Viridiana Martinez shared the following photo on her facebook page this past weekend:
If the bottom text is too fuzzy for you to read, the whole billboard says, “We follow Christ, so it’s basically a win/win for you to follow us.” The arrogance of this advertisement is astonishing. I get that this particular church is trying to make a play on words since the word “follow” probably refers to following the church’s actions online on twitter or some similar network. But this sign captures an attitude that a lot of us Christians seem to have about the relationship between our faith in Christ and our self-importance. Instead of renouncing our self-importance as followers of Christ submitted to His will (which is what it actually means to “confess Jesus Christ as Lord”), many Christians blaspheme their salvation by seeing their faith in Christ as the reason why other people should look up to and follow them.
In many ways, this is the story of Western Civilization. At least between 1492 and somewhere in the mid-to-late 20th century, Jesus has served as a hood ornament for our triumphant march across the globe to conquer and enslave other races. In all of the royal proclamations claiming the land of the New World for the kings of Europe, the land-grabs were explicitly justified by the purpose of establishing Jesus Christ’s reign over the territory conquered. I’ve read the journals of the Spanish conquistadors. They really did believe that killing and enslaving native Americans was the way to share the gospel with them. It’s horrifying but it really happened. It’s hard to tell how much cynicism was involved in the theological gymnastics they underwent to justify genocide.
The challenge to us today as Christians, particularly in white evangelical churches, is that we have inherited theology that has been warped to justify the sins of the past. The “family values” movement for instance was launched in the early 1970’s by the same segregationist church leaders who had just been bulldozed by the Civil Rights Movement. That doesn’t discredit the very legitimate concern of trying to keep teenagers from getting pregnant and ruining their lives. But when my “family values” become the basis for my feelings of moral superiority and my excuse for not loving my neighbor whom I have deemed “immoral,” then they have become squarely opposed to the whole purpose of Christianity both in my personal walk with Christ and in the social transformation of establishing God’s kingdom on Earth as it is in heaven.
Let me put it plainly. Jesus died to save us from the imprisonment of our self-righteousness. As long as we keep cataloging all our actions as proof of what good people we are, we can never enter into the joy of communion with God, because that joy depends upon being able to interpret whatever good deeds we’ve happened to do in life as gifts from God to us rather than resume bullet-points that we can use to argue God into accepting us. By trusting in Jesus as Lord and Savior, I am set free from needing to prove my own righteousness. If on the other hand, I view my professed faith in Jesus as the legitimation of my self-righteousness (as many Christians do), I haven’t been saved at all but have turned the antidote for my fallen sinful condition into the source of my damnation. In the Bible, it says there’s one unforgivable sin: “blasphemy of the Holy Spirit.” There are many different interpretations of what this means, but I think we blaspheme the Holy Spirit when we glorify ourselves for whatever good the Holy Spirit accomplishes through us, when we feel compelled to say, Follow me because I’m doing it right. If I cling to the need to be important, have followers, etc, I am actively resisting God’s effort to transform me into a vessel of His love for the purpose of creating a world where His mercy reigns.
A good litmus test for whether Christians have actually accepted God’s mercy and the fact that they don’t deserve it is to see how easy they find it to judge other people whose lives they know nothing about, whether it’s gay people, undocumented immigrants, Palestinians, or any of the other modern-day equivalents of the 1st century Samaritans whom Jesus championed not because they were uniquely great people but because of how much his fellow Jews hated them. It’s one thing to confront people we know and care about regarding some sin or shortcoming in their lives if we think it’s hurting them. But when we rail against “those illegals,” “those gays,” or “those Arabs,” we’re not taking some kind of moral stand against sin; we’re just feeding the insatiable appetite of our self-righteousness and building a wall against the healing power of God’s mercy in our hearts. Jesus’ parable of the unmerciful servant in Matthew 18:21-35 describes the mindset of far too many Christians in our country right now. For those of you who don’t know the story, a servant gets forgiven a debt by his master and then he goes and beats up another servant who owes him money. That kind of perverse hypocrisy is precisely what we engage in when we see Christ’s sacrifice as the justification for our self-righteousness rather than liberation from self-righteousness.
If we have really accepted God’s mercy through Christ, then we will treat and talk about other people with mercy. And not only that, but we won’t go around looking for other people to follow us. We will instead follow Christ into the world and seek His face in the eyes of other people whom we serve. Our goal as Christians should be simple: to be Christ to others and to see Christ in others. The first part doesn’t mean that I need to be the world’s savior; it just means I should be a servant to all in imitation and obedience to Jesus’ example. The second part doesn’t mean that other people are perfectly sinless like Jesus; it just means that Jesus cares enough about even the least of His brothers and sisters that whatever we do to them, we’re doing to Him. So let’s follow Jesus and stop looking around to see if other people are following us.