Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not necessarily accusing anybody of anything or trying to call anybody out. Let me just describe what I mean in regard to myself, but first, a little history. As some are aware and as I’ve written about on this blog previously, I grew up “fundagelical” as part of a large suburban Assembly of God mega-church. “Fundagelical,” by the way, is my own personal conflation of the terms “fundamentalist” and “evangelical.” Of course, the term Fundamentalist harkens back to the famed Fundamentalist/Modernist controversy, which you can read all about here. In any case, it typically refers to a rather “strict” interpretation of the Bible along what are presumed to be “literal” lines. I would contend that such a reading (even/especially of the original texts) is impossible, and I have made that case here, but now this is beside the point. Today Fundamentalists (or “Fundies”) are typically seen as conservative in many ways (especially socially, politically, and economically- except in regard to defense policy, but I digress) and now make up most of the “base” of the Republican Party. This political/social conservative activism is another interesting historical phenomenon as it has almost supplanted whatever religious or faith-related implications there are for “Christian” Fundamentalism, in my opinion.
Conversely, “Evangelical” refers explicitly to the “Good News” of and about Jesus. This term also has a long and varied etymology but today also typically is used to denote conservative “Christians” for whom the primary focus of their faith seems to be proselytizing. Some of these folks believe that once the “gospel” has been “preached to all nations” in fulfillment of the Great Commission, then Christ will return and/or the “Rapture” will occur, thus ushering in the Eschaton (but again I digress). The point here is again that for these folks Christianity is about getting people “saved.” In other words, it seems to matter little whether or not much personal or social progress happens in this life; what matters is that each person has their “fire insurance” (i.e. they don’t go to Hell).
Anyway, as an adult I have many concerns about the congregation I grew up in, but looking back at my experience there as a child I don’t necessarily regret it. I believe still that I experienced “God” there, and part of my “script” for telling my story involves describing my sense that I was able to “rely on God” as a child in the absence of reliable parents. This, along with the support and love of some key folks along the way, was vital to my survival as a child in the abusive “Christian” home of my youth, and remains an important part of what shaped me into the person I am today.
Nonetheless, my milieu was a “fundagelical” one, whether I experienced it at home, in the congregation mentioned above, in the “Christian” school my parents sent me to, or even generally in the larger conservative/nominally “Christian” civil religious culture of North Texas. As I’ve come to say, it was a shock for me to discover upon leaving home and heading to college in New England that “God isn’t a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant Republican that shops at the mall, lives in the ‘burbs, drives an SUV, and spends his days saluting the flag and pursuing the American dream just like everybody else.” This “fundagelicalism” meant that I grew up believing not only “in Jesus” but also in the inerrancy of Scripture and the inviolability of certain behavior rules, like: always “go to church” on Sunday (morning and evening AND on Wednesdays too), never cuss or smoke (though my mother did both, the former when she was angry- which was often, and the latter about 10 times per day), never have most kinds of sex- but especially not gay sex, never gamble or do drugs, always vote for “pro-life” candidates, etc. Other rules I learned had to do with not celebrating Halloween, though it was okay to do exactly what all the other kids were doing on Halloween as long as you did it at “church” and gave it some kind of “Fall Harvest” type of name. Likewise, the same kind of wanton consumerism that was present in the larger culture was just fine, as you long as you spent as much money as you could in the “Christian” business ghetto: e.g. don’t buy Certs or Life Savers; buy Testamints!
Speaking of a “Christian” ghetto, this phenomenon was (and unfortunately still is) amazing in its pervasiveness and outright mimicry of whatever was popular generally. Some “Christians” apparently think that being “in” the world but not “of” it means again that you can do exactly what everybody else does as long as you re-label everything (changing the names to protect the guilty?). The worst of this in my opinion was found in “Christian” bookstores and could be heard in “CCM” (contemporary “Christian” music), where you got a sanitized, half-assed version of whatever was good in “secular” music, minus the good stuff. Of course, I don’t mean that every single “Christian” musician put out crap; I only mean that most of them seemed to, and consequently obscured the little bit that actually was decent in “Christian” music, but I digress yet again. I’m reminded here of one ofCircle of Hope’s “proverbs,” that “life in Christ is one whole cloth.” Their point, I think, as this relates to my current argument, is that if God created the world in all its wonder, complexity, and (apparently) pain, we need to embrace all of the above and live as Christians in all of it (including in our songs). That is, the sacred/secular dichotomy is a false one (with a few exceptions).
Where I’m going with all this is simply to say that I don’t much like Christianity- or Christians. In this, I’m in good company, and some of you have often seen or heard me quote Gandhi here: “I like your Christ; I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” I’ve come by this honestly, having lived as a Christian since saying the “sinner’s prayer” at a very young age. Frankly, Christians annoy me. Quoting Scripture, for example- with no apparent appreciation for the historical, cultural, linguistic, and theological implications in doing so- is disturbing to me. I’m sure, for example, that if you “spare the rod” you will “spoil the child,” but what does that have to do with spanking? How could the thoughtful Christian not be aware that this “rod” referred to a shepherd’s crook or hook and was likely a metaphor for guidance, protection, and correction (you know, all the things parents should do) rather than one for inflicting pain as a means of teaching (in)correct behavior.
Likewise, of course Jesus says that “the poor you will always have with you,” but how could anyone read this as a normative statement, especially when weighed against other passages that seem to wrap up the whole of the Christian life in one’s behavior toward the poor, sick, and incarcerated? Saying that there “will always be poor folks” isn’t saying “there should always be poor folks; so don’t bother doing anything about it.” Rather, that particular passage dealt with an extravagant act of care toward Jesus, who was soon to die. When this was act was challenged on the basis of what could have been done for the poor instead, Jesus rebukes the challenger and brings the focus back to this extravagant act and his impending death. By no means was Jesus making a policy statement. Since Jesus inaugurates his ministry by stating that he has come to proclaim “good news to the poor…freedom for the prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, (and) to set the oppressed free,” (see link above) it seems likely that Christians do well when they work to end poverty at every opportunity. Unfortunately, it’s all too common for “Christians” to do just the opposite.
Historically, we Christians seem to have been far more interested in imprisoning and oppressing folks than we have been in setting them free. Usually the Crusades get trotted out at this point in similar arguments and rightly so. But that’s only a notable example. It would seem to me that once Constantine put the “chi-rho” on his flag and began conquering “in Jesus’ name,” the “good news” of the gospel was lost, almost irreparably. Since then, conversion has occurred en masse and at sword-point (follow the link and scroll down to “conversion of the rest of Europe”)- and later gun-point. The legacy of colonialism, during which the virtues of “Christianity” were forced upon native folks in the New World hand-in-hand with the finer points of civilized society is more damning evidence. Similarly, it’s well known that “Christians” long argued for rather than against slavery, and for the subjugation of women, often by twisting Scripture in similar fashion to the above (although in some cases no “twisting” was required, but more on that later). When God told Eve that Adam would “rule over her,” again He wasn’t making a policy statement; in fact, He was in the middle of announcing a curse! When parts of the Bible refer to the treatment of slaves and make no mention of working at every turn to abolish slavery, that doesn’t mean that this isn’t what God wants, as Jesus’ proclamation about setting the oppressed and prisoners free at the inauguration of his ministry again attests to.
Nevertheless, Christianity still finds itself on the wrong side of history all too often. The good news is that some Christians do seem to eventually “get it,” and today you’ll find few American “Christians” defending slavery or suggesting (publicly, anyway) that women shouldn’t be allowed to vote. Many of us still use the Bible to oppress homosexuals, though, whether or not the few passages in Scripture that may refer to it actually have anything to do with the modern practice of it or not. The point here is that the Church has no business operating under the guise of earthly empire in any of its forms, and the current U.S. empire is no exception. When Christianity “works,” when it operates as a force for the world’s betterment, it does so from the margins and it does so by advocating for the marginalized, for the “least of these,” whoever they might be.
Yet all too many would-be Christ-followers seem to utterly fail to understand this, and this is another thing that so terribly annoys and troubles me about so many “Christians” here in the U.S. Too many of us seem to conflate following Jesus with being an “American.” I’ll be the first to admit that I take my duties as a U.S. citizen seriously and am an active and engaged political actor, and anyone who follows this blog or is a Facebook friend or knows me in “real life” knows that to be the case. In fact, I just put on my “Texas Democrat” bumper sticker the other day (no, it’s not an oxymoron and as I said, I think Christianity works best when it does so “from the margins” J; by the way, so far my car has only been vandalized once since I put the sticker on). I am grateful for the happy accident of my birth. I know what privileges and freedoms I have as a white male U.S. citizen. I’m also keenly aware, though, that most of the world doesn’t live with such privilege, such luxury. In fact, many here in the U.S. don’t have it nearly so good as we white men do.
Moreover, I recognize that I am among the wealthiest people who have ever walked the face of the earth, and you probably are too (see the Global Rich List if you don’t believe me). So while the U.S. has afforded some of its citizens unprecedented luxury and political and religious freedom, it has done so in haphazard fashion and at great cost to the rest of the world. We U.S. citizens use a vastly disproportionate share of the world’s resources and create all too much of its waste. We invade other nations seemingly on a whim to protect not our citizens but our ideas and economic interests (see: Iraq). We take themoral high ground on some issues while operating as the poster child for moral depravity on others (see: the recent economic collapse and the corporate lobbying and greed which helped to precipitate it).
I do not and cannot, then, understand how any thoughtful Christian would “buy into” the notion of American “exceptionalism” as it so commonly seems to be expressed and practiced. We are not the “new Isreal” or a “city on a hill.” We are a nation like any other- a historic one, no doubt, but still just a nation. We’ve done some good things, and also a very many bad ones (see: the annihilation of the native peoples of this continent and our continued double-dealing and oppression of their few descendants even to this day). So all this “God and country” crap is, well, crap, as far as I can tell. As we read in Scripture, “you cannot serve two masters.” Either we love God and operate as citizens of his kingdom even now, or we love the U.S. and find our primary identity there. You can’t do both equally with any fidelity to either. Some hope to keep their feet in both camps and operate as citizens of “two kingdoms,” and they do so with Biblical and theological/historical precedent, but I find this practically unworkable, at best, and idolatrous and heretical at worst. This doesn’t mean you’ll find me renouncing my U.S. citizenship anytime soon, but I retain it with some gravity while struggling always to remember who and what I’m really serving (Jesus and his kingdom), and toward what end (so as to love, serve, and liberate the poor, oppressed, marginalized, etc.).
Having said all of this, I’m not sure that most of the hermeneutical argument above really matters. After all, I don’t need the Bible to know that loving poor folks, gays, and other marginalized groups is the right thing to do, and if the Bible seemed to indicate otherwise I would be forced to reject such teaching- and then perhaps the Bible- altogether. Perhaps this is what Jesus meant when He said that God’s word would be written “on our hearts.” I can only hope so. Of course, once I express my willingness to reject some or all of Scripture, though, I enter dangerous and unprecedented territory, I know. What, then, can be said to be the foundation of my faith if not an inerrant and therefore unimpeachable Scripture? Herein lies the crux of my problem. If the Bible seems to get some things wrong (go here for one thoughtful list of just a few apparent inaccuracies/contradictions) and can’t even be trusted for moral guidance on other things (see above regarding slavery, the oppression of women, etc.), what good is it, and how can I call myself a Christian? Moreover, how does all this relate to my belief (or lack thereof) in God, and how dare I accuse anyone else of such unbelief?
To Be Continued…