Church of Fight or Flight
July 13 | 2020
Many of you come into conversations on race and American Christianity with a general posture of suspicion. You see the vast majority of resources, research, and activists on the subject as “secular” (not “biblically based” enough) and thus dangerous. I get where you’re coming from (I came from there too).
But, I want you to know that there are other ways to interact with and understand the sacred/secular divide. Rather than simply shutting down conversation (labeling people/viewpoints as “secular”), what if we held space for a little curiosity, a little openness, a little humility?
When I was around 19 years old, I took a “secular” philosophy class. I kept a journal specifically for this class, which I titled “I cannot keep silent.” It was where I wrote out defenses for contradictions in the Bible, arguments for the existence of God, or anything else that I might need to speak up about during class (to counter my prof’s nefarious, atheistic agenda — obvi).
I wanted to be a “good witness” for God, you know? After all, it might be the ONLY chance someone ever had to hear about him and be SAVED! It was me — to defend God/save the people — against the world!
This little example encapsulates so much of the narrative and worldview I absorbed growing up in the evangelical subculture.
Objective truth, purity, and rightness existed INSIDE the church. Lostness, deception, twisting of truth (per Satan) existed OUTSIDE in the “secular” world. Christians in the secular world, then, had to armor up and be intensely vigilant to defend and protect their “biblical worldview,” and not get swept into a “secular worldview” …while also trying to “save” people out of said secularism, and assimilate them into the church.
It was always Church vs. Culture; Sacred vs. Secular; Us vs. Them.
Only one tiny problem: Jesus.
He never bought into those sweeping distinctions.
He made it clear that the temple did not own the rights to all things “SACRED.”
He spent most of his time in “secular” spaces with “secular” people.
He got baptized OUTSIDE of the religious establishment. He dined OUTSIDE of the “right circles” (with prostitutes and tax collectors). He even died OUTSIDE of the city, stripped of every dignity, and lumped in with the common criminals.
So, how did “followers” of Jesus get here — with this posture of suspicion, so fearful of people on the “outside”?
I think it is owed (at least in part) to the dawn of the modern age, which brought significant challenges to some long-held Christian beliefs (i.e. human origins per evolutionary theory, higher criticism of the historicity of the Bible, etc.).
While these new developments really only challenged a certain interpretation/lens for viewing the Bible, it felt to many Christians like an attack on the entirety of their faith.
This ambush of perceived threats sent evangelicals into a fight-or-flight scramble. In a sense, it was only natural…a survival instinct.
Modern evangelicals chose to remove themselves from the tensions presented by culture — to exist instead in safe, separate subcultures. Rather than intellectually wrestle or engage new information in mature ways (i.e. how the truths of science can and should be compatible with the truths of faith), they simply labeled a thing “too secular” and shut down all conversation.
I appreciate how Michael Gerson describes this phenomenon in his article “The Last Temptation”:
“In reacting against higher criticism, [fundamentalism] became simplistic and overliteral in its reading of scripture. In reacting against evolution, it became anti-scientific in its general orientation. In reacting against the Social Gospel, it came to regard the whole concept of social justice as a dangerous liberal idea.”
All of these “reactions against” served to reinforce a bunch of false dichotomies (inside/outside, us/them, etc.), giving the church all the more reason to see culture as a threatening enemy, and continue retreating to designated “safe spaces.” Through “flight,” the church was able to successfully keep feared concepts and people at arm’s length, and carefully protect its “biblical worldview” (← XL quotes needed here, since “biblical” is such a loaded term).
The sad irony is that, in doubling down on simplistic, overliteral, inflexible, anti-science, and anti-social-justice views (to protect/preserve), the evangelical church actually put itself at greater risk of extinction! Why? Because it alienated critically-thinking, justice-oriented, younger generations in one fell swoop; essentially saying to them, there is NO SPACE for you here.
Now anytime this church bumps up against the “secular” culture, it perceives itself, its rights, its values to be under attack, and the defensive claws come out on instinct…
But, I have to ask: are either of these FEAR-based-reactions appropriate for “followers” of Jesus?
Do we see Peter or Paul disengaging from the world-scene, adopting a personalized, comfortable spirituality?
No. The answer is no. And I think this holds for us a glimmer of hope. Because…
PETER started out both fighting (cutting off some guy’s ear with a sword) AND fleeing (denying Christ three times)! But he went on to become head of the church (the first pope)! And, rather than fighting or fleeing in the end, accepted a martyr’s death in the path of his friend Jesus.
PAUL (aka Saul) started out on a rampage, arresting and approving the execution of Jesus-followers. The guy thought he was doing good, doing the right thing according to his religion: preaching truth, keeping the law, stamping out heretics, purging the unrighteous (like many evangelicals today). But then he met Jesus via blinding light.
“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
“Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.
“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”
And everything changed for him. He didn’t know he had been hurting God’s People (and by extension — God himself)! Suddenly, his eyes were opened. And his heart began to break for those who had been denied access to God simply because of where they had been born or their status in the world. His hate was replaced with love. His closed mind became open. His Jewish faith expanded to Gentiles. He took the Good News to everybody. Leaving legalism behind, he came to believe that “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Galatians 5:6). He authored most of the New Testament and also died a martyr’s death in the end.
Both Peter and Paul made Jesus their North Star; their interpretive, clarifying lens.
It might sound like a simple thing, but making Jesus (his teachings, example, and sacrifice) the CENTERPIECE of their faith, meant the OBLITERATION of a ton of beliefs they once held dear. It called for some massive DE-CONSTRUCTION and UN-LEARNING on their part — of old ideas about God and his relationship to the world, the trajectory of Hebrew scriptures, etc.
And it probably felt devastating, destabilizing, and disorienting at first.
But there was no other way.
I think the same is true for us.
We must center Jesus in the story again. We must learn to see everything through and wrapped around him (including the words of the Bible)!
All of our fear-based reactions, useless and irrelevant attachments, non-essential doctrines can CRUMBLE…and God will be okay.
What are we so afraid of?
If you find yourself scared of what dangers await outside the walls of your religious refuge…if atheists still seem to you nefarious…if BLM activists seem to have evil agendas…I want you to know that there is another way to see.
With one new experience at a time, one new friend at a time, or a straight-up word from Jesus (+blinding light) — your whole perspective can be flipped, transformed.
I credit many of my own shifting beliefs to the friendships I did not deserve: People who, just by being themselves, showed me that God is not exclusively found inside my religious bubble. God can be spotted on the OTHER SIDE of the walls that we insist on erecting — among low income wage earners, unmarried cohabitants, and in the faces of women wearing hijab. Also, Catholics, feminists, felons, foreigners, and lovers of futbol.
It was people different than me (those I once considered “outsiders”) who showed me their lives, their human vulnerabilities…how very much we share in common.
They (the Misunderstood) were and are the real heroes. They were the ones who put my fears at ease and helped me walk beyond the borders I thought I had to stay within. They were the ones who showed me (the Misguided) that God does not have favorites, nor does he discriminate. He sends the sun to rise, and the rain to fall on all of mankind.
In conclusion: Jesus won’t be contained in our small definitions of sacred and secular. Whether we like it or not, his love and grace are free for ALL, and his kingdom is ever-expanding.
Whether we join in or not, he will continue to break down social and religious barriers. He will keep blurring our dividing lines and disrupting our hierarchies.
Who are you or I, Peter or Paul, to stop him?
And why in the world would we want to?!