Evangelicalism Makes Me Uncomfortable: Reason #6

SLAVERY APOLOGISTS

During Michele Bachmann’s brief-but-very-evangelical campaign for president, she signed a pledge ‘to protect the family’ that included a line suggesting that slavery was better for the African American family than the current status quo. In case you missed it – either late last year or in the previous sentence – a politician publicly identified as an evangelical and actively courting evangelical votes (well, obviously not African American evangelical votes) affixed her name to the suggestion that about 1/5 of America’s population would be better off as property.

And she wasn’t the only one. Not by a long shot. It was, after all, a pledge that other candidates signed, and it was put forward by a Christian group in Iowa. The whole slavery apologist scandal in question was an evangelical creation.

Still, if this was an isolated incident, I wouldn’t be writing about this a year later; Bachmann may have been a high-profile candidate for president, but one could dismiss her as an outlier, and the Iowa group behind the pledge (which I shan’t dignify by naming) dropped it when the controversy hit. Unfortunately, this month in Arkansas, it came to light that another political candidate – Loy Mauch, an Arkansas state legislator – has also been espousing a mix of evangelicalism and pro-slavery rhetoric. Not content merely to bash Abraham Lincoln, Mauch has instead invoked Paul and Jesus in his explicitly pro-slavery rants. Once again, evangelical political action is linked to the belief that people of a certain ancestry should be property.

That slavery apologists are imbeciles and their views execrable will be uncontroversial among those who read my writing. More controversial is the notion that this is Evangelical Culture’s problem. Please note, however, that this link between evangelicalism and slavery apologists has been made in more than one incident this election cycle, and touches at least four states (Iowa; Mauch’s Arkansas; Bachmann’s Minnesota; and Santorum’s Pennsylvania – he’s not evangelical, but he signed the pledge too). Put another way, the last year has seen evangelical candidates for offices high and low – as well as at least one evangelical lobbying group – trying to curry favor with evangelical voters in multiple places by pining for the days of slavery. That makes this an evangelical problem.

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If there’s one glaring issue when it comes to sensitive topics in the evangelical world, it’s the question of ownership. If an evangelical succeeds anywhere in life, we claim that individual and own their success; athletes are the best example of this, but there are others too. As soon as an evangelical does something stupid (or dramatically worse than stupid, like being an apologist for slavery), however, we act like our community has nothing to do with that person’s views or behavior. Unfortunately, that’s not entirely true, and the surreal rise of slavery apologists is a great time to address this.

Ignoring Loy Mauch – since his views don’t warrant rational discourse – let’s focus on the Iowa incident, in which slavery was discussed as being preferable to the current status quo for most African Americans. Such a dismissive view of slavery seems to be contingent on ignorance of at least three things. In the first place is total ignorance of precisely how immoral and comprehensively dehumanizing American chattel slavery was (I’m not writing a history lesson here; if you’re not clear on this, Google it).

The second ignorance is probably even less excusable, since it’s ignorance of the fact that African Americans are, um, Americans. Problems confronting African American communities are not African American problems; they’re American problems, and they have no causal link to race whatsoever (outside of racism, obviously), let alone slavery. Still more damning, of course, is a fact that would be inescapable if only these slavery apologists knew more evangelicals: millions of African Americans are evangelicals, and it’s hard to believe these apologists know any of them at all. Therein lies the biggest problem with this ignorance: evangelical candidates and groups that claim to have political solutions to America’s problems are totally ignorant about a huge portion of the evangelical church and 1/5 of the electorate.

The final area of ignorance for the slavery apologists is pretty straightforward: Jesus didn’t come to dominate anyone. If we’re supposed to be like Jesus – and if you’re evangelical, you’re ideologically committed to this idea – we’re not in the business of dominating anyone. Obviously, enslaving Africans was a form of unacceptable domination. But domination can take other forms, too, and one of those forms is via excluding people from another group. More concretely, when the Iowa group treats African Americans as a social problem, that’s domination by exclusion. When political actors talk about evangelicals as though African American evangelicals don’t count, that’s domination by exclusion too. And when it’s done in the name of defending families in the name of Jesus, let me suggest that makes it blasphemous.

So there’s the rub. Evangelical Culture may not want to give everyone a history lesson, so maybe ignorance #1 isn’t the church’s problem. But ignorance #2 is inexcusable for Evangelical Culture, because evangelicals come in every race in the United States, and the white part of the evangelical family has no excuse for not knowing who the larger evangelical church are. Ignorance #3, meanwhile, is a fundamental teaching problem within many evangelical churches, and it’s one that has an easy fix, if only we’d do it: teach people who Jesus was, and then kick people who choose to live the opposite way out of your church. Almost every church has a procedure to do so, but it almost never happens. It’s time for individual evangelical churches to own their responsibility to kick these crazies out so that the rest of the evangelical movement doesn’t have to own their views.

Until that happens, however, admit this: if we want to own the success of all our evangelical heroes, we also have to own the shame of having these other nuts in our midst. That’s not really something about Evangelical Culture that makes me uncomfortable; it’s something about Evangelical Culture that makes me apoplectic.

Star Trek: The New Testament

On Worf and Your Bible

25 years ago this fall, Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) debuted on network TV. It’s a momentous occasion for Trekkies, and it coincides with the completion of a Netflix journey through the entire series that my wife and I have taken over the past year. While I remember watching TNG on TV as a kid – the series premier is one of the most vivid memories of my youth (stop judging me!) – I’m surprised at how much more I enjoy the show now than the first time around. This is true for several reasons, most of which I’ll save for a future post rather than lengthening this post into a novel. But one part of TNG that I’m enjoying even more this time around is Michael Dorn’s character Lieutenant Worf.

A member of the Klingon race, Worf is a fish out of water throughout the series, and many episodes center on his struggles to remain culturally Klingon while living among humans. For those who don’t know, the Klingons are a violent and aggressive race who are preoccupied with glory through warfare and who would rather die than ever be shamed or dishonored. In fact, in some episodes it’s suggested that a Klingon who lives into old age (rather than dying in battle) has humiliated his family. And while I don’t know whether the show’s writers or Michael Dorn deserve credit for this, one of the most fun things about TNG is knowing that whatever happens, Lieutenant Worf will always initially react the way one would expect a Klingon to react in a vacuum. If he or his friends are insulted, he wants to fight to the death. If he’s frustrated, he needs to fight to let it out. If he’s hungry, he eats with a zestful abandon that the human characters on the show might find barbaric. Worf is the perfect Klingon.

More importantly, since Worf is the perfect Klingon, Worf makes understanding the New Testament far easier.

I’m serious. Look, there are cultures on earth where honor is more important than life itself. Cultures where the shamed or dishonored are expected to commit suicide to redeem their name, or where those who have shamed a family name should be killed by members of their own family for the greater good (Google “honor killing” if you’re unclear about this). Obviously, such cultures are somewhat inscrutable to those of us in the United States, where the concept of shame is fuzzy at best, and that’s a major problem inasmuch as every culture depicted in the bible was arguably such an honor-based culture. And therein lies a hidden beauty of The Next Generation: Worf makes such cultures accessible to the American observer.

If you really want to understand the cultural context of your bible, Worf is of immense value. Understand: I’m not arguing that every culture in the bible is as bloodthirsty as the Klingons (although some, such as the ancient Assyrians, arguably were). I am arguing, however, that the importance of a Klingon’s name or family honor directly parallel concepts indispensable to truly appreciating the cultural context of scripture. And while this matters slightly in grasping the narratives of the Old Testament, those stories often have enough historical context that we can navigate them without Worf’s help. But the New Testament is an entirely different matter. We often lack much context to Jesus’ sayings in the Gospels, and most of the books of the New Testament are simple letters providing almost no context whatsoever (the book of Acts helps with some of these, but not all). And that, dear friends, is where Worf can help: when you read one of the New Testament letters, imagine that it was written by Worf to other Klingons. It’ll totally change your understanding of the letter in all the right ways.

Don’t believe me? I’m planning to explore specific examples of this in greater depth as part of a new topical series (and don’t worry, I will also continue the Evangelicalism Makes Me Uncomfortable series; I just want to add a little variety), but for now, permit me to throw out one quick example.

In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul is mortified by immorality tolerated within the church in Corinth. As we read the letter in English today, Paul’s opening in verse 1 (“It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and immorality of such a kind as does not exist even among the Gentiles”, NASB) sounds more like he’s introducing a new topic than a statement of outrage, and the fact that Paul doesn’t repeat his comment comparing them to the Gentiles elsewhere renders the accusation easy to overlook. But if you envision a Klingon cultural context and envision that sentence coming out of Worf’s mouth, it all changes. Instead of a peripheral observation made in transition, verse 1 becomes a statement of outrage so provocative that it would be unproductive if not impossible to repeat it later in the chapter. To accuse a Klingon of acting less honorably than one who isn’t Klingon would be fighting words; for Paul to state an equivalent provocation to the Corinthians is a rebuke too shocking to be missed. Paul doesn’t ease into this part of the letter; he begins with an inflammatory (and humiliating) accusation and uses the rest of the chapter to make his case. The end result is that Paul’s advice creates a moment of crisis for the honor of the Corinthians, and leaves them only one path to restore that honor.

In sum, understanding 1 Corinthians 5 through Worf’s eyes shifts the emphasis in the chapter, and illuminates a forcefulness in Paul’s approach otherwise lost to modern American eyes. Thus 1 Corinthians 5 is easier to understand via an assist from Star Trek.

Making sense yet?

Believe me when I say this little game expands one’s understanding of pretty much the entire New Testament (and even in many parts of the Old Testament). Take my advice, and give this old show another chance. I know those of you who aren’t Trekkies are worried that watching Star Trek: TNG will make your eyes bleed, but what really matters is that it makes the New Testament easier to grasp.

Star Trek: The Next Generation has been making the bible easier to understand for 25 years. Who knew?

Evangelicalism Makes Me Uncomfortable: Reason #5

The Sound of Asthmatic Children

When I was a kid, I had exercise-induced-asthma. Yes, in point of fact I was pretty nerdy, but that’s beside the point. Any time I would do much running/exercising – which is to say, anytime I acted like an eight-year-old boy – I would eventually have to stop to catch my breath, thereupon to be incapacitated by a severe fit of coughing, wheezing, and breathlessness. As you’d expect from a little boy, I didn’t necessarily let this stop me from playing, but there are two things about the wheezing results of that playing that I’ll always remember. The first is the look other kids’ parents would give me when they heard my coughing and gasping for air; I definitely sounded like I had tuberculosis, but interestingly enough, nobody ever kept their kid away from me. They just gave me the stinkeye while quietly hoping I wasn’t killing their spawn with whatever infectious plague had me coughing. (and for the record, even at that tender age I wasn’t above wishing I could get somebody sick to get back at those stink-eyed parents. And you thought I kept forgetting to cover my mouth, right mom?)

The second thing I remember, of course, was the way my voice would sound when I was trying to talk in spite of my asthma. I can’t perfectly reproduce it for you anymore, of course – puberty lowered my voice too much, and I have too much pride to fake it and upload an mp3 here – but I do know where you can here the sound of an asthmatic eight-year-old boy breathlessly trying to talk: just listen to people praying at your local evangelical church.

If you’ve ever heard a group of evangelicals praying in public, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Too many evangelicals (perhaps as many as half) use a kind of breathless, high-pitched voice when they pray. Understand me: I’m not against people who sound naturally like asthmatic children. What I am against is prayers launched in a special airy voice adopted as a show of breathless reverence before God’s awesome presence.

This may sound a little petulant, but hear me out. I find it annoying to the point of distraction when a prayer gets wheezed out in a voice that seems so disingenuous. Is that what you want? Are you OK with ruining my prayer time – and maybe that of others – by exploiting my immaturity and lack of focus? If not, then your consideration for me should force you to drop the affectation.

With that said, I don’t think I am wrong, and my objections aren’t merely down to petulance or immaturity (this time!). After all, if prayer should be anything, it should be sincere. But I don’t think there’s any special sincerity to prayer voices. Assuming you are sincere when you tell your spouse you love him/her, do you do it in your prayer voice? If not, doesn’t that raise questions? I’m gonna go ahead and say most people don’t actually have a special “I’m sincere” voice; so why should we have one for God?

Another argument would say that the prayer voice is more a matter of reverence than special sincerity. Scrutiny kills this objection too; there’s probably no person more revered than the President of the United States (at least for those of you reading this in the U.S.), and in last week’s town hall debate, I didn’t hear any questions asked in prayer voices. That’s because in our culture, we speak to those whom we revere by speaking loudly and clearly. And while you might object that God is no mere person, there’s no logical reason to buy an argument that our culture finds communication more reverent when it sounds more asthmatic and childlike. If anything, that notion is so weird as to be uniquely irreverent.

A more telling point, however, is the question of whether or not people use their prayer voices when they’re alone and talking to God. It’s possible some might, but I have (breathless and sincere) serious doubts about that. If you pray to God in a different voice in public than you do in private, we have to assume you’re putting on a show – presumably for the other people present. And I’m pretty confident that praying to God is not the time to put on a show to impress your peers (Elijah-on-Mount-Carmel-style tests excepted). So if this is you, drop the prayer voice.

There’s one final reason to drop the prayer voice that I think trumps the above, however. It’s this: when we interact with our creator, it seems a little presumptuous to think we can/should improve on the voice He’s given us. Think about it. The voice you have is precisely the one God wanted you to have, and it’s precisely the one God gave you. Shouldn’t He get to hear it talking to Him? Prayer voices deny Him that pleasure.

As you can tell, this is a part of Evangelical Culture that makes me c-r-a-z-y. It’s bizarre, it’s impossible to explain to outsiders (or anyone else, for that matter), and it should probably stop.

Evangelicalism Makes Me Uncomfortable: Reason #4

Pastoral Pay

There are jobs where no vacation is truly sacred; jobs where a person might be called upon to go to work at any time of day or night no matter where they are. National leaders are one example. CEOs or Public Relations executives are others. In almost every case, however, those jobs come with appropriate compensating perquisites, but not for pastors. For pastors, two things you can always assume are that everyone expects the pastor to be happy to help whenever he’s contacted, and no pastor is actually paid as though he or she is available 168 hours per week, every week of the year. Evangelical Culture more or less always exploits pastors when it comes to pay, and this is something about Evangelical Culture that makes me profoundly uncomfortable.

Fortunately, apart from limitless availability, the evangelical church doesn’t expect too much from our pastors. OK, OK, we do expect them to be able to preach, but that’s pretty much it. Well, that and the ability to read Greek and Hebrew, but if a pastor can’t, Evangelical Culture will forgive him his inability to read in 3 languages so long as he feels sufficiently guilty. Oh, and this is kind of a corollary to the preaching thing, but we do also expect a pastor to be able to teach – you know, a Sunday School class or a Bible study – if asked. And it would be best if he or she can do that teaching a few times a week, if need be, in addition to the aforementioned preaching. But none of this is that big of a deal, since the responsibility to correctly interpret the divinely inspired words of God several times a week isn’t the least bit high-pressure.

Apart from those things, we don’t ask for much from evangelical pastors.

Oh, except for counseling. Not “sharing-burdens-with-a-fellow-believer” counseling, mind you. An evangelical pastor should have some understanding of what professional counseling involves – the ability to take notes, listen actively, and know when to refer to licensed counselors is a must – and she should also have enough wisdom, insight, and knowledge of the Bible to use it appropriate and on the fly in a counseling session, but even that’s not a big deal. It just comes naturally with the call, you know?

Also – and this is kind of related to counseling – I guess we do expect evangelical pastors to be able to mediate and solve interpersonal disputes. You know – nothing complicated; just the ability to get two or more parties who have been actively ignoring the pull of the Holy Spirit in their lives for some time to now listen to the Holy Spirit and be reconciled. Fortunately, this comes easy, isn’t intimidating, and never requires a pastor to take the uncomfortable step of confronting anyone. Um, unless it does. In which case we do expect a pastor to be able to confront someone with love and firmness, without ever losing his temper or saying anything unnecessarily hurtful. Or that could be (mis)interpreted as being unnecessarily hurtful. Once again, NBD.

Those are some of the things we expect, but there are so many things we don’t expect that probably warrant mentioning. For example, I’ve never heard of a pastor who wasn’t hired/appointed for lack of an MBA. True, the pastor’s reputation is probably finished if anyone in the church mishandles money under the pastor’s “watch,” but we never expect a pastor to be a CPA or have an MBA. We figure he can acquire that skill set in his free time, you know?

We also never expect a pastor to have a degree in leadership or communications; the Holy Spirit will give our pastor everything needed to have a vision, articulate that vision, sell that vision, and implement that vision, right? And if someone in the church undermines the vision being set for the church, the pastor’s leadership skills will be sufficient to handle that. If not, of course, he just may not be cut out for a role as senior pastor, amIright?

I’ve also never met anyone who expected their pastor to attend every event or ministry initiative at the church; as long as the pastor comes to my Bible study he can miss your potluck, right? He doesn’t have unlimited time. Same thing for kids’ sporting events, too. As long as the pastor shows support for my family, he can do what he wants with the rest of his time.

Sarcasm aside, Evangelical Culture asks too much of our pastors. Even worse, however, is how we pay them. For as much training as the job requires, as much stress as the job entails, as much work as pastors do, and as much time as evangelicals demand from pastors, they should be paid like CEOs. Unfortunately, in Evangelical Culture pastoral pay tends to be dramatically closer to that of gas station attendants. Remember that many pastors keep office hours five days a week, oversee religious services on a sixth, and attend myriad other church events, meetings, or crises at other times each week. Add it up, and 60 hour weeks aren’t at all uncommon, even before we note that the pastor is on call the other 108 hours each week too. There’s a reason the word ‘workaholic’ was coined to describe pastors: they’re always working.

Since it is Pastor Appreciation Month, now seems like a good time to ask yourself if your church pays your pastor appropriately for the skill set he’s utilizing to serve you. Any pastor who can meet ½ the expectations listed above – and I’ve known many who manage the whole list, by the grace of God – would command dramatically higher compensation in the world of business. The willingness of our pastors to sacrifice fair pay in order to answer their callings to serve Jesus’ church does nothing to acquit us of our responsibility to pay them fairly; if God fills our pulpits and our pastoral staffs with talented people who could get rich elsewhere, who are we to pay those same people like they make their livings folding sweaters at the mall?

I know some of you won’t believe me. Your church is the exception, you don’t think your pastor works this hard, or you have no reason to trust my opinions. It’s always possible that I’m wrong, of course, but you should know that I am the son of a pastor (now a denominational official) who grew up surrounded by pastors and then went to seminary. I once tried to make a list of the pastors I know, and I stopped after clearing 100 names. I almost certainly know more pastors than you do, and more importantly, I know their stories. I know their skill, I know how hard they work, and in many cases, I even know how much they’re paid. And (at least this time) I know what I’m talking about.

Pastors never stop working, and they’re rarely paid fairly. Help your pastors by resisting some of the expectations leveled on them by Evangelical Culture. It’s a losing battle, but the effort counts. And as you fight, make sure your pastors are paid as well as your church can afford (and recognize that this will probably entail convincing your church that they can afford more than they realize). You owe it to them and you owe it to God.

(Want some actual stats? Click here for a reliable but decade-old survey on pastoral compensation: http://www.barna.org/barna-update/article/5-barna-update/39-pastors-paid-better-but-attendance-unchanged ;
click here for more recent data from the largest evangelical denomination: http://www.westernrecorder.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=361:ministers-compensation&catid=56:kentucky&Itemid=168 ;
and click here for still more recent info on pay in some evangelical and some mainline denominations: http://www.covchurch.org/resources/files/2012/08/Pastoral-Compensation-Report-for-2012.pdf )

2012 Election: Part Two

This is my second post on the 2012 US election. For part one, scroll down or click here: http://aaronfrankenfeld.com/?p=31

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Part Two

Much of what I’ve heard or read about this presidential election proclaims it a contest between two divergent and incompatible ideologies; we’re told it’s a landmark election that will determine the United States’ future for a generation. If you’ve paid attention to the campaign thus far, you’ll understand that Barack Obama and Mitt Romney offer ideologically disparate solutions to America’s assorted ills, and you can grasp why so many commentators portray the election in this light.

Unfortunately, these commentators are completely wrong.

The problem is that American presidential candidates always campaign as though they’ll govern in a vacuum. In reality, of course, the president doesn’t live in a vacuum, and in any case can hardly be said to ‘govern’ at all, at least in any functional individualistic sense. Presidents govern in cooperation with Congress, and most commentators at this point are in agreement: the Republicans will retain control of the House of Representatives while Democrats will retain control of the Senate. Which means the great ideological clash between Romney and Obama is being preposterously oversold.

If Barack Obama wins another four years in office, history suggests that the last 18-24 months of his second term will essentially be time wasted, since lame-duck presidents seldom see significant legislative achievements. So the best case scenario for Obama was always going to be an extra 30 months of useful time as president, and the Tea Party’s (anticipated) continuing strength in the House of Representatives guarantees that at least the first 24 of those 30 months will result in the same type of gridlock that has made budget-cutting so difficult for the past two years. Whatever else President Obama might be able to accomplish in the 0-6 months that leaves, a dramatic nationwide ideological shift is completely unrealistic. For this reason, a second Obama term shouldn’t frighten Republican partisans any more than it represents a panacea to Democratic partisans. It will probably be as uneventful of a presidency as international events (Hello Iran!) allow.

If Mitt Romney wins the presidency, on the other hand, the impediment to his plans will be the Senate. The issue here is that Democratic control of the Senate is as close to a guarantee as there is in this election cycle, and it means that if Romney wants any legislation passed (or repealed, as with the Affordable Care Act), he’ll have to work with the Senate Democrats. Unfortunately for Romney, this means any legislation that can pass the Senate will probably infuriate the Tea Party portion of the House Republicans, and will consequently have to pass the House without their votes. This isn’t an insurmountable problem for Romney, but it does guarantee that for at least his first two years in office, he can only pass legislation amenable to Congressional Democrats (since he’ll need both the Senate Democrats and enough House Democrats to replace Tea Party votes). Thus, the first two years of a Romney presidency will hold either crippling gridlock or bipartisan moderation – depending on which course (or which Romney) Romney chooses – but either way, ideological sea change isn’t on the table.

As for the final two years of a Romney first term, bear in mind that he would be running for reelection. A dramatic shift to the right in his style of governance during a reelection campaign would be political insanity, and that’s without acknowledging that his current campaign has deliberately tried to style him as blandly and inoffensively as possible. The idea that Romney would spontaneously develop a true conservative backbone and shift hard to the right in the middle of a campaign is pure fantasy, and it says here that unless Romney chooses to be a true moderate and friend to Democrats, the last two years of a Romney first term would be characterized by presidential inactivity spun as gridlock. Once again, hardly the stuff to keep Democrats awake at night.

To recap: neither candidate will actually have the option to govern like the campaigns would have you believe. The real choices are bipartisanship or totally incapacitating squabbles, but in neither case will the result look at all like the ideological campaign I’m seeing in the media, and in neither case will the choice even be ours. Instead, this election is about selecting which president we’d rather see make the choice between compromise or frustration, incapacitation, and humiliation over the next few years. So don’t get sucked into the breathless hyperbole; the stakes are actually pretty low, at least for you and me. You might spare some pity for Obama and Romney, however; one will be a failure on November 6th, and the other will get four (And maybe eight, right Mitt?) years of it.