« At the Risk of You All Coming to My House and Smacking Me »

My answers to this month’s questions are going to sound quite sharp. I don’t think American Evangelicalism has any meaningful future if it keeps classing itself as “American,” a sort of separate national religion. As a distinct movement and culture in the United States, it can only lampoon its own professed theology and wall itself off from the aspirations, sufferings, and perils of Christianity worldwide.

 

The differences in the American Christian experience—not only in Evangelicalism, but pretty much across the board—make it hard for believers to understand how far we are from the early church that was born along with basic Christian ideas, whereas many Latin American, African, and Asian congregations do have that closer view. Unless we can imagine a future along with them, we might as well chuck it in, in my opinion.

 

When I was living in Cape Town, my maid Lucy, who commuted into the white suburbs from a distant “black township,” belonged to a shack church there. At one point, I taught her a method of jewelry-making from recyclables. She was delighted with the necklaces she completed and planned to show them off at her church the next Sunday. I urged her to sell them, starting a small craft business, but I had a hunch that she wouldn’t, and in fact she didn’t: she gave them all away without hesitation. She couldn’t have imagined making a profit from her fellow parishioners, most of whom were poorer than she was.

 

Later, her extended family treated her atrociously, using a minor quarrel as an excuse for throwing her out of the house she had purchased for them all, as the sole breadwinner for a long period. I spoke to her hotly over my shoulder about the violation of her rights, while I searched online for a legal aid resource and exhorted her to defend her place in the home for which she had worked so hard, or at least to recover the money she had put into it. She opted for an arduous search for a decent, affordable place to live on her own, and for the surrender, during middle age, of her single investment, as she couldn’t conceive of going to court merely to further her own welfare.

 

When I meditated on these two episodes, it was galling for me to have to admit that I idolized two American values secondary to Christianity at best: entrepreneurial capitalism, and legalism. Lucy, in contrast, took the New Testament at its word: property must serve the community, especially the poor. How could that not be, she may have reckoned, when you have to look all the time at the extra deprivation that comes from keeping anything extra to yourself—when, for example, you own several colorful necklaces that are fun to wear and nice conversation pieces, helping remind you that there can be something to life besides hardship and fear, and your friends don’t have a single ornament or any means to get one?

 

And if no one else’s fate is at risk (as it would be, say, in the case of a criminal at large) and there is no chance for Gospel Order (Lucy’s family were not Christians), a believer might have to swallow great wrongs in order to avoid hateful contention and set the example of peace. On the other hand, Lucy had a strict Romans 13 view of her legal obligations—though she lived in a country where the rule of law was in notably bad repute and even self-righteous foreigners like myself cut corners, with a “Why bother?” attitude. She always went tediously through the official channels. She showed respect for authority. She never contributed to breakdown and chaos.

 

I like to call myself a Christian, but because American is a stronger part of my identity, I have bought my faith very cheaply—if in my circumstances it can be called faith at all. Alas, in recent years, with more Americans losing their homes, going hungry, and dying from lack of the medical care than even a comfortable fellow citizen can ignore, I’m being forced into a greater sense of Christian realities even here; but that means having to rethink my deepest Americanness, the belief that my country must be a special, protected, privileged part of God’s plan. That would, hem, be the same God who sent His Son to die on the cross for the salvation of all humankind. The pairing of these two ideas is twaddle.

 

“American” evangelicalism can hardly be in touch, either, with another commonality between Christianity in the developing world today and the Christianity of the first through the third centuries A.D.: both are prone to persecution in many places. I have been mourning the recent death from cancer of my friend Jack Cullinan, a devout Catholic journalist and expert on the treatment of Christians worldwide. Certain laws and customs, mob violence, and the overall steady loss of tolerance are  horrifying—when we pay attention, which we usually don’t: it’s all just a little surreal background to the big news from Africa, the Middle East, and East Asia. American Christians, except for a few missionaries, do not themselves expect ever to answer the ultimate question about the value of their faith: “Would you continue to profess it if you were going to be killed for that?”

 

And such are the geopolitical realities connected to American power that, for us, the question is an almost purely theoretical one. US foreign policy considerations help keep active, open Christianity out of those countries where it is least known and so, by Christian definitions, most needed. A determined American evangelist might enter Saudi Arabia on false pretenses and set to work, but he would probably be stopped right away, with the cooperation of the US embassy, then merely deported home and banned from returning. (It’s a very different story for evangelists from developing countries.)

 

For anyone who listened to him, however, the costs could be much greater, so he might be sacrificing potential converts while risking little himself. It’s not a popular path to take, to say the least. The clergy of even some ancient Christian churches (tenuously) surviving in the Middle East feel they have to turn away inquirers rather then imperil them and their families and the church itself, along with Muslims who have simply offered goodwill and protection in accordance with their own scriptural decrees. In one respect, the Roman Empire’s persecution of Christians set out clear-cut moral choices that encouraged wholehearted, unambiguous self-sacrifice: as a rule, anyone who wasn’t a committed Christian could escape punishment of any kind by renouncing Christ and worshipping the emperor’s image. As things are now, a witness with extensive collateral damage built into it hardly looks like a religious witness. It could look like a brutal and meddling intervention by the West.


American culture and American power, in short, pretty systematically exclude us from the kind of solidary with Christians and potential Christians worldwide that would give our faith a truly solidified and revitalized future. If we are to have this, our allegiances need a serious revamp.

 

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