Friday, September 2, 2011

Free To Live For Jesus

I saw a t-shirt today that brought me up short. It was worn by a good person doing a good thing. In fact it was worn by a person who had been given the shirt to wear for a special occasion so she may not have given much thought to the message it bore.

The shirt had a large U. S. flag on the front of it. Above the flag were the words, “Because of . . .” Below the flag the phrase continued, “I’m free to live for Jesus.” So the message of the shirt was, “Because of the U.S. flag I’m free to live for Jesus.”

I don’t have any trouble understanding the intention of the message. I’m as thankful as any other U. S. citizen for the freedom of religion guaranteed me in the Constitution. But I hope that I would “live for Jesus” even if the flag, or the Constitution, did not exist, or worse, if our nation were hostile to the Christian faith.

I’m reminded of a point made by Dietrich Bonheoffer, the German pastor and theologian who died during W.W II, at the hands of the Nazis for his resistance to the regime. He said that the Gospel does not need the permission of any political system as a justification for its entrance into a society. In fact the Gospel will only enter on its own terms, never subject to the terms or approval of a political or ideological system.

Six decades ago Arnold Toynbee, the British historian of antiquity predicted that western Christian nations would follow the path that the ancient Greeks had followed, substituting devotion to the nation for the worship of their traditional gods. Worship of the state ultimately proved thin gruel for the Greeks. It will for modern man as well. And yet the process has reached maturity within the U.S. Christian community, particularly among politically conservative Christians. We are currently at the point where it is almost impossible to distinguish the political speech of conservative politicians from their statements of personal religious faith.

When the church becomes the tool of political manipulators, the Gospel, which is the message of the Church of Jesus Christ, is completely lost in the rhetoric of political discourse. Welfare, health care, foreign policy, budgetary policy, abortion, gay marriage, gun control, immigration policy, state rights, and a hundred other issues become the litmus tests by which evangelical leaders decide which candidates will receive their stamp of approval. And in the process, the Gospel becomes an insignificant detail, seldom mentioned and often sacrificed upon the altar of expediency.

How did we come to this state of affairs? By assuming, I believe, that the Gospel needed the protection and permission of a Christian state in order for believers to be “free to live for Jesus.” Consequently, many conservative citizens and their political leaders have become convinced that they are promoting the Gospel by advocating for their particular political objectives.

Christians, throughout history, have been “free to live for Jesus” regardless of the political system under which they lived. In the United States, we currently live under a system that recognizes the right of all people to worship according to their own conscience, whether they are Christian or not. But if we decide that all must subscribe to a particular theology in order for our nation to be a safe place “to live for Jesus” we will have undercut the very freedom we sought to guarantee. Every place is a safe place to live for Jesus. The most repressive regimes in the world are safe places in which to live for Jesus. In fact it is the height of insecurity not to live for Jesus in such places. In him alone is the safety we all seek, the guarantee that our lives will not be lost even if they are taken from us.

The political and ideological issues that divide us are real and important, but they have little, if any, relevance to the work of the Church of Jesus Christ. It has a mission to perform, and a message to declare regardless of whether the nation is capitalistic, communistic, fascist, theocratic, or anarchic. Be a Republican, Democrat, Tea Party, Libertarian, or Independent, if you wish. Mix and match, bargain and compromise to achieve your goals. But if you are a believer in Jesus Christ, be that first, foremost, and uncompromisingly.

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