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Two Words Affecting How People Different Are Viewed and Treated | God and Salvation

Among “Christian America,” a person’s understanding of who God is, in particular, but also what salvation is influences the way s/he views and interacts with the world and its diversity of peoples, cultures, and ideologies.

This is to say . . .

How we see and treat people distinctly different from ourselves is (largely) a result of our understanding of God, and whether or not we see “the others” as equally favored and forgiven by God.

Corroborating my assertion is a 2011 national survey, “The Values and Beliefs of The American Public,” which concluded that “four gods” dominate North Americans’ consciousness, namely: authoritarian, benevolent, critical, and distant. A co-author, Paul Froese, stated, “If I know your image of God, I can tell all kinds of things about you. It’s a central part of worldview and it’s linked to how you think about the world in general.”

It’s a no-brainer, I think, to state that where collective consciousness (or unconsciousness) of an authoritarian, critical, ever-vigilant, and prone-to-punish personage predominates – human or divine – there, too, resides a pervasive and underlying fear and insecurity, which often results in a 24/7 self-comparative (and End Time) mindset, lest one somehow be disqualified and Left Behind.

For example, “Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God” is both early 1700’s sermon title, as well as sociological footnote on America’s past.

While God is probably slightly less angry than he was 300 years ago, I believe perceiving people first and foremost as “lost” (particularly Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists who predominate in the so-called and least “Christianized” 10/40 Window), and God as residing in a sterile, sin-free holy of holies somewhere in the heavens, and whose “righteous anger” needs satiating, is still a widely held belief of “Christian America’s” view of God, and correspondingly of “the different others'” fiery eternal future.

Rabbi David Hartmann aptly observed of America’s religious consciousness, “The longing to be eternally redeemed can become so profound that you doubt whether your way will take you there if you see another person enjoying his or her different way.”

My early faith story as example . . .

I grew up Southern Baptist, which if you don’t know anything about is the largest (conservative) Protestant/evangelical group in North American. “Salvation” lingo was as common as talking sports. During my 3rd grade, I recall my dad entering my room one evening, sitting on the floor alongside me, and after asking me a few “eternal type” questions, me soberly confessing both my sins and inherent sinfulness, praying the “sinner’s prayer,” culminating with asking God “in Jesus” to come live in my heart.

My point?

Salvation as I, and many of you experienced it, is like a peddled (spiritual) product, which aspiring saints procure using a Christian multi-step formula (usually it’s referred to as the “Four Steps to Salvation“): confess, believe, repent, accept.

We are assured that our profession and prayer of the 4-steps will appease/satisfy God’s righteous anger against both our past sinful acts, as well as our inherent sinful nature, and that He will reward us by forgiving our sins and allowing us access to heaven.

I see at least three problems with this view.

One, it assumes, based on a selective choice and interpretation of scriptural texts – and corresponding exclusion of dissonant ones – that the “salvation formula” is an absolute and “biblical” mandate from God; one uninfluenced by culture or socio-economic/sociopolitical history. John 14:6 and Acts 4:12 are prime examples of texts frequently wrenched from their social contexts and used in evangelistic and mission “campaigns.”

Secondly, “salvation-American-style” is de facto more an individualistic and cognitive act/rebirth, with minimal distinguishable-from-secular-society life effects.

Thirdly, it’s exclusionary, thereby creating scores of “Jesus (only) Camp” communities, and disregarding completely God’s concern and love for all humanity (and creation).

My later life faith story . . .

Through sharing life experiences with the cultural and religious “different other,” salvation became more a discovery of an abundant (and balanced) wholeness of life (John 10:10), as I sought and found the image of God in “the other.”

As Samir Selmanovic confirms, “We have saturated our religions with our own selves, and the most direct way to enter a new whirlwind of fresh and substantive religious experience is to seek and find the image of God in those who are not in our image.”

Salvation comes with the responsibility to love God whole heartedly, but as importantly to love neighbor as self, extending hospitality and respect to strangers, and avoid bearing false witness against the “different other.”

Salvation is not merely or even mostly some pie in the sky, as I was raised to think, which we acquire and partially experience in this life, but fully experience in the next. Therefore, salvation/life isn’t really all about me, but about “us.” To the extent that a majority of the world’s people still live in abject poverty and suffer unspeakable injustices, to that extent “my” salvation is incomplete and partial.

As Selmanovic again aptly remarks, “So much of who we all are depends on maintaining a polarized and conflicted world.  To challenge this state of affairs by finding God in the other not only disrupts our communal sense of identity but also alters our social and economic structures on every level, from our families to our nations.  In some twisted way, we have learned to benefit from the misery of the divided world we have created.  Now we have to unlearn what we think we know and then learn to embrace this newfound reality of our globally intertwined community.”

Like former 19th century Bishop to Natal/South Africa, John W. Colenso, I discovered via postgraduate studies that “all human affections have a religious character.” Among the many interfaith people with whom I have been fortunate to share studies and life, I discovered a common and shared humanity inclusive of varied yet shared affections, in which they, like me and my “kind,” were trying to find meaning and give expression to the inexplicable in life such as birth, suffering and death.

Salvation, then, through my experiencing God in and through “the other,” has thankfully become unshackled from an exclusionary 4-step process, in which in order for me to feel saved for eternity, other people have of corresponding necessity to be damned for eternity.

Regarding this tenacious Protestant/evangelical “Pharisaical mindset,” which takes pleasure in quick-step solutions to life and living, like “The Four Steps to Becoming a Christian,” Colenso stated that they (American missionaries in SE Africa) ask these type questions “not because they are impelled to it by that human love which fills the breast, and makes us hope, that, if possible, all may be saved at last, but from a desire to find a clear warrant in the doings of the invisible world for that system of exclusiveness, which they have begun to practise here on earth.”

Conclusion . . .

For about 20 years, my primary and controlling image of God might be likened to a tightrope. I was the tightrope walker, who daily and precariously traversed life’s landscape solo, clinging to my balancing pole, always looking directly ahead to what I was absolutely certain the Bible informed me about the future of the world and of “non-believers,” always looking down at, but never into the faces of the billions of people whose existence and life didn’t measure up to my socio-economic status or Christian beliefs, mindful that a misstep of my own (adultery, lust, etc.) could jeopardize my secure standing with God.

It wasn’t until postgraduate studies that I was forced (by assignments) to risk my faith, as it were, and engage cultural and religious difference first-hand.

Despite frequent discomfort at experiencing life from “the others'” perspective and narrative, only then did I become aware of and personally experience an alternate, life-affirming, yet feminine controlling image of God – that of a mother with her infant securely wrapped/strapped to her back.

My wife with one of our children.

My wife with one of our children.

It’s an image I hope will offset the millenniums’ old dominant perception of God as male, authoritarian, punitive, distant, unmoved, angry – yet, somehow contradictory, also loving.

A mother’s love is all-embracing, all-accepting, all-loving, and all-forgiving. I can think of no greater, more cozy cocoon in which to discover and come to terms with life’s struggles and self’s identity, than this. After discovering that you are first and foremost an individual of immense and divine creative value – and not first and foremost a sinner – you’ll experience the freedom to engage life alongside the scores of “different others” to mend and heal a fractured world.

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The Impotence of Contemporary Faith | Time to Bear Witness and Minimize Verbosity

*Note: Admittedly this is a long blog.  Despite this, please take the time to read and share it.

Historical reflection matters.  In fact, it is of critical importance in terms of peaceful relations and co-existence between culturally and religiously different people and nations.

Walter Houghton, former Wellesley College professor and author of Victorian England: Portrait of an Age wrote, “to peer through the darkness of a hundred years and turn even a flashlight on the landscape of 1850 is to see our own situation a little more clearly.”

Seldom do people, especially the religiously minded, pause and consider the fact that beliefs and ideas have an origin and a prior context of (primary) meaning, as well as a historical development.

A few examples from Christian scripture:

Among evangelicals, in particular, two Bible texts, which routinely are wrenched from their social and literary contexts and misused – both to justify exclusive claim to God and truth, and legitimate mission enterprises to the “heathen” or “unsaved” – include John 14:6, in which Jesus allegedly makes the exclusive claim that he alone is the singular and only way for a person to obtain eternal life, and the “Great Commission” text of Matthew 28:18-20.

one way

In my opinion, the manner in which Christians have, and continue to use John 14:6 as a proof-text to “prove” that their belief and their religion is the true one, expresses more an inner fear and insecurity, than what they think they are communicating – certainty of identity, faith and future.  (*For a few alternative views on this text, see the writings by former Emory professor, Thomas Thangaraj, and Louisville Presbyterian Seminary professor, W. Eugene March)

Let’s be honest.  In disconcerting times and eras, such as the present, who doesn’t and wouldn’t want “evidence” that “proves” one’s life is on the right and true track?

It’s a false comfort, but a comfort, nevertheless, to be able to say “I’m right and you’re wrong.”

Every single day, each one of us use “the other” as “social mirrors,” as aids by which to navigate life and assess individual progress.

self_reflection

We look at others, and occasionally share affirmation, but most often we belittle and criticize, and in so doing it provides momentary, yet false assurance that our lives are somehow okay – especially in comparison to him, her, or them!

The utilization of another as an aide in self-criticism and self-evaluation is nothing new, and as such serves the purpose of a “control group” against which people assess their respective individual or collective progress or development.

Not so long ago, blacks and Indians were utilized by Europeans as “social mirrors” in order to discover attributes in savages which they found first but could not speak of in themselves.

As Andrew Sinclair noted in The Savage : A History of Misunderstanding, “The Puritan fought the Devil and the savage within himself, and he called the struggle conscience. . . . Often more terrible than the savage outside the stockade of the settlement was the savage within the ribcage of the Puritan, and his sternness toward all dissenters was frequently no more than fear of his own nature.”

Where has much of this troubling fear of the future come from?  

I find renowned historian and two-time Pulitzer Prize recipient, Carl Degler’s perspective compelling.

He wrote that prior to the 16th century, Martin Luther, and the Reformation, there existed a relatively predictable, ordered, and secure worldview and belief structure.  That is, a person’s sense of eternal security was guaranteed by the Catholic Church by means of a pronouncement and/or sacrament performed by a priest.

After the non-conformists effectively challenged institutional orthodoxy, coupled with the ensuing sectarian schisms that occurred among dissenters themselves, there emerged an unsettling new reality—the priesthood of every believer.

Every person, thereafter, was obligated to care for his or her own soul.  In effect, individual priesthood became every person’s “own terrifying responsibility.”

Verification of one’s eternal future or elected-ness, has over the centuries since, come to reside in an ambiguous and highly subjective “salvation template.”

It is a template that has unpredictably, yet routinely changed over time, according to Richard E. Wentz, former Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at Arizona State University.

Attempts to secure signs or proof of salvation has changed over the years from a prescribed iconoclasm (destruction of images of worship), to stringent morality (puritanism), to a profession of faith, and finally to an individualizing of faith or to “saving steps” (Four Spiritual Laws).

4 steps

John 14:6, then, became a popular proof-text because it so comfortably accommodated and “proved” the popular four-step salvation template.

What is evident upon historical reflection of all “saving steps or stages,” however, is that in the post-16th century European world, life increasingly was lived as if “conducting an examination,” and Scripture read “as if peering in a mirror”—largely for the purpose of appeasing a troubled conscience and assuaging a loving, yet capricious God.

Illustrating a troubled conscience, are the words of Lucy Lindley’s biographer, wife of American Board 19-century missionary to South Africa, Daniel Lindley:

“Lucy was always in a state of anxiety about them [her children], their health and spiritual welfare.  Her introspection was painful in its intensity.  She was morbidly conscientious.  She who was so transparently good was always lamenting her sins.  The memory haunted her of the wide sleeves she wore when a girl, wasting stuff that might have been sold to feed the poor.  It troubled her for days when she found that a tradesman had given her ten cents too much change: ‘I must return it.  He must see that I am honest’. . . . When she saw Mary playing cards it threw her into a state of prostration that lasted for days.  That one of her boys should go to the theatre, that two of them should spend a rainy morning in the holidays at a billiard table, she took to be sure signs that they were on the road to perdition. Sincerely religious, always pouring out her heart in gratitude for blessings bestowed upon her, religion brought her little joy and serenity.  Not a happy woman; but noble in her high sense of duty and her unconquerable spirit.”

As for Matthew 28:18-20 . . . Given the complicity of imperialism/colonialism with civilizing the “heathen” by means of christianizing them, a legitimizing text was needed for this civilizing venture – i.e., just as U.S. slave owners and South African apartheid proponents co-opted Old Testament scripture as justification for their racist attitudes and actions.

What better, more suitable text for the sailing ships and their crew and passengers than Matthew’s – “Go and make disciples of all nations“?  It fit like a glove.

No one makes clearer this linkage of text with enterprise than Sri Lankan, R. S. Sugirtharajah, Professor of Biblical Hermeneutics at University of Birmingham, U.K, who I had the fortune to study under for one week in 2001.

Relying on Alan Kreider’s research, Sugirtharajah persuasively argues by quoting from primary texts that there was very little formal preaching or institutionalized mission during the growth of the pre-Christendom church, and even less admonition to evangelize.

How then did the Jesus movement grow in those early years?

It grew primarily through public demonstrations of faith or people bearing testimony to their experience of faith.  For example, faith was mediated by martyrdom.  Bystanders were astonished and in awe of those who willingly died for what they believed in.  Faith was also mediated by behavior and generous acts of charity.  The Jesus movement also grew, according to Kreider, because of the extraordinary character of worship, which prepared Christians to live exemplary, above-reproach lives in the world.

Concluding Thoughts:

I appeal to my own faith community of upbringing – evangelical, Protestant, Christian – that it’s time to:

Stop idolizing certainty, particularly the Bible and Jesus. 

Set aside your illusionary claim to “absolute” ownership (and interpretation) of truth.

When you are so controlling and insistent on your perspective, it really does not help you love others well. Ultimately it’s your attempt to control even God.

As a Lutheran pastor recently and rightly noted, we live in a time where the “public square” is the forum where people of all faiths and people who reject all faiths come together and bear testimony – not behind pulpits or in moral statements pronounced behind protective and insulated walls.

allaboutgod

Samir Selmanovic, a favorite alternative Christian voice of mine, makes the following remarks in It’s Really All About God:

“Is a God who favors anyone over anyone else worth worshiping?”

“We have saturated our religions with our own selves, and the most direct way to enter a new whirlwind of fresh and substantive religious experience is to seek and find the image of God in those who are not in our image.  It is really all about God, and God is really all about all of us.  Yet, we are afraid to be in the image of God.  And we are terrified of the prospect of finding the image of God in those who are not in our image.  This is not a call to one religion for all.  It is a call for every religion to find a way that is good for all people.”

“So much of who we all are depends on maintaining a polarized and conflicted world.  To challenge this state of affairs by finding God in the other not only disrupts our communal sense of identity but also alters our social and economic structures on every level, from our families to our nations.  In some twisted way, we have learned to benefit from the misery of the divided world we have created.  Now we have to unlearn what we think we know and then learn to embrace this newfound reality of our globally intertwined community.”

Stop thinking you, your church and Christianity as a whole will succeed together in saving the world (a popular 19th century motto was “evangelizing the world in this generation”).

Reality and history communicate the exact opposite – a persistent growth and renaissance of world faiths.

Yes, you can point to numerous examples of individuals whose lives were transformed through a conversion experience or to “church growth” or to “spiritual revivals,” yet these examples communicate a fraction of the truth.

For instance, the growth of the church and large-scale conversions in Africa and in many parts of Asia, are documented by the likes of University of Cape Town professor, David Chidester, as occurring only after their people experienced or were subjugated to the destruction or disintegration of independent economic, social and political life.

Corroborating this assertion is 19th-century American missionary Silas McKinney’s letter back to his missionary board, “They (Zulus) are in a transition state, breaking away from the Zulu nation, and dissolving into little bodies, and coming together again in news forms, and thus placing themselves in positions most happy for the successful introduction of the gospel.”  A colleague, Aldin Grout similarly wrote, “the Zulu nation as such is extinct.  This I have been looking for ever since I left the Zulu country.”

Sharing missionary, as well as mission trip stories of individuals, whose lives were changed when they “gave their hearts to Jesus” should not be minimized, yet neither should they effectively over-shadow or silence the many more stories of people, who likely were repelled and repulsed by both the message, method and motivation of Christians’ so-called “good news.”

Take Mahatma Gandhi, for instance.  In his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments With Truth, he wrote, “Christian missionaries used to stand in a corner near the high school and hold forth, pouring abuse on Hindus and their gods. I could not endure this.  I must have stood there to hear them once only, but that was enough to dissuade me from repeating the experiment.”

In Zimbabwe I once heard a missionary speak of “wind evangelism.”  Upon questioning, he said this was a method of evangelism, whereby when you’re traveling along the highway at 75 mph, you roll your window down and release gospel tracts. These, then, flutter to the feet of Zimbabweans, who are walking or riding a bicycle, and, of course, we are then to believe this method of saving some justifies the means.

A colleague of his shared frustration at the difficulty of obtaining accurate records of baptisms. He then hit on a “novel idea” of offering to pay $1 or $2 Zimbabwe dollars for every certificate that pastors turned in.  Wow – wouldn’t you know it!  Baptisms increased dramatically in the ensuing months!

That’s Americans in Africa, but here in the U.S. it’s little different.  Although popularity seems somewhat diminished of late, I still read of churches re-enacting the Columbine Massacre, replete with shotgun during Hell House at Halloween, or implementing a Top Ten Most Wanted list, whereby you list ten people in your life who “need Jesus” and who you “target” with the gospel.

Insteadstart demonstrating how Christianity (faith) is an appreciably meaningful and practical “way of life” in the present.

Try to stop speaking so many spiritual platitudes, which in effect serve to exonerate one from involvement in the messiness of people’s daily lives.  An example that occurred during a visit by a U.S. “Christian”-based NGO leader to KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.  If a destitute family welcome you into their home at your request, and then in the course of conversation express a heartfelt need for tuition assistance or a pair of shoes, don’t glibly voice with your pleated Ralph Lauren khaki pants and your buffed, shiny brown Oxford shoes, “Let’s pray and I’m sure that God will provide for your needs.”  No, you are God in those moments and you need to do any and everything within your means to assist this family.

As Samir puts it, “People are not looking for someone to show them how to escape life; they are looking for practicing sojourners and communities to help them walk the landscape of life. There is something impotent about contemporary Christianity, and it has to do with its inability to re-imagine the answer to the question ‘What do I get for following Jesus?‘  For too many Christians the answer is (simply) ‘heaven.'”

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