Can anything good come from Christianity? For cynical millennials who grew up in the church but then saw the worst impulses of their childhood faith reach a boiling point during the Trump years, this question is not a unique one.
It's because of this learned cynicism that I am deeply appreciative of my elders who not only continue to identify as Christians but insist that there is something in our faith worth fighting for. This earnestness reminds me of The Lord Of The Rings character Samwise Gamgee insisting to his discouraged traveling campion, Frodo Baggins, that their journey to save the world is worth it because, “There’s some good in the world … and it’s worth fighting for.”
Theologian-activist Obery M. Hendricks Jr. is one such elder who continues to emphasize the ways in which his faith influences his activism, insisting that Christianity’s ethical imperatives are good. Hendricks’s commitment to his faith is also what pushes him to fight against those who seek to co-opt Christianity for political and financial gain. His most recent book, Christians Against Christianity, is a sustained critique of a group he refers to as “faux Christians”: right-wing, white evangelicals.
With scholarly precision and an ability to engage beyond the tired critiques of right-wing Christianity, Hendricks imagines a version of Christianity that is politically committed to social justice. Whether it is through his experience growing up in the Black church, his commitment to the revolutionary nature of Jesus’ teachings, or his insistence that leftist politics and Christianity can inform one another, Hendricks demonstrates the beauty of the Christian faith.
Hendricks and I sat down to discuss Christians Against Christianity, as well as other topics ranging from democratic socialism and unions to what the Bible has to say about capitalism. If I were to summarize my feeling at the end of the conversation, I would remix Sam’s admonishment to Frodo in the following way: There’s some good in Christianity, and it’s worth fighting for.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Josiah R. Daniels, Sojourners: The subtitle of your book Christians Against Christianity is “How Right-Wing Evangelicals Are Destroying Our Nation and Our Faith.” It is a provocative subtitle, but I think that the book is about more than reacting to white evangelicals. What else is the book about and who did you write this for?
Obery Hendricks: The book really is a counter to growing right-wing evangelicalism generally. So, as a biblical scholar, I wanted to engage them on their own claimed ground of the Bible. And so my ultimate goal is to expose and oppose them and to show just how dangerous they are to the fabric of this nation.
I was also writing to put arrows in the quiver of those who are fighting against specific lies and misinterpretations.
In the United States, the social justice tradition of Christianity has often been overshadowed by right-wing evangelicalism. Why do you think that is?
Because the United States has always been a racist enterprise. There’s always been this strong strain of racism and white supremacy. Some folks don’t even realize it, not even people who are subject to it; Black folk don’t always recognize it.
Jerry Falwell Sr. and the opponents to integration resurrected or tried to legitimate a white supremacist Christianity. That’s what Trump appealed to, right? I knew that we had still had racism, but I didn’t realize it was so variable and homicidal.
Considering how the right wing has co-opted Christianity for its own political purposes, why is it important for you to continue to identify as a Christian?
Well, what I identify with is the ethical core of Jesus’ message. For me, the church and Christianity are my site of service and struggle. It was not so much that I am captured by the layers and layers of doctrine that comprises the church enterprise. It’s not that I’m dedicated to “church-ianity,” but I just believe that something as pithy and as simple as “love your neighbor as yourself” [that’s] what I’m fighting for. That’s why I'm holding on to Christianity.
So, if white evangelical “faux Christians,” as you call them in your book, have perverted Christianity’s political vision, what must be done to reclaim the radical politics of Christianity?
In many ways, we have to go back to the basics of what Christianity is supposed to be about. “Faux Christians” stress the vertical “love the Lord your God.” They don’t stress the horizontal [“love your neighbor”] but that's so, so very important.
Reclaiming that the Bible is about the common good — not about individual salvation, but about the salvation of the community.
I think that’s where we really have to get back to basics. We have to get back to the biblical witness. Because so much of what we hear today — I mean, “love” is a word that we just don't even hear in the public square and in religious discourse. We don't hear the word “justice” at all either, not in the biblical sense of the word at least.
We need to reembrace the radicality of Jesus so we can make adjustments to society so that all people can eat fruit from the tree of life.
I think for Christians, the primary point of reembracing the radicality of Jesus is to change society, not just to change the way people feel.
What would embracing that radicality look like?
Well, I believe that in America, the democratic socialist vision is much more consistent with the gospel message than a capitalistic political economy. Also, I think that we probably don’t need to call it “democratic socialism.” We can describe it as care and concern for everyone in the community or equity.
Democratic socialists approach the world with a Marxist framework. Are Marxism and Christianity compatible? And how can Marxist analysis be paired with Christian theology to create a more just society?
Well, I’d like to say “Marxist analysis” rather than “Marxism.” Marxist analysis helps us see more clearly the sources of oppression, the modes of oppression. It helps us identify the sources of evil — political evil — that bedevil us. And you know, we like to think [Karl] Marx was a utopian, but he was more than that. Marx’s main intention was trying to find a systematic way to make life better for all people, for everyone.
The reason I say “Marxist analysis” rather than “Marxism” is because, as you know, there are a number of appropriations of Marxism that are not necessarily in the best interest of everyone.
Marxist analysis helps us really understand the world that we’re in. It helps us identify what is for the common good in society. It helps us understand the sources of oppression and injustice so we can oppose them. Marx wants everybody to eat from the fruit from the tree of life. I mean, you don’t get any more spiritual than that. So don’t get me excited here!
Many people believe capitalism is biblical. But you explain in your book that capitalism is inherently exploitative. What steps do organizers need to take in order to fight back against exploiting workers?
The first thing is that you have to help workers see through capitalism’s culture because so much of workers’ rights and conditions are taken for granted. We have to raise some questions.
We see that the Bible and Jesus question the exploitation of workers. We look back into the books of Moses and there are concerns against worker exploitation. And then when we look throughout the Bible, throughout the Old Testament, including the Songs — and we see it militates against the exploitation of workers.
And it says that those in positions of governance and power and wealth have a responsibility to make sure that everybody in society is taken care of and treated justly. Well, that’s not capitalism. Capitalism says you don’t have to care about folks; it’s about looking out for yourself and that’s the exact opposite of the Bible.
Workers need to recognize that unions are their friends. The capitalist agenda has turned so many workers [against unions]. We have to really make people understand how important unions are.
Can anything be done to reach the people who are the subjects of your book?
[For some people] they’re just moved by malice and hatred, xenophobia, racism, and that’s the basis of their politics; nothing that can be said — no matter how reasonable, no matter how true — will make a difference to them. And then there are others who, as I said in the epilogue of Christians Against Christianity, are dead wrong, but they’re sincerely wrong.
Some of them can be reached, but many of them can’t; the way that they understand Christianity lends itself to accepting what so many of the leaders are saying and they don’t believe that their leaders would lie to them.
I think that we just have to go back to basics and not proselytize but preach chapter and verse in a compelling way. And so, you know, we're gonna have more examples of Christian freedom fighters who articulate and embody that. And I think that's going to help raise some consciousness too.