This is the final article in a series reflecting on American Culture Wars & Christianity. Here are parts one, two, and three.
Culture War Christianity must end. Christians should be the ones to end it. Like Moses, whose first attempt to bring about change left an Egyptian dead in the sand, so Culture Warring Christianity tends to create chaos and call it ‘change’.
Calling for the end of Culture War Christianity is not a call to stop working for change. But, I admit, it does sound a bit idealist. How do you end the culture wars anyway? Do we leave society for monastic communities? That is an option. Do we embrace with resignation a Christianity domesticated by secular idealogy? That is the fear of many. And, acting on that fear, many seek to defend Christianity.
But, what if the Christianity some aim to defend has already been domesticated? What if Culture War Christianity long ago bowed the knee to a nationalist, secular conservatism? One with its law & order politics, reticence on issues of race, and idolatry of country? That is what I’ve argued in this series. Long before white evangelicals told MLK to “just preach the gospel”, there has always been a Christianity domesticated by, and deployed in defense of, the status quo in this country. Frederick Douglass called it before any of us. And in this sort of Christianity, “make disciples” has too often been code for “make people like us” not “make us like Jesus”.
Ending Culture War Christianity means dismantling the Culture War discipleship complex in many Churches. A complex that animates our preaching and programs. That co-opts Jesus into a GOP operative. That trains Christians to loathe their enemy, not love them. That fears losing Mayberry, not ushering in the Kingdom. For Christians, ending the Culture Wars means putting the Cross back in its rightful place as the standard by which Christian action is measured.
“There has always been a Christianity domesticated by, and deployed in defense of, the status quo in this country”
Reject the pragmatism of Culture War combat. Embrace the integrity of Christianity that puts a limit on our ability to change the world around us. It was Niebuhr who said, “any good worth doing takes more than one lifetime.” This should give us pause before we entertain pragmatism to bring about change in our lifetime. It was Jesus who said, “what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and lose his soul?” This should give us pause as we count the cost of pragmatism to reveal the Kingdom of God.
After all, the cross is not a symbol of cultural superiority for white America, but of surrender and sacrifice in the Kingdom of God. We must measure our motivations by the Cross, and our methods. Take it from me. A millennial. The generation who was born in and shaped by the ‘Jesus & John Wayne evangelicalism” in its prime.
“Ending Culture War Christianity means dismantling the Culture War discipleship complex in many Churches.”
No doubt, this brand of evangelicalism will hear this suggestion as surrender. Of resignation in the face of responsibility. “You’re giving up!” or “Evil will win.” This is the problem. Culture War Christianity allows you to have a Christian worldview and reject the Cross. It substitutes other, more pragmatic means to really get things done. But in the Kingdom of Jesus the only strategy available for implementing a Christian worldview is the Cross.
Culture War Christianity demands the world submit to the Cross as an authority for morality, but never considers stretching itself out on the Cross to die for the culture in love, in faith, and in hope. But the Cross is not just a word of life, but a way of life. A message we believe, but also a means by which we live. This was what brought Paul to say it was the instrument of the Cross that recast his relationship to the world. (Galatians 6.14)
Today, we need a crucified Christianity, not a Culture War Christianity. Both are subversive, but only one is animated by resurrection power. Does Culture War Christianity point to the risen Jesus? For all it’s posturing about the morality of America, Culture War Christianity has stopped its ear to calls for ethnic & economic justice. Has tied its hands in response to sexual scandal and abuse in its ranks. Yet expresses incredulity when the world fails to take its sexual ethic seriously. Culture War Christianity can only provide more entrenchment, more combat, and more pragmatism. But crucified Christianity is growing the world over, and—as it has always done— turning the world upside down.
“Make disciples” has too often been code for “make people like us” not “make us like Jesus”
I write this, not from America, but in Scotland. There’s some irony. Whatever I might offer here—thoughts about moving beyond Culture War Christianity—these thoughts can’t be more than what I’ve attempted to do myself. And criticism without action breeds cynicism. To that end, what I want to suggest is a simple but humble invitation to venture into the wilderness as an act of faithfulness. For me, the wilderness meant stepping out of the American pastorate, and out of America. This was my move made in faith. An attempt to combat the rise of cynicism in my own spirit, channeling it into meaningful, faithful action.
Criticism without action breeds cynicism.
You want to find what is beyond Culture War Christianity? Where is the wilderness that brings you beyond its influence? In the Scriptures, the wilderness is a place of testing but also revelation. From Moses, to Elijah, to Christ. Perhaps the wilderness is the place for those disenchanted and disillusioned, those disowned and disinherited from Culture War Christianity, to begin to see the Cross not as a symbol storming the US Capitol, but again as a place where our power grabs go to die. And where there is death to our ability to bring about change, God brings resurrection that changes everything.
Ivan Illich has this to say about Christ’s temptation in the wilderness towards power. He illumines what it is to be in the world, but not of it—just like Jesus. I offer his words as a simple reflection in conclusion to this series:
It is astonishing what the devil says: I have all power, it has been given to me, and I am the one to hand it on — submit, and it is yours. Jesus of course does not submit…Not for a moment, however, does Jesus contradict the devil. He does not question that the devil holds all power, nor that this power has been given to him, nor that he, the devil, gives it to whom he pleases. This is a point which is easily overlooked. By his silence Jesus recognizes power that is established as “devil” and defines Himself as The Powerless. He who cannot accept this view on power cannot look at establishments through the spectacle of the Gospel. This is what clergy and churches often have difficulty doing. They are so strongly motivated by the image of church as a “helping institution” that they are constantly motivated to hold power, share in it or, at least, influence it.
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