Friday, July 10, 2020

Years of "Alternative Facts"

Within the current limits of the city of Hillsboro ND there are 4 structures, representing 5 religious denominations, with 5 clergy: Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, Roman Catholic, United Church of Christ, and United Methodist Church. 

The Hillsboro Banner is an award winning, weekly newspaper owned and operated by a family in Hillsboro. As part of their publication a section entitled "Forward in Faith" is provided for the 5 local clergy to share thoughts and perspectives on a rotating basis.  Today's edition (July 10, 2020) includes the writing which I provided. The Hillsboro Banner has both print and online editions. However I wanted to provide my reflection to a larger audience. What follows is that writing.

On January 22, 2017 during a Sunday morning political show the phrase, “alternative facts” became a cultural reality. The show’s host responded, “Alternative facts are not facts, they are falsehoods.”

In looking at and seeking clarity into my present setting this verbal exchange came to mind. I realize “alternative facts” existed long before the phrase was uttered over three years ago. How did I come to that discovery?  I have been a purveyor of the aforementioned falsehoods for decades. It was not my intention to lie (although I have used that ability), but as a leader in a religious institution I have passed on concepts, stories, and understandings that are interpretations, not facts. 

Part of the scandalous actions making Jesus such a threat to the establishment was his caring for people on the fringes of society, e.g. tax collectors and sinners. As a pastor I have conveyed the message (blatant and subtle) that “good Christians” behave in a certain manner. I have expressed to teenagers that there are acceptable and unacceptable thoughts and attitudes in God’s perspective. The term “unchurched” was and continues to be used to differentiate (hear “segregate”) groups of people. While the phrase, “People should get their priorities straight.” is uttered to uplift my viewpoint of acceptable preferences in contrast to those who choose other ( hear “less meaningful”) options for their lives. This is a small example of religious and denominational “alternative facts.”

While I deeply appreciate and cherish the renewed gatherings of the two faith communities I serve, people got along well without my in-person presence. The formal method and structure of Sunday morning worship was replaced by 10-15 minute vlogs. No one complained about the shortened length. I attempted to place a personal, spiritual nugget online weekly. More than parishioners watched the videos posted on YouTube. Responses received made me pause and ponder. Analytics showed me that most people did not watch the entire video.  I realized again we are all on our spiritual journeys as unique individuals. We have much in common and insights to share with one another. However, tests of Scriptural purity or doctrinal sanctitude create divisions instead of strengthening.

For myself the overarching message of Christianity with its sacred stories and writings is that God embraces all of creation, no matter what. In that embrace humanity is free to explore, examine, make choices, reflect upon those choices, and make new choices. Trying to place the realities of life into neatly defined boundaries and packaging, separating the “haves from the have nots” is alternative facts.

As I reflect upon my years as a pastor I realize my perceived power was limited. Yes, I did propagate "alternative facts", most of which was unintentional. I was doing what I thought was expected and what the religious organization promoted. All people, I believe have the ability to think and act for themselves. Thus my power over their concept of God and faith was limited. Yet, I feel responsible for my teaching and preaching. I realize that due to my title and position what I spoke and taught carried extra significance. Now, I ask more questions inviting others to do the same. God embraces all of creation, no matter what!

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