I am reading Bradley Jersak’s “A More Christlike God, A More Beautiful Gospel” (https://www.amazon.com/More-Christlike-God-Beautiful-Gospel/dp/1889973165). In chapter three he contrasts two competing values in Western Culture: “freedom” and “goodness.” He makes the point that of the two, one will always be dominant over the other. Where we have recently seen this most dramatically portrayed in America is in the flack over building a border wall, Muslim immigration and in the so-called attacks on “religious freedom.”
In each of these three cases the safety of our personal freedoms and “rights” is the overriding principal governing protest and the push for legal protections. And in each circumstance someone else’s situation is negatively affected by the insistence on safeguarding our own personal freedoms.
As Jersak puts it, “We live in a culture that so totalizes freedom that anyone who presents an obstacle or becomes a hindrance to what I want is attacking my freedom. I will perceive intrusions on my way of life as the enemy, whether it is a family member, a foreign militant or a government regulator…impositions on my freedom are considered offensive and immoral–attacks–because my personal autonomy (self-rule) comes first.”
…”On the other hand, Christ commands us to love our enemies and to overcome evil with good. He calls us to make love our first allegiance–and his love frees us to do so. Freedom in Christ, ironically, is freedom from the tyranny of our own paranoia-producing self-will and fear-driven self-preservation, which we’ve tragically mislabeled ‘freedom.'” (P. 51)
When self-preservation and personal liberties are promoted by the church as a moral imperative, the result is a Gospel that ceases to be “good-news,” and the church loses it’s “witness” to the Love, Grace and Mercy of God. Extreme examples of this can be seen in the proposal to allow “open carry” on the Liberty University campus and the desire to build a shooting range there. Another sad example can be found in the recent un-Christlike comments of a well-known evangelist towards Muslim refugees fleeing the horrors of war in Syria and the bigoted and false statements made about transgender people by the Right in an attempt to deny safe bathrooms to them.
These are examples of how the church can slip into a self-serving frame of mind and lose sight of serving others first. In most of the recent conversations I have had with conservative Christians they have invariably supported blocking refugees, mass deportations and legislation against Gays on the grounds of preserving our freedoms as Americans and Christians. The argument goes something like this: “the government’s job is to protect us, the church’s job is to minister to others. The government has no business doing the church’s job.” While there may be some truth in that, the church on the Right, unfortunately, has not counteracted with an attitude of selfless love, but has applauded and encouraged self-centered actions by both church and state. In reality, the grasping for “freedom” becomes a bondage that hinders the true freedom we have in Christ to serve others.
Oddly enough, the insistence on my rights taking precedence over other’s rights is almost always couched in terms of “majority” or ‘who’s in control’ rights. Again the over-emphasized concern with majority freedoms at the cost of marginalized individual rights becomes a hallmark of a selfish church. The recent recension of transgender rights by the current administration was hailed as a triumph for the “privacy rights of all of the students who attend their schools” (Kerri Kupec, Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian group). As can be seen, the “freedoms” referred to are not truly freedoms for “all” but freedoms for those who are currently in control.
The church then becomes merely a defender of the status quo rather than a defender of the helpless and disadvantaged. Again, an odd development considering the Evangelical insistence to be seen as a disadvantaged minority, at odds with current society. At the center of this victim mentality is a core resistance to be inconvenienced in any way by the needs of others who are “different” than the traditional status quo, seeing it’s own “minority” needs taking precedence over other’s minority needs, all of which underscores the Right’s weaknesses in the areas of empathy and mercy.
While this can be understood from a political standpoint, it is hard to find justification for it among Christians. So what is the practical upshot of all this? As American Christians how do we wish our government to be perceived? Is it to be generous or does America hoard it’s resources, keeping them to ourselves? Do we expect America to only help others only when it is beneficial to her? Does the church “act magnanimous” while expecting the government to do the “dirty work” of discrimination and marginalization? A lot depends on whether we are selfish or selfless Christians and whether we see America as self-serving or not.
How can the church do it’s job of defending the helpless and those on the outskirts? For one, the church can step back from it’s current support for political actions that marginalize women, minorities and immigrants, remembering that it was once a persecuted minority and in areas of the world it still is. Political action should never simply be in terms of status quo or what makes us feel “comfortable.” Likewise, our fears should not be a primary focus on denying others help when they desperately need it. Ways to adequately meet the needs of the disenfranchised while remaining practical should be sought out. Absolute honest self-assessment needs to take place among America Christians to weed out those attitudes that are based on fear or loss of control.
In conclusion, it would be helpful to remember that Christ did not put his needs above others but calls us to a life where we “lay down our lives” for the benefit of others, family, friends, neighbors and even enemies (1 John 3:16, Mark 12:31, Matt. 5:44). The church cannot fail when it follows the example of Christ, the head of the church.