The Loss of Christian Privilege

I noticed an article this week reporting that the BBC (that’s the British Broadcasting Corporation) had decided to stop using the terms “BC” and “AD” when reporting dates.  Instead, they would begin using the designations “BCE” and “CE”.  This apparently has led to some upset among Christians in Britain, who criticized the BBC for surrendering the dating designations that are based on Christianity.

In case you’re not fully versed on these things, a brief elucidation:  the designation “BC” means “Before Christ” and the designation “AD” stands for the Latin, “Anno Domini” or “Year of the Lord.”  The designation “BCE” means “Before the Common Era” and “CE” means “Common Era”.  These latter terms were brought into use some years ago by those who felt it was not appropriate to use dating designations that were attached to a specific religious tradition in a religiously diverse world.

The upset among British Christians is perhaps understandable, given that Great Britain is still an “officially” Christian country, the Church of England enjoying the position of being the governmentally established church.  Yet, the BBC’s decision undoubtedly reflects the reality on the ground in Britain, where there is a great deal of religious diversity.  It also reflects an increasing reality in Western cultures, including that of the United States:  the loss of Christian privilege.

For centuries, the Western world has been dominated by Christianity.  Initially, that was mainly Roman Christianity (though the Orthodox churches held sway in the Eastern parts of the Western world).  After the Protestant Reformation, the Western Christian world fragmented into a number of religious pieces, but even so most Westerners were Christians of one sort or another.   As we have moved through the modern era into the post-modern era, however, the churches have certainly lost their privileged position in European culture.  While they still have an obvious institutional presence, they no longer exercise much influence on the minds and hearts of most Europeans.

In the United States, where there is, of course, no officially established religion, Christianity is a bigger deal than it is in Europe, but study after study has shown that even in this country, the number of people participating in churches is on the decline, and the fastest growing religious group in this country is “unaffiliated.”  It is to be expected, I think, as time goes on that Christianity will have less influence on the mind and heart of the average American.  Ultimately, we are likely to lose our privileged cultural position.

For many if not most committed Christians, this is a scary thing to contemplate.  The mainline churches (Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Methodists, United Churches of Christ, etc.) are already confronting this reality more urgently, for our churches have been the first to experience significant and noticeable shrinkage.  Yet, there are signs that even the evangelical churches (the folks who brought us, among other things, the mega-church) are experiencing signs of decline, though most of them are still in a position where it largely goes unnoticed.  Church leaders find themselves worrying more and more about their institutional futures, sometimes from an attitude of faith and sometimes from one of fear.

But this loss of Christian cultural privilege is not necessarily a bad thing, especially if we believe there is more to the Gospel than just how many people sign up to some version of it.  For as the churches lose their privileged position, they also lose power.  Some day, American politicians will not find it necessary to wave some kind of Christian credential in front of voters. Christian leaders will eventually find that they don’t have special access to political power.  And in losing that privilege and power, the Christian movement may find an important piece of our soul.  We may find a new, compelling power to the Gospel when it no longer enjoys a special cultural status.

We sometimes forget, I think, that the New Testament was written in a very different cultural context.  Yes, it was in the Middle East and not in northern Europe or America.  But that’s not the aspect of culture that I’m talking about.  What I’m pointing to is the fact that the authors of the New Testament, and the Christian communities in which they worshiped, did not enjoy a position of privilege or of power.  Rather, they had a deep awareness that their decision to become a follower of Jesus was deeply counter-cultural.  So much so, that many of them lost their lives over it.  The vision of the kingdom of God presented in the remembered teaching of Jesus and expanded upon by writers like St. Paul was consciously preached as an alternative to Roman Imperial culture.  The brutal violence of Rome was answered by the deep pacifism of the early church.  The privileges of the rich were answered by early Christians with a demand of justice for the poor.  The outcasts became the in-group, the might of Cesar was exchanged for the powerful vulnerability of  Christ.  Indeed, St. Paul himself was able to speak of the power of the Gospel as revealed only in weakness, in vulnerability and humility.  These were not values Rome aspired to.  Nor are they values that America aspires to.

We live in the midst of massive social change, and that includes religious change.  This can feel threatening, but it can also be exhilarating.  Perhaps in willingly surrendering our privilege and our power, we will discover a power in the Gospel that we have never known before, a power that hasn’t been known since the early church was given legitimacy and gave up its alternative vision of the kingdom of God in favor of the seductive power of Rome.

Cheering Death

At a recent debate featuring some who aspire to be President of the United States, a hypothetical question was asked of one of the participants. He was asked to comment on whether the government should pay for health care for someone who was in a coma and had no health insurance and no ability to pay the bills, or should the government let him die. Before the candidate could answer, several members of the audience apparently yelled out, “Yeah” — that is, “let him die”. It was an unexpected turn in the evening’s debate, and has received a great deal of comment since.

I would hope that such comments represent only a minority point of view. However, it is still somewhat surprising and sad to me to hear such sentiment voiced at all. To me, it is a sign of something that seems to be happening in our society: that the value of compassion is disappearing from our public life. As the economy continues to stagnate, and as people feel under more and more pressure, I think there is a human tendency to pull back into ourselves, to become preoccupied with our own welfare and to become less concerned with the plight of others. And, of course, there is a great deal of discussion about whether or not government should shrink. And one of the targets of that shrinkage are programs that help people like the hypothetical man in the reporter’s hypothetical question during the debate.

Those who would be followers of Jesus cannot indulge in this pulling back into the self. Jesus was all about loving our neighbors as ourselves — meaning, in part, that we certainly cannot love our neighbor less than ourselves, that we cannot want more for ourselves than we do for others in the human family. If we would want health care for ourselves, we must want it for others. If we would want a job for ourselves, we must want one for others. If we would want housing for ourselves, we must want it for others. It is simply not possible to want these things for ourselves, to be glad when we have them, and not care what happens to others less fortunate if you are a follower of Jesus.

And while government spending might indeed need to be addressed, we should remember that government is not just “them, over there”, those people in Washington we like to get angry with. Government is also the way in which we as a society distribute resources to those who need them. The government is, or, at least, can be one avenue through which we express our collective compassion and declare the values by which we, as a society, want to live.

It is a horrible thing to realize that there are those who would rather cheer death for another than extend their compassion to someone in need. Perhaps those who cheered death at the debate that night felt they could do so because the question was about a hypothetical person. Except that this country has lots of people who are just like the hypothetical man — they are real flesh and blood people who are in need of our collective compassion and care.

Let us not allow our economic uncertainty and our sense of fear and scarcity turn us into a people who cheer death. Let us not allow compassion to disappear as a public value in this country.

Can These Bones Live?

I was invited into a conversation this week by a staff person at the national offices of The Episcopal Church about what he called the “future shape of the church.”  The urgency of that conversation is rooted in the fact that the overall membership of The Episcopal Church (along with most other churches) has been declining slowly for a number of years.  Often, a sense of crisis can also create a moment of opportunity, as people begin to look for more creative solutions to challenges.

The biblical metaphor that the person I was meeting with used for the church’s current situation is the story about the prophet Ezekiel and the valley of dry bones.   My conversation partner noted that in the prophet’s vision, he is standing before a valley of “very dry bones” and God asks him to prophesy to the bones, to tell the bones that God will give them life again.  He also noted something I had never considered before:  that God also asks Ezekiel to prophesy to the breath, asking the breath to enter into the bones (after they have joined themselves back together and been covered with flesh) and bring life to them again.  In Hebrew (the language in which this story is originally told), the word for breath is the same as the word for Spirit.  In essence, then, God is asking Ezekiel to prophesy to the Spirit, to God, asking that the Spirit come and enliven these bodies.  It was that invitation to Ezekiel to prophesy to God that I had not noticed before in this story.

In reflecting on this story, and my new friend’s insights, it seems clear to me that in asking Ezekiel to prophesy to the dry bones, God is asking Ezekiel to transmit God’s promise of new life.  And in inviting Ezekiel to prophesy to God’s own Spirit, God is challenging Ezekiel to believe the promise that God has just made.   It is a story of a sacred partnership between God and humanity, in which each has a role to play.  God will send the Spirit to enliven that which seems to be dead, but we must ask for that life, we must be ready to welcome that life, we must set the stage for that life and – above all – we must believe God’s promise of life.

While the conversation I was having about this story concerned the challenges facing the church, each of us has a valley of dry bones that stretches before us somewhere in our lives.   We look at that valley, whatever it may be, as a dead place.  But the story of Ezekiel makes clear that God sees that valley not as dead, but as awaiting life.  God promises that life will come, but God does not force that life upon us:  God waits for us to believe the promise and invite the life-giving Spirit into the valley.  When we are ready to open ourselves to God’s Spirit, then life rushes in, and new possibilities appear in valleys that previously appeared lifeless.

What to Do with 9/11?

As the tenth anniversary of 9/11 approaches this Sunday, with various observances planned both sacred and secular, some people have suggested that it seems that as a nation, we are wallowing, and that perhaps it would be better to leave 9/11 alone.  One person I  know suggested that perhaps the best way of observing this anniversary was simply with silence. As a leader of a faith community myself, I feel a certain tension between the need to acknowledge 9/11 this Sunday and the reticence that some people feel about doing so in a way that feels like “wallowing”.

These more guarded reactions to the 9/11 anniversary, along with those who are more prepared to embrace the anniversary, reflect, I think, very different feelings and perspectives not so much on the events of that day but on the ways in which that day changed the life of our nation and, indeed, the world.  It would be hard to think of an area of American life that has remained untouched in the aftermath of 9/11.  And I think that most of us, if we were really honest, would admit that we don’t really like the way our life has changed over these past 10 years.   I also suspect that most people would blame those who committed the terrible attacks on that day for forcing these changes upon us.

In a sense, of course, to blame the terrorists for the aftermath of 9/11 is appropriate.  On the other hand, however, we should recognize that while the attacks themselves are the responsibility of those who committed them, much of what has come after those attacks has been the result of our own choices as individuals and as a nation in response to terrible tragedy.

Jim Wallis of Sojourners writes,

This Sunday marks the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. We will all take time to remember the day and the lives we lost, but 10 years later, we must go deeper.

There were two paths forward from the ashes and rubble of 9/11: One path led to war, torture, and fear, but another path — led by people of faith across our land — was marked by soul-searching, genuine mourning for the lost, and standing up for peace-building and caring for our neighbors.

You might not agree with the terms Rev. Wallis uses to describe the two paths forward from 9/11, but his words do underline the fact that in response to any tragedy (or anything else that happens to us, for that matter) we always have choices.  I do think that our life as a nation has been dominated by choices that have tended to be dictated by fear:  fear of more attacks, fear of Muslims, fear of illegal immigrants, fear of being vulnerable.   The economic downturn of the last couple of years has tended to take a fearful population and make us even more fearful.  Most of our public political conversation over the last ten years has been characterized by fear of one form or another.  The path of fear presents a powerful temptation.

The wisdom of the biblical tradition tells us that when we make choices based on our fears, we are least likely to make choices that align with God’s call to us.  As I mentioned in a recent sermon, someone has figured out that the Bible says that we should not be afraid 365 times:  that’s once for every day of the year.  Often, this counsel to not be afraid comes just before God or some other divine figure is about to ask someone to do something that might seem overwhelming.  Perhaps that is the case because without the reminder to not be afraid, the person is unlikely to accept the invitation and do the great thing God asks of her or him because fear will lead them away from that choice.

As we observe the tenth anniversary of 9/11, I think that perhaps what is most important is that we take the opportunity to reflect on what has become of us in the past 10 years, to think about the consequences that fear-based decision-making has had on us.  It seems to me that God asks of us to do something greater with the next ten years, to accept the sacred invitation to step away from fear and take a huge step the other direction.  For it seems clear from our sacred texts that true greatness is never found in fear, but in a deep and courageous generosity and compassion that arises when we are able, with God’s help, to transcend fear.  Many of our choices since 9/11 have served to diminish us.  It is time for us to do better.