Healing Spiritual Wounds: Reconnecting With a Loving God After Experiencing a Hurtful Church (Review)

 

HSW

by Carol Howard Merritt

Have you ever been afraid in the hallways of your high school because you couldn’t find any of your friends from church, and you thought the rapture had occurred and you were left behind?

 

Have you ever been inclined to “come forward” to the altar just one more time, to make sure your heart is sincere, even though you’ve already committed your life to Christ on multiple occasions yet somehow can still never feel secure in your salvation?

 

Have you ever questioned the things you’re supposed to believe, like the idea that someone who never accepted Christ—or even heard of Christ—is suffering eternal torture at the hands of a God who feels more like a childish despot than a loving parent?

 

Have you ever quietly wondered why the Bible seems to frequently contradict itself, yet you’re too nervous to voice these concerns in church out of the fear that you might be rejected?

 

These examples may seem trite, and perhaps silly. But if you grew up in conservative branches of Christian fundamentalism and evangelicalism, as I did, they may just as easily be par for the course. After all, I vividly remember wandering my high school hallways looking for friends from youth group to assure me the rapture hadn’t happened—and I was so relieved to find them! I remember going to the altar countless times on Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights—not to mention every evening during summer church camp—in order to make sure I was saved. I remember sitting on the Bible college bleachers during a basketball game, thinking to myself how unfair it was for Gandhi to be burning in hell forever. I remember trying my best to ignore the haunting suspicion that the Bible was neither inerrant nor infallible, which later led me to question everything I believed.

 

And even though I’ve been in the mainline Protestant liberal church for over two decades, I still cannot fully shake the visceral feelings of fear, guilt, and shame that were part and parcel of my adolescent religious experiences. I might have taken myself out of the fundamentalist church, but the fundamentalist church never quite took itself out of me.

 

Over the years, I’ve worried that my faith as an adult has been reduced to little more than a reaction against the fundamentalism of my youth. In other words, I know where I’ve been, but I don’t always know where I’m going. I know what I’ve rejected, but I don’t know what I’m accepting in its place. I know what has diminished life, but I’m not always quite sure what gives life.

 

That’s why I’m immeasurably grateful for Carol Howard Merritt’s Healing Spiritual Wounds. Not only does she understand the fundamentalism of my past (it’s like she was reading my journal), but she provides a beautiful way forward, full of healing and hope.

 

I wish I could go back in time and give my twenty-year-old self this book. I doubt it would’ve shaken off all of my insecurities, but I would’ve encountered images of God, faith, and church that I didn’t know were possible at the time. And I wish my forty-three-year-old self would’ve read it sooner too, for it provides a check against the reactionary cynicism that has marked too much of my post-evangelical life. (This isn’t to say there isn’t room in Merritt’s book for a healthy cynicism, but it is to say that a much more constructive path—one that isn’t paralyzed by the wounds of the past—is possible.) I’m also reminded that liberal churches can inflict hurt as well, and that it’s far too easy for progressives to associate religious trauma only with problematic belief systems, and not personal actions—and structural systems—that remain deeply flawed, despite rhetoric to the contrary.

 

The themes that emerge in Healing Spiritual Wounds are both spiritual and embodied. Merritt connects us to that which is most ultimate, beyond time and space, yet somehow still connected to time and place. She evokes what cannot fully be described—the wonder of love and the call of justice—in a way that only materializes when love and justice take on flesh (otherwise they are just idealized abstractions). Instead of taking the conventional progressive view of reducing the gospel to nothing more than ethics and good works—which are no doubt important in her mind—she also leaves room for the mystery of grace and the balm of redemption. Her vision solicits and compels, harboring a vision of God that isn’t caught up in superstition and magic—which many exiting the church rightfully resist—but instead exudes transformation and possibility.

 

As a pastor, I’ve read all of Merritt’s books, and I keep up with her column in The Christian Century. From a vocational/pastoral perspective, I’ve always been grateful that she writes about authentic faith and meaning, as opposed to market-driven approaches on “How to Fill the Pews with Lots of Millennials.™” Even her books on church leadership are filled with the same kind of thoughtful questions and heartfelt honesty that make frequent appearances in Healing Spiritual Wounds. At the same time, however, Healing Spiritual Wounds is a very different kind of book, and it is a gift to pastors in ways that Tribal Church and Reframing Hope—for all of their strengths—simply are not. This is because Merritt has now written a book for a general audience that pastors can readily give to those who have been hurt by damaging voices operating in the name of Christianity and the church, and are in dire need of a fresh understanding–not to mention experience–of the sacred. Her book couldn’t be more timely, especially in light of the increased authoritarianism, patriarchy, racism, xenophobia, and heteronormativity that dominant religious and cultural voices are all too frequently associating with the church in the United States.

 

As an adolescent, I thought the sole purpose of being a Christian was in order to find life after death. But Merritt shows that the gospel is every bit as interested in life before death. And if “being religious means asking passionately the question of the meaning of our existence,” as Paul Tillich once described, then Merritt’s responses offer an entry point into a religion that I will gladly follow. I’m just waiting for the altar call.

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To my Christian friends who consistently misunderstand Islam

I would like to begin by acknowledging there are some troubling verses in the Qur’an, which at first glance can seem quite violent.

I will fill your mountains with the dead. Your hills, your valleys, and your streams will be filled with people slaughtered by the sword. I will make you desolate forever. Your cities will never be rebuilt. Then you will know that I am God.

Make ready to slaughter [the infidel’s] sons for the guilt of their fathers; Lest they rise and posses the earth, and fill the breadth of the world with tyrants.

Then I heard God say to the other men, “Follow him through the city and kill everyone whose forehead is not marked. Show no mercy; have no pity! Kill them all – old and young, girls and women and little children.”

Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.

A [holy man’s] daughter who loses her honor by committing fornication and thereby dishonors her father also, shall be burned to death.

Everyone who would not seek God was to be put to death, whether small or great, whether man or woman.

But if [a girl wasn’t a virgin on her wedding night] and evidence of the girl’s virginity is not found, they shall bring the girl to the entrance of her father’s house and there her townsman shall stone her to death, because she committed a crime against God’s people by her unchasteness in her father’s house. Thus shall you purge the evil from your midst.

If your own full brother, or your son or daughter, or your beloved wife, or you intimate friend, entices you secretly to serve other gods, whom you and your fathers have not known, gods of any other nations, near at hand or far away, from one end of the earth to the other: do not yield to him or listen to him, nor look with pity upon him, to spare or shield him, but kill him. Your hand shall be the first raised to slay him; the rest of the people shall join in with you.

Anyone arrogant enough to reject the verdict of the [holy man] who represents God must be put to death. Such evil must be purged.

I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.

All [who are disobedient] will be thrown into the everlasting lake that burns with fire and sulfur.

Of course, those of you with a discerning eye know that none of these quotes come from the Qur’an. Rather, they come from the Christian Bible.

Over the course of time, Christians have found ways to explain these texts of terror away: “Well, these are part of the ‘old law,’ so they don’t apply anymore;” or, “These were written for a specific context within a certain time and place, but aren’t to be taken literally for all time,” or, “These are passages about ancient warfare; they’re only about how to act on the battlefield;” or “These should be taken figuratively, not literally,” etc. etc.*

Yet for whatever reason, numerous Christians don’t allow Muslims the same courtesy when it comes to interpreting and understanding the Qur’an — despite the fact that Islamic scholars have shown time and again that the violent passages in the Qur’an pertain to certain contextual circumstances that do not apply in the same way today. There are responsible interpretations of the Qur’an, just as there are responsible interpretations of the Bible. I won’t do all the work for you, but see here and here and here and here for a simple introduction.

When we as Christians naively assume that the vast majority of Muslims interpret the Qur’an like ISIS interprets it, we ignore the tens of thousands of Islamic clerics who condemn ISIS as being anti-Islamic. The truth of the matter is that virtually all religions have problematic scripture verses and extremist factions. It’s not a matter of determining which scriptures are the most violent, then correlating such a response to the question of which religions are the most violent. When Christians think about religion and violence, we often forget about–or compartmentalize–the Troubles in Ireland (between Catholic and Protestant Christians), or the white Christian KKK militia types in the U.S., not to mention the Third Reich, which was avowedly Christian in its antisemitism and white supremacy. (This list goes on and on: For example, were any of these domestic terrorists Islamic? How about these domestic terrorists? Why is there such a discrepancy between the Right’s treatment of white terrorism and Islamist terrorism?).

I’m not sure why a significant percentage of Christians won’t give Muslims the same interpretive courtesy we give to ourselves. My anecdotal experiences indicate that such Christians are either (1) innocently misinformed but open to new information, or (2) willfully ignorant of anything that would threaten their desired prejudice or bigotry against Muslims. And one of these options is clearly more ethical than the other. I’m just one of many people who wonder the same thing:

Why is it that these anti-Muslim ideologues allow theological and textual acrobatics when it comes to the Bible, but meanwhile they forbid the contextualization of Quranic verses? Certainly it is much easier to “constrain” the violent verses of the Quran than it is for the Bible, since the Quran itself almost always cushions these verses in between mitigating verses. This contrasts quite considerably with the Bible, which has violent verses wrapped in violent passages.

prothero-relEver since I published a letter that encouraged Americans not to discriminate against their Muslim sisters and brothers, I’ve received a barrage of messages, emails, and texts from Christians who simply show an extreme lack of education and understanding when it comes to their operative assumptions about Islam. I don’t mean this pejoratively; it’s just that if the same understanding and logic was applied in a research paper about the rich hermeneutical traditions and practices of Islam, it would easily earn an F. That may not be a huge deal in the classroom, but when we are trying to make informed judgments about the way to navigate the complexities of this world, it’s imperative that we proceed with as much understanding and education as possible.

So, to my fellow Christians: You obviously aren’t required to view the Qur’an as sacred scripture. Nor do you have to say that Islam is as valid as your religion; or that you worship the same God. Those are all big theological questions and I encourage you to think through them the best you can. But one thing I do ask: When you form your opinion about 1.6 billion people on this planet–over three million of whom live in the United States–please don’t resort to caricatures based largely on fear, ignorance and manipulation, especially when such caricatures are no more accurate than having people assume that your version of Christianity and your interpretation of the Bible supports and condones the KKK.

*INTERPRETIVE AFTERWORD*
It should be noted that while lots of Christians interpret the Bible based on its “inerrancy and infallibility,” this method is not shared by all religions, nor by all Christians. Judaism has a long history of interpretation that doesn’t in the least bit resemble Christian versions of inerrancy and infallibility, and thus Jewish interpreters approach their texts (including but not limited to the Torah) differently than many Christians do. Jewish interpreters have long offered responses to problematic texts that Christians would do well to follow. god-said-itHowever, the long history of Christian supersessionism, combined with the “inerrant and infallible” approach to the Bible, leads to all kinds of problematic and inconsistent interpretations. When Christians want to support verses from what they call the “Old Testament” as still being valid, then they will quote verses like Matthew 5:17-19, in which Jesus says that he hasn’t come to abolish the law or the prophets, but to fulfill them (“I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law”). Likewise, Christians utilizing this approach will say that Jesus Christ (as part of the Trinity) is still also the God of the “Old Testament,” hence God is the same “yesterday, today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). When you take this into consideration, it’s striking to note how quickly Christians will distance themselves from these claims when they encounter a text they do not wish to support, often imposing and incorporating major interpretive leaps that the text doesn’t even apply to itself. (For the record, there are much more responsible approaches to biblical interpretation from a Christian perspective that aren’t reduced to inerrancy and infallibility.) I say all of this just to point out that interpretation is always at work when it comes to sacred texts. Many Christians say they wish to distance themselves from their texts of terror, but they do not give Muslims the same room to do so. These Christians should therefore follow Jesus’ instructions and take the log out of their own eye before pointing out the speck in their neighbor’s eye. Perhaps the simplest way to understand this dynamic is by recognizing that Christians are familiar with their book and their religion, so they’ve developed ways to compartmentalize and understand these verses in ways that don’t stand out to them, even if at times their official ideology (mode of interpreting) would undermine their conclusions. Personally, I like to recall the words of St. Augustine, who said (I paraphrase): “So if it seems to you that you have understood the divine scriptures, or any part of them, in such a way that by this understanding you do not build up this twin love of God and neighbor, then you have not yet understood them.” And here’s another gem from Augustine, for good measure: “If love is the only measure then the only measure of love is love without measure.” Which probably means it’s not a terrible idea to treat refugees fleeing from violence humanely, or to treat Muslim sisters and brothers with respect.

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Inauguration Day Comments from the Interfaith Prayer Service

My reflections on unity and justice from this morning’s Standing with Our Neighbor interfaith prayer service are posted below. Now that I’ve heard Trump’s speech, I would amend my comments from this morning to add that true unity is rooted in justice, not allegiance.

I’m grateful to each of you for your presence here today, and the desire for unity expressed by your presence. Thanks also to the NAACP and Faith Voices.

In times like these, a commitment to unity may seem overly naive or idealistic. Part of this is because, a lot of times, we understand politics to be a zero sum game, with clear winners and clear losers. When it comes to political contests, winning and losing can carry the euphoria of victory, or the agony of defeat. In some ways it’s like the spectacle of a sporting event, when fans live or die with each play of the game, but with much more intensity, because of very real life implications.

​When it comes to elections, there are times when I’ve felt like a winner, and there are times when I’ve felt like a loser. I will say that as someone who believes in equal rights, economic dignity and race equity, this last election cycle has made me worry about the rhetoric—about the way we treat one another—in this nation.

For if we truly seek unity, then we have a responsibility to never normalize the disparaging treatment of anyone, including but not limited to women, the poor, immigrants, Muslims, people of color, or people in the LGBTQ community. This is not a partisan issue; this is a human issue. Unity never takes as its starting point a fundamental disrespect of the other. Indeed, to normalize a fundamental disrespect of other human beings is precisely what precludes unity.

Even if we are nice to one another in interpersonal exchanges, that’s all well and good, yet if we are nice to one another in interpersonal exchanges yet all the while support governing policies that do immeasurable harm to one other, then, fundamentally, we are still disrespecting one another.

If we are serious about unity, then we must also be serious about fairness and dignity and equality, justice and respect and compassion. True unity is only possible when everyone has an equal place at the table –> otherwise it’s just hollow, cheap, superficial rhetoric that masks hidden power structures in society that privilege some (the dominant group) at the expense of others.

And no matter which political party we may or may not identify with, no matter what our religious tradition may or may not be — If we live in a world with political winners and losers, let us be sure of one thing: we are in this boat together. We may love the euphoria of winning, but if winning means throwing out principles of fairness and dignity and equality, justice and respect and compassion, if winning means throwing all of these things out, then, in the end, all of us lose. The pledge—the one we teach our children—is for liberty and justice…for all.

Thank you very much.

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“An Open Letter to Muslims in America” — a response

I wrote this in response to a letter to the editor that appeared in today’s News-Leader, “An Open Letter to Muslims in America.”

————

It’s possible to share Bob W. Rush’s concerns about threats made against our nation, but it doesn’t mean we have to share his imprudent fear of Muslims (“An Open Letter to Muslims in America”).

When Mr. Rush paints the Islamic community with broad brush strokes and says that all Muslims are “subject to suspicion” until they can “teach us how to unmistakably distinguish a ‘good Muslim’ from a ‘bad Muslim,’” I wonder if he is aware of the tens of thousands of Islamic clerics around the world who’ve repeatedly condemned the actions of extremist Islamists? Contrary to Mr. Rush’s statement, they do not offer their “behest and approval” of “killing innocent people.” (See here or here.)

I wonder if he knows that, according to the U.S. Counter Terrorism Center at West Point, Islamist terrorism kills more Muslims by far than it does adherents to any other religious tradition, including Christianity? (Between 82-97% of victims of Islamist terrorism are Muslim.)

I wonder if he’s ever had a Muslim classmate, colleague, or neighbor? I wonder if he’s been part of the Interfaith Alliance of the Ozarks, which provides numerous opportunities to build bonds of friendship and solidarity with Muslim sisters and brothers in the Ozarks?

To be sure, extremist versions of Islam are a real problem and threat. Religious extremism in all its forms is a real problem and threat (for an excellent analysis, I recommend When Religion Becomes Evil, by Charles Kimball). There aren’t any good reasons to sentimentalize such evil, for extremist Islamist groups have been responsible for mass acts of terror, in the U.S. and abroad.

But here’s the thing. To think that the vast majority of Muslims are supportive of extremist versions of Islam is as myopic as thinking that the vast majority of Christians are supportive of the Ku Klux Klan (or similar white nationalism groups), whose adherents identify as white and Christian.

And lest we think violence in Christian guise is just a thing of the past (to say nothing of the long-lasting effects of avowedly Christian colonization and the historic legacy of slavery and institutional racism and misogyny), let’s recall the murders in 2014 at the Jewish Community Center in Overland Park by Frazier Glenn Miller, a KKK white supremacist from the Ozarks who said he “wanted to kill Jewish people before he dies.”

Let’s recall that Dylan Roof, who murdered nine black members of Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church—all with the Confederate Battle Flag sown onto his jacket—was a member of a Lutheran church.

Let’s remember that just last year two major plots were uncovered in the U.S. that exposed white nationalists plotting to kill “scores of Muslims,” ranging from a radiation device described as “a weapon of mass destruction that would slowly and painfully kill anyone who walked near it” (the man who planned the attack, Glendon Crawford, is a member of the KKK); to a trio of white-militia terrorists in western Kansas who “were part of an anti-Muslim group called the Crusaders that plotted . . . to blow up” an entire apartment complex that housed Somali immigrants. According to USA Today, “the men openly discussed their hatred for members of the Muslim community, referring to them as ‘cockroaches.’”

Given these events, perhaps it shouldn’t be entirely surprising that over the last fifteen years, right-wing militia groups that largely identify as Christian have murdered more people in the United States than extremist Islamists have.

What’s more, from 2004-2013, the number of Americans living in the United States killed by all forms of terrorism is 313, compared to 316,545 deaths by firearm, which equates to more than a hundred 9/11s. But that’s a different topic for a different day.

I do wonder: How is it possible to tell the difference between a “good Christian” and a “bad Christian”? Were the Christian slaveholders in the antebellum south, who quoted the Bible to say it was their divine right to own slaves, “good Christians”? Or the founders of the KKK, responsible for the sweeping terror of lynching that still haunts our society today? What about the Christian segregationists, who said that God’s natural order demands that the races not mix? Or Steven Anderson, the contemporary Arizona pastor who preaches that “all gays should be killed”?

If a Christian responds, “Of course I don’t support any of the these things, nor the modern-day murderous actions of right-wing militia groups and/or members of the KKK,” then doesn’t one owe the same courtesy to the millions and millions of Muslims who don’t support Islamist extremism either—indeed, those who are much more likely to be the victims of Islamist terrorism?

It would be the height of naivete to try to determine which religion is responsible for the most violence. Down through the ages people have used religion to justify all kinds of terrible actions (e.g., the Crusades), just as they’ve used religion as inspiration to do great good (e.g., Martin Luther King Jr.).

But one thing is certain: The worst atrocities in the history of humanity—whether committed in the name of religion or not—have occurred when misguided assumptions and prejudices have been hurled at entire groups of people based on their particular religion, ethnicity, nationality, or race.

And this is something that all of us—regardless of religious beliefs we may or may not hold—have the responsibility to resist.

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#ProLife & the 1%

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Closing Thoughts on 2016

[Originally posted on Facebook]
1. After all of these years of dog whistling, especially on right-wing radio and Fox News (which are always on wherever I go in the Ozarks), I don’t know why I was so surprised by the outcome of the elections. After all, the misogyny, racism, homophobia, anti-intellectualism and crony capitalism that Trump represents has been valorized and maintained through subtly coded rhetoric (public and private) for as long as I’ve been an adult, and probably before, especially among the twin voices of far right Christian nationalism and right-wing authoritarianism. As a freshman at a Christian college in 1992, I remember Rush Limbaugh’s radio show being blasted on loudspeakers throughout the student union area of campus, both inside and out. It was inescapable. The far Christian right has lacked so much moral clarity for so long now that for the most part it’s become an utterly nihilistic enterprise, so much so that we shouldn’t be surprised that its unvarnished thirst for power and domination has put it in bed much more with white supremacists and misogynists than with lovers of democracy and equality and, I suggest, of Christ. The unwavering hegemony that the far right Christians seek has become a god; they’ve traded their birthright for a mess of pottage. I remember reading Bonhoeffer and Arendt in grad school; I didn’t expect their writing to become so pertinent for 21st century America. 

2. For those who keep trying to pitch the narrative that Trump’s success is due more to “white working class” economic concerns, and less with sexism and racism, please note that black and brown working class people also have economic concerns, and even whites in rust belt states who said the economy was their chief concern voted more for Clinton than Trump. I also submit as anecdotal evidence the ubiquity of Confederate flags and Trump bumper stickers that seem to go hand in hand. 

3. With that said, there are a lot of people I know who voted for Trump who don’t wish to hold the same kind of racist or sexist views for which he’s become known. And some of them rightly understand there’s a responsibility to speak against such views, and I’m grateful for them. Other Trump supporters may tacitly support a sexist candidate without explicitly endorsing the same beliefs (as was the case with Trump), but this can only be supported by either (1) the disavowal of said beliefs that comes with the candidate who believes for you, so you no longer have to feel guilty about believing such things yourself; or (2) thinking that supporting a candidate who acts in sexist ways is somehow not supporting sexism. I understand that in politics it’s always about the lesser of all evils, but lesser of all evils still means less evil, not more evil (and here I direct you to my comments about moral nihilism above).

4. Still others say they only voted for Trump because of the Supreme Court. But as I’ve written on several occasions, and has been documented in numerous studies, voting for GOP candidates (even during the age of Scalia) leads to more, not less, abortions (see my blog post at philsnider dot net for links). That’s not to say that Dems don’t have a long way to go in formulating a much better pro-life position, they do for sure, but supporting Trump from a pro-life perspective is myopic, naive, ill-informed, and disastrous (I will engage in dialogue about this if you take the time to read my post about this at my blog).

5. History is watching us, and all of us will be accountable for our actions. History does not look back kindly on those who aid and abet injustice. Nihilists may reject the judgment of God, but history will still recall their stories.

6. There’s lots of work to do, and always more justice to come. It would certainly be preferable to sit on the sidelines, but as MLK once said, “The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people…. It may well be that we will have to repent in this generation. Not merely for the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people.”

7. Which reminds me that there are lots of good people in this world. As J.K. Rowling writes, “We’ve all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on. That’s who we really are.” It’s never too late to act on the good. Let us hope that history remembers us well.

8. “So ring the bells that still can ring; forget your perfect offering. There’s a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.” – Leonard Cohen

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The Death, and Birth, of God (or, Religion in a Post-Truth World)

Second Sunday of Advent*
Isaiah 11:1-10
Matthew 3:1-12

 

I don’t know about you, but no matter how hard I try — and believe me, I have tried — I still cannot not think about the contours of the world — and the country — in which we now live. Last week I tried to give a sermon in which I didn’t explicitly “go there,” so to speak, as a kind of reprieve for so many of us drowning in the post-election malaise, as we find ourselves inhabitants of what is now described as – according to the Oxford Dictionary’s 2016 word of the year – a “post-truth” kind of world, a kind of world in which just a few days ago a CNN commentator acknowledged that, unfortunately, there’s no longer any “such thing…as facts,” and in turn we see that whatever is politically expedient gives way not to the higher virtues of collective human rights, responsibility, decency and dignity, but rather to our lowest base instincts of fear, manipulation, deceit and duplicity.

We once lived in a world in which people would say that you’re entitled to your own opinions, just not to your own facts. But now we seem to live in a world where one’s opinions constitute one’s facts, with no tolerance for age-old methods of rational inquiry or judicious discernment, particularly if it flies in the face of one’s pre-conceived ideologies (this is what led the comedian Stephen Colbert to coin his own word of the year several years ago: truthiness, meaning something is true because it feels like it should be true).

To be sure, we all have ways of viewing the world and developing our respective ideologies and perspectives, but nowadays it seems that any time a person encounters information that runs counter to what one already thinks, it is quickly denounced as untrustworthy or intentionally biased, and is then dismissed with a celebratory flair, often with a dose of hubris that would make even the devil blush. While a good bit of epistemological humility is always good thing, there’s a real difference between honest interpretive differences and sheer B.S. (science, for instance, isn’t just subject to the whims of whatever some dude on Facebook happens to think that day).

We now live in a country (maybe we always have) in which political opportunism (in contrast to political virtue) has led the most dominant group of Christians (not necessarily the majority of Christians but the most dominant group of Christians, a lot of times white Christians) to abandon virtues consistent with the Bible’s fruits of the spirit (described in Galatians as love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, gentleness, and self-control), in favor of virtues that are really not all that virtuous, unless you consider the love of power, money, and sex virtuous — going so far as to turn a blind eye to actions and statements that would’ve gotten any teacher, principal or pastor fired, so long as they weren’t seeking the highest office in the land.

Perhaps the greatest irony of ironies in the post-election fallout is that it is now the far right, which includes the Religious Right — the self-pronounced bona fide, born again believers — who for years and years railed against the cultural “relativism” of the so-called left, with its supposed moral depravity and its apparent lack of belief in all truth, objectivity and absolutes — indeed, its lack of belief in God — it is now many of these very same figures from the far right who are telling us there are no longer such things as objectivity and facts and absolutes.

 
Here you might want to stop me and ask how we could do away with such things? I mean, who are we to just casually do away with truth, objectivity and absolutes? Who are we to establish a post-truth world? In the words of the poet, “How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun?” And how would this affect us? “[Doesn’t this make us feel like we are plunging], continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? . . . Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition?”

These lines, of course, come from the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s parable about the Madman who announced the death of God – which in turn made Nietzsche both infamous and ubiquitous, for generations to come. After he acknowledged the death of objectivity and facts and absolutes in his own nineteenth-century “post-truth” context – which sounds an awful lot like ours — he goes on to ask, in poetic fashion, “How [do] we comfort ourselves, [if we’re] the murderers of all murderers? . . . [W]ho will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us?”

People assume Nietzsche was simply announcing his atheism in a provocative and attention-seeking way (it’s where his famous “God is dead” line comes from). But scholars tell us he was up to much more. Contrary to a lot of conventional assumptions, Nietzsche wasn’t just making some sort of argument for atheism. Instead, he was providing a warning of the risks involved when all claims to truth, to absolutes, to God, go by the wayside, in the post-truth kind of world he inhabited. For Nietzsche, this is nothing less than a traumatic experience. It’s like he’s asking, “You want society to be structured without truth? Without facts? Without absolutes? Without moral and ethical imperatives? This is what you want? Just know that I’m a seer here, and trust me, it’s not for the faint of heart — one doesn’t dance on the grave of God without acknowledging the dire consequences involved.”

Along the same lines, around the same time, the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevksky was credited with the paraphrase, “If God is dead, then everything is permissible.” Which you can just as well translate as saying, “If there are no truths, no facts, no absolutes, then everything is permissible.” This is why, for both Nietzsche and Dostoevsky, a “post-truth” kind of world is a traumatic reality, not a soothing one; it’s full of more death than life.**


And that is why I’m glad that Christmas is about the birth, and not the death, of God.

To be clear, I don’t mean that in the “gotcha” sense of “atheism = bad/belief = good” – not in the least! (those of you who’ve heard me preach over the years or have read my books know that’s not how I understand things) – but what I mean to say is that in the figure of Christ – “a vulnerable baby born to a poor teenage mother in a dirty animal stall,” as one pastor describes – in the figure of the Christ we find both an unconditional accountability and an infinite responsibility to the other – with the “other” being understood as other human beings as well as to the world itself. In the figure of the Christ, there is a very clear reference to what virtue looks like; what decency looks like; what ethics look like, and even in a post-truth kind of world what Christians would say truth looks like. 

For in the figure of the Christ, it’s precisely this unconditional accountability and infinite responsibility to the other that constitutes truth as truth. Here we see that truth is not some abstract idea “out there” to wrap our minds around but rather truth is found in the humanity of the other “right here,” which is inextricably wedded to our response to the other — to other human beings and to the world itself.

So in many ways it becomes a question of where one places one’s faith, one’s trust: In the figure of all that is harbored in the life of Christ (which I might add includes an inclusive kind of love that can still be very much alive even if one has never heard of Christ, or even believes in Christ), or does one place faith, place trust, in the vapid and vacuous yet all too influential truthiness that threatens the very fabric of our society, not to mention common human decency?

And regardless of what right-wing Christians may or may not say, or what any Christians may or may not say, when our gaze turns only to ourselves, when there is no accountability or responsibility to the other, when truth becomes an idea “out there” we can never agree on as opposed to a person “right here” that should be the first of all of our concerns, we live as if God is, for all intents and purposes, dead.

After all, Christmas tells us one simple truth: If God is born into the world in Jesus, then God is born into the world in love. And love demands unconditional accountability and infinite responsibility to the other.
Which means that anytime society tries to normalize or justify rhetoric and actions that incite hate toward the other, whether in a so-called pre- or post-truth kind of world, the birth of the Christ child offers a resounding, “No!” Not in the name of love. Not in the name of accountability. Not in the name of responsibility. 

Anytime society tries to normalize or justify rhetoric and actions of greed that exploit the other, the birth of the Christ child offers a resounding, “No!” Not in the name of love. Not in the name of accountability. Not in the name of responsibility. 

Anytime society tries to normalize or justify rhetoric and actions of racism toward the other, the birth of the Christ child offers a resounding, “No!” Not in the name of love. Not in the name of accountability. Not in the name of responsibility. 

Anytime society tries to normalize or justify rhetoric and actions of sexism toward the other, the birth of the Christ child offers a resounding, “No!” Not in the name of love. Not in the name of accountability. Not in the name of responsibility. 

Anytime society tries to normalize or justify rhetoric and actions that dehumanize the other – whether women, immigrants, Muslims, the poor, the disabled, or the LGBTQ — the birth of the Christ child offers a resounding, “No!” Not in the name of love. Not in the name of accountability. Not in the name of responsibility. 

If God is born into the world in Jesus, then God is born in love. And love comes with an unconditional accountability and an infinite responsibility to the other, otherwise it is not love.
This is at the heart of John the Baptist’s message, and it remains at the heart of the Christmas message today. If God is born into the world, God is born in love.

As Dietrich Bonhoeffer — the heroic German theologian imprisoned and subsequently martyred by the Third Reich – once wrote:

“Who will celebrate Christmas correctly? Whoever finally lays down all power, all honor, all reputation, all vanity, all arrogance, and all individualism beside the manger.”

Let us journey, together, to the manger.

To the glory of God, and for the sake of the other — other human beings, and the world itself. 

——–
*This is like the “B” side of my sermon from Sunday morning, in which I include a few more things that I didn’t have a chance to mention or get into given the allotted time and context.

 
**It’s not lost on me that postmodernism (for lack of a better term) resists absolute truth claims and practices a rigorous hermeneutic of suspicion precisely in order to reject oppressive metanarratives — and all the while Trump’s surrogates are rejecting absolute truth claims in order to maintain hegemonic white cis heterosexist conventions at work in Trump’s very own absolute truth claims, which runs counter to so much of the good that’s been harbored in the name of postmodernism. This is just another way I can’t get my mind around the Trump phenomenon, and why it’s giving me no rest.

 

 

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