If you have been adopted in God’s family like I have, and like you have, if you’re a Christian and if you’re saved, and the Holy Spirit lives within you just like the Holy Spirit lives within me, then you know what that makes? It makes you and me brothers. And it makes you and me brother and sister. Now I will have to say that, if we don’t have the same daddy, we’re not brothers and sisters. So anybody here today who has not accepted Jesus Christ as their savior, I’m telling you, you’re not my brother and you’re not my sister, and I want to be your brother.
So in Birmingham, do they still love the governor? Ooh, ooh, ooh.
When I was growing up, my mother encouraged me to apply three criteria before saying something: Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary? I think Governor Bentley’s comments violate the kindness thing, especially on a day honoring Dr. King, whose rhetoric clearly invoked the brotherhood and sisterhood and common dignity of all people, who did not have a religious prerequisite for his movement—just ask this guy.
As for the third criterion, Bentley’s comments were wholly unnecessary, and at the very least, raise some eyebrows from an establishment-of-religion perspective. We are all members of the human race, and as such, are very much bound to one another. Bentley’s comments seemed dismissive of that and have caused hurt feelings with very little utility.
But on the first point—and it’s going to get me in trouble for saying so—his comments are true.
Gov. Bentley made his statement from a church pulpit and was clearly speaking from his own Christian perspective. And in that sense, he is absolutely right. Christians are sisters and brothers to one another in a particular and peculiar way that we just aren’t with people of other faiths, or no faith. When we are part of the body of Christ, our relationship with one another takes on a different character. (For one thing, we’re stuck with each other.) I happen to agree with Stephen Prothero, to the extent that I can without reading his book (I’ve read stuff about his book). That is, I agree that interfaith relations have suffered over the years from a bland syncretism: “we basically all believe the same thing, we just come at it differently.” Maybe that’s true, maybe it’s not, but we’ve been too quick to get to the commonalities instead of really dwelling in the messiness of the differences. (Prothero is far from alone in this critique, by the way.)
As a Christian, my beliefs and practices are distinctive from my Taoist brother. I’m not saying they’re better, mind, and on this point, I’m fairly certain that Gov. Bentley and I diverge; he’d probably say Christianity IS better. I support those non-Christians in Alabama who will be keeping on eye on things down there. But yes, being a Christian means that Gov. Bentley is my brother in a very particular way that my biological brother is not. That doesn’t mean that I love Gov. Bentley more than I love my brother. Not even close. But there it is. And that is the scandal of the gospel, is it not? That there is a new community in Christ? Isn’t that part of what Jesus meant when he said that families would be divided against one another?
To carry his analogy forward: my best friend and soul sister Gini is not related to me by blood or marriage. I love her like a sister, but she is not, technically, my sister and never will be. To say she is not my sister is not to call her evil. It’s not a moral failing on her part that she happens not to be a member of my family, it’s just the simple reality of the situation. (Maybe he’s calling non-Christians evil, but I think you’ve got to read into his statement something that may or may not be there.)
It’s also insulting to people of other faiths, and people who have chosen no faith at all, to say, “You know what? I know you’re on your own spiritual path, but we’re gonna claim you as one of us.”
Let’s be clear. You won’t hear me making categorical statements from any pulpit or blog about who is and who isn’t my brother. And I agree with a friend of mine who said (paraphrased) that if there’s a heaven, Gov. Bentley is going to be pretty damn surprised at some of the people who end up there. And I really have to wonder at the judgment of a man who felt that his very first day, and at a MLK service, would be a peachy time to make a statement that was sure to bother and offend people. That doesn’t change the fact that the statement is, on a fundamental level, correct.
Image: Why yes, that is the stained glass window from the series finale of LOST.