Cultural Christianity is a devastating reality in America that not only destroys the souls of millions but poses great danger for the neo-conservative religious right and indeed evangelicalism as a whole. The greatest danger lies in a blurring of the lines between those who call themselves Christian vs. what the Scripture has to say about who or what a Christian really is. When the biblical "what" conflicts with the cultural claim of "who," millions more walk quietly and confidently into Hell.
Amongst the religious right, while political affiliation becomes more and more problematic for the Christian in a mixed bag of ideology and policy handed down by the major parties, the larger issues have to do with the individual believer's heart and the mass of individuals who call themselves Christian and/or conservative and/or use those terms interchangeably in all contexts whether they be religious, social, or political. In the politically charged framework in which we find ourselves, particularly as it relates to our new awareness of terrorism and the reality of those who would seek to harm us as both Americans and as Christians, the matter of nationalism as opposed to patriotism is a case in point.
Patriotism relates to feelings of pride or good will toward the country of one's origin or citizenship. While Christians must guard against sinful pride, patriotism in its proper place is good and acceptable particularly when one acknowledges that the God of all grace is the One who gave us what we have and made us what we are.
Nationalism, as distinguished from patriotism, relates to feelings or thoughts or attitudes that one is better than another by virtue of his country of origin or citizenship. When Americans feel that they are better than the French as human beings for example, nationalism has reared its ugly head. The expression of nationalism may range from the widely accepted practice of making fun of "foreigners" to the practice of indiscriminate and wanton murder of those who live in a different geographic location.
These issues are highlighted as the upcoming election draws near. In the congressional race in the 4th District of Greenville, SC, "frustration over the course of the war in Iraq led to a heated exchange when Congressman Bob Inglis met with a small group of supporters," according to The Beat. "'We need to flatten something! All they (the al-Qaeda) want to do is kill us. We need to flatten Fallujah!,' exclaimed Anne Cook of Greer. 'We should use the neutron bomb and kill everything,' another man insisted, while a third exclaimed forcefully, 'We're not killing enough of them!'" The outburst came from a small group of mostly older citizens. "Inglis disagreed with his listeners, saying, 'We don't need a holy war to go blow up Muslims.'"
Obviously, there is no way to know the demographic makeup of the group concerning religious affiliation. Of course, it is reasonable to assume that a group of older citizens in Greenville, SC who are interested enough to show up in support of a Republican candidate are probably Christians or at least identify with Christianity. The sad reality is that known Christians have expressed similar sentiment concerning Iraqis or Muslims in
general. Surely the notion of simply wanting to kill as many of "them" as we can should
be repugnant to Christians. Yet, it seems that nationalism has taken priority over Christlikeness in the hearts of many.
Contrast this acerbic attitude toward innocents with the expressed attitude of forgiveness toward the guilty from the Amish. No doubt "a deep sadness has stretched across the rural landscape" of Lancaster, PA concerning "the deaths of five Amish school girls attacked by a neighbor in their one-room school," according to The Mercury. "The schoolhouse attack by 32-year-old milk truck driver Charles Carl Roberts IV shocked people...[everywhere] as a bizarre burst of violence [erupted] in the bucolic innocence" of that part of the world. "But the greater story surrounding the Amish tragedy was the one unspoken -- the quiet grace of a deeply faithful and forgiving community."
Rita Rhoads, a Mennonite midwife who delivered two of the shooting victims, stood by the side of the road waiting for funeral buggies to pass and noted: "They really want the world to know that they have forgiven the shooter. They definitely are very upset for him and his family. They view him as a community member just like the children."
"In a day and age when civility seems lost and grace is in short supply, the Amish have offered us a testament of strongly held values. Their ability to forgive is as out of step with our everyday reality as their lifestyle." The sad truth is that this statement not only applies to the larger societal context in which we find ourselves, but it may be equally applied to much of the evangelical culture within that society.
The Mercury reporter goes on to make a bold, or perhaps plaintive, (its hard to tell), appeal: "If only the grace that followed -- the faith that overrides pain, the generosity of spirit that inspires forgiveness, the goodwill that binds a community -- would also spill over, the world would be a much better place." On the one hand, he is right. And yet, in the general context of the lost world, the reality is that such a "spill over" is impossible. It is not within the nature of sinful man to be such.
On the other hand, if such grace and forgiveness could once again simply permeate the larger Christian community, with that permeation alone the world would be a better place. Grievously, one wonders if the Christian community is up to the challenge in light of the fact that as a whole it is more influenced by the surrounding culture than the culture is influenced by it. Nationalism, unforgiveness, anger, revenge, and immorality, are but a few of the problems inherent to the cultural Christian community in America. Tragically, while nominalism is a reality, these attitudes have surged far beyond the boundaries of nominalists into the hearts of many of the faithful.
Christians are to reflect the character of God in their lives. What we do matters and relationships are at the heart of what being in Christ is all about. We are to put off sinful attitudes and actions by virtue of the fact that we are new creatures in Christ. Moreover, in Christ, racial, religious, and social distinctions are done away. Based upon these and other tremendous spiritual dynamics wrought in our hearts, we are to put on righteous attitudes and actions. Paul admonished the Colossians: "Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering (1:12)."
Because we have been chosen by God and are new creatures in Christ, we have the ability and the responsibility to put on these things. It is part and parcel of being a Christian. The believer is to glorify God by displaying God's work in his life through holy attitudes and actions. Just as we have put off the old man, we have put on the new man. Even so, we are to put on the deeds that correspond to such. As we have taken off the old garment with its attending stench, we have put on the new garment and its attending beauty. That beauty is a lifestyle of godliness. This dynamic is a primary way we influence the world. We have no witness if we are not different.
We are to put on tender mercies: compassion that flows from the innermost part of one's being: compassion from the gut. One commentator noted that the Amish were wrong in their forgiveness because the shooter did not deserve to be forgiven. None of us deserve to be forgiven nor is forgiveness predicated upon the deservedness of the one in need of it. In fact, forgiveness is meaningless if one deserves it. We are not suggesting that there are no consequences for sin nor are we setting aside justice or self-defense. What we are talking about is motive and heart. Forgiveness flows from the compassion of Christ toward us and worked in us by grace.
Kindness is to be put on. If God has been kind to us, how can we not be kind to others? Of course, kindness goes hand in hand with humility, the opposite of pride. We are not to treat others with arrogance because we are not to think more highly of ourselves than we ought. Nationalism for example, or wanting to kill as many of "them" as we can, is diametrically opposed to Christ. We are to be meek, that is, we are to keep our strength under control which manifests in a gentle treatment of others. We will choose to suffer rather than harm or take advantage of another. Of course, we are told to be longsuffering as well. Longsuffering refers to the length of time that we are to forbear. In other words, we are to demonstrate great patience. These dynamics characterize the new man in Christ.
Ultimately, the new birth produces change in individuals. That change is no mere external affect but flows from the heart. Attitude, thought processes, and worldview are among those dynamics that are transformed by the power of Christ, but such transformation is elusive in much of the American church. No doubt people are frustrated with a prolonged war and the threat of terrorism. Bombing them all would be an easy and perhaps American decision as able, conservative pundits have pointed out concerning our past wars and are calling for such now. However, such an attitude and tact is not Christian, nor should it be American if we have as much influence in this culture as we claim.
Let us not jump on the rhetorical bandwagon of hatred and murder. Let us not be cultural Christians only and let us call such to account. Rather, let us be out of step with our culture, with our everyday reality, and let us reflect the reality of who we are as the elect of God, holy and beloved, and put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, and longsuffering, for our joy, a witness to sinners, and for the glory of God.
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About Paul Dean
Dr. Paul Dean is a pastor, cultural commentator, and author. He serves as a Regional Mentor with the International Association of Biblical Counselors, speaks at several conferences throughout the year, and provides training for ministers and churches on a regular basis. Paul resides in the Upstate of South Carolina with his wife and three children.
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