It’s hard to deny that for Christians living in America, life is pretty good.
After all, Christians of one stripe or another constitute the majority of the population. When it comes to representation in Congress, almost 90% of our legislators identify as Christian.
Further, even if that weren’t the case, America enjoys a measure of religious liberty that prior to our nation’s founding was simply unimaginable—and is still unimaginable in many parts of the world today. This reality is reaffirmed and bolstered with every challenge to it that is appealed to the Supreme Court.
Christians in America are among the richest, freest, and best equipped followers of Jesus in the history of Christianity.
It’s just that you would never know it speaking to just about anyone who works in conservative media or many of the evangelicals who consume copious amounts of the content they produce.
To hear them tell the story, we are under attack. “They” are coming for our kids, our freedoms, our very lives. We are one bad election away from losing our country—from being put under the fascist boot of the woke mob, or CRT, or communism, or Sharia Law, or whatever the current boogeyman du jour may be. Thus, we must act (and vote) accordingly.
And if we are to stave off this latest existential threat, we must do so by a show of strength. Ours is a wartime mentality with no room for sentimentality or high minded nobility. We must fight fire with fire, publicly maligning our enemies and electing strong men and women who will fight for us. Stoking fear into hatred, we wage the culture war in our Facebook groups and on our Twitter feeds, at school board meetings and during city council forums.
To be sure, serving as a faithful witness to Christian values in the various public discourses and democratic processes available to us, advocating for the common good and a high view of human dignity, is important and necessary work. Nevertheless, we have to question whether that’s actually what we’re doing.
Because in our efforts to win the culture for Christ, we have too often set aside the way of Christ. Meekness, to us, is weakness. Kindness, at the expense of control, is not a viable option. Loving our enemies takes away too much of our edge, and certainly they would only take advantage of us. We can’t win with such a losing strategy.
It is true that evangelicals are not highly regarded among those who do not share our values, and there are some on the fringes who are legitimately out to get us. But we can’t exactly blame them. I don’t tend to have a positive regard for people who are constantly trying to hand me a verbal and legislative beatdown.
And that’s just the thing. Too often, when we engage in the culture war, we use the same tactics the culture does: outrage, accusation, dehumanization, innuendo, and strife. In other words, tactics that Jesus and the apostles constantly commanded us not to use.
In the three years that Jesus traveled throughout the land of his ancestors teaching, preaching, healing, and feeding, his apostles never really caught what his vision was. Many of us today haven’t either.
Perhaps nowhere is that more apparent than in Matthew’s gospel account.
As he wrote to a largely Jewish audience, Matthew framed his telling of Jesus’ life and ministry as the coming of the long awaited Messiah King. For generations, the people of God had lived under the oppression of one foreign empire or another, the latest of which being Rome.
Throughout the generations, Israel saw leaders who gave them hope for freedom from tyranny. But whether it was Zerubbabel, Judas Maccabeus, or even Barabbas, none of them ever delivered on the grand promise of God to establish an eternal kingdom.
So they continued to wait. They anticipated the day when Messiah would come to lead an army to overthrow the Roman Empire, establish his kingdom, and put Israel back on top.
When Jesus burst onto the scene, he began preaching that “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). But he didn’t seem to act like it. He raised no army. He declared no war on Rome. In fact, he ignored the Roman Empire almost entirely.
Instead, he spoke often about laying down his life.
Multiple times, Jesus predicted his own death, promising persecution and poverty for those who followed him. But it’s as if his closest followers weren’t listening to him at all. More than once, they bickered among themselves about which of them would be the greatest. The mother of James and John even once petitioned for Jesus to appoint the brothers as his right and left hand men.
All the while, Jesus preached about becoming like a child, taking up your cross, loving your enemy, turning your other cheek, sacrificing your reputation, and ultimately being willing to die.
The disciples seemed plenty willing to kill for Jesus, but they weren’t nearly as eager to die for him. And they certainly didn’t want him to die.
For instance, in Matthew 16, Jesus had a pivotal conversation with his disciples in which he asked them who exactly they thought he was. As was his custom, Simon Peter spoke up first. And in a rare moment, he was spot on: Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah, the anointed King of the eternal kingdom.
Jesus commended Peter, telling him that God the Father himself had given him this insight. Further, Peter would be the rock upon which Jesus built his church, against which the gates of hell would not prevail.
But Peter still didn’t really seem to get it. Later in that very same conversation, Jesus predicted that he would be killed in Jerusalem and raised on the third day. Peter rebuked him. The Messiah was supposed to kill Israel’s enemies, not be killed by them! He still didn’t get it.
Peter would still rather kill for Jesus than die for him.
This was true right up until the moment Jesus was arrested, when Peter drew his sword to lob off the ear of a servant of the high priest. Even then, he still didn’t get it.
“Put your sword back into its place,” Jesus rebuked. “For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?”
Those who live by the sword will die by the sword. In other words, they always lose in the end.
And as it turns out, cultivating a willingness to kill for Christ rather than die for Christ does not create in a person either the character or courage of Christ. Thus, later that night, Peter thrice denied even knowing the man for whom, mere hours previous, he was willing to draw his sword. He was a failure.
But then something changed. Not only did Jesus die, but he rose again. And far more than simply providing the example of the kind of work he came to do, he sent his Spirit in power to enable his followers the strength to carry it out—to fearlessly preach the message of resurrection life on the other side of faithful death in Jesus.
It was only then that the apostles came to realize that in order for the kingdom to come on earth as it was in heaven, in order for the church to win, it needed to adopt a losing strategy.
After Jesus’ resurrection, Peter never again raised his sword. And he never again denied Jesus, either. In fact, he would eventually die in much the same way. Only, he requested to be crucified upside down, because he believed himself unworthy to die in the same manner as Jesus.
In the decades and centuries that followed, the church was remarkably nonviolent and non-confrontational toward the Roman Empire. They paid their taxes. They followed every law that did not cause them to renounce their faith.
Further, they cared for the sick, visited the imprisoned, saved babies from exposure, and preached the way of Jesus—the way of their Savior who laid down his life and was calling them to do the same. Because of their radical generosity, there was not a single person among them whose physical needs were not met. They didn’t even need to know you to love you—and you didn’t need to love them first, or ever. When beaten and persecuted, they praised Jesus. When horribly mistreated, they did not retaliate.
By the blood of the lamb and the word of their testimony, they literally changed the world.
True power to win the culture is not found in our ability to gain control of the media or government institutions. It is not found in “owning the libs” or “taking the country back.”
True power is found in the way that we love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. It is found in the way that we are willing to forfeit everything we possess for the sake of loving others well. It is found in the way that we preach the message of the cross and model the way of the cross.
In order to win, we need to adopt a losing strategy. Isn’t this what Jesus has been telling us the whole time?
For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. (Matthew 16:25)
If you wish to kill for Jesus, you will lose. But if you wish to die—to yourself, to your sin, to your ambition for significance and security, to your desperate desire for privilege—only then will you discover life abundant.
It is only then that you will realize what Jesus has been telling us all along. It isn’t us against the world. Instead, we lay down our lives for the benefit of the world. This is what the kingdom has always been about.
OTHER RESOURCES TO CHECK OUT
The following two books were instrumental in shaping my thinking for this article. I recommend them both!
- “Not in It to Win It: Why Choosing Sides Sidelines the Church” by Andy Stanley
- “Revelation for the Rest of Us: A Prophetic Call to Follow Jesus as a Dissident Disciple“ by Scot McKnight and Cody Matchett