A Skewed Christianity, Part 2-July 7, 2017
Four Things that Skew Western Christianity, Part 2
Rev. Yme Woensdregt
Last week, I wrote Part 1 of this column about four things which skew our perception of Christian faith. Our North American culture differs significantly from the cultures in which the Bible was written. The Bible grew up in a middle Eastern culture over a course of 1400 years, from about 1250BCE to 125 CE.
Last week, I suggested that our faith is skewed because it is, firstly, overly intellectualized, which is to say that we have been taught in North America that faith is about learning the right answers. Secondly, I suggested that our approach to Christian faith in North America is overly individualized. In fact, much of the language of the Bible needs to be understood as plural. It is written to “you” as a community, not to “you” as an individual. It’s meant for y’all … or as a southern US friend tells me, it’s meant for “all y’all.”
I ended that column by suggesting that this highly individualized worldview leads us to miss the prophetic cry for justice in the Bible. That’s the third element in this list of four.
Most of the Bible is written for oppressed people. Here’s another way in which the original audience for this literature was different from us in North America. Most of us are not oppressed. Most of us have no idea of what it means to be oppressed. Most of us rarely need to cry out as the Psalmists do about being treated with injustice or prejudice or violence. Most of us don’t need to worry about being pulled over by the authorities.
Most of us, in fact, are part of the dominant culture. We can pretty much go where we please; we can pretty much do as we desire, simply because we are part of the “in group”. Society is organized in ways which generally benefit us.
Ancient Israel, on the other hand, was not like that. Except for very brief periods of time, Israel was in the way of the major empires of the day—the Egyptian empire to the southwest, the Babylonian and Mesopotamian empires to the southeast, the Assyrian empire to the northeast, the Hittites to the north. At various times in its history, these empires overran Israel as they sought more power and more land. They were conquerors; Israel was conquered. In the New Testament, Israel lived in thrall to the Roman empire.
Furthermore, most of our ancestors in the faith were illiterate peasants living at a subsistence level in the desert. They could barely scrape by day to day. As a result, the Bible calls out for justice over and over again.
Now most people think of justice as getting your just deserts for having done something wrong. We tend to think of justice as retribution: retributive justice. But the Bible most often means something else by justice. The primary way in which the Bible talks about justice is in terms of distribution: distributive justice. Justice is primarily about a fair distribution of God’s world for all of God’s people. The wealth of the world is meant for all, not just for the 1%.
That brings us to the fourth element which skews our perception of faith. In terms of the rest of the world, we are pretty rich. We don’t often reflect on it. Now, I’m not rich rich. I’m a priest, for heaven’s sake. But by global standards, I’m still rich. I own a car; I live in a house with three bedrooms, all by myself; I have a refrigerator, stove, running water, cable, internet, ceiling fans and heat. I have enough income to live pretty comfortably, and some left over for discretionary spending. My income puts me in the top 8% of the world’s people. I’m rich.
Most of us have a similar standard of living. (In the middle of this heat wave, I’m thinking that some of us are even lucky enough to have air conditioning!)
Our wealth affects our life of faith. The more we have, the less conscious we are of a deeper truth, that our lives are to be lived in trust of God rather than in what makes our lives artificially comfortable. Jesus said things like “Blessed are the poor” and “If God takes care of the birds of the air and the grass in the field, won’t God also take care of you?” and, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” And so forth and so on.
Our western culture prizes wealth as a sign of success. This is what we aim for. Marcus Borg reminds us that the three goals of our society are Appearance, Achievement and Affluence. Those goals get in the way of living by the deeper truth of trust in a God to whom we pray to receive “our daily bread”—enough food for today, not enough food to fill our ever expanding cupboards.
I know that our society depends on wealth to make it work. We pay salaries and maintain buildings and try to accomplish neighbourhood projects which is for the benefit of all. This is how the system works—and that’s precisely my point. We’re stuck in a system where it is hard to critique wealth, and it is so easy to get caught up in it.
But as I said last week, it’s not about playing the blame game. It’s more about insight, seeing more clearly what’s going on, so that we can move forward with greater understanding. It’s about being aware of our culture, and seeing how it skews our vision so that we can deal with it in healthy and helpful ways.