By David Gushee.
Religion can do a great job helping believers discern right from wrong and helping them relate kindly and justly to other people. And it can stiffen their will when they face unjust suffering for their faith. I was taught these things when I studied Christian ethics; they continue to motivate me in my work as an ethics professor today. But hard experience has me seeing the negation of these claims more clearly than I did at the beginning of my journey.
Now I see that religion can sometimes do a very poor job of helping believers discern right from wrong—or in helping them relate kindly and justly to others. And it can also persuade people that the rejection of their hurtful or ill-considered convictions is actually martyrdom for God’s Truth, leaving them even more entrenched in their destructive beliefs.
My two most inspiring teachers of Christian ethics in the 1980s were the Baptist Glen Stassen of Southern Baptist Seminary and the Lutheran Larry Rasmussen of Union Seminary. They knew each other and shared scholarly interests that shaped me as well: the Nazi period in Germany; the extraordinary life of the scholar-pastor-resister Dietrich Bonhoeffer; the challenge of overcoming racism; and opposing the nuclear arms race during the Cold War.
Both men taught me an essentially hopeful vision about the role that Christian convictions can play in making society better. Their faith had been impacted very deeply by the lessons of the Nazi period; it honored Dietrich Bonhoeffer for standing fast against Nazi seductions when so many of his fellow Christians surrendered their souls; it resisted America’s own racism; and rejected the idea that more nukes would make the world safer.
My own dissertation focused on that small minority of Christians who rescued Jews during the Holocaust. What kind of character and faith motivated these people who risked their lives while their neighbors stood by indifferently? Thus, I have spent much of my career trying to teach “rescuer Christianity,” instead of “bystander Christianity.”
But now, as a wizened old veteran of the fight, I sometimes struggle with discouragement. It’s not just that many Christians fail to live up to the clear demands of Christian discipleship. It’s that we can’t even agree on what those demands are. We all say we believe in Jesus, but what we make of that belief is so marked by irreconcilable differences that I’m not sure we are in any meaningful way members of the same religious community.
I should have seen this more clearly all along. After all, could it really be said that a Dietrich Bonhoeffer who died resisting Hitler shared the same religion as the “Christians” who murdered children in Hitler’s name? What religious commonality linked white Christian KKK members and Black Christians fighting for an end to segregation and lynching? And how much do pro-torture, Islamophobic Christians have in common with those who take the opposite path? A faith that stands with the crucified ones of this world is very different from a faith that does the crucifying. The question becomes not whether you say you follow Jesus, but which Jesus you follow.
Worst of all has been my recent discovery of versions of Christianity that actually make people worse human beings than they might otherwise have been. Here, churches, pastors, or individuals interpret Scripture or faith in such a way that they do more harm than they would do if they were just good old-fashioned pagans. I never anticipated that I would think: “If we could just keep people out of (such a version of) church, they would be better people.”
Christian leaders wonder why Christianity in America is declining so steeply. Here’s a reason: some highly visible versions of Christianity are so abhorrent that sensible people want nothing to do with Christianity or with the people who practice it.
The same, of course, holds true for abhorrent versions and followers of other religions. But that’s their problem, and this one is mine.
David P. Gushee,
Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics and Director of the Center for Faith and Public Life at Mercer University, Macon, Georgia