Why Andrew Sullivan Doesn’t Get It

Recently, Andrew Sullivan published a piece in Newsweek titled, Christianity in Crisis. Here is the blurb from the article:

Christianity has been destroyed by politics, priests, and get-rich evangelists. Ignore them, writes Andrew Sullivan, and embrace Him.

Below is an excerpt from the article:

If you go to the second floor of the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., you’ll find a small room containing an 18th-century Bible whose pages are full of holes. They are carefully razor-cut empty spaces, so this was not an act of vandalism. It was, rather, a project begun by Thomas Jefferson when he was 77 years old. Painstakingly removing those passages he thought reflected the actual teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, Jefferson literally cut and pasted them into a slimmer, different New Testament, and left behind the remnants (all on display until July 15). What did he edit out? He told us: “We must reduce our volume to the simple evangelists, select, even from them, the very words only of Jesus.” He removed what he felt were the “misconceptions” of Jesus’ followers, “expressing unintelligibly for others what they had not understood themselves.” And it wasn’t hard for him. He described the difference between the real Jesus and the evangelists’ embellishments as “diamonds” in a “dunghill,” glittering as “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.” Yes, he was calling vast parts of the Bible religious manure.

When we think of Jefferson as the great architect of the separation of church and state, this, perhaps, was what he meant by “church”: the purest, simplest, apolitical Christianity, purged of the agendas of those who had sought to use Jesus to advance their own power decades and centuries after Jesus’ death. If Jefferson’s greatest political legacy was the Declaration of Independence, this pure, precious moral teaching was his religious legacy. “I am a real Christian,” Jefferson insisted against the fundamentalists and clerics of his time. “That is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus.”

What were those doctrines? Not the supernatural claims that, fused with politics and power, gave successive generations wars, inquisitions, pogroms, reformations, and counterreformations. Jesus’ doctrines were the practical commandments, the truly radical ideas that immediately leap out in the simple stories he told and which he exemplified in everything he did. Not simply love one another, but love your enemy and forgive those who harm you; give up all material wealth; love the ineffable Being behind all things, and know that this Being is actually your truest Father, in whose image you were made. Above all: give up power over others, because power, if it is to be effective, ultimately requires the threat of violence, and violence is incompatible with the total acceptance and love of all other human beings that is at the sacred heart of Jesus’ teaching. That’s why, in his final apolitical act, Jesus never defended his innocence at trial, never resisted his crucifixion, and even turned to those nailing his hands to the wood on the cross and forgave them, and loved them.

Read the entire article here.

Before I begin this critique of Sullivan’s article, I must say that there is some of what he says with which I agree. For example, I wholeheartedly agree with Sullivan about love, mercy, and forgiveness. I agree with Sullivan that Christians must renounce violence and the use of naked power to achieve their own selfish aims. In fact, everything I say in refuting Sullivan’s thesis that Christians should butt out of power politics and renounce any political agenda to pursue a “simpler” and “more pure faith” presupposes that Christians faithfully follow our Lord Jesus and have developed the needed Christian character to indeed crucify our sinful desires, in the power of the Spirit, so that we can deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him in putting the world to rights. Only then can we ever hope to legitimately be Jesus’ agents of new creation and his light and salt to the world. So before you read what I have written below, if you have not already done so, I encourage you to read Sullivan’s article in full. As a Christian writer, it seems to me that I must first seek some common ground, if possible, with others, even those with whom I vigorously disagree.

According to the Wikipedia article about him, Andrew Sullivan is a “gay Catholic.” I am not terribly interested in his sexual orientation except to the extent that he is advancing a particular agenda. But I am very interested in this screed he has published because he professes to be a Christian. And if that’s true, he should know better than to write a piece on Christianity as bad as this. In fact, there is so much lousy theology in this that I don’t know where to start.

Usually I ignore stuff like this because much of it is sophomoric and ill-thought out. Most critics of Christianity are really parrots who put forth the usual straw men they’ve received from others in their criticisms of the faith. But usually stuff like this is written by an unbeliever or outsider to Christianity. I get that and I can respect an unbeliever’s opinion, uninformed and blatantly biased as it might be. But I have little patience for someone who professes to be a practicing Christian and who writes garbage like this. As Paul reminded the Corinthians when writing about the resurrection, we should be ashamed if we allow someone to rob us of our resurrection hope, or worse yet, if we ourselves are responsible for robbing others of that hope (cf. 1 Corinthians 15.29-34). Sullivan has done exactly this and he should be ashamed of himself for doing so.

Since I have little inclination to rebut his arguments point by point, I am going to restrict my comments to a few general observations. First, anyone who holds up Thomas Jefferson as a model Christian really needs to get back on his meds. Jefferson might have been a brilliant political theorist by the standards of the Enlightenment, but he was no orthodox Christian by anyone’s measure. That he carved up the gospels to fit his own conception of what should really constitute the Christian faith is another sad example of humans redacting God’s word and sitting in judgment over it. That should tip us off immediately that something is amiss with Sullivan’s thesis. Jefferson was one of the poster children of the Enlightenment, an 18th century intellectual and political movement that was inherently hostile toward the Christian faith. Enlightened thinkers were generally deists who were interested in making God out to be an absentee landlord who had checked out on his involvement with the human race. In attempting to kick God upstairs and relegate God to heaven, enlightenment writers like Jefferson aimed at replacing God’s rule on earth as in heaven (remember that inconvenient little clause in Jesus’ prayer, Andrew?) with their own models of political rule. This isn’t the first time that humans have tried to replace God’s rule with their own and it won’t be the last. So of course Jefferson wanted the church to butt out of politics. If it didn’t God would not be effectively banished from running his world. Oh! The humanity of it all (no pun intended)!

No, in touting Jefferson’s expunging of all the miracles from the gospels, as well as other things that Jefferson and his ilk found displeasing, Sullivan is putting his stamp of approval on a sanitized gospel that leaves out huge chunks of  the story that were originally included to help us understand how God indeed became king in the person of Jesus. Nobody should be forced to believe what is in the gospels. But neither does anyone have the right to tell us that all the miracles and other dimensions of supernatural activity reported in the gospel is crap. The healings, the feedings, et al. are all consistent with Israel’s expectations for God’s promised Messiah. They are part and parcel of the whole of Scripture telling us how God became king and yes, they require an informed faith on our part.

And to say that Jesus was apolitical is simply wrong. I don’t have time to explicate why this is so. Suffice it to say here that Jesus was crucified because he was charged with being King of the Jews, hardly “apolitical.” Rome did not crucify people for being “apolitical,” false as the original charges were against Jesus. Pilate crucified Jesus precisely because Jesus represented a political threat. From Pilate’s perspective, would-be Messiahs always did and so he had Jesus crucified with the banner “King of the Jews,” in three languages no less, so there would be no mistake about why Jesus was being crucified. Just because Sullivan and his ilk find miracles and other “difficult” things in the gospels to be unbelievable–things like the fact that Jesus’ understanding of his vocation as Israel’s Messiah was hardly apolitical, and other things which typically do not support a particular sin or agenda–does not make it so. The last time I looked nobody has given Sullivan power to decide that for anyone but himself.

Moreover, for anyone who professes to believe in Jesus’ resurrection and all that it points to, it is inconceivable that he would basically tell other Christians that they should shut up, focus on being holy so that we can go to heaven, and leave the politics to Caesar and others eminently more qualified. You know. Folks like himself and the more sophisticated and enlightened thinkers who happen to believe the things he does. How very convenient. To be sure, Mr. Sullivan does a very clever job of covering his agenda and uses all the right buzz words and phrases. But if new creation is our final destiny, then that means we as Christians are not supposed to shut up and behave ourselves because we live in a broken world and things aren’t functioning as God intended. It means, rather, that we are to be Jesus’ agents of new creation who are actively involved in helping our Lord set things aright.

Don’t misunderstand. We are not called to save the world. Jesus has already done that for us and none of us can accomplish what he accomplished in his death and resurrection. But the promise of new creation demands that Christians care passionately about God’s current creation and act to bring about God’s healing love to God’s broken world and its peoples. Read Romans 8 if you don’t believe me. Or Isaiah 25 or 55. That means we are to be entirely engaged in the world so that God in the Spirit can use us to help reestablish his kingdom on earth as in heaven (and news flash, Andrew, that includes God’s intentions for human sexuality as well, cf. Genesis 1.27; 2.24; Mark 10.5-9–Jesus’ ultimate answer to those who are trying to make the practice of homosexuality good and normal).

Sure, Sullivan is correct in stating that the church has gotten it wrong before. Of course it has! It is made up of flawed and broken humans! But this old canard is blatantly skewed and one-sided. It ignores the massive good that has been done in Jesus’ name, good that far outweighs some of the evil for which it has been responsible. If it weren’t for Christians being active in this world, we wouldn’t have the hospitals and educational institutions or advances in science that we have, for example. Virtually all the early scientists associated with the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century (and beyond) were practicing Christians who demonstrated their faith in and through their work because they saw that their work would help improve the world in which they lived, God’s world.

And if Sullivan believes that Christians should stay out of the political arena, I would invite him to look at what happens when we do. Take a look at Nazi Germany, for example. Nazism is the clearest modern example of what a human political system that is utterly devoid of God and God’s influence looks like. It came to fruition, in part, because many Christians did keep their mouths shut about politics, which laid the terrible groundwork for those, who like Bonhoeffer, to lose their lives once they did speak out. Then tell me that is something desirable. Or take a look at Robespierre’s Reign of Terror in the 18th century with its hatred of all things royal and Christian, as well as the other various fascist and communist dictatorships that sprang up during the 20th century. Hitler or Stalin anyone? Fine people, those two. This is what inevitably happens when Christians and other good people shut up and butt out of politics.

Granted, you cannot legislate morality nor am I arguing for that here. But given the human condition, we’d better be prepared to make sure our laws are fair and just and in accordance with God’s good will for his human creatures, which is to reflect God’s glory out into the world, not our own broken and disordered glory–the essence of all human sin. I find it disingenuous that Sullivan poo-poos agendas while subtly pushing his own. Get real. Everyone has agendas, Andrew. Everyone. So the issue for Christians is not to stay out of the agenda-making process but to be leaven and salt for it. You can’t be Christ’s leaven and remain apart from the bread. Neither can you be Christ’s light and be absent from the various political processes.

Of course, not all Christians are called to work in the political arena. But since we live in a democratic society and we have the right to vote and to speak out, we are called to be Christ’s light and salt to our culture and that means we must vote and make our voices heard. Otherwise, the forces of darkness and evil will make sure we are silenced. Once again, for any Christian who professes to believe in the resurrection and new creation as Sullivan does, it means that we don’t spend our time navel gazing, being holy for the sake of being holy, and waiting to get our ticket punched to heaven. It doesn’t mean we become politically inactive or disengage from the activities of God’s good but broken world so that the enemies of the cross can have their way and day. It means, rather, that we do what Christ calls us to do–be his light and salt to those around us.

Yeah, we’ll get it wrong on occasion, maybe even more often than not. But that isn’t the fault of Christianity or Jesus. That’s our own fault because we are all so profoundly broken. That’s precisely why we need to do the work together as Christ’s body, the Church, so that there can be mutual Christian accountability to help us minimize our mistakes. And by the way, how is the fact that Christians sometimes get it wrong because they decide to act selfishly and disobey their Lord any different from any other human endeavor or political ideology? I don’t hear folks advocating that those groups should withdraw from the political process on that basis. Why single out Christianity? What are you afraid of? God has demonstrated that creation is important to him and has acted decisively on our behalf to redeem it in the person of Jesus. How can we sit back and do otherwise?

In fact, it is precisely through human agency that God intends to redeem the world. This is seen plainly in Scripture in God’s call to his people Israel through Abraham and supremely in God fulfilling his call to Israel by becoming human in the person of Jesus and doing for Israel what she could not do for herself. True, God alone must ultimately consummate his project of new creation when Jesus reappears to finish his redemptive work. But that does not negate the fact that God has always used humans to help bring his healing love to the world, even when we fail to get it right. All this points to precisely the opposite that Sullivan seems to be arguing in this piece. It dictates that we who call ourselves Christians be active in God’s world, not passive or silent. In this country that means we must make our political voice and will heard as part of our discipleship.

And this activism all starts with an informed faith, a faith that isn’t afraid to be confronted by God’s glory contained in Scripture, a faith that is willing to wrestle with stuff that we don’t understand or agree with rather than cut it out of the Bible like Jefferson did. Only then will we be in the position, with the help of the Spirit living in us, to be faithful disciples of Christ, disciples willing to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Jesus’ agenda rather than our own. If we aren’t convinced that Jesus is Lord–and I don’t know how we can ever be convinced of that if we expunge the stuff from the gospels that we don’t like or understand but which point to his Lordship–we will never be in a position to act like we really believe that. After all, faith must inevitably manifest itself in action. This is exactly what Sullivan is criticizing and that’s why he is so very wrong.

In closing, I make a personal appeal to Mr. Sullivan because I want him to know the truth, Jesus’ truth, Scripture’s truth, and to enjoy real Christian freedom. Criticize all you want. There’s lots to criticize legitimately about Christ’s church and God knows we need real and genuine prophetic voices. But please stop embarrassing yourself when you do. The first thing you can do is stop making Jefferson your model Christian. Stop worshiping the Enlightenment because it is antithetical to the Christian faith. It doesn’t want to see God’s rule established on earth as in heaven because that means that humans can’t rule as sovereigns anymore. Rather, go back to the founding documents in the NT and make any one of those folks your model. Start of course with Jesus, just like you advocate. But then also look at Paul and his political theology. It’s there if you have eyes to see, and if you can see it,  you will see how foolish your thesis in this piece is. The early Christians didn’t turn the world upside down by being or doing what you  advocate. They made a difference precisely because they had the hope of new creation and lived in the power of the Spirit. The knew Jesus was Lord and they acted like it! Caesar is never concerned about personal piety that isn’t directed toward the public forum. He sure is, however, when he is confronted by people who believe with their hearts and minds that Jesus is Lord and Caesar isn’t and act like it.