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April 5th, 2012 @ 9:41 am by
If you haven’t read Andrew Sullivan’s Newsweek essay Christianity in Crisis, take a few minutes to do so. It’s well worth your time and effort. Especially when you consider it was written by a Christian–not some hypothetical left-winger with an axe to grind against the Church. Sullivan loves Jesus, the Bible and the Church. He just happens to think the Body of Christ is afflicted with a potentially life-threatening disease. Namely, a lust for power, which Sullivan correctly argues is a direct contradiction of the Gospel message. From the article:
“Jesus’ doctrines were the practical commandments, the truly radical ideas that immediately leap out in the simple stories he told and which he exemplified in everything he did. Not simply love one another, but love your enemy and forgive those who harm you; give up all material wealth; love the ineffable Being behind all things, and know that this Being is actually your truest Father, in whose image you were made. Above all: give up power over others, because power, if it is to be effective, ultimately requires the threat of violence, and violence is incompatible with the total acceptance and love of all other human beings that is at the sacred heart of Jesus’ teaching. That’s why, in his final apolitical act, Jesus never defended his innocence at trial, never resisted his crucifixion, and even turned to those nailing his hands to the wood on the cross and forgave them, and loved them.”
So it should come as no surprise that those who want to criticize Sullivan essentially find themselves arguing not just against Sullivan but against Jesus himself. Trevin Wax is a good case in point: “It’s interesting to see how those who advocate a return to the words of Christ often display a frightening ignorance of what Jesus actually said. The primary message of Jesus was not love — at least, not love in our sense of the world. The message of Jesus was Love with a capital ‘L’ — meaning, His message was about Himself. It was about His kingdom, His identity as king, and the cross that became His throne.”
Let me get this straight: Jesus gave us only two commandments, both of which include the word “love.” In case you’ve forgotten them: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37-40).
You may even want to sneak in a third love-based commandment: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighborand hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
As my friend Wayne Northey likes to put it, the ultimate test case of our love for God is love of neighbor. And the ultimate test case of our love of neighbor is our love of enemy. Pretty rigid accounting. And we fail this test every single day. Hence our need for grace.
I’ll say it again: Jesus gave us two (or, if you prefer, three) commandments, all of which hinge on love. But Wax still has the gall to argue, “the primary message of Jesus was not love — at least not in our sense of the word.” Wax never does define what our sense of the word is, but I don’t think it really matters, because if you read Sullivan’s version of love, it is a near perfect match with what Jesus taught.
Speaking of words, Wax’s own words seem appropriate here in light of his argument: “It’s interesting to see how those who advocate a return to the words of Christ often display a frightening ignorance of what Jesus actually said.”
On a more charitable note, Wax does concur with Sullivan on the following: “Likewise, we should admit that we have too often been known more for our denunciations of those outside our walls than for our passion to uproot our own self-righteous hypocrisy, something Jesus was always confronting in His day. Sullivan sees many of the problems within contemporary Christianity with a perception that should give us pause and bring us back to our knees.”
However, I can’t help feeling like Wax was so concerned with asserting doctrinal authority over Sullivan that he utterly missed the point of Sullivan’s essay. Otherwise, how could he say things like, “Sullivan wants to take Christ’s teaching without Christ Himself. His vision tries to deliver Christ’s message of love without the atoning cross that gives love its meaning. It wants Christ’s justice without the victorious resurrection that launches the new world God has promised, the new world that totally changes the landscape for how we view everything: ethics, morals, politics, art, law.”
At no point does Sullivan make these claims. He’s merely trying to articulate the foundation of the kingdom Christ came to establish. Stated in a negative sense, that kingdom is based on a complete surrender of self-interest. Stated positively, it’s an embrace of every single human being no matter who they are. In such a kingdom, Sullivan argues, “What does it matter how strictly you proclaim your belief in various doctrines if you do not live as these doctrines demand?”
Wax seems to get this on one level: “Jesus’ teachings are not just about embarking on a new journey, embracing a new way of life, or experiencing a new spirituality. They are about His ushering in a new world order — a kingdom that encompasses everything.” But he still seems hung up on the idea that believing the right things is what matters most.
It would be easy to slip into a false dichotomy here, with one side arguing that living according to Jesus’ teaching is most important, and the other side arguing that believing the right things about Jesus is most important. But I think we can declare a tie, b/c both sides make a valid point. Words and actions are important, but they are always predicated on particular beliefs about the world. So you can argue that right belief produces right behavior. Then again, you can also argue that right behavior produces correct belief by providing real time cause-and-effect data about how our behavior affects our relationships with others. So we can’t have one without the other.
From another perspective, we all know how both right thinking and right behavior can be used as bludgeons against those with whom we disagree. Claims to the moral high ground on either side are often merely acts of violence–efforts to assert control over the other by putting our righteousness on display. Which brings us back to the point of Sullivan’s article, namely, the fact that the Church has chosen to grasp at power rather than surrender to grace.
So while I’m tempted to side with Sullivan and vilify Wax, I realize that doing so would merely be falling into the very same trap I’m trying to warn people about. Instead, I’ll conclude with an act of charity, by giving the last word not to Sullivan but to Wax. And if I’ve read Sullivan correctly, I don’t think he’ll mind: “Let’s not isolate the sayings of Jesus we like and fit Him into our vision for how the world should work. Instead, let’s fall at the feet of King Jesus, ready and willing to do whatever it takes to fit our lives into His vision, a vision of the world to come that has crashed into the world that is.”