An Indian man (not Gandhi) once remarked to the Christian missionary E. Stanley Jones, “Jesus is ideal and wonderful, but you Christians–you are not like him.” Why is it that the more closely one tries to follow Christ, the less one seems to have in common with the herd that calls itself Christan? I understand what that Indian man must have felt the more I interact with my fellow white American evangelicals.
Recently, I had lunch with a group of the above. The conversation turned to Islam. When I ventured to suggest that as Christians we should be more concerned with building bridges than walls, I was greeted with a volley of protests: “Islam is a violent religion,” “Mohammed was a murderer,” “They want to kill us.”
I was shocked that those who by most standards would be considered mature believers could hold such a position. I suppose it is a testimony to the success of the unrelenting campaign of fear-mongering that daily assaults us in the media. Yet, even if it were true (against all fact and reason) that every single Muslim on the face of the earth wanted to decapitate us, doesn’t our Lord command us to love those who hate us and do good to those who persecute us? The apostles lived in a world surrounded by hatred and threats of death. Many of them were martyred for their testimony. Yet still they pressed on, holding aloft the banner of the gospel of love and non-violence.
I persevered, “No one is asking us to compromise our faith. On the contrary, love is what makes the gospel so radical.” My objection was greeted by a stony wall of silence. Then, smiling indulgingly, someone commented, “Well, you come from New York”—meaning, I suppose, that things are more liberal up North. Perhaps this is what the psalmist experienced: “Too long have I lived among those who hate peace./ I am for peace; but when I speak, they are for war.” (Ps 120:6,7)
I also visited a local church a few weeks ago, where the pastor began to describe from the pulpit his recent experience as a juror. Launching briefly into a holy encomium on the American justice system, he said, “We have such a marvelous system.” Endeavoring to stifle an Edvard Munch-like scream, I turned to my wife for relief and whispered, “Marvelous? Sure—if you’re white.” I doubt the young African-American male who was the defendant in that case, would have been so enchanted with this system. (He was found guilty of drug possession.)
How out of touch are we, that we can base our conclusions solely on our own experience as Caucasians in a white-privileged, white-dominated society, while dismissing the suffering and injustice endured by millions of people of color in this country—our fellow citizens, many of whom are our brothers and sisters in Christ? How can we sit idly by and applaud a system that targets young men of color for petty crimes, laws that have so successfully decimated minority communities with the goal of disenfranchising and keeping them locked in poverty and despair?
Watching campaign ads on TV, we see the hate and fear-mongering that pander to the basest instincts in our society, declaring war on the poor, minorities, immigrants, and the followers of Islam—and all of this clothed in a snowy cloak of quasi-biblical values, American civic religion, and white Christian supremacy.
New political movements, backed by huge corporate machines, have made it almost fashionable again to be racist, greedy, xenophobic, and opposed to any kind of human progress or social solidarity. One needn’t tune into the shock jocks to see this; one only has to listen to what passes as mainstream corporate media, such as Fox News, to understand how this works– the peddling of bilious hatred, fear, and intolerance to the masses, most of whom never used to need political sophistry to justify their prejudices, but are now only too thrilled to be offered it. Here we have the new Reichsministerium für Volksaufklärung und Propaganda.
Yet perhaps worst of all is the deafening silence of so many churches. As always, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. nailed it when he said: “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.” (Letter from Birmingham Jail)
This silence comes, as Dr. King points out, not from the Bible, but from a kind of pagan Gnostic dualism that believes such matters have no place in church. Or else from a fear that people will become unsettled, or worse, divided (and stop tithing). Yet the gospel itself divides, as Jesus said, “I come not to bring peace but a sword.” He was speaking, of course, as the Prince of peace, not about war, but about the division his ministry inevitably brought, even within families. Any Christian leader should tremble at causing division. Division over partisan issues is petty and destructive. But justice always divides; it must divide first before it can unite. It divides, like a surgeon’s scalpel, so that it can cut away the necrotic tissue, cleanse, and heal. Without justice, there is no peace.
I shouldn’t like to be in a church where the pastor spends all his time in the pulpit addressing the latest atrocities in the news. Balance is important. Yet, when our society is experiencing such upheavals, when public figures use the name of Christ as a covering for greed and self-interest, when racism and xenophobia are called patriotism, shepherds have excellent opportunities, indeed a mandate, to teach their flocks how to interpret the world around them from a truly biblical perspective. Tragic and controversial events such as the Trayvon Martin slaying provide an opportunity, not to try the case from the pulpit, but simply to talk about racism. Let’s face it. If shepherds don’t feed their flocks in such times of crisis, the sheep will get their food elsewhere. Sheep need to be led to good pasture.
The Sermon on the Mount is an offensive document. It is good news for the poor but bad news for vested interest, for those of us whose secret allegiances are too deeply rooted in this world. It is painful for the flesh, which loves erecting high walls of fear and prejudice. Oh, let it offend us!