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CRAMER: Looking for light in the dark places of the Church

• Apr 3, 2019 at 3:00 PM

These are dark days for American Christianity.

The divisions in our country that are painfully evident are also manifest in our congregations. Of course, churches have always found themselves divided among more conservative and more progressive approaches. But the divide seems to be so much deeper these days. In conversations with my colleagues, I know that we have all found it difficult at times to hold together communities where the political and social forces at our time seem to be pulling people further and further apart.

Beyond the struggle within the church, though, it is also outside. With larger and larger segments of the American population no longer attending church, and belief in God decreasing, the increasing polarization of our country has increasingly impacted the way people view church. As those without faith watch American Christians continue to support policies that are anti-LGBT and anti-immigrant, policies that hurt the poor that Jesus told us to care for, their distaste for Christianity only seems to increase.

I try to spend time letting non-Christians know that not all Christians agree on these questions. Though the religious right sought to craft a narrative of what Christian politics looks like, Christians are actually much more diverse than the media would let you know. Indeed, the most recent poll from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) found that white evangelicals are the only major religious group where a majority support President Trump. (Interestingly, Trump has the highest poll ratings among evangelicals who don’t actually go to church.)

For many Christians, these next few weeks mark some of the holiest of the year. As Lent draws to a close, Holy Week will begin on Palm Sunday, April 14. During this week, Christians will walk with Jesus to Jerusalem. We will remember his last supper with his disciples on Holy Thursday. We will commemorate his death on Good Friday. We will wait in prayer on Holy Saturday until we celebrate his glorious resurrection on Easter Sunday.

As we journey through these days, it’s probably worth remembering that Jesus was not killed by non-religious people, by those who didn’t believe in God. Rather, Jesus was killed by the drawing together of the fears of the religious with the anxieties of the State. Jesus was killed because his massively inappropriate love offended the religious.

Jesus had a distasteful tendency to eat with tax collectors and prostitutes. He castigated moralists who had strict views of purity laws, views that led them to be cruel to those who ran afoul of their beliefs. And while he did not come to overthrow the Roman government — much to the dismay of some of his followers — the government took the fears of the religious seriously enough to put him to death.

And yet, as we walk through this story during the coming Holy Week, we will also be greeted anew with a love that overcomes death and the grave. At the empty tomb, we will discover the emptiness of our own narrow understandings of what God can and cannot do. We will see love embrace those who sought to kill God’s own son. We will see love embrace even us, in our fear and anger, inviting us to relax our grip on our own perspectives and instead to let ourselves be loved. And letting ourselves be loved, we will perhaps learn anew what love actually requires.

Jesus said the world would know the people who follow him by their love. I find it unsurprising — and heartbreaking — that a certain picture of Christianity, one that is devoid of love and only knows how to demand its own way, continues to play across the media. I wish religious leaders didn’t bless some of the morally abject policies of the current administration — putting migrant children in cages, slashing assistance to the poor, enabling rampant corruption, to name a few. Because that’s not the Christianity I know. That’s not the Jesus I know.

If you’re sitting there, watching this all play out in the news and on social media, and saying this is precisely why you don’t want to bother with church or organized religion, I want you to know that there are a lot of Christians who don’t believe this is what Jesus calls us to. Jesus calls us to live lives of profound sacrificial love.

And I want you to know during this Holy Week, I’m trying to learn that love better, too. I’m trying to learn from the Good Teacher how to love even those I might imagine as my enemies, even if red hats and old southern flags make me flinch.

Because all of us, including this liberal priest, need to learn how to love better. Sure, we need to stand up for what God’s love and justice demands, but we need to do that like Jesus, not like the mob that clamored for his death.

These are pretty dark days for Christianity, but the light of resurrection glimmers on the horizon. The invitation to love — and live — anew is extended to every Christian. We can change the story told about the church. We just have to be willing to repent.

The Rev. Dr. Jared C. Cramer, Tribune community columnist, serves as rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven. Information about his parish, including their Holy Week services, can be found at www.sjegh.com.

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