Part 2 – Christian 'Heritage' and American Exceptionalism
It is not unusual to find that those who have incorrectly begun treating Christianity as a heritage also cling tightly to a modern, warped conceptualization of American exceptionalism. In the US, many people have conflated their religion and their patriotism in a way that makes it is hard to tell where one begins and where the other ends. For the Church, the body of Christ, this has created a very volatile and decidedly un-Christian environment.
Let's begin, though, with a look at American exceptionalism. What it has come to mean and what it is supposed to mean have drifted too far apart. American exceptionalism is supposed to point to the unique qualities of the formation of the United States. (Conservatives who use the term might also be surprised to find out that it was coined by the American Communist Party). It points to the way we were formed, the ideologies that influenced our formation and the uniqueness of the structure of government which developed out of those things.
What it has come to mean is something quite different. Exceptional has been made equivalent to superior. Many times those making a call to American exceptionalism are now really making an unfounded call to the superiority of America and its ways in comparison to all other ways.
As if that weren't problematic enough all on it's own, the converse of what I opened this article with is equally true: It is not unusual to find that those who cling tightly to this modern, warped conceptualization of American exceptionalism frequently are also those who have incorrectly begun treating Christianity as a heritage. They wrap crosses in American flags as if the two have always been together and through that imagery claim what amounts to an unholy union.
When the two are practiced this way, the blind faith that is necessary to practice Christianity as 'heritage' and the blind following of an unquestioning patriotism combine to make a group of people who are necessarily closed to outsiders and particularly opposed to anything that favors anyone other than themselves. The blindness of it all, the unquestioning devotion to what they perceive as the traditions of their Protestant Christian heritage and the unflappable support of all policies that come from 'their' representatives in name of patriotism, calls for them to practice either cognitive dissonance or willful ignorance any time the facts point to something other than what they want to believe.
This is a problem for the Church, the body of Christ, because that is not who Jesus taught us God calls us to be. We are told to care for the outsiders, particularly those who are marginalized and undeserved. The conflation of Christianity as a 'heritage' and American exceptionalism create communities where the exact opposite of that is practiced in order to maintain the purity of the group. The Bible tells us that God “moves about in a tent,” is “about to do a new thing,” and we see that Jesus constantly asked the people he met to change. The conflation of Christianity as a 'heritage' and American exceptionalism demands a steadfastness and rigid resistance to change of any type as well as an unquestioning devotion to the past. We also know that biblically, wisdom is that thing in which God delights daily, but the conflation of Christianity as a 'heritage' and American exceptionalism, as I have already noted, requires a constant denial of facts that negate what you want to be true.
The conflation of Christianity as a 'heritage' and American exceptionalism is killing the Church and trying to do the same for our nation. Those who are willing to confront these realities must begin working together to breakthrough the blind haze that has entrapped our communities. We do so by naming it out loud, by no longer sitting silently aside and shaking our heads in not only sad amusement but in our own self-serving form of superiority. We must trust that the truth will indeed set us free and stop being afraid to name the problems because of the negative backlash we might suffer in our places of worship and ministry, because those places are the the very places that need the truth to be prophetically proclaimed.
Part 1 of this series: The Pitfalls of Practicing Christianity as Heritage
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
Can The Walls Come a Tumbling Down?
As we've seen, the society and community in which most churches sit have moved forward with the inevitable changes of life and for decades as they have changed The Church has done everything in it's power to remain firmly in its place. The net result is that the Church has not only removed itself from its former place of centrality in most communities, but it has become decidedly 'other' - an alien in it's own community. This isn't the kind of 'other' to which Paul called the church either. That kind of 'other' while not of the community was very decidedly in the community.
The Church has responded in a number of very understandable yet unhealthy ways. One of them is to turn inward. When the community in which you reside looks so very different from the community within your walls, it is very comforting to turn inward. It not only reassures you that it is 'OK' to be like you are, but it also offers a great deal of support in a situation where you feel like the 'outside' world has gone astray and are infringing upon what was once your community.
Naturally, this inward turning that many churches who have been left behind by society experience, will ultimately lead to a decrease in missions, particularly in missions in the immediate community. This withdrawal from engaging in social and justice issues in the immediate community is reinforced by ever-decreasing funds.
The decrease in funding and available resources is also related to the inward turning. When church members are holding on tightly to each other in order to survive the perceived storm outside the walls of the church, it makes reaching out to new members difficult. Over time this means a decrease in membership.
Congregation members are also effected by another, more subtle, influence when it comes to bringing in new members. Identity. It has long been an unspoken problem in churches but in becoming so inward turned, it has become more pronounced. When a church disengages from the community in which it sits, it becomes a community unto itself. One contained within a predefined area by the walls of the building, but a community none-the-less. Within that community, people naturally take on roles. Sally keeps the kitchen clean; Bill tells us what to to about finances; Sue writes get-well cards, etc.
Over time, those roles become part of each individual's identity. In many ways, they perceive it as part of who they are. “I'm the one who is responsible for having the kitchen in good order.” That's when the roles begin to hurt the Church. There are two specific ways which most concern me. The first is with other members of the church. When the kitchen is left dirty, Sally will take it as an attack on her personally (at the very least on a sub-conscious level). When you add up all of the assumed identities within the church community, it is inevitable that there will be factions...and they will compete for control.
Worse yet, when Jane infringes on Sue's identity as “the-one-who-writes-get-well-cards” there will be some kind of conflict and with conflict there are two likely outcomes: flight or fight. Either one has the long term effect of diminishing the church's size and ultimately opportunity to do ministry.
The second way the conflation of roles and identity concerns me is that it leads churches to be polite, but not hospitable. While new people coming in the door do represent an opportunity to do ministry and new life, they also represent a possible threat to well established ways, a long term threat to the factions that have power and ultimately a threat to individual’s identities as the new people may also have ideas about the kitchen, finances or they may just like to write get-well cards.
So, we welcome the new people but we do so reservedly and if they are to venture into territory where they have not be given permission by the Powers That Be, they will find that the welcome did not run as deep as they had first hoped and will probably make the choice to move on. (Frequently, they chose to not continue to play this kind of game with the Church and on Sunday mornings can be found enjoying sleeping in, an extra cup of coffee, or a 10 o'clock tee time).
More churches than really care to admit it find themselves in this position. The way back to a relevant ministry is difficult, challenging, and requires a little bit of death, a little bit of re-birthing and a whole lot of faith and hope. The Good News is, life after death, and faith and hope have always been the stuff of God. That's what we will be looking at in the last of this four part series on Organic Church.Part 1: Hopey-ChangeyPart 2: Sit Boy, Sit. Good Dogma.Part 4: Children Grow Where I Send Thee
2 Timothy 4:3-4
3For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, 4and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.
We have wandered – drifted if you will. We, the Church, have drifted away from the sound doctrine of the One who came to show us that love has no bounds. There are plenty of pieces of doctrine that we could point to as proof that we have drifted. From our attempts to integrate church and state to the completely upside-down way it is actualized when we do - forcing our religion on others, favoring the powerful over the powerless, the haves over the have-nots, and ignoring the needs of the least of these in favor of a secure bottom line. Oh, we have wandered - we have drifted.
Worse yet, that part of us that was crafted by God, made in the image of God, into which God breathed the Divine breath giving us life...that part of us knows that we have drifted and even as those who preach this ungodly doctrine spew their distorted gospel on our ears, our ears itch - knowing that what they receive is not of God but of humanity. So, we seek out others who will repeat that message time and time again until the itch seems normal, until we buy into their myths that speak to our earthly desires of power, prestige and self-promotion. All the while, the part of us that seeks it's Creator itches, longing for a piece of respite from the earthly myths that propagate hatred, entitlement and advantage. We have begun to believe the myths.
We have begun to believing the myths of -isms. The -Ism Myths that say one race is more important than another, that one sex is inferior to another, that the wealthy should have more power and voice than the poor, that not everyone deserves to have to their basic health needs met, that the way God designs some people's sexuality is more acceptable than others, that forgiveness is a good thing to talk about but it is sometimes impractical in life, that being disabled makes a person less capable, that we are not to bare false witness against others unless of course it benefits us in some way....oh, we have drifted and we are lost in the seas of racism, sexism, classism, capitalism, ableism, heterosexism...we are lost in a sea of -Ism Myths and we need to reorient ourselves toward sound doctrine for our itching ears.
All of those -ism are important parts to recognize. They can also be very complicated and complex issues to sort out. The issue in which I am most interested, the myth which I most care to refute, is the one that says our differences divide, that we are too different to get along, that in God's infinite wisdom God failed to see that making us so different would mean we could never come together. It is upon that myth that we, the Church, have ultimately been set adrift.
It has been said, and rightfully so, that the most segregated (the most separated) hour of the week is the hour of worship on Sunday. We have bought into the myth that our cultures are so different that it only make sense that we would worship separately. It is a myth because it is not our differences that divide us...it is our similarities. It is not the differences in our cultures that divide us when we come before God, but our similar inabilities to over come our intolerances.
We have lost sight of the love of neighbor and have been set adrift in our love of self. We have lost sight of the love of neighbor and been set adrift in our own personal needs and desires. We have lost sight of the love of neighbor and been set adrift in an intolerance rooted in selfishness.
It is of little surprise that our nation is so divided when our churches are so divided – by age, by race, by economics. It is not surprising that we cannot figure out how to come together in our daily lives when we cannot figure out how to come together in our spiritual lives.
I remember siting at the children's table at Thanksgiving and wanting to be at the adult's table. In the Kingdom of God there is no children's table, no black table, no white table, not one for the rich and one for the poor, one for the able and one for the disabled. In the Kingdom of God all sit at one table. Until we, the Church, a place that professes that our foundation is love, can overcome division due to intolerance, we have no right to act surprised or disheartened when our nation can do no better.
Love does not divide, it unites. Love of God and of neighbor is sound doctrine. The question is do we have ears to hear, or will we continue to allow our ears to itch?