For so long, most of us raised in Christian churches were taught the notion that heaven and God were out there, and life here had little connection except that you’d better be good or you would not make it to out there.
Some churches still teach that, implicitly if not explicitly.
The separation this creates between believing in out there and living day to day life can be so complete that it leaves us free to do whatever we want (or imagine that we are supposed) to do. It does not matter how our actions affect the planet or our fellow life forms.
There are even folks who call themselves Christian for whom nuclear war would be a good thing. They are so eager to leave here to be out there that the “end times” can’t come soon enough. What quicker way!
Some of you may have read Mark Sandlin’s July 27 article on Patheos.com, “I Want My Christianity Back – Without the Ugly Baggage.” If you haven’t, I recommend it. In it he quotes Napoleon (about whom I know embarrassingly little) who observed that, “Religion is excellent stuff for keeping common people quiet. Religion is what keeps the poor from murdering the rich.” Napoleon is saying, in other words, that religion is about control. To the extent that that is true, I can understand why people would be more inclined to be “spiritual, not religious.”
Please hear me: I’m not opposed to the rich. Being rich is better than being destitute. But I am opposed to people controlling others for their own benefit, which is often how people become rich. And I’m particularly opposed to people controlling others for their own benefit in the name of God. That’s where my thoughts about the church’s focus on out there align with Napoleon’s thoughts about control.
Jesus, if we are to believe our gospels, was not that interested in out there. He was deeply and passionately interested in and concerned with here. He was concerned with how those without power were marginalized and oppressed and used. He was concerned that they had no voice.
Jesus was opposed to the systems created by those with power that perpetuated their power on the backs of those without power. Sound familiar?
So long as the church today keeps those of us in the pews focused on out there, those with power will maintain their control. And this is especially likely when we mix, or worse yet confuse, political ideology with religion. While not all Christians do this, there are many for whom the values of the State (progress, exceptionalism, nationalism, militarism) have eclipsed Jesus’ message of inclusion, radical equality, forgiveness, and non-violence.
What Jesus lived for, taught and accepted death for rather than participate in can easily get lost – something those with power are counting on.
So how do we prove Napoleon wrong? How can we be religious (belong to a faith community) and not be controlled by those with power, whether in the church or out?
It’s worth noting that not everyone wants that … not really. It’s easier to have someone else who is in control. That way we don’t have to be responsible for what happens. That way we will have someone else to blame when things go wrong.
But for those of us who see in Jesus a way – The Way – that we choose to believe is of God, then coming alongside him and letting go of our fixation on out there would be a first good step.
Recognizing manipulative power where it exists and having the courage to publicly name it would be another good step.
Doing what we can to extricate ourselves from and refusing, as best we are able, to participate in those systems that separate us from other folks and the rest of creation or that inflict violence on other folks and the rest of creation would be yet another good step.
Christianity without the focus on out there could be … well … more Christ-like. And isn’t that what we are supposed to be about – living as Christ?
Leigh Waggoner is priest at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church. She can be reached at 565-7865, or firstname.lastname@example.org.