Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Stop Making Sense

This isn't exactly the "religion" Bonhoeffer was critiquing, but I think had he known it in Germany, he would have:
According to the Pew Research Center, Alabama is the second most religious state in the nation with 74 percent of residents saying religion is very important in their lives. Number one is Mississippi. It is a pitiful irony that those states that are most religious are also states with the most individual suffering. More than 30 percent of the children in these two states suffer extreme poverty. In both states, the primary reason for abject poverty is that more than a third of children have parents who lack secure employment, decent wages, and healthcare. But thanks to Jesus, these poor saps vote for the party that rejects Medicaid expansion, opposes early education expansion, legislates larger cuts to education, and slashes food stamps to make room for oil and agriculture subsidies on top of tax cuts and loopholes for corporations and the wealthy.
I'm not convinced of the direct connection, or even of the correlation, between being the "second most religious state in the nation" and rejecting Medicaid expansion, opposing early education expansion, and all the rest.  But the idea that the "Ten Commandments" are God's last word on governance (which is what prompts the article; that Alabama is about to put an referendum to the state on the question of displaying the Ten Commandments on government property), is certainly a triumph of "religion," even if I don't know of too many Christian denominations who make a point of promoting such displays.

It is a curiosity to accept that Alabama (as in most of the American South) is so "religious" (and "religious" here is synonymous with "Christian") and yet so accepting of poverty, ignorance, and widespread and amenable suffering (and yes, education is basic to Christianity, not just to Christian European history.  If Jesus could read from Isaiah, it was because he knew how to read; Paul was an educated man, too.  The idea that education leads to apostasy is a modern fundamentalist concern, not an historical Christian stance.)  We don't have to link this religious posture to the acceptance of so much want and need to wonder why this religious posture doesn't work toward the alleviation of so much want and need.  The German Evangelicals who came to this country in the 19th century set up hospitals, orphanages, and even mental institutions, as well as schools, in response to such ordinary human individual and social problems, and did so because of their religious beliefs.  Concern for others is hardly antithetical to Christianity, and those German immigrants were certainly "religious."  But the question is: what has changed?  Or what never existed in the South, that so many problems persist despite widespread allegiance to Christianity?

First, of course, it has to do with the school of Christianity, which is to say it has to do with what you place are the center of your Christian faith:  soteriology, or care for others?  Soteriology, in this case, is a very specific form:  the soteriology of the "saved," of those who have secured their place in heaven and feel a responsibility to save the souls of others; but a soteriology that also puts emphasis on the sweet bye and bye, and de-emphasizes, in a kind of perverse Platonism, the life lived here.   It also shifts the problem of poverty back onto the backs of the poor; which would be perverse if it weren't so Biblical:  "Master, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born poor?"  John's Jesus ignores the question and turns the man's condition toward a sign, a semeia, a signifier, of the nature of Jesus.  Another reason the Gospel of John is the favorite of Southern evangelicals.  Luke would have turned that question against the questioners.

Such soteriology has absolutely no place for the idea that "people in need  are the ambassadors of the gods," and that "As God's Ambassadors you should be given food,  clothing and shelter by those who are able to give it."  This is not entirely peculiar to the South, however, because "the duty of hospitality is neither taught nor practiced in Christian countries."  The soteriology of this argument is  that salvation is an individual decision and responsibility, and that lodges a responsibility in the saved individual to save the soul (and not necessarily the body) of another.  The saved, in other words, is responsible for offering the salvation to another, but that other is responsible for accepting the offer.  If all you are responsible for is the eternal life of another's soul, you aren't your brother's keeper when it comes to food, clothing, and shelter.  And if your brother is responsible for their salvation, they are even more responsible for their own maintenance.  Especially if, as has been true for Southern culture since the time of the plantations, you have been kept in poverty yourself, and told to blame your poverty on other impoverished persons, such as poor blacks and even poor whites.  The bitter arrogance of Faulkner's Snopes is a fine example of what this culture produces:  poor whites who disdain both blacks and the rich whites who give them no more than subsistence wages, and less respect and regard than is paid to their livestock.  In such a culture, it isn't necessarily religion that blinds one to the needs of others.*

One other aspect of this soteriology is its emphasis on a kind of Neo-Platonism which denies the reality of this life in favor of the next one.  Of course, the people making those denials are themselves quite comfortable; but that's not a condition peculiar to conservative Christians in the American South.

Culture has a remarkable way of persisting over time; it is a persistence that cannot be overlooked, or underestimated.

So change the religion, change the outcome?  Perhaps.  Change the culture, and you will certainly change the outcome.  Aye, there's the rub.  But failing that, we're back to the question:

What would a "religionless" Christianity look like?  I think Bonhoeffer meant to use it as Bultmann meant to do; to remove the dead traditions of 2000 years accretion from the central teachings of Christianity.  But can we also use the concept to remove Christianity from its connections with the culture?  That Roman church, in large part (especially with its "Princes of the Church") clings to a past best left behind; but being international, it also tends to stand apart from culture better than most Protestant denominations (and most Protestants individually) do.  Protestantism has historically been almost entirely a creature of the culture it exists in; can it find a new way to be in the world but not of the world?

*Werleman's analysis goes completely awry on this point.  He states what he means to be his thesis:  "The point is that in an overly religious country it works too well, and to America’s detriment," but then the concluding paragraphs present analyses of the problem that rest entirely on culture, and have nothing directly or indirectly to do with religion.  He ends on this note:
The Republican Party, particularly in the South, will always dredge up these cultural issues to ensure its base remains a captive tool of corporate ideology. That way its corporate sponsors can maintain a perpetually impoverished lower class from which to draw its cheap labor.
Which is right, but marks a completely different issue than he started with.  The problem in the American South is cultural, not specifically religious or Christian.

1 comment:

  1. The history of the American left, beginning in the late 60s, when it abandoned the thing that powered it in the early 60s, religious belief, provides ample evidence that atheism can't do it. Atheism has been far more useful to the right as a means of attacking the left than it has been for the left. There was this little item, that you might find interesting, about how Maddy M. O'Hair's American Atheists tried to get a table at the CPAC conference but were turned away.

    It, rightly, points out what a sham the right's "religious posture" is but it could just as well have shown what a fraud atheism as a leftist ideological adornment is.