Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Time to Wrap This Up

I want to bring all these various posts together finally to look at the differences between Christianity as expressed and lived by Jesus himself, and modern American conservatism. The whole point of doing this is to help people reading this understand that choices have to be made if they're going to be consistent and coherent in what they say, do, and believe.

As I concluded in the previous post, the values that I see exemplified in Jesus' life were obedience to God, selflessness, forgiveness of those who wrong him, grace toward those same people, and the strongest possible statement that by one's own efforts, a person can not get right with God. Let's look at each of these individually.

Obedience to God can be a very good thing, or a horrendously bad thing. If God tells you, and you respond, that people in your country are hungry and need to be fed, are homeless and need to be sheltered, are uneducated and need to be taught, and you follow up on this leading, you're living a life consistent with that of Jesus. If you doubt this, read the New Testament Gospel accounts of his life and see what kind of attitude he had toward those in need.

If, on the other hand, God tells you to murder your spouse, or kill someone with whom you passionately disagree, then you've been listening to someone other than God. God himself says, "Vengeance is mine; I will repay." It doesn't get much clearer than that. Taking wrath into our own hands is flagrantly counter to what we're told in the Bible. If you believe what the Bible says, this is one more thing for which each of us has to give account one day.

Selflessness, that quality of putting others ahead of yourself, would seem to be clear enough. Jesus said, "What good is it if a man gains the whole world, but loses his soul?" The Ten Commandments say that we shall have no other god but God himself. It's no secret that we can make "gods" of stuff we acquire, that the pursuit of stuff can become a bigger goal than living as God wants us to. In God's kingdom, it's not about me. It's about God first, and then those around me. If I take care of those things, then I'll be taken care of as well. This is not an easy sell in a country that values individuality above almost everything else; it's not part of our national DNA.

Forgiveness ties right into obedience, particularly as it applies to what we're told to do for those who wrong us. We're told to forgive them, not seven times but seventy times seven, and God will forgive us. Forgiveness, like selflessness, is not easy. It's counter to what we want naturally, which is justice or just revenge. It's costly--we have to give up that right of revenge. I've already quoted the Bible on this. It's in black and white, and we can't escape what it says. Jesus was nailed to a cross by non-Jewish men, hung up to die a slow and horrific death. He looked on his executioners, and those who cheered them on, and said, "Father, forgive them. They know not what they do." Stephen, one of the first martyrs, said essentially the same thing when he was being stoned to death by an angry mob. We can't wiggle around and say that forgiveness is for others; that's not the way things are designed to be.

Grace, the extending of mercy to those who wrong us, may even be harder than forgiveness. It's not just a relinquishment of the right for revenge, but an active movement to get closer to those people who have just been forgiven. Jesus said, "Love those who hate you." Can it be any clearer? Jesus is telling us to work for the well-being, to hope for good things, for those who have injured us. If forgiveness is hard, then this is terribly costly. Desmond Tutu has had to learn how to do this. His leadership of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa after apartheid shows that he learned the lesson well.

Finally, contrary to what Al Franken's SNL character Stuart Smalley affirmed when he said, "I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it, people like me," we're told that we are none of those things. From God's point of view, we never will be. No amount of good works, no amount of chest thumping about how pure our thoughts are, can bridge the gap between us and our Creator. Jesus said he was the way, the truth, and the life, and that no one came to the Father except through him. He said that he came to be a ransom for many. Once again, it's not about us and all that's right with us. Instead, it's about us and all that's wrong with us. The doctor came to make a house call, and those who accepted the prescription are able to get better, but only because the doctor showed up.

These are the values I see lived out by Bible-believing Christians. These are not the values I see in too much of American conservatism, particularly the more demagogic varieties we're seeing lately. That strain of conservatism celebrates an unforgiving, militantly nationalistic, selfish, and materialistic ideology that is in direct conflict with the Christian values I've described. There is no room for forgiveness of those who have different views than oneself. There's no place for the notion that maybe we could learn from other countries. There is no sense in trying to say that perhaps the group should come first, and I should put my own wants on the back burner for a while. And there's no room for considering that as we try to surround ourselves with more and more consumer comforts, we put ourselves farther and farther from the God who made us.

I've gone through all this not for the purpose of judging the people who believe these things to be true. Instead, I'm trying to clarify what it means to be Christian, and what it means to be conservative. We're always confronted with a choice--who are we going to follow. Will we follow God, by way of the lordship of Jesus the Messiah, or will we follow man, generally by way of following our own appetites and desires? We should at least be honest enough to be clear to whom we owe allegiance.

I said in the last post that Christianity is a big tent, one that dwarfs that of American conservatism. Under the Christian canopy, we have Fred Phelps and his "God Hates Fags" congregation. We have Mother Teresa, living among the untouchables in the slums of India. We have Desmond Tutu, and we have Ted Haggard. We have the best and we have the worst. And we affirm that God loves us all. We differ on pre-destination and free will, on women in ministry and out of it, on so many issues. And we affirm that God loves us all. That's a breadth of humanity that modern American conservatism can't even begin to approach.

There are people who call themselves Christian conservatives. What does that really mean? Are they really Christian, or are they really conservative? Are they traditionalists under a different name? Are they hardcore conservatives, using protective coloration? And after all, it's only names. A rose by any other name would smell just as sweet. Maybe we need to look past the labels, and see what the fruit of a person's life really is. I'm not going to judge those with whom I disagree, as tempting as it would be to do so. I've got enough work of my own, trying to obey the King to whom I've sworn allegiance. I pray that we can all do the same, and let God do what he can do in each of our lives.


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