Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Charlottesville and Christian Counter-Culture

I'm against nationalism, not just white nationalism. Trump's statement that Americans of every color salute the same flag is just as dangerous as the hate-filled bigotry shouted by the Klansmen and Nazis in Charlottesville last week, even if its morally less-repugnant. I know it's important to state opposition to racism and violence, to call out specifically organized hate-groups by name and denounce their position, but I'm not sure we're doing it with much real thought to what we're saying and its effects.

I recently read this fantastic book called The Patient Ferment of the Early Church. It's essentially an otherwise stuffy religious history focusing on the first 200-300 years of Christianity, but the thesis is unique and powerful. Alan Kreider argues that the sole, key distinctive of early Christianity was patience. The first Christians were actively discouraged from what we might call evangelism today - they were convinced that faithful Christian witness was all that was needed. If they lived in the mode of Christ, people would be drawn to that lifestyle without the urgency or outcome oriented focus that's marked Christianity in the 1500 years since.

The moral quandry most prominent for Christians in this time was the exposure of infants. Unwanted children born in the Roman Empire of the time were simply left at the dump - exposed on the trash heaps. Christians took a stand against this moral outrage. They refused to expose their infants and they often wandered the trash heaps, rescuing and adopting those babies left to die. They did not make this a cause, protest, or fight. They simply lived differently.

I recognize that things are different 2,000 years later. We live in a world with free speech and the ability to share it widely and easily.
We live in a world with long traditions of activism. We live in a world where the established morality, at least in large part, aligns more closely with Christian morality than it did in Rome. Violent racists are now the minority and rejected by polite society. Things are different.

At the same time, listening to the rhetoric of opposition in Charlottesville, it was very difficult to differentiate the sides of the debate.
"These ideas aren't representative of the America I know and these people don't belong here." In our attempts to denounce racism, violence,
and hatred, we're exhibiting the same exclusionary ideas we're protesting (or at least, it's easy to do).

From a Christian perspective, protest and counter-culture means more than just choosing a different side; it means choosing a different means of fighting altogether. In general, it means being more creative with our words and actions. This has been a struggle for US Christians in most of the last century and probably the Church as whole over its entire existence. We protest consumerism, but end up with huge chains of "Christian"
stores, full of useless trinkets covered in crosses and music that's more worried about making money than facilitating real worship. The same goes for our approaches to violence, voting, and evangelism.

In Charlottesville, we're rightly outraged that so many people feel free to openly and publicly proclaim ideas and actions so entirely contrary to that of Christ - sometimes in the name of Jesus - but the response cannot be to isolate, condemn, and dismiss the people themselves. Showing up to protests with counter protest might be the right move, but it's got to be done differently. Opposing a mob with a mob - even one committed to non-violence, is still playing games of power - our numbers trump your numbers. It's an invitation to violence. Our voices don't need to be louder or angrier if we're embodying a counter-cultural presence. There is no point to spewing hate at the haters.

Saying, "I stand against racism" is better than saying nothing, I suppose, but it might not be if those of us with privilege aren't willing to sacrifice a bit of it to make our actions match our words. That's where much of the problem comes from. When the only times in which we white people interact with more than token members of the African-American community is when we drive 20 miles to volunteer somewhere for a few hours, we're not making much of a statement.

Early Christians change their entire lives, rejected respectability, often embraced poverty, simply to live out the counter-cultural gospel of Jesus Christ. Earlier this year I read the graphic-novel trilogy, March, that tells the story of John Lewis, one of American's Civil Rights heroes, as he engaged the movement and eventually participated in the famous march across Selma's Edmund Pettis Bridge. One of the things that struck me, was how much emphasis those books put on training for non-violence. It was not a movement where anyone could show up - they endured long periods of practice in non-violence and not everyone had the discipline to make the cut. It was a lifestyle change, a personality change - it was more than just falling in line.

Part of the reason the Early Church put so little emphasis on making converts was because the process was so long and arduous - catechumens endured years of training and observation before the Church deemed them worthy of baptism and the name of Christian. This wasn't so the movement could be exclusive, but because counter-culture is hard.

It's not enough for us to simply say, "Racism is bad. Violence is bad. Hatred is bad." We've got to understand what it means to live that out - not just in our safe little, privileged enclaves, but in the wider context of a very troubled world. We've got to work diligently to shape and form ourselves and our creativity to react differently than even those with whom we agree on some particular issue.

I've resisted giving specifics about ways in which Christians can faithfully engage in issues of immediate and ultimate importance in the world -
issues of race, violence, justice, life, and death - because I do think those ways exhaust and expand beyond my realm of vision. I do think,
though, that Christians must work to fully embody not just the emotion of the moment, but a truthful and fair representation of Christ. In this instance that includes the insanely difficult task of embodying true equality - not just in words or moments, but for the long haul.

Kreider recounts that Christianity lost its emphasis on patience when it adopted the mindset of ends justify the means. Instead of waiting for the truth to win out over time, heretics were persecuted, prosecuted, and executed. Politicans were brought in to use their power to favor one faction over another, to make decisions of right and wrong when it came to Christian thought and practice - this has been our habit ever since. We adopted the mode and means of the culture around us, but because we did so with a religious veneer, we've failed to see the compromising error of our ways.

I am continually troubled by the challenge to use my body, my lifestyle, to make statements of truth and justice, while also remembering the words of Paul, that I too, was once an enemy of God, and recognizing that my transformation was not wrought by violence, anger, or shame, but by the love of Jesus Christ. This is not a pushover faith, but it's also not a popular one; results are slow and it requires suffering - may I have the wisdom and creativity to make it my suffering before the suffering of others.

In the end, I don't have answers, but I pray that I'll have a gospel-infused patience that manifests itself in sacred, selfless action. Lord, have mercy.

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