THIRD SUNDAY OF EASTER
Prayer of the Day: Holy and righteous God, you are the author of life, and you adopt us to be your children. Fill us with your words of life, that we may live as witnesses to the resurrection of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out…” Acts 3:19.
“Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.” I John 3:2-3.
In a recent article published by the Miami Harold, Andres Oppenheimer laments the decline of religion, particularly Christian religion, in the United States and worries that its place is being taken by political leaders and extreme ideologies lacking any moral content. Citing an Atlantic Monthly article authored by Shadi Hamid, he argues that “Human beings, by their very nature, are searching for meaning, belonging, coherent structure” and that “nobody can survive long without some ultimate loyalty.” In the absence of religion, the political party becomes a church, ideology/conspiracy theories become articles of faith and political leaders become messianic figures. Oppenheimer writes:
“In a post-truth world increasingly devoid of values and in which populist demagogues have turned basic values upside down by normalizing lying, and political and racial intolerance, we urgently need a moral compass.”
I agree in part with Oppenheimer’s diagnosis-at least insofar as right wing politics have evolved into something akin to religion. A Trump rally resembles nothing quite so much as a religious revival meeting complete with denunciations of the devil (i.e., immigrants, liberals, socialists-fill in the blank), preaching hellfire (i.e., they’re going to take your guns, ruin your neighborhoods, steal your jobs), promises of salvation (i.e., MAGA, “take back the country,”) a savior (“Only I can stop the carnage,” “Without me the economy will crash,”) and, of course, a call to unite behind the messiah. Oppenheimer concludes his editorial with the following appeal to religions of all stripes in the United States:
“I hope that Christianity, Islam and Judaism will re-invent themselves, as any business losing clients or any civic group losing followers would do. Religions offer us ancient tales of wisdom — regardless of whether you consider them sacred texts or cohesive myths — that can serve as a much-needed moral guide. But they have to adapt to modern times and focus more on values than on dogmas or rituals.”
Sadly, I fear Oppenheim’s reliance on religion to counter the immoral impulses of Trumpism is misplaced. I am not convinced that Trumpism is antithetical to American religion or that it draws its support from those who have abandoned religion and are seeking something else to fill the void.  To the contrary, there appears to be a symbiotic relationship between religion and right wing politics. The Trump base is disproportionally made up of highly religious individuals who see no conflict whatsoever between their Christian faith and their political commitments. Those of us who watched with horror on January 6th as the United States Capital Building was attacked, occupied and vandalized by a violent mob of pro-Trump supporters could not fail to notice the abundance of crosses, Christian symbols and references to Jesus among the antisemitic slogans, confederate flags and fascist emblems.
Rather than a competitor to religion, I would describe Trumpism as an infectious parasite, a “MAGA-16 virus” to which religious communities are particularly vulnerable. White evangelicalism has proven highly receptive to extremism. Many of its adherents hold science in contempt, view America as a “chosen people,” fear integration and the growing power of women in society. These folks are plagued by a craven fear that their country is somehow being taken away from them and so respond readily to the siren call of a strongman promising to take it back. I would add that Trumpism has found a home within sectors of Catholicism and mainline protestant churches as well. As such, American Christianity is an unlikely vaccine for MAGA-16.
Oppenheimer concludes his editorial with the following challenge to religions of all stripes in the United States:
“I hope that Christianity, Islam and Judaism will re-invent themselves, as any business losing clients or any civic group losing followers would do. Religions offer us ancient tales of wisdom — regardless of whether you consider them sacred texts or cohesive myths — that can serve as a much-needed moral guide. But they have to adapt to modern times and focus more on values than on dogmas or rituals. Otherwise, their decline will continue, and dangerous secular radicalism will take their place.”
Oppenheimer is, by his own admission, not religious. So perhaps he can be forgiven his seeming lack of understanding about what religious communities actually are and how they work. Speaking strictly as a Christian concerning the church, it must be emphasized that we are not a community tasked with teaching civic morality and, frankly, I don’t believe there is any need for that. Nobody needs to be told that lying, stealing and cheating are wrong. The problem is that our understanding of truth is colored by what we love, what we fear, the institutions we trust, the people we admire and the communities that form us. Whether or not you are “stealing” depends on your view about who is entitled to what. “Cheating” has little meaning where we cannot agree on what the rules are or what they should be or who should make them. Though it goes against the grain of our beloved American myth of individualism, we are quite simply the products of the communities in which live.
The church is the community in which the mind of Christ is formed, collectively and individually. It is the place where sin can be identified, named, confessed and forgiven. It is a community knowing, as does poet William E. Stafford, how important it is “that awake people be awake.” The church is a living example, albeit a flawed one, of the way in which God would have us live together in one human family. While we are not indifferent to the destiny of the United States, that is not our primary concern. Our ultimate allegiance is to the reign of God proclaimed by Jesus of Nazareth. Though we recognize a degree of responsibility for the wellbeing of our nation, we can never say “America First.” “First” is the gentle reign of God and the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church that has no national, cultural, ethnic or tribal borders. Moral conduct is not learned through the study of any codified tome, but through liturgical practices of worship, prayer and generosity informed by the life and ministry of Jesus and the witness of the prophets and apostles. It is honed in the nitty gritty grind of day to day living and working with people whose sharp edges are gradually worn smooth by the inevitable hurt feelings, insult, misunderstanding, admonition, correction and forgiveness, forgiveness, forgiveness required to sustain a close community.
What the United States needs to understand, as does every nation, is that all nations will be judged not by the heroism of their armies, the prosperity of their economies or their cultural achievements, but by how they treat the most vulnerable within them, “the least” of Jesus’ siblings. See Matthew 25:35-46. Making that bold witness requires more than a slew of preachy screechy social statements nobody ever reads passed at church assemblies to which no one pays attention. For the church’s preaching to be credible, its faith communities must be places where the reign of God it proclaims is visible. What made Saint Peter’s clarion call for repentance and faith so persuasive to his hearers was the faith community from which it came, a community in which “the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common” and “there was not a needy person among them” Acts 4:32-34. Saint John confidently assures his parishioners that they are, in fact, God’s children and that they are on the way to being “like” God. He can do that because he knows they have made a practice of complete openness to God concerning their shortfalls measured by the degree of compassion they bear toward one another. I John 2:1-2; I John 2:3-6; I John 3:16-17.
The church’s chief objective, then, is not to build up its membership or shore up the foundations of American morality. It is to make disciples from among all nations. Matthew 28:19-20. That task requires deep communities with thick faith practices and devotion to God’s reign of justice and peace that, in a world not yet ready for it, takes the shape of the cross. Has the church been at all successful in forming the mind of Christ in those it receives through baptism? I can honestly say that I have known more people than I can count whose lives have been shaped by the church in such a way that they bear faithful witness to Jesus and the kingdom for which he lived and died. But there is also the case of Dylann Roof, baptized and confirmed in a church of my denomination, who entered Mother Emanuel African Episcopal church in 2015 and shot the senior pastor and eleven other worshipers, killing nine of them. While many of our churches, including the one of which I am now a member, are working for and advocating justice and compassion for refugees at our southern border, I know for a fact that there are both lay people and pastors who, inspired by the hateful rhetoric and ideology of Trumpism, have added their voices to the chorus of xenophobic demands for their exclusion. While I don’t share Mr. Oppenheimer’s understanding of the church’s mission and how he thinks it should be carried out, I cannot deny that he is justified in pointing out that we have fallen short of our calling.
Sadly, the MAGA-16 virus has infected our ranks and, as Saint Peter reminds us, “judgment begins with the house of God.” I Peter 4:17. Fortunately for us, though, so does Resurrection. The lessons for this Sunday challenge us to appropriate that miracle-along with all the painful healing it entails. Before we can be a light to the world, we must let the light permeate our own souls and faith communities. What follows is a poem by William E. Stafford echoing in many respects what amounts to a call for self examination, individually and in community, that looks very much like what the Bible calls repentance.
A Ritual to Read to Each Other
If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.
For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dike.
And as elephants parade holding each elephant’s tail,
but if one wanders the circus won’t find the park,
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.
And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider—
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.
For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give — yes or no, or maybe —
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.
Source: The Way It Is: New and Selected Poems (c. by 1998 by William Stafford; pub. by Graywolf Press). William Edgar Stafford (1914–1993) was an American poet. Born in Hutchinson, Kansas, he was the oldest of three children. His family moved from town to town during the Great Depression as his father sought work. Stafford helped to support his family by delivering newspapers, working in sugar beet fields, raising vegetables and working as an electrician’s apprentice. He received a B.A. from the University of Kansas in 1937 and began pursuing a master’s degree there as well. Before he could complete his program, however, Stafford was drafted into the United States armed forces. He declared himself a pacifist and was registered as a conscientious objector. He performed alternative service from 1942 to 1946 in the Civilian Public Service camps. During this time, Stafford met and married Dorothy Hope Frantz, with whom he later had four children. Upon discharge, he returned to the University of Kansas where he completed his master’s program. he received a Ph.D. from the University of Iowa in 1957 after teaching for one academic year in the English department at Manchester College in Indiana, a college affiliated with the Church of the Brethren. Stafford was 48 years old when his first major collection of poetry was published. Despite his late start, he was a frequent contributor to magazines and anthologies and eventually published fifty-seven volumes of poetry. You can read more about William Stafford and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation Website.
 Andres Oppenheimer is the editor and syndicated foreign affairs columnist with the Miami Herald.
 I would add that persons who have discontinued their religious affiliation or never had one to begin with seem less rather than more likely to be swept up into right wing politics. Many persons who have left their religious communities, particularly among evangelicals, have done so precisely because they could not reconcile their faith and values with their churches’ commitment to Donald Trump.