Sunday, August 12, 2007

The Great Commission

-- by Sara

In the comments to my post, Some Are More Equal Than Others, just below, commenter John Benson senses a shift in fundamentalist conversion strategies. He writes:
To be honest I’ve always viewed an invocation of “the great commission” [Jesus' commandment to take his message to all the nations of the world] as the evangelical equivalent of “f**k you, Christ said I could.” That doesn’t mean there aren’t theological arguments to be made, simply that they probably won’t make any difference to a person who invokes “the great commission.” The customary translation is to “make disciples of all nations,” there is no method specified, but Christians are frequently enjoined to avoid load and ostentatious protestations of faith (Mat 6:5-9). Since no method was specified, and yet you should avoid ostentatious display, aren’t you forced to convince people by the exemplary nature of the life you lead?
John's comment reflects the dominant attitude that the American Evangelical movement has brought to its conversion efforts since the Revolution. For the past 200 years, they've done their level best to lead and convert by the good example of their own lives, believing that honesty, kindness, sobriety, thrift, and other virtues would give them the social capital that would make their way attractive to others. (And, to their credit, many Evangelicals still do believe this is the approach most consistent with Jesus' teachings.)

Unfortunately, as I noted in my post, this attitude has, in recent decades, been replaced with a far more militant and aggressive posture among the more fundamentalist Evangelicals. It's fair to ask: how did we get from there to here? Where did these people jump the track?

The fundamentalists themselves -- along with every blogger who's ever pondered the origins of the "dirty fucking hippie" meme -- will blame it on the 1960s. The conservative culture warriors can trace every modern evil straight back to that decade. And it's arguable that one of the biggest casualties of that era was the demise of Righteous Example as a useful and attractive means of fulfilling the Great Commission.

In that fateful decade, religious conservatives were finally forced to reckon with the fact that this was a losing strategy. Rectitude, chastity, and obedience just didn't attract followers like it used to. Their critics pointed out (rightly, which really hurt) that the bloodless righteousness of "traditional morality" too often closed a blind eye to greater sins like sexism, racism, classism, domestic and child abuse, and larger social injustices and inequalities. Everything in the culture -- the media, the universities, their own children -- actively rejected their cherished virtues as "square." Shattered and bruised by this -- and wholly unwilling to engage the validity of the critique and consider changes -- they soon became convinced that other, more overt, tactics were now required.

So, in the 70s, they got into politics. Which, of course, they also misunderstood. They thought that controlling the government would give them the tools to control the runaway culture, and restore things to the state where their pious example of virtue once again had persuasive value. (Notably, this is also the decade in which the idea of "spiritual warfare" -- seen at first as cultural warfare -- first surfaced.) Unfortunately, the refused to accept that democratic governments merely reflect the culture they serve -- and this makes them very limited tools when it comes to creating deep changes in the values of that culture. You can't use a democracy to change things from the top down, because the system is designed to channel power from the bottom up. Still, emboldened by their electoral victories (financed by their increasing ties to the corporate power structure, which gave them a counterweight against the system's inherent power flows), they were quite sure they could legislate morality. That delusion lasted right up until the Clinton impeachment debacle, which they believed would be a moment of moral triumph. Instead, it taught them, once and for all, that their "values" were not, and would never be, shared by the majority.

That went down hard. Bush's victory two years later only softened the sting a little. God's own handpicked miracle president was, in a real sense, their very last hope. He and his GOP Congress would, finally, create the Christian paradise that the Great Commission promised. That much, they were sure of.

And then 9/11 happened. Which -- for them, and for everyone else -- changed everything.

That was a shattering moment, because it laid bare the true magnitude of their failure to fulfill the Great Commission. In spite of all their centuries of effort, positive examples hadn't worked. Working within the political system hadn't worked. America was as secular and sinful as ever; and the blame was wholly, entirely, their own. For the fundamentalists, 9/11 was seen as God's stern warning that continued failure was not an option -- they'd better figure out how to get the country converted, now, or else his wrath would fall even more heavily on the nation. And it would fall most heavily of all on those who had been given a job to do, and failed to get it done.

Convicted by God, who had loosed Satan on them in retribution for their indolence, the fundies began to accept what Rushdooney and Robertson had been telling them for 20 years: the only option left to them was to seize the entire government -- by force, if necessary -- and turn the whole damned thing into a theocracy, governed under Biblical law. A furious God would be appeased by nothing less. It's notable that, up to this point, Dominionist theology had long been dismissed, even by most fundamentalists, as a far fringe movement secretly clung to by only a few authoritarian crazies. But 9/11 moved it quickly to the center of their public theology. And that's how treasonous ideas that were once only discussed by ambitious demagogues in secret came to be preached to millions over the airwaves and from the pulpits of megachurches today.

If you doubt their intentions, just look at where they're putting their energies. Bitterly disappointed by the limits of government power, they are now focusing intently on accruing military power instead. Dave wrote about the OSU's officially-sanctioned efforts to proselytize to our soldiers in Iraq. Other groups are targeting these soldiers after they come home, seeking to fill the hole left by the paucity of VA counseling and transition services. Mikey Weinstein has made the case that they've deeply infiltrated both the faculties and the cadet corps of our military academies. They've also made specific appeals to the military leadership: Jerry Boykin is far from the only general who puts his duty to God ahead of his duty to country, and being "born-again" is increasingly viewed as a requirement for promotion in certain areas of the service. And, through Ron Luce's "Battle Cry" rallies, millions of teenagers are being schooled in the logic and aesthetics of spiritual (and real-life) warfare, priming the pipeline with another generation of Christian soldiers. Across the fundamentalist world, there's a new militance. They're mad as hell, and they're not going to take it any more.

This is the will to action that underlies the "we have more rights than you do" rhetoric of my previous post. It's not just a misguided attitude toward their fellow Americans. These people are taking concrete steps to turn that attitude into action -- to enforce their greater rights in what ever way is required. If the Great Commission must be fulfilled by force, so be it.

At the same time, they're also bunkering down, retreating ever farther into a hermetically-sealed subculture that virtually eliminates all interaction with Americans who'd don't agree with their worldview. And this should concern us, too. The ever-yawning cultural distance they're fostering makes it much easier for them to objectify those of us outside that bubble -- to regard us as evil subhumans who live outside of mercy, and who can be saddled with the full measure of blame for the fear they feel. It is, after all, all our fault: if we'd only bought what they were selling back when they asked us nicely, none of this -- not 9/11, not the 60s, not any of it -- would have had to happen. But we didn't listen-- and so now, we've made it necessary for them to fulfill their unholy Commission the hard way.

We know that the best way to bring someone out of any extremist movement is to give them positive exposure to people and ideas that challenge their rigid beliefs. But, according to Barna Research, about 12% of the country has successfully barricaded itself away from the possibility of any mediating interaction with other Americans. This isolation allows them to live, unchallenged, in their own reality -- a reality in which those of us who resist their coming takeover are easily assigned the blame, stripped of our rights, dehumanized as tools of the Devil.

In the echoes provided by that bubble, their sense of justification is growing, too. They're convincing each other that they are doing what's best for everyone -- even for those who resist them. People who disagree with their plans simply don't understand what's at stake. They've got their orders directly from God, and are under no obligation to listen to any Constitutionalist whining from those who don't. If we merely question their motives, we're tolerated as pathetically deluded, and perhaps redeemable. If we take action to stop them, we expose ourselves as being outright enemies of the coming regime. Any overt opposition is an admission that we're in willful cahoots with Satan -- a belief that contains within it the seeds of eventual eliminationism.

It's a long, long way from fulfilling the Great Commission by gentle, generous, positive example to fulfilling it at the point of the gun. But for too many Christian fundamentalists, they no longer feel they have any choice. They are torn between the diabolical intransigence of their fellow Americans, and their duty to an increasingly impatient and angry God. And there is no question in their minds where their first allegiance lies.

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