In yesterday’s post I wrote about how Christianity is more than following Jesus in some form of the Social Gospel, but deals with actually bringing people to Christ. I’ve thought more about that phrase that I used in the post (“bringing people to Christ”), mostly because I felt uncomfortable using it. I think the reason I feel uncomfortable with it is that many evangelical Christians overuse it. Likewise, theologically speaking, it’s just wrong; people can’t be “brought to Christ” as though they were farm animals. Rather, the role of a Christian isn’t to bring people to Christ, but rather to bring Christ to the people.
Even the idea of “bringing Christ to the people” seems like something that can be bastardized by American Christianity. In fact, one could imagine multiple lesson plans, structures, programs, and campaigns organized to “bring Christ to the people.” It would culminate in taking our American Jesus with our American ideals to a non-American society and encouraging them to become good American Christians. Sadly, many people unintentionally link their Patriotism to their faith, leading to a sentimentality that is no different than that of the general’s in Stanely Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. The general says, “We are here to help the Vietnamese, because inside every [Vietnamese] there is an American trying to get out.” Of course, I edited out the racial epithet, but it does underscore what I believe is a mentality within American Christianity.
Now, I could prolong this post by going on and on about the problems with American Christianity. I could point out that we’ve developed this prosperity Gospel. I could show how we’ve become too comfortable with our position in the world. I could speak more and more about the problem of blending the culture with the Gospel, rather than letting the Gospel impact and change the culture. Ultimately, however, there is simply one big problem with American Christianity, and the problem with American Christianity is that a thing such as American Christianity exists. That we can put a cultural adjective before the word “Christianity” is a shame; we wouldn’t want to think of “Japanese Christianity” or “Canadian Christianity” because we would view this as mixing the culture and the Gospel, but this is what has happened with us in America.
Thus, the scariest part about following Christ and truly living as He desires is that in order to be a good Christian, you sometimes have to be a horrible patriot. In order to follow Christ and be true to Him, you sometimes have to be culturally insensitive or even counter-cultural. If the culture says “do this,” but Christ says “do that,” then we must do that which He commands. Many people may think they are tracking with me on this issue. They may think, “Right, like how the Germans mixed the culture too much in WWII and followed Hitler,” or “Right, if the government demanded I abandon Christ I wouldn’t do it.” Certainly this hits the bigger issues, but these are extreme and far-fetching examples. Rather, I am thinking about the underlying currents of these movements; for instance, what created the precedence that allowed German citizens who worshiped Christ to also murder their fellow man?
Look at American culture and consider how much we’ve wrapped our Christianity with the American flag. Imagine if you were walking along the southern border in Texas and heard a story about an illegal immigrant who took a border patrol agent to the hospital. Imagine this story was posted on a conservative news site. While some comments would be reasonable, the overwhelming majority of them would condemn the illegal immigrant for being within our borders, yet many of these naysayers would claim Christ. Apparently they forgot the shocking narrative of the “Good Samaritan,” the fact that “Samaritans” were hated and despised in ancient Israel. In this way we have allowed our culture to wrap up our Christianity; while protecting the border is important, what is far more important is showing compassion and love to those who are outcast (from a Christian perspective).
Alternatively, we can imagine a CEO inviting a “preacher-of-the-people” over to his house to eat. Furthermore, imagine that this CEO bragged about ripping people off to get where he was. Yet, he found this preacher and wanted to dine with him, so he had this preacher come over to his house, feeding this preacher food paid for by money taken from other people. Imagine this story found its way onto a liberal website and imagine the comments you’d get then. Many people would condemn the preacher and say that he abandoned the Gospel because he was dining with someone who had exploited people. Apparently they forgot the shocking act of Zacchaeus (you know, that wee little man) and how Jesus dined with a tax collector, who openly admitted to stealing from people (though he repented). While stopping corporate injustice (where it exists – not all corporations are evil, nor are all CEOs) is important, what is far more important is showing compassion and love to the exploiters that they might stop exploiting (from a Christian perspective).
For these reasons, following Christ in any true sense is a scary activity, which is why few people (including myself) attempt it with any seriousness. And that is quite the shame. In our refusal to abandon the shackles of our culture and embrace the freedom of Christ, we’ve caused the world to grow weary of our version of Christianity. Sadly, the world can’t see that we are offering a cheap trick, a mere substandard imitation of the original. To put it as G.K. Chesterton put it, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried…Men have not got tired of Christianity; they have never found enough Christianity to get tired of.”
What does it mean to abandon one’s culture and follow Jesus? For Christ, it meant being around prostitutes and tax collectors, around adulterous women and Samaritans, around live-in girlfriends and even Pharisees. For the early Church, it meant being around slaves and Barbarians, around Roman Governors and Gentiles. For us it might mean being around Muslims (even the extremists) and illegal immigrants. It might mean we have to be around abortionists and corrupt CEOs. We might have to befriend Iranians, Iraqis, or Russians. We may need to serve AIDS victims who acquired the disease through promiscuity or by no fault of their own. In other words, to save one’s culture, one must abandon the same culture.
The scary aspect of following Christ is that it is one giant paradox. In our infidelity to our culture we are displaying the greatest act of love. We are telling the culture, “I cannot accept you as you are, but I love you enough to change you into who you ought to be.” To adapt the Gospel to our culture is an act of hateful melancholy because it robs the culture of the true power that Christ offers. To adapt the culture to the Gospel by abandoning one’s culture is an act of love because it rescues the culture from its current position.
If our churches were to start showing more concern for helping their local community than building a bigger sanctuary, then the world would see Christianity. If our people were as concerned over visiting the hospitals (especially terminally ill patients who have no one with them in their moment of need) as they are over their small group meetings, then perhaps the world would consider Christ. Instead, we have ended up with a form of Christianity that focuses on the self and what the self can get out of church. The irony is that American Christianity is pragmatic in all things except in actually living out its faith. Faith isn’t something we work through, but rather something that simply is. Faith almost becomes a state of being, that we’ve said a prayer, we trust in God, and now we’re on the finance committee.
If we wish to see our culture saved, we must abandon it. We must reach out to those who are different from us, even those who would call themselves our enemies. We must begin to live our faith by helping those who can’t help themselves. We must reach out to both the oppressed and the oppressors, calling on both to find brotherhood in Christ.
Following Christ is a scary thing because it requires us to go against everything we’ve learned and grown up with. It’s scary because the things we’ll come to believe and come to say will alienate those closest to us, especially those who are fellow Christians wrapped up in the culture. What is scarier, however, is thinking that rather than letting Christ turn us into His image, we would rather wrap Him in our nation’s flag and make Him into our own image.