Category Archives: American Religion

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.

He Needs True Human Beings

Steve Robinson over at Pithless  Thoughts wrote something yesterday that really struck me–right in the solar plexus:

“God does not need our ministries and false humility and our greatness. He needs true human beings to live and die in Christ as a witness to the resurrection, and to be willing to be an obscure, no-name person in someone’s distant past who, because of a glimmer of faith, did one small thing in the name of God that, generations later, saved the very cosmos.”

God does not need my ministries and false humility and my greatness.

Ouch.

This is difficult to put into words–not because I’m embarrassed, but because I’m not sure how to speak of these thoughts. For most of my Christian life I have striven to be something. A leader, yes, in various roles. A nice guy. A potential mate. But it goes deeper than that. It seems to me now that I’ve spent my energy as a follower of Christ in trying to rise above my humanity, to be more than what I am or can be. Looking back over my experiences in the evangelical world, I’m surprised by how much loathing for people there is. For all the talk of love for others (where you can find it), there seems to be a general disdain for the human species under the surface–reverberations of a theology that denies or forgets the goodness of God’s creation. We are not dung. I don’t believe that.

Of course, I believe we should improve how we act, speak, think. But in my experience, such tasks easily become an external effort, as if putting on a costume, acting the part, rather than simply becoming those virtues, as dye stains wool. We feel empowered by the costume and begin to believe it’s who we really are, although no transformation has really taken place. We’re just wearing a set of clothes made for the stage, not real life. And when the gig is up, we feel disillusioned, like walking away.

The trouble is that one can only perform for so long. Sooner or later, the lines we’ve rehearsed to craft our false image become transparent, no longer able to conceal what’s really in our hearts, how we live, judge, hate.  We may try a different role, to craft another persona, but the same end is inevitable. All this manifests itself in cycles of zeal and piety, self-loathing and despair, wash, rinse, repeat. Sometimes excited and other times apathetic. Trying to be something for God and winding up resentful of ministry obligations, feeling the vastness of the chasm between who I am and who I have projected myself to be, the sickening gravity of standing at the edge of the abyss. Can you relate?

I hate the cycle. And I’ve realized at the heart of it is pride–the belief that I am better than I am, better than you, my wife, my friends, my family, neighbors, strangers–whether I realize it or not. I’ve found that the first in that list is the seed of all the others and is a stumbling block to true repentance. How could I have done that? I should be better than that. But you know what? I’m not. And I can’t make myself better by putting on good deeds and attitudes and leadership roles as if the clothes make the man. I’ve done that for too long. It doesn’t work.

I think at the heart of this, besides pride, is impatience. The unwillingness to accept who I am at present and to trust God to make me who I will one day become, by His grace and mercy. I have a tendency to short-change the process. It goes something like this: I read a few spiritual books, I have some great conversations with friends, and maybe I pray consistently for a week or two. Then, feeling puffed up with spiritual goodness, I do one of two things, if not both: think better of myself than I ought, and take on a spiritual project, believing there to be a readiness in my heart that does not yet exist. I want to do it all now. And I want to do the jobs I admire whether it’s good for me or not. And if I’m honest, sometimes that doesn’t become a question until the damage is already done.

All of that spiritual playacting isn’t being a human. Putting on someone else’s clothes or armor or job title won’t bring us to our true selves, our personhood, however much we admire what they do.

I want to live and not analyze or evaulate everything.  There’s a time and place for self-examination. But I fear too many people I know, me included, approach their life as if shopping for costumes. We turn away from what we truly are to embrace a self as wooden as the floor in my house. That’s not transformation.

I’m tired of trying to “get ahead.” I want to make mistakes and repent and be forgiven. I want to be wise and open and loving, not defensive or detached by self-focus and inherently limited analysis. I want to be my true self, deep in my soul, my heart, in my speech and actions, however long that takes to get there–not a manufactured, calculated facade (i.e. delusion). I want to live. That’s it. I want to live in the present moment and become better by the grace and mercy of God through everyday circumstances. I want to be healed. I want to be human.

All of this grossly falls short of describing the issue at hand. I’m no teacher, and I’m not a wise man. But I think for the first time, I almost “get” that oft-quoted proverb: “Cease striving and know that I am God.” Almost.

Thanks, Steve.