“If God can work through me, He can work through anyone” – Francis of Assissi
Andrew Sullivan has a “good” piece over at The Daily Beast titled “Christianity in Crisis.” I say “good” not in the sense that I approve of the position, argumentation, or outcomes but rather that he points to some legitimate, difficult issues faced by Christendom, and does so in a calm, reasoned tone. That’s a meaningful step. I’ll draw out a few talking points from the piece, but it is worth a read.
Sullivan begins his opus with a discussion of the Thomas Jefferson model of Christianity. Jefferson didn’t believe in miracles, or didn’t want to anyway, so he cut them out of the Bible. He cut out a lot of things and kept the simple teachings of Jesus. This alone should be enough to give the believer pause. As St. Augustine famously noted: “If you believe what you like in the gospels, and reject what you don’t like, it is not the gospel you believe, but yourself.” Or how about Deuteronomy 12:32: “See that you do all I command you; do not add to it or take away from it.” So, with that inauspicious start (leveraging an obviously and simply flawed model) Sullivan continues …
He attempts to get at some of the problems of politics and Christendom, and there are problems indeed, but seems to miss the boat with typical elementary conceptions of what it all means. For instance, he makes a move toward ceding power (political or otherwise) by noting Jesus’ handling of His trial:
Above all: give up power over others, because power, if it is to be effective, ultimately requires the threat of violence, and violence is incompatible with the total acceptance and love of all other human beings that is at the sacred heart of Jesus’ teaching. That’s why, in his final apolitical act, Jesus never defended his innocence at trial, never resisted his crucifixion, and even turned to those nailing his hands to the wood on the cross and forgave them, and loved them.
Umm, yes and no … but mostly no. Yes, we can and do eschew violence because we love our neighbors as ourselves, and we love them as created in God’s image. Violence as a means of enforcing will is incompatible with this. (Some might say the very notion of enforcing my will over another is incompatible … but Sullivan is not likely ready to accept such a Libertarian view just yet.) But “total acceptance and love of all other human beings … at the sacred heart of Jesus’ teaching”? Well, you’re half right. I mean, love would fit, but not so much acceptance. How else does one even grasp the concept of hell if not in the light that God cannot and does not simply accept acts of sinful violence and exploitation against fellow men as “just who they are.” (Also, Jesus did not lay down his life at the crucifixion because he was eschewing violence. He made it quite clear that He did not fight because His kingdom was not of this world.)
But enough beating him up – there are some good points in here too.
What does it matter how strictly you proclaim your belief in various doctrines if you do not live as these doctrines demand? What is politics if not a dangerous temptation toward controlling others rather than reforming oneself? If we return to what Jesus actually asked us to do and to be—rather than the unknowable intricacies of what we believe he was—he actually emerges more powerfully and more purely.
Well said, Mr. Sullivan. In fact, I won’t even comment – I’ll simply ask my readers to read that quote again.
Through the meat of the article Sullivan notes some simple problems faced by Christian politics. I’ll paraphrase (hopefully accurately) by saying that any time politics gets involved there is a strong temptation for everyone (Christian or otherwise) to play the political game, to “move and shake” with the power brokers, and ultimately to tend toward theocracy. Here I mean theocracy in a broad sense (as we discussed in “The Seeds of Theocracy (Part 1)“) – the notion of inserting oneself, via political power, in between the people and God (or worse yet, inserting oneself inplace of God). Yes, we see this in bedroom and substance politics of Republicans and benevolence politics of Democrats. It’s the “we have to live your lives for you, to help you follow God” mantra that they all use but gladly deny when it is spoken plainly.
From there he points to difficulties faced by the larger branches of organized religion, and they are many. I won’t go into detail. I’ll simply note that we, the believers in Christ Jesus, in His death, burial, and resurrection as an atonement for our sin, neither answer to nor for the political/religious failings of others. We will each of us stand before God on that day. We will each of us face judgment for ourselves. Your mother or father or grandmother who took you to church when you were a kid will not stand with you, and they will not speak for you. The theocratic rulers of your day will not deflect any charges from the accuser for you. There is only One who will stand with you on that day, only One that can possibly help you – and that is Jesus. Oh and what a wonderful help He is. Don’t trust to any other. Don’t trust to “we’re all in this together” or “organized religion failed me” or “surely God won’t punish all of us” … you had better trust in Jesus.
So yes, Mr. Sullivan, “the church” does face a crisis – and pretty much always has. It has always been the case that there are those in this faith who draw attention away from Jesus and toward themselves – whether it is accolades or power. They cover up abuse (as you note) to maintain their power. They talk smoothly to maintain their power. But they have never found a way to hold sway indefinitely. The light of the gospel has always broken through. We’ve had reformations, and splits, and revivals. We’ve seen people turn away from organized churches and form house churches to break free from the “structure” of it all. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will always be filled. Those who crave a true and unmitigated relationship with God will find a way to have it, and will find that they are helped along the way. As though something, someone is calling to them, urging them on, straightening every path, exalting every valley and bringing every hill low. These beautiful souls that press toward God unrelentingly, despite the headaches and heartaches thrown at them by the world (or by a church in crisis) have a promise that they will never be left alone, and they cannot be snatched from His hand.
We have sold it all for the pearl of great price. Yes, our love of Him, and our love of our neighbors will indelibly impact every aspect of our lives (including our politics). And that’s OK, as long as it flows in the right direction. As long as we are molded and shaped by the Potter, rather than shoehorning religion into our political mantra to achieve some earthly end (which will disappear as a vapor).