Two women appeared before the king. Both were wailing; one was holding a baby. The woman without the baby told the king that the baby was hers and that the other woman had stolen it after she had smothered her own baby in her sleep. They argued back and forth, screaming and cursing each other. The king said to bring a sword and cut the baby in half, but the first woman said, “No, let her keep the baby.” So the king said, “That was easy; go in peace.” The first woman lowered her head and walked out quietly weeping, while the second woman gave a victorious whoop of joy. That’s the way the famous story of Solomon’s wisdom from 1 Kings 3:16-28 would be told if it were a parable of the two kinds of church we have in America today and the gospel that has been smothered by the stampede of our culture wars. This Sunday offers Christians a Solomonic choice and a perfect contrast between two ways of being church in a tumultuous political season because it is both Pulpit Freedom Sunday (fighting the restraints against pastors endorsing political candidates from the pulpit) and World Communion Sunday (celebrating the way that the body of Christ is bigger than our political or national allegiances).
First, I think it’s important to narrate very oversimplistically some of how we arrived at the confusing context in which we find ourselves as American Christians today. While America has always been a nation founded upon religious freedom and tolerance for religious pluralism, for most of our history, the unofficial default religion for an overwhelming majority of Americans has been Christianity, whether or not it has been practiced faithfully. The secularism of the Enlightenment that pretends to represent a “universal rational” vantage point has always been a hybrid Greco-Roman Judeo-Christian thought-system that for a long time was simply a universal “Christianity” without all the passionate doctrinal convictions that caused Lutherans and Catholics to kill each other in Germany or Anglicans and Puritans to do the same in England. It has only been in the wake of the social upheaval of the Sixties that secularism has completely disavowed itself of its Christian origins and started leveraging itself into the unofficial default worldview for our culture. Walter Cronkite could say, “Merry Christmas!” For most of Tom Brokaw’s career as NBC anchor, he could have done so as well, but Brian Williams has to say, “Happy holidays!”
So there is a cause for panic on the part of Christians who are used to being the default as they have been not only for most of American history but also the history of modern European civilization since the day that the Roman emperor Constantine decided to anoint his military victories with the name of Christ. The world in which Christianity was the default is usually referred to as Christendom. For a long time, people who were born into Christendom were Christians by virtue of their citizenship, until the Reformation shook this assumption up and developed the concept of a “personal relationship” with Jesus. God used Christendom to accomplish many awesome things culturally and intellectually, but it was also responsible for some of the most hideous crimes against humanity that have ever occurred. The European colonial conquest of Africa, Latin America, and Asia, as well as the slave trade were all legitimated on the grounds of evangelism. It was the white man’s burden to bring the savages to Christ with the sword and whip (yes, this language is raw and brutal but that’s literally the way people wrote about it). This form of evangelism through conquest could be referred to as a hegemonic approach to evangelism. In hegemonic evangelism, the ends justify the means. Slavery becomes a good thing because it rescues primitive African people from going to hell and provides them with the structure they need to become good (European) Christians. (An interesting horror has been the way that some Christians today are trying to revive this argument.)
The whole time that European Christendom conquered and enslaved other races in the name of Christ and cannibalized itself savagely in the religious wars that followed the Reformation (which set the stage for the secularism we now face), there was always (and continues to be) a hidden Christianity that never stops being crucified by the majority of Christians. It spends most of its time on the losing side of every political battle; it’s often unable to articulate itself with confidence and clarity; but it never completely dies. I think of Erasmus the Christian humanist who tried so desperately to find a middle ground between the Reformers and the Roman church and ultimately earned the hatred of both sides. Or the Dominican missionary Bartolome de las Casas, who wrote a book that was largely ignored, arguing that the American natives should be evangelized through truth and beauty rather than conquest and slavery. Or Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador who didn’t get the memo from John Paul II that the Church wasn’t supposed to speak out against the massacre of “communist agitators” in Latin America, so he got assassinated while celebrating communion on March 24th, 1980.
The evangelism of this perpetually losing side of Christianity is cruciform rather than hegemonic, meaning that it takes its model from Jesus’ willingness to let His false accusers crucify Him when He had all the powers of the universe at His disposal. It always lets the other woman keep the baby. If you want to see a perfect depiction of cruciform evangelism in cinematic form, watch the movie The Mission about a group of Jesuit missionaries who shared the gospel with South American natives, not realizing it was supposed to be a front for enslaving them and taking their land. They were gunned down by their own people when they refused to abandon their mission and let the slave-traders confiscate the newly baptized Christian natives. I guess it’s pretty obvious that I’m attracted to the cruciform evangelism rather than the hegemonic kind by the way I’ve framed things, because to me evangelism is only truly Christian if it’s done through beauty rather than force. I wrote the following stanza in a song ten years ago about my anguish over Christian hegemony: “They wear your cross upon their uniforms; two thousand years of all these desert storms. How could you let them claim you as their own? Without their guns, would your church still have grown?” It’s horrifying to think that God used brutal triumphalism as part of His plan to spread Christianity around the world. Perhaps He did, or perhaps we should understand the crusades, colonialism, and slavery as the perpetual domination of Christendom by the anti-Christ that will one day be overthrown when Christ returns and shows the world the beauty He meant for us to see all along.
So this brings me to the question of this weekend: Pulpit Freedom Sunday or World Communion Sunday? Obviously those who are organizing Pulpit Freedom Sunday do not have any intention of associating themselves with the Christians of past centuries who genuinely thought that God had told them to conquer other nations in order to bring them to Christ. So when I call Pulpit Freedom Sunday hegemonic, I am not accusing it of racism or genocide or anything else. I am simply saying that it represents the latest, most civilized version of Christians missing the point and smothering the gospel baby that we were given to share with the world.
It simply isn’t true that Christian pastors are having our freedom of speech repressed by the federal government. We are absolutely free to endorse political candidates openly from the pulpit. But if we do so, we should not expect our fellow taxpayers to subsidize our budgets the way that they do with charitable organizations that fall into the 501-C3 tax-deductible category of partisan neutrality. Not paying our taxes as an organization means that other citizens are paying our taxes for us. I hate to say it, but I hope the IRS takes the pastors up on their offer (the pastors are being told to mail DVD’s of their public defiance of the 501-C3 regulations to the IRS). I don’t know how far the windfall would go from a few hundred newly taxed multi-million-dollar megachurch budgets, but it might mean that a few thousand more chronically mentally ill people would be able to get the meds they need to be functional citizens through government funding.
Regarding World Communion Sunday, it’s a concept that engenders a lot of secret taboo scorn among people (including myself) who are tired of being told to “celebrate diversity” by the tolerance police of the secular order. It seems like a farce to wring our hands over what some call the “most segregated hour in America” rather than accepting the choice of people to worship within their native cultures. What if black people just like gospel music and white people like hymns (or Christian rock among the younger set)? Why do we have to feel bad about that? So what if people who worship in Spanish don’t want to form a bilingual service with people who worship in English in order to reassure us? Why do we feel compelled one week every year to put tortillas and flatbread on the altar along with the (United Methodist standard) Hawaiian communion loaf to show how “open-minded” and “committed to inclusivity” we are?
Even though these questions appear in my brain, there is one problem with this cynicism: World Communion Sunday, despite whatever residue of PC culture it has acquired, is an entirely Biblical concept. It’s the meager attempt of a meek, crucified church to live out John’s prophetic vision in Revelation 7:9: “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.” This vision is as beautiful and fragile as a newborn baby that can easily be smothered by a triumphalist, hegemonic approach to accomplishing the vision through sheer force. But the beautiful mystery of God’s providence lies in the way that He breathes new life into His church through the people who are crucified by His Christians. In many ways, the cruciform Christianity that originated among the African slaves who gathered in plantation groves at night to cry out in lament to the God they wanted desperately to believe in has been saving American hegemonic Christianity from itself. Similarly, the cruciform Pentecostalism that is sweeping through Latin America and Africa today is rebelling against the control of its colonial hegemonic instigators (insofar as they were colonial or hegemonic).
I wasn’t sure how things were going to end when I started writing this piece, but I find myself strangely comforted by the realization that Jesus has no problem prevailing against His repeated crucifixion by His people. We can keep on smothering the gospel baby every time we get drunk with worldly power, but that baby will keep on resurrecting itself in ways that are beyond our control. One day we will stop trying to convert God’s beauty into our power. Until that day, His light will continue to shine in our darkness, which will never be able to seize Him (John 1:5). So whatever your church does this Sunday, I challenge you to embrace the real freedom that Jesus offers, the freedom to believe in a hope worthy of our trust even when it is pushed out of being the dominant voice in a society’s discourse. The more that Jesus’ voice is crucified in the public square, the less it will be obscured by one Roman emperor’s 1700 year shadow of hegemonic power, and the more that people will love Jesus’ gospel for the beauty that it is.