Friday, May 30, 2008

First Amendment and Bad Theology

This may take a while so bear with me. Another of my constant peeves is the misrepresentation of the first amendment by hard right fun-damn-mentalists and those of the political right using religion to seize power not meant for them by our constitution. One of the consequenses of this manipulation is that a soldier in Iraq hands out coins embosed on one side with John 3:16 translated into arabic in answer to the question posed on the other side, "Where will you spend eternity?"
After I stop screaming I screamed some more because I remembered that this methodolgy masquerading as a theology has been the musak of my life of southern religion. John 3:16 which promises salvation based on God's love of the world has been spun for decades as if it only contained its latter half, the part that says "whosoever believeth in him shall not perish but have everlasting life" (KJV) Believing gets elevated to a position at least equal to God's love and becomes the guarantee of one's eternal habitation. Believe first and then you can say you are saved.
Over the years two scripturally based correctives have grown in my understanding since those naive days of my childhood when John 3:16 was as commonplace in its assurance of safety as knowing one's phone number. The first is the reminder spoken by Jesus himself in each of the synoptics:
“For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.” Matthew 16:25
“For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s, the same shall save it.”Mark 8:35
“For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: but whosoever will lose his life for my sake, the same shall save it.” Luke 9:24, KJV.

I have come to understand this caution to be against basing one's faith/belief/religion on getting one's life saved. Indeed it is more than a caution. It is clearly saying that the appeal made by that young soldier was at least misguided, probably a waste of time, certainly suspect. Nothing thwarts salvation better than trying to cover one's a**.
The other corrective is the idea found in Ephesians:
“But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, Even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, by grace ye are saved; And hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus: That in the ages to come he might shew the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us through Christ Jesus. For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.” Ephesians 2:4-9, KJV. 
In short, faith is not the work that earns eternal life, because there is no "work" that can save us. So why hand out coins with John 3:16 on the "answer" side? Except that this young soldier believes that belief saves. Not God in mercy but belief in Jesus.
I'll admit this is too fine a matter for this simplification. Indeed, salvation -- whatever it really is -- deserves better discourse than my diatribe or a soldier's coin. But it is not enough for me to complain simply on the basis of constitutional concerns. As far as the first amendment is concerned things have been handled properly. Something much larger than a misguided soldier is amuck here.
One of the consequences of what I call "first amendment abuse," is that actions like this coin evangelization will give another undeserved public hearing to what is always and sadly so just very bad theology.
Its bad theology to worry about the salvation of your own life when the world is starving and thirsty and oppressed and imprisoned.
Its bad theology to get others to believe like you so that they can be saved. Unless the world becomes a better place you have to ask, "saved from what?" Its bad theology to try to save your own life, especially if that effort thwarts another's salvation. Its bad theology to turn faith into a righteous work, to turn human believing into an eternal guarantee.
No wonder the religious right wants to undermine first amendment protections, it allows for propagation of bad theology.

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