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8 July 2007

If God’s on our side…

Today’s Boston Globe prints a really thoughtful piece by Charles Marsh on American evangelical Protestantism’s disunity with virtually the rest of Christianity.

From Pentecostals in Brazil to the Christian Councils of Ghana, from the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East to the Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem, from Pope John Paul II to the The Waldensian Reformed Church of Italy and the Christian Conference of Asia, the voices of our brothers and sisters in the global ecumenical church spoke in unison.

Why did American evangelicals not pause for a moment in the rush to war to consider the near-unanimous disapproval of the global Christian community? The worldwide Christian opposition seems to me the most neglected story related to the religious debate about Iraq: Despite approval for the president’s decision to go to war by 87 percent of white evangelicals in April 2003, according to a Pew Charitable Trusts poll, almost every Christian leader in the world (and almost every nonevangelical leader in the United States) voiced opposition to the war.


Conservative evangelical elites, in exchange for political access and power, have ransacked the faith and trivialized its convictions. It is as though these Christians consider themselves to be recipients of a special revelation, as if God has whispered eternal secrets in their ears and summoned them to world-historic leadership in the present and future. (Emphasis mine.)

I’ve thought for a while a way of expressing the surety that I have noticed in some of my evangelical friends and family, and which we have certainly all seen in political discourse. That’s exactly it: There’s a special lack of recognition of the faith shared by other believers, as if other Christians hadn’t gotten the messages from God.

Lest one think that Marsh is your typical academic leftist who doesn’t understand the world of those he writes to and about, we should note that he’s a currently practicing evangelical Christian, the son of a Baptist preacher, author of a memoir in which he confronts the racism he learned and practiced growing up in the segregated South. And he shows more than mere concern with the accommodations his spiritual siblings have made with the City of Man.

I remember the outrage I felt when I saw a photograph in Time magazine during the 2004 presidential election of Christian Coalition activists in Ohio. Two men, both white, and both identified as Coalition members, are holding two crosses aloft. The crosses upon closer inspection appear to be made of balloons twisted together. Across the beam-section of one of the crosses was the “Bush-Cheney” logo, and alongside the president’s name was the image of an American flag. In the second cross, the president’s name appeared in full at the places where Jesus’s hands were nailed….

If only holiness were measured by the volume of our incessant chatter, we would be universally praised as the most holy nation on earth. But in our fretful, theatrical piety, we have come to mistake noisiness for holiness, and we have presumed to know, with a clarity and certitude that not even the angels dared claim, the divine will for the world. We have organized our needs with the confidence that God is on our side, now and always, whether we feed the poor or corral them into ghettos.

To a nation filled with intense religious fervor, the Hebrew prophet Amos said: You are not the holy people you imagine yourselves to be. Though the land is filled with festivals and assemblies, with songs and melodies, and with so much pious talk, these are not sounds and sights that are pleasing to the Lord. “Take away from me the noise of your congregations,” Amos says, “you who have turned justice into poison.”

And his resolution would have evangelicals make peace with those that their leaders disparage (perhaps even more than they disparage that vast majority of Christians who get it “wrong”).

I am certain that it would be better for Christians to stand in solidarity with compassionate atheists and agnostics, firmly resolved against injustice and cruelty, than to sing “Amazing Grace” with the heroic masses who cannot tell the difference between the cross and the flag.

But power’s far too tempting. As is certitude. They’re both easier and more conducive to human nature than the sacrifice the Gospel requires. [That, in fact, is what the Gospel is about. God accomplished our redemption by submitting Himself to our power; God hardly needed a blood sacrifice on our behalf, but we did. And when we gave God what we were sure He wanted, He “trampled down death by death.” (Not to make this a disquisition on Christian soteriology. So I’ll stop that now.)]

It’s often pointed out that we make God in our own image, and Marsh, in a detailed and elegant way, points out that white Protestant evangelicals have imagined that God is rather like them: fundamentally pro-American, generally Republican, powerful, and well-to-do. But their fall from political power seems to indicate that God’s got other ideas about who He is, and even who we are and should be. And we’d all do well to question the very authority that we constitute, to which we submit ourselves and others: not to put too much of a pun on it, but unless we do there’s hell to pay.

As Mark Twain wrote, “God pours out love upon all with a lavish hand–but He reserves vengeance for His very own.”

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