Wednesday, May 1, 2013

I Want The Message of Christ Not a Message of Fear

How many of you remember going to church.  You might hear sermons that are practical, spiritual, perhaps even deeply philosophical.  Sermons are the mechanism in which a body of believers receives instruction, edification, encouragement, and reaffirmation of their shared beliefs.  But there's also a type of sermon that cheats the believer out of useful instruction, and instead, instills fear, terror, and appeals to the basest of instincts which dominate our thinking as living creatures: fear.

Fear comes in a couple of flavors.  There is healthy fear.  That is, the kind of fear that scares you away from jumping off cliffs, or taking risks which are unreasonable.  The kind of fear that drives you to honor the figures in authority such as government, elders, parents, or others who are placed in authority above you.  Then there is harmful fear, the kind of fear that manipulates your mind into doing things you may not normally consider doing.  This principle of reward and punishment psychology was corroborated by Sigmund Freud and B.F. Skinner who specialized in behavioral theory.  Human beings by nature will seek stimulus that is pleasurable and avoid stimulus which is painful.  Now, you might be asking what this has to do with sermons and Christianity.  Let's consider the styles in which ministry attempts to bring believers into the fold.

When I was a teenager, I attended a Church in Centralia, WA called First Assembly of God, of the Assemblies of God denomination.  The Assemblies of God is considered to be a fundamentalist division of Christianity...though generally non-militant.  It has churches in just about all 50 states and in over 70 nations world-wide, touting an international membership of over 60 million followers, a US membership of about 1.7 million members, 3 million adherents, and over 35,000 ministers both local and abroad internationally.  It's annual giving received exceeded $350 million in giving from it's attendees.  

The organization takes literalist positions on creation, homosexuality, and marriage...expressing those positions in line with most fundamentalist and mainstream Christian thought and reason.  It also takes fundamentalist positions on issues like sex, salvation, the roles of women, and many other issues.  While it's not out of the mainstream to express concern for one's immortal soul, this and many other organizations are too eager to embrace that method of ministry.  I heard several times in several settings, salvation being referred to as fire insurance, the "Get-out-of-Hell-free" card, or other similar slogans or catch-phrases.  

One of the many programs that were put on during the time when I was attending First Assembly was a program called "Heaven's Gates, Hell's Flames."  One of the many fringe benefits of being part of the Church's youth program is that we generally got to assist in it's production.  It's production was carried out by an organization that would cast various people in roles surrounding various what-if scripts.  What if you died today?  Where would you go?  What would or could it look like?  The skits were generally short 4-7 minutes, each of which portrayed a scenario.  When I participated in the skit's production, I did lighting for it.  One of the most memorable skits was the skit which portrayed a woman considering suicide.  It showed her sitting by herself at a table, deciding if she wanted to take her life or not.  She wrestled with the issue, and minions of Satan would dance around her tormenting her and taunting and tempting her to pull the trigger, but then she'd consider not, and leaning on Jesus for understanding.  The demons would recoil, repelled by the very mention of his name.  Then, the skit would turn macabre with the death of the woman after she pulled the trigger, taking her own life.  The skit goes dark, the stage is adjusted, and the light would come back showing her in a beautiful, golden, heavenly setting.  Then, Jesus would come out of the back atop a staircase leading in through the gates.  He looked at the woman, a sorrowful face would appear, and he'd leave, turning his back on the woman.  The stage would go dark, but then glow red, and these frightful creatures would emerge from the sides of the stage, with a bigger more menacing figure, Satan, behind them, delighting in another soul with which to torment.  The woman is dragged away screaming and thrashing as demons pull her away from the gates of heaven into the eternal hell-fires of damnation, condemned for all time to suffer.  It was indeed a frightening scene.  Dark, menacing, and outright scary.  

The event was always an annual one.  It attracted first-time attendees by way of invitation from members.  A rather aggressive publicity campaign through the Church Membership was carried out, and the pues would fill with attendees, both members and guests alike.  The staffing for the event also included trained "crisis" ministers or counselors.  The idea is that the event would startle or scare many people, then the event-trained counselors would be made available to explain what they saw and complete the conversion process.  Oddly enough, as I'm writing this section, I'm thinking back on it even more deeply, and can't really express how detestable this method of "proselytizing" truly is.

Now granted, there have been, throughout the history of Christendom and religion as a whole, fear has often been used to push religious and, sometimes in tandem, political agendas.  For example, during the 1st Crusade of 1096, Pope Urban II promised salvation to anyone who'd fight for the Church to drive the Moors out of Jerusalem.  In the 1400s and 1500s, the Church used fear to manipulate the masses to contribute money to the church by promising that souls of loved ones would be freed from Purgatory by issuing "indulgences".  During the 1500s, King Henry VIII outright promised death to any Catholic who did not renounce his oath to Rome, and who wouldn't pledge fealty to him as head of The Church of England.  And in addition many Catholics were put to death as a result of King Henry's campaign.  In Spain, the Spanish Inquisition put hundreds of Protestants to death because they failed to renounce their "heathen" ways and were burned as witches for engaging in witchcraft.  

So the Church as a long history of using fear to coerce conversion to a said organization's views.  In the modern day, as much as the Church wants to claim that it's embraced a more "free will" view of Christianity, we still see fear being used to manipulate and coerce believers into converting, or dissuading current believers from straying away from the faith.  In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, departures from the Church would often end in a ruined reputation, denouncing from family members and your community (if it was heavily LDS), and a ruining of your livelihood.  In the Assemblies of God, doctrinal uniformity is pushed very deeply.  Dissenters are sometimes subjected to criticism by church leaders, and in the extreme case, excommunication from the organization, it's churches, events, and assistance.  Such a view was inferred at me personally for directly challenging church doctrine when I was 18 years old.  Bishop Gene Robinson of the Episcopal Church of the United States was outright threatened not by his organization, but by his fellow believers and doctrinal fanatics who believed he was stepping outside Church doctrine for attempting and succeeding to become the first openly gay member of the Episcopalian clergy.  Ministers and believers both have been subjected to fear as a means of bringing about uniformity, conformity, and religious "purity" to whatever Church organization is being discussed.  

Why is this a problem for the Church in the modern day?  Because friends, God has imparted to us a spirit which is utilized by believers to bring about change, love, compassion, and new beginnings to those we encounter.  The message of Christ has always been taught on the premise that you serve because you choose to serve.  "Come, follow me, and I'll make ye fishers of men." Matt 4:19.  Those fishers didn't HAVE to follow Jesus and learn to be fishers of men.  They chose to because they saw him for what he was: revolutionary, different, and unique.  The individuals who were touched by Christ were drawn to Christ, did so out of need, desire, free will.  Probably one of the biggest differences between the cultures of the past and today is that we've grown and evolved our understanding of the human condition.  That understanding has also led to advances in promoting free will and self-determination...a cornerstone in American Society today.

When the Church and it's leaders teach Christianity in the context of "if you don't believe you're going to Hell"...the message's purity is tainted with the act of manipulation.  The fear message panders to the human being's most basic of instincts: Survival.  Human beings will generally do all things necessary to preserve their corporeal existence.  But when religion, the teachers of the supernatural, the spiritual, and the soul begin introducing fear as their primary method of ministry, then the message of Christ turns to a message about "Love thy Neighbor" to "Worship me, or die."  Christians are appealing directly to physical instinct to preserve one's existence.  It's the most basic of manipulations, and it is an abomination of the message.  The mind has an incredible capacity to handle the prospects of pain...but when that pain or risk of pain becomes overwhelming, it will concede to the instinct to end those painful stimuli.  When Christians preach "Worship me, or die", they have appealed directly to the most basic of instincts, and is using that instinct to gain adherents.  Nothing is farther from the truth of the message, than a message of hope delivered by way of a message of fear.  And the message of fear is not what Christ created.  

The virtues of Christianity are expressed in the everyday living as human beings.  The nature of Christ is expressed in our thinking and in our actions.  The proselytizing observed today, in my view, was not the type of proselytizing that we as Christians should be involved with.  The Church's call is to serve, and serve, and to again, serve.  By serving, we spread.  By humility, we spread.  And by doing unto others, and loving our neighbors...our gay neighbors, atheist neighbors, addicted neighbors, immigrant neighbors, Muslim neighbors, Pagan neighbors, and so forth, we, by our actions spread the message.  Calling salvation "fire insurance" and condemning the actions of others serves nothing more than to pass judgment on another person's culture, religion, or upbringing.  It's up to the individual to choose to serve.  And that choice is made by seeing what Christianity can do for others...not by calling it "fire insurance" and going "thou art damned" or similar type of speech.  Jesus' message spreads by actions...not by empty, hollow, judgmental words.

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