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 Opinion: A Christianity That Faces Pluralism

SpiritualityBy Howard Bess

One of the great sins of Christianity is that it has sought dominance. Somehow most Christian leaders have decided that their particular brand of religion should be dominant in the world and that the world would attain its greatest ideal if everyone were Christians.

There is no shortage of Bible material to support that attitude.

There is also a great body of Bible literature that looks at life from a very different perspective. According to this alternate point-of-view, the calling of the people of God is to be a servant people. I have long maintained that the Bible should be read and studied with a recognition that both sides of the arguments are found in the same collection of writings. The task of the Bible student is to join in the argument and to bring the argument to the most modern of settings.

The dominance side of the story is rooted in the story of the great King David. The story traces the life of David from a humble shepherd boy to the most powerful king in the Near East. He claimed power as a bloody, conquering tyrant. It is a story that culminates in the establishment of a great capital city in Jerusalem, completed by making Jehovah God its most powerful and permanent resident. It is the model and symbol of all Christian dominionists. ...

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The servant side of the Bible tradition is rooted not in Jerusalem but in Babylon. Four hundred years after the establishment of Jerusalem as capital city of Israel and home of God, Babylonia, a powerful neighbor to the east, conquered the last vestige of the Israelite nation, capturing Jerusalem and leveling the Holy Temple, the home of God. A tiny remnant of Israelites was carried off to the City of Babylon to be slave labor for the newest dominant nation in the Near East. In that setting the people of God pondered their role in the world. Dominance was no longer a possibility. They concluded that their new calling by God was to serve the world rather than to dominate the world.

Which of these traditions represents the will of the God, whom Christians claim as their own? This is the long-running argument that ferments in the Bible material.

Today most Christian churches and individual Christians are side-stepping the argument. Rather they have left the pressing discussions that take place in the public square and have adopted individual salvation and a home in heaven as their primary concern. Clergy have joined the Chamber of Commerce and have abandoned the simple brown robes of community servitude.

In the present world of high tech communications and rapid social changes, the very nature of Christian churches is in flux. Christianity has become a favorite subject of PhD theses, and the study of the present state of Christian churches is a popular subject for pollsters.

Recognizable patterns are presenting themselves. Most churches are still focused on getting people to heaven when they die. However, a very sizeable number of Christian dominionists and nationalists have developed. They have stepped into the public square with full force. Their message is not hidden. Return the nation to Christian roots! Return the Ten Commandments to a place of equality with the U.S. Constitution. For the faithful, God Bless America has become a companion to The Star Spangled Banner. The Stars and Stripes and the Christian Flag have become siblings.

A new reformation movement has grown to a visible presence with statistical verification. It is this newest religious phenomenon that is challenging Christian dominionists. The name that has attached itself to this growing group of Jesus followers is the emergent church. Individuals are called emergents. While there is a great diversity among emergents, dominant characteristics can be identified. Typical emergents are very religious and intend to continue to be religious. They read and study the Bible. With others they pray and sing songs about their faith. Most importantly they have focused their attention on Jesus, the humble rabbi from Nazareth. The Jesus they are finding is not in the mold of King David. Rather they have found a Jesus who taught that greatness is found in being a servant. Emergents are finding allies from across the Christian spectrum.

9/11 has brought the discussion of diversity to the public attention. Americans are more aware of the diversity of our population than ever before. Immigrants with highly diverse backgrounds keep pounding on the American door. Are Christians, from a position of righteous superiority, called to convert and dominate the strangers in our midst, or is our call to be a welcoming neighbor who seeks to be a servant of all?

An ancient argument is a lively argument in the 21st century.


The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska. His email address is [email protected]


[18 September 2010]

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