When Faith and Politics Collide
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My celebration of Palm Sunday this year included virtual worship with First United Church of Oak Park Illinois.
Rev. John Edgerton was the preacher, and Rev. Lydia Mulkey offered one of the most beautiful children’s messages I have ever heard. I sat with my grandkids on the couch in their living room listening – and they were spellbound.
For Lent, their church was doing a fast from Whiteness. They decided they would use Lent to feature music by Black composers or other racial and ethnic minorities in the US. Pastor John says it has been some of the most moving worship the church has experienced in quite some time.
After six weeks of Lent, a fringe and radical right wing media outlet posted a screed denouncing the church for being racist. Although this was First Church’s intentional effort to de-center whiteness, an act both fully consistent with Christ’s message of love and fully aligned with the fact that Christ was not white and the majority of Christians today and throughout history are not white, this fringe group known as “Turning Point USA” portrayed them as nothing but a rabid, anti-white hate group. Their story got picked up by FOX News and the Sinclair Broadcast group, then the Washington Post and the New York Post. They treated the screed as news rather than the propaganda it was.
All hell broke loose.
The church got hate mail. They got nasty phone calls. The Pastor was getting threats. They were recording over five phone messages every minute at one point. Thousands came in. The Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, and local law enforcement all were brought in to consult it got so bad.
All of this because a church made a decision about what kind of music they wanted to sing in worship.
As the Rev. Edgerton noted – there was nothing in this denying the beauty of white culture or hating white people. As he said, you don’t fast from something you don’t love. It was about correcting an imbalance in the faith formation of largely white churches who have gotten to a place where their attention to white culture, including the creation of a white Jesus and a white God, leaves them with the assumption that whiteness is the hallmark of liturgy, of theology, of ecclesiology, of history. They wanted to find a new balance – a way, as the pastoral team put it – to de-center whiteness.
The message to their church is one all of us in American Christianity would be wise to pay attention to as we seek spiritual wholeness and healing. The centering of whiteness in matters of faith and politics not only distorts truth and fact, it erodes away our spiritual health and wel-being. First Church’s decision to heal from the wounds of white-centering, wounds by the way that damage white people as well as all people of color, was not political in nature but deeply spiritual. It was an effort to heal a wound lightly treated.
But it was politicized by a radical fringe group that is getting more and more attention and traction than they deserve.
It is a bit ironic this happened on Palm Sunday, a day that commemorates Jesus’ own act of spiritual healing from an oppressive regime that like our own right wing fringe group with allies in our government saw his entry into Jerusalem on the high Holy Day of Passover as a political act. For that act he was crucified.
Sometimes faithful actions disrupt political forces. Those forces will always react in ways intended to solidify their place in power. They rarely do. As Jesus demonstrated three days after his crucifixion at the hands of empire – love wins.
It always does and let us hope it always will on this, our journey Into the Mystic.