Pharisees in a Strange Land
Religion News Service contributor David Gibson recently penned an opinion piece on the growing concerns of American Christian leaders that our beloved land of freedom and good Christian virtue “ain’t what she used to be.” These leaders apparently caught on that America as a whole is behaving precisely how we told it not to behave in Sunday School, and now some leaders are now equating the religious right’s loss of cultural and political clout with a modern-day Biblical exile.1 Gibson’s piece is succinct and covers a wide range of opinions on how Christians might understand such an exile – it’s worth a read. I came away from the story wondering whether present condition of American Christians resembles not so much that of the Jews in Babylon as it does the condition of the Jews under Rome.
To be fair, traditional Christian ethics are fast becoming irrelevant in our culture. That much is plain. The tides of America’s sexual ethics changed so fast that the religious right was caught off guard and dragged out to sea. Bans on gay marriage are being overturned left and right in states around the country. Christian business owners have found themselves on the wrong side of the law for declining to offer wedding services to same-sex couples, sometimes even in states that didn’t themselves allow such marriages.2 The Republican Party, long the bastion of “values voters”, is increasingly populated by libertarians ambivalent to government regulation on issues like same-sex marriage and drug legalization.3 Not only are the laws changing, but the political institutions long-trusted to represent religious values are, too. If I were a conservative evangelical voter, I very well might feel that this dramatic shift in law and public opinion had ostracized my worldview, making me an alien in my own country.
Given that nobody is invading America and forcibly removing us to a foreign country, I’d say that “exile” is a bit of a stretch. If we are in exile, it is the “staycation” of exiles: a low key, low stress exile in the comfort of our own homes. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego have no place in our narrative. In an editorial for The Atlantic, Alan Noble identifies this exaggerated mindset of alienation as “evangelical persecution complex.”4 That is to say, a movement of American Christians have interpreted shifts in U.S. domestic policy as religious persecution. One needs only to glance at historical persecutions (such as in the account of Perpetua and Felicity) or the plight of Christians in the modern Middle East to understand that our “persecution” is nothing of the sort. Perhaps American Christians will be called to suffer so terribly in the future, but not today.
If we are not in exile, and if we are not suffering persecution,, then what are we? I suggest that we have more in common with the Pharisees of ancient Judaism than with the Babylonian exiles or the Christian martyrs. Now, I don’t mean the relentless villains of the New Testament narratives, but the historical faction of Jews, the “party of the populace”,5 who were “anxious to preserve the distinctively religious and theocratic character of Jewish life in defiance of hellenistic influences and Roman domination.”6 In other words, the ancient Pharisees were faithful Jews who struggled to maintain the life and character of Judaism while living amid the imperialist syncretism of Roman religion. The world around them was as alien as it was alienating. To preserve their identity as Jews, the Pharisees “sought to make the faith of Israel relevant to everyday situations.”7 The hypocritical legalism that Jesus attacked was born from the understandable intention to preserve traditional beliefs while the broader culture’s religion contorted and grew when political expediency demanded it do so. The tragedy was that this myopic focus on the preservation of Judaism through strict ethical observations is what left so many spiritually dead. It was to these Pharisees that Jesus cried,
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness.” (Mat 23:27)8
If nationwide church membership continues to decline, there may come a day when American Christians find ourselves a minority in a country where the laws are not in our favor. That day won’t come anytime soon, if it does at all. However, the political landscape is already changing. We should expect the nation’s laws in particular areas (namely sexual and reproductive ethics) to shift further and further from traditional Christian mores. Perhaps the current trends are only the swing of a pendulum, but we can’t rely on popular opinion to swing back our way. The question becomes, what do we do about it? I suggest that we do not do as the Pharisees did. Their response to cultural challenges from Hellenism and the Roman Empire was to formulate an increasingly elaborate system of ethics for followers. God was forgotten, and formality became king. We risk falling into that trap by differentiating our religion solely by what ethics we do and do not observe.
Christians are known as followers of Christ, the Son of God, who came into the world to defeat the power of sin by the shedding of his blood. If we follow the path of the Pharisees, modern Christians will become known only as a strange people who don’t get abortions, don’t let gays marry on their property, and eat crackers and drink cheap wine for Sunday brunch. We may preserve our ethics, certainly, but we must not let them define us. Our identity is in Jesus Christ, and he was never afraid of being in the minority.
2. Barnes, Robert. “Supreme Court Declines Case of Photographer Who Denied Service to Gay Couple.” Washington Post. April 7, 2014. Accessed August 27, 2014. http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/supreme-court-wont-review-new-mexico-gay-commitment-ceremony-photo-case/2014/04/07/f9246cb2-bc3a-11e3-9a05-c739f29ccb08_story.html.
3. Payne, Sebastion. “Some Evangelicals in Republican Party Are Feeling Left Out, See No Standard-bearer.” Washington Post. August 16, 2014. Accessed August 27, 2014. http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/some-evangelicals-in-republican-party-are-feeling-left-out-see-no-standard-bearer/2014/08/16/77c380e8-224e-11e4-958c-268a320a60ce_story.html.
4. Noble, Alan. “The Evangelical Persecution Complex.” The Atlantic. August 4, 2014. Accessed August 27, 2014. http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2014/08/the-evangelical-persecution-complex/375506/?single_page=true.
5. Justo L González. The Story of Christianity, Volume I. (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1984). 10.
6. Chadwick, Henry. The Early Church. Rev. ed. (London: Penguin Books, 1993). 13.
7. González, The Story of Christianity, Volume I. 10.
8. Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway. Used by permission. All rights reserved.