There’s a curious feature in religious conservatism that reaches to control what everyone, religious or not, does or thinks. We are all familiar with this phenomenon. Some of you have lived it. Take for instance the recent GRAMMY Awards show or Super Bowl performance. I caught the expected outrage that (mostly) white evangelicals generated on social media. It sounded something like this:
Rihanna recently performed for the Super Bowl, and the usual conservative pundits and social media stars were out in force pining for a half-time show “fit for kids”. For Rihanna (and those before included Beyoncé) there’s an added element of racism (misogynoir) added to the mix. At the GRAMMYs, singers Sam Smith and Kim Petras dressed up for a devilish number complete with pyrotechnics and horned costumes. Apparently, the show was a subversive invitation, that if allowed to continue unopposed in society, would encourage children to–get this–convert to Satanism.
There exists a spectrum of religious conservatism. Some will constantly generate outrage because their worldview is built on having clear adversaries. In fact, having a known pariah is necessary because without a “who” to stand against there’s no discernible identity for “what we’re about”. Summed up it sounds like, “tell me what you’re about by what you’re against”.
Then there are others who are “old school” (probably a more accurate term but this is the one I’m using today) in a sense their primary concern is to simply keep the world the way it’s always been (how far back one goes varies I guess). There are some valid attributes to this posture, namely preserving traditions and identity. It helps to know where “we come from” to help guide our future. The problem is most traditions like this only know how to settle (and as the saying goes, where you settle, there you die.)
Both examples have something in common–they appear rooted in FEAR. Fear of change, fear of losing cultural power, fear of diversity (in all of its forms), fear of losing a specific way of life, and notably a fear from a type of god who brings wrath and calamity to all who are “sinners” (whatever that is). Which is partly why some scream so loudly about perceived cultural “threats” that may lead others astray.
(I should point out the cognitive dissonance between political conservatism that champions individualism and the freedom of choice, and religious conservatism that seeks to diminish individual freedoms in favor of government overreach to legislate particular behaviors. It would make sense that if something bothers you on TV you should just change the channel…. I digress.)
I’m curious about HOW we even got to this place. The simplest answer seems to center around the value of preserving power in all of its forms (starting with institutional/religious, and then moving into other spaces like patriarchy, white supremacy, Christian supremacy, etc.). When a traditions sees its particular (white) way of life slipping away, they do their darndest to keep the world and any cultural influence from eroding.
Specifically on religious conservatives, and as someone who grew up in that space, where does this “hate the world” posture come from? I think it has to do with how you read/understand the Bible.
How to Not Read the Bible For All Its Worth (Redux)
Those of you who’ve been around the Bible for a while know that there’s a LOT of interpretive work that goes into figuring out what the various letters actually meant to the original readers/listeners. Most faith traditions care about this question. Some do not, of course, preferring a method of taking a verse and jamming it to accommodate a modern worldview. That’s how you get teachings and interpretations that were never intended. I think this is what happened with the word, “world”. Admittedly, at first glance our English translations seem to be clear,
James 4:4 -You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. (ESV)
1 John 2:15-16 – Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. 16 For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. (CEB)
Seems pretty clear doesn’t it? Today, the love of things “in the world” for religious conservatives usually refers to cultural issues and the apparent lack of particular morality that ranges from movies, swear words in songs, protesting LGBTQ anything, most recently banning books in schools, and of course watching TV events that have scantily clad devil dancers. (Curiously there’s rarely a problem with violent culture like mass shootings.) But it turns out “world” in the New Testament means something different. If you’ve read my book, When We Belong, then you know where this is going.
World in biblical Greek is kósmos. One expected understanding in 1st century Palestine is in fact “system“. I introduce theologian Walter Wink in my book (page 100) and his work to help unpack the meaning. (He has a three part series on Engaging the Powers which is worth borrowing from someone.) What did “system” refer to? It’s similar to how we understand systems today, economic systems or systemic racism.
Those who heard kósmos would have understood its meaning as “system”. Context helps us here. Remember, Jerusalem was in the process of being colonized by Rome. Because the Bible is written by minority groups, specifically religious minorities, when they juxtapose God vs. the world they are thinking about the occupying force of Rome and their experience as oppressed people. This included the systemic ways Rome was occupying the land and subjugating minority groups in the process. Activities ranged from controlling political power with the help of the Roman army, curtailing religious freedom (Caesar was God), widening economic disparity (taxation), and so forth. For early church members, systemic oppression would have also extended to include other intersections like patriarchy and ethnic division.
With this in mind, we could re-write 1 John to read something closer to, “Do not love systems that oppress…” and suddenly the meaning of “the world” becomes crystal clear. This isn’t about a total lack of morals, this is about not loving (and participating in) oppressive systems that oppose God’s intended way for social organization. That way (referred to as the kingdom) can be distilled to a vocation that pursues the ideas behind “the last shall be first” and “love thy neighbor”.
This really changes Romans 12:2.
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. (NIV)
Non-conformity to the oppressive systems of the world puts your body on the line, and this protest is an act of worship! But does this sound like a church working to retain cultural and political power in our world? We ought to name that religious conservative traditions in the West are NOT marginalized groups (not to say there aren’t churches that are economically poor), they do not ascertain or even associate with the oppressed, and hence lose the intended meaning from many biblical teachings including the warning about loving “the world”.
Many church traditions have adopted a posture of gatekeeper to both truth (their truth, whatever that may be) and what’s deemed ‘acceptable in culture. Both are derived from the seat of cultural power that is slipping away (and in some places almost gone). I don’t believe either are a distinctly Christian attributes, unless one tries to re-interpret what being a Christ follower is about. Are we called to belligerent opposition to mainstream culture that challenges conservative moral expectations? Or are we to “hate a world” by opposing oppressive SYSTEMS, including those found in church communities, that seek to marginalize the least in our neighborhoods and cities?