The Needed Recognition of Tension in Faith

(originally posted June 16th, 2017)

Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.” King quotes, of course, are no substitute for actual Biblical verses. Yet how can one view the impassioned cries of Isaiah, Ezekiel, and multiple others as not mirroring that sentiment in their demand for restitution? And how often were these prophets exiled, imprisoned, or even killed for bringing unpopular sentiments to their kings’ presence amidst a crowd of far more positive, charming prophecies from charlatans? Such trends continued to the New Testament, where John the Baptist was beheaded for his outspoken challenges of authority. Concerns of justice permeate the entirety of holy scripture, frequently with divine sanction.

But a questions exists of how such need for justice coincides with Paul’s calls for positivity, to think of “excellent and praiseworthy” things? Is dwelling on injustice excellent and praiseworthy? Is declaring the consequences of injustice impure and not lovely? One must admit that passion for equality does correlate with godly thinking if we are to accept that David, a frequent bemoaner of cruelty, had the heart of the Lord. One must admit that anger and action are from Jesus when he himself became angry and overturned money changers’ tables and whipped them out of the temple area. It is excellent and worthy and noble to proclaim truth to power within the Lord’s constraints. This cannot be denied.

However, in American Christianity, this truth is subverted by the current corporate attitude being adopted throughout Christianity. It’s no secret that the faith’s numbers have dwindled in this country from decades of culture wars leading to a mass disillusionment resulting in huge defections. Positioning faith as opposed to science has failed. Positioning faith as opposed to Hollywood has, largely, failed. And now, positioning faith as opposed to non-Americanism has mostly failed too as the belief in the American Dream has petered away. These were always nonsensical positions to begin with, but that doesn’t mitigate the damage their presumptive stance has done.

What’s more, the convention and community spaces the church used to offer has largely been replaced by a more informal forum – that of the online seminar. Churches have become so associated with antiquity that they seemingly offered little innovative air to any discourse within its halls. The advent of the Internet has hastened that perceived stagnancy. Just as shopping malls as communal areas were destroyed by online markets, so too has the webpage supplanted many of the communal opportunities offered by the church. It used to be that even the faithless had to begrudgingly attend church if they wanted to network, but the consequence of such former monopoly is that alternate network spaces have sapped the church’s agency between closet unbelievers and believers alike.

And so, among the younger demographic comes a more corporate marketing-based approach – that the model the church needs are TED talks. That a church’s livelihood is measured by its events, its outreach, its missions, and what’s more, that all-important factor, its appeal. “How can we make the church more appealing to people?” And this approach is not without merit, for after all, Jesus calls on Christians to be “fishers of men.” Shouldn’t the church, well, appeal to the world that it seeks to convert?

To a point, of course. But to what extents should they take the need for appeal? We cannot deny that Jesus described himself in Matthew 10: 34-35 as, “a sword, for I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.” Jesus, by his own admission, holds controversy, challenge, and, to borrow from King’s lexicon, inherent tension. This gets downplayed by the marketing approach as Jesus’s love being far too bewildering for a hateful world. The problem with that sentiment is that it implies that Isaiah, Ezekiel, John the Baptist, etc. were “not of God.” That God is incapable of tension.

This may sound too abstract of a criticism, even too weightless of one, but its damage and consequences can be immediately observed when posing the American church with the question, “Where does this institution stand on social struggle?” The all too frequent answer from the mainstream church, the church concerned far too much with corporate marketing as an approach, is, “That’s a worldly concern.” That people who feel oppressed just don’t understand the “liberation of God.” But such sentiment liberates no one except the church of a sense of responsibility for the community. The church’s job isn’t solely to get people into pews, nor is it even simple community service, but rather to also engage in active advocacy. “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute,” Proverbs 31:8. “Save those who are weak and needy. Save them from the power of sinful people,” Psalms 82:4. Jesus did not merely console but also defended the rights of prostitutes, Samaritans, and the poor, as well as many others.

By taking the corporate approach of, “Not making waves,” of proclaiming God is Love but leaving out that God is Righteousness, the mainstream church feeds not only dissenters from the left but from the right. On the leftist side it obviously grant substance to Marx’s infamous quote that, “Religion is an opiate of the masses.” Of course, Marx does a great future discounting of Christian Socialist movements throughout the world as well as the bourgeoisie-critical passages like Mark 10. But corporate Christianity takes Marx’s statement at face value, that Christianity should distract us from current affairs, that concern over class struggle is only a sign of worldliness. In the face of so much profit for so many evangelists, profit that quite simply should not exist, mansions that should not belong to preachers when so many struggle for decent wages, that criticism strings like a hornet when it should’ve been immediately disarmed by actual theology.

This corporate approach is also the biggest sustainers of that which it should seemingly quell, the far-right church, the Westboro Baptist and its ilk. Adopting a God of Love seems necessary to combat their God of Hate. But the problem is, these Westboro types understand, much like the far left, the flaw of a tensionless Bible. It’s all too easy for them to cast themselves as an unpopular prophet type when such a role is so dismissed by the mainstream church. And this knowledge that tension exists ignored in the Bible permeates the entire far-right sphere from its religious pivot, informing the convictions of the Three Percenter Patriots, who see links between not only themselves and the (inaccurately calculated) three percent of colonialists in the independence militia but also in that prophet minority in the Bible.

And so the corporate, defanged approach to Christianity ultimately holds limited appeal despite its vaunted aim of universal virtue.

It’s difficult to fathom the politics of the Bible. The Proverbs tell believers to respect kings even as God himself held little regard for the concepts of monarchies (1 Samuel 8:7) and even the state (Isaiah 40:17). On one hand, the scriptures favor labor as a necessity to profit (2 Thessalonians 3:10) and yet views personal property as ephemeral (Leviticus 25:24). And so on, so forth, all furthering the theme of paradox evident in the Son of God dying that man might live. Yet God does call upon believers to attempt at understanding with a, “Come, let us reason together (Isaiah 1:18).” Too often, the mainstream church has used the ending of 1 Corinthians 13 as a crutch, that Love is all that matters. But love means taking a stand. Love means contention for what’s right. “Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth (1 Corinthians 13:6).” And the truth should be difficult to swallow.

Petty squabbling and pointless jabs at the establishment can lead to a lack of contention with God himself and a succumbing to worldly mind, yes. The ultimate award of a world where wealth has no value and power has no rule should always be kept in mind. But Paul, encourager of thinking on excellent and praiseworthy things, wrote (to paraphrase), “To the Jews, I was a Jew, and to the Gentiles, I was a Gentile (1 Corinthians 9:19-23).” One cannot be a Marxist to the Marxists or an alt-right to the alt-right if their concerns, be they real or imagined, can only be met with, “Y’all need Jesus.” That is a lapping of milk that everyone on the outside understands is weak. The church cannot be Pepsi-Cola or Walmart or McDonalds, offering bland smiling appeals to those whose personal concerns they meet with shrugs. It has to have a pointed appeal, pointed brand rooted not in looking good on a pamphlet but in keeping even the most steadfast unbeliever awake at night in contemplation of the scriptures’ mysteries. It needs to take stands, and those stands need to line up with the Bible.

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