Thursday, September 08, 2011

Churches as “safe places”

When and why did churches start calling themselves “safe places”? Yesterday I went to a Bach choral concert at noon at Ground Zero, part of the 10th anniversary commemorations. The concert was absolutely wonderful (Bach, the “great comforter,” as one of The New York Times music critics called him), but I was bemused to read in the program that Trinity, Wall Street promotes itself as “a safe place.” It’s true, of course, that Trinity and St. Paul’s, Fulton Street, were unharmed by the collapse of the World Trade Center, but I don’t think that’s what’s meant by “safe place.” And besides, a small Orthodox church was completely demolished on that day.

Wasn't the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama an “unsafe place” when four little black girls in white dresses were killed in a racist bombing? What about the church hit by a tornado on Palm Sunday? The pastor’s daughter was killed in the collapse. And Bishop Oscar Romero was gunned down by right-wing thugs while saying mass in San Salvador. Indeed, in the USA, there have been 18 church shootings in 11 years. So clearly, no church can promise safety in a precarious and often violent world. So that can’t be what’s meant by “safe place.”

I think “safe place” must be a coded phrase, designed to reassure potential members that they will not be judged by anyone. A God without judgment defines liberal American Christianity, as H. Richard Niebuhr famously wrote in The Kingdom of God in America:

A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment
through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.

That was written a long time ago, but it seems more true of us now than ever.

I am reminded of an often quoted but little heeded passage from Annie Dillard’s Teaching a Stone to Talk:

Why do we people in churches seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a package
tour of the Absolute?....On the whole I do not find Christians, outside of the
catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest
idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? It is madness to wear ladies’
straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets.

Coming into the presence of the living God should bring us to our knees at the very least (although we seem to have stopped kneeling in church) as we reflect on Abraham Lincoln’s words that “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.” He also wrote:

I have been driven many times to my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I
had nowhere else to go…Men are not flattered by being shown that there has been
a difference of purpose between the Almighty and them. To deny it, however…is to
deny that there is a God governing the world.

When there is no conception of judgment, or justice, or “a difference of purpose” to define what is meant by the love of God, we are left in a helpless situation. At a conference recently, Dale Allison (professor of New Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary) delivered a very effective lecture on the righteousness of God in which he passionately listed all the ills and atrocities of the world for which there was no human remedy. After the lecture, another attendee and I discussed it. He agreed that it was excellent, but said that he missed one thing: the longing for the purifying fire of God (Malachi 3:2-4) to burn away all the dross in our own selves, not just in others. I heartily concurred. I do not fear the judgment of God; I welcome it. I want to see the last of my faults. Unlike the judgment of human beings, the judgment of God contains within itself the power for complete rectification, as though sin and evil had never been.


P.S. A friend emailed this strikingly relevant quotation: Paul Scherer, the noted Lutheran pastor and scholar, said, "The presence of resistance in our lives may indeed be the presence of another's will trying to work against our own." We invoke that every time we say the Lord's Prayer--"thy will be done."