Thursday, October 04, 2012

The “False Gods” of Evangelicalism

On September 12, 2012, Rob Asghar wrote a blog post for the Huffington Post accusing evangelical Christianity of pledging allegiance to an unholy Trinity which he calls the idols of Mars, mammon and sexual purity.  The idol of Mars refers to our allegedly bloodthirsty desire to resort to warfare when we should love our enemies instead.  Our worship of mammon is illustrated through our alleged allegiance to capitalistic materialism and hoarding material wealth.  Finally, he believes we are hypocrites by demanding sexual purity in society while worshipping at a materialistic altar ourselves.

Mr. Asghar does manage to exhibit a certain rhetorical flourish.  Like a good politician, he can get his audience to stand up and cheer as he holds their hands and navigates them down the path he wishes to travel so by the endof the journey they will proclaim along with him how utterly fair and reasonable his position appears.  And to be fair to Mr. Asghar, in many cases his position is fair and reasonable and he hits on some legitimate points that should cause some sincere reflection to take place within evangelical circles.  However, by taking his listeners by the hand and walking them down his path, he has carefully avoided allowing them to look from side to side and notice the other paths veering from Mr. Asghar’s trajectory, many of which are far more lit and enlightened than the destination to which they are being led.  In logical terms, Mr. Asghar commits the fallacy of universalizing the exception.  He points out a legitimate problem within evangelicalism but then overstates its prominence or effect.  He also makes little to no effort to understand the rationale of his “opponents’” position, so in many instances he ends up crafting a straw man and knocking it down.  As a result, while they are certainly some important things to take away from his piece, his ultimate conclusions are overly broad and not well thought-out.

First, I have to begin admitting my own biases. I am not a big fan of the Huffington Post. I believe I have found too many misrepresentations in their articles over time when I do some fact checking of my own that it has made it difficult for me to separate fact from fiction in their assertions. This is not to say that they are always wrong, just that I take what they say with a grain of salt until I have time to look into the issue myself. It has nothing to do with politics. I often feel the same way about Sean Hannity and Fox News.

That being said, I did find quite a bit in this article that I agree with. Christianity is about truth, metaphysics and the human condition, not politics per se. Is there cross over sometimes? Sure. But when we associate ourselves too deeply with a political party we run the risk of confusing our loyalty to Christ with our loyalty to a platform.  But while there was merit in some of Mr. Asghar’s general assertions, the problems arose when he tried to get more specific.

By way of introduction, Mr. Asghar accuses evangelicals of treating the Republican political platform as though it per se brings us closer to welcoming the kingdom of God on Earth.  He illustrates his point by arguing that in the 1960s Jerry Falwell allegedly taught that it was not the place of Christians to get involved in the world and that we should not use the political system in order to address injustices in civil rights or poverty.  In the 1980s, however, Rev. Falwell supposedly taught that it was a Christian’s responsibility to help shape a nation with a strong military and good family values.  Asghar then rhetorically asks at which point Rev. Falwell was “right.”

Mr. Asghar never explicitly said whether he agreed with the older statement he attributed to Falwell (i.e.,” it wasn't the Church's place to get involved in ‘the world,’”) aside from a brief mention at the end that Falwell was right “in the sense that his beliefs had an internal logic and consistency.” He also never cited any authority for his readers to cross check whether Rev. Falwell ever made these statements or explained how it is that Rev. Falwell somehow speaks for the whole of evangelical Christianity.  I for one do not agree that Christian consistency requires taking a hands-off approach to the world.

In the Great Commission Jesus said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20). We are told to “go” into the world. After all, it would be difficult to make disciples of people while maintaining a total separation. How can you know how to reach “the world” unless you are involved in “the world” and know what is important to people?

Getting to the trifold issues of Mars, mammon and sexual purity, there is some truth in what Mr. Asghar says here that must be acknowledged, but he is guilty of oversimplifying the issues.

I.          MARS

Certainly there are plenty of Bible verses telling us to love our enemies:

“But I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. Whoever hits you on the cheek, offer him the other also; and whoever takes away your coat, do not withhold your shirt from him either” (Luke 6:27-29).

“Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men” (Romans 12:17-18).

These verses, though, do not mean Jesus advocated total and absolute pacifism.

If a father walks in on someone abusing his minor child, should he kneel down at that moment and pray for the abuser or should he intervene, by whatever means necessary, to save his child’s life? In regard to the passage from Luke, it is possible to love your enemies and pray for them, but still stop them from doing evil. The father could stop this abuser from harming his child, then after the immediate threat is over, pray that this criminal’s heart will be softened and that he will end his violent ways. Some crime victims have even been known to reach out to their attackers in prison.

The Romans passage tells us not to repay “evil for evil.” Clearly the violence this attacker is perpetrating against the child is “evil,” but can we say the same about the violence the father must undertake in order to save his child? I do not believe all violence is “evil.” Therefore by engaging in violence to stop this criminal the father is not committing “evil,” so he is not repaying “evil for evil.”

I point this out simply to show that Mr. Asghar seems to automatically assume that evangelical Christians are inconsistent when “insisting that a war on America's ‘enemies’ must be prosecuted as ruthlessly as possible” while “their Lord told them that their chief job was to love and pray for their enemies.” The word “ruthlessly” is certainly a loaded term that Mr. Asghar never really explicates, but merely prosecuting a war against your enemies is not per se in contradiction to any of the teachings of Jesus. Take Ecclesiastes as another Biblical example:

“There is an appointed time for everything. And there is a time for every event under heaven— … A time to love and a time to hate; A time for war and a time for peace” (Ecclesiastes 3:1, 8)8) .

This suggests that under certain circumstances (although it does not specify what those circumstances are) war is appropriate. Jesus himself seemed to advocate violence at least in situations of self-defense:

“And He said to them, ‘But now, whoever has a money belt is to take it along, likewise also a bag, and whoever has no sword is to sell his coat and buy one’” (Luke 22:36).

In Luke 14:31-32 he told a parable about whether a wise King should go to war or not, an odd subject on which to base a parable if war is never justified.

For these reasons I personally subscribe to “Just War Theory.” Augustine of Hippo (St. Augustine) accepted this approach. When he explained Jesus’ command to “turn the other cheek,” he said, “What is here required is not a bodily action, but an inward disposition” (Contra Faustum Manichaeum, book 22). In Jesus’ time, hitting a man on the cheek was a way of insulting him, not necessarily an invitation to fisticuffs. Jesus saying to “turn the other cheek,” in cultural context, is more a statement to let him insult you all he wants, what difference does it make?

But if someone is committing evil against someone to whom we owe a duty of care, our call to love the victim certainly cannot be subservient to our call to love our enemies. We must and should act. So this begs the question of to whom do we owe a duty of care? Jesus answered this in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37). Being a “neighbor” is not a matter of genealogical relationship or geographic proximity. We are called to be neighborly to everyone, even those we do not like.

So if someone is committing evil and oppressing the powerless, we as Christians are called upon to act. This may not always require violent warfare, but sometimes it may, just as sometimes we may be called to necessary violence in order to defend our children. These, of course, are guiding principles. Reasonable minds may disagree over when warfare becomes necessary, but nothing in Jesus’ teaching establishes a per se rule that going to war is always wrong.

II.         MAMMON

In regard to mammon, we have a similar situation. Yes, there are some passages of scripture that speak out against the love of money:

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:19-21).

“No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth” (Matthew 6:24).

Mr. Asghar is absolutely correct that too many people seem to openly pursue money as the source for their security, and to the extent any of these people are Christian it is inconsistent with the teachings of Christ. As long as I have enough to provide for my family, I am not personally motivated by money. This whole concept is completely foreign to our culture. But again, simply suggesting that Jesus was opposed to wealth is not truly capturing the “big picture.”

When does someone become wealthy? At what precise dollar, or even penny, does one go from being in line with Jesus’ alleged teaching to being in violation of it? “Wealth” is a subjective term. Unless Mr. Asghar is prepared to argue that Jesus was opposed to the possession of any money whatsoever, he has to concede that at least to some extent Jesus did not oppose the accumulation of money (in fact, the disciples themselves collected money and it was held by Judas Iscariot). The question of when enough becomes too much then becomes impossible to answer if the only consideration is the balance in our checking accounts.

Jesus did not teach that having money was per se wrong. What he taught was that possessing money can become dangerous, because you start to look to your wealth for your security instead of understanding that everything you have was given to you in stewardship by God. Only He is ultimately in control, not us.

Take the following famous teaching:

“And Jesus said to His disciples, ‘Truly I say to you, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.’ When the disciples heard this, they were very astonished and said, ‘Then who can be saved?’ And looking at them Jesus said to them, ‘With people this is impossible, but with God all things are possible’” (Matthew 19:23-26).

Too often people stop reading after Jesus says that the camel is better off than the rich man. But if we keep reading we see that he clearly says that with God it is not impossible for a rich man to go to heaven. The key consideration is where your heart lies, not how big your balance is. If your heart lies in your money, you will hoard it and not do anything to help others. If your heart is with God, you will realize God gave you wealth for a reason and use your wealth accordingly.

Mr. Asghar accuses evangelicals of “proudly rationalizing the fortunes of the ‘job creators,’ and … belittling the plight of those who have less.”  He is correct that many people are out of work for entirely legitimate reasons that are completely beyond their control and sometimes these people believe that Republican politicians telling citizens to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” sound incredibly insensitive to their plight. But as with most of Mr. Asghar’s commentary, this does not tell the complete picture.  There are also many people who try to make a living off the system, moving from one benefit program to another in order to do everything in their power to avoid returning to work even when they are perfectly capable of doing so. As an attorney for the past 14 years, many of them have walked through my door.

I find an interesting parallel to this in the scripture about the pool of Bethesda.

“Now there is in Jerusalem by the sheep gate a pool, which is called in Hebrew Bethesda, having five porticoes. In these lay a multitude of those who were sick, blind, lame, and withered, waiting for the moving of the waters; for an angel of the Lord went down at certain seasons into the pool and stirred up the water; whoever then first, after the stirring up of the water, stepped in was made well from whatever disease with which he was afflicted. A man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there, and knew that he had already been a long time in that condition, He said to him, ‘Do you wish to get well?’ The sick man answered Him, ‘Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, but while I am coming, another steps down before me.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Get up, pick up your pallet and walk.’ Immediately the man became well, and picked up his pallet and began to walk” (John 5:2-9).

When I first read this, I remember being struck by Jesus’ question, “Do you wish to get well?” My initial reaction was, “Well, duh! Who wouldn’t want to get cured? Why do you think he’s sitting by the pool?” But then I heard a sermon on it and was forced to think a little bit more.

What was this man’s life like? He was likely a beggar. He had been ill for 38 years. His physical condition was so bad that he could not walk down to the pool, so he wouldn’t have been able to get a job in that society. He was dependent upon others for his survival. What would happen if he was cured? His entire life would be changed, for what most of us believe is the better. If he was cured, he would be able to provide for himself and in fact would have a moral obligation to help care for people who were still legitimately disabled like he once was.

What if this man did not want to work? What if he was so attached to his current lifestyle that he had no interest in changing it? He sat by the pool to go through the motions because it was what people in his condition were expected to do, but he never really tried his hardest to get in.

This seems so odd to most of us, but again from personal experience I can tell you there are people who become so attached to their plight that they allow themselves to be defined by it. They latch on to their bitterness and will refuse all attempts to help them. Just a few years ago there were two homeless women who stayed on the streets of Havre de Grace, Maryland and were caught on more than a few occasions sleeping and urinating in the post office lobby. But when they were offered a hotel room to stay in, they declined.  When the City government tried to help them find housing, they claimed they were being discriminated against and refused to leave the streets.

Understanding this, Jesus’ question makes perfect sense. If that man truly wanted to get well, Jesus would help him. If not, then what we may think is helping him is really not addressing his true needs.

I bring this up because Mr. Asghar suggests that Christians are “belittling the plight of those who have less,” but never explains what he means by “belittling.” Sometimes help comes in different forms. Again, this is a general principle and intelligent people can disagree about what kind of help is appropriate in particular circumstances, but simply because someone disagrees with Mr. Asghar’s opinion as to what type of help is appropriate does not necessarily mean he or she is belittling those who have less.


As for sexual purity, again Mr. Asghar makes several valid points, although I think of the three “idols” he offers the least “meat” to his arguments on this one. For a section that is supposed to be devoted to sexual purity, he really doesn’t talk about it very much. He says evangelical Christians are inconsistent in demanding that society accept their mores on sexual purity while all the while embracing the materialistic rat race. OK. I can see that. Christians who worship at the altar of the almighty dollar have a serious issue with hypocrisy they have to deal with. So if that is his point, I’m on board.

Of course, this doesn’t really get us anywhere in regard to sexual purity. I could think both that the moon is made of blue cheese and that the atomic structure of water is H2O. The fact that I’m wrong about the moon does not mean I’m wrong about water, so I’m not sure what ultimate point Mr. Asghar is trying to make. If he is just trying to say that some Christians are hypocrites, guilty as charged. If we are true to Biblical teaching, ALL Christians are hypocrites! We all acknowledge that we are sinners, so we break the very same rules we are preaching that God wants us to follow! That’s the whole point: that we all screw up, nobody’s perfect, which is why we need to be forgiven.
Overall, I think Mr. Asghar’s main point is that there is a lot of hypocrisy within Christendom. I don’t think he is going to find too many Christian theologians or apologists who would disagree with him. Of course there are hypocrites. That’s exactly what the Bible tells us to expect. The point of Christianity is not that Christians are better than anyone else. The point is that we are all screw ups in one way or another. This is why I tell people to evaluate the merits of Christianity by the teachings of its founder, not the practices of its alleged adherents.
But while I think there certainly is hypocrisy present, I also believe Mr. Asghar doesn’t always look deep enough. He is quick to label things as “false Gods” and paint with a broad brush. While his brush strokes are covering some false Gods, they are also taking in many things that are not.

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