American Christianity from Dr. Ben Witherington

I have shared Ben Witherington’s blog before. This blog is really good. His comments about being on the O’Reilly Factor and being told not to quote scripture are especially telling.

Dr. Witherington is a distinguished and well published professor at Asbury Theological Seminary, having published commentaries on every book of the New Testament.

Building a Better Twenty-First Century Christian– Thoughts on Real Independence
July 2, 2014 By Ben Witherington 2 Comments

As it becomes increasingly clear that even in America the culture is moving increasingly away from Christian ethical and theological standards of all sorts, instead of ringing our hands and ushering cries of dismay, it would be better to think about how we can best do the same thing as first century Christians did— namely become counter culture Christians who only affirm those values of the larger culture that comport with Christianity. If there is something true, good, honorable, excellent etc. in the culture, then this can be endorsed, otherwise not. Interestingly, our world is moving closer and closer to being like the world that Paul and others had to respond to as a new minority religious movement. So, what does this actually look like?
1) A complete renunciation of fear-based approaches to life, rather than an embracing of them. By the latter I would cite the recent examples of churches that are now holding classes teaching people to carry guns, even in public places, even in church. This whole approach is based on straight up paranoia. This is not to say that there are not plenty of mentally unstable people out there, but there are also mentally unstable people in the church, and frankly if you allow guns in church, someone who is a member but is fifteen degrees shy of plumb is more likely to hurt someone than some intruder from outside. Indeed, the whole growing gun culture of America needs to be renounced by Christians, by which I do not mean that hunting rifles should be taken away from licensed hunters. What I do mean is the assumption that the ‘right to lawful assembly of a militia’ gives private citizen a right to buy and bear whatever arms or ammo they can get their hands on. This is not only a bad mis-reading of our founding documents and the freedoms the founding fathers intended for us to have, it’s an even worse witness for someone who is a Christian who is supposed to be trusting in God, not in guns. There are many other aspects of fear-based thinking that we could discuss as well, such as hoarding, escapist rapture thinking that suggests that the world is going to Hades anyway so we don’t need to fulfill the creation mandate and take care of the beautiful world God gave us and so on.
2) While I think Christians should vote and should be involved in social causes that comport with the Gospel, it is time to abandon the rhetoric of either the far right or the far left, and indeed I would suggest it’s time to stop endorsing any political party, because neither the Democrats nor the Republicans nor the Tea Party for that matter adhere closely enough to Christian principles to deserve Christian endorsement. Christians should stand for issues and causes, but not give their blessings to parties, TV networks etc.
I will not soon forget when I was appearing with Dom Crossan on the O’Reilly show and the producer had a little chat with us in advance of the show. He told us not to quote the Bible, not to engage in any theological discourse between us, but simply to answer the questions ‘Bill’ would put to us. I asked him, since this was an Easter show, ‘don’t you think you will alienate your conservative Christian audience by this approach?’ His answer was chilling– “no, he said, I’m more concerned with alienating our secular conservative audience. Conservative Christians have nowhere else to go but us, but to Fox.” This little pulling back of the curtain on the charade that goes on on that network was very revealing.
I would say to Christians– do your own research on the news. Read hard news sources but process them critically. Don’t take any network’s word for it. Some are more tendentious than others. Some try to be fairer than others. But some channels are simply ideologically driven, like some politicians who have forgotten that politics is the art of working out compromises for the greater good— doing what good that can be done, not hoping for Utopia here and now. Abandon hope that this or that political party or movement will save America. Only Jesus can save America, and frankly we are wasting our energies on retrograde retrenchments, trying to turn back the clock and praying next year will be 1954. But it won’t. Time and cultures march on, for better or for worse.
3) It’s time to embrace a generous orthodoxy and orthopraxy. By this I mean it’s time for Christians to stop shooting at each other, and eating their own young. Protestants, Catholics, Orthodox Christians need to stand together on the essentials of the theological Gospel and on its essential ethical implications in terms of life issues, for example. To be pro-life should mean opposing all those things that destroy human life— abortion, war, capital punishment. In the last fourteen years we have wasted over 10 billion dollars on fruitless, pointless undeclared wars. Imagine how much good could have been done if that money had gone into medical research, or hunger relief, or environmental clean ups, or aid to the poor throughout the world, or education, or to job creation… and I could go on. To paraphrase that great poet Paul Simon “we have squandered our resistance on a pocket full of mumbles such as [political] promises./ All lies and jests, still a man hears what he wants to and disregards the rest…..”
4) It’s time to care about how we treat our bodies and how we use our resources. I was at a convention of southern ministers several years ago and while standing on the platform I looked out into the audience and what I saw appalled me— the majority, maybe even the vast majority of the audience was either obese or morbidly obese. What a horrible witness. Your body is a temple of God’s Spirit, and you are supposed to treat it with respect, treat it as a gift from God, treat it as something Jesus will raise from the dead, not as landfill, a garbage dump, a fast food haven!! No way. And in terms of conservation of resources it is more than high time Christian realized that fossil fuels are not renewal sources of energy. We need to be all about clean energy (there is no such thing as clean coal). I have just come back from Turkey where almost every home in almost every town has solar panels on the roof to heat all their hot water. Where are ours??? They are quite affordable now. The Turks are driving smaller and more energy efficient vehicles including hybrids, not gas-guzzling luxury SUVS which no one really needs, not least because gas is about $8.00 a gallon there. It’s time to simplify our lifestyles, and abandon the death styles of bad food, bad energy (solar, wind and water are all renewal sources of energy), bad judgments.
5) It’s time to do what the Bible says about orphans, namely find them, adopt them, and take care of them. Instead of a Christian family that is reasonably well off in America having eight, ten, twelve of their own children, they should think seriously about another approach— adopt one child for every one you have, and while your at it, don’t have more children than you can provide and care for. Just don’t. Be a good family planner. I have been really proud of my students who have followed this course of action, for example, adopting a child from Ethiopia and having one child naturally.
6) It’s time to actually believe what the Bible says about property, namely that it all belongs to the Lord. None of it actually belongs to us. The Bible favors neither communism nor secular capitalism as an approach to money, resources, and the economy. We are not free to do with our property what we want to do. We are called to do with it what pleases the Lord. Period. As John Wesley would put it, we are merely stewards of God’s property. We did not bring it with us into this world, and we cannot take it with us when we die. We are just stewards and not owners of this worlds material things. And we are accountable for what we do with them. As Wesley would have said, had he lived today ‘living a life of luxury and being a rich Christian in a world full of poverty is not only a bad witness, it is as much of an oxymoron as ‘Microsoft Works’. We need to de-enculturate ourselves from the rampant materialism that drives our whole culture and our whole economy.
7) We need to speak truth to power instead of just singing God bless America!! By this I mean doing exactly what the Pope recently did— he excommunicated the whole of the Mafia, while being in Mafia country in southern Italy! He said the very idea that members of the Mafia could pretend to be good Catholics and come to mass while ruthlessly pursuing the drug trade, and having gunned down and then burned up a small child and his grandfather in a car in a small city in southern Italy is anathema. It is anti-Christian behavior. The anti-Christian behavior of our rulers needs to be called to account.
8) We need to forgive our enemies, and pray for those who persecute us. The whole business of cycles of reprisals, or revenge taking, of the endless cycle of violence is simply not a Christian response to problems whatever their source. Forgiveness and God’s grace is the only power in this world that breaks the cycles of violence and makes for a better world. If Jesus can even pray for those executing him while on the cross “Father forgive them for they know not what they do” how can we do less when confronted with lesser problems? Besides, the Bible is clear that justice issues should be left in the hands of the Lord— ‘vengeance is mine says the Lord, I will repay.’ We actually need to believe that and live into it.
Even if we were to do just these eight things as counter culture Christians, it could really make a difference in our land and in our world. I hope someone is listening…. and will heed the call.

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