“Christian” is a daunting adjective, as in Christian pastor, Christian church or Christian nation. I’m hesitant to claim it for myself or my group. It’s better, though still a daunting challenge, if others apply it to me or my group.
When this adjective is a label worn too lightly, too quickly or too proudly, it demeans a great tradition. To misuse, or thoughtlessly claim, this adjective for self or group, or to wear it while attacking someone else is profanity–meaningless talk about God.
One Sunday, my district superintendent attended our worship service unexpectedly. A choir member said, “The DS is here. Does that scare you?” I said, “No. But it keeps me on my toes to believe God is listening here every Sunday.”
This 1995 quote from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird (sent from my friend Ernie) and a 2022 blog post by Diana Butler Bass, “Christian Nationalism Everywhere?” reinforce my reluctance to use Christian as an adjective, as in “Christian nation.”
Years ago, an automobile dealership’s advertising punch line was, “The boss said, ‘Let ’em go.'” As in, “Should we give a big discount on these vehicles? The boss said, ‘Let ’em go.'”
I’ve thought about that line as United Methodists move deeper into the “disaffiliation” process. It has been personally painful to watch it unfold, but Phyllis Tickle’s wise observation has been helpful. She said this era of deep change in our culture and all religions will be like the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s–the faith and the planet will emerge stronger as various groups go their separate ways.
The Lester Memorial UMC in Oneonta has worked out a relatively amicable divorce, where a sizable contingent of those not desiring to disaffiliate are forming a new congregation. In a large city, those wishing to stay with the denomination, but find themselves in a group where the majority want to leave, can easily join another UMC that intends to remain. In a small community like Oneonta, it takes more creativity.
The Roman Catholic Church takes sainthood seriously, even if a prospective saint didn’t. Dorothy Day (1897-1980), responded to the idea of her potential sainthood by saying, “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.”
In spite of her resistance, the canonization process is underway. That she would vote “no” is the best evidence that her practice of faith should be recognized. A redemptive aspect of faith is that outcasts/non-conformists improve the neighborhood.
A federal holiday is somewhat akin to sainthood. I think Martin Luther King, Jr. would respond to MLK Day with something like, “That’s nice, but let’s pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.”
The New York Times‘ opinion columnist Jamelle Bouie said one of King’s most powerful sermons was “A Christmas Sermon on Peace,” given at Ebenezer Baptist Church in 1967. Bouie sees MLK as a “democratic theorist.” From the sermon:
Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective. No individual can live alone; no nation can live alone, and as long as we try, the more we are going to have war in this world.
One of ML King, Jr.’s gifts was making widely known–and expanding–Josiah Royce‘s idea of the beloved community. When I was young, I accepted the widely held US idea that America was the beloved community, i.e., uniquely blessed by God. Ronald Reagan inspired many people with his idea that we are a nation “set on a hill.”
America is blessed with an abundance of natural resources, (until recently) moderate climate, and our Founders’ (unfinished) vision of liberty and justice for all. It’s easy for an awareness of blessing to merge a national self-understanding with the biblical concept of ancient Israel as “God’s chosen people.”
I once heard a rabbi say of the Israelites: “Chosen yes, but for mission, not privilege.” The nature of the Royce/King vision is completely inclusive. It embraces all the earth–all the Universe. We are beloved because the Universe is beloved. The beloved community practices the art of receiving and giving unconditional love.
From “The King Philosophy” (including the Beloved Community), The King Center. (L-to-R, Ralph David Abernathy, James Forman, MLK, Jr., Jesse Douglas, John Lewis,
Regular readers of this blog know that I often draw from “Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation,”produced by the Center for Action and Contemplation. When I typed “Richard Rohr” into this blog’s excellent search engine, I discovered that I’ve referenced Rohr in 96 of 1,206 posts.This one is number 97.
Rohr is one reason that in recent years I’ve been increasingly drawn to the “big picture” theme. CAC’s 1/16/23 meditation, a Rohr reflection on Martin Luther King, Jr., entitled “Big Picture Thinkers,” was personally very helpful. As he often does, Rohr put King’s life and message within a larger context (what he calls a “larger frame”).
As MLK applied the idea of the beloved community to a “wider frame” beyond race to economics and war, he lost a sizable part of his following. Then, writes Rohr:
We don’t want the big frame. No one wants the big picture. … Jesus’ metaphor and image for what we would simply call the big picture is the reign of God, or the kingdom of God. … To consider things in light of eternity is a great clarifier. Maybe it comes to us on our death bed, when we think to ourselves, “Is this going to mean anything? Does this really matter? Is this little thing we’re upset about now and taking offense at going to mean anything in light of eternity?” The prophet or prophetess speaks truthfully and in the largest context.
The LA Dodgers swept the NY Yankees in the 1963 World Series. Of 36 innings, Sandy Koufax pitched 18; Don Drysdale 9: Johnny Podres 8 1/3; and Ron Perronoski 2/3. 1963 was my last year of baseball cards. The sport moved down several notches in my consciousness due to adolescence and due to some major events in 1963.
On May 3, high pressure water from fire hoses and police dogs were unleashed on Civil Rights demonstrators in Birmingham. The children and youth began to stir the conscience of white America with their powerful witness.
On November 22, news of President John Kennedy’s assassination was broadcast over our school intercom. My 7th grade science teacher wrote on the chalkboard “Lyndon Johnson,” and then “John McCormack” after reports of LBJ’s chest pains. This began several sad days and 60 years of wondering “what if” (regarding Vietnam, especially).
…we must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. … Forgiveness … means … the evil act no longer remains as a barrier to the relationship. …the evil deed is no longer a mental block impeding a new relationship. … Forgiveness means reconciliation ….
… there is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies. … we love our enemies by realizing that they … are not beyond the reach of God’s redemptive love.
…we must not seek to defeat or humiliate the enemy, but to win his friendship and understanding. …
… Have we not come to such an impasse in the modern world that we must love our enemies–or else? The chain reaction of evil–hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars–must be broken, or we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation. ..
To our most bitter opponents we say: “We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. … We shall meet your physical force with soul force. … be… assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom, but not only for ourselves. We shall win you in the process….
… I drove to Monroeville, Alabama for lunch and conversation with Thomas Lane Butts (1930-2021), a retired pastor. He told me about the time he met Martin Luther King, Jr. in early 1955, when Butts was a seminary student at Emory University and pastor of a 4-church “circuit” near (then wild and woolly) Phenix City, Alabama.
Butts’ mentor, Welton Gregory, phoned to say, “Tom, I want you to be in Montgomery at 7:30 tomorrow morning. A group of us are going to Talladega to spend the day with a young black Baptist minister who has just been called to be pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery. We believe he’s going to have a creative influence on race relations in Alabama. His name is Martin Luther King, Jr.”
Butts said the group that met with King that day in 1955 numbered about twelve. Butts said the session was transformative for him because of King’s intellect and communication skill. I found a 2012 blog post by Butts that provides a fuller context for their meeting in Talladega.
Issues of faith and ethics are central to our conversation about rapid technological change (see previous posts). A related issue is the way faith itself is impacted by the technology of mass communication (particularly the “silo” effect of social media). I’d like to invite Diana Butler Bass into this conversation.
DBB writes an occasional blog called The Cottage. Point 4 of her January 11 post is: “The internal tensions and divisions of American Christianity will continue to dominate our political life, both overtly and more surreptitiously.” She writes that Kevin McCarthy, Matt Gaetz, and Hakeem Jeffries are all Baptists, a reality worthy of “an entire dissertation in American religious history.”
DBB invites conversation about “what it means to be Christian in a less-Christianized world. … humility and hospitality” to “embody a beautiful biblical faith that contributes to a flourishing, fairer world.” … “Ignoring religion and politics won’t spare us from divisions, anger, and pain. Ignoring them ensures that even more extremist and more dangerous forms of Christian politics will arise to the detriment of not only American politics but to Christianity itself.”
I left a comment for DBB at her blog: I try to have a virtual cup of tea each day with Phyllis Tickle and John Lewis, simply to ask them, “What should we do now?” At tea today, we’ll discuss this post. Thank you!