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:
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:
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:
In an article in Harpers magazine called The Christian Paradox, author Bill McKibben points out, if 85% 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:
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% 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:
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:
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.
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 supercedes 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:
Where is the Christianity, the religious movement, that Jesus envisioned? It is certainly not found in the culturally conformist church that surrounds us today.
© 2007 Kurt Struckmeyer