Blinded by the Light: The Boss, and What it Means to be Human

I just finished watching the movie: Blinded by the Light in our local theater. It is based on the real life story of a young Pakistani in Great Britain who is inspired to achieve something other than the pedestrian ambitions of his conservative father. I walked away uplifted and strangely spiritually moved. A Pakistani, and a Muslim at that, and yet I felt more in common with him than my own conservative Christian background.

At movie’s end, Javid comes to realize that the Springsteen lyrics “blinded by the light” were not referring to a love affair, or something solely personal, but referred  to how blinded we become to our shared humanity, our shared struggles as humans, how we are family. No matter how far we roam, we are still family, both literally and figuratively.

Javid’s journey in many ways, mirrors my own. No, not that my father was unsupportive or that my parents weren’t proud of me, but that we all belong to non biological families that we are “born into.” The family I am referring to, that I was born into, was American conservative Christianity.

The movie, set in the 1980s, shows a Britain in turmoil. Loss of jobs, a slumping economy and severe racial tensions. Javid is caught between two worlds, the world of White GB and his Pakistani heritage. His father’s stern warnings about becoming “British” instead of Pakistani, reminds me of dozens of sermons I’ve hear over the years in church. In listening to The Boss, Javid is suddenly aware that someone who doesn’t look like him, with an entirely different culture than his Pakistani one…understands!

In his 1980s GB, the culture wars are in full swing, White Nationalism and the inevitable clash between working class whites and working class immigrants. Sound familiar? Both traditions strove to separate themselves from each other, to concentrate on their differences rather than commonalities. Javid is exasperated when his father refuses to confront racism and ignorance, but instead states Pakistanis must keep their heads down and not draw attention to themselves. Like the way blacks were expected to behave in America for so many years.

And this is where it started to hit home for me. Conservative Christianity, like the practice of Javid’s father’s Muslim heritage, is divisive. At core, religion done badly points to the faults of others and creates an “us vs them” mentality. It was this realization, some half dozen years ago, that started me down the road of deconstructing my Christian heritage. Christians like James Dobson, Jerry Falwell and Franklin Graham, to name a few, didn’t sound like Christ.

At first, I thought it was mainly their tone that was unlike Christ. As though there was a polite way to tell gays they were living in sin and going to hell! The problem was, the church offered no way to simultaneously “witness” in a loving fashion, without completely invalidating another’s existence. And this hits at the heart of the evangelical “problem,” they say they love others with the love of Christ, but their actions say otherwise. This is not to say that all individual conservative Christians fall into this category, but rather, the system is rigged to be judgmental and exclusive. There is a great, big “IF’ attached to the so-called, unmerited love of God. God loves you IF you’re not gay, God loves you IF you’re not a Muslim, God loves you IF you believe the Bible is inerrant, there are myriads of “ifs” attached.

The biggest “if” is attached to being white and conservative. And of course, Republican. This is a shoe-in for being on God’s “good side.” A rather slip-shod and shallow reading of the New Testament gives the conservative church a platform to build a narrow, divisive and somewhat paranoid version of Christianity that leads to a church that no longer feels itself a part of the human race, the vast majority of whom “are not lovers of truth,” and are “going to hell.” While hell-fire preaching has fallen out of vogue among evangelicals, the animus is still lying just below the surface. It comes out, rather, in the way conservative Christians wage the “culture wars.” The way they throw their support and hopes onto someone who represents everything Christ is NOT about. Abortion is a diversion from the ugliness that so much the church in America has come to represent. And please, this is not politics I am talking about. Rather, it hits at the core of not only what kind of America do we wish to be, but what kind of Christian do we wish to be.

In conclusion, the movie helped me see that I am a human first, and share that bond with the entire human race. If I strive to be anything, it is to be a better human, or as Jesus said, a better “neighbor.” It’s not about being a better “Christian,” although that should logically follow if one seeks the first. This is backwards, from most sermons I have heard, I know, but I think if the church started behaving more human, they’d end up being more Christ-like.

The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy of a Dying Church

One of the noticeable trends in Christendom over the last few decades has been ever decreasing church attendance. While it could be argued that the death of Christendom has been a long time coming, perhaps even already realized in Europe, American evangelicals have always pretended they never received the memo.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal discuses the possible political and social ramifications of declining church attendance in America. I think the greatest tragedy or failure of American Evangelicalism is its inability to change and its resistance to change. In short, like the words: “diversity, inclusion, social justice”—change is seen as a “bad” word. It is something the “world” does, but not the church. The perception of holding on to the Truth, once delivered to the apostles and prophets of yore, creates a powerful deterrent to improvement.

While the world steadily marches toward social justice, greater inclusion and diversity, the American church seems to be marching the other direction. The problem is further complicated by the history of racism within fundamentalism, the well-spring from which the evangelical movement sprang. As such, the evangelical movement, especially on the Southern reformed side, is solidly a movement of White privilege and superiority. The affects of “the Southern way of life,” cannot be overlooked when trying to understand why the church is in the position today of fighting against so many different attempts by society for greater social justice.

The Wall Street Journal article links the declining birth rate and decrease in church attendance as two factors that are putting tremendous pressure on conservatism:

“Together, these trend lines suggest significant changes in the shape of society in years to come. Some will be comfortable with them as simply signs of the natural evolution in ever-changing American society. On the other hand, such trends tend to alarm and motivate supporters of President Trump, who essentially promises a return to an America of yore. Either way, they are worthy of discussion in the 2020 campaign.”

This may be true, but I don’t think conservative Christians are in a position to deal with the issue in a healthy manner. Yes, they, for the most part, are aware of the decline in church attendance, but their understanding of the “why” is misplaced. Dispensationalism and a 150 years of “end times” hand wrenching has provided an answer for them: it is inevitable that before Christ returns there will be a “falling away” from the Faith. There you have it: “it’s not our problem, it’s yours.” As America becomes younger and far less White, the fear among many evangelicals will only deepen and provide further “proof” that they are right, while all others are wrong.

For someone who grew up in the evangelical faith it is a bit like watching a train wreck in slow motion. While I long to see reform come to evangelicalism in America, reformers such as Beth Moore seem like such a long shot. The powers behind the evangelical movement are too firmly entrenched in their control, too white and too male. Make no mistake, it is a control and power issue. The old hard-liners within evangelicalism represented by groups such as the Gospel Coalition have thoroughly bought into the dispensational, end times scenario, because it keeps them on top of the power curve. The influx of immigrants and undocumented aliens, the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements, feminism and even abortion rights all attack the belief that white men are in charge. The erosion of power can be seen in real time and has produced a frantic, panicky response from many of these men. The recent response of SBC men to Beth Moore’s request to allow women to fully express the gifts of the Holy Spirit within that body was immediate and almost comical. They went on full panic attack. What is it about a tiny blond Southern Baptist woman that creates so much fear among these men?

My wife who is evangelical, keeps admonishing me to see the good in evangelicalism and not concentrate so much on the faults. I do try, and find encouragement in the efforts of men like Scott McKnight, Roger E. Olson or Beth Moore, but they are fighting an uphill battle and time is not on their side. Society is changing too rapidly, I believe, for evangelicalism to catch up.

As for myself, I find the atmosphere on the other side of the fence much healthier and liberating than the evangelical side. As I have pointed out in a past post, Western society seems to be, at least for now, acting more Christlike than the conservative church in America. This is undoubtably, because conservatism is given a higher priority than Christ-likeness among many American Christians. There are a number of scenarios I can see play out here. There is a strong possibility that conservatism will win out and evangelicalism will become more insular and removed from society, which would best fit the self-fulfilling prophetic vision of dispensationalism. A slightly less likely possibility is that the church realizes it is headed in the wrong direction, and with glacial speediness, changes over the next couple decades, and actually starts practicing true Christian charity—but only after the tremendous loss of influence over society and the sad realization that much of the damage they’ve done cannot be undone. A third highly unlikely option is that evangelicals suddenly wake up, repent and once again become powerhouses for change in society.

If history is any indicator, I think the second option the most likely. What do you think?

Church: Giving Answers to the Wrong Questions

I am reading Diana Butler Bass at the moment, “Christianity After Religion.” Tucked away in the midsection of the book is some profound statements that I believe are spot-on in describing why traditional Christianity badly misses the mark when it comes to making a connection with the concerns and needs of modern Western society. Both traditional Protestantism, especially Evangelicalism, and Catholicism start with a concept of man’s sinfulness, that we are somehow “bad” in our core, and need to rid ourselves of that core to be forgiven. Usually unspoken but inferred, is that we should feel badly about ourselves and repent of that “sinful nature.” Sin, then, is basically pride in ourselves and the refusal to admit that we are “sinful.”

I understand how the church arrived at that conclusion, based on the gospel narratives involving John the Baptist, and of course, Jesus’ calls for repentance. But the church, in its zeal to be true to scripture, has failed to understand or acknowledge that, while “the field may be ripe for harvest,” the disease affecting the crop has changed. Hubris is no longer the issue. There is a different kind of “lostness” that affects Western culture, and the church exacerbates the problem by preaching against the sin of pride.

What was shocking about both Jesus’ and John’s message is how it attacked the notion that the Jews were automatically “saved” because of their birthright: being Jewish. They had a leg-up over the Gentiles. They had superior knowledge that their enemies, the Romans, didn’t have. It was this hubris that John the Baptist, Jesus and, especially Paul riled against. It insulted those in power: the religious leadership of the first century. It attacked the very foundation of religiosity: that believing the right things made you superior to those that didn’t believe the right things.

It is why Jesus chose a Samaritan, who didn’t believe the right things, to illustrate what a loving neighbor looks like. Imagine how that hurt the Pharisees’ pride! Fast forward to the 21st century and some things have changed, some things haven’t. We still have religious Pharisees, those who “believe the right things,” who call others to repent of their pride, not realizing that it is they who are prideful. But, I will let Diana Butler Bass speak for herself:

  As Western society has been overtaken by faceless consumerism and seemingly uncontrolled technologies, do men still feel like gods? I doubt it.

    Instead, in the last fifty years, most Europeans and North Americans—male, female, gay, straight, transgender, black, white, brown—have most likely succumbed to the sins of ‘triviality, distractibility, and diffuseness,’ having lost any real sense of self in a world of broken memories, entertaining technologies, and frenzied materialism. Indeed, philosophers and popular observers alike have noted that many people are now reconstructing their sense of self through nostalgia or consumerism. Saiving’s description* of female sinfulness has come to represent much of the human condition. Thus, ‘Who am I?’ may well be the driving theological question of the day and the starting point for reflection on spirituality—that lived experience of God longed for by so many people in the once Christian West.

   If sin was once seen as a twisted, self-centered quest to become God, then salvation was deliverance from self in order to become other-centered. If the self is a problem, then the church’s job was to help people diminish the self and make room for God. Thus, salvation was freedom from ourselves, our humanity, and our ambitions. The church taught that anything self-driven was evil and shaped communal prayer, ritual, worship, and penance around stamping out our humanness and striving instead for divine ideals of goodness. In the West, Catholics and Protestants took different routes to the same end—Catholics emphasized confession, penance, and sacraments as a way out of the human dilemma; Protestants (depending on the sort of Protestant) emphasized right belief, reordered hearts, and moral action as the paths away from sin. Fundamentally, however, the outcome of salvation was the same: pushing back, replacing or burying our human nature in favor of submitting to a transcendent—and often distant—God.

   This, I suspect, is the root of many people’s anxiety about church—that religion is the purveyor of a sort of salvation that does not address their lived struggles. So those who once ‘believed’ in this sort of salvation migrate away from the church, seeking instead something they call spirituality.

   Pride and hubris do not particularly seem to be humanity’s problem at the moment—they began to erode when the first atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima.

…Salvation is not being saved from ourselves, escaping some dreadful fate of judgement, damnation, and hellfire at the hands of a wrathful God; rather it is being saved to ourselves, finding what was lost and the joy of discovery in the hands of a loving Creator. Although the word ‘salvation’ has come to mean ‘eternal life’ in most religious circles, it is helpful to return to the word’s Latin root salvus, meaning ‘whole,’ ‘sound,’ ‘healed,’ ‘safe,’ ‘well,’ or ‘unharmed,’ as a way to understand the spirituality of salvation.”**

Understanding this, that as humans we have lost connection with ourselves, and each other, that there is an aching aloneness that pervades much of Western culture, the church would find connecting to the real needs of humanity and society much simpler. A simple illustration of this pertains to parenting. Is it effective to belittle a child with low self-esteem or is it wiser to to build them up, show them how much they are valued and loved? 

Ironically, the sin of hubris, while not a problem typical of Western society as a whole, does have a hold on the church. The danger inherent to any exclusionary social construct is that the included can feel “above” the excluded. Coupled with the belief that the church gets it right while everyone not in one’s particular religious click gets it wrong, only strengthens that conviction. Furthering the disconnect is the fact that people see beyond the facade, that those outside the church see that Christians are really no better than themselves, and the air of religious superiority is merely self-righteousness. The church would do well to understand that the gospel message of repentance and conviction of sin was largely leveled at the traditional religion of the first century. The message Jesus preached was, in large part, a deconstruction of status quo religiosity. The failure to see Jesus’ call of repentance as applicable to the institutional church is due, in large part, to the modern Western influence of “individualism,” the Western “sawdust trail.”

It is this over-emphasis on individual sinfulness that has blinded the church to its corporate sinfulness, explaining why it has been so hard for the church to see its own culpability in racism and sexual exploitation. Institutional religion is very difficult to reform from within. As we have seen in the SBC over the last few years, and more recently in the  UMC denomination, reform meets great resistance from those who rely on the “perks” their religion gives them, almost always at the expense of others. When individuals within the church see that it is all a power play, they leave, and those outside the church find their worst suspicions validated. Once seen for what it is, it cannot be unseen.

But the church cannot offer solutions to society until itself has repented. This is a core issue. Next, the church needs to understand what people need…what they are looking for. What they are lacking. Can the church meet that need? That people are broken is a given, but what is the fix? Simply quoting cherry-picked Bible verses about salvation no longer works. The way out of the situation is simple. Live Christ, be Christ, show Christ. I will further elaborate in a future post.

*Theologian Valerie Saiving, “The Human Situation: A Feminine View.”  

**Bass, pp. 181-183.

Has Christianity Outlived its Usefulness?

Has Christianity outlived its usefulness, or more to the point, is Christianity at all relevant any more in a post-modern world? Coming from an American evangelical background and graduating from an evangelical seminary, I could never have imagined I would even think these questions, let alone say them out loud. Traditional conservative Western forms of Christianity value conformity and certainty above doubt, which is seen as a lack of faith. Cognitive dissonance is to avoided at all costs. But what has been sacrificed on the altar of certainty is honesty and in the end, truth itself.

If you have followed my blog you know that the last half dozen years of my life have been a spiritual journey marked by a gradual deconstruction of what I had been taught about God, the church, the Kingdom of God and my place within the framework of a religion called Christianity. The seeds of my discontent actually go back much further, to my time in Bible School (Vanguard University, So. California) and deepening at Fuller Seminary, Pasadena California. Coming into contact with others holding more diverse views on what it means to be a follower of Jesus, a follower of the Way, creates all sorts of dissonance and raises questions about the status quo one was raised in.

I think, what we have seen in the last couple hundred years is the unraveling of Christendom: the marriage of church and state, which began with Emperor Constantine in the early 4th century. By the end of the 19th century Christendom was dead in Europe replaced largely by secularism. The late 19th century in America saw a last attempt at reviving a Christianity that was in full cardiac arrest. The paddles of fundamentalism were applied to the heart of a church that was clogged with racism, nationalism and white exceptionalism. The trouble was and still is, the rest of the world has moved on, not caring whether the patient live or dies.

Like the writing on the wall seen by Belshazzar in the book of Daniel, the world has observed the church in action and found it wanting. The incongruity of a church that seeks to control other’s sexual desires and actions yet is plagued by sexual scandal itself, that has replaced spirituality and unconditional love with doctrinal certitude and litmus tests for inclusion, is now seen as the judgmental, bigoted and unloving organization that it really is.

This is not, on my part, a chastisement of individuals within the church, many who are wonderful people, but of the institutionalization of spirituality, the attempt to contain and control people in the name of religion. In her book, “Christianity After Religion,” Diana Butler Bass describes our post modern age as one of a spiritual quest, an awakening of spirituality. Less religious, in many ways, yes, but not necessarily less spiritual. For Bass and in others like Harvey Cox, what the world is experiencing is a new “spiritual awakening,” often devoid of historical religious trappings or taking a radical reinterpretation of what was past held to be immutable.

One of the major hurdles Christianity needs to overcome is its tribal nature. Religions sprung up as tribal deities were invoked as guardians, providers and for the fertility of crops and procreation. The Hebrew Scriptures are a good example of this phenomena. As such, tribal gods competed with each other and religions clashed, often violently. As tribes grew and became city states and eventually nations, the tribal spirit of competition and violence traveled along, largely unchanged. Religion was exclusionary by nature and was linked to “belonging” to a particular tribe or nation. Religion and state partnered in controlling the citizenry, enforcing religious laws. There often was no distinction between the secular and the religious.

Perhaps all of life is to be understood spiritually, and nothing, if done with understanding, is purely secular. But if all is spiritual then what do we make of the tribal competition of the world’s religions? What do we do with the almost immediate schisms that plagued Protestantism following the nailing of the 95 Thesis? Are we as spiritual beings, reflectors of God’s image to continue dividing ourselves into groups that have a “corner” on spiritual “truth?” Is spirituality to be defined by having that corner on religious doctrine?

And this leads into the second of what I believe to be a major shortcoming of the Church: the replacement of an encounter with the Divine with “knowing and defending the right views.” The Bible, for example, becomes a battleground, a bastion of facts and rules to be believed in, or your faith is in question. Without going down the rabbit hole of inerrancy that conservatives created a century and a half ago to combat liberalism, I will say that this particular theological framework, designed to take all the guessing out of Christianity, has pretty much nailed the lid of the coffin down on conservative evangelicalism. By forcing allegiance to this boondoggle of a belief system, severe damage has been done to the Christian faith in the West. Worse yet, it has engaged theologians in a worthless task of defending it instead of working on what manifesting the love of Christ in the world should actually look like.

The authoritarianism that comes from a literalist understanding of scripture, as I have pointed out in past posts, denies any meaningful reform within the conservative church, and puts it at odds with any progressive advancement or understanding in a postmodern society. Rather than a source of wisdom or a tome of spiritual truths, the Bible becomes a book (singular) of “facts.” Those “facts” are then marshaled to support the belief that Iron Age concepts of family life, governance and spirituality were meant to be adhered to today. This is why conservative churches practice subservience of women, why men try to control women’s bodies, why those churches obsess over sexual practices, have purity balls, support nationalism (racism in disguise) and abhor sexually non-binary people.

Finally, fundamentalism in Christianity, mirrors a broader movement of fundamentalism worldwide, both secular and religious. As progressivism gains more steam, the backlash has been immediate, and in places, severe. While evangelicalism declines in progressive societies like Europe, Canada and the US, it grows in Third World countries where totalitarian or fascist regimes give it sustenance. The recent resurgence in the US of a fearful, largely White conservative religious/political voting block represents one such example of the conservative backlash among modernist evangelicals trying to stem the tide of progressive reforms. It reflects the ancient belief that, like the Tower of Babel, races, peoples and nations are to be kept separate, humanity is not one, my nation is better than your nation, my race superior to your race. In short, it is an attempt to divide rather than unite. Because this is counter to the Kingdom of God preached by Jesus and because it is creates an unhealthy society, Christianity, as a religion, must ultimately fail for the good of humanity. A church that actually follows Jesus must rise instead. Will it?

Further reading:

Christianity After Religion, Diana Butler Bass

The Future of Faith, Harvey Cox

Post-Christendom, Stuart Murray

Jesus Untangled, Keith Giles

Reformed and Always Reforming, Roger E. Olson

The Church as Contributor to Social Injustice

I am going to continue my previous post on the evangelical statement put forth by John MacArthur as a number of issues have come to my attention in my subsequent interactions with evangelicals online. Some clarifications need to be made.

First, as I have pointed out in my previous post, much of this is about jockeying for control of evangelicalism itself. This battle is not new, but began in earnest within the SBC (Southern Baptist Convention) three decades ago. Southern Baptists comprise the majority of evangelicalism with many “hidden” branches posing as “unaffiliated” or “nondenominational.” Moderates were forced out of the denomination over a period of two decades back in the 80’s and 90’s. There was a concerted effort to replace moderates with fundamentalists in their educational system. Since then the denomination has doubled down on the efforts to squelch any attempts at reform. MacArthur is a product of that wing of evangelicalism.

Secondly, although both fundamentalist Christians and Progressive Christians present Social Justice as either, a. irrelevant or b. central to the Gospel, the truth of the matter is more complex. By quoting from the prophet Isaiah, Jesus began his ministry with a reference to social justice, but his message was never about reforming the Roman government. It was directed at social injustice and religious hypocrisy WITHIN RELIGION. This is what initially got Jesus in trouble. It was his prophetic indictment of the Jewish religious authorities using their power to exploit others. This is why many evangelicals will point out (correctly) that Jesus never tried to change the government or shame the government into social programs that benefited the poor, etc..

So here is where it gets awkward for the fundamentalist wing of evangelicalism. Historically they have been one of the prime perpetrators of social injustice in America. For the past 150 years, white fundamentalism has been a major hurdle and has systematically targeted people of color as well as Catholics, Jews, women, Gays, and a host of others. Bolstered with Bible verses and the assurance of an inerrant Bible, preachers in the South convinced their parishioners that God was behind their cause. Much like MacArthur and his dismissal of social justice, these pastors were convinced the “modern secular” abolitionist goals of the North were a threat to the Gospel and contrary to the clear teaching of Scripture.

As the government pushed for social justice for poor Blacks, fundamentalist Christians pushed back hard against those reforms, preferring to exploit others based on race for their own financial gain. It is almost as if the Pharisees were lifted out of first century Palestine and resurrected in the 19th century as Southern Christians. In the end Southern Christians were willing to go to war, claiming states rights. The American Civil War killed over 700,000 people. Sadly, losing the war for cessation did not change their hatred and oppression of Blacks. Instead, they sought all sorts of work-arounds to circumvent laws for Black equality. The next 100 years was spent trying to segregate and marginalize Blacks (and Hispanics) as much as possible and deny them quality of life.

Thirdly, this is not “ancient history.” One of the comments I heard over and over in the 90’s from White conservatives was how sick and tired they were of hearing about “200 years of oppression.” A popular bumper sticker read, “If I’d known it would be this much trouble, I’d have picked my own damn cotton!” In other words, they didn’t believe Black claims of oppression had validity. Tragically, this opinion still affects, to one degree or another, about 70% of White evangelicalism. It has expanded to include more than just people of color. Basically anyone other than White fundamentalists is fair game.

So it is no wonder that MacArthur and 7000 other signers of the Statement on Social Justice feel the struggle for Social Justice is a distraction from the Gospel. They don’t believe the struggle is valid in the first place. They uphold a narrative about race and the place of women that is founded in White male privilege. The use of Scripture is used to validate their own presuppositions and biases.

I would add as a fourth point, that the Gospel, as understood by fundamentalists, is really not the matter of concern here. In the early 20th century, fundamentalists eschewed involvement in politics and war. They were accused of being “unpatriotic.” Subsequently, they have bent over backwards to appear super-patriotic. The American Constitution has become almost as sacrosanct as the Bible itself. The argument about Social Justice has become more of an argument about the role of government in society, and how much intervention is acceptable, than a Biblical discussion on social responsibility. This is why the majority of conservative Christians I talk to say they are unabashedly, Libertarians. 

Because of this willful ignorance of past church failures in the area of social justice that evangelical Christianity has stalled. Meaningful repentance needs to take place before the church can be a “witness to the gospel” in society. The church needs to clean house.

Further:

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/keithgiles/2018/09/over-7000-pastors-admit-they-dont-follow-jesus/?utm_source=Newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Progressive+Christian&utm_content=43

A Changing Religion: The Merger of Church and State

This has been lifted from a Facebook post by Bob Grayson. When the church was offered the “keys” to the Roman state in the fourth century by Emperor Constantine, little did the early church fathers realize what was really happening is that they were offering the keys to the church instead. In effect, the spiritual “principalities and powers” that Paul mentions became intertwined with the very fabric of Christendom.

“A Changing Religion

 Much of what Jesus taught seems to have been followed closely during the first several hundred years after his death and resurrection. As long as Jesus’ followers were on the bottom and the edge of empire, as long as they shared the rejected and betrayed status of Jesus, they could grasp his teaching more readily. Values like non participation in war, simple living, inclusivity, and love of enemies could be more easily understood when Christians were gathering secretly in the catacombs, when their faith was untouched by empire, rationalization, and compromise.

Several writings illustrate this early commitment to Jesus’ teachings on simplicity and generosity. For example, the Didache, compiled around 90 CE, says: “Share all things with your brother, and do not say that they are your own. For if you are sharers in what is imperishable, how much more in things which perish!” [1]

The last great formal persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire ended in 311 CE. In 313, Constantine (c. 272-337) legalized Christianity. It became the official religion of the Roman Empire in 380. After this structural change, Christianity increasingly accepted, and even defended, the dominant social order, especially concerning money and war. Morality became individualized and largely focused on sexuality. The church slowly lost its free and alternative vantage point. Texts written in the hundred years preceding 313 show it was unthinkable that a Christian would fight in the army, as the army was killing Christians. By the year 400, the entire army had become Christian, and they were now killing the “pagans.”

Before 313, the church was on the bottom of society, which is the privileged vantage point for understanding the liberating power of Gospel for both the individual and for society. Within the space of a few decades, the church moved from the bottom to the top, literally from the catacombs to the basilicas. The Roman basilicas were large buildings for court and other public assembly, and they became Christian worship spaces.

When the Christian church became the established religion of the empire, it started reading the Gospel from the position of maintaining power and social order instead of experiencing the profound power of powerlessness that Jesus revealed. In a sense, Christianity almost became a different religion!

The failing Roman Empire needed an emperor, and Jesus was used to fill the power gap. In effect, we Christians took Jesus out of the Trinity and made him into God on a throne. An imperial system needs law and order and clear belonging systems more than it wants mercy, meekness, or transformation. Much of Jesus’ teaching about simple living, nonviolence, inclusivity, and love of enemies became incomprehensible. Relationship—the shape of God as Trinity—was no longer as important. Christianity’s view of God changed: the Father became angry and distant, Jesus was reduced to an organizing principle, and for all practical and dynamic purposes, the Holy Spirit was forgotten.”

— Adapted from Richard Rohr, Dancing Standing Still: Healing the World from a Place of Prayer (Paulist Press: 2014), 48-51; and

Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality (Franciscan Media: 2008), 100.

 [1] Didache 4:8. See Tony Jones, The Teaching of the Twelve: Believing and Practicing the Primitive Christianity of the Ancient Didache Community (Paraclete Press: 2009), 23. More about the Didache is available at http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/didache.html.

The Pope, Jeffress and the Death Penalty

“Many times when I stress Jesus clear teaching on loving enemies and non-violence, someone will say, “But what about the Old Testament where God commanded violence?” Particularly people have brought up King David who was called “a man after God’s own heart” and yet participated in much violence against enemies. To that I want to say that we are called Christians, not Davidians. We follow Jesus, not David. It always baffles me when Christians treat the Captain of our faith so trivially and easily dismiss him in favor of Old Testament texts. Do we not believe that God himself came into history? Is it insignificant or does it change everything? How much do we actually “believe in Jesus”? 

But another thing I want to point out is a little passage in 1 Chronicles where David summoned all the officials of Israel for an assembly in Jerusalem including “all the officers over the tribes, the commanders of the divisions in the service of the king, the commanders of thousands and commanders of hundreds, and the officials in charge of all the property and livestock belonging to the king and his sons, together with the palace officials, the mighty men and all the brave warriors.” This is what he said:

“Listen to me, my brothers and my people. I had it in my heart to build a house as a place of rest for the ark of the covenant of the LORD, for the footstool of our God, and I made plans to build it. But God said to me, ‘You are not to build a house for my Name, because you are a man of war and have shed blood.'” (1 Chronicles 28:1-3)

Wait a second, didn’t God command all the bloodshed and violence? Does this not bring that into question? What a shocking and historical statement to make to the entire military of Israel. The “man after God’s own heart” was denied his desire to build God a temple because he was a “man of war” and had shed blood. Perhaps King David was such a man after God’s own heart that even in his time, when violence was seen as the divine way, he was ahead of his time in beginning to see God’s true heart on this matter. This is an Old Testament foreshadow of what was clearly revealed in Christ, and the true hope of God’s kingdom and the building of his temple (us).”

— Jacob M. Wright

What I think we have here is an example of the ancient practice of claiming God is on your side to justify violence, and then David’s growing realization that killing another human could not possibly be a loving God’s desire. A recent example of this was the Pope’s condemnation of capitol punishment as being counter to the teachings of Christ. A telling rebuff was President Trump’s evangelical advisory panel member, Robert Jeffress: 

“When an individual takes a life, the Bible calls it ‘murder.’ When the government takes a life, the Bible calls it ‘justice.'” …“I’m sure Pope Francis is a good man who is sincere in his belief. But the Pope is sincerely wrong on this. Popes, pastors, and churches may change their opinions, but God’s Word never changes. ‘Forever, O Lord, thy word is settled in heaven’ (Psalm 119:89).” *

It is here we can clearly see the problem inherent to evangelical theology… “God’s Word never changes.” The assumption is that there is no progression of thought about God and ethics in scripture, and that the Bible sprung fully formed from God’s mind like Athena from Zeus’ forehead. It totally discounts the humanity of scripture, and in practice places cherry-picked violent passages as more authoritative than Jesus’ own teachings. It is a slippery slope that has historically allowed the church to justify very un-Christlike behaviors. Like King David of old, evangelicals end up creating a god in their own image. A god that satisfies their own violent and selfish appetites for revenge. Rather than allowing scripture to show progress in understanding God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, it is forced into a theological box of man’s own creation.

The ironic thing about treating scripture in this manner, is, that despite the claim that they are “honoring” scripture in this way, a finished, inerrant, propositional scripture allows quite a bit of wiggle room and unethical behavior. It is quite easily twisted, as it has been reformed in man’s own understanding of how a propositional rule book would look.

I have quite a few run ins with both atheists and fundamentalist Christians over the violence in scripture. As a progressive I get hit from both sides. Atheists almost universally seem to understand the Bible as fundamentalists do, inerrant and spoken by God. It is a straw man argument that they can easily attack. My dear evangelical brethren, on the other hand, insist on defending scripture as accurately depicting God’s violence (justice). Both sides feel this is the only way to interpret scripture: literally, and neither will admit to their presuppositions. …Very frustrating.

The truth of the matter is that scripture is the word of God, small letter “w.” As John tells us, Jesus is the Word of God, big letter “W.” This worshipping of the Bible creates a false idol of something that should be cherished but subservient to Jesus, not lord over him. Let’s get our priorities straight.

* http://www.firstdallas.org/news/pastor-robert-jeffress-pope-is-dead-wrong-about-capital-punishment/