Revolution in Jesusland is a fascinating new blog questioning and challenging the cynicism behind that “Jesusland” map which was widely circulated after the 2004 US elections. I’d suggest you read its introductory post for a full explanation of its goals and motivation, but in summary, it explores a growing movement among American fundamentalist Christians who, despite the strident intolerance of some of their number, are far more deeply concerned with issues of social justice and welfare than hating on gays and evolution. These Christians have taken on local yet hugely ambitious goals such as “eliminating” homelessness and poverty in their cities and have been prepared to make radical personal choices – such as moving their families into bad, violent neighbourhoods – in order to emulate how Christ engaged with the poor.
One of the blog’s two authors spent his life in left-wing progressive circles, leaving college to become a union activist. The other spent her life in conservative Republican circles and left college to become a missionary. They are married to each other. Beyond telling the story of this movement, the blog hopes to illuminate and analyse the often unexpected similarities and contrasts between these “fundies” and the secular left of America which generally despises them. It is incredibly refreshing to read something which departs so radically from the tone of debate on religious issues elsewhere on the Internet (where it often seems an unwritten rule that nastiness and en-masse straw man construction is OK as long as you’re an atheist dismissing something religious) but still doesn’t proselytize or pontificate.
Apart from the pure human interest aspect of the stories about what people are doing, on a personal level I find the motivations behind the stories truly inspiring. I’m cool with secular humanism even if I’ve chosen Christianity as my truth, and I certainly believe religion has no monopoly on the creation of exceptionally good people. But I’ve also always felt that for quite a number of us humans, there’s something about Christianity’s approach (I don’t know enough about the other religions to speak for them, but it may well be the same) that can force us to leave our comfort zone and do things where a non-religious perspective could not. (By “us humans”, I mean those of us who are essentially decent but not exceptionally virtuous – we are generally ethical in the things we do and minimally committed to good causes in that we might give them some money or sign a petition or two, we live lives that make us and our loved ones happy and are more or less harmless to other people, but it doesn’t go much further than that. We are not actively bad, but we are passively lazy and self-absorbed. This is me, and I think it’s also the average human being. If it’s not you, all power to you.)
First, there’s the idea of doing good because it is God’s will that we do so, and not simply because it’s good to do good. I’m a selfish lazy-ass, in all honesty. Without any sense of carrying out God’s purpose in the world, there’s little chance I’d ever go to the bother of doing something of real consequence (as in, beyond donating money or a few hours of time) to help the less fortunate. Following on from this, there’s the need to keep thinking about the good things in our lives and what we should be using them for i.e. the idea that the good things in my life are not things I did on my own or deserve; they are God’s blessings which I should use to do his will. For me, this works against the lazy complacency of being smugly happy with my awesome life but then dropping the “awesomeness ball” instead of passing it on.
Hang on a minute, you ask – here’s Michelle being all preachy about the wonders of Christianity, but does she demonstrate any of what she’s just claimed it can do? In all seriousness the answer is that I demonstrate very little. But while it’s certainly possible that things other than Christianity can motivate people like me to go beyond their essential selfishness, personally I’ve always believed it’s my best hope of transcending my suckage. (Seriously. I may not be saving the world yet, but without Catholic guilt I would be completely insufferable, and at least that’s something.) Here are excerpts from some posts which, to me, especially capture this:
I asked, “Why is it that the Christians we’re meeting are so humble about the programs they run, even though some of them are incredibly impressive? In the [secular lefty] movement I come out of, we’d be bragging and sending out press releases and winning awards and all kinds of stuff for these kinds of achievements.”
And he said, “Well, I have seen that among many non-believers and many Christians who’ve lost their way too. And I have a theory about it.”
“Tell me!” I said.
He explained (and I’m paraphrasing, unfortunately) “God made humans in his image. And so we’re walking around with this huge, God-sized sense of meaning and purpose and importance in us, and a feeling of being entitled to that sense importance.
In addition, we walk around with all these amazing God-given abilities. It’s amazing what I’ve seen people do. Just amazing. And you’ve seen that too.
Now, if you know God, then you know where that power comes from. And you know where that feeling of importance and purpose comes from: you know you’re here to do God’s purpose.”
(Earlier he had explained in no uncertain terms that “God’s purpose” is for people to take care of each other.)
“If you think all that power comes from you, then you’re going to get pretty cocky about your successes. And if you think that your purpose belongs only to you, then you’re going to get pretty vicious any time anyone gets in the way of you and the exact way in which you think you’re supposed to be doing good in the world.”
It’s so interesting, because, of course, many Christians throughout history (including very powerful ones) have been incredibly arrogant and have even killed for what they believed was God’s purpose. (So have non-believers.) But this rising movement among Christian born agains and evangelicals today is obsessed with humility and “giving it all to God” is the way they seem to pull it off and maintain it, even when their heads should be swelling according to their successes.
The struggle burning in these white folks’ lives is: How can we eliminate poverty and tear down the barrier we’ve built up around ourselves WITHOUT veering into paternalism and doing more harm than good.
I haven’t seen any counterproductive white guilt here yet. I think there is something about these folks’ spirituality that cancels it out. It’s already part of their theology to accept and confess that they are utterly flawed sinners – broken people living in a broken world. That’s a pretty humble platform from which the Haves can go make relationships with the Have Nots. It seems to work pretty well for them (despite the mishaps they’re confessing, there’s a foundation of unmistakable, astounding success at helping huge numbers of people and developing communities).
Yesterday during a break from Bob Lupton’s talk, I was talking to a young guy (maybe 25 years old) who’s working as a missionary in Mexico, in an operation that provides all kinds of services and development assistance in a small community across the border. He looked a tiny bit overwhelmed as he was thinking out loud about the implications of what he was coming to grips with at this conference:
He said something like: “It’s easy being down there. I mean, it’s draining physically and emotionally. But I don’t have to change to be there. And it’s cool. You know, it sounds exotic. People back home get why I’m there, and think it’s cool. The whole church is behind me. But, living in a poor neighborhood in my own city in America – no one’s going to think that’s cool. And I don’t want to do it. It’s going to be awkward for all kinds of reasons. Being a foreigner in another country is one thing, but being a foreigner in your own neighborhood – that seems like that’s going to be really hard.”
But it sure sounded like he was headed for exactly that. Why? Because Jesus wants him to do it. I said something about how I have already seen more comfortable people in the Christian world make that uncomfortable decision than I ever had in 20 years in the secular left. (Mind you, they’re not just moving into the neighborhoods, they’re crossing boundaries and becoming responsible, as members of communities, for their neighbors’ lives.)
He said, “Hmmm. Yeah, that makes sense. The ONLY reason I’d do it is for Jesus.”