Re: American Christians are Wusses

This post is in response to an article published on Steve’s blog. I started to write in the comments section and ended up writing too much, so I’ve brought the comment here.

There’s a lot of really good stuff in this article—some great ‘meat’ that’s unfortunately compromised by gristle and bone. I’m sure the author’s intentions were good, and I agree with a lot of his assessment. But the assumptions made here are only caricatures of American Christianity, and seem more like a strange exercise in pious objectification. I think he’s been a bit reckless with the word “we.”

The very notion of “American Christianity” or “American Christians” is a vague abstraction, and is incapable of representing the particular nature of real life and particular real people, each of these being complex and varied. I don’t find it very helpful to reduce millions of very diverse people to a stereotype that represents only the loudest of the bunch, and even then only comprehends a slice of our many-nuanced situation. It’s a good exercise to compare ourselves to other cultures, but it’s important to remember that such comparisons can only go so far. There are very real differences between us that make some things important to address here that aren’t there (whatever they might be). Moreover, while humans are basically the same everywhere on a basic level, we are each fashioned by our society and wind up very, very different. And just as each human has his own sins, each culture has its own weaknesses. It doesn’t seem wise to compare the merits of one against the other.

Just because the American religious climate is drastically less oppressive or violent doesn’t make it any simpler or sillier–just different. What we deal with has an insidious character all its own. Now, there are no excuses that can (or should) be made for not feeding the poor, not evangelizing, not loving enemies, and the various other sins mentioned in this article (which, by the way, all happen in other countries). But saying that we are “wusses” simply because we are fortunate enough to have different issues to address, to me, smacks of the sort of anti-American rhetoric that makes so many people think the Orthodox Church is irrelevant, isolationistic, and contemptuous. Calling such people names—those who are navigating the cultural milieu they’ve inherited best they know how—is itself a distraction from the work of the gospel and the sort of preaching that is most effective in changing lives, and awakening the sleepers.

Yes, some American believers get up in arms about pointless minutiae. But not all. And it’s worth noting that sometimes today’s minutiae are the first grains of tomorrow’s landslide. I’m not saying everything some American Christians fight for is necessary or helpful. What I am saying is that it’s not always so easy to tell what is and isn’t important. It’s rather a human problem to be weak and limited in understanding, don’t you think? My feeling is that our default position should be compassion—the truth spoken in love. But for me, this post misses the mark in that regard. The way it is written, ironically, sounds a bit like the bully attitude the writer protests, and not enough like the rebuke of a friend that yields repentance.

Are we meant to be passive victims at the secular world’s hands? As much as I’d like to think that’s how all the saints and martyrs actually handled themselves, the Synaxarion begs to differ. Just for instance–didn’t the martyr Paul file a lawsuit based upon his rights as a Roman citizen? Haven’t there been other saints and martyrs who didn’t behave like sweet little lambs, docilely accepting maltreatment? I don’t have time to drudge up a bunch of examples at the moment (though there were some recent ones from the Synaxarion readings—Bassa of Edessa destroying the idol of Zeus comes to mind). But they’re there. Sometimes standing up for the truth looks a lot more like turning over tables and fashioning a whip than serenely taking one on the chin. Though it’s not always easy to know what exactly that means. Life is complex. Following God in this complex life isn’t any easier.

I’m glad that the writer addressed these issues. I just wish his timbre and approach had been different. I think we need to be very careful to not sound like the man who came to my university campus every year with his giant placards pointing out everyone else’s sin, calling names and stirring up anger. If he loved us, it wasn’t obvious. I think it should be.

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11 responses to “Re: American Christians are Wusses

  1. Thank you for the gracious rebuttal and I welcome the dialogue. The “we” however was heartfelt… Somethin I learned in homiletics class: intended to keep the sermon from being about others and reminding me that I don’t feed the poor either. The we was intended to address “us orthodox” and that mostly “us converts”. The particular event that sparked the resulted in anger before I’d even had coffee this AM. But while I still hear myself venting when I read my words… I’m glad it is sparking some discussion!

    Asking your prayers,

  2. Thank you. Anti-American rhetoric by Orthodox almost seems to be the
    default position of many internet posters…

  3. Huw,

    Equally, thanks for your gracious reply. I was glad for the opportunity to discuss important things myself.

    Pray for me, too.

  4. You are right that The very notion of “American Christianity” or “American Christians” is a vague abstraction, and is incapable of representing the particular nature of real life and particular real people, each of these being complex and varied. Certainly, in real life, such an essay as mine shouldn’t be read to say “always true of everyone everyone of a class”. When I learn the rhetorical skill to make that clear, I’ll be a much-happier writer.

    On the other hand, there is enough common between “most” Christians in America – we tend to be Americans, after all, members of the same culture – that regardless of our denomination, some critique might be offered.

    It’s worth asking why a critique of America is so common among Orthodox bloggers. Since, largely, they are a conservative sort, especially on social issues, it’s hard to see them as “Anti-American” in the classic, “love it or leave it” sort of way. We, ideally, critique what we know: rather than poking fun at others.

    Among the bloggers in my circle of friends, our common critique seems to include poking fun (or worse) at our American selfishness, our sense of entitlement, our consumerism, our idea of a cultural buffet where we can build a “Spirituality” a la cart, our fundamentalist textual literalism, our partisan political debates, our idea of superiority over the world, and – particularly – how we bring these things from our culture into the Church and then claim to be “American Orthodox”; never questioning our cultural norms in the first place. Some of these cultural problems have followed the Church since Byzantium, ideas of superiority, etc, common to the Greeks, the Russians, the Arabs. And these ideas play out in the local religions.

    Questioning our own culture doesn’t make us “Anti-American”. I think the real “Anti-Americans” are pretending to live in 17th Century Russia or, else, pretending to make their homes into tiny versions of Mt Athos. They are pretending the Kingdom of God can’t come here at all. As an Orthdoox Christian I reject that idea. The Church is here: we can weave the values in like so much yeast and change the culture. The question is how to deconstruct it and rebuild it into something closer to the Kingdom. The question can’t be “is such a deconstruction needed at all?” To pretend it’s not needed at all is just simply wrong.

  5. Huw, that’s a good point. While generalizations ultimately will always fail to comprehend the vast, diverse whole of such an entity as America or American Christianity, there are common tendencies we can (and should) identify and assess. As you said, this is a worthy task. But it’s one that requires great care. The only way this kind of work will bear any fruit in our country or elsewhere is through the utmost humility, compassion, and a peaceful spirit—all of which I very often lack (if I ever truly attain them at all). I don’t mean that we should water down the truth, but that we would do well to find a way to communicate unwaveringly in love and respect for the listener. If you’ll allow me the metaphor, a human heart may need radical surgery, but it will require delicate and precise hands to give life. That said, I was more concerned with the spirit and approach of your post than your actual criticisms of said American tendencies. And that may have been merely a matter of writing craft, rather than your intention.

    As for why so many Orthodox are seemingly ‘anti-American,’ I have my suspicions. And while I’d rather not dive into them at the moment, I will say that–in my experience–they’re not all noble, mature, or healthy reasons.

  6. I’ll bite – what do you think the reasons are? And for the record, I am Orthodox and American, and proud of both 🙂

  7. Oh, Scott. Why do you tempt me so–you with your mysterious V-mask avatar?

    No, sir, if you’ll kindly allow me, I shall hold my tongue.

    But nice try!

  8. Worth a shot 🙂

  9. Know this is something back, but this phenomenon keeps coming up and up. Glad to see a reasoned, temperate response rather than a counter rant. I just don’t get this stuff… and if it were confined to the malcontents, fine. But it seems wider spread than that.

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