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Why White Christians Silence Jesus

By Alan Bean

So what’s your religion?” the young man wanted to know. “My ancestors were Anabaptists,” I said, “and I find myself identifying with that tradition.”

“So, what’s an Anabaptist?”

“Well, they are sometimes called the radical wing of the Protestant Reformation,” I replied, choosing my words with care. “They went back to the teaching of Jesus, so they believed in radical forgiveness, loving their enemies, caring for the poor and they were committed to peace and non-violence.”

“Oh, so Anabaptists are kinda like Democrats.”

In contemporary America people are far more likely to take their moral cues from politics than from religion. When we want to get at the essence of a person we look for political clues. If you know a person is a Democrat or a Republican you can make educated guesses about where they stand on a variety of issues; knowing their religious affiliation won’t tell you much.

Mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic preachers shy away from partisan-sounding sermons because their parishioners divide evenly along political lines. Because politics is about the business of the people, the polis, almost every subject is too political for the pulpit.

White and black evangelicals are the two groups most inclined to mix politics and religion, but they draw dramatically different conclusions. Over 80 percent of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump and 90 percent of black evangelicals pulled the lever for Hillary Clinton in November.

My wife, Nancy, recently ran for the Texas State House and I spent a lot of time block walking. One Saturday morning I saw a 5-year-old girl furiously riding her bicycle down the block. As I rounded the corner I saw the girl’s mother sitting on her front porch with a watch in her hand. “You did it in only 29 seconds this time,” the mother announced cheerfully. I didn’t know if the woman was on my list, but I decided to pull out a brochure and approach her anyway.

I quickly learned that the woman was home schooling her daughter and that she was a registered Republican who couldn’t bring herself to vote for Donald Trump in November. She couldn’t vote for Hillary Clinton either, she assured me, because “the sanctity of life is a deal breaker for me.”

Nationally, blacks, whites and Hispanics show little variance on abortion, but the issue rarely keeps blacks and Hispanics from voting Democrat. Between 1980 and 2010 the abortion rate in America dropped by half, largely due to growing public awareness of birth control. Not surprisingly, three-quarters of the women having abortions these days are either low-income or live in abject poverty. The further down the wealth scale you go the greater the chances become that a woman will have an abortion. And the further down the wealth scale you go the less likely you are to encounter white folks.

In other words, most white evangelicals are insulated from the hardscrabble life experience that makes abortion a live option even for women who oppose the practice on moral grounds. White evangelicals home school and send their children to private schools so they won’t have to rub shoulders with low-income black and Hispanic children. Black and Hispanic religious leaders typically condemn abortion, but they see it as a symptom of deprivation and vote for the party that talks about addressing poverty.

White American evangelicals think of morality in strictly individual terms. Evangelical Christianity is about working hard, staying faithful to the spouse of your youth, raising children in the fear and admonition of the Lord, and living within the law.

White mainline Protestants avoid political references on Sunday morning because that’s what feels safe for them. Mainline Christianity is all about being kind, staying positive, celebrating diversity and refraining from judgment. Morality, whether personal or corporate, is a touchy subject.

Because the Bible is a lively debate featuring dozens of conflicting voices, both conservative and liberal Christians can mount a biblical defense for their way of being church.

White evangelicals are so intent on harmonizing the radical Jesus with the rest of their inerrant Bible that the distinctive features of his message are effectively silenced.  Jesus must be made to agree with Joshua, Ezra and Nehemiah.

Mainline Protestants are so put off by all that violence in the Old Testament and all that retrograde teaching on women and gays in the New Testament that they keep the good book at arm’s length.

Jesus can teach us to read the Bibles his way, but we aren’t listening.

Religious options that work for millions of Americans can be expected to persist. But what about the growing multitude that checks out American Christianity in both its liberal and conservative disguises and walks away in disgust? In a free country, that’s their choice, of course. But a lot of these people are driven by an intense spiritual hunger. Moreover, they are intensely drawn to the person of Jesus but can’t see much connection between American organized religion and the Jesus who blessed the poor, counseled radical forgiveness, infinite generosity, open hospitality and enemy love.

Is there any evidence that the prominent expressions of white American Christianity are migrating in the direction of Jesus-centered religion? Lots of people would like to see it happen but, despite some positive movement on the fringes, the teaching of Jesus has been shunted to the sidelines.

Maybe we should just be thankful for all the good these churches do. Maybe they’re doing the best they can. If so, millions of potential Jesus followers will continue to drift away from an American church that can’t address their passions, problems and perplexities.

So here’s my question: if it isn’t realistic to expect the stressed-out churches of white America to change their ways, might it be possible to found new churches dedicated to the unique vision of Jesus?

Joshua vs Jesus: Why white evangelicals love Donald Trump

trump-at-prayerAlmost 80 percent of white American evangelicals plan to vote for Donald Trump, a twice-divorced womanizer who made his name building and gilding casinos. A man who insults Hispanics, Muslims, African Americans, women, and anyone else who disagrees with him. A man who rejects foundational Christian principles such as love for enemies, radical forgiveness, turning the other cheek and unqualified hospitality.

Let’s admit right off the top that if the vote was restricted to white people Trump would win in a cake walk. In mid-July, 66 percent of registered white voters were planning to vote for Trump, and in some Southern states the figure is close to 90 percent. So, white evangelicals are no more pro-Trump than white folks generally.

Still, shouldn’t we expect that, strictly on moral and theological grounds, disciples of Jesus Christ, red and yellow, black and white, would pass en masse on a man with Trump’s résumé?

No, we should expect nothing of the kind.

For all its apparent diversity, American evangelicalism is dominated by two theological systems, both of which are uncomfortable with the radical words of Jesus.

The Reformed river is fed by John Calvin, a brilliant biblical theologian who ruled Geneva with an iron fist in the mid-16th century. Calvin’s God was sovereign and unchanging (the theological term is “immutable”). If God told Joshua to massacre the Amalekites, man, woman and child, who are we to quibble? However things may appear to a flawed and fallen humanity, Calvin taught, God’s decrees are just and true by definition.

A sovereign and immutable God has one limitation: he can never change his mind. The New Covenant inaugurated by Jesus could not be substantially different from the Old Covenant bequeathed to Moses. The genocidal carnage of Joshua and the Sermon on the Mount may appear irreconcilable, but God can’t change the rules without changing his character. So, Jesus and Joshua don’t just share a name; they share a theological vision. They have to. The unchanging character of God demands it.

The Victory of Joshua over the Amalekites, by Nicolas Poussin

When your theology forces you to reconcile Joshua and Jesus, the New Testament teaching on enemy-love, non-resistance, unqualified hospitality and radical forgiveness become inconvenient.

The only popular alternative to Calvinism in American evangelicalism is dispensationalism, a systematic attempt to account for the divergent traditions within the Bible without surrendering the principle of biblical inerrancy. Although God does not change, dispensationalists say, he occasionally changes the rules.

Old School dispensationalists like C.I. Scofield and Lewis Sperry Chafer had a clever solution to the Joshua-Jesus problem. The kingdom teaching found in Matthew, Mark and Luke (including the Sermon on the Mount) were never intended for the Church. Jesus came into this world to establish the kind of earthly kingdom anticipated by the Old Testament prophets, but Israel refused to cooperate. The Church, according to this interpretation, is a kind of Plan B, or “parenthesis,” that will persist until the church is raptured to heaven and the millennial reign begins on earth.

Everything Jesus said about non-violence, enemy-love, and turning the other cheek was never intended for “the Church age,” Scofield and Chafer taught, but will be in full force when Christ sets up his thousand-year reign.

You will be relieved to learn that some Calvinists (like Russell Moore) and some Dispensationalists (like Darrell Bock) are trying to find a middle ground between Reformed and Dispensational theology that makes more room for the teaching of Jesus. Neither Moore nor Bock will be voting for Donald Trump in November and that’s what you would expect. The closer you get to the Savior, the harder it becomes to embrace the Donald. You can love the man, forgive him, struggle to understand him; but you can’t vote for him.

Unfortunately, Russell Moore and Darrell Bock are evangelical outliers. The rhetoric flowing from popular, made-for-TV evangelicalism has assumed a desperate quality. America will only continue to be exceptional if she continues to be Christian, preachers say. If not, our beloved country will become a toxic slough of secularity — Sweden writ large.

It’s the children of light versus the children of darkness and somebody has to lose.

The premonitions of doom issuing from the religious right are reminiscent of Psalm 44, which begins with a celebration of God’s victories in the days of Joshua:

Through thee we push down our foes;
through thy name we tread down our assailants.
For not in my bow do I trust, nor can my sword save me.
But thou hast saved us from our foes,
and hast put to confusion those who hate us.

Suddenly, without a hint of transition, the mood changes:

Thou hast cast us off and abased us,
and hast not gone out with our armies.
Thou hast made us turn back from the foe;
and our enemies have gotten spoil.
Thou hast made us like sheep for slaughter,
and hast scattered us among the nations.

Or, to quote Donald Trump’s paraphrase, “We never win anymore.”

Psalm 44 was likely written about the same time the book of Joshua assumed its present form: shortly after a remnant returned from Babylonian captivity to a heap of ruins that once was Jerusalem.

Books like Deuteronomy and Joshua were written to answer the “why” question. God told us to exterminate the inhabitants of Canaan down to the last sucking infant; but we made our peace with the infidel, marrying their daughters and worshiping their gods.

In Ezra and Nehemiah, the returning exiles divorce their foreign wives and build a big wall around Jerusalem, a line of demarcation between saints and sinners.

Old Testament texts like Joshua and Nehemiah get more attention in America’s white evangelical churches than the words of Jesus. The man who talks about recovering American greatness by building a wall is speaking a language conservative white Christians can understand.