Sat, 05 Nov 2005

"God Is Not a Christian"

Tonight some of us from Westmont heard Archbishop Desmond Tutu speak at the Arlington Theater in town. The evening was deeply inspiring, and deeply discouraging.

Tutu has a delightful personality, and this visit to Santa Barbara to thank the activists who helped free South Africa from Apartheid and to commend forgiveness could not have found a more sympathetic crowd. I came with memories of Apartheid, campus divestment movements, and later the dismantling of the regime and the new government's amazing Truth and Reconciliation Commission – and with a lot of Westmont students who were born in the mid-1980's and for whom it was all ancient history, if they knew of it at all.

Tutu's account of the Xhasa proverb of ubuntu, that "a person is a person through persons," will from now on enter into my lectures on the personhood of both humans and the Triune God. His conviction that God never gives up on anyone was filled out with Bible stories told in the riveting, joyful tone of someone who believes them to the core of his being. These were wonderful, blessed moments spent in the presence of one of the world's great human beings.

Yet in the end, the evening broke my heart.

Sure, there was the politically corrected and historically sanitized alternative reality that I have come to expect at such events and yet still flinch at every time I have to endure it. I understand the sense of betrayal Tutu must feel for the Reagan Administration for resisting sanctions against the Apartheid regime, and don't begrudge him his narrative of that era. Yet in moments of remembrance like tonight's, I wish the violence of the African National Congress would not be quietly passed over and Nelson Mandela held up as a father of non-violence. Mandela is a great man, and his greatness in the face of the sheer evil of Apartheid can survive honest recollection rather than selective memory. It would also be nice for people to remember that South Africa became a potential pawn in the Cold War, with the ANC receiving Soviet and East German support. When a man of Tutu's stature tells us that the truth has to be told in order to make room for forgiveness and reconciliation, I agree – and I have to wonder why he doesn't go on to tell the whole truth. We who had to take sides during his country's conflict need reconciliation, too. Tonight he did not offer us the conditions for it.

More urgent is the national reconciliation that needs to happen over the war in Iraq. Yet here too Tutu's memory was selective, and the truth was left only partially and conveniently told. He condemned the war according to "just war" theory because it was not conducted by the legitimate authority of the UN Security Council. Yet Augustine's doctrine holds states rather than superstates to be legitimate political authorities; Congress' authorization for war was no less legitimate than the UN's would have been. Furthermore, the UN Security Council split because of political and economic opportunism that turned out to be partially underwritten by states doing business with Saddam and on the take with money from the UN's own oil-for-food program. How does that make the UN more legitimate than the US in answering Saddam's repeated violations of his own 1991 ceasefire agreement? Tutu also appealed to the anti-war rallies at the war's outset as hope for nonviolence and signs that nonviolent means had not been exhausted, failing of course to mention that they were organized not by activists for nonviolence but by the Leninist-Stalinists of International ANSWER and that Saddam's intention was not to back down but to outlive the UN sanctions, rebuild his military, and fight another day. The Bush Administration has certainly needed to tell a lot more of the truth behind the goals of this war, and it still does. But so do the war's opponents. Instead, they have rewritten the past and sent inconvenient details down the memory hole. Without the truth, where will the forgiveness and the reconciliation come from? And why does this world leader, who has such a profound grasp of the dynamics of forgiveness, withhold such truthfulness from friendly audiences who might receive it as constructive criticism rather than the attacks of its opponents? If Desmond Tutu won't break those silences and dismantle those self-justifications, will anyone?

It leaves me tempted to hopelessness.

I try so hard in my classes and in my writing to be fair! Though I am tempermentally and philosophically conservative, I assign texts from Christians on the left and commend them in front of my students. Whenever I pick on the left, I pick on the right accordingly. I teach and especially preach self-critically, because I and the various groups to which I belong – Americans, evangelicals, conservatives, white Europeans, males, the highly educated, the well-off, and on and on – all richly deserve the self-criticism. To be sure, I fail. My blind spots and self-deceptions are always working their black magic on me. But in event after event I look for similar fairness from the left, especially the Christian left. I look for the same self-criticism. And event after event lets me down.

The people who left the theater happy tonight live in a world where Republicans are always dependably wrong and progressives are always dependably right, where God (or Whoever) somehow converts good intentions into good results, and where all that matters are abstractions like Goodness whose definitions belong to them. It must be a comfortable world (except when reality intrudes).

I am almost resigned to a career in which I will watch helplessly while my students receive the same smug indoctrination that I received myself in college and have never been able entirely to escape since, and where many of them will be so trusting and already so influenced by that chorus that they will fall for it. Meanwhile those of us who try to be fair will cancel ourselves out with all of our qualifications and complexities, and for good measure our efforts will earn us only the honor of being lumped in with other people's oppositions.

Yes, I know the right and every other social group has false prophets who lie with the same self-serving stories and half-truths. Well, are they as ubiquitous? Are they as effective? Do they hold the same moral high ground? Maybe in some circles, but not in mine.

I. Am. So. Tired. Of. It.

I may be profoundly discouraged right now, but I haven't surrendered. I won't enter some other world that comforts me in the same way. And I don't believe that evil from the right will balance evil from the left and somehow yield a truthful synthesis. And I haven't lost all hope. Reconciliation demands truth. I'll keep aspiring to fairness and praying for correction when I fail, even when it comes painfully. But every new disappointment is more fatiguing than the last, especially when it comes from people I respect.

Yet as much as all this hurt, it is not what broke my heart.

What broke my heart came at the conclusion of the evening, when Tutu took questions from the audience. One asked, "What can other religions teach Christians? What can Christians teach other religions?"

To the first part, Tutu responded with a stock answer – and to thunderous applause – "They can teach Christians that God is not a Christian."

Christians get angry when he says that, he then said; but who can look at the Dalai Lama and say his prayer and his holiness is something God will reject?

Now Tutu is right that the godliness and holiness of people like the Dalai Lama is real godliness and holiness. Christians need not belittle it. Tutu is also right that God's reception of these people into his kingdom is his prerogative. That future is not ours to deny just because these people do not call upon Jesus as Lord. Nor are we to force the label of "Christians" upon people like these if they do not embrace the label themselves. Jesus is not a coercive Lord.

Tutu is dead right that God does not belong to us who are called "Christians." But let's accept, for the sake of argument, a standard definition of a Christian as a follower of Jesus as Christ (meaning Messiah: "the Anointed One"). Is the God who is the Father of the Son, who loves and anoints him with his Spirit and exalts him with all things, not the Son's best follower? Is the Spirit who conceives him, who leads him along the Father's mission and indwells his body, calling upon him to Come and confessing him as Lord, not the Son's best follower? When it takes the Spirit to provoke our own confessions, how can we arrogate the title "Christian" to ourselves as a possession, as something our own? The term "Christian" was coined only in Antioch after Jesus ascended; but it belongs to God in the story of Jesus Christ, not to us. Tutu made the word our possession. But we take it on only with fear and trembling, knowing that the Messiah judges whether or not we know him and serve him and prove faithful to his office.

Tutu turned two different things into a false dichotomy: he left us with the choice of either making God the possession of Christians or acknowledging that good people are truly good. The Archbishop Emeritus left us with that agonizing choice because he chose not to tell us the story of Jesus Christ, a story that points somewhere else than those two horrible options. In fact, by winsomely forcing them on us he told us a different story, the story of pluralism, in which God floats free from his own beloved Church.

He gut-punched every Christian in that room with that throwaway line, and left a lot of us walking out at the end in stunned, devastated silence.

Even worse, Tutu did not answer the second part of the question, about what Christians might teach others. He went on to the next – to more applause from the delighted audience, and more devastation in me.

Why? Because we do have something to teach the world's other communities of conviction.

We Christians don't need to teach them our culture, our history, our apologies, or even our religion. We bear only one thing. It is not something we created or own. We are merely entrusted with it for a time and held accountable for its fruitfulness when that time is over.

That thing is the good news of Jesus Christ. It is his story and his name above all names that we offer the world with joy and expectation. It is through him that South Africa's and America's and the world's forgiveness and reconciliation come.

Thanks be to God for Desmond Tutu and the mighty works done through him in South Africa. My life will never remotely compare to his. But if he thinks the godliness of a Dalai Lama or a Desmond Tutu or (God forbid) a Telford Work will justify any of us, if he thinks the prayers or spirituality or deep thoughts of even the holiest of us will be acceptable to God on their own, if he thinks that Jesus' good news doesn't need to be taught because all these other good things are already all around us – then the Archbishop Emeritus is teaching another gospel. He is a prophet of justification by works. He has forgotten the one thing that matters most. Moreover, this man entrusted with the highest teaching office in his Church has invited us to do the same.

I decline that invitation.

I refuse to forget. I refuse to go home and sleep peacefully after even as godly a man as Desmond Tutu takes such a generous question and, when asked what might be worth teaching, shrinks back from naming the name of Jesus. I refuse to be complicit in the massive apostasy underway in this culture and even in our churches that would put any other story – or no story at all! – before our Lord's good news.

Jesus gets the glory. Jesus, not "Transcendence," is the name above every name. Someday every tongue will confess, "Jesus, Christ, Lord" to the Father's glory. South Africa's freedom from its demonic past is a sign of that Father's kingdom. It accrues to his glory. Desmond Tutu's vision has been a big part of that. But Christians don't own our name, our glories, or even our sins. The Dalai Lama doesn't own his spirituality or prayers. Progressives and conservatives don't own their Goodness. I don't even own this lousy blog. And none of us owns our futures. Jesus' blood got him the deed to them all.

If you learn anything from us "Christians," whether we are godly, enthralling Nobel Peace Prize laureates or intolerant, weak, arrogant, hypocritical bloggers, for God's sake learn that.

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