“Christianity itself is in crisis.” This is Andrew Sullivan’s assessment in his Newsweek article, “The Forgotten Jesus” (April 9 2012). The article received cover status with the lead-in declaring, “Forget the Church – Follow Jesus.”
Sullivan accurately identifies the co-opting of Christianity by the culture. He chides the Catholic Church for its failure to deal with the sex scandals with transparency and integrity. He criticizes the politicization of Christianity, as identity in the faith now equals identity with a narrow political platform. He rejects the prosperity gospel preached from the pulpits of megachurches converted from sports arenas.
Sullivan begins his article with Thomas Jefferson’s Bible. Only 27 years old, Jefferson audaciously revised the Bible, particularly the Gospels. He cut out the sayings of Jesus that he believed comprised the “very words of Jesus” and pasted them into a slim book. Everything he left he deemed inventions of his followers, including all the supernatural claims.
It was Jefferson who articulated the separation between church and state. Not only did he wish to protect the Church from political trespassers and usurpers, but he also hoped to preserve the republic from zealous religious conquistadors. For him, Christianity needed to be purged of any political overtones, since politics ultimately requires power over others. “Above all: give up power over others, because power, if it is to be effective, ultimately requires the threat of violence, and violence is incompatible with the total acceptance and love of all other human beings that is at the sacred heart of Jesus’ teaching,” writes Sullivan of Jefferson.
Although Sullivan would not agree with his theology, he calls Jefferson’s point “crucially important.” He sides with the apolitical version of Jesus and Christianity.
“What is politics if not a dangerous temptation toward controlling others rather than reforming oneself?”
Sullivan envisions a Christian voice that can “be faithful in a religious space and reasonable in a political one.”
Those who would silence the religious voice in politics also memorialize people like Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln for their efforts to rid the republic of social injustices. Yet, their sense of justice was informed and shaped by deep religious beliefs and those beliefs punctuated their rhetoric. Even if politicians purged their speeches of all religious language, could they segregate their convictions from their religious beliefs?
Sullivan does not require that. In fact, he does not advocate a privatized faith or sterilized politics. He agrees that the Church should mobilize in the face of social injustices. His heroes include Ghandi and King, those who embraced nonviolence. Although they resisted political power for themselves, they believed power came through principled conviction that did not prostitute itself with the strategies of power brokers.
“When politics is necessary, as it is, the kind of Christianity I am describing seeks always to translate religious truths into reasoned, secular arguments that can appeal to those of other faiths and none at all. But it also means, at times, renouncing Caesar in favor of the Christ…. [This Christianity] may, in fact, be the only spiritual transformation that can in the end transcend the nagging emptiness of our late-capitalist lives, or the cult of distracting contemporaneity, or the threat of apocalyptic war where Jesus once walked.”
Maybe Sullivan is on to something. He is not the first to raise these concerns, but he did it with finesse in a major publication. Many Christians are tiring of public declarations of religious fidelity by politicians who then implement barbaric methods of torture for extracting information in the name of national security. Somehow, I cannot see Jesus signing off on this.
Sullivan does not denounce the Church as Jesus instituted it. He decries the cheap imitation that has resulted from the plastic surgery of 21st Century politics and culture. He calls for a reformation of the Church, a purification of the body of Christ, a return to the meek and humble Jesus of the Bible, the Jesus who did not wield power over people, but used it for people.
Jesus called his followers to permeate every nation with the message of his kingdom. Regardless of what political system governs a nation, it cannot suppress this message of forgiveness, reconciliation and love. Two millennia of history verify that.
Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world, nor should it look anything like it. Sullivan believes that the Church is compromising that kingdom and its message. He is not promoting a Jeffersonian revision of the Bible, but calling the Church to examine itself in the light of the Bible, especially in the presence of Jesus.