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What Would People Think?

Saturday, May 07, 2005

And So It Begins....

Well, this promises to be the most infrequently updated blog ever. For all I've bugged Jeff and Mike about not updating their blogs, I will now hypocritically make no promises about keeping this one up to date. (Yes, yes...plank's in my eye, speck's in yours.)

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.


  • I know it's a little stupid to begin by commenting on my own blog...but I realize I've already made a mistake. I meant to conclude the paragraph about abortion by saying I may get around to that but I'm too lazy to write that up right now.

    Clearly, I'm also too lazy to proofread my blog entries.

    By Blogger Ben, at 5/08/2005 12:08 AM  

  • So... I get to be the first "real" person to comment on your blog. I should make this really good since I know lots of people will read it. Oh owh the preasure! Actually I mean that literally.:) I have been spending way too much time smelling spray paint fumes and now everytime I try to think it hurts. I have been spending the last half hour trying to figure out how many brain cells and ducks I killed tonight. :)
    Anyway back to your blog... I agree I think it is imperitive Christians take action, of course I think it is imperitive we all take action, but there is a difference in the reasons. I think it is imperitive that everyone take action to reduce suffering because we are all human and need each other. I believe the biggest thing that seperates me from the person in East Asia or the man on the street is luck, where and to whom I was born. For Christians I think the call to serve is that and more. Even though suffereing can cause pain and death it can cause change and growth, but for that growth to happen there has to be hope. Yet hope is useless if it is not grounded in something that provides security, for then it can and will fail you. For example it is tempting to put my hope and security in personal wealth. That if I earn enough money I will be safe and never struggle. Of course this can change in the blink of an eye (Black Tuesday or death). Those who are suffereing need more then false security, they need to see the love, the power, the peace that does not come from us but from faith in Jesus.
    I think I went off on a random tangent, but since I calculated 3,267 brain cells lost tonight my mind is a little mushy. Actually of course it is not as mushy as it looks, but that is another story.

    Oh, a little not to Ben: I love you (and not because I made it twice on your awesome blog or that you told the whole world that you love me :) but because...you are absolutly beautiful! I love you and can not wait to see you!

    By Anonymous christy (ben's intrest), at 5/08/2005 2:27 AM  

  • oh wow I took up the rest of the page... hum I guess I was never brief! :}

    By Anonymous christy (ben's intrest), at 5/08/2005 2:28 AM  

  • And it's not just a Christian thing. With us, something similar happened - we got distracted over minor ritualistic or doctrinaire differences and forgot the pursuit of justice, in theory one of our greatest goals. Only in the past couple of centuries has Judaism recovered.

    Rabbi Israel Salanter, an Orthodox thinker and founder of the Musar (morality) movement, once said: "Normally we are concerned with our own material well-being and other peoples' souls. Let us therefore be concerned with others' material well-being and our own souls." I don't suggest this as a fix for Christianity - y'all place far more emphasis on salvation by faith than we do (none). But it is worth considering whether overemphasis on one is taking away from the other...

    By Blogger Jeff, at 5/09/2005 6:06 PM  

  • I would dispute the idea that there's an "over-emphasis" on saving souls in Christianity. Personally I'd like that to remain at high levels...if not higher. (Seeing as we're talking about eternity here.)

    At the same time, we Christians should be living out the Gospel here and now. And that means concern for the poor...among other things. In other words, to paraphrase your rabbi, we should be concerned about others' material well-bein and others' souls. In doing so, we discover our own souls becoming as they should be.

    By Blogger Ben, at 5/10/2005 1:43 AM  

  • Ben,
    I entirely agree with your argument. As a Christian myself, I find in my religion that people get so caught up in the culture of being "such and such" religion that they forget the simplistic and beautiful doctrine that made it so. What should unite/brand members of a religion is often times what is lacking the most.

    I was thinking though, In regards to the denunciation of capitalism, do you believe that God inspired and guided the founding fathers who instilled democracy and therefore capitalism in America?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5/10/2005 4:32 PM  

  • Well, hello Anonymous. Wonder if you'll be checking back here again. Never thought I would get anonymous posts. Especially since my own friends probably aren't reading here anymore.

    So....Did God guide the Founding Fathers to install capitalism as America's economic philosophy? I'll probably answer that with a big fat "I don't know." Certainly, the Bible teaches that God is in control of the rise and fall of nations, so in that sense He did. But, in that sense, He was also responsible for the rise and fall of the Soviet Union....and the Bible makes clear He was responsible for the rise and fall of an evil nation like Babylon. He allowed the nation to rise to accomplish his purposes (punishing Israel), then punished it for the atrocities it committed.

    So, in my "expert" opinion, God may have allowed the Founders to choose capitalism or even inspired them to do so, knowing it would one day lead to America's current material prosperity and whatever use He has for that. That still doesn't come out to ringing Divine endorsement of capitalism.

    By Blogger Ben, at 5/10/2005 6:05 PM  

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