Galatians 5: 4 You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. 5 For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. 6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.
It’s been quite a week for the history books, what with whistle-blower revelations, and Congress starting an impeachment investigation. Just as I never tell fellow disciples how to vote, nor even if to vote, I’m not going to tell us what to think or not about such major events, except to say that I hope that all branches of government remain loyal and obedient to the rule of law and to the Constitution.
I mention that because I don’t want anyone to think that, even though this message does touch on politics, I give it because of what all has happened this week. Nor is it going to be for or against the President or the impeachment investigation. I actually have been thinking about the subject of this message for some time. The subject is “ideology,” in particular, “ideological possession.”
I felt moved to write and finally preach about this after an event about two months ago, when Becky and I participated in a demonstration in front of the Post Office in The Dalles, to urge more humane treatment of the refugees and asylum seekers coming to our southern border. We had signs saying things like, “Families should not be split up,” or “Seeking asylum is not a crime.”
Somebody, I’m sad to say, showed up with a sign that said something about the President that was so insulting, so rude, crude and salacious, that just thinking about it brings back the taste of soap in my mouth from my childhood, when I once said something even milder within my parents’ hearing. So if anyone asks you, “Didn’t I see your pastor with an obscene sign that said….?” No, that wasn’t me holding it, I didn’t bring it, and I was trying to get some distance away from it.
I now wish I had asked the person who brought that sign, “How are the disrespect, the demonization and the dehumanization of that sign any different from what we are protesting?” I know that even the nastiest words on a sign won’t hurt as badly as having your children taken away. But words matter, and they can release or reinforce things worse than themselves, like the recent mass shooting in El Paso, Texas. It’s one thing to oppose certain policies and practices. Sometimes we must. It’s another thing to oppose any persons and their dignity as the bearers of God’s image. But ideological possession permits no such distinction. Both the policy we were protesting, and that sign, were symptoms of ideological possession.
But before I tell you more about that problem, I want to speak first about the alternative, or the solution to it. It’s the answer to the first question in the sermon outline; we just heard about it in the last verse that Aden read: “faith expressing itself through love.” That was the solution to the problem troubling Paul’s Christian disciples in Galatia. I believe that “faith expressing itself through love” is what God still wants for all the church of Jesus Christ, in all times and places, including ourselves. I also believe that “faith expressing itself through love” is still the way through many of our controversies and complexities today. I said, “the way through,” not a quick, cheap and easy solution. And yet it’s one of the hardest things for us to remember and sustain, because of our fear, our impatience, and our stubborn, dogged tendency toward self-reliance and self-justification.
Here’s what I think that “faith expressing itself through love” looks like:
- We don’t need to worry about justifying ourselves. God does that wonderfully well for us. God being right and God being righteous, infinitely more than we will ever be, we trust in God’s rightness and righteousness more than in our own for our justification.
- Therefore, we also hold ourselves, our opinions, our identities and our ideologies lightly, humbly, with as much willingness to hear and to learn from others, as to speak and to teach, and with patience and hope through all that we cannot fully understand, control nor accomplish in this life, this world.
- Faith expressing itself through love is not just about ideas; it is a relationship; a relationship, yes, with all to whom we express love, but first and foremost, faith expressing itself through love is a relationship with the One in whom we have faith, and who loves us. While faith involves doctrine, ideas and words, while they are important, “faith expressing itself through love,” is an active, living, loving relationship with God and with others.
- Faith and love are therefore inseparable and indispensable one to the other. Faith that does not lead to love may not be faith in God at all; it may just be a set of ideas to which we give only abstract mental agreement, like, “I believe that the earth is round,” or “I believe that Bigfoot exists.” No love is involved in such ideas, so that’s all they are: ideas.
- “Faith expressing itself through love” is risky and costly. Ideas and ideology may give us the illusion of safety and security, certainty and superiority. But “Faith expressing itself through love” is risky and costly, because, in this fallen world, love is not always met with more love. It may require of us sacrifice, even suffering.
Which brings me to the second point in the outline, the problem: what we would today call “ideology,” and the ways in which we can confuse a living “faith that expresses itself through love,” for mere ideas and ideology. To get at what I mean by ideology: combine the words “idea” with “idolatry.” I speak of ideology as any idea, or any system of ideas, that has become for us an idol. That is, whenever an idea, or a system of ideas, becomes, in effect, God for us, and we trust it to explain everything, fix everything and prove ourselves more right, virtuous and intelligent than others. As opposed to what I said above: God is right, God is righteous, God is just and our justifier. With “faith that expresses itself through love,” we can live humbly, patiently, with mystery, paradox and imperfection until God reveals a bigger, better picture.
But ideologies, like communism, capitalism, nationalism, racism, however, do not permit any such humility nor patience. Because the ideology has all the answers, supposedly, it is the answer. If it doesn’t work right away, nor work completely, it’s because you didn’t try hard enough. And though I have described ideology as “the idolatry of ideas,” it’s also an idolatry of self, because we are trusting ourselves to know the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, to be able on our own to do it, and to have the right to impose it upon everyone else.
Under the spell of any ideology, we become like the guy who was dancing alone, on a street corner in Manhattan. When asked, “What are you doing?” he replied, “It’s my dance to keep dinosaurs away.” When someone replied, “But dinosaurs have been extinct for 65 million years!” the dancing man replied, “See how well my dance is working? Aren’t you glad I’m keeping it up?”
The Swiss psychologist, Carl Gustav Jung, would diagnose that dancing man with a number of possible conditions, one of which he called, “ideological possession.” He coined that phrase in the 1930’s, as he watched his neighbors and friends in Germany and Austria fall under the hypnotic spell of Hitler and Nazi ideology. When he described their ideological fervor and fever as “possession,” he really did mean for us to think about the people whom Jesus liberated from demonic bondage, complete with the frenzy, the obsession, the hysteria and the hijacking of the whole person, body, soul and spirit, and the hostile takeover of their consciences and consciousness, driving them to compulsive, violent and self-destructive thinking and behavior. That he could foresee even before war broke out.
This ideological possession was not only a political thing, but a spiritual one. Jung even said that it wasn’t only Hitler who possessed the souls of so many people, but the old pre-Christian Germanic war gods, in new guise, with new weapons. The Nazis did indeed resurrect and celebrate the ancient Germanic gods and their myths, their symbols and their rituals, including human sacrifice.
All my life I have heard and read about how religion will surely decline in numbers, prestige and influence, as modern people come to live lives guided only by science, evidence, and logic, and not by any kind of faith or spirituality. That would allegedly usher in a new era of tolerance and peace, like in John Lennon’s song, Imagine. Well, the church has indeed declined in numbers, prestige and power, at least in North America and Europe. But people have not become less religious nor more laid back, peaceful and tolerant. You need only read the comments sections following any online articles to see how intolerance, crusading zeal, inquisitions, excommunications, persecution, tests of orthodoxy and heresy hunting are alive and well and on the rise, but in supposedly secular politics of the left and the right, and in education, business, technology, sex, sports and entertainment. The world has not become less religious; ideologies now constitute the new religions. But they are religions without grace, mercy, forgiveness or humility.
It is very easy for ideologies to slip unnoticed into church and take up space in the pews, because of the superficial similarities between ideology and “faith expressing itself through love.” Both require commitment, consecration and sacrifice. Both have dreams and visions of a better world, and a painful sense of how far short of it we fall. Both have heroes and martyrs. And both have their rituals and symbols, their communities, their preachers and prophets, a message to spread, and means to do so. People within and without the church can confuse the gospel of Jesus Christ for just another political package of self-serving ideological power grabs, and the church for just another political party. Or for one of our current political parties.
Next question: Here are some ways we might know if the “faith that expresses itself through love” is becoming merely ideological: One way is if our faith requires an –“ism” to complete it. As in Christian liberalism, or Christian conservatism, or Christian nationalism, or Christian anarchism, or Christian progressivism, or Christian capitalism, or Christian socialism, or Christian libertarianism, or any other kind of ideological –ism.
That’s what was happening to the Galatian Christians, when some people were trying to impose a selective hodge-podge of Hebrew civil and ceremonial law on the churches, like dietary restrictions, circumcision and some Jewish holiday observances. None of these were bad things; they have their divine purposes in pointing us toward Christ. Maybe it was because some disaffected Jewish members in the church didn’t want to share unkosher food at love feasts with uncircumcised Gentiles. Or, worse, somebody thought that Christ and his saving work was just not enough, and that we need their legal-ism to complete Christ and his work. To such persons with such pretensions, Paul gave this stern warning: “You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.”
The same happens today, with our ideological –isms. As though Christ is not enough, and needs one of our political or economic systems to accomplish his mission. Every ideological –ism bears some element of truth. We can see the value and the truths within any ideology if we interpret it by the light of Christ and the Bible. But ideological possession does the opposite: we interpret and try to justify Christ and the Bible according to our ideology. Then our favorite –ism has become the whole truth, the truth by which we know truth, “the light by which we see light.”
Couple that –ism to the word “Christian” and eventually the –ism part will act like a cowbird in a robin’s nest, which eats up all the baby robins’ food and eventually kicks them out of the nest to die. Christian nationalism will invariably become more nationalistic and less Christian; Christian progressivism will become more progressive than Christian, just as Christian conservatism will wind up more conservative than Christian.
We may think that by packaging and presenting the faith with an –ism, in ideological wrapping, it will be more relevant and attractive to the world and to our children and grandchildren. But I have observed that whenever we do so, they’re just as likely to keep the ideological packaging and pitch out Christ.
A second way we can know if our faith is being hijacked by ideological possession is if it requires enemies, opponents, villains and scapegoats, and how we treat them, and how much they occupy our thoughts. Is there anyone whom we constantly resent, on whom we constantly ruminate and obsess? How often can we express an opinion without naming them and taking swipes at them? It’s the same whether we count ourselves liberal and them conservative, or vice versa, or ourselves Democrats and them Republicans, or vice versa, or ourselves evangelical and them progressive, or vice versa. As that rude, crude and salacious sign that I mentioned showed, ideological possession is no respecter of parties, politics or identities in requiring an evil “they” to validate the virtuous “us.”
Another example: I occasionally see the bumper sticker that says, “Doing my best to tick off the Religious Right.” Not the exact language again, but there are children present. On the other end of the spectrum, I was reading recently about the “all-carnivore diet,” in which people eat nothing but meat and other animal products. In that article was an admission that, yes, it’s just junk-science; the real purpose behind that diet is to “own the libs,” that is, to poke vegans, vegetarians, the ecologically-minded, and those who care about global warming and the environment in the eye, and provoke their outrage for the fun of it.
Both the drivers with that bumper sticker, and the total carnivores would say that they do what they do because they don’t want “those people” scolding them and running their lives. But I would ask them, By living in knee-jerk reaction against other people—whoever they are—aren’t you letting them run your life just as much as if you marched in lockstep with them? And aren’t you more likely to harm yourself more than them, if they even notice?
Again, this reactivity is not just a political thing. Ideology can also colonize the church whenever a doctrine, a tradition, or some point of theological distinction becomes more important to us than Christ and the “faith expressing itself through love.” That can be said for any kind of –ism in the church, like Catholicism, Protestantism, Methodism, Anglicanism, and yes, Anabaptism.
There are good, valuable, necessary and unavoidable things about each of these theological –isms. I fully own and support that phrase in our Vision statement, “extending our Anabaptist branch into our world,” because that is what we are: an Anabaptist branch of the vine that is Christ. Our Anabaptist branch has something special and unique to offer the world and to the rest of the vine of Christ that I hope we never lose nor discount. But that doesn’t make of us the whole vine, nor the best part of the vine with the best grapes. Start thinking that way, and our “faith that expresses itself through love,” is degenerating into mere ideology, the idolatry of ideas, and the idolatry of selfr. I hope instead that we remain open to good and true things that other branches of the vine have to teach us, even while we treasure and offer the good things that we, as an Anabaptist part of the vine, have to contribute to others.
Which brings up a third way that we know that “faith expressing itself through love” is degenerating into ideology: Ideology typically turns one thing into everything. One idea, one truth, becomes the key to understanding and interpreting everything else. In politics, it might be the idea that everything can be explained by the oppression and exploitation of the weak by the powerful, or that the poor or the oppressed are getting what they deserve. Or whether or not we should vote according to one single issue, like abortion, war, taxes, marriage or education.
In church, faith has degenerated into ideology whenever one doctrine, or one interpretation of doctrine, becomes the one and only thing by which we evaluate and interpret God, the Bible, the church and the possibility of fellowship with others. I’ve seen people and churches do that over predestination or freewill, the means of one’s baptism, how literally we take the six days of Creation in Genesis, or not, the game plan for Christ’s return, or the gifts of the Holy Spirit. The problem is not the matters themselves; the problem is with making any one thing into our everything. Like the disrupters were doing to the churches of Galatia: turning one thing, circumcision, into everything.
Paul and the Galatian churches were not the first Christians to have to deal with ideological substitutes for “faith expressing itself through love.” When Jesus called his first disciples along the lakeshore in Galilee, that was in a time and place of two main, competing ideological systems. One was “Pax Romana,” or “The Peace of Rome.” Whatever Rome and Caesar want, they get, so cooperate with them, for the sake of your own survival and that of your people. That kind of ideological possession led people down the primrose path of moral and spiritual death by a thousand compromises.
The opposite ideological alternative was violent Hebrew nationalism, to drive out the Romans and replace them with a military and religious empire of their own like what they had under Kings David and Solomon, by any means possible. Ideological possession of that kind drove this group to ever more frenzied and fanatical violence toward Jew and Gentile alike.
Jesus’ own disciples seem to have mistaken his call to “come, follow me,” for the revolutionary kind of ideological possession, when they wanted to call down fire on Samaritans who would not host them. Even after his resurrection, the disciples asked Jesus, “Now are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”
They found Jesus’ “faith expressing itself through love” baffling, even frustrating, like the time he commended a Roman officer for his faith, saying, “His is greater faith than I have seen in all Israel.” Or when he asked a Samaritan woman for a drink of water and sat talking with her by the well. But that did not make Jesus an ideological partisan of the pro-Roman imperial ideology, either. It was their ideologues who handed him over for crucifixion.
When he approached his disciples by the lake shore, Jesus did not say, “Come, join my cause,” nor “Come, join my crusade,” he said, “Come, follow me.” He calls us still, each one of us, not to any system, not to any worldly crusades, but to a relationship, a relationship of faith, first and foremost, with himself. And love is the measure of that faith. Not love as just feeling, attraction or affection, but love as character and conduct, love as our willing and working for God’s best, for friend and foe. Such love is a gift from God, for “we love because God first loved us.”
And so this message ends where it started, with the solution to the problem of ideological possession, or the idolatry of ideas: “faith expressing itself through love.” Risky, even costly love, growing out of the love by which God first loved us. Such faith is characterized by humility and the patience to live and love through imperfection, mystery and paradox, holding ourselves, our opinions, our identities and our ideas lightly, humbly, with as much willingness to hear and to learn, as to speak and to teach. Because our faith is in God and in God’s righteousness, and rightness, not in our own, we therefore trust God to justify us, and not ourselves, our group, nor any ideology.