God Is Not the Problem — Part 1
Could it be that all the talk about justice, goodness, law, religion, God and so on, was nothing but so many words to conceal the grossest self-interest and cruelty? — Leo Tolstoy, Resurrection
There can be a lot of talk about God. God often comes up when people are trying to determine what is true, right, and good. Most times God shows up in a conversation when one party or another claims what is best, truest, and most right. God is the final authority. God gets the final say. No one goes over God’s head. While I agree with that, I also recognize how often all of the God-talk is really just a pious way to “conceal the grossest self-interest and cruelty.”
For example, consider this headline: “God wants Americans to Shoot Guns.” That provocative title was over an article reporting the comments of a California congressman. He spoke on a Christian talk radio show and actually said this about guns:
“They are used to defend our property and our families and our faith and our freedom, and they are absolutely essential to living the way God intended for us to live.”
The article reported those comments in January of 2013. That was one month after a tragic school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in which 20 students and six adults were murdered. It was one year after the fatal shooting of an unarmed Trayvon Martin in Sanford, FL, by a civilian vigilante. Each incident (along with all of the mass shootings and killings of black lives since then) renewed the debate about the role of guns in society. For people of faith, the trump card in any debate or disagreement is always God. “We live this way because this is the way God intended all of us to live.”
Timothy Gorringe, a pastor, professor, and author, wrote a book called God’s Just Vengeance: Crime, violence, and the rhetoric of salvation. It’s an excellent book, but one of those where you have to read the same page three times before you’re sure that you’ve got it. What I am sure about is that the book takes a look at the last 1000 years of religion and politics and does a good job showing how they have reinforced each other. He highlighted for me how God was used to justify all sorts of policy and punishment.
One of the men quoted is Matthew Hale who became Lord Chief Justice in the 1600’s (Wikipedia). Suffice it to say that this was a powerful and influential position to hold. His understanding of the law would influence how cases were decided and what the punishment would be. In his mind, “Christianity is Parcel of the Laws of England: Therefore, to reproach the Christian Religion is to speak in Subversion of the Law.” (Gorringe p. 1) In other words, he means, Christianity is a central part of the law in England. If you cross one you cross the other. Challenge the king and you challenge God. Question Christianity and you question the country. That certainly raises the stakes and it also adds to the feeling of being right.
William Paley, a pastor/philosopher from the 1700’s offers another example. He is another man whose ideas had a significant influence on powerful and influential people in government, the university, and the church (Wikipedia). He is quoted as saying, “By satisfaction of justice, I mean the retribution of so much pain for so much guilt; which is the dispensation that we expect at the hand of God, and which we are accustomed to consider as the order of things that perfect justice dictates and requires.” (gorringe p. 1; italics mine). In other words, he means, the perfect way to achieve what is right and fair is to pay back with as much pain as the guilt requires. This is just the way things work. We learned it from watching God.
I learned of John Goode in an Atlantic article called “The Racist Roots of Virginia’s Felon Disenfranchisement.” He was a life-long politician in the state of Virginia and the United States. At one point, he became the third highest officer in the Department of Justice (Wikipedia). Toward the end of his life he was president of the convention that was writing a Constitution for Virginia. Again, suffice it to say that he was a powerful and influential man. Of protecting the voting rights of black people he argued that the government, “not only committed a stupendous blunder, but a great crime against civilization and Christianity.” (http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/04/virginia-felon-disenfranchisement/480072/)
In other words, he means, we have built a society according to what we have learned about God through Jesus Christ. When you change the way the society works you are offending the Lord of heaven and earth and deserve to be punished by him.
You might be tempted to dismiss these men as superstitious and old-fashioned, but you would be wrong to do so. You’ve already read about the California congressmen who believes that God intends us to live freely and use guns to protect that freedom. In just the last day (July 2016), I’ve come across two controversies related to God-talk.
The first was over the phrase “In God We Trust” being added to police cars as a sign of patriotism. As if to say that people who really love their country also trust in God. The hidden message is, if God stands for love of country and moral values, the police do to. When you mess with the police, you mess with God. (http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/ct-police-car-religious-decals-20150906-story.html). The other was related to recent bills that have passed banning “sagging pants, trousers, or shorts.” One of the government officials is quoted as saying, “I prayed about this. I know that God would not go around with his pants down.” (http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/USA-Update/2016/0707/South-Carolina-town-bans-saggy-pants-Can-they-do-that).
Not all of the men above are using God to punish, but what all of these men have in common is that they claim to have such intimate knowledge of God that they can make decisions on God’s behalf. They don’t hesitate to use their privilege to control others. They are in positions of power and influence and they know what is right, what is best, what is true, what is most moral and respectful because they know what God intends for all of us. Again, this is how God becomes the problem and why God’s image needs restoring.
Of course, one solution to all of this is to remove God from the equation. If that’s your thought, I’d caution you and ask you to consider that it might actually make things worse, driving people of faith to dig in their heels and become more rigid. Religion and politics are tied together whether we like it or not, want it or not, try to or not. They are central aspects of culture and human relationships. That said, we are right to ask, with Tolstoy, “Could it be that all the talk about justice, goodness, law, religion, God and so on, was nothing but so many words to conceal the grossest self-interest and cruelty?”
I agree with Tim Gorringe who wrote, “Christian theology constituted the most potent form of ideology in Western society for at least a thousand years…and its ideological importance is by no means dead.” (p. 7). In other words, the way that people think about God has a significant effect on the way people think about the world. And, the way people feel about the death of Jesus has a serious impact on the way people feel about other people. The rituals and symbols of Christian worship (i.e. religion) continue to reinforce thoughts and feelings that get played out in the world (i.e. politics).
I don’t think anyone can stop that. In my opinion, I don’t think anyone should. However, I do hope that we can change it. A better solution in my mind is to try to know God better than the people who always claim to know so well what God intends. Whether you’re a Christian or not, this chapter will give you some words, passages, and stories to join in the God-talk and correct it when necessary. In beginning to understand what the Bible says about God, you’ll begin to understand what was going on in the death of Jesus and what God intends for all of us.
Head to Part 2.