Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Whose Side Are You On?

I spent some time this weekend continuing to read from the works of Episcopalean Bishop John Shelby Spong. (And yes, I managed to get outside and enjoy some sun, too. Thanks for asking.) When I first considered the notion of the Bible not being literal, the first question that came to my mind was, "but if the Bible isn't literal, how do we decide who gets in?". That question says a lot about me, and about the Christian tradition. Who gets in? How do I cash in my religion card for the eternity promise at the end of the rainbow? Closely related to this question is "how do we make sure that 'those other people' don't get in with us?". Exclusion has been central to the role of religion since the beginning of time. The Old Testament includes a wide range of dictates and practices designed to erect barriers between the Israelites and its neighbors. The sacrificial system, the identification of various "clean" and "unclean" foods and states of being, and the assigning of "deviance" to other practices helped to separate the Israelites from other tribes, to create a sense of importance and entitlement. While these rules didn't preclude other peoples from entering into God's grace, it did help to ensure that those who did would conform to the Israelite standards and submit to its system of power relations.

One reading of the Gospel accounts of Jesus is that He lived to eradicate these barriers. In His life and words he opposed hierarchies founded on sex, race, religion, and class. One reading of the growth of Christianity after Jesus' death is that many of these barriers were re-erected and some more were added for good measure as the church elders sought to once again distinguish themselves and to consolidate their power.

I was contemplating these themes as I opened my copy of the Washington Post this morning and turned to the op-ed page. And there greeting me was a column by E.J. Dionne. Dionne was writing about the sacking of Tom Reese, the former editor of a Catholic journal called America, by the new pope and former grand inquisitor, because Reese and his journal had been deemed insufficiently orthodox.

Although the events Dionne described occured over a month ago, and can't be considered hot off the presses stuff, his column was of interest because it included a defense of the pope's decision by the grouchy editor of the Catholic enterprise First Things, Richard John Neuhaus:

...because America is "a Catholic magazine in the service of the church and its mission," it has a special obligation to uphold orthodoxy as defined by the pope. That's especially true, he said, on "publicly controversial questions such as the moral understanding of homosexuality, same-sex marriage and the exploitation of embryonic stem cells."

"On such questions, the church has clearly defined positions," Neuhaus wrote. "The practice of America suggested to some the magazine's neutrality or hostility to the church's teaching. Not surprisingly, they asked of the magazine, 'Whose side are you on?' "

This is what the Christian life has come to mean for people like Neuhaus. Whose side are you on? Who gets in? Who can we keep out, or at least control? Who's right and who's wrong?

I submit that this is the sickness underlying the Christian church in both its Roman Catholic and Protestant manifestations today. The name for this sickness is legalism. While much of the Christian church has professed its contempt for legalism and proclaimed its reliance on grace rather than the law, the sad fact is that to the degree that the church or a church continues to insist that there is a heavenly reward to seek and a hellish punishment to shun (and to deny that doing good is its own reward), so long as it insists on identifying itself as the guardians and interpreters of the one right path to salvation, and so long as it continues to insist that deviants and undesirables, whether they be gays or religious heritics won't get to heaven, the curse of legalism will dictate and compromise the church's calling and infect the local and world community with its disease of division and resentment. I'm prepared to let this vision of Christianity die so that a new vision can emerge, that a new reformation can take place.

I conclude today's sermon with two brief mentions from the gospels. On Jesus's journey to Jerusalem and to the cross, the disciples trailed slowly behind, squabbling among themselves about who was the greatest? Sound familiar? Who's the greatest? Who's right? Who gets in?
Jesus later asked them what they were talking about "along the way". Correctly ascertaining what they were discussing Jesus tells them that although the world conceives of itself in terms of who exercises authority over one another, they, His disciples and future church, were not to be like that. He told them that people who desired to be "first" would be "last". Those who would lead needed to serve. Those who sought to save their lives would lose it. Those who gave away their lives in service and love would gain it.

Later Jesus made an analogy of the separation of the sheep and goats at the end of time. The sheep were defined as those who had ministered to the imprisoned, the hungry, the naked, and the needy, and in doing so, were unaware that they were storing up chits or putting notches in their belts. When confronted with their honorable behavior, they confessed they hadn't recognized they were ministering to the Lord.

In contrast were the goats. The goats, when confronted by their lack of service to the needy, responded that they had never seen the Lord in need. The Lord responds that in the presence of the naked, the poor, and the outcast, Jesus was. Because these self-declared righteous had been seeking absolution, they failed to see their true calling.

Given these kind of statements, it's probably no wonder that much of the church's leadership has turned its attention to devisive social issues and political controversy and away from the simplistic and humble teachings of its Lord.

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