America is not…But it could be
The opening scene of HBO’s The Newsroom has haunted me for a long time. Jeff Daniels’ opening monologue is brilliant and well-acted: here’s the scene on youtube and the fulltext (NSFW language). Daniels plays a famous news anchor who is asked the question “Why is America the greatest country in the world?” The other panelists give canned answers, but Daniels is goaded into something more and he says “America is not the greatest country in the world.” The shocked audience listens as he explains why:
We’re seventh in literacy, twenty-seventh in math, twenty-second in science, forty-ninth in life expectancy, 178th in infant mortality, third in median household income, number four in labor force, and number four in exports. We lead the world in only three categories: number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults who believe angels are real, and defense spending, where we spend more than the next twenty-six countries combined, twenty-five of whom are allies.
And then he closes with what we can do:
We sure used to be. We stood up for what was right. We fought for moral reasons, we passed laws, struck down laws for moral reasons. We waged wars on poverty, not poor people. We sacrificed, we cared about our neighbors, we put our money where our mouths were, and we never beat our chest. We built great big things, made ungodly technological advances, explored the universe, cured diseases, and we cultivated the world’s greatest artists and the world’s greatest economy. We reached for the stars…we aspired to intelligence; we didn’t belittle it; it didn’t make us feel inferior…
The first step in solving any problem is recognizing there is one. America is not the greatest country in the world anymore.
That’s what we start with. You start with the problem. Then you move into what to do about it. Far from crestfallen anti-America sentiment, this is a yearning for what one’s country stood for once and could be again–and recognizing that we’ve lost our way.
Christianity is not…
I think if we poll America, it would say: “Christianity is the greatest religion in the world.” And that might be a problem.
Since the Church allied with Emperor Constantine, our problem has been that we’ve never been satisfied with being the #2 religion. Our predominantly exclusivistic theology–only through Christ can one be saved–drives our need to convert the entire world. I’m not disputing the legitimacy of that belief; just pointing out that the belief inherently means that Christians want to be Number One–for the world’s sake, perhaps.
However, this belief has led to the place where we’ve been unwilling to be wrong. Our Popes are infallible when they speak from the throne. Our churches couldn’t possibly be where child molestation occurs. Those youths in jail couldn’t have done those terrible things because they’re good Christians. In the Church, Galileo was wrong for 350 years after science proved him right. And today the holdouts to the full inclusion of LGBT persons keep entire denominations from moving forward with honesty that “we are not of one mind.” Indeed often the ends justify the means because the ends are…perfect.
There’s no need to refer to the Crusades or the Salem Witch Trials or the Inquisition–there’s plenty of everyday moments with everyday people and everyday failings that make it very difficult for Christians to say “Christianity is the greatest religion in the world.”
…and that’s Okay.
Maybe it doesn’t need to be.
Even though progressives are ridiculed for seeking public acts of repentance (like for the Sand Creek Massacre or the Internment of Japanese Americans), I think such humility and open recognition of faults make Christianity more attractive to a world we no longer dominate. Humility is certainly becoming part of the evangelical approach in recent years: I see many conservative evangelical churches offering up “We’re sorry” billboards, and sharing “imperfect church for imperfect people” taglines. While some of this may be marketing savvy, I do think it comes from a deep recognition that acknowledging faults makes the Church better.
In his book Dataclysm: Who We Are When We Think No One is Looking, researcher and Big Data analyst Christian Rudder draws out one aspect of human psychology: an attraction to imperfection and variance from the norms.
The idea that variance is a positive thing is fairly well established…social psychologists call it “the pratfall effect“–as long as you’re generally competent, making a small, occasional mistake makes people think you’re more competent. Flaws call out the good stuff even more.
This need for imperfection might just be how our brains are put together. Our sense of small, which is the most connected to the brain’s emotional center, prefers discord to unison…the pleasant scent given off by many flowers, like orange blossoms and jasmine, contains a significant fraction (about 3 percent) of a protein called indole. It’s common in the large intestine, and on its own, it smells accordingly. But the flowers don’t smell as good without it…indole is also an ingredient in synthetic human perfumes.
For too long, the Church (and denominations, especially) has been allergic to the pratfall effect. We are unwilling to be wrong. The inertia of those decisions is astounding.
But oddly enough, if we are more honest about our shortcomings, I think our good aspects will come out stronger.
In 2014, the top stories about my denomination of the United Methodist Church were sexuality issues, certainly, but also our sustained and courageous response to Ebola and eradicating Malaria. In the words of a Facebook friend: “my irrelevant, out-of-touch, institutionally-oriented, ready-for-retirement dinosaur of a denomination” helped drop deaths by malaria by 50%. While people lament that sexuality conversations are front-and-center, I think the combination of stories draw out that the Church is worth the struggle because of what it can do when we are united.
In short, by recognizing failings, by being open about shortcomings, by being open about doubts from the pulpits, we both live into our humanity better and do greater work together with our ministry partners around the world.
I would rather be the second best religion in the world that is doing real, substantial work.
I would rather have a smaller denomination that boldly steps out of the crab buckets into something new, with an honest polity that recognizes the substantial, sustained diversity of beliefs.
And I believe that begins with admitting that the church is broken, that the church has erred and continues to err, but being Christian is still worth it. We’ll fall and fall again, but as long as we keep falling forward, by the grace of God, we’ll find our way to the full realization of the Reign of God indeed. And I think there’s biblical precedent for that.
- Where do you see the Church modeling brokenness, being open about doubts, shortcomings, and human failings?
- Where does the Church need to be better at it?
Thanks for your comments and for your shares!