Open letters delivered over the Internet are typically one of the least interesting and most easily dismissed mediums for getting your point across, especially to people who will probably disagree with you. This is because open letters are straw-men (or straw-women, or straw-people, I’m still not sure what we’re doing with gender neutrality and scarecrows) stuffed up with the worst components of our opponents’ position, and then summarily eviscerated as a way of rallying our base to their battle-stations. As someone who could probably be considered an “expert” in writing things for free on the Internet that end up having all sorts of negative professional implications, I don’t relish the penning of something like this. It’s just that, with each passing day I feel the need to leave some kind of public record for the authorities who will later fish our bloated and water-logged religion out of the river, and who'll have nothing to go on but dental records.
Consider this letter my back left molar.
Dear Fellow Christian Who Will Never Read This Open Letter Because I Am Your Mortal Opponent, And You Stopped Following Me on Facebook Because I Shared “Something Political” and You Quietly Told Your Phone I Was A Liberal,
First of all, how are you? I haven’t seen you since Thanksgiving, or church, or 2nd period Algebra, or that Evangelical youth camp where we spent a summer together, I sure hope you’re well!
I must say, I’ve been reading and hearing about your support of our President’s increasingly dangerous policy* positions-
(*from racism parading as “law and order,” to colluding with the bad guys from Rocky 4, to tax cuts supporting only the wealthiest citizens of our country, to edging towards apocalypse (via Jerusalem or Pyongyang, whichever fuse lights first), and now to grandstanding support of an accused child sex offender for the Senate*)
-and I have become concerned about your “theology."
It seems your faith has become incredibly partisan these days, and that you’ve forgotten "the gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,” trading it for “the praise of (wo)men” in large houses in Washington, with large Twitter followings, and large platforms provided by for-profit Christian schools and non-profit Christmas shoeboxes.
I'm writing to you because I remember a time you helpfully reminded me that in my support of African Americans mobilizing in large numbers to protest being gunned down in their neighborhoods by police officers in tanks, that I was, as a pastor, no longer “sticking to the gospel of Jesus Christ and his saving death on the cross”. According to your (then) reminder, my public (read: tepid Internet) support of the Black Lives Matter movement was actually “harming my witness” to people “across the political spectrum.” You told me I needed to get “back to the gospel” ASAP, otherwise it might be time to find another pulpit (read: “youth event” because I’m only allowed to work with adolescents in churches, probably because I write things like this).
I remember you had a similar reminder when I marched alongside people of many faiths and orientations in protest to a twice-rejected law banning previously-vetted Muslim families from our country.
I remember you had a similar reminder when I gave a sermon about nonviolence, the dangers of unending militarism, and the impact of PTSD on soldiers reintegrating into families, communities, and the American workforce following their bloody service to our country.
I remember you had a similar reminder when I publicly questioned the motivations behind barring LGBTQ individuals from full inclusion in the life and ministry of God’s family here on Earth (and later, in Heaven).
I even remember you had a similar reminder when I began asking questions about why no one in our community takes the teachings of Jesus and the book of Acts literally (especially the light-socialism), but everyone in our community takes a few passages from Leviticus literally (and no, not the ones about showing your boils to the priest).
Each time, you gently, or not so gently (IN ALL CAPS WITH NO BREAKS FOR PUNCTUATION) invited me to reflect on what these issues “had to do with the gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,” and whether I might be attempting to cram “my agenda” into the mouth of Jesus and his saving work on the cross. Because, in your words, “my politics” had (or has) replaced or superseded or undermined “my theology”.
I totally get that.
In some ways you might have been (or are currently) right. One of my issues is that I desperately want people to think I’m smart, and cool, and "with it" (although the use of "with it" here, is probably me tipping my hand), and aloof in a James Dean-with-bad-skin-and-a-masters-in-divinity-sort-of-way. Sheepishly, I often wish more people read my stuff, and when they don’t, I’m tempted to rattle my own saber as a way of igniting my base or offending “yours”. And, you’re probably right, I often chase the “praise of men (and women and everyone in-between),” and am often wrong about a majority of things, most of which involve my love of righteous (although action-less) indignation. I'm more hashtagger and sermonizer (when I get the chance), than self-disinterested marcher for justice. I have my own baggage, and most of it involves using religion, politics, and, in a pinch, even you to satisfy the dissonance I so often feel because my actions fall far short of my words and stinging rhetoric.
You could say I'm a bit of a clanging symbol, or a whitewashed tomb, or a bad karaoke rendition of a breathtaking Jon Stewart rant from the good ole days (or, as one anonymous commenter put it: “a less-funny Nadia Bolz-Weber”).
Fellow Christian I hope you’re still reading, because this isn’t some sort of apology that I hope will inspire you to apologize for what’s *cough* REALLY THE PROBLEM HERE *cough,* but that in baring my own scars (kind of like Jesus to his closest disciples following his crucifixion) and wounds and fears and baggage, you might feel safe enough to unlock the door to the anxieties keeping you and your own tribe cut-off “from the authorities”. We won’t get anywhere together if we keep letting corporations and their preferred politicians and news personalities set the ground rules for who we listen to, or how we can or can’t speak with one another.
The more we lock the doors to people who disagree with us, the more we willingly elect pedophiles to the Senate, abusers to the House, bullies to the White House, and megalomaniacal victimizers to the Academy.
I’m rather tired of having to cut through an atmosphere of skepticism and cynicism and tribalism (some of the fumes from which I take full responsibility) whenever I want to talk to you about how I don’t think cutting taxes to people living in the stratosphere of our economic food chain will change the lived experience of people in abject poverty, or people in middle-class poverty, or people in upper-middle-class poverty*.
(*NOTE: "poverty" can be used in any environment in which the worth of human life has a tax-bracket attached)
I also don’t find it terribly helpful when I hear that because I’m interested in a larger federal government (resulting in me voting for Democrats from time-to-time (although that’s probably going to change)) that somehow makes me “not a Christian” or someone who no longer “believes in the gospel”. I will allow your self-constructed narrative of a Christianity almost-solely concerned with limiting (and eliminating) abortions, the rights of LGBTQ persons, and federal help to people in poverty, if you’ll allow me to continue to consider myself a “follower of Jesus” when I include marginalized people in the school house, the state house, and at the communion table (which, SPOILERS, because our democracy is no longer interested in being anything more than a feudal patronage system, is ALL OF US NOT NEEDING THAT PRIVATE PLANE TAX WRITE-OFF).
However, I should state that I will always believe that your support of Donald Trump, Roy Moore, and the other court Evangelicals so desperate for some White House correspondence stock they willingly sold you (and our Lord and Savior) out for at least 30 pieces of silver, was where your movement jumped the shark. I appreciate your interests in protecting the rights of the unborn at all costs, I just wish the rights of the rest of us already-born didn’t have to be trampled under foot in the process.
One more thing you were probably right about is that your religion (and mine) is under attack, but not from liberal-arts professors at Vassar, or the Hollywood establishment, or the work of Robert Jeffress and James Dobson. Our respective Christianities are being laid waste by special interests, namely ours, and the ways we have sought to weaponize our fidelity to them.
Because I’m a (sometimes) pastor, I’ll close by saying that towards the end of Genesis, Abraham believes he hears the voice of God inviting him to take his long-promised heir, Isaac, to the top of nearby Mt. Moriah in order to sacrifice him as a concrete symbol of Abraham's fidelity to God. However, upon reaching the peak, binding Isaac to a nearby altar, and raising the knife heavenward, God (at the last-minute) invites Abraham to consider a ram caught in a nearby thicket as a suitable sacrifice (rather than his son).
Depending upon your tradition, this story can be read as one elucidating Abraham’s great, unwavering faith. A faith willing to go to the ends of the earth (or his own family tree) in search of ways to prove itself. On the other hand, this story can be read as one that results only in questions about what kind of tyrannical, anxious, backwards God asks for this kind of faith, asks for this kind of sacrifice? However, one of my favorite interpretations invites us to consider that God is explicitly engaging a tradition (child sacrifice) that Abraham (a religious man in the wilderness of pre-history) would have been intimately familiar with, as a way of bringing him (almost satirically) to the edge of reason, as a way of prophetically calling into question an entire religious system that would require shedding the blood of other living, breathing human beings.
Consider the ram, Abraham.
Against better judgment, we’ve dragged our faith to the top of the mountain, we’ve bound it to an altar built in the name of nationalism, democracy, and power, and now have the knife raised heavenward once again as a way of proving how serious we are about our commitment to religion (and/or America). We’ve promoted abusers, we’ve covered up treason, we’ve cheered at the rejection and damnation and condemnation of our brothers and sisters, and we’ve spilt blood in service to our country and our religion (again and again and again).
What if instead of rooting us on from the skybox, God has been pleading with us to consider the ram the whole time?
What if our acts of fidelity to the tribe our back bumper testifies to have actually been the thing God was satirically calling into question from the very beginning?
What if this whole thing is about the divine putting on display how far we’re willing to let our misguided faith in a structure, or a system, or a party, or a religion, or a country take us?
Consider the ram, Abraham.
I’ve been willing to sacrifice so many of you, living, breathing, gifts on the altar of my faith-based righteous indignation and fear of the news cycle.
I’m sorry, truly.
I hope that we can share a coffee, or a beer, or, as the earliest followers of Jesus did on the evening before his death, a shalomim (or fellowship) meal of bread and wine and reconciliation. If Jesus could break bread with the man who nailed him to a cross for 30 pieces of silver, then I dare say I could probably survive a meal with someone who thinks Sean Hannity has good ideas.
But no promises, reconciliation is a process.
Your (could-be) friend and fellow postponer of apocalypse,
*photo credit: Houston Chronicle