I am deeply concerned by the growing lack of tolerance in American culture. By tolerance, I mean the willingness to accept and respect behaviors, beliefs, and opinions that are different than our own. This sort of liberalism is a virtue in decline on both the right and the left and now more and more social and political capital comes from owning the libs, cancel culture, identity politics, and all kinds of fabricated rage.
Why am I concerned with that? Well, tolerance is essential for a healthy and functioning democracy. Extreme ideologies from the far left and the far right are moving toward the center and taking over our political and cultural dialogue. It’s no good on either side. I happen to personally think the worst of it is on the right. You may disagree. I believe that our democracy can survive the left’s elitism and cancel culture and that eventually we will all get sick of the sanctimony and we’ll correct course. I think the conspiracy theories, the appetite for totalitarianism, and the attacks on institutions, norms, elections, and democracy on the right is a much greater threat. But whoever has the worst of it, I want extreme views and beliefs and lack of tolerance to stay at the margins where they belong.
One of the extreme views that has been with us a long time but is having a resurgence and is creeping more and more into the mainstream is called “Christian Nationalism.” You’ve probably heard it talked about on the news, depending on where you get your news. Christian Nationalism is a distortion of our religion, a modern-day heresy, used to back-up an extremist political agenda which asserts that America is a Christian nation, not just historically, but essentially, and that Christians (especially white, Anglo protestant Christian nationalists) should have a privileged position in defining both America’s heritage and future. Christian Nationalism is not some singular movement, and these folks have all kinds of big ideas, but all of them are terribly bad for our democracy and our nation and our Church.
Christian nationalists believe that the fact that we live in the most racially and religiously diverse nation in the world and that our democracy is a pluralist democracy where all people and all ideas and opinions are allowed to compete for votes is a bad thing. Many of them want a nation that is less diverse and they want a democracy that is less pluralistic, with greater power in their hands.
For those who may be feeling confused at this point, it’s important to remember that none of this political agenda has anything to do with actual Christianity. This is not just un-American, it is anti-Christ. I believe that there could be no greater call for tolerance than Jesus’ command to us that we love our neighbors as ourselves and that we even pray for our enemies. Christian faith has always been about spreading he good news, but it can never be about dominating those who live, think, or believe differently than we do. Domination and oppression is not love. Unfortunately, too often in Christian history we have justified attacking and dominating others with our faith and it is always wrong—from the Crusades, to antisemitism, to slavery in America, to trying to deny LGBTQ people the right to marriages and adoptions—it is always wrong.
Looking at our text for this morning we see even more. There is nothing in the ambitions of Christian Nationalists that is congruent with Jesus’ sermon on the mount. Jesus wants us to be defined by meekness, by mercy, by peacemaking, by poverty of spirit, not by the ambition to dominate our neighbors or the political power of our nation. You cannot make the Christianization of your country through political means your goal and truly be a Christian. This is an essential betrayal of fundamental Christian orthodoxy, not to mention a betrayal of the Constitution of the United States.
But, also, let’s look at how Jesus relates to us. The sermon on the mount is so powerful because in it, Jesus looks into the depths of our humanity, into the depths of our human frailty, vulnerability, and suffering and he says that this is what defines us, this is what connects us, and this is what blesses us. We are not blessed because we are Christians, or right believers, or because we’re saved, we’re blessed because God in God’s goodness loves us all. And God’s compassion for us is so great that God’s blessing comes first to those who are last. Jesus concludes by saying it is his followers who will be persecuted for following his religion of love, not that Christians should try to persecute those they’re in conflict or disagreement with.
Christian nationalism is not Christianity and is not patriotic. Christian faith far from calling us to take power over others, asks us love, serve, and (at a bare minimum) tolerate others and make room for their humanity. The sermon on the mount isn’t a moral scold. It’s a call to human connection through the vulnerabilities that we all share no matter what else may separate us.
You may have heard if you live in Glen Ridge about the “so-called” book ban at the library in which eight individuals representing “Citizens Defending Education” have challenged six books with LGBTQ and sex-ed themes written for children and young adults. They want these books removed from the shelves. After some discussion with church council, we have decided to support the Glen Ridge Public Library through this ordeal and have put up a Glen Ridge United Against Book Bans sign on the church lawn.
Now because we’re a sensitive and loving crowd this may make some of us a little uncomfortable. What about those eight people who want to remove the books from the library? Shouldn’t we be tolerant of them. Yes! Absolutely. More than that we should love them. Tolerance requires us to be tolerant of all people. But tolerance also requires us to stand up against intolerant ideas, words, actions, and agendas. Tolerance cannot be achieved by silence in the face of intolerance. We have to make a stand.
We want all of Glen Ridge to know that we support them as they fight back against this book challenge and we want the town to know what our Church believes—that loving people who think, act, and believe differently than we do (in other words, our neighbors) is our religion. And love requires us, as the sermon on the mount shows us, to prioritize people who are suffering the most. God is not calling us to meddle with LGBTQ books in the library. God is calling us to love our LGBTQ neighbors at all times and especially when they are feeling under attack.
And God is calling us always at a bare minimum to tolerance. And what could be more tolerant than reading a book? Let me close by quoting to you from a paragraph of a letter that I and more than 20 other clergy people from Glen Ridge, Montclair, and Bloomfield sent to our library in support of their decision to keep these books on the shelves:
“Free speech matters to us, in part, because it is the bedrock on which religious freedom is built. Too many of our traditions have faced censorship. Hatred is a habit. The more groups are silenced, the easier it gets to continue to do so. Book banning is a slippery slope. Once any idea is stifled, it becomes more acceptable to attack every idea. And without the understanding that comes with reading, the unfamiliar will always feel other. Enmity blooms in the unknown.”
Beloved, silence is unacceptable. So, let us proclaim our Christian faith: God is calling us to know one another, to love one another, and to serve our community. And that takes, at a minimum, a healthy tolerance for difference and a bold voice of solidarity and support for those experiencing intolerance.
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Jesus the Imagination
Thoughts and dreams, musings and meditations