.comment-link {margin-left:.6em;}

Finding Faith in Faith

This blog is dedicated to exploring the intersections of faith and politics, the intricacies of religious culture and the struggle to balance devotion to a higher being and to oneÕs culture.

My Photo
Name: jrichard

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Psalm 103 and my hollowness

This morningÕs class was a struggle for me. Not because I was teaching (thank goodness for that), but because I simply could not keep my mind clear enough to focus on where our church programming was centered today.

TodayÕs text was Psalm 103. I read it earlier in the week and was struck (as usual) with the amazing qualities of grace and forgiveness extended to us by a being who has no obligation to do so. When we consider who and what we are, how dare any of us allow personal grudges ruin our relationships?

This morning, all of that rang hollow for me. Not because anyone has personally assaulted me or because I have trouble seeing that God is in control. Rather, I was angry by events in this world that have deepened into rage as the day has progressed (and despite the best intentions and efforts of our church community).

In yesterdayÕs election voters in FarmerÕs branch became the first in the nation to ban landlords from renting to most illegal immigrants.

ThereÕs a great timeline posted on Eddie G. GriffinÕs blog of the run-up to this election. To sum up, particular citizens of FarmerÕs Branch have formed a movement by to enact city ordinances that seek to:

1) Prevent undocumented immigrants from renting apartments;
2) Provide federal training to local law enforcement to round up all the illegal immigrants; and
3) Bar any business transition to be done in any other language than English.

This announcement of the election results came roughly a week after I was already reeling from the discovery of a
T-shirt in circulation supporting these views
.

This issue is a sensitive and emotional one for me, and I find the racial insensitivity in Dallas to be deplorable, but thatÕs another topic for another time.

My strongest reaction to this issue comes not from the content of the decision, but the source: Tim OÕHare and FarmerÕs Branch Church of Christ.

OÕHare and those who share his views are quick to claim that they are not racists. The chief concern cited by this movement is the preservation and protection of property values and the economic revitalization of the community.

My opposition to these views is not the subject of which I am writing. Suffice to say that I believe any time one values the property of one group of people over the welfare of another group of people it is hard to argue that bigotry is not involved. Whether this is a war on the Hispanic race or the poor is for me tantamount to quibbling over the sentimentality of the privileged at the expense of those in need of attention.

As a quick aside, it is frightening for me as someone somewhat well-versed in world history that a previous example of a Western society trying to encourage economic growth by removing from society the infirm, the deviant, the poor and eventually members of particular ethnic groups resulted in the Jewish Holocaust at the hands of the early 20th Century German society. When we look back at the early steps of the movement that lead to those events, economic vitality and social efficiency were the earliest arguments justifying those eventual horrors.

But as I said, the issues are for another day.

My anger this morning was not on the politics or even the decision. ItÕs the (lack of) conversation. I can understand why people would either hold my view or hold OÕHareÕs view. What I cannot understand are those in authority who seem to refuse to weigh in.

In a Dallas Morning News article from earlier this year, FarmerÕs Branch pulpit minister Chris Seidman is quoted as taking a neutral stance on these issues, even though the very movement creating this controversy began with the members of his congregation.

I have met Chris Seidman (I have family that attend the FarmerÕs Branch church and my wife and I did consider it as a potential church home when me moved to Dallas), and my opinions on him are mostly positive. And I do respect some of the explanations he provides in the aforementioned article for his silence on the issue (SOME, read on).

My frustration from today is not directed solely at Seidman or the FarmerÕs Branch church, but at Skillman and at our movement in general. And that really hit me like a ton of bricks this morning.

Psalm 103 was used in our class, our song selection and in every aspect of our worship this morning. And somehow, it went cruelly astray of where I am in my walk.

YES, I believe that manÕs folly is temporary when compared to GodÕs forgiveness and commitment to us. YES, I believe that means that we should forgive each other when we sin against each other. YES, I believe that whatever bad choices we make will not survive our generation.

But where does that lead us when we feel that our brothers and sisters are hurting others? Where is our voice?

This is troubling me in more ways than one. As our church (as most churches ion our movement) grapple with how to evolve our message to fit the needs of a new generation, we seem to be continually adopting more and more of theology previously relegated to the American evangelical movements. The increasing focus on the individual spirit, overcoming the personal guilt of sin and brokenness and the embracing of emotion our forefathers would have despised is becoming our new cultural language.

Now, donÕt get me wrong. We need to change. Where weÕve been has been TOO (internal) community-centric and far too stoic for the needs of those within our movementÕs walls. We have stifled the voices and feelings of too many individuals in the name of the movementÕs goals over last century and our refusal to acknowledge emotional reactions to spiritual truths (based mostly on our resistance to the evangelical movements we despised) has not been healthy.

But now as the pendulum swings, we seem to be headlong rushing towards the other end of the spectrum. The arrogant objectivism of our past is giving way to narcissistic emotionalism. TodayÕs worship emphasized he following core values:
No matter what weÕve done, God will accept us.
We should forgive those who have hurt us.
God is in control.
God watches over and cares for the oppressed (which we defines as us, somehow).
We love God, and loving Him feels good (and thatÕs a good thing).

None of these things are bad values or sentiments (I personally struggle with the fixation on relating to God primarily through romanticized emotions, but thatÕs yet another quibble for another day). But itÕs what we do with these values (and what other values we ignore) that concerns me.

But hereÕs my problem (and the point): Where is there room within these values for discernment among the members? Where is there room for social justice? Where is our call to look outside our walls and be GodÕs instruments in the fallen world?

On a Sunday immediately after some of our brethren to our north succeeded in a quest to institutionalize the monetary value of private property over the value of human life, we didnÕt say a word about it. And yes, I know it was MotherÕs Day (but isnÕt that just one more example of how weÕre allowing the culture to lead our behavior instead of the other way around?).

Chris Seidman hasnÕt said a word from the pulpit (of which I am aware). We have engaged in no significant dialogue at any level of which I am aware, though there are strong ties between Skillman and FarmerÕs Branch.

ItÕs as if weÕve struggled so mightily to cast off our isolation from mainstream culture that now we have nothing to say to it. Chris Seidman said in effect that God has been silent on this issue. So he says nothing. We fear causing division and ill feelings, so we say nothing.

So is God talking to Tim OÕNeil about this issue? But not Chris Seidman? And if so, doesnÕt THIS concern anyone? If not, then why isnÕt someone suggesting that we shouldnÕt be hurting people when God is silent in the judgment of our motives?

We are fond of our stories, but why does it feel like lately we have more in common with the Egyptians than the Israelites? That in the passion narrative, we are more likely to be the Sadducees handing over the undesirable aliens that threaten our hold on power and property than the Jewish Christians trying to make the world better?

Is there no room for these discussions in our discourse? Or are we so far gone that we donÕt even see these as possible discussions?

I reserve the most potent bitterness and anger for myself. I have received emails from members at Skillman expressing strong support for the views being expressed in FarmerÕs Branch that called on me to lend my support. I said nothing, choosing instead to ignore the emails and avoid what I thought of as a dead-end discussion.

So in the company of hypocrites (and perhaps, most prominently, of navel gazers), I am perhaps the chief among sinners.

But I want to change. I feel that God means for us to speak out against the mistreatment of others and against the idolatry of national pride.

Where is our voice? Why do I feel like so much of what we do is irrelevant to those who live and die outside our walls?