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

Chuck teaches Pastoral Care and Christian Spirituality at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. His sojourn as a pastor meandered through Orlando and out to San Francisco, where he started church counseling centers in both places. Chuck is a church consultant, a therapist, a spiritual director, and author of four books. He’s married to Sara and has two teenage daughters.

10 Comments

  • Dana VanderLugt says:

    Whew, Wow, and Amen. Thank you for the challenge and inspiration.

  • Helen Phillips says:

    The early Christians lived as we are called to live; as my old pastor used to say with “a foot in the Kingdom and a foot in the world.”
    I dare say there are many Christians who still behave as those early saints behaved…but today is an alternate universe – with our 24-hour news cycle and social media.
    It would be very different if the morally bankrupt who spew hatred at every turn had no one listening 24/7.
    What does remains unchanged from those first Christians is the moral imperative for those with voices to speak truth to power. That is what we lack today .
    People listen to hate speech, because no one else is talking…at least not urgently enough.
    I wonder what would happen if every moral being…every believer/religious leader, regardless of party, began to speak up and speak out?
    What kind of world could we then make?

  • Fred Mueller says:

    Thank you, Chuck! I was just a few paragraphs in when a tape started playing in my head – “Lord, I want to be a Christian in a my heart, in a my heart…..Lord I want to be like Jesus in a my heart.”

    I will start today making that effort. Thanks for this.

  • Jeff Crosby says:

    Powerful, important reflections. Thank you for fashioning this post.

  • These early Christians lived under the authority of an Empire that claimed authority over every aspect of life. The State was supreme. Natural rights and inherent dignity of the individual did not exist. These early Christ followers worked secretly outside of the power structure to advance the Kingdom. They didn’t outsource their work to the government.

    Flash forward to today: we are living in a society where we advocate (all along the political spectrum, but particularly on the left) for government to take over the work of the Church and Christians. Oftentimes, the things government does in the name of compassion actually have the pernicious effect of making things even worse. This does not deter the State from expanding and becoming almost Empire-like. It encroaches on every other institution in society (most notably the family structure and the church). The end result will be Christians reverting back to an undercover and oppressed status. The State hates competition.

    What is our option? Embracing limited government, and believing that the Church can be the hope of the world. The US Constitution is the best blueprint to achieve those ends.

    That’s why I voted for Trump. He may be a decadent philistine, but he doesn’t govern like one.

    • George E says:

      Marty, we have another option: We can live as if government is more limited; we can share as if our neighbors depend on God. We can live socially just in our dealings with others, regardless of what the government expects. We can dismiss the hatred of the progs and decline to emulate it.

      As for Trump: I’d say there is no “may” in the statement about him being a decadent philistine, and agree that he does not govern like one. Secular hope versus the previous hate.

  • Todd Zuidema says:

    Thanks for this, Chuck.

  • George E says:

    Great reminder, Chuck, of the way we could be living. Rod Dreher agrees! And just maybe we need to find additional friends who at least balance out the negative ones.

  • John says:

    Dear Chuck,
    What a timely word to followers of Jesus today.
    I hope you come to our discussion in Herrick library tonight, July 11, in the main floor, large meeting room.
    The “Confession of Faith in a Time of Crisis” speaks to the issue you address here. Thanks again. Great overview and challenge. JRK

  • Don Klompeen says:

    With the other responders, Thanks, Chuck. But don’t we live in different times now that may dictate different responses to human needs in our present nations? As a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven, with the inspiration from Scripture and your description of benevolence of the Church under Roman control, I can gladly contribute to World Renew which I see as a Christian arm of the Kingdom of Heaven. But I’m aware that such financial contributions have limited effect on the overall needs for our huge American population–and those who want in—and I’m an American citizen, who can join my benevolent thoughts and some other contributions, with the benevolent wishes and actions of like-minded fellow citizens whose spirituality may be quite different from mine, but whose aspirations and actions for the common good make for the “general welfare” of our nation,. often through our governments, toward maintaining peace (here and abroad), justice, and alleviation of severe poverty and illness. I love the Church and its benefits, but I also love our U.S. government and social security and medicare. Don Klompeen, donklo@aol.com

Leave a Reply