American Christianity vs Jesus

The USA, where I live, is a very religious nation, in this sense: Many of its people are very reluctant to question their own values about society, politics, and economics, because they believe that “faith” should outrank reason. These people call themselves “Christians,” i.e., followers of Jesus Christ, but many of them hold values that are just the opposite of the wise things that Jesus actually said. I am writing this essay in the hope of getting at least a few of these self-described “Christians” to reconsider.

I’ll start with an example that is quick and easy. Most self-described “Christians” believe that it’s important to go to church regularly to worship Jesus, because the bureaucrats of the church have said so, but Jesus himself said just the opposite:

Matthew 6:5-6 And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

But I don’t consider that issue to be of great importance. What is important? Well, theologians have long debated whether

  • faith, advocated by Paul, or
  • works, advocated by James,

is more important. Here in the USA, faith seems to have won out. People believe that it’s enough to just call themselves “Christian” and they’re done. It’s like sitting in the bleachers to watch a football game, rooting for one team, wearing a sweatshirt that proclaims your allegiance to that team. You don’t need to actually get down there on the playing field and participate. One self-described “Christian” told me, “we don’t have to do all that stuff, because Jesus already did it for us.”

Personally, I’d disagree with that fellow. I’m inclined to agree with James, who advocated works. You can only manifest your faith through your works. Faith without works is an empty, cheap, easy sort of faith. Pledging allegiance and wearing a sweatshirt won’t get you onto Team Jesus; religion is not a spectator sport. Look at what Jesus himself said to Peter and Andrew:

Matthew 4:19 And he saith unto them, Come ye after me, and I will make you fishers of men.

You see, Jesus was not inviting his apostles to merely watch him recruit people. Jesus was inviting his apostles to participate in recruiting people.

Besides recruitment, what is important? Jesus himself answered that:

Mark 12:28-31 One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”

“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

Now, how do we carry out these commandments? How do we love God and our neighbor? Again, in my opinion it’s not enough just to feel love inside your head and heart. That’s cheap and empty, like faith without works; I think God wants more. We need to DO something. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. (That last aphorism is not in the bible, but I still think it’s pretty good.)

And what works should you carry out, to manifest your love? Some people build giant statues. Here’s a picture of the statue in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. It’s 98 feet tall, plus another 27 feet for the pedestal. It cost a quarter of a million dollars to build in the 1920s; that’s 3.6 million dollars in today’s money. It’s like the Team Jesus sweatshirt, but bigger. I can think of better ways to spend that money.

In my own opinion, those two commandments in Mark 12:28-31 were really one commandment: The best way to show your love for God is by loving your neighbor. That view is reinforced by Paul’s interpretation:

Galatians 5:14 For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

The directive to love also appears in many other places in the bible – for instance, John 13:34-35, Romans 12:10, 1 Thessalonians 3:12, 1 Peter 1:22, Ephesians 4:32, Philippians 2:4, 1 Thessalonians 5:11, Galatians 6:2, Galatians 5:13, Philippians 2:3, 1 Peter 4:9, Hebrews 10:24.

And how can you love your neighbor? Jesus answered that pretty clearly:

Matthew 25:34-40 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger and you took me in; I was naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you took care of me; I was in prison and you visited me.’

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and take you in, or without clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick, or in prison, and visit you?’

“And the King will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

Note the use of the word “stranger” in Matthew 25:35. Jesus made it clear that you should help not just the people you know well. And modern technology has made the whole world into one neighborhood; we are all neighbors now.

But the USA hasn’t behaved as a “Christian nation.” It is the wealthiest country in the history of the world, but in it many people are poor, homeless, and hungry. You can find one begging on every major street corner.

Meanwhile, the rich tell us to trust the market, which they claim is wise. In essence, our present system is worship of the market. But Jesus advised against that:

Matthew 6:24 No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.

The market is not wise – it has actually increased economic inequality. And the rich believe themselves to be wise, too, but Jesus told us differently:

Matthew 19:24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.

What can we do for the poor and needy? It’s not enough just to alleviate their suffering momentarily with charity; we need to bring change through solidarity. If we really love the poor and needy, we ought to change their lives so that they will never again be poor and needy. But you can’t simply take home with you every beggar you meet. That’s too big a burden for you to carry alone. We have to do it together, systematically. We need to restructure our entire economic system, so it is not based on markets. Here I will quote not Jesus, but Martin Luther King Jr:

“True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

How should we restructure our economic system? Well, look at how the early followers of Jesus behaved:

Acts 2:44-45 All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.

Acts 4:32-35 All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.

Acts 11:29 The disciples, as each one was able, decided to provide help for the brothers and sisters living in Judea.

These passages from Acts no doubt inspired the communist slogan later popularized by Karl Marx:

“From each according to ability, to each according to need.”

The rich tell us that communists are godless, but I say the rich are godless. The communists advocate sharing, and I say sharing is just another word for Jesus.

And there is another reason, a more selfish reason, for us to become unselfish. Modern technology has made us all interdependent. Pandemic, the threat of nuclear war, the ongoing collapse of the ecosystem, or even just a local madman shooting up the shopping mall, all tie our fates together: If your neighbor suffers, then you may suffer too. To treat your neighbor kindly is no longer just love – now it is also self-preservation. Indeed, I’ve written this essay in hope of my own self-preservation.

Please, let us all be kind to each other.

2021 Jan 29, version 1.03. (Version 1.01 was reprinted on Dandelion Salad.)