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ruleBackground

Gospels

John 21:17

The third time he said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love me?"

Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, "Do you love me?" He said, "Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you."

Jesus said, "Feed my sheep."

October 25, 2008

I want my Jesus back.

Did you know Christians are some of the most mean-spirited, bigoted, backwards, unthinking, intolerant people on the planet? Did you know that all Christians are white people who live in rural areas of swing states? Or that we are all evangelicals who vote based only on opposition to abortion and gay marriage? Did you know we are uneducated people who love guns and hate taxes? And that we all go to churches where our pastor tells us it’s a sin to vote for a Democrat? Did you know all Christians unthinkingly march in lock step with whatever the Religious Right tells us to do?

If you yourself are not a Christian, of course you know this. It’s all you’ve heard about us for the last 20 years. And I’d be willing to bet these are some of the reasons you’re not even considering checking out our faith.

Among most non-Christians, the idea that there are pockets of us who voted for Obama is shocking. During the election season, you’d be hard pressed to find a TV, radio, or print interview with any Christian leader or rank-and-file adherent who was not part of the stereotyped image above. Virtually all the blogs and opinion columns portrayed Christians as one big right-wing voting bloc, concerned only with The Big Two Issues.

How have we gotten to this place where the national image of a Christian is that of a narrow-minded sheep? In large part it’s because of the historical media savvy of right-leaning evangelical and charismatic pastors and national figures—and by contrast, the utter ineptitude of mainline and left-leaning churches.

Evangelicals get their message out there more consistently, and in recent times, through media outlets that they themselves control. This is partly because the nature of evangelical churches is to be led by big personalities unencumbered by layers of denominational hierarchy, to nimbly innovate and seize opportunities, to coalesce their people around key issues, and—let’s be honest here—to be so zealously driven by evangelizing that they are just better at communicating overall. That’s why evangelical churches have picked up membership in the last 50 years. They try harder. In our era, Republicans took a look at this potential voting bloc, formed an alliance with some of its key leaders, tailored its platform to some of their issues, and voila, amassed a machine.

Elsewhere on the American Christian scene, things are a mess. Mainline, centrist and left-of-center churches tend to be weighed down by cumbersome, antique ecclesiastical bureaucracies that stifle innovation. They don’t do well at keeping up with the times and they have lost millions of people in the last 50 years. These churches aren’t led by high-profile pastors who write best-selling religious books and they don’t own successful media outlets. Think about it. Offhand, can you think of ANY national Christian leaders who come from these kinds of churches? Their political positions are more nuanced—they don’t have a single, simple, sound-biteable message. Quite frankly, they have never been able to get their media plane off the ground. They are so fractured and unable to put together a bloc that they’re not a temptation to court politically.

So, if you are the media, who are you going to go to for “the Christian perspective”? The people who make it easy for you with a big supply of quotable personalities? Whose political message is so simple and reliable you could approach most of their adherents anywhere in the country and they’d be able to repeat it, giving you the stock answer you need? Who are so well-known that most non-Christians understand the shorthand you’re using?

Or are you going to go with the folks who can’t get it together easily for you and that no one’s ever heard of? Who represent a multitude of perspectives, not one easy one, so you have no idea what they’re going to say? Will you interview someone who is trying hard to think through what their faith tells them about poor people and war and justice and loving your enemies and being merciful, and basing their vote on all of that? Who doesn’t look or sound like what you are expecting? Who make you and your audience rethink what a Christian is and what views they can hold?

I think we see the answer to these questions every day when we turn on the TV, read the paper, surf the Internet.

There’s a fallout for the Kingdom of God when this occurs. Because of the savvy way some of us have played the media game and the political game, and the way others of us have been clueless about getting our message across, there’s a monolithic view of Christians in this country right now among those who we’d like to reach. We’re known for what we’re against, not for. We’re seen as narrow-minded, strident, compassionless people who cling to just two issues and set them above all others. We don’t want to lead by example, we want to legislate morality. Except of course, when that morality strays beyond “family values” into issues of poverty, war, and retribution. Then we appear to be strangely silent—or, worse, on a side of which Jesus would not approve.

Talk to random non-Christians, have a thoughtful conversation with them, and you will find that this is what they think we are all like. It’s sobering.

MelroseOn a trip to Scotland, I had the chance to see many ruins of abbeys in the Borders—the part of the country that borders England. The abbeys had been built by Catholics in the late medieval period as seats of ecclesiastical and political power. Whenever there was a war, which was frequently, the abbeys were in the middle of things. They were not independent, God-fearing islands of refuge, compassion, truth telling and Christ living. They were partisan. They were politically influential. They took collateral damage. Controlling them was key for the competing armies.

As I visited the various abbeys, I wondered why every single one of these once-majestic places was in ruins. Not just from disrepair, or the ravages of time. Ruined in the sense of having deliberately been dismantled at some point.

Their stories were remarkably similar. In the 16th and 17th centuries, as the Calvinist form of Protestantism swept through Europe and took hold with a vehemence in Scotland, each one of these abbeys was systematically destroyed. The Presbyterian church, politically motivated, struck at the Catholic church, and vice versa. The ruined abbeys today are a witness to the Protestant victory.

Whatever Calvin’s theological contributions, it cannot be denied that his Reformed movement also had a potent, successful political agenda that aimed to reshape society. But it left a lot of collateral damage in its wake.

Today, as I look at the fractured and lopsided way Christianity is portrayed in the U.S., at how evangelicals successfully embraced right wing politics and mainliners and other churches have floundered in their efforts to have their opinions be relevant, even noticed, I think about those ruined abbeys. When the church plays and embraces politics, the church loses its Christ-centered voice. And when that happens, some non-Christians may be drawn to the church because of our politics, but we will lose far more people who will never give us a try because of the image we radiate. That image is not Jesus’ image. I think those who get to know Jesus and what he taught, then look at the American church’s image, may be excused for being a little confused.

In Fall 2008, Bruce Springsteen did some stumping for Obama. At the end of his short yet impassioned endorsement speech, he would say, “I want my dream back. I want my America back. I want my country back.”

I agree with Bruce’s statement, but I have an addendum. I want my Jesus back, too.

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A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.
—John 13:34-35