Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Joel Osteen Story and Nashville Statement Raise the Question, What Good Do Churches Do? — #EmptyThePews More Important Than Ever

As hurricane Harvey has devastated southeastern Texas and is now moving to Louisiana, there has been lively discussion, especially on social media, about the initial refusal of prosperity-gospel preacher Joel Osteen to open his Houston megachurch to those displaced by flooding. Osteen eventually responded to the negative publicity he and his church were earning by saying that he will admit people in need of shelter after other shelters are at maximum capacity. 

Meanwhile, Jim McIngvale, a mattress store owner in Houston, has opened his two stores to people in need of a place to stay, and is feeding those his stores are housing, saying that his Catholic upbringing taught him to "do the right thing and help people along the way." And, of course, the disparity between the response of a business owner, "Mattress Mack," to people in dire need in Houston and the response of an influential minister of the Christian gospel inevitably makes one think of that discussion we just had here a few weeks back about how CEOs of large corporations were displaying more moral sensitivity about Donald Trump's defense of white-supremacist Nazis and Klansmen than the members of his court-prophet evangelical advisory board were exhibiting. (I'm not using first-person plural to talk about these discussions because I want to use the royal we, by the way: I'm doing so because we, the dialogue community gathered here, have discussed these matters together).

Remember that discussion, about how corporations and their leaders seem far more morally sensitive than the court-preacher evangelical advisory board that has stuck with the man in the White House through thick or thin? After he bragged about sexually assaulting women and then went on, when their tribe placed him in office, to defend white-supremacist Nazis and Klan members as fine folks?

That disparity, too, has drawn keen notice in social media discussions that then sparked media coverage of this disparity — as the discussion of Joel Osteen's initial refusal to open the doors of his megachurch to people in desperate need has done, too. If you're interested in seeing how discussion of Osteen's behavior on social media has now sparked wide media coverage of this story, have a look at Jack Holmes' article about this at Esquire's Politics blog and Matthew Rosza's essay at Salon.

Joel Osteen now denies that he had ever closed his church to people in Houston needing shelter. These articles and a plethora of others like them that you can easily find via a Google search provide a good glimpse at some of the social media comments that made him take that p-r step.

At a deeper level, what this discussion is about, obviously, is whether churches really do much good or all the good they claim to do — a topic we've discussed several times here in the past year (see here, here, here ). As we noted in those previous discussions, the question of what good churches do or whether they do good at all is a very necessary question to raise in the U.S. context when 81% of white evangelicals and 60% of white Catholics and Mormons elected a president who immediately sought to set into motion a scheme to rip healthcare coverage from millions of people. 

Remember how, as that shocking plan was debated, Trump supporters and Republicans in general, most of them identifying as staunch Christian folks, argued that churches would pick up the pieces and take care of people in need of healthcare treatment if their health insurance was ripped away from them? In response to that mendacious argument, I give you Joel Osteen. 

As millions of Americans have struggled to find some way of receiving medical care and insurance coverage, when have our churches ever tried to assist people in need of healthcare coverage or treatment — other than by forming incestuous insurance networks that serve only folks within a particular group of churches, and which do not provide adequate insurance coverage to those in these networks? Or, in the case of a few noteworthy churches, by providing access to an on-site nurse who volunteers a day or so a week to see people in need of treatment?

The churches have turned a blind eye for years now to the fact that millions of Americans had no access to health insurance. Anyone walking up to a church and asking for assistance with medical bills or for medical treatment is, with notable exceptions that are notable precisely because they are so uncommon, likely to be laughed at by church staff and/or to have the police called to arrest him/her. 

This is simply how things are. Those of us fired without due process or any right to defend ourselves against discrimination by Catholic institutions have typically found ourselves cast into outer darkness when it comes to having health insurance coverage — as a direct result of the discrimination practiced by a Christian institution. And when this happened to us, we learned just how much the claim that Catholic social teaching defends the right of every human being to medical care means to Catholic institutions and their leaders (it means little or nothing more than words). I lived without coverage for years after a Catholic college destroyed my theological vocation and that of my now husband. It's not easy.

Churches have been busy — the sort of churches that idolize Donald Trump — during the disaster of hurricane Harvey, however, though what they've been busy about, many of them, is not taking people into shelters and assuring that they have three meals a day, as Mattress Mack has done. Instead, their leaders have been busy compiling a statement attacking LGBTQ folks, which was released yesterday. The Nashville Statement tells us that God designed marriage to be a lifelong union between one man and one woman — and, yes, almost all of those producing and signing this statement helped to elect as their Christian champion a president who is a thrice-married serial adulterer, who has bragged about his adulteries, and who boasts of his sexual assaults on vulnerable women. 

Those folks: they're the ones claiming the right to preach to LGBTQ folks about what is and is not marriage. In the middle of a horrific disaster in which lives are being lost. 

Here's David Badash's unsparing commentary on the Nashville Statement at the New Civil Rights Movement website: 

Let's take stock for a moment. 
Thanks to Hurricane Harvey, millions of people in America have literally just lost everything – their homes, their cars, their businesses. Some – we have no idea how many actually – but in all likelihood a lot, have died.  
We have a president who is (probably) under investigation, members of his team and even his family definitely are too. Every day brings new news of what we used to think were cataclysmic events in the political world.  
Americans are suffering through climate change. Our nation is more divided than at any time since the Civil War, and trust in once veritable institutions is grotesquely lacking.
Millions of Americans when they have time to think about it are faced with possibly losing their health insurance thanks to Republican lawmakers. Since entering America, millions of undocumented immigrants are living in greater fear than they have ever before of being deported to countries where they may face death at the hands of the very gangs they fled. 
Neo-Nazis, white supremacists, white nationalists, and other hate groups are now marching in America's cities. 
And there is an astounding amount of hate, hopelessness, divisiveness, and anger advancing across America. 
So America's Christian right has devoted a good deal of time and money and come up with a document they have just released: The Nashville Statement
Does it urge Americans of all faiths or none to come together for the greater good, put aside our differences, and remember what a great land we live in? 
Does it seek to rediscover the true message of Christ: to love one another? 
Is it designed to give hope and support to those who need it most? 
No to all of the above. 
Instead, the Nashville Statement, affirms their beliefs that LGBT people are bad.

It goes without saying that one of the most active threads on Twitter at which the Joel Osteen story and now the Nashville Statment are being discussed is that #EmptyThePews hashtag Chris Stroop recently opened, to which I drew your attention in a posting here recently. Echoing (and this really should embarrass Catholics) the rhetoric of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the Nashville Statement blames secularism for the disaffection of increasing numbers of American Christians — especially younger ones — from the churches.

But as Matthew Sheffield points out at Salon today in an assessment of the Joel Osteen story, it's U.S. Christian leaders, not "secularism," who are responsible for the trend to #EmptyThePews. It's their behavior — leading 81% of white evangelicals and some 60% of white Catholics and Mormons to elect Donald Trump — that is causing younger church members to walk away from the churches as fast as their feet will carry them.

You know what isn't being discussed in the middle of the disaster of hurricane Harvey, or following Charlottesville? Repentance. As I pointed out last October, until that topic is discussed by American Christians who have sought to rip healthcare coverage from millions of citizens on the margins of society, who placed a serial adulterer and sexual predator in the White House, who are ravenously hungry at all times to attack LGBTQ human beings, and who are now callously turning their backs on people in desperate need in Houston, all the words about the healing force of the gospel and bridge-building will remain so much stuff and nonsense, and folks will keep walking away from the churches and their empty stuff and nonsense.

As they should do.

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