presented at the Unitarian Church of Quincy, Illinois
April 24, 2022
Opening words: Eugene Debs
Every robber or oppressor in history has wrapped himself in a cloak of patriotism or religion, or both.
This is a story Jesus told, modernized a little.
A king called some of his subjects to a meeting, and as they came in, the King’s people carefully directed some to one side of the room and some to the other. Then the King turned to the group on his right and said: “I wanted to bring you here to reward you for all the good things you’ve done for me.”
Now, these were ordinary people who seldom had interactions with the King, so one of them said, “Your majesty, it’s wonderful that you’re pleased with us, but what have we done for you?”
And the King said. “Many things. When I had no friends, you sat with me. When I had nothing, you shared with me. When I was being lied about and no one else would defend me, you did. And when bullies had made me afraid, you walked home with me.”
Of course no one interrupted the King while he was saying this. But all the while they were trading looks with each other that said: “Do you know what he’s talking about? I don’t know what he’s talking about.”
So one of them spoke up and said, “Your majesty, when were you ever friendless or poor or undefended or afraid, that we could have done these things for you?”
And the King answered: “Many people in this land are friendless or poor or undefended or afraid. Some of them are so beaten down that they may never be in a position to return the favors you do them. But they are my people, and when you are kind to them, I take it personally, as if you had been kind to me. So when you go through that door, my assistants will reward you in the ways that you deserve.”
While this was happening, the people on the other side of the room were looking at each and whispering, “The King’s in a good mood. This is great.”
But then the King turned to them with an angry expression, and he said, “I brought you here today to call you to account for the ways that you have mistreated me.”
One man was so surprised that he couldn’t restrain himself. So he said. “Your majesty, you’ve got me all wrong. I don’t know about the rest of these people, but I’ve never mistreated you. I’ve got an ‘I Heart the King’ bumpersticker on my truck. When people complain, I tell them that if they don’t appreciate living in the greatest kingdom in the world, they should move somewhere else. Nobody is as good a king’s man as me.”
But the King said, “When I had no friends, you treated me like I was invisible. When I had nothing, you made fun of me. When people spread lies about me, you retweeted them. And when bullies made me afraid, you egged them on.”
And the man said, “But you’re the King. You were never friendless or poor. You were never bullied or lacked for defenders. How could I possibly have done those things to you?”
And the King said, “Even the lowliest people in the kingdom are still my brothers and sisters. When you mistreat them, I take it personally, as if you had mistreated me. So when you go through that other door, my assistants will call you to account for what you have done.”
Like most of Jesus’ stories people interpret this one in different ways. Some think the King is Jesus himself, and that when he comes back to Earth he will be King of the World and deal out justice in exactly that way.
Others think the story is about the afterlife. The King is God, and the two doors are Heaven and Hell.
I also think the King represents God, but I give it a different spin. I think the story is telling us that even the people you least expect have a piece of God inside them. It may be easy to recognize God the King. But I think the story also wants us to recognize God the Immigrant, God the Invalid, and God the Beggar.
If we could do that, and if we could treat everyone accordingly, with respect and consideration, then maybe we wouldn’t have to wait for the end of the world or for the afterlife to experience the Kingdom of God. We could live in the Kingdom of God right here, right now.
Reading from “If God is Love, don’t be a Jerk” by John Pavlovitz
If you want a good laugh, google the phrase, “You had one job.” The results are a hilariously tragic parade of seemingly impossible fails, unfathomably poor planning, and facepalm-inducing human error: a piece of melted cheese on top of a fast-food burger bun, the word “STOP” misspelled on a street crossing, a “Keep to the Right” sign with its arrow facing left, a toilet lid inexplicably installed below the seat itself. …
As a long-time Christian by aspiration (if not always in practice), I often envision an exasperated Jesus coming back, and the first words out of this mouth to his followers as his feet hit the pavement being “You had one job: Love. So, what happened?”
If you devote much of your time to trying to make the world a better place, you’ve probably noticed a paradox. On the one hand, some of your most dedicated co-workers are probably Christians. You may not have realized it right away, because they’re not the kind of Christians who say “Praise the Lord” whenever something good happens. Rather than ask you if you’re saved or try to lead the group in prayer, they just show up and share the work: ladle the soup, stuff the envelopes, hammer the nails, make the phone calls.
Only after you spend some down time talking do you start to understand what motivates them: They think some guy named Jesus had some pretty good ideas about healing the sick, feeding the hungry, and welcoming the stranger.
But at the same time, if you pay attention to the news, it’s hard to escape the idea that Christianity is your enemy. If someone is loudly and obnoxiously working to make the world harsher, crueler, and less forgiving, chances are they’re waving the cross. There’s nothing subtle about it. All their rhetoric is about what God wants, what God hates, and the “Christian values” that the law should impose on Christians and non-Christians alike.
And strangest of all, those “Christian values” seldom have anything to do with healing the sick, feeding the hungry, or welcoming the stranger. The name of Jesus shows up in every paragraph of their rhetoric; his teachings, not so much.
Now, this talk derives from a blog post I wrote a month or so ago, which goes into a lot of detail about the contrast between the Sermon on the Mount and the issues currently being pushed by the Religious Right. But I think most of you already see that. So I’ll just sum that part up by pointing back to the wisdom story: The King in that story wasn’t interested in people’s sexual activities, or which bathroom they used. He judged people according to who they helped, and especially, how they treated people who had nothing to offer in return.
So how did “Christian values” become a code phrase for being anti-gay, anti-trans, anti-immigrant, anti-public-health, and refusing to fix (or even talk about) the continuing racism in America? How did the teachings of a man who owned nothing, and who often told people to give their possessions away, turn into a “prosperity gospel”, where God is expected to make his followers rich? How did Christian churches become hotbeds of the most malicious and baseless conspiracy theories? How did those churches become the political base for one of the least Christlike leaders this country has ever had?
Now, those are great rhetorical questions. They stir the blood and make us feel righteous just by contrast. But this morning I’m going to try to answer them. How did this happen? What is it about Christian theology, Christian habits of thought, and how Christian history has played out, that has made that faith vulnerable to such a complete reversal?
I’m going to identify seven specific points of vulnerability. But before I do that, I want to give one example that can serve as a paradigm for everything that goes wrong. The Gospel of John quotes Jesus making a very enigmatic statement: “The Father and I are one.” He doesn’t elaborate, so it’s hard to be sure what he meant.
But theologians hate to say “I don’t know.” So that one line has led to centuries and centuries of theorizing about the nature of the Trinity. At times the arguments over those theories have been so bitter that they caused violence. For example, Unitarianism’s most famous martyr, Michael Servetus, was burned at the stake in 1553 for having written a book called “On the Errors of the Trinity”. In short, people got so lost in the mystery of that one line, that they completely lost sight of loving their neighbors.
More generally, Jesus did not leave us tomes of philosophy or political theory or sociology. He never laid out a worldview or a theology. Instead, he told stories. The imagery in those stories looks like it was designed to upend the way his disciples were thinking. But he never told them step-by-step how they should think.
Mustard, for example, was the scourge of Mediterranean gardeners, because once mustard got into your garden you never got rid of it. But in one of Jesus’ stories, the Kingdom of God is a mustard seed, a weed in other words. In another story, an employer paid everyone the same, no matter how many hours they worked. A priest and a Levite could be bad neighbors compared to some nameless Samaritan. It was all pretty confusing.
And Jesus hinted that he didn’t expect people to understand right away. The Kingdom of God, he said, is like yeast; it works on you invisibly. His images and stories are supposed to sit in the back of your mind and ferment, not proceed logically from principles to conclusions.
And while that is a fine one-on-one spiritual teaching technique, it leaves an opening for people who do lay out systematic theologies and worldviews, and do tell people what to think. Over the centuries that opening has been exploited. A conservative worldview has built up around Jesus’ teachings and has almost completely sealed them off.
“The Father and I are one” started out as a mystery to meditate on. But eventually it led to a dogma that people killed for.
So here are my seven weaknesses of conservative Christian theology and practice that have left Christianity vulnerable to the corruption we see today.
The first weakness is the Devil. The Devil may seem Biblical, but he really isn’t. The Bible tells us about the serpent in the Garden, the adversary of Job, the rebel angel, the tempter of Jesus, the chief of the demons Jesus casts out, and the antiChrist of Revelation. But it calls them by different names. Much later, theologians following the dualistic example of the Zoroastrians, unified those diverse characters into one single Prince of Darkness, a being powerful enough to compete with God.
In the current era, that construction has an unfortunate side effect: It makes just about any conspiracy theory plausible. Reasonable people assess a conspiracy theory by asking a series of questions: How many conspirators does the theory require? What motivates them? How did they come together? What keeps them cooperating rather than ratting each other out?
Those questions sink most conspiracy theories. But not if you believe in the Devil. The Devil doesn’t need any ordinary motive; he conspires just for the evilness of it. And the Devil has minions whom he has beguiled into fervent loyalty. They also do evil for its own sake.
Once you’ve imagined a cast of characters like that, motivated by nothing more than the desire to do evil, there is no conspiracy theory that you can’t make work. And since a well-selected conspiracy theory can explain or explain away just about anything, you’ve given yourself license to believe whatever you want.
The second weakness is Hell. Universalism envisions a unitary afterlife: We’re all going to Heaven. Various Eastern religions picture a unique afterlife for each being: You might reincarnate as anything from an insect to a god.
But the dualistic afterlife of Heaven and Hell is much more problematic than either of those alternatives for two main reasons: First, it encourages us-and-them thinking, Humanity isn’t all in the same boat. We’re in two boats one headed for Heaven and the other for Hell.
And second, Hell makes punishment an end in itself. In the usual vision of Hell, the suffering of the damned serves no reforming purpose. Damnation is eternal, so no matter what you may learn, or how you might change, you’re never getting out. It’s punishment for punishment’s sake.
No wonder, then, that conservative Christians offer the same solution for every social problem: Identify the bad people and punish them, preferably with extreme harshness.
The third weakness is the End Times. Polls have shown that 3/4ths of Evangelicals believe we’re living in the End Times, the period just before Jesus’ second coming at the end of the world.
Sometimes I wish the Romans had invented polling, because I suspect that if we had the data, it would show that some very large percentage of Christians have always believed they were living in the End Times. Two millennia ago, the Book of Revelation ended by quoting Jesus saying “Yes, I am coming soon.”
At its root, believing that we live in the End Times is a way of puffing ourselves up, of making our era seem uniquely important. Great stories are written about the days when the prophecies are finally fulfilled. Nobody wants to believe that they belong to one of those hundreds and hundreds of forgotten generations that pass between the prophecy and its fulfillment.
The big downside of belief in the End Times is that it justifies suspending normal reasoning processes. And this again feeds conspiracy theories. Most of us discount interpretations of events that depend on wild coincidences. But End Times believers approach the news the way the rest of us approach the final chapters of a novel. They expect diverse plot threads to start coming together. Wild coincidences are almost required.
What’s more, as the final battle of Good versus Evil approaches, the two sides should become easier to identify. So of course there’s an international conspiracy of blood-drinking pedophiles. How could there not be?
The fourth weakness is individual judgment. Supposedly, on Judgment Day, each of us will each stand alone, to meet our up or down fate according to our individual actions and beliefs. These individual rewards and punishments are supposed to right the scales of justice, once and for all.
It’s a short leap from that vision to the belief that evil is fundamentally individual. So an idea like systemic racism, or any kind of systemic injustice, has no place to take root. For believers in individual judgment, any discussion of injustice is always going to raise the question: Who is the bad person in this situation, and how should they be punished?
That’s why it’s almost impossible to have a reasonable discussion of racial justice or gender justice or oligarchy. Because the only thing Evangelicals will hear is that you want to punish White people or men or the rich. Similarly, discussions of the social roots of crime go astray, because all they hear is that you want rapists and murderers to escape punishment.
The fifth weakness is tradition. This one is not unique to Christianity. All over the world, traditional religion is more about tradition than about religion. Over time, the local religion (whatever it is) gets coopted to defend the privileges of the powerful, and to justify the local customs (whatever they are): We do what we do because God wants us to, and the people on top are there because God favors them. The old time religion inevitably becomes the religion that fights change.
In American history, slave owners quoted the Bible to protect their right to own other humans. Men used it to keep women in their traditional places. The lower-court judge who upheld Virginia’s law against interracial marriage wrote that the Lord God created the races and intended them to stay separate.
Today, people say “Christian values” when they really mean “traditional values”. White supremacy, male privilege, persecuting gays, insisting on binary gender roles — those are very traditional in America. But they’re not Christian, at least not if Christianity is defined by the teachings of Jesus.
The sixth weakness is autocracy. Jesus never wrote down his political theory, and we’re still arguing over what he meant by “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” But Christianity is full of royal imagery. God is King of the Universe, and when Jesus returns he will be King of the World. Jesus’ disciples imagined that he would restore the Kingdom of David, and they argued about who would get the top jobs.
Democracy and human rights are not part of that vision. They are human institutions that will be swept away in the next world. So why not sweep them away sooner? God knows better than any human being, so why shouldn’t we all be ruled by men who know what God wants?
The seventh weakness is denial. Christianity and science had been skirmishing for centuries. But by the beginning of the 20th century, many Christians thought the situation was dire. Geology had discovered that the world was far older than Genesis implied, and evolution directly contradicted the Genesis account of God shaping Adam from dust.
It was time to draw a line in the sand, and that line was fundamentalism: The Bible was literally true in every detail, and any evidence otherwise had to dismissed somehow.
But there’s a problem with that strategy: Genesis really is wrong, and the more you study the scientific evidence, the more obvious it becomes. There’s no way to defend Genesis as a literal account of scientific facts while maintaining your intellectual integrity.
So fundamentalism jettisoned its integrity. I saw this first-hand growing up at St. James and for years afterwards. I’m still seeing it today. The most absurd pseudo-scientific arguments have been written into pamphlets and textbooks, and if they come to the “right” conclusion — that Genesis is true — fundamentalists are supposed to believe them.
When people compromise their integrity, they rarely think they’re setting a precedent, but they usually are. Here, the precedent was that Christians could support each other in believing something blatantly false if they wanted to believe it badly enough. It’s OK to twist facts and logic any way you need to in order to reach the desired result.
Now, I want to point out that this kind of denial is different from having faith in events that don’t fit inside a scientific model, like Jesus walking on water. The problem here isn’t that fundamentalists believe in something that science can’t explain. It’s that science actually explains the situation quite well, but fundamentalists don’t want to believe it.
Once you make that OK, you’ve built a hole into your reasoning processes. And it’s naive to think that you’re going to control what passes through it.
A hundred years later, we can see the results. Intellectual and political hucksters and flim-flam artists of all sorts have taken advantage of fundamentalists, often in ways that have little to do with the Jesus or the Bible. Fundamentalist churches have become centers of climate-change denial and Covid denial, as well as hotbeds of Q-anon conspiracy thinking.
Right here in Quincy, over on Broadway, a billboard says that a fetus has a heartbeat at 18 days. No it doesn’t, and it’s not at all Christian to lie like that.
Rose-colored views of American history — where the Founders are latter-day prophets, slavery wasn’t really so bad, and the Native American genocide shouldn’t be examined too closely — have become articles of faith among White Evangelicals. None of it stands up to scrutiny, but they want to believe it, so they do.
The last time I spoke to this group, I told you that Unitarians are precisely the people who can’t believe whatever they want. This is what I meant. Like all humans, we are tempted by motivated reasoning and fooled by confirmation bias. But we don’t get to deny science and logic outright, and we don’t get to patch the holes in our beliefs by making up conspiracy theories.
When you hear a list of vulnerabilities like the one I just gave, you might wonder why we’re talking about Christianity at all. What good can come from it? Maybe we should just write the whole religion off, and close our minds whenever someone mentions Jesus or the Bible.
But then I come back to the kinds of Christians I mentioned at the beginning, the ones who find in Christianity the motivation to keep doing the work, like Jimmy Carter still pounding nails for Habitat well into his 90s.
I’m not entirely sure how that motivation works, but I suspect it has little to do with Heaven and Hell, or the end of the world, or tradition, or the idea that Genesis teaches good science.
When I try to find something motivating or inspiring in the faith I was raised in, I keep coming back to that enigmatic phrase: the kingdom of God.
I don’t think all the odd things Jesus said about the kingdom of God explain anything, but they are evocative, at least to me. What they evoke is not hope for some future theocracy, or for a better life after death, but for a different kind of common sense here and now.
The metaphor I use is the sound barrier. Air flows differently on the other side of the sound barrier. There’s nothing magical about it, it’s just that the air-flow equations have a second solution, one we hadn’t known about before.
Maybe common sense also has a second solution, one that doesn’t revolve around scarcity, anxiety, and conflict. Maybe it could be common sense to treat each other with respect and kindness, to offer help freely, and to trust that help will be there when we need it. Maybe that second realm of common sense exists wherever two or more people decide to deal with each other according to its odd logic. Maybe that realm could become much, much larger.
And that possibility, I find, really is like yeast. If you let it sit in the back of your mind, who knows what might rise?