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IV. Toward a New Polemical Protestantism
Contentious argument must be used to present Protestant faith today, moving away from a liberal balanced style which fails to seriously challenge the huge challenges we face in a history of conflict.
By Ed Knudson
Editor's Note: This is the fourth in the series on The New Protestantism at Augustana Lutheran Church in Portland, Oregon.
Today I would like to introduce a word not used much in contemporary theology, the word "polemics". A polemic is according to one definition "a contentious argument that is intended to establish the truth of a specific understanding and the falsity of the contrary position." It is a forceful way of speaking which not only presents one's own position but also clearly identifies the position one is arguing against. What I will call here the "old Protestants" have somehow lost their ability to engage in polemics. In their effort to become liberal and tolerant they lost the substance of their doctrinal and historical traditions, they lost the ground on which they could stand and speak into the public consciousness of the community. The new Protestants, I claim, are those who now engage in polemic based on the historic content of Protestant faith stemming from the Reformation, the proclamation of the gospel of God's love for all people. The language of this polemics today for the new Protestants, as I discussed last time, has come to include the phrase "peace, justice and sustainable creation." All the main Protestant bodies today use this language along with our ecumenical bodies on the national and global levels. The use of this language is a signal of what we stand for and it clearly separates us from those who refuse to use this language, for those of the religious right or so-called revivalist conservatism.
Martin Luther was a polemicist. He spoke in fierce and no uncertain terms against what he believed had become a terribly oppressive religious institution, the Roman Catholic Church of his time. His message of spiritual liberation through the gospel spread like wild fire through Europe creating whole new social and political attitudes at the time.
Jesus was a polemicist. In Matthew 23 he says of the pharisees, "they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other peopleís shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them." He says, "ďWoe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in peopleís faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to." This is strong language. Jesus is not saying the pharisees have a right to their opinion, as a liberal might say, he says they are hypocrites and are hurting the people.
The Apostle Paul is a polemicist. His whole preaching and theology is over-against the official religion of the Roman Empire. Jesus is the son of God, not Caesar. The church is a new creation in the world where all are welcome, not an exclusive club for the rich and powerful of the time. Paul says in Galations 3:28: "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." All the old hierarchies of the world are gone in the new creation of the church. This text in Galatians has become an especially important one for new Protestants. It is completely opposed to those today who believe and teach that Americans are God's favored people in the world over-against other nations, a false interpretation of Christianity preached Sunday after Sunday in fundamentalist churches across the country undergirding with religious fervor a militaristic rhetoric justifying the use of violent force against other peoples in the world for the purpose of protecting economic domination of this country.
What has happened to what was once Protestant polemical preaching? It is a long, and important, story. You can read about it in a new book I am now reading by David A. Hollinger, After Cloven Tongues of Fire: Protestant Liberalism in Modern American History. What happened is the Protestants became the powerful in society. Hollinger says that in 1960 "at the time John F. Kennedy was elected, all the branches of the federal government and most state and local governments were under the comfortable supervision of men and women who shared a religious [Protestant] ancestry. The same was true of the overwhelming majority of the leading universities, foundations, and cultural institutions." But now, he points out, not one of the nine Supreme Court justices was born in a Protestant family. You almost never even hear anything in the media about the historic Protestant churches. In the contemporary public consciousness the old Protestant churches are simply in decline, no longer of much interest. They have nothing to say worthy of note.
In the 1960s those of us involved in the civil rights and anti-war movements used the derogatory word "WASP" to refer to Protestants, white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. (Anglo-Saxons were "1. A member of one of the Germanic peoples, the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes, who settled in Britain in the fifth and sixth centuries. 2. Any of the descendants of the Anglo-Saxons, who were dominant in England until the Norman Conquest of 1066." - Free Dictionary) They were the power structure; they were the ones who were maintaining racial segregation and military adventure in Vietnam. Looking back on that time now, I think this is not a correct reading. It was, indeed, Protestant leaders who made a huge shift in their social-political views, who joined Martin Luther King in civil rights marches, who led the movement opposed to war, such as Clergy and Laity groups against the war in Vietnam. This was, in fact, the beginning of what I call the new Protestantism. And it is based on a fundamentally different interpretation of history from those who became the religious right in a backlash cultural-political movement to the 1960s.
The new Protestants are no longer the powerful in the way Hollinger characterizes them. They cannot rely on their high positions in society for moral authority to speak to the times. They have to rely on the actual content of the message they have to offer the world today, the historic message coming from Reformation faith. They must be clear-eyed and realistic about the facts of history, how the United States has become a dominating imperial power in the world, how the modern business corporation has come to have nearly exclusive power over the minds, hearts, and lives of people today. The new Protestants must become once again polemical.
Understanding the Individual in Community
To become polemical again I think we have to understand how words work connecting individuals in community, as I began to talk about in the first session in the story of my mother going out in public. In between my mother as an individual and the "public world" was her church, a different sort of community than that public world. I once asked her what the issues were in the rural church in which she grew up, what did people argue about? She said that her pastor had told them not to go to those tent meetings held by revivalist preachers from time to time in the neighborhood because all those preachers were talking about was "god and country." The gospel preached in Lutheran churches did not equate God with the country. She also said that they wondered why the local banker was going to communion after he had been foreclosing on the farms of her neighbors, taking away their livelihood. There in that small rural Norwegian congregation, I learned, they were debating issues of politics and economics in relation to Christian faith, just as we must continue to do today. What we believe as individuals is determined to a great degree by what communities we are born into or with which we choose to affiliate ourselves. Our thoughts are not our own, they are formed by the communities in which we choose to participate. We do not function, we cannot function, as individuals, as abstract, isolated individuals, apart from some community from which we learn what is right, good, and real, from which we learn who we are as persons. This is all done by words, how a community speaks, how a community understands itself, how it understands others outside itself, how it interprets history.
Each of us here has a sense of ourselves as an individual. We have what I called an "active consciousness" and this was of crucial importance to Martin Luther. In many ways, he set individual consciousness over-against the powerful structures of the Catholic Church. This is remembered in what he said at a public hearing before which he was called to account for his teachings, the Imperial Diet of Worms. The emperor and church officials expected him to recant. His books were placed on a table. He was asked if these were his works and whether he would recant their contents. He asked for time to reply and the next day he said this:
"Unless I am convicted by scripture and plain reason - I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other - my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen."Legend shortened this to "Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise." Notice the "I" here, the individual against the church and the state. It is this that the modern western historical imagination likes to remember, the heroic individual. It is this which also captures the essence of what is known as classic liberalism. Later political and economic philosophy places huge importance on the individual and this became crucial for modern constitutional democracies and human rights. And that is why you and I even here today can have such a significant understanding of ourselves as conscious individuals, as if we are at the center of everything, and as if we determine everything in the universe ourselves.
Luther, indeed, thought of the internal consciousness as a sort of holy place. It was where God worked. It was where the gospel can be heard. But the individual was not by itself separate and alone, the individual was the place where the word worked. The individual needs the external word from some preacher. In fact, Luther understood the internal self as a kind of war zone in the battle between God and the devil. The external devil attacked the internal self to convince it that it was insignificant and unworthy of salvation. The gospel word worked by overcoming the power of evil in the internal self, turning the self from itself to the other, the neighbor.
So Luther's theology is entirely relational, not individualistic. To promote the individual as sufficient all to itself, as modern libertarians do, is completely ridiculous according to the theology of Martin Luther. Luther taught that life is a daily struggle to remember one's baptism in which one is claimed by God's word which defeats the devil.
He also promoted the concept of the "priesthood of all believers." That is, a priest is the mediator between God and persons. In the Catholic church the priest was the mediator in a rather magical and formal institutional manner. But for Luther each member of the believing community was a priest to each other, preaching the gospel. One needs others to hear the affirming word in the power of the Holy Spirit working in the simple words we speak to one another. "Good morning, good to see you." To speak we must breathe, take a breath and breathe out the words, in the power of the Spirit, wind or breath. This is where "God" is working, in our speaking. Speaking gospel to one another in simple words is our spiritual practice. It happens in community. Without it there is no real life.
Now for Luther this preaching creates the church and nothing else. The church is not created by successful people, or by an ethnic identity, or anything else. It is created by the preaching of the gospel of God's love and mercy and the celebration of the sacraments, themselves instrumental through God's word.
All of this is just good Lutheran theology. But I believe that we need to become polemical about all this. The church is constituted by proclamation and nothing else, not a political program, not an economic philosophy, not a national identity, not social status. Those who associate the gospel with anything other than God's love and mercy as the ground and substance of the church should be actively criticized and unambiguously opposed. But that means today that we must face the political struggles occurring in public life.
There is a tendency among much of what is called "spirituality" today to be a search for balance and wholeness in a world of constant conflict. It is possible to discuss the history of this desire. In Paul Tillich's book, A History of Christian Thought, a major theme is a philosophic search for "harmony". If you travel the west of this country you will find towns in every state with the name Harmony. You can just imagine the hopes and dreams of the founders of these towns. Much of what we know as conservative religion is based on this nostalgia, the desire to return to a time of imagined original harmony when everything was good. And it has been a factor too of liberalism, to achieve the goal of human beings being able to live in harmony with what is conceived as the balance of nature. Eastern religions are popular with many today in which the human being gives up itself to union with the endless processes of being. New Age spirituality promises integration with the wholeness of life and larger consciousness.
The problem is that these spiritualities lead us away from concrete history as it is, the public world as it is, the reality of the world as it is, a place of conflict. The Christian gospel is that in spite of everything this place of historical conflict is God's world which God loves and enters into very specifically in the person and work of Jesus Christ. The movement of God is from up to down, into history, not out and away from it. We are called not to escape the world but to take responsibility for it as Jesus says clearly, love God and neighbor. The great heresy confronted by Christianity in its early years was gnosticism, a religion which taught that the world was so evil it was not worth saving. Much of early Christian creeds were constructed against this teaching. Salvation meant for the gnostics to use certain spiritual practices to remove one's self from the world. The creeds say Jesus entered into the world to save the world. In our thinking about the faith it is very crucial and I think helpful to keep in mind this basic movement of God. This means Christians are called into a world of conflict. Martin Luther lived an extremely conflictual life, a life lived out in the midst of the public world of his time. The life of Jesus is a life of constant conflict ending on a cross of death killed for political reasons. The Apostle Paul faced extreme struggles as he preached that a new reality had come into the world with the cross and resurrection of Christ opposed to and other than the power of the Roman empire. It doesn't take much thinking to realize that if the followers of Jesus had tried to escape the world and history we would know nothing of him today.
The God revealed in the scriptures is not a God of balance and harmony but a God of justice and righteousness. It is entirely understandable why modern folks want to reject this God: this God demands justice in human relations. The first commandment says very clearly "you shall have no other gods before you." And here it would be good to remember Luther's understanding of law. He said the "first use of the law" was to order the human community, civil law, the basis of which begins in the ten commandments. But the "second use" of the law is the law used in preaching to convict us of our sin, especially in the worship of other gods. Last time I talked about other gods, the god of the market economy, the god of the nation, the god of the state, gods of racial and ethnic identities. Liberal philosophy has a tendency to worship the god of progress, especially that new technologies will always be invented that will save the world. Now, all these things are important for human beings, but when they become the objects of worship they become false gods which can only betray us and our neighbors in the end. Preaching against such gods is dangerous and conflictual, people love their gods and put their faith and trust in them. To preach the first commandment today is difficult for many pastors, Lutherans included. It leads to conflict, political and otherwise. It is easier to preach of God in vague metaphors of biological balance and healthiness than a God of justice.
God demands that economic relations among human beings result in justice, not just profits. Imagine preaching that in the board rooms of American corporations! Not so easy. God is calling us new Protestants to do just that by organizing and assisting others in movements for economic justice in our time. It means a willingness to engage in conflict and that is not easy for individuals as merely individuals.
Courage and Support from Caring Community
The Reformation and Protestant faith have played a large role in the formation of the modern world where the individual, not social formations, tends to be a the center of everything. The economic system has seen the growth of very large corporations, organized on hierarchial models of authority, which have developed incredible power over the minds of individuals. Sociologists talk about this as "mass society", a society made up of individuals, not families or other small-scale social groups. Just think of television; every night millions and millions of people are sitting looking at their television sets for hours and hours. Even if they do so as a family, still it is each individual looking at the television, they are not talking to one another. The modern corporation has direct access to the internal consciousness of modern human individuals. What they see on televison dictates what it is possible and necessary to do or say in the "public" world.
The first Protestants used the "modern media" of the printing press to rapidly spread the Reformation gospel. The Protestants of our era have strangely failed to use modern communication technologies, except those on the religious right. A new Protestant institutional agency is needed on the national level to provide a faith-based interpretation of history, science, and technology on a regular basis to support the work of efforts in local congregational communities. This must be done before the so-called mainline churches wither away for lack of vitality at either national or local levels.
It is impossible for the most courageous and committed individual to do much facing the world filled with other powers and principalities. It is necessary to build up local congregational communities for both worship and support for people engaged in mission in the world. It is the old Protestant idea of vocation but with the provisions that we cannot do this by ourselves as individuals and that we must address the critical issues of our own time, not live in the past fighting old battles. We each need the support and encouragement of the local community. To be faithful to the gospel these need to be communities which do not encourage escape from the world, but support for those able and willing to engage in the making of history. This requires a polemical Protestant engagement in the conflicts of history, making it clear who and what we are against as well as what we are for.
One of the most prophetic voices writing today is Chris Hedges, a former New York Times journalist whose father was a Presbyterian pastor. The many failures of Protestant churches to stand and face the powers today has led Hedges to become a severe critic of Protestants. But we should listen to his criticism and learn from it. One of the things he says is that we should become, in the word I am using here today, polemical about the religious right. Asked if his Christian background makes a difference to him he says:
Yeah, without question. And what Iím willing to do, which the mainstream church is not, is to denounce the Christian right as Christian heretics [applause]. You donít have to, as I did, spend three years at Harvard Divinity School to realize that Jesus didnít come to make us rich [laughter]. And he certainly didnít come to make Pat Robertson and Joel Osteen rich. And what they have done is acculturate the worst aspects of American imperialism, capitalism, chauvinism, and violence and bigotry into the Christian religion.Chris Hedges is one who today has the courage to speak truth about history. I recommend his book, American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America. The Republican Party has been severely disabled by the entrance of the religious right into its ranks. It is no longer able to be a rational voice within the political process. And the entrance of the religious right into partisan politics has led it to change its doctrines and preaching away from historic Protestant faith. We must be willing to criticize it and point out specifically how it has falsified historic Protestant faith as I have tried to do in these sessions.
We have something to stand up for, the historic gospel of God's love for all and for the world. We need a New Polemical Protestantism.
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