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Christianity: Empathy Versus Evangelism

The Law and the Gospel by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1529); Moses and Elijah point the sinner to Jesus for salvation – Public Domain

Christianity has built-in contradictions. Certain Christians seek to empower people, while other Christians seek to gain power over them. Some Christians want to comfort people, while other Christians want to convert them. There are Christians who seek to love their neighbors as themselves, and other Christians want to make their neighbors like themselves. Certain Christians believe that people know what is best for themselves, while other Christians believe that they know exactly who and what is best for everyone. For some Christians, faith is about social justice and ethical behavior for other Christians, it is about theological orthodoxy. Certain Christians are committed to creating justice for people in this life, while other Christians stress justification by faith in Jesus Christ alone as the key to salvation in a future life. Not that evangelizing-motivated Christians do not comfort or empower or want justice for people, but they want it on their “Jesus is the Savior of the world” terms. Their unconscious predatory paternalism prevents them from experiencing and honoring other people’s reality and beliefs and negates any real mutually respectful democratic give and take.

Christianity’s built-in contradictions are found in its scripture. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus is recorded as saying that his mission was one of empathy: “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to “proclaim good news to the poor . . . liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, and to set at liberty those who are oppressed.” (4: 18,19) But the liberator was transformed into an evangelizer. In Matthew’s gospel, an assumed resurrected Jesus commissioned his disciples with, “All authority in heaven and on earth is given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you..” (28: 16-20) From identification with people to domination over people.

These contradictory biblical narratives are explained by a leap of three centuries after Jesus death. It was not until 325 A.D. that the Christian Council of Nicaea confirmed the oneness between the Father and the Son. And not until 381 did the Council of Constantinople add the Holy Spirit, finalizing the doctrine of the Trinity. (See” Trinity,” New World Encyclopedia, www.newworld encyclopedia.org) Evidently, the writer of Matthew’s gospel put words in the mouth of an assumed resurrected Jesus in recording him as telling his disciples: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and Son and Holy Spirit.” The New Testament itself contains no explicit reference to the doctrine of the Trinity.

Whatever happened to the Jews prophecy that a Messiah will come and liberate their nation and create peace on earth? Roman authorities arrested Jesus for sedition, and Roman soldiers crucified him on a cross, as they commonly crucified other would-be Jewish liberators. (See “Report of the Ad Hoc Schlars Group Reviewing the Script of the Passion,” May 2, 2003) Instead of liberation and peace, the Jews continued to be brutally oppressed under Roman rule. Thus, obviously, Jesus was not their prophesized messiah, who would restore Jewish independence and bring them peace.

Along with his concluding emphasis on evangelism, the writer of Matthew’s gospel engaged in the horrible anti-Semitic act of blaming the victims. Roman ruler Pilate had complete power over the Jewish people, with a reputation for crucifying rebellious Jews who tried to stir up Jewish nationalism. (see “Blame Pilate, Not The Jews,” By T. R. Reid, The Washington Post, April 25, 2000) Jesus is believed to be one more such prophet. Yet Pilate supposedly made an exception of Jesus, giving in to the Jews who repeatedly shouted, Crucify him!” Pilate’s supposed next words branded the Jews with an unpardonable sin: he washed his hands of the matter, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood. It is your responsibility.” Then these words were put in the mouths of the occupied Jews, setting them up for their own persecution through the ages by Christians as “Christ killers”: “All the people answered, ‘His blood is on us and on our children.’ “ (27: 24-26) Blaming the Jews for their own historic persecution as “Christ killers” is an example of irrationality, dehumanization and violence — hardly an example of The Bible as the source of infallible truth.

Blaming the Jews, not the Romans, for Jesus’ death was timely. The Jews were turned off by Jesus’ crucifixion and their continued oppression. And blaming them for Jesus’ death would go over better in the Roman world, which became the fertile ground for baptizing people “in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” In fact, the small Christian sect became dominated by Gentiles who had been pagans.

Not that these early Christians were welcomed by the Roman world. Their reported belief in Jesus’s resurrection, which led them to refuse to worship Roman gods, resulted in countless Christians being killed by wild beasts in arenas, beheaded, burned to death and crucified. The Christians’ steadfast faith in Christ in the face of death became a moving testimony to Romans, leading to Christianity being more and more rooted in Roman soil and souls.

In 380, “Eastern Roman Emperor Theodosius I . . . signed a decree . . . that made Christianity the religion of the state and punished the practice of pagan rituals.” Ironically, also reported is that “non-believers were persecuted with the same fervor that was once reserved for Christians and Jews.” And, “during the coming centuries, it wasn’t just the poor that were fed in the name of Christ; critics and dissidents were murdered in the name of the Lord as well.” (“Christianity becomes the religion of the Roman Empire – February 27, 380,” By Matthias von Hellfeld, (dc), www.dw.com)

Empathy versus evangelism. Power over people, more than morality, is believed to motivate Christians who believe The Bible is literally the Word of God. Here faith is about authority, not authenticity.

The centuries following are replete with instances of evangelizing Christians using the power of the state to explore other lands and exploit their inhabitants. In 1495, Pope Alexander VI “issued a Papal Bull,” the Doctrine of Discovery,” which “aimed to justify Christian European explorers’ claims on lands and waterways they allegedly discovered, and promote Christian domination and superiority.” (“Doctrine of Discovery,” upstanderproject.org)

Howard Zinn wrote in A People’s History of the United States, that, upon arriving in the Bahamas, Columbus reported: “‘The Indians are so naive and so free with their possessions . . .’ He concluded his report by asking for a little help from the majesties and in return he would bring them from his next voyage ‘as much gold as they need . . . and as many slaves as they ask.’ “ Zinn added that Columbus “was full of religious talk: ‘Thus the eternal God, our Lord, gives victory to those who follow His way over apparent impossibilities.’”

The U.S. was “discovered” and expanded on the bodies of Native Americans – and on the backs of black Africans forced into slavery. Christians justified slavery with biblical passages, such as Paul the Apostle’s admonition: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.” (Ephesians 6: 5)

The Doctrine of Discovery itself is reported to be “the inspiration in the 1800s for the Monroe Doctrine which declared U.S. hegemony over the Western Hemisphere, and Manifest Destiny, which justified American expansion westward by propagating the belief that the U.S. was destined to control all land from the Atlantic to the Pacific and beyond.” (“Doctrine of Discovery,” Ibid) This usurping of Native American land was justified in biblical terms, with a number of U. S. presidents equating America with Jesus’ teaching: “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden” (Matthew 5: 14)

At their recent National Convention, Democrats let the “light” of their faith shine. Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee, who is campaigning on “Saving the soul of America,” said in his Convention speech, “As God’s children, we have a purpose in our lives . . . and we have a great purpose as a nation . To open the doors of opportunity to all Americans. To save our democracy. To be a light to the world once again.” Numerous speakers testified to Biden’s Catholic faith. And there was much God talk. (“Joe Biden’s acceptance speech caps off an unusually faith-filled Democratic National Convention,” By Jack Jenkins, Religious News Service, Aug. 21, 2020)

But the Democrats, faith-filled Convention didn’t stop various Republican Convention speakers from portraying them as anti-religious. Like Donald Trump Jr., who asserted,, “People of faith are under attack . . . You’re not allowed to go to church, but mass chaos in the streets gets a pass.” Then his punch line: “It is like this election is shaping up to be, church, work and school vs. rioting, looting and vandalism – or in the words of Biden and the Democrats, ‘peaceful protesting. ‘ “

The Republican National Convention outdid the Democrats with God talk. Not only was America portrayed as “the light of the world;” the Republican Party itself was proclaimed as providing the “light.” “God bless America” were the repeated code words for God’s favorite nation. Christianity’s ordination of America as the greatest nation on earth and the Republican Party as its steward were front and center. Evangelical Christian leader Rev. Franklin Graham offered a Convention prayer in which he thanked God “for the great bounty you have bestowed on this nation and the many blessings we have received the past four years.” Graham thanked God “for our President Donald J. Trump” and grant “him wisdom from on high, clarity of vision and strength as he leads the nation forward.” He prayed for the safety of Trump and Vice President Mike Pence’s families, and thanked God for Pence’s steady hand and clear voice. . . . And we pray this in the mighty name of your son, my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.” (“ ‘We Ask That You Unite Our Hearts’: Franklin Graham’s Prayer on Final Night of Republican Convention,” By Steve Warren, www1.cbn.com)

Vice President Mike Pence joined the American flag and Jesus in his Convention speech. “Let’s fix our eyes on Old Glory and all she represents, fix our eyes on this land of heroes and let their courage inspire.” He then said, “Let us fix our eyes on the author and perfecter of our faith and freedom, and never forget that ‘where the spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.’ That means freedom always wins.” (“At Republican convention, a vision of faith under fire,” Ibid)

Freedom is about liberation and justice and peace, not “winning.” “Winning” is about someone else losing. Democracy is about everybody getting ahead, not those deemed favored; it is about sharing not “winning.”

President Trump especially fused American greatness with Christianity’s God. In his acceptance speech, he said, “I want every child in American to know that you are part of the most exciting and incredible adventure in human history. No matter where your family comes from . . . you can reach any goal and achieve every ambition. . . . I love you all. God bless you, and God bless America.” (“Full Transcript: President Trump’s Republican National Convention Speech,” By Glenn Thrush, The New York Times, Aug, 28, 2020) Tell that to all of the immigrants who have not been able to reach America’s shores because of his brutal anti-immigrant policies. Tell that to the children who reached America’s shores and then were snatched from their parents’ arms and put in cages.

President Trump’s patriotic rhetoric is assumed to condition children and their parents and other Americans to believe they are better, and more worthy than people of other countries. It is the fertile, ethnocentric ground on which bias is planted and wars can grow. Here there is the sowing of enmity toward other peoples, not the cultivation of empathy, and the use of evangelistic Christian nationalism to legitimize imposing America’s will on them.

Jesus is recorded as teaching, “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 7: 12) He is also recorded as declaring, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14: 6) The one path leads to human solidarity. The other path supports state imperialism.

Faith should not be about transforming everyone into our likeness, but transforming ourselves by recognizing the likeness we share with all other human beings.

Rev. William E. Alberts, Ph.D., a former hospital chaplain at Boston Medical Center is both a Unitarian Universalist and United Methodist minister. His newly published book, The Minister who Could Not Be “preyed” Away is available Amazon.com. Alberts is also author of The Counterpunching Minister and of A Hospital Chaplain at the Crossroads of Humanity, which “demonstrates what top-notch pastoral care looks like, feels like, maybe even smells like,” states the review of the book in the Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling. His e-mail address is wm.alberts@gmail.com.  

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