Monday, November 11, 2013

Justice, Mercy, and Bigotry at Church

Sometimes, I wonder why I keep going to church.

At least, the church I've been attending for the past 14 years.

It's a wealthy church supported by a wealthy, mostly white congregation with a multi-million-dollar annual budget, located literally next-door to one of the wealthiest towns in the United States.  It has at least one billionaire on the Forbes list among its membership, as well as several oil barons, CEO's, and a curiously large collection of financial advisers... which, maybe isn't so curious after all.

Not that I begrudge my fellow church-goers their money.  Shucks, I'm even a grateful beneficiary of their wealth.  In a way, it's one of the reasons I've attended this church for as long as I have.  All of the millions God has given the people in this congregation have staffed the church with gifted preachers and extraordinarily-talented musicians, put a magnificent pipe organ in the sanctuary and a smaller one in the chapel, and restored soaring stained glass windows.  When I came to this church, I came as a refugee from the seeker-sensitive movement and its corollary, the contemporary-worship-as-rock-concert scene.  I couldn't believe an evangelical, Bible-based, Christ-worshipping, theologically conservative congregation that worshipped with classical music and beautiful architecture could still exist in today's America!

When this congregation remodeled its 1930's-era sanctuary a few years ago, no video screens were installed.  Its wood pews still contain hymnals that are used every week.  The music is glorious and "holy" in the traditional sense of corporate worship being set apart for our Creator, not the created.

And it's not just corporate worship upon which this church lavishes money.  They also fund sprawling enterprises in cross-cultural missions and church-planting, and run a cutting-edge inner-city outreach program.  Recently they launched a seminary designed to minimize tuition costs so financial issues don't prevent students from attending.  Tons of good stuff are happening at this church, and a lot of people are generous with the money God has given to them in paying for it all.

So I rather enjoy the wealth of all these other people, even if I only get to benefit from it on Sundays.  When I started attending, I knew I wouldn't fit in with the lifestyles enjoyed by virtually everybody else there, and indeed, I've felt like a spectator these entire 14 years.  Yet I honestly don't know of another congregation in the Dallas area that seeks to corporately praise our holy God in the rich way these folks do.  And of course, I'm using "rich" in every beneficent sense of the term.

But then I have days like yesterday.

Do Justly, Love Mercy, Blah, Blah...?

One of the impressive ways this church has found to minister to its community is through the arts, and specifically, an annual arts festival organized around Biblical themes.  This year, the theme is justice and mercy, based on Micah 6-8.  You know the key verse:  "do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God."

As happens every year, the arts festival features a juried show of decorative art, such as paintings, sculpture, and photography.  And this isn't just a provincial collection of dabblers and paint-by-numbers hobbyists; the works are often for sale, with prices ranging from the hundreds of dollars to the thousands.  Some of the paintings are quite large, and this year's collection includes not only a towering portrait of Abraham Lincoln in blues and grays, but also an intricate waterfall sculpture, and a set of three-feet-long steel spikes mounted on a steel pedestal.

Those spikes, by the way, could be decorating your home by Thanksgiving for $8,000.  Plus shipping, presumably.

Interspersed amongst these grand works are other less prominent entries, such as a painting of two elderly men, one black, one white, along a bucolic creekbank, fishing together.  Another is a collage of strips of colored paper and cut-out photographs of old buildings, with more cutouts of vintage airplanes, all varnished together to depict the Berlin Airlift.  There are two similar paintings by the same artist depicting funeral scenes at rural wood-frame churches, where cemeteries overflow with mourners reflecting on a life invested in the community.  Then there's the glossy, framed photo of a black man's hands, with discolored stubs where his fingers used to be.

But that photograph wasn't the most disturbing part of my morning.

It was in this gallery of contemplative artwork that I came across an earnest conversation between two well-dressed, well-coiffed matriarchs of the congregation.  I'd never met the taller woman in the white dress, but years ago, I'd been introduced to the other woman, who yesterday, conveniently for this retelling, wore a black outfit.  I doubt if she'd acknowledge ever meeting me before, however.  I know some great people in this church's chancel choir, of which I've been a part for seven years, but outside of it, I've found few congregants to be particularly friendly.

At any rate, as I worked my way down the side of the temporary gallery, silently critiquing the art as I passed, I approached these two ladies and, from their conversation, quickly deduced that art was not on their minds.

"My grandchildren know more about Martin Luther King than they do George Washington," protested the lady in the white dress.  "It's as if American history began during the Vietnam War."

"Oh, I know," affirmed the shorter lady in black.

"It's like the blacks have taken over our history," continued the woman in white, apparently oblivious to the fact that a black woman in a pink sweater was standing not five feet away from her, watching the two of them.

For my part, I'd never seen that black lady before - our congregation is so white, the non-whites are memorable - and knowing the church hires security guards specifically to watch the artwork, I wondered if she was simply working the morning shift yesterday.  She didn't appear to be taken aback by anything the women were saying, so either she didn't hear them after all, or as the employee of a security firm, she didn't figure it was her place to visibly react.

But I heard those ladies, and instantly, I was broiling inside.  If that black lady in the pink sweater wasn't going to react, by George, I sure thought I should!  I inched even closer, pretending to be engrossed in the art, until I was within a couple of feet of the two white women, who never stopped talking, and who never lowered their voices.

What to say?  What to say?  I kept asking myself, my brain swirling with rebuttals, but I kept mentally nixing them all, because I wanted to stay on a more charitable plane than the one on which those women were wallowing.

Before I could figure out a well-calculated zinger, however, those women moved on.  To Obamacare.

"And this new insurance!" continued the woman in white.  "They expect us to pay even more taxes so they can have their own healthcare!"

"I know; taxes are far too high already," agreed the woman in black.  "If everybody would just work to support their own family, we wouldn't have to pay for all of their needs."

Walking Humbly?

I couldn't even see the artwork I was standing in front of.  My mind was black with incredulity.

Not that I'm the most innocent person in that church.  I'm hardly a paragon of virtue, especially since I can get jealous of all the wealth on conspicuous display there.  I worry about why people there don't accept poor little old me.  And hey - don't even talk to me about how I make an idol out of the corporate worship services.  I know I shouldn't admire them so.

I'm not racially pure, either.  Okay, so I harbor some racist assumptions, and I've spoken in a derogatory way about all sorts of people who aren't like me - and not just rich folk.  Who am I to react in anger to what these two women are saying?  If I paid what they likely pay in taxes, I'd probably be fuming too.

Ahh, my brain reminded me, but what about that quip about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.?  Washington was a deist slave-owner; King had his own faults, but wasn't he more born-again than America's first president?  Besides, how many of our country's modern problems stem from our sordid history with slavery?

I sputtered and fretted to myself all my way home from Dallas to Arlington.  And then finally, it hit me.  All things considered, I should just pray for them - and myself - and ask God to heal and restore all of us in this miserable area of race relations.

After all, it's not like we whites are the only racist people in America.

Perhaps what particularly struck me about those two women and their conversation was the irony of it all!  It took place in a wide hallway in front of our church's Fellowship Hall, where artwork based on the theme of "justice and mercy" was being displayed.

What is justice, and what is mercy?  Could these women have thought their words were somehow in support of justice?  Or even mercy?  But then, how is knowing more about Dr. King than President Washington a bad thing?  After all, the rights for which Washington is known weren't available to slaves in his day, nor were they fully available during Dr. King's generation.

And although I'm against Obamacare, it's not a subject based on race, or even individual industriousness.  Assuming that people who benefit from taxpayers are lazy reveals an underestimation of capitalism.  Simply consider all the money these women likely enjoy, and how much of it was earned through sheer ingenuity, back-breaking physical labor, or brilliant intelligence?  After all, these three resources represent the only ways individuals can produce assets without needing contributions from anybody else.

Perhaps these women have never heard of the working poor, or the physically disabled, or the underemployed, either.  They don't seem to understand that in a capitalist system, everybody will not have the same amount of money.  If we did, then we'd live in a Communist system.  And if there are going to be different scales of pay for different scales of work, it's going to take a miraculously balanced cost-of-living index to keep everybody employed at a basic level of sustainability.  Or, to put it another way, having a significant gap between income levels in a society usually means that the lower end struggles more just to pay for the basics.  Meanwhile, the folks at the higher end wonder why everybody else is complaining.

Part of my problem is that while this church I attend is theologically conservative, it's also liberal in its conservative politics.  The former isn't problematic, of course, but the latter can be.  Frankly, many evangelical churches are that way here in America.  At this church I've attended for 14 years, however, I've come to wonder if such liberal political conservatism might be exacerbated by, well, the congregation's exacerbated level of wealth.  Whenever you've got something other people want, it's easy to develop a martyr complex the more you feel the need to defend what you've got.  And folks at this church have a lot of what other people want.

Then too, when you see other people with something you want, it's easy to develop a martyr complex because they won't let you have it.

With Your God

The thing is, however, that we evangelicals are supposed to remember Whose all of this stuff really is.  Aren't we?  Do we earn whatever incomes we earn because we deserve to, or because Somebody has given us the opportunity to?

I'm not saying that we should all earn the same amount of money, or that being rich is wrong.  The church I attend is proof of that.  But when it comes to justice and mercy, hasn't God withheld the former from His people, while He's lavished the latter upon us?  And paradoxically, doesn't He expect us to extend both of them to others?

Granted, it is justice for people who don't want to work to not eat.  Says so in 2 Thessalonians 3:10.  However, the apostle Paul is writing about fellow believers in Christ, not about people who don't claim to follow Christ.  What about them?  Maybe that's where grace can come in?

This afternoon, God drew to my attention a verse from Isaiah 58:10, which appears to be far too blatant an answer than mere coincidence:

"And if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday."

In this passage, God is lecturing Israel for their "pointing fingers and malicious talk" (verse 9), and for not "loosening the chains of injustice" (verse 6) for the oppressed.  He promises that if we honor His sabbath and, among other things, refrain from "speaking idle words" (verse 13), we will have an inheritance upon which we can feast.

I may be the poorest person attending this wealthy church in Dallas, but I shouldn't dwell on that.  All of us who are in Christ will be getting the same inheritance in the end, and none of us can purchase God's mercy, so in that regard, we're in the same boat, no matter our financial portfolio.

Since yes, I'm more of a spectator than a participant in this church's community, perhaps it's easier for me to say that than for somebody who's more socially intertwined with it.  And unfortunately, it's also easier because I'm white, since I seriously doubt those women yesterday were envisioning white people as they murmured against supporters of Dr. King. 

And that's the thing.  Yes, such blatant bigotry is profoundly disturbing, but if there's no such thing as a perfect church (which there isn't), what worse sins might another church harbor?  At least the church I attend is addressing the issue of justice and mercy, and in the provocative context of an arts festival, to boot.  If those two women were oblivious to that message, what does that say about them, as opposed to their church?

Maybe that, since He knows how each of us thinks, God pairs justice and mercy for a reason?

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