An old colleague of mine recently posted on Facebook a wry comment about a certain non-Christian spirituality. While cute, it struck me as a variation on something I’d seen before, numerous times. It got me thinking that, frankly, evangelicals can tend to get stuck replaying the same records over and over again. We have certain things we’re against, particular practices (anybody remember, “Don’t smoke, drink, or chew or go with girls who do”?), ideologies, kinds of people, and so on.
Years ago, my wife observed that this shouldn’t be particularly surprising. We’re Protestants. Protestants are literally people protesting something. We are against the Roman Catholic Church. Defining yourself by being against something or someone is an interesting way to craft an identity, don’t you think?
But then we took it a few steps further. Many, possibly most, contemporary evangelicals have roots in early 20th century fundamentalism. Having read up on evangelical history lately, I found that fundamentalists defined themselves against modernist (later identified as liberal) theology and theologians. They reacted against what the modernists were doing and even began shaping themselves by not doing what those other people were doing.
Then, when American society didn’t embrace them, they pulled back and said, “Fine. We’ll make our own society!” They tried fervently to evangelize people into their sub-culture, but those who didn’t believe were labelled them, and they defined themselves as not-them. Early 20th century evangelicals not only defined themselves as against-Roman-Catholicism, they were against-pretty-much-everybody-else-too.
When I thought about this, I couldn’t help but compare this to God’s self-definition. God defines himself as love (1 John 4:7). Paul took it as given that “God is for us” (Rom. 8:31). Jesus sacrificed himself on our behalf, calling that act the greatest love and calling us friends (John 15:13).
I think it’s human nature, though probably fallen nature, to define ourselves as us and them, an innate tribalism, but God is for all of us. Even when he was against a people, he was still for them (for example, the Ninevites in Jonah). It just got me wondering how much I define myself as against others and how much I’m for them. Are there groups that I see myself as not-them or against-them in a hard way? Am I for everybody? Even the people that bug me? Or who are wrong or even evil? Do I think of all of humanity as my community in some way?
Lord, help me put away contempt as you said in your sermon on the mount and be for people, whoever they are.