Nov  2017 08
The Shadows of Protestantism

Last week, during which some Christians noted the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, I wrote on what I appreciate about my faith extended family. This week I am writing about the shadows. Protestantism, and Protestants, cast and, at times, live in the shadows.

  • Splitting! Protestants are world champions at dividing the visible Body of Christ. This reality is perhaps our most notorious feature over the past five centuries. Protestants are great at Othering.
  • A companion of splitting is the reform impulse. Purity can become the endgame. “We are the reformed, purified religion to end all other religions. We finally got it right, all who see the light should get it, and if you don't, die (or I'll pray for you).” Luther believed that, when Christianity was stripped of the pope and the noxious cloud that surrounded the papal apparatus, then Jews would convert to Christianity. When Jews did not, Luther took umbrage, turned hateful, and deadly.
  • Authority and self-interest. We Protestants love the insight, most visible in the Anabaptist tradition, of the inviolability of conscience. Every individual must stand before the Throne of Grace and give account. No state or magisterium (human teaching authority) can replace conscience. Really, who wants to disagree with that claim? But authority is also the notorious Achilles heel of Protestantism. And, when one combines the inviolability of conscience with the deceptions of self-interest, one gives credence to the critics of religion who accuse: “Religious people just take anything you want to do, say it is God's will, and do it.” This criticism has rung especially true when a type of Protestantism (e.g., Puritans in Massachusetts or today’s Christian Right) seeks to control the sword of state (courts through police and prisons).
  • Fundamentalism. Fundamentalists believe the Bible is a complete set of society-building plans, a full blue-print for a holy-as-can-be life on earth. (Other kinds of Protestants understand the Bible and the Way of Jesus as leaven for love, compassion, and justice in any society, but not a complete pattern for a social fabric.) The Bible becomes the ultimate authority on all matters and all knowledge, if one just interprets it rightly. This total-life, blue-print overreach has high affinity with anti-intellectualism, the repudiation of science, and fringe efforts (occasionally not-so-fringe) to replace godless democracy with theocracy.
  • Being a Christian means assent to propositions, rather than a way of life. Many Protestants are taught Christians must believe Christ is Lord and Savior and then they are saved. Assenting to doctrinal matters such as the Virgin Birth, the bodily resurrection of Jesus (understood in a particular way), and a non-metaphorical reading of the Book of Revelation make one a Christian, regardless of how loving one acts.
  • Just me and Jesus is sufficient. Community is another vulnerable place for Protestants. “The priesthood of all believers” can flip into “we don’t need priests. All I need is my Bible and my Jesus, and really knowing the Bible is optional.” A few decades ago, Robert Bellah and his co-authors wrote about a woman they named Sheila. Sheila boasted about constructing her own faith with pieces of this and that religion. The authors named her type of religion “Sheila-ism.” Protestantism can devolve into a hatchery for Sheila-ism.
  • Protestantism is so variegated (think Episcopal to Quaker and Progressive Baptist to Korean Presbyterian) that one can find opposites that are both true. On the one hand, some forms of Protestantism, particularly in the old mainline or on the liberal sector, so embrace the secular, the here-and-now, the political, the everyday that the reasons to be religious are lost. On the other hand, some conservative forms of Protestantism so divorce the secular and the sacred that life on earth is nothing other than a training ground for eternal life.
  • Protestants can (and in significant ways do) practice patriarchy, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, racism, and able-ism and believe we are doing God’s will.
  • The celebrated or maligned or erstwhile Protestant work ethic, bolstered by a biblical prooftext or two that link work to the right to eat, has been used callously in public policy debates either to render the social safety net as thin as possible or cut it altogether.
  • Protestants were not alone in surfing national colonial ambitions into the “mission field” but we were (in some cases still are) particular adept here. Denominationalism has affinities with nationalism. There were always anti-colonial, transnational energies in the mission and ecumenical movements, but the ecumenical search for visible unity has also been complicit as a colonizing force.

As I reflect on the points above and the blog I wrote last week, I see the North America and Europe-centered perspective of the writing. Given my geographical context, the origins of the Protestant Reformation, and the mission-sending energies that have spread Protestantism throughout much of the inhabited globe, the perspective makes sense.

But it will NOT make sense much longer. Protestantism has exploded in Africa, parts of Asia, and much of Latin America. Soon, the history of Protestantism being a squabble among communities of white, Northern European descent will be eclipsed and will be overwritten with Protestant seeds sown in other cultural soils.

How will Protestants shape, resist, and be shaped by their post-colonial host societies? What will be the expressions they create over the next 500 years? What will Protestants do that will be either admirable or repentance-worthy? I don't have a clue.

Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips Faculty
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