We had another set of gloomy readings this morning at the Episcopal Church of St. Michael and All Angels in Tucson, dealing with the misfortunes of the early Hebrew people. There is no doubt that they were batted back and forth by mighty empires, with little say in their fortunes. I'm sure it was particularly galling after the glorious history of the Exodus, followed by what they portrayed as Joshua's heroic march to the Promised Land.
But their fortunes got them into the habit of self-correction. It became a mental discipline to search their own conduct as a people whenever the misfortunes of war swept over them. What had become of the favor that had been showered upon them in the days of Moses? The Prophets basically came to a decision: the people were no longer worthy of God's favor because of their shortcomings. They had failed to practice the Law scrupulously; they had intermarried; they had participated in Pagan worship. These seemed sufficient reasons to attribute whatever was going wrong to God. He must be angry--and if there were extreme persecutions and suffering, God must be very angry indeed.
I wish I could say with some confidence that Christians no longer believe in this portrait of God: a jealous deity who keeps accounts and punishes those who fall short. But I would be wrong. The concept of God punishing an entire people for the sins of the few who intermarried or got too friendly with their Pagan neighbors is not repugnant to us nowadays, as it should be. If you ask television preachers, the fact that America is a nation characterized by tolerance is enough to bring divine retribution down upon us in the form of hurricanes and tornadoes. This is a shame to us, and it is putting us out of the religion business.
Christians can attribute only one set of emotions to God, beginning with unconditional love. The historical attitudes of Jewish theology illustrate the acuteness of their consciousness, but in their belief about the nature of God, they were mistaken. Even in Judaism, God created the world and pronounced it good. Christianity goes further, in that we believe that not only does God value his creation, but he values us. The people who are swayed by science, looking at the vastness of the universe, may come to the conclusion that human beings are insignificant and ephemeral inhabitants of a lonely corner of nowhere. But Christians believe the opposite, not because of our dazzling achievements but because God imputes value to us, because he made us and he loves all of his creation.
The main point that Jesus tried to make in his preaching was to explain God's nature, which he found most comparable to a father. We are the precious children of a loving father; we are valuable, and our father will seek those who are lost like a good shepherd. In this concept, Jesus framed the nature of God such that we can, in fact, worship him. Formal Christian doctrine raises God above male and female, and speaking of God as "him" is just an intellectual frame for speculating about a being whose nature, other than our belief that it is benevolent, is incomprehensible. But in reality we cannot accomplish the psychological feat of worshiping any other being than one that we think is better than ourselves. God is more loving, more compassionate, more caring and more understanding than any human being can hope to be.
You cannot worship a being that terrifies you. That is why the teachings of primitive Christianity place us in a mental strait jacket. Preachers try to whip up a sense of terror in order to persuade us to submit to God. But submission is not an emotion that produces adoration. C. S. Lewis pointed out that in the notorious sermons of the early American Puritans, the congregations were whipped into a frenzy, but the next day they forgot about the sermon and went on with their lives as before.
During World War II, the people of Guam, where I grew up, were occupied by the Japanese Empire for three long years. The Empire was enormously powerful; they closed the churches, opened new schools to teach the people a new language, and renamed places. The people of Guam dared not defy the soldiers; those who tried were either beaten into submission or executed. But the resistance of the people of Guam to the Empire never flagged; they risked the consequences like pain and death and kept their spirits up, loyal to America until the warships appeared on the horizon. In fact, when their clandestine radios told them that the naval fleet was near, several Chamorro men struck out in canoes across the open sea, found the ships and acted as guides to assist in the re-invasion.
Those who want to establish a Christian community that resembles this occupation society will not succeed in intimidating people into loving God. That is psychologically impossible; the reaction of most people to authoritarian religious communities is to dream of escape, if not actually to run away. The stories of those who escaped from modern-day cults is depressingly similar from individual to individual.
There are people who call themselves Christians, right here in Arizona as a matter of fact, who feel that a totalitarian-style Christian society would produce reverence and devotion. They couldn't be more wrong. Why did thousands of people leave their villages to follow Jesus and listen to his preaching? Was it because he hired the services of Roman soldiers to collect them and house them in camps? Of course not! The Christian Church can present a Savior who puts us in the relationship to God that we are longing for, and people will follow. They can bully and threaten, and as a result their following will wither and die. Those who are presently making hate a tenet of their un-Christian teachings are crashing all around us; the surveys all say the same thing: the American Church will die as it preaches hate and sedition. All we can hope for is that after that misguided church dies, it will rise again when Believers in Exile find each other and start again.