Christians Have Been Given A Bad Name. They Can Do Better.

Quite some time ago I wrote a piece about the difference between believing in Jesus and in following Jesus.  It’s been a surprise to find it the most often re-read column, frequently by readers from foreign countries.  Not a badly written article but it isn’t my writing that’s sought but the subject matter.

In short, I wrote that one can believe in anything, even the most preposterous. Belief by itself means little.  Even belief in Jesus as one’s personal lord and savior needs a good deal more to justify it and prove its worth. An essential part of ‘a good deal more’ is the determination to follow where Jesus has led in word and deed.

I don’t know why the piece gets read or re-read so often but I wonder if it has something to do with decades of pastoral advice telling people the only thing required of a certified “believer” is to have made a particular declaration of belief in Jesus as personal lord and savior.  The declaration has the advantage of allowing the new ‘believer” to depart with all their prejudices intact and with the satisfaction of knowing sinful backsliding is easily forgiven by the simple expedient of re-declaration of belief.  But what constitutes sinful backsliding?  It seems to have become limited mostly to failures of personal morality involving sex, alcohol, drugs, profane language, temper tantrums and the like.  It rarely has anything to do with failure to live by God’s commandments about love, social and economic justice.

Indeed for some who profess to be Christian, the words, love, social and economic justice smack of liberal, left wing politics they fear and distrust.  The would-be Christians seem unwilling to consider that God’s commandments are not liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat, right wing or left.  They are simply God’s commandments left to humans to work out how best to follow them given the times and conditions in which they live.  It is this disconnection from God’s most important laws and commandments that enables guilt free advocacy of so called Christian nationalism, white supremacy, and far right authoritarian politics.  It’s also what enables the substitution of selected social values, or snippets of Levitical regulation, to assume the identity of authoritative “biblical values.”  To cut the ‘yeah but’ argument short, the same is true for any extreme position no matter where it may fall on the spectrum of extremities.

Extreme positions are not the only obstacle to living as believers in and followers of God.  The entire history of God’s people is one of stiff necked resistance to following God’s guidance toward a more harmonious, prosperous and just way of life in community.  It is no less true today than it was in thousands of years past.  Prophets were heard but seldom heeded.  Even and in spite of God’s presence in Christ Jesus it was not enough to convince everyone, nor is it today.  Jesus proclaimed in plain ordinary every day language what commandments had prominence and against which all other laws are to be evaluated.  He demonstrated by word and deed what that looked like, and commanded us to do likewise.  I suppose he could have been just another holy sage like Isaiah or the Buddha, but his divinity and authority was fully revealed in his resurrection. He was and is the Word of God made flesh.  There is no higher authority.

Following his commandments and example in our own daily lives is no less certain however as much as we may claim to be doing it.  The stories of the early church in The Acts of the Apostles and letters of Paul, Peter and James attest to the difficulty believers had in getting things right. They never did but they always made mid-course corrections to do a little better, not perfect but better.   We are no different.  Not one of us has it right.  No denomination has it right.  But we will get it closer to right if we are diligent about following Jesus in the way of love that does not abolish but fulfills all the law and the prophets.

When Paul wrote that works in obedience to the law did not lead to salvation, he meant blind obedience to ancient rules and regulations. It is trust in Christ that leads to salvation.  When James wrote that belief in Christ without works was dead, he meant that faith or belief alone is of little consequence unless it’s demonstrated in one’s way of life, however imperfectl.

© Steven E. Woolley

Grace, Faith, Works & Democracy

God had taken his place in the divine council in the midst of the rich and powerful (gods) on which he held judgment. “How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? Give justice to the weak and the orphans, maintain the right of the lowly and destitute, rescue the weak and needy, deliver them from the hands of the wicked! You are the rich and powerful (gods), yet children of the Most High, all of you.  Nevertheless, you shall die like mortals and fall like any prince.” (Psalm 82)

We are saved by faith, not works. Does that nullify the law? No, through faith the law is upheld.  By faith we are reconciled with God, our sins are forgiven and we have eternal life. (Romans 3-5)

Faith without works is dead.  Faith is lived through works. (James)


These central themes in the early life of the church raise a lot of questions. What is faith? What law does faith uphold? How can faith be lived through works while depending on only God’s grace for salvation? The church has struggled with these questions for over two thousand years. Answers have been guided by the Spirit but hobbled by humanity’s stiff-necked reluctance. God has always been pushing up against the conditions of time, space and human inability to apprehend, much less comprehend, anything beyond the norms and conditions of the society in which they live. Normative answers by the late 15th century had become so distorted by greed, superstition and lust for power that a system of pay for salvation and bishoprics for sale corrupted the Western church and stretched the tolerance of Martin Luther and others who separated from Rome. The Protestant Reformation restored worship to emphasize grace through faith, grace the only measure of salvation, and the Bible the only source of authoritative religious law. They believed lives faithfully lived would more closely follow in the way of Jesus as the only rule of life. 

Predictably, the human ideals of what that way looked like resulted in new norms of  social life restricted by cultural and intellectual limitations of the time.  As Luther observed, that meant the church must always be in a state of reformation learning to hear God’s voice speaking in new ways, ways goading humanity ever farther in a godly direction. It was not counsel he found easy to follow himself.

It’s not something humans do very well. Reforming changes are difficult once new norms are set. But change happens anyway, and by the 20th century a movement inAmerican evangelical Protestants had codified new fundamentals of faith that opposed science, intellectualism biblical criticism, and demanded that acceptance of Jesus as one’s personal lord and savior be the only and sufficient key to salvation. For them, anyone who discerned words from God differing from their strict fundamentals were misled by the devil. Today’s conservative evangelical Protestants are dominated by the demand that social norms of a mythical mid 20th century America be recognized as the only Christian way of life.

They also want to put God “back” into the public arena by making their version of conservative evangelicalism the nation’s de facto religion taught in public schools and proclaimed by prayer at public meetings and events. Moreover, they want their social norms to be the law of the land. It’s a scheme diametrically opposed to the ways of God and to over 200 years of constitutional democracy working to keep majorities and minorities from tyrannizing each other.

The narrative has drifted ever farther from  the starting place: that Jesus did not come to abolish the law but fulfill it, and we are commanded to do likewise.  But what laws and how?

Jesus said the first and greatest commandment is to love the lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength.  The second is like it: love your neighbor as yourself. On these two laws hang all the laws and prophets. Everything in scripture, all religious writings, and whatever is said by religious leaders must be weighed and judged by the laws of divine love.

What does that look like, and how is it to be lived out? Jesus gave us another commandment: love one another as I love you. And how does he show his love for us?  The record is in the gospels.  They are there for our deep study and application, but as Paul confessed, we are limited by our own time and conditions of life.  We understand only dimly.  Full understanding awaits us in our new life on the other side of death. In the meantime, we are to boldly follow where Christ is leading. It is the way of peace, healing, and reconciliation.  It is the way of economic and social justice commanded by God through the prophets.  It is the way of inclusion, not exclusion, of breaking down barriers, not erecting them.  It is the way of moral confidence, but not to human puritanism.

God created the earth for humanity to live in harmony with one another and all of creation, enjoying the abundance available to all.  God did not promise perfection in this life and with good reason.  We have proven ourselves to be greedy, selfish, and lusting for power over others so God gave relatively simple laws to follow, most fully illuminated in Christ Jesus. We all walk crooked paths, go down many dead ends, and let selfishness control us. In Christ, God forgives our errors and restores us to the better way, if we let ‘him’ and as often as we let ‘him.’  It is a way of life that fundamentalism diverts into spiritual dead ends, and in America to anti-democratic authoritarian rule by the minority.

Note: This piece ends a concluding sentence or two.  Each reader can come up with her or his own.

©Steven E.Woolley

Citizenship: Individual Rights or the Common Good?

I wrote a piece about citizenship some months ago and have been thinking more about it since then.  Who is a citizen and what does that mean has become a question of serious contention. Political parties are going in separate directions, with white supremacists and so called Christian nationalists pushing hard in the direction of authoritarian rule. That contention makes any kind of national consensus hard to agree on.  

On the one hand, citizenship is a legal status. One is a citizen of a nation according to its laws: one is either a citizen or not.  What does that mean?  In part it means the legal right to certain privileges that non-citizens don’t have, and in another it means the obligation of a citizen to support and work for the greater good. Therein lies one source of contention. America’s founders, however imperfectly, understood that for individual rights to be secured, citizens had an obligation to support the nation and its greater good.  If that lead to one’s own success in life so much the better, but the higher priority was the common good of all.  The idea of what the common good included was limited, but the bequeathed principles made room for generous expansion of what all citizens could be included in.

Another source of today’s atmosphere of unyielding contention is the assumed right to guaranteed privileges without one’s strong sense of the obligation of citizenship to support the national government, and the greater good, if through nothing else than informed voting. In today’s society, for a great many people, including state and national leaders, it seems to go the other way round. It is a State that bears the obligation to serve the rights of individuals, especially the right to be left alone by the national government. It seems the citizen’s interest is only an obligation to see that his or her individual rights and privileges are defended against government intrusion or the unwanted social values of others imposed on them.  The greater good is suspect, a harbinger of dreaded socialism, or worse, soviet style communism.  

There is some validity in both arguments, and it should be obvious that a balance could and should be struck that inspires citizen commitment to the greater good while protecting the rights and privileges of individuals.   What is more obvious is that it’s not happening.The argument for the burden to be on the state to serve the individual has become so entrenched that negotiating in good faith toward a balance is seen as surrender. An unyielding commitment to individualism does not deliver more freedom.  Rather it has opened the door to those who believe it would be better to limit who can be a citizen, and strengthen the coercive power of government to enforce a unified definition of citizenship that makes it difficult for “unwanted” classes of persons to become citizens and unwanted values and beliefs.  Curiously, all in the name of democratic liberty.

As an Episcopal priest, it’s heretically offensive that some claim to be defending Christian values which they define as mid 20th century social values that have nothing to do with the teachings of Jesus and the prophets.  Added is the hubris that the United States should be a Christian nation according to their definition of Christianity – a definition at extreme odds with orthodox Christian faith. They believe they have the moral right and God’s approval to impose “their’ religious beliefs and values, excluding all others as sinful and criminal..

We’ve seen the results when states have used ideology or religion to impose strict rules of behavior and belief on an entire population.  It never ends well.  Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany are the most frequently cited examples, but they are dated.  Of more recent vintage are Orban’s Hungary, Putin’s Russia, the Taliban and ISIS.  In every case the move to focus on the exclusionary privileges of a certain race, faith or way of life ended protecting only those in power, driving the rest into  poverty and oppression.  Liberal democracy is chosen and defended by citizens exercising their citizenship.  It is not fated to be the natural evolution of the economy or politics.

The future for America looks questionable.   If we are not to slide in the direction of the worst examples, we must recover a stronger sense of national identity that values  citizen obligations to work for the greater good.  It has to be  an identity of American that is without barriers of race, ethnicity or religion.  I’m not sure how that can be done.  The usual menu of options like improved civics education for youth and adults, and a more honest telling of American history is necessary but not sufficient. Late in life I have come to think some kind of  mandatory national service should be considered for youth approaching the age of majority –  not a military draft, though military service could be a part of it.  There have been a number of voluntary programs that would serve as templates. In any case, the national service needs to intentionally expose participants to a full range of other persons, places and conditions. 

On Being a Country Parson: George Herbert and me.

My blog, Country Parson, is named in honor of George Herbert, a late sixteenth and early seventeenth century priest and poet.  His education prepared him for a successful career ar Court or the university, but he ended up becoming a village parish priest. He was only 39 when he died, but his output of prose and poetry was prodigious and published after his death in a book called “The Temple.”  Along with it he wrote a sort of handbook for rural ministry entitled “A Priest to the Temple or The Country Parson.”

Written for the times in which he lived, its social values and customary ways, but with a depth of wisdom that has endured for three hundred years.  A country parson serves in a different setting requiring different talents and gifts than ministry in centers of power and commerce.  It’s as true today as it was then.

My own career thrived in centers of power and commerce and as a very late vocation priest I might have stayed to serve in that milieu.  Yet, somehow I felt a more magnetic pull to serve in the rural West.  Walla Walla was a small but prosperous city, a college town, but not on the Interstate, railroad or bus route. It had one flight a day to Seattle. I served its Episcopal Church as well as a very small congregation in a small town about thirty miles away.  They were wonderful years that I’d never trade for anything.

What Herbert’s three hundred year old wisdom to country parsons remains sound counsel for most rural place congregations regardless of location. It certainly was for me.

Rural places have little room for anonymity.  A pastor’s life is a public life. Like any other community, people in rural places have their secrets, things they don’t want widely known, but secrets are hard to keep in rural places.  Maintaining communal harmony means pretending you don’t know the secrets you’re not supposed to know, even when gossip is brought up by trusted friends.  Parishioners are especially curious about what might be going on behind the closed doors of the clergy person’s home – possible grist for the gossip mill.

It’s curiosity driven by the desire to trust the country parson and her or his family to be more representative of Jesus’ way of life and love than most people, and that his/her private life does not vary from their public life and preaching. Herbert understood that.  Had his guidance been followed better by succeeding generations, the English Church may not have found itself in such a shambles as a result of civil war and religious upheaval.

Rural clergy are looked to with expectation of godly wisdom and biblical expertise, thorough understanding of the church and its ways, the path to salvation, ways to pray, and how to resolve conflicts.  All clergy bear some measure of that kind of responsibility but larger cities offer more resources from different sources, so clergy tend to be just one item on the menu.

Herbert advocated lifelong dedication to learning in theology, history, classical literature, and a general keeping up with the arts and sciences. It’s all the more important in our day of rapid change on every front. Country Parsons who don’t try to keep up with things as best they can are flying blind, easily leading their flock on wrong paths.

Rural places demand that clergy join with other community leaders in the life of the city or town.  Amidst the nervous jokes about pastors, there is an expectation that the clergy will provide moral guidance and direction. Guidance not always well received, but community leaders want and need it.  It means country parsons need thick skins to tolerate uncomfortable situations, and an ability to address those situations and leaders with compassion and understanding. 

Herbert knew that country ways, with reluctance, changed slowly. As a community leader the parson must respect existing mores while gently but firmly moving them in more godly directions. Class structure in Herbert’s days was far more rigid than our own, and clergy were not at the top of the structure. Nevertheless, clergy could plead for what was right and good and in defense of the poor and oppressed with the authority of God behind them.  In my more peevish moments when confronted by an angry demand to know who my boss was, I said “God, who is yours?”  I don’t think Herbert would have approved, I know Jesus wouldn’t, so I offer a lenten mea culpa here, now.

Herbert’s reminder to rural clergy is that striving to do everything in public or private is an opportunity to give glory to God’s name and to bear the light of Christ wherever they are and in whatever they’re doing. Still, no one is perfect and we all mess up. Yet it’s a way of life more easily worked on than one might expect because, while doing the work, Christ is really present to lend a hand.

I regret that seminary trained clergy are often drawn to larger cities with more lucrative pulpits and compensation opportunities. Although Herbert, and I too, believe that to be a country parson may be the most fulfilling work of all. The position allows an intimacy with one’s parishioners, their families and lives, along with the possibility of being embedded in the greater life of the community. Operating at a  slower pace with time to reflect and grow into a place of greater wisdom is a clergy person’s dream. In reality the life can be fraught with generational challenges of doing things the old fashioned way and facing deeply rooted prejudices that often have been hidden from the public’s view.  In rural communities (as well as not so rural) there is an opportunity to steer a congregation towards following Jesus more closely, not quickly but surely.

I’m an old man with many adventures, successes and failures behind me, but twenty years as a country parson were the very best.  I am happy to have been one, a poor imitation of Herbert to be sure but what a wonderful time it was.

The American Way:making it a better way for more Americans.

The American Way is a phrase that came into popular use during the 1930s to describe what was believed to be the unique American character. It was interpreted differently by different  people who used common adjectives about American individualism working collaboratively to ensure freedom, opportunity, the virtue of hard work, and commitment to the greater good of city, state and nation.  After WWII The American Way was expanded to include the American Dream of middle class prosperity that would become even better with each passing generation. It all added up to American exceptionalism, which had some justification.  After all, the first two post war decades saw the United States as the only major economy that had not been blown to smithereens.

We pretended not to be class conscious but when I actually studied this stuff fifty years ago, it was obvious that America was divided into economic classes often described as: upper upper class, lower upper class, upper middle class, middle class, lower middle class, upper lower class and lower lower class.  The classifications remain a useful model that has been used to attribute particular social values and life styles to each group. The various schemes over simplify the dynamics of real life but established archetypes that continue to dominate public perception of how society is structured.

The core values of the post war American Way were centered on the virtues and social values of a vaguely middle or upper middle class.  The virtues and social values of lower or higher class were described by how they deviated from this mythical core.  It was assumed that lower classes, properly motivated, would aspire to rise in their status, and higher classes would be reminded from whence they rose.  The public internalized all of this not through the work of scholars but through magazines and television. Norman Rockwell’s magazine covers illustrated The American Way as basic goodness and wholeness. Television series such as the Nelsons, Cleavers, My Three Sons, Dr. Welby, and even Bonanza provided the needed sets, characters, role models, and status to drive home the message. 

The whole thing defined as the American Way was a singularly White Only American Way. Immigrants were expected to assimilate into the White cultural ethos because that’s what it meant to become an American.  Although not expected to succeed, minorities were expected to do the best they could to assimilate yet always remember their place, which, at best, could be only a subordinate imitation of White society.

The civil rights and Vietnam era disrupted everything.  Minorities were not content to remain subordinate to White society.  Part of the public became dissatisfied and distrustful of established institutions.  Another part redoubled their dedication to them. Achieving The American Dream became increasingly difficult following the Reagan administration as more became wealthy, more were stuck with no where to go, and more became poor.  White birth rates plummeted, contributing to a change in demographics that made it increasingly clear that Whites would soon become a plurality, but not a majority. Whatever the American Way was it could no longer be defined by the social values of a mythical White Middle/Upper Middle Class.

Ir became an intolerable change in fortune for right wig Whites who under various banners (tea party MAGA, white supremacy, and little “Greene” women) are doing what they can to turn back the clock and prevent it from moving forward. No matter how nostalgic it may appear no one can go back in time. One can only go ahead. In trying move forward by going backward only creates chaos leading to exploitation by opportunists of the worst kind.  Clearly the old American Way has collapsed and if the nation is not to collapse into chaos along with it, a new American Way will have to be born.  What will it look like?

I can only guess but think I know the primary sources from which it will come. It will come from strong voices contributing the stories, cultures, languages, economic social and political ideals of Black Americans, American Indians, Latino Americans and Asian American. Their voices will not replace the old American Way but use it as the foundation for new construction. They will not be anti-White, but neither will they accept a subordinate position. The new American Way will look very much like the old, except for their full ownership and commitment to equity of justice and opportunity. The new American Way will be truly American, not derivative of centuries old  European colonial ways.  American English will become even more littered with words and phrases from other American cultures. American history will not erase or demean the history we’ve learned, but neither will it be romanticized.  The teaching of American history will include the stories of other cultures as recorded in their own voices.  Assimilation will mean becoming comfortable living in a nation of distinct and mutually respectful cultures.  Intermarriage will be common, mix things up, but not homogenize cultural ways.

It will not create an American Garden of Eden.  After all, humans are human so there will be conflicts and the usual menu of misbehaviors.  Nevertheless, the crazies so prominent today will have been assigned to the trash bin of history, with their nasty successors’ whining little voices lurking about the edges. In short, the United States of America will be more united than ever, and come closer to the finest ideals of its founding. It can if it has the will to do so.