Leslie: I’m here with Philip Yancey. He and I have been having some really interesting discussions about the American church, the church in japan, the body of Christ around the world. One of the things I see in the American church is that our first concern is about safety. I hear it in my own prayers. I hear it in the prayers of many around me: comfort and safety. When I look in the scriptures, I don’t see a lot of prayers concerned about that. Are we losing our way a little bit?
Philip: I’ve been to the underground church in China. They’re in a society where the government is actively hostile to them. I’ve interviewed pastors who have spent 20- 30 years in prison because they refuse to sign a statement renouncing their faith. I don’t speak ask Chinese so I’ve asked my interpreter, “How do they pray for their government?”
She said I’ve never heard them pray, Lord change our government, deliver us from this hostility. What they pray is “Help us to bear the burden that we face.”
Frankly I think in America we’ve been spoiled. It’s been a great blessing to have a Christian heritage. That’s changing. Our society is growing much more diverse. The media, especially the media is growing somewhat hostile. It’s a divided society. Everybody knows that. The elections showed that. A lot of people, a lot of Christians especially get concerned about that. They think we’re losing the way things used to be. And that is true.
But I have a different take on that. I get to travel overseas. I get to go to China, Japan, where the government is not hostile to it, but it’s just a ministry. And frankly I have found that Christians there are more like the situation that Jesus, Paul and the early Christians faced. Think of the hostile Roman empire. I go back to the images that Jesus used of the kingdom. They’re all small things. There’s salt, a little bit of that keeps a whole hunk of meat from going bad. There’s yeast that raises a whole loaf of bread. It’s the smallest seed in the garden, not the largest, but it grows into a great bush and the birds of the air come nest in its branches. That’s what we can offer as Christians.
Leslie: Sometimes we have this language about changing the world. I feel for young college students at Christian colleges because they’re charged to go out and redeem the culture, change the world. I know for many of them they feel this impossible burden, that it’s their responsibility to change government, to change the culture. The kind of pictures that Jesus was painting were not, “Turn the world upside down, and “Get out there with your sword!”
Philip: Yes, I joke about this when elections come along. You hear such things as, “Who should be God’s man in the White House? Who should we vote for?” There were no elections in the Roman Empire. Go back to Paul’s day. Let’s see, should it be Nero or Caligula? And yet, that was when the church blossomed. Why? Because it stood out in great contrast against the society around it.
I believe America is at a hinge moment. it’s a divided nation. You cansee it on an electoral map, the center versus the coasts. It is very easy to join that division. Christians should be over on that or this side. We represent something that can heal that division. That can bring people together. Even if we strongly disagree with people over there. Jesus teaches us a new way to handle these people says, “Love yr enemies.”
Leslie: The question is, are the people on the other political side really our enemies? I don’t think so! But even if they were, we’re to love them!
Philip: I believe that Christians Artists have a crucial role to play, and not just writers like I am. People who do plays, movies, art. We represent that universality. Artists don’t buy into the natural either/or divisions. They’re always trying to find a third way, a different way of looking at things, the universals of humanity that speaks to both sides that can bring them together.
Jesus certainly did this. People tried to pin him down. Which side are you on? This side or that side? Is this God or Ceasars? He comes up with these mystifying statements: Render unto Ceasear, to God what is God’s. That clarifies a lot! You can’t pin him down on these things. He throws it back on us and says, find a creative way under the leadership of the Spirit and show the world a different way.
Leslie: Blessed are the peacemakers. I look at the church right now. I’m not seeing a lot of peacemaking. I’m seeing a lot of warmongering in the name of politics and in the name of God. That really grieves me. I’m afraid of what the culture at large is seeing from us.
Philip: It’s true. I get the question sometimes, “How can you possibly still call yourself an evangelical?” But I do. Because the word evangelical means “bearer of good news.” But the media at large views evangelicals as a political lobby group. That’s it. That’s not what the good news is all about. The good news is something that speaks to every one of us, especially the marginalized, especially the weak, the alcoholics, the sinners, the people Jesus was hanging around and getting criticized for it. That’s the good news. Jesus never bought into the divisions that society creates. “Oh, I want to be one of these people.” He goes against that and reaches out to those who aren’t in that group.
Leslie: I think at first the disciples were really disappointed too because they expected Jesus to come andsave them from their political situation. They expected Israel, a suppressed oppressed nation, they expected the Messiah was going to deliver them, to “make Israel great again!” They discovered, at the end of those 3 years when he died on the cross, that Jesus’ plan was to win by losing.
Phillip: Absolutely. At least one of the disciples we know was a zealot. They were the terrorists of their day, against the occupying empire of Rome. A lot of scholars think thatmay have been Judas’ motive for betraying Jesus, because he didn’t fulfill that promise, the hopes that he excited.
Jesus shows us a different way. Through brokenness. Through losing. Through crucifixion comes the resurrection. Our job is not to manipulate that. Only god can do that. Our job is to be faithful, to reach out, to sacrifice, to go against the cultural mainstream by showing the world a different way.
I look back on the Roman Empire. We think our country is losing its moorings. Go back there. We have violent football games. They would go for paid entertainment and see people kill each other. We have abortion. They were far worse; they would let the babies be born and then abandon them by the sides of the roads and let the weather, wild animals take them. No question is this a human being. They were out of the mother, living infants and just abandoned. This was infanticide. Scholars say a third to a quarter of all babies born in the Roman Empire were treated this way.
What did the Christians do? They didn’t primarily respond by lobbying. There were was no political action committees. They responded by saying, “lets show the world a diff. way to live. Romans would abandon their babies, the Christians would come and adopt them. They had platoons of wet nurses who would keep them nourished until they could adopt them out within the church. When plague would hit a Roman town, everyone would flee into the hills; they didn’t want to die. The Christians would stay behind and nurse not only their own families but their pagan neighbor’s families. After awhile, it took a couple of centuries, but people thought: I like the way they live better than the way we live.
I think that’s what were called to do, to create a third way, to be a city on the hill. To show people we don’t have to live that way, that violent divisive way.
Leslie: That power hunger, always trying to access and accrue more and more power.
Philip: The Church, when it gets too close to the power starts acting like the power. It’s just like everything else only moreso, because it’s got this religious impulse. When they’re close to power as they were in the middle ages, course that’s what sparked the reformation. They just started acting like the roman gov. the medieval government. And that’s when the church is no longer good news, not evangelists, no longer the bearers of good news, but we’re like everyone else. Our job is to show the world a different way.
n the US, politics is an adversary sport. We see that in the U.S. Congress. If the Republicans propose something, all Democrats oppose it. If Democrats propose something, all Republicans oppose it. There’s no crossover. No one’s saying, “What’s best for the country?” That’s not a third way. That’s not the Jesus way. The more Christians identify with either side, you join an adversary sport, which is not what Jesus taught us.