Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

8/14 2017

When Faith Gets Political

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Image Source: Getty / Chip Somodevilla

 

Years ago, I was serving as a short-term supply pastor for a very small congregation in rural Virginia. My third Sunday there fell on the Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, so I decided to weave a couple of sentences from Dr. King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech into my sermon. It seemed appropriate, especially since I was preaching from the book of Amos that day.

The following Sunday, after worship, the head deacon pulled me aside and apologetically informed me that “some” people in the congregation were upset about my sermon from the previous week. When I asked him why, he explained that these congregants felt the sermon was “too political.” I was stunned, because I didn’t think my sermon was “political” at all. To me, it was simply a sermon about justice, a prominent theme in Amos: “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24).

They’re getting “too political”.

As I watched events unfold in Charlottesville over the weekend, I wondered: on Sunday, will preachers who speak out against hatred and violence, and who publicly denounce the sin of white supremacy, be told they’re getting “too political”? I imagine many of them heard just such criticisms from their congregations.

But as my colleague Roger Owens has articulated so well (see “The Church—Political, Yes. Partisan, No.“), there’s a big difference between standing up for what we believe is right and pushing a partisan political agenda. I’ve spent the last decade of my life studying and writing about conflict in congregations, so I know that every community of faith contains a plurality of political ideas. I’m not suggesting that we try to force uniformity on every political issue. Faithful people often disagree on how we should order our common life, and that is to be expected.

Every person is created in the image of God.

Yet, over time, the church has actually reached widespread consensus on some things – and one of those is that racism, or any form of bigotry, is fundamentally wrong. It hasn’t always been this way, of course. In fact, for centuries many Christians justified the mistreatment and even enslavement of other human beings, often using the words of Scripture as their rationale. Gradually, though, we have come to see the truth that was there all along: that every person is created in the image of God and is worthy of respect, love, and care.

From this perspective, it is quite clear that any attempt to claim that some people are superior to others is a lie. It is a lie designed to sow division, to set God’s children against one another – and as such, it must be rebuked and resisted. This weekend I saw many courageous people rebuking and resisting the lie of white supremacy: the clergy members who peacefully stood their ground against armed white nationalists; the pastors and teachers who spoke out in their congregations; the citizens who used their voices to say, clearly and firmly, “this is not acceptable.”

And yet, in another sense, rebuking and resisting white supremacy feels like an awfully low bar – but it’s a bar that many white Christians (myself included) are often hesitant to cross. Maybe we’d rather not invite confrontations with our friends, neighbors, or family members. Maybe saying nothing feels a lot safer than speaking out. Maybe we’re afraid of being criticized for getting “too political.”

But the truth is: saying nothing is both a mark of privilege and a sign of complicity. Even if, deep inside, we believe that white supremacy is wrong and has no place in our churches or our society, no one can possibly know that is what we believe unless we say it clearly and show it plainly through our actions. As author and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel said in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

It is our job to work for justice.

As Christians, it is not our job to push a partisan political agenda in our communities of faith. Our faith is founded on the lordship of Jesus Christ, not on membership in a particular political party. But as Christians, no matter what our political affiliation may be, it is our job to work for justice, to raise our voices and speak the truth in Christian love – even when it may be uncomfortable. As Christians, it is our job to call sin by its name and to engage in confession and repentance. As Christians, it is our job to affirm that every single person is a beloved child of God.

To be clear: this is not always easy to do. It takes courage to get up in the pulpit of a white congregation and preach against the evils of racism. But it also takes courage to call out offensive remarks or racist jokes at home or in the workplace. It takes courage to look carefully at our institutions and identify systemic patterns of racism embedded within them. It takes courage to name our own privilege and use the power we have to try to make things better for everyone, not just ourselves.

This is a time for moral courage. This is a time for telling others what we believe, for standing up for what we know is right. It is a time for proving that our beliefs aren’t just empty words, but rather deep convictions that move us to action. Some might call this “getting political.” I’d call it discipleship.

The Rev. Dr. Leanna K. Fuller is associate professor of pastoral care at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and teaches in the MDiv Program. Her ministry experience includes serving as associate pastor of Oakland Christian Church in Suffolk, Va., where she coordinated youth ministry and Christian education programming. She writes regularly on pastoral care and counseling, pastoral theology, and congregational conflict.

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7/21 2017

Only Love Will Save the World

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*SPOILER ALERT: Don’t read on if you don’t want to know plot points of Wonder Woman (2017 Film)

Last Saturday evening, my mother and I went to see Wonder Woman. I was glad I saw it while on vacation. Otherwise I would have been up half the night re-writing my sermon. Wonder Woman asks the same theological question I ask my congregation most Sunday mornings: Why must we love those who don’t deserve it?

Wonder Woman begins on the island of Themyscira. Home to Amazon warrior women created by the gods to protect humankind. Long ago Ares, god of war, killed all the other gods, including his father, Zeus. Before Zeus died, he and Queen Hipplyta (ruler of Themyscira) had a daughter, Dianna, aka Wonder Woman. Though she doesn’t know it, Dianna is the only one capable of defeating Ares.

One-day General Steve Trevor’s plane crashes in the waters near Themyscira. He tells Dianna that he is an Allied spy. He stole a notebook from Isabel Maru, a German chemist, who’s trying to create a deadly gas. Dianna believes that her superior, General Ludendorff, is Ares, and she thinks killing him will end “The War to End All Wars.”

Except it doesn’t.

Dianna realizes that General Ludendorff isn’t Ares. And the real Ares creates war by manipulating people’s free wills. He doesn’t make anyone create poisonous gases. He merely tells them the recipe. It’s up to them what they decide to do with it. And they constantly chose war over peace. He invites Dianna to join him. Because why save the despicable human race?

As a preacher, I ask some variation of this question most Sunday mornings. Why must we love those who don’t deserve it? Dianna believes we should love because “only love will save the world.” As Christians, we believe that Jesus’ love saved the world. It was love that sent Jesus to the cross on our behalf. And it is love that sends us out into the world to heal the sick, welcome the stranger, and protect the widow.

Wonder Woman ends with Dianna recommitting herself to her mission to save the world. She recognizes that there is light and darkness in every human being. Her mission isn’t to eradicate the darkness, but to love in the midst of darkness. I think that’s a mission all Christians can get behind. We can’t eradicate the darkness. Only God can do that. But we can participate in the inbreaking of the kingdom of God here on earth by acting justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God.

The Rev. Rebecca DePoe ’16 is the pastor of Mt. Nebo United Presbyterian Church in Sewickley, Pa. She earned her MDiv degree from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. A member of Pittsburgh Presbytery, she served on the Administrative Commission for Transformation (ACT). Rebecca blogs at mtneboupc.com/pastor-s-corner and tweets @RebeccaDePoe.

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3/31 2017

The Shack: A Movie Review

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A while back, my covenant group at church read William P. Young’s novel, The Shack. Honestly, I do not believe I even finished it—although I remember being gratified that this book, then making the rounds in conservative Evangelical circles, depicted God as an African American woman! Still, my wife, Wendy, reminds me that I was dismissive of The Shack, scornful of what I saw as its naïveté and theological shortcomings.

Then, I went to see the film version with my father and my sister—and I wept. It wasn’t that the movie was that different from the print version—both Dad and my sister agreed that it was very faithful to the book. The film is visually beautiful, and, I thought, very well acted: especially by the lead Sam Worthington, and by the luminous Octavia Spencer as the First Person of the Trinity. I will freely allow, too, that I was emotionally open and vulnerable, seeing this film with my father and sister on my late mother’s birthday, just a week before the first anniversary of her death. But mainly, I think, I was moved by the film’s potent portrayal of the boundless love of God, and the power of forgiveness.

The Shack Plot

In the movie as in the book, Mack Phillips has suffered a terrible tragedy. The loss of a child has plunged him, and his family, into darkness and despair. Led by a mysterious note to the eponymous shack, the place where his child had died, Mack is met by two women—a motherly African American cook and an Asian gardener—and a young man, a Middle Eastern carpenter. The three strangers reveal themselves as the triune Godhead, who teaches Mack about forgiveness, the major theme of this film: both the joy of being forgiven, and the freedom from anger and bitterness that comes when we forgive others.

The Shack Movie Reviews

The film, like the book, is already being harshly critiqued. Blogger Grayson Gilbert writes, “The Shack panders to the sensationalism brought on by emotional appeal and subjective relativism. . . . If you want to hear from God, open up the scriptures and read. Drink deeply of a brook that never runs dry; fill yourself with waters free from the bitter gall of heretical teaching.” Pastor Jack Wellman concludes, “Even though The Shack is fiction, I believe it is dangerous, particularly for new Christians, because they don’t have enough knowledge of the Bible and of God, and so they might confuse these fictional characters with the way God really is. . . . I don’t need another fictional book to tell me what God is like. We have the best source on earth for that and its call [sic.] the Bible. We don’t have to guess about the nature of God or His attributes, because we can know.” Yet on the other hand, scholar Allan R. Bevere writes, “I love reading theology. I enjoy parsing terminology and honing the sharp edges of doctrine into something finely tuned and precise. But I also enjoy reading the imaginative narratives that help me think theologically about life and faith in ways I had never considered. I am an unapologetic Nicene-Chalcedonian Trinitarian theologian; and I applaud Paul Young for his portrayal of the Trinity and his narrative display of some of our most significant beliefs and convictions in The Shack.”

The Shack and the Bible

I wonder how much of the fury directed at The Shack is really about mistaken notions of the Trinity or the Incarnation, and how much of it boils down to Wellman’s angry assertion: “the Father is not an African American woman and the Holy Spirit is not a mysterious Asian woman named Sarayu.” Reading this retort, I found myself thinking, “No, but neither is God an unjust judge (Luke 18:1-8), nor is the Holy Spirit a dove (Luke 3:22).” Scripture is filled with metaphors; indeed all of our language about God, without exception, is metaphorical. How could it possibly be otherwise, God being GOD, after all, and not an object in the world of space and time? I wonder how many of those who object to the fiction of The Shack also object to C. S. Lewis’ wonderful Narnia books, or for that matter, to the Left Behind novels of Jerry B. Jenkins and Tim LeHaye? But mostly, I wonder how winsome our faith can possibly be if it is so rigid, pedantic, pedestrian, and rule-bound? What room can there be in such confining doctrinal boxes for a vibrant relationship with the living Lord?

In a recent column on faith in the 21st century West, David Brooks argues for a “friendship with complexity” that engages the world, rather than an ideological purity that rejects it. Brooks concludes that the real enemy of faith is “a form of purism that can’t tolerate difference because it can’t humbly accept the mystery of truth.” To my astonishment and delight, I encountered that mystery of truth in The Shack. I am glad that I saw it. I believe that you will be, too.

The Rev. Dr. Steve Tuell serves as the James A. Kelso Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. He regularly blogs at The Bible Guy and tweets at @Tuellbibleguy.

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