Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

False Religion and Conversion
distributed 7/29/11 - ©2011

The inability of the US Congress to deal with the looming deadline on a debt limit reveals partisan politics at its worst, and it reveals a foundational disagreement about the role of government and the nature of the good life. We are seeing a clash of religions.

Many faith communities, including a wide range of Christian voices, are speaking up for the side that affirms the appropriate and essential role of government in caring for the poor and in seeking environmental health. Yesterday, 11 religious leaders were arrested at the US Capitol. Sojourners has been vocal in the cause with their "Circle of Protection" campaign.

It is distressing to me, though, that these voices of religious protest are so rare, and that the theological foundations for these stances are so poorly known, even within church circles. We in the Christian church are not clear and compelling about what we believe.

In order for Christian churches to present a strong and coherent witness on behalf of all people and all of God's creation, we need to recognize the presence of other religions that have contradictory beliefs. In fact, we need to start working very actively for conversion, in our society and even in our churches.

Because that statement about conversion isn't likely to sit well with most progressive Christians, let me immediately condition that statement in terms of what we usually think of as the "religions" of the world.

I think it is wonderful that many Christians have found common ground and shared purpose with other great faith traditions. In our collective work for the environment, for peace and justice, and for human rights, we have learned much from each other, and worked in effective coalitions. This lively inter-religious dialogue and cooperation is essential, not only among the "people of the Book" -- Jewish, Christian and Islam -- but also among followers of Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, a wide variety of indigenous religions, and many more.

So, I'm not suggesting that we need to convert the adherents of those other religions, and turn them all into Christians. On a certain level, we're all working for the same cause, even as we make our very distinctive claims about truth, meaning and ethics.

My concern is that there is a thriving world religion that has a belief system quite contrary to most of the recognized faith traditions. If we don't recognize the direct conflict that we have with this other religion, and if we don't look at strategies to convert people from that belief system, then our own Christian faith will become marginalized and irrelevant. And so will the other traditional religions of the world.

That is a central part of what Buddhist philosopher David Loy says in his article, The Religion of the Market.

[The] Market is becoming the first truly world religion, binding all corners of the globe more and more tightly into a world-view and set of values whose religious role we overlook only because we insist on seeing them as "secular". ... The major religions ... have been unable to offer what is most needed, a meaningful challenge to the aggressive proselytizing of market capitalism, which has already become the most successful religion of all time, winning more converts more quickly than any previous belief system or value-system in human history.

The fact is, many of the people who hold membership in our churches, and many politicians who think of themselves as good Christians, are avid followers of the religion of the market. Indeed, many church leaders -- who preach and teach and counsel -- are deeply influenced by the anti-Christian beliefs of this religion of the market.

Religious educator Katherine Turpin vividly describes consumer culture -- which is one manifestation of the religion of the market -- as a faith system. In her book, Branded: Adolescents converting from consumer faith, she wrote:

More than a system of economic engagement in the world, consumer culture offers a story of meaning and purpose to define human existence. Specifically, consumer culture offers the story that the key to a good life lies in acquiring enough money to obtain the goods that offer happiness, status, protection and comfort. ... We are inundated by the gospel of consumption through every means imaginable.

I know -- most of us have heard that analysis of consumerism in some form. What strikes me so powerfully, though, is her assertion that describing consumer culture as a religion is not a catchy metaphor, but a functional truth.

I came to realize that the problem ran much deeper than cognitive awareness: at stake was the shaping of imagination, agency, and the most basic structures of meaning making. ... What has to be transformed is not our understanding of consumer culture, but our faith in it. In short, adolescents require educational structures to support an ongoing conversion of faith.

It is not only adolescents who need a transformed faith. We all need that conversion. We need it to re-center our personal lives. We need it to be able to witness clearly and boldly about matters of public policy.

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Conversion is very different from instruction. If we are going to entice ourselves, our friends and neighbors into an "ongoing conversion" process, we must develop faith communities in which our counter-cultural values are richly and consistently embodied. People must be mentored and encouraged in the daily actions that both express and shape our beliefs. We must provide the sort of exceptional and life-changing experiences that can stand in stunning contrast to the ways of the dominant society.

We must be able to make a compelling sales pitch for why our perspective on faith and life is good and true. We must be willing and able to speak out about why the religion of the market is false. We make that proclamation -- not only from the pulpit and in political advocacy -- but also through our everyday lives when we joyously choose sufficiency instead of excess, when we are offended by advertising instead of seduced, when we ground our lives in compassion instead of privilege.

If our goal is conversion, then we must be intentional and active in putting forth our positive message. We must be assertive in naming the false gods and the false promises that we reject. We must make clear the choice between two contradictory belief systems, and call on people to decide where they will place their trust and their hope.

In the current political crisis in the US, the ideology of individualism, wealth and privilege is setting the agenda. The far-right's absolute rejection of any revenue increase -- in taxes, or the elimination of tax breaks -- is a religious doctrine for those who are out to dismantle government. In the public witness from our churches, that false religion must be countered by uncompromising testimony about contrasting beliefs.

In the faith-based environmental movement, I see a parallel problem of a witness that does not call for conversion. There is a growing awareness in churches about great ecological threats, but the answers tend to focus on new technologies and efficiencies. These technical responses do not challenge our core beliefs and behaviors.

The mindset of the market is failing us, but we are not willing to invite people away from the individualism and materialism of the market society. We are hesitant about calling people toward voluntary simplicity, community, and the genuine abundance of "enough." We are eager to ask people to change their light bulbs, but we are afraid to ask them to change their lives.

We in the Christian church do have good news. We have a message of deep meaning and values, of salvation and purpose, which stands in sharp contrast to the shallow and destructive promises of the market. Selfishly, we might be bold in proclaiming that message because it will strengthen the church. But we must also put forth the call to conversion because that is what our faith demands of us as we care for God's creation.

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If it hasn't already done so, the church ... must recognize that it lives in a pagan society; it must seek for values and norms not shared by society. In short, it will either recover the Christian doctrine of nonconformity or cease to have any authentic Christian voice.
      -- Doris Janzen Longacre


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

This commentary expands and revises one of the same title that was distributed on October 12, 2007.

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