What from this odd time in which we now live will be talked about and dissected years and decades from now? Oh, a plentiful harvest of topics awaits future historians, political scientists, psychologists, sociologists and others.
From a religious angle, however, the most attention will likely be given to the startling phenomenon of widespread, white evangelical capitulation to a political persona and ideology completely at odds with everything these Americanized Christians have claimed to value and believe.
For those who choose to dig into this matter, I want to leave a couple of clues.
The first clue: Largely, American evangelicals took a pass on Jesus’ teachings and example regarding love in exchange for some political soothing of their fear of growing diversity and the pending loss of cultural dominance.
So, they went with their own version of compartmentalized compassion – that allows for limited, safe expressions of concern without the risk of giving up any more than they wished.
This compartmentalized compassion is reflected in what I once called “Shoebox Christians.”
They delight in the feel-good experience of packing trinkets into decorated shoeboxes to be stacked high in the church for photo evidence of faithfulness and then send them to Franklin Graham in hopes of making some poor refugee child’s Christmas more joyful.
Yet they, like Graham, support a political agenda that gives less than a damn about those same high-risk children and their families.
This dominant white nationalist agenda – undergirded by evangelicals more than any other group – is clearly designed to keep desperate refugee families, including severely persecuted Christians, from being safely resettled and given a chance at new life. (See this article for details.)
Likewise, these Americanized Christians tout a faulty, narrow “pro-life” concept that limits compassion to “the unborn” while backing a political operation that strategically, callously and purposefully pulls children – “no matter how young” (to quote a top Justice Department leader) – from the arms of their mothers at the border.
Any real efforts to fight injustice or carry out widespread acts of Christ-like love are rejected and rationalized as too costly, undeserving or “socialism” – revealing that, apparently, all lives don’t matter.
The second clue: This clearly revealed, compartmentalized compassion is a direct result of a poorly interpreted and misapplied understanding of Christian discipleship.
Memory verses, “Sword Drills” and church camps didn’t do the trick. Being familiar with and expressing allegiance to the Bible weren’t translated into following the Christ who flows from the biblical revelation.
Sunday School and other church gatherings often become mere forums for reinforcing existing prejudices. Biblical calls to justice and for the abandonment of self-interest are either unspoken or unheard.
The “disciplines” of discipleship often lead to a pharisaic sense of spiritual superiority rather than to a clearer reflection of the life and teachings of Jesus. Americanized Christians seem better at completing courses than staying on the course Jesus laid out.
The evangelical emphasis on evangelism (expansion) often points to the so-called Great Commission: “Go into all nations and make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit…” (Matthew 28:19).
But Jesus’ parting charge didn’t stop there. He continued (Matthew 28:20), “and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”
And what did Jesus command? Love God with all your heart, soul and mind, and your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:37-39).
Such love of God and neighbor – in word and deed – applies to children and enemies, the poor and the outcast, the stranger and the oppressed, as Jesus repeatedly taught and demonstrated.
It is not enough to soothe one’s soul with compartmentalized compassion that requires only deductible contributions, a weeklong mission trip or a shoebox full of Dollar Tree.
Barbara Brown Taylor, during an interview years ago, reminded me that someone other than Jesus or the gospel writers labeled the concluding verses of Matthew 28 as the “Great Commission.”
However, Jesus called the all-encompassing love of God and non-discriminating love of others the “greatest commandment.”
Yet, the fear of losing cultural dominance has led many white Christians to ignore or water down the primary call to follow Jesus and to soft sell it to others. As a result, the reputation of the Christian faith has been tarnished in the long term – as astute observers see now, and researchers will later detect – for short-term political gain.
These two clues might be helpful to those in the future who dig into the fearful failure of Americanized Christianity in this era. However, we should not look so far ahead that we forget that history is yet being written.
There is still time to confess that compartmentalized compassion is less than our calling – and the disciplines of faith are for purposes beyond our own sense of spiritual satisfaction.
Our calling is to emulate Jesus in holistic, not selective, ways; to put the needs of others ahead of our own comfort; and to seek and foster healing and hope beyond our own fears and insecurities.
Wendell Berry, in his 2005 book, Blessed are the Peacemakers: Christ’s Teachings of Love, Compassion and Forgiveness, pointedly notes how this redirection and redefinition of Christianity plays out.
“Especially among Christians in positions of wealth and power, the idea of reading the gospels and keeping Jesus’ commandments as stated therein has been replaced by a curious process of logic,” he writes. “According to this process, people first declare themselves to be followers of Christ, and then they assume that whatever they say or do merits the adjective ‘Christian.’”
However, history is still being written by our willingness or unwillingness to love God with all our minds, hearts and souls, and our broadly inclusive neighbors as we love ourselves.
We can still leave some strong evidence of self-giving, Christ-like love if we choose, rather than merely clues of low-cost, compartmentalized compassion that makes us feel satisfied and secure while resisting the ongoing call of Jesus to “follow me.”
Executive editor / publisher at Good Faith Media.