For the second time in my college life, I’m planning to spend the summer doing something other than make money and vacation. Though I do need to make some money at some point, I can’t pass up an opportunity to get out of America. I’ve become jaded by the west. I think ultimately, I’m probably called to work among the poor in this country and reach out to the American church, but I think that spending time out of the country will help me love my own society better. With that in mind, here are some recent reflections on American Christianity.
My friends, the Psalters, encourage me to believe that when the church is following Jesus the way it should, the church is going to look a lot more like the first Christian church: among the oppressed. Jesus was a lot of things, but he certainly was not popular and he certainly was not easy to follow. Not because you had to stop drinking too much, or stop committing adultery, but because you had to die to yourself. Your possessions stopped being yours and instead became the community’s. The interests of others suddenly had to be put ahead of your own selfishness. It was impossible to follow Jesus and accumulate too much wealth because you had all things in common with your fellow believers.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us that when Christ bids a man (or woman) come and follow, he bids him come and die. Death to self is the hardest calling in the world. But Christianity has often been redefined as an easy path to heaven. Just believe the right thing and pray the sinner’s prayer and you’re set for life after death. Of course, once you do that, you have to stop drinking, get rid of your tattoos, and vote Republican. The phrase “accept Jesus into your heart” has been the mantra of evangelical Christianity for awhile now. Or the command “Get saved.” I think you’d be hard pressed to find a place in the Bible where Jesus ever says “Accept me into your heart so that you don’t go to hell.” He says come follow me, for the kingdom of God is at hand.
And what does it mean to follow Jesus? And how is that different from the handy sinner’s prayer and list of do’s and do-not’s? I think that to follow Jesus means to learn his teachings and live our lives as Christ would, were he in our place. To emulate the master is to follow him. Dallas Willard loves to talk about this. If we think that not drinking and voting Republican are the signs of a true Christian, then when someone does something different, then we become skeptical. “I saw X go to a bar the other night. I think he’s backsliding.” Or worse- “I heard that Y is going to a Peace March to oppose the war and object to the use of violence to end conflict. I’m worried about his salvation.” Why don’t we instead use the ONLY judgments of salvation that Jesus ever used? “When I was hungry, you fed me, when I was naked you clothed me, when I was in prison, you visited me.” That should be our standard, our Plumb Line, to steal a reference from Amos.
Some may argue that just trying to live our lives like Jesus would is too simple- it doesn’t take into account evil dictators and terrorism. But, as Shane Claiborne points out, Jesus called even a terrorist named Saul to help build the church. Jesus was a guy who hung out with and cared for the poor, the oppressed. That’s what we’re called to do. He spoke up against hypocrisy in the religious government. He told people to love their enemies and pray for those who persecuted them. And they WERE persecuted. We’re supposed to do the same. Love all of our enemies, pray for those who commit atrocities in the Sudan and Iraq alike. We’re called to be peace makers. And, I believe, we’re called to resist the forces that try to make us conform to the patterns of the world- the military, defense, sweat-shop labor, environmentally unfriendly companies, and money-grubbing companies.