Ethan Casey gave the following talk at Broadmoor Community Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado on February 28, 2016. It is a follow-up to “Who Is at War with Whom, and Why?” which in turn was a follow-up to “Beyond Ferguson.”
Two recent public incidents should have forced us to face big questions about what it means to call ourselves Christians in America today.
One is the railroading of Larycia Hawkins, the Wheaton College political science professor who decided to wear a hijab during Advent as a gesture of human sympathy toward Muslims. Wearing the hijab was not officially what got Professor Hawkins in trouble, but rather her assertion that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. To many of us that might seem an inoffensive or even irrelevant claim, but not to the people who run and fund Wheaton College in suburban Chicago. They summoned Hawkins to their Star Chamber and issued a statement citing unspecified “complex theological matters” and a supposed need to safeguard the college’s “distinctively evangelical Christian identity.”
The poobahs of Wheaton College are entitled, I suppose, to decide and declare what their institution is going to be about. What they’re not entitled to do is to compel the rest of us to be okay with what they’re about. And they’re certainly not entitled to claim or insinuate that they and their faction have some kind of inside track on what it means to be Christian, which is undeniably what their brand of Christianity is in fact all about. This is part of what offended me when they suspended Larycia Hawkins. Who died and made Wheaton College the boss of what it means to be Christian?
But it goes beyond giving offense. Whether I’m personally offended is important to me, but trivial otherwise. What makes what Wheaton College did dangerous and damaging is that it is trying to arrogate and enforce a static and authoritarian creed, which to me is the opposite of a meaningful religious tradition. And I’m not impressed with the arguments or pleas, couched in terms of religious liberty, that are routinely made by the apologists for right-wing American Protestantism. Yes, everyone in America should enjoy religious liberty. Knock yourself out freely practicing your religion, as far as I’m concerned. And you can do whatever you want, I guess, within your institution. But your freedom ends where mine begins. And if you or your institution do or say something that I believe damages our country’s society or public life, then as a citizen I have a responsibility to oppose it.
I make no apology for using Wheaton College here as a stand-in for the entire aggressive and authoritarian evangelical Protestant movement that has done so much damage to the political and civic life of this country – and notably of this city – over the past thirty or forty years. Wheaton set itself up to be used in that way when it came out on the wrong side of the Larycia Hawkins affair. Indeed Wheaton has long been a proud standard-bearer for that whole movement, claiming both political leadership and intellectual respectability. None of the rest of us owe them either of those things. To me, Wheaton’s alleged complex theological matters sound like only so much obfuscatory mumbo-jumbo. And it’s easy to conclude, from its pompous and defensive statements, that Wheaton College cares more about adhering to its own authoritarian ideology than to Christian principles like loving thy neighbor.
The other recent incident was the terrorist attack, by a self-identified Christian named Robert Dear, on the Planned Parenthood center right here in Colorado Springs on November 27, the day after Thanksgiving. That incident hit very close to home for me, for obvious reasons: my parents live here, and my mother sometimes shops at the King Sooper supermarket where people took shelter during the hours-long attack. And what was especially revealing – and, to me, depressing – was how just five days later, as soon as two Muslims of Pakistani origin attacked the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, California, the great American public instantly and comprehensively began forgetting the Colorado Springs attack. In the three months since then, San Bernardino has become a national byword. Colorado Springs has not. Many Americans who consider themselves Christians don’t want to have to face either armed white men like Robert Dear or the political bullies of the anti-Planned Parenthood lobby.
Yes, what Robert Dear did was an act of terrorism, by any reasonable definition. His strangely admirable insistence on his own guilt is proof of this – Dear himself wants it known that his motivation was political. And everybody in this room knows that Colorado Springs is a high-pressure crucible for the hard and divisive national issues that Dear’s act brought sharply, if all too briefly, into relief. Colorado Springs is a laboratory for such stuff and, after observing the experiment over the thirty years my parents have lived here, I’m not sure it’s turning out all that well. But what the experiment does allow those of you who live here to do – if you’re willing – is to face, without evasion or filter, the big questions that all of us Americans should be facing. If you want to know how to go about being a Christian in America, ask first how to go about being one in Colorado Springs. For better or worse, warts and all, whether we like it or not, this town is America.
Senator Eugene McCarthy, a great patriot who did the right thing for America in 1968 when we urgently needed to begin having an honest national conversation about our war in Vietnam, reflected afterwards in his book The Year of the People that sometimes we try too hard to find common ground with each other. I appreciate his counterintuitive point. Perhaps, said McCarthy, there are times when what is needed is more division, not less. I’m afraid our time might be such a time. Look what became of President Obama’s eight-year presidency, partly as a result of his often maddening patience as he repeatedly tried to find common ground with grouchy old bullies like Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who is so execrably unpatriotic that he declared that his party’s top priority was to ensure that the president would not be re-elected.
In any case more division is what we’re getting these days, so we might as well try to define and direct the division, rather than letting ourselves be blindsided or steamrollered by it. But when I speak of more division being desirable or at least necessary, I mean more division within the communities of people who identify themselves as (for example) Christians or Americans. What I emphatically don’t mean is division along racial or doctrinal or community lines. I mean that we, as Christians or as Americans, need to divide ourselves from those who use the same labels, but who use them – or rather misuse them – to serve purposes that to us are anathema. But we also need to relearn how to oppose each other politically when we feel it’s necessary, without falling into the dangerous error of considering our political opponents or their views to be inherently evil.
And what is evil, anyway? One thing evil is not is something that exists only “out there,” among other people. It’s right here, within the Christian church, within the national life of this country, within every human heart in this room and this city. “If only it were all so simple!” wrote Aleksandr Solzenitsyn.
If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?
Every human system or institution, including the church, carries within it the same evil that’s carried within every human heart. We will not eradicate evil by claiming to find it in others and then killing or demonizing them. There is evil in others’ hearts too, to be sure; but the evil in their hearts is their lookout, theirs to eradicate. Our problem – as Jesus points out – is to identify and address the evil within ourselves, the plank in our own eye. That’s easier said than done, I know, but it becomes easier to do if we acknowledge that it’s what we need to do.
And self-identifying as Christian does not inoculate any of us or earn us a Get Out of Jail Free card. I don’t know about you, but I’m sick and tired of being bullied by bullies who claim the “Christian” mantle exclusively unto themselves and their ilk. In America, the claim that “I’m a Christian” too often carries a parenthetical corollary: “(p.s. you’re not)”. The implication is prescriptive and exclusive, and too many self-identified Christians are really just power-hungry authoritarians. This was already enough of a problem in American national life when I was young that it drove me out of the church. There’s a famous passage in Huckleberry Finn when Huck, faced with the choice of turning Jim in to the slave hunters or defying the law and the churchy pieties of his own community, thinks it over and then declares, “All right then, I’ll go to hell.” Copping a very similar attitude, my own response to the rise of political Christianity in America during my youth was to say, “All right then, I’m not a Christian.” And you can’t make me be one. Get out of my face, and take the whole two-thousand-year body of tradition with you.
In middle age I’m now willing to acknowledge that politics, religion, and life in general are more nuanced than that. But if being a Christian means surrendering my freedom to some self-proclaimed authority for no particular good reason, then I still don’t want to be one. Another way to put it is that if I had to choose between being a Christian and being a free American, like Huck Finn I would choose to be a free American. And by that, I really mean a free person. And furthermore, I presume to believe that Jesus would be okay with that.
Not that I even think it should be necessary to secure Jesus’ okay on what I believe. In Asia, where I lived and worked as a journalist in the 1990s, people always ask your religion, as a shorthand way to pigeonhole you. I used to answer, only partly tongue in cheek, that my religion is journalism. By that I meant that I had taken on the self-directed task of building an edifice of known factual truth, one fact at a time, and then – and only then – gleaning some meaning or pattern from the painstakingly constructed edifice. I felt such a task was congenial with something my father, who is an Episcopal priest, once told me: “None of it means anything unless it agrees with experience.” And this is where I circle back to a meaningfully Christian sensibility, because I see journalism and writing as a vocation and as a way of bearing witness.
I think that’s how the great French writer Albert Camus also saw writing, including journalism. I’ve been reading Camus a lot lately, because he’s at least as relevant here and now as he was in his own place and time. And I admire and appreciate Camus because he tried to articulate reasons, or at least compulsions, to behave morally without reference to religious authority. (I think what Jesus said and represented was similarly radical.) At any rate I appreciate Camus not because I’m against religion – I’m not – but because I think all religions, Christianity included, have a tendency to become too much about their own rule books, theologies, hierarchies, and pieties, and too little about what they should be about. Religious traditions are meaningful if and only if they are useful to us in living well, by helping us understand and respond with human integrity to our situation in this world, here and now. That is the point. The religion itself, any religion, is a means to the end of living well, in this world, with each other and the rest of creation. First things first.
And we need to know how and where to draw the important distinction between religion and politics. It’s never possible to keep them entirely separate, but they are different realms. Martin Luther King was very good at both, and there’s a suggestion of where he saw them interpenetrating in his claim that “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.” I would add that hand in hand with love should go respect, an important force that too often is honored in the breach. The concept of respect implies difference and distance, because if you and I were exactly the same or understood each other completely, it would not be necessary for us to practice respect for each other. The concept of respect is conveyed very suggestively by a wonderful line in the Quran, where God says “For I have made you nations and tribes, that you might know one another.”
Practicing love and respect for people who belong to a community different from her own, and who are politically and even physically vulnerable in our society in our time, and modeling such practice for her students, is what Larycia Hawkins was trying to accomplish by wearing the hijab during Advent. Next to her very Christlike behavior, Wheaton College’s mysterious “complex theological matters” are only so many angels dancing on the head of a pin. Hawkins’s sin, according to Wheaton, was to have claimed that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. It is true enough that religions differ from each other, and it’s fair enough to say that we can’t and shouldn’t simply wish away the differences. It’s a fine and useful thing that Christians, Jews, and Muslims of good faith work to understand and respect each other, even in their irreducible difference. But, well-meaning interfaith efforts notwithstanding, the nub of our current problems is not religious but political.
And we should train ourselves to identify and respect the frontier between religion and politics. The answer to the politicization of Christianity by the right wing is not retaliatory politicization by the left wing, as in the coup foisted on the Episcopal Church by its left-wing faction. Ultimately there’s nowhere else for any of us to go, so we had better learn to live with each other: not only Christians with Muslims, but Christians with Christians. And Americans with Americans. And Earthlings with Earthlings.
What’s liberating is that the times we live in are so uncertain, and our institutions are all so rotten and unstable, that we should feel freed to discover and practice new ways of being both Christian and American – and to rediscover and reclaim old ones. As Camus put it, “Men worthy of the name will, at the end of their lives, reject the ideas they once accepted and recover the innocence and truth that shone in the eyes of ancient men facing their destiny.” We enjoy, in these times, the bracing opportunity to go back to basics. Who was Jesus of Nazareth, and what was he about? (And, as my father likes to ask, if Jesus were living on earth today, would he be a Christian?) Who were the founders of this country, and what were they about? What was our Civil War about? But these historical questions are useful only insofar as they help us to address a more important, because more immediate, question: Who are we, here and now, and what are we about? How will we live and behave, here and now, in this world, this country, and this city, among other human beings who come from or belong to communities and traditions that are different from ours? What attitude will we bring to our shared life? Is it us against them, or are we all in this together?