The Ghost of Jehovah
What does it do to Christian thought when even Jesus is considered "problematic?"
This week I got the latest issue of Presbyterians Today, the periodical from the Presbyterian Church USA. The magazine, like the denomination itself, has a pretty progressive slant. It's not filled with numerous biblical references, or spiritual content, but with social justice activism. I'm not pointing this out to condemn social justice activism. After all, the prophets and Jesus remind us constantly of the value of social justice. In fact, I think it's sad that if you look up "Christian social justice" on Amazon, many of the books the search pulls up are negative. Titles like Why Social Justice Is Not Biblical Justice: An Urgent Appeal to Fellow Christians in a Time of Social Crisis and Christianity and Social Justice: Religions in Conflict are bestsellers.
Social justice is an important part of a well-rounded and robust Christian faith. The prophet Isaiah frames this well for Jews and Christians in the first chapter of the book bearing his name:
Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow. (Isaiah 1:17)
To translate that passage into modern parlance, the oppressed, the fatherless and the widow are what we would call the marginalized. Those who have a place in life that makes it more difficult to succeed in numerous ways. From front to back, the Bible makes the case for why we owe service to these people. This is an exhortation from the prophets, and perhaps pleaded most strongly by the gospels.
The fruits of this emphasis on charity are manifest. In his book, The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt notes that people who are religious are among those who are most charitable with their resources.
Studies of charitable giving in the United States show that people in the least religious fifth of the population give just 1.5 percent of their money to charity. People in the most religious fifth (based on church attendance, not belief) give a whopping 7 percent of their income to charity, and the majority of that giving is to religious organizations. It’s the same story for volunteer work: religious people do far more than secular folk, and the bulk of that work is done for, or at least through, their religious organizations.
The problem, for Christians at least, occurs when we start to develop ideologies that innovate, or go beyond the mandate given by the progenitors of our faith. It is in this effort that we start to frame even that we worship in a modern, secular conception of what it means to be a human guided by the true, the good and the beautiful. My fear for some time has been that the idea of progress can become an idol that we chase. This chase of whatever is currently the cause célèbre comes at the expense of timeless wisdom on the subject of justice.
Samuel Son has been writing a series for Presbyterians Today on the hot subjects of our time — diversity, equity, and inclusion — and how those concepts apply within the church. In his latest column, my fears for the eventual trajectory of this line of questioning come to pass. Even Christ (the "author and perfecter of our faith") is not exempt from the author's critique around inclusion. In his latest column, Diversity isn't inclusivity (not yet available on the web), Son praises Jesus' group of followers for including women and being diverse in this way. However, he laments that women were not usually part of the inner circle.
Scripture also shows us that Jesus' inner circle was men only. Jesus' entourage looked like the most diverse gathering of any movement, but when it came to the core, it was your typical boys' club. This is diversity without inclusion.
Son reminds us that, "we shouldn't be anachronistic with our morality, judging ancestors by our standards." However, then he goes on to say of Jesus and the Twelve, "what they took for granted is exactly how we fail at inclusion." In using Jesus as a negative example, Son is doing exactly what he asks the reader not to: he is judging an ancient people by a modern conceptual framework.
In the Christian conception, we come to view the world through the eyes of Christ. That is, with compassion and grace. To invert that process and view Christ through the eyes of the world, and its ever-changing standards sets a dangerous precedent. Instead of letting Jesus be the template for our understanding of what is good, we let contemporary popular thought become that template. It is in this exercise that we shed our Christianity and conform instead to secular notions of an improved humanity, which lead to hubris. We rob the church of its authority, leaning instead on partially formed ideas with a very modern genesis. Is it any wonder, then, when people leave the church, believing it no longer has a claim on truth? If you can get the wisdom you need from the latest trend in collective thought, or the current zeitgeist, what does the church have to offer you?
On the opposite page from Son's column is a piece by Derrick Weston about charity. Weston questions the willingness to feed people without tackling the injustices at the root of their hunger. He refers to this using a phrase taken from a book published in 2012: Toxic Charity. Weston brings up an important point that is anchored in ancient notions of justice and enabling sustainability. However, he is wrong in going after works of charity. Would Weston attack Jesus feeding of the 5000 (Matthew 14:13-21) as "toxic charity?" Yet again, you have a writer who finds fault with the way that Christ comported Himself. It's another erosion of the authority of the Son of God. To be clear, Weston is not advocating for us to cease doing works of pure charity, but in questioning the way in which we pattern our deeds after Christ, he is casting doubt on the fundamentals of the church.
In the Christian conception, we come to view the world through the eyes of Christ. That is, with compassion and grace. To invert that process and view Christ through the eyes of the world, and its ever-changing standards sets a dangerous precedent.
Many have suggested that people are turning away from Christian churches because those in the churches do not seem to be living in a Christian way. Their hypocrisy presents a barrier to belief in onlookers who want to see genuine expressions of faith in a God of love. I have no doubt that this true. Unfortunately, I find myself disgusted regularly by the actions of those who are carrying the banner of Christ. However, I would also add that those who are within the church and attacking the very foundations on which it stands are driving people away. Jesus teaches us, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand" (Matthew 12:25). This is not an exhortation to avoid criticism of those within the church. Goodness knows, Paul the Apostle teaches us time and again to turn our focus inwards when we look for fault. However, I would make an appeal not to take a novel conception of what human flourishing looks like and retroactively apply it critically to the works of Christ Himself. To do so undermines the effectiveness of our beliefs and our witness. We need our True North, perhaps especially in a time of changing values.