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CHRISTOPHER TAYLOR'S BOOKS

Thursday, August 04, 2011

SALT AND LIGHT

"Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost its savor, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out and trodden under foot of men.

Ye are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Neither do [men] light a lamp, and put it under the bushel, but on the stand; and it shineth unto all that are in the house. Even so let your light shine before men; that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven."
-Jesus

Recently a friend asked me about all those crazy laws in the Old Testament, like how you can't touch a pig's hide or be considered "unclean" a certain time period. The response is long and complex but one major reason those laws were in place was to make Israel seem different from the rest of the world. Having Jews act and look so distinctly different from the rest of the world makes them conspicuous. That's why people always know a Hasidic Jew; they really look unique and distinctive.

I also think that's partly why Jews have been so horribly abused and mistreated for so many centuries: they were set apart, unique, and different. People don't tend to do well with someone that distinctly different, especially in years past. It was easy to single them out and out of ignorance and fear blame them for problems, especially for the people actually responsible for problems such as governments.

In the same way, Christians are called to be distinct from the world, but not separated. Christians are to be in the world but not of the world; a people who are unique and recognizable. In that, we've failed, almost totally.

It isn't entirely the fault of lazy and unfaithful Christians, part of our problem is that we've been so successful in transforming the world. Orphanages, charities, laws that reflect Christian ethics, schools, universities, Hospitals; most of the trappings of civilization that lean toward helping the poor, the needy, the orphaned, and the wounded have Christian origins in the western world.

There's a reason almost all universities used to be Christian and almost all hospitals have names like St Jude's. Christians started this stuff up. Christians were the primary driving force behind science (particularly Christians after the Protestant Reformation), and we were the primary civilizing force in most of the western world. We've succeeded in getting a more charitable society and as a result, most of the transforming effect of Christians is muted in modern society.

However, that said, we are too lazy, too unwilling to stand out, and too weak in our faith. Recently John Hawkins linked to a Christian Science Monitor story about Sweden's dwindling and pathetic "Christian" presence at Right Wing News:
Nearly three-quarters of Sweden’s population of 9.4 million continue to belong to what was long the official state church of this Nordic nation, according to a recent survey. Yet only 15 percent of the members say they believe in Jesus, and an equal percentage do not even believe that God exists.

The survey – conducted over the past year by the Church of Sweden – found, moreover, that only about 400,000 of the roughly 6.6 million church members attend church services at least once a month.

Local clergymen such as Sven Björkborg, who serves several rural parishes southwest of Stockholm, says he is not surprised by the findings of the survey, citing the gradual secularization of Swedish society over the years. Members of the church, he adds, are not required to be believers.
All through Europe the story is the same: the Christian Church is dying and being replaced by Islam as the dominant religion of the region, other than Atheist naturalism. And as commenter President Friedman noted, at least part of the problem is that the church is thought of as insular, uninterested in their community, and failing to be "salt and light" as Christ commanded:
There is an old man I am friends with and try to I help out, and one of the ways I help him is to schedule rides for his VA appointments and medical check ups. He can't drive and the VA hospital is over an hour away. I used to contact his church (which has recieved a 10% tithe from him without fail for almost 20 years now, in spite of the fact that his monthly income is well below $1,000) and try to arrange for somebody there to give him a ride. It was always a pain in the ass, nobody would commit until the last minute, and then half the time they would just fail to show up. Then I started scheduling rides for him through a program called SoonerRide that is administered by Medicaid. One phone call, I give them his MediCaid ID number, pick up address and the drop off address and the time of his appointment. Then they show up, take him, and bring him home afterwards. Sometimes he gets surprised because the driver will be somebody from the Sooners football team or a player for the OKC Thunder.

We can argue over the details, but at the end of the day it hurts the church when the government outperforms them so badly in such a simple area of charity as giving a person a ride.
In most of the western world, what was once performed by the church has been replaced by the state, which makes it difficult for Christians to easily stand out by being charitable and helpful to those in need. Public schools started as Church Schools in many parts of the west. Churches sought to educate children to make them better people and eventually that became so established that public schools were the norm. Churches had food for the needy as far back as the monastery days (and despite how it was portrayed in In The Name of the Rose, they didn't feed the poor by dumping trash out the side). Now food stamps handle it. Church run hospital charities have been replaced by medicare, caring for the elderly in the community by social security, and so on.

But even with government programs taking the place of old church programs, and even with the taxes taken out weakening the ability for citizens to donate and help privately, there's a problem here which Pres notes.

Christians individually and especially through their local church, should be helping everyone around them. Each church should be a beacon of light in a dark and often painful world, a place people can turn to for aid and comfort. And all too often they are nothing of the sort. Megachurches in particular are vast, conspicuously wealthy, and built like huge business complexes, but have little real impact on their communities. Small churches tend to have even less, focusing on themselves in an increasingly hostile culture.

I've written about this in the past, but the fundamentalist movement in the early 20th century saw a focus on basic orthodox doctrine which was good, but an increasingly insular, defensive attitude toward the world. Instead of reaching out and showing Christ's love, too often the church hid behind a wall and focused on fellow Christians.

The reaction to this has been commonly to instead be focused on missions and making new converts, concerned with winning souls and packing them into the pews on Sunday. Big numbers means big success to all too many pastors, but that's never said in the Bible. Some verses even seem to condemn big time success and numbers as pandering to people rather than teaching the truth.

The Christian Church ought to be well-known for its charity, distinguished by its selfless love, famous for a place you can run to in an emergency and be shown the love of Jesus Christ. The local pastor ought to be a beacon of comfort, wisdom, and ethical strength. The church should be an island in the community where the weary traveler can rest and learn. Instead the church seems like a hostile place, prickling with defensiveness and judgment, and angry at the world.

Granted most of that perception is slanderous hate piled on it by non Christians and popular cuture; when was the last time you saw a positive Christian character in any entertainment medium if they weren't a "rebel" that rejected orthodox Christianity? When was the last time you saw any positive portrayal of Christianity in any entertainment medium, period? Its rare indeed. The recent film Blind Side is a conspicuous exception.

And that's what Christianity is like: the main character mom didn't care if he was black, she didn't care if he was poor, she just wanted him to be helped and she helped him stand on his feet so he could help others. And this didn't seem unusual or odd to her or her family, that's just how Christians were to them. The whole movie was about self sacrifice, caring for others, protecting the helpless, and standing up for what is right. And that's most of what Christians are meant to do in the culture. We don't and can't save anyone. Only God can do that. Our job is to obey Him and love our neighbor.

There are exceptions to this sad state of Christianity, of course. Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia is centered in one of the worst parts of town. It is a magnificent church in practically a slum, with prostitutes and addicts stumbling not far from its doors. The church considered moving to a "safer" part of town (code for "lets get away from the sinners"), and rejected that notion because that's exactly where Jesus wants us to be.

Jesus showed the way by going out of his way to hang out with the very people society considered its trash. He sat and talked with prostitutes, scum, and the detritus of Judean society. And he didn't mince words either: he told them right and wrong, good and evil, and called them to repent, but he did it in such a winsome, caring way they loved him for it.

Tenth Presbyterian Church has an outreach program to help prostitutes get out of the life, to help AIDS patients find treatment, to help the poor, the needy, the orphan and the widow in their community. Because that's what Christianity is about, not judgment, self righteousness, and defensiveness.

The church I attend has a food bank for the community, has outreach for the local people. Everyone in the neighborhood knows they can turn to the Sunnyslope Christian Reformed Church for help if they need it, because we're there for just that: to show Christ's love. There are limits, the church won't be taken advantage of to prop up someone's addiction or refusal to stand on their own feet, but the limits are scant and the generosity great.

We live in a world where Christianity is diminishing and contempt for Christians is increasing. In the last twenty years or so the popular culture has gone from veiled dislike for Christians to open anger and sometimes even hatred, with fundamentalist atheists lashing out in open bitter rage at religion in general and Christianity in specific.

Jesus made it abundantly clear that the world would hate Christians, we have no excuse to be surprised when it happens. That just gives us one more opportunity to show humility, love, and patience. So when things are hard, when the culture turns against us, and when we're treated ill because we're different so was Jesus. He was killed for His behavior, so were almost all of his initial followers. That's the path we tread, and we should do so boldly, and without shame or excuse. This is how my Father in heaven calls me to live, if you don't like it, maybe we should talk about why that is.

Because in modern culture, its getting easier and easier to stand out and be unique. Just opposing premarital sex, homosexual behavior, and abortion makes you seem weird in modern culture. We've gone that far from the basic presuppositions of a Christian worldview which founded the United States and all modern western nations. So much the better, because its easier to be distinct and unusual to the world. We're different, really different, not faux different with a mowhawk and skin brands. We behave differently, not just look different. Want to know why?

In today's culture just working hard and being humble is conspicuous. In today's culture being charitable, polite, and honorable is unique. You stand out simply by not being a jerk to people, and that's simple as can be. Don't swear so much, treat strangers politely and respectfully, and be patient with others, and you'll stand out like a campfire in the night. There's no excuse to abandon being salt and light simply because the government handles much of the charity work.

That just gives us an opportunity to do even more and show that the government isn't where people should turn for answers and hope. May God forgive us all for not doing more, trying harder, being more faithful, and loving our neighbor as our selves.

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