Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Passion of the American Christian in the 21st Century

One would think from the regular shrill complaints emanating from predictable quarters that someone had declared a war on Christianity in the United States.  The grievances often radiate out from the more sober precincts of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and waft across the terrain of American Christendom to make common cause with a more highly-pitched narrative of woe and resentment emanating from the more fevered minds of those that reside in the stranger parts of that land.  According to this narrative, Christians in America are under siege and have been for some time, ridiculed and mocked for their beliefs on a daily basis, unable to practice their faith in accordance with their conscience, harassed by the state and scorned by the culture.  The Roman entertainments at the Coliseum are often invoked, the martyrdom of the saints, the passion of the Christ, etc.  All of America's Christians, it seems, now suffer, at least metaphorically if not literally, the stripe, the slings, the crown of thorns, and the scourge and arrows of their forbearers in faith.

This perpetual Sturm und Drang is irksome in the extreme.  Let us take a quick, off-the-top-of-our-heads account of how false the notion is that contemporary American Christians are being persecuted.

Every one of our presidents has been a Christian.  Every one of them, as far as I know, was sworn into office with his hand on a Christian Bible.  It has long been practically a requirement for office to publicly proclaim your Christian piety, and to this day the vast majority of our elected officials are Christian.  It’s important to note, however, that you don’t have to actually act like a Christian; you simply have to proclaim your Christianity, again and again (e.g., Gingrich), and so long as you do this, all is forgiven and you can stand in the Congress and loudly beat your chest in the Lord’s name and serve the good people of your state until the end of time.  No one will burst through the doors to take you away.  However, when a Muslim was somehow elected to Congress a few years back, many Christians viscerally responded with spasms of outrage when it was rumored he might be sworn into office with his hand on a Koran, not a Bible.  Such is the profound respect for freedom of worship in this fine land.

Away from the seats of power, Christian houses of worship have been a ubiquitous feature of the American landscape for almost 250 years.  Christians wear symbols of their faith without fear of censure or imprisonment, and their most holy days are national holidays.  The original, de facto motto of our country, E pluribus unum, was changed to "In God We Trust" (widely understood to refer to the Christian diety) in 1956, which was placed on our currency shortly thereafter.  In an environment like this all an atheist has to do to earn the overt scorn of his pious neighbors is to simply admit to her lack of belief.  But a Christian can publicly proclaim the most outrageous bigotry under the cover of his faith without raising any eyebrows.  Sometimes he is even praised for his moral fortitude (e.g., Santorum).

One could go on, of course.  But what is striking about this kind of Christianity is how unchristian it is.  These people don't love the poor, the unwashed, the outcast, the true victims of this fallen world, because they are too absorbed in the fiction of their own persecution.  The only victimhood they love is their own; they are endlessly engrossed in it.  It's a victimhood based on demonstrably false premises, but it enables them to imagine themselves in a position where an unjust world owes them.  It’s for this reason that this kind of Christian so loves Mel Gibson’s blood-spattered piece of cinematic agitprop The Passion of the Christ.  In the horrifically abused figure of Gibson’s Christ they can see in themselves a kind of spiritual Rocky Balboa, perpetually beaten down but always rising from the mat, despite pleas that they “stay down” and wait for the count.  This is a Christ they can cheer for, and in this cheering they cheer themselves.

Except Christians in America have never experienced anything remotely like this, and have instead enjoyed a level of religious privilege that has approached that enjoyed by believers in a theocracy.  Instead of viewing Gibson’s Passion as a parable for their own supposed suffering, such Christians should try to recall to their historically myopic minds the actual persecutions suffered by their Christ and his disciples, and the real violence and bloodletting suffered by the early Christian community.  The Christian in contemporary America has had no real ordeal to suffer; the first Christians suffered them all.

In sum, American Christians should please spare us the pretense about their persecution in this, their promised land.  As Easter approaches, such a spectacle is a bit much, more than a little unseemly, embarrassing to witness, and in the end, sickening.

No comments:

Post a Comment