Let me clarify that this blog post is not about church-bashing. It’s not really even so much about church, actually, now that I think about it. (So, if you are one of my non-believing friends or family, you can safely continue reading.) My original intention was to write about my experience at a Columbus church last Sunday and contrast it with my own interpretation of Jesus and how it inspires me. This would involve a bit of criticism, yes. But it would be in a spirit of generosity. And it wouldn’t be about church-bashing. I respect that different people go to different churches, and I respect that choice. If a particular church is working for you, then, yo. Go for it.
But this post has to be more than that. My story of attending this church is about something much deeper and more personal. Really, it’s a story about the broken heart that I brought back from Africa.
Last Sunday, I attended a church service at Rock City Church because my incredible sister Rebekah and my als0-incredible-but-far-too-rarely-visited friend Michael are both music leaders in their church, and they wanted to check out what Rock City was up to. On the surface, Rock City seems to be doing church a bit differently, and it is bringing in a lot of people. “Here is the church, here is the steeple, open the door and see all the people.” Only, their church is in a movie theater. That’s one of three locations in Columbus. Three locations, and they’ve only been open for three years. So, Rebekah and Michael go to check it out. I tag along.
House music (think club/dance beats) was playing in the background as we entered. Not my style for church, but still, that’s a cool and unique vibe that people can groove to. So, no problem. It’s cool. We sit.
The service opens with worship music. Very contemporary. Talented musicians. Quite. For me, listening to the band was a good bit like listening to a Coldplay concert. Again, not my style for a church service, but, yo, I like Coldplay. (There, I admitted my guilty pleasure publicly.) As a wise person once said, “if it makes you happy, it can’t be that bad.”
Then came the sermon. Dude was intense. He quickly started talking about how Christians in America are, essentially, persecuted for their Christianity.
Now, this is a bit beside the point, but let me just say that this is a delusional point of view. But sadly, it is one that many Christians in the U.S. hold.
Christians are in the strong majority in the U.S., to the point that if you want to be President of the United States you have to, at the very least, be a practicing Christian, have some sort of serious testimony about how important your Christian faith is, and also make repeated references to God in nearly all of your speeches. (Ask John Kerry what happens if you don’t play the religious card in a Presidential campaign.) It also helps if you say publicly and proudly that Jesus is your personal Savior.
It’s also a myth that there are large numbers of people trying to destroy Christianity. Or that people want to outlaw Christian faith. I should know. Most of my friends are either liberals or leftists. Some are quite radical and even quite anti-religious. Even they – who despise religion – have never made statements to the effect that we should destroy Christianity or any other such nonsense. (And it’s not just out of respect for me, because many times I don’t tell these folks that I’m a Christian, unless asked.) My friends reject Christianity as being irrelevant, irrational, and/or dangerous; but I know of none who think that we should ban particular religions. They don’t want to drive Christians into the sea. They just want to live in a nation where there is separation of church and state, where everyone can believe as they choose. Where Presidents don’t have to pretend to be Christians.
Sorry, that’s a bit of segue, but I think it is important. Claiming any level of persecution (even the smallest amount) when you are not persecuted is incredibly disrespectful to those who are. There are people harassed, marginalized, and in extreme cases actually persecuted for their religion in the U.S. – but these people are Muslims. And what about Christians in the past, forced to leave home and country, torn apart by wild beasts? It is insulting and dishonoring to their memory to claim that the life of American ease should have the same label as their sacrifice.
Back to the sermon.
The sermon bit about U.S. Christians being marginalized and persecuted led the preacher easily into his main point: Christians should not conform to their culture. “Cultural Christians” are bad. There are many of them out there. I could list some of the reasons he cited, but basically it came down to the fact that these Christians weren’t like the preacher and his church. It was incredibly self-righteous. Again, I’m writing as generously as I can. But that was really and truly the tone of the message: our church has got the truth and all y’all bustas, sell-out Cultural Christians, y’all don’t.
Naturally, I was quite amused, at first. This claim that everyone else is selling out but me and my church is an oft-made claim. Hell, we all do it, yo. Yes, that’s me confessing. Which is why I could laugh. But there was a special irony hearing this criticism of “Cultural Christians” when it comes from a preacher in a theater.
The sermon continued. More about “Cultural Christians” and their sell out. I became a bit irritated. So I borrowed a pen from Michael to jot down a couple observations, observations of the way this church was conforming to their culture, how Americanized they were. I returned the pen. Then I borrowed his pen again. And returned it. And again. And again. And even after it got ridiculous, I kept asking for the pen. But the more I wrote, the more stuff inside me was stirring.
At first, I was writing things that were kind of simple and almost silly. These are harmless things, matters of preference, really. Like the fact that the church was in a movie theater – did I mention that? And that the worship service was basically like going to hear Coldplay. And that the church name is “Rock City.” And that it is very commercialized, really media savvy, complete with really fancy and cool literature that could possibly take home some marketing and advertising awards. And that the whole atmosphere and set up was very consumer-driven and user-friendly.
“Would you like coffee?”
“How about refreshments? Popcorn?”
And then I sobered. My list got a bit more serious. It starts to feel more intense to me. And I keep writing. I write about the fact that everyone I see is middle or upper class and how this conforms to our cultural segregation and exclusion of the poor. And I write down that I see only two black people in crowd of roughly 100 to 150. (Being a white minority in East Africa for a solid six months, I notice this stuff like crazy now.)
Then I start to feel it in my heart. I think about my activist friends, because he brings up the persecution business again. And I think about how they get beaten by police for protesting things like economic inequality in the U.S., to try to stop the maddening way in which ordinary people are being fleeced by the system. Or they get maced in the eyes for standing in the way of the the destruction of the natural world. For trying to protect our precious God-given home. They take clubs to the head for protesting our U.S. profit-driving prison system. We lock away more people than any other nation, and we’d lock away more if we had the room. That matters to me. It matters to us. And it’s real persecution.
And I feel quite shaken now, because I write down that this church, being heavily dependent on electronics for its service, is helping to fund the wars in the Congo. But in our culture, we don’t question this too much, so many people aren’t even aware of the connection. In fact, our electronics all have “conflict minerals” inside of them. These minerals are cassiterite (for tin), wolframite (for tungsten), coltan (for tantalite), and gold ore. The exact names are not important, but what happens to them is. They are extracted from the Eastern Congo, using slave labor, using kids in some cases, kids who deserve to be able to play. And then the parts are sold and the money goes to dictators and thugs who fund wars. The minerals sold then pass through a variety of intermediaries before being purchased by multinational electronics companies. Then they go into your phone, laptop, mp3 players, and other electronics. This matters too. It matters enough to me that I stop writing.
Now I’m back to Africa, in my heart, in my mind. At one point, near the end of my trip, I was in Rwanda, and I was close enough to hike over the border of the Congo. I was close. Close to those kids who have to mine the conflict minerals that go into the smartphone I used to snap photos and create nice memories of my time in Africa. This breaks my heart. But I wish it were the only thing.
After being in Africa, poverty isn’t just a concept or an issue. It belongs to the faces of my friends. It’s Eliza and her kids. Or Pateli and his family. Or Happy and her kids and her unfinished house.
I wish that were all, but there is also racism. Especially in places like South Africa, the white racism of the past still permeates the present in complicated ways. It still degrades people and steals their dignity along with their economic opportunity.
I’ve read about African violence, poverty, and racism. I’ve known, intellectually, about this kind of thing. Now I feel it in my bones. I can’t get my friends out of poverty, and I can’t do anything for the kids of the Congo, nor can I change the state of racism. And what is worse is that I am a part of an economically privileged culture who has benefited from all of this. America, Europe, we’ve either caused or complicated all of this suffering. It is hard to just let it go when your culture is culpable.
I wish I could just dismiss it all by saying, “Well, there’s only so much you can do.” But it isn’t that easy. To deal with this pain is to deal with a broken heart. When your heart is broken, it’s just broken. It’s like a loved one dying. You can function in life. You can even enjoy moments of fun, goodness, and love. But you carry around sadness. It’s just there.
In the case of experiencing this kind of pain, of empathizing with the suffering of the world, it’s hard to see an end to it, because my culture perpetuates it. This and more. I am part of a culture that is powerful. I am an American, living in the American Empire, the superpower of the world. My culture, my people. We do not act to end it. Most are either unaware or unable to care.
I know that there are others who feel as I do. And I know that there are many people in the past who have cared. I also know that many of these people are my religious and spiritual heroes. People like Jesus.
Biblical scholarship of recent decades is starting to take seriously the fact that the historical Jesus was a prophet protesting the collaboration of his religion’s leaders (the temple authorities) with Roman imperialism. The Roman Empire inflicted the kind of violent domination that caused intense suffering and pain. The religious leaders worked together with them. When they didn’t, they were let go. Jesus, as it turns out, was probably crucified because he protested this arrangement. This fact has gotten a bit lost in the shuffle, buried under the narrative of the dominant Christian culture: “Jesus died for your sins.” Maybe. But I’m more inspired by the fact that he was a protester. He died with a broken heart.
Christian abolitionists in the United States were an extremely radical fringe when they first embarked on changing the status of black slaves. The black churches of the South were the mobilizing center for the beginnings of the civil rights movements. And John Brown. Dude was the most religious man you’ll ever read of. There’s also the prophets of the Bible. They protested. They wept.
Many are the religious and spiritual souls who have carried their broken hearts and listened to the sounds of suffering. They felt broken. I’m no Jesus, no Martin Luther King, Jr., no prophet. But they inspire me.
We have to try to change things. A heart is broken by love. And love is the most powerful force I know. Love and hate. Grace and greed.