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The Institution Isn't the Thing
A (small) foray into the political—you've been duly warned
It’s been quite a couple of weeks here in Tennessee.
I’ve been a resident of this state since 2006, and my wife has since 1986. We’ve long lamented the ways our gerrymandered state legislature and its seemingly accountability-proof Republican supermajority play politics to line their pockets, treat state institutions and money like a dog’s chew-toy, and generally behave like entitled buffoons at the expense of the people of Tennessee. It’s a system where only certain people are allowed to speak, only certain bills get brought forward for a vote, and only certain topics count as “Tennessee values.”
Last week’s expulsion of two young, black, Democratic lawmakers (one of whom, Rep. Justin Jones of Nashville, has had a target on his back since 2019 for his history of activism and protest in and around the capitol) was, at one level, a totally predictable response to their attempt to stir the General Assembly to act on gun legislation in the wake of yet another mass shooting in Nashville on March 27. They broke a house rule to gain a hearing, and so were swiftly made an example of by the supermajority.
As of this writing, Jones has already been reinstated as a temporary representative by a unanimous vote of the bipartisan Nashville City Council, and the other, Justin Pearson of Memphis may also be sent back to office by that city’s leaders. To say that this stunt has blown up in the face of the Republican leadership is an understatement, and today the governor asked the legislature to consider passing at least one of the gun control reforms protestors had demanded. It would be comical if it weren’t such a serious matter to so brazenly attempt to silence political disagreement and discussion in a putative democracy.
What stands out to me most in this whole episode, though, is how Christian it all has been. The shooting was at a private Presbyterian school, and most of the protestors at the capitol on the day of the “offense” were connected with that church and school or others in the city. The supermajority makes great pretense of supporting biblical values in both oratory and legislation (if not in personal practice). But during the expulsion hearings on Maundy Thursday, the representatives on trial (Jones and Pearson, along with a third, Rep. Gloria Johnson of Knoxville, who narrowly survived an expulsion vote) practically preached the house down.
Jones and Pearson are both sons of the black church tradition (and Jones has studied at Vanderbilt Divinity School), and their speeches in defense rang with Scripture and moral fervor like we’ve seldom seen in our politics since the 1960s (you can watch these here and here). The supermajority, most of whom would spend that evening or the next in church services commemorating Christ’s passion and turn up to celebrate the resurrection on Easter morning, came off looking like the “white moderates” of Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” if not a bit worse—some of them have probably read it.
All of which leads me to an observation: When the institutional church enjoys a privileged place in a society or community, such that people gain social standing and credibility from their association with a local congregation, and that same society or community is not displaying care for its most vulnerable members, we ought to weep. When power is vested in those which church associations and they pursue the protection and expansion of that power at the expense of those they are called to serve, we should tremble before the Lord.
In Jeremiah 7, God instructs the prophet to go up to the temple in Jerusalem and publicly declare His judgment on the people for their persistent violation of God’s covenant:
Hear the word of the Lord, all you men of Judah who enter these gates to worship the Lord. Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: ‘Amend your ways and your deeds, and I will let you dwell in this place. Do not trust in these deceptive words: “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.”
‘For if you truly amend your ways and your deeds, if you truly execute justice one with another, if you do not oppress the sojourner, the fatherless, or the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own harm, then I will let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your fathers forever.
‘Behold, you trust in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, “We are delivered!”—only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Behold, I myself have seen it, declares the Lord.
(Jeremiah 7:2-11, emphasis added)
Now, I’m not presuming to suggest that the state of Tennessee is subject to Scripture (except in the general sense of God’s sovereignty), nor that we can make one-to-one applications of God’s Word to the people of Israel and Judah even to the church today. I am merely pointing out the principle, deduced by good and necessary consequence and conversation with other passages (e.g. 1 Sam. 15:23-24, Hosea 6:6, Matt. 21:12-17, etc.), that patting yourself on the back for your association with the church while spitting in the face of what the Scriptures teach about how you are to live is to invite God’s righteous condemnation.
When it comes to the church, the institution isn’t the thing. The beloved community of the body of Christ is. So much so, in fact, that to protect the institution at the expense of obedience is the surest way to destroy it. Jeremiah suggests that God might even help you in that project if you insist. Here in the Bible Belt, we’ve got a long history of doing just that, and I’m sick and tired of people doing evil in the name of my state and then going around with the name of my Lord on their lips.
The church and her members have never been perfect, but we do have a living hope who intercedes for us, empowers our repentance and obedience, and gives us our example. If, as Nashvillian David Dark says, “we become what we normalize,” I wish to normalize preaching in defense of justice rather than in preservation of corruption.