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Todays Christianity: Words in conflict, worlds in collision
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Last Saturday’s Faith Section readers were treated to a battle of theologies.

One columnist took the prophetic stance that modern Christians in a “Post-Christian” era have lost their credibility by focusing more on what they are against than what they are for, and by failing to minister compassion and tolerance. These misled conservatives cling to hypocritical standards which Jesus never intended for his church.  Meanwhile, disenchanted youth find themselves turned off by modern Christianity and go looking elsewhere. In reaching out to a “broken fallen humanity”, no longer divisive, self-seeking and self-righteous, today’s churches might return to building the Kingdom.

Forgive me.  I shouldn’t have said “Kingdom”, as that sounds patriarchal.

But I did say “Kingdom”, because Jesus is the King of King and Lord of Lords, and he came to establish a Kingdom in which, yes, love, mercy and compassion would prevail, but in which certain essential institutions would be nourished and protected.  Among these institutions is the Church (“on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hell will not overcome it.  I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:18-20)  This church is the community of those who follow Christ, and who need shepherds, structures of leadership, lines of authority, and certain regulations and norms in order to function.

Another institution is marriage (“at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” (Mark 10:6-10).  This is a lasting covenant of mutual self-giving which has been defined from the beginning, has been accepted by all cultures as normative, and which is not subject to being re-defined without grave consequences to our children and to society at large.

When the essential rights and the place in society of these vital institutions come under attack, the followers of Jesus have the duty to defend them.  It makes no difference what opinion polls have to say, as these are influenced by the media, which locate the most extreme elements of Christianity and highlight them in bold print in order to sensationalize the news and to discredit those who challenge the media’s liberal agenda.  It is always popular to feed the poor and it’s our permanent Christian mandate to defend the marginalized, but watch what happens when believers speak up for the unborn, for the traditional family, or for public displays of our faith.  

They’re called the “religious right,” “bigots” and “hypocrites”.  It’s a sure-fire way to consolidate the opposition and to rally those who love liberty.

True, many of the “moral majority” have swallowed hook, line and sinker the Republican Party agenda and have sanctioned American intervention in the internal affairs of other countries, without considering the “W.W.J.D.?”

In this sense, I agree with the author of the prophetic article.  He offered us a wholesome critique through the perspective of more progressive elements in Christianity today, who long to return to a less politicized discipleship of the One who was born in poverty, and who lived as an exile, an outcast, and a friend of sinners, and who finally was crucified between two thieves.

But I think that his column was also guilty of being heavily politicized.

If we are now in a “Post-Christian Era”, it is not because Christians have become irrelevant, but because they no longer have the means to influence Western Civilization as they did before, nor to control the world through colonial systems, and because they are so divided they have no clear voice.

But I’d think twice before condemning those Christians who’ve sought, in obedience to the Great Commission, to spread the gospel and to build up God’s Kingdom here: “Full authority has been given to me both in heaven and on earth; go, therefore, and make disciples of all the nations.  Baptize them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Teach them to carry out everything I have commanded you, and know that I am with you always, until the end of the world!”   (Matthew 28:18-20)

Hats off to James Dobson, because he had the guts to galvanize millions of Christians who were concerned about the disintegration of our society and alarmed at the rapid erosion of basic family values.  If their movement one day came to be characterized by extremists who fused their message with a right-wing Republicanism and now the Tea Party, that was not God’s intent in raising up James Dobson.  But to question the Christian protest of public funding for abortion on demand and of the re-definition of marriage to suit an agenda which seeks to normalize homosexuality, even in public schools, is to deny some of Christ’s own basic teachings.  Jesus was a prophet and a crusader for the downtrodden and the disadvantaged, but he was not a nice guy, and much less a liberal.   He even went so far as to call God his Father, and only chose men to be his apostles.  While he accused his religious leaders of hypocrisy, he said almost nothing to the Romans.

We need to take seriously the call to reach our youth, to work for justice in an unjust world, and to demonstrate the compassionate face of the Messiah.

At the same time, we need to recognize, as St. Paul reminded us, that we are engaged in spiritual warfare (Ephesians 6:12), and that the devil is ever on the prowl to take us down (1 Peter 5:8).   If we don’t fight for the sake of our children, then they will be devoured.   Jesus said that whatever we do for the least of his brothers and sisters, we do for him. (Matthew 25:40).

He also said it would be better to have a huge stone tied around our necks and to be cast into the sea than to lead even one of the children into sin and spiritual harm (Mark 9:42).  Their angels are always interceding for them.

Those who want the churches to shut up about Planned Parenthood, same-sex marriage, and “traditional family values” are denying us an essential element of the mission which Jesus himself left his Church.  While we ought to appreciate being called to humble service and to recognizing why it is that so many people simply don’t like us, we also have to face the painful fact that there are so many kinds of Christians today, anyone who wants to find any message he or she wants…will easily find it somewhere.

I think it’s important to belong to a faith-community which can embrace both sides of the argument: standing up for institutions which are vital to our society and to the future of our children, while also never forgetting the call to compassion, to acceptance of diversity, and to love all people, even those who misunderstand, misrepresent and even despise what we hold most dear.  By holding both extremes of the Christian message in balance, we will offer the world a more credible witness and a more hopeful future.

That’s why I’m grateful that, alongside the more prophetic message on the Faith page of last week’s Bulletin, there was a very different article which called President Obama to task precisely for not being willing to defend the law passed by Congress and signed by his democratic predecessor called “DOMA” - that is, the “Defense of Marriage Act”.  Alas, I have to concede that the second article was written by a person who also once studied his Theology in Berkeley, but who has since regained the center and now at times ranks among the hypocrites who beat on the drum of life, of family values and, God forbid, his own Roman Catholic faith.  That person is me.

And, with all due respect, I look forward to carrying on the conversation which my fellow columnist had the courage and prophetic vision to start.

Fr. Dean McFalls, St. Mary’s Church, Stockton, CA 95202  March 4, 2011