Many of you may have heard or heard about the comment President Bush made in light of the terrorist plot that was foiled a couple of weeks ago in London. He said that the struggle against Islamic fascism continues. I took that as an invitation to ponder fascism in our world, and I doubt President Bush would appreciate where those wanderings have taken me.
Fascism is hard to talk about because it has become such a pejorative term. Everybody uses it against everyone else. And my real fear is that the people who really are fascists have made sure that using the term against them gets dismissed as something like left wing reactionary nonsense while they continue unimpeded with their right wing reactionary nonsense.
Since the President did bring it up, I decided to look it up. This is the description I culled from a discussion about the meaning of the word fascism. “Fascism exalts the nation, state, or race as superior to the individuals, institutions, or groups composing it. Fascism uses explicit populist rhetoric; calls for a heroic mass effort to restore past greatness; and demands loyalty to a single leader, often to the point of a cult of personality. Fascism is also typified by totalitarian attempts to impose state control over all aspects of life: political, social, cultural, and economic. Fascism dismissed the concept of class conflict, replacing it instead with the struggle between races, and the struggle of the youth versus their elders. This meant embracing nationalism and mysticism, and advancing ideals of strength and power as means of legitimacy, glorifying war as an end in itself and victory as the determinant of truth and worthiness.”
Since this was from Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that anyone can post to, I figured I ought to try something a little more mainstream. So here’s the Merriam-Webster definition of fascism. “A political philosophy, movement, or regime that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition.”
Given these definitions, I would say there is Islamic fascism to worry about, though far from all Muslims are fascists. But it also gets me thinking about things closer to home. I look at the current state of affairs in our own nation and I think homegrown fascism is something we ought to be growing more concerned about. And we especially ought to be concerned about the possibility of Christian fascism at work in this country.
To be honest, the Islamic fascists who uphold the superiority of Islam and Islamic culture, and their desire to impose state control over all aspects of life: political, social, cultural, and economic, by setting up an Islamic state sound no different to me than the voices I hear clamoring for a Christian America. Both Islamic and Christian fascists claim their religious and racial superiority as God ordained. And they both are seduced by the possibilities of gaining power through violence and proclaiming the seizing of that power as proof of that God is on their side. Both end up betraying their religions and their nations.
For Christians flirting with the possibilities of fascism, I would suggest they take a good look at Ephesians 3 and the Apostle Paul’s rejection of fascism, which landed him in jail. But he didn’t care because he had discovered something that no jailer could ever take away from him, the mystery of the ages. And what was that mystery? There were no insiders and outsiders in God’s eyes.
All his life Paul had believed that his race, his religion, his culture, his gender, and his customs were superior to all others. Like so many others he was waiting for that all to be proven right by this fantastic and bloody military victory that would drive Rome into the sea and establish Israel as the new power, an eternal theocratic empire. But then he bumped into the Risen Jesus one day, and everything began to change. This Jewish supremacist, the ultimate insider, was given the mission of going to those people he had always thought of outsiders, of no concern to God at all, and inviting them to find with him this new way of God that Jesus was opening.
This new way, this great mystery, was that God loves us all. We don’t have to live any longer behind our walls of superiority. The divisions can give way to the unity we find in the grace of Jesus Christ that is offered to us all.
Paul understood the proving ground of this new world Jesus was calling us to build was the Church. In this chapter we read his near ecstacy at the possibilities of the Church, of what we could become as we tore down the walls that divide us, walls that Jesus destroyed on his cross.
Paul languished in prison, but reveled in the hope that God would be glorified in the Church and in Christ Jesus. There is no place for fascism in the Church that Paul knew Jesus is calling us to build. In fact, the mystery was that the Church had come into being to put an end to our notions of superiority. Our allegiance isn’t to nation or race but the commonwealth of God that Jesus revealed.
In that commonwealth there is no place for violence. Violence is what we challenge rather than to prove our superiority. If the only way you can win the battle of ideas is with guns and smart weapons, then your ideas aren’t very good. But Jesus had some pretty good ideas like loving our friends and our enemies. Like taking care of each other, particularly the vulnerable ones. Like giving up on our distinctions between insiders and outsiders. Like living in this world the way God wants us to live. Jesus is a threat to the fascist state and the fascists know it. The Church should be too, but the fascists, except for pockets here and there, aren’t seeing much to worry them.
Whenever you are talking about Paul, of course, there are issues you have to confront. This amazing statement he makes in the third chapter of Ephesians about giving up on our insider and outsider notions, is overwhelmed in many minds by what we read a couple of chapters later where he maintains the insider/outsider dichotomy between men and women.
Paul, though, was a person in process. It takes more than getting knocked off your horse to bring about the kinds of changes Paul was going to experience. It takes a while to outgrow a life built on fascism. And like it or not, most of us grow up with fascism. Who doesn’t want to be told their people are superior to all other people? Who doesn’t want to be told that our government will make sure we have a strong enough military to protects us? Who doesn’t want to be told that our power is the testimony that God likes us best? And if you are a man, who doesn’t want to be told that you are better than women?
What Paul says about women being submissive to men in Ephesians 5, though, is not all Paul has to say about the subject. That tortured passage we read at the beginning of 1 Corinthians 11 where he talks about men and women show that he is struggling with this mystery that is in Christ, trying to piece together how you live in this world with the walls torn down. It was not easy for Paul, it’s not easy for any of us. Fascism has its hold on us.
Paul, though, as he struggled, kept his hope in Jesus who was making him into a new person. Paul was unashamedly a Jesus follower, and was more than eager to invite others to follow Jesus with him. He had encountered Jesus and his life was changing to something a whole lot better than it had been. And he saw in Jesus the possibility to build a much better world than the one we have now.
This, of course, opens up another front in the Pauline battles. It makes a lot of people very uncomfortable that Paul was so centered on Jesus. But here’s the thing, he had found life in Jesus and believed that all the rest of us could too. And he believed we could bring that life into this very world, that God could be glorified, rightly known, by the followers of Jesus, by his Church. The possibilities were too far reaching for Paul not to encourage others to make it happen by giving their lives over to Jesus and following him. Paul calls that salvation.
Now it might seem a bit over the top to suggest we be on the alert for a Christian fascism. But remember that plenty of people in Germany were enthralled by the possibilities of a Christian Germany. And once that ball got rolling it was hard to stop.
Just yesterday, I saw a bumper sticker. It was an American flag, except in the corner instead of 50 stars on the field of blue, there was a fish, the Christian symbol. There are folk out there looking for a Christian America with the awareness that it will have to be enforced to happen. That’s what we call fascism.
Never forget that Hitler was elected to office and had great support in the Church. And given what happened to the German fascist movement, the fascist of our day are probably going to be a bit more subtle. I doubt it will be Brown Shirts marching down the streets. I think they are learning how to better market fascism. But it will always play on our fear.
I think in these days, it would be a dereliction of Christian duty to not pay attention to fascist tendencies in ourselves, our nation, and, worst of all, in the church.
The antidote to Islamic fascism is not Christian fascism. That cure is, at least, as bad as the disease. The antidote, as Paul joyfully acknowledges, is Jesus. We meet Islamic or Christian or any other kind of fascism with the mystery that has been hidden from the ages. There are no outsiders, nobody who is inferior to us. God loves us. God loves everybody. Jesus has torn down the walls and thrown open the possibility of a world built on love, compassion, and trust. Trust that is not placed in nation or race, but trust placed in God who calls us to build a new world where the false promises of the fascists are overwhelmed by the promises of God.
We are living in dangerous times in this country. But the worst danger is not from the Islamic fascists. What is worse is the notion that we become fascists ourselves, enforcing social, political, cultural, and economic conformity. At that point we have become our enemy, and the other side has won.
So we have to keep our eyes open for fascism. But more importantly we need to keep our eyes open for the mystery of God that is in Jesus Christ, the salvation that is there. Paul saw it. This is why the Church is here; to glorify God by making God’s ways known to the fascists and everyone else.