Thursday, April 5, 2012

Andrew Sullivan's bizarre screed

Andrew Sullivan's cover story in Newsweek, "Forget the Church, Follow Jesus"

is one of the most bizarre and ridiculous articles I've ever read - by a writer I usually love.

1. If you're going to issue a sweeping broadside against all religion in order to create a sexy cover and sell a ton of magazines to your most important demographic, which is the millions of kids downloading "Why I Hate Religion But Love Jesus", then it is inconvenient to have religions that you actually respect and love on the same table with the bad churches. So you quietly remove them from the table before you sweep the rest of them off with loud and dramatic flourish.

Thus, Sullivan dismisses the "Mainline" churches as being in such "rapid decline" that they apparently don't even count as religions anymore. He's talking about churches like mine, which are actually thriving, thank you very much, and not because we're trying to seize power or gain national media attention but instead because we are happily going about our lives praising God and feeding poor people.

Sullivan thus makes sweeping declamations against Religion without seeming to offend the religions that he actually respects and values. As on-the-mark as his critiques of the Catholics and Evangelicals are, they do not constitute all of religion. This is just lazy writing for dramatic effect.

2. Let us pause to appreciate the sheer hilarity, the incomprehensibility of this idea that Jefferson was devoted to following an "apolitical Jesus". How is it that someone who rose to the very top of the political world claims to follow an apolitical Jesus? What is he talking about?

Sullivan tries to critique institutional religion by asking, "What does it matter how strictly you proclaim your belief in various doctrines if you do not live as these doctrines demand?" You mean, like Jefferson hearing Jesus say we should "give up power over others," as he rises to the highest office in the land? What is he talking about?

Sullivan later describes Jefferson as "renouncing Caesar in favor of Christ". When was that, exactly? After he was the American version of Caesar, or before? After he retired from the most powerful job in the land, sold Monticello and gave the money away to his slaves, whom he freed? Because that would most definitely have been what Jesus taught.

3. Sullivan cites the fact that "Obama invokes his faith in Jesus to defend his plan for universal health care" as evidence that "the ability to be faithful in a religious space and reasonable in a political one has atrophied before our eyes." What is he talking about? Is he saying the President should not reflect on the Golden Rule and how it guides his values? Must a president be silent about the religious ground of his convictions, and is that somehow a violation of what Jesus preached? Are you kidding? How has the President abdicated his responsibility to be "faithful in a religious space and reasonable in a political one?"

4. "I think I grasp what it means to be both God and human..." Really? Seriously? He's got that figured out? Wow.

5. "There are times when great injustices - slavery, imperialism, totalitarianism, segregation - require spiritual mobilization and public witness. But from Gandhi to King, the greatest examples of these movements renounce power as well." Again, what the is he talking about? Gandhi and King were all ABOUT power! Nonviolent power, the power of love and social justice, "soul force," - but it was power in every sense of the word, thoughtfully and pragmatically applied in order to bring about real political change. To say that Dr. King was not political or was not interested in power is just delusional.

As it was with Dr. King, so it was with Jesus. Jesus grew up 4 miles from a town that was burned to the ground by the Romans. Jesus directly challenged the heart of the political system of his day, riding that colt into the capital city, into the very heart of Roman domination, critiquing the very people in power while he knowingly commits a treasonous act that would get him killed in a particular manner reserved for political criminals. Jesus was political from day one. How could anyone who knows anything about Jesus say he was apolitical? He quoted the prophets directly and modeled himself after them. He explicitly presented himself as an alternative king in the line of David, in direct opposition to the Emperor. Why would Sullivan pretend otherwise? What the hell is he talking about?