Each day seems to bring another episode in the ongoing self-destructive saga of American evangelicalism. The dilemma is whether to ignore these abuses of the Christian gospel or to provide some alternative, though lesser, voice.
When choosing the latter, it is for good reasons. These are not minor, excusable missteps that we all make in our imperfect efforts to live faithfully in the ways of Jesus. They are continuous and damaging mis-representations of the gospel and the church called to live out the way of Christ.
Here are six self-inflicted wounds that do considerable harm to the perception of Christianity and to the effectiveness of the church’s mission.
ONE: PLAYING THE VICTIM
Most people know what persecution looks like, and it doesn’t look like what many American Christians claim for themselves. Losing one’s long-held cultural dominance through increasing diversity doesn’t equate to persecution.
Suffering to some Christians seems to mean having to play by the same rules as everyone else. Yet the Bible and history reveal how the most faithful lived in trying times that we can’t imagine.
If you can only be Christian when others do as you wish — even if coercion by government is needed — then your faith is too fragile.
TWO: PROCLAIMING A FEAR-DRIVEN, FEAR-INDUCING MESSAGE
Chicken Little appears cool and calm in comparison to many American Christians today.
What part of Jesus’ “Fear not!” do we not understand? Where’s the Good News?
There is an unjustifiable defensiveness among many conservative Christians today who reflect more talk-show political rancor than the gospel message. They act out of fear and induce fear in their gullible followers.
Stop the doom and gloom every time society shifts away from your personal comfort. Remembering how others feared changes — such as racial and gender equality — didn’t bring the world to an end.
Change scares fundamentalists, but unfortunately it doesn’t scare the hell out of them. It causes them to act in more hellish ways.
THREE: YEARNING FOR ‘THE GOOD OLD DAYS’
We keep hearing calls from white, male Christian leaders for going back to a beloved time of spiritual bounty with no acknowledgment of the societal evils that existed.
It is offensive to all who didn’t share in such bounty — and to those of us sensitive to the realities of those times.
Georgia Baptist editor Gerald Harris wrote an editorial in The Christian Index last Independence Day in which he played this idea to the hilt, writing that younger persons today “cannot possibly understand the spiritual bounty and blessings of life in America 50 years ago.”
There was no acknowledgment that a half-century ago: black students attending formerly all-white schools in Grenada, Miss., were attacked by a white mob with chains, pipes and clubs; interracial marriage was still illegal in Virginia, leading to the arrest of a couple wed elsewhere; women were excluded from attending most Ivy League schools; and many shelters and resources for abused women and children were yet to come along with the feminist movement.
Nothing is more out of touch with reality and the Christian gospel than for white American males to present as spiritually and biblically superior a time when they and their kind could succeed in a system stacked clearly in their favor.
Sadly, fundamentalism fears any future that doesn’t look like a comfortable past — even if an imagined past was not so comfortable for everyone. “Bounty and blessings” for a favored few doesn’t equal “liberty and justice for all.”
It is far better to see the past for its mixed-bag reality and then to look ahead. There’s a helpful biblical word for that: hope.
FOUR: MAKING ‘RELIGIOUS LIBERTY’ INTO A WEAPON
The good term “religious liberty” is being snatched and redefined by fundamentalist Christians (widely regarded as “evangelicals” by media) as a license to discriminate. They are not satisfied with the constitutional guarantees afforded all Americans.
Their initial claim seems benign if not beneficial: to guarantee religious freedom.
But scratch the surface of current political actions (aimed at LGBT persons) and one finds that the focus is not on the freedom of some persecuted minority but on their own licenses to discriminate.
Dig a little deeper and you’ll find a mean-spirited agenda that seeks punitive actions against those viewed as “sinners” and a threat. Which leads to the next self-inflicted wound.
FIVE: PORTRAYING CHRISTIANITY AS ‘GOOD GUYS’ VS. ‘BAD GUYS’
Fundamentalists create a divide among humanity in which everyone who is unlike them in belief and practice is portrayed as being in need of becoming like them.
They call it evangelism but, as noted above, it is judgment that should be reserved for God rather than a humble extension of “good news.”
For example, some talk about the concentration of “lostness” in their targeted areas — though one can hardly find a good measuring stick for the conditions of individual hearts. Other stats and projections have to be employed.
This good-guy/bad-guy divide creates an arrogant and alienating message: “We believe the Bible; you do not. We love God; you do not. We are saved; you are lost.”
How is that working? Talk with those disengaged from church — especially Millennials — and you will discover a startling revelation:
They are kind and gracious people doing much good in the world. Yet they see the church as less loving, kind and gracious than they choose to live.
The irony is that the very church leaders who think non-church people need confession, repentance and conversion just might be the ones most in need of such life changes.
It might surprise some to know that a lot of salvation and Jesus-like living occur beyond those who most loudly claim his name. Godly goodness is not so easily corralled by those counting their sheep.
It’s time to face a harsh reality: Some people are too nice, too smart and too gracious to align with a group that labels them and/or many of their friends as the enemy and the targets of their faith.
SIX: OPPOSING SOCIETAL MOVES TOWARD JUSTICE AND EQUALITY
Is there any issue of human equality for which conservative Christianity has taken a leading role rather than one of resistance? I’m still thinking…
Whether something as heinous as owning and abusing other humans for one’s own economic benefits or pushing against equal rights without regard for race, gender or sexual orientation, it is predictable where more-conservative Christians take their stand: on the wrong side.
A tragic aspect of this approach is how the Bible is misused to support discrimination and even hostilities toward women and minorities. Yet humility never arises from the long history of being wrong in this approach.
Often the strength of their opposition is nowhere near equal to even the perceived threat. For example, gay and lesbian persons represent a tiny minority of Americans.
Listening to fundamentalist Christians, however, one would think those with same-sex attraction are some large, militant force threatening to burn down churches and recruit everyone to their sexual orientation. Such generalization is a false witness.
The reality is that gay and lesbian persons are more likely to be the kind, faithful members of their churches — if not pushed out by hatred — who simply want the same opportunities as other members and other Americans.
A great lie of Christian fundamentalism (and there are many) is that they “hate the sin yet love the sinner.” Those on the receiving end will tell you that only the hatred shows through.
Even the word “love” gets redefined beyond any reasonable definition. It is common to hear fundamentalist Christians proclaim, “Nothing is more loving than to tell someone the truth.” However, such “love” is highly conditional — relying on the capitulation of their targets to a narrow set of beliefs and a damaging, false concept of conversion.
Despite the worst possible record regarding issues of equality and justice, it takes several generations and widespread social acceptance for more-conservative Christian leaders to get on board. If the move toward liberty and justice were a train, the U.S. military would be a driving engine and the white, evangelical church would be a dead-weighted caboose.
While admiring the romanticized past, it would be a good time to take note of how consistently wrong the church has been on basic issues of human equality and justice — and try getting it right up front one time.
Christianity and therefore the Christian church lose their treasured message and mission — and are unattractive when seen in such poor light.
Rather than reflect the true demands of following Jesus — such as self-denial, generosity, peacemaking, care for the hurting, conveying grace and hope — this resulting resistance reveals the arrogance and ugliness of Christianity as often portrayed in America.
Sadly, many good, kind, thoughtful and generous people want nothing to do with a religious identity revealed as petty, fearful, self-serving, mean-spirited and, in general, in contrast to the life and teachings of Jesus.
To tell someone today that you are a Christian is to expect them to assume that you are suspicious of other ethnic and religious groups, fearful of immigrants, unloving toward LGBT persons, drawn to demagoguery, eager to seek an upper hand when it comes to actual expressions of freedom, and close-minded to any possibility of being wrong about anything.
Such public perceptions are not the propaganda work of some outside sinister group. They are the makings of those American Christians who repeatedly inflict these six wounds on themselves and others associated with their claimed name. NFJ
By John D. Pierce