Why I can no longer defend the church

December 22nd, 2014

“The name of God is discredited by the Gentiles because of you.” Romans 2:24

I can’t be an apologist for the church any longer.

In the past, when anti-religious folks have said that the world would be better off without religion or without the notion of God, I’ve typically risen to the debate. When they’ve talked about all the wars and killing motivated by religions, I’ve pointed out that the most brutal regimes of our recent history have all professed non-religious or anti-religious ideologies. I’ve talked about the good that religious communities do: Most hospitals and schools in the world have been built by churches. I’ve argued that the assertion that religion is bad for humanity isn’t backed up by any measurable data. I can give you a whole list of talking points and footnotes citing people from William James to Desmond Tutu.

I want to believe Bill Hybels’ claim that the local church is the hope of the world. I long for the church to be the slice of humanity in which God has become incarnate, the physical Body of Christ.

But then I read that American Christians are more likely than non-Christians to support America’s use of torture. The only group likely to oppose torture is the self-identified non-religious. In light of this news, how can we evangelize unchurched people? “Good News! Jesus loves you. And we support torture.”

So much for making the world a better place.

Now, my first impulse is to object, “But we’re not all like that.” Like ancient Israel, I’ve held onto a belief that there is a “righteous remnant” among the apostate people of God, the “true church” that is really trying to follow Jesus among all of the hypocrites.

I recognize the implicit elitism of this line of thinking, that my tribe is more like Jesus than your tribe. But I’m simply pointing out that this objection is insufficient. My objection that “we’re not all like that” falls flat, because the data indicate that both evangelical and liberal mainline protestants support torture by an overwhelming majority.

If the survey had separated out “Progressive Evangelicals,” I hope the results would have been different—but I cannot know. Claiming a minority status within the church doesn’t work if you’re addressing the criticism that religion — your religion — is bad for the world. I struggle with the question, “As an agent of the church and one who believes in evangelism for the Kingdom of God, how can you continue to recruit people to an organization or a belief system that justifies torture?”

I’m very aware that in my context, I’m already in a theological and political minority. I’ve rationalized my leadership in an institution that discriminates against LGBTQ persons. I’m part of an Annual Conference that voted to support the War in Iraq in 2006. But the torture issue throws this cultural conflict into sharp relief. For many Christians, and a majority of my clergy colleagues, their opinion on America’s use of torture is irrelevant to their belief in Jesus Christ. It will never be mentioned from the pulpit among sermon series on Improving Your Marriage and the Gospel According to A Recent Hit Movie.

But for me, this issue stands near the heart of the gospel and is illustrated by the cross: God is on the side of the tortured and unjustly executed. Jesus, the “king of the Jews,” was executed because he was a potential threat to Rome and the religious power structure. “We were afraid of another terrorist attack” or “it is better for one to die for the good of the many” was exactly the logic used to undergird crucifixion of Jesus (John 11:50).

We should be shaking in our boots whenever was say the Apostle’s Creed, because we confess that we believe in Christ’s return to judge the living and the dead. I imagine Jesus on Judgment Day, turning to a crowd of our formerly-executed and now-resurrected brothers and sisters and asking, “Well, martyrs and saints, what should we do with the torturers and those who supported them?” The unjustly-executed ones look at the great pit of fire, and then they look at us, and for several painful moments — or maybe it’s an eternity — we stand there wondering which we fear more: the searing flames of hell, or their forgiveness.

But that grim metaphor is of a hypothetical future, and I’m more concerned with the present. Once again, in order to preserve my calling and sense of mission, I have to draw a boundary line. I have to modify my belief that the church is the best hope of the world: It is only the best hope of the world insofar as it proclaims the Lordship of the Tortured and Unjustly Executed One.

It still feels like a defeat. I’m basically forced to concede that religion is bad for the world, but that Jesus is not, that the American church is bad for the world, by MY church is not. I wind up making distinctions between the organizational, physical, political church that everyone can observe, and the abstract, spiritual, Universal Church that I claim is embodied in my particular church. This argument requires a nuanced ecclesiology, which means it is not a convincing argument among the unchurched.

Now, most people I know decry American Christianity or “the church today” for a number of reasons: We’re not missional enough, or evangelistic enough, or compassionate enough. But all of those criticisms are weak compared to this basic fact: Most American Christians support torture.

Tortured Christ, have mercy on us.

Dave Barnhart is the pastor of Saint Junia UMC in Birmingham, Ala. He blogs at DaveBarnhart.net.

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