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Sunday, October 14, 2018

The churches are hell

I once served on the board of deacons at a church in Rock Island, Ill.  It was a church that was attended by most of the faculty of the Lutheran School of Theology,  which has since moved to the University of Chicago campus, and the faculty from Augustana College, of which I was one. Standing Rock native Vine Deloria, Jr., earned a degree from the seminary when it was in Rock Island.  

I still belong to a church, but haven't attended in a long time. The role of churches and schools in forming the American democratic culture is a powerful, inspiring story.  But like many people, I am estranged from organized religion.  Our schools have been diminished by the right-wing effort to make them subservient to the one percent by turning them into corporate indoctrination centers.  What genuine education is offered is provided by teachers who struggle daily to carry their mission as defined by the history of American education, not by conservative school boards that try to purge the curricula of the humanities and established science.  As for the churches, many have turned against the teachings of the Christ for whom they are named.  Many so-called Christians could not hold Christian doctrine as presented by Christ in their systems if it was emulsified and pumped up their asses in liquid form.  They call themselves a Christian nation and quote the scripture according to Mein Kampf.

The church I belonged to in Rock Island was five blocks from Augustana College and four blocks from the huge Farmall tractor plant.  A number of members expressed a desire to build a new church in a more suburban-like neighborhood.  A large Latino population was moving into the neighborhood, and the long-time residents were getting older. As a number of busy streets ran through the neighborhood and the railroad tracks were two blocks away, many transients were often in evidence. The pastor thought the church should accept a mission to serve the people in the neighborhood. The church became a site for the congregate meals for the elderly.  Vagrants often visited the church.  The pastor arranged if they stopped by when a meal was being served, they would be fed.  If they looked for a handout at other times, the pastor gave them meal tickets which could be redeemed at nearby restaurants or stores.  The church would the  pay for the meals or food.  I remember a Christmas Eve service when six or eight men in funky winter clothes showed up, attended the service, and then joined the congregation for the buffet afterward, filling their pockets with sandwiches, cookies, nuts, and candy.  Some members sniffed with indignation, but the pastor welcomed the men and encouraged them to take whatever they wished to make it through a Christmas Eve night.  The pastor also organized a group that would do grocery shopping for the elderly, particularly during the harsh winter months.  

When the talk about moving got constant, the board of deacons decided to have an every-member visitation and obtain a statement from each church member on what they thought we should do.   The deacons and other church leaders gathered for a retreat to study the results of the canvass and formulate a proposal to present to the congregation.  A large majority of members voted for the church to stay where it was and continue in its efforts to serve the neighborhood.  The pastor asked those assembled at the retreat what could be done to improve its efforts.  One man, who was a hospital administrator, spoke up and said that the only way to improve the church's programs was for the pastor to resign.

The man who said this had been complaining about the pastor's sermons that focused on the needs to feed the hungry and heal the sick.  He said the pastor was using the pulpit to preach socialism.

The chair of the board of deacons was an administrator at the college, also an ordained minister, who asked me to drop by his office a few days after the retreat.  He told me that the pastor was submitting his resignation to become pastor of a large church near Chicago.  Other churches in the synod had been observing the program at our church and had been trying to recruit the pastor.  The church council had to form a search committee to find a pastor.  When we had our meeting to organize the committee, a senior member of the council who was an attorney moved that the person who had asked for the pastor's resignation be specifically excluded from the search process because he did not represent the interests of the church or the congregation.  The vote to exclude him was unanimous.

After I moved to South Dakota, I joined a church that my children attended.  I did not become active in church business, but actively supported some of its programs.  A close family friend was very active in the leadership so I was informed about matters.  When the senior pastor took a position in the national headquarters of the synod, the church hired an unusually dynamic man to lead the congregation.  He added 1,300 members to the congregation.  

My son came home from a church program one evening and said that the senior pastor was resigning.  The daughter of a council member told my son he was being forced out because he was watching pornography on the church computers.  We asked our close friend if that was true, and she said that he was resigning but that the reason was made up by a council member who wanted to boss and bully the staff and other council members.  When the pastor opposed some of his orders, the man wanted him gone.

The accusation got to other pastors in the synod and synod officials and was the subject of a brief investigation.  They quickly concluded that the accusation was false.  The church staff said it was a made-up charge by a man who did not like the pastor's politics--he preached civil rights, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, and was a strong advocate for dealing with the mental health of troubled youth.  The man had a faction within the church who supported him.  The pastor was nearing retirement age and took a job as the interim pastor for a new congregation in a very alluring setting.  Synod officials were particularly concerned because the incident would make it near impossible to find a replacement pastor.  

At the same time this was going on, my spouse who had been a staff member for Sen. Tom Daschle lost her job when Daschle lost an election.  There was a faction in the church that was opposed to Daschle and made gloating comments about his loss to her.  We realized that mean and cheap politics had subverted the church.  It had become a festering example of the kind of human meanness from which churches are supposed to be a refuge.  We realized that our children were being affected by the negative tone that had pervaded the church.  Except for weddings and funerals, we have not attended since.  Neither have our children, who are now adults.

This situation is by no means unique to us.  When speaking of the political state of our nation, the term Christian is often used as a synonym for the malicious bigotry that pervades the country.   My experience with the organized church is one shared by many people.

It explains what Sartre meant when he said, "Hell is other people."  Especially in church. 


Kurt Evans said...

I agree that awful things can happen under a nominally "Christian" banner, David, and I'm not trying to harass you here. I'm mainly just curious. What do you think about the historical evidence that Christ rose from the dead? Do you believe that really happened? Would you say you've ever believed it?

David Newquist said...

To answer that question, I need to preface it with the fact that I am a professor of language and literature, and to qualify for a graduate degree in that field, most universities require the study of the literary history of the Bible—its sources, who compiled them, how they put it together, and the issues involved in its translations from the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek into the multitude of languages in which it has been translated. The efforts to reconcile the Bible as a text of history must account for many conflicts and inconsistencies with other histories. Consequently, scholars have recognized that many stories were shaped to emphasize the point they illustrated not to present a precise record of the facts.

Having attended and then taught at a Lutheran college, I am guided by the Lutheran scholastic tradition that descends from the medieval universities. They did not hesitate to challenge and criticize as knowledge emerged and developed from their studies and discoveries. That is the circumstance that gave rise to Luther and the Reformation. Over the years, theologians have dealt with literal translations of the Bible that conflict with known facts and enlightened knowledge. Many professors of theology and ministers in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America regard the resurrection story as one of a spiritual resurrection, not a physical one. I tend to regard it that way. It is illustrative of Christian doctrine.

During the late years of the Cold War, theologians in East Germany conducted a search for the historical Jesus as a way to keep busy during Soviet oppression. They revived Jesus as a force who challenged the feudal system that kept most people in a state of thralldom. He, they contended, was the major force that brought democratic concepts of liberty, equality, and justice to the western world.

This idea is strongly reflected in American literature during the founding of the nation. Most of the Founders acknowledged the influence of Jesus as the spiritual source of their political ideas.

Jefferson is typical. He writes:

“The practice of morality being necessary for the well being of society, He [God] has taken care to impress its precepts so indelibly on our hearts that they shall not be effaced by the subtleties of our brain. We all agree in the obligation of the moral principles of Jesus and nowhere will they be found delivered in greater purity than in His discourses.64
“I am a Christian in the only sense in which He wished anyone to be: sincerely attached to His doctrines in preference to all others.65
“I am a real Christian – that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus Christ.”

I tend to follow the founders in that regard. The Bible elucidates the doctrine.

Kurt Evans said...

Thanks for the response, David. I grew up in the ELCA, and all of our pastors seemed to believe that the Bible was true and that Christ physically rose from the dead. It sounds like that wasn't nearly the case for the denomination as a whole, even back then.

I'm still not trying to harass you, but if you don't trust what the Gospel writers say about Christ's resurrection, it's difficult for me to understand why you'd trust what they say about His other teachings.

David Newquist said...

It is not a matter of trusting the writers, but of understanding how the New Testament was written. I quote from a Wikipedia entry:

Modern scholars have concluded that the Canonical Gospels went through four stages in their formation:

The first stage was oral, and included various stories about Jesus such as healing the sick, or debating with opponents, as well as parables and teachings.
In the second stage, the oral traditions began to be written down[by whom?] in collections (collections of miracles, collections of sayings, etc.), while the oral traditions continued to circulate
In the third stage, early Christians began combining the written collections and oral traditions into what might be called “proto-gospels” – hence Luke’s reference to the existence of “many” earlier narratives about Jesus
In the fourth stage, the authors of our four Gospels drew on these proto-gospels, collections, and still-circulating oral traditions to produce the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

The process of transcribing the accounts from oral to written involved many, many writers, editors, and interpreters who eventually created some of the most powerful and enduring stories in all of literature--particularly the Christmas and Easter stories. In the process they moved the Christmas setting from the month of March, when taxes were collected, to the winter solstice so that the birth of Jesus coincided with the dawning of the new year. The Easter story of the when woman found Christ's tomb empty contains accounts of sightings of Christ which are recorded but can be interpreted as the indestructibility of his words and his teachings and their enduring presence. I find those words more significant than the physical presence of the person.

David Newquist said...

I add this link:

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