On February 25, 2014

Civil Religion: Better Than You

“Don’t you know that sinners are the only kind of people Jesus can love?”-William Still

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Christina Cleveland is a social psychologist and professor at St. Catherine’s University. She’s also a relatively new Christian. And when Christina first became a Jesus follower, she says that felt an immediate connection with any other kind of Christian she met. It didn’t matter what “brand” of Christian they were, conservative, charismatic, liberal, Catholic, it didn’t matter they were family.

But over time, Cleveland noticed that something began to happen. Somehow her growth started to entail having stronger and stronger opinions about what the right ways to follow Jesus were. She started keeping people who she disagreed with or didn’t enjoy at arm’s length. And over time, Christianity for her, the story about how God was reconciling the whole world, just got smaller and smaller, until it was about reconciling the people who were like her, and who she liked.

Us and Them

In her great book, “Dis-Unity In Christ” Christina Cleveland talks about this problem. She says the real problem is how well it works.  Let her tell it:

“I know that this is a tad bit dark, but if someone approached me confessing an uncomfortable bout of low self-esteem and asking for a quick and dirty boost to their self-esteem, I would advise that person to put someone else down. The unfortunate truth is that the easiest and most effective way to boost your own image is to lower someone else’s.

I think we religious people are guilty of this so much of the time.

It seems to me we’ve gotten in the habit of defining ourselves over and against other people and their behavior. We define ourselves by not we are not, more to the point, we define ourselves as better than those who do or do not do certain things.

What those specific things are varies from group to group, but the one constant is that we our better than they are.

It’s interesting to me that the chapter that is quoted most often about Homosexuality being a sin is Romans 1. Because to quote that chapter to single out a particular sin as unique is very ironic.

See, in Romans, Paul is writing to a church community that is mixed with Jewish and Gentile Christians, and they are having a really difficult time worshipping and fellowshipping together. They have such different backgrounds and different outlooks on life. Some of them eat meat bought down at the local pagan temple, some of them think that’s blasphemy, some of them observe the pagan holidays as a cultural affair, some of them think you should only observe the Jewish ones.

And Paul’s answer is a bit of a race to the bottom.

The League of the GuiltyCathedral

He starts off in chapter one by reminding the Jews just how bad the Gentiles are. He reminds them of all the the ways they are broken, they’re sexually depraved, they gossip, they hate God, they disobey their parents, they do homosexual acts, they invent ways of doing evil. (They’re like Adolf Edison)

At the end of chapter one, the Jewish people would have been worked up.

And then he turns against them.

He starts talking to the Gentiles about the Jews. In Romans 2, he goes on to talking about how bad the religious people are. They preach against stealing…but they steal. They think just because they go to church, or do some ritual, that they are nice, squeaky, clean “good people” But they’re not, Paul talks to the Gentiles about how selfish, and self-important, and self-righteous these religious people are.

At the end of chapter two, the Gentiles would be the ones saying, “Amen!’

And then Paul says this, “There is no one righteous. No one…..For all have sinned, and fallen short of the Glory of God”

Paul’s answer to the us and them problem, to the arguments that break out in church and through Christians is to remind them why they came to this story in the first place.

There is an itch you can’t scratch, a dirt you can’t rub off, a stain that won’t go away, and just because you can see it more clearly in someone else, doesn’t mean that you can ignore it. Because at the end of the day, you’re just as much a part of the problem as they are.

One of my favorite books last year, was a book by Francis Spufford, he’s an Anglican Christian writing in England to a Post-Christian culture. Spufford is trying to explain why Christianity makes good emotional sense to people who think it’s a bit like believing in fairies and wizards. And instead of turning to conventional apologetics about evidence that demands verdicts, he talks about the one thing that needs no proof. What’s wrong inside of each one of us:

So of all things, Christianity isn’t supposed to be about gathering up the good people (shiny! happy! squeaky clean!) and excluding the bad people (frightening! alien! repulsive!) for the very simple reason that there aren’t any good people. Not that can be securely designated as such. It can’t be about circling the wagons of virtue out in the suburbs and keeping the unruly inner city at bay. This, I realize, goes flat contrary to the present predominant image of it as something existing in prissy, fastidious little enclaves, far from life’s messier zones and inclined to get all “judgmental” about them. Again, of course there are Christians like that…The religion certainly can slip into being a club or a cozy affinity group or a wall against the world. But it isn’t supposed to be. What it’s supposed to be is a league of the guilty. Not all guilty of the same things, or in the same way, or to the same degree, but enough for us to recognize each other.

This is what Paul is doing in Romans, and Cleveland is getting at in her book. Christianity is not about being better than someone else, it is among many things, the recognition that we are better than no one else.

This is not a rhetorical move, it is reality.

It is to look deep into our hearts/mirrors and souls to see our own sin. And if you have, then welcome to the International League of the Guilty.

We call it Church.

 

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  • tanyam

    I wonder about using Spufford in a piece which essentially argues a “love the sinner, hate the sin” (or, “we’re all sinners”) belief about homosexuality, when this is what he actually wrote:
    “. . . quite a lot of those who are conducting my own church’s stumbling rearguard action against gay rights seem to feel they are defending a fortress of traditional behaviour against hordes of drag queens on crack. The record of the church here is, frankly, rubbish.

    “We are not supposed to be assigning guilt according to who does what with whom. Categories of clean and dirty belong in the law religions, not in Christianity. Where consenting adults are concerned, we ought to be as uninterested in forbidden sexual acts as we are in lists of forbidden foods. ‘Objectively disordered’, my arse. The disorder is in our hearts. Sexual sins matter, all right – where selves touch so closely, what more fertile field could there be for the HPtFtU? – but any of us can commit them, and usually we do, taking hold of each other coldly, carelessly, mockingly, exploitatively, angrily, as if the other or our own self were a convenient object rather than flesh requiring or recognition and our tenderness. Sexual guilt, like every other kind, is distributed across the entire human race.”
    In other words, we aren’t merely to tolerate queer folk because they are sinners like us, we should examine our beliefs about their sexual behavior, entirely.

  • tanyam

    I wonder about using Spufford in a piece which essentially promotes a “love the sinner, hate the sin” belief about homosexuality (or its cousin, “we’re all sinners anyway”) when this is what he actually wrote:
    “ . . . .quite a lot of those who are conducting my own church’s stumbling rearguard action against gay rights seem to feel they are defending a fortress of traditional behaviour against hordes of drag queens on crack. The record of the church here is, frankly, rubbish.

    “We are not supposed to be assigning guilt according to who does what with whom. Categories of clean and dirty belong in the law religions, not in Christianity. Where consenting adults are concerned, we ought to be as uninterested in forbidden sexual acts as we are in lists of forbidden foods. ‘Objectively disordered’, my arse. The disorder is in our hearts. Sexual sins matter, all right – where selves touch so closely, what more fertile field could there be for the HPtFtU? – but any of us can commit them, and usually we do, taking hold of each other coldly, carelessly, mockingly, exploitatively, angrily, as if the other or our own self were a convenient object rather than flesh requiring or recognition and our tenderness. Sexual guilt, like every other kind, is distributed across the entire human race.”
    In other words, we should be examining our beliefs about homosexuality wholesale, not merely tolerating people who we believe are wrong.

  • Danny Gill

    What you have quoted from Christina Cleveland doesn’t really recommend her much. Put someone else down to boost your own self-esteem? Where in the Bible is that from? Oh, I know. Nowhere. That’s an anti-christian idea.

    I am quite weary of hearing Christians say how judgmental other Christians are. I’m also weary of hearing every statement against homosexual behavior downplayed and cast as judgmental. The reason people quote Paul’s words about homosexuality is this: That’s what they’re discussing at the time. Of course, if you’re faced with a public that is arguing that homosexuality is normative, beneficial behavior, you’re going to cut to the chase in what you call a “race to the bottom.” It’s what is going on now. I don’t know a lot of people who are telling people that eating meat sacrificed to idols is great these days, do you?

  • http://stormented.com Jonathan Storment

    I think it’s fair to use his observation without following him all the way on how he applied it. I think Spufford did a great job on pointing out the pervasive nature of sin, and I agree with him on our over-emphasis on sexuality, and even the disorder is in our hearts. I think he’s trying to do in a lot of ways what Paul was doing in Romans, and that’s why I used that here. Sounds like you enjoyed the book too!

  • http://stormented.com Jonathan Storment

    Bro. Danny, you’d love the book. She was actually saying that negatively about human nature (as a psychologist) not recommending that act. Just saying it would work to make someone feel better about themselves for a short time…that’s why we do it. I understand your pushback on this, and the point your making about talking about a certain sin and pulling a specific scripture out about it, but I think when we do it we should always keep it in context, which is a list of vices. Everytime. And most of them (like lying, or disobeying parents) are ones I do know a lot of people struggle with…including me.

  • Danny Gill

    So, if I tell someone that gossip is wrong, I must also tell him that murder is wrong at the same time? Sorry, but you seem to have an odd idea of what context is. It is a list of vices. So, what? In the first place, it is not an exhaustive list I don’t see theft there, so it cannot be. And I don’t believe you think that it is. In the second place, the context is listing the kinds of things that God considers to be sin. When someone is pursuing one sin and denying it is sin, does it make any sense to tell that person that something else is a sin?

    I mourn my own sins, I repent of them and seek to leave them behind. But the fact that I am not tempted by another sin doesn’t mean it is any less sinful. Jesus did say, “He who is without sin should cast the first stone,” but he also said “Go and sin no more,” and “by their fruit you will know them.”

    As for Cleveland, the very idea of putting someone else down to raise my own self-esteem is foreign to me, and really wouldn’t make me feel any better about myself. And she said that is what she would do: “I know that this is a tad bit dark, but if someone approached me
    confessing an uncomfortable bout of low self-esteem and asking for a
    quick and dirty boost to their self-esteem, I would advise that person
    to put someone else down. The unfortunate truth is that the easiest and
    most effective way to boost your own image is to lower someone else’s.” She says that is what she would advise.

  • http://stormented.com Jonathan Storment

    Bro. Danny, I probably made a mistake by the way I framed Cleveland’s comments, in context it was very much the opposite of what she was saying. She’s not recommending that, she’s just saying that works, and that’s why we do it. You really will enjoy her book if you gave it a shot. Hope you’re doing well!

  • Norma Edgington

    Thanks Danny you said so very well what I was thinking but did not have the right words to express!!