When the gay issue hit my church not so many years ago, the complaint from many was that church leaders were following social trends in the way of the world, and not following Jesus. Years later their reverberations still pound back and forth. As I reflect on them, it seems to me that the “anti gay” forces were solidly locked in the secular social standards of their day, while church leaders were straining to hear what God was saying, no matter how counter cultural it might be to the established ways of the church. My denomination survived, even prospered a bit, as did my own parish, but it wasn’t comfortable.
Contemporary social norms and mores, defined in large part by the middle class, too often firmly anchor Christian understanding more than does scripture, tradition, and reason. Those three are a combination always ready to challenge the accepted way of things. If nothing else, the gospels reveal a counter cultural Christ who ended up on the cross as an enemy of the people, not because he did something wrong, but because he challenged the accepted standards of the day. Throughout the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, the word from God is strongly counter cultural, challenging the easy way, which was always the socially acceptable way. But be careful. It’s not the same thing as saying anything counter cultural is OK, any new social trend is godly, or that accepted social norms are always wrong. They aren’t. That’s what prayerful discernment is about.
I was thinking about it while reflecting on the lectionary readings for September 23. In them Jesus called his disciples into servant leadership, while James challenges the glorification of ambition. Two social norms cherished by Americans are ambition and competition. People with ambition are celebrated, the more ambition the better. To say someone has ambition, especially if combined with gumption, is to award them a gold star of approval. In like manner is established faith that competitiveness in private enterprise will always be good for the economy. Simply claiming it is sufficient, no evidence needed. Men, especially, take pride in being competitive and love boasting about it over a few beers. Boys are taught that being competitive is essential to their maleness. The same is increasingly true for girls raised to become strong minded, independent women. Oddly, it’s often defined not as being the best you can be, but as defeating the other (seem my previous column on The Prisoner’s Dilemma). The old adage, “It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game,” has never been taken seriously. What’s taken seriously is the citation attributed to UCLA coach Henry (Red) Sanders, “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”
It’s not just an American thing, although it may be strongest here where radical individualism is celebrated as one of our civic religions. Two thousand years ago, Jesus followers, young men all, jostled each other to see who would be the top dog, the one closest to the Messiah, the one who would be better than all the others. It’s the old pecking order thing that appears to exist throughout the animal kingdom. But in humankind it finds its most creative, constructive, and destructive expressions.
Jesus would have none of it. If you want to be first, you have to be last, the servant of all. You have to be willing to welcome a child rather than defeat another for a better position. James, in his letter, made the point that envy can become bitter and ambition selfish. Envy of place in the hierarchy, and ambition to be a winner by causing others to lose, easily becomes, has become, a desirable social standard to live up to. Be competitive. The more the better. Take pride in it. Never let the other guy win if you can help it. Push, push, push, and never give in. The difference between Churchill’s “never give up,” and Trump’s “never give in,” is as wide as the Atlantic.
Those who are peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy are labeled the wussy doormats of society, easy to tromp on, and they probably deserve it. That these are the very qualities God requires of those who will follow Christ is deemed irrelevant, something that can be laid aside as soon as one has left the church. The preacher can say whatever he/she wants – the real world is different. It’s difficult to explain that following the way of Jesus endows one with strength and courage to face adversity, stand tall for justice, defend those in need of defense, and challenge the socially accepted status quo when God is calling to go in another direction. From a secular perspective, it’s Churchill’s “never give up.”
Contemporary social mores are strong. Whether adhered to or not, they define what it means to be an accepted member of society. Being accepted is a powerful incentive. I want to be accepted. You probably do too. Jesus says, “follow me.” In the way of the cross is none other than the way of life and peace.