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  • Writer's pictureRich Scheenstra

Shiny Happy People

Recently Sharon and I saw the Amazon four-episode docuseries Shiny Happy People. It’s about reality TV’s mega-family (19 kids!), The Duggers, and the organization that’s provided the theological/philosophical foundation for their family life - Bill Gothard’s Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP). The docuseries includes testimonies from Dugger daughter Jill Dillard, her husband Derick Dillard, niece Amy (Duggar) King, as well as several former IBLP members. It reveals the allegations of sexual abuse, child abuse and financial mistreatment linked to both the Dugger family and Bill Gothard. The IBLP training is based upon an extremely hierarchical view of family and society. Their home school curriculum, still used in thousands of homes, is based upon the same principles. While the series is extremely well done, it was difficult to watch. This is only one example of what feels like a steady stream of high-profile scandals involving Christian pastors, churches and institutions. (Full disclosure: I attended a weeklong Institute in Basic Life Principles training in my early 20s.)

The common thread in virtually all these scandals is the abuse of power. Power doesn’t have to be abused. We all have it and use it. Power is basically our ability to get stuff done, whether it’s building a deck, planning an agenda or making toast. (I get a lot of practice with this last one.) Some of us have more power than others because of our gender, race, talent, luck, connections, bank account, the schools we’ve attended or the neighborhoods we grew up in. The story of “the fall” in the Bible is the story of the first man and woman wanting more power – not only the power to reign (which they’d been given), but to do it on their own, without God.

Whatever your views about the Bible, it’s clear that the hunger for power, maldistribution of power and abuse of power have plagued humankind for a long time. For me, it’s especially tragic and shameful when Christians abuse power. Nothing could be more antithetical to our faith. In other words, people who abuse power in the name of Jesus don’t understand Jesus.

A good argument can be made that it was Jesus’ approach to power that got him killed. Not only did he refuse to kill his enemies, he made a point of allowing his enemies to kill him. Even his closest followers abandoned Jesus at the end because they couldn’t wrap their heads around Jesus’ understanding of real power.

Some of Jesus’ disciples were looking forward to when they would have more power. One day two of them, brothers James and John, took Jesus aside and asked if they could sit on his right and his left when he came in his kingdom. When the rest of the disciples got wind of it, they cried foul, only to hear Jesus say to all of them:

You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Luke 22:25-27)

Jesus was obviously a compelling figure in his day – compelling, but not coercive. He attracted people, invited people, but never manipulated or coerced people. He used his power to persuade rather than to pressure, to defeat evil rather than to defeat people. He used it to serve others rather than lord it over them.

In his letter to the Philippians, the apostle Paul wrote,

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,

did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;

rather, he made himself nothing

by taking the very nature of a servant,

being made in human likeness.

And being found in appearance as a man,

he humbled himself

by becoming obedient to death—

even death on a cross! (2:5-8)

One of the most powerful things Jesus did was let go of power – when the Son of God became the Son of Man. He still had plenty of it, enough to heal the lame, blind, deaf, leper and paralyzed. On several occasions he raised the dead, once after four days. Demons quaked and fled. The power of his stories and teachings attracted thousands at a sitting, sometimes lasting for days. By his simply saying the words, “Follow me,” some left their families, professions, possessions and communities to join his band of disciples. He warned that it would be hard, and allowed people to leave when they decided they’d had enough.

But Jesus’ death, and how he died, is arguably the most powerful event in the history of the cosmos. Through his death Jesus turned traditional understandings of power on end. At first glance, Jesus’ death revealed his weakness rather than his strength; his lack of authority rather than his having all authority. The apostle Paul would later write that for Jews Jesus being a crucified Messiah/ruler was a scandal and a stumbling block, and for Gentiles it was utter foolishness.

Jesus’ death, especially given how he died, should have been the end of any kind of Jesus movement or revolution. And yet here I am writing about it and about him. And the revolution continues in spite of the attempts of many of his followers to tame or overturn it – like the Duggers and Bill Gothard.

I’m not meaning to throw stones. That, too, would be an abuse of whatever little power I have in writing this post. Like I said, I attended the institute when I was a young man. It made some sense at the time, having grown up in a conservative church. I was talking with my brother-in-law and sister-in-law the other day and discovered that they’d attended the institute as well. My brother-in-law, who is also a retired pastor, said it was the legalism that ultimately turned him off. For whatever reason, few of the “principles” seemed to stick with any of us (as far as we could tell).

There is something so seductive about order. I listened to a podcast recently about Christian nationalism. The hosts referred to a leader in the movement who equated God with order. He accused people who disagreed with him on any number of social issues of intentionally creating chaos. Instead of encouraging respectful dialogue about complex issues, he suggested that order needed to be imposed basically through any means necessary. I’m not suggesting that everyone sympathetic to some form of Christian nationalism is cast in the same mold. It’s a term that describes a wide range of people who have a desire for Christian values to influence not only our culture but our political and legal systems. Influence is one thing; political, legal and sometimes violent imposition of so-called Christian values on others through undemocratic means is another. It was Machiavelli not Jesus who said that the ends justify the means.

Jesus instituted a new “order,” what the Bible calls a New Covenant. Unlike the previous covenant, it’s not based on rules and laws, but on love and the Spirit. Jesus announced this New Covenant during the last supper before his death. He said the cup of blessing he was giving to his disciples represented the blood of the New Covenant, the blood he poured out on the cross. In this covenant people lay down their lives rather than take the lives of others. Everyone who chooses to enter this covenant sees themselves as servants, like Jesus. They demonstrate the truth rather than impose the truth. They are learners as well as messengers, because the truth is in many ways still revealing itself, including the truth about what it means to be human. We are in no position to dictate to other people how to live. Jesus’ teachings and the rest of the New Testament and the Bible in general are not so exact or precise that there can be a one-size-fits-all moral or spiritual life for everyone.

One thing that’s interesting to me is that I don’t hear any Christian nationalists suggesting that the Sermon on the Mount should be the basis for how society should be ordered. Yet this sermon arguably contains the most concise, distilled representation of Jesus’ teaching. Love your enemies? Do good to those who hate you? Forgive others so that you can be forgiven? Take the log out of your own eye? Those who say “you fool” are in danger of the hell of fire? Turn the other cheek? Blessed are the meek? Blessed are the merciful? Blessed are the peacemakers? Do not judge, or you too will be judged? Do not store up treasures for yourselves on earth?

“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them.”

Take the issue of abortion. (Okay, I probably should've stopped before I offended any more of you.) I’m guessing that the reason we're so polarized around this issue is because imposing laws about abortion has arguably become the primary political agenda for religious conservatives since Roe vs. Wade. It hasn’t mattered to conservatives what most Americans think or want. Just this week the state legislature in Iowa rushed through a ban on abortions after six weeks – before most people know they’re pregnant – even though in Iowa more than 60% of adults say abortion should be legal, while just 35% say it should be illegal.

Over the last several years it’s become clear that for evangelical Christians in particular it doesn’t matter what kind of shady, immoral, even criminal politician is running for office, as long as they support the far right Christian legislative agenda. Voter suppression laws, blocking consideration of a Supreme Court candidate during an opposing president’s term of office, lying during a Supreme Court nomination hearing, electoral gerrymandering – these and other methods are in play – as if the end justifies the means.

And to what end? Since the overturning of Roe vs. Wade abortions are down only 7%, when they had already been steadily decreasing for decades. On the other hand, that abortions should be “safe, legal and rare” was, until fairly recently, a common Democratic talking point and even part of the Democratic platform. In other words, there was a bipartisan recognition that a lot of people having abortions wasn’t a sign of a healthy society. People may have had different understandings of what an abortion is and does, but the vast majority of people didn’t see it as a positive. They still don’t. But most people also don’t believe it should be illegal, at least in the early stages of a pregnancy; and many people, including women who would never get an abortion, resent the fact that others are trying to take away their right to choose (especially if those making the decision are mostly old white men.)

So where am I going with this? Given what we know about Jesus and his approach to power – and what the New Testament says about how laws, even divine laws, can be counterproductive – shouldn’t Christians in particular be taking a different approach to this issue? Are we even being smart, much less biblical, much less Christlike? Do we really believe that over the long haul it’s going to work to force people to accept laws they don’t agree with? (As the apostle Paul writes in Romans 7, it’s difficult enough to obey rules we do agree with.)

This is what I think: I think that if religious conservatives had focused on finding common ground with progressives, specifically by working to decrease the number of abortions rather than banning abortion altogether, women would be having fewer abortions today. But that would have required conservative Christians to be willing to take a more thoroughgoing Christian approach to abortion – e.g. no longer equating being pro-life with simply being pro-birth. It would mean being just as concerned about the quality of a child's life after they are born as before they're born. It would mean more tax dollars being directed toward various kinds of support for young mothers, especially single women already feeling overburdened with the care of other children. To address the issue of absent fathers, free-market policies would need to be tweaked to help ensure that both men and women have access to jobs that can support a family without a college education. Our antiquated criminal justice system would need to be overhauled, emphasizing restorative justice that rehabilitates over punitive justice that leads to recidivism. Schools in poorer communities would need to receive their fair share of tax dollars. There would also have to be adequate funding for both childcare and healthcare (like in most other developed nations). Just adjusting the Earned Income Tax Credit and providing funding for quality childcare would likely not only decrease the number of abortions but increase the quality of life and learning ability of the children conservatives are insisting must be brought to term.

Without getting too far into the weeds, we’ve learned that trickle down economics doesn’t work; developing policies that support a strong middle class does. When people in poverty are offered a realistic path to raising their standard of living, they pay more taxes and contribute to the flourishing of the economy and society in general. Everyone wins.

Of course, this would require that everyone – on the left and the right – get off their ideological high horses and put their heads and hearts together to solve real problems.

Finally, instead of allowing ourselves, whether on the right or the left, to be constantly in conflict over LGBTQ+ “issues,” it’s time we explore together the meaning of sex itself. (No, sex isn’t just sex, and a fetus isn’t just tissue – not to a woman who's just been raped or the grief she feels after a miscarriage.) A rules and rights approach can only get us so far in thinking about sex. This article by Christine Emba in the Washington Post shows that many people are struggling with not just the relational logistics but the meaning of sex. It tells me that people at different ends of the moral/religious spectrum may share enough common ground, or have enough common questions, for meaningful dialogue. I think Emba herself does a good job of helping us get started.

Like I said, being pro-life involves a lot more than being pro-birth. Everything Jesus taught was about how to live with each other after we’re born. People who want this to be a Christian nation, it seems to me, are actually themselves failing to live out Jesus’ most fundamental values and principles about money (which he calls “Mammon”), power, violence, authority, service, sacrifice and love. Jesus was about creating the kinds of communities where instead of abortion needing to be illegal, it would gradually become more unthinkable and less necessary. If conservative Christians were to become truly pro-life – from the womb to the tomb – and cared about the people Jesus cared about (the least and the last), instead of becoming merely “shiny, happy people,” they would become the light of the world, the city on a hill, that Jesus calls us to be.

But that would require a different understanding of power. It would involve offering our values rather than imposing them, and most importantly, living out Jesus’ values ourselves. The supreme value Jesus taught was love – loving God, loving our neighbor, loving our enemy. Love that is humble rather than arrogant, affirming others whenever possible rather constantly looking to condemn, being culture healers rather than culture warriors, looking for common ground to build upon, being salt that brings out the flavor of what’s good in society rather than pouring salt in the wounds of people we disagree with – who've often been wounded by Christians’ abuse of power at some point in their lives.

Jesus’ power is patient. It puts up with a lot, realizing that change happens slowly even in the best of circumstances. Jesus’ power is also humble. From the beginning of creation God has sought to share his power with humans, and then declared men and women as equal bearers of that power. In the second creation account Eve was created to be Adam’s partner or ally (ezer in Hebrew). They were called to be partners and collaborators in this great adventure of developing creation’s potential. In the biblical story, sin is basically the impulse to use power to increase one’s own flourishing at the expense of others.

There is no real power unless it is shared. There is no real power that is not at the same time humble.

Like Jesus taught. Like Jesus lived. Like Jesus died, with a death so powerful that it defeated sin, death and hell in anticipation of the day Jesus will rid this universe of them altogether. His resurrection propelled the revolution forward, slowly but inexorably.

Even now he doesn’t force himself on us. So what makes us believe that we should force our beliefs and values on others? The good news is that we don’t have to. Love will eventually win. That's the promise of the New Covenant.

I'm realizing there’s an upside to all the shenanigans being exposed by the media. It’s an opportunity to shine a light on the real Christ:

“In him was life, and that life was the light of all humankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:4-5)


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