The Offensive Gospel

warbBy Joe LaGuardia

In a society where people seem so easily offended, there is no surprise that few call themselves Christians.  Christianity is an offensive faith, there is no way around it.

Unfortunately, for too many, it has become offensive for the wrong reasons.

Several weeks ago, controversy surrounding a seasonal red Starbuck’s cup flooded social media with tirades against the “removal” of Christmas from the public sphere.  Christians were ready to offend others and throw political correctness to the wind if there was so much as a threat to “take Christ out of Christmas.”

The Starbucks controversy, however, was no controversy at all.  Yet, the confusion revealed the power of Christian imagination and the swiftness to which Christians will play victim in an increasingly secular society.

The “red cup” controversy also revealed the great sensitivity that Christians feel towards notions of religious liberty.  We no longer fight legal battles over prayer in schools or the right for clergy to claim housing deductions on taxes, but over whether Christians should be forced to serve pizzas to same-sex couples or share church campuses with organizations that refuse to discriminate according to sexual orientation.

That this comes off as offensive rather than noble is not besides the point; it is the point.  It’s a “if we can’t beat them, we’ll offend them” type of campaign in the name of Christ that has become none other than a religious badge of honor.

Many Christians find biblical support for this attitude towards secular society in a handful of New Testament scriptures, all too often taken out of context.

It was St. Paul, after all, who claimed that we are not to please people but serve God, all the while claiming that persecution results from the offensive cross of Christ (Galatians 1:10; 5:11).  In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian churches, he writes that the message of the Gospel and the cross is but “foolishness  to those who are perishing” (1:18).

Why would Christians not use the language of persecution and offense when describing these various interactions with a more inclusive, secular society?

A closer reading at the Bible, however, paints a very different picture when it comes to Christian persecution.   St. Paul did not have the world in mind when he wrote about the “offense of the cross,” but the very religious leadership who excluded people based on ethnic and ideological differences.

Later, when St. Paul carried this message into the gentile church, he argued that people did not have to become Jewish in order to believe in Christ and be saved.  Those offended by this radical message of liberation and inclusion were not pagans in Roman society, but Jewish Christians who placed doctrine and tradition over the people whom God had called them to bless.

This was a radical, offensive gospel precisely because it valued inclusion, avoided discrimination and hate-speech, and served all people regardless of their belief.

Paul was not a rogue in this mission.  He learned it from Jesus, who offended priests and Pharisees alike by eating with tax collectors and sinners, welcoming children, touching lepers and talking to women, and telling parables that shocked the imagination rather than affirmed the status quo.

Both Christ and Paul served outsiders and affirmed each person as a child of God.  Theirs was a mission to build up and embrace rather than demonize and exclude, and in every instance they regarded their lives as something to lose rather than something to defend, sustain, or bolster–even at the expense of welcoming strangers into their lives and sacred spaces.

In a world in which people of faith are beheaded and massacred by radical extremists, some of the things that concern us within our homeland should not qualify as persecution.  Instead, we should be so adamant in our love for others–rather than a swiftness to offend others–that the only people we turn away are the very ones who have no room in their hearts for people different than they.

The Human Tragedy in Asia

As of the writing of this article, the death toll resulting from Japan’s natural disasters has topped 10,000 people.  My heart breaks for all those who will never see their dreams realized and never be able to sing or dance or laugh again.

Yet, this number is just a fraction of lives lost in Asia due to gender discrimination.  I don’t mean to dismiss the loss of life in Japan, but I think recent events require us to take pause and remember that people die in Asia every day, not from natural disasters, but from political and economic decisions driven by gender inequality.

A recent (14 March 2011) Newsweek article by Niall Ferguson highlights a statistic by noble laureate economist, Amartya Sen, that places the number of deaths due to abortions, infanticide, and “economic discrimination” at 100 million.  That’s the population of about 1,190 Rockdale Counties.

Scariest thing: the statistic only includes females.

For decades, Asia’s economic engine has valued men at the expense of women.  Apparently, women in Asia (and India) can neither contribute to the household nor obtain professional positions.

Furthermore, several countries have birth quotas.  All of this means that females are aborted or neglected more often than males.  A 9 March 2011 Baptist Press article by Tom Strode claims that female suicides come to nearly 500 a day due to China’s one-child policy.

And as the wheel of time turns, those figures add up.  Consider that Asia would have to be hit with over 3,000 earthquakes and tsunamis like the one that hit Japan in order to lose that many people.

All too often, Christians see abortion as a local, or perhaps national, issue as they navigate women’s rights and medical ethics in the 21st century.  I fear that there is little consideration of the larger tragedy on a global scale.

We can have our debates concerning abortion in this country, but it seems to me that the call to bring a pro-life message overseas is just as urgent.  It is hard to fight for the right of unborn girls (and children in general) around the globe, however, when we continue to struggle with gender inequality in our borders.

Women in the United States continue to make about three-fourths the salary that men receive in comparable positions.  Only 3 percent of CEOs in Fortune 500 companies are women, and roughly 16 percent of Congressional seats are filled by female representatives (16 percent in the Senate, and 17 percent in the House according to Kathleen Parker writing for said Newsweek).

Religious institutions are no better: Many places of worship and denominations still deny certain positions to women.

Female minorities and refugees make up the majority of victims in the underground sex trafficking rampant in cities such as Atlanta.

Jesus’ challenge from Matthew 7 comes to mind: “Thou hypocrite; first cast the beam out of thine own eye.”  For our nation, gender inequality and injustice is still a beam deeply rooted in the eye sockets of society and culture.

It would help to reclaim gender equality as a biblical core value.  This must transform everything from the Catholic priesthood to ordination in the farthest reaches of church life.  It must impact how we preach and how we do worship.

(And a word to folks in my own tradition: I encourage the Southern Baptist Convention to take a second look at the U.N. treaty regarding the Convention of the Rights of the Child; which the SBC has opposed since 2000; and also reconsider putting into place a denomination-wide policy regarding sexual misconduct that includes a public sex offender registry.)

Reorienting pro-life legislation to encompass the dignity of all women, as well as  one that advocates for minorities and the poor, will also increase the quality of life for women in our midst.

When Jesus calls us to take up our cross and follow Him, He wants to transform the very political, social, and economic systems in which we find ourselves.  Working on behalf of women in particular can help save lives beyond the occasional natural disaster or two.

Redefining Christian Witness

"Love one another as I have loved you"

“We are against Halloween,” one minister recently told me.  This is a common response I get from folks in the church.  That, and:  “We are against homosexuals, abortion, environmentalists, liberals, social-gospel types, postmodernists, illegal immigrants, people-who-worship-like-that, health-care reform, and redistribution.”  As some Christians follow in the footsteps of partisan politicians, it remains an easy habit to become known for being against something instead of being for something.

A recent Barna poll asked people what contributions they think Christians have made to American society.  The pollster divided the answers between positive and negative contributions.

The results are telling.  Although 34% of people under the age of 25 stated that Christians have contributed something to help the underprivileged in society, a larger percentage of people could not think of a single positive contribution that Christians make to society.

Contrast these figures with what people say are the negative contributions that Christians make, and we get a clearer picture of what kind of message the church is sending in the public sector.   One out of every five respondents say that the most negative contribution that Christians make in society is a “vitriolic attitude.”  That’s followed closely by the fact that Christians are known for being very, very anti-homosexual.  (Only 6% claimed that Christians made a positive contributions to marriage, by the way.)

For the most part, all this survey tells us is that people on television–those who get airtime for being the most sensational in their speech, including Christians–influence how people view Christians.  We are so busy trying to fight culture wars and drawing lines in the sand that we have basically isolated ourselves from becoming culturally relevant whatsoever.  That line in the sand ended up being a circle in which very few can stand.

But becoming relevant for its own sake also misses the mark.  After all, Jesus did point out that, “wide is the gate to destruction, but narrow is the gate that leads to eternal life” (Matthew 7:13-14).  The Gospel is good news for people in need of salvation, but Jesus makes no apologies for calling those same people to live under the lordship of a holy and righteous God.

Yet, Jesus also tells us that he, not us, will be the one to separate the sheep from the goats.  He will judge the “living and the dead.”  Jesus told us not to spend our time judging others “lest” we be judged too.

When we define ourselves by what we are against, we usurp Jesus’ place as ultimate judge and try to separate sheep and goats on our own, without considering the very myopia of our own perspectives.  We assume that we know God so well that we will choose for Him whom we let into the wider fellowship of faith.

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells his audience to welcome people that a majority in society doesn’t welcome.  This includes people who have no resources of their own (Luke 6:27-36) and people who are deemed “unworthy” or are ridiculed in society (Luke 14:12-24).

Not only do we welcome people without reservation or preconceived notions of judgment, but we are to define ourselves by our relationship with them too.   Jesus is our example: “And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them'” (Luke 15:2).

My prayer is that we are a people known for being passionate, sold-out, Jesus-freak followers of Christ who spend so much time with sinners and saints alike that no one will fail to recognize the positive contributions we make in society.   Not only will this further the Gospel, but it will harness the energy of people who stand ready to inaugurate God’s agenda for the redemption of all creation.   Go and be the Good News of inclusion, not the bad news of rejection and vitriol.

I’ll leave you with a quote from ethics professor, Dr. David Gushee, in his recent op-ed, “Christian Witness Among the Partisan Fray,” at http://www.abpnews.com.  He writes,

Christians are called to “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (Jer. 29:7). Our American Babylon needs our prayers. And it needs from us not thoughtless participation in partisan combat, but a uniquely Christian moral witness of commitment to the common good and love of every neighbor.