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A Neighborless Christianity

2010 July 19

I want to thank Glenn Beck. His recent tirade against liberation theology has granted that particular conversation more press time than it’s been given in years. It’s hard to make a theology that bangs the drum of the preferential option for the poor sexy in our land of excess and wealth. Sensationalized stories of sex slavery make the airwaves from time to time, but a theology that makes us take a hard look at economic injustice of our culture, not so much. So, thank you Glenn Beck for introducing a new generation of Americans to liberation theology.

But, obviously, Beck’s portrayal of liberation theology wasn’t exactly positive. Besides calling it socialist (seriously dude, stop being such a one trick pony), he said it wasn’t Christian because it focused on social sin and “collective salvation” instead of the strictly personal salvation message that is at the heart of Beck’s interpretation of Christianity. Granted, Beck knows his audience. His average viewer most likely believes that the message of Christianity can be reduced to this concept of one’s personal relationship with God. The message one hears in many conservative evangelical American churches can be boiled down to “Jesus died for ME. God demands MY worship. I must attend church to strengthen MY faith.”

To question this self-focused religion (even by proposing an outward purpose for our faith) is tantamount to heresy. For instance, I’ve been reading critiques of the evangelical feminist movement and many of them mock the movement because it prompts people to focus on the needs of women and men instead of solely focusing on God. These books suggest that if we were true Christians, we would only care about our relationship with God and not the petty needs of other people. To serve others or to care for people apparently have nothing to do with our personal relationship with God and so therefore must be cast as a deterrent to faith.

I’ve heard the same reasoning applied to Christians engaging in environmental action. I got in trouble when I was in junior high for wearing a “save the dolphins” necklace. I was told that in caring for the dolphins I was worshiping the creation and not the creator. My time and energy should be devoted only to developing my personal relationship with God – which at the time was defined as reading my Bible, praying, doing devotions, singing, and attending church. And as I’ve written about before, I received a similar response at a moms group when I mentioned how important ethical consumption was in my life. I was informed that as a wife and a mother, God does not expect me to care for the poor, but to only make sure I am fulfilling my role in tending to my family (since that is how a woman best serves God).

This “it’s all about me” religion generally masquerades as being “all about God.” In fact in such circles books, buttons, and bumper stickers that say “it’s not about me” are quite popular. And while I think there are serious issues with some of the self-deprecating, soul-silencing, and passion-erasing messages that such a stance often promotes (like telling women they are selfish for pursuing a career or that to cure depression one just needs to get over oneself and pray more), on the whole this sort of religion is very self-focused.

But the disturbing consequence of making Christianity all about MY personal relationship with Jesus is that we eliminate our neighbor. Oh, we are taught to pray for our neighbor in order to strengthen our own faith. We are taught to fear the corrupting influence of our neighbor. And, above all, we are taught to condemn our neighbor. But we have inoculated ourselves from having a neighbor to love. If we are not to care about the plight of women, or the destruction of the environment, or the oppressed third world farmer because it would take away from our complete devotion to God, then the idea of loving our neighbor becomes a meaningless concept. That command then becomes so confusing that we have to start focusing on the “as yourselves” part of the verse instead – making sure that each of us loves ourselves enough to devote ourselves only to God.

Having no neighbors to love does make our faith easier. As long as we aren’t going on murder sprees, cheating on our spouse (or looking at porn), and only gossiping in the form of “prayer requests” we don’t have to do the hard work of repentance very often. But add social sin into the mix and say that part of worshiping God involves caring for the poor and oppressed and faith becomes exponentially more difficult. None of us could claim a good relationship with God by those standards. And most of us would have to drastically alter our consumeristic lifestyles in order to avoid daily sin. So therefore it is easier to ignore the parts of the Bible that tell us God hates our worship and closes his ears to our prayers unless we are caring for the poor and the oppressed than to actually figure out how to do it. It is easier to label (and mock) such things as socialism or to say that loving our neighbor distracts us from loving God than it is to repent of social sin. It is easier to say, “MY faith is all about ME and MY relationship with God” than it is to making living sacrifices of ourselves.

So Glenn Beck gets it right – at least when it comes to understanding the felt needs of his target audience. Who cares if you are ignoring scripture and rewriting Christianity, the best way to keep ratings high is to define right living and true religion as looking out for number one. Because, seriously, who needs a neighbor to love when we have ourselves?

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22 Responses leave one →
  1. July 19, 2010

    I know that I struggle daily with the materialistic corruption of our culture. I love my own comfort. I’m currently reading “Radical” and “The Hole in our Gospel” and am being convicted yet again about my love of “stuff”. And I really know better – I’ve been on mission trips, I’ve seen the appalling living conditions in the barrios of Caracas. But modern evangelicalism makes it so easy to be selfish. And I’m blessed to be part of a congregation that is fighting these tendencies as well – that wants to serve God unselfishly in our own town and across the world.

    You’ve hit the nail on the head. Excellent post.

  2. July 19, 2010

    /amen

    great post

    beck, however, knows not what he speaks of…

  3. July 20, 2010

    Yes – a great post. I think that the truth is that salvation is both individual AND collective and the Reformation seems to have resulted in Catholics focussing on the collective at the expense of the individual and Protestants went the otherway.

  4. July 20, 2010

    Outstanding. I work with the poor in Central America. That doesn’t make me great or wonderful. I just believe that I am doing what Jesus would do if he were here. Serving the poor, and looking for justice. Worshipping Him by living the Gospel. I recall being mocked by an Embassy worker here, as she sarcastically asked, “Why the poor? I want to reach the rich people.”

    “Go for it, honey. That’s where the money is!”

    That’s what I wanted to say. I was at the time too shocked to answer. Honduras, my home, is a desperately poor country with a ruling oligarchy that controls nearly all of the power, money and resources. Despite the circumstances, I knew of many who are rich in faith, just as James said it would be.

  5. July 20, 2010

    Absolutely! Between Beck’s discussion of this and social justice earlier this year, I’d have to say you’re right. He’s done a great service by bringing these concepts to the forefront.

  6. July 20, 2010

    Wow, I usually am in agreement with most of your views but that is not what I heard Beck say. I saw him emphasizing charity as a result of our salvation and personal relationship with God and that we should reject charity as a means of salvation or getting right with God.

    “But the disturbing consequence of making Christianity all about MY personal relationship with Jesus is that we eliminate our neighbor.”

    I strongly disagree with this statement. It IS my personal relationship with Jesus that changes me into someone that cares about my neighbor. I don’t see the message he and other people are currently preaching as “passion-erasing” but more as a preaching of the order in which it should happen. Without love we clanging symbols. Without my personal relationship with Christ my charity and good works mean nothing.

  7. July 20, 2010

    But, obviously, Beck’s portrayal of liberation theology wasn’t exactly positive. Besides calling it socialist (seriously dude, stop being such a one trick pony)

    To be fair, liberation theology usually actually is fairly socialist. (Not that that’s a bad thing :) In this case (for once!) Beck is more or less correct with his label.

    But of course that just begs the question of what is so awful about socialism in the first place. If you believe in political democracy, why not believe in economic democracy as well? (Which is what socialism actually is.) Conversely, if you believe that political power should be in the hands of the people, why would you want economic power to be in the hands of a small, inaccessible elite? (Which is the system we have now.)

    But that’s tangential to the issue at hand. Sorry for the distraction. :)

  8. Betsy Hansbrough permalink
    July 21, 2010

    I’ve never understood the whole evangelical – you gotta get em saved – thing. To believe that God – the God of mercy and love would simply allow the rest of the world to die forever in torment is sadistic and self righteous. I believe we are all saved or non of us can be. We can live as Christ asks us to – loving our enemy, caring for the poor and sick, loving the outcasts among us or we can live prissy little lives – sure that we are saved and those others are not.- When we live as Christ does – when we look for the Christ in another’s way of living – it becomes impossible to divide the world. It is all simply God’s beloved people. We might look at Leviticus 16 where the people need a goat to carry the sins of the people. We always want someone else doing that carrying. Jesus carried them and now we must do so without needing an enemy, a scapegoat. Jesus created no victims but we create new ones all the time in his name. I find Shane Clairborn’s way of living the Christian live to be challenging, humble and loving. And when I see someone like that – I remember – “that’s what it looks like” . Sister Helen Prejean is yet another. Although I have only learned of him since his death, I understand that David Gentile was one of those examples. Mother Theresa, Fred Rogers, Dorothy Day. The list goes on and on in the Community of Saints. They lead joyful lives in Christ. Neither Shane nor Sister Helen will stand down from violence but embrace it and nullify it by their lives. Now who else is an example? Who else lives as Christ would have us live. For women it is certainly not about the house and family. That’s pretty much something Jesus rejected. He had no house, no wife, no children. He found Mary and Martha and rejected the ordinary complaints of Martha for the heart of her sister Mary. Someone told me that you can’t be a Christian until you meet one. It is true. Until you meet someone who is living – trying to live – in that manner that only loves -you have no idea what being a Christian can be. One you’ve met one – and want to imitate that way of being – you have met Christ. This is true whether you are capable of claiming him or not. I look constantly for those people to keep me going. I need such people to know Christ. And they are there – hundreds of them in my life. A couple would say that they are Jews, one would call herself agnostic, one is a Muslim. But they love. they take care of the poor and sick, the widow and orphan, they forgive and judge no one. I’m thinking that Christianity is a bit like a virus. Once you are exposed to the real thing, you develop little antibodies and are never free from the exposure. Jesus is in your life because you met someone who follows him with truth and love. I want to be like Fred Rogers and Mother Theresa and Shane Clairborne and Richard Rohr and Eboo Patel and so many others who seem to have encountered Christ and been transformed. It is so very hard.

  9. Jeff Young permalink
    July 21, 2010

    A friend of mine sent this article to me. I really disagree with several points and offer – with charity – a different perspective.

    I’m not a Glenn Beck fan and never listen to him. Nor do I think much of the “evangelical right.” But Liberation Theology is flawed largely because it de-emphasizes or completely ignores personal salvation. And, the theology of personal salvation is at the heart of the scriptures (consider Acts 2, 3, 8, 16; 2 Cor. 9:23-27). More than that, it is actually essential to the justice you seek. In the NT, the call for economic justice is a voluntary calling that is based on personal salvation from Jesus (2 Cor. 8-9).

    I’m sorry that your anecdotal experiences do not match genuine Christianity in the NT. But, anecdotal experiences don’t demonstrate anything – they only illustrate. I and others can muster just as much anecdotal evidence in the opposite direction. I know of churches that completely repudiate Liberation Theology but contribute tens of thousands every year to the poor (as well as to the preaching of the gospel). For example, our small congregation here (about 120 members) periodically sends checks over the $10,000 mark for the poor in Zimbabwe (that’s funds collected in addition to the normal weekly contribution that also goes toward benevolence locally and assistance elsewhere). Many of us regularly volunteer at homeless shelters contributing food with our own money.

    I also think the comment about taking “a hard look at economic injustice of our culture” is problematic. Indeed there are huge problems with materialism that we need to constantly try to overcome and to preach on. Economic injustice is a strong word to apply so broadly, however. The fact that there are rich and poor (though the poor in this nation are not nearly as poor as in other nations) does not imply “economic injustice” (I’m not arguing there is none).

    The reality is that statistically, the evangelical world contributes a higher percentage of their personal income to the poor – both within America and outside America – than political liberals do. One big difference is that liberals want to take other people money and spend it on the poor without compromising their lifestyle. In a recent study, Al Gore contributed 0.2 percent of his income to charity (less than one percent!). Shouldn’t you be taking him and other liberals to task? Here’s an anecdote for you: when I go to the homeless shelters here in Birmingham and look at who is on the list for serving meals (they do so with their own resources) or making contributions, it’s churches that dominate such lists. Most of these would be categorized as evangelical and focus on personal salvation. Hmm.

    I don’t know of Beck’s version of Christianity (although, looking at one of the responses above, your characterization of Beck was perhaps unfair – or might we say, ‘uncharitable’? Is that Christ-like?).

    I do know that many free market conservatives argue that government forced redistribution of wealth is neither Christian (it’s just not taught in the NT one way or another and is not part of the whole ethos of voluntary giving by Christians – 2 Cor. 8-9; Gal. 6:10) nor beneficial to economic growth, nor effective (interesting, as the welfare system has grown in America since the sixties, there has been a corresponding increase in the poor). Ironically, I would suspect that Glenn Beck contributed more in charitable giving – in both amount and percentage – than the Obamas or Gores have in recent years (I’ve seen Obama’s records – because politicians have to open them to the public).

    Here’s a thought to consider – nations with the free market system have produced more wealth and generally contributed far more to the poor around the rest of the world (such as Africa) – than socialist nations. How is that economic injustice?

    Why, if you are really concerned about “economic justice,” don’t you preach & campaign against those nations that have economic systems that produce zero wealth, that send much of the entire nation into poverty (except for the select few politically corrupt leaders), and contribute little or nothing to the poor in third world nations? America gives vastly more as a percentage of income – both individually and through government aid – to nations in need around the world than other nations (especially Socialist ones!). Not only do Americans give more in aggregate, they give more percentage-wise. Interesting.

    While one may note the flaws of a free market system (no earthly system is perfect); the reality is that it functions more effectively than socialist systems. Further, it ultimately provides more economic justice than a socialist system in terms of contributing to the poor and caring for them. I’m not saying more should not be done to help the poor (my family and my church are working harder to find ways to do so and sacrifice to this end). But, I think that your views are too myopic relative to this culture. But, even those at the poverty line in this nation are better off economically than 95% of the rest of the world. Including many in socialist nations. That’s not too shabby.

    Or, why not simply call out liberals in America – who engage in minimal charitable giving? I found it interesting that in another blog here you were defensive of Al Gore and the ad hominem’s against him – all well and good – but have you called him out for giving 0.2 percent of his household income to charity while decrying the problems of the poor?

    A couple of articles you may find interesting:

    http://www.realclearpolitics.com/authors/george_will/

    http://www.american.com/archive/2008/march-april-magazine-contents/a-nation-of-givers

    Food for thought. Grace & Peace.

  10. Jeff Young permalink
    July 21, 2010

    Just one more brief comment – and a correction:

    At the end of the blog, you wrote: “Who cares if you are ignoring scripture and rewriting Christianity.”

    Those are strong words when one considers that over and over (as noted above) in the NT, personal salvation was a central factor (Acts 2, 3, 8, 9, 16, etc.). The correction is the passage marked as 2 Cor. 9:23-27; that actually should be 1 Cor. 9:19-23 – where Paul says he gives all for the sake of the gospel to “save some.” And, to expand, 2 Cor. 8 particularly focuses the giving of the Corinthians to the poor saints in Jerusalem as being motivated by what Jesus did for them in bringing them that dreaded “personal salvation.”

    May we be careful how we are judging who is “ignoring scripture and rewriting Christianity.” And, argue with a bit more fair-mindedness and humility about ourselves.

  11. July 22, 2010

    As I read your post, which I loved by the way, I felt a little torn on the “MY relationship” part vs the “Love Your neighbor part”. To me a relationship with God is self centered because it is all about your one on oneness with the big guy up stairs and the child like relationship you make with him as your father. At the same time that relationship should include a personality of selflessness that includes putting others before yourself, and not closing people out just because their walk with God or belief system isn’t equal to yours (at least in your personal eyes).

    When I look at Christ his example was beautiful because he surrounded himself with people who were normally looked at as social outcasts, the very audience he came to Earth to minster to. The biggest act to follow is he gave his life knowing the majority of this world would turn against him in the long run. I think what has happened over the generations is people have lost focus of the love thy neighbor as yourself clause, and focus more on the judgment of thy neighbor and pat your back clause.

    Thanks for pointing this out because it is a personality trait that has put a bad stain on Christianity as others feel that Christians are nothing more then judgmental hypocrites who feel they are better then the world.

    Imagine if every Christian were to love their neighbor unconditionally throughout the US with no strings attached, what kind of impact would that have?

  12. July 22, 2010

    Thanks for the pushback and discussion all.

    To clarify. I do not think that one must accept liberation theology, or be a socialist, or marxist in order to love one’s neighbor. I see a lot of good in liberation theology, but there are parts of it I disagree with (the least of which is that liberation and feminist theology don’t often get along, which is just stupid imho). There are great churches out there who repudiate liberation theology who are serving the least of these on a daily basis. Awesome for them. But there are also church out there that preach a very different message. Yes, my anecdotes are my anecdotes – but they represent the message of real churches, and that’s what scares me,

    Jeff – I would advise you to research a few things. First being why countries that produce no wealth are that way. Liberation and postcolonial theology might really help in understanding that. Secondly, while America gives the most money in straight up dollars to charity, we are actually one of the worst countries when in comes to percentage of income given. There are developing countries out there that give higher percentages than us. It’s not a statistic to be thrown around proudly.

    • February 10, 2012

      that fuigre is wrong. Income tax maybe. but income tax only pays for the military 50% of the federal budget. social security is paying for everything else.

  13. August 4, 2010

    So how much money will get me into heaven? What percentage of my wealth do I have to give before God lets me in? I’m just looking for clarification of what you’re trying to say.

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