Radical Christianity in a Texas Church

The priest as political activist. Credit: Jim Rigby

The priest as political activist. Credit: Jim Rigby

Austin, USA: Soon after Jim Rigby took over as minister of the St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Austin 30 years ago, two women were sexually assaulted in his parish. In trying to address the issue, he realised the limitations of his own training and attended training at a rape counselling centre. What followed was a lifelong journey as a feminist, political activist and  champion of gay and lesbian rights and human rights. Earlier this month, he received the Amnesty International Austin Human Rights Defender Award.

“The incident sensitised me to a whole range of issues. It made me rethink the accepted ideals of theology and how certain views of the universe make it impossible to respond to specific situations. If you think of god as a male, it is very hard to be a feminist,” said Rigby. Now at the forefront of gender equality, Rigby has changed the hymns in church to make them gender-neutral. He has also dismissed the use of the word “Lord” for god, a remnant of the feudal past.

As Rigby started rethinking religion, he began to take biblical readings to have a metaphorical truth rather than literal truth. “When I was in seminary, we were taught about the problems in the Bible but were also told not to tell that to people because it would destroy their faith. I was upset, hurt and confused because I felt that something was wrong with the way the stories were told,” he said.

The liberal nature of Presbyterian churches is well known but Rigby is an outlier in that he is a leftist theologically and politically. Where most liberal ministers would stay away from supernatural claims of Christianity, Rigby openly rejects, for instance, the idea that Christ rose from the dead. And so, Rigby’s Easter sermons go beyond cadavers getting up, and recognise the event instead, as an embodiment of life itself, of the ephemeral nature of life processes.

A new survey of more than 35,000 Americans by the Pew Research Centre in 2014 found that the percentage of adults (ages 18 and older) who describe themselves as Christians has dropped from 78.4% in 2007 to 70.6% in 2014. However, the United States continues to remain home to more Christians than any other country in the world, and roughly seven in ten Americans identify with some branch of the Christian faith. So, for a radical like Rigby at the helm of evangelical affairs to find a following in the Bible belt of the country is likely without a precedent.

‘Trance of capitalism’

Rigby’s sermons are often infused with politics and philosophy, a combination that attracts liberals and non Christians. The church also has a sizeable number of atheists who come to seek “poetry” in life. For Rigby, god is a symbol, a magnifying glass that takes our little loves and makes them universal, placing us in the centre of the universe. And so, religion becomes a subjective intuitive experience of nature and an interpretation of beauty, truth and goodness that incarnate the universe.

Out of curiosity, I visited the St Andrew’s church on a hot Sunday morning the week that had seen Europe closing its doors to refugees from the Middle East. Photographs of the Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi drowned at a Turkish beach had made people across the world take note of how deep the crisis was. Like many priests and ministers, Rigby could have asked the listeners to pray for world peace. Instead he delivered a memorable speech, a scathing comment on society: “We have fallen into a trance where we see land as property, trees as lumber and people as commodities. If you can’t guess the name of that trance, I will go ahead and tell you: it is capitalism. It’s a religious view of the world where objectivity crushes subjectivity. Where we see the suffering of others but don’t feel it.”

In attacking capitalism, Rigby is shaking the core value system of American society. Naturally, he sees Christianity as a branch of capitalism. “The religion of America is capitalism, so everything is privatised. Republicans have been confusing Adam Smith for Jesus,” he says. He warns against the power of religion to commit atrocities by quoting Voltaire: “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”

Recent mass shootings in San Bernardino, California and Colorado Springs, have reignited calls for stricter gun control measures. According to Mass Shooting Tracker, a website that monitors gun violence, more than 460 people have been killed and 1,314 others injured in attacks so far in 2015. On average, 31 Americans are murdered with guns every day and 151 are treated for gun assault in an emergency room. The spiral of cases of gun violence prompted President Barack Obama to say that it had become “routine” and that people had become “numb” to this. “We have a pattern now of mass shootings in this country that has no parallel anywhere else in the world,” Obama said in a televised interview. Rigby, like many other liberals, believes that gun control is an issue that needs to be reckoned with urgently. “The answer for gun violence is guns. That needs to stop,” he said.

In America, where politics is deeply rooted in religion and politicians make references to the Bible to get their agendas across, a voice like Rigby’s rings loud. For instance, the Republican Senator for Oklahoma, James Inhofe, a vocal climate change sceptic, has often cited Genesis 8:22 to claim that it is “outrageous” and arrogant for people to believe human beings are “able to change what (God) is doing in the climate.” Inhofe who is chairman of the US Senate Environment and Public Works Committee recently said that he had travelled to the Copenhagen talks in 2009 and served as a “one-man truth squad” to disrupt the deal. Rigby, a strong defender of environmental causes said: “Climate change is partially a result of creationist cosmology where one doesn’t realise nature is one’s true home. One hasn’t understood Darwin if one is still talking in terms of purpose to the universe.”

Jim Rigby in his church. Credit: Jim Rigby

Jim Rigby in his church. Credit: Jim Rigby

For his unconventional views, Rigby has got into major trouble with the traditional part of the denomination at least four times. There were three cases against him for ordaining gay and lesbian marriages. The fourth time, a serious charge was levelled against him for accepting the controversial atheist writer, Robert Jensen, as a member of his congregation. Jensen, a journalism professor at the University of Texas, was criticised for his opinion piece in the aftermath of 9/11 in which he wrote that the terrorist attacks were “reprehensible and indefensible” but “no more despicable than the massive acts of terrorism – the deliberate killing of civilians for political purposes – that the U.S. government has committed during my lifetime.”

So when Jensen joined the church despite being an atheist, he was already a public figure. “Jensen was an example of someone who had rejected religion for all the right reasons. When I heard his speeches I felt prophetic principles beneath his disdain. He hated religion for the same reason that the prophets hated the religion of their day”

Like Jensen, Rigby attacks America for its various acts of genocide through history: the killings of its indigenous people, Black slaves and the wars against Afghanistan and Iraq after 9/11. “Since World War II, there is this insane idea that we have a right to invade other countries, kill people without due process and commit war crimes in complete contravention of the Geneva Convention. Respect for human rights doesn’t even seem a part of the American consciousness. Narcissism is in our culture as is racism,” Rigby said. It’s worse when churches help perpetrate hate. “Islamophobia in church is an expression of cancer. Christian pastors attack Muslims. You cannot have a religion of love and then scapegoat other religions.”

Sukhada Tatke is a freelance journalist based in Houston, Texas. She has previously worked in Mumbai with The Times of India and The Hindu. Her stories have appeared in Texas Monthly, Houston Chronicle, Scroll etc.