By Kyle Haden, OFM, Ph.D.,
The moniker ‘Christian’ has lost a good deal of credibility in the last several years. In the Catholic lexicon it has been stained by years of sexual scandals. In mainline Protestant communities it has lost its sheen as it has tended to meld into a bourgeois secularism that has become comfortable with neoliberal capitalist pursuits; this despite gospel imperatives to the contrary. In popular culture Evangelical Christianity has become derided (I believe somewhat justifiably) because of its complicity with rightwing attitudes that have wedded Christian practice with nationalist sentiments and convictions. Single issue cultural warriors among so called conservatives in all denominations have elevated fetishized policies to the neglect of the full gospel command to love neighbor as one’s self – a consistent ethic of life. At the heart of the failure of authentic Christian witness is the inability to recognize the heart of the Christian project. That is, a metanoia, a profound conversion in which the default setting of self as center of the universe gives way to a kenosis, an emptying of self in order to be conformed to the imago Dei as manifested in the Christ, the logos of God.
In our present constitutional crisis in the United States, tribalism has reached deeply into Christian communities. Contributing to this is the distortion of the gospel by a Christianity that has, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer maintained, embraced the human sicut Deus (Eritis sicut Deus, scientes bonum et malum – You will be like God, knowing good and evil). The first and greatest temptation is the seductive allure of being like God through self-creation. The human becomes the first idol. The illusion does not seriously take into account the finite nature of this idol. It pronounces truths from a limited perspective, with self-regard as its real motive, all the while justifying these perspectives as biblical injunctions and transcendental truths. When Christians adopt the human sicut Deus, the ultimate motivation for so called Christian practice is power – power that seeks its own ambitions even at the cost of the suffering of others.
In the Trumpian world, Christians who embrace a MAGA vision have betrayed their very raison d’être. Trumpian sophistry uses the lexicon of Christian jargon to convince those who desperately want to be convinced to believe that the United States is a Christian nation specially chosen by God as an exceptional exemplar to the world – a city on a hill, a messiah nation.
Hidden in the recesses of the grammar of exceptionalism is the desire for the will to power. This will to power has nothing in common with the will to love by the One who IS LOVE. The manifestation of this love in human history clearly demonstrated the divine will as a call to self-giving hospitality, especially to the poor and marginalized.
“The manifestation of this love in human history clearly demonstrated the divine will as a call to self-giving hospitality, especially to the poor and marginalized.” @KEHaden1Tweet
Many of our US politicians take shelter in the arms of Christian communities that reward choices that bolster the human sicut Deus. Private concerns for maintaining power, privilege, and place trump (pun intended) service to the common good. Fear of, thus pandering to, a minority that has aggrandized social and cultural differences has exposed not only a glaring hypocrisy among a number of ‘Christians’, but a profound willingness to live in a Platonic cave of shadowed denial. In a Bonhoefferian theological schema, Christianity as a religion, in which the institutions of religion tend toward a priority of defending and maintaining institutional privileges and status in society, all the while neglecting God, has lost its purpose and credibility.
The Christ, the logos of God, came to manifest the will of God, not only in discursive discourse, but in action as well. His giving of his life (laying his life down for a friend) was precipitated by his speaking truth to power – a power that relegated ‘others’ as means to an end. Politicians lynched Jesus, with the complicity of many religious people. We are witnessing the continuation of Christ’s lynching in policies that are taking resources from the poor, the powerless, the marginalized, the weak, the sick, the old, etc., etc. Politicians more concerned to maintain power are complicit, and most tragic of all, empowered by those claiming allegiance to the one who hears the cry of the poor. Until an authentic Christianity arises among those claiming Jesus as Lord, a Christianity that takes seriously its call to biblical hospitality, tribalism will continue to grow as a conflictual, even violent, stain on the national ethos. And most concerning, from an American Catholic perspective, is the complicity and tacit legitimization of the plague of tribalism among various members of the US Catholic hierarchy, motivated more by a desire to protect the institution than to fulfill gospel imperatives.
most concerning…is the complicity and tacit legitimization of the plague of tribalism among various members of the US Catholic hierarchy, motivated more by a desire to protect the institution than to fulfill gospel imperatives. @KEHADEN1Tweet
Kyle Haden, OFM, Ph.D., is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Theology and Franciscan Studies at St. Bonaventure University. His latest book, Embodied Idolatry: A Critique of Christian Nationalism, is available from Lexington Books.