I took a short break from my vacation last Sunday to lead worship at Old South. When I told the church secretary a few weeks ago that she could call off the supply search (for the first time in a dozen years, we could not find anyone to cover worship for me that day), I thought it not such a big deal to lead worship. I wasn’t planning on being away last weekend anyway. And, I could “recycle” an old sermon from the vast treasure trove. Easy.
Then, lots of things happened, including Charlottesville. Recycled sermon: out. I read the Pastoral Letter sent out by the Council of Conference Ministers and Officers of the United Church of Christ, strongly condemning “the acts of violent hatred expressed by these white supremacists, Neo-Nazis, and Ku Klux Klan members.” The letter also contained an exhortation: “Our local UCC churches must be true solidarity partners with those who march in the streets. Our UCC churches are encouraged to move from the sanctuary and walk alongside other clergy and community leaders who seek to resist, agitate, inform, and comfort. We must resist hatred and violence.”
While I wasn’t planning to start marching during worship, I thought a sermon would be a good place to remind us of the significance of resisting hatred and violence. Easy.
Easy to condemn racism, white nationalism, white supremacists, the KKK and Neo-Nazis. Easy to condemn the response from the President, regarding the “many sides.” And, easier still, to condemn Maine’s Governor, who supported the President’s statement, asserting that both sides were “equally violent,” somehow missing the point that the side that started it holds some deeply disturbing ideas about what the United States should strive to be.
But, as Sunday approached, and I continued to explore the subject and read up the issues at hand, I started not so much to get cold feet, but to be filled with a sort of sad sense of irrelevancy.
While I would love to think that what I have to say, what we have to say, as Old South Congregational Church United Church of Christ of Hallowell Maine, to speak up against bigotry and hatred, racism and a whole host of other isms, and to know that it means something, and that our words and witness would go beyond our own community, it also seems painfully clear that what’s going on in the country right now is another distressing indicator of the sidelining of religion, and Christianity.
Today’s proponents of white supremacy, the “alt right,” don’t turn to the Bible for guidance. In fact, religion is not a major factor, not a place for inspiration for them.
The language of the church, the language of love and justice, the language of Judeo-Christian values of right and wrong, is no longer a language that offers an effective counterpoint to their hatred and bigotry. In the past, groups that sought racial purity turned, at least in part, to scriptures to find support for their warped and twisted views of how humans should organize themselves. Churches and church leaders could confront vile hatred with the very same scriptures. That’s no longer how it works.
The Church has been eclipsed.
Let me be clear in stating that this doesn’t mean that the Church, its leaders and its people, should be silent or should fade into some sort of corner, in the face of those who wish to “Unite the Right.” But, it does mean that we need to approach these issues differently. It’s not enough, I would suggest, simply to state things like “God is love,” etc. Instead, we need to dig deep into our stories, and into our scriptures, and to be clearer on why we think and why we believe that “God is love.”
In Maine, we are especially aware of the sidelining of Christianity, and religion in general. To offer an effective voice, we can no longer assume that people know anything about religion, about the practices and perspectives of those of us who go to church, beyond the stereotypes that have become so prevalent.
In an article (“Breaking Faith”) in the April 2017 edition of The Atlantic, Peter Beinart observed, “When pundits describe the Americans who sleep in on Sundays, they often conjure left-leaning hipsters. But religious attendance is down among Republicans, too. According to data assembled for me by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), the percentage of white Republicans with no religious affiliation has nearly tripled since 1990. This shift helped Trump win the GOP nomination. During the campaign, commentators had a hard time reconciling Trump’s apparent ignorance of Christianity and his history of pro-choice and pro-gay-rights statements with his support from evangelicals. But as Notre Dame’s Geoffrey Layman noted, ‘Trump does best among evangelicals with one key trait: They don’t really go to church.’”
Beinart also pointed to Milo Yiannopoulos and Allum Bokhari’s Breitbart.com essay, “An Establishment Conservative’s Guide to the Alt-Right.” The essay in question contained five references to “tribe,” seven to “race,” 13 to “the west” and “western” and only one to “Christianity.” The alt-right, Beinart concluded, “is ultra-conservatism for a more secular age.”
For people of faith, the challenges of today are not the same challenges faced by the church in years past. During previous clashes involving race and culture, churches and church leaders held a certain level of moral weight, and were recognized as significant participants.
While churches are not often of the same voice, nor have churches, their leaders and people, consistently found themselves on the side of justice and the Golden Rule, churches and church leaders have been a vital voice in recognizing and lifting up our common humanity. Churches have provided significant, theologically-based, approaches to those places of struggle, with such powerful practices as forgiveness, reconciliation, and nonviolence.
What happens now, when churches and Christianity, have been eclipsed? And, what are people of faith being called to do? How do we resist when those who spew hatred not only no longer share a common language, but more than that, have rejected the language and concepts of Christianity, as well as other religions?
We are in a different place. We cannot simply reach into the past and pull out what we’ve done and used in the past, and think they will be effective weapons against the hatred of today. In this new more secular age, we must forge a new awareness and a new sense of who we are and what and why we believe. This isn’t just about simply walking alongside, resisting hatred and violence. We must also renew our understanding of why we believe we are called to do so.