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  • Reverend James Squire

Under the Banner of Heaven

I had a professor while studying at Berkeley at Yale who made a statement that shocked me. He said, “Watch out for those Christians! They can get you in trouble every time.” I first thought that the guy had dropped into the deep end of heresy until he went on with his explanation. What he was really saying was watch out for those people who are always dropping Jesus’ name and overusing “faith language.” I have seen some extreme expressions recently that took me back to this professor’s warning about the demonic parts of any religion when it moves to extremes. Just repeating Jesus’ name or the need for all to return to God and open their hearts is an important message but often it is distorted, and most often by the Church itself.

No one is more evangelical than people who are Southern Baptist, and here I mean the very best in the evangelical movement. However, this morning we learned that leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention released findings from a third-party investigation that survivors of sexual abuse were “ignored, minimized, and vilified by top clergy in the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.” An article in today’s Inquirer, “Report Rips Southern Baptist Brass,” states, “The Executive Committee betrayed not only survivors…but betrayed the whole Baptist Convention as they “made their own faith into a complicit partner for their own decision to choose institutional protection over the protection of kids and congregants.”

The Roman Catholic Church’s failure to practice what they preach has received the most documentation of their breaches of ethical conduct. Enough said or written! However, even after the pope’s declaration that politicians shouldn’t be refused the Eucharist because of their position on abortion, a bishop in California forbade anyone from giving Nancy Pelosi the sacrament. A priest at Georgetown volunteered to make the sacrament available to her.

When I was in training for counseling at Duke Medical Center, we were told that extremes of behavior such as a full-blown psychosis can show us what distortions of reality look like in ordinary people living their ordinary lives. Extremes can make everyday dysfunction in people much more visible. The practice of religion is not immune to that dysfunction.

It is seeing some of the extreme manifestations of Christianity recently that may have made this something that set off an alarm within me.

Certainly, the proliferation of abuse within the Southern Baptist Convention heightened my awareness that the Christian message should transform others to do and be good. When I met a clergyman from my own denomination, his first statement to me was, “Well Jim, you know I am an evangelical.” I thought, “Well what does that make me!” He didn’t know a thing about me. I felt smaller by his elevation of himself. I believe that is not something that the Gospel would promote.

I have been watching the series on Hulu called Under the Banner of Heaven. It is based on a book that Jon Krakauer wrote about extreme Mormon behavior based on true events of the 1984 murder of Brenda Wright Lafferty and her 15 months old baby which shocked the nation. It seemed to me that prayers to their “Heavenly Father seemed to justify bad behavior even murder.” You can get away with a lot if you say that God wanted something this way or that way. I am still mystified by the conservative Christians who have given their support to Trump who is legendary for his moral relapses.

This stuff is going on today through all mainstream life and certainly our political life. A good example of this is Kandis Taylor who is a republican running for the office of governor in Georgia. Kemp and Perdue have gotten all the press.

Taylor’s comments are frightening because they are moving into the mainstream. She has said,

“We are here to honor Jesus. We are the church, and the church should run the nation. You can’t be a Christian and be a Democrat.” One of her signs proclaims “Guns for Baby Jesus.” The problem is this is becoming a growing trend.

Taylor’s views are extreme, but so is white supremacy, homophobia, antisemitism, and politicians who are passionate about pro-life but vote against every pro child bill that comes before them to enable poor women in particular to raise their children in such a way that prevents intergenerational poverty. There are other extremes that effect the normal daily lives of so many.

The guidelines that I try to adhere to when thinking about my professor’s concerns for extreme religiosity are as follows: Watch for the self -righteous and others who make you feel less than who you are; live out the words of St. Paul to the Letter of James which say, “Faith without works is dead”; what people actually do is more important than what they say; watch for the passive aggressive or the plain aggressive people who “know they are right” about all things. Recall that simple but profound Christian song, “They know we are Christians by our love” or “Preach the Gospel; use words if necessary.”

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