By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
In 2016 most white Christians voted for a president whose morality is the antithesis of that taught by Jesus. It reflected a dysfunctional democracy and a church that has lost its moral compass. To restore the primacy of the universal teachings of Jesus over exclusivist church doctrines, the church must go back to the future and be born again with a new Pentecost.
The earliest Christians were Jews who believed that Jesus was their long-awaited messiah, even if they had to wait for him to return in a parousia. They considered themselves disciples of Jesus and people of The Way, not as Christians in a new religion. They had no religious structure and met in small groups to share their faith and await the return of Jesus.
When there was no parousia, Paul asserted that God sent Jesus as a blood sacrifice to atone for the sins of all believers--a very Jewish idea (Romans 3:25). Paul’s atonement doctrine became the foundation of faith in the early church, and Martin Luther’s Reformation doctrine of sola fide (faith alone) reaffirmed belief in the atonement doctrine as the only means of salvation.
The Enlightenment of the 18th century brought advances in knowledge and reason to politics and religion; but Christian fundamentalists saw that progress as a threat to the Bible as the inerrant and infallible word of God. They diluted the divine authority of Jesus with a panoply of patriarchs and prophets in the Bible.
Jesus taught his disciples to follow him, not to worship him. But discipleship was never popular, so the church subordinated it as a means of salvation to exclusivist belief in Jesus as the Trinitarian alter ego of God. Jesus never equated himself with God, but as a form of cheap grace that belief allowed Christianity to become the world’s most popular and powerful religion.
It will take another Pentecost to give the universal teachings of Jesus priority over exclusivist church doctrines. His teachings are summarized in the greatest commandment to love God and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, including our neighbors of other races and religions. It’s a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike.
A 21st Century Pentecost would not likely resemble the first Pentecost. Hollywood can do even better special effects than wind and fire. It would likely evolve over time as hearts and minds are transformed by the Holy Spirit, bringing people together to assume the stewardship of democracy and balancing individual wants and rights with providing for the common good.
Some maverick Christian leaders are already preparing for a new Pentecost. Jim Wallis, Robin Meyers, John Pavlovitz and other Progressive Christians are promoting the universalist and altruistic teachings of Jesus in both their faith and politics. Like John Wesley’s 18th century Methodists, they emphasize that salvation comes from following Jesus, not worshiping him.
John Wesley was a maverick Anglican priest who saw the need to put heart back into a stiff-necked Anglican church that ignored the political inequities of his day. His Methodists met weekly in small groups and practiced the moral imperatives taught by Jesus in orphanages, hospitals and on the street. Their discipleship may well have avoided a civil war in England.
When Methodism came to America it abandoned Wesley’s model of discipleship in order to become a popular religion. Like Wesley’s Anglicans, United Methodists and other Protestant denominations have abdicated their role as moral stewards of democracy and become sterile social institutions that promote mystical and exclusivist religious beliefs bereft of morality.
The moral failure of the American church has left a vacuum in politics that will likely be filled by refugees from the church and other religions (nones) who have rejected traditional religion but share faith in the universal and altruistic teachings of Jesus. Unless the traditional church is reborn, it’s doomed to wither and die in a world of increasing religious diversity.
The Jewish Day of Pentecost is the 50th day after the Sabbath of Passover week. It became the first Christian Pentecost 50 days after the Resurrection and is considered the birthday of the church. (Acts 2:1-12) Pentecost Sunday (June 9) is a good time to consider the rebirth of a church that has lost its moral compass. It requires us to See the Resurrection in a New Light--not as Paul conceived it to be, as God’s blood sacrifice of His only Son to atone for the sins of all believers, but as God’s validation of the teachings of Jesus as God’s universal and transforming truth--a living word of God (the Logos) that will never die. See http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2015/04/seeing-resurrection-in-new-light.html.
Acts 2:1-12 provides an account of the first Pentecost with its wind and fire. John’s Gospel has Jesus telling Nicodemus that he must be reborn of the Spirit to experience the kingdom of God (John 3:3-8); and later has Jesus tell his disciples that after he leaves them God will send them the Holy Spirit to “...teach you all things and remind you of everything I have said to you.” (John 14:25-26). Pentecost is a great mystery of faith on how the Holy Spirit can transform each of us and the church through spiritual rebirth.
Matthew Avery Sutton marks May 25, 1919, as the day Christian fundamentalism was born in America, when “6,000 ministers, theologians and evangelists came together in Philadelphia for a weeklong series of meetings. The men and women assembled there believed that God had chosen them to call Christians back to the “fundamentals” of the faith, and to prepare the world for one final revival before Jesus returned to earth. ...As the fundamentalist movement grew and expanded, its leaders waged war against religious modernists for control of the major Presbyterian, Baptist and Methodist churches, colleges, seminaries and missionary boards. The liberal Christian Century magazine summed up the controversy in 1924: “The differences between fundamentalism and modernism are not mere surface differences, which can be amiably waved aside or disregarded, but they are foundation differences, structural differences, amounting in their radical dissimilarity almost to the differences between two distinct religions.”
...While modernist Protestants emphasize patience, humility, willingness to compromise and tolerance on a range of important issues, at least in terms of ideals if not always practices, fundamentalists believed that they were engaged in a zero-sum game of good versus evil. ...Jesus was coming soon to separate the sheep from the goats, and they wanted to be ready.
The political positions embraced by early fundamentalists...hardened over time. They called for limited government and battled anything that seemed to threaten Christians’ rights and freedoms. They fretted about changes in the culture, and especially those that upended what they saw as traditional gender roles. In foreign policy, they championed isolationism and...called on American leaders to act unilaterally. They also became some of the country’s most ardent and unapologetic Zionists.”
Robert Jeffress and Franklin Graham are evangelical leaders who illustrate the conflict between partisan “Christianity” and the teachings of Jesus. Jeffress told Fox news: “Churches like mine that are teaching the bible, we're growing furiously, ...It's not because people are attracted to me, but in an ever-changing world people are craving the never-changing truth of God's word. ...The number of evangelicals turning out at the ballot box is greater than other groups because evangelicals have deeper convictions, They believe in absolute moral and spiritual truth, and they tend to vote those convictions at the ballot box.” https://www.newsweek.com/christians-who-support-trump-are-morally-and-spiritually-superior-other-1373393. In a Facebook post, Franklin Graham called for Christians to ask God to embolden President Trump against foes on June 2. Graham said “In the history of our country, no president has been attacked as he has.” His post went onto say “I believe the only hope for him, and this nation, is God. This is a critical time for America. We’re on the edge of a precipice. Time is short. We need to pray for God to intervene. We need to ask God to protect, strengthen, encourage, and guide the President,” said his post. See https://www.charlotteobserver.com/news/local/article230871584.html.
Jim Wallis of Sojourners has summarized the Mueller Report by saying, “for me, the impeachment question isn’t just principled or political. It should not be avoided for political advantage or undertaken because of abstract principles that most Americans don’t know or wouldn’t vote for. Rather, we must all discern the strategic moral importance to the ultimate question of how to best remove an American dictator from the presidency. Would a formal impeachment process really increase the public’s access and awareness to information and witnesses from the White House in a way that would help reveal the truth and cause more voters to reject Trump at the ballot box? What will happen if, instead, the would-be dictator continues to successfully stonewall any investigative requests — as tyrants always do— even in the context of a formal impeachment inquiry? What would we do, arrest him?
For the sake of the moral health and, literally, democratic survival of the country, our moment requires a moral and not just a political response to the deep dangers of Donald Trump. That must ultimately be done via the process most likely to succeed (i.e., the 2020 election), and we must be careful about a process destined to fail that could make it even harder to end the increasingly dangerous power of Trump at the ballot box. And the faith community, which should never be politically partisan, must make moral decisions in elections and not succumb to Faustian political bargains. Donald Trump is, and always has been, a consummate liar, an amoral human being, a completely selfish man with no concern for any others, an ultimate wealth and power-seeking megalomaniac, and the kind of leader who always has and will always want to be a tyrant and dictator. Removing him from power is, therefore, a task central to the soul of the nation — and to the integrity of faith. See https://sojo.net/articles/i-word-d-word
Robin Meyers is the author of Saving Jesus from the Church: How to Stop Worshiping Christ and Start Following Jesus (HarperCollins Publishers, 2009), and the title of his book says it all. Meyers spoke at the Barnes Symposium at the University of South Carolina on April 12, 2019 on From Galilean Sage to Supernatural Savior (or, How I Became a Heretic with Help from Jesus). While Meyers is critical of the church, he has been pastor of Mayflower Church, a large UCC congregation in Oklahoma City, for over 30 years.
John Pavlovitch is a fellow maverick Methodist who has attracted a large following with his criticism of the church. He has attributed the increasing exodus of people from the church to its failure of moral leadership. See https://johnpavlovitz.com/2019/05/14/dear-church-heres-why-people-are-leaving/.
James Carroll is a former priest who has blamed moral decadence in the Catholic Church on “the vesting of power in an all-male and celibate clergy,” and argued that To Save the Church, Dismantle the Priesthood. “Clericalism, with its cult of secrecy, its theological misogyny, its sexual repressiveness, and its hierarchical power based on threats of a doom-laden afterlife, is at the root of Roman Catholic dysfunction. The clerical system’s obsession with status thwarts even the merits of otherwise good priests and distorts the Gospels’ message of selfless love, which the Church was established to proclaim. Clericalism is both the underlying cause and the ongoing enabler of the present Catholic catastrophe. See https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2019/06/to-save-the-church-dismantle-the-priesthood/588073/.
Elizabeth Scalia has shared her Pentecost testimony of a Mad, Fed-Up Catholic. Scalia laments: “Well, Lord, here we are again. This crap just never stops coming, and God, I’m getting so disgusted with it all, and if I could not find you in the Holy Eucharist, I wonder if I would find you anywhere else within this church, at least if I look among our “leaders.” So many of my friends are fed up and leaving, or getting close to leaving, and I get it, I do! I understand how they feel, even as I pray they won’t leave, because...because well, hell, how does leaving an imperfect something to wade into even less perfect nothing end up serving anything but the creature of the voids and the lowness?” The answer to Scalia’s question is that when a church becomes so dysfunctional that it cannot be reformed from within, it must die and be reborn of the Spirit in a new Pentecost. Intractable man-made problems call for drastic divine solutions. See https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2019/06/08/pentecost-testimony-mad-fed-catholic.
On the greatest commandment and love over law:
(1/11/15): The Greatest Commandment: A Common Word of Faith
(1/18/15): Love over Law: A Principle at the Heart of Legitimacy
(1/23/16): Who Is My Neighbor?
(1/30/16): The Politics of Loving Our Neighbors as Ourselves
(3/31/18): Altruism: The Missing Ingredient in American Christianity and Democracy
(10/13/18): Musings on a Common Word of Faith and Politics for Christians and Muslims
(2/23/19): Musings on Loving Your Enemy, Including the Enemy Within
On the future of a church that has lost its moral compass:
(2/8/15): Promoting Religion Through Evangelism: Bringing Light or Darkness?
(2/15/15): Is Religion Good or Evil?
(4/5/15): Seeing the Resurrection in a New Light
(4/19/15): Jesus: A Prophet, God’s Only Son, or the Logos? http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2015/04/jesus-prophet-god-only-son-or-logos.html
(7/9/16): Back to the Future: Race, Religion, Rights and a Politics of Reconciliation
(8/5/16): How Religion Can Bridge Our Political and Cultural Divide http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2016/08/how-religion-can-bridge-our-political.html
(9/17/16): A Moral Revival to Restore Legitimacy to Our Politics
(1/21/17): Religion and Reason Redux: Religion Is Ridiculous
(1/28/17): Saving America from the Church
(3/18/17): Moral Ambiguity in Religion and Politics
(4/15/17): Easter and the Christian Paradox
(4/22/17): The Relevance of Jesus and the Irrelevance of the Church in Today’s World
(4/29/17): A Wesleyan Alternative for an Irrelevant Church
(6/24/17): The Evolution of Religion, Politics and Law: Back to the Future?
(7/15/17): Religion and Progressive Politics
(7/22/17): Hell No!
(8/12/17): The Universalist Teachings of Jesus as a Remedy for Religious Exclusivism
(10/7/17): A 21st Century Reformation to Restore Reason to American Civil Religion http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/10/a-21st-century-reformation-to-restore.html.
(12/23/17): If Democracy Survives the Trump Era, Can the Church Survive Democracy? http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/12/if-democracy-survives-trump-era-can.html.
(3/3/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on America’s Holy War
(3/17/18): Jefferson’s Jesus and Moral Standards in Religion and Politics
(3/31/18): Altruism: The Missing Ingredient in American Christianity and Democracy
(4/7/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Need for a Moral Reformation
(4/28/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Virtues and Vices of Christian Morality
(5/5/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Nostalgia as an Obstacle to Progress
(5/12/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Christianity and Making America Great Again
(7/14/18): Musings on Why Christians Should Put Moral Standards Over Mystical Beliefs
(8/4/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Religious Problems and Solutions in Politics
(8/11/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Changing Morality in Religion and Politics
(9/1/18): Musings on the American Civil Religion and Christianity at a Crossroads
(9/29/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Resurrection of Christian Universalism
(10/6/18): Musings on Moral Universalism in Religion and Politics http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2018/10/musings-on-moral-universalism-in.html.
(12/1/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Mystical Logos
(12/15/18): Musings on the Great Commission and Religious and Political Tribalism
(12/22/18): Musings on Faith and Works: The Unity of All Believers and The Last Judgment
(2/9/19): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Hypocrisy of American Christianity
(3/2/19): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on a Post-Christian America
(3/9/19): Musings on the Degradation of Democracy in a Post-Christian America
(3/16/19): Musings on the Evolution of Christian Exclusivism to Universalism
(3/23/19): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Thinking Outside the Box
(5/4/19): Musings on the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
(5/11/19): Musings on the Relevance of Jefferson’s Jesus in the 21st Century
(5/18/19): Outsiders Versus Insiders in Religion, Legitimacy and Politics
(5/25/19): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Divinity and Moral Teachings of Jesus
(6/8/19): The Moral Failure of the Church to Promote Altruism in Politics