Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Broken Churches, Violent Nations, and the True Kingdom

Eric Shansby
It’s a difficult time to be a peace-loving American and a follower of Christ.

On one hand are the apologists for the Catholic church who are starting to circle the wagons.

If you leave the church, you’re doing what Satan wants you to do.” Nice shaming of people who can’t deal with the abuse and the hypocrisy anymore. Do you also say that to battered women who want to leave their husbands?

“If you walk away, then you were never really one of us to begin with.” Ah, yes, the old No True Scotsman fallacy. It's how true believers tune out criticism. Evangelicals use that one too, to describe the backsliders in their midst. 

Bishops are pointing fingers at gay men. Other bishops are pointing fingers at the pope. The pope offers tepid apologies and asks the entire church to fast and pray, for the sins of men that the church will do nothing about.

It’s obvious at this point that nothing will change unless the church is forced to change. At a bare minimum, that means withholding money from the collection plate until the church makes it clear that it's serious about getting its act together. 

On my way to church last Sunday (not a Catholic church, mind you), I turned on the car radio. It was set to EWTN, the Catholic radio station, from a previous trip. The first thing I heard was two women discussing the consistency of cervical mucus. These were tips for how you can engage in natural family planning – because, of course, policing the use of contraception is something the church should be really worried about when its priests rape children and their superiors cover up for them. So remember, check your cervical mucus so God doesn't send you to hell for using a pill. And if you do use birth control, no communion for you – but if you’re a priest who violates a child, we’ll just move you to another parish and pay off the victims, and could you please prepare communion for Mass?

Later, there was a priest offering a prayer for people who “suffer” from same-sex attraction. He asked that God would open their eyes to the divine plans he had in mind for the union of men and women. As if gay people have a disease that can be cured with some kind of holiness pill. Since many in the church are already blaming gay men for the abuse crisis, I suppose this shouldn’t be a surprise, but it was certainly eye-opening. The church says nice things about gay people, going on about how it welcomes them into worship – but then it turns around and condemns them to a life of celibacy. Remind me again how well celibacy has worked out for your priests.

A few days later came the death of John McCain. I could never have expected the over-the-top hagiographies that liberals, of all people, would be offering for this man. The man who was the very embodiment of American militarism and imperialism, who never met a war or military intervention he didn’t like, whose policies led to the suffering and death of hundreds of thousands of human beings around the globe, who once referred to peace activists as “low-life scum.” From peace to civil liberties, McCain could be reliably counted on to be on the wrong side of every issue. If you ever wanted some kind of gauge on where to stand on a topic, all you had to do was look at where McCain and Lindsey Graham stood, and it was generally a safe bet to take the opposite view.

I think there are two things at play in the glorification of John McCain. One is that he criticized Donald Trump. So leftists are rushing in to praise him as a voice of reason in the Republican Party, I guess so they can look bipartisan, or just so they can tweak Trump. The enemy of my enemy is my friend. The irony, of course, is that if McCain had succeeded in his 2008 presidential campaign, he would be remembered today not as some kind of towering hero but as the man who denied Barack Obama the presidency and foisted Sarah Palin on the nation. Political amnesia, it seems, has reached epidemic proportions.

Second, Americans have been thoroughly conditioned, for going on 17 years now, to reflexively support anything to do with the military. So McCain becomes an automatic “hero” for “serving his country.” That it was in a war Americans had no business being involved in doesn’t matter in the slightest. In this sense, we’re seeing the result of years of being told to “support the troops,” which, as Noam Chomsky once pointed out, deflects us from asking the real questions, like why are we fighting these wars in the first place?

We can’t ask those questions, because then we might discover that the idea we’re “fighting for our freedom” is a myth – that we’re actually propagandizing young men and women to put on a uniform not in defense of their country, but in pursuit of propping up American empire and appeasing the shareholders of defense contractors. The entire edifice would come crumbling down if the truth were revealed.

And so we have to prop up the nationalistic myths that keep the war machine running. Part and parcel of that process is to glorify anyone who has ever put on a uniform, which we do, by uncritically thanking everyone “for their service.” And that’s why we now have people – from the political left!losing their minds that a flag over the White House isn’t at half-staff in honor of a warmonger. If there ever was a clearer sign of how nationalism brings out the worst tribal tendencies in human beings, and of how far to the right our entire nation has lurched politically, I have yet to see it.

As all this nonsense unfolds, I’m beginning to see the wisdom of the traditional Anabaptist view of turning one’s back on the corrupt kingdoms of this world. The kingdoms of this world don’t know peace. They know conflict and violence. They elevate their own tribe over others, based on nothing more than fictional political borders, and employ nationalistic myths to unite the populace behind them.

The Way Redux
Only in a nation that has confused Jesus with national interests could Christians make excuses for why we shouldn’t feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and welcome the stranger, but why we should pour more than $700 billion of our financial resources into making even more planes and bombs, so we can fight even more wars. (That the obscenely bloated $717 billion defense bill was named in McCain’s honor is a sadly fitting epitaph that sums up his regrettable legacy.) We’re then left trying to explain why Jesus didn’t really say what he meant. And so we filter the words of Jesus through Paul and the Old Testament, rather than the other way around, because where Paul and the Old Testament leave room for violence and judgment, subjugation and condemnation, Jesus holds us to a higher standard.

He reserved his harshest rebukes for the self-righteous religious hypocrites who laid heavy burdens on people but then refused to lift a finger to help.

He rebuked Peter for using violence in his defense, and said that all who lived by the sword will die by the sword.

He met people where they were, dining with sinners and outcasts, causing scandal among the pious religious classes as he poured out love, mercy, compassion, and forgiveness in abundance.

He said to look past an eye for an eye.

He said “blessed are the peacemakers,” not the makers of war.

He said “blessed are the merciful,” not the vengeful.

He didn’t ask his followers to avenge his death, but rather forgave those who crucified him.

These are not values consistent with the kingdoms of the world. The kingdoms of the world cannot function without violence or the threat of violence. The kingdom of God, in contrast, cannot function without love and mercy. When we try to make the kingdom of God run on the values of the kingdoms of this world, we end up distorting God and serving two masters. We take two incompatible things and try to make them compatible.

We are called to bring the kingdom of God into this world, but not by imposing God’s kingdom onto the worldly kingdoms. We are to be a people set apart, known by our love, witnessing for the values Christ wanted us to embrace, so that we can make the kingdom of God attractive to others disillusioned with the values of this world and looking for a new way to live, a new way to be.

Glorifying flags and wars, embracing nationalist myths, promoting violence. These things don’t bring us closer to the kingdom of God.

Overlooking the abuses of religious leaders in defense of an institution in desperate need of reform – that won’t bring us closer to the kingdom, either. Nor will shaming those who walk away from the corruption and choose to follow Christ elsewhere.

We have much work to do. Changing the way we look at the world isn’t easy. But we are promised that the results will be worth the effort.

So what’s stopping us?

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