Christian America and the Cruciform Church

“Christian America” is that form of American Christianity that operates by way of seeking to show the importance of Christianity for culture at large in terms of its strength, sustainable solutions and resilience to gain and maintain control. But is this the way God in Christ always or even chiefly operates?

Perhaps we can learn from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s approach to German Christianity and the surrounding culture in the mid-twentieth century. Bonhoeffer wrote about being dead to the “God of the gaps” kind of Christianity. “God of the gaps” Christianity seeks to present Christianity as playing a strong savior role whereby it fills the gaps and provides the missing links for all of society’s questions and concerns. This entails the view of God riding into town and miraculously saving the day (deus ex machina). On this view, God delivers his people from their (and his) enemies—in Bonhoeffer’s case, the Nazis. In contrast, in Letters and Papers from Prison, Bonhoeffer writes that God allows us to push him out of the world and onto the cross. For Bonhoeffer, at this stage in his journey, God is weak and powerless in the world. For Bonhoeffer, “man’s religiosity makes him look in his distress to the power of God in the world: God is the deus ex machina. The Bible directs man to God’s powerlessness and suffering; only the suffering God can help.”[1]

For readers who don’t know it, Bonhoeffer’s story is what really makes the God-in the-gallows lesson come live. In Bonhoeffer’s experience as a staunchly active opponent to Hitler, he did not witness God delivering the Christian community or society at large from the Nazi menace. He was eventually executed by hanging for his opposition to Nazism (shortly before the Allies liberated Germany). Prior to his execution, Bonhoeffer came to the understanding that God wants us to grow up and not look for him to save us from all suffering and give us our best lives now. Bonhoeffer claimed that God identifies with us in our suffering and weakness through his work on the cross.[2]

What happens if God does not return America to what many Christians take to be its Christian roots? What if God does not deliver American Christianity from its enemies, secular or otherwise? Will the church take comfort in its present sufferings in powerlessness through identification with Christ in his weakness on the cross?

The church in North America must continue to move beyond Christian America ways. Over against a nostalgic and melancholic return to Christendom by way of seeking to make space for God in society by taking America back for God (God of the gaps), the church moves forward through union with God’s missions of Son and Spirit for the transformation of society in cruciform witness. Rather than seeking to gain or regain rights and power, the church on this view gains significance as it suffers redemptively in service to God and its enemies (God in the gallows).

What might cruciform Christian witness look like in your context and from your vantage point?

This piece is cross-posted at The Christian Post.

Related reading: I Can’t Wait for Christian America to Die

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, ed. Eberhard Bethge, rev. ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1967), p. 188.

[2] Still, I don’t think Bonhoeffer ever lost sight of the eschatological hope that was his in Christ. As the Nazis came to take him away for his execution, Bonhoeffer told one of his fellow prisoners: “This is the end. . . For me the beginning of life” (Ibid., xxiii).

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About Paul Louis Metzger

Dr. Paul Louis Metzger is the Founder and Director of The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins and Professor at Multnomah Biblical Seminary/Multnomah University. He is the author of numerous works, including "Connecting Christ: How to Discuss Jesus in a World of Diverse Paths" and "Consuming Jesus: Beyond Race and Class Divisions in a Consumer Church." These volumes and his others can be found wherever fine books are sold.

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  • Tyson

    I think Cruciform Christian witness looks like a perspective change. Rather than a focus on maintaining/taking back cultural and political power, it will look like forsaking the pursuit of this power to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters we are at odds with socially/culturally/ethnically/theologically. It means that rather than pushing for our right of religious freedom, we will instead lay down our lives for those that are attempting to restrict freedoms we once had.

    This is obviously easier said than done. American culture at large is full of examples of how difficult American Evangelicals are finding it to deal with life in a changing social landscape. For this reason, it was quite frustrating for me to see Evangelical Christians up in arms over the Phil Robertson and A and E’s decision to suspend him, yet I saw little to no concern among Evangelicals in regards to his comments about African Americans. As an Evangelical Christian, I was much more upset about Robertson’s comments directed towards his African American brothers and sisters in Christ (in which he has many), than I was about Robertson’s religious freedoms being “restricted” by a television station. Rather than attempt to defend our brother and sisters in Christ by confronting Robertson’s comments, we instead took up our freedom fighting weapons of words and social media to defend our own freedoms.

    Post Christian America needs to encounter a different Jesus from Evangelical Christians than the one they see through our fight for our own freedoms. They need to see the Jesus that sacrificed everything in order to be in relationship with a fallen undeserving people. This will not be shown through pursuits of cultural, social and political power, but through love that involves the laying down of our lives for those that ultimately oppose us and our beliefs.

    • duskglow

      Phil Robertson was an embarrassment, and so were those who defended him. It’s not that I don’t think he has a right to speak – he does – but everyone who defended what he said threw in with it, and I can’t think of too many things that are further from the heart of God than what he said. It’s saddening and and an indictment of churchianity.

  • Brian Considine

    excellent and important post.

    “What happens if God does not return
    America to what many Christians take to be its Christian roots?” That is
    a great question.

    What I think does happen is that first the church
    will shrink back from the consumerist/institutional model to a more
    mature Biblical model. We are already seeing that shrinkage as the
    percentage of “nones” grows.

    At the same time, there is an emerging
    emphasis on Biblical discipleship, re-importing church planters from
    overseas who understand the cruciform church very well, having
    experienced it first-hand in very difficult places. Movements are
    already taking shape in several cities toward that end.

    Second, because the church becomes more mature, it
    grows again to represent a more Biblical model, with the faithful living
    a more Jesus oriented lifestyle, for Jesus redemptive mission in the
    world. The discipleship movements taking shape are reproducing disciples
    who reproduce, with a DNA of multiplication. There is no political or
    social agenda but simply a focus on making disciples.

    I see God at work
    preparing His bride for this cruciform church, and “the things of Earth
    will grow strangely dim. In the light of His glory and grace.”

  • duskglow

    Well, my last comment somehow got lost… so I’m going to try again, and maybe I’ll make it better.

    I think that for all of its successes and earthly glory, the American church has completely lost sight of the idea of what it means to truly follow Jesus. It means going right to the cross and dying. That death takes many different forms and has many different degrees of severity, but I don’t think one can honestly say that they are following Jesus unless there is a death. And the American church has proven, over and over again, that they not only don’t understand this, but are deathly afraid of it.

    To me, as a nonbeliever (and I am only a nonbeliever because Jesus isn’t real to me, not because I don’t understand most of the core concepts) this would take the form of valuing being loving over being right, being of service over lording it over others, listening over teaching, hearing over saying, action over words.

    I wonder where I would be if more Christians in my formative time after leaving the cult I was raised in had taken the time to truly try to be my friend and understand what I was going through – I wonder if I would currently be a Christian. And, conversely, I wonder where I’d be if it weren’t for the Christian friends I currently have who actually do treat me like a person and are willing to take things at my speed. Certainly not where I am now, on both counts.

  • Julie G

    I have a struggle with this, and I am sure it is not popular. I don’t need an Christian American government. I would be a better and stronger Christian if I had to work harder at it. What would happen if we had an agnostic president and congress… would you give up your faith? Are you a Christian because it’s easy and that is just how you were raised… ugh. I get frustrated with the entitlement of Americans. Our government does not guarantee we are going to be Christian, in fact that would be unconstitutional…

  • Colleen Milstein

    I have lived in the US for just under four years. It is fascinating to observe how life functions here. I am going to risk a few observations of my initial experiences of the Christian culture here – as part of my reflection on the above post.

    I am African and was in Europe 10 years prior to being here. My initial shock was how overt Christian talk was in America. Europe was more understated, Africa probably more aware of many people having different views but American tended to be way more outspoken about “how we think” or “as Americans we believe”. My reticent in making bold Christian statements had people asking me if I really was a Christian. It took me a while to get that it was cultural. That possibly American christians were more accustomed to being mainstream, so the assumption was that most people believed the same or were wrong. If you didn’t state it loud and clear, you didn’t believe it.

    In politics the fear stood out to me. My country is predominantly Christian in number, but our president is a polygamist and many religions are in play. Traditional healers are licensed alongside western style doctors, and witchcraft is a daily fear for most of our people. A friend expressed it well yesterday, “In Africa everything is spiritual – if you trip you wonder why, if you see a rat run past, you ponder a reason”. Life is nuanced with several layers of meaning all the time. When someone not affirming Christian faith or with a different practice of it is elected in Africa, the fear I sense in America is not present. If laws pass that don’t honor my understanding of biblical truth and principles, legislation is not the solution. Yet the church is robust and growing, effective in all spheres and serving in society.

    There was a time in South Africa were the part of the Church was way more allied with the government. It was in the time of apartheid – racial segregation. As the churches starting repenting publicly for the sin, and our nation repented and changed, the church played a different role – in reconciliation. The church led the process of reconciliation for all the nation, with people of many faiths, because the christians suffered with. I saw in the black church in South Africa those of the God of Gallows. Those who suffered with the suffering, called a nation to repent, refused political power and lost much. Some died in the struggle. But they modeled “comfort in their present sufferings in powerlessness through identification with Christ in his weakness on the cross”.

    We have huge challenges in South Africa. We are young as a democracy and are still deciding as a nation who we will be. But it was church leaders calling us to repent for our racism, and now calling us to repent for our materialism and corruption, church leaders not aligned in any way with political powers who were the hands of God in delivering us. Cruciform witness creates hope for the future of a nation.

  • Noah Hoff

    To me, this post hints at a bigger problem society faces –
    entitlement. You ask –

    “What happens if God does not return America to what many
    Christians take to be its Christian roots? What if God does not deliver
    American Christianity from its enemies, secular or otherwise?”

    My reply is – should we expect for God to return to America
    and save us all? To deliver us from our enemies, secular or otherwise? This
    isn’t a guarantee and shouldn’t be expected. Why should we feel entitled to this? It is also not of our concern as Christians. We are on a mission to God and on mission to our calling from God to help others. It is not to benefit of us, and should not be seen that way. God made the ultimate sacrifice, so we give him our lives. Worrying about whether or not God is going to avenge our adversaries is not our business to question. It is God’s business. We are to trust God with that and concentrate on our calling in Him instead. Our job is not to ask God questions about where the justice is – as Job did in the Bible. Our job is to keep living our lives in faith and fulfilling justice as best we can from God’s example. To me, this is what a cruciform Christian witness looks like. Ultimately, It is a gift from God to be able to be on mission for Him.

  • Darcey

    As Julie has mentioned I too question the idea of a Christian government. This starts to ring familiarly to me of the desire the disciples had to see Christ overthrow the Roman government and establish his kingdom. He did the exact opposite he let them kill him. He died. Jesus does things in ways much different from how we often see fit. Nevertheless, to answer the question of what will happen if America continues to secularize, I think it is important for Christians to be deeply rooted in who God is in their own personal faith. It is so important to personally develop that relationship and intimate knowledge of God’s character. Job wrestled through this when personal trial came but his trust and faith was so deep that he could say “Though he may slay me, I will trust him”. I think it is easy to feel a sense of entitlement in our faith that God somehow owes me something, answers, an easy life, etc. In fact, he doesn’t. Yet he has already given me everything in his son! What more could I ask? He gave his best to me. Furthermore, if the very founder of our faith was crucified, why do I expect so much less? Those are scary questions for me. I don’t want to be crucified of course. Yet if I really know God, who he is, then I realize he is worthy of absolutely everything that I am, he is worthy of my life, he is worthy of my death. Do I know him? We as the American Christian must intimately know him that is where overcoming faith that is able to “take comfort in its present sufferings in powerlessness through identification with Christ in his weakness on the cross.”