By Joseph Pusateri
“There are many signs that the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. Unless the early sacrificial spirit is recaptured, I am very much afraid that today’s Christian church will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and we will see the Christian church dismissed as a social club with no meaning or effectiveness for our time, as a form without substance, as salt with savor. The real tragedy, though, is not Martin Luther King’s disillusionment with the church –for I am sustained by its spiritual blessing as a minister of the gospel with a lifelong commitment; the tragedy is that in my travels, I meet young people of all races whose disenchantment with the church has soured into outright disgust.”
~Martin Luther King (Playboy interview, January, 1965)
When I look at a tree, I do not perceive what is truly there. I do not behold the one and only arrangement of these atoms, this literal stardust, in this particular corner of a vast universe, present at one particular dot on an immense timeline of billions of years. What I behold is a concept of “tree” that has been taught to me and reinforced again and again. I experience the idea of a tree, not the tree. And when I relate to another my experience of the concept of the tree, it again is not the object that I am describing but my interpretation of that event in time and space. Perhaps this statement about the perception and experience of a tree is interesting or amusing. To most, it likely doesn’t precipitate a change one’s orientation to the world. But if you can extrapolate for a moment what this observation infers, that this is true for more than simply trees, you can see the how we can become lost in rather complex human systems and relationships. We can say this also about the experience of a world rich in substance. Such is the case about the entire incarnate experience called life. Everything inescapably requires interpretation, and everything is experienced through an ever-warping lens of interpretation. In an era where even grown men spend hours playing murderous war games on their xboxes in some virtual fantasy land only distinguishable from reality by the absence of the smell of death, I hope this business about the tree is not too bizarre of an observation. All I’m trying to assert is that it is a worthwhile observation when we talk about interfacing with an ever-shifting conception of reality.
From where I stand – and perhaps its similar in your space – the experience of reality that I am having is becoming increasingly twisted and pulled by the great distorting forces of the culture, technology and institutional power. The ubiquitous Internet web through all its myriad delivery systems (laptops, desktops, mobile phones and tablets, not to mention our televisions and other visual media), layers upon everything that we think we are viewing its own interpretative stamp. It is no longer my friend with whom I am having a "dialogue" on Facebook, but rather my friend’s de-contextualized ideas as presented within a virtual forum designed for the consumption of advertising, and the collection of personal data to be sold to profit-motivated private corporations or co-opted by a “security”-minded government increasingly influenced by the money of such corporations. You can certainly understand why we regularly walk into the trap of annihilating a friendship that was forged over years of face-to-face mutuality over the smallest expression of a political or religious idea that is distorted by the medium itself.
The study of history, likewise, should not be misunderstood as a way to experience the past. At best, we are opening ourselves to be influenced not by past events, but by whoever succeeded in interpreting past events in order to serve their own interests. So if we study the interpretation of history from the perspective of those who won the wars or best seized and maintained power, then we are leaving ourselves open to being held captive and convinced by oppressive lies. If we want to study history in any serious way, we have to recognize that we have been lied to about many things. And we must consider the possibility that we have been lied to even about God. I have considered this possibility and have come to conclude that we have indeed been lied to about God and that those lies go deeper than any of us could imagine. Personally, I cannot help but see the evidence of these lies in the Pew Research report that claims one in five American adults have no religious affiliation. This isn’t a breakdown in the moral fabric of common people; this is the inevitable result of what Dr King prophesied in 1965 about the ineffectiveness of a church turned social club without meaning. We have been told that God cares more about individual piety and conformity to the existent power structure than social justice or obedience to God. In the dominant brand of Christianity, we are told God helps us get the next touchdown or build a business, blesses our military adventurism, and forgives us of naughty behavior.
I don’t think it should be too hard to understand the impotence and apathy of that particular God when we watch Syria burn, Africans starve, prison populations explode, immigrants scapegoated for our economy, LGBTQI folks silenced and families made to wander our American streets while millions of dwellings remain vacant and padlocked. And so a generation of all races today – just as in 1965 – moves from disenchantment to disgust, and declare that they won’t or can’t believe in God. “I’m spiritual, but not religious, so back off.” And I agree with them. I don’t believe in that God either. I won’t believe in that God.
So when I talk to my “spiritual but not religious” sisters and brothers, or even my ardently atheist kin, I cannot start with suspect interpretations of our texts, which have lost legitimacy as moral currency in our culture. I have to start talking about the world around us, in all its raw absurdity, horror and injustice. I must begin by peeling back the layers of narrative that we have been taught to believe about the world around us. I must be skeptical and suspicious of the political, imperial and economic explanations of the vast consumerist web in which we 21st Century Americans are caught.
I am a Christian, which means that in light of my human inability to experience the reality of an incarnate life for what it truly is, I choose the narrative of a Palestinian peasant named Jesus of Nazareth, the promised Christ of Israel, who walked among us, was persecuted and executed by the Roman Empire in collusion with the religious establishment and raised by the Sovereign God of the universe, as the story which reveals meaning to my erstwhile absurd existence. I don’t know if it is the only narrative that can or does reveal such meaning for all other people in time and space, but it allows me a way to look directly into the face of a child who is made to suffer the oppression of our global economy and know that God sees this too. It allows me to resist the impulse to look away or explain away or whither away in despair, because I know that God hears her cry and is moved to respond with compassion and justice.
What I call for is a rigorous effort to let go of the old ideas that have been given to us to understand ourselves and to see the world. I call for an effort of those who serve the gospel to petition God first to open our eyes to see the world for what it is, and then to give us the faith to behold what we see without being crushed by it. And lastly, we must be strengthened and encouraged by God and one another to offer this unpopular prophetic vision to those who have, like many of us, been disillusioned and disenchanted by the sins of the church, and who have been offered seductive explanations by institutions that do not have the best interest of the human soul in mind.
I want to recount something that happened to me a few weeks ago.
I went to a 12-step meeting for recovering alcoholics and was greeted by a homeless man outside the door of the church where it is held. A bead of snot had dried below his nose. As we stood out in the cold, he extended his hand and introduced himself. “My name is Keith.” I shook it and said hello. Later on in the meeting, there was another presumably homeless man in one of the metal folding chairs. While someone was talking, it became apparent that this second man was still drunk. He exclaimed something incoherent, and almost everyone in the room shifted in their own folding chair, attempting to ignore the disruption and double their focus on the speaker. Keith quietly stood up to get what I thought was a cup of coffee for himself. Instead, he brought the Styrofoam cup of coffee for the man who was still drunk.
At that moment, I felt the warm rush of gratitude flow over and through my body for having been given this gift of witnessing this tender, kind moment. I don’t know if anyone else saw it, but I know there were many who didn’t. For almost all of my life, I have not seen these moments, and not because they weren't happening. This gratitude was accompanied by a longing within me. I longed in that moment for such humility, to be so in touch with my own humanity, so stripped of the pretense and false ideas about whatever big shot I fantasize I might be, that I could recognize the humanity in my brother and respond to his needs immediately with compassion.
I long still and I urge others to seek a new vision, a new interpretation, to meet the world. I long for those moments that call me to repent, as the Kingdom of God draws near. I long to catch those glimpses. I believe that they are all around us if only we have the courage and faith to see.