Sunday, May 17, 2015

"But I don't believe what they believe..." redux

A little over a year ago I posted a piece about the theology of one of the local megachurches - Eternal Punishment and the Local Megachurch in which I questioned whether the member of that church really believe that their "unsaved" neighbors are all going to suffer eternal punishment in hell.

I had a vacation week this week and we were in town on Sunday and attended that church.  The church scene in greater Santa Barbara is dominated by a couple of megachurches and it seems that the individual congregations go in and out of style.  When I speak to the families whose children attend our nursery school and ask whether they're a part of a local religious community, about 1/2 say they attend whatever megachurch is in style at that time.  The church we attended this morning is the in style church now and it showed.  There was a line of cars waiting to get into the parking lot.  The average age was significantly younger than Cambridge Drive and there were scores of pregnant women, toddlers, and kids. The sanctuary was very full.

This morning's experience felt authentic.  I felt the genuineness of the worship leaders and deeply appreciated that.  Signage was poor.  A first time visitor could easily get lost in the shuffle but that is part and parcel of a megachurch.   There were bits of the service that literally made no sense (communion was just weird), but the biggest problem for me was the sermon.  The preacher spoke on John 12:27-33 and said the passage addressed two questions: why did the cross have to happen and what did the cross accomplish.  The sermon was consistent with the statement of faith I read a bit over a year ago.  The woman who spoke (yes, a woman) talked about the purity and justice of God requiring the death penalty and that Jesus "had to suffer for a day so we would not have to suffer for eternity."  I'll let the logic behind some of the arguments go but the theological underpinnings I find really problematic.

The preacher presented the defining characteristic of God as being purity... and the purity is so pure that it is literally immiscible with the sinful nature of humanity.  Why is the cross necessary according to the sermon?  Because God's purity requires wrath and justice, which in the case of human sinfulness equals death and eternal punishment.

I found myself wondering how many of those young mothers would pour out wrath on their children regardless of what they had done.  Earlier in the service, members were asked to share scripture passages that gave them comfort during difficult times and one quoted Matthew 7:9-11
Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? 10 Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? 11 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!
You can see the inconsistency here... especially since these words were spoken by Jesus long before the cross.

Again, I found myself wondering how many of those in the congregation actually believe in a God whose wrath is so all consuming that the only answer is the death penalty or eternal agony... and if that penalty is meted out on one who is innocent, then all the better.

Sorry... that i not the God I believe in.

I would argue that the defining characteristic of God is love and that by its very nature love is never immiscible.  Indeed, that is the very message of the incarnation.  In my theology, God's love requires forgiveness and reconciliation not punishment.  The cross is not punishment for human sin but the example of human sin and the example of love that goes so far as even to suffer.  It is God reaching out to us no matter the cost.

Just like the other local megachurch we attended a few years ago, I found myself wondering why the folk are there.  This one did feel authentic... at least it has that going for it and it is possible that much of the congregation actually agree with the theology that came from the pulpit this morning.  On the other hand, if they do not believe that message... you can draw your own conclusions.

Thursday, May 07, 2015

The problem with the police

Police violence, particularly against black men and boys is a serious issue and must be addressed.   The fact that Baltimore has a black mayor and black police chief clearly shows that police violence against black men is not so simple as blaming a bunch of white racists for acting inappropriately but race cannot be ignored as a factor (see more below).  Race is not the only issue though and as some of my racist friends are quick to say, "White people get killed by the police too." 

Let me begin by saying that for most of my ministry I have had police officers who were members of my congregations.  To a person they were dedicated, conscientious people who took their jobs very seriously and truly wanted to do the right thing.  Still, the officers I have known well struggled with the issues below.

Back in seminary I did a stint as a student chaplain in a mental hospital.  It was a formative experience for me in many ways and I learned more from my supervisor, Bob Cholke, than I could begin to share.   One thing he said was very relevant to the problems we're seeing with the police today.  After working a few weeks at Haverford State Mental Hospital, Cholke said, "Be careful... if you spend much time here, you'll see everyone as crazy."  It was true.  As I spent more time with the mentally ill folk in the hospital I began to see that they really weren't that different from everyone else I knew.  It was a short jump to seeing everyone else I knew as like them... crazy.  I think the same is true with police officers.  They spend a lot of time with bad people and it doesn't take long until they see everybody as bad.  They would argue that at times their very lives depend on seeing the worst in the people they encounter.  That may be true, but it does change the way they see everyone and the ways that they interact with the public.

Race is clearly an issue in our culture and we often characterize criminals as being people of color.  You see a violent crime drama on television and there is a good chance that the criminal is not white.  Turn it around and people of color are seen as criminals regardless of what they have done.  This happens even with police officers who are black.  Add this to the sense above that everybody is a criminal and you've got a recipe for problems. 

The militarization of the police intensifies everything.  I remember hearing a commentator watching the police in Ferguson who said that when he was in Afghanistan, he was less heavily armed on patrol than the police were on the streets of Ferguson.  When the police arrive in full combat gear, that elicits a response that is not good.  It intensifies the sense of an us/them divide.  It escalates the potential for problems.  We all know that the police are supposed to protect and serve but the military is there to engage an enemy.  Some years ago I heard Ray Bakke say that the future of urban ministry was in the hands of women because men tended to escalate the potential for violence.  The softer approach of women lessened the tensions.  How much more true is it that a heavily armed police force in full combat gear escalates things as opposed to a softer presence?

The solutions are not simple and they are not without cost.  A softer police presence may indeed make the job of the police more dangerous.  It may also make the general public less likely to suffer from violence by police officers.