A neighbour’s prayer

Dear God, please let me never live beside a Christian who takes the command to love his neighbour as a moral absolute, divorced from any personal experience of heartbreak and being swept up by a grand irresistible and peaceable love. Not that I wouldn’t appreciate the casseroles, at least to begin with; and I could overlook the tracts under my door because of the fruit pies; but eventually the conversations laced with agenda would grow weary and then rivalrous, and the pies would stop, the tracts multiply, until one day a knock would come and I would be taken away by something like the Guardians of Faith and Freedom—my neighbour watching through Venetian blinds.

Please excuse me. You see I just read a Gallop poll that suggests the more devout and pious one is, the more one attends church, the more one is likely to favour war. "In general, the more frequently an American attends church, the less likely he or she is to say the (Iraq) war was a mistake.”

So how does this work exactly? A friend sent me Gary Kohl’s recent article, What kind of Christianity is this? It may shed some light on this.

But before I head for the narthex, here’s something: A survey taken by Baylor, published a few months ago in Christianity Today, suggests that frequent bible reading will nudge one toward a more liberal world view. There are a bunch of caveats in the study but I found this possibility refreshing. And of course it makes sense, especially if, as is my position, that the bible must be read through the lens of the gospels. It was however disappointing to scan the 95 comments. Most disagreed with the conclusion; in some cases there was hostility.

I suspect we’re still some distance from Kohl’s contention that,

Jesus of the Gospels was an outspoken, nonviolent leftist who tried to reform his authoritarian conservative, dogmatic church but also refused to shut up with his call for justice for the down-trodden – even when his superiors threatened him with serious consequences if he didn’t.

But let me end with this: It’s lexicon we’re stuck with; but how weary liberal/conservative, right/left. Don’t we—on either side—drag our feet in our attempts at understanding? Don’t we scapegoat the scapegoaters?

We use our doctrine, our concept of God to shield us from undergoing necessary heartbreak, the very thing that could lead us into mercy and love and conversations without agenda, except for a desire to understand.


  1. I think of what is going on regarding the Iraq war is the American non-separation of church and state. I was living in California when the planes hit the towers …and time after time, I was shocked to hear my Christian friends say “I don’t believe in war, but I trust George Bush.”, even AFTER the war had begun. The underlying assumption appeared to be that George Bush’s election was a clear answer to prayer, and therefore he could not make a mistake.

  2. I hardly think the first paragraph describes all Christians. Many Christians do not believe in war and do great works of charity without trying to control their neighbors.

  3. Hi Stephen,

    I am always moved, either by the poetic presentation you offer or by the reality that you present in your posts. This one was no exception.

    I found this relationship between frequent church attendance and war support not all together surprising. This is only because last year, Kelly Flood, a former UU minister and current KY state representative gave the sermon at my church. One point she made enlightened me to something that might lead one to the relationship revealed in the poll.

    She is quoting George Lackoff, author of A Political Mind –
    “Conservatives believe in a strict father model of family where the father is The Decider, the ultimate moral authority in the family.
    His authority must not be challenged. His job is to protect the family, to support the family (by winning competitions in the marketplace), and to teach his kids right from wrong by disciplining them physically when they do wrong.The use of force is necessary and required. Only then will children develop the internal discipline to become moral beings. And only with such discipline will they be able to prosper. And what of people who are not prosperous? They don’t have discipline, and without discipline they cannot be moral, so they deserve their poverty.” The good people are hence the prosperous people.
    Helping others takes away their discipline, and hence makes them both unable to prosper on their own and function morally.

    I thought this was an interesting perspective on conservatism, both in the political and religious sense; maybe you will too.

  4. Thanks Susan, I agree. Further illustrated by the American flag flying beside so many of their churches. But I suppose the confusion of patriotism with Christianity or nationalism with religion is not only an American issue.

  5. Thank you Lisa. That’s an astonishing quote that comes very close to defining social Darwinism. It’s just a short step to saying victims deserve their fate and de-contextualizing Jesus’, “you will always have the poor with you.” Fortunately there are conservatives sensitive to the larger picture. Unfortunately there are probably liberal elitists who would endorse the quote.

  6. I wonder if Canadian statistics or attitude are different. However, I also think that there has been a massive over-reaction to the poor and oft misguided efforts to evangelize people. Doing good stuff just for the sake of being good or using Jesus as a moral example doesn’t quite cut it for me. I agree that we must love people without the expectation of return but we must not love them without the hope of transformation as we look forward to ultimate redemption. If we must interpret everything through the lens of the gospels then Jesus’ command to make disciples of all nations clearly still stands today. That means then that we have to wrestle with what it means for us to have this agenda yet do that in a way that clearly captures the heart and way of Jesus.

  7. Thanks so much for your comment Graham. The frenetic evangelization of the fringe has always been an easy mark. It’s here I agree that there’s been a “massive over-reaction” along with the attempt at portraying it as normative evangelization. But there’s also been a massive under-reaction by Christians to the nationalistic, imperialistic, ethnocentric interpretation of “making disciples of all nations.” We are still living with the open wounds of these forms of evangelism. They are in our inner-city. And I’m not limiting this to the well known sins of the residential schools.

    Perhaps what you are looking for Graham is a way to reconceive evangelical Christianity in a way that not only frees it from any harmful and unhealthy agendas, but frees it from all overt and subversive techniques and strategies without betraying the “command” of evangelizing. Hardly an easy thing. Particularly as we are all culturally embodied and as the church is far into using Western technique and strategy…not realizing we are already into a post-Western era (which is another but not unrelated discussion).

    This brings us back to love, the thing, if only we could rise to it, that eclipses culture while still recognizes our enculturation. And the way I see scripture and the gospel portray and exemplify love is that it is entirely free of agenda except for what is already inherent and so covered by love. So I would reverse your idea and say we must first wrestle with what it means to be captivated captives of the heart of Jesus to where every agenda is moot. And as John says, anyone who loves this way has already passed into life.

  8. The particular apex of the lens of the gospel through which we look is the death of Jesus on the cross. After 50 years of seeking to follow him, the claim on my life through the forgivness of my sins that this act made, and the self-sacrifice, the emptying of oneself that he modeled in that act and is subsequently required of me, continues to elude me. The Christlikeness implied in knowing the “fellowship of suffering” (Phil. 3:10) continues to be an illusive goal. Methinks I might be too busy trying to be either conservative or liberal, whereas this Invitation if far too radical to be either.

  9. Thanks Steve. I appreciate your thoughtfulness . It is unfortunate that “Good News” has been delivered in destructive ways and as such has become “bad news”. Nevertheless I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water. The “Good News” must be demonstrated and shared in such a way that it’s actually embraced as good news. At the same time we understand that regardless of how good the news or the messenger is it will not be received as such by everyone (Jesus shows us this). Thus I would think that negative reactions toward the messenger or the Good News is not the gauge we should measure these things by. Which of course brings us back to the love of God in Jesus. “love does no harm to it’s neighbor” -Rom 13.10. This is the standard by which we need to measure our actions. To not share lovingly while we lovingly hope and pray lovingly for neighbors could be the most harmful thing we afflict upon them.

  10. It’s clear throughout the Gospels we must love, care for and evangelize to people in both spiritual and practical ways. However we are not able to transform the hearts of people, that’s the Holy Spirit’s work. “Let the one who does wrong continue to do wrong; let the vile person continue to be vile; let the one who does right continue to do right; and let the holy person continue to be holy” (Revelation 22:11). Sorry to throw a damper on things but this honest appraisal of the human condition explains to me in just one verse why there will continue to be sin, war, starvation, oppression and other wrongs as long as there are people who do not follow Jesus Christ.

  11. Thank you Ian. But the real damper for me is that “war, oppression, and other wrongs” continue to be carried out by those who identify themselves as followers of Jesus. That was the sad finding of the gallop poll. A tragic reflection of Christianity of which I’m a part.

  12. That is definitely tragic. However, this type of behavior is not uniquely Christian but a human endemic. It’s precisely what Jesus came to set us free from. What disappoints me most is that religion seems to justify this type of behavior and at times fuel it.

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