“Winning power was the goal of Judas, not Jesus,” an evangelical leader reminded more than fifty prominent evangelicals gathered recently at Wheaton College in Chicago.
The group met to discuss the crisis in evangelicalism, a crisis also seen across the rest of Christianity in the United States: the church has become too tied to the Republican Party and in particular the radical right and its agenda. A colonized Christianity has spread a fake news Gospel that betrays the good news of Jesus Christ. One result is that young people, recognizing hypocrisy, are fleeing the church in droves.
My last post discussed some of the reasons for this, and highlighted the analysis given by Mark Labberton, president of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. Now I’ll highlight his discussion of what he called “the top four arenas in which this violation of spiritual and moral character has shown itself.” While there is much more that can be said about this crisis, Labberton’s talk was remarkable not only for cutting straight to his points, but for essentially reading the riot act in a kind voice. This post will focus on the first of his four “arenas,” the issue of power. Here’s what Labberton said:
Our primary confession that “Jesus is Lord” is a statement about power. “The gospel is the power of God unto salvation, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Rom 1:16). This is our hope and confidence, and as those who seek to live in the kingdom of God, we profess that Jesus is Lord and all other power must be reframed in light of this reality. The Apostle Paul says it this way: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Phil 2:5–8).
In much of the last century, American evangelicalism has had a complex relationship with power. On one hand, it has felt itself marginalized and repudiated, defeated and silenced. On the other, it has often seemed to seek—even fawn over—worldly power, mimicking in the church forms of power evident in our culture. (I remember being at a conference where it was announced we should all be back after dinner for “an evening of star-studded worship.”) An evangelical dance with political power has been going on from the time of Billy Graham, through the Moral Majority and the religious right, to the Tea Party, and most recently with the white evangelical vote—the result being, as honorary Chairman of the Lausanne Movement Doug Birdsall has said, “When you Google ‘evangelical,’ you get Trump.”
This points to an evangelical crisis over so many issues of power: racial, political, economic, cultural, right against left, Republican against Democrat, rich against poor, white against black, men against women, and so on. But winning power was the goal of Judas, not Jesus. A Faustian pact between evangelicals and power—even when claimed on behalf of the kingdom—cannot be entered in the name of Jesus Christ without betraying the abdication of power inherent in the incarnation. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son . . . .” (John 3:16)
Abuse of power is central in the national debates of the moment. Whether we think about US militarism, or mass incarceration, or the #MeToo movement (or mistreatment of women in general), or the police shootings of unarmed, young, black men, or the actions of ICE toward child and adult immigrants, or gun use and control, or tax policy—all this is about power. The apparent evangelical alignment with the use of power that seeks dominance, control, supremacy, and victory over compassion and justice associates Jesus with the strategies of Caesar, not with the good news of the gospel.
Labberton’s words should prompt self-examination by all Christians living in America, not just evangelicals. Pope Francis, for example, often has expressed concerns of the kind Labberton addresses. His major document from 2013, The Joy of the Gospel, is full of statements about the church becoming too closed in, too self-referential, too obsessed with a small number of culture war issues, and too full of fear, producing a church that is incapable of helping people find joy in life and healing from the many wounds that afflict individuals and societies. As he put it,
I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security. I do not want a Church concerned with being at the centre and which then ends by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures. If something should rightly disturb us and trouble our consciences, it is the fact that so many of our brothers and sisters are living without the strength, light and consolation born of friendship with Jesus Christ, without a community of faith to support them, without meaning and a goal in life. More than by fear of going astray, my hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us: “Give them something to eat” (Mk 6:37).
Younger generations of Americans are fleeing Christian churches because those churches do not actually help most people below the age of 40 to discover the freedom and joy that comes with a healthy understanding of Jesus and the Gospels. And this is in part because American Christianity has been so focused on achieving political power–such as winning an election for the sake of getting a Supreme Court justice who might choose to overturn Roe v Wade–that it has readily abandoned the heart of the Gospel. To growing numbers of younger Americans, Christianity seems like an oppressive religion that worships a tyrant god who inflicts hell on anyone who doesn’t fit the qualifications chosen by right-wing politicians. They quite logically want nothing to do with a such a god or religion. But if the spirit and freedom of Jesus become a living reality in churches again, then many will return, or join for the first time. People are drawn by joy.
Photo: President Trump with Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, January 31, 2017; public domain