In our previous post “Just a Bunch of Hypocrites” we promised further commentary on the American religious landscape. Randy Beckum’s sermon — posted earlier today as “American Sniper, Selma, and Jesus” — followed the courageous preaching examples of William Sloane Coffin and Martin Luther King, Jr. He turned the Chapel of MidAmerica Nazarene University into Annie Dillard’s kind of place where worshipers are learning they’d better bring their crash helmets to church.
Chaplain Beckum’s body language communicates that he knew his sermon wasn’t meeting the standard expectations of the worshipers. There are moments where his hands take the lapel of his sport coat to draw his coat like a shield around him against the arrows coming his way. “He will cover you with His pinions, And under His wings you may seek refuge; His faithfulness is a shield and bulwark. You will not be afraid of the terror by night, Or of the arrow that flies by day.” [Psalm 91:5]
So, one wonders, what might they, or other chapels and churches where a certain kind of American-Christian gospel, expect when they gather?
Imagine the Opium Den
The real world is hard. It’s disturbing, if you pay attention to all the bad news, and it’s often personally painful. Sorrowful. We need to be lifted up. Given a reprieve. Assured that all is as it should be, that “God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world.”
In many evangelical Protestant churches the messages from the pulpit, the music, and the prayers put people into a Christian nationalist stupor. God, America, Christianity, and Capitalism are like strands of a ball of yarn, indivisibly entangled.
These are the forms of religion the exemplify Karl Marx description of religion as “the opiate of the people.” The opium dens are places folks went to smoke themselves into another world, the temporary illusory high manufactured by the human mind under the influence of opium. The Opium Den – the flights into another world – are escapes from real life that allow the systems and sources of human suffering to continue without conscious criticism and the actions necessary to overcome them.
Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.
The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.
Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower. The criticism of religion disillusions man, so that he will think, act, and fashion his reality like a man who has discarded his illusions and regained his senses, so that he will move around himself as his own true Sun. Religion is only the illusory Sun which revolves around man as long as he does not revolve around himself.
It is, therefore, the task of history, once the other-world of truth has vanished, to establish the truth of this world. It is the immediate task of philosophy, which is in the service of history, to unmask self-estrangement in its unholy forms once the holy form of human self-estrangement has been unmasked. Thus, the criticism of Heaven turns into the criticism of Earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law, and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics.
– Karl Marx, 1843, A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right
To the extent that a church serves as a relief valve for the suffering of its adherents and substitutes the amelioration of suffering through charitable programs for addressing the root causes of social suffering, it qualifies for Marx’s critique. Jesus and the Hebrew prophets didn’t fall for the opium den. They turned to the criticism of Earth, of law, snd of politics…in the name of the God Who is beyond religion itself. Like the psalmist,they rose above the fear of the terror of the night and the arrow that flies by day. They sound more like Marx than the sermons in the opium den, and they expect the same of their followers.