This past week as I was headed to my class at Valencia, I observed two bumper stickers within a half mile stretch on Michigan Avenue that prompted me to think. Both were religious in nature and both were designed to provoke a response. I’m guessing my response was probably not what either driver was seeking.
Praying for Miami Beach
The first bumper sticker read “Global Warming? How about Global Prayer?” The graphics featured a horizon of mountain tops and drops of water around the edges. In all honesty, I’m not totally sure what the point of this one was. To begin with, the sticker adorned the bumper of one of the oversized pickup trucks that are major contributors to the climate crisis we face. I call them Selfishmobiles – they hog more than their share of the road, gas, parking, pollute more than their share of the air and kill more than their share of those on the roads with them in accidents. Given that starting place and the message, my guess is that this is probably the sentiment of a religiously based climate change denier.
As I understand it, this is a perspective that argues that we don’t need to worry about some man-made theory (sound of spittle hitting the ground) about climate change, we just need to worry about obeying G-d’s commands (as understood from a largely uncritical, self-referential reading of scripture). While I’m very clear that one can be concerned about global climate change and see prayer as one of many means of meeting that challenge - a practice in which I regularly engage - my guess is that the displayer of that bumper sticker constructs this issue in terms of a false dichotomy: One either prays and relies on G-d to save us from ourselves or they buy into some politically correct theory (there’s that sound of spittle again) about global warming.
While I’d like to presume a little higher level of credibility to the thought of the bumper sticker owner, I also know that about 1/3 of Americans regularly watch Fox and a wide assortment of religious channels where this false dichotomy is regularly preached from broadcast pulpits. My guess is that this fellow probably hasn’t been to Miami Beach lately to see the massive new pumping system currently being installed to keep an island already dealing with regular tidal flooding from being completely submerged.
Of course, these folks have every right to believe as they see fit and to articulate the opinions they hold, no matter how indefensible in light of evidence of which they either aren't aware or simply avoid. But they don’t have the right to be taken seriously when they spout nonsense (and dangerous nonsense at that). The right to believe something and to have that right respected by others is not the same thing as an entitlement to have any belief one articulates taken seriously regardless of its inherent credibility.
But that started me wondering. Is it possible that this game of baiting the public with incredible (in the sense of unbelievable) assertions only to cry “Foul!” when confronted on them is part and parcel of something much larger? Does this somehow tie into an indefatigable compulsion of religious conservatives to construct themselves and their faith in terms of martyrdom, no matter how disingenuous?
Canon within a Canon – St. Paul
Within a couple of blocks of the first bumper sticker, I encountered a second that was even more provocative. Featuring the symbol of a cross, the machinery of state killing utilized by the Roman Empire, the sticker simply read, “Not Ashamed.”
It is my guess that this assertion references a sort of evangelical canon within a canon, a handful of verses in the Christian Scriptures seen as supporting – if not commanding - the practice loosely described as “witnessing” regardless of how it’s practiced. For many evangelicals, these verses are seen as the distillation of divine will for themselves - and everyone else. Anyone who has ever had any dealings with evangelical Protestants or their conservative counterparts within Christendom have heard the verses which follow below, almost inevitably out of any kind of context by which to make sense of them.
The first is the writing of St. Paul in his letter to the Romans in which he says, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” (Romans 1:16, NRSV). The word translated as “salvation” here in reference to “gospels” is usually understood in individual existential terms in the west and in dogmatic transactional terms in western religions (if you buy into our dogma now, you are among the saved and thus assured of a positive afterlife ). Ultimately, it’s all about me.
A recent translation by four scholars from the Westar Institute, determined that the Greek word euangelion, good news, used in this verse can only be understood in the context of the Roman Empire’s world-wide claim to dominance and world order. As such, euangelion, as St. Paul was using it, actually means “world-transforming news of God,” i.e., the kingdom of G-d taught by Jesus and Paul as the alternative to Caesar’s empire. The scholars translate this verse and the end of the preceding verse as follows:
I’m eager to proclaim God’s world-changing news to you in Rome. I’m not embarrassed by this news because it has the power to transform those who are persuaded by it, first Jews and then Greeks.
Note the lack of any references to individual salvation in the next life, to “good news” understood as written scriptures or to the individual as a purveyor of an understanding of those scriptures. Bear in mind there is no New Testament in Paul’s time. This verse is simply not about evangelizing, at least not in any sense of that term today. It’s also not about the individual testifying. Rather, it’s about changing this world, here and now.
Canon within a Canon – Gospel Writers
The second source of this honor/shame understanding comes from the Gospels of St. Mark and St. Luke. There the gospel writers report Jesus as saying, “Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” (Mark 8:38, Luke 9:26)
The Westar scholars sitting as the Jesus Seminar coded this passage black indicating that while Jesus probably did not actually say this, it is certainly something the early church would have said. Formulated well after Jesus’ death, the scholars determined that this verse arose when “disciples were being forced to acknowledge or to deny him.” It arose out of the period when the Jesus followers were being pressured to leave their synagogues enroute to creating a new religion about the Christ.
This use is contextually a little closer to the appropriation that evangelicals make of it. But these two contexts are not “on all fours,” as we used to say in law. The difference is that evangelicals are not being thrown out of their churches. They are not being pursued by the empire as enemies of the state. And they live under a constitution which makes their ability to articulate their understandings protected by the law of the land.
Without looking at the contexts of these verses, they make little sense. But they readily lend themselves to an acontextual use as the slogan of a self-styled martyr.
This writing is not about individuals today or their senses of disappointment that result from having the religious ideas they are selling rejected by would-be buyers. They are not about behavior willingly engaged without consideration for others in the name of testifying which causes potential buyers to respond with irritation. And they are certainly not about the intentional engagement of such behaviors knowing they will offend others for the purpose of becoming a martyr, however consciously entertained.
There is a world of difference between martyrs and mere boors.
Being Offensive v. Being Offended
These bumper sticker evangelizers brought into focus a new tactic that I am seeing among evangelicals of inappropriately interjecting religious behaviors into public forums and then claiming foul when others object. This new line of argument something goes like this: Why should my religiosity offend you?
The implication here seems to be that being a member of American society somehow requires that respect be show both a believer’s right to believe as they see fit as well as a supposed right to act upon that belief any way the believer sees fit regardless of context. Of course, a long line of SCOTUS cases readily reveals that behaviors have never been within the scope of the Constitutional protection as are beliefs. Ask the Native Americans seeking to use peyote. Ask the Mormon men seeking to legally marry multiple wives.
But there is more than a little offensive behavior in this approach to go around. First, it deliberately confuses beliefs with behaviors. Frankly, I don’t care what others believe or if they don’t believe anything at all. So long as those beliefs are not inflicted upon me, it’s no skin off my nose. But when believers are unwilling to live within those parameters, the irritated responses they draw from the public upon whom they have inflicted themselves say nothing about the content of their beliefs, it simply reflects the inconsideration of their behaviors.
It’s also important to note that a reluctance to endure inconsiderate behavior engaged under the banner of religiosity does not necessarily indicate religiously based antipathy. It’s quite possible for fellow Christians to negatively view such behaviors among fellow Christians. A good example is exasperation over the obsessive need of athletes to engage in religious displays during sporting events.
I greatly admire Tim Tebow as an individual but he’s about as tone deaf to social context as the day is long. At meetings of his religiously based organization, it’s not only appropriate to ostentatiously pray and write Bible verses on his face, it’s expected. The same is not true in the National Football League. Sadly, I think it’s hard to imagine that this tone deafness did not play a role in his inability to make it in pro ball.
This offensiveness approach also deliberately conflates beliefs and believers. Beliefs stand on their own, believers aside. When beliefs are sold like any other goods or services on the market, rejection of a proffered belief system is not a devaluation of the offeror any more than the decision not to buy a sweater is a denigration of the Macy’s sales clerk. The failure to make that sale hardly makes the salesperson a martyr.
However, what I find most troubling in all this is the intellectual dishonesty implicit in it. A deliberate confusion of irritation over inconsiderate behavior with martyrdom for one’s religious beliefs is not honest. And a willingness to deliberately engage in behavior one knows will be seen as inconsiderate then responding to the rejection of that behavior as somehow conferring martyrdom suggests there is a lot more going on there than religion.
License, Registration, Proof of Salvation
All of these issues came to a head earlier this month in an event in Indiana. USA Today reported it like this:
Ellen Bogan expects police to protect and serve — not proselytize. But she says Indiana State Police Trooper Brian Hamilton pitched Christianity to her when he pulled her over for an alleged traffic violation in August on U.S. 27 in Union County.
With the lights on his marked police car still flashing, the trooper handed Bogan a warning ticket. Then, Bogan said, Hamilton posed some personal questions:
Did she have a home church? Did she accept Jesus Christ as her savior?
I hasten to note that this event as described here is only an allegation at this point. According to USA Today, the Indiana State Police did contact Ms. Brogan to tell her that the agency was "taking supervisory action" though it did not inform her of what that was. However, the details of this encounter are currently only allegations in Ms. Brogan’s lawsuit against the agency and subject to the harsh scrutiny of the civil legal process.
What I found most troubling, however, was the response from Micah Carr, executive director of the American Family Association of Indiana. Carr told USA Today that while the traffic stop might not have been the best time to quiz someone about faith, he questioned whether a police officer should lose his right to free speech because he is wearing a badge. "I have people pass out religious material all the time. Mormons come to my door all the time, and it doesn't offend me," Clark said. "(This case) might not be the most persuasive time to talk to someone about their faith, but I don't think that a police officer is prohibited from doing something like that."
Again, the tone deafness is striking. Truth be told, most Americans resent having the privacy of their homes invaded by religious missionaries. That it occurs with regularity does not mean other instances of inconsideration somehow become acceptable. Moreover, this was not an issue of the officer’s exercise of free speech, an analysis that readily reveals the enormous solipsistic – if not narcissistic - tendencies in most proselytizing. Nor was it about whether this was “the most persuasive time to talk to someone about their faith,” a statement which also reveals immense self-focus.
The question at hand is first and foremost about an abuse of state power as well as the complete inconsideration of the officer in question vis-a-vis the citizen he is pledged to serve. Such persons are not martyrs, they’re boors. And in this case, if what is alleged is proven, their behaviors exceed mere offensiveness; they border on being tyrannical.
As You Would Have Them Do Unto You
Throughout my time in seminary I wore a tee shirt with a quote from Anglican theologian Urban T. Holmes which read, “Evangelism: The people of God are to the world as a lover, not a salesman.” I am also prone to quote St. Francis on evangelism: “Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words only when necessary.” I’m hardly opposed to evangelism per se and there is a part of me that empathizes with those who wish to share what they consider to be good news with others. If St. Paul’s take on it is correct, we could all use world changing news with the power to transform those who hear it.
But it isn’t necessary to be inconsiderate in that process. Indeed, it’s largely counterproductive. Good news worth hearing does not find an expression in self-focused bumper stickers (*I*am not ashamed). And the appropriate time and place for considering religious understandings is neither at major sporting events nor on the side of public highways in the shadow of flashing lights under the auspices of uniformed, armed officers. In such cases, it is the conduct which is offensive, not the messenger or the message. And the rejection of inconsiderate behaviors is not martyrdom. It’s a badly needed lesson in mature adult behavior and the expectations of a civil society.
Let those who have ears listen.
The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., M.Div. Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Assistant Lecturer: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Osceola Campus, Kissimmee, FL
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++