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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 one’s culture.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Psalm 103 and my hollowness

This morning’s 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.

Today’s 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 yesterday’s election voters in Farmer’s branch became the first in the nation to ban landlords from renting to most illegal immigrants.

There’s a great timeline posted on Eddie G. Griffin’s blog of the run-up to this election. To sum up, particular citizens of Farmer’s 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 that’s another topic for another time.

My strongest reaction to this issue comes not from the content of the decision, but the source: Tim O’Hare and Farmer’s Branch Church of Christ.

O’Hare 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. It’s the (lack of) conversation. I can understand why people would either hold my view or hold O’Hare’s 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, Farmer’s 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 Farmer’s 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 Farmer’s 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 man’s folly is temporary when compared to God’s 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, don’t get me wrong. We need to change. Where we’ve been has been TOO (internal) community-centric and far too stoic for the needs of those within our movement’s walls. We have stifled the voices and feelings of too many individuals in the name of the movement’s 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. Today’s worship emphasized he following core values:
No matter what we’ve 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 that’s 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 that’s yet another quibble for another day). But it’s what we do with these values (and what other values we ignore) that concerns me.

But here’s 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 God’s 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 didn’t say a word about it. And yes, I know it was Mother’s Day (but isn’t that just one more example of how we’re allowing the culture to lead our behavior instead of the other way around?).

Chris Seidman hasn’t 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 Farmer’s Branch.

It’s as if we’ve 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 O’Neil about this issue? But not Chris Seidman? And if so, doesn’t THIS concern anyone? If not, then why isn’t someone suggesting that we shouldn’t 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 don’t 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 Farmer’s 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?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The matter you discuss ... and Chris' public silence on it (despite some lovely efforts in its wake to build outreach to local Latino congregations) ... and the mixture of public support from some of the elders and church leaders ... are one of the reasons I no longer feel comfortable so much as setting foot inside the building of the Farmers Branch church, for all that my parents have been able to grow there. In the year after O'Hare, the Bonneaus, and others from that congregation took the town down this muddy, nasty road, I tried time and again to reason with others and to be open-minded about worshiping there at least occasionally, knowing that not everyone agrees on this matter.

I found myself simply too angry every time I entered the building and saw brothers - never had the chance to discuss this with sisters there - who either had participated in Tim O'Hare's mean-spirited campaign, or who had portrayed it as simply a matter of "supporting the rule of law" or who privately said they thought O'Hare was wrong-headed or ambitious but who saw no need to clarify that the larger church family does not necessarily back this move. In the last three or so years, I have visited there only once, and that exception was for the baptism of a dear family friend whose journey to Christ had taken over 20 years -- couldn't let my misgivings rob us all of that joy.

To be clear: I don't believe people should break the law. I don't believe people should be encouraged to break the law. I don't believe people should be rewarded for breaking the law. But neither do I believe any of that is an excuse for the many Christians who insist on remaining stubbornly ignorant of how inhumane much of the law in this arena of American life remains. Too, too many say uninformed nonsense about people not "waiting their turn," unaware and unconcerned that for many perfectly decent people "their turn" never comes, under current immigration law. They complain about immigrants who have skipped over the process while others wait 10 and 12 years without being given residency, oblivious to the fact that one can support changes in law (and immigration-enforcement staffing) that would ALSO relieve the unfair burden on those who've had so long a wait. - Andrea

3:44 AM  

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