It is an expression of Christian charity
Lost in the traumatic aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, including President Trump’s assault on the right to free speech and peaceable assembly, the US Supreme Court issued a ruling on another First Amendment issue late last week. The case involved a church suing the State of California for prohibiting large in-person services during the COVID-19 pandemic. The church argued that assembling as church is a fundamental expression of Christian faith, and that the order to limit gatherings is therefore a violation of the First Amendment. A majority on the Supreme Court disagreed, ruling that the prohibitions on mass gatherings did not constitute a violation of religious freedom.
“In a revolutionary situation there can never be nonpartisan theology. Theology is always identified with a particular community. It is either identified with those who inflict oppression or with those who are its victims. A theology of the latter is authentic Christian theology, and a theology of the former is a theology of the Antichrist.”
—James H. Cone in A Black Theology of Liberation
Please join me in a virtual Easter morning worship service with Grace Congregational Church of Rutland, Vermont! Happy Easter. Christ is risen, indeed!
My friend Steve Martin serves as Director of Communications and Development for the National Council of Churches in DC. He and I share a love of motorcycles and a love for the church. In the following essay, he writes beautifully about what motorcycling might disclose about being American and being Christian, as well as how church might refract our identity with other “tribes.” Even though he rides the wrong kind of bike, I’d like to share what he wrote:
Motorcycles, tribalism and America – What I learned riding in Rolling Thunder
Today many Christians observe Epiphany, commemorating the coming of wise men to see the infant Jesus, following the star until they found him in Bethlehem. Epiphany concludes the traditional twelve days of Christmas, and what it adds to our Christmas celebration is the Good News that God’s presence is a Gospel meant for all the world. The star shines for the redemption of all of humanity. The wise men who sought out the infant Christ came from beyond the family lineage of Israel, and together they symbolize the longing for life and love, hope and peace, that every member of the human community shares. As the Gospel of John’s opening lines declare, “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” On Epiphany we celebrate that the imperative of the prophet Isaiah is an invitation for the whole world: “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” Epiphany may be a specifically Christian holy day, but in our celebration we the Church are simply what theologian Karl Barth once called the “provisional representation of all humanity.” In our Epiphany celebration, we foreshadow a hope for all people, the light of life, Emmanuel, God with us!
Grace and truth. Neither is in great supply these days. Grace and truth can be scarce in the church or at family holiday gatherings, but they are virtually unicorns in American politics, rumored to be real but never actually seen. In our post-fact era, there is no such thing as truth, for reality is whatever my favorite cable channel or internet site says it is. And in our hyper-partisan political culture, where political opponents are no longer fellow citizens but enemies of the people, grace gives way to demonization. In the eyes of Democrats, Republicans are racist, cowardly, and enslaved to the wealthy elite. In the standard rhetoric of Republicans, Democrats are anti-religious intellectuals bent on undermining American security with open borders, while redistributing wealth to eliminate the need to work. The absence of grace and truth in our politics increasingly bleeds into how we relate to our neighbors, family members, and church kin.
Check out this really helpful article in the New York Times about organizations trying to heal the polarization in this country by inviting people to actually sit down and talk. It also includes a shout-out to my book on civility!
This past week I was blessed to spend a couple of days hanging out with friends in Greenville, South Carolina. I have known Susan, Ken, and Leeann for only three years or so, when I joined a committee for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) that they were already serving. In a short period of time, they have become some of my closest friends. When we are working together, we are writing theology exams for our denomination’s ordination process, and it is wonderful to bond with them in our common love of theological tradition and the church. But what has pulled us together runs deeper than theology. These friends understand (and to varying degrees share) my extreme introversion. They endorse and encourage my love of bourbon and gin. Perhaps most important of all, they match my school-bus sense of humor with disgusting antics of their own. (Well, Susan and Leeann are happy to meet me in the gutter with inappropriate jokes and innuendos, while Ken futilely tries to model humor that is a little less adolescent.) They care about me, not because I do something for them, but simply because I am. Two days with this Fun Bunch yielded more laughs and spiritual restoration than I have enjoyed in a long, long time. It was holy time.
In the most racially divisive moment in the United States since the Civil Rights Movement, we are discovering that we are not “one nation under God,” but two Americas, living in the same national space. One America recognizes that we are becoming increasingly diverse as a nation, with experts projecting that people of color will outnumber white citizens in less than a generation. This America welcomes diversity and celebrates how rich and interesting our country becomes with the embrace of racial, ethnic, cultural, and sex/gender difference. This America accepts the truth that to live up to our moniker as the “city on a hill,” we must embrace our tradition as a nation of immigrants and establish border policies that are both disciplined and gracious. This America acknowledges that our national history is built on injuries to people of different races, cultures, and countries, but it seeks to remedy that legacy by the confession of sins and commitment to a future of fairness and mutual respect.
But there also is a second America, gripped by fear and simmering with resentment, inhabited by groups used to occupying the majority and serving as the measure of what is normal, but who now are in danger of losing their country to an element that feels foreign and alien.
The Kindle version of Forbearance: A Theological Ethic for a Disagreeable Church is currently on sale for $1.99!
What happens when we approach disagreement not as a problem to solve, but as an opportunity to practice Christian virtue?
In this book, James Calvin Davis reclaims the biblical concept of forbearance to develop a theological ethic for faithful disagreement. Pointing to Ephesians and Colossians, in which Paul challenged his readers to “bear with each other” in spite of differences, Davis draws out a theologically grounded practice in which Christians work hard to maintain unity while still taking seriously matters on which they disagree.