“Obama Resigns from Controversial Church” reads the headline on CNN today.
I’m not going to go into the article itself; I didn’t even read it. I’m just fascinated by the headline. I am struck by the subtle but clear implication that churches should not be “controversial.”
What would a “non-controversial” church look like? I imagine the closest we might come would be Joel Osteen’s Lakewood megachurch in Houston, where services come with insipid, saccharine Christian pop interspersed with neutered, vague messages of self-empowerment: embrace Jesus, and your life will get better. But even this is controversial; it may not be inflammatory, but within the broad Christian world, Osteen’s gentle pabulum is widely considered heresy because his “Prosperity Gospel Lite” message flatly contradicts Christ’s teachings.
Osteen, however, is not out there calling the Catholic Church “the Great Whore,” or insisting that Hitler was God’s messenger, herding the Jews into Israel so that we can get moving with Armageddon, or peddling a wildly re-imagined history wherein America was founded by literalist evangelicals intent on destroying Islam. He is not making an ass of himself protesting military funerals with ugly anti-gay language, or concocting conspiracy theories involving the U.S. government and AIDS. He’s soft-spoken and polite. He smiles. He’s the kind of pastor of which CNN might approve.
What we’re dancing around, though, is the indisputable fact that Jesus was and remains a pretty controversial guy. If I had to summarize the New Testament in a single theme, it might well be the overthrow of the established order, beginning with Mary’s thundering outburst at the Annunciation – “He has shown strength with his arm and has scattered the proud in their conceit, casting down the mighty from their thrones and lifting up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things and the rich he has sent away empty.”
Of course, there is comfort and solace to be found in the Holy Spirit, and churches and church communities have pastoral obligations to console the aggrieved, be companions to the lonely and encourage the frightened. But we are also called upon to stand up for the marginalized and the oppressed; we are called to be a voice for those who have none. It is, frankly, our Christian duty to be a little bit obnoxious. Shying away from controversy for the sake of appearance is not a Christian virtue, as convenient as it might be for a politician on the campaign trail.