Monday, December 28, 2009

Fed to the lions? Sue ‘em!

Read a very interesting article today about a church in a storefront that is disturbing the comedians at the adjoining comedy club with their loud music: Club, Church Clash in Texas. What I find interesting about this article and why it is noteworthy is that it is yet another in a long line of reports of Christians seeking redress through the secular legal system. Up front, I recognize that Paul used the legal system to appeal to Caesar for his rights in Acts 25. Keep in mind though what Paul was up against and why he appealed to Caesar: “If then I am a wrongdoer and have committed anything for which I deserve to die, I do not seek to escape death. But if there is nothing to their charges against me, no one can give me up to them. I appeal to Caesar.” (Acts 25: 11) Paul was on trial for his life and rightly pointed out that his crime was not against the Jews. In other words, Paul sought a change of venue. The story I am referencing is a little different than the Christian suing Christian situations we see when churches split, this is a civil dispute between a church and a business. Here is an excerpt from the story:

The comedy club complained about the noise; the landlord asked Fresh Oil to leave the building by the end of the year.

But Bishop Nathan Thomas, the founder and leader of the Pentecostal-charismatic church, isn't going without a fight. Using the slogan "Jokes vs. Jesus," he organized several protests earlier this month, objecting to what he says is religious bigotry and racism. He is consulting with a lawyer.

The church "can't walk away from its assignment," he told his mostly black congregation recently. "We're changing lives."

Across the country, religious congregations are entering nontraditional spaces at an increasing rate, religious experts say, as churches seek to lower their rent and attract worshipers with an informal atmosphere.

A bill Congress passed in 2000 that prohibits zoning authorities from discriminating against religious groups is also encouraging churches' migration into former bowling alleys, old furniture stores and strip malls.

I have no issue with the church gathering in storefronts, bowling alleys, etc. Far better to meet in a cheap space like that than in a spacious edifice with shiny new video screens and an enormous debt to service. I think I do have a problem with the way that Fresh Oil Family Fellowship is responding. We see a number of dynamics at work here.

One is the American epidemic of Perpetual Offendedness Syndrome (P.O. Syndrome). Americans seem to be itching to find something to be offended by all the time. It seems that we are sorely discontented when we are not offended so we seek out places to find offense. Any wonder that controversial blogs attract the most hits? Why is there a market for people like Bill O’Reilly and Keith Olbermann? I seem to recall an old episode of Monty Python where people were professionally insulted. We are not far away from that situation.

Another dynamic is American litigiousness. An integral part of the P.O. syndrome is the release valve of the court system. Are you offended? Sue someone! It never ceases to amaze me that people will decry lawyers in the most vitriolic terms up until they decide someone has trampled on their rights. We don’t hate lawyers; we hate other people’s lawyers.

The third and most pertinent is the misplaced sense of persecution in the Western church. Persecution is not something we should avoid, instead we should kind of expect it and perhaps even rejoice in it (Acts 5:41). Should a church, in the face of this sort of situation, organize protests and seek legal action? Or should they instead respond in meekness and love?

I don’t know the right answer here. On the one hand, I am instinctively against any restriction of religious freedom, real or imagined. There are also a lot of competing facts here. Did the deposit check bounce as the landlord claimed? Is the music coming from their meetings so loud that it disrupts their neighbors? I think we would all agree that if you are playing music so loudly that you are disrupting the tenant next to you, it is a problem. If this were a dance club next to a Christian bookstore, we would be up in arms demanding they turn down their music. If it were a mosque with a blaring call to prayer five times per day and it was disrupting a legitimate business, we would do the same. When it is a Christian church, do we have a different standard?

On the other hand, is this how we should react as Christians? In Matthew 5: 40 Jesus said: And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. Taking your tunic and cloak seems a lot more personal than someone evicting your from a storefront. Do our rights as an American supersede how we are to live as a Christian? Which is more important?

What do you think? Should they stay and fight? Try to come to an accommodation and if they can’t they should pack up and leave?

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