Status Confessionis or “How Did the Progressive Church Become M. L. King’s ‘White Moderates’”?

I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law." He also said to the crowds, "When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, 'It is going to rain'; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, 'There will be scorching heat'; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?

Luke 12.49-56

So we’re sitting here in Indiana, in midwestern United States of America, in August of 2022, and we hear these words of Jesus, “I’ve come not to bring peace but division.”

 “To set communities against each other.” Check!

 “Households against each other.” Check!

 “Sons and fathers, mothers and daughters against each other.” Check!

 “To bring fire to the earth.” Check!

 “Not peace but division.” Check!

It might as well have been from today’s paper not a 2000-year-old religious text. Then Jesus ends with a little Zen riddle – “Y’all know how to tell the weather – rain, a storm, the heat – but you don’t know how to interpret the present time.” Interpreting the present time.

It’s no secret that the progressive church in the West is at a crossroads, and it’s precisely because we don’t know how to interpret the times. Most conservative churches have a nostalgic wish to return to a never-really-was innocence (for them) that privileged men over women, whites over people of color, and capitalist America as God’s chosen people. And many progressive churches have become little more than the religious wing of the Democratic Party reciting their platform with a sprinkling here and there of the name of Jesus.

So as much as I’d like to avoid it – I’d prefer to be speaking on something much more uplifting that won’t get me into trouble – these hard words from Jesus issue a strong challenge to my white, male, middle-class, midwestern sensibilities. They confront me with a question I simply can’t ignore: “Where’s the line I won’t cross?” “Is there anything I’m willing to fight for?” Jesus is suggesting – no, insisting – that while we think of division as destructive, there are times for division, his kind of division, because our following him demands nothing less.

Think of values systems, politics, faith on a long spectrum.

Psychologists tell us that the more a person moves toward the conservative end of the spectrum, their core values are respect for tradition, authority, hierarchy, law and order. There’s an emphasis on judgment, the use of power, with militarist images of battle between good and evil, with the good being rewarded and the evil being punished. The more one moves toward the progressive end of the spectrum, their core values are dialogue, consensus, egalitarianism, globalism, justice. There’s an emphasis here on cooperation and compassion, with images of unity within diversity, and community.

I’ve been thinking a lot this past week about where I’ve come from – the streets and people of south St. Louis, how they shaped me even as I’ve diverged from them, and I’ve been thinking, too, about what’s happening in our country, in the church today, and the rise of White Christian Nationalism. It’s time we admit the truth: These are really two different value systems, two different views of humanity, two different visions of America, two different gods, two different Jesus-es.

So I’ve had to admit to myself that there are people, my people (maybe they’re your people, too), neighbors, long-time friends, family members, who do good things in the community, good people with good hearts, but whose ideas are deadly (I wish I was exaggerating, but the evidence is all around us):

 … whose ideas have killed, literally killed, lesbian, gay, and transgendered people;

 … whose ideas have killed African-American, indigenous, and other people of color;

 … whose ideas have killed migrant workers, refugees, immigrants, and their children;

 … whose ideas have killed people of other religions and no religion;

 … whose ideas have killed women whose life circumstances have caused them to need to terminate a pregnancy;

 … whose ideas have resulted in the poisoning of plant and animal life, and continue to do so, killing the Earth, our Mother;

 … yes, there are people, even good people, whose ideas about God and God’s will will kill us, literally kill us.

And we in progressive churches – I’m sorry, but I just can’t let us off the hook – while complaining privately to each other in our safe bubbles, we remain silent in spaces and places and with people where it might matter (Peter’s pastoral letters in the local papers are a brave exception). We feel empathy, we’re sorry, as if feeling sorry expiates our guilt and absolves us of our complicity and our duty to publicly confront injustice. And we passively wring our hands all the while the Religious Right is plotting how to erase the wall of separation between church and state and codify Christian fundamentalism into law in search of realizing their God-ordained, exceptionalist theocratic dream.

You remember that in his Letter From A Birmingham Jail, King said it wasn’t Bull Conner, not segregationists, not even the Ku Klux Klan who were his major obstacles, but the white moderate "who says: 'I agree with you, but not your methods'; who is more devoted to 'order' than justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace, the presence of justice. Lukewarm, shallow understanding from people of good will,” he says, “is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.” Ouch!

And as for the “liberal church,” King had this to say:

So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice, an arch-defender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent sanction of things as they are.

The judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.

Ouch again!

So, I’ve had my own “come to Jesus” time this week where I’ve had to ask myself how progressive churches have become King’s “white moderates.” I’ve heard all the reasons why we don’t more directly confront injustice around us. “We shouldn’t talk politics in church.” “There are things we don’t discuss in polite company.” “They’re good people, really; I don’t want to hurt their feelings”; niceness as a religious virtue. And I wish I had a dime for every time I heard, “I want to work for change from the inside.” But if we’re honest, the real reason for our silence is that we don’t want to pay the price, don’t want to risk losing our social, economic, our racial, our religious privilege.

But hasn’t this historically been the great Mennonite contribution? You have challenged mainline Christians like me and our churches to stand against the tide. Lines you wouldn’t cross. Things you took a stand for, you risked your privilege for, where you chose division over peace … for the sake of the Gospel. What is that line for you today?

So again, Jesus reminds us to “discern the time.” Kairos time. Now not every disagreement, not every issue, not every moment is a Kairos moment, but there come certain times when it’s no longer just “agree to disagree” about politics or policy, or even differ about religion, but a time so urgent, where that which one loves and values the most is threatened, where our conscience demands us to speak because to remain silent is to stand with the oppressor.

The Confessing Church in 1930’s-1940’s Germany standing against the racism and idolatry of National Socialism was such a time.

The Civil Rights and Women’s Rights and Gay Rights Movement in 1960’s, ‘70’s, and ‘80’s America standing against racism, sexism, and homophobia were such times.

The Black Church in 1980’s South Africa rising up against the evil of apartheid was such a time.

And today, our Palestinian Christian friends cry out – they’re literally crying out from their prison cells, from behind 28-foot-high walls, from their bombed-out cities and demolished homes – that they’re being oppressed by an Israeli settler-colonial, apartheid regime.

And each of these injustices undergirded, reinforced, and legitimated by a false theology. That is why, in their most recent statement, the Palestinian community has called out to every single one of their sisters and brothers in Christ around the globe – that includes us here – that “The time for decision has arrived, things are beyond urgent, on the verge of a catastrophic collapse. This is no time for shallow diplomacy, Christians!”

So with their predecessors in Germany and the American South and in South Africa, they say that such a dangerous and false and racist theology – Christian Zionism, closely aligned, by the way, with White Christian Nationalism – means that the church is in a state of, what they call, status confessionis, where the very essence of the Gospel is at stake; they are saying there aren’t two sides to this one; if you want to call yourself a follower of Jesus, this is where you must stand. “What’s it going to take, sisters and brothers in Christ, for you to stand with us?”

I get it we progressives don’t like such absolutes; we’re relativists at heart. But I’ll just say again there come certain issues, certain times where there aren’t two sides, when the Gospel demands our voice, where we just can’t remain silent anymore. So, what it’s going to take for us to speak up, act up, come out of our safe closets? If we take the Gospel seriously in 2022 Indiana, America, what is it demanding of Emmaus Road, of you, of us today?

Well, this has been more of an act of confession today than I really intended it to be. Maybe it’s because I’ve been humbled, I’ve lost a few friends along the way, I’ve paid a little price for my work; O, to be sure, nothing like most activists for justice in this country and around the world, my friends in Palestine and Israel, too, but my own little price. And even though I want to be liked and accepted, over the last number of years, discerning the times, I’ve taken to heart these words of Jesus and I’m wanting to adopt them as my own: “I come to bring division, not peace.”

You see, it’s no wonder that when you bring radical inclusivity and a desire for an honest reckoning of our nation’s difficult past, those who are invested in racial and sexual and other hierarchies would see it as division.

It’s no wonder that when you bring radical solidarity for all creatures great and small, even the earth itself, those invested in all the creature comforts that come from the despoliation of the environment would see it as division.

It’s no wonder that when you bring a radical commitment to the truth, those news sources who profit by stoking fear through lies, and those political and religious leaders whose power rests on the undermining of truth would see it as division.

It’s no wonder that when you bring a radical overturning of the social and economic status quo, those who are afraid of losing their privilege would see it as division.

And it’s no wonder that when you bring radical peace, those who line their pockets from militarism and war don’t see it as peace but division.

We’re not the creators of division but we are shining a bright light, laying bare the underlying moral bankruptcy that has caused our beloved country to be increasingly divided in the first place. So, I’m wanting more of this Jesus-division these days not less, the kind of division brought about by principled expressions of creative resistance to injustice. And I’m listening to the oppressed and those on the margins for their voices, their guidance, precisely because of their decades- even centuries-long witness of courage, resilience, and faith.

We who would give our lives to such a radical vision of inclusivity, equality, and justice, those who King called “extremists for love,” who are ready to risk our privilege, who refuse to remain silent, it is we who will be the co-workers with God, who’ll bring about King’s beloved community, the intersection of the American dream of freedom and justice for all and the promise of the Gospel, even the kingdom of God “on earth as it is in heaven.” In the end, I suggest, that’s something worth fighting for.

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