It all started while I was reading Tim Holland’s book Dominion. At one point he quotes one of Neitzsche’s observations about Christianity: “The measure of a man's compassion for the lowly and the suffering comes to be the measure of the loftiness of his soul."
To be sure, Neitzsche didn’t mean this as a compliment. He hated Christianity. He thought the compassion Christianity drew out of people was despicable, enabling the weak to survive when evolution demanded they die.
This compassion was one of the first hallmarks of the fledgling movement of Christ-followers in the 1st century. The Romans famously complained about how annoyed they were by the Christians taking care of everybody to the point of showing up the government. When early Christian apologists made a case for why hostile rulers should be lenient, they always highlighted the kindness and love Christians had for all people. It’s hardly surprising that the early church filled with women, orphans and slaves – the marginalized and oppressed of the 1st century. Historian Rodney Stark noted how this sharing of lives has looked throughout church history:
“Christianity revitalized life in Greek and Roman cities by providing relationships able to cope with urgent problems. To cities filled with the homeless and impoverished, Christianity offered charity as well as hope. To cities filled with newcomers and strangers, Christianity offered an immediate basis for attachments. To cities filled with orphans and widows, Christianity provided a new and expanded sense of family. To cities torn by violent ethnic strife, Christianity offered a new basis for social solidarity. And to cities faced with epidemics, fires, and earthquakes, Christianity offered effective nursing services.” (The Rise of Christianity)
Justin Martyr wrote to Emperor Antoninus Pius and described the new Christian believers in this way:
"We formerly rejoiced in uncleanness of life, but now love only chastity; before we used the magic arts, but now dedicate ourselves to the true and unbegotten God; before we loved money and possessions more than anything, but now we share what we have and to everyone who is in need; before we hated one another and killed one another and would not eat with those of another race, but now since the manifestation of Christ, we have come to a common life and pray for our enemies and try to win over those who hate us without just cause."
Fast forward 2,000 years.
I posted this quote from Neitzsche on my Facebook page. A couple responses from some long -time friends highlighted a sobering reality for me: the reputation of the church is in trouble. Their comments align with what research is showing, so this is not an anomaly.
You might think what they have to say is unfair, and you may be right. In fact, I hope your personal experience in evangelicalism makes what follows sounds bizarre. But it still needs to be heard and pondered. No matter what our experiences our with our family, friends and church, we are situated in a huge group in a large nation, and our reputations are intertwined. American Evangelicalism is certainly bigger than us, but surely not unconnected to us.
So I offer this not to say you have to agree, but to beg of you to take seriously how American evangelicalism in increasingly perceived by a watching world. If we want to be part of a church movement whose light shines brightly and compellingly as a blessing to the world, we've got some lamps that need trimming.
The First Conversation
Friend: “Oh, I think [Neitzsche] would totally be into American Christianity 2020.”
Me: “We are overdue a Reformation.”
Friend: “You of all people had me convinced that the awful things people said about conservative Christians were exaggerations that applied to a vocal subset at best. The rallying of white evangelicals behind one of the most corrupt, pernicious, cynical, incompetent, and dishonest administrations in history, I mean... they were right all along, weren’t they?”