July 3, 2009

Countering Christians?

This past week I have had several conversations with staff, friends, and family about the mission statement of the Beatitudes Society. Up until now I have felt torn about the language of “counter” within the statement. On one hand, I believe very strongly that Christianity has been hijacked and distorted by the Religious Right. As a 1st year college student in the fall of 2001, I was horrified by the post 9/11 blending of violence and nationalism with Christianity. Since then I have realized that there is a great need for Christians to reclaim the faith by proclaiming and embodying the “message of the welcoming and generous love of Jesus as expressed in the Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount.” Advocating for “justice, compassion, and peace” is one component of this. However, if there is not a strategic method to counter the harm that the Religious Right has and is causing, the Beatitudes Society is simply another social justice and leadership organization. Such a group would not be bad and would have a powerful witness, but we need more than that. More Christians saying, “James Dobson doesn’t speak for me,” is also important, but we need more than that too. We need the Beatitudes Society to intentionally work to counter and diminish the power and influence of Christian groups who are encouraging hate, fear, and violence.

On the other hand, being apart of an organization that is explicitly countering a Christian movement that my conservative grandfather (a retired UM minister) is apart of, makes me a little bit uncomfortable. How can I build bridges with him on moderate issues, if I associate myself with an organization that opposes a significant part of who he is? We are both members of the body of Christ, but by the Beatitudes Society “counter[ing] the Christian Right,” he is not welcome at the table. The implications of this part of the mission statement seam to exclude anyone who even partly identifies with the Religious Right from working together with the Beatitudes Society on points of agreement. Does the Beatitudes Society really want to alienate the growing number of evangelicals who are becoming involved in issues of creation care, poverty, human trafficking, torture, immigration, and genocide? Some of those folks may or may not fully on board with issues of war, LGBT, pluralism, or hermeneutics, but they can be powerful allies in the work of “justice, compassion, and peace.”

After reading Kimberly’s post about this issue on the Beatitudes Society’s blog, I have come to some new realizations and conclusions. First, while generational dynamics and Religious Right infrastructure are influencing this discussion, I don’t think they are at the heart of this issue of maintaining or discarding the “counter” language. What’s at stake for me is whether or not a Christian organization is going to make it apart of its mission/purpose/goals to be against people. Granted the wording is, “counters the Religious Right,” but essentially that makes a statement of being against the people in that movement. In thinking about my own life and all of the things I’ve said against the military, I’m realizing that even though I’m almost a pacifist, I don’t think I should be against the military. Rather I am against every aspect of the military that contradicts loving your neighbor; I am against the violence. In the same way, I am against every aspect of the Religious Right that contradicts loving your neighbor; I am against harm. I am not against my grandfather, James Dobson, or Fred Phelps for that matter. And so I don’t think the Beatitudes Society’s mission should be to “counter the Religious Right” because you might as well exchange the words, “counter fellow Christian brothers and sisters.”

What do I believe is the solution? Well I still think that when talking about the Beatitudes Society, you need to talk about the organization differently to different people. And I sincerely believe that that can be done in a way that reflects honesty and integrity, and is faithful to progressive Christianity. But I just discovered tonight that the mission statement opens with these words of context:

Today in America, the widespread perception of Christianity -- one centered in nationalism, materialism and intolerance -- bears little resemblance to the life and teachings of Jesus, particularly as they concern justice, compassion, and peacemaking. To counter that, The Beatitudes Society develops and sustains a national network of emerging Christian leaders at seminaries and divinity schools who will:

These words provide the framework for what the Beatitudes Society is doing. It is not just concerned with justice, compassion, and peace, but also pushing back against a Christianity that is “centered in nationalism, materialism, and intolerance.” This is what the Beatitudes Society is countering. And in my opinion, that is a more accurate reflection of progressive Christianity than countering people.

P.S. As practical alternative word choices, I would suggest the second goal begin with “Embody a message…” or Melanie’s suggestion “Proclaim a message…”

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