I’ve been going to church for most of my life. For almost all of those years, the churches I entered both voluntary and otherwise were Baptist. Over what now constitutes more than three decades of faithful Sunday morning attendance, it’s safe to say I’ve heard a sermon or two. So when the events in Charlottesville unfolded a couple of weeks ago and I saw an almost endless stream of responses on the Internet that can be summed up thusly —
“If your pastor/priest/rabbi/minister isn’t talking about Charlottesville/white supremacy/racism/Nazis on Sunday then YOU NEED TO FIND A DIFFERENT CHURCH.”
— I thought: sure, seems fair.
Truthfully, there are very few times when the prophetic bar is set low enough to easily avoid offending either the remaining members of the Greatest Generation and Millennials (who, oddly enough, both think fedoras are a good idea!?)
However, and please don’t hear this as a complaint (people like me get paid to do things at churches we hope the rest of you will do for free), expecting your pastor to singlehandedly (over the course of a 30 or so minute sermon) remove the existential weight of an event so troubling as that which unfolded in Charlottesville is exactly the problem with Christianity in America.
I understand that in times of destructive and hateful liminality, something has to fill the universe-wide gaping crater left behind after the “moral leader of our country” opted out of the “moral leader” part of the gig following a weekend long Nazi torch march that resulted in Heather Heyer’s death (a woman, who as of this writing, still has not had her named uttered into a microphone by said not-quite-moral leader). It’s just that we as a nation and/or as a global body of witnesses to the death and resurrection of Jesus need to spend far less time waiting on white dudes with microphones to speak morality into being on our behalf.
Namely, because the wait will be eternal.
Here’s what I mean:
Many pastors I’ve known over the years (and remember, most of them are Baptists), live in perpetual fear of crossing some proverbial line in the sand whilst PREACHIN’ THE GOSPEL to people who pay their salaries and cover their children’s health insurance. Those who cut their pastoral teeth in the fire-charred culture wars of the ’90s and early 2000s, when Jim Dobson and his politically charged Focus on the Family broadcast had more listeners than NPR, learned that to stay employed (without losing all of your soul) one had to learn a dance of never directly mentioning contentious topics by name if you didn’t agree with the booming voices shaming LGBTQ persons in the name of God’s people (for instance) on the steps of the capitol building.
In those days, it was counterintuitively the absence of specificity in moments of sociocultural crisis that let everyone know you were safe, that you were a (gasp) “moderate.” It’s just that nowadays, as partisanship has grown, there are fewer and fewer “moderate” spaces in which we can exist, and surviving them in the ways we once did is becoming untenable for all of us.
David Brooks said as much recently in his brilliant opinion piece for the New York Times:
“Moderation requires courage. Moderates don’t operate from the safety of their ideologically pure galleons. They are unafraid to face the cross currents, detached from clan, acknowledging how little they know.”
Pastors who remained conspicuously quiet about Charlottesville and white supremacy on Sunday — I understand your fears, and where you come from, and why you did it. The most religious persecution I’ve ever faced has been not at the hands of a cabal of liberal professors hell-bent on disproving the Earth’s flatness, but at the hands of Christians who disagree with me about things none of us knows for sure.
I almost let them take everything from me.
So I think it’s time for someone to tell you flatly, that if your congregation, if your people (whether you’ve been with them for 16 months or 16 years) can’t tolerate hearing an unvarnished repudiation of white supremacists in our country who persist in believing that the South or America or their particular woebegone industry will rise again if only “those people” were silenced, or removed, or exterminated then, as I saw it put earlier:
It’s time to find, or start, or build, or create another church.
Also, let me say that if you were in a church on the Sunday after Charlottesville desperately waiting on someone with a microphone to speak up on behalf of the way you understand Jesus and his liberation of the world, I want to remind you that Christianity (at its most fundamental level) is a participatory exercise in self-alienation for the sake of the world. Despite what our economy has taught all of us about the methods of production, you can’t outsource self-sacrifice on behalf of your faith to a Bangladeshi factory worker or an overly-educated white dude in a robe or skinny jeans or both.
In my experience, I’ve found that Christianity is almost never about searching for parishioners giving money so that others can believe and sacrifice on their behalf (as well as that system might work for those of us both taking and giving the money). Instead, the way of Jesus is constantly about searching for partners and participants and prophets and priests willing to put themselves on the chopping block for the sake of the world, oftentimes in front of a mob of angry religious people demanding their deaths.
So to you, and to me, and to all of us, I say: Speak up, rather than spending a life asking or paying someone else to.
Especially when that someone else’s job depends on their not speaking up.