Matthew 20: Uncivil Religion

Why do you think Jesus was executed?

Matthew 20 has Jesus telling his gang, for a third time, that he’s going to get killed in Jerusalem by the powers that be. They don’t seem to get it – they are still vying for who will be his right-hand guy – and in that regard, maybe they are stand-ins for us, especially those of us in declaredly Christian societies.

One of the great responses to my post about core beliefs last week was about a podcast about an evolutionary view of religion. Let me set aside the issues I had with the presentation and say there is a clear truth to the underlying point that sociologists of religion have pointed out since the late 19th century: it seems to be the nature of human societies to adopt a civil religion whose god(s) serve as a divine enforcer, espousing norms of behavior and vowing vengeance to those who ignore them. It’s not hard to see, in other societies or in our own history. (It’s interesting to ponder what societies in transition from one civil religion to another are like and if that is our moment as we move towards secularism; interesting, but not my thing.)

Christianity, when you really attend to it’s good news, is a lousy civil religion. Jesus’ message is about a God that is loving and merciful, not a wrathful judge. To the extent Jesus invokes judgment, it’s upon those who aren’t the face of love, especially leaders who sell a legalistic view of who God is. To the extent Jesus offers commandments, they are so far beyond what laws would set as minimal conduct that they are forever challenging us to be better.

I would argue that that norm-ignoring commitment to loving the outsiders was what the authorities couldn’t abide and what got him killed. If that sounds absurd, consider how Gandhi’s nonviolent story ended. Or Dr. King’s. Powers that be don’t know what to do with a love-first ethic.

How Christianity turned into a civil religion still stymies me. When people moan the loss of Christian society, it’s hard for me to join in the chorus. Usually, what people miss are the same sorts of legalistic strictures of politeness that Jesus scolded the Pharisees for. The Gospel shows up more clearly when it’s countercultural anyway. When non-believers talk about the hypocrisy of Christians, I think they are just noticing the gap between the mercy Jesus focused his life on and the battles we who claim to be believers decide to pick.

It is difficult to be simple. “Loving everybody, always,” is clear, simple, and impossibly hard to do. But love, like joy, is what we need more of, now and always.

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