Monday, August 28, 2017

Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?



This is the text of my sermon given on Sunday, August 27, 2017 at First Presbyterian Church in Monticello, Arkansas. It was given as a second followup sermon responding the events in Charlottesville and on the day before the 54th anniversary of the March on Washington and Dr. King's "I Have a Dream Speech".

             For those of you who were here last week, you heard my sermon response to the events that took place in Charlottesville. For those of you who were not here, you can read that sermon on my Facebook page. As I mentioned in my sermon last week, I would follow up with more thoughts concerning this today. 

            The title of my sermon this morning is not original; I have taken it from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1967 book, entitled, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?

In the first chapter of the book, Dr. King describes the state of the Civil Rights Movement in America and the state of white America’s acceptance of African Americans a year after the Voting Rights Act.  He asserts:

            “With Selma and the Voting Rights Act one phase of development in the civil rights revolution came to an end. A new phase opened, but few observers realized it or were prepared for its implications.  For the vast majority of white Americans, the past decade—the first phase—had been a struggle to treat the Negro with a degree of decency, not of equality.  White America was ready to demand that the Negro should be spared the lash of brutality and coarse degradation, but it had never been truly committed to helping him out of poverty, exploitation or all forms of discrimination.  The outraged white citizen had been sincere when he snatched the whips from the Southern sheriffs and forbade them more cruelties.  But when this was to a degree accomplished, the emotions that had momentarily inflamed him melted away.  White Americans left the Negro on the ground and in devastating numbers walked off with the aggressor.  It appeared that the white segregationist and the ordinary white citizen had more in common with one another than either had with the Negro.”[i]

Dr. King captures so pointedly what I believe continues to be the great sin of our world.  In these insightful and prophetic remarks, King offers to us a portrait of the repetitive state of humanity that is blinded by the promotion of exclusion.  Certainly we persist to live in a world that is saturated with oppression, hatred, and violence, and I shall have something to say about these sins.  But Dr. King also draws our attention to a sin that is subtler than the sin of hate and violence and the sin of exclusion.  We have been duped into believing that the answer to hatred and bigotry is tolerance.  The world has preached a message to us to be tolerant of others who are not like us, to bear with the differences we have and to live in peace with them by merely tolerating them.  But the downside of the tolerance issue is that it is very short sighted; it does not go far enough.  Sure, tolerance may be the better option in the face of those who continue to ward off the message of tolerance because, in their words, it weakens the so-called truth of the Christian message.  But those who preach tolerance to us are not promoting the fullness of God’s love in Christ.  The irony of the tolerance debate is that those who preach against tolerance and those who preach for it have made the same grave mistake.  One side considers tolerance an evil, while the other considers tolerance the answer.  One group preaches to us that tolerance is a construct of the pluralistic, and therefore, evil world.  The other side preaches to us that tolerance is the height of humanity’s progressiveness in social relationships.

            But what does the gospel say?  In a world where we are torn between two views of the world, one founded on exclusion and the other based on a very sappy yet undemanding dream, what does the gospel say to the church in our post-modern world as to how we are to relate to others of different color, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, and other forms of division?  To use the title from Dr. King’s book quoted moments ago, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?

            The Apostle Paul, a Hebrew of Hebrews and a messenger of the gospel to the Gentiles, had to confront the issues that are so relevant for us today regarding how we relate to those who are both like us and different from us in ways that I have just mention.  Paul too dealt with the divisions that existed, mainly those that existed between Jew and Gentile, divisions that could not be explained by simple dislike of the other.  Indeed, the divisions that existed between Jew and Gentile during the first century are sarcastically mentioned by Paul in Ephesians 2.  The denigration of the Gentiles by the Jews is brought to the fore in Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus as he states that these Gentiles were called the “uncircumcised” by those who are the “circumcised”.  The reference was not simply to a physical marker that made the two groups different from each other.  The designation was intended, when used by some Jews, to speak about the other in a dehumanising way; a method by which the name caller could vilify and demonise someone unlike himself.  This labelling of the other, which cannot simply be limited to the situation Paul seems to allude to here in Ephesians, is the out growth of much deeper and demonic beliefs that are built on fear and hatred of people who are not like us, who may not live like us, and who may not believe as we believe.  It is a claim to possess absolute truth and a claim to having developed the ideal culture and civilization—a claim that transgresses the biblical call to humility and service; it is sin.  It is the sin of exclusion.

            But we might offer a defense of our lives by claiming that we are not exclusive in our treatment towards others.  We might claim that we are more civil than our ancestors in relating to people who are different from us.  We might claim that we are now tolerant of others who are different in color, ethnicity, nationality, religion and lifestyle.  But if that is our claim, a claim to be tolerant, have we not stop short of the goal that Dr. King expresses in his statement?  No one doubts that Dr. King delighted in the fact that white Americans were being convinced that the brutality carried out against African Americans was immoral.  But in the words that I have read from his book, Dr. King is certainly lamenting the fact that this is not enough; it fell short of what it needed to be.  True victory, as I see Dr. King expressing it, is not in the removal of exclusion and the replacing it with tolerance.  Dr. King appears to be saying, at least implicitly, that tolerance must move beyond itself to embrace.  Some call for an abandonment of tolerance, while others call for an acceptance of tolerance, but the gospel of God in Christ calls us to move beyond mere tolerance to full and vulnerable embrace.

            So, the question we must ask ourselves is, “Has God called us to be exclusive, tolerant, or embracing?”  Are we to follow the prophets of division that call us to reject tolerance?  Or are we to follow the empty promises of the tolerance message?  Or, does the ministry of embrace hold the key for our faithfully living out our mission as God’s people?  To answer these questions, let us deal with both the sin of exclusion and the sin of tolerance so that we might expose the immorality of the one and the weakness of the other.  From there we will be able to grasp the biblical call to embrace one another and, perhaps more challenging, to embrace our enemies.

            In his 1996 monograph, Exclusion and Embrace, Yale theologian Miroslav Volf captures the essence of the biblical and theological ideas of exclusion and embrace.[ii]  In this book Volf offers a broad definition of exclusion that helps us see our own sinfulness of exclusion towards others who are not like us.  His broad definition is a tableau of exclusion that does not limit the sin of exclusion only to hateful actions done to others.  Indeed hatred and bigotry are part of it, and perhaps the most violent and repulsive.  But the sin of exclusion is the sin of all, and we stand here guilty with blood on our own hands if we have transgressed one part of this sin.  

            First, Volf points out that exclusion is evil, for perpetrators of exclusive viewpoints will seek to eliminate the other.  Whether we speak about the fundamentalists and radicals within Islam, Judaism, or Christianity, or the political demagogues, imperialists, or dictators on the world stage, elimination is certainly the expedient and ultimate goal of those who hold stringent and exclusive points of view.  The promotion of fear of the other and a dehumanising of those who are different serves these persons well as they are able to raise mob support to promote their fear of the other.  The only goal in the eyes of those of practice exclusion through elimination is, “The enemy must be destroyed.”

            Volf offers a second, but just as brutal, facet of exclusion when he designates exclusion as assimilation.  “We must make the other like us before they make us like them.”  Again, the momentum for this viewpoint is based on the vilification of the other through fear.  The belief is that our way of thinking and believing is better, more superior to everyone else, and therefore we must assimilate the other, the enemy, into our way of thinking, believing, and living.  This may seem reasonable enough to us, but behind this motive is again a sense of power and a desire to possess and control.

            And, should they not become like us, Volf suggests that there exists a third option to carry forth an exclusive agenda: Domination.  If we cannot eliminate the other, and we cannot assimilate the other, then our option is to dominate them.  Through domination we force our own views and ways on the enemy.

            But sadly enough, while history has proven that the church has been guilty of all of these forms of exclusion, it is the fourth facet of Volf’s tapestry of which the church is most guilty: Abandonment.  A neglect for justice and peace, a turning away from the real needs of the oppressed, and a quote/unquote spiritual message of evangelism that takes the place of ministering to real world needs is the darkness of the church’s sin of abandonment.  We have practiced exclusion by abandonment because we feel that it is not as bad as the other three and because we do not want to get our hands dirty with the real work of being the crucified body of Christ.  We find comfort in neglect.  Like the priest and Levite who walk by the man lying on the road between Jericho and Jerusalem, we have abandoned the world and its real needs because we are too wrapped up in our own agendas of religiosity.  We have abandoned the call of Scripture to embrace others as God in Christ has embraced us.  We may or may not fall into the first three sins of exclusion, but we are most assuredly guilty of exclusion through abandonment.  And because of this, we walk off hand in hand with the oppressors, leaving the oppressed on the side of the road.

            So where does the answer to the sin of exclusion rest?  Is it tolerance or the rejection of tolerance?  Should we hide behind a false gospel that calls us to separate ourselves from those not like us, which only reinforces our stereotypes of others and increases our hatred?  Or should we accept the comfort of tolerance, knowing that tolerance merely calls us to grit our teeth and bear with others not like us, but keeps us at a distance from them?  The biblical answer lies neither in abandonment of tolerance nor the reluctant acceptance of tolerance.  The biblical answer lies in the activity of God in Christ, who has come into the world not to cast us aside, and surely not to tolerate us, but to embrace us in Christ. You see we have forgotten all too often that we stand with the world in solidarity, solidarity in sin.  Certainly there is evil in the world, and evil needs to be called evil.  But we who consider ourselves good, and even Christian, cannot claim innocence.  The blood of the Son of God drips from our hands, and our exclusion through either elimination, assimilation, domination or abandonment of others makes us all the more guilty of the evil that takes place in our world.  And because of this solidarity we cannot rightfully stand in judgment of others, no matter what we may believe about them, and we cannot exclude them from community in an attempt to exclude ourselves from guilt. 
  
            How shall we proceed, then, as the body of Christ called to be the light of the world?  If the liberal proclamation of tolerance is short sighted, and the fundamentalist proclamation of exclusion is anti-gospel, where does the mission of the church lie?  It lies in the modelling embrace of God.

            I certainly cannot take credit for this model, for it comes forth first in Scripture and has been interpreted by many scholars and theologians.  And here I turn once again to Volf’s book, Exclusion and Embrace for he says it better that what I could say.  But I shall also add my two cents worth to the mix.

            If exclusion is sin, and tolerance itself is sin, then embrace is indeed our only faithful option.  But can we find a motivation for embrace and the strength to embrace those whom we may see as different and even those we call our enemies?  Does the story of Jesus model for us a real story which we can live out in the world in order to stomp out both the message of exclusion and the message of tolerance?  Indeed it does.  Jesus offers to us practices that are fundamental for our being the inclusive body of Christ in the world. He models and teaches that we must practice love, service, humility, forgiveness, peace, and welcome.

            What is our response to the gospel message of inclusion?  Will we bunker down and remain exclusive and prejudice towards those not like us and towards our enemies?  Will we be duped by the attractive, but shortsighted message of tolerance?  Or, will we faithfully follow the Crucified One and embrace the world through love, forgiveness, humility, peace and witness?  We are left to respond to God’s Word.

In the final pages of Dr. King’s book, Where Do We Go from Here, we find these words:

            “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today.  We are confronted with the fierce urgency of the now.  In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late.  Procrastination is still the thief of time.  We still have a choice today: non-violent coexistence or violent coannihilation.  This may well be mankind’s last chance to choose between chaos and community.”[iii]

And so, the time is now.  We as the church, the redeemed people of God who have been embraced by God in Christ, must redeem the time that has been lost to exclusion, oppression, hatred, and violence.  We must repent of our sin of exclusion and our sin of mere tolerance.  We must be prepared and empowered by God’s Spirit to embrace others, even others who are not like us, even others whose lifestyles are not like ours, even others we call our enemies.  In so doing, we live out the power of the crucified Lamb of God by expelling exclusion and chaos and by embracing all people in what Dr. King called the Beloved Community. 


[i] Martin Luther King, Jr. Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? (New York: Harper & Rom, 1967), 3-4.
[ii] Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), esp. 74-77.
[iii] King,  Where Do We Go From Here?, 191

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Can Faith and Doubt Coexist? Or Why Does ‘Doubting Thomas’ Get a Bad Rap?




One of my favorite quotes comes from Thomas Merton, "A person is known better by his questions than his answers." I love Merton’s statement because these words sum up my understanding of religious faith. Faith is not about answers. Faith is about questions.

This way of thinking, for some odd reason, comes natural to me. In fact, those who know me very well, know that I am adventurous when it comes to asking questions about the Bible, theology, and the practice of faith. For me, no question is off limits. I am not satisfied with the idea that if the Bible says it, then that settles it, for the questions are too numerous and too serious. And, let’s be honest, the Bible could be wrong.

That’s why I like Thomas, not Merton, I like him too, but the Thomas who was Jesus’ disciple, the one we call “Doubting Thomas”. When I read the story of Thomas from John 20, I resonate with this figure whose nickname, unfortunately, has become synonymous with all those who cannot believe without proof. 

But was Thomas such a bad guy? Were his doubts about Jesus’ resurrection an expression of his lack of faith? Was Jesus condemning Thomas for his doubts? I am inclined to say no to all three of these questions.

But I think the most refreshing thing for me about Thomas is that he expresses what it means to be human. We are prone to doubts and confusion simply because we are finite human beings.  We are inclined not to believe certain things simply because our minds are so grounded in our experience as a way to gain certain knowledge. And so, it is only natural for us to be skeptical about certain things, especially those things that seem to be far fetched ideas. And religious ideas can be very far fetched.

 
The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by
Caravaggio (Sort of) (c. 1601)
 


I’ll be completely honest, but I hope you will excuse my honesty at this point. When I compare the various religious traditions and what they say about God, a serious look at Christianity suggests that our closely held beliefs are about as crazy as you can get. 

Seriously. Think about it. Is it entirely reasonable to believe in a God who had a son, who this God had killed so that the sins of humanity, committed against that God, could be forgiven? I don’t really buy into that atonement theory anymore, but my point is that what we call traditional, orthodox Christianity has longed held these beliefs.

But we could push this even further by talking about the existence of God in the first place. For centuries philosophers have argued for the existence of God from a rational position. Their classical arguments are well structured and nuanced. 

But even though these philosophical arguments are very sophisticated, they cannot prove that God does indeed exist. In fact, although it is easy for our culture to despise atheists and agnostics for their lack of belief in God, the reality is that the arguments against the existence of God that atheists propose are perhaps as convincing than those that argue for God’s existence.

The point I am trying to make is that faith is often a tough thing; at least it is for me. I wish I could stop the questions and simply just say I believe. But, unlike many folks I know, I cannot. I have actually heard people say that it is not a matter of not being able to believe, it is a matter of not wanting to believe. But this is false. Many people want to believe, including me, but sometimes those beliefs are not possible.

I cannot force myself to believe everything just because the Bible says it or because Christian tradition teaches it. I can certainly accept many things from the Bible and from the traditional teachings of the church, but I also have my doubts, and often these doubts are numerous and quite intense. Indeed, there are days that I doubt that God really does exist, and for that matter, what does it mean to say that God “exists”, or that prayer does “work”, or that Jesus was raised from the dead, and even if rising from the dead means a physical resurrection.

I came to a place in my life many years ago when I decided to be honest with myself on matters of faith. I decided that I would not just keep saying I believed in God or Jesus or certain things about either God or Jesus. For me, faith is not an absolute belief or knowledge that God exists, that Jesus rose from the dead, or that everything happens for a reason. And, I am particularly doubt stricken when I see the suffering in our world.

Perhaps what really does it for me is the way that we think of God in very personal and individualistic terms. I am not saying that God is not personal, or that God cannot be described in personal terms. What I am saying is that there are views of God that, in my mind, actually fly in the face of believing in the God many Christians claim exists. 

For example, I have heard people say they prayed about things such as getting a certain job and they got it, and then they attribute this to God, when at the same time thousands, even tens of thousands are killed by a tsunami. I have a huge problem with this God of partiality. Why would I want to believe in a God who is concerned that my happiness is achieved, but who seems to be unconcerned with the deaths of thousands?

But that is just one of those quirky questions that is always at the forefront of my mind. That is why Merton’s quote resonates with me, as does “Doubting Thomas’” , well, doubt. I prefer to live with the questions rather than the answers. Doubt keeps us from certaintly, which opens up the life of faith. Thus, doubt and faith must coexist.