What's in a word? Turns out a lot. Especially when that word is marriage. The "M" word has sure generated a lot of other words in the last few days. I have seen words of joy, lament, anger, denial, confusion, contrition, and explanation pour out across the internet, in private conversations, and over our news media outlets. We have reached a tipping point in the American conscience that began in earnest in the 1960s, took root in the 1970s, and has reached critical mass in 2015. The tipping point is this...
No matter your conviction on whether it should be, or if it ever was, The United States of America is not a Christian Nation; and when I say Christian Nation I define that in the Falwellian/Culture War sense of the term. Like France, like England (at least in practice), or like many other European nations, as of June 26, America has firmly and decidedly planted its flag upon the rock of secular humanism.
For those that longed for America to turn in a different and more religiously conservative direction this has been a crippling blow to the cause. Hope in a tangible victory has proven instead to be a chimera. For those who have long sought to draw ever more contrast between church and state this is seen as a victory.
The conservative Christian denominations of the United States have lost their hold upon the greater conscience of the American people. Catholic, protestant, Orthodox, and otherwise the longstanding assumption has been that while the Constitution establishes no state religion, Christianity holds the de-facto status as such. The writing on the wall has become more than an omen and the fear of many church leaders and adherents of being pushed aside and made irrelevant is now the reality.
The voices of denial that I have heard seem to be ringing the strongest at the moment. Among protestant and evangelical leadership there are a multitude of calls to once again circle the wagons in the face of the newest attack on Christianity. There is a wave of denial sweeping over this group that despite all evidence to the contrary it intends to go on as if Gay marriage is still not a real and concrete thing. It is this voice of denial, even more than voices of anger, that I find the most troubling because if these voices prevail the American Christian church has truly lost its way.
For those who are not part of Christian culture you need to understand that for many Christians the decision of the Supreme Court in favor of Gay marriage has caused a deep and resonating mourning within many in the Church. As with any loss of such a deep and profound nature I have no doubt many of America's Christian leaders are shell-shocked. Denial is part of the grieving process. Denial however; is only a coping mechanism that tides us over as we progress through our grief and begin to deal with reality; and reality is what I want to address.
The reality is this. America is not a Christian nation (and I would argue never has been). Despite the Pledge's assertion, it is not, "one nation under God"; rather America is a possession of this world, and as such, is ultimately controlled by the powers of this world. Since Constantine in 324-5 the Church has tried to hasten the Kingdom of God to Earth through wielding Earthly power. The last forty years of American history have seen that plan of attack waged upon the United States as Christians have systematically sought to bring American government under Christian control and influence.
If you are uncomfortable with me using the words attack in referring to the strategy of the church in America you need to first consider that it was we Christians who first cast our kingdom building efforts as military terms. It is we who have sung the Battle Hymn of the Republic, it is we who have urged onward the Christian soldiers, and it is we who have sought to do what Jesus urged his disciples to forgo, namely the forcible (though not military) installment of God's kingdom here on earth.
Much has been written about the waning of Christendom in the global North and West. The pull on the rope that resulted in the bell toll of June 26 was actually begun long before the 1960s; rather its roots come in the 1800s and the rise of secularism, existentialism, and modernism. Humanity in the West has ceased to find compelling arguments for Christianity that are based upon external (and often oppressive and political) forces.
American Culture has been shaken and tilled up. The maps of our past culture no longer apply today, the landscape has forever changed into a new and different form.
So what do we do? How can we move forward? What questions do we consider?
First, instead of denying the present, and clinging to a hope for the return of the past, Christians in American must begin the hard work of seeing our world through the eyes of foreigners. We have formally entered into the reality other Christians have been experiencing in Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. Places where Christianity has become merely one cultural mythology among many.
Second, we must embrace our role as God's remnant amidst the ruins. Just as God provided for the continuance of a faithful few during the period of Israel's and Judah's exile to Babylon so we must accept our role as keepers of God's Good News. The Good News hasn't changed even though the world has continued to change. The story of Jesus Christ's life, death, and resurrection still apply today.
Third, we must also embrace our role as the exiled. When Israel and Judah were exiled it was because they had fallen away from being the people God had commanded them to be. The American church has lost its core identity as it has chased after peripheral issues and worldly power. We have not honored God in our care of the poor, in our care for the aliens in our midst, in the Christ in need before us. We have confused a message of individual salvation as the totality of the Gospel. We need to learn from this time about how to truly become servants of the cities we inhabit, and how to share a Gospel that is bigger than just ourselves.
Lastly, we need to start asking the questions that will need concrete answers in the coming years:
- How do we deal with homosexuality in Christ-honoring ways?
- How do we guide married homosexual couples into the Gospel, and integrate them into our communities of faith?
- How do we serve, love, and support women who were once men and men who were once women, and families with children who do not conform to their birth gender?
- How do we influence culture without demanding a dominant position?
- How do we navigate an ancient, and culturally distant scripture in light of scientific discovery?
- How do we as Christians finally begin to handle sin and judgement well within our own bodies of faith?
I could go on and on with more questions; however I think the point of importance is that with new terrain comes new questions, and new methods.
In closing, I want to welcome my fellow American Christians into our exile. Don't be afraid! God is still with us, and we are still his people; however we must now live that out in a new world, in a new way, and with a new understanding of what it means to be faithful. The idol laden temple of American Christianity has been demolished, and not one stone stands upon another. Welcome to Babylon.