Jesus, Save Us From Your Followers!

I take the title of this post from a bumper sticker I saw years ago. It should make a comeback.

The 2012 election has made many cultural shifts in America obvious. Not least of these is the diminishment of the influence of the politically organized so-called Christian evangelicals and the Roman Catholic hierarchy. A front-page article in the “New York Times” of Saturday, November 10 http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/10/us/politics/christian-conservatives-failed-to-sway-voters.html?hp&_r=0 reports on some of the shocked reactions from some of the leaders of these factions to both the victory of President Barak Obama and the success of ballot initiatives on gay issues and the legalization of recreational marijuana use.

It is understandable that the reactions from those with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo of the “Christian right” reflect the opinion that the positions they have staked out against such things as liberal government antipoverty activism, abortion, provisions for birth control in insurance plans, homosexuality and restraint on defense budgets are all correct and should be defended to the hilt. They also maintain that it is simply that other parts of the Republican party have failed to attract support from single women and minorities.

Bob Vander Plaats, president of Iowa based The Family Leader, is quoted as saying, “We’re not going away, we just need to recalibrate.”

Yet, these same conservative organizers have been forced to admit that people are indeed abandoning the pews. More and more Americans are claiming to have no specific religious affiliation.

I proudly claim the label evangelical, but I roundly reject almost all the values that have become associated with that term in today’s popular understanding. And I am convinced that it is the behavior of today’s leaders of what we have come to call evangelicals that is the chief cause of much disaffection with Christ’s church.

Furthermore, I believe that the values that the majority of voters embraced in this year’s election reflect a very healthy rejection of the false brand of faith that has been forced upon them lately with the backing of extremely wealthy but misguided benefactors.

I have tried for years, as a believing Lutheran minister who is also a father of two intelligent children, to answer the highly critical questions that young people today have in the face of the many hypocrisies embraced by so-called evangelicals. Indeed, young people are wired to detect hypocrisy, and they are easily and even violently repulsed by it in the church.

It can be instructive to look at two foundational passages of Scripture to consider what is going on.

First, the Ten Commandments (Deuteronomy 5). The entire set of commands is based on an exclusive relationship of obedience to one Lord God. This God saves his people from slavery and is therefore alone to be worshipped and obeyed above all authorities. Surely when Christians call on people to get in line and support a conservative, exclusively Republican political agenda; and when they equate patriotism and unquestioning support of unlimited military budgets with godliness, theirs is a patent form of idolatry. And when their agenda at best ignores the poor and at worst actually denigrates any attempts by government to release people from de facto slavery, young people and critical thinkers of all ages are repulsed.  

Speaking the Lord’s name in vain is also at issue today when people invoke it to chalk up points for their own political gain. When politicians and campaign hacks keep tally of how many times God is mentioned in the platform of a party, thinking people recognize the stench of hypocrisy. 

It would be lovely, from my point of view, if everyone would remember the Sabbath by attending churches that truly honor the God of holiness. But when pulpits, church bulletins and the Sabbath service are used to libel the President from the pulpit and distribute biased voter guides, it is surely a gross pollution of the day that should be set aside to keep God as the Holy One in our lives. Even in so-called conservative churches people are getting sick and tired of this denigration of the sanctity of the Sabbath.

Honoring parents, denouncing adultery, and lifting up the family experience is a wonderful function of churches. But more and more people are understanding that when homosexuals want to form life-long, committed partnerships and want to raise children in a loving and responsible manner, that is a good thing. It is not a threat to marriage, but a strong affirmation of the true purposes of marriage. The churches should admit that we all know what real sin is. Being unfaithful, untrustworthy and abusive in a relationship is sinful. Whether one is in a homosexual or heterosexual relationship it can be holy if it is reflects the love that Christ has for the church.

 Murder is not a trait of the conservatives, but surely Jesus warned us in the Sermon on the Mount that bitter hatred is closely related to murder and is just as deserving of punishment (Matthew 5.21-26). No matter where you are on the political or theological spectrum, if you are human you are susceptible to the temptation to love God by hating people. This is always wrong and young people and all thinking people know it is ungodly.

And more and more people are recognizing that there are many institutionalized ways to steal. The conservatives cry foul and label many social programs as unacceptable “redistribution of wealth.” But our critical young people see that the rich and powerful have way too much power and ability to lobby into effect rules and laws that allow them to effectually steal wealth from those beneath them in the pecking order. When workers contribute all the labor and yet are not paid enough to survive and must collect food stamps to get through, they are called by the “right” part of the dependency culture. But this treatment of the laborers is a form of legalized stealing. It is making unfair gains. Young people know this and they abhor it when church people don’t recognize this truth.

And then there is “bearing false witness.” If there was one thing that people of the Christian right did during this election cycle that repulsed me the most, it was indulging in false witness. Oh how it is aided and abetted by computers and cell phones! I received messages from people I thought were committed Christians—messages that any thinking person would know were gross lies. But because these missives conformed in a “truthy” kind of way to the overall values the sender embraced, these were broadcast to everyone on contact lists. Young people surely smell it when truth matters less than scoring political points. This is bearing false witness.

The Ten Commandments finally forbids us from coveting. It is greed and envy that are the cardinal sins of the Bible. It is not lack of patriotism or sexual sins that are mentioned most, but greed and envy. What a breath of fresh air it would be if young and critically thinking people could see a revolution in the ethics of Christians today—if they could see Christians opening their hearts to lifting others up rather than resenting it when the poorer neighbor gets food stamps or affordable insurance or is able to send their kids to college. Wow, what an attractive thing that would be!

 

We can take a briefer look at the second foundational passage of Scripture, the Beatitudes of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5). Here the Lord of the Church pronounces as blessed those who are poor in spirit (Luke’s version says simply “the poor”), those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted. The very fact that, for years the hallmark of conservative leaders has been to portray themselves as the oppressed, is a travesty. They see conspiracies all over. The media are all liberal. There is a gay agenda and it is taking over. There is a war on Christmas and school prayer.

But the hypocrisy in all of this is evident when conservative leaders so rarely seem capable of putting themselves in the shoes of the other. In fact, they are so lacking in empathy that they go to the extreme of portraying the other as less than human. Surely Christians should have compassion and understanding for the Jews of Israel. But can we not also see that Palestinians and Arab Christians also are human beings? Can we not recognize the humanity of immigrants, welfare recipients and homosexuals?

When preachers from the pulpit keep urging people to fight not for the poor but to preserve their own insurance coverage, their own low taxes, their own comforts, it surely runs directly counter to the spirit of the Beatitudes.

Of course, during the latest election campaign, and in all American politics, there is less and less mention of the poor by any of the candidates. We talk about the middle class exclusively because the bulk of voters can identify that the candidates are concerned about them. But Jesus cared for the poor. Jesus cared for the oppressed. And Jesus called on his followers to do the same. The Beatitudes is a clarion call to compassion and empathy which all our leaders of both major parties should heed.

 

Those who respond to pollsters’ questions of religious affiliation with “none” are often those who are repulsed by a counterfeit form of evangelicalism. If we were truly marked by the “evangel”—the good news—the gospel—we would be people who would keep the Ten Commandments in their deepest, truest intent. We would be people of great empathy and compassion, who laugh with those who laugh and mourn with those who mourn. We would be people of the Beatitudes and people of the cross.

Of course that may indeed drive even more people away. The greatest sin would be to so covet power and popularity that we turn our backs on the cross of Jesus Christ, the man who was executed for his unrelenting godly compassion.

If we take up our cross and follow him, we will surely be rejected too.

But at least we wouldn’t smell of hypocrisy. At least we wouldn’t be emptying our churches for all the wrong reasons.

 

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