Why Conservative Christians So Often Fail the Common Good (Part I)
Want to try your hand at solving a riddle with life-or-death implications for people all over the world? Why do so many evangelical and fundamentalist Christians--people who clearly honor the Bible--so often disregard two requirements that are central to the biblical text and central to the teachings of Jesus: peacemaking and justice for the poor? This is hardly an academic question. With over 25% of the total American population fundamentalist and evangelical Christians could make a vast difference in the lives of millions around the world if more of them took the Bible's teachings on these two points more seriously.
What about the Poor?
This point came home to me with extraordinary force when an evangelical student in one of my classes complained about Tracy Kidder's Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Mountains Beyond Mountains, that chronicles Dr. Paul Farmer's long-time commitment to combating AIDS and TB among the desperately poor in Haiti. Messiah College, the institution where I teach, had chosen this book as the common text for all first-year students precisely because it so beautifully reflects the strong commitments of the college--a Christian college--to serve the needs of the poor and to teach our students to embody that vision.
Imagine my shock when one of the students registered her judgment that Mountains Beyond Mountains was an inappropriate text for Messiah College to have chosen. When I asked why she felt that way, she said with animated conviction, "Because it's obvious that Paul Farmer is not a Christian."
Frankly, I was stunned. How could she possibly think that this compassionate doctor--a practicing Catholic who for many years had given up a lucrative medical practice in the United States for the sake of Haiti's poor--was not a Christian? I thought, for example, of Matthew 25 where Jesus offers the only description of the last judgment that appears in the biblical text. "I was hungry and you gave me food," Jesus says. "I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was naked and you clothed me." Then he invites those who did these things to "inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world." But Paul Farmer was not a Christian?
And I thought of Jesus' counsel to the rich young ruler that he should "sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven." (Luke 18:22) Paul Farmer, it seemed to me, had done exactly that. But somehow he still was not a Christian?
When I pressed my student on this point, she told me that she found no evidence in this book that Farmer "had a personal relationship with Jesus." She added that even though Farmer had healed the bodies of thousands upon thousands of Haitians over the years, the book never suggested that he had preached the gospel to these Haitians or attempted to save their souls. How, then, she asked, could he possibly be a Christian?
This student typifies millions of fundamentalist and evangelical Christians in the United States today. Of course, there are exceptions. Some fundamentalist and evangelical churches do sponsor programs that feed the hungry and clothe the naked. And evangelical organizations like World Vision, Jim Wallis's Sojourners network, Ron Sider's Evangelicals for Social Action, Tony Compolo's Evangelical Association for the Promotion of Education, and even Messiah College, the institution where I teach, advocate for the poor and work tirelessly on their behalf. Still and all, benevolence typically takes a back seat to preaching, mission work, and evangelism in most evangelical churches, since a "personal relationship with Jesus" and saving souls almost always trumps the saving of human lives--especially the lives of the poor--in the here and now.
Make Peace, not War
Likewise, fundamentalist and evangelical Christians typically fail to implement the Bible's requirements when it counsels Christians to "love your enemies" and, in so doing, to become agents of peace. When the war against Saddam Hussein was still in the planning stage in 2002, for example, Jim Lobe reported that "some 69 percent of conservative Christians favor military action against Baghdad, 10 percentage points more than the U.S. adult population as a whole." That report appeared under the headline, "Conservative Christians Biggest Backers against Iraq."
By April of 2003, a month after the United States launched its preemptive strike against Iraq, the decision to invade that nation drew support from an astounding 87 percent of all white evangelical Christians. By June of 2006, when the war was rapidly losing popularity in the country's general population, some 68 percent of white evangelical Christians still supported the American occupation of Iraq.
From the war's inception, influential Christian preachers whipped up support among the faithful. Charles Stanley, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Atlanta, affirmed, "We should offer to serve the war effort in any way possible. ... God battles with people who oppose him, and fight against him and his followers." Others, including Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham, and Marvin Olasky, editor of the World magazine, suggested that the war would open up a whole new field for converting Muslims to the Christian faith. Still others, like Tim LaHaye, co-author of the best-selling Left Behind series of end-times books, suggested that by virtue of the war, Iraq would become "a focal point of end-times events."
The Kingdom of God
These positions on poverty and war--so typical of many (though not all) fundamentalist and evangelical Christians--become especially shocking when one begins to grasp just how completely at odds with the Bible they really are.
Arguably, the theme most central to the biblical text is the Bible's vision of the kingdom of God--a metaphor that tells us "what this world would look like if and when God sat on Caesar's throne," as biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan puts it. The phrase, kingdom of God--or its equivalent, kingdom of heaven--appears over 100 times in the New Testament text. And while the actual phrase, kingdom of God, never appears in the Hebrew Bible, the concept of the kingdom of God appears there with great regularity. It's really not hard to grasp the biblical meaning of the kingdom of God, since the Bible almost always employs that phrase (or concept) in support of two ideals: peacemaking (including the rejection of war) and justice for the poor.
Peacemaking and the Kingdom of God
A Muslim imam recently underscored for me just how central peace-making is to the teachings of Jesus and the biblical vision of the kingdom of God. He had spoken at Messiah College on the role Islam could play in achieving world peace. On the way to the airport, I asked him about the resources for peacemaking that reside in all three Abrahamic religions--Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. One finds in Islam, he said, a very mixed witness on that issue, since the prophet Muhammad was a pacifist in the early years of his career but later became a soldier. One finds, he said, the same sort of ambiguity in Judaism, especially in the Hebrew Bible which features in certain sections vivid accounts of God-directed wars, but in other sections a vigorous condemnation of war-making and an equally vigorous charge to make peace. Then he said, "Of the three Abrahamic traditions, only Jesus was consistent on this point. The problem," he said, "is that Christians don't get it." And indeed, most don't. But Jesus' teachings on this point are crystal clear. For example: "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." (Mt. 5:43-44) The apostle Paul picked up the same refrain: "Repay no one evil for evil . . . . If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink." (Rom. 12:17, 20)
If many American Christians have forgotten how central peacemaking is to the kingdom of God, the earliest Christians had not. Tertullian (c. 155-230 C.E.), for example, claimed that Jesus' command to love one's enemies was the "principal precept" of the Christian religion. In that light, he asked, "If we are enjoined to love our enemies, whom have we to hate? If injured, we are forbidden to retaliate. Who then can suffer injury at our hands?"
And the teachings of the Hebrew Bible on questions of war and peace are clearer than many Christians are willing to admit. Granted, one finds in the early history of Israel (e.g., I and II Samuel, I and II Kings, and I and II Chronicles) gruesome accounts of Israel's wars. But by the eighth century, the Hebrew prophets are rejecting war out of hand, especially as they contemplate a coming "Prince of Peace."
Isaiah offers a case in point: "For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments roiled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders, and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace." (9:5-6) Likewise, Zechariah predicts that Israel's coming king "will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war-horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea." (9:10)
The Poor and the Kingdom of God
If anything, the biblical vision of the kingdom of God regarding the poor is even clearer. According to the biblical text, that kingdom exalts the poor, and there is no room in that kingdom for those who refuse to come to their aid and sustain them. Isaiah, for example, writes that ritual fasting is essentially meaningless apart from concern for the poor. "Is not this the fast that I choose," Isaiah asks, "to loose the bonds of injustice . . . ? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house?" (58:6-7) Amos, another Hebrew prophet, has God admonish the Jews for religious ritual disconnected from concern for the poor. "Take away from me the noise of your songs," Amos thunders. "I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream." (5:23-24)
Jesus makes the point about as clearly as anyone: "Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God." (Luke 6:20). And of the rich young ruler who could not part with his goods for the sake of the poor, Jesus comments, "How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God." (Luke 18:24) Of all of Jesus' teachings on concern for the poor, perhaps none is more graphic than the criterion for the final judgment offered in Matthew 25.
According to that text, that criterion has nothing to do with church attendance, or observance of the sacraments, or how often someone prayed or what someone knew about theology. Rather, in Matthew 25, the only criterion for the final judgment is how we treat the poor. Thus, "I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was . . . naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me." And then the verdict: "Depart from me, you cursed, into the fire prepared for the devil and his angels." (25:41-43)
Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners magazine, tells how a fellow seminarian literally took scissors and cut out of the Bible every passage that lifts up the poor. When he was finished, there was precious little left.
If many American Christians today don't get this point, there have been Christian leaders in earlier periods of American history who did and who employed the biblical vision of the kingdom of God to advocate for the poor in a variety of ways. To find examples, one need look no further than Charles Finney, Theodore Weld, and other mid-nineteenth-century forebears of today's evangelicals--people who cared deeply about justice for the poor and who worked at many social reforms, including the abolition of slavery; or Walter Rauschenbusch, the great leader of the Social Gospel movement in the early twentieth century; or Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, leaders of the Catholic Worker Movement just a few years later.
So the riddle is this: if peacemaking and justice for the poor are as central to the biblical vision of the kingdom of God as they obviously are, and if contemporary evangelical and fundamentalist Christians honor the biblical text and seek to take it seriously, then why do so many of those Christians so often miss the point and disregard those requirements? Part 2 of this article will seek to unpack some possible answers to this riddle.