And So It Begins....
I once thought about starting this blog by trying to anger as many of my friends as possible with an entry about abortion. (Ok, trying to anger my liberal friends. But honestly, I'll mostly be coming at things from a liberal point of view anyway.)
So, I figured I'd begin my blog with an open letter addressed to my fellow Christians...one which I've sent to a number of my friends already. I've been working on it for a while, but have only made minor changes to it since last December. It's as good a beginning as any to my blog, seeing as it expresses much of my philosophy, simplistic though it may be.
So, without further ado here is....
An Open Letter to My Fellow Christians
Something is seriously wrong with American Christianity.
I say this not as a secularist lobbing yet another critique at Christianity, but as a Born-Again Evangelical Christian. I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama attending a Southern Baptist church. Much as I disagree with the Religious Right on many issues, I cannot hold them in contempt like my fellow liberals. They are still my Christian brothers and sisters.
That said, I fear that in its actions the American church – specifically the Evangelical church of which I count myself a member – has gone far astray. It has bought into the American obsession with wealth, let itself be co-opted, and failed in its duties to the poor.
We approach the world with what one Duke Divinity student calls an “amputated Gospel.” We do very well with evangelism. We’ve got mission trips, seminars, and Christian music all helping to spread the Gospel of salvation through grace by faith. One of my best friends from college is a missionary risking arrest in a country without religious freedom. This is all important and good work; it should not be neglected.
But that’s only half of the Gospel. “Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” – James 2:17. If we only focus on the eternal, without taking action in this world, we are not acting as Christians. But we have taken action and had influence on a few issues (i.e. abortion, Ten Commandments displays, the Pledge). Having done that, we conclude we have done God’s work in the public realm and go about our lives.
Jesus’s command in Mark 12:31 (“Love your neighbor as yourself”) shows us precisely what is wrong with that. Christ’s own example on the Cross shows us that love is a radical, self-sacrificial act. The Bible contains over 550 verses specifically commanding us to help the poor. My favorite is Jesus’s parable in Matthew 25 where he concludes “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat . . . I was a stranger and you invited me in . . . whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” As Campus Crusade for Christ founder Bill Bright put it, “caring for the poor is part of the Great Commission.”
How does the American Evangelical church, operating in the public realm, fare on this test of love, sacrifice, and serving the “least of these”? Very poorly indeed.
We tend to apply Christianity to only a select few issues, most notably abortion and gay marriage – issues which demand remarkably little sacrifice on our part. From our comfortable homes we preach that sinners should live better lives, and then we return without a thought to our lives of unbelievable luxury while others waste away in the cycle of poverty. [As of December 28, 2004, there is no mention of poverty in Jerry Falwell’s website (falwell.com), but there is an advertisement to join him on a 13-day cruise including a visit to London. The Christian Coalition lists among its goals “strengthening the family” and “protecting innocent human life” (all worthy goals), but similarly never mentions expressing God’s love by fighting for the poor.] This complacency is the sin of the American church.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Charles Sumner, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and other Christian abolitionists applied their faith to action and helped destroy the great national evil of slavery. Martin Luther King’s faith led him to helm a great Civil Rights crusade, bringing in a new wave of justice and opportunity for African Americans. (Much work remains to be done on this front.)
What happened? A number of things probably went wrong, but I’ll go out on a limb with one suggestion: Christianity was co-opted by extremist capitalism.
Now take a moment before you start calling me a communist. I’m not arguing for a Marxist revolution. What I am saying is that capitalism is a concession to human greed and selfishness. Adam Smith sought to design a system that harnesses that selfishness for mankind’s greater good. In this fallen world, perhaps that’s the best we can do. But that doesn’t make the market a positive moral good.
Christianity calls for love…for radical self-sacrifice. Capitalism, in its most extreme forms, teaches us to look out for Number One and doggedly pursue material gain. Simply put, these two philosophies are, at their core, fundamentally at odds. “How will this affect my 401(k)?” should never be the first question to enter a Christian’s mind.
Starting in the 1970s, and coming full tilt in the 1980s, business interests having no interest in the Gospel sought an alliance with Evangelical Christianity. With an eye to nothing more than their own enrichment, these interests sought to harness the passion and organization of activist Christians to launch themselves into power. At the same time, they sought to rein Christianity in…to give Christian activists their outlet in issues that won’t affect their prosperity. And we went along with it.
[This isn’t the only time that the powers-that-be have sought to co-opt Christianity to their own ends. See, for example, the Crusades or the post-Reformation religious wars. A more American example is Manifest Destiny.]
What am I trying to do with this letter? I’m trying to spark a discussion. To get Christians (including myself) to think seriously about their faith and how they will apply it. To show that we are collectively headed in a dangerously wrong direction and help us change paths.
I ask only that you, my fellow Christians, pray and consider this letter.