Is there something about Christianity itself which leads to the sort of oppression which its adherents have too often been guilty of? You know – the inquisitions, colonialism, slavery, pretty much every interaction we ever had with First Nations people in the Americas. To name a few. The standard answer for western theologians is that the Christian faith and its teachings are not the problem – people’s sinful natures are. It’s the, “well those aren’t real Christians” blow off. However, South Korean theologian Andrew Sung Park posits a more honest – and more helpful – answer to this thorny issue of the convergence of Christianity and oppression. The problem as Sung Park sees it is that we westerners see Christianity as the answer to the problem of the sinner. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, so Jesus came and died for our sins so we can be forgiven and all that. Our theology, Sung Park argues, elevates the needs and concerns of the sinner over the needs and concerns of the people sinned against. And therein lies the problem.
This may seem akin to blasphemy for many Christians for whom the problem of sin and sinners is THE message of Christianity. However, compare our sinner-centered approach to Christianity to the words which Jesus actually spoke.When Jesus started his ministry, this was the text he chose:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind,to release the oppressed,to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” ~ Luke 4:18-19
Jesus’ most famous sermon – the one which many scholars believe was his “stump speech” – the oratory he gave when he traveled to a new place and crowds gathered to hear him centered on this:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
“Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
“Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” ~ Matthew 5:3-12
When Jesus spoke of the day of judgment, it wasn’t sinners who he focused on:
“I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’
“Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? ‘And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? ‘When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’
“The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’” ~ Matthew 25:35-40
Do you see the difference? Certainly, the forgiveness of sins matters. But Jesus’ life and teaching centered on the poor, the blind, the imprisoned, the mourning, the meek, the oppressed, the needy – not on the sinner. He spent far more time speaking of the need to forgive than about the need to seek forgiveness. I think Sung Park is correct in saying that we have erred in putting the sinner and not the weak, the oppressed and the suffering at the center of our faith.
We see this distortion of our faith very strongly in American Christianity. We are very concerned both as a culture and within our churches with holding people accountable, morality, taking responsibility and upholding standards – all sinner focused activities. But we are far less concerned with lifting our fellow man’s burdens, offering solace to the suffering, refuge to the lost, freedom to the prisoner or liberation to the oppressed. In fact, when we do speak of the suffering, the lost, the prisoner and the oppressed, we use the language of accountability, morality and responsibility instead of the biblical language of solace, easing of burdens, refuge, freedom and liberation. We go so far as to tell people that those things will come through an embrace of accountability, morality and responsibility. But we have it backwards. The problem of the sinner is solved when the needs of the sinned against are met – not the other way around.
The church is supposed to be a hospital where the sick go to be made well. But when the sinner and not the weak, weary, burdened and suffering are at the center of your theology, the church becomes at best a half-way house where people go to stay out of trouble and at worst a reform school where the way-ward are whipped into shape. And even worse than what it does to the church, is what it does to the way we relate to one another.
I have known people who have mastered being responsible, who are active in their churches, volunteer in their community and haven’t broken any of the ten commandments in decades who have displayed breath taking cruelty to those near to them when they were weak, suffering and in need. And God-forbid that they had actually screwed up, fallen in the gutter or broken the rules. These supposedly good, Christian people wouldn’t piss on their fallen near and dear if they caught fire in front of them in a desert. Inevitably, their cruelty was justified in the name of demanding accountability, forcing responsibility and upholding morality. And often, the name of love (sometimes tough love) was given to what was nothing more than rank cruelty. When the problems of the sinner are your hammer, the weak, suffering, lost and dying look like nails sticking up out of the wood.
What is particularly insidious about this distortion of our theology is that not only does it not solve the problem of sin; it creates and perpetuates it. It’s exceedingly rare to find someone raised with kindness, gentleness and tenderness who was cruel to those near to them like this. Back when I did prison ministry, I never met an imprisoned kid who hadn’t been egregiously abused. Hell, on pretty much every episode of Intervention, the addict suffered some trauma prior to starting their downward spiral. Sin creates damage to those who are sinned against. To stop the sinner, you must heal the damaged – they are usually one and the same. Offering forgiveness to the sinner lets them know that they are welcome in the hospital, but if you then stick them in the half-way house or the reform school and tell them to man-up, the cycle of sin will likely just continue from generation to generation.
The truth is that it is a cruelty to give a starving man fishing lessons. It’s hard to learn anything with an aching, empty belly. Feed the starving man and when he is ready, he can learn to fish and teach his children to as well so that they won’t have to suffer as he did.
Proverbs 16:25 says “there is a way which seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death.” Our sinner-centered theology seems right to us. A good number of people have achieved great success by sticking with the tenets of the half-way house or reform school. Or hope to one day. And a great many think that others would also be successful if they’d just get their crap together. But look around – people are suffering. Half of children in America are being born into broken homes. In certain income brackets, more marriages end in divorce than not. There’s a picture going around the internet of a little boy in African laying flat on the ground to drink from a muddy puddle with the caption “so you want a new iPhone 5?” The selling of poor children into slavery is commonplace in some parts of the world. If they are little girls, their slavery is often sexual slavery and it happens before they’ve even gone through puberty. Our way isn’t working. It seems right to us, but keeps leading to death. Even if it’s worked for you – we can’t wait for everyone else to catch up.
Last night I found my 8 year old awake long after her bedtime. When I asked her if something was wrong, she told me, “I just keep thinking about the kids in my class who are mean to me who I have to give a valentine to even though I don’t like them.” I talked for a while with her about Jesus’ teachings about loving and doing good to our enemies and God’s perfect love. At the end of the conversation she asked me, “how come we have one way that we think we should do things but God always has a different answer that’s better? It’s like we can think of one thing to do and God has thousands of other ways of doing things that you’d never think of.” I told her it was because God made the game – he knows how it’s supposed to work.
And that’s the deal – God knows how it works. And when he was here walking among us, sinners were a part of a much larger whole. The needs of the sinned against took center stage. I think the time has come for us to repent of having made sinners the center of the faith and set to work repairing the damage created by this error. For that to happen, we need to make Jesus’ priorities our priorities and his concerns our concerns. To do that we must stop trying to get everyone to act right and simply tend to one another:
If you preach, just preach God’s Message, nothing else; if you help, just help, don’t take over; if you teach, stick to your teaching; if you give encouraging guidance, be careful that you don’t get bossy; if you’re put in charge, don’t manipulate; if you’re called to give aid to people in distress, keep your eyes open and be quick to respond; if you work with the disadvantaged, don’t let yourself get irritated with them or depressed by them. Keep a smile on your face.
Love from the center of who you are; don’t fake it. Run for dear life from evil; hold on for dear life to good. Be good friends who love deeply; practice playing second fiddle. . .
Don’t quit in hard times; pray all the harder. Help needy Christians; be inventive in hospitality. Bless your enemies; no cursing under your breath. Laugh with your happy friends when they’re happy; share tears when they’re down. Get along with each other; don’t be stuck-up. Make friends with nobodies; don’t be the great somebody.
Don’t hit back; discover beauty in everyone. If you’ve got it in you, get along with everybody. Don’t insist on getting even; that’s not for you to do. “I’ll do the judging,” says God. “I’ll take care of it.”
Our Scriptures tell us that if you see your enemy hungry, go buy that person lunch, or if he’s thirsty, get him a drink. Your generosity will surprise him with goodness. Don’t let evil get the best of you; get the best of evil by doing good. ~ Romans 12: 6-10, 13-21