“We’re a propositional church!” That’s what an elder of my church said as he showed me a magazine article with a list of statements and check-off boxes that “proved” that our theology was “right” and that the other major Christian faith (in this case, Catholic) was “wrong.”
He could barely contain himself. I did not share his excitement.
I was not convinced that Jesus, or unbelievers, or pagans, or people in our neighborhood, or any in need, or even those of other faith traditions would agree or even care about those “propositions.” I didn’t even care that much.
What were those “statements of faith” in the light of tragedy? Social upheaval? Personal challenges? Difficult relationships? Crisis? Or even encounters with wonder and discovery?
Years later, I read Wendell Berry’s book The Hidden Wound. Berry’s book addressed the psychological and character cost of slavery—on those who held slaves and imagined that they could own and exploit for their own purposes other human beings, even their children.
And yes, they had developed a “propositional faith” and a “sinner’s prayer” that defended and justified their actions. They had separated, with surgical precision, faith from life.
They had convinced themselves (and generations to follow) that they could commit any act of violence or depredation and still be “sanctified” and “forgiven” in the eyes of God.
And who needs “forgiveness” more than the one who has justified, advocated, and profited from cruelty and “socially acceptable” kidnapping, assault, and brutality?
Their “theology” didn’t guide them; it protected and justified them. And my church still believes that.
Recently, our pastor gave a message on the well-known Good Samaritan parable. In the scriptural account, a teacher (to “justify” himself) asks “who is my neighbor?” The parable is the answer. In short, the one who shows mercy to a stranger shows who a neighbor is and what a true “neighbor” does for a stranger in need.
If you remember the story, two religious men walk by the man in need. And a Samaritan, a much-despised half-breed, stops and spends time and money to help a man in distress.
Our pastor, a religious man of our times, “justified” those who did not stop to help. And he had little to say about the act of mercy and sacrifice that was the literal heart of the story. His message in fact, “justified” not caring or showing an act of sacrifice. He defended, passionately, the right to do nothing, the right to keep one’s own agenda sacred.
Instead of inspiring us to step beyond our boundaries and into, by the way, a state of Grace beyond description, he encouraged us to bundle up, “justify” ourselves, and continue on our way. Instead of urging us to open our eyes and hearts, he urged us to play it safe and keep our hands clean.
We could live our lives free of the intrusion of Grace and sacrifice, and nothing would be asked of us. We too, would be not be expected to extend that indescribable giving, especially to strangers in need.
The message, then, seems to be that our salvation is secure. Somehow I am not encouraged. But I do understand a little bit more of how American Christianity became so different from what the faith has always been and what the world needs it to be.
And who God has called us to be.
Protecting what is ours (with walls and armies of propositions) has become the operational first commandment, if not first response, of too many of us. Meanwhile, the world turns on and real people need real good news.
Helping a stranger may never be our first impulse, but it just might be the act that truly sets us free.