Technically, the Governor of Alabama is Correct

Apparently the governor of Alabama had a hell of a first day, telling an audience on Martin Luther King day:

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.


11 thoughts on “Technically, the Governor of Alabama is Correct

  1. lukee says:

    This is a good post. So really it comes down to what specific category we are talking about at any particular time.

    Blood related: Brothers and sisters
    Specific religious practice: Brothers and sisters (in this example, brothers and sisters in Christ)
    People of faith or spiritual practice in general (who believe there is a “higher power” or “higher unity) of which we are all: Brothers and Sisters
    And then I would imagine there are other ways people refer to each other in this way: Union Brothers and Sisters, Brothers and Sisters in a struggle, etc…

    So it sounds like the Governor is correct in saying that only Christians are his “Brothers and Sisters” in Christ (although I would wonder if Gay Christians, as an example, would be considered “real” brothers and and sisters).

    My problem with his statement is emphasizing that one “family” over the others, a point you made in your blog.

    Argh, I feel like I am rambling here, but I am glad you wrote this when you did because I sure needed a break from the spreadsheets I have been staring at all morning. Thank you sister!

  2. Rachel Heslin says:

    Lukee said pretty much what I was going to say: for all that the governor may have been correct about having brothers and sisters in Christ due to shared religious beliefs, by deliberately excluding anyone who doesn’t share those particular beliefs as not part of his family, he dismisses all other ties of common humanity as inferior and irrelevant. And *that* is a problem in a publicly elected official.

    • MaryAnn says:

      Yes—appreciate both of these comments.

      I think what I’m saying is mostly directed to folks within my own ‘tribe,’ who are understandably troubled by what the governor said. But in their dismay and outrage, they shouldn’t disavow the basic core of what he said, which is theologically important, albeit inappropriately and inartfully expressed in this case.

      Also, there’s more to be said about what the purpose of the Christian “family” is. I tend to agree with Rob Bell who said that if the gospel is truly good news, then it needs to be good news for everyone. To me that means we are motivated to serve the world in the example of Jesus. I suspect Gov. Bentley is most interested in who’s going to go to heaven though…

      • Rachel Heslin says:

        Considering what he said in the context of where and when he said it (Montgomery Baptist Church on MLK Day), it could be seen as expressing a beautiful idea, because it implies that being joined in faith supersedes all other differences. And yes, wanting to share that faith with others is part and parcel with truly believing in its glory. If he hadn’t just been elected governor, there wouldn’t have been any problem.

        As far as how he measures faith, I like the saying, “If he makes it to Heaven, he might be surprised at the type of people he meets there.”

  3. Keith says:

    I doubt there’s anything here you aren’t already clear on, but just to have expressed it…

    The statement is also, on a level I think is more fundamental–the very impossibility of which renders the previous fundament not one–incorrect. The theologically important “basic core” certainly exists, and is understandably expressed in familial metaphor. But fundamentally, you are not brothers and sisters.

    As I see it, any time one has to drill down into jargon and specialized definitions to make a statement true, it’s false when taken as basic English. I mean, that’s why jargon and technical language exist; they narrow things so the specialists can be less ambiguous at a more micro level. This example is not exactly analogous, but when a physicist uses the word “work,” it means something much more specific (the amount of energy transferred by a force acting through a distance) than when I use it.

    Given the non-metaphorical, non-specialized, non-jargon, plain English meanings of “brother” and “sister,” without entering the specialist’s lingo, it is simply not true that Christians are brothers and sisters. Well, some are, but there’s also a DNA thing going on there at the same time. The only way you can make the statement true is by ignoring the meaning that most English speakers understand of the word. I understand that in some contexts, ignoring that meaning makes perfect sense, and isn’t harmful–but this isn’t one of them. Once you’re the governor, you’re speaking as the governor, not as a brother Christian.

    On a more meta level, jargon marks Us as the insiders, and Them as the outsiders. When a kid makes up a secret code for his little club of friends, it’s the existence of the code that has the primary meaning, not the code words themselves. We are the knowers; they are not. We are inside; they are outside. And since we’re unfortunately human, we are better, they are worse. Regardless of whether the words themselves say this, the very use of the code does.

    The only way I can read it is that he’s drawing Us and Them lines, using plausibly defensible language. Insult is the least of my problems with what really does look, to me, like plain old institutional bigotry dolled up nice.

    • MaryAnn says:

      I think I hear you saying that the very use of jargon of any kind, outside of the community that understands the jargon, is itself exclusionary and creates an in-or-out mentality. And then when you add the *content* of the jargon, it’s like a double whammy of offensiveness.

      Do I have it?

      “Fundamental” may not be the right word. I realize that the brother/sister terminology is a metaphor, but I’m not willing to call it “merely” a metaphor. I think it runs deeper than that, though we’re getting into territory that’s hard for me to articulate.

      This isn’t quite the same, but it’s like calling Jews “members of the tribe”—it means something different when you’re in it, maybe. Personally I like that nickname and think it’s kinda cute. And then I recall the adjectival form of “tribe,” and how being tribal is not always such a good thing.

      • Keith Snyder says:

        Oh, you probably have it. I was too hasty and tired to unify my themes.

        Since “merely” doesn’t mean anything but “I’m superior to what I’m talking about” (people who say love is “merely” chemical reactions, for example, really irritate me, since all of life is chemical reactions), I’m not saying it either. But I will say this narrow use of “brother” is a smaller, less primary meaning than its basic usage. It’s the metaphor that can only exist because the larger rock of the word is there to be danced upon.

        “Members of the tribe” annoys the hell out of me even though it’s literally true. I’m not sure why–possibly the cutesy factor, along with my awareness of that same all-too-human disdain for non-members (of ANY clique). But in the case of the tribe, at least it’s literal; any metaphor is in addition to the literal meaning, not instead of it.

        I really think when you have to discount the literal meaning of something in order to get at the metaphor, you might be in Humpty Dumpty territory.

  4. David E says:

    Nice conversation here, and thanks for the thoughtful post that prompted it.
    My own biggest issue with “tribe” is that I’ve always felt that Paul’s radical insight came in understanding that the God he met in Christ was God not just to Paul’s own tribe but also to the Gentile world. Thus the new community of the church was transgressive of tribalism itself, and therefore stood against the violence that has always marked tribal difference.

  5. Teri says:

    MA, I would love to hear/read your reactions to Will Willimon’s posting on this same issue…..


    To be perfectly honest, I’m not convinced I actually agree with either of you, but I’m still contemplating…

    • MaryAnn says:

      I did read that, actually… and was thinking I needed to link to it here. I’m glad you did.

      I agree with some of what he says and not other bits. For example, yes on the obedience point, no on the “Our Father” as evidence that we’re all part of the family. That’s a bit of a stretch.

      I guess I’m still struggling too. Here’s my basic point: I can cite numerous examples from scripture that suggest that the circle of Jesus’ concern is much wider than we can possibly imagine, even encompassing the whole world. What I don’t see is language that references that wide circle in familial terms; that is reserved for the ekklesia. I’m open to being corrected on that point, however. And I also grant (nodding toward Keith) that heading too far down this road can result in pointless semantic hair-splitting.

      • Rachel Heslin says:

        Finally got around to reading that link. I find Willimon’s argument convincing in that it seems to have as its basic assumption that we will reach out to and help our kin, but not strangers; therefore, Jesus exhorts us to view all people as our kin.

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