“The world has only seen One Christian and they killed Him.” -Nietzsche
Recently in the New York Times, Ross Douthat asked the question that’s been haunting me for years. Honestly, it was a question that I was surprised to see asked in the NY Times, because it seems like the evidence is piling up to that it is a question that has already been answered.
Here’s the question: “Is the Church good for the world?”
Douthat, is a Christian, he’s also an articulate conservative columnist for the Times, and I appreciate the way he consistently engages with the larger ideas and questions that are floating around the Western culture. But this one struck pretty close to home.
Here’s what he said:
Here is a seeming paradox of American life. One the one hand, there is a broad social-science correlation between religious faith and various social goods — health and happiness, upward mobility, social trust, charitable work and civic participation. Yet at the same time, some of the most religious areas of the country — the Bible Belt, the deepest South — struggle mightily with poverty, poor health, political corruption and social disarray.
In my experience, this observation is spot on.
I see the local Church as the hope of the world. But I have so many days and weeks where I realize that we are just as much a part of the problem as we are the solution.
Working With Jesus
The past few weeks, I’ve been reading through the Gospel of Mark, studying for a future sermon series, and one of the more striking things about Mark is how often the disciples get it wrong. In ways that are eerily familiar. They struggle with power and greed and racism and fear of the stranger and violent rage toward people they don’t like.
But Jesus continually keeps correcting and rebuking and challenging their whole notion of what it means to be a people of God. Until…
Toward the end of the Gospel of Mark, Judas betrays Jesus, he comes up to Jesus with a few Roman soldiers in tow and gives him the most treacherous of betrayals. He gives Jesus a kiss, and Jesus gives him a question.
“Am I leading a rebellion? That you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me?”
Jesus’ question to Judas is pretty practical. Basically, he’s asking Judas, “is this really necessary? Name one time, you’ve seen me angry…Okay, name two.”
But I think the reason Judas brought the National Guard along with him wasn’t so much because of Jesus…I think it was because he knew the other guys he’d spent the last few years with. And rightfully so, the first thing Peter does is reach for what everyone else in that day would have reached for in that situation…the hilt of a sword.
Which means that Jesus’ question to Judas is also one a question for Peter.
“Peter, am I leading a rebellion or not?”
Because make no mistake about it, no matter how rebellious Peter’s swift move to action looks, it’s not a rebellion of the status quo, just an attempt at realigning it.
It is the exact opposite of all the things that Jesus has spent the last 3 years teaching Peter and in a moment of crisis his default move is back to the place he started.
Which is why it’s a question I’ve been asking a lot lately too.
To Live in Protest
Jesus people tend to buy into the same cultural idols and values, we divorce at the same rates, we are more segregated than almost any other sector of society, we use money the same way, we think of power, prestige just as much as other people.
Nietzsche once said that the world has only seen One Christian and they killed him. I get that. It’s easy to look around and see the inconstancy between Jesus and the people who follow Him. And the question seems to raise itself more and more often. “Is the Church really good for the world?”
Just like the way Dr. King fought the racism of Southern America in the 60’s and Bishop Tutu fought apartheid in South Africa last decade, the answer isn’t to jettison the Christian faith it is to lean more into it.
The problem, according to Douthat, is that Christianity names all the flawed attempts that we have for living a good life, it gives us a vision for what the life in the Kingdom of God looks like and then the resources in which to live into that kind of life.
But if we just take the prescription and not the medicine we are in the words of the book of James “like someone who looked in a mirror and then just walked away without making the necessary adjustments.”
This is why surveys show that people who are invested in Christian community fare much better at the expectations of what a Jesus-following person should be like in the world. But people who are raised with a Christian way of thinking (like mercy, empathy, fidelity) but become dis-enfranchised from a local Christian community, or just nominally attached to it, find themselves doing much worse than people who have no faith at all.
Here’s how Douthat points it out:
For nonbelievers inclined to look down on the alleged backwardness of the Bible Belt, it would be helpful to recognize that at least some of the problems they see at work reflect traditional religion’s growing weakness rather than its potency.
Is the Church good for the world? In a word: Yes.
But only when she is different from the world. When She rebels against the way things are, in the ways that Jesus would.