The long and dangerous road of theological tradition

Members of the Westboro Baptist Church hold anti-gay signs at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia on Veterans Day, November 11, 2010. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS) - RTXUI58

REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque (UNITED STATES – Tags: POLITICS) – RTXUI58

By Joe LaGuardia

As a requirement for her Master of Divinity degree at the McAfee School of Theology, Atlanta, Georgia, the Reverend Karen Woods wrote a thesis on race relations in the local church.  In it, she argues that slavery, discrimination, and contemporary conflicts surrounding race did not suddenly appear out of nowhere.

Rather, the dysfunction of racism grew out of long theological traditions that manipulated the Bible to justify one race’s subjugation over another.  Sadly, although our ancestors were people of their time, this theological context sat squarely on a certain systemic interpretation of the Bible that dehumanized people.

Woods’ thesis reminded me that beliefs surrounding a variety of issues these days result not from spontaneous decisions or platitudes, but from long-held convictions and traditions that require (consciously or otherwise) theological gerrymandering and interpretative acrobats over a long period of time.

If we are still embroiled in the consequences of racism even today, then it should not surprise us that contemporary debates over other hotbed topics will last well into the next generation of Christendom.

Traditions and experience inform how we read the Bible (if we read the Bible at all), and shaping our reading of God’s Word according to such embedded ideologies threatens to undermine the authority of Scripture.

The worst part is when we declare that God agrees with our positions rather than change our minds when we know some things simply contradict Christ’s or the Bible’s teachings.

M. Craig Barnes, writing for The Christian Century, wrote of the dangers associated with biased interpretations of scripture.  He recalled Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address delivered on March 4, 1865, in which Lincoln lamented the toxicity that imbues any theology that forces ideology on humanity’s understanding of God.

According to Lincoln, “Both [the North and the South] read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes [God’s]aid against the other . . . The prayers of both could not be answered.  That of neither has been answered fully.  The Almighty has His own purposes.”

Lincoln went on to declare that the institution of slavery–250 years in the making–will not come untangled as easily as many people in the Union had hoped.  Yet, it was imperative to “finish the work we are in” so as to bring about harmony to a nation divided by political ideology.

Lincoln hit the problem squarely on the head.  Our debates surrounding the most pressing issues of the day such as gun control, environmental stewardship, war, immigration and refugee policy, and federal budgets must indeed play out in the philosophical and political arenas, but must avoid any declaration that God is taking one side over another.  Otherwise, we too will be embroiled in divisions that rend the very fabric of our nation.

Ultimately, when a Christian surrenders to God, she surrenders her “rights” in this world in order to become a fully-recognized citizen in God’s kingdom.  It is to sacred Scripture that a citizen of the Kingdom submits, not to any man-made document or system of government.

God’s call is a singular mission to march towards the cause of the cross.  This results from self-denial and, sometimes, death, if not physically, then of those embedded convictions that conflict with Christ’s values.

Most significantly, submitting to Christ’s lordship means divesting our theologies about God and social politics that perpetuate some of the more hostile elements of faith that play out in our places of worship, politics, and the public square.  Without this important reformation in our churches, we remain steadfast in the very bigotry that our faith condemns.

Without analyzing the long-held beliefs that shape our worldview, we fail to “be transformed in the renewal of our mind,” as Paul so aptly commands in Romans 12:1-2.

My prayer for the New Year is that we will have robust debates in an otherwise uncommon election season, but that we will not use religion as a weapon to wield rather than a balm to heal, and that we will use Scripture to transform our thinking rather than support our myopic opinions about so many issues we face today.  May Christ, not the fascination with our own interpretations of Him, be Lord over our lives.

 

 

 

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, legacy inspires pause during 2016 election season

MLKJ

By Joe LaGuardia.  This is a new take on an old blog post; reprinted with revisions from 2010.

With a new Congress taking office, political speeches becoming even more heated, and an 2016 election season already underway, the celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr., this weekend should give Christians pause as to their place in modern society.

The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., is one of my heroes of the faith.  For me, King’s heroism resulted from his ability to stand up against the tidal-wave of public opinion and divisive rhetoric in order to uphold the values and convictions he held so dear.

During King’s day, there were several major impediments to furthering the goals of the Civil Rights movement.  One impediment originated from the many local and national policies that upheld a “separate but equal” status quo.  The other impediment was the subtle, yet loud voice of public opinion opposing greater equality for minorities in society.

Public opinion, usually expressed in opinion polls, is a necessity in politics.  It measures public sentiment; however, what the Civil Rights era proved was that public opinion—especially of the majority—does not necessarily reflect a biblical worldview.

Politicians and pundits rely heavily on public opinion to shape national debates, and sometimes public opinion can change depending on the questions asked.  For instance, a survey may show that a majority of Americans are against “Obamacare,” but may favor the “Affordable Care Act.”  Not many people realize that they are the same thing.

When Dr. King faced majority opinion in opposition to the Civil Rights cause in the mid-1960s, he noted on more than one occasion that Christians rarely walk to the beat of the populist drum.  Nor are they to be fooled by rhetorical loop-d-loops.

One of King’s most moving sermons, “Transformed Nonconformist,” claimed that Christians are citizens of two worlds but ultimately answer to the heavenly realm. He said that conformity to public opinion can sometimes lead Christians away from Christ.

He opined, “We are called to be people of conviction, not conformity; of moral nobility, not social respectability.  We are commanded to live differently and according to a higher loyalty.”

For King, conformity to public opinion was simply another form of slavery: “Any Christian who blindly accepts the opinions of the majority and in fear and timidity follows a path of expediency and social approval is a mental and spiritual slave.”

He also recognized that churches can also fall prey to conformity if they do not critically assess how God might be bringing about aspects of His Kingdom on earth through reflection and dialogue.  Sometimes God’s way of doing things looks very different than what a crowd might advocate.

Churches that simply fall in line with the rest of America without a sense of moral discernment and prayer can easily blur the line between prophetic engagement and partisanship.  The church that does not embody God’s reign looks no different than a political action committee.

King’s sermon rings with a certain poignancy: “Nowhere is the tragic tendency to conform more evident than in the church, an institution which has often served to crystallize, conserve, and even bless the patterns of majority opinion…Have we ministers of Jesus Christ sacrificed the truth on the altar of self-interest and, like Pilate, yielded our convictions to the demands of the crowd?”

Going against public opinion for its own stake was not what King was all about; rather, he challenged his audience to consider how convictions shape civil discourse. In other words, King never went rogue; his convictions were born out of a strong and consistent sense of righteousness.  In spite of public opinion, which changes from day to day, King kept in mind the bigger picture of God’s unfolding history.

I do not doubt that opinion polls are extremely useful in many situations; nevertheless, they are not necessarily designed to determine what Christians are to believe about public policy. Aside from making great strides in social justice for African Americans, this profound lesson is—in my mind—one of the greatest contributions that Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights movement as a whole made to American society.  Let us keep King’s vision ever before us as the next election season unfolds.