Sometimes, we become so accustomed to reading certain verses from the Bible that their impact begins to lose its punch. Take, for example, some of the many passages about love. These verses that we associate with weddings and coffee mugs and greeting cards are actually calling us to do very difficult things.
Love is foundational to God: “Love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 John 4:7-8). Jesus himself declares that the two greatest commandments are to “…love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind,” and to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-40).
The Christian faith should be centered upon love.
The Christian faith should be centered upon love. 1 Corinthians 13:1-7 states:
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Take a moment to read that passage again. Yes, you know it…but are you really hearing what it has to say?
Many folks don’t perceive Christian individuals, churches, institutions, and organizations in the United States as being loving, patient, or kind—and with good reason. Instead, Christians are often viewed as being the exact opposite: envious, boastful, arrogant, and rude. The credibility of Jesus has been marred by the hypocrisy of his namesake’s religion.
The credibility of Jesus has been marred by the hypocrisy of his namesake’s religion.
American Christianity became a clanging cymbal when it sent missionaries to other countries but refused to accept these same “foreigners” into their homeland. The sad irony is that while American Christianity created destabilization throughout the world by enthusiastically endorsing military interventions and devious foreign policies, they also saw themselves as an antidote to the resulting poverty, violence, and cultural ruin that was left behind. This pattern doesn’t glorify God, and it became a form of colonization disguised as religious charity.
American Christianity became a noisy gong when it gained political, social, cultural, and economic power at the expensive of vilifying LGBTQ individuals, oppressing people of color, deporting immigrants, denying refugees, abusing children, and assaulting women.
American Christianity promised eternal salvation in heaven while refusing to save refugees on earth. American Christianity promoted citizenship in God’s kingdom while denying citizenship to asylum seekers. American Christianity evangelized under the premises of grace and mercy while ruthlessly deporting people using cruelty and legalism. American Christianity claimed to be based on the pillars of truth and honesty, but endorsed politicians who lie and cheat. American Christianity pretended to worship the Prince of Peace while perpetuating endless wars across the world. American Christianity paid lip service to love and acceptance, but thrives on fear and oppression.
American Christianity became nothing when it promoted salvation by grace through a middle-eastern refugee who was arrested, incarcerated, tortured, and given the death penalty under Roman law, but refused to address a broken justice system infested with police brutality, unjust incarceration rates, state-sponsored torture, and the immorality of capital punishment.
American Christendom was founded upon the genocide of Indigenous nations, and the few who survived were enslaved, along with those brought in from the African continent and from what is now known as Central and South America. The patriotism American Christianity often exudes within its houses of worship is a revisionist lie that celebrates generations of white supremacy and the brutal suppression of others. Because after colonial “Christians” conquered their enemies, American Christianity’s narrative further devolved into a horror show of violence, corruption, greed, and authoritarian dominance. “Heretics” were killed, “witches” burned, humans sold as chattel, and all of this was baptized under the rationalization of “Christian law” and “missions.”
We have sinned far beyond our comprehension and in ways we cannot begin to fathom. So we must humbly listen to those whom Christendom has devastated—both Christians and non-Christians alike. The American Church must validate their pain, and accept our horrific failures. Religiosity, theology, nationalism, and patriotism were used to cloak our atrocities, and the truth-tellers and prophets were silenced or ignored.
The ramifications of our disastrous origin story are still widely felt today, and much of American Christianity’s “ministry” is in addressing the problems it originally created: systemic racism, unjust legal systems, economic inequality, biased educational institutions, unfair wages, political corruption, poverty, sexism, bigotry, xenophobia, and many other evils. These are the awful legacies of Christianity within the United States.
Of course, there are—and always were—Christian communities that selflessly loved and served others. Historically, despite being the most victimized by systems of oppression designed by white and patriarchal Christendom, people of color have long exuded the sacrificial love and authoritative resistance of Jesus. Strands of Christian communities did the right thing even when the majority did not. Notable figures such as Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Rev. Mineo Katagiri are just a few examples of Christ-followers faithfully loving God—and others—when so many would not.
We must always look to Jesus as the example of perfect love. This is the dichotomy Christians face today: reckoning the reality of Christ with the reality of a broken religion that’s been co-opted by political agendas, selfish ambition, and a lust for carnal power. Jesus confronted the religious establishment of his day by lamenting, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Matthew 15:9).
American Christendom must be willing to sacrifice itself in order to for Christ to be glorified.
American Christendom must be willing to sacrifice itself in order to for Christ to be glorified, and it must be willing to say, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).The American Church must take seriously the words of Jesus, who said: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).
To deny itself, giving up power, wealth, political control, and privilege isn’t something Christendom is known for doing, but for the sake of loving God and loving others it is the only Christ-like way forward. This is what love really means.
Stephen Mattson is the author of The Great Reckoning: Surviving a Christianity That Looks Nothing Like Christ.