America’s deadly theological crisis

America’s deadly theological crisis January 16, 2017

My special holiday guest blogger is Rev. Jim Foti, assistant minister at the congregation I serve. He delivered a version of this reflection over the Martin Luther King weekend.

The first clear thought I had back in the wee hours of November 9th was that a lot of people are going to die.

Unchecked climate change, geopolitical recklessness, greater availability of guns, increased hate crimes, millions of people losing health care – these are lethal decisions. And as these death sentences are being handed down, we need a serious look at America’s ethical and theological crisis. It’s the crisis that makes all the other crises permissible. And this is a good time to take stock, with Martin Luther King and the inauguration on so many minds.

Who is worthy?

Since its beginnings as a colonized nation, America has been infected with the idea that some people are worthy of God’s love and some people are not. Even if you don’t have a traditional belief in God, or any belief, no one is immune to the brutal, global consequences of theological systems that divide humanity into us and them, master and slave, the saved and the damned.

The European colonizers viewed Native Americans as morally inferior savages; they counted African slaves as three-fifths human; they viewed women as property and blamed them for the fall of humankind from Eden. Based in particular scriptural interpretations, this ethic of supremacy and conquest is deeply embedded in America’s DNA. And it is exceedingly adaptive, finding different groups to deem unworthy, so that they might be dominated and excluded, to the benefit of the powerful.

Much of what is wrong with our country can be summed up by the fact that the word “exclusive” has positive connotations. It’s considered a sign of success to leave people out and bar the door. And many religious leaders heartily approve. Normally I don’t publicly comment on the theologies of others, but “live and let live” doesn’t work when people are going to die.

Look at what’s happening to health care. For the past six years, the United States has been on a path of greater inclusivity. The coverage hasn’t been perfect or cheap, but there’s at least some protection against catastrophic expenses for more Americans than ever before. Who wouldn’t want that?

A lot of people, apparently. People with power, and people with warped ideas of freedom. People who think freedom from government rules and freedom from paying taxes they don’t like are more important than the freedom to be alive and healthy.

The myth of merit

This relates to America’s pervasive and perverse Calvinistic streak, the idea that people deserve whatever happens to them – that the rich are worthy of the wealth they’ve accumulated, that the poor deserve to be poor. Rarely are the arguments logically consistent. “God wanted him to have all that money” is said in the same breath as “he earned it all himself.” Which is it? Ultimately, it doesn’t seem to matter – all are supposedly getting what they deserve. It was meant to happen that way. Never mind the vast human-created systems that steer resources up rather than down.

Of course, this is not at all the view of all Christians. But there are plenty of Americans buying into the mythology of meritocracy, whether it’s an economic meritocracy or a health meritocracy. And tragically, this country is again about to give itself a pass on making sure the sick among us are cared for.

The theological damage goes further. You don’t have to look for very long on the Internet to find religious folks who glorify suffering, who see sickness as a prime opportunity to inspire good works and charity. Some even go so far as to say that a government that cares for its people is robbing individual citizens of opportunities to do good.

But here’s the thing: we don’t need to create more suffering to create more compassion. There are already plenty of people in need. We don’t need to kick 20 or 30 million people off health insurance to have more opportunities for charity; we don’t need 20 to 30 million more fund-raisers at the bowling alley or on GoFundMe because another cancer patient’s family is about to lose their home. We are heading back to a more corrupt system, one that profits off human illness, funnels money toward the top, and leaves the sick to the whims of charity.

Fundamentally good or bad?

Theological questions about humanity inform our national life in many ways. The New York Times recently quoted J.C. Watts, a former Republican congressman from Oklahoma and a Baptist minister, on a visit to Iowa: “The difference between Republicans and Democrats is that Republicans believe people are fundamentally bad, while Democrats see people as fundamentally good…. We are born bad.” Watts added that children do not need to be taught to behave badly — they are born knowing how to do so. “We teach them how to be good,” he said. “We become good by being reborn — born again.”

Watts certainly does not speak for all members of either party, but he illuminates some of the big gaps we have in outlook in today’s America.

Viewing people as fundamentally bad helps explain why a family in Texas once advised me to bring a gun in my car while driving across their state. Different takes on human nature help explain why there are only a handful of gated communities in a blue state like Minnesota, while they are ubiquitous across the conservative suburbs of the south. And perceptions of people as inherently and hopelessly evil help explain why our country has an astronomical incarceration rate.

When people see others, and themselves, as fundamentally bad, fear becomes a centerpiece of daily life. And those who crave power love to take control when the populace lives in fear.

Miracles vs. science

Americans also have profoundly different theological interpretations of how the world works. Four in ten Americans think the earth was created 10,000 years ago. Three out of four believe in miracles of the kind you find in ancient stories, miracles too infrequent to truly replace health insurance.

The fact that evolution and global warming are referred to as “beliefs” speaks volumes. A couple of years ago, a Louisiana native was interviewed for a New York Times video because the coastal island he lives on is already 98 percent lost to the waters of the gulf. Scientists and state officials want everyone to move to higher ground, but this man told the scientists that they didn’t know what they were talking about. “Only God’s going to know when that island going to disappear,” he said.

True, no human being knows the exact date that the island will vanish. But the ultimate outcome is no more mysterious than the age of the earth, or the warming of the planet, or the ways illnesses are cured. This person is facing the heartbreaking loss of the only place he’s ever called home. But it’s very hard for a nation to create a shared reality when there is not basic agreement on how reality works.

I share all this not so you’ll take up arms against theological stances with which you disagree. History has shown us, and daily news reports continue to show us, that fighting over religious beliefs rarely goes well for anyone involved. Even skirmishes that take place on Internet comment threads end terribly. Way back in 1721, Jonathan Swift wrote that “Reasoning will never make a Man correct an ill Opinion, which by Reasoning he never acquired.” If you didn’t think your way into it, you’re unlikely to think your way out of it. By all means, express yourself theologically or philosophically, to clarify your beliefs and to connect with those who might be similarly inclined. But changing people’s minds with facts or reason is uphill work.

Listening to wisdom

So how are we to live our lives in this new world? How will we keep our grounding, our center, our sense of self? How will we keep at the hard work in the face of chaos and risk and events designed to distract us and get us questioning our sanity? How do we keep from falling into our own us/them dichotomies?

There is plenty of wisdom to draw on, and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s timeless words about resistance and resilience seem especially relevant right now.

King called on Americans never to become adjusted to injustice, and his views on “creative maladjustment” are being echoed right now, in calls to avoid the normalization of all the abnormal things going on in our faltering democracy.

King would decry our manufactured crisis in health care. “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health is the most shocking and the most inhuman because it often results in physical death,” he told a group of physicians in 1966. “I see no alternative to direct action and creative nonviolence to raise the conscience of the nation.”

King knew the importance of preparing for struggle, of knowing and doing that which keeps us resilient and grounded. “All too many people attempt to face the tensions of life with inadequate spiritual resources,” he said, and it hampers their ability to help others. And, he said, “life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’”

And King knew the importance of leading with love. “Along with the insistence on nonviolence goes the emphasis on love as the regulating ideal,” he said. “Far from being the pious injunction of a Utopian dreamer, the command to love one’s enemy is an absolute necessity for the survival of our civilization.” King was making a theological call, but also a practical one. Love can succeed where cold reasoning fails.

King lived amid increasing global tensions about nuclear war, but the survival of humanity is at even greater peril today. The fates of all people are as bound up as they have ever been. With all that’s going on, it’s very challenging for love to be the “regulating ideal” in our quest for justice. But these times require us to try.

And so when millions of people vote to end their own health care, we must try to respond with love. When we hear about the plight of that man in Louisiana, who probably never got to take a science class in his entire life, we must try to respond with compassion. When we meet people who view their fellow humans as fundamentally evil, we must try to respond with kindness (and help prove them wrong).

We people of conscience are being called to major acts of resistance and justice, at a time when love and reason have all but vanished from our public theology. We must do all we can to bring them back.


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