By Robert Mann
In a thinly veiled autobiography published after his death in 1902, the British author Samuel Butler wrote about the Christian evangelical church of his youth. In one scene, he describes his congregation as “tolerators, if not lovers, of all that was familiar, haters of all that was unfamiliar.” They would have been, he observed, “equally horrified at hearing the Christian religion doubted, and at seeing it practiced.”
Butler’s insight was keen and likely applies to Christians everywhere. Too many of us love our civic club religion, and we expect our leaders to tell us constantly how virtuous and Christ-like we are – until it’s time to be virtuous and Christ-like. In other words, we love calling ourselves Christian until we are challenged by fate or circumstance to practice what Jesus preached.
When our leaders assure us that we are a nation founded on Christian principles, we rejoice. It often salves the psyches of those who wish to twist Jesus into a pious scold concerned more with religious dogma than caring for society’s outcasts.
Were he still alive today, I doubt Butler would be surprised by the millions of virtuous American Christians and their political leaders who so easily jettison the teachings of Jesus at the first sign of distress. This week, our collective anguish prompted many of us to turn our backs on Jesus and an entire group of fellow humans, otherwise known as Syrian refugees.
After listening to most of our political leaders, people who tout their Christianity in campaign advertisements, one might assume hordes of terrorists are about to push across our borders. Instead, decent, hardworking families have fled their once-secure homes in Syria, desperate to escape torture or starvation. With children and older relatives in tow, they risk death to reach the European continent in hopes of finding safe haven.
Even before the Paris bombings, the United States had been slow to welcome these tired, poor, huddled masses. Over the past week, dozens of governors, most of them Republican, tried to slam their states’ doors to any Syrian who dared to dream of a better life on our shores.
To be sure, Christian compassion wasn’t entirely missing from the debate. Many church organizations across the nation are showing their Christian compassion and welcoming these refugees. In Baton Rouge, however, such benevolence prompted death threats to Catholic Charities, which has helped most of the 14 Syrian refugees settled in Louisiana this year.
Let’s face it, no matter how much our political leaders tout their Christian principles, they often behave as if they’re unfamiliar with centuries-old teachings of their faith. As for ISIS, its barbarity bears no resemblance to what the Prophet Muhammad taught and how he lived.
Truth be told, people on both sides ignore and so radically distort the teachings of their spiritual founders that God should sue us both for defamation of character. I’m not making a historical argument against the patently false notion that the Founding Fathers based the Constitution on the Bible. I would argue, simply, that we often act as if we haven’t a clue what Jesus taught.
Too many of us are Christian only to the extent that we can attack Starbucks for the color of its coffee cups or harangue a department store for not requiring employees to wish everyone a “Merry Christmas.” Ask us to take seriously what the man from Nazareth taught about justice and loving our enemies? That’s where we often take our leave of Jesus.
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