November 10, 2010

The Cross and the Culture

I don’t mean to sound ominous, but it’s highly possible that we are heading for a time of violence in the streets of our cities. As I wrote in this column more than a year ago, the incivility of speech and discourse in the political arena would eventually lead to violence. I have no doubt that we are now going there—fast.
You’d think that we Christians would be a stabilizing force in our societies. But on the contrary, some in our ranks are the more egregious purveyors of incivility operating under the banner of the church on both the political left and the political right.
Here in the United States one of the flash points that got things going among the Christian right, at least in the contentions of the current environment, was attributing, among other things, anti-christ status to the president of the United States. This assessment isn’t based upon any sound prophetic interpretation, but driven by a political ideology draped in biblical language pure and simple. Thus the current president has been so demonized that you have preachers praying that he will die, while suggesting that the current government is illegitimate for a whole host of unsupported rationales. If that’s Christianity . . .
2010 1536 page17On the left you have Christians in the United States so blind to the degradation of the culture that an “anything goes” morality has taken over, consenting to a whole host of things that the Bible flatly calls sin (see Gal. 5:19–21). I’ve been amazed at the number of clergy and church folk on the political left who embrace things that are clearly outside of the Word, and will go on the attack if questioned. If that’s Christianity . . .
So what we have is a divided and fragile country that can implode at any moment. Americans’ hatred (yes, hatred) of other Americans is real and deep. Add to that a bad economy, which some economists predicted years ago, and you have a climate of desperation.
Families are losing their homes, job security is nonexistent, and more Americans are hanging on by a thread. As resources become more scarce, seeds are in place that will sprout violence in our streets. It’s only a matter of reaching the tipping point.
Prophetically, our denomination believes that something of this sort is highly plausible; it would be no surprise. But we are also part of the wider body of Christ. As such we are also responsible for the body’s reactions in this culture, notwithstanding what we might believe prophetically. What will happen, will happen, but all in God’s timing.
But if believers act like the world in espousing an “ideological Christianity” as reflected in their dispositions and actions, who represents God’s kingdom in a culture that is, without doubt, in deep trouble?
In his memoir Living and Loving Out Loud, Cornel West, an educator and philosopher and himself a Christian, wrote a powerful view of Christianity and its place in culture:
“My understanding of Jesus Christ went like this: Everything comes beneath the cross—nationalism, tribalism, patriotism, networks, even kinships. The cross is that critical juncture where catastrophe defines our condition and offers salvation, not in the name of a specific ideology or theology, but in the simple name of love. It is love [the cross] that saves us from the tyranny of chauvinism and its many manifestations” (p. 50).
Jesus said, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32, NRSV).* While we believers are in this world, we must not be of this world. And sadly, many believers (of this world) have become so caught up in the sourness of the culture that they have become coconspirators in tearing at the fabric of their societies.
We Christians are not champions of ideological views; we are champions of the cross. Yes we have views, like everyone else. But our views, reactions, and responses must always be in alignment with the Word.
We are certainly headed for violent times. But we Christians do not war under the banner of political parties and ideologies; only under the bloodstained banner of the cross.
* Bible texts credited to NRSV are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission.
Fredrick A. Russell is president of the Allegheny West Conference, with headquarters in Columbus, Ohio. This article was published November 11, 2010.