Reflection: John’s Love Letter: Part 3 July 8, 2018
1 John 4:1-6
Back in May, a young preacher named Matt Powell sat for an interview with atheist YouTuber Skylar Fiction. Powell had become known online for saying things like atheists were Coke-drinking video game addicts and scientists were hiding the truth about the Sun and moon. This was his opportunity to speak for himself. (YouTube Punishes Atheist for Exposing Christian Who Wants Gay People Executed on Patheos.org; July 4, 2018 by Hemant Mehta)
“Powell just made things worse.
“SKYLAR: … you don’t believe that gay people should be stoned to death, do you?
POWELL: I believe the Bible puts the death penalty on it. Obviously, not by me or anybody in a regular society, obviously. I believe it’s the government’s job to execute criminals. I believe that the Bible says clearly that homosexuality is a criminal crime. It’s a crime. It’s one of the worst crimes ever.
SKYLAR: … Is that what you’re advocating for? That our government should stone gays to death to execute them?
POWELL: By whatever means they execute people. And obviously, I believe in humane, you know, putting to death.
SKYLAR: I think that’s a contradiction, what you’re saying. You can’t use the word “humane” and then say you’re gonna kill people who are gay.
POWELL: Right, but the thing is, I mean, whatever our government says, as far as, like, for a death penalty, I think should go for them.
SKYLAR: Wait… but no… you’re saying you agree the government should create laws… in order to execute gay people. That’s what you’re telling me?
POWELL: That’s what the Bible says. I believe the Bible. I didn’t write the Bible.
See?! He wants gay people executed humanely. He’s not evil, right?!….”
Now this is a 22 year old, who as far as I can tell from his YouTube page has zero theological or Biblical training but is promoting himself as an expert on how to be a Christian. And the scary thing is, he is not that unusual. On this last day of Pride Week here in Victoria, while people are celebrating the freedom to be who they are, it’s a punch in the gut to hear this kind of garbage being spewed, and we have a brother in Christ to thank for it.
If you’re online at all you can find daily posts on far-right Christian craziness – and not just craziness but profoundly anti-Christian sentiments and behaviours cloaked in the name of Christ: a former Roman Catholic archbishop in St Louis who says he wasn’t sure back in the 1980s if the sexual abuse of children was against the law, so he covered it up; a Texas pastor yelling at children in a mall at Christian time because believing in Santa isn’t Christian; another pastor telling parents it would be better to see their children “at the bottom of the sea” than let them read Harry Potter; a Christian motivational speaker who says the children held in custody by US immigration are “unclean, murderers, treacherous, God-haters”; and Matthew Powell’s shocking words. This stuff isn’t just crazy –some of it edges right over into evil. This is hateful, appalling speech which sadly, is becoming more and more what people think of when they hear the word Christian. (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/progressivesecularhumanist/2018/06/christian-tv-host-defends-trumps-concentration-camps-for-kids/)
With the power of the far right on the rise in the States and Europe and perhaps even here in Canada, this kind of thinking is becoming more and more common, despite it being clearly unacceptable to any compassionate, just, right-thinking individual. Add in the racist comments and actions that seem to have become commonplace, and the fear mongering of popular speakers like Canadian intellectual Jordan Peterson or media organizations like BreitBart, and you have a toxic worldview which is being promoted by a surprising conglomeration of unlikely allies, including some right-wing Christians, including prominent people like Franklin Graham or Dr. James Dobson of Focus on the Family.
A week or two ago I mentioned that there is a religious struggle occurring around the world right now. There are many, many religious people who understand and share their faith as a motivator for compassion, kindness, generosity, justice-making and peace-building; there are also religious people whose faith appears to be prime motivation for hate speech, violent attacks, prejudice, ghettoization, illegal internment, torture, rape and even genocide against those who do not share their beliefs. This phenomenon exists in Christianity, among Hindus, Muslims, Jews and Buddhists, too. But as Christians we are accountable for our own people, the people who also claim an allegiance to Jesus, and it’s our job to stand up to the deceiving spirits and false Messiahs so aptly named in John’s letter to the church of his day. (https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/donald-trump-america-christian-fundamentalism-islamophobia-maga-a7975526.html)
John describes these spirits as those who are “from the world”. They promote worldly values, rather than Christ’s incarnational, sacrificial mode of being. They have “the spirit of the antichrist” – in other words, the spirit that is directly opposed to what Jesus taught and lived and died and rose again to show us.
When I think about such “spirits” and such “false messiahs” today, one popular forms of Christianity comes to mind. It’s known as the “Prosperity Gospel”. Its most famous proponent is Joel Osteen, the pastor of the U.S.’s largest church – apparently 40,000 attend worship each Sunday. There are many other preachers who share this message – including the woman who is said to have converted the 45th president of the United States to Christianity. Preacher Paula White, Joel Osteen and others teach that when the Bible speaks about blessing, it means prosperity – in other words, those blessed by God will have the riches of this world. Yes, there are Biblical texts that suggest this; but I’m not sure what they do with Jesus’ words, “Blessed are the poor”, or the fact that Jesus himself was poor and homeless, or all the passages where the Bible tells us that God has a special concern for the widow, the orphan, the ill, the foreigner, the refugee. (https://theslot.jezebel.com/the-distorted-gospel-of-paula-white-1791346160; http://www.newsweek.com/hurricane-harvey-joel-osteen-trump-prosperity-gospel-661851)
The biggest problem with the Prosperity Gospel is the reverse side of it, in which those who are not wealthy or prosperous have no-one but themselves to blame. If they were godly people, they wouldn’t be in that fix, according to this version of the Christian message. Wealth is a sign of God’s favour and poverty is a sign of God’s disfavour. Health and vitality mean God is in your corner; sickness and suffering mean you must have turned your back on God. One can see why the wealthy love this Gospel, and one can see why people might flock to churches who promise that if you adopt their version of Christ’s message, you too can have a Beemer in your driveway, a house in the Uplands neighbourhood and a winter home in Palm Springs. But the implication that God is a vending machine that grants mega-mansions to the most worthy is offensive to the Gospel itself.
Stephen Mattson, writing for Sojourners on July 3, 2018 reminds us that if something does not reflect who Jesus was – how he behaved, spoke, lived and died – then it cannot be the Good News, the Gospel, Christians need to preach. He argues that Chrsitianity has continually failed to show the world that it is a religion of mercy, kindness, forgiveness, inclusion, generousity, and has too often shown the opposite. Stephen writes:
“…Jesus gained victory through selfless love, and this is the hope we must cling to: Jesus is the same person today —still working through this radical love. God promises to be “near to the brokenhearted and save the crushed in spirit.” (Psalm 34:18) Although “Christianity” has failed, Jesus hasn’t — and he never will. He loves the immigrant, the refugee, the oppressed. He loves us, and loves even our greatest enemies. Whichever path is the most loving is the way of Christ, and the way we must choose. (https://sojo.net/articles/american-christianity-has-become-institution-intolerance)”
The Matthew Powells, Paula Whites and Franklin Grahams of this world claim to speak in the name of Christ. We must continually test the spirits behind what they are saying, and ask ourselves, is this “for Christ” or “anti-Christ”? A particular blessing in this passage from John is that the spirits of the antichrist – the spirits that oppose Christ’s loving, giving, way – are conquered, not by some sort of cosmic war, or even by a war of words. No, those spirits that betray the name of Christ are defeated whenever we speak out in faith, and live out our faith in love. We are not powerless to contend with the powers of this world – for God’s love is enough. God’s strength is enough. God’s peace is enough. God is enough. We are enough. In living lives of self-giving love, we live out of the Spirit of Christ. As Jesus once said after telling a story of a despised foreigner who gave what he had to help someone who ought to have been his enemy, “Go then, and do likewise.”
Reflection: John’s Love Letter: Part 3 July 8, 2018