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Presented April 20, 2003, by Rev. Dr. Rob Manning
The title of this talk is "a whole new Christianity beginning when?" If you sense some impatience in that title, you are absolutely correct. I'm finding myself, this Holy Week and this Easter, very impatient and frustrated with Christianity.
Now let my try to explain that. All semester long I have been teaching a course at QU on theological and philosophical responses to the Holocaust and genocide. As you know, this is a subject I care about a great deal. Now for about 25 years or so, major and important and well known Christian theologians have been arguing that Christianity not only needs to recognize and deal with the fact that its 2000 year history of animosity toward Judaism at least helped lead to the catastrophe we call the Holocaust. They have been arguing that Christianity needs to ask forgiveness from its Jewish brothers and sisters and seek reconciliation with them. And they have been arguing that in light of the fact that most of those who murdered Jews during the nightmare years of the Holocaust were baptized Christians and were at least nominally Christian, and in the light of the fact that most of the other Christians in Germany and in other occupied countries like Poland and the Balkans did nothing to prevent these millions of Jews from being murdered, that all this has to mean that Christianity must radically rethink its theology, its message, the way in influences people to act and think. I have given you two examples of famous contemporary Christian theologians who have make this argument-an American, David Tracy, and a German, Johann Babtist Metz-but there are many others.
That charge that Christianity has to radically rethink itself in light of its moral and spiritual failure during the Holocaust-that is what I mean by a whole new Christianity. Let me give you some specific examples of this radical rethinking that brings about this new Christianity. David Tracy wrote 25 years ago that Christians have to learn to see and admit the anti-Judaism in their own sacred texts. Christian ministers and priests, when they are conducting services, should admit that the gospel accounts already reflect the animosity between the early Christian communities and the Jewish communities from which they are separating. So during a Christian Holy Week service, for example, when in the scriptures the congregation reads the part of the scripture where the Jewish crowd shouts "Crucify Him! Crucify Him!" or they say "Let His Blood Be on us and on Our Children" Tracy would have the minister or priest at that point say something like: These phrases from the gospels, products of the first century, clearly show the early church shifting the blame for the crucifixion from the Roman authorities to the Jewish people themselves, and this of course has helped create the horrors of centuries of Christians persecuting our Jewish brothers and sisters, which we as Christians now after we have all understood the tragedy of the Holocaust can never cease from asking forgiveness for.
Imagine a Christianity with that much ability to criticize itself, to publicly admit that there is a poison of prejudice even in its own scriptures and that it cannot simply tell the same story over and over again to itself. Imagine a Christianity that has the courage to admit that this religion of love has often led to violence and murder. In theological terms that capacity of Christianity to be self critical, to radically question itself and its own traditions, is called-thanks to the great Lutheran theologian Paul Tillich "the Protestant Principle." Now you would think if anything stimulates and gives life to the Protestant principle, it would be the Holocaust. Have the mainline Protestant churches in this country really faced up to what the reality of the Holocaust says to and about Christianity? And has this facing up to the Holocaust led to a whole new, vibrant life for the Protestant Principle? Only a few blocks from here in the more liberal Lutheran Church in town there is a huge stained glass window, not of Jesus but of Martin Luther, he the same Protestant leader who told the Christians of his time that next to the devil their worst enemy was the Jew and that they should burn the Jews houses down and force the Jews to lie still on the ground.
I have been waiting, but I don't see much evidence that the Holocaust is really stimulating the life of the Protestant Principle in mainline Protestant America. And what is worse: every year more and more of mainline Protestant America becomes evangelical Protestant America. More and more people quit the Methodists or the Lutherans or the Presbyterians and become Assembly of God or whatever, and in these evangelical Protestant traditions, what Tillich thought the best and most valuable thing about Protestantism, that ability of Christianity to criticize itself within itself which he called The Protestant Principle, does not exist. That Christian communities should be led by their clergy to recognize the anti-Judaism of its own scriptures and traditions is just the beginning of the radically changed, new Christianity in the face of the Holocaust that Metz, Tracy and other theologians have been calling for for a long time now. Both Tracy and Metz argue that when Christianity confronts the Holocaust it recognizes how it has to reinterpret the entire story of Christ and of Christianity. Both theologians argue that the fact that the Holocaust occurred within Christianity and within Christian history has got to finally make Christians understand the disastrous, dangerous and violent way they have understood their own story. Christians down through the centuries have been told and told others that humans are sinful and that they need redemption, that someone had to pay the penalty for this sin and that this someone was Jesus Christ, the innocent lamb of God whose blood was shed for us. Now that Jesus has gone through the agony of Good Friday and has triumphed over death on Easter, the triumph of eternal salvation is fully available to anyone who believes that Jesus is the Son of God and swears by his name. Those who do so will be triumphant because they will be redeemed by his saving blood, but if you do not believe that Jesus is God's son you will have no share in his triumphant kingdom and will be forever cast out into eternal darkness. Believe and ye shall be saved.
Both Tracy and Metz and other theologians have been saying for a while now that the fact of the Holocaust as an event within Christian history finally shows for all of us and for all the world how morally wrong and disastrous this interpretation of Christianity, what is called in the lingo of theology triumphalist Christianity, actually is. They argue that this triumphalist Christianity actually makes Christians less sensitive to the sufferings of other people. If Christians are told that everyone sins and is worthless but that you can be saved from your unworthiness by believing in Jesus, why would Christians and why should Christians care so much about people outside of Christianity? They are after all only unworthy and unsaved sinners. Tracy and Metz both point out that most Christians didn't do anything to save their six million Jewish brothers and sisters at least partly because the triumphalism within Christian theology taught them that these six million really weren't in any meaningful and real way their brothers and sisters and really didn't matter that much anyway.
Tracy and Metz and other theologians have been responding to the Holocaust and have been calling for radical changes within Christianity and even for this most radical change, to junk forever triumphalist Christianity with its victory for us over them and to come up with a very different version of the Christian story. The Holocaust and the entire history of human suffering during the 200 years of the Christian era prove that however the signficance of Christ must be thought, it must not be thought in a way that minimizes the significance of human suffering. They suggest that God was in Jesus trying to show himself and reconcile the world to Himself, and that the fate of Jesus, one of the poor and powerless of the earth, has to make us more aware and more sensitive to the suffering of others. They argue that another and a better way to interpret Christ's significance as the son of God is that through Christ God works to overcome the suffering of the world but that God wants us to work with Him in restoring the world to peace and justice and that that work is obviously not nearly complete and cannot be complete until we are all reconciled to each other as brothers and sisters, and that the old triumphalist Christiantiy which celebrates our victory over them simply continues to tear the world apart and take us farther away from a redeemed world.
This new interpretation of Christ and of Christianity, this non-triumphalist Christianity, I know it's out there. We have all seen it. It's not just within a few academic theologians. We've seen it and heard it in Sister Beth Murphy and the Sprinfield Dominicans and in the Franciscans here. We've seen and heard it within the good Methodists and other Christians who have joined us in the peace movement here in Quincy, and we have seen and heard it within some of the Christian clergy who have spoken out. We have seen and heard it from the Pope Himself and from the U.S. Catholic bishops, and we heard it powerfully articulated a few weeks ago by Father Mario. And Lucy and I and everyone who was at the community Good Friday service heard it articulated by a retired Methodist minister who said that every time any human suffers Jesus hangs on the cross and that the meaning of that cross is to be committed to eliminate human suffering everywhere.
Yes, I believe to a certain extent this new, nontriumphalist Christianity is out there a bit, and especially among the clergy and the lay leaders of the Catholic and the mainline Protestant denominations. But what about among the ordinary people in the pews? Father Kurt, head pastor of the Franciscan parish in town, spoke at our initital town hall meeting of the clergy and voiced his own and the pope's objections to an attack on Iraq, but he said to me that 90% of the people in his congregation support whatever actions the president takes despite what the Pope has said, and his is not only a Catholic but a Franciscan congregation. The fact is that we have been experiencing an interesting time religiously in this country in that the national leadership of the mainline churches, Protestant and Catholic, expressed deep misgivings about the attack on Iraq and have opposed it, while the majority of the people in the congregations supported it. The clergy and the religious leaders may be very concerned about every life lost in Iraq and may see every individual Iraqi as Christ, as both Sister Beth and Father Mario said, but do most Christians out in the pews see each Iraqi as Christ?
I know there's a new, nontriumphalist Christianity out there somewhere, but when does it get articulated by the clergy and begin to sink into the people in the pews? Who better represents the theology of, for example, American Methodists today? that retired Methodist minister who spoke to Quincy Christians about Jesus still suffering on the cross today, especially in Iraq? And the Creede's, who have been very involved with the peace movement because to them I am sure every suffering person is Christ, or is it that other, more southern Methodist who lives in the White House? We are going to be talking about the theology of George W., in two weeks when my brother is in town, but here's a starter. There was a famous theological debate a few years ago within the Bush family. The family matriarch, Barbara, argued that it is possible for some good people who are not Christians to go to heaven, but her son, George W., said that only Christians go to heaven. "Mom," he said, "I'm only telling you what it says in the Bible." He suggested they call a true expert on Christianity, Billy Graham, and get the right answer, which they did. And this is how George W. won that argument.
If most Methodists and most other Christians in this country still have within them the old Christian theology and see the world through that old, old story of salvation for Christians and damnation for everyone else, then Christianity probably has played its part in making us Americans insensitive to the sufferings of others. If the Holocaust doesn't make Christians realize that this triumphalist theology might just make us more likely to drop bombs on other people or at least not care very much when we do, then nothing will. Nothing will. Now there are many Americans who would like and be comforted with that story of the Bush's in-family theological debate. You can imagine how many ministers in this country might tell this story to their congregations to demonstrate that our country is on the right path, that we now have a man in the White House who is walking with the Lord, who takes his Christianity seriously. And I find myself so frustrated and impatient, asking in the words of the Psalms: "Lord, how long?" If there is a new non-triumphalist Christianity out there, when exactly does it begin? I'm more than frustrated with a Christian America that seems untroubled when we use our military might even when their own Christian leaders have spoken against it. I'm feeling the more than frustration Martin Luther King must have felt when he told white Christianity it was more white than Christian, and I'm not the only one who would like to tell American Christianity today that it is more American than Christian. I have all my life cared passionately about Christian theology, about various versions of Christianity, and especially about the tie between the various versions of Christian theology and history and politics. I can get very upset about such things and I am in this talk that has as its title an expression of impatience and exasperation letting this feeling of being upset out. But even in the midst of doing so I do hear a completely other voice, the voice of the anti-Christian philosopher Nietzsche who might well speak in a voice similar to many of you when he says: "this version of Christianity or that version of Christianity or another. How you interpret the experience of someone who suffered and died a long time ago? It's all gloomy and depressing. Let it go. Don't burden yourself with what is depressing and heavy. Let all your thoughts be directed entirely by what is around you. Let your only revelation be redbud. Breathe in the real holy scent of lilac. Let the play of children and the color of Easter eggs enlighten you. Everything all about us right now is joy, and as Nietzsche said, humanity has never experienced enough joy. We have never permitted ourselves to become experts at experiencing joy. So stop the theologizing and the fretting about God and Christianities and go outside and play.
If you think people are going to hell anyway, you might be more likely to drop bombs on them and less likely to care about them as you do so
The Quincy Unitarian Church Home
The list of Selected Sermons.
More Sermons from the Rev. Dr. Rob Manning.