Let's take the bull by the horns, because the question we are all facing, come Sunday morning, is whether we are going to decide to fly our flag by going go church, or not. Missing a Sunday once in awhile is insignificant, but the decision to attend or not to attend anymore is what I am really writing about all the time.
This decision, that all adults make (even though members of other faiths make it in their spiritual context), is profoundly influenced by what we know, or think we know. Where and how do unchurched agnostics learn about Christianity? Unfortunately they learn it in the media, and they are plenty smart enough to figure out where they think Christianity is coming from with regard to social issues.
Today at the Spanish Mass celebrated at the Episcopal Church of St. Michael and All Angels in Tucson, we touched on foundational Christianity with the reading of the Parable of the Prodigal Son. This story, one of two directly attributed to Jesus (among others) encapsulates all of Christianity, in my opinion.
I wrote about the genesis of the Good Samaritan story with regard to where Jesus might have acquired his receptive attitude towards Samaritans, but now I want to revisit it because it tells us a major part of the Christian doctrine: to give of yourself without regard to the recipient's background, simply for their good and because you can, is one pillar of Christian belief.
It was not a pillar of Jewish belief in the First Century, though, because ritually-unclean people like Samaritans received short shrift from the Jewish community of Jesus' time. He was the outlier in his teaching, framing the passing Samaritan as the good guy who rescued the victim (whoever s/he was) while the Jewish passers-by left him/her in the ditch. So that's half, let us say, of what Christianity is all about.
The other story, that of the Prodigal Son, tells us about the nature of God. There's this younger brother, bored and resentful, who asks his father to advance him his share of the family fortune. That would be the equivalent of writing him a letter of credit, which he promptly filed in another country and began the party. That party ended when a famine fell over the land at about the same time that the young man ran out of money.
Well, says he, I will go back home and apologize. I am no longer worthy to be a son of the household, he thinks, but I will offer to work for my father as one of his servants.
This is the first part of the Christian message: you have to see yourself realistically, understand where you went wrong, and resolve to change. The technical term for this is repentance.
But this where God starts working--because he can reciprocate, when our consciousness is ready to receive him. The Gospel of Luke says:
"But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him."
The son makes his speech about returning to the household like a servant in disgrace, but his father will have none of that. Luke goes on:
"But the father said to his slaves, 'Quickly, bring out a robe--the best one--and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate: for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!' And they began to celebrate."
Nice story. But it doesn't end there either, because there is another son--the older son, the lawful heir, the big guy in the household. This son doesn't rejoice to see his no-good kid brother coming back, even though he is no threat to his position in the family. No, he is resentful for another reason, which Luke makes very clear:
"Now his elder son was in the field, and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on...[and] then he became angry and refused to go in."
And what does the father do? Does he lose himself in celebration and ignore the absence of the elder son? No, he goes and seeks him out, and he hears this account of the son's complaint, which is human nature painted in broad strokes and you can't miss the portrait of us writ large:
"Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!"
It's resentment, that old friend who makes us humans feel so good when we reflect on how much better we are than those younger sons who turn up everywhere, it seems. We drink the poison, as Rev. Lillian Daniels writes, and then we wait for the other guy to die. Make no mistake: the older son was trying to do harm to his younger brother in this speech. He wanted his father to take back some of his warm welcome, perhaps to punish the son in some way. The older son wouldn't have thought that working the kid like a slave was such a bad idea.
The father's explanation that the younger son had died to the family and was miraculously (it seems) restored, falls on deaf ears in the case of the self-righteous older son. We don't find out whether he came to his senses and welcomed his brother back, or what he did.
Between these two stories, we have all of Christianity encapsulated in statements about the nature of God, our own nature and the levels of love and forgiveness that are possible in our faith. It doesn't matter, truly, if we are not capable right now of forgiving and loving those who fall short of our standards, or those who have hurt us. God is who we are talking about in Christianity. The God who was understood by Jesus is not the father who puts his son to work like a servant to punish him, but the father who weeps with joy that his lost son has come home.
How many of us have hesitated to repair a relationship because we don't believe that love will ever be extended towards ever again? How many of us have held off the overtures of a person who wanted to apologize and needed to hear us give them peace in their mind and heart? That is the Older Son talking.
And right now in America we are suffering with a political party that has pronounced us all to be Younger Sons who don't deserve to be treated well. Republicans blame the victims of society because they aren't rich, and openly say that the money in the United States Treasury belongs in their bank accounts, not paying for fluff like Obamacare. Just today the losing Vice Presidential candidate of last year, Paul Ryan, admitted that his whole budget proposal is based on the idea of repealing Obamacare, so that Americans will depend on Medicare or its version in Arizona, or throw themselves on the mercy of free healthcare clinics. Otherwise, you're on your own.
Republicans are actually in the process of killing the goose that laid the golden eggs, as they dismantle the American Middle Class out of pure greed, oblivious to the fact that it is that very Middle Class that supports the super-rich with consumer purchasing that built the economy that is slipping away every day.
And the worst part of it, seriously, is that the Religious Right is in bed with them, committing the unforgivable sin of returning evil for good. They use the Holy Word of God to justify human wickedness, greed and hatred. Why do Americans allow this?
Well, the Christianists are being punished in one way, that's for sure: their churches are emptying out. Every couple of years they commission a study, and the Barna Group informs them that the evangelical denominations are withering away. Their response to this situation, so far, has been Einstein's definition of insanity: doubling down on a losing strategy. But mainstream Christianity is collateral damage in this scenario, as the liberal denominations don't speak up and distance their doctrine from the Religulous Right. And if we don't, we can expect the same fate as the most unregenerated bible-thumpers.
I can only conclude that we can be intimidated by a preacher who holds up his Bible and says that he understands what is in it. I am having a continuing dialog with a man at my church who is fighting a completely unnecessary personal battle with theology. He is crusading about the heterosexual-homosexual death match that exists only in his mind, and I blew his mind this morning when I mentioned, as I often do, that there is no such thing as Old-Testament Christianity.
I care more about something that Malcolm X wrote (or it may have been Eldridge Cleaver): America is like an airplane flying at 30,000 feet with the passengers strapped in their seats, watching in horror as a few insane maniacs struggle for control of the cockpit. That is exactly the situation we find ourselves in today.
Will President Obama cave on the demands to dismantle our programs to provide health care and financial support, especially for those who have put their own earnings into those programs, like Social Security? Will the Republicans somehow repeal Obamacare?
And now that you have taken in this comment, allow me to point out that, for every African American--from the very first enslaved African who set foot on American soil down to the baby who was born today--their entire lives are lived in that social context.
African Americans grow up in the knowledge that, for no rational cause, they are the targets of insane hatred. The American LGBT community has also had that awareness forced upon them in the Culture Wars, in which Christianists make it their business to crusade for hatred on their evangelical television fund-raising programs and strive to induce Congress to pass laws codifying their homophobia into civil law.
What did Black America or the Gay Community do to you? It isn't about what they do, it is about what they are, which is why they are forced to live in this environment of insanity that the rest of America simply does not experience--unless they participate in it, teaching their toddlers to sing anti-gay jingles in church.
You are going to find out what happens if the maniacs get control of the airliner and crash it. The fact that some of those maniacs profess the Christian religion means nothing; the American Family Association, Mike Huckabee and the Billy Graham Evangelical Association are doing more to destroy the Christian Church than the most dedicated atheist on Planet Earth.