Progressive Writers Bloc

The Battle for Jesus

By David Chandler

Religion in the public arena is a recurring theme in recent years. Should the Ten Commandments be displayed in government buildings? Should public meetings be opened with prayer? What about prayer that invokes the name of Jesus?

I wonder what Jesus would think? We don't have to wonder, actually. He told us. "And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you." Matt 6:5-6

Public display of religion was clearly not on Jesus' agenda. Why is it on ours?

There is an attitude going around that says, “We must take back our nation from all the people who think that anything that offends them should be removed.” I know because those very words came in an email forwarded to me that advocated a similar cause. The email went on, “It has been reported that 86% of Americans believe in God. Therefore, I have a very hard time understanding why there is such a mess about having In God We Trust on our money and having God in the pledge of Allegiance.”

If 86% of the population believes in God (not all of whom buy into this agenda, by the way), that leaves 14% whose beliefs should be equally respected. Your freedom OF religion is intimately bound with their freedom FROM religion. You can't have one without the other.

As a matter of Christian love, as well as civic wisdom, we should avoid making displays of public religion in governmental forums that will alienate other citizens, who are every bit as American and every bit as worthy of respect as we are.

The principle of separation of church and state did not arise in a vacuum. This nation was founded as a haven from the bloodshed of the Reformation in Europe. The Pilgrims did not come to this land to flee persecution from atheists. They were a minority Christian group fleeing persecution by other Christians! The Reformation brought with it 120 years of warfare throughout Europe. The result was the deaths of over third of the population of Germany and similarly massive deaths throughout the rest of Europe! Islamic Moors and Jews were driven out of Spain, protestants were massacred in Catholic countries and Catholics were massacred in protestant countries. We're talking massive bloodshed. Religion is very dangerous when used as a wedge issue because on matters of faith people literally stick to their guns and treat compromise, tolerance and accommodation as vices. Religion used in this way can be lethal.

It has always interested me that Jesus never seemed too concerned about people's doctrinal beliefs. The heroes of his stories were typically heretics (the Samaritan whose compassion was contrasted with the callousness of the religiously pure), Pagans (the Roman soldier who Jesus declared had more faith than he had found in all of Israel), prostitutes (the woman who poured expensive oil on his hair and washed his feet with her tears), collaborators with Rome (called “publicans” in the Bible), wild teenagers (the prodigal son), lepers, adulterers, drunkards, the lame, the poor, and finally, the thief on the cross. He didn't ask the people he met to change their theology. He asked them to follow him. “Belief,” for him was not a matter of words or ideas. It was living a life of compassion. Compassion is both a religious and a secular virtue. It is one religious value that does not violate the boundaries of church and state, but rather brings people of all religious traditions together for a better world.

Let us not defiantly invoke the name of Jesus in governmental meetings but rather honor Jesus by following his example in making compassion the centerpiece of both our public and private lives.

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