sense effective: their outrageousness forced other Christians to moderate their equally pernicious language.

Marriage equality continued. Possibly, because of the utter ridiculousness of his project, faster.

I can’t think of a single religious person I know, or even one I do not know, who would want to be identified with the antics of Westboro Baptist.  

So all that anti-gay protesting? Theater. Not that WBC thought they were performing, but they definitely were.  They were playing a part in orchestrating a response, one that was deliberate and scripted.

I began to experience reading about Westboro as if they were a travelling sideshow. I found my own personal, perpetual, outrage morphing into a deep sense of incomprehension bordering on entertainment. I didn’t understand what they were saying or doing. They were a spectacle speaking a completely different language, whose intentions were obscure.

And so the best responses to Westboro were ones that treated them like performance art. Counter “protestors” wrote signs like God Hates Figs. God hates Signs. God hates Little Tiny Fuzzy Kittens. When faced with hyperbole, go with it. Can I add a few? God hates low fat yogurt and toe fungus.

Sometimes I feel WBC was a huge diversion. Many other groups not only teach the same beliefs, but they organize and lobby. That’s where we should be resisting. But it’s hard not to watch the circus.

The internet asks for prayers, to not get caught up in returning hate for hate. Such a view is faithful and reasonable. But the ease for which I can do this is because, to be honest, I was never harmed by the man. His outrage was never my own. He was tired, angry, sick. He was pitiful.  In the end, the play was outrageous, so he got what he wanted: attention. I gave some to him. But I’ll looking forward to the moment I don’t care.

As our country forgets how to fear gay people, he will become a curio.

Rumors abound that Phelps had gay tendencies himself. It fits what Episcopal Clergy have known: the closet is the most violent place for a gay person. That rage turns inward killing the soul; and it turns outward wreaking its own havoc.

My real sympathy lies with his children and the abuse that they experienced first hand. I admire their resilience.

So my wish? In heaven, he’s out of the closet, and enjoying himself for the first time. Let him become, instead, an angel who liberates others from the self-hate they find being inflicted upon others.

I’ll let others bless the man. I neither celebrate nor mourn – the family and his enemies can do that. The rest of us? Now, to more important matters.

Does Christianity Require Monarchy?

Adam Lee does well to remind all of us that the founding of this country was certainly and deliberately secular.

He is also right that the idea of a Republic would have been strange to many readers of scripture.  But believers need not agree that they must believe that the church, or scripture, only knows biblical theocracy.  Most Christians and Catholics would not conflate  A “Christian Nation”  with biblical culture.    Biblical understandings of blood, and the ambiguous stories behind the Israelite monarchy’s establishment, do not require that a Christian should support a kingship model of government, the “biblical theocracy” Lee describes.   The closer Christian view is: do the best with what you’re given, but struggle for peace.  Continue reading “Does Christianity Require Monarchy?”

Cool Christianity?

A recent article in the WSJ by Brett McCraken has gotten a bit of play in the Christian blogosphere.   The general thesis:  young Christians don’t want “hip” Christianity – they want Jesus Christianity.   It’s a fine thesis.

So he has a list of complaints.

First:  pastors who refer to pop culture.   Granted, I’m equally confused by the passions of Lady Gaga, but I confess the occasional retelling of a Star Trek, X-Files, or Law and Order Episode.  I’ve quoted The Onion.     My youth group got my references to Friends, The Simpsons and Zombies and sometimes complained to me when I got stories wrong.

But isn’t referring to pop culture part of our work?  I don’t think it is much different retelling the insights of Malcom Gladwell or the poetry of Mary Oliver in a sermon.  People tend to have their eyes glaze over when I quote Calvin rather than Calvin and Hobbes, or offer extended quotations by the theologian Rene’ Girard.  My feeling:  it’s always justified for Christian pastors to talk about vampires, and better than referring to Hegel in German.

His other complaints: pastors in skinny Jeans (someday I’ll fit, really); showing ‘R’ rated movies; holding services in nightclubs.  But what seems inauthentic, fleeting and manipulative to him makes me wonder what are they teaching?  Instead of being horrified, I’m intrigued.

Being an Anglican, of course, I prefer the robes and holy ponchos, films with subtitles and attend nightclubs after mass.  But it seems to me that fussing over image is actually making image out to be more important than it actually is.

His complaint about churches being technologically adept, however, seems especially off the mark.  A pretty good indicator of a church interested in other people, for example, is a website that’s been updated within the last month.  Although tweeting during the service offends this Anglican, sharing religious references seems a justifiable part of my job.  We may not be able to create youtube videos on a weekly basis, but refusing to engage a visual culture seems irresponsible.

Mr. McCracken does seem to be a bit on the defensive about sex.  I admit, I will also be shunning sermons, podcasts, and twittering about the holiness of fellatio between married couples, it does seem to me that people are rightly curious about the Christian perspective, if there is one.

But I think, personally, that’s our own fault.  Our denominations have been dancing around trivial issues of sexuality while refusing to confront the very real challenges people face at all ages.   Personally, I admit, I think the gospel has very little to say about sex.  We might examine why it’s a subject about which most people are fascinated.

And although I’m completely in agreement that being shocking for its own sake seems opportunistic, self-serving and ill-considered,  I just can’t get very excited about it.  I’m bored by being shocked.   And what’s more shocking is that Christians are just now talking about subjects that have been played out in contemporary culture.  Are they really just NOW talking about these titillating practices?   It’s not the practices that are shocking, after all.  It’s that Christians are talking about them.

That said, the gospel is shocking.  Just in a completely different way.

He gets close.  He writes, “If we are interested in Christianity in any sort of serious way, it is not because it’s easy or trendy or popular. It’s because Jesus himself is appealing, and what he says rings true. It’s because the world we inhabit is utterly phony, ephemeral, narcissistic, image-obsessed and sex-drenched—and we want an alternative. It’s not because we want more of the same.”

I understand this.  But I admit I cringe a little at the hyperbole.  Is this world created by God “utterly” phony?  Is it completely ephemeral?  Or is he talking about how Christianity, like the “cool” has become just another spiritual product?  Because what is certainly true is that the commercial enterprise has infected every part of human engagement.  Interrogating that reality, holding the mirror of the gospel up against that, would require a more severe look at our current system of social and economic priorities.  Then we might end up examining the powers, and not merely some misguided attempts to be relevant.  Money, not sex, is closer to the gospel’s true concern, and its consequences are, perhaps, shocking.

He’s right about some things.   From my vantage point, I doubt the institution will be cured by any quick fix.   But what is certainly true is that mainline churches don’t have any fixes.  They’re not even on life support.   Young people aren’t flocking to your local 930am Sunday Morning service with genial overweight pastor with a nice smile who loves everybody and quotes Auden and Kierkegaard.    Twitter and Good Sex might not save the church or compel the curious, but what mainline churches have been doing for the last 30 years isn’t working either.

It’s the work of pastors to engage people, churched and unchurched, where they are, communicating with the technologies that people have access to.  It does make our job more difficult.  We have to know a little of everything.  But it also focuses the work.  We are, fundamentally, communicators of the gospel.  We’re not building managers or administrators; we’re not therapists or nurses.  Technology is one of our tools.  Perhaps technology, itself, is the message, but that is for another post.

And since God is at work in the culture, we will necessarily be referring to His presence there.  He was not confined within the church; nor does he only speak in the alphabet of the creeds.  Sometimes to help a young woman understand the cross, a reference to Mean Girls will have to do.

Why Does Beck Hate Christians?

Although I really should be finishing my doctoral thesis, I want to note that if Glenn Beck is talking about Social Justice Churches, we must be doing something right.

Being mocked by him is a badge of honor, and it gives us a chance, perhaps, to do some skooling.   The tag line:  Why does Beck Hate Christians So?  Jim Wallis, the go-to liberal evangelical, challenges Beck to read the bible.

Even Mormons disagree with the man.

Just remember, the man is an entertainer.

That said, there is some truth to the idea that Justice is a lot harder to identify than injustice, and that the keys to the kingdom offered by God, and not through the state.

And now, back to writing.

Atheists in Foxholes

Because I susbscribe to Alternet, I occasionally read the blogger Greta Christina.   She’s an atheist, one who believes that it is important to be aggressive in overcoming “religion.”   I have many philosophical disagreements with her, such as a belief in God, but more fundamentally, she is a useful example of an atheist who is tone deaf to the experiences of those who find religious traditions worthy and useful.  She is also one an atheist who doesn’t believe she needs to learn much more.

In her most recent Alternet column she takes on the phrase “there are no atheists in foxholes.”  It’s a charming, quaint assertion, one that, she rightly points out, is most likely empirically untrue.  Atheists do face death and they don’t suddenly become metaphysicians in those times.  My father, when he was diagnosed with cancer, didn’t start praying,  although he did continue going to a Unitarian Universalist church (he was one of those atheists who wasn’t offended by religion) and did not drive out the Episcopal chaplain who offered consolation when he was in hospice.

She also argues that it is a bigoted assertion.  That somehow it insinuates that atheists, in their moment of questioning, will then abandon their beliefs and join, for example, the Catholic Church.

At heart of the conundrum is the example of the “praying atheist.”   What she doesn’t seem to understand is that the issue is not about the afterlife, or about death, nor is it really about belief.

For her, in a foxhole, the true atheist may fret, complain, twiddle their thumbs, anything except pray to something that doesn’t exist.   But does an atheist in a foxhole who does pray suddenly a theist?   No:   all they have done is express a desire to be rescued.

And there would be nothing wrong with that.

The phrase, as Ms. Christina reads it, is a good example of one that misdirects.  To add to the confusion, she mistranslates it, interpreting it mainly as a comment on the faith of atheism, rather than on their desires.  Religious language, however, directs the hearer to look and hear in a particular way.  Greta Christina hears religious language in a foxhole as a communication to a non-existent object.

But is that all it is?  Not really.

Being in a foxhole presumes a couple things. One is that we would be completely powerless.  We would have no control.  And that our lives are at stake.  In these situations, our mental energy might be consumed, believer or non believer, by one possibility.

We’d want to be rescued. And that presumes that rescue is possible, even when the facts, the reality, is that we won’t be.  Reality matters, of course, and in a foxhole, the reality is that we would probably die.  To a religious believer, in these situations, prayer is justified.  And I would assert that it would be perfectly reasonable to do so, even if it were inefficacious.

But it seems to me that any sort of prayer, for Ms. Christian, is that prayer is an incomprehensible language, the expression of which is not merely nonsense, but also – even in its utterance – morally circumspect.

When someone says “there are no atheists in foxholes,” however, the assertion is not merely that they will become metaphysicians.  It is not necessarily about the supernatural.  It is an expression that asserts that even when we are powerless, we may desire a power that will rescue us.   It may be a natural, materialistic power.  But the desire still exists.    Even when the object, the rescue, the rescuer, may not exist.

If anything, the praying atheist is merely taking a bet, covering all bases.  When one is powerless, it is fully rational and pragmatic to put ideology aside and take a risk, even if is a poor one, if only because the only temporary cost to prayer is one’s identity as a non-believer.  If praying is merely an archaic tool that probably has no use, there is no shame in using it in a time of need.  But if it is a tool that is morally and conceptually offensive to one’s own identity, then it becomes a problem.  Greta seems to be in the latter category.  Praying is not merely incomprehensible, no true atheist would use it.

Granted, not all atheists require a belief in human power.  But for many people – including non-believers – power is desirable, especially when faced with death.   Such a statement about atheists in foxholes is to place them in the company of human beings who have such desires.  And these desires are reasonable, even if the outcomes are not guaranteed.

Greta is clear:  “the fact that atheists love life, that we’re deeply attached to the people we love, and that we experience fear and grief in the face of death. It’s a lie that tries to depict us, as not just callow and naive, but as something less than human.”   Well, I do hope that Christians could understand that.  In fact, it might be exactly why they say “there are no atheists in foxholes.”  Even an atheist loves life and experiences fear and grief in the face of death, and a desire not to die.

Atheists often make a similar assertion about Christians:  that if they really believed in the afterlife, why wouldn’t they just love death and kill themselves?  After all, isn’t the afterlife a better place?  Although there is a legitimate tension, the truth is that there is no place in Christian theology that requires a Christian to love death.   There is a strong tradition of not being afraid of death, but the two virtues are not identical.  One can be both brave and love life.  If anything, the doctrine and tradition of the church is precisely directed thus.  This why suicide is circumscribed and the funeral mass is a resurrection mass.  The challenge to the belief in the afterlife that Christians should love death, illustrates a misunderstanding of the tradition and human experiences within that tradition.

A Christian may admit that merely wishing does not make things happen.  Wishing, after all, is only one dimension of prayer, and not even the most important one.   But if I were in a foxhole with an atheist, and s/he started to pray I would neither condemn her for her hypocrisy or her weakness.  I wouldn’t expect her to ascribe to any metaphysic or join a church afterwards.   I would understand the desire.  I might share in that wish.  For sometimes we are powerless, and we want someone to rescue us, and have to find a way to express that hope.  And prayer is a rhetoric that is not circumscribed only to believers.

When we do get rescued, it may be a human face that does, and for me, that face would seem a lot like God’s.

Making Tiger Woods a Christian

I’m a bit late about this:  Brit Hume has suggested that Tiger become a Christian.

I’m not exactly sure if it would help, but I suppose Tiger Woods would now be able to confess his sins before having other affairs.   Perhaps Jesus might suggest a chastity belt?

John Stewart’s take.