This post first appeared on Brian Zahnd’s excellent blog, and is republished with permission.
What is the church?
Is the church a religious building with stained-glass and a steeple?
Is the church a religious gathering that meets on Sunday mornings?
Is the church a 501(c) 3 not-for-profit religious organization?
I don’t want to give a quick and jaded “of course not.” There are reasons why stained-glass and steeples, Sunday gatherings and not-for-profit status have become associated with the church.
In the end this is not what the church is.
Maybe the church is something like this: The other way of being human (together). The way given to us by and built around Jesus Christ.
The church is a distinct way of being human.
As the most social of beings we are constantly trying to figure out how to be human together. This is the human project. (War, hunger, and poverty are our most conspicuous failures.)
There are many ways to be human. For example…
The Greco-Roman way. (This has faded away, or more accurately, morphed into other ways.)
The Jewish way. (This is still with us, but it too has morphed over time.)
The Hindu way. The Buddhist way. The Muslim way, etc. (The great religions are more than a set of beliefs, they are ways of life.)
The secular way. (This is the way that has the most momentum in the modern Western world.)
The American way. (This is a secular way disguised as a kind of religious way.)
The particular challenge for the American Christian is to distinguish the American way of being human from the church (the Jesus way of being human). If there is no essential difference between being Christian and being American (as a way of life), then what is the point of the church?
This is a problem.
Many American Christians would find it difficult to list five ways in which the Jesus way (the church) differs significantly from the American way. For them the church and the American way are essentially the same way of being human. Which in essence means this: The church does not actually exist. What exists is America. The church (and every other institution) exists only to support the supreme idea of America.
Do you doubt my claim that in the United States the idea of America has by in large eclipsed the idea of the church? Then take my challenge and try to come up with five ways in which the church (the Jesus way) differs fundamentally from America. Can you do it?
Here is my attempt (off the top of my head):
1. The church confesses that Jesus is Lord and “We the People” are not. (So no flying the American flag [“We the People”] above a flag that is meant to represent Christian faith.)
2. The church believes that only Jesus has a manifest destiny to rule the nations and that the kingdom of God is the only exceptional kingdom (nation).
3. The church would rather suffer (and even die) than inflict violence upon its enemies.
4. The church believes that we are judged by how we care for the poor, the sick, the immigrant, and the imprisoned, and therefore, these practices should be prioritized.
5. The church believes that the cross of Christ shames institutions built upon and sustained by violent power.
6. The church believes that Jesus is the savior of the world — not democracy or capitalism or technology or military might.
7. The church believes that attempting to be “number one” is antithetical to the way of Jesus.
8. The church believes that the supreme value is love, not “freedom.”
9. The church believes that helping suffering people is more important than maintaining a position of power.
10. The church believes that the “city set upon a hill” is a society built around Jesus Christ and the Sermon on the Mount, not Thomas Jefferson and the United States Constitution.
11. The church believes that Jesus and his kingdom is the “last best hope of the world,” not America.
12. The church believes that abortion, capital punishment, and nuclear weapons are incompatible with being pro-life, pro-human, and pro-Christ.
Okay, I came up with a dozen, like I said, off the top of my head. (I just typed them as I thought of them.)
Don’t get me wrong. I love America. I really do. It’s my home. For the most part it’s a fine place to live. But it’s not where my faith or my supreme allegiance lie. America is not the “last best hope of the world” (as claimed by Lincoln, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, Bush, Obama). The first and last and only hope of the world is Jesus Christ and his kingdom. My supreme faith and allegiance is reserved for Jesus and what he is building. I am a revolutionary Christian. And I am willing to suffer for it.
P.S. This post was not “planned out.” I wrote it just as I thought it. A kind of stream-of-consciousness post. When I asked, “Can you come up with five ways in which the church (the Jesus way) differs fundamentally from America?,” I had not yet answered my own question. I just wrote down what came to mind. I didn’t edit them or alter the order. I had intended to list only five, but ended up with twelve. If I were to take a few hours to write this, instead of a few minutes, I would probably say it in a different way. Still, I stand by it.
Be sure to check out Pastor Brian (along with Walter Brueggeman!) at the Faith and Culture Conference in April. And register today for our North American Gathering in May to see Brian speak on Reclaiming the Resurrection!