Last week, a category 3 hurricane swept toward Maui, where I am living at the moment.  I have experienced only one other hurricane in my life, in 2007, during my first-and-never-again time on a cruise ship.  The ship’s captain had to negotiate with Cuban authorities to shelter us behind, but not too close, to their island. Still, we experienced rough seas; the rolling deck reminded me vividly of Titanic films, as we hid in our bunks and prayed.

 

That’s what I do when a hurricane is headed toward me.  I pray.

 

Last week, about four days before the hurricane was predicted to make landfall, I received a text from my friend Shelley. Shelley lives in a faith and prayer life that I hope I can one day emulate. When she tells me something she’s heard from God, I take it very seriously. She has lived on Maui for many years. Like most Hawaiians, who have seen many dire predictions come and go, Shelley knows some people will hoard emergency supplies and others will do little to prepare.  It is a big ocean and Hawaii is a small chain of islands surrounded by cooler water.  The likelihood of a hurricane directly hitting land at top speed is small.

 

Still, it has happened.  So we prepare.  We watch the radar readings, we gather our supplies, we decide when it is time to drag in the patio furniture, when it is time to board up windows.

 

When Hurricane Douglas was still over 2000 miles away, when there was not much of a nod toward concern, Shelley sent out the following text: “There is a verse in Genesis (18:32) that is prompting me now. I am asking that ten of us will stand in the gap for Hawaii…certainly there are 10 of us willing to pray…specifically for forgiveness and repentance of hard-heartedness, fearfulness, unbelief, idol worship, apathy, spoiled-ness, being unlovely and unkind.  This prayer of repentance is for Christians first and not unbelievers. Praying the Lord will mercifully turn the storm.”  

 

What was amazing to me was that the night before, I had been on my face before God repenting for these very things in me.  I had just watched Ava Duvernay’s 13th and I was (am) facing my own hard-heartedness, my own apathy, my own willingness to believe what was convenient for me instead of looking into uncomfortable issues that stirred my fears.

 

I joined the ten and prayed for Hawaii and for the church.  I prayed for us who know with such certainty, who are so quick to judge.  I prayed for my friends who saturate themselves in a single viewpoint, who see the investigation of other opinions as dangerous and compromised.  I prayed for my sisters and brothers who rush to repost “proof” of the others’ conspiracies. My heart broke over the smiles of our triumph in the face of others’ suffering.  Our closed minds and our closed hearts.  The church divided not only along red and blue lines.  Christians using Scripture to condemn other Christians, using faith and Jesus as weapons to win an argument.

 

I’m not sure who coined the term first, but both meteorologists and software project managers use a visual aid called “the cone of uncertainty.” In tracking the trajectory of a hurricane, analysts forecast the most likely path of the storm; with constantly changing data, they acknowledge the factors that may change its course.  The cone of uncertainty is a predictive model reset at certain intervals to more accurately adjust expectations.

 

On Saturday, the day before Hurricane Douglas was expected to arrive, I ate breakfast under a beautiful deep blue sky graced with only a few puffy white clouds and a gentle breeze.  Before stacking the patio furniture, I sat with my face to the sun. Michael commented how blissfully unaware we would be without weather-tracking technology.

 

On Saturday night, the storm was 300 miles away.  It had not dissipated as much as anticipated; a wind speed of 90 mph was still predicted to “pass dangerously close to the islands.” We were smack in the middle of the cone of uncertainty.   I went to bed, cognizant that I was on a small rock in the middle of a big ocean.  What had felt like a place of safety from the troubles on the mainland was in reality, by its very isolation, vulnerable. 

 

“In this world, you will have trouble.”  No matter where you live, no matter how you try to insulate yourself from it, trouble will come.  It sometimes seems to me that we in the church spend a lot of our time and energy trying to rid ourselves of trouble rather than welcoming the growth that comes through it.  We haven’t been taught how to value our mistakes.  We haven’t celebrated our failures.  The tares of the enemy have grown up in our churches, tares of perfectionism and shame, pride and shunning.  We don’t know what to do with leaders who turn out to be human instead of the epitomes of piety we expect them to be. (Has there ever once been a church that has repented in this scenario, taking responsibility for failing to pray for and support a leader who fell to temptation?) Friends, we have carried such a burden for such a long time, this striving to be the light in a dark world, this striving to be godly in our every word, thought and deed.

 

I believe God is inviting us to lay that burden down.  He does not need us to appear godly.  He’s already God, He has that covered.  God doesn’t need us to be crusaders and warriors.  He wants us to be real.

 

I believe this pandemic isolation can be a gift for the church. (Please know I’m not saying Covid-19 itself is a gift. It is a devastating virus, the source of so much anguish.  My heart goes out to every person and family who has suffered from it; we must never minimize their pain.)  Right now, church leaders are reimagining what church will look like post-pandemic.  (Many educators and families are doing the same.) Some, I know, just want to return to “normal” ASAP.  But many are taking the time to examine why we do what we do.  With church, so much of our time and energy has revolved around a large gathering, with all its programs and performances.  I’m beginning to hear some mature leaders confess a relief in the interruption of ceaseless activity.  Others are starting to wonder who exactly our services have been serving. How much of our budgets are used for ourselves?  When did caring for the poor and lonely among us get relegated to just another line item or outreach activity? Just because we’ve traditionally encountered God in church services, is He not greater than these? Can God not bless new ways of being church?  Is it He or us so tied to these traditions?

These are uncomfortable questions.  But God loves a good question, especially one asked in humility, with the willingness to hear whatever His answer contains.

 

When I woke up on Sunday, the hurricane had passed just north of Maui. (I had actually slept through the tsunami sirens.) Michael showed me the radar picture which showed the storm literally skirting the islands.  “Looks like the hand of God to me,” the words escaped my mouth unbidden.

News commentary throughout the day ranged from relief to nonchalance, from “Twenty miles south and it would’ve been much different; hopefully, we’ve learned to be prepared”  to “It always happens like this; no big deal.”  I wondered, “Does it even matter if anyone else believes God’s hand turned the storm?”

 

Pondering this question, I recognized that while I did have a sense of urgency leading up to the hurricane, I didn’t have fear. (Except for that moment of anxiety when I realized we still haven’t gotten around to writing a proper will. Darn.)  I trusted that we were in God’s care no matter what happened, so I wasn’t surprised as the sense of urgency dissipated somewhat throughout the day.  I was surprised, however, when it returned the following day, along with the radar images in my mind.  

“What’s going on, God? The hurricane’s over.  Why do I still feel such a sense of impending doom?”

 

The image that came to mind was that cone of uncertainty. Except in the place of Maui, the American church was sitting directly in the path of a storm.  The church I had been praying for.  The stubborn, unrepentant, convinced-we-are-right family of Jesus-believers.

 

And the storm?  I think the storm is the consequences of our behavior.  I’m not talking about Judgement Day or the Apocalypse here.  And I’m certainly not talking about politics, although I suspect it will be dismissed as such.

 

I think what Jesus is indicating is that there is a brewing storm directly tied to the consequences of our behavior.  The unkindness, the angry rants, the satisfaction at others’ misfortune, the lack of compassion, the apathy, the pride…  we have let our fears drive our words and actions.  We have listened to men who claim to speak for God but who do not know His heart.  We have chosen what is easier over what is better.  We have not believed Jesus.  We have not listened to His whispers.  

 

I don’t know exactly what the storm will entail.  But I can imagine.  I can read the signs, even when it is still a beautiful sunny day.  I hesitate to write what is in my mind, because I fear that dismissal that comes with partisan politics.  Please know I’m not writing out of a concern for ballots right now, but out of a concern for souls.

 

Here goes: 

Some of you, my dear friends, believe that Covid-19 is, if not entirely a hoax, a matter of grossly inflated statistics and part of a conspiracy to withdraw support for President Trump by devastating our economy.  You may believe that any proposed vaccine will be used to erode your rights at best and at worst, become the very “mark of the beast.”  You may believe there is a cure, a simple, inexpensive protocol being censored off social media by big pharmaceutical companies.  You may believe masks are muzzles, a sign of compliance with overreaching government.  You may also believe that people who disagree with you are either foolishly deluded or actively harmful.

 

Or perhaps others’ disagreement doesn’t phase you. “What has light to do with darkness? The foolish things of the world will confound the wise,” you are assured by your church friends.  “The world has never respected us.”  

 

When you are offered a mask, you respond with, “If you die tonight, do you know if you’re going to heaven?”  You see yourself as agents of truth, standing against a sea of lies.

 

Except, dear friends, the world doesn’t see you as agents of truth.  They see you as incredibly selfish.  They see you shouting about your God-given liberties while bodies pile up outside morgues.  Maybe you don’t believe the statistics, but the world does and they see you as being callous in the face of others’ suffering.  They see you disbelieving empirical evidence, facts proven in laboratories by nonpolitical scientists, and embracing simplistic (sometimes ridiculous) claims and lies that are immediately disproved by minimal investigation.  Have you ever considered how your “witness” for Jesus is damaged by all the brazen claims you lump in with Him?

 

The world has lost respect for you, dear friends.  You’re right, it was never much to begin with.  You were always that quirky neighbor who spent so much time at church.  But you did help at community events and you were kind to children.  Maybe there was something in those prayers of yours…

 

But now.  For the past four years, your credibility has been deteriorating.  Back when Bill Clinton was caught in a sex scandal, you railed about accountability and personal integrity.  Now, when the same media reports increasingly outrageous moral failings of this president, you rail against the media.  You have traded your own integrity for political power.

 

True or false, this is what the world sees.  

 

And why should we care what the world thinks?  

 

Because, dear friends, Jesus cares about the world. 

 

Because, dear friends, you are wearing Jesus’ name when you belittle and mock and spread gossip.  You are wearing Jesus’ name when you turn your backs on asylum-seekers who want nothing more than to live.  You are wearing Jesus’ name when you shake your heads over Black Lives Matter protests, shrugging off any notion that it may have anything to do with you.

 

And lest my friends on the left get too comfortable here, you are wearing Jesus’ name when you  distance yourselves from your brothers and sisters.  You are wearing Jesus’ name when you are dismissive and refuse to listen.  You are wearing Jesus’ name when you are arrogant, when you use your education (or any gifts you have received) to assert your power over another.  

 

Our Creator loves variety.  We are each born into a personhood of inestimable value. When that personhood is not esteemed, when lies uproot the truth of our belovedness, we begin to treat one another as less than. We disrespect, are unkind.  We group into camps of us and them. We blame and allow falsehoods to grow. And we don’t acknowledge the wrong of any of it, not until a steely-eyed glare stares into a camera over the neck of a dying man.

 

Our differences are not dangerous in themselves.  We are created different, every one of us.  The danger lies in our discomfort with difference.   So, let’s listen to each other. Let’s talk about vaccine damage, about the role of government, about the role of the media.  Let’s talk about who is qualified to speak for us, if we don’t feel our individual voices are being heard.  Let’s talk about socialism and welfare reform.  Let’s talk.  And let’s listen.  It is only in the conversations between us that we can truly see where we actually agree and where we differ.

 

A storm is coming, dear friends.  Unless we repent, all of us, for how we have treated each other (Christian or not), we will bear the consequences of our behavior.  What has been kept in-house will be shown to the world.  It is a reckoning that will not pass us by.

 

Pray with me?

 

Just because we want something to be simple doesn’t mean it is.  And if you’ve been told your entire life that one viewpoint is good and the other is bad… if three times a week and twice on Sundays, you have had one perspective, stamped with Divine approval, drilled into your mind… and suddenly you encounter the opposite perspective in people you respect… when Jesus Himself counteracts what you have been taught…

…your entire world shifts.

Cognitive dissonance is the term psychologists use to describe the stress of trying to hold opposing beliefs simultaneously.  When your actions conflict with your beliefs; when you try to juggle contradictory views in your core.

 

The world in which I grew up had clear boundaries of right and wrong, rigidly defined gender and social roles, with little grace for those who broke the rules.  A little stark, perhaps, but ordered and safe.

There is a moment from my college years that I’ll always remember.  I had stuck my toe over the line to watch Hardcore, an R-rated movie, with my roommate.  The story centered on a Midwest pastor, whose daughter disappears while on a youth group trip to Los Angeles.  More graphic than Taken, the father eventually discovers his daughter was seen in a pornographic film.  Posing as a producer, he enters the seedy world of 1970’s porn to rescue his child.  The plot line reveals the girl had actually conspired to run away to meet the man she believed to be her boyfriend.  After our viewing, my roommate commented on how horrible it was for the girl character to be caught in such a situation.  My blithe response was that if she hadn’t run away, she wouldn’t have received those consequences. My roommate paused, looked at me curiously, and said, “That’s rather intolerant, isn’t it?”  I realized in that moment that my non-Christian friend had more compassion toward a “sinner” than I did.  My religion, supposedly based on love and forgiveness, had little room for those who diverged from the straight and narrow.  That comment took me aback. If I was the righteous one, why was she acting more like Jesus? It was bewildering.

 

Sometimes I can hear a bit of that bewilderment in the voices of my friends who post disapproving messages about protesters who pull down statues and chant Black Lives Matter names before unmoved federal agents. Why are these lawbreakers using words like “justice?” My friends don’t understand the depth of anger being displayed.  My friends have lived law and order lives.  Some of them cling to the belief that only people who break the law get in trouble with the law.

If you’ve ever made that comment or agreed inwardly with it, I ask you today to watch13th, Ava Duvernay’s documentary, or Immigration Nation on Netflix.  I ask you to read White Fragility or How to be An AntiRacist.  I ask you to encounter these pieces not with a mind set to argue but with humility, as a learner.  I ask you to pray before you watch, or read.  I ask you to set aside some space with no one else around, just you and God, and invite the Spirit to speak into your heart.

 

Perhaps your experience will be like mine watching 13th.  Perhaps, as you recognize yourself, or the absence of yourself in Duvernay’s history, you will be made aware of Jesus’ presence beside you.  He doesn’t say a word.  He doesn’t need to.  For me, I haven’t experienced heart-piercing conviction like that since I was a little girl stumbling up the aisle in a Nazarene revival meeting. I wept, for those brothers and sisters who have suffered such cruelty. I wept in the realization of my own oblivion and apathy.  I sat in growing awareness that Jesus has always known what I couldn’t see, what I conveniently dressed over with righteous words and critical judgement.  He knew the fear beneath, the casual disregard I had for suffering people.  As long as I was okay in my own eyes, as long as I stayed overwhelmed by my own burdens, then I couldn’t be expected to take on society’s problems. Like a puppy who has messed the rug, I avoided the eye of God. I avoided the uncomfortable notion that perhaps my privilege was somehow connected to someone else’s suffering.  I didn’t want to see it.

 

But it was there.

 

And now I know.  

 

When Jesus was asked why He spoke in parables, Jesus answered with a quote from Isaiah: “‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding;

    you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.

For this people’s heart has become calloused;

    they hardly hear with their ears,

    and they have closed their eyes.

Otherwise they might see with their eyes,

    hear with their ears,

    understand with their hearts

and turn, and I would heal them.’

 

Now that I have eyes to see, I have explored further. I see how deeply and deftly racism is woven into the fabric of American society and in our churches.  As white Americans, we still see ourselves as superior to people of color.  It is not spoken overtly (usually) but it is blended into our laws and our social hierarchy.  In our churches, we are the first to donate our used clothing and food to the poor.  We buy toys at Christmas for children of prisoners and send shoe boxes stuffed with toiletries and secret surprises overseas.  We deliver furniture to needy families. The people we give to are the other, poor souls who have little to do with our daily lives.  We do not see our complicity in sending those children’s parents to prison.  We do not recognize that our casual consumption of resources contributes to the poverty of those in need here and abroad.

 

In episode one of Immigration Nation, a Honduran man whose three-year-old son was pried from his arms at the border, shares his heartbreak and worry as the weeks of separation continue.  He also speaks about Christian Americans coming to his church when he was a child.  They had been loving people, and had given him candy.  He believed Americans were good.   In tears, he now asked, “Where are all the good Americans?”  I wonder…Are the same Christians who handed candy to that little boy now cheering the wall built to keep him out? Does our mission cease when the poor dare to come a little closer?

In our minds (not spoken overtly, usually), we remain the great white colonial power bestowing privilege on good little darker people. The ones who are not loud or rude.  The ones most like us. We say all people are created equal but we do not live it.  Not when they emerge from our inner cities.  Not when they cross our borders.

 

In another episode of Immigration Nation, the filmmakers flew to Guatemala to interview a woman whose husband was locked in a deportation facility and whose oldest son was released to a relative who resented having to house him.  With her younger children surrounding her, she talked about her mother’s medical expenses which prompted her husband’s decision to journey north for an opportunity to work. Drawing water from a bucket in a communal hole in the ground, she shared her dream of someday owning a refrigerator, with incredulous laughter and the same wondrous reverie as others who speak of winning the lottery.

A refrigerator.

Despite Trump’s statements, Mexican immigrants and asylum seekers are not gangs of drug dealers, criminals and rapists, but simply people who are trying to survive difficult situations.  Both documentaries address many of the uncaring remarks tossed out in American dinner table discussions – “they should come in the right way,” “protecting our borders”, “separation is a deterrent,” or “blue lives matter,” “don’t do the crime if you don’t want to do the time,” etc.  We reduce very complicated issues into simplistic slogans to permit us to continue in our apathy.

 

Now I know.  I cannot un-know.  If repentance means turning around, how do I turn around from this?  How do I turn from lies buried deep in my country’s social structure? Lies woven into centuries of faith tradition? 

 

I am only one.  And thankfully, I am not the center of the universe.  Thankfully, the One who is the Center invites me to return to my core lessons: He is there.  He cares, more than I can imagine.  I can trust Him.  I believe God wants to heal us, all of us.  He wants to heal the pain of centuries of injustice engraved in the soul of black Americans.  He wants to heal the angry white conservatives who believe they are fighting for God and truth. Love, and ever more love poured out over people who have never had enough.  

Give us all eyes to see, Jesus, so we can understand with our hearts and turn to You for healing.

 

 

(photo taken by Michael Toy, San Francisco Women’s March, January 2020) 

 

 

 

 

 

In Cincinnati, in the early 1980’s, Dr. J.C. Willke and his wife Barbara, a nurse (credentials properly established) were at the center of a growing pro-life movement in politics.  I was there, too.  I helped fill a convention center, hosting an Americans Against Abortion rally tour with Melody Green (widow of musician Keith Green).  I helped build one of Cincinnati’s original Crisis Pregnancy Centers and was on the volunteer staff on opening day.  

 

I was all in. At 23, I chose working a series of part-time jobs to cover my rent, so I could dedicate the bulk of my time and energy to volunteer positions.  When Christian leaders told me there was no more important issue than preserving life, what person of faith could disagree?  When they said we needed to be the voice for the voiceless, that babies were literally screaming in pain as they were being torn apart, my heart was broken for those defenseless children.  Who would do that to their own child?  These baby-killers were in turn portrayed as either deceived or heartless women. Either they were sacrificing their children on the altar of their own sexual pleasure or they were gullible victims, believing the lies of Planned Parenthood.  The women just didn’t understand their babies were not clumps of tissue.  They didn’t understand abortionists were using them to line their own pockets, making money on their damaged psyches and bodies.  They needed our help to understand where they were being manipulated.

What I didn’t understand at the time was how I was being manipulated with straw man fallacies. A complicated issue was distilled into an “us vs. them” argument – where they are portrayed as moral failures who perpetrate outrageous, perilous lies, and we are the heroes who stand in the gap, saving both us and them from certain destruction.

 

Late on a summer night in 1984, I was staffing the desk at the CPC. The volunteer counselors had gone home a half hour before.  Although I had completed the counselor training, I preferred receptionist duties.  I was young, a shy purity-culture virgin, and I didn’t feel comfortable talking to people about their sexual choices.  But ten minutes before closing, two African-American women and their children walked in.  One woman was about my age; she wanted to take the free pregnancy test offered on our sign.  I tried to persuade her to return the next day when our more experienced counselors would be available, but she was insistent.

I followed the script. While we waited to see if her test was positive (it was), I asked about her possible choices. She indicated she would probably obtain an abortion.  I followed the script.  I showed her the model of how her baby looked at its current age, talked about fetal development, particularly cognitive and pain receptor development.  I described the resources we could offer, maternity and baby items, classes, community support, prayer.  I prayed for her, asked her to call back the next day after she had time to consider what we had discussed.  Then I went to my knees, praying for the life of that child.  

She didn’t call back. I continued to pray.  She was already a mother of two, after all.  Now that she knew, now that she understood what abortion truly was, how could she not choose life for her child?  By the third day, I called her.  She informed me she had already had the abortion.  I followed the script.  I stumblingly offered her our post-abortion counseling options and quickly hung up.

I was devastated.  I had failed.  Another life had left this earth and I was partly responsible.  If only I was a better counselor….  I can now admit that I was also angry.  How could she have killed her child?  In my mind, she moved from deceived to heartless.  I didn’t understand how she could willingly choose death.

I didn’t understand.

 

And therein lies the problem with the straw man argument.  When the choices are a clear-cut good vs. bad, we can’t understand when good people choose the bad option.  We conclude they were either foolish or they were never really good.

 

By never delving into the other (we referred to it as “pro-death,” not pro-choice) side of the argument, I never understood why anyone would knowingly choose abortion.  I knew that the numbers of illegal abortions had been falsely inflated (sound familiar, Covid-deniers?) and statistics manipulated to sway the court’s opinion.  I  knew that the church had been asleep when that catastrophic ruling occurred and our country would be judged for the infanticide we had allowed unless Christians could overturn the law and the damage.

 

What I didn’t know was what it was like to be a young, poor black woman in Cincinnati.  What I didn’t know was what it was like to be in a relationship with a man who didn’t care about condoms or one who considered pregnancy to be a woman’s problem or one who left when things got unpleasant.  What I didn’t know was how to look into yet another young child’s hungry face and feel the world collapse on my shoulders.  What I didn’t know was how one moment’s mistake could upend your life.  What I didn’t know was that moment of desperation when you would give anything to turn back time and be not pregnant.

What I didn’t know could fill this screen in a day-long scroll.

 

Do I still consider myself to be pro-life? Of course. But I now have a wider view. If I am truly for life, that concern cannot end at a person’s birth. Womb to tomb, Jesus cares for the whole of a life, the whole of a soul.  Can I care for unborn children but not young children drinking lead-poisoned water in Michigan? Or children raped in detention centers on our border? 

 

Who exactly has extrapolated Jesus’ teachings to craft the core beliefs evangelicals hold today?  Fifteen years ago, I started noticing some untruths in the “truth” I held.  My “us and them” theology had already begun to dissipate when I actually got to know some of “them” – Jesus-followers whose freedom and love surpassed my judgment. Deep thinkers whose lives reflected the Spirit’s presence. They had moved beyond simplistic, dismissive answers to find Jesus in the questions. 

The research skills I had honed as a home school teacher were helpful in pursuing my own questions.  And what I discovered was a lot more complicated than what I was taught in Right to Life seminars.  

 

As a young Christian, I was taught a single perspective with a single conclusion.  A stark concept, stripped of humanity.  The truth was more nuanced. In 1973, Supreme Court justices wrestled with several issues in deciding Roe v. Wade: The question of when life begins was debated in both scientific and faith communities. The question of allowing one faith (Catholic) to determine public policy for everyone. The question of the role of government restrictions intersecting with privacy concerns. The undeniable cross section of race and economic issues. Then, and even more true today, abortion follows poverty.  Wherever you find high poverty rates, you will find high abortion rates.

I was surprised to learn members of the clergy (including Southern Baptists) were actually consulted in these Supreme Court discussions, as expert testimony, because women often went to their ministers when in trouble with an unwanted pregnancy. I was further surprised to learn there was an entire underground network between clergy and safe abortion providers. 

What was most surprising to me was the ten-year gap before most evangelicals were suddenly outraged.  It was not simply, as I was taught, that the church was asleep at the wheel.  Many Jewish and Protestant leaders (including Southern Baptists) actually affirmed the Supreme Court’s decision as compassionate toward women. Abortion was primarily considered a Catholic issue, stemming from the belief that life begins at conception, which few others shared.

 

So what exactly happened? The roots of today’s polarized political environment reminds me of Jesus’ parable about the wheat and the tares. (Matthew 13:24-30) For those unfamiliar with the story, tares were weeds that resembled wheat when young.  In Jesus’ story, an enemy had planted tares among the good seed. The workers were told to let both continue to grow, so the good wheat was not uprooted with the bad tares.  Jesus said when both were ripened, it would be easier to distinguish which was to be thrown out.

The wheat in the abortion debate was the sincere belief of many evangelical Christians who were concerned about the growing abortion rate, about how societal changes reflected a deteriorating value for human life.  We were told speaking up for the unborn, being a voice for the voiceless, was akin to being an abolitionist during the 1860’s.  

 

The hypocrisy in the use of that particular analogy now turns my stomach.  The tares, the lies, what we were not told, was how this rallying of our activism and our votes was part of a calculated plan for political power.  At its roots, a sincere concern for babies was used as cover to protect racial segregation.  

 

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 affirmed racial integration progress in public schools.  But many private Christian schools and universities continued to ban admission for African American students and threatened expulsion to prohibit interracial dating. These schools, though not federally funded, still claimed a tax-exempt status for themselves and for the donations they received as “charitable” educational institutions. In 1971, the US District Court upheld Title VI of the Civil Rights Act regarding the IRS code which claimed these discriminatory schools were not “charitable” (uh, yeah) and could no longer claim tax-exempt status. 

 

In 1976, after years of warnings to integrate or face the consequences, the IRS rescinded Bob Jones University’s tax exemption.  Whether Bob Jones and Jerry Fallwell (whose Lynchburg Christian School was similarly threatened) actually believed their own argument that the Bible mandated racial segregation or they just wanted the government out of their business, they were savvy enough to know they needed to shift the narrative into something more palatable to rally behind.  Government interference in “religious liberty” merged well with conservative activist Paul Weyrich’s writings regarding the potential political power in the coalition of a “moral majority.” Weyrich, a Catholic, had tried for years to engage evangelicals on a variety of issues, including abortion, to gain momentum for his socially-engineered (debatably Fascist) agenda. This time, it worked.

 

A reluctant Francis Schaeffer (capitulating to the urging of his teenage son Frank) was the key to changing the hearts and minds of evangelicals.  A young father himself, Frank was horrified by the concept of abortion. Frank needed work to support his new family and he proposed making a video series based on his father’s books. The elder Schaeffer had used abortion as one example in his book but it was Frank’s passion and Frank’s need for a job that convinced his father to greenlight the videos. 

 

The following interview is lengthy but of all I’ve read on this subject, this one is worth your prayerful, thoughtful consideration. There is no more authentic perspective than from someone who was inside at the beginning. Published in 2009, some of Frank’s words are eerily prescient for where we are today:

 https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/godinamerica/interviews/frank-schaeffer.html

 

For me, perhaps the most profound of Frank’s reminiscence was this: “Once I moved to the States in 1980, something interesting happened: I realized that the country we were describing to our audiences didn’t exist — this big, threatening, secular juggernaut that was going to take over our lives and make everybody abandon their faith in Jesus, that essentially hated God, this existentialist teaching in the universities, this sort of threatening image of the secular culture, the other, those people outside.” 

 

Like me, Frank discovered that behind the curtain were not wizards or monsters but ordinary people.  We believed a lie. That lie is still being perpetuated today in pulpits and websites, in conspiracy theories and tales of complicated secret agendas.  The truth is often much more simple and much more human – Greed (for money and/or power). Immorality. Pride. Anger. Apathy. Envy. Gluttony – the deadly seven.

 

Demonization of the other occurs on both sides. My friends who grew up in politically liberal households heard the dismissal of conservatives as backward-thinking misogynists. Perhaps evangelicals relished Schaeffer’s influence specifically because he was relevant and thoughtful. 

 

Before our country can begin to heal, we must acknowledge there is no them.  There is only us. We must get beyond the war mentality of right/left, good/bad. Dichotomies will not serve us.  By refusing to look at all sides of an issue (beyond the typical straw-man arguments), we will remain divided and never find solutions.

 

You can be pro-life and vote for a Democrat, with integrity.  Abortion viewed without humanity is a distorted view. Answers will never be found by concentrating wholly on the position of the woman or the baby without consideration of the other.  The facts are that Crisis Pregnancy Centers offer material goods and counseling for mothers and that Planned Parenthood uses 99% of its resources in free health care in minority neighborhoods; only 1% is allocated to abortions.  Many Christians staff Planned Parenthood centers, loving the poor in Jesus’ name. The reality is a far cry from the picture painted in my Right-to-Life seminars of dark, baby-killing mills churning money for heartless doctors. 

 

The rhetoric behind the abortion debate is riddled with white supremacy, misogyny, economic and racial injustice as well as sincere concern for the unborn. Are there women who choose abortion lightly? Perhaps, but I’ve yet to meet one.  Every woman I’ve spoken to or heard speak on the subject tells of a heart-rending choice. In my opinion, abortion is always a tragedy.  But forcing my opinion into the circumstances of a difficult decision is a greater tragedy.  Real women in these circumstances need compassion and respect, not indifference and not lectures. 

How would you advise a mother of six, already convinced contraception and abortion are sins,  who has been told she will die if she has another child? This isn’t a straw-man argument.  This is an actual mother, who actually died, leaving her husband to parent six children.  The hole left in their lives doesn’t belong on a picket sign.

 

On the issue of legislation, I defer to my friend, Bryan Berghoff, currently running for Congress in Michigan’s 2nd District.  Bryan writes

As someone who believes every life is sacred, I decided to examine more thoroughly how to protect unborn life. And as I looked at what was effective in nations around the world, I discovered something surprising: the nations with the lowest abortion rates in the world were the ones who took care of their citizens by providing affordable and accessible healthcare, making pre- and post-natal care available, having affordable childcare, investing in good education and having jobs that pay family-supporting wages. They also make birth control widely accessible. Even though abortion is legal in these countries, they regularly see a drop in the number of abortions that happen.

Conversely, the nations with the highest abortion rates in the world are the ones who spend more energy on outlawing abortion than creating conditions for human flourishing. That’s when I began to understand that you can’t outlaw abortion, you have to outlove it.

 

Abortion can be outloved.  The fact is abortion rates in our country actually decreased under Democratic administrations and increased under Republican administrations, because funding for other programs were severed.  If we want to outlove abortion, we have to work together to give poor women an actual choice. Unless we’re committed to supporting that mother and child beyond birth, unless we consider the systemic issues of racial and economic inequality, it is conservatives, not liberals, who are promoting abortion.

 

Just because we want something to be simple doesn’t mean it is.  If you’ve been told your entire life that the church=Republican is good and the world=Democrat is bad… if three times a week and twice on Sundays, you have had one perspective, stamped with Divine approval, drilled into your mind… then when someone you respect counteracts what you have been taught, it can seem earth-shattering.  For me, I went through a gamut of emotions, actually quite similar to stages in the grief process – disbelief, anger, guilt, despair…and eventually hope.  My hope lies in my belief in the hearts of all those who once walked beside me in protests. People on both sides who love Jesus, whose compassion outweighs judgment, who yearn for truth, light and provision from God.

 

If this is your first encounter with an alternative Christian perspective on abortion, I do not expect you to accept my words at face value.  I do invite you to ask God to lead you as you conduct your own research.  There are so many resources available on this subject and I’m willing to engage in conversation regarding it.  If we can set aside a goal of persuasion to focus on the exchange of ideas, I believe we can always find Jesus in the questions.

I can remember when Republican politicians realized there was untapped potential in the suburban white church. In the 1970’s, my parents were more concerned with raising our family on a blue-collar salary than what was happening in Washington. They voted, watched the Watergate hearings and my dad occasionally got into political discussions with my uncles. But union strikes, job security and rising inflation costs due to the energy crisis were their most pressing issues.

Both of my parents had a wary distrust of the federal government.  My father’s family had lost their home in Tennessee, twice, to eminent domain claims.  The first was the 1933 Norris Dam TVA project which removed them from their fertile river farmland to a rocky hillside in Oak Ridge. Then, in 1942, “the gov’mnt” once again claimed the bulk of their land for “the war effort.”  The Manhattan Project representative assured my grandmother, recently widowed with six children and two elderly parents in her care, that even though they were paying her much less than the land was worth, her land would be returned when the project ended.    It wasn’t.

https://www.atomicheritage.org/history/civilian-displacement-oak-ridge-tn

 

My mother grew up in the poverty of Appalachia. On her father’s Kentucky farm, she witnessed how federal regulations influenced their choice of crops – tobacco – and the resulting tax battles.  She saw how the government backed coal companies’ targeted media campaigns against Appalachians in pursuit of strip-mining their hillsides. She felt the sting of those slurs and stereotypes. As kids, we watched the Beverly Hillbillies and Hee-Haw, not understanding how our laughter was enabling the ridicule of our heritage.  Strip-mining not only devastated my mom’s beloved homeland but the resulting waste and yearly flooding yielded no response from government representatives but empty campaign promises.

(If you’re interested in more on this subject, http://hillbillymovie.com/ is an excellent resource.)

 

 In my teen years, between Vietnam and the Brady Bunch, we were told the Christian American family was under attack.  We were wooed and frightened in turns by evangelical leaders enamored with rising political power. The civic unrest of the 1960’s questioned long-accepted social hierarchies; the civil rights and feminist movements in particular were viewed as threats in our white denominational church.  People were frightened by the anger displayed in protests, upset by sweeping change.  

Sound familiar?  

In April 2020, a woman held a sign proclaiming, “I want a haircut!” in a protest against the coronavirus lockdown. The woman seems apparently unaware of her white privilege or how self-centered and short-sighted her message would appear to viewers. Like those people in my 1970’s church, she wanted things to go back to “normal” because that is where she feels confident.  

For the past 26 years, since the dawn of our own Tower of Babel (the Internet), our planet has shrunk and increased in a dizzying way.  Living in Silicon Valley, I had a front row seat to rapidly-changing technology and I felt the anxiety that accompanied people who moved faster than their souls could keep up.  Current pandemic precautions affords us a rare opportunity – time to breathe, time to look.  Our looking has revealed the cracks in our society. In the same manner as marginalized people in the 1960’s, who began to find their voice, unnerved the established order of white male supremacy, the covering of our national sins are now being exposed.  We were too busy to pay attention, we didn’t want to see… but now we do.

And now we have a choice.  Do we choose to join those movements for social justice — even if they were begun by people who make us uncomfortable — because it is right, because it is what Jesus would do? Does Jesus agree that Black Lives Matter? Is Jesus concerned about the immigrant, the poor, the stranger?  Does Jesus care for children (and grown-ups!) without regard to the color of their skin or gender or sexual choices? Does Jesus care about the born as well as the unborn? (if you’re struggling with these questions, I direct you back to the gospels.)

As a Christian beginning to lean toward progressive positions, I’m feeling called to move toward the front lines of these battles. For years, my evangelicalism kept me at the back or even in opposition.  The conservative foundations in which I was raised are actually the principles pushing me forward — to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God.

I also have the advantage of living history.  My 1970’s denomination that forcefully denounced women in ministry as heretical, today has women clergy.  The changes have been soft and slow, over decades, but their understanding has grown.  This isn’t compromise, it isn’t loss.  It is recognition of greater truth.  The church which denounced the “heresy” of heliocentrism (the earth orbiting the sun) is no longer threatened by this idea.  We have gained a wider view of both the universe and our place in it in the past 400 years, and it has enlarged, not diminished, our awe for our Creator.  

I’ve done quite a bit of reading and research this year.  Things that never sat quite right,  were woven into my faith with Scripture proof texts and assurances that Jesus was on our side.  That should’ve been my first clue: the Jesus in my Bible was not at war.  

In 1979, the Moral Majority movement filled convention centers. Nixon’s “southern strategy”  had been countered by the election of Jimmy Carter, a southern Democrat and actual Christian. Republicans, desperate to convert southern white voters, found a willing partner in Jerry Falwell and his growing Christian right movement.  Falwell ground into dirt the line separating church and state, justifying his actions as necessity due to evidence of impending “moral peril” — Nixon’s impeachment, Ford’s pardon, the crumbling economy, and Carter’s disagreement with him on key issues.  

As a teenager, I watched my pastor’s proclamation of Jimmy Carter as savior sour.  In 1976, we celebrated the nation’s bicentennial; I can still sing a few lines from our youth choir tour’s rousing anthems to the USA (and God, of course, of course…ahem.)  The world darkened in the following four years.

Perhaps it wasn’t all my own adolescent angst. As I entered the adult world after high school graduation, I noticed it was not nearly as stable as in my childhood perception.  Adults seemed frightened, cynical, wary.  Reporters anxious to break the next Watergate, made scandal a household word. Disillusioned voters had lost confidence in government ethics. The civility and manners my mother tried to instill in us was ridiculed.  Disrespect abounded; televised humor was primarily mocking and insults.

My parents had always been proud to say “Independent” when asked about political affiliation.  To me, it denoted a strength of character to look at each issue, each candidate individually, regardless of party.  But now our devotion to God was being equated to our voting choices.

Jimmy Carter’s presidency was attacked daily, both by scandal-hunters and other Christians. Carter later wrote, “that autumn [1980] a group headed by Jerry Falwell purchased $10 million in commercials on southern radio and TV to brand me as a traitor to the South and no longer a Christian.” (White House Diary, 2010). White House Diary

It seems to me now that the people who filled those Moral Majority conventions were looking for the same kind of stability I desired as a young adult.  I was a spinning planet and even though I knew God was my sun, my orbit needed to be realigned.  The Christian right provided philosophers and theologians, educated thinkers, to assure me of God’s backing. Some even proclaimed another “manifest destiny” of Christian dominance over American political and social life.

Sound familiar?

Republican Christian conservatism was all about preserving our family values (at least, that’s what we were told.) They made it simple without making us feel stupid for our political illiteracy. In fact, they courted uneducated voters like my parents.  “Book-learnin’” paled in the struggle to survive the Great Depression. My parents were educated in the ways of nature, in solid, black-and-white reasoning. They had an experiential intelligence, a wisdom hard-won, and were not easily persuaded. They found safety in a theology of absolutes; relativism was seen as a leaky boat on a stormy ocean.  My parents listened, but they didn’t join in.

I wasn’t as wise.

With an assurance of preserving “our values,” I was told which issues deserved my attention and my vote.  I didn’t perceive that “law and order” politics was a cover for maintaining white supremacy (and white votes). I believed that chaos was around the corner if my vote didn’t forestall it.  Rising feminism was challenging the claims of patriarchy (the idea that women should be subjugated to men) in every area from job markets to church leadership roles to sexual desires.  I was told this was an affront to God’s design of “Biblical patriarchy.” Biblical accounts – from the creation of Eve to Paul’s instructions on church discipline – were interpreted by men to assert their control over women’s agency.  Mutual submission in marriage was glossed over. The fact that Jesus himself often broke societal norms to speak with women as equals, the fact that His ministry was largely funded by women, was never mentioned in any sermon I heard in those days.

 

From the Roman Empire through European colonization, many white men have inherited their dominion of power not as privilege but as inherently deserved, even Divinely appointed. The civil rebellion of the 1960’s was met with a backlash of 1970’s misogyny. And nowhere was this stronger than in white American evangelicalism. 

I’ve sometimes wondered if the 1950’s household (that epitome of white men’s  “good ole days”) was still reeling from two generations of absent fathers due to world wars.  Housewives, solely responsible for child-rearing, had found a taste of autonomy while their husbands were away.  They began to question the established order. They raised those rebellious young people who flagrantly disregarded societal expectations and refused their duties of military service and celibacy until marriage. Was there an uncomfortable awareness that, as head of the household, the “failure” was shared by the husbands? 

 

The vehemence of the church doubling down on traditional family values suggests that fear of loss of control had taken hold.  “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” was sung loudly and applied liberally in evangelical circles.  Faith was brought into the foreground of politics, dividing what had been liberal and conservative elements within both parties into single identities. In God’s name, faith leaders effectively dumbed-down civil discourse (oh, God, forgive us!).

Independent Christians like my parents were disdainfully confronted with Revelation 3:15-16: “I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.” (KJV).  

There was a lot of spueing going on in those days.  The Christian Right said if you identified as Christian, you needed to be Right. It was Us or Them. Right or wrong.  “They” had bumper stickers that said, “Question Authority.”  We were told the authority they were questioning was God and His church. 

“Biblical authority.” Yet again, God’s design (interpreted by a select group of white men)  imbued power to parents, husbands, pastors, civil leaders, etc.  Biblical authority meant you responded to that person as to God, with unquestioning obedience and respect. Questions were regarded as a “spirit of rebellion.”  I once heard a British revivalist insist that America still needed to repent for its rebellion against England.

For someone so steeped in this teaching, it felt heretical to acknowledge how questioning authority is actually deeply woven into the fabric of American society:

 

“It is the first responsibility of every citizen to question authority.” – Benjamin Franklin

 

“To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public.” – Theodore Roosevelt 

 

“Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth.” – Albert Einstein

God’s authority? Unquestioned. By right of being our Creator and Sustainer of life, absolutely yes.  But should any human, even if he claims to speak with God-given authority, be given unquestioned obedience?  Church history is filled with despicable actions perpetrated by those who twist God’s words to suit their own agenda.  We need leadership, of course. I’m not promoting anarchy; I understand the co-operative value of social hierarchies and the need for governance.  However, a person who claims to represent my interests must earn my allegiance and respect; he must be questioned, especially when his actions are in opposition to my beliefs.  

Gray areas exist, especially in truth.  Jewish scholars celebrate the diversity of opinion in interpretation of Scripture. But in my evangelical environment, I was taught there was only one correct interpretation, only one truth.

My parents were both brought up with the medieval proverb, “children should be seen and not heard.”  It is horrible parenting advice (as was much of the parenting advice popular in my Christian homeschooling circles.) Authoritarian parenting seeks to break a child’s will; it emphasizes obedience over thoughtful conversation. Authoritarian pastoring does the same. It primes a person to disregard what they may feel is right in deference to a strong authority. When a person is raised with such contempt, without permission to have a voice, this self-disrespect does not disappear at age 18.  Long before adulthood, these children have learned to internalize disrespect, directing their anger both inward as shame and outward in rage.  (For those who still do not understand the anger in a Black Lives Matter protest, consider how four centuries of subjugation and disrespect cumulate in a person’s genes. That’s a glimpse.)   

 

When I, and many like me, were told by educated spiritual authorities that we mattered, that our votes were needed to fight a war against drugs, a war against family values, we stepped up to fight. And it didn’t take long for an enemy to be named:

Abortion.

(see Abortion post)

It has been two months since my last post.  Two months in which life in these United States has become even more seriously altered.  And what has become clear is something I’ve long suspected:

I must be the center of the universe.

Here’s the evidence:

  • Last year I was becoming more concerned about my health issues.  We get a global pandemic. 
  • This year, I’ve been commenting on the division within the evangelical community on political issues.  Now far-right no longer just incorporates neo-Nazi’s and “Christian” nationalists, it has drawn in Orange County suburbanites and Texan mega-churches.  Now faithfulness means denying the seriousness of Covid-19 and protesting “government overreach” (stay-at-home municipal orders) which are part of a plot to upend the economy in an effort to sway voters from re-electing President Trump. 
  • In my last post, I mentioned my jr. high experience in being bullied during the first years of racial integration.  Less than a week later, George Floyd was killed, sparking Black Lives Matter protests throughout the nation.  This week,  protesters in Portland are being attacked by border patrol troops.  American citizens being tear-gassed and shot by American federal agents.

I’m afraid to write anything else.  I don’t want to be responsible for the world blowing up any further.

“Um…,” you venture, “perhaps…perhaps these events were not caused by your thoughts and words.  Perhaps the protests, for example, erupted because of centuries of racial inequality and brutal white supremacy…?”

“Ridiculous!” I answer.  “Is it just coincidence that the things that concern me concern the world? Clearly what I say and do affects everyone. The simplest answer wins, Ockham’s razor and all that.”

“Um…..”

Before you pick up the phone to call Michael to inquire about my mental health, let me assure you that I do not, in fact, believe I am the center of the universe.  Yet this week, after multiple conversations and web searches regarding “proof” of liberal left conspiracies, I feel as wrung out as a first-year Philosophy major.  The leaps in logic, the certainty insisted upon, the disturbing lack in Christian political theology…. Has it always been this way?  Or is it only my awareness that is growing? 

 

I understand that in a world of diverse opinions, overwhelming amounts of data and deeply divisive politics, we want simple answers, simple solutions.  We want to know who we can trust and who is trying to manipulate us.  So, we hear a Christian doctor who claims God has shown him the cure for Covid: it is a simple inexpensive protocol that has cured one hundred percent of his patients.  He says we don’t have to worry, we don’t have to wear masks or social distance, we can get back to work and school.  He says that early treatment is the key, with nebulized asthma medicine, an antibiotic and zinc. Another Christian doctor includes hydroxychloroquine in his regimen but echoes the “don’t worry” message.

Here’s what plays to the evangelical audience.  We have the secret, the cure, straight from God as an answer to prayer.  This follows in line with what I heard in church every Sunday: we have the cure to the world’s ills.  It’s Jesus.  The Bible holds all the answers, if only you know how to interpret it correctly. 

Now, if you know me at all, you know I love Jesus.  I believe the kingdom of God is here, now.  I believe Jesus Himself is the living and active word of God. I believe nothing is hidden from God’s sight and He offers us mercy and grace to help us in our time of need.

I also believe Christianity was birthed under oppression –  judgment, ridicule and incredibly real persecution. Palestine was the backwater post of the Roman Empire, Galilee was the backwater of Palestine and Jesus, born into poverty, was under the plague of rumors from his birth to his death.  For its first 400 years, that identity of oppression undergirded Christianity’s growth.  Belief in Jesus wasn’t merely a cognitive assent, it was fully acknowledging your decision could result in being burned as a human torch.  The language of the New Testament is fraught with the language of the oppressed, letters filled with encouragement to persevere, to overcome, to love beyond persecution.

White American evangelical Christianity still carries that identity of oppression, even where none exists. Even when we ourselves have become the oppressors, when our “God-given liberties” rob the poor among us, when others suffer for our privilege.

Still, some of us insist we are the victims of the left-leaning media, of liberal conspiracies.  My conservative friends share on Facebook “proof” that not only are Covid-19 policies designed to destroy our economy, they are a precursor to the Apocalypse, paving the way for Bill Gates’ vaccine, complete with 666 invisible tattoos and GPS trackers.  And woe to any who refuse this “mark of the beast”.

Again, I get it.  Anyone who didn’t grow up in 1970’s youth groups may have missed the tracts and end times films designed to scare the hell out of us  – literally (for years, I had nightmares about that guillotine.)  Long before Left Behind, a generation of Christians were frightened into conversion experiences.  I sometimes wonder if this combination of fear and Jesus is a deliberate strategy as I scroll past Fox News headlines.  It’s as if paranoia, fear and hatred have finally been given permission to thrive in the open, like the open keg at a freshman’s first fraternity party.  

 

A conservative friend recently remarked that it’s difficult to know who to trust.  For several generations in white evangelical churches, “they” have been the Democrats.  Did you know the initial platform for the Republican party (in Lincoln’s day) was created as the “antislavery party?”   How those roles reverse over time. Would Lincoln be appalled to see it is his fellow Republicans who are now denying that black lives matter?

Why are we, as evangelical Christians, the last to concede on social justice issues?  Shouldn’t we be leading, as champions of Jesus’ blessings (Matthew 5-7)?  Why have we allowed the rancor of politics to stand between us and mercy, between us as followers of Jesus?

Republican or Democrat, we continue to view the other party’s members as either deceptive or deluded:

https://frenchpress.thedispatch.com/p/coronavirus-conspiracy-theories-and?fbclid=IwAR1MyhD4vjqEYnmGADCbHT1HmBB5WzL8arUd884dUsFv6NGekJfEoDShIpM  

 

I agree with many points made by David French in the above-referenced article.  One conclusion, in particular, has stuck with me – “we have to realize a sad failure of the church. They do not see because they were never taught to look.”

 

How did we get here?  (see next post)