Taking Back Christianity From The Religious Right
Very little in the actual teaching put forward by Jesus would support the political philosophy of the Christian right in 21st-century America.
Since the early seventies, with the Supreme Court legalized abortion in Roe v. Wade, the Christian right has been on the prowl, adding grievance to grievance, aligning themselves with the Republican Party and its Teapot wing.
The Christian right had long, of course, been gathering steam in the South in response to the Civil Rights movement—there is a dark story there, with prejudice rooting in distorted Biblical arguments—but the mass turn of evangelical and fundamentalist Christians into the realm of politics has been at full strength only in the past four decades. Their influence on the 2016 election of Donald Trump was noteworthy, signaling a high point of hypocrisy on their part. It didn’t matter that Trump was an unhinged philanderer, a braggart whose own life and example was a mockery of Christian values—as long as he delivered a reliably anti-abortion and anti-gay rights judge to replace Antonin Scalia. Neil Gorsuch was their man, and Trump delivered.
The narrowness and hypocrisy of the Christian right upsets me, as I’m myself a Christian. That my faith has been miserably sideswiped by this particular eighteen-wheeler is disconcerting; but I sense that their movement has begun to burn out. Certainly the statistics bear this out. The religious right is waning, and fewer and fewer young people belong to any religion at all. The vast majority of my parent’s generation, the so-called Silent Generation, identified as Christians: 85 percent. Just over half of Millennials do.
Unlike other well-educated northeastern progressives, I don’t dismiss evangelicals and fundamentalists (they’re not the same, although their beliefs often mesh) as an unthinking herd who cling desperately to their guns and Bibles. I grew up among them, and I respect them one-on-one. My father was a Baptist preacher, and I attended camps and revival meetings through my eighteenth year. I still respond warmly to the hymns of my childhood, and I felt sad when Billy Graham died recently. I heard him preach countless times, even met him once. He was a sincere and thoughtful man whose views in the course of many decades broadened. Indeed, in a television interview he once suggested that God was compassionate and would surely “save” those outside of the narrow confines of his own faith-brand. (Billy was vastly more broad-minded than his son, Franklin, who has taken over the reins.)
By the time I entered college in 1966, I had begun to change my ideas about the meaning of Christianity and the example of Jesus. The chaplain of the small college I attended was a passionate thinker and activist, and he led profound discussions of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement, drawing a clutch of like-minded students around him. I began to see that Christianity, at its core, was about personal transformations that led one in the direction of nonviolent protest against nuclear war, against colonial actions abroad, against militarism of all kinds. Jesus became, for me, a profound spiritual master who wished us to change swords into plowshares, urging us to turn the other cheek when struck, to find and serve God in others. I began to focus on his commandments to his followers: love God, and love your neighbors as yourselves. [Mark 12:30-31] These were, indeed, his only commandments, and they pretty well summarize Christian thinking.
The example of Christ, as I saw it, was instructive. He came from the working classes, from the equivalent of peasant stock in Galilee, a remote area of Palestine. He walked and preached in the countryside, avoiding cities for the most part (with the exception of Jerusalem, the center of Temple worship, a place important for every Jew). His associates were working men and women, often peasants and farmers, not scholars or wealthy aristocrats. He drew on rural metaphors in his parables. He spoke to outcasts easily and often: lepers and whores, the poor, the lame. He celebrated the meek, the mild, the peacemakers. He had himself been a refugee—if we can believe the tale of his origins as it appears in Matthew’s gospel: his family had been forced out of the country, forced to hide out in Egypt until the wrath of the King Herod subsided.
Jesus allied himself with refugees from political and religious oppression. He was drawn to those who lived on the edges of society, and lived among them. He traveled with women as well as men; indeed, it’s easy to forget that so many of his associates were female, including Mary Magdalen, the first person to bear witness (according to the Gospel of John) to his resurrection. The early church was, remarkably, led by strong and powerful women: Phoebe, Lydia, Prisca and Junia. The key message of early Christianity, which came directly from Jesus through Paul, his apostle, was that in Christ “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free man, neither male nor female.” [Galatians 3:28] This is the radical core of Christian doctrine, the idea of equality, the erasing of racial, class, and gender boundaries.
Above all else, Jesus was never punitive. In the eighth chapter of John’s gospel, we encounter the story of the woman “taken in adultery.” She is seized by the scribes and Pharisees and brought to Jesus, asking for his judgment. According to Jewish tradition, she deserved death by stoning. Capital punishment was the only punishment they could imagine for such wickedness. But Jesus replied: “He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone.” [John 8:7] This attitude is echoed in the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus says emphatically: “Judge not, lest you be judged.”[Matthew 7:1]
Jesus was quite clear about the accumulation of worldly goods: you should avoid this habit. Indeed, he saw wealth as a stumbling block to salvation, saying it was “easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven.” [Matthew 19:23-24] Again and again, he tells those who come to him to give up their possessions and follow him. He believed that if one cast one’s bread upon the waters (as we read in the first verse of Ecclesiastes 11), it would come back us “after many days.” Extreme generosity was his mode of being: if your neighbor wants your shirt, give him your coat as well.
I love the idea of Jesus as generous teacher, a man inspired by the spirit who sought to lift up those around him, and who modeled grace in suffering and death. His resurrection was not a literal resuscitation but something more astonishing, a transformation that cannot be understood by those locked in the flesh, in world-time. Notice that all of those who met Jesus after the resurrection did not recognize him. To see him, post-life, is to refigure him, and to begin to see your own life in a different way as well, open to transformation.
All Christian thinking is resurrection thinking: it’s about daily resurrection of the spirit, about moving into the eternal moment, which transcends the limits of ordinary time. It’s about practice, too: the benefits of group worship, the opening of the mind and heart in prayer and meditation.
The best summary of Christian teaching will be found in the Sermon on the Mount, as contained in the Chapters 5-7 of Matthew, where Jesus presents himself as a radical Jew who rejects violence (including capital punishment) in the most profound ways: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.” [Matthew 5:38-42]
Very little in the actual teaching put forward by Jesus here would support the political philosophy of the Christian right, with its worship of military might or its obsession with capital punishment. But it’s probably too much to ask them to consider what Jesus actually said or contemplate a spiritual life that treasures independence of thought, inviting the faithful to read the scriptures closely in a critical way.
Not long before his death, I debated Christopher Hitchens, one of the leading New Atheists, at a book fair in Pennsylvania, and I recall saying that what I most dislike is literal thinking, whether it takes the form of Christian fundamentalism or atheism. These are, as I argued that night, two sides of the same coin. I explained that I wanted to move from a literal to a symbolic level of thought. This is, indeed, what any Christian should try to do, and it’s what I have tried to do myself over the past decades.
I’ve written two books arguing for a mythic view of Christianity: Jesus: The Human Face of God (2013) and, recently, The Way of Jesus: Living a Spiritual and Ethical Life. In both, I’ve made a conscious effort to imagine what a symbolic Christianity might actually look like. Rudolf Bultmann, the great German theologian, famously wished to “de-mythologize” Jesus, but I’ve been trying to re-mythologize him, returning to myth as mythos, a story that isn’t just true but which is especially true, with contours that have resonance and can help us to understand our lives.
A myth is a tear in the fabric of reality, and immense psychic energies pour through these openings. To live without this abundance is, in my view, to endure a life without depth, cut off from sources that we ignore or reject largely because the language of religion has become so offensive. I’ve made an effort to frame and explain a view of Christianity that grows out of my own evangelical upbringing—my awareness of how important a spiritual practice can be in the work of self-transformation—but which digs deeply into the Jesus of scriptures, looking without fear at the contradictions in the gospel stories, the moral complications and consequences of his teachings, seeing in the Jesus movement a way forward into a life of compassion, a life rooted in the deep soil of the wisdom tradition.
It’s high time that progressive thinkers took back Christianity from the right—from literal thinkers who misread the gospels, and who argue from their own political prejudices in ways that distort what Jesus, the Prince of Peace, actually preached.