Thursday, January 12, 2006

"I just wonder when we're going to 'start taking sin seriously again.' "

This, as pastordan points out, is the crux of the issue. At one time "evangelicals" especially were mostly concerned with sin. It would be a fair criticism to say they took it too seriously.

But having set it aside, they turn now to either the Gospel of Wealth (Joel Osteen's church website proclaim him: "... a proven leader for this generation - a generation that believes all things are possible!"), or the gospel of power:

"We were able to hold off Michael Moore and the folks in Hollywood, and most of the national media, and George Soros and the Kennedy crowd that fought so fiercely against the election of George Bush," former Moral Majority chairman Jerry Falwell told about 600 people gathered in the Greater Exodus Baptist Church [which received more than $1.6 million in Faith-Based Initiatives handouts] here.
Pat Robertson, after all, wasn't worried about salvation when he declared Ariel Sharon's stroke a sign of God's judgment; nor when he condemned Dover, Pennsylvania, or Disney World in Florida.

Pastordan refers to Reinhold Niebuhr's first important work, Moral Man and Immoral Society. The book has its flaws, but it was written in part in response to the doctrine of the Social Gospel, an idea that started with Walter Rauschenbusch ( a Baptist, by the way) and the same concerns for industrialized society that Niebuhr expressed (and had; he was the pastor of an E&R church in Detroit in the late 20's and early 30's). But Rauschenbusch and his followers placed the burden for bringing the Kingdom of God on society itself. The end sounds familiar enough: government, the rights of labor, and socialist ideas. "The Church as an transformational institution would stand up for those who had no voice and provide for those who could not do enough to help their own families."

The problem was, as Niebuhr understood, that societies had to take care of themselves. They could not put their existence at risk in order to care for the weakest and the poorest. In this his analysis was more purely American than he could know, since modern Europe managed the transformation far better than America, and without the Church as a necessary "transformational institution." But, as sociologists Emerson and Smith wrote, paraphrasing Niebuhr's central insight:

At the individual level, selfishness is usually considered negative, but at the group level, it is considered moral and just. Indeed, at the group level, it is not called selfishness, but morality, service, sacrifice, or loyalty. Although we are selfish if we always look out for our own individual needs first it is considered wrong and immoral if we do not consider the needs of our family first, ahead of other families. We house our families first, and only if we can spare extra do we help house other families. To do otherwise is considered immoral or, at a minimum, a sad case of misplaced priorities.
As Niebuhr says (and pastordan quotes):

For this reason, relations between groups are always mainly political rather than ethical or moral. As Niebuhr says, "They will always be determined by the proportion of power which each group possesses atleast as much as by any rational and moral appraisal of the comparative needs and claims of each group.
And so the Social Gospel fails, being built upon the sandy foundations of human endeavour and human institutions. And Niebuhr made this analysis in part by taking sin seriously.

Which may be what the Pope was doing the other day:

With Michelangelo's dramatic depiction of the Last Judgment as a backdrop, Benedict attacked the "thing-infliction of mankind", suggesting that people had become little more than objects to be traded, picked up and discarded at will.

He singled out ancient Rome's Colosseum amphitheatre and the gardens of the
emperor Nero, where Christians were once martyred, as a "real perversion of joy
and a perversion of the sense of life."

"The anti-culture of death was a love of lies and of deceit. It was an abuse of the body as a commodity and as a product. Even in our times there is this culture and we must say 'No' to it," he said.

It was the first time since he became pope that Benedict has ignored the prepared text of his homily, sent to the media beforehand, and instead spoken at length off the cuff.
NPR reported that teen depression is a major problem in this country. A problem, like other problems, that Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson and some members of the Senate Judiciary committe would attribute to the actions of the Supreme Court, if not the entire Federal government. Which attribution, curiously and perversely enough, run on the same assumptions as the Social Gospel, and are subject to Niebuhr's analysis: that our fundamental problems are political, and the solutions lie with government.

But, as pastordan (again!) points out this morning, that, too, can be precisely the problem:

The reigning conservative ideologues in the White House and on Capitol Hill believe, with apparent sincerity, that the path to economic and social progress for all is to reward--"incentivize"--the rich and to liberate private business from the wealth-destroying fetters of regulation. When these become the highest purposes of public policy, and when the ameliorative functions of government are held in contempt, then a single thread ties together upper-income tax cuts, the dismantling of environmental and safety protections, the shredding of the social safety net, the peopling of regulatory agencies with cronies hostile to their purposes, and, finally, outright corruption. If government is seen as a whore, why not treat her as one? All that remains is to fleece the johns and divide the take.
Niebuhr understood the fundamental problem was in our hearts, not in our systems. We cannot build a system which will cleanse our hearts for us, or do good for us in spite of our lesser intentions. That idea is the "magical" one that critics accuse religion of: that something outside of ourselves will save us from our failings, that some power will exert our will but filter it to do only the good, and not allow the bad, even if that power is nothing more than our best intentions.

Niebuhr, ultimately, did not offer an apologia for the way things were. He assessed with clear eyes why institutional efforts would not bring about the desired change. We have to start with our hearts.

Which returns us to the question of when, and how, to take sin seriously again.

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