I think we’re more like the Pharisees and the Romans of the gospel stories than Jesus’ disciples. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a white American evangelical and I love Jesus.
In eighth grade, after being caught red-handed in a phase of rebellion and deceit, Jesus spoke to me in a dream that shapes me to this day. From then, I’ve known what the world needs is for each person to have a personal encounter with Jesus that touches them and releases them to live into their birthright as children of God. Our experience of the world can dramatically change by this kind of personal transformation.
Yet somehow, over the years, I haven’t seen it actualized in that way. Something quite different has happened.
Ten years ago, the Barna group conducted research on tens of thousands of Americans, ages 16 to 29 years old. The primary descriptors this demographic associated with Christians were the following: hypocritical, “get saved,” anti-homosexual, sheltered, too political, and judgmental. In the summary of their research, study authors Kinneman and Lyons wrote, “Christianity has an image problem.”
But is it an image problem? Or is it something deeper?
As one who has ministered to college students for the past twenty-two years, I still hear students share the above list. And today they add “misogynistic,” “colonial,” and “white supremacist” to that list.
Until the past year, I’d never seen a religious demographic — in this case, white evangelicals — so shamelessly coupled with a partisan identity. I thought Christians were citizens of heaven, whose faith transcends political divisions with the love of Jesus. Instead, it seems we have collectively placed ourselves, or been placed, on one side of a culture war in which no one seems to be winning, but all sides are becoming increasingly suspicious, cynical, and self-protective.
It's possible that the above associations and descriptors are undeserved — that we are simply being caricatured by liberal critics. I believe that is an aspect of today’s American climate, but I don’t think it’s that simple. Are we truly under a spiritual attack, needing to reach back to an earlier time of more Christian expression of faith in our nation? If that is the case, what time are we reaching back to, exactly? Reagan’s 1980s, when our nation thrived economically, but our black brothers and sisters suffered under “trickle-down economics?” Or the “Leave it to Beaver” 1950s, when white suburbia was born as people of color were held in their place as second-class citizens? Or to WWII when American heroes fought Hitler while we simultaneously interned Japanese Americans?
Our critics may be on to something.
Maybe this isn’t a season where we need to go back to our roots. Instead, I believe we need to face our faults. And I believe that in doing so, we will open ourselves up to the God who loves us, who sometimes chastises those he loves. I believe that the wonderful encounter with Jesus that has transformed some of us has somehow also degenerated into America Christianity becoming a nationalistic insider’s club, shaped more by our own self-preservation and cultural reactionism than by the Jesus of the Bible.
White evangelicals have cultural power, but we have justified a self-interested misuse of that power. We have morphed the invitation to become a follower of Jesus into an exclusive club that pre-judges people in a way that prevents them from an encounter with Jesus. We have allowed ourselves to express a form of syncretism, in which we have aligned American patriotism and nationalism with what it means to be a loyal follower of Jesus. We haven’t examined the culturally biased roots of our expression of Christianity, leaving us as unintentional incubators of white supremacy.
We are more shaped by other forces than by the Jesus of the Bible.
The good news is that I believe Jesus loved both the Pharisees and the Romans. It wasn’t a “picking up the baby lamb and snuggling with it” kind of love. But it was love – tough love. Jesus gave massive energy toward engaging the Pharisees. We see examples of that in the gospels, as some Pharisees and Romans choose to follow him, even at great cost.
I invite you journey with me into the storm that has to come before the calm — to re-discover an authentic expression of following Jesus as white evangelical Americans in 2017.