If I were a non-Christian looking from the outside in, I don’t think it would be unreasonable to think that American Christians’ two highest priorities right now are keeping the government from taking away our guns and stopping gay people from getting married. And I don’t think it would be too far-fetched to assume that Jesus sure must love guns and hate sex. But should these really be our priorities as Christians? And if not, how did they rise to the place of prominence they have?
The Arkansas legislature this February passed a law overturning the ban on carrying loaded guns into church. Here’s an excerpt from the text that describes this as an “emergency” measure:
It is found and determined by the General Assembly of the State of Arkansas that personal security is increasingly important; that the Second Amendment of the Constitution of the United States ensures a person’s right to bear arms; and that this act is immediately necessary because a person should be allowed to carry a firearm in a church that permits the carrying of a firearm for personal security.
Now go ahead and say it: guns don’t kill people; people kill people. Many Christians frame this issue as a debate between the liberals who don’t believe in sin, so they want to regulate everything to death and Christians who understand that gun violence, like all other sin, is an “issue of the heart.” But there’s something else going on here. Let’s say I do go to a “right-to-carry” church. The reason that I’m not going to tense up if Deacon Billy’s pistol falls out of his pocket while he’s passing the offering plate is because good people like Deacon Billy don’t shoot people; bad people do.
If I carry a gun into church, I am embodying a two-fold doctrine of sin: 1) There is no danger that I would be tempted to sin with my gun (like in the heat of an argument over the church budget or a sermon that sounds un-Biblical). 2) There is enough danger from the wickedness “out there” that I should be armed in case the bad people storm our building and start shooting. This two-fold doctrine of sin could be termed the total depravity of everyone else.
While the right-to-carry churches express this doctrine most dramatically, I would say that the total depravity of everyone else is the ideology of suburbia as such. It’s true that the suburbs have changed a lot since white people first moved out of the city to get away from the black people. There is a mishmash of reasons why people live there, but the primary appeal of the suburbs remains the same: they’re far away from bad people.
I think the way that Christians give sex priority over every other moral issue is another product of the same suburban ideology. The Bible says what it says, but our ideological needs do influence which teachings get our prioritized focus. Now I do need to say as a former high school teacher that sexual promiscuity is a huge problem. A lot of my former students will earn minimum wage for the rest of their lives because they had kids when they were kids. I cannot express emphatically enough how much I hate the way that capitalism uses sex to sell everything and turns a beautiful sacramental gift of God into a consumer product.
And yet, the attitude within the suburban American church about sex has not been healthy, as attested by the backlash in the female evangelical blogosphere against the idolatry of female virginity and modesty (here, here, here, here, and many more). There is a paranoid hysteria and overemphasis that goes far beyond the legitimate goal of creating a healthy community of worship and hospitality that hasn’t been ravaged by the false intimacies and libidinal typhoons of “hookup culture.”
Searching for a more beautiful Christian vision for human sexuality than the message proclaimed by our miserable market-driven pop culture is a very worthy, commendable cause! Where suburban Christian sexuality goes wrong is when it becomes about protecting our daughters from bad people, which is the message exemplified in events like the suburban churches’ purity balls that fathers attend with their daughters in order to sanctify their virginity pledges.
Here’s why this looks to me like an expression of the total depravity of everyone else. As long as fathers are in charge of their families and their daughters avoid bad people, then we can keep bad seeds out of our households literally. Handguns and purity rings have become the two most important weapons keeping suburban Christians safe from the bad people out there.
These are only two prominent examples of the suburban doctrine of sin. When you believe in the total depravity of everyone else, constantly talking about sin is the litmus test of Christian discipleship and the way that others know you’re “on the right side.” Usually this is not actual confession of your own sin, though confessions of your own sin in a safe, generalized, banter-ish way do help prove that you’re not one of the depraved. More often the suburban discourse of sin involves pontificating about sin as an idea, decrying the wickedness of the world in general, and questioning whether other Christians are really saved based on the frequency with which they talk about sin.
The way that you tell if a church is really “preaching the gospel” or has “Biblical values” is how tough the pastor talks about sin and the wickedness of the world out there. The harsher the sermons are, the safer you feel, because they serve to validate your sense that you live in a world of danger in which handguns and purity rings are hugely important.
I realize this is a caricature, but it’s a caricature with some truth. Certainly, God works to bring deliverance to His people in all kinds of contexts. All of our churches are a mix of spirit and flesh. And yet, I have witnessed so many times the astounding hypocrisy of Christians talking about sin as a means of reassuring themselves that they’re with the “good people” and leveraging themselves against other Christians who focus “too much” on things like hope and love and joy which is dangerously naive at least and possibly indicative that they’re with the bad people.
If there’s one thing we should believe as Christians, it’s that the world is not divided between good and bad people. Whenever Paul hammers us with the wickedness of humanity in Romans, the point is not to validate our judgments about the total depravity of everyone else (which is how many Christians unconsciously appropriate the text). Paul’s purpose is “that every mouth may be silenced” (Romans 3:19) by the realization that “no one will be justified in his own sight” (3:20). Self-justification is the enemy that God is trying to crush. That’s what provokes His wrath, because it makes us far more evil than clumsy rule-breaking.
When everything I do has the purpose of validating my correctness, I become a dangerous, poisonous person capable of ruthless cruelty, even if I master the art of hating other people while technically avoiding every explicit sin that’s listed in the Bible, or being a Pharisee. Pharisees take great pleasure in the practice of subtle contempt, that form of politeness constitutive of the Old South in which every condescending thing you say is wrapped in a saccharin sweetness that cannot be criticized. This form of living is holiness without love. Every Pharisee is a soft-core sociopath, because self-justification destroys our capacity to love others.
James 2:12-13 says, “Speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.” That last sentence is the whole gospel summarized in four words. When God’s mercy is able to crush all the sneaky tactics we use to self-justify and make ourselves judges, that’s when we have been saved. People who have been smitten by God’s mercy aren’t oblivious to the reality of sin; they just don’t need to talk about it all the time. They’ve been set free of the need to justify themselves by parading their vigilance against the total depravity of everyone else.
In any case, I don’t care if you’ve got a handgun or a purity ring as long as you understand in your heart that you’re no less a damn sinner than anybody else. You don’t need to go on and on about how worthlessly sinful you (and the rest of humanity) are unless you’re trying to prove something. If you ever tire of the mental exhaustion of maintaining your spiritual gated community that’s safe from all the bad people, I would encourage you to try putting down your gun and purity ring to step outside it just once. Because you just might find Jesus there, eating and drinking with the sinners.