What happened to Christians?

On November 24, 2017, in Latest News, by The Somerville Times

By William C. Shelton

(The opinions and views expressed in the commentaries and letters to the Editor of The Somerville Times belong solely to the authors and do not reflect the views or opinions of The Somerville Times, its staff or publishers)

I was raised by fundamentalist Christians. Between daily Bible readings and five-times-weekly church services, I had memorized large portions of the Scripture by the time I was in my teens. But what I read in the Bible seemed inconsistent with what I heard at church.

In church, I was taught that dancing, drinking alcohol, watching movies, playing cards, and listening to rock and roll were sinful and forbidden. When I pointed out that Jesus’s first miracle was turning water into wine, I was told that it wasn’t really wine, it was grape juice.

I don’t remember what I was told when I questioned the passage where “David danced before the Lord.” But I remember that the explanation strained credulity.

More pervasive and profound was the contrast between the church’s judgmental and joyless culture and what I read as Jesus’s message – a call to love and be generous to all.

What I heard in church was that humanity was intrinsically tainted. Were it not for Jesus’s sacrifice, we were all doomed to eternal suffering. But “believing in Him” was a kind of get-out-of-hell-free card.

And then there were the proclaimed-from-the-pulpit political injunctions. They all seemed to be at odds with what Jesus taught.

The “religious right” is not just preaching the same heresies today. They seem intent on establishing a theocracy that imposes them.

The roots of this movement were the reaction to legally mandated racial integration – the creation of Whites-only “academies,” then universities, political organizations like the Family Research Council, PACs, and the mobilization of cultural warfare to capture for the Republican Party working people whom the Democrats had abandoned.

As blogger Charles Pierce wrote, “The religious right was not born out of opposition to Roe v. Wade. It was born out of opposition to Brown v. Board.”

Jesus did not preach political activism, no matter how much some on both the left and the right want to believe. He did say that we should pay taxes, (“Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s…), but he emphasized that his kingdom is “not of this world.”

He enjoined all who would listen to defend the powerless, feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, visit the prisoner, care for the sick, and give all that we can to the poor. But politically organized evangelicals work today to slash welfare and food stamps, exterminate “socialized medicine,” increase mandatory minimum sentences and solitary confinement, and build a wall.

I’m thinking about all of this because I’ve been reading a wonderful new translation of the New Testament, while unavoidably observing the spectacle of evangelicals rallying to support Donald Trump and Roy Moore.

David Bentley Hart is an Eastern Orthodox Christian and a fellow at the University of Notre Dame. He has gone back to the earliest available Greek texts and translated them in the spirit of etsi doctrina non daretur. That is, “as if doctrine is not given.” He has done his best to illuminate the original Greek for English readers, rather than to accommodate the meaning to the theology of the day, as have virtually all previous translators.

What emerges is language that in some places is awkward, and others, eloquent, as the New Testament’s authors varied considerably in their writing skills. But it is all raw in its intensity and immediacy. It is the testimony of people who have been transformed by what they personally experienced and are compelled to share it. And what they share is provocative, at times confusing, and subversive of the Christianity we know today.

I will focus on one just one example: The first Christians were more communist than Karl Marx. This was always there – but ignored – in the most popular translations. But this one makes it glaringly obvious.

They, and Jesus, condemned not just greed, or wealth obtained or used immorally. Rather, they condemned wealth, in and of itself, as evil. In the original Greek, the well-known eye-of-the-needle passage makes clear Jesus’s statement that it is not humanly possible to save the rich.

The apostles continued these admonishments. James, for example, writes, “Come now, you who are rich, weep, howling out at the miseries that are coming for you,” and implies that wealth is theft from the workers.

Jesus repeatedly told his followers to sell their possessions and give them to the poor. That’s exactly what the Christians of the apostolic age did. They lived in communes and held everything in common. And by the way, Christianity was a form of Judaism. One could not be Christian without being Jewish.

The book of Acts recounts that in the Jerusalem church, a couple named Ananais and Sapphira held back part of the proceeds from the sale of their property and lied about it. Peter confronted them, and God struck them dead.

Even Karl Marx didn’t condemn personal possessions. For him, “private property” meant the means of production. And wealth, not poverty, was to be shared by all.

So what happened to Christians? As late as the Fourth and Fifth Centuries, church leaders still denounced “private wealth as a form of theft, and stored riches as plunder seized from the poor.”

But others were making doctrinal accommodations to the powers that be, suggesting that the New Testament’s condemnations of wealth were really condemnations of attitudes about wealth’s acquisition and misuse.

Meanwhile, Christianity was becoming fashionable with aristocratic women, including the Emperor Constantine’s mother. Constantine credited the Christian god with his military victory in 313, legalized the Church, and gave it lavish gifts.

Being a Christian went from being risky to being advantageous, attracting the upwardly mobile, opportunistic, and politically ambitious. This became a stampede in 380 when Christianity became the state religion. With a few wonderful exceptions, most Christian churches have managed to ignore their Bible’s plain text ever since.

In truth, it would be very difficult to live today as the early Christians did. I know that my own pettiness often gets in the way of following the simplest of Jesus’s teaching. Yet it was challenging for those first Christians as well – often lethally so.

And “falling short” is rather different from fighting for public policy that is the opposite of what Jesus taught, while promoting politicians who embody everything that he condemned.


I think that Reverend Eric Elnes has stated this succinctly: “I’ve never understood why certain Christians are so eager to turn the United States into a Christian country when their time would be so much better spent turning their churches into Christian churches.”


6 Responses to “What happened to Christians?”

  1. ritepride says:

    Well if you watched the movies you would realize
    Lions 136+then some / Christians 0.
    Separation of Church & State, mentioning Trump, Moore, Dems., Repubs. blows the whole article.

  2. Frank Kelly says:

    “The first Christians were more communist than Karl Marx”

    Marx was an avowed atheist calling religion “the opium of the people.”. It is no surprise then that in Stalin’s Russia and Mao’s China all religion was suppressed – in between the various genocides that took the lives of tens of millions of people.

    Christian’s did not support atheism or genocide.

    It doesn’t take one to be a Marxist or even a Socialist to have compassion.
    On the contrary since the end of the Soviet Union and reform in China, Vietnam etc. massive progress has been made on global poverty rates

    You can thank Capitalism and the end of authoritarian regimes for that.

  3. JT Thompson says:

    Beautifully and clearly written. I couldn’t agree more. The example of sharing everything in common, and of giving aid to the powerless, couldn’t be clearer, and are so widely ignored. “What you do to the least of these…”

  4. Bill Shelton says:

    I rarely post responses to comments. But this is a subject close to my core beliefs; indeed, my faith. I wrote that the first Christians were more communist than Marx—not that Marx, an atheist, was more Christian.

    Marx came late to the idea of communism, which emerged in ancient Greece, was practiced by the first Christians and by a 5th Century Persian movement, advocated by St. Thomas More in his 1516 Book, Utopia, and a century later by a Puritan group called the “Diggers,” resurrected by enlightenment thinkers like Rousseau, and experimented with in the U.S. in New Harmony, Indiana (1825) and Brook Farm in West Roxbury (1840s). All before Marx.

    Most of those practitioners were believers, and they were living by their faith. Some were not; but their atheism was an add-on to, not a part of, their communist beliefs.

    Comparing Marx to Stalin is like comparing Thomas Jefferson to Donald Trump, or Jesus to Jerry Falwell. In each case, the latter wraps his overweening pride and lust for power in the rhetoric of the former. And as Pope Francis’s encyclical so eloquently elucidated, capitalism—as we experience it today—is anti-Christian.

  5. LindaS says:

    I also agree that this is a very well-written article. It has always frustrated me that I hear so many people on the news proudly calling themselves “Christians”, yet they are the most intolerant, judgmental people I have ever seen.

    I was raised Catholic, and although it has been years since I have been to church and I haven’t read the Bible, I was taught in Sunday School that Jesus Christ spread messages of tolerance and love, not of violence or hatred for those who are different in any way.

    Too often you find these so-called “Christians” trying to push their own agenda on others just because they don’t like what other people choose to do with their lives. Don’t they think that if someone is supposedly commiting a “sin”, that they will be judged when their time comes? It’s not up to us to judge them unless someone is guilty of commiting a legal crime.

    “Christians” are also quick to blame Muslims and other non-Christians for acts of terrorism, but forget about cult leaders like Jim Jones and David Koresh, who also claimed to be Christians but couldn’t be further from what it means to be one. Terrorists are not part of any real religion, but people who choose to mold a religion to suit their own agenda. Too much blood has been spilled in the name of religion.

    We need to remember, especially during the coming month, that to be Christian is to follow the teachings of Christ, that being of love, tolerance and understanding to all people. No matter what our race, religion, or sexual orientation, we are all children of God, and even if you don’t believe in God, we are all human beings. That should be enough reason to treat one another with respect.

    You don’t necessarily have to like or be comfortable with how someone chooses to live. But it is their life to live, and as Christians we should allow them to live that life in peace. If we just did that alone, I can only imagine how much better this world would be.

  6. ritepride says:

    I often wondered how some of the apostles who followed Jesus were married. They dropped their way of life and followed Jesus. Did they leave their wives and children behind? They later became priests, thus why cant married men become priests.
    If it were not for a woman, the Blessed Mother, Jesus was brought into this world through her. Why then are women prevented from being priests?

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