The Word & The World
In the United States, Christianity has until very recently been the significant beneficiary of a long tradition of favor and a "soft establishment." Beginning with the conversion of the Emperor Constantine in the fourth century and tracking through the long history of European Christianity and its inheritors, the Church has often had a "seat at the table."
In the United States, this has involved an assumption that the Church has a role in society and that it exists, in one form or another, as a force for good. Though there have always been its detractors and those that have squabbled about specifics, there has been a place for the Christianity--or at least a sanitized version of it. The kind that encourages the Ten Commandments, "one nation under God," "In God We Trust," and invites generally nice thoughts about Jesus.
In more recent seasons we have found that this former status quo has begun to falter. Secularism, advancing first in Europe and now well on its way in the United States, has come to question the importance and benefits of any religious viewpoint, let alone that of the Church. Increasing numbers, it would seem, see the Christian faith not as positive but rather neutral, unimportant, or even a societal negative.
Many American Christians--especially in the evangelical tradition--bemoan this turn of events. But at the same time they ought not to be surprised. Our own Scripture reminds us, more than once, that the followers of Jesus may not face an easy path. In Matthew 24, Jesus delivers an extended discourse on the end of the age. In so doing, he reminds his hearers that in that time "you will be hated by all nations because of me." Such a statement reminds me of what Jesus says as well in John 15:18, that "If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first."
Such claims affirm, together with other aspects of the Scripture, that there is no guarantee that Christians will be liked, respected, or given preference in our society and world. As a matter of fact, we might do well to suspect the opposite. And indeed, it has not been difficult for Christians at other times and in other parts of the world to understand this reality. But for us who have been in a place of broad favor for so long, it can be easy to assume that we deserve a seat at the table or ought to be respected or admired for our beliefs.
Some of this longing for position is, I think, what motivates certain Christian reflections and actions in our society today. Whether the matter is moral, political, cultural, or stylistic, we yearn, at least in part, for those on the outside to pat us on our back and affirm us. A pleasant dream, but I grow increasingly unsure that we should seek or expect such outcomes.
To be a Christian means knowing that the ways of God are not the ways of the world. That the message of the gospel is both a Yes and No. YES, God loves us deeply and richly. But NO, he does not support the broken ways of sin that we and our world so often track in. And it is this "no" that confronts us and the world. The point at which we ought to realize that the world cannot remain "the world" and be on board with all the purposes of God. In others words, if the Christian message that humanity is sinful remains correct, we should expect that human sinfulness in all its ways may fight to resist admitting this.
For those who follow Christ, this means that the world will not understand us. It will reject us. It will have significant points of disagreement with our value claims and beliefs. This is simply to be expected. In a similar way, we ought to find ourselves at least a little nervous about the state of our faith if we feel and perceive no tension between our lives in broader human society.
Lest we go too far, though, there is another side to this. This idea, that the world hates the ways of Christ, can be marshalled in other ways too. It can be deployed by my co-religionists to create an self-reinforcing culture of persecution. As I have said, some of this tension may be accurate. The ways of God confront humanity and hold up a mirror to our wayward existence. The two are not fast friends. But at other times, what Christians might want to claim as persecution is simply the sign of a loss of previously held favor. This is experienced as a wound, no doubt, but it may be more of a return to the baseline than anything else.
And then there are those that seem to spend their time reveling in rejection by the world. Making it not only a badge of honor, but seemingly creating new ways for others to hate us, despise us, or mock us. Conducting ourselves in word and deed in ways that antagonize. Inventing reasons for the world to reject us that have nothing at all to do with Jesus. This kind of bunker mentality faith and contention wastes time and can be deeply unChristian in the way it comports itself. Sometimes it is just hate masquerading as righteousness, and that is wrong.
So to my fellow Christians, I ask: does the tension between you and the world exist because of Jesus, or because of something else?