For two thousand years, the western Christian tradition has had two lines running through it. (OK, probably more than two, but for the sake of this essay, I’m focusing on two) Christianity has seen these two lines emerge again and again - One line emphasizing and protecting the establishment or the powerful, another line calling for justice for the dispossessed.
Social Historian Rodney Stark described these lines when he wrote of the lineage of the papacy having an emphasis on power, which is occasionally interrupted by a lineage of piety. Those popes that emphasized power have dominated this lineage According to Stark, and have focused on incurring wealth, status and authority. There have been interruptions to this lineage when pietists have been chosen. It’s clear, in my mind, that Pope Francis manifests a recent example of the pietists’ lineage. This line has emphasized care for the poor, ministries of peace and reconciliation as well as a call to Justice.
During World War II, there were clear divisions in the church in Germany. On one side you had those acquiescing to the Nazi’s abuse of power, even to the point where Martin Luther’s horrific words about Jewish people were used to justify the holocaust. Yet, at the same time you had Lutheran pastor, Dietrich Bonheoffer, leading a movement to resist the Nazi’s. Two lines, both claiming the faith was on their side.
Rev. Martin Luther King Jr was challenged on many fronts but one that is not often discussed is the challenge to his reframing of a biblical understanding of race, slavery and civil rights. King was pushing back against the dominant narrative that was using scripture and theology to justify exploitation of black people. One of the important aspects of the 1950s and 1960s civil rights movement was King’s successful neutering of the dominant, largely white, theology that claimed white race superiority. There were two lines running through American Christianity at that time, and we see it again today.
Christianity as a religion has been coopted by empires and the powerful, and used as a weapon against people, often in service to the rich and the dominant. Christianity also has a line that runs through its history of siding with those who are oppressed, tortured and neglected. These lines met again in Charlottesville, VA over the weekend.
Both sides claimed obedience to their faith. I wonder if Bob Dylan would like to add a new verse to his song “With God on our Side?”
Increasingly our world is forcing everyone to make a choice. It’s as if there is some force at hand that is pushing us all into a duality. You are either with us or against us. My team or their team. My side or their side.
Are there many sides, as has been suggested? Yes, there are. But that doesn’t mean that all sides should be followed, supported or endorsed. As I think about the two lines that run through the Christian tradition, I’m choosing the less dominant, the marginalized line – indeed I'm choosing a side, and it's the voice that speaks of justice, equality and love.
Not some sugar coated, sweet tasting love. Not puppy love. Not the love that gets sung about in one hit wonders or romanticized in movies.
I’m thinking of love that gets expressed in acts of courage, moments of sacrifice. It’s a bold and audacious love. A love most profoundly expressed on the cross at Calvary. There the GodMan was crucified for embodying a love that was so frightening to the dominant power structure of his time, both church and state.
Jesus bleeding for all humanity – longing, hoping, praying. Dying as an act of love, still clinging, even today, to his vision that we will see in one another – his face. Yes, when we look at another human being, we are looking at the face of Christ. To deny that, is to deny Jesus.
The long lines of power and peace continue to weave there way through history, and no doubt will continue until the Peace of God is fulfilled. But, in the mean time, the all too mean, meantime; there comes a time in life when you need to make a choice, and choose which line you are going to stand in.
Where will you stand?