On January 7, 2014

Civil Religion: A Kind Conviction

“In a pluralistic society, religions will be judged by the way they treat those who do not adhere to them.” -Dallas Willard

“Can’t we all just get along?” -Rodney King


I’ve had a question rumbling through my mind for the past few years. It’s haunted me when I watch television, or prayed at public events, every few months the volume gets raised on this question, because it seems the whole world is asking it…even if they don’t know it.

The question is just this: Is it possible for the Christian religion to be civil without it becoming a civil religion?

Let me explain.

God and State

In England, the Anglican Church has all the pomp and circumstance of being the Religion of the State, but England also boasts about 6% church attendance. In other words, the church now looks over the laws of the country, but is more and more ostracized from the people who abide by them. Church and State

I’ve talked before about how, when the genocide happened in Rwanda, over 90% of the people in that country were professing Christians.

Elie Wiesel said that Christianity did not come true during Aushwitz. He said that as a holocaust survivor who knew that over 20% of the Nazi SS officers were professing Christians. The problem with civil Christianity is that Christianity is never going to be a tool that any government can use to baptize their agenda (though many try and do). That is the definition of civil religion. To be better at professing a religion than practicing it.

I’m not for a civil religion, but I do want the people of God to be civil. And judging from the interviews of the people on the outside, or who have walked away from church, we aren’t doing a very good job.

91% of them think we are Homophobic. 85% of them think Christians are hypocrites, and Google apparently gets a lot of questions about why we are that way. I think I have an idea.

I’ve grown up in church, around church people, I love us, I am us. Heck, I’m the preacher at a pretty good sized church. I’m now the man that people try to stick it to. So I”m writing this series from a very inside place, and I’m writing because I have a hunch about us that is growing every day. Here it is:

We’re passionate about the things in a way that is disproportion to how important they are to God.

St. Augustine used the phrase “disordered love” to talk about the sin of idolatry. I think that’s apt. It’s not that the things we care about aren’t important, it’s that we don’t care about things in the order of their importance.

Convictions With Civility

Marin Marty is a Lutheran pastor (with a fun name) who once made the observation that the people who care the most about civility tend to be people with little conviction, and those who have the most conviction seem to have little care for civility. I think that’s a shame.

Somewhere along the way, we bought into the idea that if someone was going to be civil, they couldn’t really believe anything, not with conviction anyway. And that’s a shame, because, and I can’t speak for other religions as clearly, but the highest act of worship for a Christian is to love (really love, not just talking point kind of love) the person right in front of them.

In fact, Jesus wouldn’t separate the command for us to love God from the command for us to treat our neighbor as ourselves.

Last month, when the Duck Dynsaty-Gate was happening, there were lots of things going through my mind…and through my Facebook feed, but the one thing that I kept coming back to was this Snapshot of Google and all the questions it represented. “Why are Christians so….”

I hate that picture.

I wish that at least one of Google’s recommendations had been Why are Christians so kind? or Why are Christian so Generous? but that’s not Google’s fault. It is after all just an aggregate of the questions that they are being asked. If we want Google to have a different picture than we better start working on it.

So that’s what I’d like to do here. With my little slice of the internet, I want to try and take on some of the things we’ve been talking about, not to solve the issues behind them, but to talk about how we talk about them. 

I want to talk about how to engage our neighbors when things like Duck Dynasty happens, and how to talk during election seasons, and how to talk about abortion and immigration and war.

I want to talk about how to disagree with our neighbors with conviction, and with kindness.

This is not some kind of apologetic for the word-police, or a gag order on saying what we really believe. It is to take seriously a Scripture that starts with a God who makes the world with words. Or to take the letters of Paul seriously, letters where he repeatedly emphasizes things like, “Let your words be filled with grace and seasoned with salt.” or “Pursue peace with everyone, as far as it depends on you.” or the letter where Peter told Christians when they talked about their faith to do it with “Gentleness and reverence.”

And if that doesn’t do it for you, than consider that one Guy who said, “Blessed are the Peacemakers” You know the guy I’m talking about, the one who was so good with words and stories and people. Everyone seemed to love Him.

But when he finally got cornered by the powers that be, He didn’t say a word.

This of course is Jesus.

And I dream of a day when people ask Google Why are Christians so much like Him.

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  • marybethpicker

    Beautiful. I want to be this kind of Christian.

  • http://stormented.com Jonathan Storment

    Thanks Mary Beth! Me too.

  • Danny Gill

    I wish you all the best with this, Jonathan. I look forward to it. It’s a tough battle for a variety of reasons, of which I am sure you are aware. One is that the world is going to hate Christians. Jesus said as much. It’s really the same with any group of people or organization. If one person from that group says or does something you don’t like, the human tendency is to apply that to the whole group. Sad, but true.

  • http://douglasryoung.net Douglas Young

    So true, Jonathan. These perceptions are legitimate, and are as frustrating as they are legitimate. Thanks for speaking to this need. More hangs in its balances than we might think…

  • http://www.thepalmerperspective.com/ Sean Palmer

    This is the kind of thing I’ve been kicking around in the back of my mind…a Christianity, as Brian McLaren might say, that is “both strong and kind.” Looking forward to it.

  • http://stormented.com Jonathan Storment

    Thanks Bro. Danny. Yeah there is a tension here to be sure, Christians should be distinct and have convictions. But lately my concern is that the world hates Christians for the wrong reasons.

  • http://stormented.com Jonathan Storment

    Thanks Douglas. I agree

  • http://stormented.com Jonathan Storment

    I like that language a lot. I’ve been tossing this idea around for a while, if people get too upset, I’ll just tell them I’m really you and Jonathan is just my “pen name”

  • Cathy

    Thank you~

  • http://www.thepalmerperspective.com/ Sean Palmer

    Ha! This is the topic I’m doing at Tulsa in March, so I’m just going to steal whatever you write. :-)

  • Luke Dockery

    Looking forward to your series. I just finished teaching our young adults class on “Dealing with Controversial Topics.” The emphasis of the class was not so much on all of us arriving at the same conclusions, but on how to be respectful and loving toward one another (especially?) when we don’t agree. We had some helpful discussions in that class, I think.

    Still, and you hint at this at the end of your post, there are times when we can be as civil as possible and still be (violently) opposed by the world, because the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing.

    But I want to be opposed because I act like Jesus (who certainly faced opposition!), not because I act like a jerk.

  • TerryC

    This is definitely something that is needed. Like you, this has been at the back of my mind for many years. Thanks for bringing it to the front. I look forward to seeing how you handle it in your usual insightful, challenging, faithful way. A particular question I’ve wrestled with is how to live as a Christian under a New Testament that contains both Romans 14 and 1st Corinthians 5. I think your series here will help answer that.