The World Keeps Turning: Paradoxes of Christianity

  • Allen Woods FILE PHOTO

Published: 8/5/2022 2:14:22 PM
Modified: 8/5/2022 2:11:15 PM

Bill McKibben is an environmental activist, a winner of several international awards for leadership, and an outstanding writer. In his latest book (his 20th), “The Flag, the Cross, and the Station Wagon,” he combines personal history with analysis as he tries to make sense of the stark social changes since his 1960s-70s childhood. His goal, stated in the book’s subtitle, is figuring out “. . . What the Hell Happened.”

He focuses on three central issues: American history and politics (“The Flag”), religion (“The Cross”) and the economy (“The Station Wagon”). The book contains startling statistics, in-depth research, and resonant memories (as he often points out) for white, middle-class baby boomers. But he also takes interpretive leaps which allow a broader understanding of our changing society.

For me, one example stands out. McKibben believes that the once-unifying influence of Christianity on communities and society has been fractured and diminished by a new generation of evangelical leaders and followers. They pursue salvation through a “consumer, transactional relationship” that emphasizes Jesus Christ as a “personal savior” who can entertain requests as mundane as guiding the choice of clothes, or assisting in an election campaign. He believes they practice a “What’s in it for me?” type of Christianity, rather than one in which God’s blessings are distributed widely to a community. (This is one form of the “hyper-individualism” that McKibben identifies as the prime factor in the decades of social change and the simplest answer to the “What the hell happened?” question.)

If McKibben is correct, it helps me answer an enduring and puzzling question of the Trump era (although the answer provides little comfort): How can a group who identify themselves as dedicated Christians support a man who has publicly violated most of the Ten Commandments, exhibits all seven “deadly sins” (according to Catholic theology: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, pride), and regularly disregards or attacks the less fortunate among us? If Trump’s evangelical faithful rely on personal benefits for believers, despite his personal character, “what’s in it for them,” is a politician who claims he can lead them back to a time when white Christians controlled nearly all facets of life, including support for segregation, bans on abortion, and nativist hatred for immigrants and their countries.

Although exposed to hundreds of hours of Christian sermons and Bible study growing up, Christianity, for me, has always been characterized by paradox as much as unity. It’s impossible for me to escape the contradictions at the heart of the Bible’s Old and New Testaments. Should Christians pursue Old Testament retribution—  “an eye for an eye” — or attempt the beatific New Testament response by “turning the other cheek?” Should we count wealth as one of God’s blessings (Old Testament Proverbs) or believe that it is nearly impossible for a rich man to enter heaven (New Testament Matthew)? Is the Christian God angry and vengeful, dangling sinners “. . . over the pit of hell” (from an 18th century sermon, quoted by Wilson Roberts in a recent column) or one as forgiving as Jesus who absolved the Roman solders dividing up his clothes because “they know not what they do”?

The split in interpretations has never been more obvious between evangelical and “mainline” Christian approaches: shaming, denouncing, and attacking the LGBTQ community vs. the welcoming arms of congregations encouraging their membership and leadership; attacks on people seeking abortions and anyone assisting them vs. communities fighting to safeguard women’s health and rights; attacks on immigrants vs. churches providing sanctuary.

What may be most painful (and extremely important in McKibben’s analysis) is the racial divide. Brought to life in a powerful Holyoke art show by Imo Imeh last February, the insurrectionists of January 6 carried symbols of both Christianity (a large cross) and white supremacy (the confederate flag). Self-described as a “Black Christian man,” his art and words struggled to reconcile his strong, inclusive religious beliefs with their theft and misappropriation by Christian faith leaders who sanctioned and encouraged the mob’s actions. (I imagine millions of Muslims feel the same betrayal when terrorists and hardline leaders hijack their peaceful religious beliefs.)

McKibben notes that with the rise in numbers of evangelicals (growing from about 2 million in 1940 to more than 80 million today), as well as the publicity and political attention given them, only 16% of non-Christian young adults say that Christianity “consistently shows love for other people.” They see evangelical Christianity as intolerant and unforgiving, consistent with the amoral, vengeful man they embrace, Donald Trump.

Allen Woods is a freelance writer, author of the Revolutionary-era historical fiction novel “The Sword and Scabbard,” and Greenfield resident. His column appears regularly on a Saturday. Comments are welcome here or at awoods2846@gmail.com. 

 

 


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