Tuesday, September 14, 2010

How should Christians act when they are the majority?

What is the unique responsibility of the church in America given that we Christians are the majority in our society?

Christians in America sometimes act like they're this horribly under siege minority that is rapidly losing our freedoms. We are fearful, defensive, and angry at those we perceive as a threat.

I think we're kidding ourselves. I'm not saying this can never happen, it can and probably will at some point, but really our goal isn't to be free, our goal is to serve God, yeah? In any case, it is ridiculous for us to act as though we're under siege when we are some of the most powerful and privileged people in one of the most powerful and privileged nations in the history of the world.

Given that... what is our unique responsibility as the cultural majority? I read a blog  (Pond Parleys) that usually writes funny comparison posts about life in the US and life in Britain. Last week they discussed a more serious issue - American religiosity and British secularism. Both the American in Britain and the Brit in the US that write the blog are not Christians. The American quips that she ironically fled the US to Britain to escape religious tyranny. Of course this is an exaggeration, but this is her point:

When I see things like this on American street corners and someone like this on American TV screens -- spouting hate, ignorance and vitriol night after night, in the name of religion, patriotism and the aggrandized sense of moral superiority that accompanies both -- I do feel that I’ve escaped a way of life that, if I’d stayed, I would have undoubtedly struggled with and against. As an agnostic and then an atheist, I have always felt uncomfortable with the pervasiveness of organised religion in my home country and thought it ironic that a nation founded on principles of religious freedom and separation of church and state could be so dominated and divided by that mythical man in the sky.

And then, the Brit in America:
I had a taste of the religious element as soon as moved here in 1990. Most people (in Dallas) were heavily involved in their (mostly Protestant) churches and were almost aghast when I confessed my non-attendance. Many offered to take me along to their church, never for a moment thinking that I had no intention of joining any church at any time. Even in Chicago (lots of Catholics, of which I am the lapsed variety) there's a much bigger percentage of church goers than in the UK.

All this I can live with however. I respect a person's right to practise a religion as long as my right to take a pass is respected in return.

A Christian in Canada (at Emerging Mummy blog) wrote about her incredulity at American Christian politics recently:

The lack of civility has been the biggest concern for me, as I've mentioned before, even more than the lack of common sense or decency I often see portrayed. From the standpoint of an outsider, an observer, my heart is grieved. Not for America as a whole (after all, hardly any of us see America as the hope of the world. Last time I checked that was Jesus.) but rather for those Christian brothers and sisters, the ones that somehow are taking part in this like it's right or good or indicative of their faith in Jesus.
I have always struggled with the ease that Americans seem to have with cloaking their politics, their economics, their prism for looking at "The Other" with their faith. The easy assumption that God is on their side and so take up their causes (often against their own self-interest or against the traditionally Christian ideals) is a passion more akin to the Crusades than the passion of Christ. The patriotism reminds me of worship of the nation-state over and above the allegiance to the Kingdom of God.

I appreciate their honesty. When I moved from Chicago to Texas I was absolutely floored by the blatant religiosity of life in Dallas. Even AS a Christian, I felt uncomfortable with the omnipresence of a sort of civil religion around here. I remember reading an interview with an atheist in a nearby wealthy neighborhood who said she and her husband had decided simply to masquerade as Christians in order to be able to fit in to their community and not be bothered for their lack of faith. Somehow I'm more comfortable with how it was in Chicago - over there my identity as a Christian was different than most of those around me and thus I wasn't painted with a broad cultural stroke as being just like all the other Christians. I got to sort of be a living example of what it actually meant to be a Christian, since only a few people around me also lived out that lifestyle seriously.

This week a blog post on another blog, An American Housewife in London, followed up the post on Pond Parleys. She is a conservative in London, and had this to say:

The too-obvious-to-argue assumption among most Europeans (and many Americans, too) is that America, especially the South and West, is full of religious, intolerant bigots. Everyone can see the horrible protest signs. Everyone has heard similar stories, including the new big story, the Koran burning threat. Obviously Americans are a bunch of bigots, right? Well, there certainly are some bigots, those guys holding the signs aren't mannequins, but they number far fewer than it seems.
She is right that those that make the news are usually the exception rather than the rule. It's true that while the pastor threatening Koran burning is a real guy, he's been universally denounced by everyone I've talked to, and I know some pretty extreme conservatives.

But still, this all makes me ponder. What do we do as the cultural majority in a society? Isaac has worked with pastors in a place where most forms of Christianity are illegal, and for them understanding the persecution talked about so often in the New Testament is easy - it is their life as well. We are different - we live as believers did after Constantine legalized Christianity - when the church gains wealth and power, when it is the culturally acceptable thing to do and what it it means to be distinct is debated.

I'd expect that just as much as we expect moderate Muslims to firmly counteract the extremist, ridiculous elements on the fringe, it's our responsibility to denounce the actions of those who misrepresent Christianity. I would expect us not to cling to our privilege and power fearfully but to lay it down as unimportant in comparison to serving the poor and broken and worshipping our God honestly.

I do think, though, that sometimes the presence of a Christian will make others uncomfortable. Anytime you're with someone with a worldview strikingly different than your own, it is uncomfortable. If a pious Buddhist is made to interact with passionate Muslims, that can be friendly, but the differences still separate. This is true of a passionate Christian when we interact with anyone of a different faith or worldview, be it Islam, agnosticism, or simply secular humanism. It's ridiculous to act as though we are all the same - we shouldn't NEED to be the same. The differences will always be there - however, I think it's key that we aren't so absorbed into a majority Christian culture that we unable to interact lovingly with those that are different than us. In fact, I do believe that if we are fully absorbed into a Christian a Christian culture, something is wrong with this picture. We weren't never meant to be an internally focused people - we were always meant to be a people focused on the world rather than retreating from it. We were always meant to be a people so characterized by love that, like Jesus, sinners are drawn to our grace and the self-righteous are put off.


CM said...

I don't have much to add, but it's been something on my mind, as well.

Anonymous said...

....where did the notion that we have a "unique responsability" (to save the world)come from??..the idea that we are going to help God out in some way seems extremely narcisstic to me..and the idea that God NEEDS our help sounds even worse...i think these delusions of grandiosity emerge from an ego that has no reverence for God and lacks any true humility before Him......

Togenberg said...

This is very important and crucial, esp for Christians in liberal democracies and wealthy countries. Huge.