by Rev. Daniel Headrick for The Christian Citizen
I write in late September, the year of the pandemic. Cursed be its name. Over 200,000 Americans are dead from COVID-19; one million are dead around the globe. An election is coming at us like a train. Many feel like we’re bound to the tracks. Our blood is poisoned with toxicity from politics and hateful words.
Americans seem to hate each other, intent as they are on tearing one another apart on social media and TV. “Be of the same mind” the Apostle Paul writes in his letter to the Philippians again and again. Sure Paul, we scoff. Be of the same mind? Have you heard of QAnon?
People who identify as Christian seemingly cannot agree on anything about the common good.
Wearing masks is either an essential and loving act which protects you and your neighbor, or it is the sign of a tyrannical governmental bureaucracy intent on depriving the citizenry of freedom.
Family separation and the incarceration of migrant children in cages is either a sign of immoral brutality or the just penalty for a willful decision to violate U.S. law.
Health care and education are either human rights which societies should pool their economic resources to ensure for all persons, or privileges which are granted or denied by free market principles.
We cannot be of the same mind, and yet God calls us to such unity. How might we be united when all seems hopelessly fractured?
We are to work out our salvation together, committed to the common good.
The binding together of our brokenness happens in community. Salvation, as Paul reminds us, is a communal affair. He calls the congregation to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” (Philippians 2:12). Our English translations obscure what the Greek makes plain: it is a plural verb and pronoun. As we might say in Atlanta: “work out all y’all’s salvation.”
In other words: Paul believed that the corporate unity and health of the entire community was something we all “work” towards.
What difference might this make in Christian communities? I believe Paul’s communal language calls us to a renewed commitment to the common good for all persons. Christianity cannot be a private matter, never touching the refugee or our cruel plundering of the Earth.
Many congregations cling to a theology of privatized Christianity where the commands of Jesus are simply spiritual suggestions. Reverend Chris Thomas, a Baptist pastor in Alabama, got into hot water recently when angry church members chastised him for preaching a blessing for Syrian refugees. His sermon on Jesus’ Beatitudes was heard by many congregants as the blasphemy of criticizing the President.
How wide and inviting is your notion of community? Is it only the common good for some—your group, race, or social class—or is it for all persons? Do your most strongly held values find their origin in a particular reading of the Bill of Rights—say, the Second Amendment—or the Sermon on the Mount?
To be a Christian citizen is to work together for the common good. If some people are not included in your conception of human flourishing, it is time to reexamine your vision.
Christian citizens should work on relationships with real people rather than getting right on “issues.”
So much of our time these days is spent in our echo chambers getting mad about the same thing everyone else in our group is mad about. Outrage piles upon outrage. Jesus followers are in short supply while disciples of anger and cynicism proliferate. Because our world thrives on a cycle of “winning” and diabolical disagreement, we don’t know what’s essential and what’s tangential anymore.
There were disagreements in the Christian church from the outset. Paul, in an intriguing passage, writes of a church conflict involving two members: “I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord.” (Philippians 4:2-3).
Although we’d love to know what these two were fighting about, Paul doesn’t tell us. I suspect it’s because the content mattered less than the threat of the church’s fracturing of the body of Christ. Paul urges them, and us, to set aside the content of their dispute and work toward loving relationship. Contemporary Christians, take note.
You might call this principle “people over issues.” Issues only matter because people matter. The next time you are stewing about a relative or friend who says something beyond the pale, ask: do you actually have relationships with anyone who is suffering because of the issue you are outraged about? If not, are you prepared to act in solidarity with them beyond your speech?
While it is true that conservative leaning congregations tend to emphasize individual salvation to the exclusion of justice, there is a danger in progressive congregations just as insidious. And it is this: what if all our justice talk is just speech that goes out into the void, heard by our echo chamber, and then recirculated between “us”?
To escape the echo chamber, we must seek “the same mind…that was in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 2:5). As Paul shows us, the mind of Christ is one oriented towards the servant’s path. Christ’s mind is fully obedient to the will of God. Christ’s mind displays humility which does not seek to exploit power for power’s sake.
Of course we must speak out against white supremacy and climate change. But we are called to more than speech; we are called to living a life in conformity with Christ. Taking the mind of Christ requires us to “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit.” (Philippians 2:3). Churches which seek to love and tell the truth will find they can do more through relationship than they ever did through signing statements.
Imagine what the Church would look like if congregations spent less time on policing public policy (whether it be “pro-life” or “social justice) and more time living a life in conformity with the mind of Christ? I suspect a church which followed that servant’s path would be utterly transformed in its missional and spiritual identity.
Churches that speak of a pro-life ethic but lack the discipleship for members to help a pregnant teen raise her child may be interested only in getting the issue right, and therefore the human suffers. Churches that talk about refugees and race, and yet make no concrete moves into relationship with refugees or persons of color may be interested only in getting the issue right, and therefore the human suffers.
Our greatest witness to the world is not the brilliance of our policy positions. Witness comes from living out the gospel in our community.
Christian citizens must be committed to knowing Christ above all else.
Paul’s experience of the risen Christ shattered his worldview so thoroughly that he came to see all his prior gains in life as “garbage.” (Philippians 3:8)[i] Everything in his past he now counted as loss because he had come to know Jesus Christ. “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” (Philippians 3:10).
More than anything else, Paul wanted to know Christ.
By contrast, our society wants to know anything but Christ. We are drowning in superficial knowledge at our fingertips and yet knowledge-starved when it comes to God. What we “know” more often than not is what cable news and Facebook report. Less and less do we know about that more subversive “good news.”
We care more about who is “winning” the news cycle than how the Kingdom of God invites us to compassion, care, and loving kindness.
We know more about the President’s Twitter feed than the mind of Christ.
What is the way forward for an engaged Christian citizen? We have a duty to be reasonably informed, to seek out reliable sources of news. But we must balance that diet of information with the conviction that Christ is alive, and therefore knowledge of Christ is ongoing and never ending.
And what might knowledge of Christ look like? It is not found in the endless stream of debasing online commentary, all of which will soon be blessedly forgotten.
The knowledge of Christ is found in those who come to esteem others as better than themselves, who seek not their own exaltation. It is found in those like Epaphroditus, who risked life and limb to bring a prisoner like Paul a gift.
We come to know Christ when we care for the “least of these.” Even the most purified of prayers in pious utterance cannot touch the knowledge that comes from loving and caring and holding another broken human.
As we participate in the sufferings of our neighbor, we are truly participating in the fellowship of suffering with Christ. And yet, our habits as a people largely prevent us from gaining this precious knowledge of Christ.
Here’s a little thought exercise. Think back over the past four years. Write down the major issues of the day that you have been outraged about. This is an open book exam. Scroll through your social media posts if needed.
Now, do the same for your journey in coming to know Christ and the power of his resurrection over the past four years. What are the roadside markers in that journey? Better yet, where are those people in whom you encountered Christ?
If you are at all like me, you acquired highly detailed knowledge about political and social controversies. And yet, the journey towards knowing Christ is fuzzy, vague, and incomplete. Months might have gone by when you can’t account for your spiritual journey.
As we tear each other apart in another election cycle, we lose the joy and love that following Christ gives us. We become cynical and tired. We follow breaking news like news junkies, but we imagine God is not up to anything new.
There’s not much breaking news in the Kingdom if you think it all basically ended on a cross in Judea 2,000 years ago. And yet, the God who raised Jesus from the dead is always “breaking” news. The good news of the gospel is forever breaking open our hearts so that love can penetrate. The gospel breaks our bad habits and opens us to new life-giving habits.
Our fractured lives can no longer be sustained. Unity through the mind of Christ offers wholeness. That is breaking news. And most wonderful of all, the God who breaks the good news to us can be known.
Wouldn’t you like to know a God like that?
The Rev. Daniel Headrick is associate pastor of Northside Drive Baptist Church, Atlanta, Georgia. Prior to joining Northside Drive, he practiced civil litigation with a law firm in Knoxville, Tennessee. He is a former fellow of both the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty and the Fellowships at Auschwitz for the Study of Professional Ethics.
Photo by Dan Dennis on Unsplash
[i] The Greek term σκ?βαλα means something like “garbage” or “dung.”