American Christianity has been prosperity Christianity with faith flourishing in the good times. So said an unassuming gray-haired man with a mustache and face etched by study and the struggle for social justice.
The man – Wayne Flynt – is known as the conscience of Alabama. He has written two books nominated for Pulitzer Prizes, is emeritus history professor at Auburn University after being a distinguished university professor, founded the Alabama Poverty Project, and offered a statement in support of a 2009 lawsuit challenging the validity of the 1901 Alabama Constitution based on an assessment of voter fraud.
He’s also a Sunday school teacher at the First Baptist Church of Auburn.
Teaching his mostly full class with a main entrance off the street, Flynt contrasted popular Christianity – in which Americans either question or believe – with the Old Testament book Habakkuk in which questions and certainty co-exist.
“[T]he lowest period of American church membership was during the American Revolution, which is contrary to everything we think about American history,” he said. “In the 1930s, during the Great Depression, actually Americans stopped going to church and religious growth stopped. And when prosperity started after World War II, it started again.”
With an open Bible, the professor said, “When everything is falling apart in life, the country, the region, it raises more questions about God than it raises answers about God.”
Flynt, who has directed to completion 42 master’s theses and 23 doctoral dissertations, recalled one of his students who researched the diaries of Alabama women during the Civil War.
They wrote after experiences of trauma, he said, with questions such as: “If God is good, why does God let this happen to us because we know we are the people of God and our view of God is superior to the Yankee view of God. We are the ones who are faithful to the Bible. They are the ones who are not faithful to the Bible. We know God is on our side. God fights with our armies. And yet, how can you explain this?”
Noting that the women did not resolve the question, Flynt said: “They did believe that they were right – right to the very end and that God was on their side. But they never could answer the question.”
He pointed out that the Hebrew book of Habakkuk is set up as a debate, a legal case, with two complaints against God and God’s answers to both complaints.
“O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and thou wilt not hear?” asked the prophet Habakkuk at the beginning of the book. “Why dost thou make me see wrongs and look upon trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law is slacked and justice never goes forth. For wickedness surrounds the righteous, so justice goes forth perverted” (Habakkuk 1:2-4).
“The hardest question in the entire Bible is – can you believe in God, can you believe that God is in charge of the universe, can you believe that God is in charge of our lives, when all the evidence seems to point in the oppose direction?” asked Flynt.
“Regrettably most people cannot live with complexity, ambiguity and lack of resolution,” observed the teacher. “If you don’t believe that, witness popular American religion, which is devoted to the idea that there is no ambiguity, there is no complexity, and there is absolute resolution in every situation.”
The author of 11 books, who thought early in his career that he would attend seminary and become a pastor, said: “If you don’t believe that Christianity is true, how in the world did Christianity survive its popular articulators? The best evidence for Christianity is the fact that people who proclaim it have not killed it.”
In Habakkuk, “questions and certainty cohabitate with doubt and faith. They co-exist,” said Flynt.
“In the midst of suffering and pain and loss and uncertainty, when your mind is filled with questions,” Flynt asked, “isn’t that in fact the penultimate moment of life when you have to decide if you believe or don’t believe?”
Alabama’s long-time drum major for justice closed the lesson by talking about how much he liked the ending of Habakkuk: “Though the fig tree does not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fails and the fields yield not food … yet I will rejoice in the Lord” (3:17-18).
Let us remember Habakkuk in our laying down and rising up. Let’s give thanks for the one known as the conscience of Alabama – for his lifetime of witness and work.
We are not the first to anguish over the perversion of justice and the profound suffering of the righteous. Nor shall we be the last generation to do so. Though we may question the perceived absence of God when things fall apart, God help us from shrinking away from the call to do justice, especially when dumbness creeps across the people of God who remain passive or silent – or worse, saddle up with the forces of greed, indifference and violence.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics.