Thursday, February 21, 2019

Weaponized Church

Continuing the series started Tuesday, today turns to the most dangerous form of social churching.  When the church becomes weaponized.  Used to purposefully exclude, persecute, abuse, or extinguish individuals or groups of individuals that it opposes.  The ultimate club mentality, where exclusivity is something to be prized and protected.  The prime insular, inward focus of the organization.

Throughout history, we've seen this kind of weaponized religion at play.  A church that promoted the Crusades.  The Salem Witch Trials.  A church that sided with slavery in the American South and perpetuated the "Curse of Ham."  Christianity co-opted and used to forward antisemitism, from historic uses of "passion plays" to fan the flames, to accusations of blood libel and host desecration, to the perversion of the faith used by the Nazis to justify the Holocaust.  The outright persecution the church has often lobbied at the LGBTQ community.

A recent Relevant article posits these as the product of the cherry-picking of old covenant and new covenant.  Selecting the parts of the Old Testament God that we like (fire and brimstone, death to our enemies) and ignoring the bits from the New Testament Jesus that would get in the way (love everyone, including our enemies).  And when the church exists for the social benefit, for the exultation of its members, Biblical ignorance and/or misuse usually follows.  

"The church has a terrible habit of selectively rebranding aspects of the old covenant and smuggling them into the new.

The blended model began as early as the second century when church leaders essentially kidnapped the Jewish Scriptures and claimed them as their own.  In the fourth century, following the legalization of Christian worship under Constantine, church officials began leveraging old covenant concepts to validate the creation of an imperial form of the church.

During this same period, the church began doing to pagans what pagans had done to the church.  By the eleventh century, the church offered 'get out of hell free' cards to anyone who would join a crusade.  By the fifteenth century, the church was at war with itself over theology.  Entire villages were razed in the name of a version of Christian theology.  Over and over, Christianity was weaponized in Jesus' name.

Whenever and wherever the old was blended with the new, unchristian behavior and attitudes ensued."

We don't have to look far for modern examples.  Martin Luther King, Jr. identified the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o'clock on Sunday morning, and that's still largely true.   While on the rise, multiracial congregations (those where at least 20% of the congregation differ from the majority race) account for only 14% of churches.  And while we pretend this is largely due to self-selection, de facto segregation, how many of us actually seek racially diverse places of worship?

Further, the role of women in ministry has split denominations, as has the inclusion of LGBTQ people in services and ministry (examples here, here, here, here, here, and here).  The United Methodist Church General Conference will vote on LGBT issues this weekend, which could end up tearing the denomination apart. These are such flashpoint and divisive issues, that they are gating questions for leadership in many churches.  And it's not just that people disagree or have reached different conclusion on the Biblical-correctness of women or LGBTQ in positions of leadership, in particular, it's that the different viewpoint is often seen as all that is wrong with the world.

We can go further.

How about the misogyny in the statements collected by the hashtag that circulated a couple of years ago #ThingsOnlyChristianHear?   Things like "You speak five languages and have a doctoral degree?  Children's ministry is your calling!"  Or "Women can't be in leadership positions.  You should marry a guy who feels called to that position and help him."  Or "You can't serve communion, but you are expected to serve at the potluck later."  Or "Your (sexual) purity is the greatest gift you have to give."  Or the combination of "Only men are strong enough to lead." with "Men just aren't strong enough to resist your above-mid-thigh shorts.".

How about the rise of politics as a wedge issue in the church?  Pastors that outright state you have to vote Republican to be a good Christian, like Robert Jeffress stating "I believe any Christian who would sit at home and not vote for the Republican nominee...that person is being motivated by pride rather than principle...".  Even Franklin Graham more recently with "Christians should be aware of candidates who call themselves progressive.  Progressive is generally just a code word for someone who leans toward socialism, who does not believe in God & who will likely vote against Godly principles that are so important to our nation."

It goes with out saying that we can point out extreme examples like the cult of Westboro as well, well known for its "God Hates" rhetoric and protests.  Or the rise of white nationalist movements often tied to perverted "Christian" views.  To be fair, these are the extremes and these are the hot button social issues that are being used to perpetuate an "us" versus "them" mentality.

We can also look to the ways the church has been weaponized to protect abusers within its leadership or membership and to cast blame on the victims that speak up.  In the Catholic priest sexual abuse and cover up scandal.  In the Southern Baptist Convention sexual abuse and cover up scandal.  In the rape of nuns by priests in the Catholic Church, an abuse that has just now been recognized.  In each case, the secrecy, the hierarchy, the autonomy of the "church" was used to shield the "church" from scandal, protecting the abuser to the detriment of the victim.  Membership has its privileges in a social church setting.

We can look at how fast doctrinal differences get labeled heresy.  "For followers of Jesus, who claim to have the love of God in their hearts, we don't always act in a manner fitting of the God we serve.  Jesus tells His followers we will be known by their love.  Anyone reading our online postings or the comments written under Christian articles by Christian people might struggle to see it.  There are few people more biting or cruel than a Christian who believes you have your theology wrong.  In the name of protecting the faith, we use weaponized dogma to destroy anyone who disagrees with us."  Tyler Edwards, We Need More Creators and Fewer CriticsRelevant Magazine, April 10, 2015. Just look at the uproar over something like Reckless Love.   How quickly everyone jumps to heresy for a perhaps overly poetic use of the word "reckless."

We can drill it down even further.  To the local church.  To church bullies.  Those who lay on the "a good Christian would" statements.  Or "all Christians will vote for/against..."  Those who offer up "the Lord told me to tell you..." despite what God may be speaking directly to you.

Let's approach it from a different angle.  Let's assume for a minute that anyone mentioned in the questions below is truly seeking to learn more about your church, religion, Christianity, and faith.

Are there groups of people that are explicitly not welcome at your church?  Types of people that would be shown the door?  Or people that would be welcomed only under certain rules or conditions?

Let's get more insidious.  Let's assume that no one is explicitly not welcome at your church.  Are there specific groups of people that would nonetheless feel unwelcome?  That would not be spoken to or interacted with?  Or worse, that would be talked about in hushed tones behind their backs?  People that "just wouldn't be a good fit?"

When church is a place people come to, when it is a particular hour to attend, when the members feel they have special privileges in that time period, then it is something that can be used as a club to keep "non-conformists" away.  Anyone who might upset the apple cart.  Who might make things messy or difficult.  The very anti-thesis of what the Church is supposed to be.

"Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest."
Matthew 11:28

Jesus calls us to welcome all who seek Him.  He calls us to be known for our love for Him and for other people.  And we seem to be failing at that.

If we really want to dig into why church attendance has been on the decline, there are some startling statistics.  The Public Religion Research Institute published a study entitled Exodus: Why Americans are Leaving Religion and Why They're Unlikely to Come Back.  In this study, PRRI dug into the causes of the dissatisfaction in the church that led to people leaving.   The highest cause identified was a lack of belief at 60%.  Beyond that, the following reasons accounted for the some of most prevalent other answers:

  • Negative religious teachings about or treatment of gay and lesbian people - 29%
  • The clergy sexual-abuse scandals - 19%
  • A traumatic event in your life - 18%
  • Church congregation became too focused on politics - 16%

Perhaps, even more concerning, of the unaffiliated Americans, 66% agree that religion causes more problems in society than it solves.  The largest group of unaffiliated Americans at 58%, the rejectionists, say that religion is not personally important in their lives and believes that religion as a whole does more harm than good in society.

We no longer have the favor of all the people, as the early church did in Acts.  We're becoming known as a weapon.  Not as the double-edged sword of Truth, but a club inflicting more harm on society than good.  I fear we are known for what we hate, instead of for our love.

And that should break our hearts.

Tomorrow - where to go from here.

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