Uncommon Sense

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Henry Ossawa Tanner, “The Thankful Poor”

Here is Jerry Falwell Jr. answering a question about whether it’s hypocritical for evangelical leaders like himself to “support a leader who has advocated violence and who has committed adultery and lies often.”

There’s two kingdoms. There’s the earthly kingdom and the heavenly kingdom. In the heavenly kingdom the responsibility is to treat others as you’d like to be treated. In the earthly kingdom, the responsibility is to choose leaders who will do what’s best for your country. Think about it. Why have Americans been able to do more to help people in need around the world than any other country in history? It’s because of free enterprise, freedom, ingenuity, entrepreneurism and wealth. A poor person never gave anyone a job. A poor person never gave anybody charity, not of any real volume. It’s just common sense to me.

Thankfully there have been plenty of evangelical leaders who have pointed out the silliness of Falwell’s reasoning and shallowness of this expression of a two kingdoms theology. I’m more interested in how those of us who rightly decry this blatantly deficient vision of Christianity succumb to less obvious versions of it ourselves.

Falwell believes that America’s wealth is responsible for accomplishing more good around the globe “than any other country in history.” Setting aside the question of how such a thing could be measured or, more significantly, the exports of suffering and destruction for which we are also responsible, his claim reveals an understanding of the wealthy rather different than the one Jesus repeatedly taught. In Falwell’s theology, the wealthy are important for what their wealth does, including how it meets the needs of the poor. Jesus, of course, warns of the hazards of wealth as a massive – thought not impassable  – barrier to the kingdom of heaven. The problem with wealth is what ultimate good works to keeps us from.

On the other hand, the poor are merely an afterthought to Falwell, dispensable for what they cannot do.  In contrast to the rich whose money makes things happen, those who suffer poverty can be set aside exactly because their impoverishment weakens their ability to accomplish anything of “real volume.”

Falwell says that his hierarchy of the wealthy over the poor is merely common sense and I can’t disagree with him. In fact, though we may be subtler about it, I have to wonder if the vast majority of American Christians don’t also trade Jesus’ teachings about wealth and poverty for something closer to Falwell’s logic. We measure our ministries by the metrics of the marketplace. Our well-known leaders and their churches are not poor, not even by vocation.  Middle-class Christians are quick to give to those suffering poverty but we’d be hard-pressed to find any of those same people submitting to the spiritual authority or ministry priorities of their less-resourced kin.

It’s not hard to point out the absurdity of Falwell’s justification for supporting the president. But what about when the absurdity fades into something more like our own, acceptable, version of common sense? It seems likely that many more of us may be further from Jesus’ uncommon kingdom than we’d want to admit.

Photo by Plum leaves.

 

Scaredy-Cats

Last night our old cat jumped onto the couch next to the four-year-old as he sat with Maggie, listening as she read his bedtime story. This cat, the epitome of scaredy-cat, has never done this before. In the dozen or so years that we’ve had her, she has spent about 90% of her time in hiding: under beds, buried under blankets, disappeared into the darkest corner of a closet. For a while we owned one of those oversized recliners and she figured out how to crawl inside one of its wide – and, we came to learn – mostly hollow arms. It was only when one of us dropped into that chair and leaned back that we’d discover her there, the frantic wiggling and clawing the unmistakable signal that we’d again disturbed her peace.

fullsizeoutput_29fbIt took a few years before Gabby the cat would venture onto the couch with us on an evening when we sat quietly, reading or watching TV. When we adopted our first son she seemed to revert and for his first few years E must have wondered about this imaginary animal his parents mentioned occasionally.  Most of our guests over the years couldn’t be faulted for thinking the same; occasionally someone will do a double-take while sitting at our dining room table, “I didn’t know you had a cat,” they’ll exclaim with that certain tone that indicates whether or not they’re a cat person.

Anyway, as E learned to be quiet around our sensitive cat she slowly warmed to him, eventually even seeking him out to be scratched behind her ears. The four-year-old has always been a bit more rambunctious. Frankly, I thought it’d be a few more years before she’d let him get close. But tonight, to the surprise of both Maggie and W, she hopped right up.

I only mention our cat and her skittish ways because I sometimes think I’ve learned as much about being a pastor from her as I have from most of the books I’ve read and classes I’ve taken on the subject.

When we adopted the cat who’d become Gabby – the shelter had named her Fleur which is a good French word for flower but, in our opinions, not so good for a cat – the woman who had cared for her warned us that she was pretty shy. An understatement! At six months old she’d been found near death, shivering under a pile of frozen leaves. It took a few months to revive her to the point where she was strong enough to be adopted. On top of being so easily frightened, she’s always remained skinny. No matter what we feed her she still carries evidence of those first cruel days in her body.

It’s been close to fifteen years that we’ve lived with this cat. She is the same animal now as she was when we first drove her home. But she’s also different, braver. She’ll never be one of those cuddly, social cats but almost every morning now, before everyone else gets up, she’ll jump into my lap while I read. Instead of burying herself in our furniture, she perches on one of the couch’s armrests, hoping to be pet while we watch reruns of The West Wing or The Simpsons.

People can change and heal is what I’m getting at I guess. But we can’t be forced. And if you want to be there when it starts to happen, you’ve got to stick around long enough so that when they’re finally ready to be seen you’ll be around to see.