One of the significant problems in the history of the Christian church is that it so readily assumes the values of the dominant culture in which it finds itself. In the first three centuries of the Common Era, Christians were strongly counter-cultural and anti-imperial. It is no longer so.
The change began in the fourth century. Under the Roman Emperor Constantine, the church moved from a position of state persecution to state protection. Not long after, it became the official religion of Rome.
Quickly, the church became a servant of the Roman state. It served as chaplain to the status quo of imperial society. The church supported the power politics, military ambitions, and domestic domination system of the Roman Empire—a system that employed extensive use of human slavery, favored the desires of the rich over the needs of the poor, and placed the whims of men over the lives of women and children. In every case, church leaders and theologians found biblical support for this ungodly system of inequality and violence.
The church of Constantine became a wealthy, conservative, hierarchical institution invested in empire and its continued success. And it clung to that position for a milennium and a half. No longer could the values of Christians be differentiated from those around them. They were fully enculturated by the status quo.
There’s always a danger when Christian gospel is shaped to appeal to the dominant forms in a culture. When this happens, Jesus is frequently found missing. That is the ultimate problem with popular Christianity in America—Jesus is missing.
Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer says in his book Jesus Against Christianity: Reclaiming the Missing Jesus:
“Jesus is missing and we miss his guidance. He is missing because Christian theologies, creeds and actions are disconnected from his life as a revelation of God. The Christ of faith is the object of worship and the subject of our creeds and the New Testament Gospels. That Christ, however, is often at odds with the historical Jesus and the God revealed through his life. Jesus, who was experienced by some as good news and revelation of God and by others as a subversive threat worthy of scorn and death, has all but disappeared from Christianity. It should not surprise us that Jesus was killed by his enemies. More surprising…is how Jesus has been distorted by his admirers, from New Testament times to our own”
“Distorting or ignoring the historical Jesus results in numerous expressions of deformed Christianity. The Jesus of history would be dismayed to hear his name invoked by white militia movements, moral crusaders, anti-gay activists, and right wing politicians, He would be equally troubled by the accommodating theologies of many wealthy churches where Christ displaces Jesus and the Spirit that guided his life, where church growth eclipses discipleship, and where affluence cripples spirituality and reinforces a social divide.”
“Christianity without Jesus atrophies our spirituality, subverts the mission of the church, truncates the individual and collective faith of Christians, distorts God and politics, covers over major issues concerning scriptural authority, and leaves our world in peril.”
the Easter chicken
In his autobiographical book, Brother to a Dragonfly, Will Campbell, a Baptist minister and Civil Rights activist, tells this story of an exchange between himself and P. D. East, a former newspaper editor who had disavowed the Methodist Church of his youth. Speaking of P. D. East, Campell writes:
He referred to the Church as “the Easter chicken.” Each time I saw him he would ask, “And what’s the state of the Easter chicken, Preacher Will?” I knew he was trying to goad me into some kind of an argument and decided to wait him out. One day he explained.
“You know, Preacher Will, that Church of yours and Mr. Jesus is like an Easter chicken my little Karen got one time. Man, it was a pretty thing. Dyed a deep purple. Bought it at the grocery store.”
I interrupted that white was the liturgical color for Easter but he ignored me. “And it served a real useful purpose. Karen loved it. It made her happy. And that made me and her Mamma happy. Okay?”
I said, “Okay.”
“But pretty soon that baby chicken started feathering out. You know, sprouting little pin feathers. Wings and tail and all that. And you know what? Them new feathers weren’t purple. No sirree bob, that damn chicken wasn’t really purple at all. That damn chicken was a Rhode Island Red. And when all them little red feathers started growing out from under that purple it was one hell of a sight. All of a sudden Karen couldn’t stand that chicken any more.”
“I think I see what you’re driving at, P. D.”
“No, hell no, Preacher Will. You don’t understand any such thing for I haven’t got to my point yet.”
“Okay. I’m sorry. Rave on.”
“Well, we took that half-purple and half-red thing out to her Grandma’s house and threw it in the chicken yard with all the other chickens. It was still different, you understand. That little chicken. And the other chickens knew it was different. And they resisted it like hell. Pecked it, chased it all over the yard. Wouldn’t have anything to do with it. Wouldn’t even let it get on the roost with them. And that little chicken knew it was different too. It didn’t bother any of the others. Wouldn’t fight back or anything. Just stayed by itself. Really suffered too. But little by little, day by day, that chicken came around. Pretty soon, even before all the purple grew off it, while it was still just a little bit different, that damn thing was behaving just about like the rest of them chickens. Man, it would fight back, peck the hell out of the ones littler than it was, knock them down to catch a bug if it got to it in time. Yes sirree bob, the chicken world turned that Easter chicken around. And now you can’t tell one chicken from another. They’re all just alike. The Easter chicken is just one more chicken. There ain’t a damn thing different about it.”
I knew he wanted to argue and I didn’t want to disappoint him. “Well, P. D., the Easter chicken is still useful. It lays eggs, doesn’t it?”
It was what he wanted me to say. “Yea, Preacher Will. It lays eggs. But they all lay eggs. Who needs an Easter chicken for that? And the Rotary Club serves coffee. And the 4-H Club says prayers. The Red Cross takes up offerings for hurricane victims. Mental Health does counseling, and the Boy Scouts have youth programs.
chaplain to the status quo
Like an “Easter chicken” Christians have all too readily become undifferentiated from the dominant culture around them. The Christian church has become a chaplain to the dominant values of American life. And those values are far removed from the reign of God as proclaimed by Jesus.
Jesus scholar Marcus Borg say in Jesus: A New Vision:
“The dominant values of American life—affluence, achievement, appearance, power, competition, consumption, individualism—are vastly different from anything recognizably Christian. As individuals and as a culture…, our existence has become massively idolatrous.”
In an article in Harpers magazine called “The Christian Paradox,” author Bill McKibben points out, if 85 percent of Americans are Christian, then the United States should reflect certain Christian values. Most elected officials and Supreme Court justices claim to be Christian. In fact, it’s darn hard to be elected to nearly any office in America if you aren’t a religious person of some kind. So our national policies, both foreign and domestic, should transmit that we are a “Christian nation” and that we ascribe to traditional “Judeo-Christian values”.
But by almost any objective measure America and Americans do not follow the fundamental teachings of Jesus. (Strangely, many of the secular nations of Europe represent the values of Jesus to a much stronger degree than the United States.)
Here is Bill McKibben’s assessment:
“What if we chose some simple criterion—say, giving aid to the poorest people—as a reasonable proxy for Christian behavior? After all, in the days before his crucifixion, when Jesus summed up his message for his disciples, he said the way you could tell the righteous from the damned was by whether they’d fed the hungry, slaked the thirsty, clothed the naked, welcomed the stranger, and visited the prisoner. What would we find then?
“In 2004, as a share of our economy, we ranked second to last, after Italy, among developed countries in government foreign aid. Per capita we each provide fifteen cents a day in official development assistance to poor countries. And it’s not because we were giving to private charities for relief work instead. Such funding increases our average daily donation by just six pennies, to twenty-one cents. It’s also not because Americans were too busy taking care of their own; nearly 18 percent of American children lived in poverty (compared with, say, 8 percent in Sweden). In fact, by pretty much any measure of caring for the least among us you want to propose—childhood nutrition, infant mortality, access to preschool—we come in nearly last among the rich nations, and often by a wide margin.
“Despite the Sixth Commandment, we are, of course, the most violent rich nation on earth, with a murder rate four or five times that of our European peers. We have prison populations greater by a factor of six or seven than other rich nations (which at least should give us plenty of opportunity for visiting the prisoners). Having been told to turn the other cheek, we’re the only Western democracy left that executes its citizens, mostly in those states where Christianity is theoretically strongest.”
onward Christian soldiers
I would add that the United States has a military budget that staggers the imagination. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, in 2003 the United States spent approximately 47 percent of the world’s total military spending of $956 billion. (See chart at left)
In 2005, U.S. military spending was more than the combined spending of the next 20 nations and was almost 7 times larger than the Chinese budget, the second largest spender. In fact, Russia and China, together with the six “rogue states” of Cuba, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Sudan and Syria, spent $139 billion, just 30% of the U.S. military budget of $420.7 billion.
The U.S. military budget request by the Bush Administration for Fiscal Year 2007 was $462.7 billion. (And this is in addition to what we were spending on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, funded through supplementary spending bills.)
Our military spending represents one-fifth of the federal budget. As Jim Wallis of Sojourners points out, “budgets are moral documents.” The U.S. federal budget is a document that stands in moral opposition to nearly every principle taught by Jesus.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower once critiqued the immorality of military spending in these words:
“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the clouds of war, it is humanity hanging on a cross of iron.”
If the national priorities of the United States are not focused on justice and peace, what does that say about the American population which claims to be overwhelmingly Christian? And even more, what does that say about the state of the church in America?
Just what is happening in our churches? What kind of ministry is being done there in the name of Jesus? What ideas are being taught to our children? What is the content of mainstream American Christian theology? The theology that we teach and preach is enormously important. It helps to shape who we are and how we live.
For Jesus, individual salvation was not the ultimate objective—transformation of the entire society was. This is what Jesus meant by the reign of God on earth. However, he knew that social transformation can only be accomplished through individual transformation; the two are tightly interwoven and interconnected.
do not be conformed
St. Paul wrote in his letter to the churches at Rome:
“Do not be conformed to this world [meaning this age, this culture, this conventional wisdom, this political and economic system of domination], but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” (Romans 12:2)
Personal salvation theology doesn’t challenge cultural conformity. Rather, it appears to re-enforce it. If the church’s goal is merely individual salvation, Jesus’ goal of individual and social transformation may be forever lost. Jesus’ objective was to seek first God’s alternative order. He was very explicit about God’s priorities.
America, as a people and a nation, desperately needs to be transformed to a society committed to God’s dream of peace and justice on earth.
the culture of American empire
Conservative evangelical Christians often rail at liberals for all too easily accommodating themselves to our modern secular and pluralistic society, specifically the so-called elitist culture of the East coast or the permissive values of the West Coast entertainment industry. But even though evangelicals like to believe they are a minority persecuted for their strong moral beliefs, they are captives to a culture as well—the real American culture, the truly dominant culture in our society. Evangelicals are conformed to the traditional culture of the American South and the values of the American frontier. These cultural influences dominate the American empire of the twenty-first century.
Conservative evangelical Christians—the Religious Right—are the power behind right wing politics in America. They are the church of free enterprise, chauvinistic nationalism, uncontrolled gun ownership, and patriotic militarism. In fact, it’s difficult to determine which one shaped the other—the religious beliefs of evangelicals or the mainstream culture of the American Empire of the twenty-first century.
If Jesus came back and saw
what’s going on in his name,
he’d never stop throwing up.
The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life recently found that people who attend church at least once a week are more likely to approve of torturing suspected terrorists than those who don’t attend. These attendees are largely conservative Christians. The reality is that what the gospel says or implies rarely supersedes what a person’s political or social positions happen to be. If one is both a conservative Christian and a Republican, one’s politics usually trump one’s understanding of the gospel of Jesus. For many Christians “love your neighbor,” or “love your enemy,” is merely a distant second to “torture the suspected terrorist.”
The one to whom we are ultimately loyal requires something different than torturing our enemies. Apparently going to church isn’t making this clear to those who regularly attend, and all too many church leaders are unwilling to challenge the priorities of culturally compromised Christians in the heartland.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said:
“Christianity stands or falls with its revolutionary protest against violence, arbitrariness, and pride of power, and with its plea for the weak. Christians are doing too little to make these points clear… Christendom adjusts itself far too easily to the worship of power. Christians should give more offense, shock the world far more, than they are doing now.”
Where is the Christianity, the religious movement, that Jesus envisioned? It is certainly not found in the culturally conformist church that surrounds us today.