Learning to love a thermostat God

By Alan Bean

“Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world?”

This question was originally scrawled in the margin of an Alabama newspaper by an exasperated Martin Luther King Jr. The church was once a thermostat “that transformed the mores of society,” King told the white clergymen of Birmingham, but it has degenerated into a thermometer that merely reflects the “ideas and principles of public opinion.”

Organized religion takes a dreadful beating in the final section of King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail. From the earliest days of the civil rights movement, King alleges, most religious leaders have “remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.”

In the midst of “a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic justice,” white clergymen have stood on the sidelines mouthing “pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities.”

Preachers have preached the heretical notion that the gospel is unrelated to social issues. They have concocted “a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, unbiblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.”

The comes the most chilling indictment of all:

On sweltering summer summer days and crisp autumn mornings I have looked at the South’s beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward . . . Over and over I have found myself asking: “What kind of people worship here? Who is their God?”

A thermometer church speaks for a thermometer God who reflects “the ideas and principles of public opinion.” Fifty years ago, the church was, to use King’s phrase, “the arch defender of the status quo.” Now we can’t even manage that. While the larger society inches graceward, we cling to our cherished bigotries. Our thermometer God lies shattered on the floor and no power on earth can put the pieces back together.

When the Richmond Baptist Association refused to discipline Ginter Park Baptist Church for ordaining a gay man to minister to persons with disabilities and special needs, it was simply acknowledging a change in the social temperature. Ginter Park wasn’t taking a principled stand on gay rights or marriage equality; the congregation was simply recognizing the gifts of God in a particular believer. The Richmond Association was neither condoning nor condemning the congregation’s action; it merely decided, albeit by a slim margin, to sweep the matter under the ecclesiastical carpet.

Conflict avoidance worked just fine when the church served as a social thermometer, but those days are gone.

And that’s just fine. In fact, it’s great! Only a thermostat God can save us.

When was the last time you heard a Baptist minister, conservative or moderate, talk about God’s love for undocumented immigrants?

I don’t want to hear partisan politics from the pulpit anymore than you do; but the gospel of the kingdom transcends politics because the biblical God transcends borders, skin color, language, gender, nationality or any other arbitrary human distinction.

Our preaching must reckon with a thermostat God who is eternally fiddling with the social temperature. But what can a thermostat God do with a church that, having lost the power to reinforce the moral statues quo, stands on the sidelines mumbling “pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities.”

Not much of anything, it seems.

The church will leaven the social order when the gospel of the kingdom leavens the church. Light generates heat. A thermostat God can’t thaw a frozen culture without cranking up the temperature in the Body of Christ.

Alan Bean

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About the Author
Alan is executive director of Friends of Justice, an organization that creates a powerful synergy between grassroots organizing, civil rights advocacy, the legal community, the mass media and ultimately the political establishment. Friends of Justice is committed to building a new moral consensus for ending mass incarceration and mass deportation. Dr. Bean lectures frequently at universities, legal conferences, churches and community organizations on the issues of mass incarceration, drug policy and criminal justice reform. He has been quoted extensively in leading publications such as Newsweek, The Washington Post, USA Today, La Monde and The Chicago Tribune and CNN and his work with Friends of Justice been featured in the religious media outlets such as EthicsDaily.com and the Associated Baptist Press. Dr. Bean is the author of "Taking out the Trash in Tulia, Texas," an insider account of the events surrounding the Tulia drug sting. He lives in Arlington, Texas with his wife Nancy, a special education counselor and is a member of Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth.

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