All Things Right and Good

You’re going to reach a point (We all do)

Where you must decide whether you will be right or good.

I know, Jesus never found Himself in such a spot

But he was God made flesh. You and I are not.

And when I reach that point, I want to say:

“I don’t know if this is right.

I don’t know how it fits in with systematic theology

With moral law, with moral codes

But I know how to be good.”

I’ve learned the hard way that right, like rights,

Can be abused, can be abusive:

  • Right and wrong (who decides?)
  • Legal and illegal (who makes the laws?)
  • Winning the argument
  • Contempt for the loser
  • Insiders and outsiders
  • orthodox and heretics
  • Moral panics
  • “They deserve it.”
  • “They would do the same to us.”

These are tools of domination. These are acts of violence

They’re labels and weapons the powerful use to maintain their supremacy

Be it white or male or hetero/cis.

It’s all the same. Power. Money. Control.

The rich men who wield it

The rough men who enforce it

The abuse and domination of women

And the blood of dark-skinned people

And anyone different in religion, sexuality, or creed

The enslavement of millions in for-profit prisons

And the torture of the few with neither trial nor hope

We can be right.

We can be in control.

We can hold the moral high ground

Or we can be good.

Or we can love as Jesus loved.

But we cannot serve both God and mammon.

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Toxic Worship (The Imposters of God, Chapter 1: The Mystery of Idolatry, Part 2)

Sculpture of a Family

Photo by J. Lord, Creative Commons

This is part three of my series on William Stringfellow’s The Imposters of God. You can read my first post on Chapter One and my introduction to the series.

As you recall, Stringfellow pointed out that an idol is anything we use to define ourselves, to give significance to our lives, other than God (of course). All such things – money, family, church, reputation, country – are doomed to fail us, of course.

But did you know that so long as we put them in the place of worship, that we are doomed to fail them?

As Stringfellow put it, “Where idolatrous patriotism is practiced, the vocation of the nation so idolized is destroyed.”

How far from the lofty ideals of civil rights and democracy have the super-patriots (with their super PATRIOT Acts) taken us?

I’m old enough to remember when torture and indefinite detention were things the bad guys did, not things two successive openly Christian Presidents would undertake, to the applause of their mostly openly Christian supporters.

“When the family is idolized, the members of the family are enslaved.” (Stringfellow). How many times have we seen parents living vicariously through their children? Whether Tiger Moms pushing their kids into depression  or washed-up high school quarterbacks and homecoming queens reliving their youth, it never ends well.

I’m reminded of the controlling mother from C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, who’d rather have her son with her in hell than leave him in heaven.

Even within our churches, the extreme focus on the family has left the unmarried feeling unwanted. It’s made us political animals, white-flighting our way into the “best” schools.

It’s led us to forget that the Apostles who spread the Gospel to the known world were themselves single, and that they focused not on their families, but on the Gospel.

“Every idol, therefore, represents a thing or being existing in a state of profound disorientation” (Stringfellow).

Idolatry ultimately brings death.

Sometimes literally, as in our persistent worship of war.

Sometimes figuratively, in the dehumanization of a culture that views everything and everyone as a commodity.

And sometimes both, as in the dysfunctional relationships and vicious social structures that drive the young to depression and sometimes suicide.

Perhaps Idolatry is at the heart of the decline of America’s churches. We’ve grown so entangled with the idols of respectability, growth, and politics that we find ourselves reduced to merely a social function. A social function that offers precious little to the constantly-connected Facebook generation.

What is the answer? I’m not certain. But I know this. We fail, again and again, to keep the very first commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:3).

And to even detect our idols means turning the rusty knife of self-examination on the things we hold dearest. The pain may be akin to amputating a gangrenous limb without anesthetic, but it must be done if we are serious about serving Christ.

 

 

 

 

 

For God or Country (Wrestling the Angel of Patriotism)

Eagle and American Flag Photo by Pam "Bubbels" Roth, Creative Commons

Photo by Pam “Bubbels” Roth, Creative Commons

Sometimes I wonder if it’s possible to be a good patriotic American and a genuine Christian at once.  This isn’t an idle thought, or some kind of “blame America first” catchphrase.  It’s a genuine worry I have.

I’ve always believed that America is essentially good (though far from perfect) and that patriotism was a good thing.  I still do, for the most part.  But now I wonder if these two things – America and the Kingdom of Heaven – are not competing goods.

Part of me wants to say “no.”  Jesus said that no man can serve two masters. [Matthew 6:24]  And I’ve already talked about how America is not, and never has been righteous (Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3).  I can’t vote for Romney or Obama, not so long as they both support drone strikes against civilians.  For all the religious political posturing, America seems more like Rome than Jerusalem.

We do not care for the poor like we should.  The gap between the rich and poor grows.  And the mortgage crisis shows how easily the average person can be taken advantage of by unscrupulous creditors (I was a Realtor a few years back, and let me tell you, that can be an ugly field.  Finding an ethical Realtor and mortgage broker is vital, and not always easy.  I mean, really?  Approving someone for a mortgage that costs half their monthly income?  What ethical planet are you from?)

Politicians preach about Sodom, but forget what the Sin of Sodom was: Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had arrogance, abundant food and careless ease, but she did not help the poor and needy.”  That’s right: Sodom’s sin was lack of hospitality, not caring for the poor, living too richly while those around them suffered [Ezekiel 16:49].  Forget homosexuality: that’s America to the core.

On the Other Hand…

Part of me wants to say “yes.”  Part of me says that Granddaddy was both.  He fought in World War II.  He started and sustained two small businesses, on of which still employs several people in our hometown, fifty years later (thanks in large part to my Dad, who’s managed it for about 25 years).

Granddaddy was always patriotic.  He put flags on the graves on Memorial Day.  He was a proud veteran, and he modeled quiet, civic patriotism.  He was also far and away a better Christian than I am.

He spent a lot of time in prayer (time I either waste online or spend writing about my feelings *smirk*).  He was a Gideon, and active in prison ministry.  Was he perfect?  Of course not.  But he was fundamentally good, and he gave God the glory.

Was Granddaddy’s America better than the one I live in now?  Nostalgia tempts me to say “yes.”  Certainly, much of his life was lived in simpler times.  The amount of information, the access to information, was less, and even entertainment came in such limited streams that you could stand around drinking coffee and talk about TV shows and actually have people know what you mean, without having to Google it (Honey Boo-Boo?  That sounds like a bee with a scraped knee, but apparently it’s a reality TV show).

But better?  We’ve been through this (Part 1Part 2, and Part 3).  World War II was a just war if there ever was one, but America still bombed Dresden, killing 25,000 civilians, America firebombed Tokyo, killing at least 100,000 and leaving 1 million homeless, roughly as many as the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and more than the bombing of Nagasaki.

These massive bombing campaigns may or may not have been necessary to win the war, but they led to massive civilian deaths.  Our ongoing drone strikes are less destructive by a couple of orders of magnitude, but they’re also unnecessary and unjustifiable.

On the home front, racial segregation was an ongoing struggle.  I have a relatively objective account that Granddaddy was about as non-racist as a white man could be at the time and still live in Mississippi (told by a friend who left Mississippi in the 1950’s in protest of the racist atmosphere).  But the atmosphere affected everyone who stayed.

So, if my grandfather was able to balance love for a deeply flawed nation with faithful service to God, why can’t I?

Maybe the times really have changed.  Maybe there is no political party I can get behind (drone strikes on civilians are a deal-breaker, as is torture).  Granddaddy voted Republican as long as I can remember, but the party was very different back then.  When he was alive, I voted Republican, and did it with a clear conscience.  This year?  I don’t know who I’ll vote for, but it will be in protest.

Maybe I’m just not trying hard enough.  Maybe loving America has nothing to do with being able to vote for a Presidential candidate in good conscience.  Maybe part of loving America is calling it as it is, not worshiping it as it claims to be.

Maybe I can only love America correctly if I first love God correctly.  If I turn my loyalties away from my own self (whether self-preservation, self-interest, or just self-introspection) and turn them to God’s Kingdom, maybe I’ll be able to love America like God does – fully aware of its flaws, with no blind jingoism, with no excuses, just grace.