Scrambling Our Categories of Religiousity

There’s an old saying that “birds of a feather flock together.” It’s common for human communities to shun people who are different from us or who disregard what we consider to be accepted standards of behavior. One of the reasons why many churches don’t grow is because we’ve become too comfortable with a fellowship of like-minded and like-mannered people.

A common criticism is that Christians are judgmental. Such judgmental attitudes among religious people have probably been with us ever since humans have gathered to worship and form religious communities. Jesus completely broke with such religious prejudices when he hung out with and even partied with all the wrong kinds of people. The religious leaders complained that he ate with tax-collectors and sinners and accused him of being a drunkard and a glutton (Matthew 11:19).

Think of all the different ways Jesus broke the mold of who they thought self-respecting, righteous people are and what they should act like. Jesus wasn’t only doing his religious duty by “ministering” to such people, he was their friend and obviously enjoyed being with them. Another matter is that these people weren’t necessarily folks who needed help. Instead, people like Zacchaeus and Mary Magdalene didn’t fit into the conventional sensibilities of those who considered themselves to be religious.

What do we make of Jesus’ response to those who criticized him of having too much fun hanging out with such people? Who is sick, who needs a physician, who are the righteous, and who are the sinners? Jesus scrambled all these categories. And to make sure they got it, he quoted the Prophet Hosea, “God desires mercy, not sacrifice” (6:6).

How are the categories of religiosity constructed in our churches and in our community? In other words, who wouldn’t receive a warm welcome in our church? In what ways is Jesus scrambling those categories for us?

An Interfaith Conversation in Fairfax

Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia

Last week members of our congregation accepted the invitation of our neighboring Turkish mosque to share an Iftar dinner with them as they broke their daily Ramadan fast. They first gave us a tour of the mosque and graciously answered our questions about Islam. We then observed their call on prayer before joining them for dinner.

We divided up around tables, giving us lots of opportunity for informal conversation as we ate together. It’s a wonderful model for interfaith dialogue. At a basic, human level we were neighbors sharing food and learning to know each other. I had an extended conversation with the Imam and we soon became friends. I explained our Mennonite expression of Christian faith, including our sixteenth Anabaptist history. He, in turn, explained some of the unique Turkish Islamic traditions.

Much of the Apostle Paul’s missionary journeys had been in Asia Minor, now Turkey. This had once been the center of the Christian world. Cappadocia, now is central Turkey, had been a center of Christian theological development in the fourth century. Constantinople (now Istanbul) was the capital of the Byzantine Christian Empire for a thousand years before eventually being conquered by the Muslim Ottoman Turks.

The Imam talked with me about the Hagia Sophia basilica in Istanbul, one of the architectural wonders of the ancient world. (Hagia Sophia means Holy Wisdom.) Built in 537, it had been the main cathedral of the Byzantine Empire before being converted into a mosque by the Ottoman sultan in 1453. More recently in 1935 it was secularized and opened as a museum. The Imam told me that some of the original Orthodox Christian frescos that had been plastered over by the Ottomans were now being exposed again.

I still find it a little startling that a Turkish Imam and I were sharing a meal together and talking about these things as neighbors in Fairfax, Virginia. It’s an indication of how globalization is changing our local communities. We’re much more mobile than earlier generations have ever been as we move for schooling and jobs or other reasons. This often means living far away from our extended families. The Imam and I also talked about some of these challenges.

There are more foreign-born people living in the United States today than even during the former peak of immigration in the beginning of the twentieth century. Thirty percent of the people living in Fairfax County are foreign-born. This has created huge cultural shifts, including lots of religious diversity. Diana Eck, in her book A New Religious America, reports that today there are more Muslim Americans than Episcopalians and as many Muslims as Jews in America. She claims that we have now become the world’s most religiously diverse nation (2-3).

I thought about that as the group from our congregation was walking back to our church following that Iftar dinner. We were all talking about what we had learned from our Muslim neighbors. I suppose there were similar conversations taking place back at the mosque. Not too long ago most Americans thought such religious and cultural differences were far away in other parts of the world. Today, all the diversity in our world has come to us right where we live.

This brings with it the opportunity and the necessity of being good neighbors and cultivating interfaith understanding. We’re already planning a cooperative “Day to Serve” activity with our new-found Muslim friends along with other congregations and faith communities here in Fairfax.

The Hobby Lobby Ruling and Religious Tolerance


The recent case before the United States Supreme Court involving Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties is an instructive case study in religious freedom in a pluralistic society. The Christian owners of both corporations sued the government over the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act because they claimed that it violated their religious freedom.

The case is especially instructive because of the innate tensions involved. On one hand, polls indicate that 89% of all Americans agree that the use of birth control is morally acceptable. On the other hand, the United States also has a long tradition of protecting the freedom of religious minorities. Where is the line between providing a healthcare service supported by the vast majority of Americans and the claim that this violates one’s religious conscience?

Does it actually violate one’s conscience if one isn’t required to directly use or provide the service oneself but instead to provide healthcare insurance that includes it for those who want it? We can quibble over how fine a line we should put on it. Other related considerations are more important.

As Jonathan Rauch, senior fellow for governance studies at the Brookings Institute wrote, “If you find you religion burdened by something so indirect then when does it end? If religious folks try to withdraw too much from the practices of ordinary society—if they push too hard for the right not to participate—it will backfire. It sends a bad message about their inclusivity and their willingness to engage with society.”

It feeds the general perception that religious people are intolerant and that their scruples trump the needs and desires of ordinary people. After the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in favor of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood, there was lots of public comment comparing the five conservative male justices who ruled in favor with the three female justices who ruled against it. The clear implication was that these traditional men just don’t get it. One young woman demonstrating against the ruling was carrying a sign that read, “Keep your theology off my biology.”

As religious people, is this the perception we want others to have of us? What will it take to instead be known for our tolerance and compassion—for being more like Jesus? We’re sorely mistaken if we imagine that God’s calling us to be pure and separate. We’re instead called to roll up our sleeves and to get engaged up to our elbows with all who seek the common good.

Discerning Who We Are in God

Summer 2013 083

Diana Butler Bass tells of leading a clergy event where she asked the participants, “Who are we in God?” One participant responded that, as a pastor for twenty years, he has been through many discernment processes to figure out who we are, how many members we have, what their annual income is, their educational level, how they vote, and what our neighborhood is like. He knows everything about their church but has never considered the question, “Who are we in God?” (Christianity after Religion, 183).

This story especially caught my attention because our congregation recently began a long-range planning process; we have been asking ourselves similar questions related to our dreams of who we will become in five years. Our discernment is especially challenging and energizing because we’re a small congregation within the Anabaptist faith tradition and we’re located in the greater Washington DC area, in the City of Fairfax—right in the middle of one of the most affluent regions of our country. Who are we in God in this place?

The members of our long-range planning committee jointly wrote this prayer, “Dear God, thank you for your love and care for your church. We seek to find and follow your will for our congregation. We are thankful for our church and for all the people associated with it, both past and present. Forgive our missteps and lead us in paths of life. Let us be mindful of your teaching on peace and inclusiveness as we deliberate. Fill us with your love and give us a spirit of adventure and joy. In Christian love, Amen.”

Our prayer beautifully expresses who we are in God as well as our hope for who we will become. We’re especially aware that our church identity cannot be a static, inherited identity in our greater Washington DC context. Instead, it’s more like a location on a map in relation to where we’re heading. It’s like punching in the addresses in a GPS device. As Diana Butler Bass writes, “Church is no longer membership in an institution, but a journey toward the possibility of a relationship with people, a community, a tradition, a sacred space, and, of course, God” (Christianity after Religion, 192).

The Church Conundrum (Part 3)


Last week World Vision, a large Christian relief and development agency, ran into a social-religious buzz saw. They were trying to position themselves to bridge the controversial issue of same-sex marriage by changing their employment policy to no longer exclude gay Christians in a same-sex marriage, while stating that they were leaving the ethical and theological discernment on the matter to local churches and denominations. Their focus would remain on poverty alleviation around the world.

The policy change went viral and inundated their call centers with calls from angry people, including child sponsors withdrawing their support. Some call center operators became so overwhelmed by all the vitriol that they had to resign. In less than 48 hours, the World Vision board reversed its decision. I respect the nuanced way World Vision was attempting to negotiate this thorny pastoral issue that has been roiling churches for several decades. I’m flabbergasted by the uproar it created and how quickly the board responded by reversing its decision. It was a fiasco!

I won’t debate the different sides of this issue. I, instead, lift it up as an example of what religion writer Diana Butler Bass calls “the horrible decade” for religion. In my last post I talked about the 1950s as the highpoint for American church membership and the growth of Christian institutions. A gradual decline followed in the 60s that continued into the end of the century. Mainline churches especially struggled but the decline was uneven and many churches continued to experience growth. There was a continuing sense of optimism into the 90s.

The “horrible decade” hit at the turn of the century and shows no sign of letting up. Diana Butler Bass describes it as “downright horrible for religion, leading to a ‘participation crash’ for churches of all sorts” (Christianity after Religion, 77). She points to different factors that contributed to this precipitous decline. One of the most culpable has been the conflict over homosexuality. This is the buzz saw the World Vision board stepped into by attempting to proactively bridge this deep chasm that divides religious people. The sheer ugliness of the fight has been especially alienating. It sucks the energy and vitality out of all other endeavors.

The “horrible decade” began with the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. At first people turned to the churches for support and comfort. Then politicians and the media began to blame religious extremists for the attacks. It got worse when prominent American religious personalities began to claim that the attacks were God’s punishment for our infidelity. It got increasingly worse when they then verbally attacked Islam in a way that demonstrated their own religious intolerance. Many drew the conclusion that religion poisons everything.

The sex abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church was another factor. The worst part was that Catholic bishops were more inclined to protect their church institutions than to help the many children who had been sexually violated by priests. It was further exacerbated by the Catholic and Evangelical Religious Right involvement in American electoral politics in a way that’s at odds with the cultural and spiritual values of people outside the Bible belt—especially the younger generation. The Religious Right won some significant political battles but at what cost? We’re losing the hearts and minds of a whole generation.

This brings me back to Paul Peachey’s call for a more spiritual fellowship focused on primary groups as he wrestled with how to respond to the post-World War II devastation in Europe (see my previous post). The direction he pointed in is especially relevant today. The challenge is to experiment with ways of being church that respond to the present crisis that follows the pattern of severely compromised institutional religion in post-war Europe. Like Peachey, I’m convinced that it calls for nothing less than re-inventing the church. I’ll write more about that in future blogs.

The Church Conundrum (Part 2)


I recently wrote about the church conundrum that congregations and denominations struggle with. I said that we need to experiment with new ways of being church and suggested that our Anabaptist, free-church tradition has some promising resources that can help us re-invent the church in response to these challenges. Before discussing that it will be good to step back and take a broader look at our conundrum.

Many saw the 1950s as a golden age for American churches. Church attendance had reached an all-time high. Congregations were building new sanctuaries and Christian education wings to accommodate all the young families and their “baby-boomer” children. There was lots of pent-up energy and resources for building church institutions such as seminaries, colleges, and denominational structures. None of this had been possible in the previous decades marked by the Great Depression and then World War II.

There were few voices of caution in the 1950s. One that I already mentioned was religious scholar Will Herberg who worried that American religion was broadly popular but shallow. Another was Paul Peachey, a young Mennonite working in relief and reconstruction efforts in Europe following the war. The world looked vastly different in post-war Europe than it did in the American heartland.

Peachey and other young Mennonites serving in Europe met in Amsterdam in 1952 to reflect on their post-war experience. As part of that reflection, he wrote a paper looking at the European religious situation following the devastating war that had torn apart their world and left many floundering as survivors bereft of mystery. As a consequence, he saw a precipitous decline in European Christendom, along with the social structures that had undergirded it for centuries. He said that what this reality called for was a more spiritual fellowship centered in primary groups (cited in Zimmerman, Practicing the Politics of Jesus, 34).

Three years later, Peachey wrote an article in the Gospel Herald, a church periodical, responding to the flurry of building American church institutional structures. He cautioned, “The church has never yet survived development into a temporal power structure. Sooner or later, institutional weight crushes the spiritual dynamic of the church as the community of Christ and the saints” (Gospel Herald, March 1, 1955: 193-96).

We might argue that Peachey was overly pessimistic. On a personal level, he certainly didn’t completely reject church institutions. He later taught sociology at The Catholic University of America until he retired. Still, his caution about the institutional church and his call for a more spiritual fellowship focused on primary groups resonates strongly in our day. We’re more disenchanted with the church as an institution than Americans were in the 50s. My next post will explore some of the reasons for our disenchantment.

A People of God? (The Interfaith Quandary)


I once participated in a summer course called “Doing Theology under the Bo Tree” in Myanmar. One class activity was visiting a Buddhist monastery. We Westerners had to learn how to sit on the floor and position our legs and feet during our audience with the abbot. I asked him about Catholic theologian Hans Küng’s claim that we will not be able to achieve peace in our world until there’s peace and cooperation among the religions. He smiled and said it shouldn’t be hard because practicing peace is central to every religion.

I have since often reflected on his answer and pondered why it’s so hard. It’s especially difficult for those of us who trace our religious heritage back to Abraham and the call to be a people of God. A common critique that I heard when I lived and served in India was that Christians and Muslims are especially exclusivist. We think we alone are God’s chosen people. For Christians, this is further complicated by our past association with British colonialism in South Asia.

Believing we’re a chosen people creates unique challenges for any faith community. This quandary has been central to my life as a pastor, a religious scholar, and a follower of Jesus. We wrestle with how to have a healthy sense of being God’s people without being exclusivist and claiming we’re the “only” people of God. It’s related to but slightly different from the religious separatism of cultural minorities like the Amish. Separatism and exclusivism are much more problematic in large faith communities as expressed in the Roman Catholic dogma of being the “one true church.”

Efforts to strengthen ecumenical and interfaith relations in order to work together for peace and justice always need to negotiate such tensions. A robust sense of being God’s people should not lead us to disrespect others. Such disrespect, instead, indicates that we have an inferiority complex and a far too narrow understanding of our God in relation to all people and all faiths.

Every faith community has the ongoing challenge of forming and maintaining a distinct religious identity that shapes our life and service in the world. When we lose that, we no longer have anything to contribute or say. We become so identified with our society that we lose our ability to resist and respond courageously to those things that are socially and spiritually harmful. Exclusivism, in this sense, is good.

Still, the conviction that we’re a people of God needs to go hand-in-hand with valuing and serving others. Even more importantly, if we would claim to be a people of God we must be equally committed to a life of nonviolence that mirrors God’s patience and suffering love. The ever-present task is figuring out how to walk that walk. My next post will look at that through the life of Jesus and the early church.