I’m saddened and appalled by all that has happened at the Capitol, even more so by what I expect in the coming days and weeks will be horrific revelations that it’s much worse than we currently realize as evidence is already mounting to suggest as much. Saddened, appalled, yes–not shocked.
Now comes the harder part: moving forward in a fractured society, broken seemingly beyond repair. And the prevalence of mob violence didn’t end on January 6: we’re in this now for the long haul, though how long or how bloody we cannot know for sure.
As we do move forward, I think it’s important we consider what needs to be done to trudge forward faithfully in rebuilding a society of accountability and justice.
Repairing this broken country will require coming to terms with its many broken institutions from our politics and our media to our law enforcement and our education system. But as we look to reform these institutions, to bring them back to some sense of sanity, don’t forget the Church.
In some respects, the American Church–a phrase I’m loosely using to describe the state of “Christian” religion by no means limited to the evangelicals–carries much of the blame for our division and propensity to consume propaganda without critical thought.
When I say that, yes, I refer to the ugliness of bad theologies like the prosperity gospel, which sold Americans on a god who fed their narcissistic desires, or dominion theology, which sold Americans on their own exceptionalism and love of power; but perhaps more than right-wing fanaticism, another ugly, not-so-obvious beast has been lurking for decades in more centrist and moderate, even seemingly liberal, churches: a theology for the status quo.
I think a lot about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s letter from a Birmingham jail, particularly that it was addressed not to the Ku Klux Klan and not to members of Congress or the president or to the FBI, but that he writes to fellow clergymen, those who are peers–and who have also been resistant to his message not because they are cross-burning bigots but because they didn’t want to ruffle feathers. That they cautioned patience, promised to deliver later, and earnestly believed that moving slowly, cautiously was a safer approach to attaining racial justice says to me the Church and the American centrist still hasn’t changed.
In fact, the Church learned nothing about justice from MLK, except how to quell it in pretty words.
Today, we have pastors and priests who thrive on the same tired arguments borne mostly out of preserving financially robust pensions and filling the pews each Sunday. When your congregation is people on both sides of the aisle, politically, you surely feel you have to give both sides something to chew on, even if doing so dulls the truth.
These parties work from a place of fear, first. Their theology, despite constantly wrapped up in language about crucifixion and resurrection, brokenness and forgiveness, has one goal above all others: pacify the people. A happy congregation is a giving congregation. A nurtured congregation means a less-stressed pastor.
Theology to these terrified religious leaders is rarely political. Yes, Jesus challenged political authorities constantly, both of the Temple and of the Roman government. Yes, Jesus was constantly critical of what could easily be read as failures of the Roman state to feed its populace, to provide healthcare for its sickest citizens, to treat those the state had imprisoned with dignity. Yes, Jesus’ followers included zealots who were seen as existential threats to the political establishment. But, that is not a theology of interest to centrist Church leaders, to those tasked to the promise of as little meaningful change as possible.
Their Jesus, like their whitewashed image of MLK, is patient and kind, a model citizen who challenges, yes, but the issues at stake are always in the past, or must come in small doses, vague philosophies, or meandering symbolic stories that reinforce more superficial realities than an in-depth, soul-searching challenge that could cause dissonance or changed perspectives.
That is, the status quo theology is concerned mostly about the color of the carpet, the kind of music–traditional or contemporary, the internal divisions between one parishioner and the next and whether they can work to forgive one another, even silly, contrived issues like whether you had road rage on Saturday or got upset and said a bad word during the football game. The message of this theology is how to get through your week, until next Sunday when they tell you how to get through that week.
Larger, systemic issues are a big “no-no” in the status quo Church. You do not dare speak of racial injustices unless you’re talking about having overcome them already. You do not dare speak about human rights unless they are those belonging to a people far away no one will ever meet (and never tied back to anything too close to home). You dare not address “taboo” topics that could be life-and-death topics to people who aren’t these congregants. The real problems must be distant, which is why mission trips are always an adventure and far away and why difference is only admirable in that it is exotic, intended to teach us about why we are and have already what they want.
Wrapped up in this theology of the status quo is, of course, the necessity to keep a moderate people moderated. You absolutely must quell any dissent that sounds too political, too one-wing or another, dismissing more readily the awful language and views of congregants whose tithing is consistent no matter how reprehensible that rhetoric may be, or in other cases, dismissing the reprehensible rhetoric because it comes from a person who isn’t taken seriously, even though they may be saying things that are deadly serious.
In a country where the truth itself has became political, following the truth down that path has also become too risky or dangerous for the status quo Church. That’s precisely why both-sidesism and false equivalencies became so prevalent among religious leaders in our current day and age. If “both sides” of the political spectrum are equally depraved in the eyes of their God, both can be equally redeemed, which puts everyone on the same playing field. And it’s easier to get everybody in the boat together, sailing smoothly, if they all believe they are ordained to be there.
For that reason, I am wary of any rhetoric of “unity” over justice and accountability, and I have no doubt that this very language–coming most recently from the president-elect in his acceptance speech–is borne out of his Catholic faith, which like other religious entities of today obsesses over the idea of there being one, unified Church under the authority of the magisterium. What the president-elect may not realize, however, is just how much “unity” within the status quo Church comes at the expense of the dispossessed and to the benefit of the privileged. The very idea of “unity” in this sense is naturally authoritarian. American unity, then, is less a call to come together for a social good and more a call to come together under the dollar, or the power brokers who own it.
But is this effort to keep things so tame, so unified really all about money and power? Well, yes.
Church (from the time the pilgrims came here for safe haven but even more so in a hyper-individualistic culture) is a voluntary association in America–a good thing, to be sure, having come far from the days of religious monarchies. Yet, when a religious institution is fully voluntary, its successes or failures hinge on how it can compete with other religious experiences in the same marketplace. As a result, so long as religion in America is a fully capitalistic venture, the experience of religion here will always have more to do with its relevancy and popularity, ultimately its ability to drive capital, and not with what might be in the best interest of the social good, as the early Church may have been originally conceived. How else did America seemingly invent the concept of the megachurch stadium?
This is all largely because the status quo Church, of course, claims that its flagship product is God. That is what preachers and Sunday school teachers will tell us they are selling. But in the same way, say, a social media company like Facebook pretends its platform is the product when in fact you and I are what is being sold to governments and corporations, the Church operates in a similar vein. Your feet in the door, your money in the collection plate, your full attention and willing and pacified agreement with the people around you whose attention you crave: that is the status quo Church at its best. It’s collective and corporate rather than collegial and communal.
And maintaining that is how we got to where we are, yes, how we ended up with a coup on our nation’s Capitol: not merely with a bunch of bigots just joining “militias” and spreading their hate around all willy-nilly but with a quiet, respectful, agreeable, congenial set of centrist Americans who even in the face of rising, vicious fascism were more quick to condemn anyone who raised their voice too loudly against it, called a spade a spade, or rustled the feathers of congenial, cheerful givers on Sunday morning than those who actively chose hate in the name of God.
That is to say, if you don’t fall into line, unifying yourself with a mediocre, watered down theology everyone around you shares, you are deemed a defective product and are appropriately “excommunicated” from the status quo Church. And if our sacred republic is to survive this era, that mentality will have to change. That theology will have to go.
Because unless we’re willing to push back, speak up, divide where division is necessary to carve out something better, the Church in the coming years will be one more (albeit very powerful) American institution dedicated to the unraveling of our social fabric, and oddly enough, it’ll have done so in the name of keeping the status quo, which sounds nice and sweet, yet all the while helps normalize and pacify the very same extremists as those who staged a coup on our Capitol a week ago today.