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My friends who are skeptics are cynical about Christianity these days. From our intramural fights to our political collusion on both sides, it all looks very un-Jesus-like.
My skeptical friends from back in Chicago, Orlando and San Francisco, in particular (you know who you are), became conversation partners during crucial cultural moments, and our animated back-and-forths always included some facet of the intersection of Christian faith and cultural imagination.
We talked about the urgency to go to war after September 11 and wondered why this was so. In fact, we wondered if more critical self-reflection might be needed, especially for Christians.
We debated Obama vs. McCain, and couldn’t help but reflect on the significance of a first black President through the lens of faith, particularly a faith that is self-consciously confessional around our complicity in violence against black bodies.
We always seemed to agree that abortion was an abhorrent reality, but wondered about how best it could be addressed, offering the greatest dignity to women, to the unborn, to those socially-and-economically under-privileged and most prone to abort a child. These seemed like questions thoughtful people would ask in light of the kenotic, self-giving love of Jesus.
Today, I’m pretty embarrassed by us. We follow the Democratic Donkey or the Republican Elephant more closely than we follow Jesus.
Today, my skeptical friends seem utterly perplexed that followers of the suffering servant could stake their hopes in a man with a long track record of moral failure, who spews hostility on social media regularly, and with a seeming incapacity to even feign compassion, all in a particularly ironic and unfaithful “ends justifies the means” play to win a larger cultural war.
Is this who you are?, they wonder. Yes, I wonder too, particularly as a citizen of a different Kingdom, with an imagination toward something more than the American Empire can deliver, no matter who the President is.
Do you have an imagination for something larger than a binary choice at the voting booth, an either/or on an issue? Do you ever wonder if the system is just so ‘possessed’ by the principalities and powers that we should simply “render under Caesar what is Caesar’s” and play from an alternative Script?
If so, you’re not alone. The first Christians did just that. I’m not simply talking about Jesus and his subtle political counter-play as “King” and “Lord” and “Son of God,” ultimately undermining the power game by death-and-Resurrection. I am not only imagining St. John’s re-narration of eschatological history in his final, anti-Imperial “revelation.” I’m not just thinking of the first martyrs. I’m talking about the early Christians of Rome and their powerful movement for a common good.
I’m thinking of that second century letter to Diognetus where Christians are said to look and dress and eat like everyone else in the Empire, but which says “there is something extraordinary about their lives.” They live as citizens, but take on the disabilities of aliens. They have children, and do not abort them. They marry, but do not share their wives. They love all, and are persecuted for it. They choose poverty, but enrich many. They bless when attacked. In other words, they display a character that we rarely see in our body politic (and perhaps in our churches?) today.
I’m thinking of how the pagan emperor Julian complained in the fourth century that Christians had developed a massive social welfare system apart from Empire which inspired pagans and Christians alike. He was angry that he couldn’t “inspire” like Christians inspired people. He wrote, “I think that when the poor happened to be overlooked and neglected by the pagan priests, the impious Galileans observed this and devoted themselves to benevolence. They support not only their poor, but ours as well. Everyone can see that our poor lack aid from us.”
It seems as if the “impious Galileans” had the character and imagination for a Kingdom beyond parties and power plays. Character and imagination. That’d be nice these days.
Back then, Christians welcomed everyone, no matter their age, class, ethnicity, or gender. (Oh boy – that’d be controversial today!) The apologist Tatian wrote that all were included, despite “rank and outward appearance, wealth and education, age and sex.” Most Christians lived in cities, but did not attempt to influence by power but character and service.
Women flocked to the movement because of the dignity it afforded them. Moreover, Christians not only condemned pagan practices of polygamy or abortion, but rescued babies (particularly little girls) thrown on trash heaps to be discarded, and made space for societal outcasts. Indeed, fertility rates and mortality rates were higher among female Christians simply because they were treated with dignity.
They lived in community, providing for the needs of all, but always looking to share the love–with a shipwrecked sailor, an abused mine-worker, the imprisoned. Need a place to stay–find a Christian, and you’d find the best hospitality in town! And in 250 CE when Rome was infested by a plague killing nearly a quarter of its population, Christians took to their pulpits to inspire the flock. The bishop Cyprian talks about God in Jesus “showing kindnesses not merely to his own friends,” and calling upon Christians to run in the direction of disease to care for the afflicted.
I wonder if we inspire like this anymore. I wonder what makes following Christ a “great” thing for folks these days given our proclivity to look and act like the players of empire games. I wonder a lot these days, with few answers. I know that I’m looking for character and an imagination that is larger than what I see before us, and these “impious Galileans” give me hope. They were on to something great. I’m certainly not going to bury my head in the sands of nostalgic church history, but I’m needing a bit of inspiration right now. Are you?
Note: I owe some of the historical details within to Gerald Sittser’s extraordinary work Water from a Deep Well: Christian Spirituality from Early Martyrs to Modern Missionaries