Moral Therapeutic Deism, 1952 Edition

As you know, I’m a fan of old radio shows. Af late, I’ve been listening to This is Your FBI, which ran on ABC from 1946 to 1953. I’m almost at the end of the run.

This is Your FBI was an anthology show that featured different crimes every week with one constant, Special Agent Jim Taylor (played by actor Stacy Harris). It was produced in cooperation with the FBI, so we get lots of pontificating by J. Edgar Hoover (mostly played by an actor).

And lots of pontificating about the nature of crime, particularly the youth crime wave that allegedly swept the country in the immediate post-WWII years. Crime was a simple matter for the producers of This is Your FBI: bad parenting was responsible for most it. Young people became criminals because they were either spoiled or were neglected. It’s a simple psychology indicative of mid-century thinking that probably drove more than a few parents neurotic.

But for This is Your FBI, “the criminal” is almost an entirely different species or race of human being. In fact, there is much talk about “the criminal,” how he is different, not like “us,” a threat to ordinary individuals and society, and under the right circumstances, can eventually be managed out of existence.

For that is the goal of all this law enforcement — the complete elimination of crime. By catching and locking up criminals, and creating conditions by which none are produced. Like most endeavors to change and make human beings better, it has failed. And it will fail.

What does any of this have to do with religion? This is Your FBI is an unremittingly secular show, like most popular entertainment from the middle of the 20th century. To the extent God and church are involved, it is usually peripherally — a church is robbed, a priest is interviewed about someone’s character.

Except that in one episode, “Man Hunt,” from May 1952, the narrator speaks of the the etiology of “the criminal” in a different way:

Few people become professional criminals for any single reason. Greed may be a dominant cause in many, insecurity in others, and hatred of society in a proportion of the remaining cases. Some students of crime point to another reason seldom mentioned: the decline of religion. Study after study of religious training among criminals prior to their arrest show almost none with interest in or knowledge of any religion. One of the tenants of any form of worship is the golden rule of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. Obviously, no criminal lives by that code. Mainly because, as the figures show, the majority were never taught the basic concepts of any religion. As a citizen, you can do nothing about your neighbor’s interest, or lack of interest, in moral ideals, except by your example. However, if you are a parent interested in preventing your child from becoming a criminal of tomorrow, invest your time, your effort, in helping him learn the truth of religion. It’s the best investment you can possibly make in his future. And in your country’s.

The decline of religion. This is May, 1952, very near the high watermark of American Christendom. Churches in cities, towns, and suburbs were stuffed to the gills, engaged in a building boom, couldn’t lay bricks and cement or design programs fast enough. I’m not entirely sure where, in 1952, religion was supposed to have declined from. The church is influential, listened to, respected. Catholics, Jews, and Mormons have more or less become Protestant co-religionists in an America where the church is reasonable, liberal, and tolerant. Perhaps not as much as some would like, but that change is a just a few years down the road.

There’s the stunning lack of specificity, a reference to a generic religion that wants us only to be good. It is, as I have noted before, a lowest-common-denominator faith, a “truth” that has no specific content (because it can’t without inflaming sectarian disputes; so, pick a truth, any truth) but which, somehow, can inoculate against evil behavior. Note again what’s essentially stated here — a content-free truth can make someone a good person. Indeed, that’s the whole point of religion here. Not transcendent meaning, but becoming and being a good person. And this is 1952, long before the culture wars and the decline in church membership. Faith and truth here are merely utilitarian means to ends, with the end here being good citizenship, not discipleship.

Conversion Stories

Well, today (Saturday, July 8) I did something a little different — I played some of my songs at Moses Lake Seventh Day Adventist Church. It was one of the better welcomes I’ve received. The congregation is fairly large, younger than I’ve seen outside the Catholic parish here, and more diverse than the other Protestant congregations I have visited (though not as reflective of the population as the Catholic parish is).

I met the pastor a couple of weeks ago while doing a story on a free, two-day long dental clinic they were hosting, and we talked a bit. He grilled me theologically, basically wanting to know if I believed in God’s grace. At least he didn’t assume.

We arranged to meet again, I played him and the associate pastor a few of my songs, and they invited me to come play for worship.

I enjoyed it. I will go play anywhere — I’ll come to your church if you’d like! — and the thanks I got has been the best I have ever received. I hope to go back, maybe even regularly, but that is not up to me.

I noticed something interesting, though.

The theology very much reflected the Adventists’ roots in mid-19th century America — individualistic and decision oriented. I am learning to respect this theology, even if I don’t share it, because it represents the experience not only of a lot of American believers, but probably a lot of Christians not just in the last two or three centuries, but probably throughout the history of this people called church.

(And we seemed to come on the Saturday the Adventists celebrate America, so there were patriotic hymns of an earnest, 19th century sort. I get the sense the Adventists, as an offshoot of the Millerites, don’t quite know what to do with America theologically, being a very American church yet also being a minority far out of the cultural mainstream.)

At any rate, something came to me in the midst of worship. And it struck me when the associate pastor said something.

One of the songs I played, “Follow Me,” tends to reflect my theology. Jesus doesn’t ask us softly and tenderly. He comes up to us — at least some of us — and smacks us across the side of the head, strikes us blind, and commands “follow me,” after which we leave everything and follow Jesus. There’s no please, no request, just a demand that we cannot say no to. And we leave everything to follow Jesus.

The Gospels, and Luke’s version of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, seem to reflect this irresistible Jesus. He does not knock gently on the door. He breaks it down, grabs us while we are trying to flee, and drags us kicking and screaming out of the house.

But I also see a lot, in the Gospels, people coming to find Jesus. To see him. Meet him. People who seek him out. The most intense stories are of those Jesus meets and calls. But the other stories … they seem to matter too.

For me, Jesus commands: “Follow me.” But the associate phrased it in a very different way, as a question: “Will you follow me?” Jesus is in charge in that first telling, we are in the second.

Which I think reflects the conversion experiences so many people have. Both the associate and the pastor told me a little of theirs, and they were very reflective of the wider American religious culture, some version of I was out of control until I grabbed hold of Jesus. From everything I have read on his blog, that seems to be Rod Dreher’s experience as well — until I put God at the center of my life, I was out of control, wallowing in sin, captive and unable to free myself, living a pointless and meaningless life.

Disorder to order. That’s what following Jesus does. It creates order and meaning where there was chaos and meaninglessness. It creates a break, a chasm, in a life, between a time of darkness and as time of light. It is a very typical conversion story, and very legitimate.

It has also become the dominant narrative. It is how we understand conversion.

But it is not what happened to me. I do not see myself as having made any real decision to follow Jesus. He just stepped into my life on a particularly terrible day and gave me no choice. There was no saying “no” to Jesus. I was not in charge.

If anything, I’ve had a lot less control over my life since Jesus claimed me than I did before. And meaning … well, that wavers. I have good days and bad ones.

As I said, I am learning to respect the dominant conversion narrative. It reflects a real, lived experience, and there is scriptural support. It may be that many Christians, perhaps most, have found themselves facing a moment when they understood Jesus to ask, “will you follow me?” And they decided to follow. And good for them.

I, however, was never asked. Never given a choice. This too is scriptural. In fact, this is what makes our most compelling encounters with Jesus. That is, in part, what has made all that has happened since that beautiful Tuesday in early September, 2001, so difficult and perplexing — I followed, and all I seem to have gotten for it is grief, rejection, despair, and loneliness. I don’t understand why God’s people are so frightened, so cruel, so tribal, so unwelcoming.

I don’t understand why God would drag me to be with such people.

Still, I got to play music today. For people who thanked me, and said they appreciated it. It felt good, and it has been too long. I hope I can again. Soon.

Clothed in the Spirit

Because I’m working another full-time job, and not involved in the life of a congregation, I can plead that I’m not paying the kind of attention to Scripture — or worship — that I really ought to be. I’m a bit lost in the wilderness, as I have confessed multiple times on this blog.

So, this posting really should have been written several weeks ago for Pentecost.

Not long ago — and I’m not sure when exactly that was — I was reading through the two books of Chronicles, the second and much shorter historical account for Israel’s rise, fall, and redemption from exile. It’s a much more sanitized version of our history (yes, ours), leaves out many of the gory details of Saul’s faithlessness and David’s sin.

But I came across this amazing passage from 1 Chronicles 12 about David’s “Mighty Men”:

16 And some of the men of Benjamin and Judah came to the stronghold to David. 17 David went out to meet them and said to them, “If you have come to me in friendship to help me, my heart will be joined to you; but if to betray me to my adversaries, although there is no wrong in my hands, then may the God of our fathers see and rebuke you.” 18 Then the Spirit clothed Amasai, chief of the thirty, and he said,
“We are yours, O David,
and with you, O son of Jesse!
Peace, peace to you,
and peace to your helpers!
For your God helps you.”
Then David received them and made them officers of his troops. (1 Chronicles 12:16-18, ESV)

“The Spirit clothed Amasai…” וְרוּחַ לָבְשָׁ֗ה אֶת־עֲמָשַׂי This Spirit is the ruh that is the breath of God, and it enfolds Amasai like a garment. He wears לבשׁ lbš the Spirit of God. It covers him.

This doesn’t happen often. In Judges 6:34, the Spirit of the Lord clothes Gideon (וְרוּחַ יְהוָה לָבְשָׁה אֶת־גִּדְעוֹן) as he leads the army of Israel across the Jordan and gathers allies, and later in the Chronicles account (2 Chronicles 20:24), The Spirit of God clothes Zechariah the son of Jehoiada as he calls out the people’s idolatry following his father’s death (וְרוּחַ אֱלהִ֗ים לָֽבְשָׁה אֶת־זְכַרְיָה בֶּן־יְהוֹיָדָע הַכֹּהֵן). These are passages when a leader is clothed in the Spirit to gather followers or preach the clear truth to the people of God.

But this passage from 1 Chronicles is different. David is approached by some men from Benjamin and Judah — with whom David is at war because Saul is still king — who have come for reasons the Chronicler doesn’t say. Only David calls for God to rebuke them if they have come for ill. That’s when the Spirit clothes Amasai, and he proclaims his allegiance to David.

This is a political confession Amasai makes on behalf of his thirty men. He, and his cohort, give themselves over to David, and proclaim peace upon David and all those who help him, for God helps David. They will fight, will command men to fight, for David.

Like the Gibeonites, they see which side God is on and they switch sides.

Others from Israel slowly defect to David. But only Amasai and his thirty make a Spirit-clothed allegiance and confession. They are David’s because David is God’s.

What has this to do with Pentecost? Everything.

44 Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, 46 and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, 47 and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” (Luke 24:44-49 ESV)

“But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” ὑμεῖς δὲ καθίσατε ἐν τῇ πόλει ἕως οὗ ἐνδύσησθε ἐξ ὕψους δύναμιν. Acts itself uses “tongues of fire” and filling to describe the action of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, an outpouring like water, and not clothing wrapping and covering. But the risen Christ himself in Luke speaks of “putting on” power from high. A garment that enfolds us so that we can make a confession, proclaim an allegiance to Christ.

One of the things I learned early on as Muslim is that the shahada, the basic confession of faith — لا إله إلى الله محمد رسول الله there is absolutely no god but God and Muhammad [the praised one] is the messenger of God — is also a fundamentally political confession. To speak these words changed how the believer related to clan, caste, village, nation, and reoriented everything toward God and His Prophet.

Clearly this confession that Amasai and his fellow soldiers make is also a political confession. By being clothed in the spirit, and proclaiming “peace” to David, they are saying they will serve David and David’s God, who helps David. And not Saul. Their relationship to David becomes more important than being men of Benjamin and Judah, and they become men of David here.

And this is Peter’s confession on that day the followers of Jesus are “clothed with power from on high”:

This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing. … Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” (Acts 2:32-33, 36)

This is a political confession, as political a confession as Amasai’s proclamation of peace for David. When we confess this, we confess who is Lord, who is sovereign, who is helped and whom God helps. We confess whose side we are on by remembering whose side God is on — Christ’s. We are no longer divided by language, tribe, clan, and nation (εθνος), but we are no longer united by being members of the House of Israel or simply by being subject to Caesar’s rule. We have another Lord, because God has helped another.

And in helping Christ, God is helping us. In being on Christ’s side, God is on ours.

But only because we have come and submitted ourselves first to Christ. Because the Spirit has given us the power, wrapped itself around us, clothed us, and given us the ability to make that confession. We are only righteous insofar as Christ is righteous, and the only righteousness we have is that which first belonged to Christ.

Life Abdunatly

John 10:1-10

1 “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber. 2 But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. 5 A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.” 6 This figure of speech Jesus used with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.
7 So Jesus again said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. 8 All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. 9 I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”

They know his voice.

I have my dad’s old cell phone. It’s still listed in my iPhone’s address book as belonging to my dad, though he is gone and Jennifer now carries that phone.

And it still has the outgoing message he recorded. I cannot delete it — it is the last copy of his voice I know that I have. I simply cannot let go of it.

I know my dad’s voice. I have always known it, whether I was waiting with anticipation or terror at his coming.

Here, Jesus tells his disciples that his sheep know his voice. They know it. The teaching is made after Jesus is confronted by the Pharisees, some of whom cannot believe that Jesus is the long prophesied Son of Man.

It sounds here like you either know the shepherd’s voice or not. And maybe that’s true. To follow the master, and refuse to follow the thief, or a stranger, is to know something about the shepherd. The shepherd has come by the right way — the gate — and the gatekeeper has opened the gate for the shepherd.

Jesus is the gate, the one through which entry to the sheep is given. He is also, later in the reading, the good shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep. He speaks and those who follow know he has spoken.

I have heard the voice of Jesus. And yet, I did not know him. I was not one of his when he spoke to me. I could not follow the voice of what was then, to me, a stranger. It took others — faithful followers, struggling as best they could — to show me who he was. Who he is. I did not know his voice then but I do now. He is not a stranger to me now. He is the shepherd, and I know his voice.

I don’t think I’ve followed a stranger. Or been robbed by a thief. I have followed. I have life. I have it abundantly. I have that promise.

I wonder, though, what that means. Because what I’m living now … does not feel to me like abundant life.

LECTIONARY MONDAY Living a Burnt-Over Life

Acts 2:1-21

1 When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. 4 And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.
5 Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. 6 And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. 7 And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? 9 Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, 11 both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians—we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.” 12 And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others mocking said, “They are filled with new wine.”
14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, lifted up his voice and addressed them: “Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and give ear to my words. 15 For these people are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day. 16 But this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel:
17 “‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams;
18 even on my male servants and female servants
in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.
19 And I will show wonders in the heavens above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke;
20 the sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the day of the Lord comes, the great and magnificent day.
21 And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

It is Pentecost Sunday. The birthday of the church, when the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples and filled them, covered them, set them afire with power and faith — trust — to do great things.

I was baptized on Pentecost Sunday in 2005, so this is my “baptism birthday.” My first internship supervisor, who has moved on from his call in rural Wisconsin a time or two or three since our time together, would, for a the first few years afterwards, send me a message — “Happy baptism birthday!”, something he tried to do with all his parishioners when he knew they date of their baptism.

The first couple of times, that greeting made me angry, felt deeply humiliating, a reminder of the terrible thing that happened. But those feelings passed a long time ago. It’s also been a long time since he’s wished me a happy baptism birthday. And I miss it.

I’m feeling disconnected today. Not spirit filled. Not on fire. I’m lonely and isolated. I wonder what my future is. I am not amazed, or astounded, and I’m not dreaming dreams.

It’s the usual complaint of the last few years. My life feels somewhat pointless, purposeless, and empty. I cannot even take comfort in this ministry I do, since I no longer have any idea how much of it was real and how much wasn’t. I feel a little humiliated being lied to, but more importantly, I feel like I’ve wasted my purpose. Like I have none.

In the past, when I have felt this way, it has been mixed with destitution and the despair that induced. But thanks to my father’s recent death, Jennifer and I now no longer face that kind of oblivion. I have work and a place to live I pay rent on, and some other things. We shall not be destitute unless I’m supremely stupid or the stock market ceases to exist tomorrow.

But still … purpose.

It’s a sense of homelessness, a desire to connect, to belong, to part of a people, to know them and be known by them. I picked a lousy place to do that — Central Washington is a place, like the Midwest, of settled people, of people so enmeshed with each other that they don’t welcome strangers very well and don’t really know how to get to know strangers. The upside of knowing people since kindergarten — as one tiny class of seven high school graduates do in one small town high school graduation I covered this weekend — is that is how most people have known each other for most of human history. You are born, live, work, and die in the midst of kin and loved ones. “These are my brothers and sisters,” one student said. And he wasn’t wrong.

The downside is the only way people really enter that group is through birth. They know of no other way to welcome new people into their midst. And so … they don’t really know how.

This is one reason I think Semitic scriptures (Bible and Qur’an) make such a big deal of welcoming strangers. It is so very counter to how we actually live. It is not easy. And that is why so many are not very good at it.

I think the ministry was a way for me to connect, even with someone virtual. (I think Bethany — whoever she really was — wanted that too, was lonely too, which is why she pretended so much, and why she hasn’t hurt me.) I am lonely, and I want to be part of other people’s lives, to matter, to be important. And it’s hard, being a stranger and a wanderer in the land of settled people.

It is, right now, more than I really care to bear.

God feels so … gone. I feel so empty, forgotten, abandoned. I know I cannot rely on my feelings, especially in the empty place. But still, it is all very overwhelming. And it’s not just feelings, either. I am not part of whoever “they” are as they have gathered in that one place. I am not part of them. I am not of them. I have no place.

I was on fire. Once. Now I am ashes. The fire … has gone.

In the LCMS’s The Lutheran Study Bible, there is a prayer in the footnotes to this passage from the Hymn “Come, Holy Ghost, God and Lord”:

Come, holy fire, comfort true, Grant us the will Your work to do And in your service to abide; Let trials turn us not aside.

I have to trust this emptiness is, in fact, a place I have been brought. That this yearning to know and be known, to have a home, is one I have some hope of realizing. Because right now, I do not know. It is hard to trust. Hard to trust God in the emptiness. Hard to trust the fire of the Spirit when there is nothing but cold and ashes and silence.

Jesus spoke to me. Why don’t more people care about that?

Maybe because I don’t care enough about it.

It is an odd place, this place of cold silence. This place of strangeness. This empty place. I’ve had the Spirit descend on me, speak to me — It will not always be this way, so live until it changes. You do not need to be so angry. Things are going exactly as they should be. My love is all that matters and this is who I am. — an intense revelation that when I read it together, still speaks to me.

Still says all I need to know. To believe. To trust

That I am reborn. That I have new life. That I am filled with the Spirit. That I am on fire. That I belong. That I am one of them in that one place. That I have been called and gathered and sent forth.

I trust. In the thing I cannot see, touch, or even feel inside me right now. I trust. It is all I have.

LECTIONARY MONDAY Already Done

Yes, I know yesterday was Monday.

John 17:1-7

1 When Jesus had spoken these words, he lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, 2 since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. 3 And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. 4 I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do. 5 And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.
6 “I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. 7 Now they know that everything that you have given me is from you.

I like this understanding of eternal life, of αἰώνιος ζωὴ — to know God, and know Christ. It’s a simple description of eternal life, one a believer can get lost in.

Christians have added things to the biblical description of heaven/eternal life and hades/gahenna/tartarus that aren’t really there. In fact, I think a lot of the Christian notions as to what paradise and hellfire look like are derived from Islam. The Qur’an contains some remarkable descriptions of paradise as a place of comfort and ease, of bliss and eternal reward, while hellfire is a place of torture, pain, and despair. There’s a purpose to this afterlife, since where you go depend entirely on who you choose to follow — Satan and his minions, or God and his Prophet — and the deeds you do as a follower.

There’s some of this in scripture, but Israel’s relationship with God isn’t about afterlife. Resurrection becomes an issue, the the New Testament ends with a description of a renewed and resurrected creation.

But heaven … not so much.

What we do have is eternal life, and Jesus tells us that this eternal life is knowing God and knowing the Anointed One he sent.

That’s all it is. And it’s already done. Jesus still breathes here, and the work … is already done. The world is already overcome. We have been gathered and redeemed. And Jesus still breathes.

This is why I love John’s gospel. For all the talking Jesus does, for all the words he uses, there is a breathless wonder to what he says. I could ponder these words all my days and find no end to them. No bottom or finish to what they say or mean.

And we have eternal life. Eternal life. Because we know God. And we belong to Christ.

Church, Flagellate Thyself

Rob Saler, a better and more successful man than I who has gone on to write books that are actually reviewed (he and I both graduated from LSTC, and we chat sometimes), posted this to his Facebook page, about the joy some Episcopalians take in their decline and the memory of their power, and it’s worth reading:

First was the rector and staff’s resistance to facing programatic weaknesses head-on. Real improvement is hard, and it frequently involves breaking some eggs. Episcopalians are often more comfortable spending their way toward a solution than asking for human action. If ushers are unfriendly and annoying, rare is the rector who will speak to and, if necessary, dismiss them; much better instead to install new and more “welcoming” signage. It is easier to talk about buildings and grounds than about human behavior.

More insidious, however, was the bizarre combination of glee and dolefulness with which the conversation of the handicapped ramps unfolded. Many of the staff were unyielding in their belief that merely by existing, this parish was somehow, in some way, profoundly alienating to unseen seekers. The longer the conversation went on, the less it had to do with the needs of disabled visitors; what the staff were really engaged in was the ostensibly canonical ritual of corporate self-reproach and self-censure. The litany of Christendom’s sins was rehearsed, the correct responses were made, and the inevitable conclusion reached: We are oppressing those who never darken our door.

What an extraordinary conceit.

The Episcopal Church in the present day seems to want to do two things: (1) insist that it has given up its hegemonic past and now welcomes all people, and (2) function as if it must incorporate all people in a hegemonic way. These two impulses do not hang together easily, and they produce in what should be our fine old church an astonishing schizophrenia. We not only welcome all, we insist that all must be present, as if the Episcopal Church is the only game in town.

At some point on this blog, and I am not sure where, I noted that progressives and liberals long ago decided the only reason people were on margins — not living and working and loving in the respectable, bourgeois center — was they were forced to be there. Pushed out. Excluded. No one would live on the margins of their own accord, and no human behaviors or identities should ever be marginal.

So, the only reason people don’t show up for Episcopal, or Lutheran, services is that we have not welcomed them. We have excluded them. Otherwise, they would be here. They would be just like us.

As Non Angeli notes in this blog, this is not only nonsense, it is conceit. It fails to consider: what if they aren’t just like us? There are plenty of reasons that, to borrow an example from real life (from the congregation I interviewed with in late April), Latino Pentecostals would not be or want to be United Methodists. A lot has to do with culture, language, comfort, tradition, community, and that may or may not have anything to do with the welcome they have received. Not everyone is called to be Methodist, or Episcopalian, or Lutheran, or pentecostal.

(I see some beauty in pentecostal worship, and gifts pentecostals bring to the Body of Christ, but I cannot be pentecostal. It’s just not in me. I will never be a pentecostal.)

But the Liberal church still wants to be empire without actually being empire. It cannot envision equality without sameness. Many years ago, the ELCA — concerned at how white it was — set itself a target for the percentage of people of color in the confession. It was a silly move, and unlikely to be achieved short of the annexation of a largely non-white church. I find myself wondering if ELCA leaders and pastors asked themselves — why would people who are not like us want to worship with us? And it may little or nothing to do with them. The ELCA does have a problem — my experience at seminary showed me, and the rise of the #decolonizelutheranism movement demonstrates, that pastors and parishioners and congregations of color have a very difficult time in the ELCA, in part because the confession is torn between its liberal ideals and the reality that many of its congregations share in America’s heritage of white supremacy. But that problem is as much a matter of class — a suffocating bourgeois piety that has no ability to forgive sinners — as it is race.

The truth is, there are many reasons people do not want to be ELCA Lutherans that have absolutely nothing to do Lutherans failing to be welcoming or inclusive. It’s not necessarily about us. Even if we say we get the gospel right, in the end, people make choices for reasons that honestly have nothing to do with us.

Maybe some folks live on a margin because that’s where they feel comfortable, safe, and welcome. Because that’s where they know they belong. Margins should be safe, and not abolished.

Liberalism and progressivism, however, in its many forms, cannot abide marginality. And it cannot abide separateness either. All must belong to the one true community. Eventually, the progressive reaches for the cudgel. To force others if it can.

And if it can’t, to scourge itself.