Wednesday, January 19, 2005

An Evangelical Who Actually Follows Jesus' Teachings? Could It Be?

On The Daily Show the other day, Jon Stewart interviewed an evangelical Christian by the name of Jim Wallis. I thought it odd for The Daily Show to host an evangelical, and I was just waiting for him to begin reciting the standard evangelical rhetoric.

But Wallis didn't do that. Instead, he said (as best I can recall), "When did tax cuts for rich people and going to war become Jesus' priorities? There are 300 verses in the Bible about the poor, so I think Jesus is more concerned with helping them. How did we come to believe that Jesus only loves America?" I was shocked.

I wasn't surprised that an evangelical had read the Bible. What surprised me was that Wallis actually paid attention to what it says. Most evangelicals seem to fail at that important step.

For instance, I watched a Frontline episode on PBS about George W. Bush's religious life and its influence on his politics. And it was fairly obvious that Bush became "born again" out of frustration with failures in his life, such as helming a number of failed companies and his unsuccessful bid for Congress in 1978. And I think he did what a lot of American evangelicals do: they blame the failures of their past on a lack of faith, and take up faith in the hopes that Jesus will turn their lives around and make them successful. In America, "success" is defined as material success, accumulation of wealth and power, and so evangelicals expect Jesus to provide success at business and politics, and see failure as due to a lack of faith on their own parts. Along the same lines, this way of thinking leads them to believe that poverty is due to moral failings rather than economic realities.

But Jesus specifically does not promise worldly success. In fact, Jesus tells us that to give our possessions to the poor, that being rich is a hindrance in gaining salvation, that he came for the poor and not the rich, and that "the meek shall inherit the earth." About defending one's self, Jesus tells us to let someone who has hurt us to hurt us yet again! He also tells his flock not to fight against Earthly oppression, but rather to accept it ("render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's and render unto God that which is God's.")

Jesus does not proclaim poverty a moral failing. He exorts his followers to become poor themselves through charity. He never promises that faith in him will alleviate one's position as impoverished and powerless, only that it will help one to enter God's Kingdom. Jesus tells us that it is right to let others hurt you if that is their will, not to preemptively strike one's enemies.

Wallis seems to actually follow the teachings of his prophet, unlike the majority of evangelicals. He understands that accumulation of power or material wealth, whether by an individual or a nation, does not demonstrate God's favor, nor does faith make one righteous if Jesus' teachings are ignored. After all, if it were true, as evangelicals believe, that Jesus' only important message is that belief in Jesus is required for salvation, why would Jesus have spent so much time on ethical and moral issues? He says that we "can only come to my Father through me." Does it really follow that one can truly be said to have Jesus in one's heart while ignoring Jesus' teachings?

Now, I would still disagree vehemently with Wallis on many issues, like abortion rights and gay marriage. But, at least, evangelicals like Wallis, few though they may be, who actually adhere to Jesus' teachings instead of paying them lip service, aren't hypocrites. They don't pursue personal gratification and wealth while agitating for war, yelling for tax cuts on the rich, and condemning the poor. They don't see Christian faith as simply the key to worldly success and power.

That, I can respect. It's all the hypocritical evangelicals who constantly have Jesus' name on their lips even as they cry out that the government shouldn't take their money "to give to lazy people" that I can't stand. I might disagree with Wallis and his compatriots, but I would at least feel they are arguing in good faith and not using Christianity for their own selfish purposes.


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