The Church as Opium Den

Opium Den, Manila, Philippines

Opium Den, Manila, Philippines

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.

2 thoughts on “The Church as Opium Den

  1. Oh, Gordon, you have had a rough time! I feel again how blessed I have been in so very many ways. The hardest Cross I have to carry I have carried for 50 years, pointed by the 50 year anniversary of the Selma march. Other Oberlin students went south to participate, if not in that march, then in some other civil rights work. I still feel guilty that I didn’t go. Other than that, I have really had it incredibly easy.

    Speaking of Marx, I actually “joined” the Democratic Socialists of America, but having read some of the literature, I think I am not really a socialist. I’m sort of a democratic, rigidly controlled, progressively taxed capitalist. I think we need some wealthy people to help fund the classical arts; I mean, that’s what and where I “live,” so to speak. My tag line on email: “Thank God for music,” is profoundly meant.

    It is interesting that this morning during coffee hour I had a fairly long “discussion” (to put it as politely as possible) with an arch conservative at St. Mary’s. I knew before that she was politically conservative, but she is really a medieval Christian the way ISIL are medieval Moslems. (I didn’t mention this to her, of course.). So she would like more preaching about SIN and SINNERS, and the just God who sets his face against such things as brides getting married when already pregnant. THAT is what is wrong with the church — why attendance is down, etc., etc. At the same time, she has read the Quran, and can tell you that Islam is a religion full of hatred. Oh, it went on — Netenyahu and Zionists are completely in the right, and the 1948 UN decision on Israel was God’s way to fulfill the promise He made to Abraham. The Palestinians who had lived there for centuries were not evicted; they should have relocated in the areas given to the descendants of Ishmael — I really couldn’t debate with her; every time I started an objection, she bumped in with a pronouncement that God did this or felt that. She didn’t “believe” this, or have “faith” in these things, she KNEW them because they were there in the word of God. I didn’t even have presence of mind to ask her how she felt about killing her child for speaking disrespectfully to the parent.

    Oh my! Back on track: Church as opium. You, I know, want to hear more sermons on what Jesus did while here on earth, and how *very* far we are from doing this. I agree with you, of course. We should hear much more about feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting those in prison. But I think too that church can be, and should be permitted to be, a place to refresh oneself to prepare for the next week. We worship a Master who not only healed the sick and fed the hungry, but was also resurrected, and appeared in transfigured glory to some of the disciples. I don’t think a church service should always be, week after week, about how good we are and isn’t it nice to sit here in this lovely space….. But I think that some come who are weary and need refreshment, and I think Jesus wouldn’t be wroth with us for giving it to them.

    Well, I have bent your ear (or eyes) for long enough here. Take care. Best to Kay and Barclay.😉


    • C.A

      Thanks for sharing your story from this morning. It’s not that I’ve had a rough time of it. It’s that I’ve spent years observing churches from afar that fit Marx’s description of religion as an opium den. The opium den is just one a number of descriptions of the variety of churches in the American landscape. More will be forthcoming. I do agree that solace, respite, pastoral care, and comfort are essential to the nature of the church. But that’s different from an opium den where ideology is the drug in the room. As I look back at our experience at Marple Church, I feel lucky. There was a ton of genuine faith there and the willingness, for the most part, to hear sermons that rocked the boat on white racism and anti-semitism. Patriotism and nationalism were clearly distinguished, which is hardly the case in too many of the right-wing evangelical churches in America where there seems to be no distinction between the cross and the flag.

      Thoughtful people ARE weary and need respite. I agree. The church is a hospital for sinners, one and all. Thank you for sharing, C.A. You and B.J. really need to come to Minnesota! You’d love it here!


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