Whereas American theology was born out of a hope for democracy, much of it is wedded to a picture of Christ as a benevolent dictator. Should we be surprised that a hierarchical cosmology would produce hierarchical churches and nations? Should we be surprised that religious nations that picture Christ as a loving dictator have produced conquistadors, inquisitors and crusaders?
What else could they produce? As the tree is, so shall be the fruit. The word “Lord” was not in the original Bible. It is an English word from feudal times. Whereas the Greek word “kurios” had a range of meanings, from a title of respect, to a title of leadership, to a name for the sacred, the English translation “Lord” refers specifically to a male European land baron. Many people have softened that interpretation in their own minds, but in times of great stress, such nuance falls away and many Christians seek a white male king. He may be called “Pope”, he may be called “the decider President,” he may be called “televangelist,” but the title only masks what he is, a benevolent (or not so benevolent) dictator.
Neither Calvin nor Luther spoke English, but they helped the Popes lay the groundwork for the view of God as a cosmic dictator. From Popes, Luther and Calvin we have some of the ugliest slurs ever recorded against women, intellectuals, and those who refused the church’s message. How did Christians hold slaves, oppress women and slaughter nonbelievers? Perhaps they could not see Christ in non-male, non-European, and non-Christian people because they were limited by their theology. Their “Christ” was merely a glorification of the most powerful member of their own culture.
To picture God in terms of power is also one of the great bait and switch gimmicks of all time. People within the power hierarchy proclaim that God is the ultimate authority, and then appoint themselves as God’s interpreters and enforcers. They are God’s humble bullies. It has been one of the most successful con games of all time.
The real Jesus was born illegitimately. He called himself “the human one.” Just like Buddha, his authority came from truth, not power. He taught whoever has love has God. He said those who work for the common good are his church.
The real Jesus was an anarchist. He spent his life refusing to claim power over anyone. He said that God is understood in terms of love not power. We add nothing to the majesty of “the human one” by adding a throne or a crown. If he did not want to rule over others in life, why should he want it in death? That is why Jesus is called “lamb of God,” he spoke not as the king of the universe, but from its heart.
If you want to know why Americans are so frightened and why we are attacking anything that would challenge our dominance over others, read the Bible. Like Cain we have murdered members of our human family. Even when we silence our victims, the ground beneath our feet cries out against us.
Today’s church lifts its arms to praise Christ wearing liturgical garments woven in sweatshops. So called “Christian America” is still a nation built on the work of slaves. We do not see them because they toil invisibly in other countries. Today’s church doles out bits of charity from booty stolen from God’s powerless people the world over. Anyone who claims to believe in a just God, or even in justice itself, has to know at some level that the prayers for liberation coming from third world countries will be heard and answered. At some level, people of faith have to know that unless America repents of the sin of empire we are a doomed nation.
Whatever prophetic voices survive in the church must take a message to the mainstream denominations. “We are guilty of our leaders’ crimes. Just because we are silent and passive does not mean that we are innocent. If we have any status in the power hierarchy, we are partially responsible for its misdeeds.”
I realize that most of the church consists of wonderful and compassionate people, but that does not matter if we turn over our power to those less charitable. The moderate mainstream church is helpless against fundamentalism because it is built on a nuanced version of the same cracked foundation of a theology of power.
Whether or not we can change America in time to avoid a political and ecological apocalypse, it is never too late to do the right thing. All of us can begin to plant seeds of a better future for our children’s children. For Christians today, that means suffering the consequences of refusing to bow to the dictator Christ of this culture.
The Rev. Jim Rigby is pastor of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Austin, TX, and a longtime activist in movements concerned with gender, racial, and economic justice. This summer he is finishing a book on principles for a New Reformation. Rigby can be reached at [email protected]