The One Thing

Service on June 26, 2022
by Stacey Simpson Duke

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“The One Thing”

By Stacey Simpson Duke

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By Paul Simpson Duke

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One of the most successful marketing campaigns in recent history was the rebranding of the origin story of the Religious Right.

Conservative activist Paul Weyrich spent most of the 1960s and 1970s trying unsuccessfully to organize evangelicals into an active, engaged, unified voting bloc, one that would embrace a political philosophy defined in moral terms but packaged in non-religious language. In writing about his vision for leveraging conservative Christians for conservative political purposes, Weyrich wrote, “When political power is achieved, the moral majority will have the opportunity to re-create this great nation.”[1]

The problem was, the only issue that seemed to galvanize white evangelical leaders to take political action was the issue of racial discrimination. (And not because they were against it.)

In 1970, the IRS had enacted a new policy of denying tax exemptions to racially segregated private schools. This captured the attention – and provoked the anger – of white evangelical leaders, as church-related schools began receiving IRS inquiries into their race-based policies. The white evangelical leaders became even more furious when Bob Jones University, in Greenville, South Carolina, lost its tax-exempt status because it refused to admit Black students.

The school’s founder argued that racial segregation was part of God’s established order – the divine plan for the world – and that racial mixing, or integration, was a rebellion against God, a “communistic agitation to overthrow the established order of God.”[2] Despite the efforts of Paul Weyrich, Jerry Falwell, and others to rebrand racism as a form of religious freedom, the Supreme Court decided in favor of the IRS policy, ruling that a tax-exempt, charitable institution could not be considered “charitable” if it practiced racial discrimination, even if it claimed such discrimination arose from its religious beliefs.

It was racism that brought fundamentalist and evangelical leaders into the political process, but Weyrich and Falwell knew they would need a more publicly palatable issue if they wanted to unite and mobilize evangelical voters on a national scale. And in 1979, in a brainstorming session with evangelical leaders, they finally hit on the issue they thought might give their political agenda the moral spin they were seeking.

That issue, of course, was abortion.

And their plan, of course, worked.

What also worked was their marketing campaign. The Religious Right so successfully and thoroughly rebranded their origin story that now almost no one seems to realize or remember that their origin had nothing at all to do with abortion. If you do know this part of the history of the Religious Right, that’s probably thanks in large part to the work of Dartmouth Professor Randall Balmer, a historian of American religion. Balmer tells of their beginnings, noting that, though by 1980 opposition to abortion had become their unifying commitment of the movement, “the real roots of the religious right lie not (in) the defense of a fetus but in the defense of racial segregation.”[3]

The myth that has been marketed instead has successfully erased not only the problematic origins of a movement that wed conservative Christian religion with conservative poliical agenda, but it also erased the perhaps surprising role Baptists have played in the history of  abortion in our country.

In 1971, prior to Roe v. Wade, the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution encouraging Southern Baptists to work for legislation that would allow abortion under certain conditions, such as rape, incest, evidence of severe fetal deformity, and evidence of “the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.”[4] That was the Southern Baptist Convention, 1971. The Southern Baptists then reaffirmed their position in 1974 and again in 1976.

Immediately following the Supreme Court ruling in 1973 of Roe v. Wade, W.A. Criswell, the famous fundamentalist pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, Texas, and a former president of the SBC, expressed his strong approval and support of the Roe v. Wade decision, saying that he had always felt that a child wasn’t an individual person until after it was born and had a life separate from its mother.

Perhaps less surprising was some of the advocacy work in our American Baptist denomination. In 1967, the Reverend Howard Moody, longtime minister of Judson Memorial Church in Manhattan, co-founded the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion, a national network of Protestant and Jewish clergy who helped women find safe, confidential, and compassionate abortions before they were legal. Rev. Moody helped bring his clergy colleagues along in this effort by creating imaginative educational experiences that would help his colleagues develop a deeper level of understanding and a higher level of empathy for what it would be like to be in such a situation.[5]

Following the Roe decision, Baptists in both the North and the South praised the decision for how it maintained an appropriate line between church and state, and between personal morality and state regulation of individual behavior.[6]

We Baptists haven’t done a very good job with marketing ourselves. Because that trusting, wide-open, principled commitment to separation of church and state, that conviction that the individual can be – must be – trusted to stand before God and answer for their own choices rather than being compelled by state or religious authorities to behave? That willingness to not all be together in lock step on a major issue, none of that is what people think of when they think of Baptists.

Marketing is the effort to promote a product or service or organization or cause, through simple, clear, compelling, and positive communication. Reducing a complex and emotional issue like abortion to a simple moral issue with one right answer for everyone? It may be polarizing, but it sure is good marketing. Covering up a negative history with a story that sounds heroic, at least to certain audiences? It may be untruthful, but it sure is good marketing. Preying on the fears and insecurities of people who are anxious about a changing world and cultural clashes? It might be manipulative, but it sure is good marketing.

But focusing on understanding rather than on persuasion? Working to nurture empathy rather than relying on manipulation? Allowing for ambiguity even in the midst of anxiety? Letting the truth be messy rather than simple and neat? None of that is good marketing and none of it is easy. It would be a lot easier to market ourselves, our church, our efforts to do justice and show kindness and walk humbly with God – it would be so much easier to market all of that if we could just flatten it all into just one thing. Just one easy to define, easy to defend, thing.

Jesus did not have a good marketing campaign.

We churches have tried to correct for that. We’ve done what we could to rehabilitate his image. We soften his hard words and ignore the strange ones. We gloss over his resistance to earthly powers and principalities, including religious ones. We wrap him in our American flag, pretend his teachings support all our own opinions, make him a mascot and cheerleader for white American Christianity. And we pretend away the implications of following someone who ended up being executed by the state.

We’ve done what we could to rebrand Jesus. He just keeps resisting our attempts.

Our efforts to repair his image were hilariously satirized in the 1999 movie Dogma. In that movie, in an effort to attract more people to church, a Catholic cardinal launches a campaign called “Catholicism WOW!” At the public launch of the campaign, he announces the decision to retire the crucifix, which he says is “wholly depressing.” Then he unveils a new, more uplifting, more inspiring version of Jesus – the “Buddy Christ.”

A cloth is pulled off this new icon, revealing a statue of a grinning, winking Jesus standing with one hand giving the thumbs-up and the other playfully pointing at onlookers. This Jesus is so much more approachable and relatable than the depressing one on the crucifix. He’s fun, he’s light-hearted, he’s friendly. He’s our buddy! He surely will not engage with you in difficult conversations about challenging human rights issues. He certainly will not say anything to cause you to worry about the future. And he is more than happy to be just one thing – your pal, your dude, your buddy.

Only problem is, he doesn’t really look anything like the Jesus we encounter in Scripture.

Case in point: the story we heard in the Gospel of Luke a few moments ago.

Jesus has set his face towards Jerusalem, where he will die. As he and his followers are going along the road, a man approaches and declares, “I will follow you wherever you go!” And Jesus responds not with a wink and a smile but with a sobering declaration: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”

Jesus lives without the basic security and comfort of a home or even a bed. He relies completely on the good will and hospitality of others, and not everyone wants to offer it. His followers have taken the same risks and made the same sacrifices as he has, and anyone who wants to follow him needs to be prepared to do the same. When this man comes striding up announcing he’ll follow Jesus anywhere, Jesus counters with a response that makes it clear that following him anywhere involves not comfort but a cross.

Then Jesus tells a second man, “Follow me.” And this one also wants to follow, he just has something to tend to before he’s free to go. He tells Jesus, “First let me bury my father, then I’ll follow you.” And Jesus says nope, skip that. Let the dead bury their own dead.

It’s hard to imagine a harsher response than that. A Buddy Christ would understand. A Buddy Christ would support this man’s obligation to honor his father with a proper burial. But Jesus says no, leave it. Jesus cannot be concerned about burials when he is headed towards his own. Anyone who wants to follow him has to understand the urgency involved in his purpose. Let go the losses of the past, don’t linger over the grief and despair over what has ended despite your best efforts. Don’t dwell on what could’ve been, what should’ve been. Just be ready to do this one thing: take the first step into an unseen future.

A third guy approaches. He also wants to follow, he also first just needs to do one last thing. He wants to say goodbye to his family. Again, Jesus’ response is severe: “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Goodbyes look back, and this journey is only moving forward. Jesus’ face is set in only one direction; there is no turning back for any reason. No looking back, no wistful longing, no indulgence of the sweet sadness of nostalgia. There is only this one thing: the pressing forward, after him, no matter what comes, no matter the not knowing of what comes.

Jesus has no use for “I will follow, but first…”

He has no need to avoid mess or to shy away from the anxiety of the unknown. He does not make easy promises or resort to moralisms or manipulation. He just tells the truth.

He tells them that following him will be hard and sometimes even horrible. He tells them it will involve sacrificing security, sacrificing comfort, sacrificing dreams of what might’ve been. He tells them the road he’s on will lead to rejection, loss, suffering, and even death. On this road, there will be all the things we’ve been actively trying to avoid. Tremendous losses of things we thought we had to have. Things we thought our world needed.

The losses will stack up, will be unavoidable. But there will also be the one thing we need. Him. Not some slick Buddy Christ. But Jesus himself. The one thing, the only thing, the only One who makes it possible for us to step forward into an uncertain future and then keep stepping forward in the direction he calls us, towards the purpose to which he has called us and for which he has raised us up.

This one thing is not the kind of flat and simple one thing that demands we think in only one way or tell our stories in only one way or pretend to be moral or pure or right, or pretend that religion is about being moral or pure or right.  This one thing simply asks us to let go – let go of false and superficial stories of what it’s all about, of what we’re supposed to be doing for each other and for the most vulnerable; to let go of false and superficial stories of what faith is for; to let go of our attachment to despair or fear or rage or hatred; to let go even of ego, maybe even sometimes to let go of the hopes we ourselves have, understanding that there may be hopes we have not yet dreamed; to let go of our failure of imagination or understanding or empathy, to refuse to pledge our allegiance to something so small as a cause or party or a country or a religion, and instead to do only one thing: follow him.

We don’t need to follow him all the way to Jerusalem. We just need to take the next step on the path. We don’t have to follow him all the way to some victory we can’t yet imagine. We just need to take the next step on the path of doing justice and showing kindness and walking humbly in faith. We don’t have to say a total, final Yes. We just need to say one little Yes, just for right now, just for today. Take one little step on the path. He’s just right there ahead of us. He can see what’s coming and that we will be okay. Things are hard, but we will be okay. Things are hard, but it will be okay. Things are hard, but we can and must do what must be done, for the sake of others, the sake of the most vulnerable, the sake of humanity, for the sake of justice and kindness. Things are hard, but we can and must live the high purpose for which we were created, we can do the one thing, we can do the only thing we need to do. Follow Him. Just the next step. Just one more step.

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[1] Randall Balmer. “The Real Origins of the Religious Right.” Politico. May 27, 2014. https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/05/religious-right-real-origins-107133/

[2] Bob Jones, Sr. “Is Segregation Scriptural?” Radio address broadcast on WMUU AM 1260. April 17, 1960 (Easter Sunday). Transcribed by Camille Lewis, March 15, 2013. https://www.drslewis.org/camille/2013/03/15/is-segregation-scriptural-by-bob-jones-sr-1960/

[3] Balmer. “The Real Origins of the Religious Right.”

[4] “Resolution on Abortion.” Southern Baptist Convention. June 1, 1971. https://www.sbc.net/resource-library/resolutions/resolution-on-abortion-2/

[5] Tom Davis. “A Truly Fearless Human Being: Rev. Howard Moody, 1921-2012.” Religion Dispatches. October 5, 2012. https://religiondispatches.org/a-truly-fearless-human-being-rev-howard-moody-1921-2012/

[6] W. Barry Garrett, the Washington Bureau Chief for the Baptist Press news service. “High Court Holds Abortion to be a ‘Right of Privacy.’” Baptist Press. January 31, 1973. http://media.sbhla.org.s3.amazonaws.com/3521,31-Jan-1973.pdf