Christianity in America has come under fire.
Accused of being racist and judgmental and blamed for being misogynistic and hypocritical, how should those of us who follow Jesus respond?
People claiming to be Christians rail against immigrants, Muslims, liberals, the media, and others who may believe, behave, or look different than they do. They seem to endorse white nationalism or at least remain silent in the face of such evil. They seem to be afraid of America's changing demographics. There are those who feel they must “fight to protect our Christian culture.”
This goes against biblical Christianity.
This goes against the heart of Jesus.
There is a distinct difference between cultural Christianity and those who have chosen to surrender their lives to follow Jesus.
Followers of Jesus should follow in the footsteps of Jesus.
So how did He oppose the pagan and religious culture of his time and bring lasting change?
Jesus sacrificed his life as an expression of love.
Jesus invites to “take up our cross daily” - die to self and live by faith.
We should not be surprised that people without faith would choose to live differently than what the Bible describes. When the world opposes the high standard we see in the Scriptures, we should not let fear guide our words and actions.
Instead, to influence the world around us and make a real difference, those who do follow Jesus need to actually live as the Bible describes.
The Bible reminds followers of Jesus who we are in our world, to whom we should share our allegiance, and how to bring genuine transformation.
Exiles in a Broken World
Angry and fearful Christians act as if God is calling us to fight for the Promised Land when in reality the Scriptures call us to live as exiles.
In the midst of a time of persecution and even when victimized by an evil empire, Peter encourages those who follow Christ to remember that we are citizens first of another Kingdom even as we should honor those in authority. He writes:
“Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” - 1 Peter 2:11-12
Even when the people of Israel saw their homeland destroyed by the Babylonians and many of their best and brightest were taken captive and brought to Babylon, exiled from their home, the people were encouraged to be productive members of society. Jeremiah writes:
“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters….But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” - Jeremiah 29:4-7
Jeremiah is saying, “You can be satisfied and content even in exile!” He is also saying, "Be a blessing to those around you - even those who oppose you!"
We should be the absolute best Americans we can be as neighbors, citizens, serving in the government or whatever our vocation may be.
“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart.” - Jeremiah 29:11-12
Many of us love this passage! We love that God has future plans for us that are hopeful!
At the same time, most of us may not realize this passage was written to people who lived in exile. They had lost their homes. Some had lost family members or friends as a result of the policies and decisions of the Babylonians. Even still, they were called by God to make a positive difference in their home. They were to make the most of where they lived.
The Scriptures are reminding us that ultimately, as people of faith, our allegiance is first and foremost towards the Kingdom of God. We represent Jesus everywhere we go, including online, at work, at home, in a nation with a Christian heritage or in a place where persecution remains the norm.
The world around us should know that we are for them as broken as they may be, yet we are against the evils of racism, bigotry, white nationalism, and injustice.
Unfortunately, our silence has been perceived as endorsement. Our unwillingness to acknowledge the evils of our nation's past makes it seem like we are in agreement with injustice continuing.
We are those who are forgiven by Jesus because we were willing to repent so we should be the first willing to repent on behalf of our country because of the evil perpetrated on people who look differently. Consider the prayer of Daniel for his nation in Daniel 9 as he repented on behalf of his nation and those who came before him.
In the Bible Project video on Revelation 12-22, Dr. Tim Mackie unpacks the message of the book of Revelation when he says:
“John's trying to show the churches that neither Rome nor any other nation or human is the real enemy. There are dark spiritual powers at work, and Jesus's followers will announce Jesus's victory by remaining faithful and loving their enemies just like the slain Lamb....
John sees two beasts empowered by the dragon. One of them represents national military power that conquers through violence; the other beast symbolizes the economic propaganda machine that exalts this power as divine. These beasts demand full allegiance from the nations….
The nations become beasts when they exalt their own power and economic security as a false god and then demand total allegiance.
Babylon was the Beast in Daniel's day, but that was followed by Persia followed by Greece and now Rome in John's day and so it goes for any later nation that acts in the same way.”
Too many people who claim to be Christians are not actually following Jesus. They are worshiping security.
Jesus is our King. It is to Him we look for peace and security.
Too often Christians make a person’s stance on political issues a litmus test for whether a relationship can develop. As a result, if people don’t believe as we do, we push them further and further away, diminishing our ability to influence both other Christians who have different values and those who do not claim to follow Christ.
People of faith should examine each issue in a way that is independent of any particular political party, and then willingly dialogue with those who often disagree with us.
Some politicized evangelicals criticize other Christian leaders for particular points on which they agree with liberals. This implies that we should avoid all contact with others unless they agree with us in every way. If we took this approach, the pool of people with whom we could network or partner would dwindle to a small puddle.
When we share the same outcome goals with those who differ from us, partnership remains a powerful option. As long as we do not compromise our own values and beliefs in the process, we should look for opportunities to dialogue and even team up with others across the political spectrum.
Jesus was deemed guilty by association as the religious leaders referred to him as “a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of... sinners” (Matthew 11:19); therefore, we should be willing to work with others with whom we disagree in order to accomplish something noble and to develop meaningful relationships as well.
When we step into partnerships with those with whom we disagree in order to fight poverty, clean up our cities, fight injustice, and tackle issues we cannot solve on our own, we discover that we have an unlimited number of potential partners to help us make positive and lasting changes in our world.
We also have more opportunity to share the love of Jesus to others who may not know Him - both with our actions and our words.
Influencing Our Leaders
History teaches us that it is possible to change the world from the ground up. We can learn this lesson from Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. who applied the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus’s call “to turn the other cheek” as part of their efforts to change society through civil disobedience.
We can also see this sort of grassroots transformation displayed in the biblical story of Nineveh. The eighth-century BC prophet Jonah arrived in Nineveh and delivered his message:
“Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a very large city; it took three days to go through it. Jonah began by going a day’s journey into the city, proclaiming, ‘Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.’
The Ninevites believed God. They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.
When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. Then he issued a proclamation in Nineveh....” - Jonah 3:3-7
After all of the Ninevites had turned to the Lord, the king felt the need to make a proclamation. (It was almost as though he wanted it to seem like it was his idea!) This radical transformation began with the people and moved upward. The king was the last to know.
We need men and women who follow God and hold to strong moral values, finding their places of influence in the political world, but systemic and long-lasting transformation comes from the grassroots and moves upward.
Often, whether we realize it or not, we assume that real issues can only be solved politically. As we study the history books, we hear of the Emancipation Proclamation, the Civil War, and the Thirteenth Amendment, and we assume that Abraham Lincoln and other politicians ended slavery. Ironically, however, the goal of the Civil War was the bringing back of secessionist states while allowing slavery to continue in these states. As the war took its staggering toll, public sentiment in the North and in the border states shifted. Slavery’s end was no longer just a concern for abolitionists. The public accepted the idea before the legislation ever went into effect.
Lincoln understood the dynamics of what was happening and proclaimed, “With public sentiment nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed.... Consequently, he who holds public sentiment goes deeper than he who erects statutes or pronounces decisions.”
During the Civil Rights movement, Martin Luther King, Jr. once said: "The Civil Rights Act was expected by many to suffer the fate of the Supreme Court decisions on school desegregation… massive defiance. But this pessimism overlooked a factor of supreme importance… this legislation was first written in the streets.”
The Civil Rights Act leveled the playing field for many, but laws do not change the hearts of people. However, changed people can lead to a change in laws.
We need to vote, serve in the military, honor our leaders, and we need Christian men and women who work within both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. The political arena represents a tremendous mission field filled with people who have great influence or at least a tremendous potential to influence others.
More than anything, our politics should always be secondary to our practice as followers of Christ.
Our prayers should be for spiritual awakening in our country. Our actions should be working towards the renewal of all things.
By demonstrating the love of Jesus to those around us, we will have the opportunity to share the faith we have in Jesus.
Nations rise and fall, but the Kingdom of God lasts forever. As followers of Jesus, we should seek first His Kingdom that His Kingdom may come to earth as it is in heaven. This happens by following the way of Jesus' self-sacrificial love.
Dr. Eric Bryant wrote the book Not Like Me: Learning to Love, Serve, and Influence Our Divided World. This book has been used for small groups and sermon series. Eric serves as the Campus Pastor of Gateway Church in South Austin and shares free resources at www.ericbryant.org.