“In all matters, with the exception of religion, it doesn’t matter whether something is true or not but rather whether people perceive it is true and act upon it.”
So said my history professor at Gardner-Webb College, and for a while I thought the statement was brilliant. He believed it, but I have found the statement to be profoundly false.
What we accept as truth and act upon matters. The greatest sin present in any society at any given time is not called sin at all – it is called good. After giving a talk on the evils of racism, I was confronted by a man who said that when he was growing up, racism was accepted as fact; no one around him questioned it, so how could his failure to act differently be held against him? That is precisely the exceeding sinfulness of sin.
I once heard someone at church say that the Ku Klux Klan was a Christian organization. Just recently I heard President Jimmy Carter recall when Baptist scholars came to his church to re-enforce the widely-held belief that segregation was the will of God.
Racism has had its day for far too long in American society. Columbus wrote in his dairy on his first encounter with the Indians that they would make good slaves. He, like so many who followed him, believed in the superiority of white Europeans. He believed it was his duty as a member of a superior race to help civilize and even Christianize these primitive peoples.
Later the Puritans, who considered the American Indians too lax concerning sexual matters, killed many Native Americans so as not to endanger their building of ‘the bright and shining city on the hill.’ The great Puritan preacher, Cotton Mather, was instrumental in assigning holiness to the massacre of the Pequot when he said of the massacre, “Heaven smiled.”
A friend of mine, a good friend, someone who wishes me good and not harm, charged me more than I should have paid when I bought a car from him. He thought there was no harm in this because we live in a “buyer beware” world where salesmen are supposed to get as much as they can from buyers. I will never believe that a dog-eat- dog world is right because I walk with the Lord Christ who said, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
The sincere belief that greed is good does not prevent it from being a deadly sin that has all but destroyed our global economy. The people most responsible for the collapse of the global economy believe that they still deserve huge salaries because they were only doing what society called good, which is making the most profit possible. The large numbers of “prosperity preachers” who tell their congregations that God wants them to be rich and that faith means cash, preach a message that flies in the face of Jesus’ call to love our neighbors and give up all we have to follow in his kingdom.
Franklin Roosevelt, in his second inaugural address, delivered in 1937 stated, “We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals; we know now that it is bad economics. Out of the collapse of a prosperity whose builders boasted their practicality has come the conviction that in the long run, economic morality pays.” In our time we have lost the sense that self-interest is bad morally as many people who call themselves Christians proclaim the values of Machiavelli.
If we allow our actions to be determined by the actions or philosophy of our neighbors, rivals or enemies, we are not following Jesus. The greatest danger for any people at any time is that it is so easy to follow our adversary. As the apostle Paul states, “Satan disguises himself as an angel of light” (2 Corinthians 11:14b). At all times and in all places, the sin most prevalent is not called sin at all, but is called virtue.
Unless we hear the call of that strange man called Jesus, who chose weakness for the sake of reconciliation, who loves our enemies enough to die for them too, we will hear the voice of the tempter saying it is a dog-eat-dog world; take, protect and always be on guard, for all other folk are against you.
We need a guide to show us good from evil. Without one, we will continue to do stupid things and call them smart because people can be sincere, but sincerely wrong. Jesus calls his disciples to follow him. Christianity is not about a belief system that gets us into heaven; it is about walking on the journey of life with Jesus.
We cannot learn how to be a Christian by studying facts or believing a doctrine. Like learning to dance, we can only learn by practice. “Do unto others as you would have them do to you” is the dance of life abundant and everlasting.
Larry Wilson is pastor of First Baptist Church in Biscoe, N.C.