The world is broken. We are at war and war is the problem. People want to know if you are for them or against them. You also want to know if someone is for or against you. We continually evaluate each other (especially those we do not know) to conclude what side they are on. This is one of many the things wrong with our world. There are so many battle lines that our society is a dissected dysfunctional mess. Our fingers are always pointed out while our hearts are turned in. The world longs for reconciliation all the while attacking each other.
The Church could be a catalyst for healing in our world. In the center of Jesus’ teaching was that of loving not just your neighbor but also your enemy. Loving your enemy is impossible as long as your posture toward them is one of enmity. Jesus commanded love from a religious group being violently oppressed by Rome. Their daughters had been raped, their children killed, their property pillaged, and their rights robbed. Jesus challenged these people to be a light to the world by walking an extra mile those who would force them to walk one mile and to also freely give their shirt when someone would take their coat (Matthew 5:40-41). This type of love was absurd. It still is. The world perceived love as basically mutual self-preservation – you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. What Jesus taught and lived out was radical. It still is.
The New Testament packaged this idea of the self-sacrificing love for those who hate you into the word agape, a word not commonly used in the ancient Greco-Roman world. The New Testament writers were attempting to define something “new.” This is why we find the New Testament often defining agape. “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us” (1 John 3:16). “God demonstrates his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (John 13:34). “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:10-11). Jesus would contrast the love He demands from us with the type of love the world practices. “If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them” (Luke 6:32). “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?” (Matthew 5:6).
This type of love cuts against the grain of tribalism, self-preservation, and mob mentality. It utterly undercuts racism, bigotry, and political polarization. Agape seeks to know, understand, serve, and reconcile. Rather than drawing lines, it seeks to erase them. While the world is quick to keep records of wrongs, love is quick to forgive (1 Corinthians 13:1-13). Love puts others first and considers their position of utmost importance (Philippians 2:1-11). Instead of giving up on others, love continually hopes, fights, and endures for the sake of the other. While the enemy is far away, love is on the hunt. Love flips the constructed order of the world on its head (Mark 9:35). This love God incarnated into the world that we might also walk in it. Paul will even dare to say that love is more important than faith (1 Corinthians 13:13) and John will state “who does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 John 4:8). It is not optional.
Because of this, Jesus’ followers ought to be the best practitioners of reconciliation. Unfortunately, we often cause more division than we do peace (Romans 12:18, Mark 9:50). We often pay homage to the idea of loving everyone but we usually fail to live it. While we hype grace we make little opportunity for it. We fall into the same pattern of the world that creates enemies. While we attempt to build our counterfeit version of God’s Kingdom, we rely on the same tools the world leverages. Instead of the world seeing our self-sacrificing love (John 13:34-35), they see at best indifference, and at worst enmity. Instead of our Gospel changing the world, it only reinforces the broken system that divides humanity.
It Doesn’t Work
It would be one thing if churches rallied behind like-mindedness but they don’t. We are quick to fight over minor doctrinal differences. If a particular church is doing well, we look for flaws. When a Christian artist actually feels free enough to express a belief contrary to our mob’s belief system, we end their career, pull their books, cancel their shows, and crucify them in our blogs. In small talk, we are eager to criticize this church and that church. The world does not see a unified and peaceful group of loving Christ followers. It sees Presbyterians, Baptists, Pentecostals, Calvary Chapels, Charismatics, Reformed, Methodists, Orthodox, Catholics, and on and on. Christians on both sides of the political divide would seem to suggest that we do not have the answer. What is worst is that even we “divide” over race. We have white, African, Korean, Hispanic, Greek, Chinese and so on. All the while, we forget the multi-ethnic (and multi-doctrine) unity of Revelation where “every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” will stand as one (Revelation 7:9). There will not be a white or Baptist congregation when Heaven is realized.
I feel it necessary to state that I do not feel that denominational or ethnic-specific churches are necessarily evil. As mentioned before, if these groups united around a singular mission I can agree to many possible benefits. In fact, many movements of churches that would later become denominations started as such. But these movements tend to be become more about how they are different from everyone else. Instead of fighting for peace we fight for our differences.
These different movements become more interested in self-preservation and their own kingdom. They flip their posture of love to enmity. Over time, alliances and divisions form not just on lines of doctrine, practice, style, and personality. Political and ethnic lines are also annexed into our faux-kingdoms. While this happens, the world rages with frustration, allegations, and enmity. Our voice is not even considered because we are no longer peace-makers but just another party in all of this hostility.
I am not suggesting that we all can or will have the same opinions. There must be a place for discussion on differences. But we have to talk with each other instead of talking about each other. We have to make peace with ourselves before we can be peace-makers in the world. In the end, we will find that we all were wrong in many areas. Until then, we need to fight for each other and not against.
The frustrating part of all of this is that even the “worldly” research proves this doesn’t work. The areas of psychology, leadership, counseling, sales, and even FBI’s hostage negotiations know that this internal posture of self-preservation ultimately is ineffective and counter-productive to winning people to your side. We know this. The decline of the American church screams that way we have been engaging the world is undermining the Church’s mission. During the last ten years, church attendance has dropped 9.5 percent, while America’s population increased by 11.4 percent. Every year 3,500 to 4,000 churches close their doors, yet only 1,500 new churches are started. In 1920, 27 churches existed for every 10,000 Americans. In 1996, 11 churches existed for every 10,000 Americans. In an age where we have never had as many resources and opportunities, we are failing.
Some may be quick to respond with such biblical passages as “hate the world” or “if they persecuted me they will persecute you.” Obviously, if we are uncompromisingly following Jesus, we will often stand diametrically opposed to the way the world operates and what it values. And that can be threatening to the world. The switch from self-preservation to self-sacrifice is a threatening proposition and runs counter to the narrative we have been indoctrinated with. When the way we invite others to live undermines economies and herd-mentality the stampede can trample us. This is especially true when we love someone else’s enemy. When we forgive, serve, or protect someone that another abhors, we become propitiation. When we attempt to walk in a different trajectory than the social norm and structure, we shouldn’t be surprised that inertia opposes us.
However, the persecution we think we experience is not usually because we are following Christ – we’re just jerks. Behind our unique Christian camouflage, we talk and think the same way the world does. Over hundreds of years, the Church has grown accustomed to Christianity being the assumed truth of our society. Along the way, we gained political power and influence. Our word was the law of the land. It did not take long for Christianity to become a political tool. Today, it is a common sight to find American flags above the “Christian” flag in front of churches, if not at the same height. Once our power started to become threatened, we freaked out and resorted to that same self-preservation mindset of the world. Somewhere along the line, our priority became political dominance and not restoration of the world.
Persecution is only justifiable if we stand for the same things and in the same way Jesus did. His primary message was not one that opposed Rome but one that opposed a religious institution that neglected the poor, the outcast, the foreigner, and the sinner. He preached a message that demanded God’s people to not only forgive the Roman but to love and serve him. His harshest words were for the self-righteous and the religious system that took advantage of the people. Jesus would dine with Pharisees, Herodians, Samaritans, Essenes, gentiles, and sinners. He even went as far as to recruit a zealot and a tax-collector to his team – two political opposites. It was the religious institute that persecuted the Church first.
Later, yes, the Church would find itself at odds with the Roman government. But it was not because Christians were protesting or running political campaigns. It was because the way Christians lived was so contrary to the values of Rome and they claimed loyalty to a government higher than the empire they lived in. Their allegiance was to the Kingdom of God and their political devotion was to Christ. This is why the New Testament reminded the Church that they were “strangers and exiles” (1 Peter 2:11) in the nations they lived because their citizenship belonged to Christ (Philippians 3:20). Christ was their president and the Kingdom of God was their nation.
The world is dying for reconciliation and we have the answer. But we cannot be peace-makers when we are divided across more lines than divide the world. We are a dissected body completely incapable of growing in love and doing the work of reconciliation. We care more about our particular party, church, denomination, and ethnic than we do for others. We no longer eat with sinners, Pharisees, Greeks, and Samaritans. Our dinner parties are a monochromatic partisan rally. We make war and not peace. We are strangers in the Kingdom of God.