Saturday, March 23, 2019

Christian as Identity. Part I

(Edited 3/23) Here is the tweet by Catholic comedian Jeremy McLellan that started me off. It makes an excellent point, but it oversimplifies and misses some key aspects, as would be likely for a comedian, always looking to distill ideas rather than develop them.  The reference to Ruth Pfau, who I had not heard of, suggests the flaws. That she could practice her faith in Pakistan is mostly true, and she made the most of what she had. But to say she was "unimpeded in her religious practices" leaves out important pieces.  Not only could she not evangelise, she could not instruct and disciple young Christians who didn't come in from outside the country as part of her order. Conversion was forbidden. It matters.

But to the topic of people who McLellan calls identitarian Christians and how much he disapproves of them, I would like to make two distinctions.

No, first I would like to challenge that use of identitarian, which even with a small "i" suggests the Christian Identity movement, and I think that was intentional.  That's an exaggeration by McLellan,  to the point of being a smear. So let's get that clear.  There are a lot of people who have little or no Christian practice, who nonetheless have some sympathy with churches, or with Jesus, or with the historical culture that was Christianity-influenced. They cover a wide spectrum, and few of them qualify as Identity Christians. Thinking of themselves as Christians, more in the sense of not-Muslim - or in early generations not-Jewish - is in a cultural sense not unreasonable, and does not imply any particular animosity to anyone else.  McLellan is arguing unfairly here.

Two distinctions, both of which I thought were going to be sharp at first. High-culture vs popular-culture, and Inside-the church vs Outside-the-church. Both turned out to be softer distinctions than expected. In both cases, my usual pattern will apply.  1.) I see one side but ultimately 2.) support the other side yet 3.) see one final twist.

Inside vs Outside.  Throughout scripture God is abundantly clear that no one is to use Him for their own purposes. It's what the Second Commandment is really about. We discussed Matthew 7:13-23 at small group two nights ago. Jesus does not call people of wrong teaching simply mistaken and doing the best they can, as we would in the 21st C, he calls them wolves.  He says they are going to be cut down and burned.  CS Lewis had the tempter Screwtape explain to his nephew about getting his patient safely into hell by use of "Christianity. and..." or at the close of Chapter VII, that either side of a political question can be used to ruin the Christian into gradually making the religious part of his faith entirely secondary to his politics or some other cause. (This is a temptation for me, and seemingly for some around me.) God is completely intolerant of  any god ahead of him in our lives, and instructs the church to teach and discipline along those lines. To those who would claim to be Christians in this milk-and-water sense, and certainly more pernicious senses, we are allowed and even encouraged to be harsh and to separate ourselves from such.

Yet if we regard those same people with our we-live-in-America eyes, pluralistic and tolerant of other cultures, why shouldn't they advocate for the culture they want? It is not only that they want Christmas and they don't want anyone to mess with it, it is that they have shared symbols, so that seeing a church in a movie or seeing a picture of Jesus is part of their background. Every tribe in history has wanted to have the culture it chooses, not one imposed from outside.  If McLellan doesn't want them to have more right to advocacy than a Muslim, or an atheist, or a Hindu, fine, but I don't see where they should have less.  They want to call themselves Christian by their definition, which disagrees with his (and mine), but he doesn't own the term. If they are not better than the others, at least they are no worse, yet those are the ones he wants to kick.

McLellan, and not he alone by any stretch, is confusing his two roles.  He is wearing his discipline-within-the-church hat even when he is over on the speaking-as-an-American side.  We mostly get why.  A cultural Christianity has been a substitute in  America for more real versions since before the Revolution, mixing and muddling and drawing people into believing that their spiritual condition is better than it is. He is dead set against that, likely for both religious and political reasons.  He wants it clearer.  I sympathise, but he has to be clearer himself. Otherwise he commits the same sin of intolerance.

It also won't do to retreat into the accusation "well, it's different because they are trying to keep all those others out, so we have to oppose that." First. No, they usually aren't.  Stop focusing on the media accounts and exceptions.  Know these people.  Second. All cultures are always trying to keep all the others out. Even the ones that say "We welcome all cultures" have shown on a practical level they don't actually mean all cultures. The reason they have failed in practice is because they don't see themselves well enough.  They do not really refuse to cut the cake into pieces, as they claim. The just cut it differently.  They may cut off the top layer from the bottom, so that from one angle it looks uncut.  Or they might prefer to cut at angles or some other geometry.

Some try. Many try, and some do reasonably well.  Some libertarian types are pretty good at tolerating groups they would rather not tolerate, but only those who are aware of their secret exclusions. Those they try to push aside for the greater comity.  So also with conservatives and liberals.  There are some who do a decent job of dividing alliance/neutrality/competition/enmity with aspects of another culture rather than the whole culture. It doesn't come with the philosophy, it comes with the personality. We all do much better with that face-to-face or in smaller groups (unless perhaps someone else is slyly or openly antagonistic), and do worse than that when we are in large groups of people who agree with us.

So...1.) McLellan and other Christians are right to come down on this with a hammer.
But 2.) Why shouldn't these people advocate the culture they want?

Here's the twist. 3.) I don't think the McLellans of the world are operating from the discipline-and-purity approach the scripture commands.  There may be some of that, but I think they are mostly operating from the "we don't want these people to embarrass us" mode. They are hiding behind the Fellow Christians: It's For Your Own Good approach, combined with distancing themselves from a group they are afraid the popular culture will associate them with. The hard message to them:  I don't think public distancing is spiritual work, I think it's self-serving.  Spiritually, your job is to do well. When Paul admonishes us - in a few places - to consider our reputation before unbelievers, he is referring to our actual behavior, not a PR campaign. When the 70 went out and were rejected, the command was not that they should stand at the town borders and shout condemnations so that all could hear , but to kick the dust off their shoes and go to the next town.

My evidence for that accusation?  They don't have anywhere near that level of condemnation for other cultural groups.  They see this group of  cultural Christians as especially dangerous. They use the same language and examples that the secular critics do, suggesting that it is their secular side that is offended. More importantly, they don't do this to other groups within the church that they disagree with, even those they think are in sin, though those should be considered even more to the point in a purity-and-discipline setting.

So the Inside/Outside distinction reveals itself to be much more dependent on the Outside pressures, and the distinction is softer than it looked at first.

This went long.  I will have to come back for a Part Two to do the high-culture-popular culture division.

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