“Kyrios Christos!” (literally, “Lord Christ” or Christ is Lord!) The 81 percent of Evangelical Christians in America who voted for and still support Donald Trump are desperately in need of a reminder that “Kyrios Christos” is Christianity 101. It is the first central affirmation of the Christian message. It has been the central appeal of Christian preachers since at least the first Day of Pentecost, “Christ is Lord!” The 81s have forgotten this and have sold out their birthright for a bowl of soup — or a “mess of pottage” as the King James Version renders it. And the magnitude of this sell-out boggles the mind.
Growing up in the red state of Alabama, the child of Greek Orthodox parents, but caught up in the “Jesus Movement” of the early 1970s, I began to hear evangelical sermons in Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches and Youth for Christ meetings in my high school. It didn’t take much repetition to receive the clear message from these preachers that the key to embracing Christianity was “making Jesus Lord.” Not just lip-service, but seeking in every instance and every moment to make Jesus the “Lord of my life.”
One particular preacher’s appeal put the matter in the starkest of contrasts. He quoted Peter’s response of “Not so, Lord” after a vision of Jesus commanded the Apostle to eat un-Kosher food. (Acts 10:14). “Not so, Lord!” insisted the evangelist of the hour, is a logical contradiction. If you are going to be a Jesus person, you’re going to have scratch out either “Not so” or the title “Lord.” If one was going to be a true Christian, he implored those whom he invited to come forward in repentance, saying “Not so” to Kyrios Christos was not one of the options.
How could the most insistently evangelical and consistently evangelistic Christians in the USA have such amnesia regarding the first lesson of Christianity?
Freshman year, taking a course in Introduction to the New Testament, the one thing I remember the professor saying — besides his mispronouncing the name of a classmate, “Stee-fanny” — is his emphasis of Jesus’ most basic call to discipleship, as the Gospel of Matthew puts it: “If any man be my disciple, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (16:24).
At the Transfiguration, where Jesus is depicted as sitting with Moses and Elijah, who represented the Law and the Prophets, the disciples hear the voice of God. It said: “This is my beloved son; listen to him. Making Jesus Lord means listening to Jesus. Emulating Jesus. Imitating Jesus.”
The first Christian devotional classic any Christian mentor ever recommended I read was the medieval monk Thomas à Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ. And the line I still remember was his assertion: “There are many lovers of the Kingdom, but few bearers of the cross.”
Never has that been more true in the history of Christianity in America. The evangelicals who came from the lower classes in colonial America preached a message frowned upon by the custodial clergy who led the many established churches in nine of the 13 colonies. And when warned by Christian magistrates to shut up and stand down, they replied that even if they were jailed, they would “obey God rather than man.” And they were jailed.
But eventually they prevailed. And their version of Christianity gradually rose to dominance in the American body politic as well as in the Body of Christ. Especially in what would become the red states, where they have now forgotten their roots and the most rudimentary truths of their own faith.
One other thing they have forgotten. In first-century Christianity, which they so often claim to embody, “Kyrios Christos” was an oppositional confession of faith. What it opposed was a rival version: “Kyrios Kaisaros.” Instead of saying “Christ is Lord,” the citizens of the Roman Empire were called upon to pledge their allegiance by burning incense on an altar and intoning, “Caesar is Lord.” What made the first Christians dangerous to Rome was their refusal make such a pledge to Caesar.
So now in the Trumpian Kingdom these believers in an inerrant Bible “hear” their Lord Christ’s claim on their lives, but in exchange for the highest seats in American democracy, they follow a “Lord Caesar” whose lifestyle and lip-service do not recall in any way the words or the deeds of the “Lord Jesus Christ.”
In his first sermon the Lord Christ said he stood for, among other things, “deliverance to the captives … to set at liberty them that are bruised.” But evangelicals stand for mass incarceration and the loss of health care to millions of their fellow citizens, as they intone, “Caesar is Lord.”
In his parables the Lord Christ told stories about banquets and parties with universal welcome. But evangelicals chant in the same breath: “Build the wall” and “Caesar is Lord!”
On the eve of his crucifixion the Lord Christ who would suggest that contemporary Peters put away their guns, because “those who live by the gun, die by the gun.” But evangelicals can’t even insist that Congress protect our children from guns in their schools because they have pledged allegiance to “Lord Caesar” and the NRA.
So why have the 81s forgotten all this? Well, mostly because their “anointed” president has promised to appoint justices who will grant them permission to hate the particular people they hate — people who are loved by the Lord Christ. And this Christ, evangelicals should recall, was the Jesus of Nazareth who was rejected and arrested, and who eventually died nonviolently on a Roman cross because he accepted those whom the religious authorities rejected as unclean.
Memorial Day might take on a different meaning if evangelicals could get over their spiritual amnesia and remember Christianity 101. But at the moment it appears that their problem is more a matter of Alzheimer’s than mere amnesia.