Christians as peculiar people

March 22nd, 2017

You’ve probably seen the much-ballyhooed PRRI survey, a segment of which indicates that white evangelical Christians feel that Christians are more discriminated against than Muslims in the United States. (If you haven’t, you have to scroll down for a while to get to this table.) Other groups interviewed for the survey disagree. I was intrigued by a recent article by Rabbi Brad Hirschfield on why white evangelicals might feel this way and how people of other faiths might best respond to these feelings.

Christians do at times face discrimination, but it’s hard to argue that they do so more often than Muslims in the United States. What could be behind these feelings by white evangelicals? I’d like to offer an utterly unscientific theory: They (okay, we) are beginning to feel cultural dissonance as the influence of Christianity has diminished in the West.

Mainline Protestantism is rapidly collapsing. Evangelicalism is on a slower decline, and in some places is looking more like mainline Protestantism, which will likely accelerate the evangelical demise. Values traditionally associated with Christian groups no longer hold the sway they once did. Christians, particularly those of a more conservative bent, are beginning to feel like they no longer belong. Perhaps they never belonged in the first place. More on that below.

I’ve long heard people argue that the United States is a “Christian nation.” I take this to mean that there are values associated with Christianity that found their way into our founding documents and the philosophy that undergirds our system of government. Be that as it may, the United States is not, nor has it ever been, a theocracy. The values of Christians — even when we have been able to agree on what these are — have always stood in tension with the prohibition of a state church, the political influence of people of other faiths and the values of secularism. Remember that as much as the United States was founded upon Christian ideals, it was also founded upon Enlightenment ideals, and Enlightenment ideals have posed serious intellectual challenges to traditional Christian belief.

The Christian presence in the United States is still quite strong, but it now shares the stage with other worldviews much more obviously than in decades gone by. This is creating a certain discomfort, particularly among more conservative Christians.

Perhaps, however, this discomfort with the ambient culture is not a problem, but a sign of the growing awareness that Christians should think, speak and act differently than people who do not share their faith. As my friend Joy Moore once put it, maybe the church will once again begin to understand itself as a peculiar people.

Years ago I read Resident Aliens by Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon. Few books have had the kind of effect upon me that this book did. It changed the way I thought about the church quite profoundly, and in a way that I am grateful for to this day.

I suppose that, prior to that time, I had thought about the relationship between Christ and culture along the lines of H. Richard Niebuhr: Christ is the transformer of culture. That seemed quite reasonable to me, even attainable. Reading Hauerwas and Willimon helped me to see the problems with that perspective. Years later, life has shown me many of the problems with that perspective as well.

Christians who hold to traditional views of sin, redemption and sanctification will most often end up seeing Christ standing against culture rather than seeing him as the transformer of culture. Our doctrine of sin holds that sin affects not only the way we act, but the way we think. Sin distorts our worldview. Put differently, sin has what theologians call “epistemic consequences.” According to Paul, there is a fundamental shift that takes place in the mind of a Christian believer, the “renewal of the mind” of which we read in Romans 12:2. In other words, just as there are epistemic consequences to sin, there are epistemic effects of redemption. It’s as we sing in “Amazing Grace”: “I once was lost, but now I’m found, was blind, but now I see.” Through the redemptive work of Christ on the cross and the power of the Holy Spirit to mediate that work to us, we come to understand our entire lives in a new way.

Now, in light of this perspective, how comfortable should we really be in the world around us? We are aliens and exiles (1 Peter 12:2). No political party, no secular lifestyle, no philosophy can possibly satisfy us if we view the world in this way. We will walk around knowing that we are outsiders, that our true citizenship is in God’s kingdom, and we will try to help other people find their way into the new reality of God’s kingdom as well. That is how people will be transformed–not by living within a culture shaped by the presence of Christians, but by receiving the life-changing power of Jesus Christ given to us through the work of the Holy Spirit.

The dissonance we experience with the world around us can be painful. It is, however, not nearly as acute as that which the first Christians experienced in the Greco-Roman world, nor as that which many Christians around the globe experience today. Comparatively speaking, we still have it really easy.

Let’s bear in mind that if we are too at home in the world around us, then, well, we’re doing it wrong. Perhaps in the United States we have simply been too comfortable, and this has given rise to both complacency and entitlement. Following Jesus will make us a peculiar people, so let’s embrace that identity and get on with the peculiar work to which we are called.

This post originally appeared on David Watson's blog.

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