Christ and Causes
St. Jerome (327-420) was a Christian scholar of the 4th and 5th Centuries. He was given the task of bringing out a new and better translation of the Bible in the Latin of his day (sort of a Today's Latin Version). This is what we call the Vulgate, which means "in the language of ordinary people." Anyway, though he lived as a monk, he was acutely aware that he lived after the days of the heroic martyrs. Society now approved of Christians. He had a position of respect, and didn't have to fear what his allegiance to Christ might cost him.
This bothered him mightily. What price had he paid for the gift of eternal life he had been given? How could he compare mere scholarship, even in the best of causes, to testifying with his life's blood, as so many of his forebears in the faith had done? He had a dream in which he stood before the throne of God at the judgment, and said, "I am a Christian," to which the Judge replied, "No, you are a Ciceronian." Which was true enough, but did it mean he clung to his scholarship more than to his faith?
Meanwhile, his contemporary, Augustine (354-430), who had come after many difficulties to faith in Christ and to a position of leadership within the Church, faced a similar problem. He was stunned, as many were, by the Sack of Rome in 410 by the Visigoths under Alaric. The world he knew was cracking, falling apart. And like so many, he had assumed that the conversion of Rome and the Roman Empire was the goal and fruit of Christian faith. How could something that had finally, by the will of God, been Christianized, now be suffered, under the will of God, to be destroyed? And this was only the beginning of the barbarian invasions that would eventually overwhelm the Empire in the West. As Augustine lay dying, he could hear the Vandals' attacks, as they laid siege to his town of Hippo.
Augustine's response to the Sack of Rome was to write The City of God,
a long meditation on the interplay between human society and the kingdom of God. In the end, Augustine had to say, even a converted Rome, consciously attempting to submit itself to God in Christ, could not become the kingdom of God.
So both Jerome and Augustine were aware of the conflict between culture/politics/philosophy/education/na
tionality and Christianity. The two can exist comfortably enough in the same person, or the same society, for some time, but they are always slightly different things. And at any given time, you may be called to give one of them up: so you'd better choose rightly.
This comes to mind because of what is going on in our own society these days. Evangelicals are coming under intense criticism for so many of them making excuses for Donald Trump, Roy Moore, and whatnot. And so they should. The "cause," however you configure it, or the "party," or "America" (or your idea of it) can never be the same as the kingdom of God, and if you blind yourself to the faults of your side, you may wind up compromising that which cannot be compromised. As Sir Thomas More said to Richard Rich in A Man For All Seasons,
after Rich has perjured himself and been rewarded for it with a political post in Wales, "Why, Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world . . . But for Wales?"
But the problem I have with this criticism -- and Lord knows, I've criticized Evangelicals often enough, even though I usually get lumped in with them -- is that the people who are thundering at Evangelical hypocrisy have been doing the same damned thing for years.
I have yet to see more than the tiniest handful of "progressive Christians" ever critique progressive ideology or progressive causes -- ever say, on even the tiniest issue, "No, we can't go there, for Christ constrains us in that regard." Over and over, I have seen progressive colleagues defend and advocate things I think of as blasphemous, or heretical, or immoral. Over and over, I have seen them defend and advocate candidates and office-holders pursuing policies or exhibiting behavior that I cannot reconcile with Christian morality. And they don't just do it when they're talking politics. I have seen too many colleagues who have edited their fundamental beliefs in order to incorporate progressive ideas into their theology -- even when those ideas are at loggerheads with the Creeds, with the Scriptures, with 2,000 years of Christian tradition. Oh, they may wiggle a bit in the beginning, but they always find a way to rationalize their ideology and dress it up in Christian vestments.
How is this different from Evangelicals twisting the Scriptures to rationalize a vote for Roy Moore?
Looking back at Jerome and Augustine and the way they wrestled with the interface between their faith and their culture, I think all of us who claim to follow Christ should do as they did. Every one of us should be able to say, at least on some issue, where our allegiance to Christ dictates that we NOT say, or do, what everybody else who thinks like us would say or do. And if we can't do that, how will we avoid the Judge's verdict, "No, you are a populist/progressive/conservative/nation