Friday, 9 October 2015

Do evangelicals recognise their Internal Emotional Posture

Following Tony Campolo's statement about the churches response to the LGBTQ community the Christian press was typically dismissive. According to one source Tony has finally 'capitulated' on this issue. 

Given the ease at which some leaders accuse other churches and ministries of heresy it could be said that orthodoxy is a huge deal in the evangelical church; at least when it comes to some subjects. The problem we face is that when we approach the themes represented as orthodox and our own internal need for change, we are already at a disadvantage. Essentially we do not approach ideas or internal development free from the influence of our spiritual heritage.

In spoken English, for example, we have two sounds made by the use of our tongue at the front of our mouth that cause trouble for other language speakers. The difference between the 'T' sound used in word like 'today' (where the tongue touches the roof of the mouth behind the teeth) and 'Th' sound of word like 'them' (where the tongue moves in front of the teeth) can be complicated for some native English speakers too; those who say 'free' instead of 'three'. It must be difficult for other people groups to work this out when we cannot agree amongst ourselves on pronunciation. 

It is said of Hindi speakers that they have another sound to add to this collection that is not usually experienced by English speakers. In addition to 'T' and 'Th' they have a sound made by the tongue curling backwards and touching the soft pallet in the roof of the mouth.

Apparently this is not primarily an issue of pronunciation but a cultural default setting in the muscles and sinews used in the formation of sounds. English speakers tend to hold their tongue flat and relaxed at the bottom of their mouths near to their front teeth. When they begin to speak their tongue is ready for action to produce the kind of sounds that are most readily used in their common language, in a sense, programmed by our culture and use of language from birth. 

Hindi speakers' tongues are programmed by their culture to be ready to curl backwards to touch the soft pallet. If English is your first language try this for yourself. Curl your tongue upwards and backwards towards the soft pallet and speak out loud. You will find that it will sound more like a Hindi speaker.

It needs to be said that neither way is right or wrong. Indeed, considering the way in which language develops, it could be that in the future, English will sound less and less like the way we are accustomed to hearing it. This is nothing new. Language has always changed. 

This is an important example of something that we are not generally aware of, yet it does contribute to the way in which we make value judgements.

In essence, however, this is not about communication: people who say 'free' instead of 'three' can be perfectly understood by the context and sentence constructruction. The same is true of both regional and international accents. It is also not about the making of sounds in and of itself. It is more to do with the position of our muscles that is controlled by our cultural conditioning; something we don't even know is happening. It is to do with posture.

I want to suggest that something similar takes place when discussing politics, worldviews, theology, religion, and other similarly controversial issues. In a sense we have an 'internal emotional posture' that readies us for our response to any given situation. Although it is hidden, it informs our value judgements about others, the world around us, and what is deemed as correct.

During debates about the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict I have been accused of anti-Semitism. I don't take this lightly. We are all capable of racist behaviour and thought given the right, or the wrong set of circumstances. In response to these accusations I read some more, self reflect, pray, and consider whether my words are motivated by my own shadows.

In addition, I am often accused of being biased: this seems less culturally offensive, but also needs to be considered. To some degree I am probably guilty of this: we all are. It is hard not to feel drawn towards the cries of hurting people. I have written before about why I feel that the powerful have more responsibility to work for peace and why I believe that God sides with the oppressed.

Having said this bias and partiality are a blight on human history and we must try constantly to find ways of communicating more of what might be called the truth.

Now let me speak of the bias of the group that I have been part of for many decades: evangelical Christianity. Much of it has been profoundly pro-Israel for as long as I can remember. We read their history on the pages of our shared sacred text. We feel like part of the family. 

Then we have the pseudo-apocalyptic theology of J.N. Derby that was popularised by Tim Lahaye and Jerry B Jenkins in the Left Behind series of books. This was taken as almost unquestioned truth in my part of evangelicalism. We were told that the end times are coming and Israel is the major player. Many of the dates of this end time were changed to cover for the embarrassment of failed prophecy. Some of the key players were rearranged: before an eleventh nation joined the common market it was said that the EU was the ten horns of the antichrist. 

What matters here is that all of this served to create an internal emotional posture within some parts of the church. We can see it now in the debates about Israel and Gaza.

As soon as you show images of children being killed by this disproportionate military action to some evangelicals, they curl their metaphorical tongues to the position that most fits with their cultural worldview and tell us that they have found a verse in the Bible that says Israel is the apple of God's eye or that he has promised to return them to the land. 

So accuse me of bias and I will try to consider my words more carefully. I will suggest, however, that the is no worse partiality than the fundamentalist, who has a verse from a sacred text and doesn't realise that they have an internal emotional posture, no matter what their religious affiliation.

Now add to this idea that we have the preaching of 'Christ' on the one hand and the preaching of social issues on the other. This idea was largely driven by a dualist view that has prevailed within evangelicalism. This practice could be taken further by suggesting that the 'renewing of your mind' is essentially christocentric whilst psychiatry, on the other hand, is a 'worldly' exercise.

In this environment, a binary position is set and the work of the church in general, and preaching in particular, are easily judged as either falling into one camp or another. Similar binaries can be set up between God being our 'great physician' and healthcare, or the kingdom of God and the politics of the world.

In my lifetime, I have heard of churches encouraging people to refrain from taking medicine whilst trusting God for a 'promised' miracle healing. I have been part of a community that has ignored the plight of other people groups in places like South Africa because the church is not to 'do' politics. 

The binary position presented makes the church, and its leaders think that one can either preach the Bible or preach social/political issues. There is a hallowed position of preaching 'Christ crucified' without any implied or overt reference to other areas of life.

When Karl Barth wrote "We must hold the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other" he showed this for what it is. 

When Desmond Tutu preached that 'Anyone who says that the church shouldn't be involved in politics, hasn't read the gospels' he revealed the paucity of our knowledge of the teachings of Jesus.

When C.S. Lewis wrote that 'He who surrenders himself without reservation to the temporal claims of a nation, or a party, or a class is rendering to Caesar that which belongs to God', he showed that even inactivity is in fact to be actively engaged in the political power-base of the world.

The dualist view offering binary options to complicated issues tends to lead the church to become inert. On the other hand, the love of God that drove the Son to willingly enter the human story reflects an almost seamless engagement with all parts of the creation. One could suggest that doing nothing whilst saying much is the sounding gong that is suggested in 1 Corinthians 13.

Dualism is a convenient way of creating distance between ourselves and others

So the church is either seen as being complicit in the ruling power-base, or at least arriving late to the party, when it comes to providing a necessary critique. 

When an issue takes place in a business setting there are mechanisms in place for resolving problems with systems and processes. Often one will raise a ticket with the technical help desk who will provide the necessary backup. Each ticket is graded according to its importance with the highest grade being 'business critical'. When such a ticket is raised, all of the appropriate senior management team and directors will be made aware of it and the full resources of the support department are employed to resolving the issues.

In practice, however, such situations very rarely arrive without prior warning. Often weeks before the crucial moment, suspicions will have been vocalised and tickets will have been raised about a variety of seemingly smaller issues, which will ultimately lead to the need to press the 'business critical' button.

There are many cultural reasons for an employee to resist raising a business critical ticket; some of them are to do with their own insecurities, some are due to the treatment they have received when doing so on previous occasions.

It is highly likely, however, that had some of the smaller issues been addressed earlier on, the later problem might not have occurred.

So it seems with the churches' response to some issues that might be called 'political'. Responding when the need is highly visible and lives are actually in danger may well be seen as noble in many circles. Speaking up about the conditions that might lead to such dangers is often dismissed as 'political' by those same churches. 'We preach Christ crucified and not politics' is the cry. Little comfort for those who go hungry, who are abused, displaced, or even killed.

In his writings on the idea of peaceful resistance, Gandhi draws a contrast between those of a religious disposition who, when faced with the call to fight for one's country, choose to become conscientious objectors, and those who take part in peaceful resistance, before the war actually takes place. In essence he is saying that by the time an individual makes the decision to refuse to take up arms, it is usually too late to make a significant difference. One wonders what would have happened, had the churches that represented the many thousands of conscientious objectors in the Second World War, spoken politically about peace in the name of Christ before the conflict had begun.

Following the First World War the allies placed such a heavy financial burden upon the German people (94) that it made it all the more likely that they would elect someone like Hitler (Treaty of Versailles). If churches had raised their voices for a response to our German 'enemies' that was more about reconciliation and less about punishment, one can only speculate what might have happened.

When the church, however, creates for itself a false construct of duality, preaching Christ and speaking about politics seem mutually exclusive. It doesn't seem to matter that Acts 17 records the Apostle Paul saying to the influential people of Athens that 'in him we live and move and have our being'. He includes his unregenerate audience in this and suggests that there is nothing that exists outside of God. Now if my earlier inclusion of the words of Gandhi offend you because he is not part of the Christian tribe it is worth noting that Paul is quoting an Epicurean poem.

In our goal to respond to the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 5 to be salt and light to the world we need to see that the duality through which we have viewed this passage has led us to a separatist mentality, which allows us to preach a version of the gospel, whilst acting in ways that are very bad news for many people in the world.

In response to these words of Jesus, John Stott said that we should 'halt decay' and 'reveal the truth'. There is very little chance this can be done when our endeavours are to be so theologically bound that we allow no hint of political edge into our words.

A seemingly 'pure' gospel that dances with the ideas of Jesus Christ, and his crucifixion, in a way that does not engage with the real issues of people seems to be no gospel at all.

Having been brought up on a 'whosoever will, may come' gospel that suggests everybody is free to choose to follow Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour, our internal posture will understandably be suspicious of ideas that suggest that this might not be the case.

Revelation 22 may well record both the Spirit and the Bride calling the 'one who is thirsty come' and take the 'free gift of the water of life' but this invitation is given after the formation of the new Jerusalem. This surely has implications for evangelicalism in that we tend to limit the offer of redemption to this life. In addition there is evidence in the gospels that God recognises the constraints that some people's experiences have upon their ability to respond to this offer.

In our preaching of 'whosoever will may come', we have ignored that there exists 'whosoever can't people'.

Gandhi puts it this way, 'There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.'

I have been given an immense privilege of having the freedom to have access to a church, a Bible, and people who can explain the good news story. In addition my life has been relatively free of the emotional scars suffered by others. When someone tells me that Jesus is the way to the Father I can make some level of a response to this that leads me to find hope. However, there are some in our communities whose example of parental care means that the very notion of God being a father has the possibility of pushing them away rather than drawing them in.

There are parts of our world that have been ravaged by weapons made in, what to them are, Christian countries. Invite people from those parts of the world to accept Jesus Christ as their saviour and it should not surprise us to see that they see him as a cruel and unjust God.

So, the declaration that the kingdom of God is at hand is not simply to offer people personal eternal assurance, but to challenge the very things that might paint the Christian God that we proclaim as thoroughly dislikeable.

I delight in declaring that 'whosoever will, may come' but I do see this as being separated from the constructs that create 'whosoever can't people'.

In the same way that we are not usually aware of our own accent we are often blind to our prejudices.

(This article is taken from Alan Molineaux's book 'Sea and Islands' available by emailing alan@rootedtraining.com)

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