There is a crisis at the center of Christian life and thought today that has produced social catastrophes on the circumference of it. While the catastrophes have captured everyone’s attention, the more fundamental, but subtle, subterfuge at the core of Christian thought has gone unnoticed.
In its very essence, the Christian faith displays a unique posture towards the marginalized of society and a convictional solidarity with them. This posture springs from the rich wells of the Law and Prophets of Judaism. The intent of the Mosaic law- given to recently liberated slaves from Egypt, mind you- was to protect and advocate for those whom society tended to neglect. The Torah provides strong ethical discourse surrounding strangers, foreigners, and the poor. It advocates for justice and equity, especially for those who are at the bottom of the social ladder. While Yahweh had gotten the people out of Egypt, the law was to ensure that Egypt had gotten out of them.
Of course, the prophets amplified this voice in the Torah, perpetually reminding the people of Israel of the Law’s determined deference towards the down and out. The prophets critiqued those who claimed the promises of the covenant with Yahweh while neglecting their ethical commitments to that covenant. The prophets also warned the people of the seductive temptations of political power and the ways in which those in power created their own “truths” at the expense of THE truth. Those in power- particularly the kings of Israel- no doubt found the prophets more of a nagging nuisance than cheerful chaplains to the throne. After all, the prophets believed in a higher throne altogether.
Isaiah, for one example, declared that the fasts God truly desired were fasts from injustice. True religion loosens the chains of oppression and never tightens them. Jeremiah confronted the court prophets of his day who were claiming, “Peace, peace” because that’s what the crown preferred to hear. Jeremiah said there was no peace because the people had forsaken their covenant with Yahweh. Amos roared against the economic injustices of Israel, in which they “sold the poor for a pair of sandals.” To borrow a phrase from Martin Luther King Jr., they had turned people into things and given things the importance of people. Micah announced that Yahweh did not so much seek extravagant worship, but the inner transformation that “acts justly, loves mercy, and walks humbly with God.” Over and over again, the prophets stood in solidarity with the lower echelons of their societies, and they advocated for justice, equity, and fairness on their behalf. They stood with the poor, and they spoke for the poor.
Needless to say, Jesus also stood squarely in this same prophetic tradition and was its highest exemplar by identifying with the “least of these.” He touched lepers, whom no one else would touch. He ate with sinners and tax collectors, whom everyone else despised. He said the poor were the blessed ones and pronounced “woes” upon the rich, which should leave every 21st century American scratching their head. He blessed the children and elevated the status of women. In his birth, living, and dying on a cross, Jesus identified with the least and the last and the lost. The “least of these” weren’t just characters in one of his parables, they were partners on his journey and charter members of the Kingdom of God. Identifying with the marginalized was for Jesus, like the law and the prophets, central to his life, work, teaching, preaching, and death.
Over the course of time, however, Jesus’ elemental posture towards the least gave way to Christendom’s propensity to give deference to the greatest. This did not happen at a single place or a single time, but slowly and subtly over the centuries. Though it went largely unnoticed, it was hardly unintentional. As Christianity became the dominant religious force of empires and nation-states, it could not be ignored. Thus, it had to be twisted. The faith that once held power accountable for the sake of the vulnerable, now tended to further victimize the vulnerable in service to power. The faith that once stood in solidarity with the marginalized and oppressed, now stood beside thrones and crowns who thought the marginalized expendable and the oppressed dispensable. The people of the crucified one wound up holding a hammer and nails in their hands and on the wrong side of the cross.
This great, distorting reversal at the center of the Christian faith is the result of years of theological malpractice. The reversal was achieved by arbitrarily boxing in the great prophetic tradition and the profound way of Jesus into very narrow boundaries, outside of which the church must not speak. First of all, people began saying that the way of Jesus was about “spiritual” things. God cared about spiritual matters only. Nevermind that God created the physical reality of this world, took it upon himself in Jesus’ flesh, and was raised bodily. A “spiritualized” gospel, however, made it possible to ignore people’s bodies. God was about souls but had no concern about bodies. Secondly, people “individualized and privatized” the gospel. Preachers stated that Jesus was our “personal Lord and Savior” but they were silent about social systems and structures, powers and principalities. Jesus didn’t seem to be the cosmic Lord, as portrayed in the Scriptures. Even though Jesus talked much more about Kingdoms than hearts and souls, people neglected the former for the latter. Finally, preachers forsook the fierce urgency of the Kingdom of God (as in, “The Kingdom of God is at hand”) for the placating passivity of heaven. The “nowness” of the Kingdom coming to us gave way to the “thenness” of our going to heaven. Faith was more about escaping the world after you died than redeeming the world in how you lived. The phrase of the Lord’s prayer, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” morphed into “If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.”
At first glance, these adjustments to the core of the Christian faith might seem little more than theological differences. Upon closer examination, however, these theological shifts at the core of the faith provided ecclesial cover, sanction, and support for gross sins against humanity. Once one begins believing that God is only concerned with “spiritual things,” then it becomes quite easy for physical things to be corrupted beneath the gaze of a disinterested, “spiritual” God. In this view, the church cannot speak about matters economic, militaristic, or political because those are outside of the purview of Christian concerns. An overly individualized and privatized gospel is impotent to address the social and public ills of our day, which often cause more human suffering than individual sins ever could. Simply in viewing the human person as an individual, the church forgot how our lives, well-being, and peace are intertwined together and interwoven into God’s Kingdom fabric. And the more one focuses on escaping this world in the future, the less one cares about transforming the world in the present. The roll is called up yonder but no one seems to be calling the roll here and now.
The great problem at the nexus of these factors is that this expression of faith is easily co-opted and corrupted by power. Slaveowners cared very little about slaves discussing their souls or their eternal destinies because the slaveowners were interested in the bodies of slaves in the present. The rich encouraged the poor to dream of the sweet by and by because it released the pressure of and removed the focus from present fiscal injustices. Politicians could have cared less about an individualized and privatized faith, because they could then do in policy what would have been considered crimes if done by individuals. Cloak sinful motives beneath garments of political expediency and prudence and no one can even see them, much less confess them. But politicians would have trembled at the thought of a Kingdom of peace, love, and truth that demanded that our systems be just as much as our souls be righteous. A spiritualized, privatized, individualized, and otherworldly faith is also a sanitized, trivial, hollow, and banal one. To be clear, it is not the faith of the law, the prophets, or Jesus.
Today, one can see this corruption of the Christian faith by the ethical and social catastrophes that surround us. At the writing of this article, over 15,000 children have been separated from their parents on the US border while people legally claiming asylum here are being turned away. Two children in US custody have died. To be sure, there is a time for honest and candid discussion of national security and appropriate borders. For the Christian, that discussion comes AFTER a discussion of who our neighbors are, not before. So long as we allow borders to determine our neighbors, Jesus will be standing on the other side of our borders with our neighbors, and we’ll not have recognized either as such. Racial injustices continue to plague our nation at nearly every level. Today, there are more African Americans in prisons than were enslaved at the break of the Civil War. Racial discrepancies in health care, education, and income are easily validated by facts and perpetuated by well-meaning people who claim to be colorblind. Yet, being colorblind personally is of no avail when supporting public policies that are not. Citizens need not be racist if they elect politicians who craft legislation to do their racism for them. While our leading scientists continue to warn us of the acute dangers of climate change, many people of faith are silent because climate is not spiritual, private, individualistic, or otherworldly. Why care about climate change when we have every intention of departing from this world for a heaven that is climate controlled? We have chosen- and continue to choose- short term profits over long term care, and we’re thumbing our nose at those who live downstream from us, namely our children. We have demeaned the poor and their “entitlements” while catering to the rich and their “bailouts,” succumbing to the fallacy of the prosperity gospel movement that clearly reverses Jesus’ teaching about the rich and the poor. We have subjugated women to men, failing to realize that women bear the image of God as do the men. We have contributed to the outright oppression and suppression of faithful LGBTQ people in the name of a “biblical sex ethic” while the newspapers uncover grotesque sex scandals within churches of various traditions with an unrelenting regularity.
And yet, while many focus on these grave stains on the circumference of our faith, we remain ignorant of the enabling theological tragedy that has occurred at the core. Our focus on a spiritual, private, individualistic, and otherworldly faith has permitted us to turn our backs on our vulnerable neighbors in the name of the very one who calls us to see them. Our primary posture of care for our neighbors in need at the bottom of society has been substituted by our solidarity with those at the top who have a vested interest in keeping the social system just as it is. This tragedy at the core of our faith has provided cover for political powers to prostitute our faith, wearing the name of it like a badge but emptying it of its transforming potency. It has paved the way for white nationalism that garbs itself in Christian labels and for transactional religion that reduces the way of Jesus to an exchange of religious goods. The corrupt center is in the grip of power which mocks the truth, while Jesus calls us to give ourselves to the truth, even as it holds the powers accountable. The church has sought political thrones for so long that it no longer recognizes the cross, and we have clamored after crowns for so long that the towel and basin no longer summon us. We are no longer the megaphone for those without a voice, we simply hold the microphone for the amoral and bombastic ones on high.
Until we do the hard work at the center of our faith, these tragedies will continue to occur. It is past time to repent! It is past time to get back to the heart of things, to return to a faith that is physical AND spiritual, personal AND social, personal AND political, and focused on the Kingdom of God which is at hand in the here and now. It is time to remember that our love for God is inextricably linked to our love for neighbor and that our recognition of God is impossible apart from our recognition of the least of these. This is not the “social gospel,” but the Gospel.
Just a few nights ago, on Christmas Eve, I stood before my congregation and read a story that begins with these words, “In the days of Caesar Augustus,” but quickly turns the camera towards the one who was born in Bethlehem, a small farming village, amidst shepherds and peasant parents who must’ve known something of marginalization and ostracization. The story begins there. The Christian life begins there. All theology that is truly Christian begins there, in solidarity with those people and for those people. Our faith begins in a manger and surrounded by shepherds. If we are not looking towards the vulnerable, marginalized, and hurting, then we are not looking towards Jesus. And so long as the center of our faith pays no attention to the sign of a manger, the circumference of our faith will bear more witness to the ways of Augustus than the ways of Jesus.