This week, a scattershot approach to column writing:
▪ The New York Times reported Oct. 7 that the Chinese government is expected to enact new legislation cracking down on religion.
China has experienced a religious revival that’s making Communist Party officials uneasy. They fear religion will subvert the officially atheistic party’s power.
The new rules apparently will affect all religious groups, but Christianity is China’s fastest-growing faith, with an estimated 67 million adherents, half of whom worship in unregistered underground churches, the Times said.
The seeming paradox is that Christianity typically teaches its adherents to be model citizens: to respect and obey their government’s powers, to work hard, to pay their taxes without grumbling, to mind their own business and to never return evil for evil.
And yet, counterintuitively, this usually peaceable faith does indeed prove subversive sometimes, especially to tyrannical governments.
For instance, some historians think that the First Great Awakening, a massive Christian revival that swept America in the 1700s, led directly to the Revolutionary War.
Colonists who’d been newly imbued with the Holy Spirit became less loyal to the King of England than to their new King of Kings. They also decided they’d worship wherever they felt led rather than in official state churches.
This newfound spiritual independence — some might say intransigence — might have, in the long run, left them much more willing to assert their independence in other matters, too, or so the theory goes.
Maybe Chinese leaders are right to feel uneasy, after all.
▪ Closer to home, we find a church-state paradox of a different order.
Kentucky’s top official, Gov. Matt Bevin, was captured on video at the governor’s mansion urging a group of preachers to ignore federal law, according to news reports.
Bevin apparently told ministers that a law prohibiting tax-exempt organizations, including churches, from intervening in political campaigns or endorsing candidates is “an absolute paper tiger and there is no reason to fear it; there is no reason to be silent.”
So in China, they have government leaders trying to stop religion from spreading because they don’t want it to undermine the party’s atheist status quo, and in Kentucky we have a governor encouraging preachers to flout the law and try to sway elections in favor of their particular tenets.
I happen to disagree with both approaches.
I think the government should keep its nose out of religion. It shouldn’t, for example, fine citizens for renting space to congregations the state hasn’t approved, as China may soon do. I believe in the freedom of faith.
I think churches should keep their noses out of party politics.
Individual Christians (or Jews, Buddhists or Muslims) should vote, of course. They can run for office or place posters in their yards at home — or write newspaper columns that express their opinions.
Religious coalitions such as the Southern Baptist Convention or the Kentucky Council of Churches can lobby government for or against social issues including abortion, universal health care, gay marriage or feeding the poor.
But it’s not the role of preachers — whatever their theological stripe — to campaign from the pulpit or on church time for specific political candidates or parties. The federal law regarding that is right.
When ministers speak from the pulpit, we speak, at least theoretically, on behalf of the one who declared that his kingdom was not of this world. It’s good to remember that.
▪ My late dad, a minister who labored in the Almighty’s fields for 60 years, used to have a prayer he trotted out when times were rough.
“Lord, I don’t understand what’s going on,” he’d say. “I don’t like what’s going on. But I love you, I believe in you and I praise you anyway.”
I always liked that prayer. It encouraged me. I thought of it recently.
We’ve been enduring difficulties in the small congregation I lead. In a month, two much-beloved church members have died. Two others have lost relatives who didn’t attend our church; we’ve put together potluck dinners for the survivors.
A couple in our congregation watched their business burn to the ground. Another member has suffered a stroke.
It’s getting to where I’m half-afraid to answer the phone. As my dad would have said, I don’t know what’s going on, and I don’t like what’s going on.
Here’s what I’ve learned in my own tenure as a pastor and a human. If you’re in a hard stretch, maybe it will help you. Maybe not. In any case, I’ll pass it on.
When you’ve done everything else you know to do, when you’ve prayed all the prayers and mouthed all the platitudes but nothing has worked and troubles keep coming, that’s the time to just simply stand firm.
Don’t melt. Don’t run away. Don’t despair.
Plant your feet, grit your teeth, glower at the devil and refuse to budge.
That’s more easily said than done, I know. Oh, how I know.
It helps if you can marshal friends to stand with you, for there’s strength in numbers.
But however you manage to stay on your feet, do it.
Outlast your problems until better times return.
Because better times will return, sooner or later.
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.