The Heresy of Politicized Christianity

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Deacon Greg Kandra published a post today describing a “study” that says that “Christian Progressives” are on the cultural ascendancy. 

I put the word study in quotes because all this study amounts to is some yo-yo with letters after his name who went out and tabulated Google searches, dividing them between “conservative Christian” and “progressive Christian.” His criteria: Google searches for “Christian right” vs google searches for “Christian left.” 

Based on this handy-dandy spreadsheet workout, this person has extrapolated to all sorts of predictions and prophecies about the direction of Christianity in the future USA. 

Aside from the fact that this is about as scientific as predicting the future by studying the entrails of a goat, it does reveal quite a lot about the researcher and the way that Christianity is discussed today. 

After I converted to Catholicism, I encountered a lot of talk about which Catholics were “orthodox” or not. I remember wondering what the tar-heel an “orthodox” Catholic might be. I had some idea about what an Orthodox Jew was. But an “orthodox” Catholic seemed to be one of those vague, do-it-yourself monikers that people hang on themselves in order to chastise other people. To this day, I’ve never heard a useful definition of what an “orthodox” Catholic might be, even though I still read about folks who claim to be one and seem to think they know. 

Now that I’ve dipped my toe in the blogging waters, I find myself repeatedly encountering verbiage that attempts to define Christians and Christianity along political groupings. Even here at Patheos we have a portal for “progressive” Christians. I don’t fault Patheos for this. The moniker is out there everywhere and the Progressive Christians themselves seem to think they are members of some clearly demarcated understanding of Christianity that groups them together and separates them from the rest of us who stand at the foot of the cross. 

Not that I’m saying they don’t stand at the foot of the cross. But I guess they would place themselves in a separate group of before-the-cross-standers that distinguishes them from other, non-progressive Christians. Of course, we also have the “conservative” Christians there before the cross, as well. In this Americanized/politicized version of Christianity I guess the rest of us who don’t want to be “conservative” or “progressive” Christians just wander around aimlessly, or maybe circulate back and forth between the two groups.

Let’s pause for a moment and consider this imaginary portrait I just painted. We have the cross, with the crucified Savior of the World hanging on it. And we have His so-called followers standing there in front of it, looking not at Him, but at each other. The “conservative” Christians are standing as far away from the “progressive” Christians as they can get, and vice versa. They are not thinking about or concerned with the God who died for them on Calvary. They are not grieved by what their sins have wrought. They are not caught in wonder at the love God has for them. 

Nope. They are both like the Pharisee who went to pray and spent his whole time thanking God that he wasn’t like that sinful tax collector over there. 

Pharisee

Does anyone remember what Jesus had to say about the Pharisee? If you don’t, you can find it in Luke 8: 9-14.

I wrote a post yesterday, encouraging Christians to engage with the political structure. After reading the comments it garnered, I repented of that post. We aren’t ready. 

Before Christians can engage the larger culture they’ve first got to be all-in for Jesus. That appears to be a major stumbling block for a lot of people. These ridiculous designations of “conservative” and “progressive” Christians are a symptom and an expression of just how far away we are from actually following Christ, or even taking Him seriously at all.

In today’s America, “conservative” and “progressive” are political terms. If we were being honest, we’d just dispense with those terms and say what we mean. On the one side we have people who twist the Gospels to justify themselves for following right wing politics instead of following Jesus, and on the other side, we have people who twist the Gospels to justify themselves for following left wing politics instead of following Jesus. 

They are, both of them, following the world instead of following Jesus. And they are claiming that Jesus not only supports them in this, but He is following them. 

I’m not a theologian. I’m just a pew-sitting Catholic who is grateful that, after the things I’ve done, they let me inside the Church at all. But I love Jesus. 

This disregard of Him, this crude claim of ownership of Him, by people who carry His name hurts me. It stings and bites at me when I think about it. What is wrong that so many people can look at the living God and see a self-justifying reflection of themselves?

I repeat: I am not a theologian. But I think that this twisting of the Gospels to suit fashionable politics and political power is heretical. It is also, evidently, deeply embedded in people’s hearts. 

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If you look at the cross and feel smirky holier than thou self-justification for you and your politics, then I would wager that you are not looking at the cross at all. You are considering a piece of jewelry you’ve hung around your neck that is made of cold metal and, without the real cross that it symbolizes, can not save you. 

Conservative/Progressive/Right/Left Christianity is a human invention. It gives us what Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace,” which is to say self-approval. It makes us self-righteous and mean. 

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If you are interpreting the Gospels in the light of your politics, then you are not following Christ. This business of co-opting the Gospels to fit the world has eternal consequences. 

There is one Jesus; one narrow way; one means of salvation; one cross. 

Our job as American Christians is to believe that one Jesus, walk that narrow way, and to conform our lives, including our politics, to Christ and Him crucified.

I want to follow Christ. I do not want to follow conservative Christ or progressive Christ or right or left or middle of the road Christ. I want to follow and I pray for the grace to follow, Christ and Him crucified by conservatives and progressives and rightists and leftists and all the rest of the crowd who will not follow Him without reframing Him to suit themselves. 

That is why I accept the teachings of the Catholic Church. Not because they are easy or politically correct. But because I’ve tried making God in my own image. I know that I can’t judge, can’t decide, can’t know. Left to my own devices I will do horrible things, just as my heretical brothers and sisters on the left and the right are doing horrible things. 

Standing before the real cross means that you know you are not worthy to be there. You know that your own understanding put Him there. You know yourself for what you are and you realize that without Him you are doomed to the hell you have created and earned; to the hell you deserve.

“Lean not on your own understanding” the scriptures tell us. 

It’s good advice. 

The Price

Dietrich Bonnhoeffer lived and died in a time when much of the Church, both Protestant and Catholic, failed abysmally.

I’ve read that there were actually churches in Nazi Germany who took the cross down from over their altars and replaced it with the Nazi Swastika. Even many of those who did not do this in the physical sense did it in the moral and spiritual sense.

There were other Christian leaders who knew the Nazis were wrong and wanted to oppose them, but they confounded themselves by trying too hard to compromise and work with Hitler. They had the mistaken notion that they could find a way out of the crisis that didn’t involve going directly against the state.

Martin Niemoller’s famous quote was a result of his too-many and too-protracted attempts to negotiate with Hitler.

It should be remembered that Niemoller spent seven years in Nazi concentration camps. He was not a failed pastor or a failed Christian. He was simply wrong in his early understanding of the evil he was dealing with.

Here is Niemoller’s quote. It conveys a thought that Christians today need to consider quite seriously.

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me–and there was no one left to speak for me.

Bonnhoeffer, on the other hand, saw the dangers of Hitler and the Nazis early on. I often wonder what would have happened if the churches of every denomination in Germany had united and stood against Hitler’s murderous intentions from the beginning. Would he have succeeded in wreaking the havoc on the world that he did, or would the German people have forced him to alter his course?

Bonnhoeffer’s famous descriptions of cheap and costly grace are pertinent for American Christians today. Here they are:

“Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”
― Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost Of Discipleship

“Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: ‘Ye were bought at a price’, and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.”
― Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship


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