Saturday, January 22, 2011

WWJD: Why Would Jesus Divide?

This week, Alabama brought itself into the faith news world with Governor Robert Bentley making a difficult to swallow statement regarding non Christians in his state. While he was doing this from a church pulpit and thus might be excused on the grounds that he was in a religious context and speaking to constituents that were part of the Christian religion, he quickly apologized afterwards. The Anti Defamation League jumping in quickly after his initial statement and many people in and out of the state, including my own parents, a generation behind me, found it problematic for him to say that. The main issue people have is not that he said it as a personal religious statement within a church environment in a worship or fellowship context. Non Christians wouldn’t have grounds to be offended in that context since it’s really part and parcel of the Christian faith to evangelize and be missionaries of their message to all people. Bentley saying “anybody here today who has not accepted Jesus Christ as their savior, I'm telling you, you're not my brother and you're not my sister, and I want to be your brother [or sister]," was not meant in the ‘insider language’ of Christianity to disparage people as less important than believers in Jesus, but simply being welcoming in wishing people the best as they understand it; being in a relationship with Jesus and such. And btw, here's the two verses he's no doubt referencing indirectly or directly: Matthew 12:46-50: Jesus speaks on his spiritual brothers and sisters (the disciples); Matthew 13:54-57: Jesus having literal brothers and sisters.

The difficulty lies with Bentley’s position as a representative of the state as a whole and not merely Christians, however much Alabama may be a predominately Christian state, especially Southern Baptist. Since he spoke in such a way at his own inauguration, I don’t see how he will persist in overall popularity across the South or America as far as governors go, but if his many followers are any indication, they’re willing to forgive what they regard as a slip of the tongue. Some even take offense that people would take a politician’s words so seriously and pick at them, even though that’s to be expected with any situation where you’re in such an important position of authority. President Obama is in a similar, albeit higher, type of position, with people taking anything he does, from bowing to the Japanese emperor and his wife to more potential sparking controversy in saying the U.S. is not a Christian nation. Anyone thinking the governor of Alabama, speaking in such a harsh fashion to people that don’t believe in his messianic pariah, shouldn’t be criticized on some level, puts their leaders on too high a pedestal I’d say.

Governor Bentley’s quick and, some might say, rushed apology only seems to reinforce the difficulties that exist in the Bible Belt. The persistence of ideas that church and state should have broader boundaries or allow more significant representation or expressions by individuals are what creates these issues about their separation on a practical level. When people don’t think that the Constitution of the United States; the same one they speak so highly of in terms of their rights to: bear arms, free speech, freedom of assembly; provides a clause that any representative person or body of the government or the public should not express favor towards one religious tradition over others, on the basis of impartiality to all faiths by the secularity of a government that provides for all citizens to choose their faith, we already have a problem in the dialogue that should begin.

With those thinking the church, while separate in terms of the eventual future of the world (what with the Rapture and what not), should still be able to be part of people’s lives and allowed expression, there is a fine line between those that think that one’s private convictions about the afterlife and divine metaphysics affect your decisions about policy and those that think that you should determine your policy based on antiquated traditions that existed on the other side of the world when democracy and socialism weren’t even a glimmer in the eye of a single person. I don’t have a problem with people voting for particular laws or regulations based on ethical principles pulled from the Bible over time and history, but when you start stepping into telling people what to believe or how to behave beyond necessity, we’re going to have difficulties.

Not to mention the persistence of the ideology that America is a Christian nation and should therefore give favor to Christianity because of where our laws and Constitution come from. But I challenge any reader to point out any law or Constitutional principle that is explicitly derived from the Bible, and also demonstrate that there aren’t any parallel ideas in other traditions across the world. And even if there were somehow principles of our governance derived from a text that even in Jesus’ day, was not exactly looking into political issues to begin with, it doesn’t mean that the government ought to favor Christianity as a religion in any way, because more Christians could emphasize that God’s kingdom is not of this world than those in the Tea Party mentality who say that we need to “get back to God” and other like tropes.

One can imagine that Bentley’s learned to use some discretion in the future and maybe even be a bit more considerate to non Christians in general; not just in the political sphere of encounters with varying types of believers. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.

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