By Rev. Graylan Scott Hagler, Pastor Emeritus, Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ
The Spirit of God brings peace, consolation, and perspective in times of personal and collective trauma and tragedies. Having served as a public and parish Christian pastor for over four decades, I have counseled, listened to, cried with people, and have come to know the power of God for uplift, hope, and comfort. I have also known and experienced how God can be used for hurt, ridicule, diminishment, oppression, and exclusion. I have witnessed the goodness of God, and the hurt inflicted on people by human pronouncements of God. I have seen God used for both good and bad, and for liberation and oppression. It is all in the interpretation of God and claims of “truth.”
People seek “truth” in life, after-life, and for living right, and deeply desire to live on the right-side of the “truth”. People come to faith experiences seeking encouragement, strength, and “truth” for living. This is the reason the “Golden Rule” manifests itself in so many forms, ‘Do to others as you would have them to do to you’, and is core to so many faith traditions. However, unfortunately, there are political and economic structures, such as monarchs, empires, forms of governments, and individuals that have deliberately manipulated the concept of God towards material and political ends. They have seized on the desire for “truth” among the masses, by reshaping and remolding the concept of God into materialistic and nationalistic loyalties. Divinity is often exploited and manipulated to maintain systems of power, protect the status-quo by offering equations of absolutism forcing almost slavish obedience upon masses of people who only seek to live in “truth”, and on the correct side of God. Political leaders and governments create a central narrative of God that becomes a form of political orthodoxy, just like faith traditions create orthodoxies. Those who question this authority and its absolutism are criticized, ostracized, ridiculed, villainized, and often killed for endangering the existent order of things. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., for example, was lionized for civil rights, but villianized for his critique of the war in Vietnam. He had violated the political orthodoxy.
Orthodoxy manufactures a “truth” that is created by the empowered to establish an accepted and authorized framework of belief. The notion of orthodox establishes an autocratic and immutable belief system, and makes people conform or stand out as heretics. The acceptance of a theological norm places people, cultures, and even nations within the theological/ideological circle, or outside of it.
I do not want people to think that when I refer to orthodoxy that I am singling out any one religious tradition. Orthodoxy applies to all movements that disallows any other interpretation of God. It demands an unquestionable adherence to its tenets of belief, and its accompanying customs and rituals. This also applies to protestant traditions, because after protesting and rebelling against the orthodox theologies of their originating bodies they created, over time, their own sense of immutable and required systems of belief. Therefore the various evangelical movements have also created systems of centralized theologies, necessary creeds, and expected practices. Some tenets of the US orthodox evangelicalism is expressed in terms of being anti-choice, anti-homosexual, affirming an archaic patriarchal structure of males and females, Christian Zionism, support of Israel, and various other perspectives that includes the support of government.
During the pandemic, and under Trumpism, a racial split emerged in the evangelical movement as white evangelicals largely supported the policies of Trump; many of those policies clearly racist, and communities of-color, in general, were horrified at the antics of Trump and the lack of criticism from white evangelicals against those policies and antics of the Trump administration. Racial and ideological cracks were revealed where one perspective supported a political/religious orthodoxy and the status-quo, right or wrong, leaving of-color evangelicals horrified and surprised by the racist theological and ideological gap! The white evangelical community went as far as creating a religious litmus test over not wearing a mask during a pandemic, while Blacks and people of-color were disproportionally infected and died from the virus. This revealed at least two separate theologies. There is the theology of the political status-quo, governments, flag-waving, that believe that political leaders are the appointees of God, that slaves should be obedient to their masters, women are kept silent, and statements of American exceptionalism abound. On the other hand, people of-color continued to look to God for freedom, dignity, protection from the hatred and racism of the society, and to maintain hope and a sense of worth amid a hard and unwelcoming world. At least two Gods were revealed, two theologies, two ideologies, and at least two experiences that heard and perceived God in very different ways.
Kings, Queens, Caesars, Pharaohs, and Presidents are always wrapped in divine robes. The histories of kingdoms and empires are rife with the deification of leaders. The Caesars were deified, as were Emperors, Pharaohs and Kings. Even in the US it is not unheard for a President to invoked the blessings of God upon the land, “God bless America.” In the bestowing of blessings the President suggest the role of priest. It is one way to draw people into an alliance of government perceiving that it is an extension of God and therefore God’s “truth”. People have gone to war not questioning the claims of governments because it would be heresy and treasonous to do so. To question the symbols of God embodied in office-holders, or the protectors of the orthodox narrative is to cross onto the wrong side of “truth” and into the hinterlands of heresy.
Paul of the New Testament, writes,
“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. 2Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgement. 3For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; 4for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain!” (Romans 13)
Paul was a Pharisee, and an educated full-fledged upper class Roman citizen. He does not want to attract the ire of the Roman Empire due to his promotion of a peasant God who is killed for insurrection by the Romans in Palestine. Paul therefore writes to the church in Rome this advice, trying to transform the church from being a church steeped in Roman resistance and heresy to one that is a servant of the empire.
This continues to be a problem within Christianity, and I would venture to say, other faith movements as well. Are we subservient to the orthodox pronouncement of governments and political leaders, or are we rooted in values of a higher and deeper standard? The faith movements of this world are engaged in a struggle of whether to be an extension of the “truths” and orthodoxy of empires and its material agenda, or a critique to empires and governments seeking a different route and context for “truth”? The issue is whether God is going to be free to be God, or is God going to be captive to the many narrow nationalistic agendas with racist and xenophobic tendencies.
If we are going to address the injustices and hatred in the world then certainly we need to free God from the ways in which God has been manipulated and used. We have to offer again a God that brings peace, consolation, and strength during difficult and hard times. We have to lift up a God that gives to people the ability and fortitude to stand against the state when it is wrong. We need to take god from greedy, manipulative, and oppressive systems by declaring what they worship as not God, for the attributes of God brings wholeness and peace, and manifests itself among the people of the world in the form of mutual respect, existence, and love.
Those who want to save the world from tribalism, greed, and violence need to emancipate God by deconstructing the use of God in the present, and historically. We need to aggressively address the use of God that advances an imperialistic, nationalistic, racist, and often misogynistic agenda. We need to urge and offer to the human spirit values that embody hope, dignity, value, and worth, declaring with fervor, that these are the attributes that honor God and frees God from the manipulations that have held God in bondage.
Rev. Graylan Scott Hagler is ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the United Church of Christ. Rev. Hagler currently serves as the Senior Minister of Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ, Washington, DC since 1992. He has led the church to embrace liberation theology and a radical and relevant view of Jesus. Rev. Hagler was instrumental in ridding Washington, DC of Payday Lenders, was a co-founder of the Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America (NACA), and is Director and Chief Visionary of Faith Strategies, LLC, a collective of clergy manifesting progressive perspectives on human and civil rights in the public arena.