Elevating the ‘Christian Nation’ Heresy I

Christian Nation Heresy

What Wrong With This Heresy?

It seems not to occur to us that when he refused the Satan’s offer of earthly power and glory, Jesus wasn’t leaving it for us. Rather he showed us that we like him are to shun the Satan’s offer. But we don’t get it.

That, or we refuse to get it. This is because what Satan offered is exactly what many so-called ‘conservative’ Christians want. Translation?

While they don’t admit it, many ‘conservative’ Christians believe Jesus got the Satan’s temptation wrong. They think Jesus ought to have taken the offer. Consequently, they work to gain what Jesus relinquished.

Where relationship to earthly power is concerned, many fundamentalist and broader evangelical ‘Christians’ take up a flag in one hand and a cross in the other, and declare their spiritual solidarity with Lucifer.

Dr. Ray Rooney Jr.

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What an opportunity the political landscape of America has provided for her church.

Friday last, Ray Rooney published a piece for the American Family Association. The title comes in the form of the question, ‘On the Cusp of National Revival?’

When Jesus wrote the church at Philadelphia, he said ‘I have put before you an open door which no one can shut’ [Re 3:8]. In a Biblical theology, ministry is an outgrowth of the work of Jesus. The suggestion that churchly opportunity arises from the shifting political landscape is born of rank unbelief. It also postulates US political culture as the mediator of divine blessing.

Moreover, Mr. Rooney recalls that twice, President Obama was elected. He equates those years with rising debauchery and bestial impulses bent on effecting political tyranny in the land. For his assertions, he offers not the slightest theoretical analysis. Are we to accept this because he says it?

Likewise, the church appeared to have fallen into apostasy during the Obama years. He continues…

‘And the church provided little in the way of hope for change or guidance; she was more interested in being accepted by the puppeteers of culture driven by darkness than transforming the lost through the proclamation of God’s righteousness and the powerful blood of Jesus Christ. ‘

Partisan Gospel

We should have no illusions about Ray Rooney’s partisan gospel. His unstated premise implies a correlation between partisan fortunes and faithful proclamation leading to God’s blessing. That is a lie. It is heresy. It is blasphemy. A partisan gospel is not a universal gospel. And the gospel of Jesus is for all people. This includes so-called ‘liberals.’

Mr. Trump’s election is the switch on which this twisted narrative turns. It now appears that we may stand on the cusp of a national revival. He wants us to know that evangelical leaders made a difference on Nov 8.

What ‘Christian’ Influence!

With many fine exceptions, the reality is that the North American church serves as a conduit connecting political process and the White House with the gutter. Such presidential nominations as we have seen in this election cycle are vomited up when a political order is in terminal decline. Still, this doesn’t prevent Rooney from ‘going evangelical’ and saying:

‘We will always have a welcome and needed contingent of people calling the body of Christ to love, forgive, and accept God’s love.’

This constitutes neither Mr. Rooney nor the American Family Association for which he writes as one of those fine exceptions. The narrative to which he returns about sin and salvation does not mesh with a partisan gospel. But he apparently prefers that we see it otherwise.

God willing, more on this tomorrow.

Friday Challenge — What’s Wrong With This Picture?

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Thanks to David Hayward over at Naked Pastor. I keep using his material. But how do you top this?

Church and the Anointing Power

Today’s Friday Challenge is simple.

In one sentence, what’s wrong with this picture.

Example:

Christian Fundamentalism presents itself as the alternative to and antidote for the world while it itself epitomizes worldly, humanistic secularity.

Escape clause — use more sentences if necessary.

A Visitor’s Response to an IFB Sermon

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A Report on the Sermon

This evaluates a November 6, 2016 message delivered at a local IFB sect. It is a lengthy post and comes late in the day. So it will stand for two days. I’ve taken more time for this because basically, this post required me to write the sermon I believe pastor ought to have produced.

Fundamentalist preachers are renowned for their condemnation of those who take part in the mixed multitude. But this fundie preacher gave us a ‘mixed multitude’ message. The message could have been much worse; but then it could certainly have been better as well.

Text:  Ge 39:13-23
Title: Making the Best of a Bad Situation

Initial Evaluation

Some attention was given to the context, and the message did attempt to derive points from the text. The opening compared Joseph’s circumstances to hardships and calamities in our lives. A job loss, collapsing health or an auto accident were presented as circumstances similar in kind to what Joseph experienced in Potiphar’s house. But that doesn’t express all of the pastor’s thoughts. Later, he did better by drawing attention to the pivotal role of Yahweh’s Presence in Joseph’s story with this reference.

‘But the LORD was with Joseph and extended kindness to him, and gave him favor in the sight of the chief jailer’ [Ge 39:21].

This is a turning point in the narrative. To his credit, pastor noted this. He stressed the point of YHWH’s Presence at various parts in Joseph’s story.

‘Making the Best of a Bad Situation’ misconstrues the intent of the text. As already noted, pastor knows better than this. The use of this title introduces a touch of ‘narrative misdirection.’ Related to this is the absence of a central metaphor to unify and sum the message.

Later, pastor said that God can bring order out of chaos. This is a good point that should be heard. But had he really nailed this, it would have shaped his message in helpful ways. A message on God’s inscrutability or divine mystery [think ‘Eucharist’] might challenge people to seek God’s presence in the midst of his seeming absence.

This could also lead to a message on faith as the substance of things not seen. The mention of God’s Presence in Joseph’s circumstances was good. But it needed more attention than it received in the message.

Discovering Joseph

This message was predicated on a serious flaw. That flaw made for fallacious exegesis, two competing homiletic strategies. and bad theology.

Pastor said early on that Joseph was ‘a cut above’ his brothers. His dreams showed that he was destined for greatness. This led to moralizing on ideas more indicative of pastor’s own thinking than the Biblical text.

Joseph rises in each situation because of his personal and spiritual quality. Rather than reacting to opposition with anger or bitterness, he shows resilience and focuses on being a blessing. God expects us to flourish. We should be the best [most industrious and productive] employees with the best ideas for improving their work environment. In this way, we — like Joseph — rise to the top in any situation.

Undoubtedly, Christians are to seek to be a blessing to others. But pastor contextualized this in a works-based theology. He also implies a Christian duty for workers to acquiesce to ruling class demands in today’s capitalist system of ownership and exploitation. If this came up in a Bible Study, I’d ask pastor if he’d considered the possibility that Joseph’s ‘blessing’ was in an example to fellow Potiphar slaves to refuse to be degraded to bemuse their owners. More on that later.

So while Yahweh’s Presence in the Joseph story is duly noted, it is clear that two, very different systems are at work — one work, and one grace.

De-compiling Joseph

Pastor’s ‘cut above’ Joseph seriously misrepresents the family dynamics at work in this story. In reality, Joseph was the typical favored, protected and utterly spoiled brat of a doting father whose favoritism was clear to all.

In Hebraic culture, age and order of birth mattered greatly. When Samuel was to anoint Jesse’s son, the youngest [David] didn’t even come to mind.

Joseph’s ‘dreams’ [which his brothers likely assumed he invented] were not only delusional but profoundly disrespectful. That he could do this under Jacob’s protection was socially outrageous. Was daddy grooming the obnoxious little taunting brat to displace them as he did uncle Esau?

Far from being ‘a cut above’ those around him, Joseph resembles their father ‘Jacob’ [trickster, heel-catcher] closely. And Jacob’s tolerance of his behavior appears to reward him for it. Certainly, the coat does that. And later, the other brothers show their stuff by deceiving the ‘trickster’ when they present that blood-stained coat to Jacob for his opinion on it.

Why it Matters for Pastoral Ministry

This pictures extreme family dysfunction. Relationships are broken. Issues cannot be discussed. Authority is abused and the worst behavior is not only tolerated but rewarded. And the situation is static. Every indication is that no change will come until the brothers themselves become agents of change through blind outrage and betrayal of Joseph.

The Joseph story is a wonderful opportunity to open up these deeply-hidden but broadly experienced family issues. And families need this, because similar because similar dynamics bestride our families profoundly to this day. That opportunity was lost because of faulty exegesis, and a homiletic strategy broken two competing theologies. And many issues in the lives and homes of families represented did not benefit from this.

Initially, Joseph was someone his brothers couldn’t respect. He used the power he had for his own gratification [ironically, as Mrs. Potiphar meant to use him]. He showed the harm of dysfunctional family relations work. But he must become someone his brothers will respect. He must learn to use his gifts NOT for self-gratification but to dedicate them to God and others. He will learn to embody what family is supposed to be. But will any of this change ever come in the house of Jacob?

Thus we see the work of God’s presence in the midst of seeming absence.

Potiphar’s Wife’s Eyes

If God’s presence in Joseph’s experiences received too little attention, Potiphar’s wife did receive attention. We were reminded that any woman who would attempt this seduction undoubtedly did so more than once. I won’t belabor this. You can guess where it went. And it is more important to follow the ‘look with desire’ motif in and beyond Genesis.

We see this in Ge 3:6, — the fruit pleased the eyes, and was desired to make one wise. In Ge 13:10, Lot ‘lifted up his eyes’ and saw the Jordan valley — like the Garden of God. It bears asking whether in Ge 39, there may be something more than what ‘meets the eyes’ happening.

Ps 123:1 says, ‘To you [Yahweh, the Lord], I lift up my eyes.’ But eyes are also lifted up to idols. And in Ez 18:12-13, those who do also oppress poor and needy people, rob them, and do not restore pledges. They are usurers. This connects very directly to many social justice passages that bear on practices of oppression, evil plotting against the helpless and the poor.

So is Ge 39 really about a woman’s blotched seduction and her wrath? Or, is this a call to reflect on unjust relationships and ways people who don’t have power, position or wealth are exploited and used by those who do?

Joseph’s position was not unlike Bathsheba’s. When David summonsed her, what choice did she have? To refuse was a sentence of death.

In fundamental preacher hands, Potiphar’s wife routinely symbolizes the practiced seductress of good men. That is demonstrably untrue to the text.

‘Shakab’ [lie with me] is a singular imperative form. That was no request. It was a direct order from a master’s wife to a slave. Joseph deliberately disobeyed. Her ire was very understandable in that day and place. Pastor erred to make it into a ‘hell knows no fury like a woman scorned’ thing.

Joseph’s refusal proscribed limits to Egypt’s institution of slavery. This challenged social and legal precepts under-girding Egyptian society. And once he refused the order, could Mrs. Potiphar under that system ignore this disobedience as if it hadn’t happened? Joseph’s refusal to be degraded on an owner’s whim is an extraordinary witness to watching slaves!

Where is the Cross

Joseph can be tied to Jesus’ temptation. Offered all the kingdoms of the world, he refused them to serve God. This is not to remake Potiphar’s wife as the devil. But through her Ge 39 does show how evil works in spheres of earthly relationships, power and influence [ironically recalling Joseph’s past abuse of power]. Joseph’s refusal of Egypt’s earthly system is what happens in Jesus’ temptation and in his death on the cross. That leads to the most grievous flaw in the pastor’s message and it is this.

The cross was missing in pastor’s sermon. As he finished, we the ‘Jesus talk’ came. But it was an appendix with no actual tie to Ge 39. While Ge 39 makes no reference to the cross, Joseph’s refusal to serve earth’s power system fights the same battle as did Jesus on the cross.

But where Joseph faced a small skirmish, Jesus disarmed and exposed to open shame not only Egypt’s power, but of all earthly systems by rising again [Co 2:15]. And earth’s power system must be ended finally. For in time, Egypt’s slave system would enlarge itself to enslave Joseph’s nation. But that is for another message.

Application for Today

Another point pastor missed: it was in and through Joseph’s hardship that he was a blessing to others. And the ability of the church to minister the healing of Christ is no greater than its ability to absorb earth’s wounds into itself. A church that cannot absorb the earth’s pain cannot heal it. It was only as Christ absorbed our wounds into his both that we are healed.

The cross stands with the Josephs and Bathshebas of the world. So we are called to stand by them also in our time and place. By reducing this story to one of self-gratification versus personal integrity, the cross is robbed of power and glory, and the passage is beggared and trivialized. This is not what Christians do with the cross.

Whether it is Potiphar’s wife or Pharaoh’s decree, we can say that…

‘All that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world’ [1Jo 2:16].

Writing from a Jewish perspective, Hillel I. Millgram’s skillfully crafted text, The Joseph Paradox: A Radical Reading of Genesis 37-50′ raises some intriguing questions that we ought to consider. Consider these two:

What is the role of God in an apparently secular world? How are God’s people to exert a redeeming influence in a world of violence, tyranny and injustice?

As oppression enlarges and unrest against morphs into a permanent, public fixture, such questions assume profound import for God’s people. Have we a word from the cross proscribing limits to what the Pharaohs in our time and place can do? Have we a witness to the powerless who live as wage-slaves in the wealthiest nation on earth?

As a first step, can we address issues of family dysfunction where too many ‘Jacobs’ or ‘Mrs. Potiphars’ abuse their influence and position for trivial pleasure and self-gratification? Can pastors find pulpit courage to show how unjust power relations in our home, workplaces, pulpits and IFB sects imitate the earthly Pharaohs around us?

Finally, who are emerging as the God’s oppressed children in Egypt in our time and place? Can we identify and encourage those who are without power and desperately need support? Can we do so from the perspective that puts the cross and our witness to it front and central?

I feel that such questions are critical for good preaching. This is a way of continuing the conversation about the message after the service. Speaking only for myself, I would far rather that people come away from service with multiple questions about then text than to think that they had all the answers when they’d not heard many of the issues in the text.

Closing:

In place of the sophistic choruses sung at the IFB service, here are two versions of the hymn, ‘If You But Suffer God to Guide Thee’ [music by Johannes Sebastian Bach]. If nothing else moved you, hopefully this will. I realize that sermon evaluations are not everyone’s cup of tea … 😉

The difference between great hymns and choruses is that the former sustain God’s people in the low points of our Christian existence. Here is the perspective of God whose Presence works in seeming absence.

A cappella [two voices]
Organ version [choir]

Visiting a Local IFB Sect

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A Report on the Visit

Recently, I promised a post on my visit at a local IFB sect.

After parking in the church lot, I made my way to an entrance. I walked pass several vehicles with ‘TRUMP’ and GOP bumper stickers. It was a short walk from the entry way to the meeting room, which was largely populated. Several sets of glass doors gave entry into the large meeting room. A set was positioned by each aisle. I sat at the back where I could see the most.

Thanks to good peripheral vision, I observed that as Pastor took to the pulpit, the glass doors closed. As he went through perfunctory welcomes, etc., latecomers were obliged to stand and wait. Goons [deacons?] were stood at each door with a mitt on the handle to see that no one sneaked past. They peered through the glass intently as if expecting something but not sure for what to look. Some beyond the doors looked uncomfortable. Did I err to take that parking place not far from the entrance?

When the first hymn [actually, it was a chorus introduced as a ‘hymn’] began and everyone was on their feet, the doors opened. The latecomers entered. My sense was that you’re supposed to be very much fixated on the guy at the front, and people seeking seats could break their attention.

A surprising number of goons were on site. Some guarded the entryway behind the glass doors. Others patrolled the main meeting room [notice I’m avoiding the word, ‘sanctuary’]. I seem to recall three in each aisle, although they moved fairly constantly so I can’t be sure. They also did so with practiced ease, giving a sense of false normality. I wondered what their function was. Ensuring that nothing untoward happened, perhaps?

Several groups sang. Along the way an offering was received. I didn’t give. This happened early in the meeting. In my tradition, offerings are received after the message as an act of dedication of life and labor in response to the proclamation. Do they not think that deeply? Or was the overriding concern to ‘get the money’ before anyone changed their minds?

We were not told for what the offering was designated. The General Fund, Christian education, their K-12 School, or divided among supported missionaries — there was no way of knowing. And I didn’t ask. But it seems tacky to take money without announcing for what it is designated.

Several courses were sung. One bordered on a hymn. No anthems [God the Omnipotent, Lift High the Cross, etc.] were sung. The song-leader called out the next verse between each verse. There was no liturgy. Prayers were interspersed with ‘Lord we just.’ There was no planned prayer. But then, there was no unifying service theme around which to plan prayers, hymns or even the Scripture selection. We need this, we need that, so there it is!

Then came the text, the message [another time], and an alter-call. ‘Are you absolutely sure of your salvation … every eye closed and every head bowed with no one looking’ [I neither bowed nor closed]. The goons kept wandering. The music played softly and he continued…

‘In a group this size, I’m certain that there are some who don’t know the Lord …’

I was certain that anyone who buttonholed me as I left would regret the error. It also occurred to me that this ‘eyes closed/head bowed’ posture might intend to encourage visualization and heighten suggestibility. It reminded me of hypnotic induction. But in the message, he assured us that they don’t use psychological tactics. I guess that settles it for sure…

Pan-Flash or Rising Barbarism

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What Gets Reported

Likely, readers know that tens of thousands have marched in US cities and on campuses since one of two [in my opinion] totally unworthy candidates was elevated to high office. Some have been associated with lawless acts. This is the stuff which gets reported.

The response to the Portland OR protest apparently included ‘flash-bangs‘ [presumably military issue] grenades and declaration of a state of riot by police [apparently not city council]. Behind this response stand years of military/material and legal preparation to quell protest to the reactionary direction of the very policies represented in this month’s election.

I don’t know the identity of ‘some protesters [who] used rocks and baseball bats to smash the windows of businesses…’ I won’t rule out the possibility that police provocateurs initiated this behavior to manufacture a pretext for shutting down a protest. I simply don’t know.

What Isn’t Reported

Response to current political developments has another side. It is much more prevalent but is far less visible. Acts of vandalism, intimidation and other injurious offenses are not reported by media. Here are the things I heard this weekend from members of my immediate family and friends.

  • A Muslim woman is told by friends they fear for her wearing her hijab.
  • Swastikas were painted on the residences of six GLBTs in Raleigh, NC.
  • A college student seeking a career in refugee/non-profits fears the degree she is seeking may now be worthless.
  • Gays have been ridiculed on the public transit system in Cleveland, OH.
  • Last week, a woman who works with refugees [when not caring for her husband with MS] realized she needs to find a new church. Over the weekend, this native born American decided she needs to leave the US.
  • An eight-year-old refugee was told that he’ll have to return to Ethiopia.

That is what I’ve heard from immediate family and friends. One family. I’ve a daughter who is a chaplain in Chicago with whom I have not spoken in the past week. She may have more delightful and related stories to tell.

I may be wrong, but I believe present protests, attacks on residences, on women, children and other ostracized communities are not part of a ‘settling in’ after a particularly loathsome election. These are portents of things to come. And as political consciousness rises — and it will — the reason for the militarization of police and the virtual immunity of police from prosecution will become undeniably apparent to all except the most politically illiterate and partisan sycophants.

Church and Social Unrest

‘”You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. “You shall not afflict any widow or orphan. “If you afflict him at all, and if he does cry out to Me, I will surely hear his cry’ [Ex 22:21-23];

Like it or not, the church faces ministry in new societal context. Needed is a strong, principled stand beside the weak and maligned of society against an increasingly lawless and more violent state.

untitled
Meet the boy with the remote — Steve Bannon.

The appointment of the fascist Steve Bannon as a top advisor effectively reiterates Mr. Trump’s intention to imprison and deport millions.

The strong, principled stand for the strangers among us won’t come from the Democratic Party or the ‘liberal’ press. The capitulation of President Obama, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, plus anti-Trump editorialists Thomas Friedman, Nicholas Kristof and Paul Krugman all strengthen Trump to proceed with his heinous agenda.

If opposition to racism, chauvinism, privilege, bigotry and misogyny [to name a few identity issues] isn’t equated with opposition to the state, helping undocumented workers may be. And if Newt Gingrich gets his new House Committee on Un-American Activities, those who supported Trump expecting more freedom of religion may find themselves in deep trouble for practicing Ex 22:21.

But my guess is that you may reliable expect our Fundamentalist sects to wave the ‘law-and-order’ banners and to function as apologists of coming repression, however anti-Ex 22:21 and however barbaric it proves to be.

In the mean time, we can all reach out to someone known in our family circle who could use encouragement. Mine can’t be the only family that runs into this stuff.