Does the image accompanying this post disturb you a little? I hope it does. The juxtaposition of this dubious image of American power with the work of Christ is intentional. Despite the misguided efforts of much of the modern Church, these things are like oil and water.
Holy Week provides us an opportunity to repent and cleanse a Church that has been unfaithful in its presentation of the Gospel and in its acclimation to a culture obsessed with celebrity, success, and power.
As the Church, we have neglected to consistently teach that God’s Kingdom is never synonymous with the country we live in. Instead of being uncomfortable with overt and unquestioning nationalism, too often we have allowed people to believe that being a good citizen was synonymous with being a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ. As resident aliens, citizenship in God’s Kingdom should give us a perspective and sensitivity that enriches our public discourse.
As the Church, we have traded a honest relationship with hard questions and ambiguity for the comforts of certainty. While certainty is attractive to many, the ease with which we discount details that don’t fit our preferred narrative alienates those who choose to experience the world in its inherent complexity. Sadly this sets hearts and minds focused on changing this world, and alleviating suffering, looking elsewhere for partners more serious about the problems our global community faces.
As the Church, we have neglected our role in fostering and calling people to a radical discipleship. Instead we sell ourselves to parents as places that will generate polite, successful, and (subjectively) moral young people. In response to youthful idealism, we offer safe mission opportunities; did we mention that they’ll look good on college applications? Of course we did.
And we shouldn’t forget how tempting it is to mindlessly adopt the cultural worship of youth at the expense of our elders; or to neglect the rightful place young people have at our table because it is filled up with decades or tradition and accumulated preference.
As the Church, we have bought into a narrative that equates success with stock prices, retweets, and butts in pews. Certainly numbers are not without meaning, but all too easily prevailing attitudes influence us and popularity is equated with faithfulness. Instead of preaching a God who aligns God’s self with the poor and marginalized, we accept unexamined an alternative theology where health and wealth are divinely ordained and rewarded to the chosen few. Do we not remember the scant few who stayed with Jesus until the bitter end?
As the Church, we have allowed fear to drive us alongside our neighbors into the welcoming arms of politicians promising us a security that requires us to hold power over all others. Instead of beating swords into plow shares we’ve accepted a myopic view of strength that can only be presented through force. Was Christ on the cross not a show of strength? Did his life spent healing, walking in solidarity with, and acting out on behalf of the disenfranchised, mean nothing?
But Jesus was crucified with two other criminals; and yes, I didn’t type that wrong. Jesus died an unpopular criminal on a Roman cross. He was guilty according to the powers of the day of fomenting insurrection. Most of his disciples went into hiding after his arrest; the fickle crowds left earlier when he betrayed their Messianic desire for deliverance from the Romans. Why would we, his followers, so quickly imagine that following him would earn us acceptability? Why on Earth would we ever imagine that we should demand it by force?
A church that follows Jesus closely should expect itself to bescorned as it challenges the systems that oppress people today. Instead we pick on sexual minorities, reinforce walls based on class, color, and/or ethnicity, parrot Conservative (and sometimes liberal) talking points, and offer simplistic theological platitudes to those wrestling with poverty, sickness, and deep loss.
The Church today has confused the Gospel, mixing our obsessions with celebrity, success, and military might with the power of Christ on the cross. Oil and water rarely combine so neatly.
Instead the Gospel offers us a power that demands our whole selves. But it is not a blind obedience, this power requires an eyes-wide-open submission to an unnatural love that is the direct intercession of God into the world.
The power Jesus offers asks much from those who find ourselves privileged with wealth, status, and security even as it eases the burdens born by the least of these.
Now of course these specific failings are not applicable to every church, even though I suspect some apply to many. Not every growing church is unfaithful, nor is every dying church following Jesus to the cross. Certainly there are blessed exceptions ahead of the curve.
But we are all, in our various denominations and non-denominations, synonymously burdened by those who preach a false Gospel, by those who mix oil with water and pretend that one is the same as other. Our culture is right to reject and find this dominant narrative false and hypocritical. We are called to offer the world a gift that is so much better.
May we spend some time this Holy Week reflecting on the differences between what we have received and what we offer.
Let us grow ever more skeptical of those who tickle our ears with messages that conflate the power of the Gospel with the powers of this age.
And let us become ever more trusting in a message that offers real hope and the kind of change we must participate in.