None of this is new
It hurts to feel like Christianity has lost its way. But the history of Christian witness is one of faithful dissent from the church
Almost a year ago, my church held a routine vote on whether or not to take out a 2.5 million dollar loan to supplement the money we’ve been raising for a new building.
My position on this project from the beginning has been that it is a serious sin for a predominantly wealthy congregation to spend millions of dollars to obtain for themselves a lavish building in a poor neighborhood struggling with gentrification, and the not-so-great racial dynamics that have unfolded since have done little to assuage my fears.
I was not particularly surprised that I lost the vote. The whole thing was mostly a formality, with no real request for input from the congregation. A negative result could have called the entire building project into question, something our church has consistently framed as both God’s will and God’s (rather than wealthy donors’) gift to us. I did not really expect this to be the direction we chose.
But I was startled to learn that ninety-three percent of the congregation voted for the loan.
Ninety-three percent means that I and the handful of names that come to my mind as “no”s were quite possibly the only negative votes in the entire church.
Ninety three percent of my church voted to enthusiastically embrace a project that’s cost me many many hours of lost sleep.
Ninety three percent of my church worships the same God I do even as we seem to disagree on some of the most fundamental aspects of his character.
And regardless of who’s right, regardless of how Jesus would have voted, regardless of anything at all, what’s plain to me about my position in all this is how much it… well, how much it sucks.
It sucks to count the cost of each new addition to our building in units of “hundreds of avoidably dead kids”. It sucks to spend more and more of your prayer and devotional bible time feeling frustrated that no one seems willing to engage with what’s so clearly right there. It sucks lying awake at night anxiously trying to decide whether it’s better to find a church that sees the way you see or to try to push the church you’re already in towards the Jesus you think you know. It sucks being told again and again that what’s central is negotiable and what’s debatable is central.
I have spent the last year or so looking for ways to pretend it doesn’t suck. I’ve tried and failed to find the “one weird mental health trick” to attain inner peace. I’ve asked more and more of my friends in similar situations how they keep from going insane and the answer seems to be that most of them don’t.
In fact, for most of them, it sucks more — I’m unhappy with the apathy the Evangelical church shows the global poor, the condescension with which we treat women, the cruelty our pulpits show my LGBT friends and neighbors. Yet no matter how well I try to empathize, this will never suck for me as much as it does for the targets of the indifference, the discrimination, the unkindness.
Because even when churches eventually come around, there is a real cost to sin, and it usually isn’t paid by the sinners.
(Aside: Kyle J Howard made a similar point in a series of tweets a couple of days ago, about the rampant racism in Evangelical churches. I’ve included the whole thread here because it’s worth reading.)
I don’t really like to compare different people’s suffering — if you are sad and I have depression, it doesn’t mean that you’re fine. You are allowed to feel bad even when others have it worse.
But I do think there’s a certain kind of unhappiness that comes when you, consciously or not, feel like you’re the only person in the world who feels a certain way. Sometimes it’s understandable when facing serious and heart-wrenching loss, and sometimes (in my experience) it’s something more akin to self-pity. In either case, it’s the pain of feeling hurt without a story to tell you why.
And I think a deep source of this unhappiness is that the stories Evangelicalism tells itself — not that the church ought to be more kind, more just, more righteous than its neighbors, but that it already is — don’t have space to consider that a church tradition might embrace every sort of greed and apathy even while condemning its neighbors as “sinners”.
I remember hearing how MLK and the abolitionists were Christians, called to good works by their faith. And they were. But I don’t remember hearing that they were outnumbered by “good Christian men” and women who believed their religion backed their support of the worst of evils.
I remember the bishop in Les Misérables, a good man who sacrifices the few nice things he owns for a poor criminal he’s barely even met. But I don’t remember hearing that Victor Hugo wrote Bishop Myriel as a satire of the actual church, seeking to shame the bishops he saw living “spiritual lives” of silent luxury as the rights and needs of the poor were trampled.
And while I remember hearing that the church should be a light to the world, a source of moral leadership, I primarily remember hearing that it already was, and you may be able to imagine that it is frustrating to jump from this belief to the realization that many of the churches near you aren’t even clearing the lowest ethical bars you have for secular organizations. (Seriously, how is “can women hold leadership positions?” still a real topic of discussion??)
In trying to process this I have been finding solace in the fact that the Bible doesn’t always (or even usually) depict the church as good. The nominal people of God are often greedy, cruel, and worldly. The Israelites worshipped a golden calf while Moses was on the mountain with God and thanked God for their freedom with a series of gruesome religiously-tinged genocides. The prophets spent half their lives pleading in vain with a country that insisted that social justice was secondary to their version of “the gospel” and the other half mourning with the survivors who hadn’t listened. And again and again Jesus tells the religious leaders of his day (and those who’d later preach in his name) that they will not be going to heaven if they don’t start caring for the poor.
This history reassures me that when we find ourselves angry, frustrated, hurt, and triggered by churches who’ve forgotten what it means to love their neighbors, it does not mean that something has gone wrong in us. It is not because we don’t understand “the gospel” or because we are “being divisive”. And while it is worth pursuing therapy for anything that keeps you up at night, our feelings are not necessarily “problems” to be “fixed.”
(It certainly must not mean that we do not love the church or our brothers and sisters within it.)
It means we may need to tell ourselves new stories, of lost people who believe they’ve been found, of counting the cost of following Christ not only by worldly persecution but through challenges within the church that claims his name, of godliness counted not by proximity to power but by humility and grace.
And we will find that these stories are perhaps not so new after all, and the paths we walk are not fresh but well-trodden by biblical figures, civil rights heroes, desert monks, and a million other people Christ treasures who we never thought to look for.
This post is already too long for many specifics (stay tuned!), but I do want to share a quick example I’ve been sitting with recently.
The prophet Jeremiah spends one of the longer books of the Old Testament begging an apostate church to return from its idolatry and its social and economic injustice. Jeremiah is at times angry, sarcastic, and threatening, and over the course of years he calls Israel every name in the book.
And what he says ultimately comes true: the kingdom that believed itself to be God’s is destroyed, subject to a bitter exile at the hands of its enemies.
But here we see a part of Jeremiah’s heart we might have missed in his piercing words: Jeremiah weeps for his city, the book of Lamentations capturing the misery he feels as the nation he preached against finally faces the weight of its sins.
There is a very real temptation to turn others’ sin into an argument to win, a desire to return those who do evil to the dust (or worse.) When our voices are not heard and our warnings are not heeded, there is a very understandable urge to wish that the worst of our predictions might come true so they’ll know that they were wrong.
But the heart of Christ is for people, not ideas, and the goal is not victory but repentance.
If the churches that make us angry finally break apart
If the “Christians” whose lovelessness vexes us find themselves in ruin
If Jesus himself comes back and shamed American Evangelicalism for the hellfest it’s become
Will we weep like Jeremiah that our friends and neighbors bought into the lies of broken systems? Will we feel their pain as if it were our own? Will we have genuinely prayed for hearts to change?
Or were all the times we “spoke the truth in love” just an excuse to feel self-righteous?
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