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A culture of contempt: The selfishness of our lesser natures has taken over vast regions of the national soul

When I look at our country today, I am astonished and angry that Christianity is invoked so often by those who pervert the teachings of Jesus in order to justify their own privilege and power. This is not the Christianity I know.

Rev. James Gertmenian
Rev. James Gertmenian

A friend of mine recently wrote: “Never before has the question, ‘Who is my neighbor?’ so haunted our national conversation as at this pivotal moment in our history. We are increasingly divided into rich and poor, employed and unemployed, making it and not making it, empowered and disempowered, in ways that mock our democratic ideals and steal the bread of hope from our children.”

What has happened to us? The robust communitarian ideals that brought us out of the Depression and saw us through the Second World War — ideals that placed the common good above narrow interests — now are shrinking to whispers that are routinely drowned out by the strident voice of hyper-individualism, libertarian self-involvement, ideological purity and anti-intellectual fervor.

Let’s put it more plainly: The selfishness of our lesser natures has taken over vast regions of the national soul. We no longer seem interested in caring for one another, in caring for neighbors, let alone strangers. The notion that much is required of those to whom much is given is portrayed as an attack on individual rights. Taxation is equated with socialism. And here is the scandal that chills my blood: This ethic of selfishness, this culture of contempt for the poor, contempt for the earth, contempt for science, contempt for the Other, is claimed by some to have its roots in the Christian religion, and many of its most vociferous apostles are self-proclaimed Christians themselves.

Not core Christian values
But what Christianity is this? They talk about personal responsibility and self-reliance as though these were the core Christian values. They aren’t. Those values owe more to Horatio Alger than they do to the New Testament. Personal responsibility and self-reliance are fine values as far as they go, but the heart of Christianity is in another place. The next time someone piously quotes to you, “God helps those who help themselves” to justify gutting social programs, please remind that person that those words were never spoken by Jesus of Nazareth; instead, they came from Benjamin Franklin. Most egregiously, this selfishness that comes cloaked in religious finery is used to justify and protect enormous concentrations of private wealth; proponents of the “prosperity Gospel” even claim that wealth is a sign of God’s favor and poverty a sign of God’s disfavor.

But Jesus said: “Blessed are the meek.” Paul said: “Power is made perfect in weakness.” And of the early Christian community, it was said: “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” That the message of Christ could become so foreign to itself as it has in this country is a testament to the ability of the human mind to rationalize nearly anything. In the end, however, God will not be mocked.

The heart of the gospel: compassion
The flimsy garb of piety cannot disguise the grotesque shape of a perverted gospel. What will ultimately emerge is the undisputable truth that the heart of the Christian gospel is compassion. The soul of the Christian religion is justice. The mode of Christian practice is community. And the ethic that rules the Christian life is love.

If there is a question in anyone’s mind, then turn to a seminal passage in the New Testament: the Magnificat. In Luke’s Gospel, the pregnant Mary is overwhelmed with a sense of God’s presence and says: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” Praising God, she continues: “he has scattered the proud…. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

This is a revolutionary passage. It speaks of a great leveling: The powerful brought down, the lowly lifted. It speaks of a great reversal: the hungry filled with good things, the rich sent away empty. It dismantles the culture of contempt.

A different kind of Christianity
Whether it is good news or bad news depends, I suppose, on where you find yourself in the equation. But however you hear it, let us at least note that this is a different kind of Christianity than the kind that says to unemployed people: “If you don’t have a job or if you aren’t rich, blame yourself.”

We should not wait for God, moreover, to do what we should be doing ourselves. Sharing the wealth more equitably. Letting go of that which we could never really own in the first place. Showing mercy to those for whom the world has not been merciful. And doing it all not in the name of charity, but in the name of justice — God’s justice, which does not depend on our deserving but on God’s unfathomable love.

The Rev. James Gertmenian is Senior Minister at Plymouth Congregational Church, Minneapolis. This commentary is adapted from his Oct. 16 sermon; an audio version of the full sermon is available here.

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Comments (27)

  1. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 11/04/2011 - 12:39 pm.

    I agree that compassion is a key part of Christian faith, however I’m not sure about the dearth Rev. Gertmenian complains of.

    Christ commanded us to forgive the sinner, but He also called upon the sinner to repent.

    There’s a bumper crop of sinners in America these days demanding not compassion, but that we tolerate their sin; some going so far as demanding we accept it as a normal part of life and in some way desireable.

    Worse yet, there are some faith groups calling themselves “Christian” that are actively encouraging this phenomenon…and even worse still, some leaders are preaching politically driven, false gospels to their congregations.

    2 Peter 2:1-3

  2. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 11/04/2011 - 01:34 pm.

    Thank you, Reverend Gertmenian. This new “Christianity” is to the teachings of Christ as the Taliban is to Islam. It is a militarization of what is, essentially, a message of peace. It is an attempt at moral justification for the subjugation of the “other.”

    I cannot, as a Christian, believe in any church that condones that or turns a blind eye to it. I, quite frankly, do not practice the same religion as those who do. I won’t make excuses for them and I won’t deny the bad things that are said about them.

    The good news is that there is a very quiet, but large, group of Christians that are disowning the new “Christianity.”

    The bad news, beside the horrible twisting of Jesus’ message and the suffering imposed by it, is that those that are subjected to this hatred view Christianity in general in the same light. Whenever a friend of mine paints Christians with a broad stroke, I try to point out that it’s unfair to do so.

    But I honestly can’t say that I can support anyone who claims to be the “good” kind of Christian, yet remains with a church that endorses the new “Christianity.”

    Jesus was a rebel. Don’t be afraid to walk the walk!

  3. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 11/04/2011 - 02:49 pm.

    Feel free to cast the first stone. Last time I checked, bearing false witness was a sin clearly spelled out (and I have caught you in the act). I have a hard time believing that someone guilty of such a sin has a right to identify sins in others, let alone judge whether their sins are great enough to warrant no compassion. It is not our place to decide who has a rightful place in Heaven. That is for God and God alone. And is it better to punish the innocent for the crimes of the sinner or to embrace the sinner? What do you suppose Jesus would say to that? I doubt Jesus ever said “Give to the poor, but only if they be perfect in my Father’s eyes. Or, at least as righteous as I am. In fact, only give to the poor if they are guilty of fewer sins than you are. Or at least the same sins as you are, because those other sins are definitely worse, so compassion for people guilty of other sins is out.”

  4. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 11/04/2011 - 04:06 pm.

    Rachel, given your response, one could conclude you never bothered to read the post you’re attempting to respond to.

    Take a moment to revisit it and point out, please, where I:

    A. Suggested anyone withhold compassion
    B. Suggested I was standing guard over the gates of Heaven

    (By the way, I suppose I could turn your “false witness” accusation around on you, but I prefer to gently observe that you’re mistaken…again.)

  5. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 11/04/2011 - 06:25 pm.

    “There’s a bumper crop of sinners in America these days demanding not compassion, but that we tolerate their sin; some going so far as demanding we accept it as a normal part of life and in some way desirable.”

    Specific example here, please, Mr. Swift? To what sins are you referring?

    “some leaders are preaching politically driven, false gospels to their congregations.”

    Again, would you care to be more specific. Perhaps these are political questions rather than moral issues.

    And since we’re into citing scripture today

    “Judge not, that ye be not judged.”

    Your track record as a smutty cartoonist is nothing to brag about.

  6. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 11/04/2011 - 07:09 pm.

    It isn’t necessarily so that some far-right Christian conservatives are bad people, but rather ordinary good people who have bought into the Ayn Rand/Milton Friedman vision of an America in which so-called “progress” (that would be monetary success) is the highest good and that unregulated capitalism is the way to get there.

    Taxing the rich or corporations impedes progress and so is to be avoided. Taking from the haves to help those who cannot help themselves is theft from the productive members of society in order to benefit those who “refuse to work” (never mind their mental or physical illnesses or disabilities, lack of education, old age, et cetera). The weak should have the kindness to die off so as not to impede progress anymore.

    Unfortunately, these beliefs make for an ugly world filled with unnecessary suffering. How to overcome them and restore America to a caring society is a question to which an answer awaits, but the Occupy groups seem to be on the right track.

  7. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 11/04/2011 - 09:15 pm.

    Jesus never once called for a tax increase as a measure of our compassion, nor did he ever call for the government to perform your role, reverand.

    The Christians of this world are manning the food shelves and homeless shelters, not lobbying the government to confiscate a man’s earnings to fund bureaucracies.

  8. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 11/04/2011 - 10:47 pm.

    Thank you, Rev. Gertmenian! I preached and wrote those same ideas for many years (and often ran up against church members who were not amused).

    As far as our “Swift” friend, here, I can only assume that, in writing of those who fail to repent, he’s referring to our friends who “work” in the buildings on Wall Street and all the financial institutions connected to the wholesale theft of the American Dream from the average American over the past thirty years.

    By the way, as is often the case with “conservatives,” who think everyone ELSE needs to repent, our speedy friend is misinterpreting the meaning of that word. He thinks it means admitting to God that you’ve been a naughty boy or girl and promising to the big, scary, daddy God never to be naughty again.

    But in Hebrew, Repent is actually a verb tense that doesn’t exist in English: a continuous action verb. It means to turn back to God, continuously (again, and again, and again, since we humans always get distracted and turn away), thereby allowing God to guide you away from whatever errors you’ve (willfully?) wandered into and inspire you to live your life in ways that build up God’s reign of unconditional love for you fellow humans and all of God’s creation.

    What ways are those? Ways that are in harmony with the life and ministry, the teachings, attitudes and actions of Jesus (who, clearly seemed to have a thing about ministering to and helping the outcasts of 1st. Century Judean society).

    For all you “good” Christians out there… when was the last time you allowed God to inspire YOU to minister DIRECTLY to someone whom you, yourself, would cast out of society if you had your own way?

    If you can’t imagine ever doing such a thing – doing something to help someone to whom your visceral, knee-jerk reaction is discomfort if not hatred, then please don’t fancy yourself to have anything to do with the man from Nazareth whom we call our “Christ.”

    You may be worshiping a “god,” but it’s one you have created in the image of your own dysfunctions and shortcomings. Perhaps you, yourself, might want to turn back to God and allow God to guide and inspire you as to how you might do the work that Jesus, himself, would be doing if here were walking among us, again (which he is in the form of the Holy Spirit which is seeking to guide and inspire you if you were only paying attention).

  9. Submitted by Alec Timmerman on 11/04/2011 - 10:51 pm.

    Is being poor a sin then Swifty? That’s what the passage spoke of. Being poor. then you went on a rant about sinners. So, again, the very act of being poor is a sin apparently, and you are exactly the person the article was written for.

    How would you know or define false gospel?

    Prosperity doctrine? Doctrine of “election”?

    “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

    Mahatma Gandhi quote

  10. Submitted by James Kessler on 11/05/2011 - 08:15 am.

    Thomas, if you’re referring to homosexuality it would do you a good turn to bother to remember these facts:

    1: The laws of the United States don’t answer to the Bible. Or any other religious text for that matter.

    2: You have no right to legislate your religious beliefs and force others to abide by them. People abide by a religious belief by choice, not by force. Forcing it down someone’s throat is false faith.

    3: The 14th amendment to the US Constitution does not say “But this doesn’t apply to homosexuals.”

    Because from where this Christian sits, Thomas, the sin of the homophobes is far worse then any sin homosexuals commit. Hatred, fear, bigotry, intolerance and discrimination in God’s name is a set of far worse sins.

  11. Submitted by Phyllis Stenerson on 11/05/2011 - 10:48 am.

    Thank you, Rev. Gertmenian, for your wisdom on our crisis in democracy, from a Christian perspective. This misinterpretation or misuse of Biblical teaching is a key factor in dividing the country and needs commentary from clergy. Religious fundamentalism is at the root of many of our world problems as well. My understanding of Jesus is that he teached radical inclusion, compassion and generosity.

  12. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 11/05/2011 - 11:33 am.

    Prof., somehow I doubt anyone is capable of describing anything you’d recognize as sin.

    My day of judgment will come, but I don’t think God minds too awful much if I acknowledge sin as sin, whether I am the one committing them or not.

    I *do* think He disapproves of those that attempt to re-define His word or attempt to confuse right from wrong.

    Thanks for asking, and I’m sorry you’re not an art lover!

  13. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 11/05/2011 - 12:23 pm.

    It is indeed true that the actions of the Neo-Puritans are making life more difficult for Christians in general. A lot of the so-called New Atheists are people who have suffered grievous psychological harm at the hands of the Neo-Puritans or who have seen self-ordained megachurch con men get rich off the offerings of the poor.

    The Neo-Puritans can call themselves Christians only by ignoring major passages of the Bible or by insisting on their own misinterpretations. There used to be a newsletter called “Christian Economics,” which espoused Libertarianism on the basis of the verse, “Am I not allowed to do what I please with what is mine?” ignoring the fact that the question comes from a parable about long-time believers not feeling superior to recent converts and has nothing to do with labor relations.

    When you point out Jesus’ many teachings about charity and against greed, the Neo-Puritans say, “But he wasn’t talking about government programs.” When you point out the “render unto Caesar” episode to support the position that Jesus had nothing against taxes, they say, “But he never said it was OK to pay taxes to redistribute wealth.” (No, just to support the army of a foreign occupier.) When John the Baptist says, “Be content with your wages,” that’s not a slam against labor unions, but an admonition to soldiers not to shake down the local population for more money.

    Context is everything, and you can’t take isolated passages from the Bible but must look at the overall message. Some Biblically illiterate people talk as if the Hebrew Scriptures are all about the wrath of God, but they obviously have not read the later prophets, who sound as if they would be comfortable in an Occupy Wall Street encampment.

    My father was a Lutheran pastor, and his favorite rejoinder to people who took quotes out of context was that you could say that the Bible endorses suicide by juxtaposing, “Judas went and hanged himself” with “Go thou and do likewise.”

  14. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 11/05/2011 - 02:09 pm.

    James, were talking about sin here and now, not the laws of man. Everything in it’s turn.

    Alec, poverty is not a crime, or a sin, but it *is* often the wages of sin.

    Greg, as always, I haven’t a clue what you’re trying to say.

  15. Submitted by Richard Paden on 11/05/2011 - 06:52 pm.

    With reference to your article on some are getting more than their fair share and some are not getting enough of everything.

    From your photograph above your article,you are well dressed, well fed and have an above average income, even if you are retired. The real quesion I have is this: How much of your yearly income are you giving away to help accomplish what you profess to believe?

    Thank you for your answer.

    Richard Paden

  16. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 11/05/2011 - 07:38 pm.

    Fortunately, Mr. Swift, MinnPost is not twitter.

    You’ve been asked by many other commenters to specify what sin(s)you are complaining about and what false gospels?

    The lack of a straight answer is telling.

    The fifty cent word is disingenuous.

  17. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 11/05/2011 - 08:54 pm.

    How hard it is for our “conservative” friends to allow God to inspire them to do anything resembling the work of Jesus.

    The Bible (Old and New Testament) makes it clear that God brought each and every human into this world for a purpose and that purpose was not to feather our own nests, pad our own pockets, nor to lay up treasures on earth in order to make life easy for ourselves in our brief sojourn, here.

    That the governments we create should also do the work of Jesus – the work of building up God’s reign of love in the ways we structure our society and our government – is the only logical conclusion one can reach if you take the overall sweep of the Bible seriously.

    Of course you can make the Bible say anything you so desire if you take it a word or a phrase or a verse at a time, but to treat the scriptures that way is to substitute yourself and your own human dysfunctions, frailties, and imperfections for the God the Bible points beyond itself to try to help you find your way into living life from an eternal frame of reference,…

    you know, so that when you get to the next life, you’ll actually WANT to be there, instead of heading off into the outer darkness in search of a heaven patterned after what you always told yourself heaven would be like.

  18. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 11/06/2011 - 09:01 am.

    Religions have no business in politics. If there is a Ponzi scheme out there religion may qualify. Faith is internal and personal, not a commodity to be bartered, sold and used to threaten and keep people afraid. If people want to gather and share their faith let them do it at their own expense, not on the tax payers backs. Look at the divisiveness created by these “so called good” people. Look at the hatred and killing done in the name of religion. If they want to play politics let them pay taxes like the rest of us. We should be honest no one really knows what comes after death, but we do know what trouble is sowed in the name of religion.

  19. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 11/06/2011 - 01:04 pm.

    “That the governments we create should also do the work of Jesus – the work of building up God’s reign of love in the ways we structure our society and our government – is the only logical conclusion one can reach if you take the overall sweep of the Bible seriously.”

    Total nonsense. Jesus never called for government to do God’s work. He called for YOU to do God’s work.

    Mark 12:41-44: “Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents.

    Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”

    The treasury Jesus was referring to was the temple’s treasury, not the government’s treasury.

    I realize that the Left would rather worship Government, but I don’t think that’s what Jesus had in mind.

  20. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 11/06/2011 - 02:13 pm.

    If we were to wipe out all the world’s religions humanity would only create new ones. It is in the nature of us humans, living in a cosmos which will forever be far beyond our comprehension, to create religions through which we seek to discern answers to ultimate questions,…

    not to mention “gods” by devotion to which we hope to win advantage over our fellow humans.

    Since it seems to be in the nature of humans to create a belief structure (among which is atheism, by the way) to deal with ultimate things,…

    and, far too often, to place at the top of our belief structures a tribal god who, if we can only win that “god’s” favor, will reward us with health, wealth, power, and dominance over others…

    in other words, a god created in the image of the dysfunctions from which so many of us suffer,…

    a “god” which we substitute for the one, true, God,…

    who is constantly seeking to inspire humans to treat each other and regard each other with the same generosity of spirit and helpful, compassionate attitude demonstrated so amply by Jesus when he walked the earth,…

    a God whose inspirations we ignore in favor of our own self-created false gods,…

    it will always be in the nature of us humans to use our “religions” to justify those ultimate acts we perform, whether those acts be the pinnacle of good or the deepest depths of evil.

    Whether we claim to be inspired by our “god,” or whether we claim “the devil made me do it,” the reality is that the evil in our world arises from the dysfunctions of humans,…

    and the ways each generation teaches and programs its own children with the same dysfunctions to which they, themselves fell victims as children.

    In the end it is we who make our religions evil, not our religions that cause us to be or do evil.

  21. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 11/06/2011 - 07:11 pm.

    Conservatives who claim that Jesus never said the government should be involved in charity ignore the fact that Jesus lived under a hostile foreign military occupation, not under an elected government of his own people.

    Society was organized entirely differently. Most people never traveled more than a few miles from the place they were born. All politics that they could have any influence on was truly local.

    To say that the lack of government charity in the Bible is a sign that no one in the 21st century should endorse it is like saying that we should all live in the dark because the Bible doesn’t mention electric lights.

    Times change.

  22. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 11/07/2011 - 07:54 am.

    I don’t know if there ever was a “national soul” but if so, it was probably organized by a committee and funded by bankers…and in this dog-eat-dog world of back alley politics, a strange god image has been emerging by the poor-in-spirit from the political far-right, exposing the backside of conservative fundamentalism; dragging that distorted image through the slime of their us-not-them policies and into the political arena.

    “With god as my scapegoat whom shall I fear” seems to be the theme song of the T-Party movement; but take a second look…their god is red all over and sprouting horns and a tail…wow.

  23. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 11/07/2011 - 02:55 pm.

    I don’t know if their ever was a “national soul” but if so, it was probably organized by a committee and funded by bankers.

    And in this dog-eat-dog world of back alley politics, a strange god-image has been adopted by the -poor-in-spirit from the political far right, exposing the back side of conservative fundamentalism; dragging that image into the public arena.

    “With god as my scapegoat, whom shall I fear” seems like the far-right theme. But take a second look…their god is red all over and is essentially, sprouting horns and a tail…wow.

  24. Submitted by Thomas Dickinson on 11/08/2011 - 11:09 am.

    Thank you Rev. Gertmanian. This is the Christianity I sort of learned in church as a child and definitely learned at home in my family. It also corresponds very closely to the direction of the Zen I now practice.

    In fact, it really doesn’t matter what the Bible says, what God says, what any teacher says if those ideas, or more precisely, one’s perception of those ideas, cause one to hurt anyone or anything. I like what one of the commenters said about the word “repent” being something one does moment to moment.

    Ideas are, at best, yakity-yak, but can encourage good actions. Ideas when understood as anything other that encouragement for good actions quickly become toxic, no matter the source.

  25. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 11/08/2011 - 01:37 pm.

    @#4 and #14

    You may not have *said* that you want to withold compassion directly, but it is what you said and what you constantly say. It is evident in what you said in #14:

    “…poverty is not a crime, or a sin, but it *is* often the wages of sin.”

    Such a statement quite obviously indicates that you feel that poverty is a punishment for sin (in other words, “if you’re poor, you deserve to be poor”). Compassion is, according to Merriam Webster’s dictionary, sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it. The literal meaning derived from Latin is “to suffer along with,” suggesting literally putting yourself in another’s shoes. In religion, including Judaism and Christianity, the meaning is closer to the translation from Latin. In Islam, compassion is similar to that of Judaism and Christianity, with the fasting during Ramadan to remind all of the suffering of others, and further includes a tax upon those wealthy enough to pay in order to help the poor and needy. A person who assigns blame to suffering shows little compassion according to any definition.

  26. Submitted by Allison Schmitt on 11/18/2011 - 08:30 am.

    Best. sermon. ever.

    Thank you for your prophetic voice, Rev. Gertmenian. I am sharing this far and wide with my “no social gospel” friends.

  27. Submitted by Neal Krasnoff on 11/25/2011 - 06:44 am.

    Rev. Gertmenian:

    Your church hosted members of the Jew-bashing WAMM and AWC (“Israel is an illegal apartheid state”) last January and co-sponsored a conference in September with the obscurantist title of “US Policy in Palestine-Israel: Engaging Faith Communities in Pursuit of a Just Peace” consisting of the usual Christian and left wing anti-Zionists.

    In other words, your church is complicit in the attempt to seek the eventual destruction of Israel and along with it, the Jews. This is apparently part of your “different kind of Christianity”.

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