22 October 2016
I have always been interested in politics and come from a politically active family. This year, however, I have seen and heard more than enough about Donald and Hilary. I am politically tired and frustrated. I am also keenly aware that regardless who wins the key to the White House, the battles will not be finished when we wake up on November 9th. The civil/uncivil conflict may have just begun.
Today, in secular society and in the church, fierce polarization is our “realpolitik.” It threatens to disempower us and tear us apart in a long-lasting way. This past month (by way of a small personal example) because of my political and theological positions, I have been “unfriended” on Facebook by people who have been (I thought) my real friends for more than twenty-five years. Painful. Disappointing. Unnecessary.
In the United States — but across the globe as well — we are in an historic and major socio-cultural transition: cultural change everywhere with various violent eruptions. It impacts religion and political stability. It shapes our sense of personal and group identity. It spreads fears about security and our sense of security. It demands, frankly, that we start working together to chart a new course – a new direction — for church and civil society.
Charting a new direction and changing the conversation means moving beyond self-centered “my group” expediency to an other-centered engagement that promotes a more genuine Christian community and a safe and healthy society for all citizens: what we used to call “the common good.” It means looking at life and talking about life in new ways.
Last week I read the Robert P. Jones book The End of White Christian America. Are we experiencing the “end of white Christian America”? Probably. Should we be anxious about this? I don’t see why. It is not the end of Christianity. It is not the end of America. It is reality. Now how do we talk about it?
Americans in the United States are more racially and ethnically diverse than in the past. They will be even more diverse in the coming decades. By 2055, the U.S. WILL NOT have one single racial or ethnic majority, and “white people” will be a minority group. It may come as a surprise to some observers; but Asia has already replaced Latin America (including Mexico) as the biggest source of new immigrants to the United States.
One of my correspondents wrote recently that “gays are destroying American society and thanks to them family life is disintegrating.” Well that is one way of looking and speaking. What, however, would gay people say about American society today? How would they speak about family life? If we can shift our conversation from quick condemnation to dialogical comprehension, we might also become a bit more understanding and supportive of men and women living and struggling in a variety of family situations.
The American family is changing. In the United States, today, there are nearly 13.6 million single parents raising over 21 million children. Single fathers are far less common than single mothers, constituting 16% of single-parent families. The number of American adults who have never been married is now at an historic high. Two-parent households are on the decline. Divorce, remarriage, and cohabitation are on the rise. So, what is our appropriate response? We can shake our heads or we can be supportive of people living in changing times. It is a called ministry and outreach. Healthy social movements and positive social evolution are launched and maintained by compassion, support, and collaboration. Christianity is there to pick people up not push them down and ignore their plight. The historic Jesus understood this. He did not condemn the woman at the well, the woman about to be stoned to death, nor the good Samaritan.
Charles Chaput, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Philadelphia, gave a speech at the University of Notre Dame on Wednesday. He said that many prominent Catholics (he had the Democratic vice presidential candidate in mind) are so weak in their faith that it would be better if they just left the Catholic Church. He said he would prefer a smaller church of holy people, anchored in traditional orthodoxy. With Chaput’s approach, I fear, Catholics will continue their exit; and the Catholic Church will indeed become smaller. I am not convinced it will necessarily become holier. We could change the conversation however. Sit down with people who are leaving or have already left the church: not to pass judgment on them but to listen to their stories: their experiences, their expectations, and their disappointments.
Another important element in changing our conversation must be inter-religious dialogue. As we chart a new course, we need to start building bridges with Islam. In our churches, we can and should have Muslim/Christian discussion groups and adult education programs. Why not have an adult ed. presentation on “Understanding the Qur’an: Islam’s Holy Book.”
Projections about our world, over the next four decades, suggest that while Christianity will remain the largest religion, Islam will probably grow faster than any other major religion. By 2050, the number of Muslims in our world will nearly equal the number of Christians. Muslims are not Christians, but they are sons and daughters of the same God; and they are indeed our brothers and sisters in the Abrahamic tradition. It is time we get to know and respect each other. It is not enough simply to change our conversation about them. We need to change our conversation with them.
The Millennials, young adults born after 1980, are the new generation to watch. They have already surpassed Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964) as the largest U.S. generation. In many ways, they differ significantly from their elders. They are the most racially diverse generation in American history: 43% of Millennial adults are non-white, the highest share of any generation. They are much less interested in institutional religion and very supportive of LGBT issues and same-sex marriage.
A colleague suggested recently that we need to do a “better job of educating the Millennials.” I am all for good education, and my friend may have a point. Charting a new course and changing the conversation, however, means first that WE must start LISTENING to the Millennials. We need to hear and learn from them about their life realities, their experience of church, their hopes, their frustrations, and expectations for tomorrow.
I am not a misogynist. I do want to see women exercising every type of ordained ministry. I suggest however that we need to change our conversation about “women deacons” and “women priests.” Changing the conversation means that we consider the more basic questions about the meaning of ordained ministry. How should we understand Christian ministry today? What is the specific nature of ordained ministry today? What should it be? What structures and institutional roles and behaviors are appropriate for contemporary Christians? What is a proper – appropriately Christian – understanding of power and authority in the church? Is it not possible that the “ordained” have more than once misunderstood and misused their “power and authority”? I suggest that in many ways we need to chart a new course for ordained ministry. A new course will necessarily involve new parochial and ministerial structures. I can imagine for example that a parish could have a ministry supervisor (pastor) who would not necessarily have to be ordained. Within the parish there could be a great number of ordained ministers (women, men, married, single, gay and straight): ministering in schools, hospitals, youth groups, neighborhood and home visitations, college campuses, etc.
Well enough thoughts for today. I read in the very latest (October 19th) Pew Research bulletin that only 13% of Americans have a great deal of confidence that religious leaders act in the best interest of the public. We do need to change our conversation and chart a new course: away from polarization.
(Next week end I will be participating in a conference on the Millennials. I will offer some reflections on that after the week end.)