~ John 10:10b
As the religious news services and others trumpet the latest survey results about religion in America, showing a decline in the number of people who say they are Christians and a significant increase in those who claim no religious affiliation at all (something that now describes 25% of the American population), I am reminded of how complicated being Christian in America has become. Now, let me be clear: I am NOT joining the bandwagon of those who want to claim that American Christians are being persecuted. They are not, and it is ludicrous to even make such a claim (and an insult to people elsewhere in the world who truly do experience persecution). No, when I speak of the complexity of being Christian in America, I am not talking about cultural shifts of the type that the latest survey reveals. I am talking about the complexity created by Christians themselves.
That quote from John’s Gospel at the top of this post — “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” — has for me become the thing that defines what I believe Jesus was really aiming for in his life and ministry. The essential message and meaning of Jesus was of God’s desire to liberate people from everything that prevented them from living a deep, abundant life. Abundance, from the perspective of the Gospel, is not an abundance of things or wealth, but rather an abundance of meaning. That abundance was to be found in a deep, abiding grounding in God that revealed love as the organizing principle of the universe and overflowed into relationships of compassion and justice that liberated people from whatever prevented them from experiencing this abundance in their own lives. Jesus was always about setting people free. Liberation is the basic theme of the Hebrew Bible and of the New Testament.
But any encounter with the dominant forms of Christianity in American culture — and probably most other places in the world — would probably not leave people with the impression that liberation lies at the heart of the Gospel. From the time Christianity became powerful as the official religion of ancient Rome, it began to lose its liberating message, as it began to take into itself and replicate the cultural biases of the societies which it “converted.” Rather than liberating people into a transformative relationship with God, Christianity became more interested in enforcing a moral code which became the definition of righteousness and holiness. In this paradigm, there were kinds of people who were definitely other: sinners who displeased God, and in some theologies, so thoroughly displeased God that they were rather beyond redemption.
This moralism continues to characterize the dominant forms of Christianity in America. Too many churches continue to confuse morality with righteousness, and proclaim a twisted “gospel” which has nothing to do with the life and teaching of Jesus and everything to do with trying to preserve a way of life (and a way of thinking) that is changing. So desperate are the acolytes of this gospel to hold onto their world view that they lash out in increasingly hateful ways, and presume to do so in the name of God.
It’s little wonder, then, that people are becoming less enthusiastic about Christianity, as Christians appear more and more in the public arena as conservators of a disappearing era rather than as serious spiritual explorers who have something to offer humanity in our common search for meaning, liberation, and transformation. Rather than inviting people into an abundant life, as Jesus did, too many Christians are trying to push people into a narrow, limited life that weighs people down rather than freeing them up. Ironically, this was exactly the criticism that Jesus leveled toward the religious leaders of his time, accusing them of laying burdens on people that were too heavy to bear, rather than inviting them into a transformative relationship with the living God.
The bottom line is that the Gospel has ceased to be good news for increasing numbers of people. And the fault does not lie with them: rather, it lies with us who fail to the Gospel compellingly both in word and action. And that is a betrayal of Jesus, and of the mission and message he entrusted to us.