What does the Middle East have to do with Sunday School?And what do controversial political issues have to do with church? An observable answer might be, “Not much.” And that, I contend, is not good. (I’m speaking as a Lutheran who could be called a “mainline” Christian.) There are, of course, wonderful exceptions: churches where people of all ages talk about global events, engage the Scriptures, pray and are equipped for ministries that matter in a complex world in need of understanding, justice and healing.
However, often well-meaning people are simply too busy. Sunday School teachers prepare lessons and lovingly teach children but just as lovingly try to shield them from global realities. And adults, stressed out from work, seek a church-going experience that is a refuge from the world. We believe religion and politics “don’t mix,” so we pray in general for “our leaders” and “world peace” and all we have to say from the pulpit is that political adds have become too negative.
Don’t get me wrong. Those benign postures are preferable to right-wing positions that picture Christianity as a militant American nationalism. In fact, while a vicious video clip production that insults and demeans Islam has been the catalyst for anti-American demonstrations in the Middle East and beyond, that is only one piece of a much broader, constant barrage of “Christian” anti-Muslim messages that Islamic countries have been hearing increasingly. The message that to be Christian is to be against any other religion is being taught. And adults in such churches are being told how to vote, and many are continuing to be fed the fabricated story that the president of the United States was not born here, is the “other,” and is secretly not a Christian but a Muslim and therefore anti-American.
Such hate is not the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
I hold a very different interpretation of the Christian Gospel. Yes, one reads in the New Testament that Jesus is the way, the truth and the light and that one can hear in that passage that Jesus is the only path to salvation. But judgment is to be left to God. There is danger in fear of the stranger. You see, Jesus continually reached out to those beyond the narrow religious confines of his own faith, Judaism. Christianity is more than a set of “values.” Jesus is the light of the world. Jesus loves everyone, heals all in need. Jesus cares about justice, and the poor; he always cares about the poor. Christianity is a religion with doors wide open. And Christianity is never to be aligned to just one national identity. Christ suffers with those who suffer. Christ’s death and resurrection set people free to love the neighbor, not to simply guard their own freedom.
This is not to justify the violence that took the lives of the U.S. ambassador in Libya and three other U.S. servant citizens. Nor the violence in the Middle East and beyond where yet more people die. This is not a commentary on Islam. My words here are about Christianity, its message and mission.
So, what does the Middle East have to do with Sunday School? I hope everything. I call for the media to recognize that “Christian” is a broad term, not to be associated only with fundamentalist right-wing Christian churches. I call for mainstream Christian Churches to not be hesitant to speak up. No, don’t tell people how to vote. That’s rightly against the first amendment. But help us dig more deeply into the Scriptures and help parishioners claim their own voices in the public arena, and to learn about world religions and to love all the world’s people.
Ray Suarez in The Holy Vote: The Politics of Faith in America, wrote, “As a kid standing for the recessional hymn, I dutifully sang, “In Christ there is no East or West, in him no South or North, but one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide earth.” He added, “What I was not taught was that God had chosen America as the instrument for his will in the world.”
In my book, Open the Doors and See All the People, I write about a Lutheran pastor on Long Island, NY, a Wartburg Seminary graduate, who over 15 years ago helped diversify her congregation’s all-white worship leadership team to include an Iranian deacon and a West Indian assisting minister. Together with other religious leaders in the community she helped form an Interfaith Network and developed a “school of religion” where they engaged in “caring, sharing and comparing.” When 9/11 happened, they were already prepared to come together in an interfaith prayer service 1000 attended. She says, “Our deep anxiety continued, but our faith was deeper still. We have learned to cherish people…all people.”