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.

The Church Conundrum


Most people associate the church with a local congregation and its activities, especially the Sunday morning worship service. Beyond that, the church may be associated with a given denomination and its structures. That, however, is not how the church has always been experienced or understood. The denomination is an American invention that developed out of the unique experience of immigrant groups who needed to adapt their religious traditions to a new world where Catholics, various Protestant groups, and Jews had to learn how to coexist.

Denominations are an odd fusion of state-church structures historically related to Christendom and the more congregational free-church traditions that grew out of the radical reformation and the American frontier. These two models do not easily fit together. A basic problem is the inherent divide between denominational structures and congregational life. Denominational bureaucracies become a world unto themselves.

Innovative efforts to bridge that divide have included denominationally organized assemblies held every several years in a large convention center. Yet the divide persists. Now there are indications that our ability to organize such gatherings may have run its course along with other denominational structures such as publishing houses and mission boards.

As a consequence, congregations tend to morph into generic community churches with obscure ties to their religious heritage. They reflect the values of the larger society and lose the ability to critically and constructively engage social and spiritual issues from the perspective of their religious tradition. It goes beyond being unwilling to do so; we have become biblically and theologically illiterate, hence incapable of doing so.

The problem is exacerbated by the divide between local churches and denominational colleges and seminaries. Biblical studies and theology have become professionalized and speak primarily to the guild. This weakness is further exacerbated by the long-standing American belief that churches are spiritual rather than political. The spiritual is understood as private and the political is understood as the domain of secular government. Consequently, the churches lose much of their Christian content and become the spiritual supporters of what religious scholar Will Herberg has called the “American Way of Life.”

Beginning with the local church, we need to experiment with new ways of being church in response to this conundrum. From a radical free-church perspective, the church is understood as a people of God and followers of Jesus without any social or national boundaries. This distinct community has its own social and political reality with the purpose of serving God and the common good of all people around the world. To be this kind of community the church needs to be vigilant concerning its religious freedom and not be co-opted by any imperial power including the “American Way of Life.”

My next posts on this topic will look at the biblical precedents of being a people of God and explore different models for being that kind of people in our world today.

Remembering Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger

Two things came together for me this week. I was mulling over the Micah 6:8 passage we were planning to use for our worship service, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” I was sipping my coffee and reading the Washington Post before heading to the church office. On the front page was a news article that Pete Seeger died at age 94. I found myself reminiscing about him and his music.

I’ve been a long-time Pete Seeger fan. He was one of a kind. Few people better exemplify the virtues described in Micah 6:8. His longtime friend Peter Yarrow, of Peter, Paul and Mary, says Pete was the most humble person he has known. For him, it was always more about the song than about the performer. And he was always willing to help younger musicians.

Pete had a clear tenor voice and many of his songs have become icons of American culture. He gathered folk songs from all over the country. He learned from earlier musicians, especially blues singer Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly, and folk singer Woody Guthrie. He borrowed some of their songs and changed them a bit. For him a song was never a finished product. Instead, they evolve to fit the times.

Pete dropped out of college when he failed an exam in his sophomore year and lost his scholarship. He then wandered around the country, often hopping on boxcars and riding the rails. He took his watercolors along and sometime painted a rural farmhouse in exchange for a meal. He took up the five-string banjo and played in a band with Woody Guthrie. He and some friends formed a group called the Weavers.

Their song “Goodnight Irene,” borrowed from Lead Belly, became a hit and was on the bestseller list for 25 weeks in 1950. We generally think of Pete as an activist and protest singer. We, however, can’t forget his songs, such as “Goodnight Irene, about the stuff of life including broken marriages and suicidal impulses. Folk singers are often better at meeting people at this place than pastors and churches are.

The Weavers’ success was short-lived. This was the McCarthy era of witch hunts to weed out any suspected Communist influence in government, labor unions, and Hollywood. Several of the Weavers, including Pete Seeger, were accused of having Communist sympathies. The group was blacklisted and completely dropped by television and commercial music publishers.

The following decades were among the most productive in his life. He had never aspired to commercial success. Instead he toured the country performing in union halls, churches, civil rights events, and local music festivals. He adapted “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” from a traditional Russian folk song lamenting the folly of war. It, along with his original composition, “If I Had a Hammer,” became popular as sung by Peter, Paul and Mary. Both were widespread protest songs during the Vietnam War.

The best known Pete Seeger song is “We Shall Overcome.” Like many of his songs, it has convoluted roots. It’s based on an old gospel song that striking tobacco workers sang on the picket line in South Carolina. A slower version was sung at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee that Rosa Parks attended in 1955. Seeger slightly changed the title from “We Will Overcome,” added verses, and picked up the tempo. It became the theme song of the Civil Rights movement.

Pete Seeger was a self-effacing, eternal optimist, yet there was a steely quality to this humble man. He made headlines when he joined the Occupy Wall Street demonstration several years ago. An even more telling story is that someone spotted a tall, lanky man standing by the road not far from his home on the Hudson River, holding a sign one rainy morning. People were honking their horns and shouting their support. It was Pete Seeger and the handmade sign he was holding simply said “Peace.” He was having fun.

A Low Point for Religion in America

Religion has fallen on hard times in America. The percentage of those who claim to be religiously unaffiliated has increased dramatically in the past two decades. Katherine Bindley, writing in the Huffington Post, reports that religion has reached a low point in America. She notes the percentage of “nones” or religiously unaffiliated people hovered around 5% when such surveys were first taken in the 1930s. By the 1990s this number had climbed slightly to 8%. Since then the number has risen rapidly to 20%. Even more telling, about a third of those under the age of 30 claim no religious affiliation.

The conventional wisdom in the 1990s was that Mainline churches, which asked little of their members, were dying while Evangelical churches, which asked for a deeper level of commitment, were thriving. Those seeking stronger religious community and more doctrinal certainty were attracted to more conservative, Evangelical or Pentecostal churches. Others joined traditional Catholic churches for similar reasons. This explanation, however, overlooked other factors affecting the changing religious landscape in America.

Increasing numbers of people were leaving their home communities to go to college, to get a job, or to retire in a warmer climate. As a pastor I have been aware of how easy it is for parishioners to just drop out after a major move. Those of us who have lived in the same community for all our lives have to go against social and family pressure to drop our religious affiliation. Conversely, those of us who move to new locations have to seek out another faith community. Former church members who moved to a new place sometimes sheepishly tell me they just can’t find a church that fits who they are. They gradually stop looking and become unchurched.

Yet another increasingly common reality is that a growing number of people have been turned off by the strident religious culture wars during the past several decades. Some of us carry deep scars from those wars. A common perception is that religious people are intolerant and allied with reactionary political movements. Some young Christians tell me they’re reluctant to identify themselves as Christian around social peers. They feel a need to explain that they’re “not that kind of Christian.”

At the same time, our increased mobility makes many feel disconnected and lonely. We long for more authentic community and greater spiritual depth in our shallow consumer culture. Churches that nurture such community can be a welcoming oasis for spiritual seekers. To be authentic these religious communities need to be places where we can address and respond to the great social, environmental, and spiritual challenges facing our world. We will wrestle with how faith in Jesus leads us to respond in caring and life-giving ways. Faith communities that do that will not be hard pressed to attract new people.