The way in which religion has become a polarizing force in our current culture is troubling. In a certain sense, of course, it has always been polarizing: Catholic against Protestant in Ireland, and Shiite against Sunni in Iraq. But those polarities arose from centuries of strife between well-defined tribes locked in political violence. Our culture is far more mixed and tolerant, and our religious conflicts are mostly civil. Yet it's disturbing how Christianity has become stigmatized as an ultra-conservative political force.
There's nothing politically liberal nor conservative about any religion: it addresses us spiritually in a way that asks an individual to disengage with the world of politics. Politics is about power, and Christianity in particular considers worldly power a spiritual danger, something to be kept at arms' length. But what so many associate with Christianity in the United States now are political views: opposition to abortion, gay marriage, immigration, and so on. As one singer summed it up in a lyric: “Religion is just another way to be right wing.”
Nothing could be further from the actual truth. Christianity is about making God the center of your life while devoting yourself to others, regardless of your own self-interest. Nicholas Kristoff wrote a wonderful column not long ago about how the teachings of religious founders get twisted into instruments for achieving and maintaining social and political power. It's what drives ISIS to commit atrocities. It's what created the Inquisition. It's what happens when organized religions become institutions, seeking power and money. He writes:
Jesus never mentioned gays nor abortion but focused on the sick and the poor, yet some Christian leaders have prospered by demonizing gays. Muhammad raised the status of women in his time, yet today some Islamic clerics bar women from driving, or cite religion as a reason to hack off the genitals of young girls. Buddha presumably would be aghast at the apartheid imposed on the Rohingya minority by Buddhists in Myanmar.That tension is especially pronounced with Christianity, because Jesus was a radical who challenged the establishment, while Christianity has been so successful that in much of the world it is the establishment.
What's common among all these examples are the way in which a religious faction tries to control the lives of other people. Kristoff called his readers to go back to the original teachings of Jesus and see in his words and actions something far more radical—a call to center one's life around love and compassion, not the judgment and control:
What would it mean for Christians to rediscover their faith not as a problematic system of beliefs but as a just and generous way of life, rooted in contemplation and expressed in compassion?” McLaren asks in “The Great Spiritual Migration.” “Could Christians migrate from defining their faith as a system of beliefs to expressing it as a loving way of life?That would be a migration away from religious bureaucracy and back to the moral vision of the founder . . .
As Jay Parini put it in an interview with PBS, "Christianity is not a set of boxes that you intellectually give assent to. It's a way of being in the world." As he observed in his book, The Human Face of God, early Christianity was focused on a transformation of the individual mind and heart so that a person is oriented to the world in a completely new way. He pointed out that the word metanoia in the New Testmant has been translated as "repentence", but actually means to "go beyond the mind." To allow God to expand your own perspective beyond your ego, your personal preferences, to a larger awareness of your unity with everyone else. This is an intensely personal and individual struggle--to reorient yourself so that your behavior will become less and less selfish, more and more inspired by this larger awareness. The focus of Christianity is to continually strive to change oneself, not to control or change others, or to reshape the world. The only world an individual needs to change is the one in his own head and heart: if that happens, good things will naturally happen in that individual's relationships in the world.
Mahatma Gandhi was one of the most politically powerful people who ever lived. He literally changed his world for the better. Yet he preached nothing more than a "way of being in the world." His focus was primarily what Jesus preached: self-transformation. As he put it: “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. ... We need not wait to see what others do.”
As Jesus himself put it: "Why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?"