There’s a lot of talk nearly everywhere these days about the dangers of radical Islam. In some settings, people express similar concerns about Christianity, especially the dangers of a right-wing theocracy here in America. Whether the warnings come from “the new atheists” like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens or from secular-political voices on the left, the prospective villains are usually described as the Religious Right, Evangelicals, Christian Fundamentalists, and so on.
But largely under the radar, there’s something else going on in the Christian community in the US and world-wide, and it’s a change worth knowing about. Many of us who are involved with this emergence of a new thing would describe it as a deep shift (don’t forget the “f”), even a kind of repentance. Growing numbers of us Christians are ashamed of the ways that we Christians have behaved in recent decades – from Evangelicals backing unjust and unwise wars to Catholics covering up priestly abuse, from Prosperity Gospel televangelists getting rich by ripping off the poor to institutional religious bureaucracies fiddling around in carpet-color-committee meetings while the world is burning, or at least warming dangerously.
We have been arguing about the origin of species while an unprecedented extinction of species occurs on our watch; we’ve been fighting endlessly (and unproductively) about unborn children while achieving precious little for the already-born children in Darfur or Congo or Malawi or downtown Cincinnati. These stale expressions of bad faith have left many of us gasping for the fresh air of good faith.
So along with facing up to our current and historic failures and atrocities, we’re engaging in a hopeful re-imagining of what Christian faith can be, become, and do in the future. My book Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope is a kind of cry, a plea, a prayer reaching toward this kind of faithful re-imagination.
First, we have created an economic system that exceeds environmental limits, resulting in our growing, multifaceted environmental crisis. Second, this economic system is succeeding at making a minority increasingly wealthy, while simultaneously creating a global underclass whose standard of living falls farther and farther behind those who swim in luxury and excess. This growing gap between rich and poor exacerbates the third crisis: as the poor grow more desperate and the rich more frightened of their desperation, both sides arm themselves with more and more terrifying weapons.
Fourth, I suggest that these first three crises, which I call the prosperity, equity, and security dysfunctions, turn like three gears, teeth in teeth with the others, and they are together driven by a central drive shaft which I call the religious dysfunction. Our world’s religions are failing to provide a story strong enough to inspire enough of us to deal effectively with the first three crises. In fact, all too often our religions provide destructive narratives – I call them framing stories – which reinforce our solution deadlock and drive our social machinery all the more recklessly and passionately toward suicide. To put it starkly, there are figurative religious suicide bombers as well as literal ones, and they are armed with stories.
It’s at this level of framing stories that I see both the ugliness and hope of our religions, including my own Christian faith, which currently counts about a third of the world’s population as its adherents.