What Does it Mean to be a Christian?
By John B. Cobb, Jr.
The answers to this question are quite diverse. Some say that Christians are all those who place that label on themselves. For statistical surveys that is the best way to go. Many people who are not members of any church call themselves Christians, and that has some significance. On the other hand, there are some church members who will, when pressed, assert that they are not Christians. That they reject the label is also of some significance.
At the other extreme are those who identify Christians with those who believe a particular set of doctrines, engage in a particular set of practices, and belong to a particular church. From their point of view, simply calling oneself a Christian has little significance. To be a Christian one must believe and act as Christians are required to believe and act.
Definitions are not true or false. They are simply more or less useful and illuminating. In that spirit I am proposing a definition of the term this evening that is quite different from both of these. One way to think of Christians is as disciples of Jesus. When we join the United Methodist Church we profess acceptance of Jesus as savior and lord. Discipleship is the acceptance of Jesus as lord.
Probably more Christians have focused on the savior part of this phrase. They think that Christians are those who know themselves to be saved by Jesus. Some select a single passage from the Gospel of John and say that Christians are those who have been born again. Sometimes they think of this new birth in a way that makes the lordship of Jesus of little importance. My argument, this evening, is that when salvation is separated in that way from discipleship, it ceases to be the salvation of which the New Testament speaks.
Of course, one can abstract from the gospel of John a passage that speaks only of belief and a new birth. But John also calls for discipleship, which requires keeping Jesus word (8:31). The content of that word is not spelled out in John except in terms of loving one another. A further exploration of discipleship takes us to the Synoptic gospels, which provide us with most of our knowledge of Jesus’ message.
The other scriptural source of the tendency to focus on Jesus as savior in contrast with lord is Paul. But this is a misreading of Paul. Paul calls us to participate in the faithfulness of Jesus, a faithfulness even to death. Participation in Jesus’ faithfulness involves participation in his justice and righteousness, in his suffering, in his death, symbolically through baptism. On this basis we can expect to participate with him also in his resurrection or glorification. It is this last that Paul calls salvation. But Paul could not imagine participation in Jesus’ glorification apart from participation in his faithfulness. Paul may not use the term “discipleship,” but participation is surely a strong form of discipleship.
In the New Testament as a whole salvation involves discipleship. It describes no other path. To be a Christian is to be a disciple of Jesus.
If so, the next question is: What does it mean to be a disciple? Disciples learn from their master and act accordingly. They shape their lives according to the master’s way of being in the world. This was Paul’s emphasis.
If I am right this far, then it is important for Christians to study Jesus’ teaching and ministry. A good place to begin is to ask what Jesus considered to be the heart of his proclamation in word and deed. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all tell us that this was the coming of the basileia theou.
So what is the basileia theou? Almost all of the English translations render it as the Kingdom of God. Moffatt is an exception, choosing instead “God’s reign”. One advantage of the latter is that it avoids the gender emphasis, which is lacking also in the Greek,basileia. On the other hand, the Greek suggests a concrete location, whereas “reign” refers only to God’s role. Another possibility is “realm”. We can speak of the “Realm of God.”
The Maori in New Zealand have their own version of the Lord’s Prayer. They translate basileia theou as the Commonwealth of God. I like this. It is a translation influenced by Jesus’ teaching about the basileia theou. That teaching cuts against the hierarchical connotations of the others. No one translation is correct, and when there is no time to explain, I speak of the Kingdom of God. But I like “Commonwealth” best.
If the coming of the Commonwealth of God was the heart of Jesus’ message, then our next question is: How does Jesus depict this Commonwealth? The fact that Jesus felt no need to tell his hearers what he was talking about indicates that he presupposed a certain expectancy or hope among them. They were shaped by the Jewish scriptures in which there were many images of hope. Jesus’ distinctive understanding of the Commonwealth he proclaimed is found in the images he selected and the particular content he read into them by teaching and action.
Most of his teaching was about the Commonwealth of God. I shall remind you only of a few of the most obvious elements. Since the most familiar of all Jesus’ teachings is the prayer he taught his disciples, we can begin with that.
In that prayer, as in Jesus’ teaching generally, the coming of the Commonwealth is central. It is the first petition, and the other petitions can be understand as unpacking it. This is especially true of what follows immediately: “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” This can be understood as a synonym for the coming of the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth is to be on earth, and it is to be a transformed situation in which God’s purposes are fulfilled.
The prayer goes on to the very practical and mundane issue of food, and its approach has nothing to do with the complex Jewish laws governing food. The petition is not that all people, or even all Jews, will obey these laws. The petition is that we human beings have food to eat. In any society in which some are seriously hungry, God’s will is not being done. We do not misrepresent Jesus, if we think of the petition for daily food as symbolizing that all the basic physical needs of human beings are to be met.
The next line in the prayer moves to the economic order. It requests that debts be forgiven and expresses the willingness to take part in such forgiveness ourselves. Some have supposed that the issue of financial debts would apply only to a few individuals and have thought it a strange item in so brief and universal a prayer. Others have assumed that debts should be paid, not forgiven, and hence have refused to believe that Jesus would ask us to pray for such a thing.
Indeed, many have avoided this translation. In my own tradition, the Methodist, we follow the Catholic and Episcopal traditions and pray for the forgiveness of our “trespasses.” This moves the question away from economics and into personal morality. Since “a trespass” now connotes a very limited range of misdemeanors, some modern translations simply speak of the “wrongs we have done” or of “sins.”
But those who are most faithful to the Greek continue to translate as “debts”. The King James translation and its subsequent revisions recognize that this is the meaning of the Greek; so we recite the prayer differently from the way we read the prayer in our Bibles. The shift from the economic order to personal morality began already in Matthew, since he changes to “trespasses” in his explanation following the prayer. Like Matthew, the whole the church has been more comfortable talking about personal morality than about economics. Even those who use “debts” in the prayer have often interpreted them in terms of personal morality.
But Jesus, like the prophets before him, had the economic order in view. “Debts” are not just one small element in the economy. The whole money economy is based on debt. It had been crucial for at least two thousand years before the time of Jesus and it is even more central in our economy today. But in God’s Commonwealth, Jesus believed, there would be debt.
Obviously, Jesus does not explain what kind of economic order will replace the economy of debt, but we can get some glimpse of the issue by distinguishing the “real economy” and the “paper economy.” The real economy is the actual production and exchange of commodities and services. The paper economy is the overlay of financial arrangements, including ownership of the means of production, which turns many people into those who work for others.
Until the industrial revolution, land was the chief means of production. In many societies, including Israel, most people wanted to possess their own land and support themselves by their own labor. This was widely understood to be the original and normative situation. But it easily eroded, and has done so repeatedly all over the world. The main cause of this erosion has been debt.
Because of the weather, sickness, or some special need, a farmer runs short of cash. He has to borrow, giving his land as collateral. But the problem often persists, so that he has to borrow more or, at least, cannot pay the money back with interest. The land is then transferred to the lender. The farmer becomes a landless worker. Sometimes, he has to borrow again, this time with no collateral but himself. When he cannot pay, he becomes a slave. In Genesis we read how Joseph showed the Pharaoh how to use the famine in Egypt to turn the peasant population into the slaves of Pharaoh. The shift from a relatively egalitarian society of peasant farmers to a hierarchical society of landowners and slaves is typically mediated by debt.
At least in theory, the Jews had laws to reverse this process and restore the original egalitarianism from time to time. Leviticus, Chapter 25, spells this out in some detail in its requirement of a year of Jubilee every fifty years. This centers on the forgiveness of debt. There can be little doubt that Jesus’ prayer for the forgiveness of debt echoed the promise of the year of Jubilee, and that the followers of Jesus, as well as his enemies, understood this connection.
Luke tells us that after his baptism by John and his temptation in the wilderness, Jesus went back to Nazareth to speak. Here, too, we get a glimpse of his understanding of the Commonwealth. He read a prophesy from Isaiah and then quite explicitly announced that he was bringing about its fulfillment. The prophecy was as follows: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to bring release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (4:18-19)
This built on the hope for the year of Jubilee as well as on the whole prophetic tradition that called for justice for the poor and oppressed and freedom for the captives. It was obviously subversive in relation to the established order of the Roman Empire, which like all empires, was based on the exploitation of the majority of the population and the imprisonment of those who resisted. The one advantage of retaining the usual translation of basileia theou as Kingdom of God, or shifting, with the Jesus Seminar, to “Empire of God,” is that this makes the direct challenge to the Roman Empire more obvious.
For more clarity about the great reversal that is the coming of the Commonwealth of God we can turn to the Beatitudes. We should not be thrown off by the fact that Matthew reports Jesus as speaking of the basileia of heaven instead of God. He substitutes “heaven” for “God” in accordance with the discomfort of many Jews is speaking so directly of God. There is no change of meaning. The Sermon on the Mount is also an account of the Commonwealth Jesus proclaimed. To make this clear, the first beatitude speaks directly of the coming Commonwealth of Heaven. The rest presuppose that this is the locus of the reversal they proclaim.
In light of the coming Commonwealth, who are blessed? Matthew begins with the poor in spirit, initiating the long history of spiritualizing Jesus’ very earthly teaching. Luke retains the original “poor”. In addition, the blessed are those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for justice and righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted for the sake of justice and righteousness.
Thus far my statements are hardly controversial among New Testament scholars. There are, of course, debates about which parts of the Lord’s Prayer and the beatitudes actually go back to Jesus and about the factuality of the account of his preaching in Nazareth. But that Jesus understood his mission to be the proclamation of the basileia theou and that its coming would turn society upside down is widely agreed.
There is further agreement that a distinctive form of the proclamation was Jesus’ table fellowship. In contrast to the many Jewish teachers deeply concerned to observe the many Jewish laws regulating food and eating, Jesus invited all to the table. In this inclusiveness he intended to foreshadow the inclusiveness of the coming Commonwealth in which the social distinctions that define all civilized societies would cease to shape human relations.
In contrast to this widespread agreement, there has been extensive discussion and debate about how Jesus understood the coming of the Commonwealth. There are passages that suggest that Jesus was an apocalyptic. That would mean that he expected God to impose the Commonwealth on the world in a way disconnected from preceding events. Present human actions, according to this reading, affect one’s condition in the Commonwealth, but they in no way contribute to its coming.
At the other extreme, there are passages that suggest that the Commonwealth is already in us or among us. We may hope that it will grow in size and influence, but we can participate in it now. Generally, this view accompanies a spiritualized view of the Commonwealth, but it can also identify the Commonwealth with the church.
I believe the most plausible view is that the coming of the Commonwealth is indeed the work of God, hoped for and expected in the future. But it is possible, and indeed urgent, that people now live in terms of what is coming. And when they do so, the anticipated Commonwealth is to that extent already realized among them. Its coming will grow out of what is already present, for what is already present is a product of its coming.
However this relation of present to future is best formulated, the proclamation of the Commonwealth is inseparably connected with the call for metanoia. This is usually translated repentance. Both Matthew and Mark make the connection explicit. In Matthew we read: “From that time Jesus began to proclaim: “Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near”(4:17). Mark writes: “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news”(1:14).
Unfortunately, repentance is too often thought of as feeling remorse over particular sins and desisting from them. It is easy to focus on personal sins as these are defined by existing structures and values. But this is clearly not what Jesus called for.
Metanoia is a drastic change of mind and direction. Jesus called for people to reorient their lives from the structures and values of the dominant order to the structures and values of the Commonwealth. When they did that, the Commonwealth was already in their midst. For them to pray for the Commonwealth to come without reorienting their lives toward it would have been meaningless.
Jesus saw the anticipatory presence of the Commonwealth already in the table fellowship that he practiced. The communities of his disciples, after his death and resurrection, ordered themselves in countercultural ways shaped by Jesus’ understanding of what God was doing and would do. Prior to the Constantinian establishment, it was not nonsensical to see the church as the foretaste of the Commonwealth for which it continued to pray.
It is important in this connection not to suppose that any countercultural community of this kind has ever been or will ever be free of problems and controversies. The letters of Paul are to a large extent his responses to problems arising in the congregations that he established. As far as I recall, Jesus never said that the divine Commonwealth would be free of controversy or that everyone in it would be content. Certainly, if we define the Commonwealth in that way, the ancient church cannot be viewed as the Commonwealth of God even in an anticipatory sense!
Thus far I have tried to give some indication of what it meant to be Christian in the days of Jesus and the centuries immediately following his death and resurrection. But our concern is what it means today. My thesis is that it continues to mean to be Jesus’ disciples. That means, in turn, that we too should live from the structures and values of the Commonwealth proclaimed by Jesus rather than from those of the dominant society and world order.
There is one difference between our situation and that in the Roman Empire. This is a difference exaggerated by Christian conservatives and sometimes underestimated by Christian progressives. An accurate assessment of its importance has to be made again and again in each new situation.
The difference is that efforts to be disciples of Jesus over many centuries have influenced the dominant society and world order. This was not true, obviously, in the time of Jesus or prior to the Constantinian era. But the establishment of Christianity was not simply the cooptation of Christian teaching and institutions by the empire, although it was certainly that. It also involved some Christianization of the dominant understanding of society and government. Today in the United States there are some respects in which the dominant society and even the government have been Christianized.
Progressives are tempted to be cynical about this. Throughout the history of Christendom it is easier to see the respects in which society has remained hierarchical than any lessening of social barriers. It is easier to see how the powerful have exploited the poor than how the poor have been defended against such exploitation. It is easier to see how governments have sought power over others than how they have cooperated for the benefit of their people.
That is not all. It is easier to see how the church has acted according to the structures and values of a non-Christian world than how it has changed those structures and values. It is easier to see how appeal to Christian teaching has been used to justify policies and practices that are continuous with the world Jesus condemned rather than expressive of the Commonwealth he proclaimed. It is easier to see how Christian commitment has been channeled more into enmity toward those who are not Christian than into an inclusive fellowship embracing all.
For these reasons in every century there have been serious Christians who established communities subversive of the order that they believed was falsely named Christian, and there have been many others who lived their personal discipleship in quiet protest against the dominant forms of both church and society. There is need for those responses today.
But this is not the only response for disciples today. Despite all the failures, all the hypocrisies, all the exploitation of Christian teaching for non-Christian ends, there are features of our society that we should celebrate as foretastes of the Commonwealth of God. There are elements in our shared heritage on which Jesus’ disciples can build.
Consider the relationship of ruler to ruled. It is now widely assumed that the task of rulers is to serve those they rule. Of course, there is much empty rhetoric; rulers continue to exploit the ruled for personal gain; and still more often they serve their rich constituents at the expense of the poor. But the norm of public service still exists and has real effects in the body politic.
This norm is closely connected with the idea of the rule of law. I celebrate the fact that when Richard Nixon was in danger of being deposed, he seems never to have seriously considered using his authority as commander-in-chief to block this process. Perhaps he knew he could not because the ethos of the military establishment would not allow it. But whether it was his own deep acceptance of the priority of law or the fundamental commitment of the military leadership not to interfere in such governmental matters, there is much here for which we should be grateful. This may seem to be at some remove from Jesus’ explicit teaching, but I believe it illustrates developments in Christendom that establish a contrast between our government and that of Rome.
Consider also the treatment of those who do not succeed by the standards of the society. Christianity has taught that every human being is a child of God and should be recognized and treated as such by society. For many centuries the task of ministering to the poorest fell to the church. During those centuries the church had resources comparable to those of the state. As the church lost these resources, gradually responsibility for the poorest of the poor had to be turned over to the state. The state accepted this responsibility. This has occurred much more fully in Europe than in the United States, but here, too, even those who are most critical of the government dole do not advocate sheer abandonment of these people to starvation. And the mainstream of American opinion remains committed to maintaining some minimum of care for all. I am not saying that such commitment has not arisen from other traditions. But in our context, it comes primarily from Jesus and his disciples through the centuries.
I have not mentioned democracy in general. Europe owes democratic theory more to the Greeks than to Israel or Jesus. Nevertheless, when we consider the development of democracy in Christendom, we must acknowledge a Christian role. For the Greeks, only the male citizens participated in democracy, whereas citizens constituted a small elite in the population as a whole. There were some ideas among Greek philosophers that might, in time, have led to a broadening of participation and a freeing of the slaves. That is speculation. The actual source of establishing democracy, broadening participation, and freeing slaves was Christian discipleship.
Even today, in a society in which Christian teaching plays a much smaller role than was once the case, we can see its work in the present experiment to build a culturally and religiously pluralistic society. There is, of course, also much resistance from Christians. Many feel nostalgia for the time that British Protestantism was, for practical purposes, the established religion of the United States. I myself believe that this was in general a relatively healthy relationship for some period of time, and I believe that the willingness of many Anglo-Protestants to surrender their dominance and to accept a genuinely pluralistic ideal reflects the best of that tradition. It has kept alive Jesus’ teaching of inclusiveness and brought it to the fore when the socio-cultural situation called for it.
Part of this tradition was a strong affirmation of the freedom of individuals and communities to worship as their consciences require. This affirmation has now been adopted in the United States by traditions that have in the past resisted it and, even now, fail to practice it fully where they are dominant. The tradition arose among disciples of Jesus at a time in history when the choice was between suppressing many Christian voices and giving them freedom. Surely the latter choice was more faithful to Jesus. It is now accepted by almost all of American society.
We Southerners, especially, must confess with pain our long failure to be disciples of Jesus in a context of slavery and segregation. We have more to confess than to celebrate even today. Nevertheless, the Christian church in the United States, including the South, has come a long way. No church now officially advocates and intentionally justifies slavery or teaches racism. Although many people who call themselves Christian are still in fact deeply racist in their attitudes, and although many politicians, and even preachers, subtly exploit this racism, the dominant culture, including the church culture, does not support it.
I will close this discussion of the Christianizing of society and the church that has actually occurred with some comments on the issue that is now dividing the church most painfully. This is the issue of the status of practicing homosexuals in the church. Some of us believe strongly that disciples of Jesus should welcome them to the table on an equal basis with practicing heterosexuals. Both, as disciples of Jesus, should subordinate their sexual desires to their discipleship and shape their sexual practices accordingly. In my view, this usually means seeking faithful bonding with a partner, rather than either sexual promiscuity or sexual abstinence.
There are others who hold strongly that only sexual abstinence is acceptable for those who are not attracted to the opposite sex. They regard the recognition of their faithful unions or their ordination to be deeply antithetical to biblical teaching. I disagree and am glad to discuss the matter in strictly biblical terms, but that is not my point here.
My point is, instead, that there has been some Christianization of the church as a whole. Even those who are most opposed to same-sex sex recognize that those who practice it are persons of sacred worth. They welcome them into the fellowship of the church. These Christians connect this welcoming with the prospect that in this fellowship homosexuals will repent of their practice. They hold out hope of a transformation of sexual orientation. I believe they are mistaken in their judgment and their approach. But my present point is that the debate in our churches is not between those who accept and those who reject homosexuals as persons. It is about what the two groups understand to be the right path of discipleship for those whose sexual attraction is directed only to members of their own gender. It has not always been so! We can celebrate the Christianizing of the church.
Now many Christians will complain that in my account of what it has meant through the centuries to be disciples of Jesus I have said little about personal morality. They are right. This is because Jesus said little about personal morality in abstraction from one’s basic orientation. The Judaism of his day had many, many rules about personal behavior. Jesus followed many of them, but when any of these rules prevented action that benefited human beings or other creatures, he violated them. The Sabbath is made for human beings, he argued, not human beings for the Sabbath. In other words, for Jesus, the overriding principle of conduct is responding to creaturely needs, not obeying moral rules. The one law on which he insisted was the law of love. During his lifetime, the fullest implementation of that law may have been to sell all one’s possessions and follow him. But Jesus did not turn this into a moral law. Central as the critique of riches was to Jesus’ teaching, his disciples are left to find their own way with respect to possessions. Jesus did not speak the language of moral laws or rules of conduct.
This is even clearer in the apostle Paul. He systematically opposed the idea that the Christian life included the obedience to rules, even a few simple ones. The Christian life was one of faithfulness to Jesus. Trying to obey moral rules or principles got in the way of that faithfulness.
Many of the Jewish laws were based on the deep-seated idea that some things or practices are unclean. Peter was taught in a vision not to think of Gentiles in that way. But only Paul was entirely clear that nothing is unclean. Laws protecting us from impurity make no sense.
Does this mean that discipleship has been primarily political or a matter of social ethics. Not in the usual sense of those terms. Most discipleship has always been lived out in family and church and community and in private reflection and devotion. But how one thinks, how one relates to others is also political. Surely that has been very obvious in the South. Treating Blacks as friends and equals was long socially dangerous for whites, and even politically so. A congregation that tried seriously to be faithful to Jesus would have trouble not only with the wider society but with church authorities as well.
Furthermore, some Christians in every generation have found that they were called to concern themselves with the structures of society. Some protested not simply individual cruelty to slaves but slavery as an institution and, later, segregation as law as well as social practice. Some were not satisfied to try to help individual children exploited in the early days of the industrial revolution. They sought to protect all children from such exploitation. Some were distressed by the fact that many children were growing up illiterate. They not only tried to help a few children but also established schools that could help many, and then persuaded the whole of society to take responsibility for the education of all children.
All of these extensions from purely personal morality to social action depended on the cultivation of Christian values in intimately personal ways. The clash between the disciple’s understanding of the Commonwealth of God and the reality observed in society led to action designed to influence society to change. For the most part the changes have been effected by appealing to other disciples who resonate to the new possibilities because of their connection to the structures and values of the Commonwealth. The personal and the political merge into one another, and the political gains would have been impossible without the personal base.
Sadly, the idea that personal devotion and social action are widely separate has arisen in the church in recent decades. No doubt some of us concerned for social change have contributed to this development. Our passion for racial justice or peace may have led us to neglect the nurture of children in our churches, or even in our homes. We may have been so concerned to end poverty by political means that we have neglected to work with the poor to overcome habits and attitudes that prevent their success in the economy. In short, we may have neglected to emphasize the fact that people everywhere are whole people who need a ministry that calls them to discipleship and not just laws that insure that they have the money to buy groceries.
We have also made mistakes when we belittled the institutional church in favor of our social causes. I recall when my Annual Conference in southern California voted to abandon church extension in the new suburbs and devote its resources to work in the inner city. Accordingly we failed to develop congregations in newly populated communities, while we declined in old settled ones. The result is that now the conference has far fewer resources to employ anywhere.
On the other side, there are those who emphasize the need for a salvation that seems to have little to do with the concrete realities of this life. Sometimes it seems to be conditional on obeying particular laws and believing particular propositions. Sometimes it seems to be a matter of having a particular kind of emotional experience. Sometimes the results seem more to be expressed in loyalty to a particular group than in a passion for including all and concern for the flourishing of all. The relation of any of this to the New Testament is tenuous at best, and his distracted the church from speaking relevantly to the larger society.
But this issue of social ethics versus personal religion has faded in importance as those who once opposed the political activity of the churches have organized themselves so effectively to that end. The present question about discipleship is a different one. What are the issues that Jesus’ teaching of the Commonwealth of God now calls us to address? Although there are some agreements across a broad spectrum of Christian activists, there is also a tragic polarization.
What is now called the religious right emphasizes a number of issues. Although it makes a broad appeal to the Bible, they seem less closely related to biblical teaching than are the emphases of progressive Christians. Certainly they are less closely related to Jesus’ proclamation of the Commonwealth of God. We do not have time to discuss these issues at length, but we can remind ourselves of what they are and what they represent.
One set of issues centers around the role of Christianity in the public sphere. The religious right believes that history and present statistics justify a privileged place for Christian teaching and practice. They resent the way in which the political left has read its own secular thought back into the tradition and employed ideas originally intended to protect the freedom of the churches in order to marginalize them.
A second set of issues relates to American patriotism. The United States is not viewed simply as one nation among others but, at least historically and normatively, as a specifically Christian nation. The defense of Christianity at home and abroad is closely identified with patriotism. The basic virtue of the United States is such that its citizens can assume that when it goes to war it does so for just cause. Hence Christians should give the nation strong support in its foreign policy and participate in its wars.
A third set of issues is discussed under the heading of family values. These have to do primarily with gender roles and sexual behavior. The religious right favors the traditional model of different roles for men and women. The husband is the head of the household and economically responsible for it. The wife stays home and raises children. Children are protected from sexual encounters through adolescence and, ideally, until marriage. The religious right holds that sex education that is anything other than moral condemnation of fornication weakens the family. The acceptance of faithful relations between persons of the same gender also is felt as a threat to the family. So is the feminist movement in general, along with the laws that emphasize equal opportunity for women.
A fourth set of issues deals with welfare. The religious right believes that the encouragement of personal responsibility is primary. Providing funds for people who do not take personal responsibility reduces the likelihood of their maturation and moral growth. Hence, government policy should focus on pushing people off the dole and toward self-support. I cannot resist pointing out the tension between the implementation of this policy with mothers of young children and the family values that are also affirmed.
Progressive Christians pay considerably more attention to scripture. Although they agree with some of the points emphasized by the religious right, they judge that, on the whole, their position reflects aspects of American culture that are quite different from anything affirmed in the New Testament. Of course, supporters of the right may reasonably argue that their views were developed in Christian tradition as it confronted changing situations. Hence the lack of direct connection need not invalidate the claims to be Christian, although it does show the weakness of the frequent claim to be biblical.
There are many progressives, even some in the churches, who do not much care whether their views are Christian. They are committed to peace and justice and sustainability and feel no need to articulate the rootage of these commitments. For them, these are simply self-evident goods requiring no further justification. Their passionate support for important causes, cut off from explicit connection to the scripture and Christian traditions, has led many conservatives to discount the relevance to the church of what they say and do.
Nevertheless, in fact, these progressives are more fully grounded in the message of Jesus than is the religious right. And many of us do care very much what Jesus said about the Commonwealth of God. We try again in our time to see how that vision can guide us, not only in personal relations, but in political reflections as well. We believe that central to Jesus’ message was concern for the poor. This certainly includes concern that they be good disciples taking responsibility for their own lives and seeking to serve others. We confess to having underemphasized this side of the message. We celebrate the success of the liberation theologians in Latin America in helping the poor find their own voice and to speak and act in their own behalf. But we note that during the war on poverty, when there was some success in this regard in the United States, funds were quickly withdrawn without protest from the religious right. We fear that some may want the poor to accept the current social and economic structures and to conform to the values of the middle class rather than to speak out of their own experience and need.
Jesus’ call for the inclusion of the poor in the Commonwealth did not await their personal conversion. Jesus’ emphasis on feeding the hungry and clothing the naked did not suggest that only those who have proved themselves worthy should be fed and clothed. Jesus’ call for the abolition of debt showed that he understood that the condition of the poor is a function of an economic order that exploits them.
Although progressives should celebrate the extent of the Christianization of society that has already occurred, this cannot blind us to the gap between what our nation is and Jesus’ vision of the divine Commonwealth. Everywhere we look, there are still problems of exclusion by both society and church. Huge numbers of people are alienated from the political processes of democracy. Whereas we celebrate the movements toward justice and opportunity for the poor that were made during the middle decades of the preceding century, we can only deplore the systematic dismantling of these gains that has been taking place since the 1980s.
We rejoice that the American experiment in multicultural democracy has been a beacon of hope to many all over the world. We rejoice in the connection between American culture and laws and the affirmation of the rights of all human beings. But all the more, we are distressed by growing tendencies to undercut these achievements and to restrict human rights.
We rejoice that the industrial revolution with all its exploitation of workers finally gave rise in the industrialized world to great improvement in the quality of the lives of workers. But, all the more, we are distressed by the reversal of this achievement since the 1980s, the growing gap between rich and poor in the United States, and the exportation of the worst features of the early industrial revolution all around the world.
We see much to be proud of in the American role in the world in the twentieth century. Especially the defeat of Japanese and German imperialism and the reconstruction of those nations along democratic lines stand as great historical achievements to which disciples of Jesus contributed. But we acknowledge that in our conquest of the land that is now the United States and in our assumption of hegemony over Latin America, our actions have been formed not from a vision of the Commonwealth of God but much more in imitation of Roman imperialism. We are frightened by the express call of some of our most influential leaders for us to establish a global Pax Americana modeled on the Pax Romana established by the Roman Empire. To us this seems diametrically contrary to what we as disciples of Jesus can accept.
Our concerns are heightened by developments in the late twentieth century not anticipated in any way by Jesus. We have become aware that our human actions are damaging not only to fellow human beings but also to the Earth’s biosphere. The creation that, according to Genesis 1, God saw to be very good is threatened by us who are called to be its stewards. Our concern for the Earth interacts with our concerns for justice for the poor, and for democracy and human rights at home and abroad. Together they cause us a sense of urgency that can hardly be exaggerated. The United States is using its global dominance to impose policies everywhere that worsen the lot of the poor for the sake of increasing production. This increase is undermining the future of the planet. These policies are so deeply contrary to the coming of God’s Commonwealth that those who seek to be Jesus’ disciples feel called to struggle with particular intensity.
The choice before American Christians today, more clearly than for many centuries, is that between living from the structures and values of Empire and living from the structures and values of the Commonwealth of God. In the language of Deuteronomy, it is the choice between death and life. Probably the majority of those who understand themselves to be Christians will be so preoccupied with their personal and family matters, so needful of taking pride in their country, so willing to accept authority, so habituated to customs and ideas that were once useful but are now destructive, that they will, largely unconsciously, choose Empire and death.
Our situation today in this country is not unlike that in Germany in the 1930s. The great majority of German Christians refused to recognize the seriousness of the crisis they faced. They either embraced Hitler’s leadership or went along. Any alternative was far too costly to consider seriously. Most focused on the issues of daily life and rejoiced in the pride Hitler encouraged them to take in their German nationality. They ignored what awareness they had of the viciousness of his policies and the self-destructive nature of his imperial ambitions.
But, thank God, there were also those in German who sought seriously to be disciples of Jesus. They constituted themselves as the confessing church, which acknowledged no leader but Jesus. They remained faithful, and some of them did what they could toward overthrowing him, even assassinating him. Today the Christians of Germany have much of which to be ashamed, but they also can rejoice that there was an authentic Christian witness in a time of darkness.
There are great differences between our situation and that of Christians in Germany in the 1930s. We can still protest what we see as wrong with little danger to ourselves. Our churches retain great freedom to exercise faithfulness to Jesus when they choose to do so. Our government still shows signs of the Christianization of which I have spoken. But on the other hand, the danger to the future of the Earth is greater now than then. The urgency of change is, therefore, certainly not less. The call of discipleship is as critical now as then.