After San Bernadino: what will we Christians do?

Saturday, December 5, 2015

I will get back to my Advent series shortly, but I have been interrupted by the news analysis this morning. Sober voices everywhere are telling us that this is a time of crisis similar to 9/11, but to me it feels even worse. It feels worse because it was possible to construe the attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and whatever the other plane was aiming at as somehow containable, as something we could get our minds around (as, indeed, I think we did, in time). The anger unleashed at ordinary Muslims was intense but did not really last very long. This time, it’s different. Now, jihadists are all around us, and we now know that anything can happen. The result is that ordinary American Muslims fear for themselves, and we should feel for them. I read an account of one young Muslim professional who for the first time is afraid to wear her head scarf.  Worse yet is the case of Omair Siddif who was about to get into his car in a suburban Dallas parking lot, when a man came up to him, showed a gun, and said, “I could kill you right now.” Mr. Siddiq stayed quiet, and the man walked away, but he is now getting a concealed-carry permit. Imagine it: ordinary Muslims and Texas vigilantes gunning it out in shopping-center parking lots.

We Christians should be profoundly concerned about the mood in the body politic. I recently mentioned Marilynne Robinson’s short essay on the way that fear corrupts. Here is the conclusion of my blog on the subject:

I think this is the first time I have ever urged my readers to read a specific essay. It’s short, only two pages. You will probably have to pay to read it, but it’s worth it. Here is the link:

This blog had more hits than my everyday posts ordinarily do, so I hope it touched some hearts. One of Ms. Robinson’s principal points, that fear is not a Christian habit of mind, has stayed with me. In today’s New York Times, the very moderate, balanced, mature David Gergen, who never raises his voice, says that the current mood in our country is”almost animalistic…Americans are looking beyond particular policy for the personality that looks like somebody strong enough, tough enough, big enough to provide security.” The fact that so many on the Christian right are running in the direction of the loudest, angriest, most ill-considered voices is a cause for very serious concern.

I have a small idea. If I were the rector or pastor of a congregation, I would start doing everything I could to build bridges to some of the “conservative evangelical” pastors in my town or city (and lay people can do this too). I would invite them to coffee, or to small groups to have lunch. I would try my best to build friendship and trust. I would try to put aside the abortion/ gay marriage issues for a time, to focus on a specifically Christian response to the deadly threat that we are apparently going to have to live with for many years. I would try to move toward talking together about our Lord Jesus Christ, the Sermon on the Mount, maybe a Bible study based on Philippians 2:1-11. When the Bible study group at the AME church, Mother Emanuel, in Charleston, was attacked, white churches reached out to the black congregation in ways they had not done before. On this model, I believe we should be doing the same thing with the Christian Right which liberal, progressive Christians love to look down on. The mainline churches have lost their voice in our culture, and it’s partly our fault because we have not made the effort to build those bridges which could carry us forward in this time of great crisis. I don’t feel that I have much in common with the extreme Christian right, and it is easy to sneer, but surely our mutual confession of Jesus Christ as Lord should mean something to us all. If he is truly “the One who will come to judge the living and the dead” as we confess, surely we can risk our prized sophistication to try to lower the temperature of the rhetoric, the atmosphere of panic, the incessant talk of “the bad guys.” “For God has bound over all human beings to disobedience in order that he may have mercy upon all.”(Rom. 11:32).

And finally, Marilynne Robinson, again:

I take very seriously Jesus’ teachings, in this case his saying that those who live by the sword will also die by the sword….Death is no simple thing when Jesus speaks of it. His thoughts are not our thoughts, the limits of our perceptions are not limits he shares. We must imagine him seeing the whole of our existence, our being beyond mortality, beyond time. There is that other death he can foresee, the one that really matters. When Christians abandon Christian standards of behavior in the defense of Christianity, when Americans abandon American standards of conduct in the name of America, they inflict harm that would not be in the power of any enemy. As Christians they risk the kind of harm to themselves to which the Bible applies adjectives like “everlasting.”

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