Why Christianity Still Matters
We human beings like our stories.
Faced with a series of facts, or records of events, our first instinct is to quickly fashion a narrative from them in our own minds. Since we do this from a young age, the longer we live the more we bend and distort these episodic stories to fit within one continuous narrative. There’s a good reason for this, of course: to survive in the world we often need to process information quickly, and be able to focus on what is most essential in each moment.
But there is a downside, a negative side-effect: when we are confronted with facts or events that don’t easily fit within our pre-established narrative- or defy it outright- the easiest solution is to discount and ignore them. To pluck out what we want and explain away the rest. We sometimes even completely invert their reality to protect what we want to believe.
Two things can be true at the same time: the majority of the men and women who founded this country were students of the enlightenment, driven by reason, scientific inquiry, and tolerance; and they were also guided by their Christian faith. These are not incompatible truths. We can simultaneously be a country founded on Christian values and enlightenment ideals- because that’s who our founders were! Any National narrative that picks up on only one of these halves- that we are purely a Christian nation, or a solely rational one- misses the full complexity of what we truly are and where we’ve come from. Much of our current societal discourse seems to be centered on denying one half of our story, to the point that we’ve forgotten the Middle Path our ancestors chose.
For the vast majority of our forefathers, Deism represented the philosophical marriage between ancient religion and modern humanism. George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin and many others were Christians in their own way, but expounded on the virtues of human experience and rational thought in discerning how to act in the world. Deism saw God not as a personable father in our daily life but as Providence, Nature’s God, Creator of all that there is but incapable of full comprehension by mere human beings. We mortals need reason and scientific inquiry to become better Christians.
Thomas Paine offered this profession of Deist faith: “I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life. I believe in the equality of humans; and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow-creatures happy.”
There’s a reason the declaration of independence states “We hold these truths to be self-evident”, and not “God told us to do this.” They believed the country they were building could not be religiously dogmatic and a republic of free individuals at the same time, which is why they assiduously sought to separate church and state while they instilled Christ’s values in the very bones of our nascent nation. Christianity still mattered, and it has continued to be a part of the fabric of our nation- though we’ve gradually changed the narrative to fit what we want to believe.
To get to the heart of what this means for today, let’s examine Christianity with the same rational inquisitiveness they did- beginning with this incontrovertible fact: we have no written records of Jesus from his lifetime. Nothing by his own hand, or by those who were with him. This is similar to many other spiritual figures from our ancient past, from the Buddha to Lao Tzu; what we have was written decades afterwards, based on oral traditions and other records lost to the passage of time. The earliest gospel written was Mark, some 40 years after Jesus departed. The letters of Paul and the three other gospels in the standard bible were written years later, likely using the gospel of Mark as a reference. The stories of his life, his message, and his parables were related, interpreted and discussed in countless Christian writings from this point on. Multiple Gospels were promoted (check out the Gospel of Thomas for some beautiful teachings) and by the fourth century Christians could easily be overwhelmed by they many different ways they could apparently approach the faith. Intractable disagreements over what would seem to be narrow issues ultimately splintered the church; something like the nature of the Holy Trinity, which most of us vaguely understand or spend much time contemplating, literally split the church apart.
Out of this chaotic period, the structure and organization of what the religion we now call Christianity was formed at the behest of Roman politicians. They chose certain theologians and church leaders from across the empire to gather at a series of councils and decide what it was to be a Christian: which writings would be included in the bible, and which would be cast aside; which interpretations would be doctrine, and which would be heretical; the official hierarchy of the church; and the single creed which would supposedly define faith. They even edited existing passages to complete their ideology. This was a human attempt to structure spiritual truth, some 300 years after Christ.
Think about that- we actually have the words written by our American founders 250 years ago and yet we still have radically different interpretations of what they intended and how to fulfill their dream. How could these men possibly create a perfect religion with hundreds of years of distance from the primary source?
As with any human structure, the Religion of Christianity- separate from the Spiritual Truth it references- must be considered fallible. Imperfect. We can believe that God intended the Religion to be everything it has been while also acknowledging that it is unlikely God desired ‘Christianity’ to be used to burn other human beings at the stake, to massacre thousands in crusades, to subjugate a people based on the color of their skin, to castigate someone based on who they romantically love. To be used as an excuse to hate. This may have all been in the Providential plan, but that does not make these deeds righteous. The fact is, organized Christianity and political or societal power have not often mixed well, to put it lightly. There is a reason Jesus commanded his followers to not store their treasures on earth; “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?”
In truth, his message time and time again was that faith and righteousness was what mattered, more than obedience to ancient tradition. He repeatedly acts on the Sabbath- in direct defiance of ancient religious dogma- to heal or teach or gather food with his disciples. When the supposed religious leaders of the day (the ‘keepers of the faith’) confronted him, he replied that “there is something greater than the Temple here.” That it was better to do good than to follow what other humans had decided God demanded. More than once he tells these religious leaders “I desire compassion, not sacrifice.”
There is something greater in the old laws; he tells us that “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” While he encouraged study of the law, he also chastised religious leaders for neglecting the “weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.” Organized Christianity through the years has fallen into the same traps as organized Judaism of his day: cherry-picking passages without context, relying upon archaic interpretations to fulfill human desires and not Gods. In a very real way, Jesus represented change and revolution in his time, a rejection of traditions built by humans in order to re-focus on what was essential. He was the bridge from exclusive Jewish tradition to Universal Truth, from narrow interest to common good. He wasn’t just a light to his tribe, but to the entire world.
It’s important to remember: he didn’t do this by assuming political power for himself. He didn’t do this by forcing others to submit. He didn’t do this through violence or hateful speech. Though he used the imagery of warfare in spiritual matters, he was nonviolent in his action. Militant Christianity was a purely human development; just as communion was meant to be a metaphorical ritual and not a literal ingestion of Christ’s body and blood, so was a call to be a Christian soldier not intended to be a call to spill blood in his name. And he further equates violent actions with violent thoughts or words, even when they are supposedly done for him. “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.”
Which is not to say that being a Christian is a passive experience; “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.” Doing the right thing doesn’t mean a passive acceptance of what has been passed down to you by your ancestors but a pursuit of Truth, no matter what society thinks at the time. No matter what human religious or political leaders of the day may say. He encourages us all to challenge authority, to challenge pre-conceived narratives and reject those who appear as “white-washed tombs, beautiful on the outside yet full of dead people’s bones and uncleanness”, who appear outwardly righteous but are in fact full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.
This is essential for understanding how our founders set up our system of government. As revolutionaries themselves, they saw how necessary challenges to authority and tradition would be to the creation of a more perfect union. It is why the preamble to the constitution is not “This union now being perfect”, but “In order to form a more perfect union…” Laws written by men were not immutable; just as Jesus stressed, there was something greater. Weightier. They made sure laws were amendable, that individual branches of government checked each other and that citizens were guaranteed a path to change. Human dignity was meant to be more sacred than dogma. They knew what they had created was ultimately insufficient, and that further generations would improve upon it; John Adams was one of the abolitionists of the time who abhorred the practice of slavery preserved in the constitution, and felt that it would eventually recede due to human rationality- but he avoided any drastic action in his own Presidency, insisting that change must be gradual.
We should look at that position, and other compromises of the time, with critical eyes; the inequalities permitted in a document that professed “equality for all men” continue to haunt us to this day- but in that same document they preserved the possibility for change which has painstakingly been realized, inch by inch, across the centuries. Justice and mercy have ever been the aim of our Nation, though we often take a tortuously indirect path towards them. Changing the narrative is never easy. As the Declaration of Independence itself admits “…all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.”
It took decades of distance from the civil war and a technological revolution for the country to more fully embrace the compassionate vision set forth by Jesus when he gave the parable of judgement day:
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in,I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”
Social reform, civil rights acts, suffrage movements, welfare: all these things did not sully our forefather’s dream- they have helped further realize it. The dignity of an individual over the power of the state. Not a perfect union, but a more perfect union.
The thing is, it is not a union we will see perfected in our lifetime. We will not see the Kingdom of Heaven here in our lifetime. It is a process; just as all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, so are we doomed to fail as much as we succeed. Nothing about this is easy, or comfortable. Perhaps the most pernicious development of those Roman councils was the establishment of a single creed, a reduction of all the complexity of what Jesus taught and did into one simple sentence. A creed made for political purposes, not spiritual, and one that suggested an illusory half-truth: that simply saying you believe that Jesus lived, died, and lived again as the son of God, you were ‘saved’. That transformation magically happened in that one moment, and not through a lifelong commitment to acting Christ-like in the world. A proclamation is empty without positive action.
When you look at Christ’s teachings as a whole, the message arises: the only way to the Father was through him. Not an obligatory recitation, but by living our life as if he is our example, our model, our calling. A righteous path to follow. To love our neighbors as ourselves- which in a globalized, interconnected world means not just someone on our street but human beings in every corner of this earth. To forgive those who trespass against us. To value righteous action, not earthly possessions. To lay down our life for the one sheep out of 100 which is lost. To live with compassion, not tradition. To remove the log from our own eye before the speck in a brother’s eye. To not seek our own glory. To turn the other cheek and love our enemy. When I was a child the abbreviation WWJD became fashionable, on watches and t-shirts and other goods; it was a little silly, yet still relevant- What Would Jesus Do?
Are these principles possible on the governmental and societal level?
Why not? Why shouldn’t our government represent our best ideals, Christ’s ideals? Many demand our elected leaders show that they are faithful believers- but why not the actions of our government itself? Some presidents have unfortunately tried to convey that we should all fear the government, but a century ago Americans understood that government could be a tool of Christian action. Theodore Roosevelt said “The constitution was made for the people, not the people for the constitution”, echoing Christ’s own words. Under his leadership, the government: established the FDA to make our food more safe, worked to break up monopolies and empower common workers, preserved God’s creation through protected National Parks and Forests, and insisted that every citizen deserved a ‘square deal’.
His cousin Franklin D. Roosevelt continued to carry this torch to even greater action on behalf of human dignity: the protection of worker’s rights, insurance for those who need it, social security for all. He overcame a debilitating physical disease, then lead the country through one of its darkest hours by re-stating its purpose: “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have little.”
Shortly after his death, his wife Eleanor continued even further and helped lead the newly formed United Nations in adopting a universal declaration of human rights, a document that attempted to enshrine the same values preached by Jesus as a common standard and ideal across all borders. A light to the entire world and not just one nation.
I think if we open up the narratives to which we are accustomed- whether it is “American exceptionalism” or “American sin”, “Government is evil” or “Everything is the other party’s fault”, “Yes we can” or “It is what it is”- and consider the prospect of what a government or society guided by Christ’s principles could be, we would find that this is what most of us have actually sought. A government that seeks to treat us all equally, that responds to our ideals and not our basest desires. A government that does not seek to enrich itself but rather dedicates itself to a protection of our rights and a principle of compassion for the least among us. A government that upholds the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the gentle, the merciful, the pure in heart, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the peacemakers, the persecuted. A government that seeks to feed the hungry and clothe the naked.
Equality is not something that comes easy to us when we are locked into our own daily lives and struggles. We tend to see another person’s gains in the moment as somehow harmful to our own standing, as we ignore their own story and greater historical context. Jesus addresses this in an important parable:
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.
About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went.
He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’
‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.
He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’
When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’
The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner.‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’
But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’
So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
To the workers who were there first, locked into their own labor, someone who comes later doesn’t deserve the same treatment. But equality is not every human receiving the same wage; equality is every human being afforded the opportunity to earn their wage. This should be the role of government- not to respond to our personal feelings, but to the needs of society. After 250 years of societal dominance, it may feel to a white man that women and minorities receiving assistance or promotion is a personal attack when this is precisely the kind of equality and justice America was always meant to embody.
We can make this happen. We have the power, enshrined into law by our Deist Christian founders. We could demand that our police forces protect us with the restraint and patience demonstrated by Christ, that our budgets prioritize compassion over militancy, that our leaders act transparently and not selfishly. That our state does not murder its people. That every individual is considered equal under the law no matter their race, status, or belief. That in an age of wealth and abundance every single person has food security, shelter, and health care. An equal chance at success. Our government can be the best version of who we want to be, and guard against our weaknesses.
This is not an impossible dream- it is the American dream.