*The first in a three-part series exploring more compelling ways to follow Jesus.
…the essence of Christianity is itself an essentially contested concept.
James McClendon, Doctrine (1992)
I was inducted into North American Evangelical Christianity in 1983 while attending the Christian elementary school where my mom got a job teaching 5th grade. I was in the 4th grade and my teacher, whom I loved, rhythmically proclaimed:
God said it, I believe it and that settles it.
This was after daily prayer and Bible readings in class. End of conversation. No debate or diversity. It’s settled. Period. I remember the rush of certainty and triumph that would flood my heart and mind.
I also remember the popular male teacher who would pass us in the hallways with his patented greeting: “Good morning, young Republicans” (I shit you not: this really happened). 15 years after King was crucified in America, Jesus Christ was Lord and Ronald Reagan was President. For two decades, I claimed this uniquely American faith, devoted to an almighty GOD and His aggressive GOP.
The word “Evangelical” itself comes from the Greek word euangelion, translated roughly as “gospel” or “good news.” Their message is focused on the dualistic realities of God & sin, heaven & hell, believer & non-believer, the Bible & everything else there is. Life is about making a decision for Jesus that leads to heaven by the grace of God, leaving dogmatics to the hard-core fundamentalists and denominations to, well, the mainline denominations. Discipleship is suspect because, after all, “you can’t work your way to heaven.”
In 1989, the British historian David Bebbington wrote the book on what an “Evangelical” looks like. He homed in on four pillars summed up here:
-Activism in the world centers on evangelism—a recruitment drive!
-Biblical Authority: God’s perfect Word that is “inerrant” or “infallible”
-Cross of Jesus: an atoning sacrifice that allows believers to go to heaven when they die
-Decision-making: a prayerful, pietistic conversion experience is the prerequisite to salvation
To be fair, this is a definition of white Evangelicalism. It thrives in the suburbs and crowds the halls of corporations, college fraternities, country music concerts, the military and national & state legislatures. It is famous, powerful and well resourced. It is by-and-large both a “belief system” and an “emotional experience.” It is a checklist of proper ideas about God and the world. It is also a personal relationship with Jesus.
When it comes to “politics,” Evangelicals support the status quo by often claiming neutrality. They are famous, though, for their passionate struggles against abortion and gay rights. These are “moral” or “biblical” issues, they say: not “political.” Some of this is shifting with younger Evangelicals. Slowly.
Sure enough, Evangelicals pour time, energy and financial resources into “charitable causes.” They fight against sex trafficking, world hunger and the invisible children of Uganda. But despite Jesus’ revolutionary call to love our enemies and scores of prophetic biblical passages denouncing the exploitation of the poor and vulnerable, only a very small percentage of Evangelical leaders (and the congregations that follow them) will openly condemn war and economic policies that devastate poor and working people.
Evangelical pastors & professors, by and large, do not understand white privilege, nor do they find the time, energy or, really, any reason to name and resist racism, sexism and homophobia. Their power, privilege and prestige, I believe, hold them back from taking a stand against unjust and violent systems that order our world. These serve as blinders. As Upton Sinclair once wrote, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”
A decade ago, I had to clock out of the Evangelical movement. I was no longer compelled by their firmly-embedded claims: about the Bible, heaven-and-hell, the meaning of Jesus’ death, the destiny of people of other faiths, war, wealth, gays-and-lesbians, people of color, women, the benefits of capitalism, American patriotism as unquestioned allegiance and more.
Recently, I happened upon bell hooks’ concise summary of our crises as a litmus test of accountability when assessing competing understandings of what it means to follow Jesus: imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. She names what we, ultimately, need saving from: the hellish ideologies that deal death and destruction to billions on the globe.
The United States continues to gain wealth and might through the violent interventions of militaries and markets. American society remains in a death grip of racism—bad news of people of color when it comes to jobs, schools, housing, criminal justice, bank loans and more. Wealth is earned through massive resource extraction and labor exploitation. Women remain subject to unchecked abuse, discrimination, hatred, objectification, neglect and interpersonal oppression.
Evangelicalism, by and large, either supports or is silent about all four of these destructive systems. The irony is that this is the opposite of “The Gospel.” This is bad news for the good news people. And the rest of the world.
*We need not fret. Next week, we will begin to move from critical to constructive by exploring a more compelling alternative. Until then, I leave you with this simple confession of faith from the leaflets handed out on Holy Saturday 1983 after a band of radical disciples snuck on to the Wurtsmith Air Force Base to spray paint “Christ is Risen! Disarm!” at the foot of sixteen B-52s loaded with nuclear weapons:
We believe there is hope. Many people have yielded to despair. They can already hear the terrible sound of the door slamming shut on human history. But we are here to say otherwise. Someone is hidden at the heart of things, breaking in to break out, on behalf of human life.