Full disclosure: As a young boy I never went anywhere without a toy gun somewhere on my body. Either on my belt, in my boot or nestled inside the little satchel I carried around to hold my comics and my crayons.
I loved The Wild Wild West with Robert Conrad and I watched every episode of Bonanza, Gunsmoke, High Chapperal and The Rifleman I could possibly find on television.
Of course, there was no better version of cowboy heroism than what was on the screen whenever the iconic John Wayne swaggered into frame.
As a kid, all my heroes carried guns. They shot first, never cried, never showed emotion, never apologized, never backed down and never, ever, admitted they were wrong.
This is the sort of toxic John Wayne masculinity I grew up with. My father modeled it for me. Other men did too. So did the older pastors who mentored me growing up as a young minister of the Gospel as I served on staff at various churches. Not all of them, mind you, but certainly enough to get the message that this was largely what most Christian men thought it meant to be a man – and a Christian.
And this is where I want to draw the distinction: There is a certain older generation – people my age and older – who still believe in this John Wayne Theology/Masculinity. They still believe that Christian men should look and act more like an action hero than like Jesus who turned the other cheek, blessed those who cursed him and famously did not carry a sidearm.
Over the years I’ve started to notice how much more influence John Wayne seems to have on American Christianity than Jesus does.
This is part of our problem. It’s why we can’t understand the differences between the American Dream and the Kingdom of God. It’s why we are confused about whether we should follow the Second Amendment or the Sermon on the Mount. It’s also why we don’t seem to understand how pledging allegiance to the flag denies our identity as ambassadors of another Kingdom which is not of this world.
So, what can we do about this?
Well, I would strongly suggest we try going back to the red letters in our New Testament scriptures and begin reading what Jesus has to teach us about how we should conduct ourselves in our everyday lives.
We might also want to take note of how often the words of Jesus sound strangely non-John-Wayne-ish to our American ears.
“If you only love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Don’t unbelievers do that?”
“You have heard it said, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’, but I say to you, but I tell you, do not resist an evil person.”
“If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.”
“If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.”
“Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.”
Try to imagine John Wayne saying that, partner, and you’ll start to see what I mean when I say we’re not always aware of how far from Jesus we are sometimes.
What I would really love is if the followers of Jesus actually took the words of Jesus seriously. If we understood that to be “Christian” is to be “Christlike” and not “American.”
Now, the reality is, I’ve been saying this and writing about this for a long, long, long time now. I know that this is a huge blind spot for many. I understand that it won’t be easy for us to turn the tide and shift our way of thinking away from AmeriChristianity towards Jesus-Following Discipleship.
But, I have to try. So, please forgive me for writing one more article about how the greatest threat to Christianity in America just might be something called “American Christianity.”
I’ll keep singing this song until more people start to sing along.
Ready now, from the top…
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Keith Giles and his wife, Wendy, work with Peace Catalyst International to help build relationships between Christians and Muslims in El Paso, TX. Keith was formerly a licensed and ordained minister who walked away from organized church over a decade ago to start a home fellowship that gave away 100% of the offering to the poor in the community. Today he is the author of several best-selling books, including “Jesus Undefeated: Condemning the False Doctrine of Eternal Torment” which is available now on Amazon.