A newsletter article from the Alban Institute cited a recent study showing that the religious beliefs of young people (age 18 to 23) in our nation mirrors that of their parents. This is not surprising; it is parents who introduce their children (or don't) to faith in God. However, the study revealed something else about a large number of today's young adults who consider themselves Christian. The content of their faith is not grounded in historical Christian teachings but reflects what one researcher called "moralistic, therapeutic deism." Their understanding of God comes less from the Bible than from what is commonly called "American civil religion." From this perspective God is one who "fixes things, roots for your team, and rewards good behavior with a happy afterlife."* Unlike Jesus, American civil religion says nothing about sacrifice. It focuses on individual rights whereas the God of scripture addresses communal needs.
If this is, indeed, a prevalent American understanding of Christianity (twenty-four years as a pastor tells me that it is), it helps explain our current crisis in the United States over whether or not to (or how to) raise the debt ceiling. If God "fixes things" then maybe we don't have to worry about the decisions and actions we take that might harm others. If God "roots for our team" then our perspective must be right, our needs/desires come first. If God is this parochial - on "my" side, rooting for my agenda - then what is good for "me" must be acceptable to all. No wonder our government leaders have been meeting daily for weeks with no visible progress to report. Who needs to change, who needs to compromise, who needs to consider someone else's perspective if God is already on their side?
Last week as the news focused on the impasse in Congress concerning the debt limit, Sojourners magazine (email) sent this as their verse for the day: "What do you mean by crushing my people, by grinding the faces of the poor?" (Isaiah 3:15) This is a drastically different message from what we have been hearing on Capital Hill. In this scripture God addresses us - you and me, our representatives, the United States of America - with "what do you mean by crushing my people, by grinding the faces of the poor!"
How can a nation that claims to know the God of scripture cut services to the poor, to the elderly, to children and yet balk at raising taxes on the wealthy and on corporations that make billions of dollars a year on its own soil? If we love God, if have any genuine knowledge of God, we cannot support making life more difficult for those without while refusing to ask the wealthy to give more. Some will say that the wealthy create jobs (please present the evidence) but God sees our plans to pamper the rich and burden the poor and says, unequivocally, "how dare you!"
We in the church have failed to represent the God of scripture faithfully. God does, indeed, love us, but God also demands justice from us - fairness for all people, especially the weakest, the most despised. Jesus identifies himself with those who suffer, not with those who have it made (see Matthew 25: 31-46 and Luke 6:20-26); Jesus lived among outcasts and sinners, not in palaces with rulers and their cohorts. Christians cannot in good conscience allow the burden of this financial crisis to fall upon the working poor, the sick, and the aged without protesting in the name of Jesus.
This Sunday Matthew's gospel presents Jesus feeding five thousand hungry people. Tired by a long day of ministry, the disciples initially want to send the hungry crowd away to procure their own food. But Jesus says to his friends, "you give them something to eat."
That is God's word for us, to you and me, to all our representatives in Congress, to the wealthy and to all citizens of our nation: "You give them something to eat." Will we answer the call? Or will we stay silent and allow "the least of these" to pay again and again and again?
Pastor Kris Hill
*The article is entitled: "Hope and Ethnography" by Dori Grinenko Baker, 7-25-11; the quote is from Christian Smith of the National Study of Youth and Religion.