This time of year we sing “Joy to the World.” But if we’re honest, we’ll acknowledge that too often what we bring to the world is fear.
The Washington Post published a prescient article this week by Charles Mathewes, a professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia. “White Christianity Is in Big Trouble. And It’s Its Own Biggest Threat” echoes some of the stuff I’ve written in this blog about the “We’ve met the enemy and he is us” state of American Christianity.
We Christians complain a lot about perceived external threats to faith, like Starbucks coffee cups and taking prayer out of schools and Sunday morning sports leagues. But until we address the self-inflicted popular perception of Christians as judgmental hypocrites who hate LGBT folks, Muslims, and anyone who doesn’t meet our standards (sorry, “God’s standards” as we interpret them), Christianity is going to continue to be not just increasingly ignored but actively shunned by growing numbers of our neighbors – particularly those who are younger.
An organization or group known for what or who it opposes rather than what it supports might bolster the passion and parochialism of its members, but ultimately will further isolate those adherents behind a wall of spite.
Mr. Mathewes begins his essay by writing about the Alabama Senate Election, and the votes of White Evangelicals in that election (overwhelmingly for Roy Moore). But that is not the crux of the essay. Don’t get caught up in the politics. Christianity’s identity crisis may be reflected in political rhetoric and activity, but those are symptoms, not the disease.
The key is later in the essay when Mr. Mathewes accurately identifies the root cause of the negativity that describes too much of Christian faith in our country. He pinpoints the underlying emotion behind the intolerance, judgment, and hate that defines Christianity and Christians for so many outside the faith even though Jesus said it is love that will identify his disciples.
Mr. Mathewes writes:
But when it comes to keeping us away from the core truths of our faith, I suspect this one error is key: Christians today seem governed by fear. . . . And fear moves us away from the core of Christianity — love. “There is no fear in love; but perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love,” says the first epistle of John.
We fear what we do not know.
We fear who we do not know.
As we hunker down in our bunkers of self-satisfied religiosity, it is inevitable that we Christians begin to feel not empathy for, but rather fear of, those “others” we become convinced threaten our privileged position. We barricade ourselves from interaction with those who are different, and we fill in the blanks of our ignorance with fear-filled assumptions about their nefarious motives.
- Same gender couples who wish to get married want to destroy marriage.
- Muslims and others who wish to express faiths other than Christianity want to abolish the worship of Jesus.
- People of color who remind us that Black Lives Matter have an anti-white and especially anti-police agenda.
- Those from non-European cultures who desire to acknowledge and maintain even some of their heritage want to destroy the American Way of Life.
- And so on.
“Why can’t they just be more like us,” we say about . . . everyone who is different than us.
But as we cower in our safe segregated sanctuaries of the status quo we must ask . . .
Who would want to be like us?
We exhaust ourselves and alienate others trying to maintain – or go back to – a mythical monoculture that has always been nothing but an illusion maintained by ignoring those outside its boundaries.
What are we afraid of? That we will have to share resources and power we have always gained and kept in proportions greater than our numbers? That we might be confronted with the unpleasant consequences of majority-favoring systems on those left out and left behind? That our opinions might be challenged and we might find out that we have been – gasp! – wrong about some things?
Are we ultimately afraid that Christianity cannot compete on a level playing field of theologies and non-theology?
We harm not just our own credibility but the claims of our faith when we proclaim that Christianity is the Truth, and then we act as if our faith is as fragile as a dead, dry autumn leaf.
As we gather in our churches on this Christmas, perhaps we should pay special attention to the angel who visited the shepherds.
When that angel appeared, those shepherds were terrified. Who wouldn’t be? Biblical angels are not the cute little cherubs with chubby cheeks and dainty wings, but rather God’s warrior-messengers. To have one of those daunting dudes show up in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere, accompanied by God’s light show (“The glory of the Lord”) would do more than startle even the bravest among us.
The first words that angel spoke to the shepherds were these:
“Don’t be afraid.”
“I’m not here to smite you.” The angel didn’t say that, but I would imagine that was the underlying message addressing the shepherds’ anxiety about the angel’s intent.
Then the angel said, “I bring you good news that will cause great joy for people who believe and do the right stuff.”
That’s not exactly right, is it?
Let’s try again.
“I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all people.”
Why do we Christians spend so much of our time, energy, and resources in ways that cause others to fear rather than to rejoice?
Is it because too many of us are afraid ourselves?
But . . .
“Do not be afraid.”
The angel’s words are for you and me.
At the end of the Christmas story in Luke 2, the shepherds are no longer afraid. They have traveled to Bethlehem and seen the Miracle in the Manger.
On their way back, they can’t keep what they’ve experienced to themselves. They get out into the world, among people different than themselves.
They just can’t help but share that “good news of great joy.”
The Good News about Christmas provokes the shepherds to make a journey from fear to joy.
Too often we manage to get that backwards.
Mr. Mathewes can have the last word:
If we are Christians, we must believe that we are safer in God’s hands than in our own. We should take no care for the morrow, but preach compassion and mercy to all, without distinction. If we do that, they’ll know we are Christians by our love — rather than our fear.