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  • Writer's pictureShea Watts

O God, Deliver Us from Christian Piety

Confessions of a Troublemaker

With all that’s going on around our community, nation, and world, I wonder whether “what we pray is what we believe” is a sufficient way to be and live in the world. I wonder also what our faith has to say and teach us that we may learn and grow and change and respond to the moral challenges of our day.

It seems to me that one of the problems with such an approach to the relationship between faith and worship is not that it asks too much, but that sadly, it often demands too little.

Over and over again in the scriptures, it is clear through God’s prophetic messengers that simply following the rules is not what God wants. It seems that instructions, laws, treaties, and rituals are hardly enough. Whether by the Law or through feasts and sacrifices, YHWH is not pleased with the political outcomes of the Israelites, that is, how they live together in their communities. They often forged and worshiped idols of money and power, disregarded the poor, and failed to show kindness to foreigners. They forgot that the God who brought them out of Egypt set them free to be liberators. The prophets, such as Amos, remind them that, as result of their unfaithfulness, God hates their festivals, rejects their offerings, and does not welcome the noise of their songs. We could say that God wouldn’t hear their collects either. And what does God want? Justice and right action.

This is where the trouble comes in. Justice and right action cost us something. Sometimes they cost us our comfort; other times, they cost us our money; still other times, they could cost us our friendships, relationships, and yes, perhaps even our members. It is not always popular to stand for justice and right action, because that is usually a stand against the elites, the wealthy, the powerful, and the majority. This is how the system has been set up.

Incidentally, it is precisely this type of bold sacrifice that Jesus invites us to make. This Jesus who asks, who is my mother or father? This Jesus who dines with the lowly, with the outcast, with the sinner. This Jesus who says that the way we treat the least of these is how we treat and love God. This Jesus who invites followers by asking us to deny ourselves and take up our cross, the violent imperial reminder of what happens to insurrectionists or the enslaved who runaway.

The bottom line is, below our privileges and comfortable Christianity, there is a demand that following Jesus means being willing to put everything on the line. Lest we become like the rich young ruler, who, did everything right, kept all the rules, but loved his wealth too much to follow Jesus. Or certain Pharisees who memorized and could perform everything in the Law, who could pray all the prayers, and even believed them, but loved their power and status more. We, as Americans of means, must also confront our own love of money and power, particularly in the comfort that it brings. If we do not take inventory of our hearts, we may risk becoming merely pious.

Pious Christianity privatizes faith to the personal level, severing it from the social. It is this privatization of faith that enabled many Christians in US history to pray in Jesus’ name and, without any dissonance, steal natives’ land and commit genocide, practice and defend the institution of slavery, promote war, destroy the planet, and now, embrace ideologues, demagogues, and propagators of white supremacy. If we aren’t careful, our class privilege can numb and distance us from seeing this, from feeling this, from confronting this. There’s a reason Jesus said one cannot serve God and money.

Does our material wealth and privilege make us too comfortable? Comfortable as in far removed from the messy work that comes through proximity and demands prolonged acts of solidarity. In other words, are we physically distancing and insulating ourselves from the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed? Because many people cannot afford to sit on the sidelines in a tumultuous, political climate. Perhaps this is what prompted King to ask in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail: “Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world?”

This is where taking up our cross reminds us that we become like God in solidarity and through sacrifice. The cross is not only about sacrifice, it is participatory, it costs us something.

Here’s what I want to suggest: What we pray is what we believe when we are willing to imagine and act it out in the world regardless of the consequences. I am reminded of Oscar Romero, who, was martyred at the altar of God. Father Romero initially thought that the social teaching of the Catholic church in Vatican II and Medillín councils were too political, until he stared at the remains of his martyred friend and priest, Rutilio Grande. Only then, were his eyes opened to the poor in his country and the two intersecting planes of liberation: spiritual and political.

Romero understood the riskiness of following Jesus. He knew the risk and cost of affirming the poor as the good news of God that can transform us and bring us near to God. This is not divisive rhetoric or adversarial toward the rich or the government or the military; rather, this act calls them to conversion.

In a day and age when it is getting harder and harder to remain silent, taking a stand for what is right, speaking up, and denouncing evil and injustice by naming them is praying with our feet. These are not merely political or pious acts, but moral and revolutionary ones.

Our liturgies are not neutral. There is no realm that is free from political consequence or personal bias. In fact, through our prayers and worship we either affirm the powers that be or oppose them; we either commit and strive to create a more just world or we are complicit in the ongoing world and its injustices. In our liturgies, images of Jesus take our image. [For example, the Archbishop of Canterbury has recently pointed out the need to reconsider white Jesus.] Our theology is always already informed by our worldview. So it is possible to simply reinscribe the same societal structures into our worship, such as class, race, gender, and sexuality. This is why it is important for our liturgies to be interpreted in community, a community that is concerned with the most vulnerable and marginalized among us. A community like the one Jesus led.

Any liturgy — as work of the people — that is not concerned with and involved deeply in the struggle of the people is anemic at best and hypocritical at worst.

In this season, while we all long for the Eucharist, I wonder how we may we use the presence of absence — from the altar, from one another — in this time to reconsider what it is we celebrate and remember when we partake of it? Body broken, blood poured out — this is an act of limitless love, of selfless sacrifice. When we take the bread and the cup, we are calling for and rehearsing a new world in which everyone is welcome at God’s table. It is a way of radically reordering the world.

Claudio Carvalhaes writes: “Whatever we do at, in, or around the Communion altar/table is fundamentally connected to the very practical ways we live. The Eucharistic table gives us a framework that guides us in our decision-making as we are constantly re-creating this world of God. As we re-create the world, how do eucharistic tables deal with our time and offer hospitality to our disastrous world, so as to create a “new world’?” We learn that in the Eucharistic act, we too become transformed, and offer our bodies to be broken, blood poured out, for the sake of love.

Our baptismal covenant reminds us of this. We move from belief to intent with the words, “I will, with God’s help.” How might we consider this as God’s perpetual permission to stay with the trouble?

May our hearts be opened to our comforts and privileges and unsettled by the Spirit. May our eyes be open to those who do not have an option to remain silent but are fighting day by day to live and not die, flourish and not famish. May we willingly occupy the tense, messy space between altar and world, as the place of possibility and God’s unfolding justice and right action in the world. May we deny ourselves and take up our cross in cruciform living. And in doing so, may we pray and enact what we believe. Amen.

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