When Sarah Palin said that water-boarding was how we baptized terrorist, it was a turning point for my understanding of faith and the role it plays in our culture. I don’t know if I was more offended because of my hatred of torture (or ‘enhanced-interrogation techniques’) or my love of baptism and what it represents as a central expression of the faith. Baptism is how we who believe demonstrate that we accept the death-to-self and enter into the life-of-Christ.
I had been asking this question ever since Rumsfeld/Cheney put Bible verses on the covers of their Iraq war briefings to President Bush. That is how I learned about things like ‘master signifiers’, which are symbols such as ‘Christianity’ that have become detached from the meaning that they were originally anchored to. They are un-tethered from the history that originally gave them meaning.
Christianism is disconnected from the faith and tradition that gave it birth. When you see or hear something under the banner of ‘Christian’ that does not seem to reflect the example of Jesus or the teaching of Christ … you may have wandered into the wilderness of Christianism. It uses all the same words that you know … but in foreign and contradictory ways.
Christianism is several degrees removed from the teaching and example of Jesus. It begins in the formation/formalizing of those things (one degree) – then it takes on an authoritarian/hierarchical structure (two degrees) – then, and this is the big one, it is married to power (government/military) so now we are three degrees from the origin. This new orientation becomes solidified/codified as a thing that has its own identity: “Christian” becomes a category by which you can know who is in and who is out – the saved and the lost (fourth degree). This is where bad things done by ‘good people’ can be justified as being beneficial to ‘the cause’ or ‘our side’.
The final stage is when ‘Christian’ is an identity that helps to distinguish us (in-group) from others, NOT depending on ones obedience to the central tenants, following the teachings of the founders, or even knowledge of the distinctions that signify identity to the group. At this point the signifier ‘Christian’ is no longer anchored to anything that it was originally grounded in and no longer connected to the very thing that gave it life and health. ‘Christian’ becomes a floating signifier and is un-tethered from its proverbial mooring (fifth degree).
We are watching a ‘historical drift’. This is how Sarah Palin can say that water-boarding is how we baptize terrorist. This one statement has it all! We are the in-group. We do this to people with unilateral/coercive power. It is then connected to sacred/holy acts. And finally, we assume that we are doing God’s work when we do things that are opposite/counter to the example of what we say is the incarnation/revelation of our very God.
When something is this far (5 degrees) away from its original intent, folks can start to ask, “how is this connected to that?” The generous/gracious response is ‘loosely’. The concerned response is ‘they are not connected’. The critical response is ‘it is counter to the origin’.
When you add an ‘ism’ to anything it is in danger of becoming a Frankenstein creature that takes on a monstrous life of its own. Examples of this in the U.S. context involve:
- Democrat-ism: When it is no longer about the democracy but has become about beating the ‘other side’.
- Republican-ism: When it is no longer about the republic but had been reduced to gun ownership and ‘states rights’.
- Methodism: When members of Methodist churches can no longer tell you what the ‘methods’ are.
- Evangelicalism: When those who identify as such cannot tell you what the evangelion is or cannot articulate the ‘good news’ of Jesus’ message.
- Pentecostalism: When the gift of tongues is no longer about proclamation to those who speak in foreign languages but is about an ‘unknown’ prayer language that edifies the speaker.
These have all become master signifiers that identify an in/out boundary but which no longer re-present the original meaning they once stood for. Our world is full of markers/groups/identities/labels that are so far from what they originally meant that they are not longer tied (tethered) to the thing that used to anchor them.
My concern is that ‘Christian’ no longer signifies one who follows Christ and has instead become an ‘ism’ that designates an us/them distinction that has nothing to do with the teachings or model of Jesus. I get why people are being inventive and using ‘Christ-follower’ or attempting to follow ‘the way of Jesus’. Cynics will mock all they want, but if these innovative monikers are an attempt to protest or defy the ‘ism’ of the dominant expression … I say we ask more questions instead of making snarky and dismissive comments.
They might be onto something.
Interesting uses of Christianism started appearing between 2003-2005
April 3, 2016 at 2:54 pm
This is a terrific piece … thanks.
April 4, 2016 at 4:34 pm
Thank you. I am so pleased that this resonated with so many people (and especially on FB) !
April 3, 2016 at 3:00 pm
Bo, have you seen: http://www.amazon.com/Devil-You-Know-K-Parker/dp/0765387891/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1459695578&sr=8-1&keywords=the+devil+you+know She works from the perspective of a criminologist – great analysis … and the two of you dovetail nicely for me.
April 3, 2016 at 3:01 pm
Wrong book: http://www.amazon.com/Devil-You-Know-Conservative-Christianity/dp/1633881504/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1459695578&sr=8-2&keywords=the+devil+you+know
April 4, 2016 at 4:35 pm
I will have to check that out
April 4, 2016 at 1:51 pm
As a communicator, this phenomenon of stripping words of their meanings and attaching them to that which is actually contrary to their meaning is particularly frustrating. Those words are an inheritance and a lot of effort went into passing them down to us. I hate to give them up to those who wouldn’t understand the meaning of the word repentance if John the Baptist explained it to them personally. But, because of the harm inflicted using those words, I have found that using them can be an impediment to communication. It is something of a conundrum.
April 4, 2016 at 4:35 pm
Good thoughts – there is certainly a LOT more than can and needs to be said about all of this.
December 2, 2016 at 12:02 am
I continue to wrestle with this conundrum- I appreciate your take
April 5, 2016 at 12:58 pm
This is part of what drives people away from the church. When “Christian” is more about conservative social policy and exclusion of those who are different, it feels wrong to those who have grown up with those different groups.
April 6, 2016 at 12:42 am
You are right … this is a real problem. What most people know as the dominant expression of this faith seems to be they way you are talking about. It is part of my deep concern about these issues. -Bo
December 2, 2016 at 12:01 am
It has been a while since you originally commented but I have thought about your observation several times during this wacky election/news cycle.
April 6, 2016 at 8:11 pm
This is what Jesus refers to a Blasphemy. Jesus has been accused of being evil for the works of good the he has done. Blasphemy = inverting good and evil, dark and light, etc. Portraying something evil like slavery, Nazi movement has Holy and good and portraying those who fought against those things as evil. Jesus was accused of doing evil from the power of “satan”. The Romans actually thought they were maintain the “pax Romana”. They were ” fighting to keep the peace”. Slavery was portrayed as good using Scripture by “Christian pastors”. German pastors used Scripture from the pulpit to justify the threat to the ” fatherland”. Good = evil and evil = good. Inversion, Blasphemy.
December 1, 2016 at 11:59 pm
I have used this several times since your first posted it. Thank you. -Bo