Toxic Christianity encapsulated in a church sign

Toxic Christianity encapsulated in a church sign September 7, 2016

satan sign

This church sign captures everything that is wrong with toxic Christianity and why it positions itself against the struggles of marginalized people, whether they’re brown, queer, female, or poor. The root presumption of toxic Christianity is that order and authority are right by default. Sin is defined as rebellion against authority. Adam and Eve’s rebellion in the Garden of Eden is understood to be the paradigm for what sin looks like. It may seem straightforward to start with Eden in defining sin, but doing so has real consequences in how we understand the relationship between sin and worldly power. Jesus didn’t harangue people for eating forbidden fruits; he primarily went after the sinful exploitation and oppression of the religious authorities in his day. That’s what got him killed. Jesus’ cross was the angry reaction of religious authority against a God’s rebellious love. That’s what sin looks like in its purest form: power’s hatred of love.

This church sign appears to be a clumsy reference to the story of the serpent’s deceit of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. He tricks them into eating the forbidden fruit by telling them they would be “equal” to God. According to the logic of the church sign, that means that anyone who “demands equal rights” is acting analogously to the serpent in the Garden of Eden. When you operate with an assumption that sin is rebellion, then you lay the groundwork for a Christianity that validates the power and privilege of the world’s insiders. This is why I think it’s more fruitful to view Christianity as a rebellion against sin.

Christianity makes two seemingly contradictory claims: 1) our world is thoroughly contaminated and controlled by sinful systems and 2) God reigns over our world. So who’s in charge of the world? Satan or God? Ephesians 2:2 calls Satan “the prince of the power of the air.” John 12:31 calls him “the ruler of this world.” So if Satan is the ruler of this world, then why does Paul say in Romans 13:1 that “the authorities who exist have been established by God”?

It’s a paradox that shouldn’t be blithely resolved. Paul has a specific pastoral purpose in saying this about the authorities whom he also declares to be overthrown by the cross in Colossians 2:15. I’m sure the biblical inerrantists can show how it all fits together with perfect logic, but this is one of the most important unresolved contradictions in the Bible. Are the authorities God’s ordained tools for establishing order or are they the ones against whom we are called to struggle (Ephesians 6:12)? It completely depends on the context, and our selective application of Romans 13 and Ephesians 6 is a good test of how much we love our own power.

Many toxic Christians love to use Romans 13’s validation of earthly authorities in order to repudiate any kind of protest against the status quo, which would be consistent if they were also calling for the American colonies to repent of our rebellion and ask Queen Elizabeth II to resume her rightful rule over us as our divinely mandated sovereign. Isn’t it peculiar how the same Christians who are all about respect for authority when it comes to any white man with a gun and a uniform have spent the last eight years assassinating the character of America’s first black Commander in Chief?

In any case, our world is overrun with sin. And it’s not something we can blame on our government, our markets, or any individual scapegoat. Our government, our markets, and everyone with power are simply living out the sinful toxicity with which we have all been contaminated. To say that God reigns over the world is not to deify and legitimize the sinful injustice in our world. It is to make a counter-claim against it. Proclaiming Jesus as Lord is always a protest against whichever Caesar the world has established as Lord.

God reigns, but his rule is utterly unrecognized by the powers of this world, because God does not use conventional earthly power in order to rule. The way that God reigns is through Jesus’ cross and resurrection. God reigns through the absorption of our sin in Jesus’ crucifixion and his triumph over it in Jesus’ resurrection. Those who recognize the liberating truth of this reign are drawn out of the sinful systems of the world and into the reality that we call the kingdom of God.

There are certainly people who fight for “equal rights” without any particular religious grounding for doing so. But Christians live in the kingdom of God to the degree that we are committed to establishing a humanity where everyone thrives with equal dignity. To the degree that Christians are invested in retaining their worldly power and ignoring the injustice committed against other people, they remain ensnared by the world’s sin.

Satan doesn’t demand equal rights. Satan wants us to remain cozy and comfortable with our worldly sinful systems that ignore God’s reign to the degree that they ignore injustice. So he fills our heads with all kinds of cynical sneers against anybody who’s fighting for justice, whether it’s a quarterback who sits down for the national anthem or a native American tribe that blocks a pipeline.

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