Archive for the ‘defining christianity’ Category

Love Your Enemies. For Real Jesus?

Monday, November 16th, 2009

It’s the question every liberator has had to ponder. What do you do with traitors? What do you with slaves who get half way to freedom, take one look at the swamp that stands between them and freedom, and decide they want to go back to the plantation? What do you do with the slave who sells out his kin and friends down in the slavequarters by telling the master about all the talk about rebellion and freedom that takes place at night when massa’em is asleep up in the big house?

Judas did the honorable thing. He took his own life.

While violence isn’t something I subscribe to normally, I can understand why Harriet Tubman  felt it necessary to keep a gun on her hip at all times. It wasn’t just to blow away any bounty hunter or slave catcher that crossed her path. The gun on Harriet Tubman’s hip was for slaves too. Before each escape she’d get in the faces of all the men, women, and children who met her in the brush harbor saying they wanted to go with her, and say to them, “If you don’t follow me when I go out, I’m going to kill you. Go forward and live or turn back and die.”

Harsh but necessary words, I suppose. I wonder what Moses did when his runaway slaves started murmuring about being hungry and preferring their slave pallets to the harsh desert conditions they now faced (Exodus 16:3). I know he complained to God about it, but, for real, what did Moses and his lieutenants do to dissuade runaways from turning back and betraying to Pharoah’s army the whereabouts of the Hebrew camp?

Every movement has had to decide how it will deal with traitors, turncoats, defectors, betrayers, and people who half way through change their mind and want to go back.

Of course, we’re a civilized generation now. Everyone has a right to his or her own opinion. Side with the oppressor, if you share the oppressor’s political views. We don’t all have to think the same. Follow for as long as you feel comfortable, and when you don’t feel comfortable anymore; stop following.  Change your mind, if you want.  All’s fair in love and politics, right?

Lord, Renita, what’s got into you this morning?

What had happened was…from time to time I listen to so called Christian radio when I’m in the car driving to Atlanta. There’s nothing Christian about the stuff that comes out of the mouths of the folks on many of those shows, especially when the President of the United States is the subject for the hour (which he nearly always is). And from time to time I watch Fox News (something I don’t do often) and I’m stunned by the things that come out of the mouths of some of the black conservatives that come on Fox News.  enemie's fingersAnd admittedly, I’m still shaking from an encounter I had here on the blog over a month ago. You remember the one where a reader left a comment admitting that she is a black woman Tea Party member who loathes Obama’s politics and has no qualms with her party’s caricature of the country’s first black president as a monkey. After much yelling back and forth between us, the reader and I eventually calmed down and agreed to disagree and went to our separate sides of the rings. But I haven’t been able to get the incident out my head. That encounter made me sit up and pay attention.

Is there a point in a political fight when it’s more than the fact that you and I differ ideologically. It’s not just that we have different ideas of what it means to be a Christian. We’re enemies, Boo. Plain and simple. To allow you to continue on in your rants and ravings is to leave myself at risk of being killed, subjugated as a woman, or sold back into slavery.

Sometimes I wonder whether Jesus understood exactly what he was asking of us when he demanded, “Love your enemies,  bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you” (Matt. 5:44). For real Jesus?

Which Way?

Monday, June 8th, 2009

I’m tied up with teaching and lecturing on the prophets this week at the Hampton Ministers’ Conference in Hampton, Va. That means that I probably won’t have much time this week to bang out anything lengthy and deep that will make readers go hmmmm. But, hey, who knows? With all the great preachers and scholars slated to speak at this conference there’s bound to be something said that will make me rush back to my hotel room to share with you all here on the blog. I know, I know, I could always Twitter to keep you up to date. But that’s a little too much accessibility and availability to my every move than I care for. I’ll think about Twittering. But don’t hold your breath.

In the meantime, I have a question for all the thinking Christian readers who drop by the blog regularly for the thoughtful discussions they find here. I’d like to hear your opinion today on a scripture I’ve been turning over in my brain. I have a question for you. But let me first give you a little background to the question.

President Obama’s speech in Cairo last week provides much food for thought. Especially for those from conservative Christian backgrounds. In his speech, billed as a fence-mending mission between the United States and Islam, the president reiterated a statement he made in Turkey in April:”In Ankara, I made clear that America is not — and never will be — at war with Islam.” As a number of commentators have pointed out, he’s probably the first US leader to utter the words “assalaamu alaykum”, the traditional Muslim welcome “peace be upon you”. He acknowledged the huge Islamic contribution to Western civilization, he quoted liberally from the Koran and he reminded all that his name is Barack Hussein Obama. Conservative Christians  are chewing on the chains that hold their crosses around their neck.

So, here’s the question. How in an ideal world, a postmodern world of religious tolerance and reconciliation, should we interest Jesus’ words in John 14:6?

“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

As you know John 14:6 is a hot-button item among many Christians. This passage has been tossed around lots of times in the comments section of this blog when passions were high and lines were being drawn, on issues of tolerance and intolerance, inclusivity and exclusivity, who’s a Christian and who’s not a Christian. What really are we to make of John 14:6 in the increasingly religiously pluralistic world in which our children are likely to inherit? How do we prepare our children to live in a U.S. where Christianity is no longer the religion of the majority, but is one of a number of religions being practiced? With so many different interpretations of what it means to be Christian, what do we do with a passage that many Christians have pointed to over the centuries as saying there’s only one way to be saved and to be a Christian.

At the risk of oversimplifying a very complex passage and issue, here’s the range of what you’ll likely to find Christians saying about other religions in general and John 14:6 in particular.

Some camps within Christiendom tend to interpret the passage along exclusivist or particularist lines: The way to God is through Jesus Christ only. Other religious groups are in serious error, and are in grave peril regarding their salvation. And of course, followers of these other religions are going to hell.

candle in the hand

Other camps within Christiendom believe Christian teachings to be superior and Christianity the true religion, but they respect other faiths and grant that these other faiths do contain parts of the truth.

Still other believers tend to believe that all faiths are true and valid when interpreted within their own culture.

As a recovering fundamentalist, I know what I’ve been taught. As someone who has devoted her life to Jesus Christ both as a follower and as teacher, I know what I’m supposed to believe. But as someone who has seen how much the world has changed in her own lifetime, that gone are so many of the certitudes once taken for granted, I don’t want to be one of those who’s guilty of perpetuating the violent rifts between religions. I’ve looked into the eyes of those who think they are doing God’s will by keeping others out, and I don’t like what’s in their eyes. But I’m not sure I’d go so far to say as a Christian that religions are interchangeable and that any religion will do.  You know what I mean: “Add Christianity and stir.” There IS something special and unique about this beloved Christian path — something that when the wind of camp meeting evangelicalism overtake me once, twice, thrice, four times a year — I wish everyone could see and embrace. .

So, for those of us who dream of passing on to the next generation a better world, one devoid of hatred, intolerance and free of religious inspired violence, what do we do as Christian with the gloriously thorny theological saying in John 14:6?

So What You’re A Christian?

Monday, April 27th, 2009

Rumors of Christianity’s death in the U.S. are greatly exaggerated. But like most rumors, they are not totally baseless. According to a recent poll by the American Religious Identification Survey, the number of self-identified Christians has fallen 10 percentage points since 1990, from 86-76 percent. Lots have been made in recent years not just about the number of people in this country who are not Christian, but about the rise in the number of people who claim not to be affiliated with any religion as well as those who boast of being atheist. In fact, the numbers for the latter group jumped from 1990 to 2008 fourfold from 1 million to about 3.6 million. Despite these trends, the U.S. still remains a nation decisively shaped by Christian faith. Where there can be no denying is the fact that slowly but inexorably Christianity is losing its privileged place on the cultural landscape. Christianity and its followers can no longer assume everyone is Christian or that everyone shares the core values of Christianity.

So, what are we to make of this? What does all of this mean if you’re Christian? It means a lot. Hopefully, Christians are paying attention and taking note. Probably not. After all, that’s what it means to belong to a privileged group. You’re usually the last to know that you’re a has been. You’re definitely the last to know (admit) what everyone else sees so clearly.

Christians will do well to sit up and pay attention to this latest bit of news.

Our declining numbers on the American landscape will impact the way we do Christianity.

According to recent religious surveys, Americans can no longer assume there is a broadly based consensus about the superiority of Christian values. The New Testament may declare, “there is no other name under heaven whereby men can be saved except by the name of Jesus,” but future Christians are going to have to figure out what that statement means to a generation that prefers having a smorgasbord of religious options from which it can choose.

Nor can one assume that just because one speaks of being a Christian or being born again that others will know what that means or even be impressed. We’re going to have to actually act like Christians, as in do what Jesus would do, to get people’s attention and to convince them to consider belonging to our, um, sect. (Some of the most lively discussions on this blog have been about what it means to be a Christian.)

Your GodHeck, you can’t even assume today there’s a consensus that there is even a God. All you have to do is venture out of your little Christian enclave to find that this is already the case. Talk to a stranger. In polite circles, atheism is an intellectually respectable option. Heck, it’s downright sexy and fashionable to be atheist in some other circles.

The upshot of all of this? American culture is gradually withdrawing the privilege, if not the respect, it once gave to Christianity in general, and to the church in particular. Which is no small thing to consider. Why should churches get special tax exampt status? So, you’re Christian minister. So what? That doesn’t give you the right to expect special hospital parking stickers to get you in to visit a dying member. So what you pray before eating? Everyone else at the table will just keep on talking while you mumble under your breath. So you’re a woman in white, with your bible and church hat, standing on the bus corner waiting for the #7 bus to take you to the Baptist church down the street; why should the teens stop cursing and grabbing their crouches just because you’re standing there?

This isn’t all bad, right? Christians will just have to learn what it means to earn the respect of people, right? We can’t assume people will have heard of Jesus or know anything about The Ten Commandments. We’ll just have to go back and learn the core values of our faith and figure out how to communicate them to a public that finds such talk quaint and novel. Back to basics, right? That’s good, right?

Remember the old Smith Barney commercial featuring the elderly actor John Houseman speaking with a blue-blood, Brahmin clip: “We make money the old fashioned way. We earn it”?

That’s what we’re going to have to do as the soon to be Christian minority. Earn converts. Or, better yet, earn our right to co-exist with other religious faiths.

Before the knee-jerk Progressive in me is tempted to hail all that a religiously diverse world is likely to offer, permit me a moment of grieving.

After all, giving up power is not easy.

The thought of Christianity diminishing before me gives me pause. Now I know better as a black woman than to ever claim that America is or has ever been a Christian nation. That’s just not true. But as a woman and an African American, which doesn’t grant you any automatic respect in this society, belonging putatively to the dominant religious group in society has had its advantages. (Grant it, the Jeremiah Wright tableaux reminded us once again that there’s a world of difference between black and white Christianity.) The days are coming to an end, however, when we can claim this, but for at least the next hour it’s probably safe to say that there really is some faint notion in folks’ minds – however warped it may be –of what it means to be Christian. That you love everybody? Well, not that exactly. How about that you feel mandated to try to get along with people you otherwise hate. How about that you feel responsible as a follower of Jesus to improve the world by standing up to unjust people and doing your part to leave the world somewhat  more just and loving than you found it.

That said, can’t say that I relish the day when I wake up to find that I belong to a minority religious sect. Dang, can’t a sister belong to a group that’s in power? Now I’m told that along with my gender and race, even my religion will one day be marginalized. It hasn’t happened yet. But the signs do point to the fact that the day is not that far away.

And You Call Yourself A Christian - Part 3

Monday, April 6th, 2009

We talk a lot on this blog about getting beyond boundaries.  Folks do a lot of snarking here at denominationalism, parochalism, religious legalism, old definitions, and the kind of rigid cultural thinking that keep conflict brewing and  prevent us from being our best selves.

That said, meet Anne Holmes Redding. Writer. Bible scholar. Former seminary professor. Episcopal priest. Christian. And Muslim.

For nearly 30 years, Ann Holmes Redding has been an ordained minister in the Episcopal Church. Her priesthood ended last Wednesday when Bishop Geralyn Wolf, who presides over Rhode Island where Redding was ordained, terminated Rev. Reddings’ right and authority to function as a priest in the Episcopal church.  In today’s parlance what happened to Ann Holmes Redding is called deposition. In times past it was called defrocking (frock being the term for the official garment clergy wore while performing the priestly functions of the church).

The reason for Holmes’ defrocking? For the past three years Ann Holmes Redding has been both a practicing Christian and a Muslim.

Redding, once director of faith formation at a Seattle Episcopal church, found herself drawn to the Muslim faith after attending an interfatih service three years ago. During the meeting, an imam demonstrated Muslim chants and meditation to the group. Redding said the beauty of the moment and the imam’s humbleness before God stuck her profoundly.

The Episcopal church interprets Redding’s decision to become a Muslim as abandoning the church and goes on to say that a priest of the Church cannot be both a Christian and a Muslim. But that’s not how Redding sees it. She doesn’t see why the need to discount one faith in order to embrace the other. “I’m actually a better priest now than I have ever been. Because being a Muslim makes me a better Christian” says the now former Rev. Redding.

How does Redding reconcile the contradictions in the two faiths? She doesn’t even try. She feels no need to reconcile all the differences between the two faiths, believing that at the most basic level they are compatible. Both religions believe in one God. They simply come at the matter from different perspectives. Sure, Islam teaches that Jesus was a prophet while Christianity worships him as the son of God — but at the heart of both is belief in the one God. The perspectives and practices of Islam, says Redding, strengthen her witness to the good news of God in Jesus.

You can bet that there are plenty on both sides of this issue. There are Christians who question how in the world Redding can call herself a Christian, and there are Muslims who wonder how in the name of Muhammad she dare call herself a Muslim. But that’s their problem, not hers.

These are not Redding’s words, but I think what she’s saying is that at the heart of both religions is what theu testify about God — which is essentially the same thing. God’s goodness. God’s oneness. God’s love for creation. God’s power. God’s insistence that we love God and each other. Everything else is convention, tradition, noise, distraction, and keeps people locked in conflict with each other about whose religion is superior to the other.

What say you about the former Rev. Ann Holmes Redding’s insistence that it’s possible to be both Muslim and Christian?  I must say that while I respect and admire Ann Holmes Redding greatly, I’m still scratching my head about this one. I’m still gathering my thoughts and feelings about it.  It feels right, but I’m not sure. Perhaps we’re moving toward a post-religion era too.  How bad can that be? Afterall, Redding shows us that you don’t have to renounce religion belief.  Embrace the good in all religion, and refuse to choose one over the other.  Both/and. Not either/or.