Ian Boyne: Can the Church be resurrected?
It is just as well that Good Friday in Jamaica this year was more about that football match at the National Stadium than the commemoration of the death of Christ on the Cross.
Sure, some Christians went to church, and many will be in church today for Easter. But the hype and excitement over Good Friday World Cup football far outweighed any interest in the message of the cross. In fact, the churches have largely lost sight of the message of the cross. The gospel that is carrying the swing today is the prosperity gospel. The prosperity gospel, imported from North America, is the gospel of choice in Jamaican Christianity today. There are a few hold-out churches, chiefly among mainline Christianity, but this health and wealth, name-it-and-claim-it gospel is the rave.
The notion of suffering, sacrifice and denial, which is at the heart of the traditional Easter message, is becoming foreign to the vocabulary and psyche of the average Jamaican Christian. It's a bling gospel that's on offer. Once it was hellfire-and-brimstone preaching or the pie-in-the-sky alternative. Now it's fulfil all your dreams now, live up to your potential, have faith, and have everything. A message of crucifixion is foreign to such ears.
So, poor Rev Earl Thames, from another era, complaining about Good Friday football in Saturday's Gleaner, is mainly weeping alone. "The fact that a football match ... has been scheduled to be played on Good Friday says a lot about the direction in which Jamaica is headed," he says ominously. He then waxes nostalgic: "It was not so long ago that special days in the Christian religion were regarded as sacred ... . As such not even innocent games were played by children on that day."
That is an indication of the increasing irrelevance of the Christian Church in Jamaica and of its declining influence and pull. We are a Christian country in name only. There are even calls now for our parliamentary prayer to be changed to drop the Christian exclusivity and the name of Christ and include a pluralistic prayer involving other faiths represented here. Dionne Jackson Miller's entire All Angles programme
discussed that last week. The translucent light of the Church in Jamaica has now been dimmed. The Humpty Dumpty has fallen and all the King's horses here can't put it back together again.
Earl Thames hears horses of a different kind, the Horsemen of the Apocalypse, signalling the Church's decline. "What an official football match on Good Friday is saying is that other gods, especially the gods of sports, have taken over the allegiance of many." But whose fault is that? What has the Church done to avert that? What did it do with its enormous power and influence when it had it?
First, the Church has failed utterly to be a counter-cultural force. The Church has been in captivity to the prevailing culture, largely influenced by American cultural values. Our youth know more about American musical and pop heroes than about their own indigenous heroes. Our values are American values. Our identities are Americanised. Traditional media and social media are our current chains of slavery. That the prosperity gospel is so popular in Jamaica and heavily fed by ChristianTV via cable is a testament to our cultural enslavement. The prosperity gospel is an impoverished gospel. It is one which has no place for Easter.
It might talk resurrection and triumph, but not death. Not Gethsemane. There is no place for redemptive suffering. It is not that the traditional Easter message has glorified or valorised suffering. The fact that Resurrection Sunday is integral to Easter shows it is not fatalistic. (In my personal Judaeo-Christian tradition, it's about Passover and Christ as the risen Unleavened Bread of Life).
Say what you want about the traditional, mainline churches, but they have maintained an authentic emphasis on all aspects of life which includes, for the vast majority, suffering, setbacks, disappointments, betrayal and agony. No ideology that does not account adequately for suffering and pain is worth its salt. It's Pablum. The North American prosperity gospel is a false gospel. It's just a secularised, pull-yourself-by-your-own-bootstraps message in religious garb.
The traditional Church did such a poor job of moulding people and impacting the culture that it has been no match to those smooth, slick preachers retailing the health and wealth, prosperity gospel. It makes no sense bemoaning now about playing football on Good Friday, as Earl Thames and the Rev Devon Dick, who did his lamentation in Thursday's Gleaner. What they should more usefully do is to urge their pastoral colleagues to forcefully critique the society's norms and values.
The head of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Jamaica, Pastor Everett Brown, at a Gleaner forum last week, defended his denomination's decision to sanction Pastor Michael Harvey for rallying Comrades from a People's National Party (PNP) platform in Half-Way Tree. Brown says a pastor must not give allegiance to a political party, for it could divide his congregation.
I, too, think pastors should be non-partisans. There were pastors on Jamaica Labour Party platforms in the last election campaign urging Labourites to go out and convert Comrades to the fold. Obnoxious! These PNP and JLP partisans were taking the name of God in vain by attaching it to a party political platform. But while pastors should not be partisan or pledge loyalty any political party, pastors are not neutral on issues of social justice and righteousness.
I am sure that a conservative like Pastor Everett Brown would seriously rethink his position of not supporting a political party if one of our parties vowed to change our law to legalise same-sex marriage or euthanasia. If there is a party campaigning against that party in an election, I doubt Brown would remain neutral. Many conservative churches which did not care much about politics came together in that election campaign of 1980 and stood on the side of Deliverance in voting out Michael Manley for his supposed communist intentions.
A nihilistic, atomistic, excessively individualistic culture should have been effectively and potently challenged by the Christian Church. Instead, it has been largely held hostage to it. The average Christian's goals and values are no different from his worldly friends'. Religion must affect one's values, one's goals, one's life direction.
There are two Christian leaders who are exemplars as publicly engaged Christians challenging current norms: Roman Catholic Deacon Peter Espeut and Anglican layman and Christian activist, Dr Lucien Jones. Espeut has written some of the most challenging and insightful critiques of hedonism ever published locally. He has been incisive and poignant in attacking hedonistic, nihilistic values and attitudes. He is a persistent critic of the New Atheists and secularism. He has taken on the New Atheists and exposed their pretentiousness.
I don't agree with all the arguments used by Peter and Lucien in their debate with atheists and secularists, and I think they need greater exposure to the best atheistic philosophers and scientists (my apologetic is less triumphalistic), but I like their spirit of resistance to arrogant secularism and atheism. I give greater credence to some of the arguments and criticisms of Christianity posited by agnostics and atheists, but I deeply admire Lucien and Peter's public-spiritedness. If the Church was doing its job well, Jamaica would be a better place and the Church would not have lost so much of its relevance and appeal.
Lucien is constantly on WhatsApp, has a most engaging Internet ministry where he gives incisive commentary on public affairs, and he engages the country's leading media practitioners and intelligentsia.
With the ascendancy of neo-liberal ideology and a market society (not just economy), we need a socially aware and progressive Church to stand up for the masses and speak out for justice, equality and the well-being of all, not a few. The Church itself needs a resurrection to perform that role.