Commentary
By Joe Kay 9-21-2017

The wrath-of-God preachers are at it again. 

They’re saying hurricanes Harvey and Irma were divine retribution for treating gay people as equals. It’s tempting to simply ignore their ignorance, but that would be a mistake.

It’s important to pay attention to not only the preachers of wrath, but also to the people in the pews internalizing the message. If we want to have meaningful conversations with them, we need to understand how they’re shaped by what they’re hearing.

Not everyone hears the same message in the same words, but there are common threads to what they’re being taught from the pulpit and social media platforms.

In an interview with The New York Times, evangelical author Timothy Keller said Jesus’ teachings are “not the main point” of Christianity. When evangelical pastor Robert Jeffress was asked whether the country’s leader should live by Jesus’ values expressed in the beatitudes, he said, “absolutely not.”

It seems that the message people in the pews are hearing is deliberately divorced from Jesus’ values. Being a disciple no longer means sitting at Jesus’ feet, hearing his passionate, God-filled words, and trying to live them.

Instead, many churchgoers are hearing that America is God’s chosen nation and people like them are God’s chosen people — especially white, wealthy, straight males. Power, privilege, and wealth are signs of God’s favor; poverty and illness are the residue of moral failure. 

They’re hearing that Jesus’ death and resurrection matter, but not his life. They’re told that his “social teachings” are optional and can be ignored. Their preachers prefer to quote Old Testament texts and a few of Paul’s lines instead of Jesus’ words.

They’re told that diversity is evil and the government is doing the devil’s work when it proscribes equality and puts other beliefs on even footing with theirs. They’re hearing preachers call to protect white, Christian primacy.

They’re also hearing Donald Trump described in messianic terms, someone sent by God to preserve their supremacy. He’s equated to an Old Testament warrior king, which is preferred over Jesus’ model of the humble servant leader.

They’re told that Trump will appoint Supreme Court justices who chip away at decades of civil rights advances that have diminished white, Christian dominance. Their holy grail is a “religious liberty law” that would allow them to turn away from the counter whomever they wish and force others to the back of the social bus.

None of this is surprising or new. In my lifetime, many of those same churches preached that racial integration is an abomination, that a Catholic shouldn’t be president, that black people, women, and gay people must never be viewed as equals. Preachers warned from the same pulpits that God will send disasters to our shores if any of those things happened.

How do we respond? 

First, we remember that everyone comes up short on following Jesus’ teachings. We need to remove the plank from our own eye a little more. Every religion has adherents who think they alone have the truth and their way is the only way. 

We need to remember Jesus’ message — we can only change others’ hearts to the extent we’ve allowed God to help us change our own.

Second, we follow Jesus’ example and call out religious leaders who promote something other than God’s values of love, compassion, inclusion, and healing. Religious leaders in Jesus’ time weren’t all that different from many today, and he challenged them passionately and prophetically.

I’m guessing that Jesus knew he wasn’t going to change the religious leaders’ minds and hearts, but he knew the crowds were paying attention to their interactions. He wanted them to know that God is very different than what was portrayed.

Jesus challenged and invited people not only through his powerful words, but through his passionate life. He not only taught a different message, he also lived by values that were far different from those of the religious leaders — the ones he accused of missing the whole point of the scriptures. 

We must go and do the same. We may not reach the preachers in the pulpit, but some in the pews are listening.

Joe Kay

Joe Kay is the associate minister at Nexus United Church of Christ, Butler County, Ohio. He also writes a weekly blog at https://joekay617.wordpress.com. His email address is listed on the blog, in case you care to contact him directly.

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