I’m very offended. Or so I’m told. As a believing Christian, I’m supposed to be deeply troubled by the remarks that President Barack Obama delivered at the recent National Prayer Breakfast here in Washington, DC. Former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore had this to say:
The president’s comments this morning at the prayer breakfast are the most offensive I’ve ever heard a president make in my lifetime. He has offended every believing Christian in the United States. This goes further to the point that Mr. Obama does not believe in America or the values we all share.
Strong words. But what were Obama’s terribly offensive remarks? Here’s what the president said:
And lest we get on our high horse and think [religious violence] is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.
Wait… what? Why should I be offended by that? That’s a fact. That’s our history. Every Christian should be aware of what we are capable of when we turn our eyes away from the self-sacrificing love of Jesus and instead turn Christianity into an ideology that justifies terror, brutality, oppression, and war.
It should be impossible to study Western history without getting some glimpse into the terrifying possibilities that any religious system – including Christian ones – hold out for those who seek t dominate others. We humans have a long track record of twisting our most precious faith into a weapon of violence and hatred. This shouldn’t be a controversial statement; it should be a matter of ongoing repentance and prayer for people of faith everywhere.
So I’m confused.
President Obama speaks about the reality that any religion, including Christianity, can be used as justification for acts of terror. Gilmore responds with outrage that Obama does not believe in America or the values we all share.
I don’t see the connection.
For me, Christianity and America are distinct concepts. One is a 2,000-year-old religion centered around the person of Jesus Christ. The other is a roughly 200-year-old nation state where I just so happen to live. Why would Gilmore take President Obama’s remarks, about the violent distortion of Christianity, as an attack on America?
Unless he means… No, he can’t mean that, can he? That Christianity and American nationalism are essentially the same religion? I know he can’t mean that, because that’s exactly the kind of religious perversion that Obama was talking about. When we start making our causes, our ideologies, our nation synonymous with Christianity, we’re in the danger zone.
This is where religious terrorism comes from.
Let me state, for the record, that there is at least one believing Christian in America who is not offended by President Obama’s remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast. On the contrary, I would have been pleased for Obama to take it a little further. The people of the United States are in desperate need of a wake-up call that real Christian faith is not compatible with any of our nationalist ideologies, no matter how popular and unquestionable they may seem at present.
When we turn Christianity into a belief system that justifies our fear and violent tendencies, we rob the gospel of its power to convict us of our need for forgiveness and transformation. When Christianity is cross-bred with nationalism, the resulting animal is one devoid of all prophetic fire, all critique of violence and state-sanctioned terror.
When we combine our Christian faith with American exceptionalism, we’re flirting with the soul-numbing ideology of ISIS and Al-Qaeda.
As a believing Christian, I choose not to be offended by the president’s words. Instead, I receive them as a much-needed rebuke to a nation that has far too often killed in the name of Jesus, carried out pre-emptive wars in the name of God, and overseen blasphemous systems of Jim Crow in the name of the God who freed the slaves.
For far too long, American Christians have been unwilling to face our own potential to be agents of religious extremism and terror, whether grassroots or state-sanctioned. Let this be a wake up call. It can happen here. It has happened here. It is happening here. And we’re responsible.
It’s never too late for America’s Christians to repent and believe the gospel. But we can’t carry the cross and the bayonet at the same time. We’re going to have to choose between following Jesus and serving Empire. Which will it be?