Toward the end of Jonathan Merritt's A Faith of Our Own, he recounts a transformative experience in Kolkata, India:
"'He hasn't bathed in more than ten years,' the German informed me. 'The skin around his wound is like the scales of a fish and must be scrubbed before we can treat him. It's going to be very painful, and I'll need to hold him down.'
He reached into his pocket and handed me a wire brush like the one I clean my grill with.
'Scrub,' he barked, grasping the man's shoulders and pressing him into the wall against which he was leaning. 'Scrub with all your strength!'"
That stark scene may encapsulate all Merritt hopes to accomplish through his book. The beating heart of American Christianity has been lost behind the scar tissue of a politicized religion. He wants to scrub that detritus clean, no matter the cost to the entrenched or to his own comfort.
"In the Bible, I kept meeting a Jesus who was radical and revolutionary. But many 'Christians' I knew worshiped a domesticated Savior—one whose message was easy to swallow and even easier to live by. Their Jesus hated the same people they hated, voted like they did, and made few difficult demands. I developed a nagging sense that the Bible's Jesus might not care for the Jesus many Americans believed in."
This sentiment loudly echoes Anne Lammott: "You can safely assume you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do." As we inch closer to the next election, political rhetoric in the Church, whether preached from the pulpit or passed in the pews, can sometimes err on the side of a cultural response rather than a Christian response.
As the son of a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, Merritt may be the perfect person to have written this book. Sharing personal moments of interaction with some of the power players in the Christian right (most notably Jerry Falwell), Merritt uses these instances as a launch pad for questioning the motives of those seeking to be modern-day Constantines. Unfortunately, the very people who could benefit the most from his book may be too hesitant, or too politically dogmatic, to ever read A Faith of Our Own.
With shades of Derek Webb's lyrics in "A King and a Kingdom," Merritt says that "Jesus showed little interest in sanctifying the state. In fact, he rarely acknowledged the Roman government under which he lived. Even when Satan offered to give him authority over 'all the kingdoms of the world,' Jesus said, 'no thanks.' He had something else in mind."
Due to his background, you may assume Merritt's words are challenging solely to Christian conservatives, but he also calls out the Christian left:
"Many on the Christian left speak as if the kingdom of God entails implementing a 'social justice' agenda in Washington, getting our troops off the battlefield, and obliterating the reign of the Christian right. For those on the right, the kingdom amounts to voting Christians into office, making abortion and gay marriage illegal, reinstating prayer in public schools, and posting the Ten Commandments in courthouses. When either of these agendas become the ultimate measure of faithfulness, the kingdom of God is supplanted by our political strategies."
In a few sentences, Merritt neatly summarizes my own refusal to engage in political conversations with those I know to be staunchly political with their Christian beliefs: "Whether intended or not, dragging partisan politics into the sanctuary scribbles 'thus saith the Lord' across opinions. Once the association is made, those on the other side of the aisle are not merely mistaken; they are apostate." In such an atmosphere, there's no room to disagree. This leads to many, like myself who "are growing so ill with the blurring of faith and partisan politics that they're abandoning the public square altogether."
While I haven't completely abandoned the public square, the following lines describe my political beliefs much better. "As Christian scholar David Gushee observed, a growing number of today's Christians share a 'commitment to political independence and avoidance of partisan entanglements and their negative consequences.' They want to become co-laborers with God. They aren't trying to ride into the kingdom on the back of an elephant or a donkey."
A Faith of Our Own is a peace treaty extended to Christians on the left and Christians on the right.
Merritt recounts meeting Billy Graham, a well-known spiritual leader and confidante to multiple Presidents. In a powerful and revealing statement, Graham shared that "with one exception, I never asked to meet with the presidents. They always asked to meet with me." Graham further elucidated his own party line, one that would serve all Christians well: "Evangelists cannot be closely identified with any particular party or person. We have to stand in the middle in order to preach to all people, right and left."
A Faith of Our Own is a rallying cry for a new generation sorely wearied by the culture wars of their parents and grandparents.
"A.W. Tozer once noted that 100 pianos all tuned to the same fork are thereby tuned to one another. They find unity to each other, he says, by finding another standard to which each one must bow." Merritt's book may set this new standard.
A Faith of Our Own is a humble foot-scrubbing by one who loves the church and Jesus.
As Helmut the German doctor and former monk told Merritt after they had scrubbed the man's feet, "Christians in America . . . forget that it is not what you think or how much power you have or how you vote that changes the world. It's your hands that do the changing."
Use those hands to vote, yes, but use them to do so much more too.
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