Generous Orthodoxy  

Monday, September 24, 2012

Is religion the source of the world's ills?

Two freedom-loving celebrities have been at the forefront of the news in recent days. "The Lady" of Burma (Aung San Suu Kyi) is quoted in The New York Times to this effect: it is not the love of power itself that causes people and nations to strike out against others;  "it is fear of losing power" (italics original). This extraordinarily wise insight was indirectly ratified by Salman Rushdie, who was asked about the causes of the fatwa issued against himself--which required him to live in hiding for nine years in order not to be murdered. Rushdie answered with this:  "It was not about religion. It was not then and it is not now." In the case of the fatwa, Rushdie believes that the Ayatollah Khomenei felt himself losing power.

The point of mentioning these two statements is that Christians are frequently confronted and intimidated by the widely held belief among the intelligentsia that religion is the problem. The problem is not religion. (Neither Hitler, nor Stalin, nor Pol Pot, nor the Rwandan genocidaires acted from a religious base.) The problem is Sin (capital S), which arises out of the universal fear of losing power. It is only as Christians voluntarily, and from a position of strength rather than weakness, give up power for the sake of the common good that we can ever be Christlike.

I spend much of my time with friends and acquaintances who are either generically "spiritual," or  agnostic, or actively and sometimes aggressively atheistic--in all cases, anti-Christian. More and more, it is clear to me that the form of Christian faith that I try (poorly, God help me) to live by is going to be under constant attack and threat both from the right and from the left. What is the right word for this face of our faith? Biblical, catholic, Reformed, postliberal, left-wing evangelical? I struggle for the right term. Don't call us conservative! In any case, it's going to be more and more difficult to maintain a strong witness. I am committed to such a witness for the rest of the time on this earth that the Lord gives me, but it is really hard to find any Christians on the world scene today who command universal respect. That's one reason for the popularity of the recent best-selling biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who can be embraced by almost everyone. Unfortunately, as has been widely noted, the book errs in making Bonhoeffer sound like an American conservative evangelical. Unfortunately also, there is no American Christian who can equal Bonhoeffer in wide appeal except Martin Luther King, Jr., and there is a widespread tendency to edit out his Christian  my previous Rumination on the civil rights movement). Episcopal seminarian Jonathan Daniels, who died defending a black teenager (Ruby Sales) during the movement, has a strong claim, but he was so young that he left no writings, speeches, or other material on which to build a picture of deliberate, intentional, lifelong servanthood and relinquishing of power. (See, however, the very impressive Wikipedia entry for Jonathan Daniels). 

It seems clear that, today, much of the Christian right is motivated by fear of losing power in our culture. I know this, because I feel this fear myself. I long for the days 50 years ago when Christianity was the American lingua franca. I wish for my grandchildren to know the Lord in the way that so many people around me seemed to when I was growing up in small-town Virginia. But then, half of those people were black and could not vote or attend white schools. So the Southern white church had to undergo humiliation and judgment. So today we will have to accept our marginalization, trusting in the power of the One who justifies the ungodly (Romans 4), which includes everybody, and believing that when I am weak, then am I strong (2 Cor 12). Only let us not fail to make our witness as God gives us the opportunity.