by Reid Fitzsimons (note: other names used in letter replaced with XXX)
Greetings Pastor XXX:
This is Reid Fitzsimons writing. I am the husband of XXX, who was to an extent raised at St. John’s Church in the 1950s and 1960s. We attended your service on July 10, 2016 while visiting the area. You kindly invited me to partake in Communion but I mentioned I am not a Christian and felt it disrespectful of the Communion tradition and intent for a non-Christian to participate.
I am writing to offer some observations and thoughts of your service and sermon, but please bear with me for a moment to describe my relation with Christianity. I was not raised in any religion and was quite atheistic when I was younger. In my early 40’s I quit gainful employment to do volunteer work in Guatemala, Kenya, and later Honduras. In doing so I encountered many Christians and came to believe that the basic tenets of Christianity, especially Do Unto Others and Love Thy Neighbor, are the best prescription for any society regardless of religiosity, but at the time I was quite ignorant of the most elementary theology.
In July 2008 (a month after XXX’s mother died) we moved to Southern Alabama and divided our time between Alabama and running our charity in Honduras. While in Alabama XXX asked if I would help her find then attend church with her. We decided on a Presbyterian church (PCA, not PCUSA) and soon became fairly close to the pastor, a very gracious and learned person who actually went to seminary in France, in French. He invited me to attend a multi-denominational men’s Bible Study despite knowing unequivocally I was not a Christian. This stimulated an interest in theology, which continues to the present. As an aside, this study group, located in what is derisively called the Bible Belt, not only tolerated an agnostic Yankee who was not reluctant to bring controversy into the study, but kindly accepted me into their fellowship. I continue to attend church with regularity, mostly a small Regular Baptist Church since we moved to Pennsylvania, and continue to study theology on my own.
In regards to your service, it seemed much more Catholic-like in format than I expected of the prototypical protestant church- I know Martin Luther was a Catholic priest but I thought he rejected intermediaries, i.e. ministers, in regards to salvation. I had no idea a Lutheran minister could forgive sins and, in reading the book of Lutheran worship, that there is a process of clergy mediated personal confession. This is not a criticism, just that it was quite different than what I’ve come to expect in the services of Reformed Protestant Churches.
Your sermon was based on the always moving and meaningful parable of the Good Samaritan, which of course is the quintessential study of Love Thy Neighbor. In terms of defining “neighbor” you mentioned all the trending now, so to speak, identity groups, which is fine. One group I noted was absent was yet to be born children- a group consisting of millions that, as far as I understand it, are not always welcomed to the neighborhood of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. This is not consistent with what I know to be Christianity, but perhaps the ELC uses the old trick of loving their fellow man but being choosy about who meets their criteria for being human.
I used to be pro-abortion too. I spent most of my gainful employment life as a Physician Assistant (PA). While in PA training and had occasion to assist with several abortions. Despite basic academic knowledge of fetology it was much easier to accept the Planned Parenthood “blob of tissue” narrative. This was challenged when I saw little arms and legs, with hands and feet and little fingers pass through the suction tubing: it became much more difficult to deny the humanity of the terminated child.
I’ve come to the conclusion it’s less cowardly to just kill people because you hate them, as we see daily with, for example Shia Muslims slaughtering Sunni Muslims and vice versa, than to do the mental contortions of denying the humanity of any given group. From the slave-holding Christians in the 19th century who pretended their human chattel was more animal than human, to the classification of Jews as untermensch in mid-20th century Germany, to the “pro-choice” Christians and secularists of today, there is a common underlying bond. It is much easier, and even satisfying for some, to kill what they decree is not human, and it’s guilt free as well.
While in your sermon you selectively defined one’s neighbor, you didn’t venture to define “love.” For many Christians, and indeed much of secular society, “love” is a word of convenience, more of a political or social justice tool than something to be put into action. Love is considered to be evidenced when someone or some group embraces whatever progressive dogma happens to be floating about at the moment, and hate is deemed to exist in someone or some group it they disagree, no matter how respectfully, reasonably, or compassionately.
Love can certainly include words, but too often we expect our love to be unburdened by effort. Love is notoriously difficult to define, but I have seen perfect examples of it. Love is your former parishioner and my wife delaying a brief safari in Kenya due to an unexpected delivery- in one hand she held a flashlight and in the other the hand of the new mother while I sutured vaginal tearing. Love is XXX walking back to our house in the oppressive heat and dirt of Honduras to make cookies for the poor kids attending our little youth project. Love is not putting a “co-exist” bumper sticker on your Volvo, nor is it demanding that someone else do something, typically with someone else’s resources.
In your sermon you referenced, while not actually using the word, xenophobia. This was when you stated the vote for Britain to leave the EU was due to people wanting to (paraphrasing) isolate themselves from diversity. This is a comfortable narrative and perhaps there is some truth to it, but you didn’t allow that many voters were unwilling to surrender their personal and community sovereignty to an unaccountable and distant technocracy, an elite that singularly benefits from global wealth. Nor did you allow a basis for people being wary of what might be termed open borders. In the US we have a largely unprecedented immigration situation in that in many cases immigrants are not looking to integrate themselves in their new culture but demanding the culture they are ostensibly leaving be fully accommodated. Hence there are incidences where US flags are required to be hidden (believe me, I have no sense of patriotism) while Mexican flags are permitted to be vigorously and proudly displayed.
I would contend I have better than average credentials in regards to Latin American culture and, as unpleasant as it may be to say it, it contains an abundance of dysfunction. For people to simply geographically relocate with no expectations of assimilation is a disservice to everyone. We once had a young fully bilingual volunteer (in Honduras) whose father was first generation from Mexico who instructed his daughter, “We are Americans now, so we act like Americans!” Sadly, this sentiment might well be construed as “racist” in our trending now culture, where word definitions are fluid if they suit a political or social justice purpose.
The use of the term xenophobia as an accusation is popular today, similar to Islamophobe, etc, because it is not intended to facilitate discussion but rather to shame and silence those who don’t fully embrace a progressive narrative. As I don’t want to further reveal my tendency toward loquaciousness, I will try to conclude with a brief exploration of this thought based upon my experience extrinsic to the US:
Immigration is a forefront issue of today, particularly in Europe (as you referenced in your subtle condemnation of the vote for Britain to leave the EU) and the US. Regarding the latter, immigration from Central America and Mexico makes up a large part of the discussion. As the contemporary lexicon is primarily controlled by progressive institutions, the phrase “immigration reform” essentially means open borders, and those who support it enjoy viewing themselves as cosmopolitan, compassionate, and enlightened, and of course those in opposition are anything but. Immigrants are typically and universally portrayed as hardworking honest souls simply seeking a better life for themselves and their families (admittedly the harder core anti-open border people are inclined to describe them as lazy people seeking welfare and even criminals, which isn’t wholly untrue but is certainly an incorrect generalization).
The concern for me, however, having spent a number of years living in Central America (not as part of the secluded ex-patriot community) is that if the “immigration reform” advocates are correct in their assessment of those entering the US, then for every “hardworking honest soul (quoting myself)” entering the US, such a person is gone from the home country and culture. In other words we, in the American superciliousness of which we are not even aware, give no consideration to the impact “immigration reform” has on the land of origin, which is negative at best and devastating at worst. This is because, of course, the ultimate goal is not to help others, but rather use the plights and vicissitudes of others to facilitate our own personal sense of goodness. Considering the ramifications of what we demand is beside the point, it is in the process of making demands that we elevate our egos and ourselves. To be fair to a minister of a liberal mainline Christian denomination, some of your conservative counterparts have the same tendency- spend generous sums in travel expenses, blow into a village for a few days, accomplish nothing of value, then return to their home church impressing the congregation with tales of all the souls they saved.
In closing (finally!), I must admit that at times Christians of all persuasions drive me batty. Obviously I align myself with conservative Christians, but their adherence to Biblical inerrancy and literalism can make otherwise thoughtful and intelligent people seem unamenable to objective discourse. I wish less time was spent with Paul and more with Jesus, so to speak, but at least they hold to a moral standard. I can’t help but believe that the persistent and significant decline of the mainline liberal churches, while obviously multifactorial in cause, is largely because they have become sin-free zones (excepting of course for cultural sins, new ones which seem to pop-up almost daily). In other words, places where people are told “if it feels good God is all for it” and “you’re a good person.” Not houses of worship and fellowship, but inconsequential self-help and social justice organizations masquerading as churches. I believe people are inclined to Christianity not to receive forgiveness without troubling themselves with repentance, but to be inspired to a higher level, to be reminded that, despite whatever their personal inadequacies and debaucheries, there is a standard they can strive for, something greater than themselves.
Well, thank you for your time and our cordial reception during our recent visit.
Reid Fitzsimons, July 21, 2016