Christians are now in the minority. It has been a slow, gradual slide in this direction, but one that has always seemed inevitable, like a glacier carving out a valley. For the last few decades, more and more people don’t identify themselves as specifically Christian, and more importantly, law after law has been established to turn the tide of public sentiment and tolerance against the church, leaving us confused and angry about our place in the world. All you need to do to confirm this is watch TV. Every show, every newscast, every speech by a major politician seems to dig the knife a little deeper. We are suddenly on the outs with popular society, looking in. And it is the greatest thing to happen to the church in centuries.
We got so comfortable, being on top, didn’t we? When Christianity was the dominant religion in this country (or the good ol’ days, as many like to call it), our religious life was easy. We lived our lives, went to church on Sundays, hung out with our friends in the evenings and weekends, and we could comfortably assume that the majority of our neighbors were doing the same. If you didn’t go to church, you were looked upon with suspicion, if not outright hostility. We could rest assured that social pressure was keeping everyone in line. When things started to shift in the 60s, we looked on with incredulousness. Hippies couldn’t hold that much sway, could they? It was just a bunch of vagrant youth with too much time on their hands. But the slide had started.
For the last decade or so, we have turned to anger. Movements have sprung up all over the church to “take back this country for Christ.” We have fought legal battles (which we lost), we have fought political battles (which we continue to lose), we have fought entertainment battles (this wasn’t even a contest. You have seen TBN, right?) And now the battle has shifted, our numbers are dwindling, and we find ourselves on the losing end.
Or do we? Believe it or not, this is exactly where Jesus wants us to be. We were never intended to be the ruling class, religiously speaking. When the Jewish people were waiting for the Messiah, they were expecting a conquering hero who would lead them to freedom from the Roman Empire. What they got was a poor carpenter who led them to freedom from death, and showed them the way to freedom from themselves. Christ came from a humble, loving, grassroots position to change the world. And change it He did, not by marching to Pontius Pilate or Caesar and converting them into disciples, but by changing the hearts of some simple fishermen.
And that is our great mistake – the misguided belief that Christianity, or any religion for that matter, belongs in government.
Just bringing up the subject will likely aggravate those who believe very firmly in the opposite. But I don’t think anyone who is honestly looking at the subject can say that the current debates on gay marriage, prayer in schools, holiday displays in public spaces, even something as serious as abortion are bringing anyone closer to Christ. In fact we find the opposite, most so-called “liberal” people are completely turned off at the Christian viewpoint on the matter. They think we are a bunch of strong-armed bullies, living in the past, who want to shove our beliefs down their throats. And, rightfully so, they think that they shouldn’t have to be forced into a particular belief, especially as it is endorsed by the government. I happen to agree with them. This wasn’t how Christ intended us to change the world.
For those who still miss our supposed Christian heritage, imagine for a moment living in the opposite world. Imagine a Muslim government outlawing bacon, or wine, or uncovered heads. Think of some countries overseas, where open Christian worship is forbidden. When religion is institutionalized on the state level, regardless of which one it is, it does not breed salvation, it engenders bitterness and hatred. Jesus came to change hearts, not governments.
We would do well to listen to Jesus himself, when the Pharisees tried to trap him on the issue of supporting a government that was opposed to God. “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, but give to God what is God’s.” What did he mean by that? He was pointing to a coin with Caesar’s picture on it, suggesting that we should pay our taxes, or taken another way, uphold our responsibility to our earthly government. But when He says give to God what is God’s, he is of course talking about US. We are made in His image, and what He really wants isn’t to have the government favor his children, but for his children to favor Him. He wants our hearts and our lives, given of our own accord in His service. God could care less about money or governments of this world; He has seen tens of thousands come and go.
The tragedy of the modern church is that we have gotten away from the transformative, iconoclastic, revolutionary nature of the Gospel. Christ tells us that if we lose our life, we will gain it. Going one step further, He lost His life, and so we all gain it everlasting. It doesn’t mesh with the self-serving, self-preserving way that the world operates. It stands opposite of our human instincts. That is why we are at our most ineffective in politics, and most effective in the streets.
The Gospel was not meant to change the head, it was meant to change the feet. Let me explain what I mean by that. In the book of Daniel, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon has a dream that Daniel interprets. He sees a great statue, with a head of gold, arms of silver, belly of bronze, legs of iron, and feet of iron and clay. The statue is brought down by a rock not cut by human hands. The meaning of the dream was a prophecy of kingdoms that would be conquered over time, eventually giving away to God’s kingdom, with most Christian scholars agreeing that the rock represented Jesus. The interesting point is that the rock struck the statue in the feet, and so brought the whole thing tumbling down.
The point is pretty clear. All the kingdoms of this world, including our own world order as it stands today, is meant to be brought down and changed by Jesus. But He doesn’t intend to do it by converting the government (the head). That’s not how He did it the first time around, either. He started with 12 followers, and the revolution spread throughout the world, one person at a time. Jesus was the original grassroots organizer. Because He changed people’s hearts on an individual basis, they withstood persecution, and eventually the nations that persecuted them fell to the power of a Gospel that changed lives. He started with the feet, those who supported and carried out the will of the head, or the government.
But as often happens, we flawed humans get it wrong. We want our change, our viewpoint, institutionalized. We think, in the best case, that it will speed up and amplify the message that has changed our lives. In the worst case, of course, we see corrupt and power hungry men use the opportunity to promote themselves and seize hold of greater influence. Every time throughout history that the Gospel has become part of the rule of the day, we have seen atrocities take place in the name of God. For what greater motivator could you ask for to impose your power on others than it is God’s will?
But state-run Christianity is a monstrosity of the highest order, and it does nothing to change the hearts of individuals. The Holy Roman Empire, the Crusades, the Inquisition, the reign of Bloody Mary, Henry the VIII, and the influence of Puritanism in our own culture has only led to a persecuted populace that wants nothing to do with the Church or the God it pretends to proclaim. Even today, with our certain facets of our political system in America declaring what is or is not right based on our “Christian heritage,” we see people being pushed away from the transformative power of Christ.
Christianity is not meant to be bondage. Jesus is true, revolutionary freedom. Christ does not seek to rule the nation; the whole earth is already His footstool. He seeks to rule our hearts, and He will not take those by force. He waits for us to surrender them freely. He does not want slaves and reluctant servants — He wants sons and daughters.
The feet of Daniel’s statue are representative of people today. Divided into multiple nations, political views, and religions, yet made up of the same essential material — iron and clay, or flesh and spirit. That which will mold in the hands of the maker, and that which will not yield to the fiercest hammer blows. We each are made up of both. And the stone, uncut by human hands, is headed for all of us. Christ Himself stated, “Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces; anyone on whom it falls will be crushed.” (Luke 20:18) If we fall onto Jesus, we will be broken, yes, but then reformed and changed into our better selves. And of course, if we refuse to yield, giving into the iron of our flesh, we will be crushed by the collapse of the system or government in which we misplace so much faith.