Friday, November 7, 2008

How I Left Fundamentalism-- Part 3

More from my book. Stick with the story, the plot thickens...


The issue of the Moral Majority

The second event that led to my exit from the absolutist church took place over a number of years. The reader will recall that the churches I attended had roots in Jesus Freak days. The Jesus Freaks, at least in the beginning, were largely ex-hippie counter culture participants. The Vietnam War was still ongoing and the draft was in full swing. Most of the young men in the absolutist church were conscientious objectors, who found the teachings of Christ in the Sermon on the Mount incongruous with military service. The church elders wrote many letters to draft boards in support of alternate service. Quite a few of the young men were performing alternate service at an area hospital.

As time passed and the Jesus Freak fellowships organized into Charismatic or fundamentalist churches, other things began to change as well. The newly formed churches were quickly caught up in the burgeoning Christian Right Movement. In my church, this began in embryonic fashion with Nixon’s second bid for the presidency. We heard from the pulpit that Nixon was “a godly man.” In the Carter campaign days, we fully supported of his bid because he was a born again Christian. President Crater turned out much more liberal than we anticipated. Then, things really accelerated. The Regan election machine was in full operation, and a new political force, the Moral Majority was on the rise. They were pro right-wing, supportive of fundamentalist causes, dedicated to bringing a Christian society back to America (as if there ever was a Christian society!), and they based virtually all of their support on a flat, verbal/plenary inspired Bible. They were also quite militaristic. They took the additive approach to arrive at this: consider Jesus’ call for non-violence, add the Biblical calls for violence and vengeance (there are plenty), divide by two and, there it was! Here one could find a platform for the just war (lately, preemptive as well).

The alignment of the absolutist church I attended with the Christian Right and the Moral Majority created several problems for me. My dad and I may have had our disagreements, but both Mom and Dad tended to find war a generally unsatisfactory method for solving problems. This was especially true for my mother. My mother and I usually have been quite close, so that impacted my thinking. Second, my Jesus Freak roots stretched back to a time when the flat Bible was somewhat less influential. It was not a well thought out position, but those facing the draft saw Christianity as supporting non-violence. I also, no doubt, retained a bit of the rebellious hippy streak that vetoed the idea of violence on general principles. However, despite these problems—the Moral Majority’s acceptance of violence notwithstanding—another, much larger problem arose.

The encounter with Bonhoeffer

Starting with the tithe business, I had come to wonder about the “flat Bible,” verbal/plenary view of things. I came to see that some parts of the Bible “trumped” others, and parts of it simply stood on a higher moral plain. Old Testament passages dealing with the end of violence and God’s reign of peace combined with the New Testament peace imperative grew in importance for me. Those upholding holy war or a crusade lessened in importance in my view of God’s will regarding war and peace.

Therefore, I found myself confused. I did not know what to think about the direction my church was going, but I had no clearly defined direction for my life worked-out yet. Some answers, however, were waiting in the wings—in the most unlikely of places, right where I found myself. I guess it was serendipity (or perhaps something more). The third event leading to my leaving took place when a young woman in the church lent me a book. I am not sure if she read it. If she did, she certainly received different messages from it than I did. The book in question saw its first publication in the turmoil of Germany in the late 1930’s. A young Lutheran pastor named Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote it. The title of the book is The Cost of Discipleship (Bonhoeffer 1995),

Bonhoeffer is a rather enigmatic figure. A devout Christian, his writings are profound and even poetic. He became involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler, something I will not deal with here, but which I have dealt with at length elsewhere (Alexander 2004). Although his book discusses many things, some might regard the main theme as “costly grace,” or some might see it as the price that must be paid for true devotion to the Kingdom that Jesus came to proclaim. However, it was the lengthy commentary on the Sermon on the Mount that seemed to speak directly to me.

Bonhoeffer did not see the Bible as flat at all. The pinnacle for him was the words, doing, and dying of Christ. Everything I read went against the Moral Majority thinking that I encountered in church. Above all, it confronted me with Christ’s call to non-violence. In the face of all of the violence in the Bible, in the face of Joshua and the military conquest of Canaan, in the face of David and his battles with the Philistines, in the face of St. Paul and his admonitions concerning obedience to the government stood Jesus giving a higher call. I knew a decision confronted me. It was another moment of conversion we so frequently face. If Bonhoeffer was right, my church and the Moral Majority it supported were wrong. I decided to cast my lot with non-violence and the superiority of Christ’s teachings over the rest of the Bible. I firmly decided that all things were not equal; the Bible was not flat.

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