Saturday, July 30, 2016

Fred Clark on Rev. William J. Barber's Moral Revolution: A Rebuke to White Evangelical Reading of the Bible

As Fred Clark says, there's a reason Rev. William J. Barber cited "Revive Us Again," a venerable hymn long beloved by Southern white evangelicals, in his stirring commentary at the Democratic National Convention. I blogged about this commentary yesterday; a video of Rev. Barber's address to DNC is at this posting.

As Fred notes, this 19th-century hymn written by William Paton Mackay is a "Southern Gospel standard," long sung in white evangelical churches in the South, a hymn cherished by white Southern evangelicals. I sang it repeatedly as a child. It was a standard feature of the yearly revival meetings in every church my family ever attended.

Fred thinks that in citing "Revive Us Again," Rev. Barber "is inviting white evangelicals to sing that song, but he does so in a way that echoes Jesus' words in Matthew 9: 'Go and learn what this means …' " As Fred explains,

While most of Barber's sermon was, I think, intended to appeal to a universal, secular audience, parts of it also seemed specifically pitched as an appeal to — and rebuke of — certain of his fellow Christians. Heck, let’s just say it: white Christians. And even more specifically, white evangelicals — the brothers and sisters who have opposed him at every step as they have supported Art Pope's right-wing revolution in Barber's native state. Those are the Christians he was addressing in his pointed line about, "Those who say so much about what God says so little, while saying so little about what God says so much."
Barber also addressed his white evangelical fellow Christians throughout in his use of "revival" as a metaphor. His message to them was signaled clearly in his invocation of Isaiah 58 — a biblical reference that, alas, is likely to elude many white American Bible Christians, as it's never been among their beloved favorites. It is a ferociously apt prophetic rant aimed at precisely the sort of piously beside-the-point white evangelicals now supporting Trump. 
You want revival? the prophet says. You'll never know revival if "you serve your own interest" and "oppress all your workers."

As Fred notes, when Rev. Barber told his audience that, if we pay attention to what the scriptures really say and stop fixating on what they don't say — a conservative approach to the bible, Rev. Barber tells us at the outset of his presentation, which pays careful heed to its actual and not imagined text — what we'll hear is, "Pay people what they deserve, share your food with the hungry."

I highlighted this portion of Rev. Barber's address yesterday. As Fred notes, Rev. Barber is citing Isaiah 58 here. His statement about Christians who say so much about what God says so little, while saying so little about what God says so much, is addressed quite specifically to Southern white evangelical Christians, who have built their Christian identity today around opposing LGBTQ rights and attacking LGBTQ human beings — topics never even mentioned in the Jewish and Christian scriptures — while supporting political leaders who ignore the needs of those on the margins of society, who use gross racism to gain votes, who attack immigrants, who seek to dismantle a federal program that has expanded healthcare coverage to millions of Americans on the economic margins of society.

In his call for the moral transformation of the nation, Rev. Barber is quite pointedly challenging the belief of many of us who are Christian that we can be "revived" and holy as long as we sing cheerfully about Jesus while ignoring the needs of the very sort of human beings with whom Jesus cast his lot: the hungry, the homeless, the unemployed, the prisoner, and, in a contemporary context, the person of color and the LGBTQ person.

We white Southern Christians have long loved to sing about Jesus and talk about how we're revived and holy even as we run off to the polls and cast our votes for political leaders who actively target minority groups and do nothing at all to assist those on the margins of society. In the name of Jesus, we white Southern Christians have pitched a big, ugly fit for several years now about an expansion of a national healthcare plan to provide medical coverage for people on the margins of society. We're prepared this election cycle to go to the polls and cast our votes for Donald Trump as the candidate God has anointed in this election, and in doing so, we're heeding the voices of our trusted evangelical leaders, of people like Rev. Franklin Graham, who are encouraging us to behave this way.

But once again: as Fred Clark points out, in citing this hymn, Rev. Barber is telling Christians who think and act this way not to imagine we are truly revived, until we start paying attention to what the bible really says — Do justice, love tenderly, walk humbly with God — and stop nattering on about what it doesn't say anywhere — Restrict the rights of LGBTQ people, block African Americans from voting, yank healthcare coverage from indigent people.

This approach to the scripture, which spiritualizes salvation and reduces Christian salvation to a me-and-Jesus transaction focused entirely on souls, is deeply characteristic of both white Southern evangelicals and conservative white Catholics. In the case of white Southern evangelicals, this me-and-Jesus tradition is rooted in the defense of slavery in the nineteenth century, a period in which Southern preachers and theologians argued that to speak of slavery as a sin condemned by the Judaeo-Christian scriptures was to distort the meaning of the bible, which is about the salvation of individual souls, not of society itself.

This same approach to scripture then led white Southern evangelicals to defend racial segregation and to oppose integration with arguments that nothing in scripture commands us to identify racism as a sin, and with shameful arguments that the bible tells us God has cursed people of color and commanded that they serve those with lighter complexions. Salvation is not about changing society, these arguments said, echoing the defense of slavery by white Southern Christians in the nineteenth century. It's about saving souls. 

Through the alliance the U.S. Catholic bishops have created between white evangelicals and the Catholic community, this kind of theological discourse has also become powerfully persuasive to many white Catholics (and there are theological precedents for this spiritualized reading of the scriptures built right into the Catholic tradition itself, it should be noted). Read comments at Catholic blog and news sites online now, and you'll find comment after comment by people identifying themselves as the most orthodox of Catholics, who are furious that any Catholic leader (e.g., Pope Francis) would suggest that our salvation may depend on how we deal with the poor, those in prison, the homeless and unclothed, those who are sick and in need of medical attention, LGBTQ people and people of color.

The church's business is saving souls, these "orthodox" Catholics insist. It's not to meddle in the political realm — except, of course, the church absolutely must overturn laws permitting abortion and same-sex marriage. And: We're voting for Donald Trump because Trump represents Catholic values and teaching better than Hillary Clinton does. She is pro-choice and pro-gay marriage. No good Catholic can support her.

This is the reasoning many white evangelicals and many white Catholics are now using as they make their political decisions. And as Father Thomas Reese has noted (I discussed this yesterday), given the decisive nature of the Catholic vote, especially in swing states, that vote may well determine the outcome of the 2016 elections.

If Donald Trump is elected president, the one in two white Catholics who support him will be responsible for placing him in the White House. This is not a prospect about which U.S. Catholics or their pastoral and moral leaders should be very proud. That it is even possible points to the pastoral and moral bankruptcy of the U.S. Catholic bishops as they have led their church to this point over the past several decades.

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