Paradoxically, my shadow side found the recent debacle in Washington entertaining, but my spiritual side found it deeply disturbing. What many have called dysfunctional government, in my opinion, is indicative of dysfunctional religion, particularly dysfunctional Christianity. Let me explain.
The debate exposed a couple of extremely disconcerting realities. The wealthiest Americans pay less taxes by percentage than the rest of Americans who earn much less, and huge corporations that have made millions, even billions in profits, like oil companies, pay even less. This is not a debatable observation; it is simply the way it is.
Second, the spending cuts that will be enacted will hardly impact the wealthiest Americans at all. These cuts will, however, undoubtedly take away programs and resources that aid people who are struggling to survive. This will leave them more vulnerable to the diminishing forces of life and make the possibility for a flourishing life a wishful dream with minimal hope of attainment. This second observation is, I suppose, a more debatable point than my first, but hardly so. There are many debatable points when it comes to the ways the deficit can be reduced, but these two observations simply describe reality as it is and as it will be.
My question is: How can this “state of the union” exist, when there are so many Christian people in our country? I suspect it was a majority of Christians that elected the newcomers to Congress, who were willing to let the country drift over the edge of economic ruin if it meant compromising on their radically conservative agenda.
How can that be? It is because most American Christians adhere to a form of Christianity that is based on a heaven-and-hell framework, focusing their major attention and concern on the afterlife and on correct doctrinal beliefs, rather than the kingdom of God on earth as envisaged by Jesus. For example, the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Christian denomination in this country, recently made a big deal of and confirmed at their annual convention their insistence on the future reality of hell, where non-Christians will suffer eternal torment. This is unhealthy religion, and it represents a sizable chunk of American Christianity.
In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus explained his mission not in terms of heaven-and-hell, but in terms of Isaiah 61: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18–19).
Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan is a good example of someone who, though considered to be a social outcast and religious heretic by the religious establishment, embodied the ethic taught by Jesus to love your neighbor as yourself (see Luke 10:25-37). The Samaritan gave generously and sacrificially in time and money and effort. Every disciple of Jesus is called to give generously and sacrificially for the good of those beaten-down and down-and-out.
Surely, at the very least, in a representative government known as a democracy, adherence to the gospel of Jesus means paying our fair share of taxes to help the disadvantaged, supplying them with opportunities to live a flourishing life.
One does not need to be spiritually astute to see this constant emphasis in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. In fact, Jesus was quite radical regarding the need to empower the impoverished and close the disparity between the rich and the poor. Jesus said, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled . . . But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry” (Luke 6:20–26).
Obviously, many American Christians have ignored, denied, or conveniently reinterpreted Jesus’ life and words to reflect their own obsession with the afterlife, doctrinal formulations, or personal success. (I include myself as one who is complicit in a system where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.)
According to the Gospels, Jesus proclaimed: “Repent (change the way you think and live), for the kingdom of God (God’s new world of peace and wholeness) has come near.” This message was directed to religious people—believers in God—who had become consumed with holiness codes and ritual purity. It is a message that American Christians need desperately to hear and heed.
What would happen if all the Christians who sent the Tea Party to Washington would join Jesus’ New World Party? Maybe then we would actually witness some signs and portents of God’s Dream for the world, breaking into our dysfunctional society with healing and grace.
If Christians really took Jesus’ mission and message seriously, it would be interesting to gauge how the uncommon gospel of Jesus would impact the common good of our partisan, polarized society. Would it make a difference? I don’t know, but wouldn’t it be great to find out!