The Greatest Threat to American Christianity

(8 minutes)

Many followers of Jesus Christ are deeply disturbed by the threats to our democracy and any Christian faith resembling the Jesus of the Gospels. Such threats come from “Christian Nationalism,” racism, misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia, and the continual ravages of an economic system which is based on greed and unsustainable production and consumption. I firmly believe those threats are real and must be addressed quickly and radically if we are to survive as a nation “of, by, and for the people” (not to mention the survival of our planet as a home for humans and other species of flora and fauna in the years to come). 

However, I would suggest the greatest threat to AMERICAN Christianity is Jesus himself. The Jesus of the Gospels is a stranger to most Christians in the USA. Fundamentalist and conservative Evangelicals promote a version of the faith based on fear, exclusivism, the “hereafter,” legalism, arrogance, and a dearth of compassion. In their preaching and theology, good news has become bad news. 

“Mainline Protestants” (we’re more sideline these days) have continued the slippery slope of accommodating to the surrounding culture. We discovered years ago that the best way to get along is to go along. Yes, we have made strides in areas like racism, misogyny, lgbtqa rights (in certain circles), and a concern for the environment. However, too often our actions have not matched our words. It’s so much easier to “talk the talk” than to “walk the walk,” especially when such walking requires risk and sacrifice. For the most part, we liberal Christians actively jump on the bandwagon of justice only after it becomes acceptable to enough of society for us to safely take the plunge. 

Liberal Christians (yes, there are some of us) often fall into the trap of losing the deep sense of spirituality which serves as both the engine and the inspiration to “take up our cross daily and follow Jesus.” Without a firm footing in the radical good news of Jesus Christ, we will never become the transformed followers needed to turn this world upside down. Neither can we think our way into following. As Albert Schweitzer said so many years ago, the only way we will “know” Jesus is to follow him, and in that following he will reveal himself. At some point, we “intellectual and sophisticated” Christians must take the plunge. Without that step we will only reason, analyze, and think ourselves into a convenient procrastination which will never allow us risk an authentic following. Neither can we allow the culture to define our discipleship. At its very foundation, the Christian faith is radically countercultural in any society, including our own. For the most part, with some wonderful exceptions, American Christianity has become little more than a comfortable compromise with status quos which are alien to the gospel. In short, American Christianity has become a religion. (In a future article, I want to make a distinction between religion and revelation.)

I do not believe that Jesus came to establish a new religion to further divide humanity. Jesus came to reveal the essential and eternal nature of the One he called “Abba.” And that character was, is, and forever shall be unconditional, indiscriminate, self-giving, nonviolent, and everlasting love. He came to show us how to be truly human as we live in daily dialogue with the One in whose Image we are made. He came to save us from our false selves so that our true selves can blossom. He came to share the joy of our Creator as we recognize and experience our connection with our Maker and every part of Her creation. He came to love us into our healing and into a destiny of communion with the One he called “Abba.”

Perhaps we should abandon the self-designation of “Christian.” (We are told in Acts 11:26 that the followers of Jesus were first called “Christians” in Antioch. The term literally means “little Christs” and was probably used as an insulting dismissal of this new, misunderstood, and unimpressive sect.) Perhaps we should confess with all humility that we are, at best, trying to follow Jesus, to flesh out his way, to rejoice that God’s love is for everyone, and to dare live as though we trust that Abba’s love will win for every part of Her beloved Creation. With such an approach to “the faith,” there need not be any exclusion, presumption, anxiety, or strutting—only a basking in the good news that we are all kept in the arms of God and God will bring us all home. What freedom, joy, and beauty such a faith could bring! It’s past time for the church to discover Jesus and let go of all that would distort or limit His gospel. Jesus is the greatest threat to American Christianity. And he is also the surest and only way to save it from itself.

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