What Would it Take for a Minster to Go to Jail?

These days the short answer has something to do with children (or not reporting someone who had something to do with children). But for high minded ministers, what about the ministering word and sacrament could get you locked up?

Doug Wilson’s recent encounter with FBI agents got me thinking:

A few weeks ago, I got a call from an FBI agent (apparently on the road) to see if I would be in my office later that afternoon. I acknowledged that I would be, and we arranged a time. At that arranged time, two field agents showed up, very personable, professional and polite. As far as I knew, it could be anything from running a security check on someone who had me down as a reference to hauling me off for thought crimes against our Brand New Republic.

I asked them if I should have a colleague sit in, and they said that would not be necessary. So then, we sat down, and though I may not have looked like I was all agog, I was all agog on the inside. Imagine my delight when it turned out that our topic was “No Quarter November,” specifically the first post in that series, and more specifically than that, the first paragraph in that post. As you may recall, the title of that post was “Burn All the Schools.” And here is the offending paragraph.

H.L. Mencken once suggested a shrewd educational reform that has somehow not caught on. He said that there was nothing wrong with our current education establishment that could not be fixed by burning all the schools, and hanging all the teachers. Now some might want to dismiss this as an extreme measure, but visionaries are often dismissed in their own day. “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one . . .”

From this Wilson deduce that:

There are two kinds of Christian leaders in the world, dividing them broadly into two camps. Mention that someone has gotten a visit from the FBI on the basis of something he said in a sermon, on a podcast, on his blog, or in the church newsletter, and Christian leaders will sort themselves out accordingly. One group shakes the head disapprovingly, worried about the testimony, and what does this do to the good reputation among outsiders (1 Tim. 3:7)? The second kind of Christian leader hears of something like this, and his heart sinks. “Why can’t something like that ever happen to me?” And his wife says, “Honey, don’t . . .”

One kind of Christian leader thinks that it is an honor to be honored. The other believes that it is an honor to be dishonored, a grace to be disgraced. There is obviously more to it, but that basic division explains a lot of other things too.

Now someone might be ready with a quick comeback. “Yeah, Wilson, but you didn’t get visited by the FBI because of Jesus. You got visited because you quoted that old reprobate Mencken.”

To which I reply that perhaps a lot more pastors ought to be quoting Mencken.

That’s a strange admission that preaching Christ and him crucified will not land you in jail. It may in China. It may in Eritrea. But in the United States it won’t. Even the little old ornery OPC, for all of its warts and few crackpots, is able to minister scripture as a confessional Presbyterian communion without fear of police raids or federal penalties. Is the United States great, or what?

And yet, to maintain the narrative that the United States (and liberalism) is the second coming of the fall, and to prove their bona fides as “real” male ministers, some pastors get Chris Matthews tingle up the leg at the thought of going to jail.

Now, I like Mencken as much as the next white male Protestant, but I have never advocated preaching him. Yet, while Wilson entertains preaching Baltimore’s bad boy, Tim Bayly reached for Herman Melville:

In my first message at the conference, I quoted Melville’s maxim, “the pulpit leads the world.” During the Q&A afterward, a pastor ministering in a hipster neighborhood of an eastern seaboard city was quite exercised over the statement, calling out “what’s your authority for saying ‘the pulpit leads the world’?”

I answered that I hadn’t cited it, but my source was Melville’s Moby Dick, leading him to interrupt saying he didn’t care where the quote came from, following with “where does it say that in the Bible?”

To which I responded that the entire Bible says it, from the prophets through the book of Acts where we read of the preaching of the Gospel turning the ancient Roman Empire on its head and getting the Jewish leaders to gnash their teeth.

He continued adamant in his denial, at which point I probed whether he was an R2K acolyte of men like Darryl Hart and David VanDrunen?

Bingo. And later in the conference, this pastor interrupted my message on the sin of effeminacy, saying I should stick to preaching the simple Gospel. He was quite adamant about it and I had to ask him if he’d please let me finish and we could talk afterward?

This is the preaching of Reformed pulpits in our nation today, and it leads me on this morning following our midterm elections to make the obvious point that everything going on in these United States right now, from our White House to our Congress and Supreme Court down to our state capitals and governors’ mansions down to our mayors and school district superintendents, even to the words squawking in our police cars and the smiles and frowns of our crossing guards, is the product of our pulpits.

Notice the concession to the spirituality of the church (and its foundation in the sufficiency of Scripture). If you want to preach about politics, you need to look beyond the Bible to American authors. Mencken and Melville are preferable to Charles Dickens and Flannery O’Connor, though Christians reading non-Christian fiction is generally a good thing. But not in the pulpit, not even The Wire.

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Humbly Separate Church and State In the Name of Christ (of course)

Since I don’t listen to State of the Republic Union speeches, I’m not about to spend much time on what presidents say at National Prayer Breakfasts. (Why can’t it be National Word Breakfast? Why is it a monologue of Americans speaking to God and not the other way around?) But given the attention that President Obama’s remarks have received, I figured I’d try to discern what all the fuss is about. (More to come on the current efforts to rehabilitate the Crusades as a defensive war.)

The president thinks we have three ways to keep religion from being used as a “weapon” — humility, the separation of church and state, and the Golden Rule. It sounds nice in a “have a nice day” sort of way but it also sounds like what I’d expect to hear at a forum ready made for civil religion. Here’s the thing. If you want the separation of church and state, why have a National Prayer Breakfast? But someone like my mother might ask — what harm can a little prayer do? Has anyone heard of blasphemy? Might it be a tad blasphemous to invoke a generic god for all believers in the land? Would the first Christians have participated in such syncretism? So why do today’s “conservative” Christians (Protestant and Roman Catholic) so easily fall for this stuff? Maybe for the same reason that they let Jesus’ words, turned into John Winthrop’s — city on a hill — describe not their congregation or communion but their nation. I will give Michael Sean Winters credit on this one. He is disturbed by the mixing of religion and politics (even to the point of questioning whether Pope Francis should speak to Congress):

I confess I am very wary of the Pope’s addressing Congress: The optics seems all wrong, such a specifically political setting, and a powerful one too. Note to papal visit planners: The White House, the Capitol, the UN, even in its way the National Shrine, none of these really represent the peripheries where Pope Francis is most comfortable and where he has repeatedly said he wants the Church to be. I get creeped out when, at the Red Mass, they play the national anthem after the processional hymn but before the Mass begins in earnest. Of course, no politician would have the courage to simply refuse to go to the prayer breakfast. It would take a preacher-turned-politician, like Mike Huckabee, to pull that off, as it took a Nixon to go to China. I think we can all agree that a Huckabee presidency would be too high a price to pay for the breakfast to end. So, it will continue and presidents will continue to speak about things they should not speak about and say things about religion that are deeply cynical. There are worse things that happen in the world.

Aside from that last sentence, I think Winters is right. The worst thing in the world is to reverse the order of the Great (not pretty good) commandment and the Second that is like it. Upsetting your neighbor is one thing. But upsetting God?

For that reason, as much as I appreciate Matt Tuininga’s return to blogging (but why close comments?) and his push back against the conservative pundits who went batty over the president’s speech, I am not sure why Matt would be so positive about the “overall tone of the speech.” Matt included this excerpt as representative of that tone:

Our job is not to ask that God respond to our notion of truth — our job is to be true to Him, His word, and His commandments. And we should assume humbly that we’re confused and don’t always know what we’re doing and we’re staggering and stumbling towards Him, and have some humility in that process. And that means we have to speak up against those who would misuse His name to justify oppression, or violence, or hatred with that fierce certainty. No God condones terror. No grievance justifies the taking of innocent lives, or the oppression of those who are weaker or fewer in number….

If we are properly humble, if we drop to our knees on occasion, we will acknowledge that we never fully know God’s purpose. We can never fully fathom His amazing grace. “We see through a glass, darkly” — grappling with the expanse of His awesome love. But even with our limits, we can heed that which is required: To do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.

I pray that we will. And as we journey together on this “march of living hope,” I pray that, in His name, we will run and not be weary, and walk and not be faint, and we’ll heed those words and “put on love.”

Au contraire. If our job is to be true to God, how do we do that while tolerating those who aren’t true to God? How could we ever be true to God in a way that suggests we don’t know what being true to God looks like? How can we say we don’t know God’s purpose when he has revealed it in his word, and how can we say that we don’t see his grace when he has revealed himself in his son, the word incarnate? And who exactly is this “we” when we have a separation of church and state and freedom of conscience that includes in this “we” Americans who do not believe in God (or who believe in the wrong god)?

What the president said reminds me yet again of the casuistry that Ishmael in Moby Dick used to rationalize blasphemy and idolatry:

I was a good Christian; born and bred in the bosom of the infallible Presbyterian Church. How then could I unite with this wild idolator in worshipping his piece of wood? But what is worship? thought I. Do you suppose now, Ishmael, that the magnanimous God of heaven and earth – pagans and all included – can possibly be jealous of an insignificant bit of black wood? Impossible! But what is worship? – to do the will of God – that is worship. And what is the will of God? – to do to my fellow man what I would have my fellow man to do to me – that is the will of God. Now, Queequeg is my fellow man. And what do I wish that this Queequeg would do to me? Why, unite with me in my particular Presbyterian form of worship. Consequently, I must then unite with him in his; ergo, I must turn idolator. So I kindled the shavings; helped prop up the innocent little idol; offered him burnt biscuit with Queequeg; salamed before him twice or thrice; kissed his nose; and that done, we undressed and went to bed, at peace with our own consciences and all the world.

The challenge, then, is not to hold to Christianity, Judaism, or Islam in a way that recognizes a common religious enterprise that unites us all. It is to find a form of diligent and serious Christianity (and more) that engages believers in a common civil enterprise with other believers and unbelievers. That is what two-kingdom theology and the spirituality of the church try to do. As valuable as that remedy may be, I for one don’t want to see the president talk about it at a National Prayer Breakfast. That would do to 2k what Constantine did to Christianity.