The experiences that make up our lives make us who we are. Children who are abused are more likely to grow up to be abusers themselves. Those who are raised in a faith tradition tend to adhere to that tradition throughout their lives or, at least, gravitate back toward it later in life if they left it in early adulthood. Republicans beget Republicans. Democrats beget Democrats. Cubs fans spawn Cubs fans who spawn Cubs fans - no streaks or curses can stop it. Some families swear by Hellman’s mayonnaise while others will shun you if you use any spread other than Duke’s. It’s who we are. I’m not surprised when my son parrots the words I use - good and bad alike. The environments in which we are raised are, in many ways, ones we seek to emulate as we grow up, either consciously or subconsciously.
Why, then, are we surprised when our elected leaders - many of whom were reared in (and often now are lay leaders in) religious institutions that perpetuate sexism, bigotry, division, and (perhaps worst) ambivalence toward social issues - draft and pass legislation that upholds the tenets of the institutions that formed their faith?
If you’re looking for answers to why our elected leaders find value in certain bills and not in others or why issues of substance often seem secondary to issues of convenience, you need to look no further than, to borrow a phrase from Will Campbell, the steeples on many street corners in towns big and small across our country. If you want to blame someone for HB2 in North Carolina or HB1523 in Mississippi, blame the institutions that that reared the people we’ve elected to serve us in our capitols. Blame the institutions that nominate and elect these same people to serve as their deacons, elders, and committee chairs. You could blame the churches that reared many in the Georgia Legislature too, but Governor Nathan Deal gave witness to another fact about American Christianity: money matters more than anything. Even personal conviction.
I have a lot of friends and acquaintances who are men and women of the cloth. For the most part they are wonderful people. Many are better, more caring, more devout people than I can claim to be myself. They may take umbrage with my shoveling blame at their institutions’ doorsteps. That’s fine. We’re entitled to our opinions and I’ve been wrong before. I’ll be the first to admit it. I am not blaming them individually for HB2, HB1523, or any other hateful pieces of legislation. I blame the Church for failing to live out its calling and, therefore, for creating environments that nurture the mindsets necessary to believe that such legislation is somehow consistent with the teachings of Jesus.
A lot of faith leaders have come out to condemn the latest pieces of “religious freedom” legislation. This is good news. My question, however, is: Where were these voices when the people who drafted these bills were learning about the teachings of Jesus, the prophets, the formation of the early church? What were we preaching about as these people grew up in our congregations? How were we responding (or not) to their questions in Sunday school classes or bible studies? As someone who has taught innumerable Sunday school classes preached dozens of sermons in small churches, I have to say it wears on my conscience that I probably allowed some people in these churches to get by without asking hard questions or to feel validated in their more naive interpretations of scripture because I was afraid to question them.
So then, the question for me turns to why. Why was I afraid? Why are we afraid to stand up when we first hear the rumblings of insensitivity or intolerance in those who claim the good news of Jesus Christ? Why do we remain silent when they keep coming up? I was sitting in a meeting the other day when someone reminded us that the way we ask questions matters because people’s first inclination is to be nice, not to be honest. We would rather not hurt someone feelings than tell them the truth. All I could say in response was a muffled, “Jesus,” because it was so accurate and timely.
I think we’re also afraid for the same reasons Governor Deal was afraid: our wallets. It goes without saying, but institutions require management. Movements do not. Some refer to the beginnings of the Church as the Jesus Movement, but as the Church grew and gained prestige and power it moved from a movement into an institution. This large institution has split and split and split over two millennia becoming many large and small institutions that have all required management. Management begets maintenance. When you have to manage and maintain, there is inherently less energy or capacity to move. Inertia sets in and transforms a movement into an institution.
When niceness mixes with maintaining a system or structure, the result is neutrality. To put it another way, that’s how we develop the status quo. We do only what we have to do to keep things where they are. Nothing more, nothing less. When we become neutral, we fool ourselves into believing we can be for something without be against anything. Myles Horton reminds us, ”You have to take sides and know why you're taking sides. There can be no such thing as neutrality. It's a code word for the existing system,” (We Make the Road by Walking). If there’s one thing Jesus was against, it was the existing system.
The American Church is really good at being neutral. Sure, some Protestant denominations have taken strides in recent years to get off the fence on issues regarding sexual identity and orientation, but these strides have come after years of silent neutrality not unlike that which led Dr. King to write a letter from a jail cell to white moderate ministers and their approach to the civil rights movement. The Church has tried too long to be for the causes of those seeking to be seen and heard while not being against those who seek to silence and ignore the same people. Why this is, I don’t know. The optimist in me tries to convince me that the hope is for a unified church while the cynic in me reminds me the people who pay the bills and the salaries often have the deepest pockets. Somewhere I remember someone say that no one can serve two masters. I wish I could remember who it was.
The thing, is the cynic keeps winning. A former teacher of mine once told me that the greatest failure of the Church is its inability to educate its members in age appropriate ways. I thought he was right for a long time. I’ve recently come to believe that its greatest failure is trying to be all things to all people at all times. In trying to accommodate everyone under the guise of an open door policy, the Church has tried to be for a lot of issues without being against much at all.
Look at the slogs its taken for some Protestant denominations to fully accept and embrace the LGBT community, and to be honest none of them really have. Once proud of their connectional nature, many have opted for local decision making instead so that churches don’t feel forced to do something that would make them feel uncomfortable or, God forbid, drive certain deep pockets away to another church where comfort can be found. We want to be a big umbrella where all voices are welcome, they say. Well, that’s not really consistent with the gospel either and if you’re under an umbrella, chances are you’re against getting wet, so you’ve already made a choice. It just so happens to be a choice that remains harmful and inconsistent with the teaching of Jesus.
Being for and not against is a logical impossibility that laid the groundwork for the logical fallacies that make up the latest round of hateful legislation in our country. Our legislators want to hide behind the veil of sincerely held religious beliefs, so if you want to lay blame, lay it at the foot of the steeples where the sincerely held religious beliefs were developed. That’s where those beliefs are nurtured. That’s where they’ve verbally or silently been upheld. Until they aren’t nurtured anymore, until the Church starts being for the love and grace it waxes so eloquently about, we can all expect more of the same from the people whom we elected and the Church will continue to be a place for gathering instead of transformation.