Friday, May 6, 2011

Tell Me All Your Religiopolitic

Well, I had originally intended to write this—my second blog entry—on the theological implications of zombie obsession. For those of you who would find that topic more interesting than mediocre reflections on a subject you’re likely already tired of, I apologize for buzzing about something more cliché.  For those of you who would rather avoid my nerdy rants about the horrific and supernatural, be forewarned: zombie reflections are forthcoming. 

For now, I’ll talk about something I’ve thought about far less (believe it or not), and I’d like your take on it. Basically, while watching the news this past Tuesday night, I was reminded that I’m often disappointed with the showing of Christians who visit with political talk show hosts. Allowing a few welcomed exceptions, it seems that they generally make us look like people who can’t give a solid account for our beliefs.

Of course, rationalists averse to Christian faith might respond by suggesting that Christians, in general, aren’t all that intelligent. Though I’m not here to build a defense for the overall IQ of the faithful, I have hung out with enough Christians to contend that our A-team does not doesn’t tend to make up the group that speaks most loudly. At least, not on television.

In addition, just to be sure that they get a good knee-jerk reaction from their viewers, the talk show hosts and commentators seem to work towards making their guests look (at least a little bit) foolish. Rob Bell’s recent semi-disastrous foray into the MSNBC political realm serves as a good case in point, don’t you think?

Though it’s hard to blame them for coming up short when put on the spot so publically, I do wish that these folks had better responses on the ready. If nothing else, Christian viewers themselves usually aren’t amenable to finding commonality with extremists or sentimentalists who speak from whatever end of the political spectrum they oppose. For those of us who care about unity and/or progress, this leaves us with our hands full; not to mention it makes more onerous the task of demonstrating to non-believers that Christians aren’t all potential (or confirmed) nutjobs who spend their time opposing one other. But I digress.

Of course, right now it seems that everyone is weighing in on the death of Osama bin Laden, either by celebrating it or cautioning against such celebration. Naturally, this makes excellent religiopolitical fodder for the talk shows. I don’t begrudge this, but I do wish I could turn on the TV and hear a more articulate Christian response—from the Left or the Right—to this sensitive issue than I’ve heard thus far. If you’ve come across one, please do share.

What stemmed this particular reflection is when on Tuesday night I caught an interview with Father Edward Beck on the O’Reilly Factor. Perhaps I'm an overly harsh critic, but I found it following the standard drill: he made a few solid points but ended up seeming as if he hadn’t thought things through (at least, I’m sure all of those who’d disagree with his starting place or conclusions would say so…and not just for the sake of disagreeing). The interview was followed up by the usual vitriolic commentary, potentially sealing Beck's fate as one more unreasonable Christian voice on the airwaves. 

Am I wrong here? If you think so, I’d genuinely like to know why...maybe I’m overlooking something. See what you think: 

Of course, I’d hope that most of us non-crazy Christians would align with Beck's being “uncomfortable with the killing of Osama bin Laden being celebrated like a Superbowl win”—frankly, I’ve found the fanatical mass-celebratory reaction pretty unsettling, whether coming from Christians or not. Touché, Father Beck.

However, I was disappointed when he began sending mixed messages: on the one hand he attributes bin Laden’s death to necessary evil, while on the other suggesting that we ought not respond to violence with violence, equating a non-response with forgiving jihadists who “know not what they do.” So, which is it? Necessary or unnecessary evil?

And as for the rest of us Christians, what would we say? Is it human to feel relieved at the news that a perpetrator of mass violence is no longer with us? Surely. Is it morally incumbent upon us to protect innocent people by doing what we can to end mass violence, even if it means resorting to violence ourselves? This is an age-old question on which Christians have disagreed; however, a strong case can be made that it is our moral duty to do so, and that this is a case of “necessary evil.” However, it seems of utmost importance that we view it as such—an evil—and thus a tragedy, not a cause for celebration. Speaking of which, are we at liberty to call Osama bin Laden “evil” as O’Reilly does? Father Beck is not comfortable issuing this judgment, preferring to call only bin Laden’s actions evil. However I’d contend that, of all people, Christians (should) acknowledge that humans are intimately tied to what they do; so evil actions, in some sense, lead to an evil person.

With the same breath, however, I’d tell O’Reilly that my faith stipulates that we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Thus, while it may be natural to feel relief that bin Laden is out of the equation, it seems clear that Christians ought not endorse celebrating his demise with party horns in the streets. Because when we celebrate, we work to solidify the distance between ourselves and our “enemy”…but, the truth is, he is human. Thus we are much more like him than we’d care to admit. When we deny his humanity, we deny the potential we all have to commit murder, as much as we’d like to believe otherwise.

Post script: This is why I’m okay with the fact that bin Laden was afforded a ritualistic burial, with prayers read for his soul by his Muslim brother: the sailors on that ship seemed to sense that they should acknowledge the sacrosanct nature of God’s creation, the embodied soul. Regardless of how “evil” that soul may be (which, by the way, is God’s call, not ours), we are all tied to it—for we all were created out of God’s love; we all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory; Christ died for the sins of all of the ungodly.

This reminds me of one of my favorite stories C. S. Lewis tells. He remembers speaking with a priest who once had seen Hitler in person, and asking him (rather foolishly) what Hitler looked like. “He looked like all men,” was the priest’s reply: “like Christ.”   


  1. My suggestion would be to move from the back row to the pulpit!

    Beck's reluctance to say bin Laden was evil surely hurt his case, especially for his Fox News audience. (Though he is certainly the most articulate and sane Beck on Fox News!) Had he said that, but followed up with the fact that we each have evil in our hearts, as you suggest, he would have made more sense.

    Indeed, he looked a bit like a deer in the headlights at the beginning, and I suspect in his own context he would be much more articulate. I wonder if, as you suggest, the nature of TV talk shows simply doesn't lend itself well to sharing the good news of the gospel of peace. (How does one go about explaining an entire two-kingdom theology and its implications for Christians' responses to government action in a couple minutes?) O'Reilly's self-assured and self-righteous rhetoric certainly plays a lot better into the hands of his many Christian viewers, unfortunately.

  2. Hey, Lauren!

    I really enjoyed this post, and thank you for pointing that clip out, as I certainly wouldn't have ever found it on my own. I stopped caring about "Christian politics" a while ago... It's nice.

    I think the problem here is understanding a division between personal response and governmental response. God put the powers that be in the powers that they are being to accomplish His goal, and I believe that goal to be maintaining order in the world.

    I believe that justice was served in the removal of Bin Laden from the realm of the living. I believe eternal justice will be served, as well, at a later date.

    We are told to turn the other cheek - not to turn others' cheeks for them. I don't see how loving others could ever possibly mean we allow others to be exploited, enslaved, extorted, or otherwise made to suffer in this world. We are told that the peacemakers are blessed. I believe that. I also believe that sometimes the only way to make peace is to remove someone from the sandbox altogether.

    I am with you in that every time I see the "Christian response" on TV (look up John Stossel's bit on Skepticism for a particularly painful one) I wish that the guy thought more like me - that is, not like an idiot. Since I'm right. :-)

    I'd like to drop another C.S. Lewis quote on you - "Let us not mistake necessary evils for good."

    I think I've said everything I can possibly make sense of.

  3. Overall, the issue reminds me of the movie "Dead Man Walking". There is a very strong tension between Justice, Forgiveness, and Judgement. For the most part I agree with Mrs. White. The evil that lies in all of our souls, and our own deservedness of righteous judgement should give us pause before throwing a party that we "executed evil".

    Since it is no fun just to post that I agree with the author, the only statement made in this post that I might take issue with is the "so evil actions, in some sense, lead to an evil person." An evil person. I am not sure what that means. Does that mean that there are evil people and good people? What evil actions create an evil person? Once you become an evil person can you return to the good side? I am not sure that I agree that there are two categories. - I am sure that I am just arguing semantics but I would be interested in some further explination.

    I think I agree with DC Cramer. These four minute debates are bear traps. This is a complicated issue. There are theological ideas here that have been debated by some of the brightest Christian minds for centuries. How much eaiser is it, within a four minute window, to throw out extreme, simple, emotional, one-liners than to really delve into the story of time, the meta narrative of the Bible, evil in the world, nurture/nature, etc. Last week I found myself in Mr. Beck's position. I am in an Ethics and Futures class and a full out religious debate broke out. I listened to people cherry pick scriptures to support theories that the Bible encourages genocide and slavery. I had very mixed emotions on whether or not to even engage in the debate. I wondered as DC said is this the best time or venue to share the gospel of peace? I, of course, erred on the side of speaking. After I joined the discussion I found myself fielding questions like "why does God judge ME to hell because I am hindu?" :) I did my best to respond but just like the Beck interview almost any response sounds like you are back peddling or appologizing or you are a religious extremist. I had some talkers remorse later. I have friends that said I did the right thing, that attempting to defend Christianity even if it leaves the audience with a weird tension is the best way to go. I don't know. Would it have been better for Father Beck to remain silent on issues that require more time to discuss, or would it have been better for him to never go on the show at all?

  4. I think the biggest mistake that Fr. Beck made was to allow O'Reilly to steer the conversation. Beck should never have allowed O'Reilly to put him on the defensive after the initial question. The reason people look foolish on news shows is rarely because they are unintelligent, rather they are poor rhetoricians. In order to succeed in presenting this complicated an idea in a two-minute spot; one must distill one facet of the argument, make a point about that one facet, and refuse to stray outside the small perimeter he/she has set. Unfortunately, a debate is more a battle of wills than anything. You have to be single-minded and confident, refusing to succumb to rhetorical games.

    I have some unsolicited advice for Micah: If a pointed tangential question is raised, I think the best thing is to refuse that tangent. Those questions are not sincere questions. They are power plays to get you off your game. You can tell a person that if they want to hear your thoughts on that other topic, you two can get coffee later. If they really deserve your thoughtfulness and really care what you have to say, they will extend the courtesy of a private conversation. Conversations in classrooms can be terribly violent, and few teachers know how to keep the damage down. You have to establish your own boundaries.

  5. Krista ManchesterJune 6, 2011 at 9:46 AM

    Not to treat the topic lightly, but I feel like in order to use the medium of television as an effective tool in countercommunicating the love and beauty of Jesus' message, we really should engage in training the mouthpieces on the best way to communicate in tight, rapid paced venues. I have this argument that if we don't pack a better backpack to communicate about spiritual things, that on the spot we go foraging on our own, and end up with a broken spork and half-eaten granola bar when we could have had a tent, fire and hot coffee.

    Them same people who are attempting to make Christians look foolish (ahem, Mr. O'Reilly) spend a lot of time training to do just that. While that may not be the end goal, there is rehearsal and years of practice where they have fine tuned their engagement.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking PULPIT worthy sermon.