We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Monday, February 18, 2013

On the Horns of a Dilemma

In a world that is increasingly inclusive, it is difficult to maintain the integrity of an exclusivist Christian faith.  The problem is this: those who hold to an exclusive gospel—that is that only Christ saves—often care deeply about those who do not share their faith.  They are convinced that "non-believers" are going to hell.  They want to communicate with non-believers about their plight and help them escape it.  Communication is important.  However, in a world that  increasingly rejects exclusive ideologies, it is all but impossible for exclusivists to communicate across the boundaries of their exclusive message.  Fewer and fewer people find any kind of exclusivism to be "good news."

This is a real dilemma.  A recent example of it has engulfed the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod in controversy over the participation of one of its pastors in ecumenical services held at the time of the Sandy Hook tragedy in Newtown, CT.  As widely reported (here), the pastor of Newtown's Christ the King Lutheran Church was reprimanded by the president of the Missouri Synod church, for taking part in an ecumenical service in Newtown in spite of the fact that one of the children murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary was a child of Christ the King Church.  The pastor did apologize for upsetting the denomination although not for his action.  Now, the president in his turn has felt compelled to apologize to the denomination for his own actions (here).  His letter of apology can be found on the Missouri Synod website (here).

The president's letter articulates the dilemma he and his denomination face in their exclusivist approach to the Christian faith.  In the letter, he states,
As the nation struggles with increasing violence and tragedy, we as a church body have struggled and continue to struggle with how to respond to civic/religious services in the midst of such events and to do so in a way that is in accord with our core convictions about the uniqueness of Christ. There are strong differences of opinion on this issue within the Missouri Synod, and that is because we all take our commitments to the Bible and to serving the neighbor very seriously. One view is that by standing side-by-side with non-Christian clergy in public religious events, we give the impression that Christ is just one path among many. Others view participation as an opportunity to share Christ and to truly love a hurting community, which may not happen if we are not participating. We struggle with the tension between these two views. We all deeply want to support our hurting communities in ways consistent with our religious convictions. (italics added)
That's the dilemma: engaging with those in need while remaining disengaged from those who believe the wrong things when those in need and those who don't believe are one and the same.  So, sitting on a stage with other clergy is wrong, but sitting with clergy ministering to a community in deep pain is not.  For a consistent exclusivist, sitting with the other clergy is always wrong and cannot be done, which seems to have been the initial position of the Missouri Synod president.  In an increasingly pluralistic, inclusive age, his reprimand of the pastor is widely seen as hurtful—among Missouri Synod members as well as in the public.

In sum, in an increasingly inclusive and pluralistic American culture exclusivist versions of the gospel are increasingly seen as bad news.  Exclusivism builds walls, encourages judgmentalism, and forces its adherents to behave in ways that others find unloving.  And often enough it is its own "reward," as can be seen in the case of the controversy sparked by Missouri Synod narrowness in the face of the Newtown tragedy.