There was a time when those of us in Western democracies, republics like our own in which the First Amendment allowed for religious freedom without establishing any form of religion as the official religion of the realm, looked with horror upon militant forms of Islam that took over the law and governance of entire countries. The political leaders were one and the same with the religious Ayatollahs and they conflated Sharia – religious law – with civil law. We witnessed what a theocracy could be in both theory and practice.

We watched as women were forced into tightly prescribed roles and mores that included required dress like hijabs or burkas. They were not allowed in public spaces and had limited freedom. Everything was prescribed by religious authority combined with the enforcement power of government. The conformity police harassed and beat offenders in public. Be-headings and punishments took place in the public square to create fear and reinforce the rule of absolute authority. In every respect men were deciding exactly what women should be and do.

Thank God nothing like that could ever take place here, we said with relief.

Theocracies, however, have never been limited to one religious faith or one geography. Whenever fundamentalist strains of faith become militant and strive to create society in their image, theocratic systems are born. The development is gradual at first, with religious actors entering the public square and exerting influence, which at first only appears as an aspect of freedom. But their objective never stops there. What is desired on the part of those systems is control of everything. Through assimilation or revolution, those religious actors work into positions of authority and influence upon political figures. The politicians eventually need the support of these religious power brokers who control their constituents.  And in time the separation between civil government and religious law dissolves. Religious convictions or values become codified into civil law.

We are living in just such a time in the United States.

Over the past few decades the religious right has joined forces  with one political party. They now serve one another’s interests, trading favors for the promise of power. Even when the values of either party or religion run counter to those of the Theocracy partner, they remain silent or give tacit approval. In statehouse after statehouse across the country the religious agenda of one brand of Christianity is now being reflected in the legislation. On the national stage a certain class of judges are now being appointed who reflect a particular worldview and make those judgments accordingly. We are now living during the rise of the Christian Taliban.

In this Theocracy the Christian Taliban present their values as the only values and enact them into law. The control of women by men is high on the agenda, especially when it comes to reproductive rights. The Ayatollahs of the Christian right – megachurch pastors, televangelists, popular conservative authors, religio-political pundits – present the absolute truths by which everyone should conform. They go so far as to criminalize the violation of their Christian Sharia and punish those who do not conform.

In a regime theocracy such as the Reichkirke in Nazi Germany – the State Lutheran Church became the legitimizer of the Third Reich, naming Hitler as God’s manifestation in the world. As Swastikas flew alongside crosses, there was no separation, no independent ethical reflection, no protest against any policy on the basis of faith or morals. The values and goals of the state were baptized by the church and the church became the religious arm of the regime, the megaphone for religious propaganda. In exchange for that submission the church received the tokens of power, prestige and protection. Until it shamefully came crashing down.

Religions that participate in theocracies inevitably lose their souls for worshiping the golden calves of power. The governments often end up endorsing narrow religious views that are not shared by the majority of its citizens; people conform only under the threat of punishment. Both are sullied in the process.

Protest of a theocracy can be very difficult, especially as power is centralized. But resistance is essential, a necessary refusal to accept either side of the toxic formula. The religious values of the theocratic religion must be publicly critiqued. The government’s policies must be publicly critiqued. And all of this must take place through an articulation of a different set of values and ideals.

The Christian Taliban are terrified of true freedom, allowing for real moral choice on the part of fellow citizens. They deal with this terror of freedom by attempting to control everything and everyone through coercive power. Freedom is the opposite of that and advocating for it, insisting upon it, requires suffering on the part of resisters. The Taliban are fierce in their crusades. They are willing to do anything to both seize and retain power.

The difference between living in a Theocracy and a free society is that in a free society one religious group does not set the agenda, limits, rules, or priorities for everyone else. That Christian Sharia does not become the law of the land, defined by Christian Ayatollahs and codified by Christian Taliban.

Theocracy? Here? Now?

For God’s sake, no.

Six Doors to the Seventh Dimension CoverIf you are looking for an imaginative source for your meditation I hope you will consider Six Doors to the Seventh Dimension. This slender book of seven chapters is meant to be pondered slowly, line by line, image by image. Drawing on the time-honored metaphor of locale as spiritual terrain, the book guides the reader through the house of life and that which is beyond appearances.

I wrote Six Doors with a team of creators. My partners were poet Genevieve Howard and artist Jenny McGee. It was a stimulating project with outcomes unknown to any of us at the beginning of our journey.

You may obtain your own copy of Six Doors to the Seventh Dimension directly from the publisher, Wipf & Stock, or from Amazon.

 

When we discovered the age, gender and color of the shooter who walked into a synagogue in Poway, California, and blazed away with his AR-15, we were sickened but not surprised; he fit the profile of most of the people responsible for American mass shootings today. In other recent shootings we have also been sickened, but not surprised to discover the religio-ideological underpinnings of the shooters. They have predictably been a part of white nationalist, supremacist, fascist, quasi-religious hate groups. If there are people who should remain on the domestic terrorist list, they are these.

But then came John Earnest, an active member of a fundamentalist Presbyterian Church.

To be perfectly clear, most members of fundamentalist Christian movements don’t go shooting up Synagogues. This is an anomaly, a sick exception. That said, the seven page manifesto Ernest published before committing the act is troubling to insiders of the very denomination that formed him. Why? Because he used their own theology to make the case for killing Jews. And that should be troubling to us all.

There are aspects of the theology of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church that are common to many Reformed movements. Divine election is one of those doctrines. And Christian exclusivism is another: God chooses who are saved and who are not and the Christian way is superior to every other form of faith. Other religious forms should not only be considered different but heretical and evil. We are the chosen ones, no others, and God judges the rest to Hell.

The outcome of such theological thinking has impact on more than one’s destiny as either the saved or the damned. It has to do with who is defined as acceptable and who is not. It defines the worth of people according to that system. Unfortunately, that translates into a host of other value judgments: Who deserves fair treatment and not, who should be protected and not, and who should be cared for and not.

What is missing, of course, is the essential teaching – found in the same sacred writ – on how one is to love the neighbor and treat the stranger. This absolutely relates to the issue at hand: violence committed in the name of God and justified according to a religious system.

Because the religious movement of John Earnest does not hold to convictions about the importance of reunited of Jews in the homeland of Israel as a part of some apocalyptic prequel, Jews, Israel and Judaism are viewed as superseded and replaced by Christian faith. Therefore, they become unnecessary. Since there is no longer any need to protect the Jews a terrible leap is made: The Jews are obstacles, Christ-killers, a drain on the world, a problem that needs a solution. Our minds already travel back to Germany during the rise of Hitler and the Nazis. Jews were assigned derogatory terms to dehumanize them and make it easier to liquidate them. They were described as objects of scorn that must be disposed.

From the position of Christian and national exclusivism it is a short journey to labeling other groups of people as inferior, evil, parasites, and monsters. This thinking lives like biotics in the bowels of fundamentalist religious systems and seeps out through language. That is the origin of Neo-Nazism today. It flowers when no one bothers to offset that with the preponderance of teaching from the entire Christian tradition. And therein lies the problem.

What the Christian movement of John Earnest is struggling with now is what they did not teach, what they left out, and what may have been assumed but remained unstated. No matter what else they taught, they did not insist that love of the neighbor means you cannot mistreat, torture and slaughter the neighbor. What they ironically left out was, well, Jesus. Over and over again Jesus led people to the merciful God, told stories of love, kindness and faithfulness, and exposed the hypocrisy of using religion to justify prejudice. And Jesus unmistakably critiqued any cultural religion that simply baptized its own biases and covered its greed, arrogance and hatred in stained glass.

After the shooting and the release of his Christo-racist manifesto, the church and family members of John Earnest expressed their horror at such thinking, something they denounced. But the haunting question remains: How could he have draw the conclusion that white supremacy and its most radical expression was acceptable?

Sometimes it is what we leave unspoken that does the greatest harm.

 

 

I remember years ago standing on the side porch of a church and hearing news from one of our leaders that he was heading into a divorce. My immediate response was compassion – for him and all concerned. But for him something else was at stake, namely, his role and place in the community. He offered to resign, worried that his personal situation would somehow cast a poor light on the whole church. I encouraged him to not resign, to instead serve out his term, reminding him that the essence of what we were about was the pure, unfettered love of God. That divine love is realized most not when all is well, but rather when things become dicey.

In retrospect, after serving for decades in the pastoral role, I realize how much I was a dispenser of grace for hundreds of people just like this man. I was also a dispenser of grace for hundreds more who discovered that message of grace in some indirect way, through something I said or wrote publicly. I know this because they told me later, often to my surprise.

Though most of us may know something of the love that will not let us go through our religious convictions or personal experience, we need to be reminded by flesh and flood people. For some that takes the form of absolution in the confessional booth or a pronouncement of forgiveness at the conclusion of a corporate confession of sin in worship. But for most I would say it comes down to another person saying, in one way or another, “God loves you, we’re all imperfect, there are do-overs, and God’s grace is bigger than your failures.”

Most people can tell you the time and place such words were spoken or communicated to them. It may or may not have been in a religious context. But the reality of grace is always transformative. When we are on the receiving end of it we can stand our full height again, and stand our full height with a sense of freedom and power.

I believe our unique vocation is to serve up generous portions of grace – especially for those who have not been on the receiving end of it. The world is cruel. Religious communities can be as well. It doesn’t take much to stand in the breach where kindness has been conspicuously absent. If we wait patiently, the opportunity always arises.  If you have ever been on the receiving end of that it becomes perfectly natural to be on the giving end. So that people can find their dignity again.

Once upon a time, a long time ago, and I don’t mean for this introduction to sound like a fairy story, I lived in a place that had two banks on the same town square. One of those banks was mine because in that town you had to choose, just like you had to choose between two car dealerships and choose between two funeral homes and choose between two breakfast cafes. These were choices of loyalty and everybody knew you were either one or the other.

One day I went into my bank and right off noticed one of the bank officers, a middle aged man who seemed to be but a shadow of his former self. Had I not noticed the precipitous weight loss before? This was a guy who didn’t really pride himself in appearance so much and this change was conspicuous. I began to worry. Was it his health? I hoped not. Doing what you do in small towns you ask somebody. So I did and, no, he wasn’t near death’s door. He had been making use of a novel diet plan. I was curious.

So one thing led to another and I found myself in conversation with this slender rail  and asked what his secret was.

Canned Green Beans“Green beans,” he said without a bit of hesitation.” Not really knowing much about green beans other than we usually had them with meatloaf, I thought they might have magical properties, a new secret weapon that negates all the buttered rolls that had my name on them. Sadly, that was not the case.

“Why green beans,” I asked innocently.

“Because,” he said leaning with his new svelte self against the counter, “if you eat only green beans and nothing else, this is what happens.” Did I understand him correctly? Only green beans? Yes I did.

It seems that is all he ate, morning, noon and night. The canned version. He brought them to work and put them under his desk, popped the top and ate them at his desk. He didn’t go out to lunch anymore because, well, he couldn’t eat anything else on this plan anyway and it’s a little awkward eating the beans out of the can while others are munching on their cheeseburgers.

He bought them by the case. The grocery store people all knew what he was coming for and sometimes the checkout boy had carried them to his car and put them in his trunk before he was done paying his bill.

Now, I’m no nutritionist, but I have some friends who are. And even without asking I could hear them screaming from about a mile or so away that no fool can live healthily eating only green beans. Nothing wrong with green beans, mind you, but you’re not going to do well with nothing else in your diet. That is a formula for some health catastrophe. That’s what I thought my health nut friends would say. I was probably right because that just can’t be sustainable. Nothing all by its lonesome is going to work in whatever food pyramid you devise for yourself.

Fad diets in general are bad ideas because they are artificial and function on the idea of restriction. As opposed to some healthy combination that is sustainable over the long haul. Well, suffice it to say that the green bean man wasn’t in the mood to talk nutrition. The pounds were falling off him like leaves dropping from trees in the fall.

Just so you know, I saw him later. Was it a year or so later? He wasn’t working at the bank anymore and he was dressed like he crawled out of the swamp. Evidently he had run out of green beans because he had traded in that boyish figure for the puffy old model he had before. Like Jesus casting out one demon only to have seven rush in to take its place, he looked worse than before.

I wish there was a moral to this tale besides don’t go the green bean route, but I’m not sure there is. Or maybe quit looking for the silver bullet in the life that’s going to make everything better and do it in the extreme. I don’t know. Like most parables you have to find your own meaning because there’s not just one. You could sum it all up with some brilliant little moralism only to have somebody else say that doesn’t really work for them. So whatever.

As for me and my house maybe the best we’ve found so far is this: Man does not live by green beans alone.  

Somewhere in the middle of lunch, as a part of some conversation about who knows what, my mother-in-law announced that she never dresses up for Easter. I asked her why not.

When she grew up as a child, her family were not Christians. They never were. All they knew was that her brother shouldn’t play ball in the front yard on Sunday mornings. This was a part of the same social mores that kept stores closed and moved families inside on Sundays. So her brother moved to the back yard to toss his ball against the wall. But that was the extent of their knowledge about all things Christian.

It was only later, after marriage and invitation to actually explore the Christian faith, that she discovered some the basics of the Christian story and practice. One day she was reading the New Testament for the first time and she discovered something absolutely shocking. Jesus, it seems, was raised from dead. Surely she somehow misread it.  She immediately called a friend and asked if she was understanding the story correctly. Yes, the friend said, she was.

So that is what Easter is about? Resurrection? For her whole life she thought Easter was a time in Spring when everyone bought new dresses and hats and showed them off. She had no other frame of reference. From the outside that’s the only conclusion she drew as she observed the cyclical wardrobe changes of the Easter fashion show.

“And so,” she said without a hint of condescension, “I never dress up for Easter. I wear exactly what I would wear any other Sunday. Because I don’t want to send a message that might be misunderstood, that it’s about the clothes.”

I wonder what other messages we unintentionally send. When do our prevailing culture values and practices become indistinguishable from the real message of the faith? Are we merely reflectors of the culture around us? How, we might ask, are Christians identifiable within the predominant culture of which they are a part?

Do we dress up in the values and accouterments of our culture to such an extent that hardly anyone could know what Jesus has to do with it?

 

Mueller Report Cover PicRather than read other people’s summaries or commentary on the Redacted Mueller Report, just read it for yourself. A group of long-established Republicans who call themselves Republicans for the Rule of Law want to make sure the public does just that. They are making both the Executive Summaries of each section and the Full Report available on their website. After entering the site click on Read it Now. You will be taken to the report page and will be able to download PDFs of both the Executive Summaries and the Full Report.

Engage your citizenship. Read it for yourself. Deal with the facts. Think independently. Draw your own conclusions.