If the Rapture happened today, would Southern Baptists be left behind?
You have to admit it’s crossed your mind.
It finally happened. A church choir sang a rousing tune based on Trump’s ballcap-emblazoned campaign motto. They did this, of course, to get the presidential party started in honor of that most patriotic of holidays, Independence Day. And, ostensibly, to celebrate freedom.
But the so-called “Celebrate Freedom Concert” was really celebrating something else: nationalism.
Did I mention that the choir was from a Baptist church — a Southern Baptist church? Well, they were. First Baptist Dallas, and their uber-Trumpy pastor Robert Jeffress, assembled in full regalia at the Kennedy Center to serenade the President himself and all attenders with this musical tribute, the lyrics as obtuse as the intellect that inspired them and banal as the white privilege that wrote them:
Make America great again
Make America great again
Lift the torch of freedom all across the land
Step into the future joining hand in hand
And make America great again.
Perhaps this holiday offers us a moment to reflect. It really has been quite a month for the Southern Baptist Convention. America’s largest Protestant denomination (with a notoriously racist history) made headlines at its annual meeting, and they weren’t especially good ones. First, the voting body struggled to officially denounce the influence of the alt-right on the conservative movement (a movement which is clearly comprised of many Southern Baptists). Second, they inexplicably ejected once-Southern Baptist, now-LGBT activist Brandan Robertson, even though he was not protesting and had permission to be there. Third, and perhaps more obscurely, they passed a resolution making the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement (where God the Father vents his wrath on the crucified Son to punish sin) the law of the SBC land.
These developments, combined with First Baptist’s “freedom” extravaganza, have me asking that question in the title: If the Rapture happened, like, right after tonight’s fireworks, would SBC’ers be left behind? We all know the Rapture is a favorite Baptist theological point; but, given the gross nationalism of this particular event, and its near-Babylonian worshipful fervor, would the voting members of the Convention find themselves staring at the sky in confusion after, I don’t know, all the liberal Episcopalians disappeared?
Let me be clear: I don’t actually believe in the Rapture. One of the strange byproducts of growing up in a cult was believing the Rapture to be escapist, worldly gobbledygook from a very young age. Our apocalypticism was of a more hardcore variety, with Last Days super-apostles and prophets roaming the Tribulation-addled world exercising ecclesial and political dominion by performing great signs and wonders. (Don’t worry, I’ve moved on from that wacky perspective on the end times too.)
Nevertheless, as proven by one of the best TV shows of all time, the Rapture makes for a great thought experiment, even when relegated to the realm of myth. Especially in these genuinely apocalyptic times — understanding apocalypse literally as revealing. That is, it is clear (to me, at least) that Christian faith in America is currently undergoing a great revealing — where its pervasive and harmful compromises with American empire (wealth, power, and violence) are being exposed. And the SBC is no exception. They might just be Exhibit A.
I know, I know. #NotAllSouthernBaptists. My point in this eschatological proposal is not to indict each individual SBC’er for the sins of the whole, but rather to show that the trajectory and direction of this particular body in recent days reveals much about the core commitments and values of American Christianity writ large. To say the SBC would be left behind after tonight’s explosive 4th of July Rapture is to say that a movement which has more in common with the American empire than the kingdom of God cannot partake in the full realization in that kingdom. This, of course, was the main point of Jesus’s kingdom teaching: that the religious insiders were compromised by empire wealth, power, and violence, and thus became the real outsiders, while the “sinners” on the margins found themselves welcomed into the rest and safety of the kingdom.
There is more to it, though; and that is the matter of true worship. Idolatry is the chief sin in focus throughout the biblical narrative, as Israel and Jesus’s own hearers strayed from the path of authentic worship and became more like the pagan nations around them than the covenant people of God. But the point is that this genuine worship of God is seen in the direction of a people’s life just as much as their sacramental practice — that they are decidedly moving away from allegiance to any empire that promises them selfish profit and power at the expense of loving neighbor and enacting true equality and liberation.
What, then, does it mean when a people must debate whether or not to denounce modern-day neo-nazis? How is this anything but a foregone conclusion? How is this anything but a non-issue?
This is reflective of Southern conservative culture’s larger struggle to remove Confederate monuments. Why are cities and towns and churches not immediately erecting liberative, anti-slavery monuments to take their place, with great joy and celebration? Why didn’t that happen decades ago?
Such would constitute an actual celebration of freedom.
Nationalistic idolatry is not freedom at all. It is the selfish and sinful indulgence in power — power that oppresses our neighbors. It is empire business.
And these recent blips on the SBC radar constitute a moment of great revealing.
Deeply ingrained racism, kneejerk exclusion towards LGBT people, doctrinal doubling-down on an image of God that is violent and angry at its core — all of these reveal the way the current American Christian project is compromised by empire.
We would all do well to heed this great revealing and get back on the kingdom track. That is, if we don’t want to be left behind.
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