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

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Love Thy Theological Enemies

In the third chapter of his book, Victorian Religious Revivals (Oxford, 2012), author David Bebbington describes and analyzes an 1841 evangelical revival that took place in Washington-on-the-Brazos, Texas.  In his analysis of the event, Bebbington describes four groups who posed threats to the revival.  They were the denizens of frontier Texas' rough, almost crude local culture, freethinkers, and two other groups of evangelicals—anti-missionary Baptists and rationalist Campbellites.  The first two groups are hardly surprising.  The last two are.  The revival itself was promoted by moderate, revivalistic Baptists supported by Methodists.  The anti-missionary Baptists did not hold with such things as revivals because there is no record of them in the Bible.  The Campbellites didn't like the revivalistic emphasis on emotion and experience.

From Bebbington's commentary, it is evident that the revival itself found at least part of its identity in this opposition by non-religious and other religious elements.  What it was against was important.  It was against the hard-edges of frontier society, anti-religious thinking, and two other forms of the faith.  One form didn't allow for active revivalism.  The other form didn't value religious experience as being key to one's salvation.

It is not a new thought, but perhaps we don't think often enough about how important our theological "enemies" are to us in the formation of our own identity.  This is certainly true for those of us who embrace the label of "progressive Christianity."  Conservative evangelicals, especially of the literalist persuasion, as well as the so-called new atheists are both important to our own identity.  It is important to us that we are not like them in certain specific ways.  We are not biblical or scientific literalists.  We reject their rigid dualisms.

In this context, Jesus' injunction to "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" (Matthew 5:44) makes a whole lot of sense.  We take our identity from our theological enemies.  In what they are, we butt up against the boundaries of our own self-understanding.  We need them to be "them," and we need them to be "not-us."  It is worth considering that "when the Kingdom comes" they will be in it too.  The difference between then and now is that then we will be able to pray humble, sincere prayers for "them" and actually love them for what they are—understanding that what they are is important to us.  Amen.