The Christian community in the first century was outside, and in many ways opposed to, the power-struggles and values of the society of their day — both Jewish and Roman. Yet the Christians were culturally relevant — they understood the weighty issues of the day, and respected and honored their hearers.
What they offered was intensely interesting to virtually every segment of society. Jesus was intensely interesting to Pilate, to Herod, to Caiaphas the High Priest, and to the Scribes and Pharisees, the leading religious thinkers of Israel. Paul was intensely interesting to Agrippa and Festus. In Ephesus, Paul was spared from almost certain death by the intervention of the leading (pagan) committee of Asia (“The Asiarchs” – Acts 19:31)
Kings and governors chose to hear from them because so many people were violently opposed to their teachings, and the recent events in Jerusalem had gotten the notice of leaders throughout the civilized world. Christians were a pain to leaders, partly because they did not fear the only real powers the State could muster: economic sanctions or lethal force. Still, Christians weren’t competing to grab the controls of temporal power. They were taught by their leaders to be submissive to the “higher powers” — the State. They were relevant but not worldly; involved but not confrontational. They were a bit prickly at times, because they also acknowledged a higher order, and the freedom of thought and action in religious matters that they believed had come from God to be the ultimate guide of their conscience — not the decrees of an unbelieving State. But they went to prison and the cross with songs on their lips.
Not so today. Now, the Christian community to a large extent has intertwined itself with the world system, and attempt to use money and political processes to gain access to the wheels of power. Everywhere I turn, I see Christians whining about the supposed restriction of Christian freedom by a State that, well, the Christian right feels has betrayed them. This brand of my fellow-Christians seems to have imbibed the notion that the State should be a partner of religion in the institution of morals, in the guiding of children, in the upholding of religious “norms” such as Christmas, prayer at public events, pledging allegiance “under God”, presiding over a religious marriage rite, etc.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I believe that all western governments, including the United States, has indeed become an ally of a number of elements in society that, in Biblical terms, are by definition immoral. I believe the Bible condemns murder, and specifically gives rights to the unborn fetus in Exodus 21:22 and following. (Though I acknowledge that most Jewish interpreters disagree with my reading of that passage). I agree that Biblical marriage is indeed between a man and a woman. I agree that the foundation of all human society in this fallen world is indeed the family unit, and that the integrity of marriage lies at the heart of that social foundation. I agree that children need to respect and honor their parents if it is to be well with them in life, and in their relationship with God. I think decent people in a democracy have a right and indeed a duty to try and keep their government moral.
But what I am taking issue with here is the notion that true Christian faith has somehow secured a place in the governance of the free world, at least in America. From a historical point of view, I believe that this idea is very dangerous to true Christianity, and very dangerous to the spread of true Christianity. Whenever Christians have gotten their hands on the controls of power, bad things have happened. Well, not always — a few leaders have from time to time been a little less vicious, a little less immoral than your run of the mill tyrants. But mostly, the worst leaders in history have been popes and quasi-religious emperors. These have been venal, corrupt, rapacious, and viciously evil. Among the most notable in this pantheon of “Christian” leaders has been Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain (who expelled the Jews from Spain in 1492), Pope Innocent III, who persecuted the Albigensians and Waldensians, and launched the Inquisition and the Crusades; institutional “Christian” escalation and support of African slavery from the 16th to the 19th centuries; and the 20th century’s own King Leopold II, who decimated the Congo in the name of Christianity and set the stage for Rwanda just a few years ago. Taken together, the number of souls killed by “Christian” leaders certainly must number in the hundreds of millions. And I believe God has been keeping this list, and is now in the process of bringing retributive judgment upon Christian institutions that have been involved with these evils. (Revelation 18)
I am an American, and thankful for the comparatively humane record of the United States over the last two centuries; (I believe the U.S. was in part the “Open Door” of opportunity to oppressed Protestants mentioned in Revelation 3:8) but I am not blind to the many ways we have failed to help the poor, and have at times been conspirators in oppressive actions by religious and political leaders around the globe. The point is, that the United States is not, and never has been a theocracy — a government truly ruled by God. It is a republic or a democracy — ruled by the people who are partly good, partly bad, partly religious, and partly secular; and its strength for good has come as much from its Thomas Paines and Thomas Jeffersons and its Abraham Lincolns (agnostics or deists) as from its George Washingtons, Jimmy Carters, or George Bushes (openly religious men).
But I digress. My main point in this essay is this: what is so strange about recent trends is that the first century relevance and yet alienation from the halls of power by true Christians has been replace by irrelevance, insensitivity to the poor, and a pawing after the privileges of power on the part of “Christians”.
And equally amazing: concern for the poor, concern for the environment, interest in checking governmental abuses and advancing the rights of human beings on all fronts has been taken up by agnostics, atheists, unbelievers of every stripe.
Today “Christianity” is less likely to be identified with the poor and oppressed, and more likely to be today the preferred religion of many powerful, educated people. Partly because Christianity identifies with morality and “family values” — which in my opinion is noble and good. But also partly, because “Christianity” confers power and privilege and social advantage in the United States, if not in many places on the globe.
Today the preservation of the environment is more likely to be advocated by atheists and agnostics than by Christians. The reality of human-induced global warming is being ridiculed by “Christians” — why? Is it because of the weight of scientific evidence, or the advantages to our privileged ways of life and the disdain they hold for environmentalists?
The rights of oppressed people are more likely to be championed by secular or irreligious voices than by Christians. And even the cause of “truth” — logic, investigation, true science — instead of being advanced by true Christians as it was during the Reformation — is now becoming, embarrassingly to some of us Christians, the domain of the skeptical, the atheist, the unbeliever.
Gotta run. Truth and justice demand that I finish my Work in time to watch the Ohio State/Michigan game.