June 26, 2009

Recruitment. Conversion. Uniform lifestyles, in-line opinions, conformed worldviews. Membership, belonging, being part of the in-group, tribe, community or church. Salvation?
In case you don’t know, I do not believe that last term belongs in a list of the terms that precede it. Meaning, “salvation” is not synonymous with belonging to a group or adopting an exact worldview.
I would argue that salvation is not a term for a momentary singular moment in which suddenly someone is adopted into a large spiritual family either. Salvation isn’t the reward for praying the right prayer or reciting the right doctrine or interpreting a religious scripture in the exact way as another has.

“Salvation” is a blanket term for something that is hard to describe succinctly. Salvation merely captures the essence as best as an English word (a human word for that matter) can. Yet it also means exactly what it infers. It’s a transformation, a lifted burden, a successful rescue. It’s when one finds what one has been missing, that moment or series of moments when the culmination of searching, pondering, questioning and struggling to make sense of life and the world all line up to give that person a sense of fulfillment, peace, guidance and direction.

It’s not about heaven, not really, at least not entirely. It’s certainly not about escaping a literal, physical place called “hell.” When I was a child I was scared to death of hell, so many church sermons and Sunday school classes convinced me that even as a young kid I was so rotten and misguided that I was hell bound, and that no matter how many times I prayed the right prayer, walked the aisle or got baptized, I never felt secure that I truly believed deeply and rightly enough to dodge the flames of hell. Then I got older, became more cynical, more doubting, a little more rebellious. I soon stripped all of those fears and spiritual insecurities from myself and for a time got over religion altogether. For many, that’s where it ends. A lot of people that are exposed early on to the “hellfire and brimstone” style of preaching turn away. They find such simplistic concepts of heaven, hell, salvation and damnation as out-of-touch and unrealistic and cringe over such stark black and white legalistic codes of morality. They don’t really know of any other version of Christianity, many probably assume the more liberal versions of it are just a softened and more PC version of what they grew up with, and these people are often pretty sure that since the supposed “pure” form of it that they were exposed to is hogwash, any “diluted” form of it is as well.

So as not to recap a lot of impertinent information for this article, I’ll briefly say that despite periods of doubt, cynicism, skepticism and anger at the establishment of modern American Christianity, I’ve always been interested in religion, theology and philosophy and that my searching eventually led me back to it, yet in a much different manner. I’ve written on this site many times about differences between moderate, liberal or traditional Christianity versus conservative, fundamentalist and legalistic Christianity. I’ve written of the multiple Christs that people create from their studies and worship. Yet as I grow deeper into my personal spiritual life, through study, reflection, education, worship and thought, I find a more solid, real perception of salvation, one in which I never fully grasped as a younger person. Salvation as I’ve said here and in other pieces, isn’t a “get out of hell free” card.

If you read my recent post, “The Church as it Could be: Social Justice Hub,” parts of this may sound like I’m beating that same topic to death, but I can’t help it, it seems so important to me. In the past two centuries Christians in America have been the primary “in group,” the group of folks who had such status that any negation of rights seems treasonous. Yet Christians started out as a subversive, alternative and persecuted group. After the Roman Empire, who had been the primary persecutor and opponent of Christ followers adopted Christianity as official national religion, the violence that Christianity so opposed suddenly began to be used to expand it. Now, of course in America it hasn’t been done that way. Yet in a land of civil liberties, religious freedom and encouraged tolerance most Christians haven’t experienced true persecution, intolerance and the like. So, fundamentalist preachers invent that sense of persecution. “The Government doesn’t support us.” Well, they shouldn’t. Separation of church and state is good for both church and state and historically supported by both. Not to mention that even when the government that is in power is a just, morally responsible one that most church members would be supportive of, the church still must exist wholly outside of government. Government and empire are polar opposites in that they are the established normalcy of civilization that the church is called to stand outside to urge toward just action and criticize for unjust action, always remain apart….remember, Rome was “the beast numbered with 666.” Empire is a form of antichrist….nothing more, nothing less.

The imagined persecution as perceived by the fundamentalists goes further. “The education system doesn’t respect us. We send our Christian children to college and they become liberal, anti-Christian.” This perception has created an irrational, eerie fear of education amongst religious fundamentalists. It’s gone so far that fundamentalists churches refuse to consider anyone who has received religious training, education and preparation from a seminary or state university as an applicant for a pastor at their church. Furthermore, in many areas of the country churches have formed “Kingdom Schools,” alternative “Christian” schools that they state exist to train their young to have the same beliefs, share the same doctrines and work in the same manner that they do. No longer do these schools attempt to prepare their children for state universities, universities that will “liberalize” and change them and send them away from their communities. Now they prepare them to step into their own community with the same opinions and values as their parents, right or wrong.
“The Media and pop culture deride us and persecute us.” Well, even though I am an ardent fan of quality pop culture, music, film, television, books or magazines I realize that pop culture and mass media are a reflection of society and it’s people. So, not even accounting for the poorly made garbage containing bad values or poor quality, even the best and most entertaining work still exists as a product of “normal” society. So although Christians may very well enjoy and love much of what comes to them through pop culture, they should always realize that it’s not supposed to express their values, beliefs and perceptions. It may echo them occasionally, sometimes it may capture the heart of it completely (and almost every time I’ve ever seen this happen in art, music or film it has come from established mainstream media and culture, not from so-called “Christian entertainment’ which usually exists to reinforce a small portion of Christianity and to exclude and separate Christians from the rest of the world rather than incorporate them with their fellow human). Christians in America, at least in fundamentalist camp, have forgotten that they aren’t meant to be the “in-group.” They shouldn’t depend on society, government, media or pop culture to prop them up, reinforce their opinions and applaud them.

The past few paragraphs probably seem like a detour since I’m discussing the concept of salvation, but I think it’s central to the issue. Christians that look for acknowledgement, respect and support from all of the above listed institutions are missing the point. Salvation is a release from desiring the support of those institutions. Salvation is a freeing of the mind, a renewing of the spirit. It’s a dying to the old ways of empire, society, wealth, and war and a rising to the ways of love, compassion, peace and nonviolent justice. In the early years, Christians faced real persecution. The kind that consisted of being beaten, beheaded and crucified, not made fun of in a Hollywood comedy film. The law of the land was stacked against their best interest, they were downtrodden, seen as threats to Roman security. Much different than a mere senate ruling that goes against a conservative pet issue (and then gets inflated and badly exaggerated from the pulpit).

A lot is made of England and western Europe being “post Christian” now. In England, only about 13 percent of the population attends any sort of Christian church on any type of basis. After decades of swelling, some have predicted that things would begin moving in that direction in the states as well. I can’t help but think that 13 percent, in England and in the states, is probably much closer to reality anyway. True Christianity is a minority, because it’s demanding, difficult and alternative. It’s a minority mindset, practice and lifestyle. Now, I don’t say this in the sense that some fundamentalists do. Many famous fundamentalists have stated that only a small percentage of their congregations are actually “saved.” I’m not stating that. I don’t consider only 13 percent “saved” in that sense. Of course, I don’t consider evangelicals, conservatives, fundamentalists or traditional Christians as “damned to hell,” but neither do I consider spiritually sound and loving Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews or Agnostics as damned to hell either, but that’s another issue altogether. No, I think 13 percent is more accurate because most of us who are raised in the Christian tradition make a public proclamation of faith at a very young age. I consider most of those early times I traipsed down the aisle more akin to the infant baptisms done in certain religious traditions. That infant baptism is a sign that parents will raise the child in that tradition. That young plod down the aisle and recited prayer was, at best an early sign that I would be raised in the tradition (at worse, and more close to the truth in my personal case, it was an overwhelming fear of the burning fires and gnashing demonic teeth of hell).

The point is, most people in America that walk down the aisle and proclaim the Christian faith really don’t understand the concept fully. It’s hard to understand that the normal machinations of society are built on war, greed, consumption, division, prejudice, violence, destruction and “peace through victory” and to feel a call to an alternative system of peace, love, compassion, forgiveness, self-sacrifice, unity, inclusion and “peace through nonviolent justice” at a young age; for many it’s hard to grasp that at any age. It’s hard to imagine that the majority of young converts feel the weight of societal pressures, personal failure, self-doubt and the incomplete feeling that one gets by being led to believe that happiness can only come from money, power, respect and adoration and thus find that deeper meaning, the sense of real fulfillment that results in realizing true
happiness comes from being at peace, working for justice, displaying love and compassion, and getting in touch with yourself through personal reflection and meditation. That all being said, I’m sure there are young converts that do just as I’m sure that there are many older people who never grasp the issues either.

I was speaking with a friend of mine the other day. We talked about the concepts and forms of Christianity that differ from our personal feelings and beliefs. I mentioned that I am consistently trying to be at peace with other beliefs, respect others positions even when I disagree. Yet my friend and I both agreed that certain aspects of Christianity as it’s expressed, falsely in our opinions, just angers us. My friend said he thought of why that was. “I don’t get angry at Buddhist, Jewish or Hindu doctrines, forms or thoughts I disagree with. Why do I with Christian opinions I differ from. Then I realized its because I am a Christian.” He gets angry at perversions of the central core of Christianity that he sees in popular, conservative thought because it is being done in the name of Christ when he sees no Christ in it.

So although I can peacefully and silently disagree with or politely debate with Christians who hold different opinions and doctrines from my own on a whole host of issues, and I can most certainly work side by side with them doing the actual physical social and community work that needs being done, there are certain issues, thoughts and perceptions that lose Christ so badly that I simply can’t help but feel angry at what is being marketed to huge populations of people who want to do what’s right and our truly seeking God yet are being shoveled something else. It makes me angry that such misperceptions have spread so much that the world at large thinks these misperceptions are generally what Christianity is and so they scoff at it, conversely making many of the intelligent and respectable liberal thinkers to write it off as well and state their own misperceptions towards it.

So I’m ending with a few key statements that set me and those like me far apart from many who claim to be the new mainstream Christians.

My God is not a vengeful God of wrath. My God does not look forward to some great raining down of fire and blood upon humanity, nor does my God prepare to be the cause of the destruction of all creation.
My perception of Christ is that of a Lamb. Jesus defeated evil and injustice through suffering, love, forgiveness and peace. He did not do this through violence, military might, the sword or battle. I am not waiting on a violent return of a Christ clothed in battle gear who will punish the world and accomplish his rule in a manner inconsistent with his teaching and living.

My God doesn’t expect me to wage a holy war on non believers. I am called first and foremost to look for Christ in the heart of the poor, the homeless, the sick, the children, the incarcerated, the forgotten, the war torn, the displaced, the immigrants, the prejudiced against, the discouraged.
I do God’s work by serving and helping others, giving others a kind word, encouraging and supporting, teaching and learning, living and loving. Not by seeking to conform others to a universal thought, opinion or lifestyle.

The Kingdom of God isn’t a future tense far removed place set outside of this world and I do not seek to rescue people from this world and lead them to set by and wait for either their death and removal from the world or some downpour of violence and Armageddon so that this world can be destroyed and replaced by something better. No, if I’m able to at all I point others in the direction of the kingdom of God by showing them help, love and consideration so that they can enter it here and now as a way of living in peace, working for peace and spreading peace wherever they go.
God does not hate. Jesus is not a violent warrior. I am not a Christian soldier.


2 Responses to “Salvation”

  1. […] are exclusive, cold, and even distant.  I’ve written on this site before about things like salvation and even posted my own reformulation of the main articles typically contained in a statement of […]

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