[Note: Glad to welcome my friend, Dr. Kevin Heifner, to bring his voice to this blog spot. JDP]
As my father — a Baptist preacher turned religious educator turned anthropology professor — likes to point out, people historically have viewed their particular group as “the people” and others as “the other” or less human.
Academically, the human propensity for viewing “the other” as less worthy is labeled as tribalism. Religiously, this same philosophy may travel under the guise of a particular faith group assuming the mantle of “God’s chosen” or claiming exclusive insight into God’s will or truth.
Tribalism, thus defined, is poisonous as a philosophy for life and an anathema to any Christian theology that acknowledges all persons as children of God.
The coronavirus pandemic provides an opportunity for Christians to reflect and humble themselves, learn from our mistakes, repent, and most importantly, move boldly into the never-ending task of (re)building God’s beloved community. If nothing else, this pandemic should remind us there is only one tribe — the human tribe — and we all sink or swim together.
A frequent perception of organized religious faith by some non-participants is that the church is judgmental and full of hypocrites. I share this sentiment to some degree, yet also believe it is often reactionary and an over-simplification of a complex structure. Clearly good and bad often coexist, within the church as well as elsewhere.
To some extent this perception has long existed, but seems to be at a historical peak, at least in the western world. Extensive research from numerous sources shows U.S. church attendance is at a historical nadir.
How can we as individuals or congregations combat the valid criticisms of our failures and misrepresentations of the Christian faith? I’m not sure, other than to live with as much integrity as we can individually and corporately.
The church needs a clearer, stronger moral voice in condemning and acting to correct bad behavior in its midst. We need to protect the weakest among us — ensure our institutions are accountable. Failure to do so is exhibit A for our complicity.
The church must lose its ego. We are simply a weigh station for those in need or suffering, a hospital for the spiritually sick or bereft of joy — which, honestly, includes all of us.
We have to admit that we are not “better than” those outside the structure. In fact, “we” are “they.” Just like healthy people do not go to the hospital, “good people” do not attend church. People in need of something they lack make use of the benefits of both institutions.
We need to end the false narrative of the perceived struggle between “science and religion”. This is dichotomous thinking is simply not true. This pandemic provides a platform for people of faith to clearly communicate their belief in rational, objective, scientific thought and discourse.
We need to abandon thinking that religion can refute science. Only better science does that. Specifically, we should call for our ministers to speak more forcefully on this issue. Lay people also have the responsibility to demonstrate that the intellect need not be divorced from pursuit of spiritual truth.
Similarly we need to continue trying to erase the misperception that the godly can only be found within “organized religion,” particularly inside our houses of worship. “Christian” is best used to describe an adherent. As an adjective, it serves as an incomplete and wrong-headed descriptor when applied to music, worldview or nation.
The use of exclusive faith language can be off-putting to others, even overtly offensive. Some people do not flourish within churches and we need to demonstrate kindness and acceptance of their choices. In short, not everyone needs what we are “selling” as it were.
The church can help us to avoid the pitfalls of malignant, malevolent thinking. I label this the “cancer of me.” This hyper-individualism is what the ancient Greeks called hubris. However, the philosophy of Jesus proclaims the opposite: “Not my will, but thine be done.”
We must move beyond “me and mine” to “we and ours.” Preachers need to proclaim this and Jesus’ followers need to better live out the relational aspects of Christ’s teachings.
The “cancer of me” is seductive. Our society would have us believe that our opinions and desires trump all else, even in the face of incontrovertible evidence to the contrary. This inflexibility leads to an inability to reconsider deeply held opinions. Societally, this results in tribalism.
The church can help correct such thinking by showing others that eternal truth need not be divorced from the realization that “living faith” encourages us to continually reevaluate our limited ability to know all truth. This viral pandemic is a perfect opportunity for people of faith to live with renewed humility and concern for all others.
Humble, joyous living can bring about more change than any sermon — and people of good faith can lead the way.
-Dr. Kevin Heifner, M.D., is nephrology specialist in Little Rock, Ark. As Chair of the Board of EthicsDaily, he plays a strategic role in the formation of Good Faith Media.