2012 Election: Part One

I’ve kept quiet about this year’s U.S. presidential election for a number of reasons, not least of all because anything I could say will likely immediately polarize my readership, leaving some of you aggrieved and others triumphant. With that said, I do have two points that I think warrant making, so permit me to add my two cents to the endless internet chatter, with one quick thought now and one longer thought next week.

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Part One
Since this is an evangelical blog, permit me to begin by saying I’m completely embarrassed by the way myriad evangelicals have approached this election. I’m not personally a partisan, but there have been candidates about whom I felt very strongly (positively and negatively, depending on the case) over the years, and I can understand if some people feel the stakes are very high (I disagree about that; I’ll cover why next week). But since when is it OK to spread lies, rumors, and hatred because we’re too lazy to fact-check or see nuance in the motives of others?

I get that political discourse in this country degenerated into insults and fear-mongering long ago, and I’m not arguing evangelicals started this trend. But some of the things I see evangelicals posting or re-posting on social media are inexcusable. Supposedly, we are a people who have a hope, so why do evangelicals seem so hopeless and panicked every time there’s an election? This isn’t a minor matter. Our identity as Christians is supposed to be defined in part by the hope we have, and when that hope isn’t evident to others, we aren’t who we claim to be. Neither Mitt Romney nor Barack Obama is Jesus, so for the love of God, stop acting like either is the savior. Neither Mitt Romney nor Barack Obama is your own sin, so for the love of God, stop acting like you need to be saved from either. Our hope lies elsewhere, and too many of us have lost sight of that.

Election campaigns in this country are starting ever earlier and lasting longer and longer; we’re reaching the point where some politicians are literally always in campaign mode. Unless political campaigning is your explicit vocation, however, the opportunity cost of spending your time joining the endless campaign cannot be overstated. None of us will live forever, and you can only spread Jesus’ good news for so long. So why are so many of us spending so much time spreading fear and lies about Republicans and Democrats while people around us are suffering in an enduringly crappy economy and in desperate need of the hope we’re guilty of hiding? Not only are there better ways to use our time, but if you’re truly evangelical, remember that you already believe that one day you’ll have to answer for how you did use that time. Do you really want Jesus to ask why you spent 8 months spreading half-truths for (or about) Mitt Romney and alienating your neighbors?

I’m not saying that political activism is wrong; that would be crazy talk. My issue is with the tone and methodology of our political activism. Whichever candidate you support – and however convinced you may be that I should join you in that vote – a true servant of Jesus cannot allow her political convictions and exhortations to pollute Jesus’ church or name. If you’re like me, however, you only have to glance at Facebook to know immediately that some who claim to have our hope are doing exactly that. If that’s you, do us – do yourself – a favor and stop. For the love of God (literally), please stop.

Evangelicalism Makes Me Uncomfortable: Reason #3

Let Them Be Real

My friend Jason ran a branch office of a multinational business a few years ago. He wasn’t paid particularly well, but he was good at his job, extremely well liked, and he did get bonuses twice a year. While those bonuses weren’t written into his contract, they had been a part of his company’s annual pay package for people in his position for the entire 150 year history of the company. Then one year he didn’t receive either bonus. There was no warning, and the company’s bonus policy remained unchanged. Everyone else in my friend’s position received both bonuses; the company simply didn’t give Jason either one.

As you would expect, since the bonuses had always been presented as a ‘thank-you’ for his hard work, Jason immediately felt unappreciated. When the first bonus didn’t arrive, he didn’t tell anyone, because he didn’t want to seem ungrateful – after all, they weren’t in his contract, so in spite of the history behind them, he wasn’t technically entitled to them. But when the second bonus didn’t arrive, Jason complained. Only once, mind you. He didn’t make a big deal out of it, but he told those responsible for his bonus that if they treated people in his position that way, those people would almost certainly quit. That was all he said, and it stopped there.

I know it’s not a very exciting story. Most of you would be far more vocal in Jason’s position. But the interesting part of the story is that Jason was a pastor, his company was a denomination, and his branch office was his church. Which means that when Jason complained about his bonus, he was actually a pastor complaining to his congregation that they had stiffed him on the two bonuses pastors usually get in his denomination. While this isn’t unprecedented, it is definitely uncommon for a pastor to complain about his compensation to his whole congregation, and it’s definitely uncommon for one to complain about his bonus and suggest that repeating this no-bonus pattern would cause them to lose one pastor after another. Jason didn’t exactly threaten to resign from the church over the bonus incident, but he did make it clear that he wasn’t happy and that the church shouldn’t assume that other pastors would be as forgiving about it as he was being.

The idea of a pastor complaining about his bonus is extremely strange, but it’s only strange because evangelicalism doesn’t allow pastors to be real people. This is another reason that Evangelical Culture makes me uncomfortable.

Any other person in any other job could complain in Jason’s circumstances without it seeming inappropriate, but this isn’t the only way in which pastors are treated differently. Consider the following:

• The grieving process can take different lengths of time for different people; in some cases even years. If a woman who works behind a desk was still grieving four months after her husband died, she’d have our sympathy. In contrast, when was the last time you saw a pastor who was still grieving more than a month or two after a major loss?

• Consider interpersonal frustrations at work. If you had a subordinate who didn’t do his work the way you wanted it done or didn’t approach work with the right attitude, your company would probably accept your judgment that the subordinate’s work needs to improve (or else), and you would be under no pressure to be his friend. But if a pastor has an interpersonal conflict at work with a subordinate, observers often don’t clamor for better work from the pastor’s subordinate; they clamor for reconciliation between the two, and if that doesn’t work people begin to question whether or not the pastor ‘belongs in ministry.’

• Or imagine the pastor who gets discouraged. Nine times out of ten (totally made-up statistic alert!), people who endeavor to cheer him up use some variation of, “what you need to understand, pastor, is…” Apart from pastors, the only other group of people so frequently ‘encouraged’ with condescending statements are probably children. What other job requires you to spend years in school and training acquiring a highly-specialized education in order to be treated like a child?

• Note also that the condescension above assumes pastors are naïve about human nature, which would only make sense if pastors never counseled anyone (for those of you who don’t know, counseling is a MAJOR component of any pastor’s job). Since pastors do counsel people, however, rest assured that your pastor is the one to whom dozens – if not hundreds – of people bring their most vile and screwed up problems. Yet pastors are assumed to be able to immediately forgive or look past the horrible things they learn about people, without ever letting that bring them down or dampen their message of hope, even for one afternoon.

I tell you all of this not merely because this aspect of how we treat pastors is a part of Evangelical Culture that drives me crazy, but also because in many churches October is Pastor Appreciation Month. In case your church isn’t one that observes Pastor Appreciation Month, it’s a month that some congregations set aside to be intentional about demonstrating their appreciation of their pastor. People give their pastor gift certificates, thank-you notes, and other tokens of their gratitude, but there’s one thing that isn’t given to pastors as often as it should be: license to be real people.

This isn’t to argue that pastors (or others in spiritual leadership) shouldn’t be held to a high standard; they inarguably should. But there’s no justification for holding pastors to a standard that dehumanizes them by assuming they’re naïve, emotionless vessels of limitless hope and acceptance. That’s not who God made them to be, it’s not who God called them to be, and it’s not OK that Evangelical Culture often creates such pressure.

So if you want to give your pastor a great gift this Pastor Appreciation Month – or the rest of the year, for that matter – why not give him or her the gift of being allowed to be a real person? Combat the expectations leveled on your pastor by other parishioners by defending your pastor’s humanity. Tell other people when to leave your pastor(s) alone, and make sure your pastor has a listening ear that won’t overreact when life gets ugly. Even if you already treat your pastor like a real person, I promise there are those in your congregation who do not. But you can change that, and it would be a great gift for your pastor.

I actually have more to say on this topic next week, but for now, understand that this is yet another reason that Evangelical Culture makes me uncomfortable.

An Evangelical Absence

From time to time, my employer sends me to represent one or another of our clients at what are known in the Chicago area as ‘Green Fairs.’ These fairs consist of assemblages of various eco-friendly groups, arranged in tables or booths, usually in a park. The groups represented include energy companies, organic food producers, green building contractors, and non-profit organizations concerned about every cause imaginable. While each green fair is unique, there are some commonalities that probably won’t shock you.

For one thing, the parking lots always fill with Priuses sporting Obama bumper stickers. For another thing, there are typically more tie-dye wearing adults than I’ve seen in one place since Jerry Garcia passed on. There are also always a few stalls where vendors sell bags, ties, or other cloth goods made exclusively from hemp, and the food options are typically pricey, organic, and heavy on vegetarian options and grass-fed beef.

At the most recent Green Fair I worked, I saw a table for a group that runs camps for children focused on a study of Lake Michigan from a social action perspective. Apart from the standard camp crafts, they direct the creative energy of the campers towards creating a performance piece about Lake Michigan. Sadly, since I couldn’t see this year’s campers perform at the fair I can’t tell you how one does an interpretive dance about sewage levels in a Great Lake, but I could hear their performance and I can report that the answer prominently involves intense tambourine action, accompanied by drums. But you probably knew that much already, didn’t you?

Call me a horrible person, but I also found it difficult not to break into an incredulous grin when the proprietor of another booth suggested to me that the ongoing abuse of 9 billion animals in the Chicago area was a tragedy. Don’t get me wrong; abuse of animals is terrible. But Chicago’s metro area has only 10,874 square miles (if you trust Wikipedia), so this would require an ongoing animal holocaust of more than 827,000 animals per square mile (which, on the bright side, would have potential to solve global hunger indefinitely). Additionally, she told me this as a culminating and shocking horror after telling me there were 27 million slaves worldwide (call me crazy, but I find human slavery vastly more disturbing). Both of these revelations, meanwhile, followed her claim that if there had been more human rights education in the 1970s, Chicago would have no gangs. As I said, by the end I was trying not to smile.

At this point, you probably have a pretty good feel for both the workers and visitors at these Green Fairs: hippies, social activists, construction contractors, green entrepreneurs, and of course those who are just gullible (Also me. Don’t forget me.). But I find it just as interesting to note who isn’t present at these fairs: religious groups.

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According to media reports, evangelicals have grown more and more interested in caring for the environment over the last few years (here’s a recent report: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2012/september-web-only/did-evangelicals-change-climate-change-conversation.html?start=1 and here’s the story that first brought it to my attention: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A1491-2005Feb5.html ). Using the euphemism ‘Creation Care,’ evangelicals increasingly view humanity’s dominion over nature as a responsibility to care for nature rather than to exploit it. The idea, essentially, is that when God created the world and placed it under humanity’s dominion (Gen 1:28), he also entrusted it to us in a state that God Himself deemed ‘good’ (Gen 1:31). According to this line of thinking, how we care for the world is a fundamental stewardship issue, and something for which we are to be held accountable; allowing God’s good waters to fill with mercury while His rice patties fill with arsenic and His rain clouds pour acid rain is seen as being horrible stewards and thus disobedient servants.

This growing evangelical green movement isn’t without its controversies (evangelicals being one of the few groups on earth among whom global warming is disputed), but they’re not really the point. Ordinarily, when evangelicals venture into questions of social policy for theological reasons, such venturing is anything but timid and is consequently impossible to ignore. You know what I mean: everyone in America knows where most evangelicals come down on abortion or gay marriage. Even if many in the United States fail to grasp the theological why of the standard evangelical positions, the policy preferences have been heard and understood (which is not to say accepted).

With Creation Care, however, the opposite appears true. I’d wager most Americans can get their mind around the theological rationale for environmentalism, even if they’ve never opened a Bible. But there’s no way they could guess the preferred evangelical environmental policies; as an evangelical ‘insider,’ I personally have no idea what those would be. At a minimum, I think we can all agree that there’s no evangelical consensus on environmental policy, even if we would seem to be in general agreement about our responsibilities as stewards.

The underlying reason, I suspect, is that it’s far easier for evangelicals to agree on what we’re not supposed to do because of our faith than it is on what we are supposed to do. This is counterintuitive when you consider that Jesus spends more time in the New Testament telling people what to do than he does telling them what not to do, but it is reality. Unfortunately for us, since Jesus’ instructions didn’t include preferred power-generating options for the Children of God, we’re mostly on our own, and the results at present are feeble and disorganized.

Not that this is entirely bad; people who aren’t Christians aren’t exactly sitting around hoping evangelicals come up with one more mandate they have to follow. Even so, it’s strange that evangelicals have chosen to be so quiet on an issue about which the evangelical position isn’t going to offend the media and the masses. Green issues seem like potential low-hanging fruit if evangelicals would organize and work with the people I’m meeting at Green Fairs. So why aren’t we even showing up?

I for one don’t know, but believe me when I tell you there’s plenty of room for us. Just make sure you bring enough cash for burgers made with grass-fed beef. And don’t forget your tambourine. You might need it to fit in.

Evangelicalism Makes Me Uncomfortable: Reason #2

LOVE SONGS TO JESUS

Today I want to talk about three “loves of my life.” To make it more fun, though, I propose a game: I’ll describe each in turn – without telling you who they are – and you see if you can guess. Before I start, one last thing: don’t attach too much significance to the order in which I place them. These loves are numbered, but this isn’t a ranking.

Love #1
This first love is one for whom I have professed undying love, even in song. Of course, I don’t think I’ve ever let anyone other than this love hear me, but sing I have in unguarded moments. I can never spend enough time with this love, and we have never had an argument. In part that’s because love #1 has never deliberately made me feel guilty, although I can make myself pretty guilty over how I treat love #1 from time to time. Love #1 is always there for me, and it has never held a grudge against me. I always know that wherever I go in life, I can count on Love #1 to be there giving me joy, as it has even before my earliest memories.

Love #2
I’ll love #2 forever, and I definitely put that into song from time to time, and I’ve even done so in front of other people. That doesn’t mean I always feel like spending time with this love, however, since there are only so many hours in the day and sometimes I have other work to do. While Love #2 has never caused me to feel guilty out of spite, the way I treat #2 definitely does cause me guilt on occasion. #2 is also always there for me, and I definitely love running my hopes, dreams, and needs by this love of my life. We have argued from time to time, but ultimately I always give in, because I can’t stay mad at love #2. The depth of our relationship continues to grow with time.

Love #3
I’ve definitely professed love for #3, but I can’t say that I’ve ever done so in song. We spend a lot of time together, but sometimes when I get particularly busy, we don’t spend as much time as I think we should. Not that this #3 makes me feel guilty about that; this love is always understanding. Not only do I share my vision for the future with #3, but #3 has a huge influence on where I see myself in the future. I would never make major life plans without consulting Love #3, and while we’ve had a few disagreements, we don’t really argue.

If you find it slightly difficult to identify the loves of my life, I don’t blame you. There’s a lot of overlap, and all three descriptions are broad and generic, just like the love for Jesus or the Father expressed in many of our worship choruses. This is something that drives me crazy about Evangelical Culture: the non-specific love ballads that often pass for meaningful worship.

Here’s the thing about love songs: their meaningfulness is directly correlated to how personal they are. In order for a love song to be generic enough for a group of hundreds to sing it with sincerity, the song has to be so lacking in specificity that it could actually be describing anything at all. Don’t believe me? In my examples above, Love #3 is my wife. Love #2 is Jesus. Love #1 – a love that dovetails nicely with many worship songs – is bacon. Seriously. But since none of my non-specific descriptions of love differ too radically from worship songs I have heard in evangelical churches, these songs might as well have been about bacon.

That’s not even my biggest complaint about love songs to Jesus, however. Some of the songs we sing to Jesus aren’t merely unspecific enough to be generally applicable, they’re romantic. Others have commented elsewhere on the problem this romance-with-Jesus presents to many men, but what about the fact that we’re doing this as a group?

A mall near my house has a 1D store (that’s for One Direction), and the group romantic hysteria of the tween girls who pack that store seems bizarre until I remember that many evangelical churches approach Jesus the same way each week. We act like He’s the perfect boyfriend, and we sing of our undying love to him in the same way these girls talk about One Direction. Of course, outside of church, the mass romantic hysteria I’m referencing is almost exclusively confined to women in our culture. Which means that if Evangelical Culture sings to Jesus as though he’s Justin Bieber each week, we mustn’t be surprised if the men in our midst begin feeling insincere and awkward. After all, we’re asking them to act like 13 year old girls.

Jesus is the Son of God, and neither of them are at all like either bacon or One Direction.

The frustrating thing, of course, is that it shouldn’t be like this. If I want to sing praises to bacon, after taste and my own affection for bacon, there’s not much left to cover. With our worship choruses, meanwhile, our generic love of God is only a narcissistic beginning. We can also sing about all the attributes of God, or we could even sing God’s praises for what He is not. Still more meaningful for a community, perhaps, are songs about the past – they teach the young while reminding the old not to forget, and we have thousands of years of God’s actions to cover (and while we’re on the topic, how great would it be for your local church to have your own song about His faithfulness to you as a community?). The best part, of course, is that this recounting of God’s powerful actions in history is decidedly more gender neutral than squealing like a girl in the middle of puberty.

I know, there are a lot of choruses that get this right (and I’m always up for a hymn, personally), and the balance of songs we sing in Evangelical Culture appears to be headed in the right direction. Even so, it’s still a problem I encounter far too often at churches, and it’s another reason Evangelical Culture makes me uncomfortable.