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Mainstream Christianity

I find myself wondering if mainstream Christians ought to form a new, cross-denominational movement called Mainstream Christianity.

This comes on the heels of a thousand provocations—reasons for Christians to speak out to the rest of society—which include the following, just in the past few weeks.

• The murder of Ugandan Gay activist David Kato, instigated by a local tabloid named “Rolling Stone,” and the national Kill the Gays bill sponsored by a member of Parliament named David Bahati, all backed by American fundamentalists including Scott Lively and members of The Family, which includes several members of the U.S. Congress.

At Kato’s funeral, the Anglican layreader who officiated launched into an anti-Gay tirade. A scuffle followed by irate mourners, and the actual burial was left to a courageous but deposed Anglican bishop who was previously drummed out of the Anglican Church of Uganda for advocating tolerance and understanding for GLBT people.

• The excommunication of, first, a Catholic nun and then her entire Catholic hospital in Arizona (where else?) for performing an abortion that was necessary to save a woman’s life. In this case the potential life of the fetus was deemed more important than the life of the living woman.

• Roger Stockham, 63, a California man “with a long history of anti-government activities,” was arrested last week with a large stock of explosives in the parking lot of a mosque in Dearborn, Michigan, where a large crowd was gathered for a funeral.

You can doubtless supply your own outrages. To me four others stand out:

• Fundamentalists Christians’ total embrace of George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, supposedly predicated on weapons of mass destruction that didn’t exist, and reinforced by claims by Dick Cheney and Condoleeza Rice that “mushroom clouds” might result if the U.S. didn’t invade.

• The demonizing of Bush’s duly elected successor, which has included preachers calling him the “anti-Christ.”

• The drumbeat of criticism about allowing a Muslim community center to be built in lower Manhattan near the former site of the World Trade Center; and violence directed toward Muslims in many parts of the country.

• The jingoistic rage against Mexican immigrants and their children in the United States.

Mainstream Christians have a lot to say about each of these matters. But our voices are drowned out, not only by the paid ranters of Fox News and their political allies, but also by the fragmentation and ineffectiveness of our existing church structures.

We are paying a heavy price for our denominationalism. United Methodists, Episcopalians, most Presbyterians, the Disciples of Christ, Evangelical Lutherans, progressive Baptists, mainstream Catholics, the United Church of Christ and many other church groups have broad areas of agreement on public policy matters. But we do not have a united voice.

My church has a national-level outfit called the Episcopal Public Policy Network, which is a small lobbying office in Washington, D.C. which brings a mainstream Christian voice to bear on these issues. They do great work under the auspices of our national structures, the General Convention (meeting every three years) and the Executive Council (which meets the rest of the time). But chances are you’ve never heard of this policy network – nor of the corollary efforts of Methodists, Presbyterians and other churches. We’re all more or less saying the same thing – “Don’t invade Iraq and say war is God’s will” – but we do not have a united voice.

I think it’s because we’ve relied on these outdated, top-down structures that have been around for a long time and are part of the institutional church.

The Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church speaks out for justice every chance she gets, and so do most of her fellow bishops. We are concerned about poverty, hunger, gender-based violence, xenophobia and anti-Gay bigotry. Our hearts and minds are in the right place because of our faith in Jesus Christ and our fidelity to what he actually said and taught and did. He was all for feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and healing the sick, and that’s relevant for the health care debate.

Katharine Jefferts Schori is the first female Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church, and the first woman to lead a national church in the Anglican Communion.

But we are a small church, two million or so, and we don’t get a lot of press except when fundamentalist dissenters try to steal our churches because we let in Gay people. The media eats that stuff up, but the war in Iraq? Our views don’t count because we’re not Pat Robertson or James Dobson, with huge networks and tens of millions of followers.

We’re not politically organized; there isn’t an annual Mainstream Christianity Convention at which all the moderate politicians show up to talk about real issues.

Prior to the rise of politicized fundamentalism in the 1970s, mainstream Christians spoke with a fairly united voice through organizations like the National Council of Churches. The NCC still exists, but it hasn’t been heard from since.

So why are we putting money into it, and electing representatives to it, and then feeling frustrated because CHRISTIANS SUPPORT BUSH’S WAR is the only headline on view?

I respect and don’t disparage what the National Council of Churches is and has done. But it’s the old technology, run by the old people, and not a movement of those of us sitting in the pews, worshiping God, giving the money and doing the work in 2011.

Let me ask you: Do you get the Twitter feed from the NCC? Is there one? Did you “like” them one day on Facebook and now you get all their action alerts?

I do receive some communications from progressive activists in the Episcopal Church – but that’s just one denomination, and I don’t see us marching on that Catholic hospital in Arizona in support of the nun, do you?

Outrages happen in the Presbyterian Church that matter a lot to clued-in Presbyterians; but I don’t hear about them, do you?

I bet you don’t even know who the Disciples of Christ are, but you might be very interested if you did know.

Mind you, I am as devoted to my denomination’s theology and polity as anyone could be. I think the Episcopal Church is the best, because it is both Catholic and Protestant, and because it’s democratically governed by laypeople as well as clergy.

We have been spared a great deal of anguish and suffering that have fallen on our Roman sisters and brothers because of their church’s top-down decision-making based 4000 miles offshore.

Every church has its own system, which works against cross-denominational cooperation. Episcopalians can’t even get together with Moravians without its taking years of study and talking and voting on both sides. Who could be less controversial than a bunch of Moravians? They probably had more doubts about us than we did about them; it took them longer to decide.

Of course anyone can start a Mainstream Christianity blog and Facebook group; but those are only the start. It does not appear that the current uprising in Egypt, for example, is mostly fueled by Twitter; it’s mostly fueled by Mubarak. But it does remind us that truly popular movements only take one person doing something different and daring, logical and true, to have an impact. Christianity itself began with one guy. Then it spread like wildfire, despite centuries of attempts to stamp it out.

Some Cautions

1. Every movement has to have some boundaries. For me this means Mainstream Christianity has to be recognizably, routinely Christian. The way I measure that is by the Apostles’ Creed, an ancient statement of the basics of the faith in a couple hundred words. For those who have trouble with the Creed, maybe this movement isn’t for you, but we can still be friends and allies.

In other words Mainstream Christianity ≠ progressive secular politics, ≠ the Democratic Party, ≠ liberal religions of the world, solstice worship, humanism, astrology, spiritual-but-not-religious or any other non-Christian or semi-Christian belief system, no matter how wonderful it may be or how much we have in common. I respect all of these ideas but they do not form the basis of how I view the world; my understanding of Jesus Christ does.

This is the same claim Pat Robertson makes, though our understandings are opposites.

It’s in making the exact same claim that fundamentalists make – “We do this because we’re following Jesus Christ” – that gives us some power and authority; “We believe as Christians that every American ought to receive health care. We believe as Christians that starting wars is immoral. We believe as Christians that females and males are equals in the sight of God. We believe as Christians that God loves GLBT people and doesn’t want them murdered in Uganda, New York or Laramie, Wyoming.”

2. This means having leaders and spokespersons who are articulate in the common language and heritage of Christianity, including the Old and New Testaments.

(My problem with the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church is that she doesn’t speak a Christianity most Americans have ever heard of. Jesus is there in her voice and in her heart, but most Americans don’t hear him there. Thus she cannot possibly influence public policy; she is a failure as an evangelist. She and I disagree about who our target audience is. She tries to reach people on the far margin instead of the mainstream. The people in the pews are almost entirely mainstream.)

3. I’m aware that there are other progressive/mainstream Christians who are doing good work, including in new media. ProgressiveChristianity.org is one example; not a household name, not focused on public policy (instead offering Sunday School curricula and find-a-progressive-church), but nevertheless, there are a variety of leaders and organizations working on issues Mainstream Christians care about. (Please leave a comment about groups you follow and are impressed by.)

There are scholarly websites that really drill down into the issues of, say, health care reform – but for most of us the question is simpler, and so is the answer: the richest nation in the world can afford universal coverage and our understanding of Christ demands it.

There are Christian activist websites and organizations; a few of them are pro-active, but most spend their resources exclaiming in horror over the latest craziness out of Glenn Beck and Michelle Bachmann. Talk2Action is a very good activist site, and I especially like Frederick Clarkson’s articles there. But if you click the link I just gave you, you’ll find a long series of the latest outrages; it’s long on talk and short on action. Fear can be a motivator, but it doesn’t work as well as “Jesus is calling you.”

Mainstream Christians are “values voters” too; we just have a different set of values than the Rushdoony-Ahmanson-Lively-Robertson acolytes do. We need to articulate how we vote and why; we need to elect mainstream, progressive politicians.

Rosa Parks meeting Desmond Tutu.

At the same time we don’t want to be the Christian Moveon.org, which can activate a crowd at times but is largely organized and controlled by liberal millionaires. More power to them; wealthy people are essential to progress in making a just society. However, there are not many millionaires marching in the streets of Cairo and Alexandria tonight; a popular movement is democratic from the grass roots.

Moveon.org buys TV and internet ads, and its roots go back to Bill Clinton’s impeachment. A group of mainstream Christians should exercise people power from all over the country for the positive core value of the Christian faith: Love Your Neighbor, even if she’s a Lesbian Muslim from Mexico.

4. Denominational divides are notoriously difficult to bridge; that’s why in the 1600s Europeans went to war over them. Do you believe in transubtantiation, consubstantiation or no substantiation? The right to life, the right to choose – or both? If a group agrees to set aside their theological differences, they can expect to be invaded by the “legalize marijuana” crowd.

Any movement by mainstream Christians has to be guided by prayer, the Holy Spirit and leaders who are wise, strong and humble. If there was obvious money in forming such a movement, someone would already have formed it.

But the question becomes, What does God feel about what’s going on on this planet, war, violence, prejudice, pestilence, ignorance, hunger and denial of reality? One of God’s names is Reality, and global warming is here whether we like it or not; evolution is how life works, like it or not.

Jesus said, “Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’”

Christ’s teaching is clear. The question is whether we continue to respond with impotent rage at the powers that be, atomized attempts at charity and occasional Facebook notices to our 246 friends; or whether we help create a just society where everyone is part of the family.

This I know: Jesus did not tell Sarah Palin to open her big mouth in favor of war, exploitation and “drill, baby, drill.” It is time for Christ’s own voice to be heard in the halls of Congress and the state legislatures – on television, in the newspapers, on the internet.

But he’s in heaven now; we are his voice, his hands, his heart and there are tens of millions of us. Will we stay silent or will we speak up?

Don’t let the answer be silence – not when God is still speaking.++