When Theology Kills: Reflections on Orlando
Before we get into this let me provide a disclaimer or two:
I'm a Jesus person. I'm a Gospel person. I'm a church person. These are my spiritual, theological convictions, and I do not demand that you share them, but I do ask that you respect them, and maybe even consider them.
I'm scared. I'm scared that I might be the problem, or at least a major part of it.
I'm scared because I'm not sure whether what I do, the job I perform, is making the world better, or if it is actually undergirding some great evil.
The job? I consider myself something of a theologian, or at least a theologian-in-training. By that I mean I interpret and teach Scripture vocationally. I think, speak and write about God. I attend a well-reputed seminary to learn about faith, church, religion and the Divine. And most days I love it. I'm thrilled over the work I’ll get to do in my lifetime: proclaiming the good news of Christ, bringing hope into situations where it’s wanting. I'm proud to be a theologian, and a minister of the Gospel.
Except that lately it has become increasingly clear to me that theology, as a discipline, is not merely a force for good and justice in the world. Indeed, as I consider our historical moment, it's easier to notice the poisonous fruit of bad theology than the healthy fruit of good theology. I see those who, in the name of God, in the name of their Scriptures and their cultures’ sacred idols, commit atrocities, visit condemnation upon those hurting, and reinforce systems of oppression and marginalization.
And this utterly confounds me, completely chafes against my own experience, because the first theological premise I ever learned was that I was radically, holistically loved by the God of the universe, a realization which transformed my life from something desolate into something beautiful. The Biblical story was one of God’s covenant love, not just for me but for the whole world, every man, woman, child and creature. Our only duty as God’s children was to extend this same love, the love first given by God, to everyone and everything else in creation.
But now those beautiful theological ideas have been replaced, at least in public conversation, by a few rather nefarious ones. The theological underpinnings of our society, I've come to realize, are not just inaccurate or unorthodox, but dangerous.
Here, let me demonstrate my point with an example, a recent one, and a tender one at that: on the morning of Sunday June 12th, a shooter named Omar Mateen brandished two semi-automatic weapons in a gay night club in Orlando and mercilessly killed 49 LGBTQ men and women, injuring many more. What he did was heinous, and it revealed to the world the twisted heart of a very sick man. But here's what’s important to remember: nothing comes from nothing. In addition to reflecting Mateen’s depravity, the despicable act also mirrored, in some sense, the unique brokenness of the American soul.
Before I attempt to connect the tragedy in Orlando with theologies and creeds, allow me first to make something perfectly clear: I do not blame Islamic theology for what happened that day, in the first place because I have no authority to speak to the particularities of Islamic theology (I'll leave that to Muslim theologians), and additionally because I believe what Omar Mateen did that night represents neither all Muslims, nor Islam as a religion. Why? Because an overwhelming majority of Muslims, abroad and especially here in the US, are peaceful, and interpret their faith as teaching peace. Add to that the fact that Omar Mateen was apparently not especially devout (according to friends and relatives) but was notoriously violent and homophobic, and it becomes clear that Islam, radical or otherwise, was not the true culprit here. Scapegoating a persistently-othered people group may be a time-honored American tradition, but I think we can do better this time. Or I hope so.
To me it seems especially disingenuous for Christians to point the proverbial finger at all Muslims for the violence of a few. Do we understand how much blood is on our hands? When Christianity was as old as Islam (about 1400 years), we were fresh off the Crusades and gearing up for the Inquisition. Islam is well ahead of the curve set by Christendom. Plus, it really smacks of hypocritical shortsightedness that we should cry homophobia in this case when so many of us have been preaching our own brand of homophobia for years. How did Jesus put it? Tend to the plank in your own eye?
Indeed, that last bit is what troubles me most deeply, what keeps me up at night. To what degree is American Christianity culpable for creating an environment in which this sort of homophobia can breed? Is our rhetoric part of the problem? After all, the loudest voices preaching hate and violence against LGBTQ folk in the US are Christian leaders. It's not just the Westboro Baptist Church either; there's an entire stable of radical, hateful Christian pastors, preachers and teachers who regularly advocate for the ostracization, imprisonment, and murder of LGBTQ Americans. Google it. Check Facebook, there's a video going around.
And what's worse, for every radical voice there are a thousand “mainstream” ones who preach a softer yet equally-pernicious homophobia. They close the church doors, limit membership, compare being gay to bestiality, murder, terrorism and pedophilia. They encourage believers to be disgusted by homosexuality and transsexuality, to fear our gay, bi and trans friends, co-workers and neighbors. For years we've de-humanized LGBTQ Americans with our words, committing verbal violence at every opportunity, and now we’re outraged that our society’s toxic, violent attitude toward its queer citizens, buoyed by our own words and actions, manifested into real, physical violence?
But we don't have to own up to any of that if we can blame it all on Muslims, foreigners and immigrants. One of the two major party candidates for president is an expert at it. Pass the buck. Blame the Muslims. Even while the vast majority of mass shootings like this are perpetrated by white men. But no, it's not about white supremacy, it's not about toxic masculinity, it's not about gun violence, it's not about homophobia, it's about Muslims. Because we're already scared of Muslims. How convenient. If Muslims are the problem, then all we need do to fix it is close the borders, round up the ones who are already here, and purge our great land of those people.
God bless America.
As I reflect on these issues, on theology and violence, there is one more question I’m wrestling with: is this cocktail of hate and fear demonstrated by so many American Christians really the product of historic, global Christian theology? Or is it possible that America has a theology all her own? I suspect the latter. I believe there are aspects of the American ethos which are not just ideological but inherently sacramental. American folk religion, while undoubtedly influenced by Christendom (the hybrid beast of church and empire), is actually a phenomenon all to itself.
After all, historic, orthodox Christianity cares nothing for the fate or interests of America. Hardly any of the great theologians hailed from our shores (maybe Edwards, Hauerwas, the Niebuhrs, Martin Luther King Jr.), and of the few who did, not one preached American exceptionalism. You can't start at the Gospel and arrive at contemporary American religion without a few generous injections of nativism, nationalism, and xenophobia along the way. So now what we have is a uniquely-American brand of Christianity-lite with its own set of doctrines, hymns and sacraments. And the most precious sacramental object? The gun.
That's another reason why so many conservative American Christians are bent on shifting the focus to Islam: otherwise we might have to look seriously at how this country treats its weapons as sacrosanct. In fact, after every one of these tragedies, gun sales skyrocket. Because what's the answer to gun violence?
More guns. More tools of death.
And I almost understand it. It makes a certain kind of sense, for according to American religion, we are to abide these three: security, suspicion, and fear, but the greatest of these is fear.
It's all theology. It's horrible, perverse theology, but theology nonetheless. And I despair, because I have no retort when my atheist friends assert that religion is poisonous. Maybe they're right. Maybe the only solution to bad theology is no theology.
Unless, and I know this sounds absurd, but what if the solution to bad theology isn't no theology, but good theology? What if the antidote to American Christianity is actually the Gospel of Jesus Christ? Jesus, who exhorted his followers not to resist evildoers, but to turn the other cheek. Jesus, who rebuked Peter in the garden for attempting to defend His honor with violence. Jesus, who preached welcome and embrace to the outsider while critiquing most harshly those religious folk who practiced exclusion, bigotry and hatred. Jesus, who, according to good theology, was the clearest and most visible expression of the character and heart of God, was God Himself.
And it goes even further back than Jesus. The Hebrew prophets proclaimed to the oppressive powers of their day that God would have the last word, that our systems of violence and hatred would be swiftly done away with by the One who set it all in motion.
“He will judge between many peoples and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.”
Swords into plowshares. Instruments of death into instruments of life. That is what God does, what Jesus came to do. Not to close the borders but to open up the banquet table. Peace, celebration, unity. All God’s children together, not training for war, but cultivating life.
Now I know America isn’t a Christian nation, but it really bothers me how the ones who most think it ought to be also figure the best way to accomplish that is rounding up all the Muslims, shipping them off, and stockpiling guns in case they ever come back. If America truly wants to honor God, there are better ways to do it. Feeding the poor, for instance. Practicing peace. Modeling the Kingdom of God for a world sorely in need of good news.
Islamophobia won’t do it. Homophobia won’t do it. Guns won’t do it. Hope, faith and love. That’s a good start.
Jesus said those who live by the sword will die by the sword. Let’s not live by the gun.