"But I tell you..."
At the start of this year, I set forth to explore the Prosperity Gospel's "health and wealth" tendrils in my life and in the wider Evangelical Christian culture (see https://www.christianmusingsfortoday.com/post/what-s-the-plan-for-2022). Now it's time to look more broadly at ways that modern mainstream Christianity may have ingested a philosophy and worldview that runs counter to what we see in Scripture, especially as it pertains to dealing with life's difficulties (so, still on the suffering topic). Are we in a ripe moment for the type of re-directing that Jesus did when He asked the crowd hearing the Sermon on the Mount, "You have heard that it was said...but I tell you..."?
Actually, let's start right there, with the Sermon on the Mount. I've already covered how public figures pandering to hard right groups of evangelicals seem to question the practicality of the Sermon on the Mount. For example, as referenced here (https://www.christianmusingsfortoday.com/post/take-up-your-cross), a few months ago, Donald Trump, Jr., told a crowd,
We’ve turned the other cheek and I understand sort of the biblical reference — I understand the mentality — but it’s gotten us nothing. OK? It’s gotten us nothing while we’ve ceded ground in every major institution.
He's not the first person to speak like this. Many argue (for a helpful overview, see https://ftc.co/resource-library/blog-entries/the-audacious-invincibility-of-meekness/) that movements starting in the early 2000s (such as John Eldredge's book and Wild at Heart movement) land us in a type of macho Christianity that first of all misunderstands what the Bible means by "meekness" and second of all seems to preach doing the exact opposite of what meekness presumably means.
As Professor Wilson describes on the site above,
Today’s evangelical hyper-masculinity proliferates among anonymous Twitter accounts and boisterous YouTube channels...It has co-opted jargon first pioneered online by the political alt-right and Internet white supremacists...
Is there good in young men rejecting passivity, taking responsibility, and seeking to better themselves and the world around them? Yes, undoubtedly. But the arteries of anger, victimhood, and aggressive machismo running through the new movement do not bode well. We have seen the story of toxic masculinity play out time and time again, and it never ends neatly...
I do not see much talk amongst any tribe of Christian men today about meekness... The wild-at-heart alpha male believes the world is what he makes it. And the world he makes turns out not so hospitable to those unlike him, and not really worthy of his own imaging of God.
By contrast, Jesus says, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matt. 5:5, ESV). Paul says, “I appeal to you by the meekness and gentleness of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:1) and “we were gentle among you, as a nurse nurtures her own children” (1 Thess. 2:7).
So much to unpack here. But rather than focus on masculinity, I'm thinking more broadly about the overall messages in the Beatitudes. My church recently completed a fantastic sermon series on the Beatitudes. It's refreshing to hear the words of Jesus affirmed, explained, and recommended as examples to follow.
As a reminder of what the Beatitudes say, here they are:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Later on in the Sermon on the Mount, after talking about turning the other cheek, Jesus adds,
You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Now we're really getting at some the issues I've noticed when we emphasize harnessing the power of heaven for health and wealth or start drawing combat lines in the culture wars. What if Jesus means exactly what He says in these passages? If so,
We are told to love our enemies (specifically described here as someone who is persecuting us) and, as a starting example of what that looks like, to pray for them.
If that is true, then what should a Christian response actually be to perceived or actual persecution? If one did feel afraid that one's way of life and freedoms were being affected, what should one do? It's not that this passage teaches us to never address wrongful oppression. Quite the contrary, we have examples of history of people finding effective ways to do just that, sometimes by directly applying these principles...and, I will note, pretty successfully (e.g. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr.). However, this passage communicates the overall stance we are to take in these circumstances, and the hateful vitriol Professor Wilson identifies above simply ain't it.
Jesus provides context by explaining that it rains on the just and unjust. Fascinating!
So many of us would like to be like James and John and call down fire from heaven on those who reject us or make things difficult for us (see Luke 9: 51-56). But Christ tells us to move beyond a preschool-level of moral reasoning---note: I just finished teaching this week on moral reasoning across the lifespan, and Kohlberg's stages are fresh in my mind! It's the little kids who focus on "bad people get punished and good people get rewarded" as a moral compass. We're supposed to move on beyond that, and Jesus teaches us that directly here. Sometimes it rains (read: the bottom drops out) on people who are doing exactly what they're supposed to be doing. On this side of heaven, we don't exist in a reality where we can expect God to make things easy for His children. And this is another place where the Prosperity Gospel fails us. It leaves us with this vague feeling that somehow things are unfair if we're not always in a stance of total personal victory. And, do we inadvertently give more weight and credence to figures (often male Christian celebrities) who seem to be victorious, at least in terms of accumulated wealth and power? Have we learned nothing from decades of these figures falling from grace due to scandal and corruption? To me, some of the cultural war vitriol seems to be centered on this immature idea that if we aren't getting what we want, we can demand it from God, the political sphere, and anyone else...and that it is our right to do so.
But Jesus reminds us that perfection is the aim.
I'm not going to unpack this concept here (too much to get into...), except to say that it's an interesting counterpoint to the "God's Not Finished With Me Yet" bumper stickers which--I'll admit--are speaking to the overall truth of all Christians being a work in progress. However, this bumper sticker mantra often seems to serve as an excuse for unacceptable behavior that the individual seems largely unconcerned with fixing or changing!
Christ in this passage is clearly teaching us to not hunker down into tribes of people who are like us and affirm us all the time. He directly says to love and greet people outside of our perceived group. He's still talking about enemies here.
Everyone needs to hear this message! Christians, people of other faiths, and atheists--everyone! Because research has noted (call out to social psychologist Jonathan Haidt's excellent work!) that tribalism is on the increase in the public sphere, we need to follow Christ's direction on this rather than the larger society's.
Haidt, in this interview (https://blog.ted.com/the-other-side-isnt-your-enemy-jonathan-haidt-speaks-at-tednyc/) shares this quote from a pollster: “We are either ‘drawbridge up’ people or ‘drawbridge down’ people.” And then Haidt, who is not a Christian, offers recommendations for what to do about the intense vitriol and tribalism in society. As the above article quotes,
He suggests turning to the ancient wisdom of Buddha, Jesus and Marcus Aurelius for advice on how to drop fear, reframe our differences and stop seeing other people as your enemy. “Be more humble; you don’t know as much as you think,” he says. “Make an effort to meet someone on the other side. Only with people who challenge us can we find the truth."
His words are more in-line with Christ's in the Sermon on the Mount than many Christians'! This is a researcher who is an international expert on group behavior, and he is recommending that the best way to move forward is not to push more, shout harder, and assert more strongly. The counter-intuitive method of Christ is the best antidote to what ails us as a society...and individually.
As people around the world celebrate the death and resurrection of Christ this week, let's look more closely, more carefully, more fully at His actual words...and allow His resurrection power do far more than give us an easy life of worldly success. I'll conclude with an ancient Easter prayer:
O God of unchangeable power and light eternal,
look kindly upon the wonderful mystery of Your Church
and by the tranquil operation of Your perpetual providence,
carry forward, the work of human salvation
and let the whole world feel and see,
that things, which were cast down
are being raised up,
that things which had grown old,
are being made new
and all things are returning to perfection,
through Him, in whom they have their source,
in Jesus Christ, our Lord.