With each generation in the United States, it becomes more and more difficult for some people to identify with their heritage. Some of this is because the cultural pieces of their heritage have not been practiced and passed along from generation to generation, and some because as families marry they bring in other heritages and the resulting generation sometimes have a more difficult time understanding exactly what their heritage is.
It occurs to me that a very interesting phenomenon has risen out of this. It is not new or unique (something like it has happened before in Great Britain), but it is a fairly new and unique way of understanding the divide within so many Christian churches in the US.
Most of my thoughts on this are based on observances. So I have to recognize that I am speaking primarily about the experience of white Americans. That is not to say this isn't also true of other races, it is just saying it is the one with which I am most familiar and therefore the primary source of my observation.
The observation is this: many white Americans, seem to be filling in the gap of our lack of a sense of heritage with Christianity and it is not only dangerous but it stands over and against what Jesus and then Paul told us that this movement, the following of The Way, was about.
Much like our religious relatives who actually have a Jewish heritage, there has been a silent claiming of the "heritage" of Christianity. The way this Christian heritage is practiced is, obviously, heavily weighted toward practices of heritage rather than practices of faith. That is to say, like some “non-practicing” Jews who still observe certain rituals for the sake of remembering their heritage and passing it on to the next generation, Christianity has an abundance of “non-practicing” Christians who still observe certain rituals for the sake of remembering their “heritage” and passing it on. The difference is non-practicing Christians do not recognize that they are passing on the heritage and not-so-much the faith.
One of the most regular rituals is the preparation for (including dressing up) and attendance of church on Sunday morning. The unbending steadfastness of many Christian to allow for more casual dress, a change in worship style, or time of worship, while passed off as a concern for respectfulness, appropriateness and respectability from a religiously pious point of view has much more to do with upholding their perceived heritage than it does with any biblically based concern. The same seems to be true for many of the other places of resistance to change in the church.
That is where those who are advocates for the change and those who are advocates for maintaining their perceived heritage meet an impasse. We each assume the other is there for the same reason we are (to maintain Christian heritage / to peruse biblical mandates). Because of this miscue, we find ourselves frequently at impasses that, without recognition of the difference, will not reach a lasting resolution if they achieve a resolution at all. Additionally, the relationship is complicated by the issues of American exceptionalism which is so frequently bound tightly to Christian heritage, the biblical issues of Christianity being a “heritage,” and the belief of both sides that they are the ones who are honoring the religion. (All three are likely to be future articles).
Now for the part that many people are not going to like. I am not putting forth the idea that recognition of this reality (at least as I see it), will solve the impasse or provide for a path forward together - quite the opposite really. I believe that recognition of this divide will be exactly that- a recognition of a divide. Theses two understandings of what it means to be Christian are not compatible and, as sad as it is, make it not only constantly contentious to move forward together, but also illogical.
My sermon for this Sunday
is helpful in understanding this (as a matter of fact, this article may become part of the message). I'm looking at Micah, where the prophet says, "What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness and walk humbly with your God?” Those who practice Christianity mostly as a heritage will see those things as requests (if not “nice things to say, but a naive way of living”) and those who practice it as a religion will see it as exactly what the prophet calls it - a requirement.
Followers of The Way, of the teachings of Jesus, will never settle on ritual repetition for the sake of heritage... because Jesus didn't either. The Church, as the body of Christ, must never allow itself to become a cultural heritage club, for when we do, we displace the centrality of the brother and sisterhood of all humanity with the exceptionalism and assumed privilege of a select group of people... and that's just not the way of Christ.
Part 2: Christian 'Heritage' and American Exceptionalism
"I came across your recent statement calling my present activities "unwise and untimely." Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would have little time for anything other than such correspondence in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work." -- MLK, Letter from a Birmingham Jail
It is no great secret that mainline, Protestant churches are on the decline. A great deal of effort and energy are put into reversing this process. Call it Emergent Church, Transformation, or a whole host of other buzz words, we church leader types seem convinced that change is the key to forgoing what increasingly looks like a certain (be it slow) demise.
So, we invest money, time and talent into the latest sure-fire program with the best of intentions. Quite frankly, it feels good to be doing something about it rather than sitting hopelessly tied to the past and repeating the mis-takes of yesteryear over and over again. We slowly make a case to whatever power structures there may be (formal and informal), get as many people as possible on board with the “new vision” and then begin the process.
Here's the thing, once the “process” moves beyond reading books about what this “change thing" might look like, and we get down to actually changing things, people (the very people who were “on board” with the new vision) start criticizing the change once they see that it will actually change things. (I know that seems ridiculous, but it is actually very human. The idea of change is much less challenging than people actually mucking about in our comfort zones).
As people begin to detract from the change, detract from forward progress, we pastoral types feel a deep need to not only bring them along with us, but to sooth over the tension that such disagreements cause. The thing is, each time we halt to address the criticism, we also halt the forward motion, we cease building a new future and focus on mending the past, we shift gears from the macro-management of the church's future to the micromanagement of every concern expressed.
It's almost hard to think about not doing exactly that, but when you do stop to think about it, when you choose to handle change this way, you are choosing to let go of the vision for the church and to get caught up in the everyday concerns of the world. Said differently, when you are trying to move a body forward, focusing on the detractors (even earnest ones) subtracts greatly from your ability to actualize progress. In many ways, life has taught those who object to change exactly that; preventing change does not take being right, it only takes being loud enough (or concerned enough, or hurt enough, etc.) to garnish attention, because it causes those working toward change to loose their vision and focus their energy on you.
In the end you, at the very least, slow down the change to which you object and in the best case you wear down those working toward change so much they they throw their hands up in frustration and walk away. With the exception of earnest objectors who might actually just be trying to understand, a great deal of the detractors are not interested in what is best as much as they are interested in getting what they want. Those working for change frequently, out of genuine concern, make the mistake of believing that with enough dialogue and nurturing the detractors can be brought on board. While this is certainly a virtuous perspective, and early on is worth putting some energy in (but not the majority of energy), there is a point at which you have to face reality and boldly move forward into the direction you understand God to be calling you, realizing that people you care about will probably choose to take a different path and that the split may be rocky and even less than cordial at times.
I can't help but wonder if that is part of the wisdom that Dr. King saw as he looked at the new vision, the change, he was trying to usher in in the U.S. “If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk...I would have no time for constructive work.” With progress, detraction is subtraction. It is painful work and goes against every fiber of your being. It literally hurts, but Jesus never promised us that it would be easy, just that it would be worth it.
Good and gracious God,
Allow the tragedy in Tucson yesterday
to open our eyes to the tragedy
around the world everyday.
Help us be made aware
in a way that does not lessen the severity
of yesterday's tragic events,
but rather, in a way that
amplifies the tragedy found in
the loss of human life for any reason.
We pray now for Christina
the 9 year old girl
who lost her life in the cross-fire of hate.
We pray for Judge Roll
who was no stranger to death threats.
We pray for the congressional aid
who was killed for simply doing their job.
We ask that as you have received them
into your fold,
you would extend your arms to their families.
Even as we ask this,
we recognize that you already have
and we give you thanks.
We pray for Congresswoman Giffords,
who seems to have been to
the focus of the attack.
We give thanks for the skilled hands
which rushed to her aid,
for her remarkable survival
and for your hand in it all.
In some way, may this event,
her survival and her life,
become a constant beacon to us,
calling us away from
the rocky shorelines of hatred
and out into the deep blue waters
of our baptisms.
We also pray for the shooter
and anyone who may have help propagate this violence,
we pray for them and for others like them,
may the internal struggles they experience
which lead to such violent acts
May they know and experience your love
so deeply and profoundly
they they begin a journey toward you
and away from the hostility, anger and violence
that they are experiencing.
May we all stand united,
in one voice,
against hatred and
teach us to stand up
even to language that inspires hatred.
Teach us to defend your name
and each other
as we proclaim your
hate and violence free ways
in the pursuit of the world
you desire for us...
heaven on Earth.
Good and gracious God,
2010 was not the year we hoped it to be.
Before we begin this new year
remind us that we should never be satisfied
with any year.
Remind us that the pursuit
of heaven on earth should always be our goal.
Remind us that while that goal
always seems to be just beyond our reach,
we are called to reach for it none-the-less.
Remind us that when our arms
seem to be about to fall out of their sockets
because we must stretch ourselves so far
to reach and pull this planet toward
your peaceable kin-dom here on Earth...
Remind us that you are with us,
that you will strengthen us,
that you still call us...
to a better,
May 2011 be a year of blessings.
Not necessarily on ourselves,
but on those in need.
Far too many people come into the new year
eating black-eyed peas and leafy greens
as a way to bring about prosperity -
failing to recognize the abundance
you have already planted in their lives.
In this false sense of lacking,
all too frequently, we find ourselves
holding back from giving as freely
as you call us to do.
May 2011 be a year of blessings.
May we recognize the blessings we have,
and share so abundantly of them
that others, whose lives might be truly lacking,
may more fully know the abundance
and blessings of your creation,
and the extent of your graciousness.
Far too many in this world,
lack the basics of life.
Basics that should be considered human rights.
In 2011 may we open our eyes to the connectedness of life.
By your design, in the words of Dr. King,
“We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality...”
which means “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Far too many suffer from the injustice
of not having their basic needs met,
their fundamental human rights met;
a roof under which to sleep,
access to heath care,
the right to be treated with dignity,
the right to be treated equally,
freedom from slavery,
freedom from discrimination,
access to education,
the pursuit of happiness.
Help us to not only recognize these rights,
but to recognize that when any lack in them,
it is a threat to all of your Creation.
Encourage us to pursue access for all people
to these basic human rights...
May we “not be satisfied
until justice rolls down like waters
like a mighty stream.”
God of all wisdom,
guide us in 2011,
for we have lost our way.
In the fundamentalism of this world,
we have lost sight of the fundamentals of
who you call us to be
and the fundamentals of a peaceable kin-dom realized.
Call us back from our Earthly desires of
power, prestige and self-promotion
and return us to the pursuit of
the Divine image in whose likeness we were formed.
May 2011 be the year of our pursuit of
May 2011 be the year of our earnest pursuit of