Today, I read a front-page article in The New York Times about how the “culture wars,” the political divisions in this country, are causing conflicts within church congregations, and driving many people away from their places of Worship. The article took as its central illustration the case of a small Baptist church in the Alabama countryside. One Sunday, in his sermon, the 35-year-old pastor gave a sermon on the Beatitudes (Matthew 5: 3-12 Matthew Chapter 5, Verses 3-12 (King James Version); Luke 6: 20-26), arguably the crux of the Sermon on the Mount. Members of the congregation took part of his message to be that we should follow the precepts and example of the Savior by treating dispossessed refugees with more kindness and care than the current Presidential administration was doing: that, as both the Old and New Testaments enjoin us to do, we should “love the stranger, for we were strangers once in the Land of Egypt”; and that we should welcome and care for wayfaring strangers, “for some have thereby entertained angels unawares.”
This disturbed a number of the congregants. As they told the pastor after the service: The Beatitudes are nice, but we don’t really have to live by them.
At the same time, they told the pastor, they knew that he was criticizing the President of the United States, Mr. Trump, and his policies and actions regarding refugees. That, they declared, was intolerable.
Here is a question that begs answering: If Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell, and other right-wing politicians and adherents are “conservatives,” what is that they seek to conserve? Obviously not our freedoms of speech and press and worship (which was the right of religious minorities to worship as they chose in the face of the majority’s disapproval or persecution). Not our cultural or natural resources and wonders. Not scientific knowledge and inquiry (regarding climate or coronavirus, for example). Not the health and livelihoods (that is, the wherewithal to live decently, not luxuriously) of all U.S. citizens.
So what is it that their actions and political positions demonstrate that they seek to conserve? Their worldly power, social privilege, material wealth, and egocentric pride – all the things that the Devil prizes most, and which he offered to Christ in the desert in order to tempt Him. (Matthew 4: 1-11; Mark 1: 12-13; Luke 4: 1-13.) And which he continually offers to all of us. And which Christ refused.
Donald Trump and the Republican conservatives, however, embrace those things, treasure and work to increase them for themselves, at the cost of millions of others’ lives all around the world. (Can you say, for instance, Trump Towers, or Tax “Reform” Act, or encouragement of violent White Supremacists?) And most of their followers, including so many self-proclaimed Christians, though they may have relatively little of those “fake treasures” themselves, yearn for them, and accordingly contribute in a host of ways to extreme suffering for themselves, as well as for all other (remaining) life on this planet.
Is there a hope that anyone who needs to take all this to heart will read this and, if they do, be changed for the better by it? Almost certainly not. But I think of a story in Souls on Fire by Elie Wiesel: A Hasidic master walks the village streets, preaching to no one in particular that all should repent and come to God. A fellow of his asks why he is wasting his time and energy, since no one is listening to him, and no one will follow his admonitions. The master says that he knows that, but that he has to speak out, so that, in effect, he himself won’t catch the viruses of sin or disbelief — or the subtler contagions of complacency, complicity, and silence.
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