While in prison for conspiring to assassinate Hitler, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote the following letter to a friend:
What is bothering me incessantly is the question of what Christianity really is, or indeed who Christ really is, for us today. The time when people could be told everything by means of words, whether theological or pious, is over, and so is the time of inwardness and conscience – and that means the time of religion in general. We are moving towards a completely religionless time; people as they are now simply cannot be religious anymore. Even those who honestly describe themselves as “religious” do not on the least act up to it, and so they presumably mean something quite different by “religious.”
If you’re familiar with Bonhoeffer’s story, then you know he wasn’t referring to “religionless” Christians who say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” or some other innocuous action that the Christian Right believes is a sign of spiritual weakness. Bonhoeffer was greatly disturbed by the churches that sought an opportunity to advance themselves by way of German nationalism, at the expense of the Jewish people and other “undesirables.”
I can only imagine what he would be writing today, regarding the American churches that seem eager to sell out the gospel for a few Supreme Court justices and an increase of political power. If there’s anyone who understood the necessity of disobeying the government for the sake of the gospel, it’s Bonhoeffer.
But implied within Bonhoeffer’s words is another question: does religion change over time? Is the divide between “true Christians” and “fake Christians” as obvious as we think it is?
It baffles me how anyone who calls themselves a follower of Christ can read the Sermon on the Mount and conclude that refugees deserve to be kept in cages, or that healthcare isn’t a universal right. But one can hardly be blamed for rejecting Christianity altogether because of the “Alt Christianity” that’s all around them, if it’s all they know. At least, I wouldn’t blame them.
I grew up in a faith tradition that embraced change over time. There is no inerrant Judaism, as far as I’m aware. There are no inerrant Scriptures for the Jews, but rather an acknowledgment that the Iron Age scribes were products of their time, and therefore not everything they wrote is binding as society progresses forward.
There is something strikingly self-aware about admitting when your ancestors tragically erred, and seeking to learn from their harmful choices rather than justifying them.
Just the other day, I was involved in a Twitter thread about the difference between healthy Christianity and toxic Christianity, only to have my inbox blown up by someone who felt it necessary to remind me that Christians are responsible for a great deal of hospitals, charities, and other causes that make the world better.
I’m not sure where this person got the idea that I didn’t know this, since clearly I was talking about a specific subset of Christians who are as far from charitable as Mike Pence is from women’s rights. But that didn’t matter. A criticism of one aspect of religion was interpreted an attack on everyone who follows that religion, and trying to explain myself was a clear waste of time.
Christian nationalism isn’t just about letting your politics motivate your faith. It’s allowing your tribal identity to cloud your discernment of what’s fair for everyone, even those who don’t share your beliefs. Not everyone who calls themselves “Christian” will end up on the right side of history.
Being on the “right side of history” doesn’t always mean obeying the rules. Much of the New Testament was written from the inside of prison cells, by men who rebelled against corrupt government officials. They did so because of the gospel, not in spite of it. That’s something that more Christians today need to understand.