The following is part one of the first chapter of my upcoming book.
Christ Held Hostage: The Hijacking of Christianity by the Status Quo
And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.—Hebrews 13:13,14
Several years ago on the radio news, a reporter interviewed an American who identified himself as a moderate Muslim. This man complained about the control terrorists have over how Islam is perceived in America and the world. He said it felt as though his faith had been “hijacked.” In fact, it seemed as though his own life had been taken hostage as well. For since 9-11 he had been trying relentlessly to represent and defend the true face of Islam to anyone who would listen, a battle he felt he was losing—all because a handful of his co-religionists had gone mad, committing ungodly and inhuman acts of carnage in the name of God.
Perhaps many of us Christians can relate to this man’s sense of outrage as he watches the faith he holds dear being used as a weapon of hatred and manipulation to further the agenda of violent men. We may identify with his feeling of frustration as the media continues to use the grim photographs of terrorists as though they were the true face of his religion. We, too, feel as though our religion has been taken hostage: forcibly wedded to a certain political ideology, or else stripped down to a couple of hot button issues, like abortion and same-sex marriage, as though to oppose these were the sum of our faith. It is as if we are told, “Just pull this lever on election day and you’ve done your religious duty.” Or perhaps we can relate because Christians so often come across in the media as fearful, hate-mongering, gun-toting misogynists, spewing anathemas on every kind of human progress.
America is a religious country. Our politicians have long used God and the language of piety and morality in public discourse. Yet as God’s people, whose agenda are we following, God’s or a more narrow set of objectives set too often by the greed of economic elites and corporate interests? In reality, of course, no single party can have a monopoly on morality; none can justly claim to represent God, the Bible, or Christianity in its fullness. In this book I will argue that as evangelicals we have allowed a kind of “civic religion”—a syncretistic and patriotic blend of Christianity, nationalism, and free-market capitalism—to replace the radical faith of the New Testament. Ironically, in our efforts to “take back America,” as some Christians would have it, we have ourselves been taken captive by the prevailing culture and politics of imperialism, militarism, greed, racism, and xenophobia that surround us. Instead of reflecting an authentically New Testament brand of counter-culture, we have contented ourselves with a parallel subculture that not only mirrors, but often takes the lead in many of the worst aspects of our national character. And so the struggle for the soul of a nation has instead become a struggle for the soul of the church.
Inevitably, after I have preached a sermon on these issues, someone comes up to me and remarks—sometimes kindly, sometimes not—“Well, I can tell you’re a Democrat,” “It was interesting to hear from a liberal,” or even “I didn’t know you were a socialist.” When I inform them that I am none of these, they look befuddled. I try to explain that I do not have any party affiliation. I do vote. I am vocal and active in the political process. Yet I do not consider myself a conservative or a liberal. Nor do I subscribe to any particular economic ideology. I want simply to be a follower of Christ, first and always, struggling to follow the Master. That, at least, is how I see my life today, but it was not always so.
Out of the Blue
Raised in a staunchly Republican, upper-middle-class home, I had been a conservative child, even by my family’s standards. My father claimed that I was “born a 90-year-old man,” and that even as an infant, as soon as I could walk, I squeaked. My college years were the first time I was exposed to and challenged by opposing views, and I responded by spouting what I had been taught. Free-market capitalism. The economic survival of the fittest. America as a land of opportunity. America the only good cop in a bad world. I appalled my more liberal friends with statements that could be considered nothing if not reactionary. Then, in the middle of my Junior year, along came Jesus, quite out of the blue.
One morning before dawn, I had a dream. It was World War I, and I was in the midst of a mobile army hospital. We were under heavy bombardment. There were hundreds of soldiers lying on cots and screaming or moaning in pain. Yet one patient was lying so quietly he caught my attention. I could tell he was suffering, but he made no sound. I found a dipper and, filling it with water, offered it to him. Once I looked into his face, however, I knew this was no ordinary man. Not a word passed between us, but suddenly, I felt I was in the very presence of God. I was overwhelmed with a sense of my sin. I do not mean my individual sins; I mean my Sin. I was immediately aware that I was a sinful human being who needed forgiveness. The earth seemed to give way beneath me, and I fell on my face sobbing.
Then, an even more amazing thing happened. It was as if an invisible hand, warm and loving, gently penetrated my heart, removed something dark and horrible, and replaced it with something beautiful and blissful. I was forgiven. My tears stopped, and I awoke from sleep so peacefully that I did not want to move. It took me some time to sort out exactly what had happened in that exchange, but I knew I had met Him. I was no longer the same person; my life belonged to Jesus Christ and would be used in service to others.
That was over thirty years ago, and since then, as a follower of Christ and a pastor, I have seen myself grow more compassionate, especially in regard to the poor and oppressed. I have also become more willing to think outside the box I was raised in. The more I read the Bible and what it emphasizes, the more I am convinced that concern for the poor and suffering is one of the greatest burdens on God’s heart.
It was around the year 2000, just in time for the Presidential election, that I received a kind of political epiphany. I had been growing increasingly disturbed by what I saw as the cynical manipulation of the religious right on the part of politicians who knew they could get the votes they needed merely by pushing the “abortion” or “family values” buttons. I felt the Lord showing me that I was being used—and by people who really cared very little about these issues; they certainly did not care squat about the poor. He showed me that if I had been led astray it was because of my own vested interests. In short, I had wanted to be deceived because it was comfortable: I could point the finger at others for being the source of our nation’s problems and never have to face my own complicity in a corrupt and unjust system.
Leaving the party of my upbringing, I first dabbled in politics as an independent, but soon found that the small parties in my particular state were merely rubber stamps for the two larger political machines. Instead of running their own candidates, the “indies” would back one or other of the major party candidates—for a price. Besides, I had had enough of party politics, which I saw was more about advancing the agenda of greedy people than the kingdom of God. It was time to step outside the camp.
Someone once said that when you mix religion and politics, you get politics. Politics can be a dirty business. Campaigning seems to grow muddier every year. Attack ads spew muck and lies like a dredging barge. Citizens (even Christians) cheer their favorite team and anathematize the opposition with all the enthusiasm of British soccer hooligans. As Mark Twain once said, “When you are in politics, you are in a wasp’s nest with a short shirt-tail.” It is an arena in which the devil loves to parade—a fact that may cause many Christians simply to bow out. Yet we are not called to cop out of the human race; we are to be in the world, though not of it. As followers of Christ, how ought we to be engaged and active in the political sphere? Surely, we are called to be loving but firm, respectful but vocal, on behalf of our fellow human beings, especially in the areas the Bible is most vocal about, such as poverty, injustice, and caring for the weakest members of our society. Their voices desperately need to be heard.
Beyond Party Politics
In January 1842, a young Charles Dickens stepped for the first time upon the shores of the New World. He came in his capacity as a social critic to measure the progress, or lack thereof, of a new republic. The author was astonished by the savage brutality not only of slavery, but also of American politics and its unscrupulous henchmen in the press. Politics, he found, was a constant topic of conversation here:
Quiet people avoid the question of the Presidency, for there will be a new election in three years and a half, and party feeling runs very high: the great constitutional feature of this institution being, that directly the acrimony of the last election is over, the acrimony of the next one begins…
Of our elected representatives in Congress, he also had very little good to say:
Despicable trickery at elections; under-handed tamperings with public officers; cowardly attacks upon opponents, with scurrilous newspapers for shields, and hired pens for daggers… Dishonest Faction in its most depraved and most unblushing form…
Not much has changed in 170 years, except perhaps that we have got partisanship down to a science. Seldom in our history has our nation been so divided or our federal government so paralyzed.
In his Farewell Address to the nation, a retiring George Washington warned the American people of the destructive power of faction:
[A party spirit] serves always to distract the Public Councils, and enfeeble the Public Administration. It agitates the Community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms; kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption…The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries, which result, gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of Public Liberty.
Old George was right. Spiritually speaking, party affiliation inevitably leads to “party spirit” or “faction,” which the apostle Paul lists among the works of the flesh that endanger the spiritual life of the believer and divide the body of Christ (Gal. 5:20). For Christians, partisanship also leads to a kind of moral blindspot: When you are a member of a party, you suddenly find yourself always having to defend that party and its policies in order to justify your membership. For example, when one party is in power, the opposition party condemns the president’s military or security policies. When the roles are reversed, the party now in power suddenly finds voice to defend those same policies when practiced by their president. Party fealty also seduces us into supporting candidates whose principles, or lack of them, advertise the very opposite values we wish to promote. Partisanship may be difficult to avoid in our culture, but in the followers of Christ, it ought to be anathema, part of that conformity to worldly–mindedness we are enjoined to shun like the plague.
I do not recommend being politically neutral, as in the case of our corporate news media (the part that is not unabashedly partisan), who feel they must represent both sides of every issue, no matter how outrageous or mendacious. Neither would I advise Christians to become apolitical. Rather, the issue is one of whom we follow, whose interests we bring to the discussion table.
During the American Civil War, Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of War said, “Mr. President, there’s nothing to worry about. God is on our side.” Lincoln, turned to him and replied, “Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.” That should be our concern as well. As Christians we should be more concerned with following where Christ leads, no matter on which side of some imagined political fence we happen to find ourselves, whether the world labels us as “liberal” or “conservative,” “reactionary” or “socialist.”
A few years ago the Ecumenical Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church, his All Holiness Bartholomew I, gave an address at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. The European press has labeled him the “Green Patriarch” because of his supposedly “progressive” or “leftist” stand on several environmental issues. Yet in the introduction to his address, he eschewed this title. Instead, he noted that Christianity has always been a faith that is both conservative and revolutionary. It is conservative in that it is dedicated to conserving what is ancient and original, but also, paradoxically, what is conserved is something deeply devoted to change, even revolutionary. Such a stance may cause the world confusion since they always want to know on which side of the political divide we stand. “The only side we take is that of our faith,” said the Patriarch, “which today may seem to land us in one political camp, tomorrow another—but in truth we are always and only in one camp, that of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”
When the church, aligns itself so completely with any specific political party, ideology, or agenda, or even a particular economic system, it runs the risk not only of alienating itself from those of the other party, but also of insulating itself against the very call of the gospel. Even if we should see our Lord and Savior Jesus himself, he just might appear as a stranger, or worse, an enemy, because he seems so unlike us: he does not look like us, talk like us, or act like us; he does not vote like us; he does not seem to care about the things we care about.
In a sermon, I once quoted the words of James, the brother of Jesus, who in his letter (Jas. 5:1-6) quite uncompromisingly castigates the rich for their exploitation of workers and hoarding of wealth. A Christian friend rebuked me afterward for citing this passage. “That sounded Marxist and crazy,” he said. At first, I thought he had to be joking. Yet he turned out to be quite serious. Apparently, although having read the Bible many times, he had never really encountered that passage before. It scared him. His response perfectly illustrates what happens when we read the Bible through our cultural or partisan filters, only hearing what we want to hear. In this case, the American worship of capitalism, our love of wealth, and the old Cold-War fear of communism had managed to deafen my friend to the Word of God. When it comes to the Bible, what we don’t want to hear may well surprise, or even frighten us.
Is not this precisely what bothered the Pharisees and scribes about Jesus? He wasn’t one of them. They were so focused on what they thought was important, they could not see the forest for the trees. They not only missed the big picture; they missed the Messiah as well. Of them, Christ said,
“They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them…You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill, and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness…You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel” (Matt. 23:4,23,24)