Russell Moore, evangelical and editor-in-chief of Christianity Today says, “Multiple pastors tell me, essentially, the same story about quoting the Sermon on the Mount, parenthetically, in their preaching — ‘turn the other cheek’ — (and) to have someone come up after to say, ‘Where did you get those liberal talking points?’ And what was alarming to me is that in most of these scenarios, when the pastor would say, ‘I’m literally quoting Jesus Christ,’ the response would not be, ‘I apologize.’ The response would be, ‘Yes, but that doesn’t work anymore. That’s weak.'”
When the gospel can be interpreted as “liberal talking points” there’s trouble brewing. Conservative Christians struggle today with a new public understanding that “traditional” Christian views on human sexuality and race are now considered un-Christian and immoral. The long-time moral police are now being investigated for police abuse. What evangelicals deride as “liberal talking points” turn out to the gospel of Jesus.
Conservative Christians have been the unchallenged masters of their space for longer than they can remember — white bodies, male bodies, heterosexual bodies, rich bodies, religious bodies. Now they are being confronted by a developing ethical consciousness, a public morality, with demands that they admit they have been the immoral ones. They have produced violence against other bodies that haunts the comforts and superior position of righteousness they have long enjoyed. They have felt natural and comfortable when they used the most injurious language to demean, degrade and humiliate gays. Now, they face the increasing pressure of a different point of view.
The former masters of “right and wrong” are now told, in no uncertain terms, they were wrong to oppose same-sex marriage, women’s rights and civil rights.
“This massive shift in the public understanding of what counts as morality has caused a severe reaction from conservatives.”
This massive shift in the public understanding of what counts as morality has caused a severe reaction from conservatives. In nervous, but determined ways, they have pushed back against what they consider the liberal takeover and destruction of the American way of life. They reduce all dissent from their old paradigm of morality to “liberal talking points.”
In a conversation with a state representative from Ohio, I mentioned “social justice.” The honorable representative interrupted me: “Isn’t that just a liberal talking point?”
I attempted to help the gentleman understand that justice and mercy are at the heart of the Old Testament and the gospel, indeed the entire Bible. I suggested Micah 6:4 for his discernment: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” That’s not a liberal talking point.
When the actual teaching of Jesus can be reduced to “liberal talking points,” we are very close to blasphemy. To deny the Sermon on the Mount means denying the constitution of the body of Christ, the church.
Only strong Christians have the resources to live the Sermon on the Mount. You cannot rightly read or live the Sermon on the Mount if you are weak. The Sermon requires us to trust one another so that together we will be strong enough to live for Jesus Christ in this pagan world.
“Only strong Christians have the resources to live the Sermon on the Mount.”
Here are examples of Jesus’ teachings that are “gospel”:
- Turn the other cheek.
- Love your enemies.
- Be reconciled to your brother or sister.
- Do to others as you would have them do to you.
Jesus calls us to suffer rather than inflict suffering on others. That takes strength. He teaches us to accept death rather than inflict death. He tells us to turn the other cheek rather than seek revenge. Weak people are incapable of these actions.
The Sermon on the Mount is about power. In a struggle of an apocalyptic nature — a conflict that involves the entire nation — powerful people will be needed. Defenders of the faith, warriors, men and women capable of protecting the community of faith in a world ruled by evil forces.
The Beatitudes are the weapons of the strong:
- Blessed are the poor.
- Blessed are the hungry.
- Blessed are those who weep.
- Blessed are those who are hated and cast out.
We call the “strong” saints. Their strength shows up in their willingness to forgive enemies. There is no guarantee that a forgiven enemy will not still kill us as well as those we love. Our strength comes from the reality that even if they kill us, they cannot determine the meaning of our deaths, and so the so-called “strong people” lose.
Strong Christians who die for the faith are not victims; they are martyrs bearing witness to the power and the strength of the way of the Cross. Only saints can live the Sermon on the Mount. And saints are really tough people.
Sermon on the Mount people may not look like much but they are the only people with the strength to stand up to the “beasts” of Daniel and Revelation. Stanley Hauerwas says, “Saints capable of receiving the Kingdom of the Most High, I suspect, are going to be just about as terrifying as beast-kings. Indeed, they may even be less than good and in fact, we know from history, are often capable of doing rather terrible things.”
To call the teaching of Jesus “weak” denies the message of the Cross. Evangelicals, in much more subtle ways, are engaged in removing the Cross from Christian faith. This is an audacious claim, so the burden of proof falls on me.
Phillip Rieff once observed at the University of Chicago, “Any church or any preacher who keeps preaching on the Cross is not going to grow. The preacher will not be a success and the church will not grow, because in our culture what we are interested in is success, not sacrifice.”
The prosperity gospel and the gospel of the Cross are not partners.
By loving what evangelicals think will make them strong, give them power over the nation, they are required to remove the Cross. This is the removal of the meaning of the Cross —suffering, sacrificing, reconciling and serving — from the Christian faith. Instead of “bearing the Cross,” Christian use the symbol as pretext for a new “Crusade” against those they despise.
“In their lust for political power, evangelicals made a deal with the devil.”
In their lust for political power, evangelicals made a deal with the devil.
Paul warned the church at Corinth that the Cross could be emptied of its power. As soon as Christians start believing that the “message of the Cross” is weak and ineffective, the Cross is emptied of its power.
Evangelicals remove the Cross when they refuse to participate in the purpose of the Cross, which is to reconcile enemies. They manufacture enemies and they increase hostility. That is a “cross-removal” tactic.
Modern evangelicals have “fallen away, since they are crucifying again the Son of God to their own harm and are holding him up to contempt.”
The move away from the teachings of Jesus has not been done in a corner, but in the white-hot glare of the media. The former president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., told a crowd the teachings of Jesus have “gotten us nothing.” This is the gospel of Donald Trump Jr. Here’s his primary text: “We’ve been playing T-ball for half a century while they’re playing hardball and cheating. Right? We’ve turned the other cheek, and I understand, sort of, the biblical reference — I understand the mentality — but it’s gotten us nothing.”
Trump Jr. believes, as his father does, that politics should be practiced ruthlessly, mercilessly and vengefully. The ends justify the means. Norms and guardrails need to be smashed. Morality and lawfulness must always be subordinated to the pursuit of power and self-interest. That is the Trumpian ethic. This is a message without Jesus and his Cross.
A cross turns out to be a heavy burden to bear for those addicted to secular political power. Instead of reconciling with enemies, such people make more enemies. They nourish hatred, bigotry, prejudice and condemnation. They live for revenge. They verbally attack those they despise. They make a mockery of the Cross.
Perhaps the evangelicals need to ask the question of Thomas Shepherd: “Must Jesus bear the Cross alone and all the world go free?”
Evangelicals, in part, are saying, “Yes. There’s no Cross for us, for there’s no power in the Cross. Give us the crown of political power and keep the Cross.”
Rodney W. Kennedy is a pastor and writer in New York state. He is the author of 10 books, including his latest, Good and Evil in the Garden of Democracy.
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