“Away with the Atheists?”

Last week like many of you, I read about the results of a new survey that claimed less than half of Americans are now linked to a church, synagogue, or mosque. Guess what; it didn’t take long for the pundits to pile in with warnings, prognostications, and blame. “It’s all the fault of the religious right and their love of Trump.” “No, it’s those on the religious left who have succumbed to ‘woke’ culture.” The blame goes on and on.

Once we get past the blame game, others then tell us that this portends disaster for American Christianity, even America itself. Their implication is that this is bad for both. But what if it is not? Perhaps, we’re so ready to wring our hands in despair that we miss what this means. And what this means, at least in part, is that we now find ourselves in a religious context more like the first century AD than at any other time in history.

The first century and our century

Think about that for just a moment. The Christian faith was born into a world where multiple religions and multiple spiritualities flourished. Judaism in the first century experienced a massive transformation from Temple-based to synagogue worship. (The destruction of the Second Temple in AD70 forced this dramatic change, a change that has framed Judaism for the past 2,000 years.) A quasi-philosophical religion that we call Gnosticism flourished throughout the Roman empire in the three-hundred years after Christ walked the earth. Emperor worship became the Roman state religion and practicing this religion was a defining mark of patriotism. Religions like these and others were everywhere and people often practiced more than one.

What made Christianity different was its insistence on the Lordship of Jesus Christ. The earliest Christian confession was three words: “Jesus is Lord.” Hence, if Jesus was Lord, then Caesar was not. Now, Rome did not mind you practicing another religion as long as you acknowledged Caesar as supreme. Caesar had room for other gods, as long as Caesar remained supreme. But Christians could not confess the lordship of Caesar. And (get this), they were labeled “atheists” because they did not recognize Caesar’s lordship; and that meant they were off-and-on subject to harm and persecution.

The persecution was not constant. Instead it broke out at different times and in different places. The New Testament Book of Revelation and the post-Apostolic letter of Clement to the church in Rome were written at approximately the same time (AD90-95). Yet they describe very different contexts. The Roman church that Clement addressed seemed able to live their lives peacefully (though with memory of the brutal Neronian persecutions of AD64-68); while the churches that John wrote to in Asia minor (modern-day Turkey) were challenged by him to live faithfully in the face of oppression. John spends most of his narrative describing Rome as a “beast” that will unleash massive evil on the world before the return of Christ.

The best illustration of what many Christians experienced came from the second-century pen of a writer who described the martyrdom of bishop Polycarp. Polycarp was probably mentored by the Apostle John himself; and when he was arrested and brought to the Roman governor, he was 86 years old. The governor asked Polycarp to recant his Christian faith, and the writer described the scene like this, “Swear by the genius of Caesar; repent and say “Away with the atheists!” So, Polycarp solemnly looked at the whole crowd…who were in the stadium and then (groaning as he looked up to heaven) said, “Away with the atheists!” But when the magistrate said, “Swear the oath, and I will release you; revile Christ,” Polycarp replied “For eighty-six years I have been his servant, and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” (Martyrdom of Polycarp, 10.2-3).

Our chief enemy: Distraction

I’m deeply moved every time I read that account. What Polycarp’s martyrdom helps me grasp is the challenge Christians like you and me face every day: to live our lives with no other ultimate allegiance than Jesus Christ. It sounds simple on the surface, but it is not; especially in a world that offers so many competing loyalties and bombards us with hundreds of daily messages clamoring for our attention. Distraction is the order of the day.

And distraction is the enemy’s tool to draw us away from Christ. When we care more about religious things, about political things, about personal desires, they, and not our Lord, become our focus in life. Since the 1950s, American Christianity in its more liberal and conservative forms has become far more partisan in political terms. One of my favorite writers, C.S. Lewis, described how dangerous this is; “Let him begin by treating the Patriotism or the Pacifism as a part of his religion. Then, let him, under the influence of partisan spirit, come to regard it as the most important part. Then quietly and gradually nurse him on to the stage at which religion becomes merely part of the “Cause” (The Screwtape Letters, 39).

No earthly nation-state can be called “Christian”

How that describes American Christianity, especially American evangelical Christianity in our day and time. The root of this lies in the misguided idea that somehow the United States is a nation especially ordained by God for some special purpose. This idea has both Christian and secular versions, though in the past century it has been interpreted in different ways by liberal and conservative Christians.

The United States is not nor has it ever been a “Christian” nation. Like the United Kingdom, France, Spain, and other nations the U.S. has origins rooted in different versions of Christianity as well as in non-religious ways of thinking. Lewis is right. When people and churches make it their mission to elect the “right” politicians or get a particular political party in power, Jesus Christ is moved from the center to the periphery. The nation-state becomes more important and we become beholden to whatever political party we claim membership. Jacques Ellul had a name for this–the “political illusion” and far too many American evangelical Christians have embraced it.

Does that mean American Christians should simply withdraw from society? No, it does not. Our Lord teaches us to live our daily lives in whatever society he places us. He wants us to care for others, especially those who are poor and who have been harmed. He desires justice tinged with mercy. Jesus wants to use us to draw others to him and he wants to use us to make the United States (and the entire world) a better place for humans to live and work.

I’ve always viewed myself as a somewhat independent thinker. I think abortion needs to be curbed because it involves the taking of innocent human life. I think we brutalized African Americans and Native Americans for nearly 300 years and too many white Americans pretend that people of color should simply be able to get over it in one or two generations. I think that money, sex, and power are the American drugs of choice for many (and that is not to take away from the seriousness of opioid and other physical addictions). I think climate change is very real and that to pretend that it isn’t is to ignore massive scientific and anecdotal evidence. I think that Donald Trump won a free and fair election in 2016, and I think Joseph Biden won a free and fair election in 2020. I think our two major political parties are now a great threat to our Republic and our way of life.

I can hear some of you reading this. He’s a “communist.” He’s a fascist.” He’s a “Republican.” “Horrors, he’s a Democrat.” That demonstrates my point. We have traded Christ for our favorite political and social ideology, and our ideology no matter what it is determines how we perceive things, not actual evidence. So, I’m not asking that we agree. I’m asking how we as followers of Christ can resist the drive of political ideology and display the values of the Kingdom of God that Jesus talks about over and over in the four gospels, values that apply to both individuals and communities. What if Christians like you and me become political independents for the sake of the Gospel. Even more, what if we treat folks who disagree with us for whatever reason not as somehow evil people who should be “cancelled” but individuals created originally in God’s image who need to hear the gospel? (Yes, “cancel culture” exists on both political extremes and sadly, even in American evangelical Christianity.)

This is part of the ongoing struggle that you and I have in following Jesus. Yes, I struggle with it. I have for a long time (and my opinionated nature makes it an ongoing struggle). But let’s not despair. Amidst all of the distractions we face, we can find ways to center our lives on Jesus himself and and create outposts for the gospel and for the Kingdom of God. Above all, let’s learn to give each other grace, especially when we disagree. And don’t worry about this latest Gallup poll. After all, it makes our Kingdom mission even more clear.

Author: Bob Mayer

Bob Mayer recently retired after 24 years as Librarian and faculty member at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He loves good books, especially the work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Henri Nouwen, and C.S. Lewis. He also enjoys film, especially movies that cause him to reflect theologically and culturally on important themes and questions.

2 thoughts on ““Away with the Atheists?””

  1. Would that the clarity of this assessment of the world today, could be as easily communicated in the rough and tumble, sound-bite world of social media. The major thrust of your thesis, Bob, addresses points that all believers actually agree with. Even patriotic, Christian Americans that believe we have received a special blessing from Heavenly Father, agree fully that society is going down the sink-hole. We are heading down a path where Christians, across the ideological/political spectrum, will be forced into the same camp – – – where they are keenly aware that they (we) all are essential members of the Body of Christ. And that’s a bad thing?

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