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?”
The Second Conversation
Friend: Yeah... Nietzsche's criticism just sounds absurd to me these days. He talks about compassion like it's a bad thing, then claims Christianity values it? That's entirely backwards: compassion is a virtue, and American Christianity as an institution and cultural force is practicing the opposite.
That trend has been largely led by evangelicals, and it's entirely counterproductive to their stated goal of bringing more people to Christ. If some Christians demonstrate compassion while most demonstrate scorn, those of us outside the faith will believe that the scorn comes from Christianity, and the compassion comes from the individual. Since getting tied in to the conservative political movement, I think Christianity has become the opposite of compassion for a lot of believers...
It's hard to twist actual scripture of Christianity into a form that encourages scorn for the poor & oppressed, but to many Christians it seems like their religion is more about identity than faith. It's been merged with their identities as rural, white, conservative Americans. And that identity has been set up by years of political posturing and outright propaganda to venerate the wealthy and scorn the poor and oppressed - especially those who aren't white. To me and other non-Christians, that's what Christianity is: one subservient part of the white conservative identity, used as a wedge to further political and racial goals.
Many pastors will say that the best way to bear witness is to lead a good life, follow Christ's teachings, embody the best ideals of the faith, and let those outside the faith see how it makes you better. And they're right. We who are outside the faith only see the practice, not the preaching. And instead of compassion, we see the most outspoken Christians practicing scorn, while most every-day Christians we see follow suit. Some Christians practice compassion, but a cultural force, Christianity has practiced scorn. If you're one of those Christians living a good witness... well, that's not enough. As long as you're a minority within Christianity, your virtue will be credited to you as an individual, and not credited to Christ. Those of us outside the faith will come to know you as a friend, but won't come to know Christ.
Me: “You just summarized what I have seen brewing for a while. It breaks my heart.”
Friend: “Well, now I feel kind of bad…. Seriously, you're a great guy, and I absolutely believe that the Christian faith as you practice it is a force for good in the world. The supernatural side of things, eh, I'm probably never going to buy into it, but you're good people and I wish more people were like you.
For what it's worth, I don't think Christianity's marriage with Trump & Republicans is a dead end for the faith. For the conservative evangelical branch, the ones that really get into the political fight & identity politics? Oh yeah, I totally think they're going to ride that Trump Train right off a cliff. They're too tied to that ideology; as it eventually becomes reviled in the same way the white supremacy of the Jim Crow era was, they'll stand by it and become just as reviled in time.
But there are many branches of Christianity that are less culturally and politically influential. Liberal denominations, black churches, etc. Let's call them "reformist" Christians, after your desire to see a reformation. The reformists haven't made a project of exercising political power the way Evangelicals have, and remain largely unsullied in the public eye. It'll take a while for the messy implosion of the political Christians to work its way out. But when it does, and the scars have faded from public consciousness, the reformists will still be there. They'll have a chance to redeem the public image of Christianity.
Not that I'd object to reformists taking a more active role in reigning in the excesses of the politically-active religious right! I just... well, I don't see it working. I don't see much of anything changing the minds of the really locked-in political Christians; they're just going to have to burn themselves out. Persuasion just won't work on them. But the number and influence of political Christians will decrease.
They aren't convincing outsiders to join, many of their kids leave that culture, and they skew old enough that simple mortality will bring their numbers down in a decade or two. Backlash against Trump will make their political institutions discredited. Their power is magnified by the way our senate, electoral college, and voting policies all allow rural whites to win government seats with a minority of the vote. These anti-democratic flaws in our system are coming under immense scrutiny now, and stand a good chance of being reformed once Democrats hold power again.
When that's done, what remains will be a different sort of Christian practice.”
“A different sort of Christian practice.”
I suspect that means moving forward by going back 2,000 and rebuilding on the foundation modeled by Jesus and demonstrated by the early church.