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.
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.