Author/blogger Jonathan Merritt, in his new book A Faith of Our Own, shows why he believes the Greek tragedian writer Euripides was right when he said, “Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad with power.”
Early Christians, on the other hand, provide a study in how to engage the public square without forgetting the gospel. “This growing group of Jesus-followers made great strides on issues such as infanticide, slavery, and an early expression of women’s rights” (65). Merritt rightly concludes that these early Christians “knew that politics is not the true threat; it’s thirst for power” (65). In perhaps the one area where Merritt’s use of history collides with a more nuanced understanding of historical facts he concludes that the approach of the early church changed when Constantine “converted” (65). This all-to-common error of judgement (assuming the church fell when Constantine embraced the faith officially) is made by a host of modern Christians so Merritt is certainly not alone in his conclusion. But the truth is far more interesting and complex. Yet even this “minor” error does not mar Merritt’s central point–that Christendom gave “the mark of Christ” to a host of things that were not part-and-parcel of the mission of the church.
Merritt is a good writer, indeed an excellent writer. He tells a number of “insider” stories that will stab you wide awake if you are willing to hear his concerns about how political partisanship has tragically reshaped the faith of millions of Christians in America, ultimately leaving us devoid of the power of Christ’s good news. Here is just one sentence: “The tragic side effect of enlisting in the culture wars was that the Christian mission in the United States was now being reframed in terms of conflict” (74). Because of this turn believers now express themselves (Merritt employs words from culture critic Ross Douthat) “almost entirely in the language of loss, disappointment, anger, antipathy, resentment and desire for conquest” (74). Since the business of opposition is to oppose much of what the world hears from America’s Christians is now the voice of opposition.
In John 21:15 Jesus asks Peter if he loves him. Peter replies, “Yes.” Jesus then tells Peter to feed his sheep, not picket the wolves. Merritt rightly believes that the mark of discipleship is not what we are against but rather who we love and how. One conservative author refers to “culture creep” as the great danger of our times. This particular Christian Right author then urges his readers to “identify and combat culture creep” and “expose [the] conflicts of interest involving the [New York] Times” and then, finally to “devise an effective system of apologetics that will enable your belief system to prevail in disputes with those who follow the Times gospel” (75). But as if this is not enough the same author suggests that conservative Christians “take over the Times” as their end goal. But how? Stockpile a “huge war chest” of money and turn minority stockholders against the parent organization. He says we should “harass and snipe away at the parent organization and its worldview through lawsuits” (76). I’m not making this up folks. And this particular book, as Merritt opines, was released by the publishing division of the Southern Baptist Convention in 2000!
At the same time the book I’ve just mentioned was published (2000) Merritt rightly notes that Americans were already growing tired of “the overly politicized Christian church, which now felt angry, reactionary, and triumphalistic” (77). Now Merritt believes that we are suffering from a “second aftershock,” a kind of backlash against the previous backlash. The church feels the vibrations of this period in at least two ways:
1. The church is hemorrhaging from the inside. While anger rose, and Christians engaged the culture wars, attendance began to decline inside the church. When Gallup asked Americans to explain the decline in religious attendance a frequent response was that the church was too involved in current social and political battles. Young people are “running away as fast as they can” (77).
2. The church is also repelling people from outside. “The perceptions of non-believers about Christians in America have soured like unrefrigerated milk” (78). Among young non-Christians only 16% had a favorable impression of Christianity and when the questions was narrowed to “evangelical” Christians it was only 3%. Read that number again.
Non-Christians do not like our entrenched thinking, our empire building and the us-versus-them mentality that we’ve created. They dislike our “swagger” and our “attack mode” as well (78). 91% of young adults believe Christians are “anti-gay” and 70% say we are “insensitive to others,” while 87% say we are “judgmental” and 75% say “we’re too involved in politics” (78, quoted from Kinnaman and Lyons, Unchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity, 2007).
Yet some will argue that non-Christians will always reject Christians. This is part and parcel of our being faithful to Christ they argue. There is, of course, an element of truth in this but that element is quite small when contrasted with the times and places where Christians have seized the day and changed both people and cultures. What has happened in America is not so much that Christians have lived such good and noble lives that savages hate them as they have become less and less consequential because we are, more or less, part of a special interest group seeking power. Merritt wisely drove this point home when he spoke to a group of older Christian leaders, who retain power inside their group, and said, “We’re a part of the larger story. It’s a story of a faith that felt the culture coming apart at the moral seams and mobilized itself to mend it. But in our frenzied effort to recover the past, I wonder if we’ve lost sight of the goal: Jesus Himself” (80). Amen.
When Christians recognize that Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world they will then realize once again that our struggle is not “with flesh and blood” (81). Our battle is not with pornographers, humanists, socialists, religious extremists, racists or even terrorists. Do you believe this or are you still stuck in the culture-war mode of the last thirty years in American church history?