Where Is The Love? Discovering (and recovering) Jesus’ Role In Social, Scientific and Political Life
By David Metcalfe
January 11, 2019
Did Jesus Die To Prevent Transgender Washrooms?
Traditional vs. Progressive Ideologies
It is a popular belief among Christians that God cares very much about the political affairs of humans. For many Americans, they hold the conviction that fighting against things like gay marriage, abortion, and transgender washrooms are synonymous with the gospel itself. There is a harmonizing of right wing ideologies with Christianity, resulting in many Christians believing in “traditionalism”, as represented best by the 1950s. When these “traditionalist” Christians hear “Make America Great Again” rhetoric, they hear “let’s make things like they were in the 1950s!”
White supremacists love the idea of returning to the time before Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement messed things up for them. Homophobes love the idea of returning to the time when gay people could be beaten, given electric shock therapy, and put in jail. Misogynists love the idea of returning to the time when women were expected to be quiet, submissive, and exist to serve men. Christian nationalists love the idea of returning to a time when school children had to pray to the Christian God every morning, and the Bible was treated as accessory to the constitution.
The progressive movement believes that the changes made from the 1950s on were advances towards a better world, and that continued change in expanding human rights to all people is something to work towards. Hence, a culture war between “traditionalist” Christians and progressives has ensued for the last several decades, and continues today. But the traditionalist Christians are losing…badly. In the 1960s, racial segregation was eliminated, and children were no longer forced to read the Bible or pray in schools. In the 1970s, abortion was decriminalized. In the 1980s, women increasingly engaged in higher education and the workforce, earning their way to managerial and high status positions. In the 1990s, church attendance dropped, while abortion rates went up. In the 21st century, gay marriage was legalized, and transgender people were able to get their own washroom in many public places.
Dipping and Diving In Progressive Waters
But these “traditionalist” Christians are not representative of the whole of Christianity. Many Christians merely take bits and pieces. For example, it is quite common for Christians to believe that the government allowing abortion is antagonist to the Christian faith, but not gay marriage. Many believe that white people should not have dominance over black people, but do believe that men should have dominance over women. They stand on the traditionalist foundations, but dip their toes in progressive waters.
But many Christians, in their discovery of progressive ideologies, not only dip their toes in, but dive right in, and in doing so, renounce their faith. Studies have found that around two thirds of Christian young adults lose their faith during university. This has been attributed in part to the learning of science as a means of finding truth in opposition to faith, but for students in the humanities, they learn about human rights, religious freedom, secular government, and other progressive ideologies, and they find these ideas to be in opposition to their previously held religious beliefs.
This supposed dichotomy between Christianity and progressivism is quite an unfortunate one. What it says to me is that many of these students never believed in Jesus in the first place. They believed in a strange product of right wing ideologies that hijacked the name of Jesus to justify their cause as being from God himself, and therefore free from rational and evidence based criticism.
For people who have come to understand this false dichotomy, there are two main approaches:
- Claim that Jesus has nothing to do with politics, and treat them completely separately
- Try to hijack Jesus in favor of progressive ideologies
I do not like either of these approaches. The first means that you set your Christianity aside when engaging in political matters; apparently the “new creation” is only a partial one that extends to Sunday School but is put on hold at the ballot box. The second one is making the same mistake as the “traditionalists” but merely creating an alternative dogma.
What I wish to discuss is a third approach, where Jesus can be fully realized in an individual’s life, and dedication to science and human rights are not contradictory to Christianity, but rather complimentary expressions of the core concept of Jesus.
Finding Jesus in Science
We should keep in mind that many of the world’s greatest scientists have been, and currently are, believers in God. Francis Collins epitomizes this quite well, as he is one of the most successful scientists in the world today. He led the “human genome project”, which has led to the discovery of important cures and new medical techniques. He currently serves as the director of the National Institute of Health.
In 2006 he wrote a book called “The Language of God”, which goes through various evidences and compatibilities of belief in God from a scientific perspective (I differentiate “evidence” and “compatibility” because there are scientific ideas that point towards God’s existence, and others that merely make it a reasonable possibility). Now, you might be saying “alright, that’s nice that someone can believe in some creator of the universe but that is not finding Jesus in science.” I know, I am getting to that.
In 2010, Christopher Hitchens, a famous militant atheist, was diagnosed with terminal cancer. The atheist community was distraught, and showed support for him to get better. The Christian community, however, was not nearly so supportive. Many Christians wrote letters to Hitchens saying he “deserved it for leading people astray”, and said degrading things about him in articles, sermons, and online posts.
But it just so happened that Francis Collins was a leading expert on the type of cancer that Hitchens had, so he called him and invited him for dinner. They spent the evening discussing plans for experimental treatments. Collins spent a great deal of time, at no expense, pulling every string, calling in every favor, in doing whatever he could to help Hitchens. The treatments showed some promise, but ultimately failed, and Hitchens died a year later. But during their time together they developed a valuable friendship, and Hitchens famously said that Collins was one of the most devout believers he had ever met.
All of the extensive scientific proofs of God were a faint whisper in comparison to the volume of sincere love that Collins showed toward Hitchens. Many Christians heard that Hitchens was dying and thought, “Oh great! He is my enemy, so I hope bad things happen to him.” But a real follower of Jesus understands the radical approach he took to dealing with enemies, instructing us to “love our enemies, and pray for those who persecute us.”
Finding Jesus in Human Rights
As lawyer and Christian apologist Abdu Murray discusses in his lecture “Sacredness and Sexuality”, in every social issue, there is a battle between institutions and people.
In the early 19th century, the debate on the abolition of slavery was between the institution of slavery and the rights of black people. In the early 20th century, the debate on women’s suffrage was between the institution of male only suffrage and the rights of women. In the 1960s, the debate on racial segregation was between the institution of Jim Crow and the rights of black people. In the 1970s, the debate on abortion was between the institution of government restrictions and the rights of women. In recent years, the debate on gay marriage was between the institution of heterosexual marriage and the rights of gay people.
You’ll notice that every time there is debate between an institution and a person, the person wins. At our core, we’re all humanists. We believe that humans matter, that they’re valuable, that they deserve to pursue happiness in the way they see fit. It has nothing to do with “Christian” or “atheist”, and everything to do with “human affirming” or “human degrading”.
There are great pioneers of humanitarianism who do not believe in Jesus. Thomas Paine essentially wrote the basis of America’s conception of human rights in “Common Sense” and “The Rights of Man”, and while he believed in God, did not hold to any particular religion. Bertrand Russell won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1950 for championing humanitarian ideals such as world peace, free thought, and democracy. Today, people like Bernie Sanders dedicate themselves to seeing human rights upheld and expanded. I would never be inclined to limit or criticize an atheist’s sincere commitment to human rights. I would, however, not wish to neglect the uniquely powerful inspiration that belief in Jesus has had in people’s lives.
From William Wilberforce’s dedication to slavery abolition in England to Martin Luther King Jr.’s dedication to seeing black people treated equally to Mother Theresa’s dedication to serving orphans in India to the formation of modern day organizations like “World Vision”, “Alcoholics Anonymous” and “Prison Fellowship”, we see inspiration from Jesus leading and strengthening people to care about serving others in incredibly impactful ways.
John Newton was a slave trader for many years. He stole innocent and free African people away from their families, and put them on ships where they were beaten and locked in chains, and if they survived the voyage, were only set for a life of subjugation and maltreatment. In 1748, he had a religious conversion, where he profoundly felt the presence of God. But he kept slave trading for another several years. Sure, he believed in God, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t still ok with locking humans in cages and starving them. But a strange thing happened: he began feeling empathy for the slaves, and thought they should be treated more humanely. Years later, he became a priest, and in 1779, he wrote the song “Amazing Grace”.
“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now I’m found, was blind but now I see.”
Throughout the 1780s, he struggled with the way he had lived his life, and in 1788, wrote an influential pamphlet called “Thoughts Upon The Slave Trade”, in which he argued that the slave trade is a cruel practice that should be stopped. After spending an entire life committing acts of evil, it took amazing grace to turn his life around. He attributed his new found empathy for others, and dedication to ending the slave trade, to the work that Jesus had done in his life.
Judging by many American Christians, you would think that Jesus was some kind of conservative political theorist. But Jesus did not have an opinion on climate change, the legalization of gay marriage, or whether transgender people should have their own washroom. He did, however, have some strong opinions on how we are to treat people.
He held love as the great virtue, saying “this is my commandment: that you love others as I have loved you.” (John 15:12).
Paul explains the kind of love that Jesus has for people, saying that, “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8).
If we are to love others as Jesus loved us, then that means dedicating our lives to causes that promote the well being of all people. It does not mean drawing lines between “Christian” and “atheist”, “Democrat” and “Republican”, “black” or “white”, “gay” or “straight”, and seeking to impose institutions to enforce our own ideology on people. Institutions lose, people win.
Am I arguing that good Christians need to accept things like gay marriage, abortion, and transgenderism as morally correct? Of course not! That would be merely hijacking Jesus in favor of progressivist dogma. Christians will undoubtedly land on a variety of social, scientific, and political beliefs, and that is ok. But discovering and recovering Jesus in these spheres is about putting love for others as the foundation and inspiration upon which every other thought and action is guided.
So, study science and humanities with reason and evidence guiding your mind, and the love of Jesus guiding your heart, and to me, that’s a Christianity worth believing in.