“America is angry at Washington, angry at the press, angry at immigrants, angry at television, angry at traffic, angry at people who are well off, angry at people who are poor, angry at blacks and angry at whites. The old are angry at the young, the young angry at the old. Suburbs are angry at cities, cities are angry at suburbs, and rustic America is angry at both urban and suburban intruders who threaten the peaceful rustic sense of having escaped from God’s angry land.”
This sounds like it could be written today, April 28, 2023.
It wasn’t. Russell Baker [noted New York Times columnist] wrote this on October 22nd in 1994.
Why all this anger in 1994; why do we seem to have more in 2023?
Some may say that this is just from members of society in general, that not all segments of America feel such anger. Surely Christians don’t feel like this. They love Jesus; they must feel the call to love their fellow man. I wish this was the case, but it is not. I am appalled at some of the comments from my Christian friends who post their thoughts on social media platforms.
As Peter Gomes concludes Chapter Three in The Good Book, he addresses the source of some of this anger. Even though I may refer to current issues, his words fit today’s controversies. Gomes feels that Christians use God’s word to avoid adapting to current cultural concerns. They do not want to see change. It is all about what can be done to maintain the status quo in the context of the culture wars [again, he wrote in 1996 but his thoughts seem so relevant today]. Those “wars” he referred to rage on as many Christian Americans remain embroiled in the hot-button topics of abortion, LGBTQ+ rights and critical race theory in the schools. Many “religious” people long for the days when the Bible was taught in school, students were allowed to pray and unrighteous behavior was dealt with strict punishment. America [after all] is a country where congress begins each session in prayer, the President is sworn into office on a Bible and the currency bears the motto “In God We Trust”.
Today the news focuses on transgender bathroom concerns and fair competition in sports with transgender athletes. My neighboring state has passed a law that severely limits “drag queens” from taking to the stage [they cite worry that kids could attend the show as the need for the law]. Increasing numbers of parents are worried that their children are being exposed to sexually explicit material in school libraries so they are pulling books from library shelves. Increasing numbers of Caucasian parents are worried that their children are being exposed to a retelling of history that explains the role of white race in the oppression of African-American people. Nationwide there is a push to ban critical race theory.
Inherent in all these examples is the feeling that all these changes are horrible. Christians seem to feel that society is being controlled by Satan and all this change is his way of destroying the world. Gomes writes “to change is to go against the Bible; what is, is mandated by the Bible” . In other words, The Bible expresses the idea that here is no need to adapt to a changing world. We need to keep things just as they are or we need to look to the past, the “good ole days” when we did not have to deal with any of these issues. Many of these angry people are individuals who are not weighing the good and bad of change; they feel all change is bad if it upsets the way things have always been. In reality, are all changes bad? No they are not. But conversely, are all changes good? Of course they are not. Many in the Christian community have forgotten there is such a thing as critical evaluation of change.
Gomes’ focus is on the Bible and he says that many of the “people of The Book” desire to maintain the status quo: “For those who hold to the intimate relationship between the Bible and the culture, the Bible often becomes the icon of that culture. The culture sees itself mirrored in the Bible, the Bible is understood to be the norm by which the culture is defined, and this often results in the Bible’s use as a textbook for the status quo” [The Good Book, 58].
It is hard to do, but as Christians live their lives, it is important to evaluate cultural change with a more mature outlook. How much of the change that we see in society today could be called a passing fad? How much of the change we see in society today is not all bad? We need to see some forms of change. Can some good come from a measured response instead of instant hatred of change and a call to maintain the status quo or return to the “good ole days.”
Richard Rohr* warns that “If change and growth are not programmed into your spirituality. . .your religion will always end up worshiping the status quo and protecting your present ego position and personal advantage” . He goes on to say that resistance to change is so common that we expect that from religious people. They love to look at the value of the past more than they treasure the present or accept the challenges of the future.
Many feel that change and growth should be part of one’s ongoing spiritual life but that is not the case with many Christians. Most of my “serious” adult experiences with Christian faith have occurred in my days as a Methodist. John Wesley [the founder of Methodism] was very serious about growing and changing in our faith. When one becomes a believer, Wesley labeled that person “justified”. Their sins were forgiven and they began their relationship with God. Quick on the heels of justification is sanctification, or growth in faith. That means I should change. The believer should devote time to prayer, study, fellowship with believers etc. Sanctification results in deepening faith and relating to God on an even deeper level. Sanctification is all about change and growth.
Many will be quick to point out that changes in society do not even apply to the need for spiritual change. The two are not related. In 1996, Gomes had no idea where we would be in today’s Methodist Church, that the church would split over the LGBTQ+ issue, the idea that some feel that gay marriage should be allowed, active gay pastors can minister to their flock and gay administrators should be allowed to take the reins of the upper echelon of the church. His words seem prophetic when he states “the land we seek is not behind us, it is before us”. We should not envision a stagnant God who is unwilling to adapt to the needs of society. “The Bible is a book for the future, about the future, and written with confidence in the future. It embraces the future not out of disgust with the present, or with the past but out of the conviction that God is in the future, and to be where God is, is to know fulfillment, purpose and bliss” .
As I make my final comments on Chapter Three of The Good Book, I need to recall that Gomes advocates for acceptance of gay Christians within the church; in fact, Gomes is a gay pastor at Harvard [at the writing of his book]. Is he laying groundwork for later chapters when his calls for acceptance get stronger? Is this issue something that holds Christians back in their spiritual development? Would Richard Rohr say that acceptance of gay Christians should be a part of spiritual growth? Would John Wesley scold Christians who cannot accept the call for acceptance from the gay Christian community?
We will see in future posts. Can there be a time of peace in our future as American society finds compromise between extreme views? Can Christians get control of their negative reactions when change shows up on their doorstep?
It is bad enough when we feel we have to live in an angry society.
Maybe it is even worse when we feel we have to worship in an angry church…with angry Christians.
*from his book Falling Upward.