What, you ask......is a newly-minted doctor thinking about these days? Bill McKibben's lucid and thoughtful essay "The Christian Paradox" in this month's Harper's. In it, he underscores the relative homogeneity of American christianity*, and explores the troubling contradiction between Jesus's "radical" message of altruism and service (Do unto others...) and its particularly bizarre and selfish contemporary manifestation (God helps those who helps themselves). Along the way, he points out how "our" (meaning a generalized American majority) outspoken professions of "Christianity" are incompatible with our private and public behavior: more violence, divorce, poverty, and less charity than in nations that are less eager to claim for themselves a Christian self-righteousness:
Despite the Sixth Commandment, we are, of course, the most violent rich nation on earth, with a murder rate four or five times that of our European peers. We have prison populations greater by a factor of six or seven than other rich nations [. . . .] Having been told to turn the other cheek, we're the only Western democracy left that executes its citizens, mostly in those states where Christianity is theoretically strongest.
What McKibben wants to get at is why, as "a place saturated in Christian identity," America fails so spectacularly to get at what Christ actually taught:
Christ was pretty specific about what he had in mind for his followers. What if we chose some simple criterion—say, giving aid to the poorest people—as a reasonable proxy for Christian behavior? After all, in the days before his crucifixion, when Jesus summed up his message for his disciples, he said the way you could tell the righteous from the damned was by whether they'd fed the hungry, slaked the thirsty, clothed the naked, welcomed the stranger, and visited the prisoner.
In 2004 [. . .] we ranked second to last [. . .] among developed countries in government foreign aid [. . . .] And it's not because we were giving to private charities for relief work instead. Such funding increases our average daily donation by just six pennies, to twenty-one cents. It's also not because Americans were too busy taking care of their own; nearly 18 percent of American children lived in poverty (compared with, say, 8 percent in Sweden). In fact, by pretty much any measure of caring for the least among us that you want to propose—childhood nutrition, infant mortality, access to preschool—we come in nearly last among the rich nations, and often by a wide margin. The point is not just that (as everyone already knows) the American nation trails badly in all these categories; it's that the overwhelmingly Christian American nation trails badly in all these categories, categories to which Jesus paid particular attention.
Notice that McKibben is not debating whether the nation should or should not be "Christian," but he is comparing us to the model "we" publicly set for ourselves.
His explanation has to do in part with the popularity of the "apocalyptic" arm of Christianity, a focus on "End Times" that he likens to trying to theorize the Constitution by focusing only on the 25th Amendment. And, of course, a focus on the world to come (and one's likeliness of being included therein) obviates concern with the problems of the immediate, material, physical world.
Oddly enough, this new brand of fundamentalism partakes in a logic that would be familiar to perhaps the best known American fundamentalists, the Puritans. The Puritans were equally, if not more obsessed with the life to come, but instead of dismissing the material world, they scrutinized it obsessively for signs of their standing in what they called the Invisible World of God's Kingdom.
But as McKibben notes, a Christian scrutiny of the world does not lead to a particular concern with doing good in that world. In fact, the obsession with the state of one's own soul leads too frequently to a disdain for the problems of those around us. And, in both its late Puritan and contemporary American incarnations, it manifests in a self-absorbed desire for material goods as the index of one's spiritual state.
Like McKibben, I fear even more the message of what he calls "the sprawling megachurches of the new exurbs": that is, those churches whose "spiritual" message is, in fact, disturbingly "conventional" in its emphasis on the self, the spiritual seeker as one more facet of the consumer. "The pastors focus relentlessly on you and your individual needs," McKibben writes. "Their goal is to service consumers—not communities but individuals [. . . .]"
Without that other-directedness that is the core of Christ's message, Christianity becomes a mere adjunct of American self-interest, a minor corollary to Franklin's self-made man. This kind of "soft-focus, comfortable, suburban faith" is, according to McKibben, "a perfect mirror of the [. . .] secular culture, with its American fixation on self-improvement, on self-esteem." These parallels, he argues, are what make the current pose of "persecution" by contemporary Christians ludicrous in the extreme. Or would, if they weren't being taken so seriously.
In contrast, McKibben offers Jesus's own description of what Christianity should be: "a call for nothing less than a radical, voluntary, and effective reordering of power relationships based on the principle of love":
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.
That's it. Simple, clear, concise. Devilishly difficult to put into practice, of course. But then, Jesus himself is, whether you believe in his Divinity or not, a clear example of putting into practice what he preached. What if every self-identified Christian took a few days just to re-read what Jesus actually said? Considering the public assertion of the Bible as literal truth, shouldn't you all know what it says?
*To be fair, I, too, was surprised by the homogeneity he attributes to the U.S. As a secular liberal, I cling to the fantasy that this is a diverse, secular nation of many faiths and creeds. But his claim is not that all of us are Christians, but that so many Americans specifically identify themselves as Christians, and, especially in recent years, our national image is one of assertive (I'd say even aggressive) public Christianity.