Today I began the college/young adult class at Northlake with this question:
"Is it more dangerous for Jesus followers to live in a pre-Constantinian world where the empire is diametrically and violently opposed to your existence or in a Constantinian world where your faith system has been co-opted by the empire?"
This question and our ability to negotiate the complex syncretism that besets Christianity in America is, I believe, the crux of the current malaise of the church within the borders of the United States.
This question, although it is admittedly historically simplistic, asks us to consider if living in the American empire where Christianity is, in many ways, the accepted "civic religion" is a good thing?
This questions asks us to consider if we should actually want this to be a "Christian nation."
This question does not jump on the lamentations train of those bemoaning declining church attendance, the rise of secularism, and the loss of our "Christian roots."
This question is not aimed at the irreligious. This question is not attempting to "win America back." It does not assume that "we" - whoever that is - ever did or should have owned it in the first place.
This question is aimed at people like me - the currently religious, those committed to the Christian faith, those assuming Jesus is the Son of God.
This question presses open me and those like me to ask if our faith is the way of Jesus or just a co-opted version of Christianity that is some syncretized Gospel that preaches a Jesus cloaked in Western, North American values.
This question does not ask how we can get prayer back in schools, how we can keep God's name in the pledge and on our currency, or how we can make sure all legislation mirrors conservative, Christian "family values"; it asks whether or not we should even want that. It asks if we are guided by a subtle and misleading biblical justification of Americanism rather than the subversive, marginal way of the Crucified One. Jesus lived, like us, within the bounds of the world's most powerful military and most affluent regime. Jesus lived, like us, within the bounds of a religious culture where there was plenty of resources, widely recognized authority, biblical literalism, and a culture-war of the latter versus the former. But Jesus did not engage these regimes - the political, military, or religious - the way that we do.
We may answer my question with some idealized notion of how vibrant the faith of Christians was when they were persecuted and lightly critique ourselves for being so lax. My concern, however, is not about how "committed" we are to our faith. I am questioning what our faith even is! So what if we are sold out heart and soul for the civic religion of America! My fear is that we may have allowed ourselves to be baptized into the Constantinian empire the same day we were baptized into Jesus' church.
I said I would post about South Africa. And this IS, actually, about South Africa. The reason I went there was to examine the topic of Christ in Culture as well as Christians in Culture. And the more that I reflect upon all the reading I did for that trip and my experiences there, the more I reflect on my own experience in this culture.
I fear that we, like many in South Africa and other very "Christianized" lands, have forgotten that we are aliens and strangers rather than citizens of the national polis.
I am not interested in stirring up conservative fervor for a moral movement in America. I am interested in the church asking why we feel this is necessary. I am not interested in stirring up liberal fervor for a more relevant, pluralistic religion in America. I am interested in asking why we feel this is necessary.
Are our imaginations trained by the way of Jesus or the way of - whether liberal or conservative - America?