If you want a religion that enables you to gain and exercise power over other people, then maybe Christianity is not the religion for you?
That thought came to mind when I read this article in the New York Times this past weekend: Christianity Will Have Power.
Now, I’m not historically ignorant. I know that Christianity HAS had power in our culture for around 1700 years. While this power has waned in Western Europe over the last few centuries, Christians in America have been able to hold on to power longer (that is, white Protestant Christians; black Christians and Christians from other ethnicities have not wielded power in our country). With no officially sanctioned government religion, it is unofficial power here, but it is still power.
The threat of losing this power has been something I’ve been told to fear since my youngest days. I grew up in the white evangelical Church having my teeth sharpened on bad eschatology (of the Left Behind variety) that said some cabal of atheists, Russians, Muslims, gays and lesbians was going to come get us! Within this was a weird balance between thinking this was all prophesied and had to happen, yet faithful Christians must still resist it and fight against it.
The biggest thing to be aware of, we were taught, was a man who would come along and promise safety and comfort. This man would trick fake Christians with promises of safety. To get this safety, all we would have to do is pledge our allegiance to him, above all else. Of course, the real and true Christians would resist this antichrist and face persecution.
With this in mind, its forever ironic to me that so many who warned of such an antichrist have been so quick to sell out their own morals, principles and ethics to support the precise person who fit the description we had been warned of! The very people who told me to be skeptical of smooth-talking political leaders making promises bought the offer of safety and power.
Now, for the record, I do not think Trump is The Antichrist. I do not think we should be looking for one person we would call “The Antichrist” if by that we mean one big, bad figure at the end of history. Instead, we ought to be aware of “antichrist” – anyone who denies that Jesus has come in the flesh (1 John 4:13). In Revelation 13 we meet the infamous “Beast” who demands worship and is often conflated with the antichrists mentioned in 1 John. Historically, this would have been a reference to the Roman Emperor who demanded to be recognized, and worshiped, as “Lord”. In demanding this, the Emperor usurped the place of the God revealed in Jesus. Anyone, or any empire, who promises military security, economic comfort and plenty of entertainment in exchange for your allegiance is an antichrist – from Egypt in Exodus to Babylon to Rome down to the American Empire today.
To this we could add a third point. When Jesus is tempted by Satan, Satan tells him that if he bows down in worship, Satan will give him all the nations of the world. Satan offers Jesus power. Jesus refuses. Jesus reveals a different form of power – not a power over others, but a power that comes through self-giving love and self-sacrifice, ultimately on the cross. What Jesus said no to, millions of white evangelicals have said yes to. We’ve take the bargain with Satan – we are willing to bow down to any beast/antichrist who promises to keep us safe.
Some might say this is too political. Christians must be political because everything is political. The prophets, Jesus, the early Christians and others through the ages have spoke truth to power. We cannot avoid being political, for everything is political. We can avoid being partisan though, by speaking truth to all sides and whomever is running the government. In this moment, white evangelical Christians need to reckon with whether we desire to follow the self-sacrificial way of Jesus or the comfortable and safe way of Satan.
Some might say this is too harsh. Perhaps. I will always admit I am harder on white evangelical Christians than I am on other Christians, because this is my family background. I read that article and I felt I knew those people. I am able to criticize because I have been in this world. I am harsh because they taught me the faith and it saddens me when they appear not to live it. Is it harsh to remind them of the way of Jesus which they taught me? Jesus never promised us power. To seek power over others, motivated by fear of what may happen, is to deny the way of Jesus which seeks to love others in self-sacrifice and love.
So again, if you want to gain power over others, then maybe the way of Jesus is not for you?
I do want to add, I do not think this means Christians should withdrawal or not be active American politics (or the politics of whatever country we find ourselves in). I believe our faith should inform our politics and that what is true is not just true for us, it is true for everybody. For example, the Bible speaks at length about caring for the poor and working for justice. We do not keep these private endeavors, as if God is not active outside the halls of our churches. I believe we do our best to work to make God’s vision for the world a reality as far as we can (noting that the reality is sin means we will never fully get there). This is tricky, for the temptation to power is always there. I believe we should be motivated by working for the good of all people and motivated by the love of God and vision of Jesus, rather than motivated by fear or a need for power over others. Obviously there is a lot there to unpack, but that is for another day.