Spiritual, not Religious, Part 5

Spiritual, not Religious, Part 5

What if (Jesus) didn’t come to start a new religion – but rather came to start a political, social, religious, artistic, economic, intellectual, and spiritual revolution that would give birth to a new world? Brian McLaren[1]

As we ponder why increasing numbers of people consider themselves spiritual but not religious, one might conclude that something in the arenas of spirituality and religion has gone out of balance. Whenever something goes out of balance, some sort of corrective action must occur, either with conscious intention and planning or as a seemingly random series of forced corrections. This sort of forced rebalancing seems to be occurring in spirituality and religion today. The church finds itself out of step with the realities of daily life and tries to increase its grip on a seemingly more stable past, when church membership was the norm for most folks, and resorting to forms of churchianity under the guise of Christianity. One manifestation of the church’s attempts to hold onto its unbalanced past is seen in its increasingly partisan political involvement.

The Christian church first got into bed with the government in the 4th Century when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire under Emperor Constantine. This began a long-standing and uneasy relationship between the church and State that continues today. The church agrees to operate within the laws of the land, as established and enforced by the government, and the government allows the church to do whatever it does, as long as the church does not upset the status quo. Many Christians in Constantine’s time felt it was wrong, as in un-Christ-like, to get in bed with the oppressive and violent Roman government, just as many Christians today believe it is wrong to portray the United States as a Christian nation. Numerous religious sects rejected this marriage of the church and State in Constantine’s day, either moving outside the bounds of the Empire or laying low within it. These groups included the Desert Fathers and Mothers, as well as the Celtic and Coptic Christians. Today, perhaps, people are simply deserting the church.

In a past generation, the Reverend Billy Graham became the first Christian leader to make regular public appearances with American presidents, beginning in the 1950s with President Eisenhower. It started as a public affirmation of and religious blessing for our national leaders. It also allowed the government to show its tolerance for and support of the free expression of religion in the country. It quickly devolved into a public relations stunt with church leaders trying to ride the coat-tails of politicians for personal gain and politicians attempting to gain votes by appearing with well-connected church leaders. The underlying and not-so-subtle reality was and is a compromising of loyalties and priorities. The Christian church, as the institutional embodiment of following Christ, owes its first loyalty to God, as manifested in the life and teachings of Jesus the Christ. The government owes its first loyalty to the people it governs. Conflict between the two institutions is inevitable since they serve different masters. That conflict is often side-stepped by overlooking and/or justifying the questionable actions of the other, which allows both church and government to continue with their comfortable status quo, often at the cost of both personal and institutional integrity. In the process, the church has abdicated one of its primary roles as the social conscience of the nation. Christian nationalism should be an oxymoron since the Bible clearly portrays God as a supporter of people, not nations. And yet, some churches hold the American flag in a reverence equal to or above their reverence for God.

My understanding of the life of Jesus leads me to believe Christians should hold caring for the sick, the homeless, the hungry, the lost, and the outcasts of society as their primary focus. Social justice holds the key to the kingdom of heaven, not wealth and prosperity. Not surprisingly, social justice is a major fault line between the church and the government. If politicians who consider themselves Christian committed to addressing and solving these most basic of issues first, there might be a case for considering America a Christian nation.

As author and recovering evangelical pastor Brian McLaren suggests, Jesus intended to inspire a revolution that would bring a new world that keeps its focus on first things first – people over nations, basic needs over rampant materiality, inclusion over exclusion. Such a revolution must stretch beyond the church walls and necessarily includes political activism. The church, however, cannot remain a silent partner or a complicit supporter of government-sanctioned injustice or oppression and still call itself Christian.

This is the 26th in the series of Life Notes titled Churchianity vs Christianity. I invite your thoughts, insights, and feedback via email at ghildenbrand@sunflower.com, or through my website, www.ContemplatingGrace.com. At the website, you can also sign up to have these reflections delivered to your Inbox every Thursday morning and browse the archives of my Life Notes, Podcasts, music, books, and other musings.

[1] Brian D. McLaren, The Secret Message of Jesus: Uncovering the Truth That Could Change Everything, Thomas Nelson, 2006, pp. 3-4.

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