*Note: Admittedly this is a long blog. Despite this, please take the time to read and share it.
Historical reflection matters. In fact, it is of critical importance in terms of peaceful relations and co-existence between culturally and religiously different people and nations.
Walter Houghton, former Wellesley College professor and author of Victorian England: Portrait of an Age wrote, “to peer through the darkness of a hundred years and turn even a flashlight on the landscape of 1850 is to see our own situation a little more clearly.”
Seldom do people, especially the religiously minded, pause and consider the fact that beliefs and ideas have an origin and a prior context of (primary) meaning, as well as a historical development.
A few examples from Christian scripture:
Among evangelicals, in particular, two Bible texts, which routinely are wrenched from their social and literary contexts and misused – both to justify exclusive claim to God and truth, and legitimate mission enterprises to the “heathen” or “unsaved” – include John 14:6, in which Jesus allegedly makes the exclusive claim that he alone is the singular and only way for a person to obtain eternal life, and the “Great Commission” text of Matthew 28:18-20.
In my opinion, the manner in which Christians have, and continue to use John 14:6 as a proof-text to “prove” that their belief and their religion is the true one, expresses more an inner fear and insecurity, than what they think they are communicating – certainty of identity, faith and future. (*For a few alternative views on this text, see the writings by former Emory professor, Thomas Thangaraj, and Louisville Presbyterian Seminary professor, W. Eugene March)
Let’s be honest. In disconcerting times and eras, such as the present, who doesn’t and wouldn’t want “evidence” that “proves” one’s life is on the right and true track?
It’s a false comfort, but a comfort, nevertheless, to be able to say “I’m right and you’re wrong.”
Every single day, each one of us use “the other” as “social mirrors,” as aids by which to navigate life and assess individual progress.
We look at others, and occasionally share affirmation, but most often we belittle and criticize, and in so doing it provides momentary, yet false assurance that our lives are somehow okay – especially in comparison to him, her, or them!
The utilization of another as an aide in self-criticism and self-evaluation is nothing new, and as such serves the purpose of a “control group” against which people assess their respective individual or collective progress or development.
Not so long ago, blacks and Indians were utilized by Europeans as “social mirrors” in order to discover attributes in savages which they found first but could not speak of in themselves.
As Andrew Sinclair noted in The Savage : A History of Misunderstanding, “The Puritan fought the Devil and the savage within himself, and he called the struggle conscience. . . . Often more terrible than the savage outside the stockade of the settlement was the savage within the ribcage of the Puritan, and his sternness toward all dissenters was frequently no more than fear of his own nature.”
Where has much of this troubling fear of the future come from?
I find renowned historian and two-time Pulitzer Prize recipient, Carl Degler’s perspective compelling.
He wrote that prior to the 16th century, Martin Luther, and the Reformation, there existed a relatively predictable, ordered, and secure worldview and belief structure. That is, a person’s sense of eternal security was guaranteed by the Catholic Church by means of a pronouncement and/or sacrament performed by a priest.
After the non-conformists effectively challenged institutional orthodoxy, coupled with the ensuing sectarian schisms that occurred among dissenters themselves, there emerged an unsettling new reality—the priesthood of every believer.
Every person, thereafter, was obligated to care for his or her own soul. In effect, individual priesthood became every person’s “own terrifying responsibility.”
Verification of one’s eternal future or elected-ness, has over the centuries since, come to reside in an ambiguous and highly subjective “salvation template.”
It is a template that has unpredictably, yet routinely changed over time, according to Richard E. Wentz, former Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at Arizona State University.
Attempts to secure signs or proof of salvation has changed over the years from a prescribed iconoclasm (destruction of images of worship), to stringent morality (puritanism), to a profession of faith, and finally to an individualizing of faith or to “saving steps” (Four Spiritual Laws).
John 14:6, then, became a popular proof-text because it so comfortably accommodated and “proved” the popular four-step salvation template.
What is evident upon historical reflection of all “saving steps or stages,” however, is that in the post-16th century European world, life increasingly was lived as if “conducting an examination,” and Scripture read “as if peering in a mirror”—largely for the purpose of appeasing a troubled conscience and assuaging a loving, yet capricious God.
Illustrating a troubled conscience, are the words of Lucy Lindley’s biographer, wife of American Board 19-century missionary to South Africa, Daniel Lindley:
“Lucy was always in a state of anxiety about them [her children], their health and spiritual welfare. Her introspection was painful in its intensity. She was morbidly conscientious. She who was so transparently good was always lamenting her sins. The memory haunted her of the wide sleeves she wore when a girl, wasting stuff that might have been sold to feed the poor. It troubled her for days when she found that a tradesman had given her ten cents too much change: ‘I must return it. He must see that I am honest’. . . . When she saw Mary playing cards it threw her into a state of prostration that lasted for days. That one of her boys should go to the theatre, that two of them should spend a rainy morning in the holidays at a billiard table, she took to be sure signs that they were on the road to perdition. Sincerely religious, always pouring out her heart in gratitude for blessings bestowed upon her, religion brought her little joy and serenity. Not a happy woman; but noble in her high sense of duty and her unconquerable spirit.”
As for Matthew 28:18-20 . . . Given the complicity of imperialism/colonialism with civilizing the “heathen” by means of christianizing them, a legitimizing text was needed for this civilizing venture – i.e., just as U.S. slave owners and South African apartheid proponents co-opted Old Testament scripture as justification for their racist attitudes and actions.
What better, more suitable text for the sailing ships and their crew and passengers than Matthew’s – “Go and make disciples of all nations“? It fit like a glove.
No one makes clearer this linkage of text with enterprise than Sri Lankan, R. S. Sugirtharajah, Professor of Biblical Hermeneutics at University of Birmingham, U.K, who I had the fortune to study under for one week in 2001.
Relying on Alan Kreider’s research, Sugirtharajah persuasively argues by quoting from primary texts that there was very little formal preaching or institutionalized mission during the growth of the pre-Christendom church, and even less admonition to evangelize.
How then did the Jesus movement grow in those early years?
It grew primarily through public demonstrations of faith or people bearing testimony to their experience of faith. For example, faith was mediated by martyrdom. Bystanders were astonished and in awe of those who willingly died for what they believed in. Faith was also mediated by behavior and generous acts of charity. The Jesus movement also grew, according to Kreider, because of the extraordinary character of worship, which prepared Christians to live exemplary, above-reproach lives in the world.
I appeal to my own faith community of upbringing – evangelical, Protestant, Christian – that it’s time to:
Stop idolizing certainty, particularly the Bible and Jesus.
Set aside your illusionary claim to “absolute” ownership (and interpretation) of truth.
When you are so controlling and insistent on your perspective, it really does not help you love others well. Ultimately it’s your attempt to control even God.
As a Lutheran pastor recently and rightly noted, we live in a time where the “public square” is the forum where people of all faiths and people who reject all faiths come together and bear testimony – not behind pulpits or in moral statements pronounced behind protective and insulated walls.
Samir Selmanovic, a favorite alternative Christian voice of mine, makes the following remarks in It’s Really All About God:
“Is a God who favors anyone over anyone else worth worshiping?”
“We have saturated our religions with our own selves, and the most direct way to enter a new whirlwind of fresh and substantive religious experience is to seek and find the image of God in those who are not in our image. It is really all about God, and God is really all about all of us. Yet, we are afraid to be in the image of God. And we are terrified of the prospect of finding the image of God in those who are not in our image. This is not a call to one religion for all. It is a call for every religion to find a way that is good for all people.”
“So much of who we all are depends on maintaining a polarized and conflicted world. To challenge this state of affairs by finding God in the other not only disrupts our communal sense of identity but also alters our social and economic structures on every level, from our families to our nations. In some twisted way, we have learned to benefit from the misery of the divided world we have created. Now we have to unlearn what we think we know and then learn to embrace this newfound reality of our globally intertwined community.”
Stop thinking you, your church and Christianity as a whole will succeed together in saving the world (a popular 19th century motto was “evangelizing the world in this generation”).
Reality and history communicate the exact opposite – a persistent growth and renaissance of world faiths.
Yes, you can point to numerous examples of individuals whose lives were transformed through a conversion experience or to “church growth” or to “spiritual revivals,” yet these examples communicate a fraction of the truth.
For instance, the growth of the church and large-scale conversions in Africa and in many parts of Asia, are documented by the likes of University of Cape Town professor, David Chidester, as occurring only after their people experienced or were subjugated to the destruction or disintegration of independent economic, social and political life.
Corroborating this assertion is 19th-century American missionary Silas McKinney’s letter back to his missionary board, “They (Zulus) are in a transition state, breaking away from the Zulu nation, and dissolving into little bodies, and coming together again in news forms, and thus placing themselves in positions most happy for the successful introduction of the gospel.” A colleague, Aldin Grout similarly wrote, “the Zulu nation as such is extinct. This I have been looking for ever since I left the Zulu country.”
Sharing missionary, as well as mission trip stories of individuals, whose lives were changed when they “gave their hearts to Jesus” should not be minimized, yet neither should they effectively over-shadow or silence the many more stories of people, who likely were repelled and repulsed by both the message, method and motivation of Christians’ so-called “good news.”
Take Mahatma Gandhi, for instance. In his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments With Truth, he wrote, “Christian missionaries used to stand in a corner near the high school and hold forth, pouring abuse on Hindus and their gods. I could not endure this. I must have stood there to hear them once only, but that was enough to dissuade me from repeating the experiment.”
In Zimbabwe I once heard a missionary speak of “wind evangelism.” Upon questioning, he said this was a method of evangelism, whereby when you’re traveling along the highway at 75 mph, you roll your window down and release gospel tracts. These, then, flutter to the feet of Zimbabweans, who are walking or riding a bicycle, and, of course, we are then to believe this method of saving some justifies the means.
A colleague of his shared frustration at the difficulty of obtaining accurate records of baptisms. He then hit on a “novel idea” of offering to pay $1 or $2 Zimbabwe dollars for every certificate that pastors turned in. Wow – wouldn’t you know it! Baptisms increased dramatically in the ensuing months!
That’s Americans in Africa, but here in the U.S. it’s little different. Although popularity seems somewhat diminished of late, I still read of churches re-enacting the Columbine Massacre, replete with shotgun during Hell House at Halloween, or implementing a Top Ten Most Wanted list, whereby you list ten people in your life who “need Jesus” and who you “target” with the gospel.
Instead, start demonstrating how Christianity (faith) is an appreciably meaningful and practical “way of life” in the present.
Try to stop speaking so many spiritual platitudes, which in effect serve to exonerate one from involvement in the messiness of people’s daily lives. An example that occurred during a visit by a U.S. “Christian”-based NGO leader to KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. If a destitute family welcome you into their home at your request, and then in the course of conversation express a heartfelt need for tuition assistance or a pair of shoes, don’t glibly voice with your pleated Ralph Lauren khaki pants and your buffed, shiny brown Oxford shoes, “Let’s pray and I’m sure that God will provide for your needs.” No, you are God in those moments and you need to do any and everything within your means to assist this family.
As Samir puts it, “People are not looking for someone to show them how to escape life; they are looking for practicing sojourners and communities to help them walk the landscape of life. There is something impotent about contemporary Christianity, and it has to do with its inability to re-imagine the answer to the question ‘What do I get for following Jesus?‘ For too many Christians the answer is (simply) ‘heaven.'”