Quite Possibly the Worst Sermon I’ve Ever Heard

As some of you know, Jennifer and I have been rambling a bit, staying with friends and seeing the country. We’ve been in Eastern Texas for a while, and last Sunday took in a worship service at a church in the small East Texas town where we live.

I won’t say where, or what church, save that it was a small, local, non-denomination, politically and culturally conservative church in the small town where we are staying outside Austin.

The pastor was a confident speaker, and began by showing his largely mainly white audience slides of various and Sundry buildings in Rome. He pointed out the crosses everywhere, even in the Coliseum, where Christians during the time of the Roman Empire huddled in fear that they might be arrested, tortured and thrown to the animals. Christians had no power, no influence, no standing, were a tiny, persecuted minority in the Roman Empire. Yet, within 300 years (and thanks to the declaration of “Emperor Constantinople”), Christianity became the official ruling faith of that very same empire.

“How?” the pastor asked?

Because Christians had an ethics grounded in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1-16 seemed to be the text he was preaching on; there was no reading, just praise music and whatever moved the pastor to preach), an ethic which stressed being “poor in spirit, mourning, meekness, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, mercy, being pure in heart, peacemaking, and being persecuted.” Because the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to them.

More importantly, such people are “salt of the earth” and “light of the world.” When the culture becomes pagan, corrupt, based on “might makes right,” it is the call of the church to save the culture be being salt. There was a fascinating subtext here, and I suspect this sermon would never have been delivered in this way, using imperial decadence and power in such an up front way, had George W. Bush been president. But the pastor said nothing overtly political, at least nothing partisan.

Because Christians are the meek, persecuted “salt of the earth,” the pastor said “You have no standing politically, but you are the last stand.” To save the culture of death and make it a culture of life. (My phrasing, not his.)

At this point, he got his most overtly political. Condemning the recent deal to raise the debt limit, he said that all this empowered Christians to say “Enough is enough!” and to take a stand. The “ethics” of the Sermon on the Mount led to this, he said. This is Christian love in action. (Again, not his phrasing.)

Along the way, he did give some advice for daily living. That the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount begin in our daily lives, in how we live our lives at work, in school, wherever. But we did this not so much to show God’s love, but to do our part in the larger work on reclaiming the Empire and saving the society.

“Because it’s not about us. It’s about who gets the glory,” the pastor said.

Because the final goal of all this ethical action is take control of the Empire. Christians did it once, they can do it again, the pastor said. And to make being Christian respectable again.

The world wants to listen to what Christians have to say, he concluded. But the question for us is: are we going to act in a way that fills the world’s hunger and answers the desire to “make us believe,” or are we simply going to act in such a way that says we just “make believe.”

It was a culturally conservative sermon from top to bottom, one that spoke to the anxieties and fears of some reasonably well-off white Texas Christians, one that didn’t challenge them or invite them to participate in God’s actions in the world. Because aside from “creating an ethical system,” God doesn’t act at all. There was no saving Grace, no love, no sin (except in the culture), just a call to work to redeem the world. (The closest the pastor got to acknowledging anything like grace was noting that, “Some of us are messed up. But God is bigger than your mess!”) Because the saving work of God remains undone, and the call to discipleship is simply a call to organize the world the way God demands and finish God’s work of salvation.

While this approach is a problem I have with conservative Christianity, particularly cultural conservatism, this kind of sermon and this kind of thinking — God sets out an ethics that empowers us to act to (effectively) finish God’s salvation for the world — is not merely a conservative problem. It’s why I don’t like much of Liberal or Progressive Christianity as well. (Walter Wink wrote about redeeming “the powers” in a book I found annoyingly self-righteous and just plain deluded.) It privileges human action over anything God has done. It takes the ethics of the Book of Esther and places them front and center, and not what God speaks through Moses to the Israelites at sea as they witnessed Pharaoh’s army advancing upon them:

And Moses said to the people, “Fear not, stand firm and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be silent.” (Exodus 14:13-14)

 וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל־הָעָם אַל־תִּירָאוּ הִֽתְיַצְבוּ וּרְאוּ אֶת־יְשׁוּעַת יְהוָה אֲשֶׁר־יַעֲשֶׂה לָכֶם הַיּוֹם כִּי אֲשֶׁר רְאִיתֶם אֶת־מִצְרַיִם הַיּוֹם לֹא תֹסִיפוּ לִרְאֹתָם עוֹד עַד־עוֹלָֽם׃  יְהוָה יִלָּחֵם לָכֶם וְאַתֶּם תַּחֲרִישֽׁוּן׃ פ

This theme, “watch what God will do for you today, God will fight for you” is echoed throughout scripture — water from the rock, manna from heaven, Joshua defeating Jericho merely by tooting of a trumpet, Gideon’s 300 to conquer the Midianites, David’s defeating Goliath with a rock (read what David says right before he tosses the stone), Elisha’s increasing the widow’s oil or battling the prophets of Baal, gathering the exiles from Babylon, other examples I’m certain I have forgotten. It is central to Israel’s experience of its relationship with God. It’s even, I believe, the unstated words of Calvary, to those of us who gaze upon our awful work on Good Friday — Fear not, Stand firm, behold the saving grace God is working for you today.

This is not an ethical system. It is… well, I’m not sure what it is. Shared mystical experience, maybe. But it isn’t an ethical system. We who God calls aren’t given an ethical system, not really. The Torah is not an ethics, but an attempt by God to show us — God’s people, not humanity — what it means to live in relationship with God and with each other given that God has called us together as a people. If pressed, I would admit this IS an ethical system (given that ethics is inescapable), but my problem here is that ethics as we do them don’t need or require the relationship with God. They make man the focus, and human action the focus. And as in the Book of Esther, God is not necessary. You don’t need God when you have ethics. You don’t need God when you have culture. You don’t need to stop, to wait, to watch, to be silent. You need to act. Now. Or all is lost.

(If I am sensitive to this, it is because this approach to the human calling is the Islamist approach. God has called humanity, particularly Muslims, to finish saving the world, organizing the world, in the way God wants it organized, so that virtue may be maximized and the opportunities to sin reduced or eliminated.)

To be salt is to trust that we are preserving the world even if we aren’t sure how. That we are light, shining brightly, even if we have no idea what that means. To trust, as Abram trusted, that God will make us a blessing to the world, even if we have no idea what that means or how it will happen.

Human action is not the point of the Bible story. God’s love for Israel, for God’s people, for the world, is the point of the Bible story. We can live into that love, or not, and some form of it may conquer the empire (Thomasite Christians did not conquer India, and Nestorians did not conquer China), but whatever ends up ruling — whatever ends up “redeeming” the powers or the culture — is only a shadow of that saving grace. As long as we live in that moment between Eden and Eschaton, we will only experience that grace sideways, in scattered brilliant moments where God’s grace meets us and overwhelms us and includes us in God’s already completed salvation for the world.

America’s God, America’s Church and America’s Culture of Death

I have been reading Stanley Hauerwas’ War and the American Difference: Theological Reflections on Violence and National Identity, and I am going to post some reflections of my own over the next few days.

A little background. I love Stanley Hauerwas, and his thinking about church has significantly influenced my thinking about church. I first learned about him in 2004, I think, when he was interviewed by Salon.com regarding his opposition to the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq. (Again, I think it was in Salon.com, because it might not have been.) As a theologian, I am interested in what it means to be church, especially church in the world, and my ideas about church as parallel alternative to but in the world are heavily influenced by the many years I spent as a Muslim in the United States — as a member of a religious minority which could not demand or expect that the greater culture of the society in which it lived reflect the values of a majority of plurality of the community. So, given the world would not bend to our understanding of what God wants for God’s people (and trying to get it to bend was pointless, either because no one listened or violence was the chosen means of communicating), what does it mean to be faithful?

And I think Hauerwas does the best job of most theologians I have read today of trying to answer that question faithfully. As an American, Hauerwas calls into question the relationship between church, state and culture that tries to make sense of what is what. At least that’s what I think he’s trying to do. But I think it’s better to let Stanley speak for himself:

America is the first great experiment in Protestant social formation. Protestantism in Europe always assumed and depended on the cultural habits that had been created by Catholic Christianity. America is the first place Protestantism did not have to define itself over against a previous Catholic culture. So America is the exemplification of a constructive Protestant social imagination. (p. 15)

This is important, but probably not quite as true as Hauerwas says it is. American Protestantism inherited much from English & Scottish Protestantism, both Anglican and Calvinist forms, and both struggled with the Catholic inheritance and a deep and profound fear of Rome and Roman rule. (English Catholicism had this even before Henry VIII decided to start divorcing and killing his wives.) Anti-foreign fear in Anglo-American culture has at its base anti-Catholicism dating back almost 1,000 years (the English church was fairly autonomous, and at times very anti-Rome), and Anglo-American racism has at its core anti-Catholic sentiment. But, back to Hauerwas:

So constituted, America did not need to have an established church because it was assumed that the church was virtually established by the everyday habits of public life. (p. 15-16) 


Protestantism came to the land we now call America to make America Protestant. It was assumed that being American and Protestant meant having faith in the reasonableness of the common man and the establishment of a democratic republic. But in the process, the church became American; or, as [Mark] Noll [author of America’s God] puts it, “because the churches had done so much to make America, they could not escape living with what they had made.” As a result, Americans continue to maintain a stubborn belief in a god, but the god they believe in turns out to be the American god. To know or worship that god does not require that a church exist, because that god is known through the providential establishment of a free people. Religious people on both the Right and Left share the presumption that America is the church. (p. 16, emphasis mine)

Who does God speak to when God speaks? Most American Christians, whether they be of the Right or the Left, appear to assume that God is speaking to either the nation-state — to the United States of America — or to the entire world. And so salvation is for the nation/world, and prophetic judgement is for the nation/world. Thus God cares that America allows for abortion and open homosexuality, or God cares whether Americans have health insurance. It’s why when pastors speak of public repentance, they call upon the nation to repent. Because The United States of America is God’s people.

I think this is done to avoid the scandal of particularism, which offends moderns with their allegedly tolerant universalism. But particularism is not a scandal in scripture. Particularism is how God works in the world. God calls Israel and Israel alone, gives the teaching to Israel and Israel alone, sends Jesus to Israel and speaks to the world only through Israel. Hauerwas deals with particularism and universalism in greater depth in a later chapter, and so I’m going to set this down for another day. Let’s go on.

Noll ends his account of these developments with the end of the Civil War, but the fundamental habits he identifies as decisive in the formation of the American religious and political consciousness continue to shape that way Christians, and in particular Protestant Christians, understand their place in America. Yet I think we are beginning to see a loss of confidence by Protestants in their ability to sustain themselves in America, just to the extent that the inevitable conflict between the church, republicanism, and common-sense morality has now worked its way out. America is the great experiment in Protestant social thought, but the world Protestants created now threatens to make Protestantism unintelligible to itself. It it to this subject I now turn. 

I believe we may be living at a time when we are Protestantism, at least the kind of Protestantism we have in America, come to an end. It is dying of its own success. Protestantism became identified with the republican presumptions in liberty as an end reinforced by belief in the common sense of the individual. As a result Protestant churches in America lost the ability to maintain the disciplines necessary to sustain people capable of being an alternative to the world. Ironically, the feverish fervency of the Religious Right in America to sustain faith as a necessary condition for supporting democracy cannot help but ensure that the faith sustained is not the Christian faith. 

More Americans may go to church than their counterparts in Europe, but the churches they go to do little to challenge the secular presumptions that form their personal and communal lives. The church is expected to reinforce that those who come to church have done so freely. Its primary function, therefore, is to legitimate and sustain the presumption that America represents what all people would want to be if they had the benefit of American education and money. 

Let me try to put this in a different register. America exemplifies what I call the project of modernity–the attempt to produce a people who believe that they should have no story except the story that they chose when they had no story. This is what Americans mean by freedom. The institutions that constitute the disciplinary forms of that project are liberal democracy and capitalism. Americans presume they have exercised their freedom when they get to choose between a Sony or Panasonic television. The same presumption works for choosing a president, and once you have made your choice you have to learn to live with it. So freedom requires a kind of resignation. (p. 16-17)

I was Hauerwas had expanded a little bit on the Protestant unintelligibility. But I think this is what is really happening when liberal and conservative Protestants have the kind of stupid argument that Ross Douthat has had with Diana Butler Bass on the pages of the New York Times recently. I’m going to have mull this over a bit, because this statement strikes me as intuitively correct, but I cannot really say why yet. Anyway, back to Hauerwas.

The narrative that you should have no story except the story you chose when you had no story obviously has implications for how faith is understood. It produces people who say things as, “I believe Jesus is Lord–but that is just my personal opinion.” The grammar of this kind of avowal obviously reveals a superficial person. But such people are the kind many think crucial for sustaining democracy. For in order to sustain a society that shares no common goods in common other than the belief that there are no goods in common other than avoiding death, there must be people who will avoid any conflicts that might undermine order, which is confused with peace. So an allegedly democratic society that styles itself as one made up of people of strong conviction in fact becomes the most conformist of social orders, because of the necessity of avoiding conflicts that cannot be resolved.  

Such a view has devastating effects on the church. For the church does not believe that you should have no story except the story you chose when you had no story. Rather the church believes that we are creatures of a good God who has storied us by engrafting us to the people of Israel through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Christians do not believe that we get to choose our story, but rather we discover that God has called us to participate in a story not of our own making. That is why we are called into the church and why we are called “Christian.” A church so formed cannot help but challenge a social order built on the contrary presumption that I get to write my own life story. 

But forming a church that is capable of challenging the reigning ethos that sustains America is no easy achievement. You may think that the Catholic Church surely would be up to the task, but you need to remember that, as Archbishop George of Chicago often remarks, Catholicism in America has largely become a form of Protestant Christianity. Catholics in America, like their Protestant sisters and brothers, are likely to assume there is no essential tension between being Christian and being an American. As a result, Catholics in America think the distinction between the public and the private (and their “faith” clearly falls into the latter) is a given that cannot be questioned. (p. 18)

What story gives us meaning? Hauerwas highlights here the complete incompatibility of the Christian story and the American story. One story will dominate, and in our world, it has been the story of American that has subsumed the Gospel story.

Finally, Hauerwas describes briefly why American culture is a culture of death, and it is a description that’s bigger than abortion or health care or tolerance. It goes back to which story forms your life.

America is a culture of death because Americans cannot conceive of how life is possible in the face of death. “Freedom,” as understood in American culture, names the attempt to live as though we will not die, and lives lived as though death is only a theoretical possibility can only be sustained by a wealth otherwise unimaginable. But America is an extraordinarily wealthy society determined to remain so even if it requires our domination of the rest of the world. We are told that others hate us because they despise our freedoms, but it may be that others sense that what Americans call freedom is bought at the expense of the lives of others. (p. 19)

I’m not going to comment much more on what I’ve posted here. I think Hauerwas’ naming the “culture of death” is spot on, and is bigger than any partisan claims as to what constitutes a “culture of life.” Since a culture of life lives fully in reality of death, knowing that in the promises of God made real in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, death no longer has meaning or power over our lives.

More later.