How the Pulse Tragedy Tempts the CRC to forget their Confessional Scripts and Mimic the Competing Civil Religions of our Day

Northside Chapel

Confessions in the Papers

Over the next few weeks we will read a lot of statement like this piece in the Orlando Sentinel.  The piece is an appeal for the church to love like Jesus did and love as Jesus commanded. I completely agree with this appeal. We should love like Jesus but we should also believe what Jesus believed and trust in what Jesus trusted in.

The piece also says some other things that I think Reformed Christians should pause over and nuance. This sentence in particular stood out at me.

And pastors, stand up in your pulpit and declare from the depths of your soul that nothing like this can ever happen again.

And this is exactly what I mean by the CRC needing to have a confessional conversation.

When you hear a sentence like this  you’re speaking eschatology. You are appealing to a theology of “where we are heading”.

I understand what the writer wants to say. He’s trying to say “should never happen again” but he’s trying to strengthen “should” by relocating this within our control. This is also a soteriological move, a move in theological terms that talks about “how we are saved” and “what we are saved from”.

Right now social media and mainstream media and our elected officials will be promoting numerous salvation strategies to insure “this can never happen again”.

  • Gun control
  • More citizens with guns to stop attackers
  • ban on Muslim immigration and tracking Muslim residents and citizens
  • better counter-terrorism surveillance
  • LGBTQ acceptance
  • better mental health system
  • add your own

While we should make improvements in public policy to make things safer, no one seriously imagines there will not be more shootings, more terrorist attacks, more hate crimes, more incidences of violence from people suffering from mental illness, etc. We are awash in violence for a world of reasons. Just look at Boko Haram attacks.

We should also note that we have no agreement on what or how to do it. What we will do over the next few weeks is having the political factions take up their positions and causes and fight over these things. There are contradictory things on that list and it is likely that none of them will be achieved any time soon. Many Christians will disagree about the list too.

Trying to Wield God To Recreate the World

We are trying to gain control of something we fear by draping it in religious language. This becomes a way of employing God or spirituality to achieve our will.

I preached about taking the ark out to beat up the Philistines 2 weeks ago. You may know what happened. The ark was capture, Israel lost the war, but something strange happened along the way, the ark could not be turned into a weapon for our wars. The Philistines who wanted to keep the ark as a trophy of their victory of Yhwh and Israel found they could not contain it. When Israel received the ark back they poked around with it and too found it too hot to handle. They eventually sent it away for safekeeping for twenty years while they sank in frustrated ambivalence about this God they could not control.

Beneath our public statements the church is communicating some subtle things to our neighbors. We really do believe that we have the power to banish sin with our laws, our tools of public influence, our military and police powers. I believe this is a betrayal of our Christian confession. We have no such power.

Maybe you don’t believe me. Maybe you think that if we get the right laws in place, get the right people in charge, make people believe the right things, banish all bigotry, hatred, and racism from our hearts, convince everyone in the world that love and acceptance is the right way, etc. etc. THEN everything will be great.

I would suggest to you that if you believe this then you have a religion and it isn’t really Christianity or any other “organized” religion. You have one of our competing civil religions. It has no name because many people believe it is “just the way it is”. We might call it progressive liberationism, or secular humanism or John Lennonism.

Revisiting Israel, Eden, Noah and Babel

Over the last few hundred years many churches have subtly moved from a posture of hope and trust in God to a posture of optimism combined with legalism. We have revisited project Israel.

Israel was given the law at Sinai and told that if she obeyed it then her crops would grow, her animals would produce, her armies would win and life would be great, for Israel. The story of Israel in the Old Testament is the testing of that project. It was a failure. Why? Because it covers up our fundamental problem. We imagine that if we know the right thing to do we will do it. This is a lie we tell ourselves to make ourselves feel better about what we are and what we can do. Israel’s story should show us that this doesn’t work.

We look back and say “but Israel had bad laws. We know more now and with new and better laws, and with social sciences and good police work and drugs and politics to help us we can really accomplish this.”

Pardon me if I’m skeptical. This is also the sin of Babel.

We imagine we will build a city with a tower up to God and finally do what Israel and the Sinai law were unable. We can’t achieve political agreement sufficient to address climate change, banish wars, make economics sufficiently equitable that major portions of the world don’t life in crushing poverty, yet we seriously imagine we’re going to banish bigotry, hatred and bias with laws, education and social stigma and pressure?

Along the way we revisit the sin of the Garden of Eden. The man and the woman want to define what is good and how the world should be. They’re not up to it. 75 years ago we thought we knew what was good. We’ve changed our minds on lots of matters since then. We stand up and say “yes our grandparents are wrong but NOW we KNOW for sure!” Don’t you think 75 years from now they’ll feel about us what we feel about our grandparents?

Along the way we revisit the strategy of the flood. We think the problem with the world are the bad people. We will first try to re-educate the bad people and if they prove to be incorrigible we will exile them to prison or a penal colony on the moon and THEN the world will be safe and loving and beautiful… God picked Noah and his family, the best man in the world, but in the end it solved nothing. The line between good and evil runs through every human heart.

Christians Have a Confession that differs from the ascending civil religion

I believe Reformed Christians have a different confession, a different way to approach the world. While the tragedy of Pulse may not be exactly repeated there will be lots of other tragedies, wars, shootings, etc. etc. and we have no power to stop it because we have no power to stop us. In the drama of a tragedy the church too often forgets who and what it is and takes up the confessions of the civil religion of its day.

In the US we did it during the cold war from the right. Now we’re doing it again from the left. Draping Christian language on the civil religion sentiments, anthropologies, eschatologies, and soteriologies hurts the church and blunts its witness. Pastors are trained in the narrative of the church. Why do we forget it when there is a crisis?

The Christian Reformed Church is struggling to figure out its witness, its place in our world. We are tempted to hear and parrot popular religious sentiments, especially civil religious sentiments from both sides when tragedies like this occur that inflame political and social conflicts. A better witness is to remember our beliefs as expressed in our confessions and figure out how to speak to our world from these perspectives.


About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
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2 Responses to How the Pulse Tragedy Tempts the CRC to forget their Confessional Scripts and Mimic the Competing Civil Religions of our Day

  1. Don Baxter says:

    Sorry, Paul. I find your reaction, extremely stand-offish, overly-analytical, and frankly, cynical, as if what happened to those gay people over there has absolutely nothing to do with you personally.

    • PaulVK says:

      Thanks Don for your comment. I’ll take it to heart. Seriously.

      When I see an attack like this I try to see it in the light of the world trying to ponder the monocular view of our media. Look at the list of Boko Haram attacks in Nigeria. Look at the Congo. Look at Iraq. Look at the early 20th century race riots in US cities and the numbers killed. This grabs our attention because of the filter of “normalcy”. How many will die by guns today that we’ll not hear about.

      I think we are in a cultural feedback loop with the media and it feeds us a story, a hope, and a version of shalom. Together it creates a civil religion. I don’t buy that religion.

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