Updated: Jun 1, 2021
The matter that has led me, at the crack of noon, my aluminum-ensconced caffeine delivery system still percolating in its own condensate, to abruptly sit down and write something non-fictional is likely unknown to most of you. As a gloriously mustached Mandy Patinkin once surmised, "Let me explain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up."
In a recent opinion article(1) published by The Church News, Tad Callister writes:
If you were asked, “What is the greatest challenge facing our nation today?” how would you respond? The economy, national security, immigration, gun control, poverty, racism, crime, pandemics, climate change? While each of these is a valid concern and deserves attention, I do not believe that any of them strikes at the heart of our greatest challenge — a return to family and moral values. To put our prime focus on other challenges is to strike at the leaves, not the root, of the problem. It is, as some have noted, to put an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff rather than a fence at the top.
There are a lot of things, on the surface, I think Tad is wrong about, both in this excerpt and throughout his (thankfully brief) piece. But I think there's a more pervasive idea lurking behind all the revisionist history and partisan politicking disguising itself as do-gooderism.
My problem with Tad's article isn't that he immediately frames his unsolicited spiritual guidance as a question of U.S. politics, i.e. "What is the greatest challenge facing our nation today?"
It isn't that in pursuit of establishing some credence to his interpretation of Christ's gospel, he uses as one of his primary sources a deeply partisan political figure. I mean, church social media accounts were practically drowning in nonsensical criticism for saying "hey, we teamed up with UNICEF to help distribute vaccines to vulnerable global communities." Can you just imagine if a general authority emeritus quoted, I don't know, say... Michelle Obama?
It isn't even that, in Tad's version of American history, these races were the colonists of America:
English, Scotch-Irish, Dutch, French, German and so on...
Ah yes, we all remember how in the late 1700s the English teamed up with the French, Germans, and Irish to bring the restored gospel of "family values and morals" to all those... how do I put this kindly? Let's just call them the "less European" races. Wouldn't want people like Tad to think I'm brainwashing their kids with the "woke" version of American history where white folks killed everyone and took their land.
And so on.
But I think with regards to those claims, Tad's ignorance speaks for itself. The thing I'm less sure any of us notice is how deftly devoid the entire article is of references to the One our theology should be centered on.
Of Christ Himself, Tad has only this to offer, an oblique reference in the final paragraph where he likens national social policy and welfare programs to one of the Teacher's great lessons:
No government program or policy can compensate for lack of strong families and moral values. There is no adequate substitute or replacement for them. They are the sacred cement that holds our society together as a nation. To believe and act otherwise is to build our national hopes and aspirations on a foundation of sand, like the house of the foolish man in the parable of Christ: “The rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it”
Hate to say it, Tad. But I'm afraid you misunderstood the parable.
The problem is, Tad has fallen prey to the most pervasive idea in modern Christianity. It all boils down to this statement, and the mindset that framed it: "Our greatest challenge [is to] return to family and moral values."
Let me rephrase that the way I think a tenured witness of Christ and His gospel should.
"Our greatest challenge is to become more like Jesus Christ, who gave Himself so others could return home."
It might seem trivial at first glance. But it isn't. And Christ himself knew it, which is why He taught His disciples the importance of knowing that you have centered yourself upon the Rock, rather than the sand.
Family-centeredness is not Christ-centeredness.
Church-centeredness is not Christ-centeredness.
And no amount of dedicating ourselves to what we think family is or the step-by-step instructions we learn in church is going to produce a damn thing in terms of easing the burdens of racism, poverty, fraud, abuse, and mental illness running rampant through our world.
Christ-centeredness, on the other hand, is beautiful and simple. Anyone can do it, without exclusion or pretense. You don't even have to believe that Jesus was divine to live a Christ-centered life. Christ is an idea for which none of us gets to decide the definition for anyone else. And according to Him, the instructions are simple. "Watch how I treat people you all think less of," he said. "And then do that."
"What man is there of you," he said, "who if his son ask bread, will give him a stone Or if he ask a fish, will give him a serpent?"
"Or if he ask an ambulance," I find myself wanting to add, "will give him a fence?"
But those false gods, Church and Family, are sneaky devils. They'll convince people Christ would want to exclude those who don't fit the mold, because after all wasn't it He who made the mold? (Spoiler. It wasn't.)
The problem is, Tad's gospel would present us with a false choice. We can send an ambulance, or build a fence(2)(3).
To that I say, is it too much to ask for both? Christ didn't think so. Hell, he's the ambulance. His second-greatest commandment was that we should be each others' ambulances.
It was one of Christ's own disciples, speaking specifically to the things that make a society strong, who wrote(4),
13 You should not have a mind to injure one another, but to live peaceably, and to render to every man according to that which is his due. 14 And you should not suffer your children that they go hungry, or naked... 16 You yourselves will succor those that stand in need of your succor; you will administer of your substance unto him that stands in need; and you will not suffer that the beggar put up his petition to you in vain, and turn him out to perish. 17 Perhaps you will say: The man has brought upon himself his misery; I will stay my hand, and will not give unto him of my food, nor impart unto him of my substance that he may not suffer, for his punishments are just—But the man who does this has great cause to repent, and has no interest in the kingdom of God. 18 Are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend upon the same God for all the substance which we have, for both food and clothing, and for all the riches which we have of every kind?
Men, not Christ, set up the arbitrary rules for what church is and what it isn't. They devise language with adjectives like "active," "inactive," "tithe-paying," "nuclear family" to do their own wheat-sifting. They, not Christ, decide what constitutes a family and what doesn't. And following the wisdom of those men ahead of the better Word of Christ—that Unwed Man, that Child Conceived Out of Wedlock—will never be nearly enough.
Lacking Him, everything else is just as empty of substance as any golden calf.
The original article on The Church News website
Because context is important, the "ambulance at the bottom of a cliff" analogy comes from a poem published in 1895, written by Joseph Malins. I don't think Tad knows this, but Malins was a staunch liberal, opposed to American segregation and prohibition, and in favor of Irish independence from England. Beginning in 1890, he was also a vegetarian. His poem is a bluntly didactic anecdote trying to demonstrate how unwise it can be to seek cures for health ailments while continuing to live in such a way that encourages said ailments. Modern references to it are largely within the healthcare industry (nursing and midwifery, specifically).
The text of Malins' "The Ambulance Down In The Valley"