There is no greater threat to the vitality of Christianity than a benign government.
In the early days of the church, loyalty to Christ meant opposition from the state religion. Christians could not submit to a Roman Emperor who labeled himself the savior of the world, and as a consequence they were often treated with suspicion, or worse. The Emperor Nero found Christians to be convenient scapegoats, and executed thousands of them in the first of many periodic persecutions of the early church. But despite the official opposition–or more likely because of it–Christianity grew and thrived. Wherever and whenever Christians were attacked by worldly powers, the church emerged stronger than before, and it quickly spread throughout Europe, Northern Africa, and Asia Minor. The second-century apologist Tertullian observed, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”
It’s a different story in the United States in the 21st century. Surveys indicate that 75% of the American population call themselves Christians. Nearly every candidate for national or statewide office professes to be a follower of Christ. Christians in this environment are in no danger of persecution.
Nevertheless, every year around this time a small but vocal group of American Christians protest what they label the war on Christmas. This “war” usually revolves around department store managers who encourage their clerks to wish customers a generic “happy holidays,” rather than “merry Christmas,” or government officials who choose to decorate a “holiday tree” rather than a “Christmas tree”.
Although these practices perturb peevish pedants, they do not match the level of hardship faced by the early Christians. The apostle Paul wrote of his experiences:
2 Corinthians 11:24-28: Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches.
It would be hard to imagine Paul stressing over being told, “Happy holidays.”
But maybe I’m being too harsh toward today’s faux martyrs. They at least seem to be vaguely aware of the discrepancy between Jesus’ promises that his followers would be persecuted or even killed, and the comfortable, complacent lives of many Christians in the United States today.
Some American Christians have gotten so cozy with Caesar that they believe they have a right to legislate their morality. Conservative Christians like Gary Bauer and James Dobson have worked for more than three decades to elect Republicans in the hope of eliminating abortion (among other goals). But the reality is that the U.S. abortion rate has been steadily dropping since 1980, regardless of which political party is in power. The biggest four-year drop was during Bill Clinton’s first term. There was a slight uptick during George W. Bush’s second, but the overall trend is a slow, steady decrease.
On the other hand, the U.S. still has a higher abortion rate than many other countries, including more secular nations with liberal abortion laws. France, Germany, Denmark, Australia, Japan, and Hong Kong are among the nations that have both lower abortion rates and a smaller Christian population than the U.S. If American Christians are having an influence in reducing unwanted pregnancies, it isn’t showing.
Attempts to legislate morality are not limited to conservatives. Liberal Evangelical Jim Wallis has made a catchphrase of “budgets are moral documents,” and has gotten himself arrested more than 20 times protesting government policies toward people living in poverty. Wallis has gotten a lot of pushback from other Christians who believe it is the role of the church, not the government, to give aid to poor people.
But American Christians have wasted so much time arguing about whose responsibility it is, we have failed to get the job done. The childhood poverty rate in the U.S. has reached 23% and is still trending upward. And those same secular democracies with lower abortion rates also have lower child poverty rates than this nation of Christians. Once again, if Christians are having a positive impact on our society, it’s not evident.
Bill McKibben has observed what he calls the Christian paradox: “America is simultaneously the most professedly Christian of the developed nations and the least Christian in its behavior.” By any number of measures–murder rate, divorce rate, teen pregnancies–this nation of Christians has fallen behind our secular counterparts in living up to Jesus’ teaching.
During the initial debate over the controversial Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy enacted by the Clinton Administration, ethicist Stanley Hauerwas wrote an opinion piece for the Charlotte Observer, entitled “Why Gays (as a Group) Are Morally Superior to Christians (as a Group)”. Hauerwas was disturbed by some of the arguments against allowing gay people to serve openly in the military. He was disturbed, that is, because the same arguments were not being used against Christians.
Christians, argued Hauerwas, should give our loyalty first and foremost to the Kingdom of God and not to an earthly power. As a result, political and military leaders ought to question whether we could ever be loyal to the secular state. Hauerwas imagined what people would say if Christians really put Christ first.
Consider the problem of taking showers with Christians. They are, after all, constantly going on about the business of witnessing in the hopes of making converts to their God and church. Would you want to shower with such people? You never know when they might try to baptize you.
Christians are asked to pray for the enemy. Could you really trust people in your unit who think the enemy’s life is as valid as their own or their fellow soldier? Could you trust someone who would think it more important to die than to kill unjustly? Are these people fit for the military?
Christians’ failure to make a difference in the larger culture, in other words, stems from a failure to take Jesus’ teaching to heart in our own lives. It’s time for Christians to stop worrying about the speck in society’s eye, and work on removing the giant redwood from our own.
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