I was flipping through my Facebook feed the other day when I happened upon Mary Colbert, a self-proclaimed Christian activist speaking on Jim Bakker’s TV show. In the clip, she stated that Donald Trump is “the chosen one of God” and that if people “… come against the chosen one of God, you are bringing upon you and your children and your children’s children curses like you have never seen.”
Let me state that another way. If I oppose Donald Trump, God will curse me, my children, and my grandchildren.
I’ve thought a lot about what Ms. Colbert said over the last 24 hours. I’ve come to realize that she represents the public face of what I’ve come to think of as American Christianity. Now do not confuse American Christianity with Christianity in America.
Christianity takes on many forms in this county. What I term American Christianity is a unique form of Christian expression that has come to the fore over the last 150 years and which, I assert, has little to do with the basic tenets of what I’ll call Faithful Christianity.
The fundamental precepts of Faithful Christianity are very simple and can be found in both the Old and New Testaments. An Old Testament example comes from the prophet Micah 6:8: “And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
Jesus himself articulates the two most important characteristics of a Christian in Matthew 26.“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind.” This is the first and most important commandment. The second most important commandment is like this one. And it is, “Love others as much as you love yourself.” All the laws of Moses and the books of the prophets are based on these two commandments.
To be a Faithful Christian all you have to do is love God, act justly, show mercy, and walk through life with humility. Pretty simple right?
So how does American Christianity reflect these commandments? Perhaps the best way to understand the distinction is to use a literary technique from high school English literature. Let’s compare and contrast American Christianity with Faithful Christianity.
Faithful Christianity seeks peace and reconciliation between individuals and nations. American Christianity espouses confrontation and preemptive war.
Faithful Christianity turns the other cheek. American Christianity carries a gun.
Faithful Christianity treats the foreigner among us with dignity and respect. American Christianity denigrates the foreigner and labels him or her criminal.
Faithful Christianity offers forgiveness. American Christianity assigns blame.
Faithful Christianity offers mercy. American Christianity seeks revenge and retribution.
Faithful Christianity serves the needy among us. American Christianity builds l$160 million temples to its ego across the street from homeless shelters.
Faithful Christianity stands in awed silence at the birth of Christ. American Christianity turns Christ’s birth into a multimillion dollar vaudeville show complete with singing, dancing, and a Santa sleigh suspended on cables from the roof of the sanctuary.
Faithful Christianity frees itself from the material world in order to follow Christ. American Christianity fully embraces American consumerism.
Faithful Christianity submits to the cross. American Christianity wraps itself in the flag.
Faithful Christianity does not judge the lives of others. American Christianity condemns that which does not conform to its ideology.
Faithful Christianity confronts the power structure in pursuit of justice. American Christianity wields power to oppress others.
American Christianity is nondenominational in that it transcends Christian traditions. It cannot be called fundamentalist since it ignores the fundamental teachings of Christ. I have seen Presbyterian churches that embrace American Christianity and Baptist churches that do not.
American Christianity is a cancer consuming the vital organs of the body of Christ.
Unfortunately, American Christianity is the public face of Christianity in this country today. Everyday Americans rarely see the Faithful Christian serving meals at the Austin Street Shelter or The Bridge. They do not see Faithful Christians providing free medical or legal services to the poor. They do not see the Faithful Christians at the Vickery Meadow Learning Center teaching English to immigrants or helping them obtain citizenship.
Instead, they see American Christians calling for the expulsion of immigrants and the banning of refugees. They see condemnation of women and homosexuals and calls to deprive them of their civil rights. They see the hatred of those who profess different faiths and calls to wage war against them.
America Christianity is the antithesis of the teachings of Christ and the life to which Faithful Christians are called.
American Christianity is the religion of Constantine.
I’ve been reading pieces of Indigenous religious thought and history lately. Something that has come from two very different cultures—one African and one Native South American — is the idea that white people have a hole in their souls, an emptiness in their hearts that is never filled. No matter what is gained, from gold to property to sexual conquests, it is ever enough.
As a white male, I am a bit befuddled on many levels at once. This does in fact describe virtually every white male of any age that I know. The basic, white male is not — and cannot — be satisfied. I don’t like this at all. But it is not a new idea.
Decades ago, C.S. Lewis wrote of “men without chests” in his book The Abolition of Man. He focused on men in particular, living life without character, integrity, and solid beliefs. His premise was that money but also something more than money — pride or arrogance perhaps — separated these people from their own humanity.
To say we see a crass, unfillable emptiness more now – even cultivated and celebrated in our culture, media, and everyday relationships – is almost a cliché.
But why? And what does a hole in one’s soul even mean?
My study and work with Indigenous people and cultures may shed some light on this strange turn in our identities. In my observation, Indigenous belief systems (from Ancient Africa, the Americas, or across Asia) emerge, literally without exception, from lived experience. Certain plants or actions or creatures are “propitious” or cursed. This not necessarily because of some moral boundary, but they are a blessing or a curse simply because encountering them teaches us — if we have ears to listen. And Indigenous cultures value “wisdom” precisely because their culture will literally not survive if it does not learn from the generations that have come before.
We, the white people of the world, have a shared contempt, or at least noticeable lack of interest in what previous generations can teach us. And this gap, with a special thanks to technology, is getting wider with every new version of any device, app, or software development.
The dominant religion of white people, of course, is Christianity. But not historic, traditional, orthodox Christianity. White Christianity, for whatever reason, is inherently wrapped around nationalism, imperialism, conquest, and domination. And by conquest and domination, I mean control over everything — nature; other races, cultures and ethnicities; other religions; women; even death and time.
History shows us this at work century after century, but this is only the manifestation — the fruit of a belief system or a core assumption.
Or as Lewis and Indigenous wise ones would put it: It is the only and inevitable result of a culture-wide yawning emptiness seeking satisfaction and never finding it, but finding itself fueled even further by guilt and shame that also seems to know no limits.
I would submit that the solution is the time-worn, hard-earned faith that is learned directly from life.
Indigenous cultures had no seminaries. They had few, if any, “ordained” official clergy. A prophet (like the Old Testament prophets) earned their way by being worth listening to.
Their theology was not from texts, but from oral traditions that were passed along; not as abstractions but as tangible, sometimes brutal, life experiences.
In many Indigenous cultures, a young native man would set out on a vision quest, sometimes deliberately with no provisions — even water or food. After all, if he was seeking a direct encounter with his Creator and provider, the Creator would know what was really needed. Hunger and thirst (and extremes of heat or cold) could be excellent and memorable teachers.
Compare that to the seminary student studying books in relative comfort, if not with privilege.
Who do you guess would have the better grasp of their own vulnerability and humanity and their own ability to survive the seemingly impossible?
Survival and sheer existence is a miracle none of us can fully grasp or understand. Coming up against the limits of existence teaches us as much about life as it does about what comes after.
I have had experiences like no one else I know. I have gone more days than I could count without eating — several times stretches of five days or more. I have been stranded alone in deserts, caught in desert storms, in lands where I could not speak the language. I have been lost in massive Asian cities. I have been threatened and betrayed by people I thought I could trust.
I have also been rescued and, yes, fed by strangers who I could not thank or repay. These encounters have taught me more of life and humanity — and of God — than any book or sermon.
In Lewis’ book, The Great Divorce, the premise is not that heaven is too abstract. It is that heaven is too real; it is too solid; it hurts those not ready to be there.
Real Christianity is like that.
The fake, gauzy kind — the “Christianity” that imposes guilt and judgement— is not like that. The slimy faith that “we are right and everyone else is wrong” feels good. We love it, because it makes us feel good and right. That’s the sign of false religion. True faith challenges those who hold it and welcomes those who care enough to “test” it.
A cult defends and attacks. A living faith nurtures, protects, and restores everything — from children to forests to those who have betrayed or who have been betrayed. Those who are broken or abandoned are welcomed and restored, without shame or embarrassment.
This is not a faith learned from books. In fact, it might only be a faith earned in hunger, sorrow, and abandonment. And unlike the faith that comes from books, this faith is never forgotten, never muted by time. It is shared but rarely by words, and becomes ever stronger and deeper from persecution and loss.
Our problem is that too many of us believe what we have not lived, and live out what we don’t believe. Our “faith” has been learned, not earned.
We know (and perhaps care) so little, because we have encountered (directly) so little. Our faith, for far too many of us, is like something we have purchased. Something we put on, not something grown from deep, tangled, and perhaps eternal roots.
Jesus told us that we would be the source of abundant or living waters (John 7:37). An enduring faith is what comes out of us, not what we try to put in.
The Bible gives us many unexpected ingredients for a life of faith: wind, storms, persecutions, disappointments, sorrow and grief, and many more. But our faith, if we can bear it, will survive any betrayal or hazard.
Many things promise to fill our emptiness, but only the immense, never ending presence of the Creator will satisfy us.
I’ve been a fan of every Barbara Brown Taylor book I’ve ever read, so it’s not surprising that I loved the newest, out Tuesday (March 12): Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others. Like her other books, it blends memoir with theological reflection on a timely topic — in this case, world religions.
In 1998, she began teaching world religions at Piedmont College, which she expected would help her learn the subject matter (is there any better way to learn something than to teach it?). What she did not expect, though, was that the classes and students would challenge and deepen her own Christian faith. — JKR
You say in the book that when you were growing up you had an “empty file cabinet” where religion was concerned — your parents didn’t pray at the dinner table or teach you the Bible — and that this was an advantage when it came to teaching religion.
Students taught me that. The ones who came in with full file cabinets already had so many ideas and were full of so much “right” information that it was hard for them to incorporate anything new, even if they were very interested in it. They were full in some wonderful ways — I had students who were biblically literate, who could find 2 Timothy in the Bible. But it was when a young man who had never read a page of the Bible came to class that it was so much fun. He was always asking the most inventive questions, and taking the discussion in ways it never would have gone.
In your career you pivoted from the priesthood to the classroom. Why?
I left full-time parish ministry in a period of deep disappointment about my ability to lead a small rural church, and spent about three months wondering what to do with the rest of my life, because I wanted to keep living where I lived. So when Piedmont College called me and asked me if I wanted to teach in their new philosophy and religion major, I said yes.
I did not have a Ph.D., but I thought that if they were foolish enough to ask me, I was going to do it! Students taught me how to do the job, in the same way that congregations had to teach me how to be a pastor.
In 20 years of teaching world religions, how did the experience change over time? I had been teaching about three years when 9/11 happened, and teaching Islam was never the same after that. The reigning stereotype before 9/11 was of Arabs in flowing robes with camels and sand. But after 9/11 that image was replaced with suicide vests and explosions. Neither one was helpful.
I ended up adding sessions to the unit on Islam because I had to do so much deconstruction before we could do any construction. I asked students to go up to the board at the beginning of the course and list the five major traditions, along with what they knew about them. With Islam, one of the first three words would always be “terrorism.” And that didn’t happen with the other traditions. The central features of them went up, though Hinduism was the blankest. Students came to Hinduism with fewer stereotypes. But with Islam, they had gotten so much negative information, and even more than that, negative images. I had to add some days to the unit so we could talk about the relationship between economics, global politics and religion. We might be able to talk about the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism without getting into those things, but we couldn’t talk about Islam without talking about them.
If you think about it, a lot of the students now would have been born around 9/11. That means that the U.S. has been involved in some kind of war with Islam their entire lives.
You say in the book, “However many other religious languages I learn, I dream in Christian. However much I learn from other spiritual teachers, it is Jesus I come home to at night.” Can you explain that?
In many ways, this book is a porthole into a change in my thinking that ended up changing my life and my view of my own tradition. I did learn other religious languages, and flirted with becoming pan-religious or post-religious or interreligious. I finally hit the impossibility of that for me, because we don’t learn to speak language, we learn to speak a language. It is very particular. The stories of Christianity were so much a part of what had shaped my character, my views, my practices, that it would have been foolhardy for me to leave it when I was so embedded in it.
I decided to stick with the language that I knew and loved. It was a matter of recognizing that part of my DNA, which was already so Christian in my formation. It seemed better to reform it rather than shed it or shrink it.
You discuss how the words we use to speak about religion can be unintentionally hurtful. Christians might use “pharisaic” (which I have done!) or talk about the “burden of the law” without realizing how insulting that wording is to Jews.
Now that you mention it, that’s part of dreaming in Christian that I had to keep an eye on. Also embedded in Christianity is the anti-Judaism in the Gospel of John, for example, or the Gospel of Matthew. The text became a part of me before I ever learned to question it, especially the parts Jesus said. It never occurred to me to question. That language of contempt is so familiar and subversive and subconscious that it rolls off the tongues of some of the most well-meaning, ecumenical clergy I know, because it’s embedded in the sacred text.
I loved how you used the biblical story of Melchizedek throughout the book, in which a stranger from outside your own religion winds up teaching you something. You say about an imam after 9/11, for instance, that he was your Melchizedek.
I have loved coming awake to the idea of the righteous gentile, a Jewish phrase that most people are familiar with because of “Schindler’s List.” What I began to realize was that though Christianity didn’t have that category, I could find those people in Christianity’s sacred texts. The three magi came from Persia and returned to Persia, and as far as I know they didn’t convert. The Syrophoenician woman was one of Jesus’ teachers from the outside when she challenged his notion of who he had come to help, though she did it through her own humiliation.
Once I woke up to the category, I could see Melchizedek figures throughout the Bible. There’s even a Melchizedek archetype in the last few chapters of Matthew, in the parable of the sheep and the goats, where the Son of Man is dividing people based not on how they believed, but how they treated the stranger. And there are post-resurrection experiences where people mistook Jesus as someone else. He shows up as an unknown person who takes awhile to recognize.
What was the writing process like for this book? This book took so long to write. I wanted to begin writing it probably 10 years ago, but started writing it perhaps five years ago. Then there was illness in my family, and the book slowed down. And as always my excellent editor slowed me down again. He wanted it to have more revelation about myself as the teacher. I wanted it to be all about the class and the students. He said I needed to be more in the book — to say more about the ways that teaching had changed me.
What’s your next project?
I don’t know that there will be another project. The writing life has changed so much with social media and the need to be online so much. I’ve never wanted to spend that much time in front of a computer. But if your written work doesn’t have a strong online leg these days, it’s doubtful that anyone will find their way to you.
It wasn’t until I dropped my daughter off at preschool this morning that I pulled out my phone and saw the horrific news about last night’s shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand.
And like most people, I imagine, my heart sank right through my stomach and down into the floor beneath me. Forty-nine innocent people. Praying together. Worshiping in community. Assuming they were safe. Gunned down in cold blood.
My heart was paralyzed with pain, and I took a seat in the preschool lobby.
And that’s when my mind began racing. I thought of my daughter and the kids in her class, a group of three-year-olds painting rainbows and playing with dinosaurs. Would they be safe?
I thought of the pain I felt when a white supremacist massacred Sikh congregants in Wisconsin a few years back. My brother and sister-in-law were there at the time, and we had no idea if we would ever see them again.
At that time, I didn’t have kids. And now that I do, as I sat there, my heart began aching, imagining how painful it must be for the parents who lost their loved ones in New Zealand. Forty-nine sons and daughters – who would never come home.
Before I knew it, my legs picked me up off the couch and carried me back to my daughter’s classroom. I peered through the window, resisting the urge to go in, grab her by the hand, and take her home.
I didn’t fear for myself, but I am terrified for her. If I really loved her, wouldn’t I want to protect her from the madness of our world? Wouldn’t the loving move be to lock her in our apartment and make sure she never has to experience hate in any of its pernicious forms? Isn’t the role of a loving parent to protect their kids from pain?
The kids were hugging each other now. My daughter had made a card for her friend and pulled it out of her cubby when she arrived. She also pulled out her beloved stuffed unicorn and shared it with one of her friends.
I reflected on the moment, realizing that all she knows is love. Her friend thanked her for sharing the unicorn by giving her a hug.
“O, to return to the innocence of a child,” I thought.
My mind returned to New Zealand.
How is it possible that our sweet, innocent three-year-olds could ever become hateful? They certainly don’t know it as children. So where do they learn it? What have we done as a society that transforms our children’s love into toxic hate? And is there anything we can do to inoculate them?
I ask myself these questions every day as a father. I’ve been on the other side of hate. My family and I have been attacked because of how we look often enough to know that it’s a disease that, if allowed to fester, spreads like wildfire.
And like wildfire, it consumes everything in its path, leaving nothing but scorched remains. There’s no predicting where it will go, which means that no one is immune. And even those who manage to survive are rendered infertile for years — it takes years to “recover.” Nothing is ever fully the same again.
I know in my heart that I can’t protect my daughter from being a target of hate. Although I don’t live in fear of potential violence, I’m pragmatic enough to recognize that none of us is fully safe, no matter how comfortable our lives are. Not with the rise of supremacy and extremism all across the world. We can, however, minimize that risk. And my wife and I do everything in our power to ensure physical security.
Physical safety is something all parents think about, from rounding table corners when infants learn to walk to teaching young kids about stranger danger and looking both ways before crossing the street.
But how many of us truly think about how we want to protect our children from internalizing the disease of hate? What are we actually doing to preserve the loving innocence of our children so that they never fall prey to hateful ideologies?
As a father, I want nothing more in this world than for my two girls to be happy. And the more I think about it, the more I am convinced that the solution is not to keep them away from the ugly realities of the world. That hasn’t worked in the past, and it’s not going to work for her.
Instead, the solution is equipping her with the worldview and the values that she will need to navigate the messiness of reality as she encounters it in her life. In educational models, this is called scaffolding. You lay a strong foundation upon which you can layer abilities and skills that result in overall growth.
Isn’t this precisely what we ought to be doing for our children’s emotional and spiritual beings?
The first step we are taking with her is one that is specific to the Sikh faith but also universal for all people. One of the first things that every Sikh child learns — including my own — is that the same divine light exists in everyone equally. If we all share that same light, how can we say that anyone is better than anyone else?
My three-year-old understands this concept, and as I watch the kids in her class play together, it seems to me that this is more intuitive to them than it is to us. Somehow, we have been socialized to believe otherwise. We must re-lay our foundations. We all need emotional and spiritual scaffolding.
And, again, if I truly want to be happy, I want to reinforce this so deeply in my two girls that they never lose this perspective. People might disrespect you, mistreat you, or even hate you — but returning hate with more hate will only compromise your own soul. And it will consume you.
Stand up for yourself and stand up for what’s right. But do that out of love. Not spite.
There is no magic potion that will cure our society from the disease of hate. We have to change our culture — and that takes work. We need to re-lay our foundations with worldviews and values that prioritize love and oneness. We need to scaffold skills and abilities to navigate hate when we encounter it in the world around us. We have to learn to react, not with our emotions of anger or frustration or rage — but with the same kind of love that three-year-olds show one another while play-fighting with dinosaurs.
We can’t fully inoculate ourselves from hate, but we can gird ourselves with the weapons to combat it. If not for ourselves, then at least for our children.
A few years ago, I decided to do some research on my genealogy. I decided I would trace back as far as I could as many branches of my family as possible. My parents were both raised in the mountains of East Tennessee where my forebears lived for generations. And that stuff you’ve heard about inbreeding in the Appalachian Mountains…well, for my family it is true. The good thing is that it meant I had fewer branches of the family to research.
Unsurprisingly, I could trace back several branches only about five generations before I reached a dead end. But all the ones that I managed to trace back further than that had arrived in America prior to the Revolutionary War. I already knew I had great-great-grandfathers who fought both on the side of the North and the South during the Civil War. My mom’s side of the family fought for the North, and my dad’s family fought for the South. But I discovered much more.
I found I had a great-great-grandfather who fought in the War of 1812, several great-great grandfathers who fought during the Revolutionary War and one who had fought alongside George Washington in the French-Indian Wars. I had never even heard of the New Sweden Colony until I discovered I had several direct-line ancestors who were part of it. I have both early Puritan and Quaker ancestors. I’m a direct descendent of George Soule, one of the signatories of the Mayflower Compact. And on my father’s side I’m related to Chickamauga Cherokee Chief John Watts, also called Young Tassel.
Bottom line: no one can claim to be more American than I am.
So when the apostle Paul declares, “If anyone else thinks he may have confidence in the flesh, I more so: circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews” (Phil. 3:4-6) and so forth, that resonates with me. Paul had all the reason in the world to sing of his pride in being a member of the nation of Israel. He was a Hebrew in both flesh and spirit. He believed his people were the chosen of God, that his nation was like no other.
A lot of Americans have the same sort of pride in their country and its heritage.
Being a Jew was not — and is not — just a matter of being a member of a particular religion. In most cases, it is also being a part of an ethnic group that has a stake in a particular place, the land of Israel. Being an observant Jew is to be part of a people who display their identity through certain practices and rituals, such as circumcision, a number of dietary restrictions, refraining from work on the Sabbath, observing special days of remembrance, among other things. All of these things deeply defined Paul.
We who are Americans are not all of a single ethnic group like Jews. But Americans are attached to a specific land, whether they live within the border of it or not. And many of us feel that America is in some fashion “chosen.” Americans have some beliefs that are generally shared, and Americans have rituals. Early in their lives virtually all Americans learn the Pledge of Allegiance and are taught to stand during the National Anthem with hand over heart. Further, Americans recognize special days, such as Independence Day and Memorial Day.
For well over two centuries, many preachers and politicians have drawn parallels between biblical Israel and America. So it should be no great surprise when the former mayor of New York City Rudy Giuliani — much in the public eye after the 9/11 terror attacks — declared during his last mayoral speech, given in St. Paul’s Chapel, “All that matters is that you embrace America and what it’s about…. Because we’re like a religion really.”
“Like a religion?” What do we mean by the words religion and religious? It is not entirely clear. We might say that religion requires a belief in God. But God is not essential in Buddhism, yet Buddhism is commonly regarded as a religion. Maybe it is better not to define religion by what people say they believe and instead look at how what they believe functions in their lives. Theologian William T. Cavanaugh suggests that it is not always helpful to abstractly define religion in order to distinguish it from the secular.
Cavanaugh proposes that we think of religion as anything that shapes our priorities, provides us with values, and gives us an overarching meaning. Our religion is seen in whatever we give loyalty to and from which we derive our identity. And worship is not necessarily only those things we do in a building dedicated to activities related to God. Any practice or ritual that honors and deepens our loyalty to the object of our devotion is worship.
If we understand religion in this way, we can see that passionate allegiance to America is religious devotion — a devotion not completely unlike what the apostle Paul had.
But something happened to Paul that changed everything. Jesus is what happened. He encountered Jesus as he was on his way to defend his faith and heritage.
The heart and life of Paul — who had been called Saul up to this point — was transformed. No longer a whole-hearted defender of the faith and interests of Israel, Paul became an advocate of the Way of Jesus. Soon he was known as the apostle to the Gentiles, the non-Jewish peoples of the world. He went far and wide proclaiming Jesus as Lord and savior to all people without distinction, welcoming them to be part of a community in which “there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all” (Colossians 3:11).
Paul never disowned his Jewish identity nor was he indifferent to the well-being of the land of Israel and its people. But he did not allow himself to be ultimately defined by these things. He would not allow his attachment to place, people, and heritage to set him against others. Rather, his relationship to Jesus Christ changed his relationship to everything else, broadening his vision and expanding his love. Instead of focusing on the interests of his people and land above all others, he proclaimed that through the cross of Christ the “wall of hostility” that separated peoples was torn down, “making peace” (Ephesians 2:14).
Paul insisted that the distinctive practices he had previously valued not be imposed by Jewish Christians on peoples of other races and nations. After rehearsing his impeccable credentials as a member of “the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews,” he makes an astonishing statement. “These very credentials…I’m tearing up and throwing out with the trash — along with everything else I used to take credit for. And why? Because of Christ. Yes, all the things I once thought were so important … is insignificant – dog dung” (Phil. 3:7-8, The Message).
Get that: dung! The Greek word for this is skubala, which is not an often used word. It is found in the Bible only here in this passage. Actually, dung, rubbish, refuse, and a loss are various inaccurate translations of the Greek word. Probably one of the best English equivalent words is “crap.” Skubala means “excrement,” either animal or human. It stinks. You don’t want to stay close to it.
Paul in essence says, “My Israelite heritage that I was so proud of is just a pile of crap in comparison to the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”
How many Christians born and raised in the United States are willing to say that about their American heritage? There is no shortage of American Christians who gladly sing, “I’m proud to be an American/where at least I know I’m free!” But where are the followers of Jesus in America who declare, “I count all this American pride as dung, as a pile of crap because knowing and living in Jesus Christ is incomparably better!” There doesn’t seem to be many.
I suspect the reason is that many Christians in America don’t clearly distinguish their affection for America from their devotion to God. And the God to which they are devoted to tends to be very American. This makes it impossible for them to say, in a manner like Paul, “I count my American heritage as crap, because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ.” How can you say something of that sort if you have blended American nationalism and faith?
Without distancing ourselves from the faith of Americanism, it is unlikely that we will be able to single-heartedly devote ourselves to following Jesus. We will have a hard time not identifying God’s will with American interests. We will find it difficult not to give preference to other Americans at the expense of others throughout the world. And it is likely we will be predisposed to support violence in defense of America against perceived threats, just as Paul was for his people and faith.
The best way Christians can positively influence America is by NOT being American Christians, but by being faithfully devoted disciples of Jesus who live in America but whose primary commitment is not to America but to the gracious God of all who calls us to love and serve all.
Peter Storey, a former president of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa and chaplain to Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners on Robben Island, wrote, “American preachers have a task more difficult, perhaps, than those faced by us under South Africa’s apartheid, or Christians under Communism. We had obvious evils to engage; you have to unwrap your culture from years of red, white and blue myth.”
For the surpassing worth of knowing Jesus Christ, we must learn to regard our American heritage as so much crap.
Chances are that today you’re going to spot someone who doesn’t look a whole lot like you, but someone who is just as human and just as divinely stamped as you. You’re going to encounter another human who matters just as much as you matter.
In our house, we call this divine stamping the image of God, the belief that every human, everywhere, bears the resemblance of the Creator — the imago Dei, the likeness of Christ made manifest, shaded in every color of the crayon box. From black and white and blue to tan and peach and purple, we see this image imprinted within its many hues, each variation an invitation to open.
As I think about this glorious stamping, my mind wanders past the Father to the Son, to the name often used as an excuse to devalue or ignore the imago Dei in other human beings. In an effort to get right the tenets of the faith, it’s like we forgot to look at the source of faith itself, neglecting to notice how Jesus responded to the people around him.
In John 4, Jesus interacts with a Samaritan woman at a well. Not only had he gone out of his way to a town called Sychar, but he’d arrived in the middle of the day, without a bucket to drink from, at a time when he knew no else would be there. He knew he would meet her and her alone, that she wouldn’t have been welcome with the other women early in the morning when they gossiped and laughed together. But Jesus always looks for the outsider. So he asks her for a drink, pushing through barriers of gender and ethnicity, because in those days a man did not ask a woman for a drink of water unless he also wanted her for sex. And Jews did not ask Samaritans for help, for they believed them to be ethnic half-breeds, worshipers of false gods.
The woman asks him questions, questions about religion and about the magical elixir of living water he’s just mentioned, and he replies, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” When she begs for a drink of this water, he asks her to go get her husband, a reply conservative theologians point to as proof of her sin. Look! She slept around. Look! She really, really needed Jesus because she was a sexually immoral woman. They don’t think about the other side of the story, that in second-century Judaism a woman had no rights in marriage: if a woman was barren, her husband could divorce her. If he didn’t like the way she pounded the wheat and barley, he could discard her. If he believed she was ugly, he could throw her to the side.
The reader doesn’t know why she’s been with a handful of men in her lifetime because that’s not the point of the story. Instead, the point lies in the response of the one who calls himself the Living Water and in the way God treats everyone with dignity. Jesus comes to the woman with a need she is equipped to meet: she can draw water from the well. And in doing so, their exchange is mutual. He doesn’t hold power over her, nor does she have to change or conform to his social perspective.
Instead, through their interaction, the woman no longer felt shame but empowerment. And because Jesus honored the particularities of her identity, including her ethnicity, her religion, and the stories of her past, she was changed—and couldn’t help but introduce an entire community to him.
“If her particularities didn’t matter, then why did John tell us all those details?” my friend Teylar asked over coffee one morning, further driving home the message I needed to hear. “He would have just said, ‘Jesus met someone at the well.’ But the particularities mattered deeply to Jesus, and so do ours.” Teylar’s words rang in my ears, just as images of my sons and my husband, family and friends, neighbors and strangers floated through my mind. The particularities did matter to Jesus, particularities made manifest on the inside and on the outside, particularities that celebrate the diversity of our differences.
How I longed to celebrate those particularities too. I knew I couldn’t solve anybody else’s problems, but I could pay attention to the particularities. I could recognize and honor the imago Dei in those around me.
Via RNS — “What are you giving up for Lent?” is a question Catholics direct at each other this time of year. “Giving up” usually applies to food, in keeping with the church’s ancient practice of fasting. We moderns have found the idea of fasting can also apply to habits like television or social media.
Fasting is seen as a way of doing penance for sin as well as being united with Jesus, who spent 40 days fasting in the desert. The practice of fasting during the 40 days of Lent used to be mandatory for Catholics, with no eating between meals. Also, breakfast and lunch combined were not supposed to be more than your main meal.
While fasting is not obligatory anymore, it is encouraged. We should, of course, put a priority on giving up those things we should not be doing anyway: smoking, drugs, pornography, junk food, too much alcohol, etc.
Doing something, rather than giving up something, is also an option — regular exercise for many people, including me, is a penance.
When the Rev. James Martin’s non-Catholic college roommates found out he was planning to give up something for Lent, they responded that he shouldn’t be the one to decide; he could cheat and pick something he didn’t care about anyway. So began a tradition of his roommates telling Father Martin what he had to give up each Lent.
The medieval rules for fasting had the effect of forcing the upper classes to eat like poor people, who, by comparison, were always fasting. So, if you really want to get into the spirit of Lent, try surviving on what can be bought with a month’s worth of food stamps — which aren’t valid for alcohol or hot prepared foods. Give what you save to the poor.
Another way to update Lent to the needs of the 21st century would be a carbon fast. If we all cut our carbon consumption during Lent that would not only be a good penance, it would help the planet. Likewise, many churches are encouraging members to give up plastic for Lent.
Fasting is only one way to observe this ancient tradition. You can also choose to be nourished by the Word of God. The daily liturgical Scripture readings during the 40 days before Easter were specially chosen for the education of catechumens, those who wanted to become Christians. To prepare for their baptisms at the Easter Vigil, the catechumens were invited to the cathedral each day, where the bishop would explain the faith to them using the Scripture readings.
In a sense, these readings were the original catechism of the Catholic Church, in an era before widespread literacy and mass-produced books. They are a collection of the greatest passages from Scripture. For those who are already baptized, they are a refresher course in what it means to be a Christian.
Ideally, the best way to hear these readings would be to go to daily Mass during Lent, but if that is not possible, there are lots of ways to find the Lenten readings for yourself. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has them on its website. An app called iBreviary can be downloaded to your smartphone or tablet.
Using the podcast New American Bible or NAB, you can listen to the readings while commuting or walking (exercise body and soul at the same time). Or you can have Alexa read them to you using her skill “Catholic Daily.”
I tend to listen to Alexa while going to sleep or waking up in the morning. She makes me laugh every time she mispronounces “responsorial,” as in “responsorial psalm.” For the last couple of weeks she was also having trouble with the Book of Sirach. The NAB uses humans who don’t make these mistakes. You might even recognize your bishop’s voice every once in a while as bishops, priests and laity were used in recording the readings.
For a long time, sadly, Catholics were discouraged from reading the Bible, but today the church promotes the readings from Scripture. The daily Scripture readings during Lent are a great way to reintroduce yourself to God’s Word.
The word “Lent” means “spring,” a time for renewal and new birth. Along with the sacraments, it is the Scriptures that renew us and give new life to the Christian community. Whether you read or listen, the Word of God is essential to the Christian life. That is something to do for Lent.
Red Letter Christians claim to be nonpartisan, and yet, if you pay attention to what we say and write, it may appear that we are biased against the Republican Party. That may be because we are overly sensitive to certain injustices that are promoted by the Republicans who are largely in control of the Senate and White House these days. So many of those injustices seem opposed to what Jesus taught in the words of scripture that are highlighted with those red letters in many of the Bibles that are readily available throughout the United States.
The first thing we bring to your attention are the policies that the Republicans have established toward immigrants. The words of Jesus in Matthew 25: 35-40 tell us to treat the alien, or stranger, as though that person was Jesus himself. Given that biblical teaching, we are critical of the president and his Republican supporters who suggest with generalizations that we view those coming across our Southern border as possible rapists, murderers, and thieves.
When it comes to immigration, we Red Letter Christians react strongly when the president had his administration separate small children from the parents of those who crossed into the United States illegally. Many of those children have been severely traumatized, and we remember that Jesus once said, “Whosoever offends one of these little ones, it would be better for him that he had never been born (Mark 9:42).
A comprehensive immigration bill was passed by the U.S. Senate, but when the bill got to the House of Representatives, the Republican Speaker of the House refused to allow it to come up for a vote.
The tax policies of the Republicans also have us upset. Whereas the Jesus we read about in the gospel of Luke wants us to lift up the poor, we find that the Republican agenda presented over the last two years supports and justifies a new tax code that gives huge tax breaks to the very rich while cutting all kinds of needed social services for those whom Jesus called, “the least of these” (Matthew 15:45).
Consider the Republican administration’s assaults on regulations that have protected the environment from harmful exploitation by commercial corporate groups and interests. Red Letter Christians are especially committed to saving the earth from degradation, and we believe that it is a biblical imperative, according to Romans 8, that we are to protect the earth and the atmosphere from pollution.
Another of our great concerns is the growing dishonesty coming out of Washington. When Jimmy Carter was elected president, he made a promise that he would never lie to us. So far as I know, he never did. That cannot be said about the Republican president who presently occupies the White House. Those who keep track of President Trump’s lies to date have figured that he has told more than 6,000 of them. When it comes to lying, we all know that this is not only a prerogative of Donald Trump and the Republicans. The Democrats have their own share of lying, nevertheless, there has never been anything to compare with the lying of Donald Trump.
Don’t get the idea that we Red Letter Christians are thrilled with the Democrat Party and its policies. If Hillary Clinton had become president, the Supreme Court would provide little hope for those of us who are pro-life when it comes to restraining abortions. And when it comes to the alleged extramarital affairs of President Trump, we readily call attention to the reality of the problems of President Clinton.
It should be noted that the free-trade policies which the United States initiated in 1994, when the Democrats were in power, enabled heavily subsidized American farmers to produce wheat, rice, and other commodities, which often were shipped to poorer countries like Mexico. In so doing, American products undersold these same farm products produced by indigenous farmers, driving huge numbers of them out of business. Our subsidized farm commodities were able to drive large numbers of people in Latin America into poverty. If the Republicans seem hard-hearted by wanting to build a wall to keep poor, unemployed farm families from crossing the Southern border, we must remember the farm policies of the Democrats in the 1990s that were responsible for impoverishing these people who are now banging at our nation’s door, begging entry from the very nation that helped cause their plight.
A further concern of Red Letter Christians has been the Republicans who have blocked the kinds of health plans that would provide care for all Americans. They are the ones who have worked hard to dismantle essential parts of the limited Obamacare health plan, which caused millions of our citizens to lose the health protection they very much needed. Republicans have even tried to limit health services to poor pregnant women by cutting funding to Planned Parenthood, even after this organization gave assurances that none of the funds would be used for abortions.
What may be most reprehensible is that there is little question that it has been primarily Republican party leaders who have worked overtime to suppress the voting of poor people and minorities. It has been the Republicans who, for the most part, have put forth plans gerrymandering voting districts, keeping minority people and poor people from having their voices heard in the democratic process. In addition to ending the Voting Rights Act that protected so many Americans’ right to vote, Republicans have put into place voting restrictions that are specifically aimed at keeping poor and minority people from voting. The hard work that those of us who gave so much time and energy to support Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Civil Rights movement seem to have come to naught. For instance, did you know that in some states where there are large numbers of Native Americans, people cannot vote unless they have specific home addresses for registration? That leaves many Native American Indians who live on reservations outside of the voting process.
Regardless of all I am telling you, we Red Letter Christians still claim to be nonpartisan. If it seems that our complaints are, for the most part, about Donald Trump and his party, it is because they are the ones that are now in control in Washington. Should the Democrats come to power in 2020, I believe that you will find that we will be just as critical of any of the ways that they may deviate from social justice policies implied in those red letters in the Bible.
I must confess, however, that right now we Red Letter Christians agree with the words of the late William Sloane Coffin who once said, “The heart is a little to the left.”
Today, March 8, is International Women’s Day. For millions of women around the world, this day that began in 1909 is a celebration of strength and empowerment. But it’s also a day to remember millions of women in places where femininity is exploited and abused. And if you’re a woman following Jesus in one of 73 countries where Christians are persecuted for their faith, you face a double vulnerability. Life is doubly harder.
Coming alongside persecuted Christians around the world, Open Doors recognizes the importance of women—as providers, disciplers, healers, nurturers. And they’re sharing difficult but important stories and research to make us aware of the complex and hidden realities that Christian women in these countries face.They also remind us today that as the body of Christ, we are part of one Church, one family. And we are called to strengthen, empower and equip our sisters like Aisha, Maizah, Rita, and Esther:
Two years ago Aisha, a 28-year-old wife and mother of three from Nigeria, found herself face to face with Islamic militants. During an attack on her northern Nigerian community of Kano, they forced their way into her home. A Bible in the room was a sure sign, they thought, that Aisha’s husband was a pastor. Immediately, they grabbed him and took him away. Then the men demanded sex from Aisha. When she refused, they beat her up. That night, Aisha was raped by two men.
When Maizah* invited Christ into her heart, she invited persecution into her life. As a Muslim and as a young woman, leaving Islam and converting to Christianity was basically a death wish. In Libya, she was beaten by a group of bearded men, who wanted her to become the fourth wife of one of the Muslim men who had just attacked her. The attack and ultimatum — combined with the very real potential her own family could kill her if they knew about her conversion — gave her little choice. She fled her home. In her 20s, Maizah is still suffering from the traumatic experiences even after she finally found refuge in a Western country.
Rita, a Christian woman from the Iraqi town of Qaraqosh, was 26 when Islamic State militants invaded her town and took her captive. She was sold and bought four times as a sex slave before she was freed in 2017 and reunited with her father last April — almost four years since she was taken captive, four years after beatings, rape, mockery, intimidation, isolation … the list goes on. Islamic State militants, she says, see women as goods they can buy and sell and torture for disobedience.
Esther was 17 when the Islamic extremist group Boko Haram attacked her village of Gwoza in Nigeria’s Borno State and abducted her, taking her deep into the Sambisa Forest. In captivity, militants did everything they could to make the Christian girls renounce their faith. Determined to not give in, Esther was raped continually. In captivity, she conceived and had a daughter, Rebecca. When Esther was rescued a year later and returned to her community with Rebecca, she wasn’t prepared for the second phase of persecution she would endure, this time from her own community. “They called my baby ‘Boko,’” Esther says. People, even her own grandparents, were not so eager to welcome back the “Boko Haram women.”
Tragically, the examples of persecution and its devastating effects in these women’s stories are not uncommon.
New research from Open Doors (a global organization working to strengthen persecuted believers around the world) surfaces some disturbing realities for Christian women and girls in countries where Christians are highly persecuted for their decision to follow Jesus. Around the world, Christians are targeted based not only on their faith but also their gender. Like Aisha, Maizah, Rita, and Esther, increasing numbers of women face double vulnerability —because they are Christians and because they are female.
Persecution exploits all of a woman’s vulnerabilities, including (but not limited to): lack of education, health care, forced divorce, travel bans, trafficking, widowhood, incarceration in a psychiatric unit, forced abortions or contraception, being denied access to work, and lack of choice to marry a person of similar faith. For someone who belongs to two minority groups, the compounded vulnerabilities can make life doubly difficult, even deadly.
The research also found that Christian men and women experience persecution in very different ways. Notably, women face more physical violence than men in terms of the quantity and variety of forms that violence can take. In fact, no overlap exists between the three most prevalent ways Christian men and women face pressure to abandon their faith.
For example, Christian men are most often subject to pressures related to work, military/militia conscription, and non-sexual physical violence, while Christian women are specifically and most frequently targeted through forced marriage, rape, and other forms of sexual violence.
In addition to violent physical acts, persecution against Christian women also includes silent, often hidden and complex attacks such as shame, isolation, discrimination, and grief.
On the surface, a woman’s persecution experience hardly shows, but as Hana, a Christian woman in Southwest Asia, points out, Christian girls and women are suffering silently from hidden wounds that cannot be bandaged. Their persecution hides in plain sight.
During a recent Open Doors webinar, Hana shared firsthand observations about the far-reaching impact of persecution of Christian women: “Behind every story that he tells and she experiences, a community, a street, a city, a town, a country is affected when Christians are persecuted,” she says.
“That’s how deep the impact goes. That’s how deep the marginalization and religious injustice and the breakdown of dignity of both women and men goes.”
The lower the status of women in a society, the worse the violence will be against women in persecuted groups. Open Doors CEO David Curry explains how in many countries, living as second-class citizens exacerbates persecution: “To further complicate and degrade their value, Christian women specifically face an even greater challenge. They are targeted specifically for their faith and often are helpless to demand justice.
“As the United States continues to focus on improving the lives of American women, let’s not forget those who cannot even have a man arrested for violence against them. Let’s not forget these women who have no voice and suffer silently.”
Today, as you watch the celebrations of women, remember to pray fervently with our persecuted sisters around the world — women like Aisha, Maizah, Rita, and Esther.
And look for opportunities to make a difference. Open Doors has a unique opportunity to write to Aisha. She’s in trauma counseling now and needs your letters of encouragement. Just go to the Open Doors site and write your message. The letters will be translated and given to this wife and mother of three in the next few months.
We can’t think of a better way to celebrate International Women’s Day!
For Christians, the death and resurrection of Jesus is a pivotal event commemorated each year during a season of preparation called Lent and a season of celebration called Easter.
The day that begins the Lenten season is called Ash Wednesday. Here are four things to know about it.
Origin of the tradition of using ashes
On Ash Wednesday, many Christians have ashes put on their forehead – a practice that has been going on for about a thousand years.
In the earliest Christian centuries – from A.D. 200 to 500 – those guilty of serious sins such as murder, adultery or apostasy, a public renunciation of one’s faith, were excluded for a time from the Eucharist, a sacred ceremony celebrating communion with Jesus and with one another.
During that time they did acts of penance, like extra praying and fasting, and lying “in sackcloth and ashes,” as an outward action expressing interior sorrow and repentance.
The customary time to welcome them back to the Eucharist was at the end of Lent, during Holy Week.
But Christians believe that all people are sinners, each in his or her own way. So as centuries went on, the church’s public prayer at the beginning of Lent added a phrase, “Let us change our garments to sackcloth and ashes,” as a way to call the whole community, not just the most serious sinners, to repentance.
Around the 10th century, the practice arose of acting out those words about ashes by actually marking the foreheads of those taking part in the ritual. The practice caught on and spread, and in 1091 Pope Urban II decreed that “on Ash Wednesday everyone, clergy and laity, men and women, will receive ashes.” It’s been going on ever since.
Words used when applying ashes
A 12th-century missal, a ritual book with instructions on how to celebrate the Eucharist, indicates the words used when putting ashes on the forehead were: “Remember, man, that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” The phrase echoes God’s words of reproach after Adam, according to the narrative in the Bible, disobeyed God’s command not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden.
This phrase was the only one used on Ash Wednesday until the liturgical reforms following the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. At that time a second phrase came into use, also biblical but from the New Testament: “Repent, and believe in the Gospel.” These were Jesus’ words at the beginning of his public ministry, that is, when he began teaching and healing among the people.
Each phrase in its own way serves the purpose of calling the faithful to live their Christian lives more deeply. The words from Genesis remind Christians that life is short and death imminent, urging focus on what is essential. The words of Jesus are a direct call to follow him by turning away from sin and doing what he says.
Two traditions for the day before
Two quite different traditions developed for the day leading up to Ash Wednesday.
One might be called a tradition of indulgence. Christians would eat more than usual, either as a final binge before a season of fasting or to empty the house of foods typically given up during Lent. Those foods were chiefly meat, but depending on culture and custom, also milk and eggs and even sweets and other forms of dessert food. This tradition gave rise to the name “Mardi Gras,” or Fat Tuesday.
The other tradition was more sober: namely, the practice of confessing one’s sins to a priest and receiving a penance appropriate for those sins, a penance that would be carried out during Lent. This tradition gave rise to the name “Shrove Tuesday,” from the verb “to shrive,” meaning to hear a confession and impose a penance.
In either case, on the next day, Ash Wednesday, Christians dive right into Lenten practice by both eating less food overall and avoiding some foods altogether.
Ash Wednesday has inspired poetry
In 1930s England, when Christianity was losing ground among the intelligentia, T.S. Eliot’s poem “Ash Wednesday” reaffirmed traditional Christian faith and worship. In one section of the poem, Eliot wrote about the enduring power of God’s “silent Word” in the world:
If the lost word is lost, if the spent word is spent
If the unheard, unspoken
Word is unspoken, unheard;
Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard,
The Word without a word, the Word within
The world and for the world;
And the light shone in darkness and
Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled
About the centre of the silent Word.
This article originally appeared at RNS. Ellen Garmann, Associate Director of Campus Ministry for Liturgy at University of Dayton, contributed to this piece.